Flat White

Why I can’t get excited by science

27 March 2017

7:22 AM

27 March 2017

7:22 AM

God knows why, but I found myself browsing that Humans of New York website yesterday. Terrible site. It’s basically emotional pornography, which is the most morally damaging genre. Anyway, the creator seems to have done a side-project, Humans of Iran, which is just as bizarre and frivolous. One testimony from an anonymous Tehrani student caught my eye:

I like to sit alone and think about the world. I wanted to be a philosophy major, but there is no philosophy class at our universities. The only class offered is ‘Religion and Philosophy.’ We aren’t exactly encouraged to decide things for ourselves. Any philosophy we have must be built on the existence of God. So I switched my major to physics. It still allows me to think about the world. And if someone wants me to say that a thing is true, they need to prove it with a formula.

I suppose this is the kind of Middle-Eastern refugee the Left thinks we’re getting by the arseload: enlightened, moderate, quietly disdainful of religion. That’s their first mistake. The second is thinking we’d benefit from importing more people like her.

Frankly, while science is obviously important, scientific knowledge is virtually useless. With the exception of engineers, no one needs to know how suspension bridges stay upright. With the exception of mechanics, no one needs to know how aeroplanes fly. With the exception of chemists, no one needs to know the composition of Alka-Seltzer. With the exception of meteorologists, no one needs to know how to predict weather patterns.  Yes, we benefit from the fruits of science; but, outside simple curiosity, the vast majority of us shouldn’t benefit from any broad understanding of how such things work.

Put it this way: if we could somehow identify from infancy which 0.01 percent of children will grow up to be scientists and engineers, we could forego teaching the rest of the population science in all of its disciplines, and our society wouldn’t be worse for it in the slightest.

In fact, we might be measurably better off. This Tehrani student’s new worldview – ‘if someone wants me to say that a thing is true, they need to prove it with a formula’ – is self-important nonsense. Most Truth has absolutely nothing to do with formulae; the Truths that impact our daily lives, even less so. Why you chose to wear blue trousers today rather than grey ones, why you married Daphne rather than Sherry even though Sherry’s father is more cashed-up by far, why you feed and house your children despite their instance on whooping and wailing while you’re trying to read the paper… Virtually none of the truly meaningful questions about life are scientifically indifferent, and a formula will answer none of them.

Which isn’t to rubbish science for its own sake. I’d be more than happy to let science do its important work in obscurity, if only it would accept its own obscurity. But no: science, or more specifically scientism, insists on meddling in absolutely everything. It’s the same with religion: when you insist on looking at everything through the lens of one narrow discipline, you limit the ability of the other disciplines to do their part in helping us navigate this complex and mysterious existence we find ourselves leading.

Yet I’ll say that there’s something noble about the religious fundamentalist that isn’t present in the scientistic fundamentalist. When the Church forbade astronomers from teaching that the world revolves around the sun, it was to prevent them from accidentally spreading a far more serious error than geocentrism: that the universe revolves around man. They dreaded what would become of morality, culture, politics, and trade if folks came to believe there was no God in Heaven ordering and enforcing His master plan. They were willing to sacrifice fact for the sake of Truth. Were that a choice we needed to make, we should say the Church chose rightly.

Of course, Galileo didn’t bring down Western civilisation, and we were all quite glad to learn that fact and Truth can peacefully coexist. Science yields the former; philosophy and religion, the latter.

Yet before long the opposite belief came to dominate: that Truth must be abolished in the pursuit of pure fact. These are the fundamentalists of scientism Dickens satirised them in Hard Times: the coldly utilitarian Gradgrind, the heartlessly economic Bounderby, and the circle of men who might be called their ‘friends’ had they a single beating heart between them. When confronted with the problem of poetry, humour, or love, they sneer, ‘prove it with a formula.’ Of course, they can’t be, so the scientistic mind is forced to dismiss them as mere fancies.

A.C. Grayling might bear this in mind as he presides over the World Science Festival in Brisbane. He recently told The Oz:

If you think about what philosophy asks of the philosopher – to achieve clarity of perception about a range of problems – then you need an insight into what literature tells us about human experience, what history tells us about the great endeavours of humankind over time, and certainly about the extraordinary adventure of science.

Bunk. Writers’ insights into the human experience are no more valid than a plumber’s. They’re just usually better communicated (though this is increasingly not the case). Expecting literature to unlock the meaning of life is to place far too much pressure on our poor novelists. Let them tell their stories, and tell them well; leave philosophy to the philosophers.

So too with science and its ‘adventures’. Let it do its valuable but roundly uninteresting job of cooling our houses and flushing our toilets. And God bless the weirdos who are, for some reason, interested enough in how such contraptions work that they spend their lives improving on their designs. They have my undying thanks. But forgive me if I don’t ask them round for a pint and a chat about Plato’s Republic.

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