Richard Feynman concludes his second volume of memoirs, What do you care what other people think?, with a short essay titled “The Value of Science”. Among the blessings of science, according to this great practitioner of it, is that it teaches us to be comfortable with doubt, with uncertainty, with admitted ignorance, so that we resist the urge to prematurely close investigation. Carlo Rovelli, one of the inventors of loop quantum gravity, has recently made a similar claim. Whenever I read these things, I’m amused at how bad the very intelligent are at imagining the perspective of ordinary people. I know what I’m talking about, both because of my own cognitive limitations and my time spent teaching lots of students who probably shouldn’t have sunk their money into college at all.
If there’s one thing most people lack, it’s discomfort with ignorance. Most likely, everyone is born with curiosity, and confusion is always at least slightly disconcerting. However, one’s experience with thinking will be very different depending on one’s intrinsic aptitude for it. The very smart find that they can figure out the answers to their questions, and they get to experience the enormous thrill of making the key connections, seeing everything fall into place, knowing that they’ve figured it out. To someone who has gotten used to getting one’s way with nature like this, admitting that one is stumped, setting aside an intriguing problem because after all dinner is waiting and the children need attention, may indeed be a discipline that needs cultivating. It’s said that when Isaac Newton got his mind on a problem, he couldn’t set it aside until it was solved. (Perhaps it was because Newton was what we would now call a fundamentalist Christian living before the Enlightenment taught us to be comfortable with ignorance.) Newton was the greatest genius mankind has yet produced, and he was single and childless, so he could get away with this. Others must be content with just being part of a multigenerational project of discovery. The average to below average don’t even have that. Their experience with the mysteries of life and the universe is that whenever they try to figure something out, they quickly tie themselves up in confusion and contradiction, and they must give up with nothing but frustration to show for their effort. Such people quickly get very comfortable with doubt and ignorance, very skillful with the shrug of the shoulder. Perhaps they will pronounce everything a mystery; perhaps they will entrust themselves to the experts; perhaps they will fall back on pseudo-explanations that are really affirmations of a general worldview (e.g. the sky is blue because “God wills it so”, “that’s it’s nature”, or “optical processes”, which may be true enough but could just as easily explain why the sky is pink with green polka dots).
Teaching a gen. ed.-satisfying descriptive astronomy class has given me occasion to think about the value of science. Why is it important for students to be exposed to scientific thinking? What do I really want them to get out of it? My students feel no psychological compulsion to impose dogmas on the nature of stars; my task is to get them to be able to ask the sort of questions that the models are supposed to answer. The point of science is first to notice patterns in the natural world and second to explain them. The goal of science isn’t to explain every random fact–the fact, for example, that the Earth spins once every 24 hours rather than once every 23 or 25. Nobody imagines that there’s an explanation for that. (If every planet was observed to have exactly this spin period, it would be a different story.) Nor is it to observe necessary truths; we have mathematics and philosophy for that. Science deals with contingent patterns, things in the natural world that are the same that didn’t have to be. As a very simple example, I may show students pictures of the planets and then say, “Isn’t it funny that they all look like circles? Not just kind of round, but very nearly spherical? I mean, if it were just one planet like that, we might call it a fluke, but every one of them? There’s got to be a reason for this…” The default state of mankind is not certainty; it’s not noticing or taking for granted. How many centuries passed before mankind realized the incredible implications of the fact that it is dark at night? The big lesson of science is that these patterns are out there, some staring us in the face, and we shouldn’t just take them for granted, because that’s how the universe tells us things.
Filed under: philosophy of science |