A Scientific Worldview; A Worldview on Science

I don’t like to pigeonhole myself too much with regards to where I stand on certain issues that I believe are deeply complex and to some extent have no obvious “good” answer. That said, I think that I laid out, in an e-mail to a student, some things that I deeply believe underlie the scientific endeavor. These are the themes that I try to build the Frontiers course around. So at risk of a little bit of pigeon-holing, here are those themes and some of my thoughts about them:

The Awe of Nature: this theme comes up time and again and I would argue is the backbone of the vast majority of science. It is the purest motivation of the scientist and is a feeling that drives us to keep asking questions and open up new frontiers.

Questions, not Answers: this is more of a slogan than a theme. Obviously, science is partly a collection of facts (subject to revision). But science truly *lives* at its frontiers, where it is all about the questions that we try to answer (and to some extent the methods that we need to develop to answer the questions).

Science and Society (or is it Science vs. Society?): We come back to this again and again in the course–it is rather inevitable. Science is a human activity and it is pursued in a social context. Since science is done by people, there is a community of scientists and all the politics that goes along with that. In addition, science is embedded in broader society and must make contact with it. Sometimes this results in uncomfortable situations where new discoveries force us to confront old ideas and potentially even deeply-held beliefs and values. This is one of the sources of conflict between science and society. We’ll often argue about whether it has to be this way or not over the course of the course.

The Unknown (or how to know how much you don’t know): The frontiers of science constantly confront us with the limitations of our knowledge. Moreover, they confront us with the limits of our methods to gain knowledge. Often our techniques improve (usually based on new discoveries put to use), but there are things that will never go away. On the smaller, less philosophical scale these are:

a) Random error in measurement. You can never totally get rid of it!
b) Systematic errors (or bias) in measurements. Again, almost any method we employ to explore some aspect of the world has inherent biases. We’ll see examples of this throughout the course. Sometimes we can take these biases into account–and certainly where we can we must–but sometimes we may not even be aware of them.

We deal with these issues using statistics to try to estimate how much we don’t know–how uncertain we are about our results. This is why some basic statistical concepts and techniques will form an important element of our course. We’ll review/learn about things like means, standard deviations, standard errors, distributions, and the way various issues of measurement affect these things.

On a broader, more philosophical note, the question of how to know how much you don’t know is hopeless. As Donald Rumsfeld once put it: there are unknown unknowns: the things we don’t know we don’t know. There is no method I know of to guard against that *except* the fundamental aspect of science that is keeping an open mind and always being ready to scrap old ideas if they prove to be wrong, and to improve them where improvements need to be made. That said, it doesn’t take much time to think about this question to realize that there just may be frontiers to our knowledge that we may never cross–at least not scientifically. It is easy to ask questions (questions that you will confront in courses like Lit Hum and CC: what is The Good, The Beautiful, The Just?). This isn’t to say that science has no bearing on these things. It may shape our understanding of these questions–it may tell us things about ourselves as human beings that give us new tools for asking these questions. But it seems that in the deepest sense, these questions cannot be completely subsumed into science. Some might argue that where they can’t be made scientific, they should be thrown out as nonsensical. I don’t share that view, but I look forward to debating it with students who might.

The question of The Unknown brings us right back around to The Awe of Nature. A lot of the time, you’ll hear that science erases Nature’s mystery and eliminates our sense of awe since it just reduces Nature to a bunch of parts that work in some fixed way to produce the world we see around us. I can’t force you to feel otherwise, but I’ve always felt that knowing more about what is going on “behind the veil” enriches the mystery and wonder. This is partly because it forces us to contend with the question of where the ultimate boundaries to our knowledge truly lie and to appreciate how wonderful it is that we can comprehend all that we can (it seems a lot to us, but probably it isn’t much compared to how much we potentially could know).


