Monday, January 14, 2008

Science Versus Scientism - Getting Meaning From Meaninglessness

Yesterday, I heard the tail-end of the public radio program Speaking of Faith, in which hostess Krista Tippett interviewed author Jenna Levin, theoretical physicist and novelist (the transcript is here, and the mp3 audio is here). At the end of the interview, Ms. Levin went all whimsical on the powerful meaning for her of the relationship between stellar fusion and life on earth - carbon being forged in the heart of stars billions of years dead, expelled in those stars' death throes at hyper-velocities, finding their way, by chance, to our little corner of the galaxy, and, through the grinding of time and the occasional happy (for us) accident, leading to the creation of amino acids, proteins that are able to make copies of themselves. Musings on the inherent beauty and power of the contemplation of such astrophysical facts is neither new nor surprising. Albert Einstein could put listeners to sleep as he gave a quasi-mystical interpretation of his view of theoretical physics; at the end of his bestseller, A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking says that working on a solution to the general relativity/quantum mechanics contradiction leads him to think that he is approaching the mind of God. Perhaps the most well-known, to my mind at any rate, statement of this approach to the wonders of contemporary physics, is the collection of essays Broca's Brain by the late Carl Sagan.

Now, it is easy to understand how those so deeply immersed in the pursuit of such fundamental questions could be captivated by the beauty, the awesome power, and even elegance (a word Einstein used often to describe the way equations fit together) of the discoveries of science. The combination of fear and awe often associated with religious reverence certainly seems justified when we sit and think about the consequences of certain scientific investigations - a kind of weak anthropic principle, the universe sitting and contemplating itself.

Yet, I wish to question this way we appropriate the discoveries of science. Wonder is certainly appropriate when we realize we are studying such fundamental, awesome power as what goes on in the heart of stars, or trying to figure out what, exactly quasars are; yet, to give these things meaning is extrinsic to the facts themselves. They are bare facts - stellar fusion, chemical processes, and the emergence of carbon-based life are nothing more than facts. To grant to them some kind of even minimal transcendent quality, while understandable, is, to my mind, to completely misunderstand what science is and does. Even at its most grand - cosmology and theoretical astrophysics; biochemistry and genetics - science is actually quite a humble enterprise, limited in scope, operating within clearly defined parameters, and offering us no more meaning that the cup of coffee sitting in front of me. To wax rhapsodic about the deep meaning of sudden, accidental coalescence of amino acids in the warming oceans of the earth half a billion years or so after its creation is to misinterpret the nature of the event. While certainly important (would any of us be here is this hadn't happened? chilling thought, that), there is no inherent meaning in it. Ditto even for something as necessary to study as the Big Bang (to which most scientists would agree we can only approach as close as the first nano-second after its occurrence).

This kind of romantic understanding of science (I get the term from the subtitle to Sagan's book, Essays on the Romance of Science) is, in the end, the creation of a kind of ideology, which I call (for lack of a better word) scientism, the elevation of scientific inquiry to a quasi-mystical, quasi-reverential avocation. While indeed wondrous (I certainly would not argue with such an appellation), to take the next step and inscribe meaning upon bare scientific facts, some of which are working models themselves, to be modified as our ability to figure things out improves, is to put upon them something that, even in their grandeur, they do not deserve.

To take the example of the rain of carbon upon the infant planet earth from cosmic debris - this is a theory concerning the nature of the origin of that element upon our planet. based upon various other theories, including stellar mechanics, it is certainly the most plausible scenario, but that in no way means it is correct and should therefore serve as the the basis for reverential contemplation on the nature of human beings. There is nothing within the theory itself that lends itself to such value-laden exegesis. The events are, despite our puny human perspective, unremarkable. Granting some kind of deeper status to these events is to move them from the mundane reality they are to a transcendent realm wherein they contain some kind of transcendence they are ill-equipped to carry.

I wish to be clear. I am certainly not disputing the discoveries of astrophysics, biochemistry, and the like. I am taking issue with taking these discoveries and making of them something mystical. They are meaningless events. Only human beings grant them meaning. The ideology of scientism is as much a distortion, detrimental to a proper understanding of the scientific enterprise, as creationism, working from the other end of the spectrum. Creationism isn't science, but pretends to be. Scientism isn't science, but pretends to be.

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