Finding art in the sciences and truth in the arts

Published in Craccum this week:

Scientific imperialism has a short-term effect of gutting humanities departments, and this is fairly disastrous for culture. The long-term effects though are even worse, undermining science itself and ending in epistemological relativism, furthering the downwards spiral of doom. The non-scientific distortion of scientism is a scourge on society, but the pursuit of natural science is still a noble and essential task. Scientism claims that only science provides knowledge of the world. To say science is not everything – that there are non-scientific forms of knowledge – is not to say it is nothing. Those bent on reductionism may stick their fingers in their ears and insist I’m anti-science – I’ll let you work out whether the charge sticks. The humanities currently feel pressured to establish their scientific status, because what it really means to know something is to know it scientifically. Or, so we’re told. They cannot win such a battle, set up on the terms of an opponent, but they shouldn’t feel the need. The sciences on the other hand, currently feel little pressure to demonstrate their artistic credentials, but would benefit from thinking about it.

The history, philosophy, sociology, economics, psychology, and other human aspects of science deserve more attention. Perhaps there is even a theology of science? Scientism and related schools of thought and practice can and should be critically studied by humanities researchers, and alternative philosophies need to be explored, for the sake of culture and of science. Limiting truth to the beautiful but limited realm of science undercuts both rationality and metaphysics – both of which are important to science. Scientism undercuts rationality, because reasoning is a human activity which is not straightforwardly reducible down to interactions between atoms. The laws of logic are immaterial, and logical inferences are made by human persons, however this is fleshed out in terms of mind-body relationships. More obviously, scientism undercuts metaphysics, because the claim that there is anything beyond physics is taken to be absurd or irrelevant to real life if what matters is always able to be discovered by physics. But, science depends on controversial metaphysical claims about the real nature of the world: including that causality is real, that natural law or something like it holds true, that the apparently abstract objects of mathematics somehow apply to the physical world, and that simplified conceptual models bear a good relationship to reality.

If that wasn’t enough, scientism is damaging to ethics, aesthetics, and testimony. If only scientific claims are knowable, ethics is destroyed. There is no plausible scientific description of an ethical fact that explains its ethical nature as right or wrong – ethical properties simply are not scientific properties. This however does not stop them being real and apprehensible by us. It is true to say that torturing a child for fun is wrong. Sure, we can give scientific accounts of pain and pleasure, but science doesn’t explain why pain should be bad and pleasure good, let alone why the pain at the dentist is not always bad, the pleasure of a demagogue is not always good, and a life of no global consequence with much suffering can more fully live up to what it means to be a good human than the life of a comfortable New York billionaire no matter how generous. Ethics are a foundation of the scientific project, because not all science is equally worth pursuing. What counts as an ‘important’ discovery often has an ethical edge to it, which scientism unjustifiably discounts. This view of the world also obliterates beauty, making it an incidental property that humans happen to have a preference for, rather than a real and important feature of the world. Of course, whether beauty is real or purely culturally constructed is debated, but aesthetic properties do seem to be important in science itself, as well as a core foundation of music and art. Mathematical physicists are known to prioritise theories that they find elegant or beautiful. Paul Dirac, for instance, who was deeply anti-philosophical early in life gained an increasing appreciation for this, and said “It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.” British mathematician GH Hardy said that “Beauty is the first test; there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics”. A 2014 study in Journal in Frontiers of Neuroscience titled ‘the experience of mathematical beauty and its neural correlates’ found that equations classed as beautiful by mathematicians produced similar neural responses to great art. If beauty really helps us get to true physical theories, this is truly astounding.

Finally, scientism undermines the legitimacy of human testimony. Most of our knowledge of the world is based either on direct experience or on the testimony of other people in some form. Neither is a form of ‘scientific’ knowledge in any direct way. Science itself depends on a vast network of trust; on accurate transmission of information and perhaps more importantly, on sincere motives of those involved. Historical claims, including things of supreme interest in politics, economics, sociology, religious studies, theology, and many branches of science, depend on testimonial evidence. But they’re seldom repeatable or testable. Without these things that I’ve discussed, science falls. Not immediately – for most scientists aren’t aware of how crucial these things are to science, but eventually, entrenched scepticism about these areas would destroy scientific consensus on any conceivable topic. Scientists should be among the first to defend the importance of ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and testimony, as well as rationality – for science’s sake!

Okay – people will tend to agree to the falsehood of scientism after hearing some of these arguments (after all, only one or two need to be okay for it to fall) what’s the big deal? Yet, not so fast. What, after all, is the alternative? Perhaps the pendulum could swing away from scientism and towards romanticism or subjectivism or mysticism – an emphasis on the aesthetic and intuitive over the empirical and analytical and understandable. But this would deny science, which is clearly a successful project in describing the world and making helpful predictions from it, allowing advances in technology, healthcare, and innovation. Perhaps even more importantly, or at least more ironically, subjectivism undermines the integrity of the humanities. To retreat away from science or the objective in face of the claims of scientism is to needlessly cede territory to an ideology based on a brash façade and assumption rather than argument. We don’t need to accept that objectivity is limited to the reducible, repeatable and testable. Interestingly, the foundations of science itself are actually human perceptual experiences, which are at the individual level are fundamentally irreducible, unrepeatable and untestable. History, literature, music, and other real aspects of human lived experience are similarly based on a host of personal encounters, real choice, concepts, and other irreducible events. Though irreducible and mediated through human subjects, there are real empirical components to all human intellectual projects, and shared understanding between people – a presupposition of all communication and art – relies on a shared reality. The purely subjective or mystical may provide entertainment for a hermit, but not the foundations of a culture. While communication is seldom if ever perfect, I want to suggest that there is a shared human nature of some sort, and proper ends for it, the discovery and fulfilment of which together constitute human flourishing.

It may be objected that this whole ambitious essay is set up to solve a simple false dichotomy; clearly empirical, analytical, intuitional, and aesthetic aspects are all needed to make sense of the world, and all sensible people take the combination for granted. Perhaps so! But how are we to hold all of these things together? And can we do so while hanging on to the basic presupposition of naturalism (that nature is all that exists) that undergirds modernity? And, if we dare to drop it, what then? Science does really describe the real world, but the real world seems to extend beyond the boundaries of science. Or, more accurately, we should talk of ‘the sciences’ rather than a monolithic Science. As a Christian, I happen to think there is an ultimate harmony between the personal and the physical, as illustrated in all of the key biblical elements of creation, fall, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection. On this account, creation has personal or mental aspects, like mathematical order, beauty, and ethical requirements, because of its personal source. These personal aspects are shaped by the character of this God, revealed as love. And it also has ‘impersonal’ empirical aspects – the kind my research as a PhD candidate in molecular biology are mostly focussed on – because there is real metaphysical distinction between creature and Creator. Perhaps you haven’t thought at all about this, or perhaps you have a different account – I’d be curious to know if you do!

In closing let’s focus in on the key question behind all of this; “what is truth?” It was cynically asked by a provincial Roman prefect in the world’s most famous unjust trial 1983 years ago. Perhaps the answer is still the same – the truth is ultimately personal or at least has personal dimensions, and stands before us – paradoxically awaiting our verdict. To not choose is to choose. To not decide is to decide in favour of the status quo. In our culture, this is probably a form of scientism, which in its vain attempts to swallow up humanity causes much damage. To decide for the personal over the impersonal though, even to be open to exploring it, opens doors to other worlds. If we keep our feet on the ground and remain open to scientific critique while allowing our minds to deeply explore dangerous ideals like truth, beauty, and justice, perhaps our actions in both the sciences and the arts will better promote both human flourishing and understanding.

Zachary Ardern