The Whole Truth

In a thoughtful piece on NPR, Adam Frank discusses “Are Scientific Truths Better Than Other Truths?(.)” He describes a Ivy League conference called to discuss this point, and although I get about as much attention as adults give Barney, I’ve been blogging about this topic for years now. If only I had an institution. Or an ivy leaf. But never mind that. The topic’s the thing, and indeed it is long overdue. Science works (at least most of the time) and so we don’t require any convincing on that point. The very title of the article, however, raises the specter of the question: are scientific truths better? There’s a lot of unpacking to do and I haven’t even left home yet. First of all, “truths.” Science provides the best explanation of phenomena that we have, given the data at the moment. Since science is, by definition, falsifiable, it doesn’t provide truths. As much as scientists must begrudgingly admit it, truths are spun out by philosophers and—God help us!—theologians. The scientists who want to give us truths should probably take philosophy 101.

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Then there’s that surprisingly difficult adverb “better.” Good, better, best. These are value words. Science cannot assess value. Gold is “worth” more than the lint in my pockets because humans have agreed that it is. Inherently, both substances are made of the same thing: atoms. The lint in my pocket may have more exotic elements than pure gold, but nobody’s going to pay anything for it. Value, as has been endlessly demonstrated, is in the purview of religion, ethics, and philosophy. If you have to you can add the dismal science to the mix, but even that is just a social science. No physicist can tell you if this meal is better than that. It’s a matter of perspective. If I value my beans enough, not even your pâté will tempt me.

I want to stick with this latter word “better” just a little longer. Perhaps because as an underemployed thinker I’m especially sensitive to the subject. In what sense is science “better” than humanities? Show me a scientist who’s never listened to music and I’ll show you a sad individual. When we come home from the lab we still want the creature comforts that people have devised whether through science, culture, or even religion. If you value that weekend, be sure to thank a monotheist. Science tells us no day of the week is any different than any other. In my experience there’s a world of difference between Saturday and Monday. For this inveterate and unrepentant humanities student, that’s the truth.

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