You'd Prefer An Argonaute

Opposing a non-religious attack on science

Posted in Science Journalism by YPAA on March 28, 2011

Humans have always sought answers to nature’s most basic questions, like what are we made of? What surrounds us? What governs this existence? This experience has been manifested most discretely in scientists, who attempt to breakdown the complexity of the natural world into formulas, observations, and theories. With increasing frequency, our curiosities about the world are yielding new solutions, such as medicines and technologies, to old problems, like human disease and energy consumption. Sometimes these solutions make our lives more comfortable, and while there is no doubt that the promise for such outcomes helps sustain science economically, at its core still burns our curiosity and creativity. Science is essential to us.

This brings me to Wendell Berry, and a piece he wrote for Harper’s entitled Faustian Economics: Hell hath no limits. In his piece, Berry, a highly respected American writer/essayist, characterizes our beloved scientific enterprise as utterly wasteful.

Berry’s arguments that I want to highlight aren’t the thesis of his essay, but they emerge in support of it. I encounter his thesis, actually, to be one of great moral significance–to shed our long-held assumptions of limitlessness in the world, with respect to growth, wealth, natural resources, and debt. In Berry’s words:

The normalization of the doctrine of limitlessness has produced a sort of moral minimalism: the desire to be efficient at any cost, to be unencumbered by complexity…

Our national faith so far has been: “There’s always more.” Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine…

Focusing on economic matters, in one example Berry points out the oxymoronic notion of “free market,” which by definition imposes great economic inequalities, such as in the pharmaceutical industry where there exists

… an absolute discontinuity between the economy of the seller of medicines and the economy of the buyer…

This is because the industry can wield total control over the health and survival of some patients, while the patients themselves usually have no control over the price of drugs. I believe this is an argument worth engaging, but not without careful separation of science from business, which Berry neglects.

Therefore I was disturbed when he generalized these sorts of examples to say that most scientists have been completely naive in the goals of their work.

It is this economy of community destruction that, wittingly or unwittingly, most scientists and technicians have served for the past two hundred years. These scientists and technicians have justified themselves by the proposition that they are the vanguard of progress, enlarging human knowledge and power, and thus they have romanticized both themselves and the predatory enterprises that they have served.

I find this statement ludicrous, and a kind of dangerous anti-science rhetoric that doesn’t advertise ignorance of what we do necessarily (like many forms do), but rather why. In this respect Berry is totally off, it seems he hasn’t listened to any scientists speak about why they are scientists. Or it’s possible he hasn’t sampled a fair cross-section, either way, attacking the scientists cannot help his cause.

Returning to the problem of limitlessness, Berry then contrasts scientists to artists to try to advance his point.

To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work.

It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall… Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex…

It is true that insofar as scientific experiments must be conducted within carefully observed limits, scientists also are artists. But in science one experiment, whether it succeeds or fails, is logically followed by another in a theoretically infinite progression. According to the underlying myth of modern science, this progression is always replacing the smaller knowledge of the past with the larger knowledge of the present, which will be replaced by the yet larger knowledge of the future.

In the arts, by contrast, no limitless sequence of works is ever implied or looked for. No work of art is necessarily followed by a second work that is necessarily better. Given the methodologies of science, the law of gravity and the genome were bound to be discovered by somebody; the identity of the discoverer is incidental to the fact. But it appears that in the arts there are no second chances. We must assume that we had one chance each for The Divine Comedy and King Lear. If Dante and Shakespeare had died before they wrote those poems, nobody ever would have written them.

Scientists constantly deal with the problem of limits, but a “larger” knowledge hasn’t been what we’re after, it’s a refined knowledge. Not greater mass; but greater magnitude. We work towards a more complete understanding of how things are connected in nature, exactly the “sustaining relationships” Berry describes. In refining our understanding of the natural world and its history, all scientists are inspired by work that preceded theirs, as are artists. The capacity for insightful thought and creativity hasn’t really changed for artists or scientists for thousands of years, only the instruments have changed.

And regarding Berry’s assertion that “the identity of the discoverer is incidental to the fact”? This simply isn’t true, and among the numerous exceptions are those that have probably had the most substantial impacts on science. Like Einstein. If you had a very wild imagination, you might imagine several people collectively making Einstein’s quantum intellectual leaps. Had he never existed, the record of science would be very different, like the arts would be different had you subtracted Shakespeare.

We can appreciate art for its often singular nature, resulting from the unique mind and experience of individuals whom create pieces loosely connected by time, medium, or emotion. Science has its own such pieces, together which sustain our curiosity and understanding of life and all matter in the universe. Each new piece can combine with the last, sometimes they join in a unifying way, wholly the result of human creativity in the face of absolute limits. The results have been beautiful, don’t you think?


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