2 thoughts on “A Scientific Worldview; A Worldview on Science

  1. “you’ll hear that science erases Nature’s mystery and eliminates our sense of awe since it just reduces Nature to a bunch of parts that work in some fixed way to produce the world we see around us”

    I have of late
    But wherefore I know not
    Lost all my mirth.
    And indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition
    That this goodly frame
    The Earth
    Seems to me a sterile promontory.
    This most excellent canopy
    The air
    Look you:
    This brave o’er hanging firmament
    This majestical roof fretted with golden fire
    Why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours
    What a piece of work is a man
    How noble in reason
    How infinite in faculties
    How like an angel in apprehension
    How like a God
    The beauty of the world
    The paragon of animals
    And yet
    To me
    What is this quintessence of dust
    Man delights not me
    Nor woman neither

    In THE ELIZABETHAN WORLD PICTURE, W. H. Tillyard writes “… though the general medieval picture of the world survived in outline into the Elizabethan age, its existence was by then precarious… Recent research has shown that the educated Elizabethan had plenty of text-books in the vernacular instructing him in the Copernican astronomy, yet he was loth to upset the old order by applying his knowledge. The greatness of the Elizabethan age was that it contained so much of new without bursting the noble form of the old order” (8).

    He cites the fact that “Hamlet’s words on man are often taken … as one of the great English versions of Renaissance humanism, an assertion of the dignity of man against the asceticisms of medieval misanthropy. Actually it is in the purest medieval tradition: Shakespeare’s version of the orthodox encomia of what man, created in God’s image, was like in his prelapsarian state and of what ideally he is still capable of being.” It also shows Shakespeare placing man in the traditional cosmic setting between the angels and beasts. It was what the theologians had been saying for centuries” (4)

    I’m submitting Hamlet’s and Tillyard’s words as a comment here because these two artifacts testify to the trend in our history of ideas to perceive of man’s biblical fall as fundamentally reductive (from direct communion with nature, God and immediate intuitive understanding of these to a merely human kind of existence). Shakespeare’s words resonated with Elizabethans precisely because they existed in a worldview where humans assumed that the universe was ordered a specific way, a way that science challenges. How confusing is it, especially working from a Platonic viewpoint (where all truth is said to be compatible), to find value in poetry and value in science when each asks that the very structure of the other’s universe be different than it is? Medieval theologians observed and imagined an order in and beyond the stars to make sense of and order what they found to be true in their hearts. The attempt to discover the secrets of one was the attempt to demystify the other, to create hope that there can be unity, peace and serenity in each. I contend that it was their hope that made these philosophers people of faith or religious to some essential degree.

    Given that, I’d like to conjecture that a worldview, scientific or otherwise, may be said to constitute an act of faith that humans can generate such unity, that the efforts of the species creates an order of a magnitude that encompasses rather than divides creation itself. So, the endeavor of sense making goes hand-in-hand with the practice of hoping that sense can be made of some set of data (the universe) that (as Douglas Adams proves) is an oddity if nothing else.

    This kind of thinking conflates science and nonscience, though and perhaps nonsense, too. It’s dangerous to make reverence rub shoulders with irreverence but if there’s one thing, perhaps, to learn from Hamlet, or Beavis & Butthead for that matter, it is, precisely this:


    To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may
    not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander,
    till he find it stopping a bung-hole?


    ‘Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so.


    No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with
    modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it: as
    thus: Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
    Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is earth; of
    earth we make loam; and why of that loam, whereto he
    was converted, might they not stop a beer-barrel?
    Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
    Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
    O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
    Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!
    But soft! but soft! aside: here comes the king.

    Is Hamlet (and Shakespeare by extension) collapsing the value of Rome into a bung-hole, saying that meaning can be transformed and twisted into anything?
    So what makes one hope or faith seem well-founded and another nonsensical?

    It’s worth noting that Shakespeare did more than speak pretty. He wrote plays: his achievement was to combine poetry and dramatic action as none other had (or has). He turned sonnets into action, propelling characters’ lives with forward motion to certain conclusions. There was a metric to his plays as rigorously thought out as scientific principles. Think of the context of Hamlet’s “man delights not me,” precisely spoken to his university colleagues, spying on him. His melancholy and despair are, in the context of the play, more importantly ruses that hide his real intentions (regicide) than they are true in-of-themselves. Hamlet doesn’t dither and hesitate as much as people make him out to. A hardcore examination of the plot of the play actually shows really good reasons as to why he doesn’t actually get to kill Claudius until the end of the play.

    If science is going to illuminate anything, its investigative principles, its emphasis and focus need to be considered just as deeply and evaluated as thoroughly as it seeks to unplug the mysterious bung-hole of the universe and imbibe its most intoxicating secrets.

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