Sunday, June 03, 2007
Is it all just trivial?
Here's another exchange from Arcadia that I found very thought provoking. It begins with Valentine, a scientist/mathematician, commenting on the triviality of Bernard's (a literature professor) new theory about an unknown episode of Lord Byron's life.

VALENTINE: Well, it's all trivial anyway. Who wrote what when... The questions you're asking don't matter, you see. It's like arguing who got there first with the calculus. The English say Newton, the Germans say Leibnitz. But it doesn't matter. Personalities. What matters is the calculus. Scientific progress. Knowledge.
BERNARD: Really? Why?
VALENTINE: Why what?
BERNARD: Why does scientific progress matter more than personalities?
VALENTINE: Are you serious? Do yourself a favor, you're on a loser.
BERNARD: Oh, you're going to zap me with penicillin and pesticides. Spare me that and I'll spare you the bomb and aerosols. But don't confuse progress with perfectability. A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need. There's no rush for Isaac Newton. We were quite happy with Aristotle's cosmos. Personally, I preferred it. Fifty-five crystal spheres geared to God's crankshaft is my idea of a satisfying universe. I can't think of anything more trivial than the speed of light. Quarks, quasars - big bangs, black holes - who gives a shit? How did you people con us out of all that status? All that money? And why are you so pleased with yourselves? I'd push the lot of you over a cliff myself. Except the one in the wheelchair, I think I'd lost the sympathy vote before people had time to think it through. If knowledge isn't self-knowledge it isn't doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing 'When Father Painted the Parlour'? Leave me out. I can expand my universe without you.
'She walks in beauty, like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies,
and all that's best of dark and bright
meet in her aspect and her eyes.'
There you are, he wrote it after coming home from a party.

This dialogue caught my attention because it is so reminiscent of conversations I've had, both in college and more recently on some of the atheist websites I frequent. It's the old competition between the sciences and the humanities, and more recently, between the Modern and Postmodern views of the world. What is more important, scientific knowledge or self-knowledge? Truth or Beauty? Math or Art? Scientific progress or moral progress?

While of course the answer could be "both", I have to admit that, despite the arrogance & insensitivity with which he comes across in the play, I usually tend to agree with Bernard that the sciences are rather "trivial" compared to the deep existential questions of life pondered by poets, philosophers, theologians and mystics. I really don't care about the speed of light and why the sky is blue, but I do care about romance and beauty and meaning and purpose. It's like Robin Williams' character, Mr. Keating, says in the movie Dead Poets Society:
We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

I don't mean to diminish the value of science at all. As Mr. Keating says, "these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life", but science is only instrumental. It provides us with knowledge, so that we can use it to improve our quality of life. But we need poetry and philosophy and theology to help us decide what a good life is in the first place, and what makes it worth living. Without science humanity would continue to go on - albeit with considerably greater struggle. But without art and beauty and poetry and romance I suspect that humanity would die of boredom or despair within just a few years.

Of course, I also don't mean to imply that science can't also be beautiful or that knowledge shouldn't be pursued for its own sake. It can and it should. But of course, when we say things like that, we are actually turning science into poetry. We are saying something about science that science itself cannot tell us. To say that science is beautiful says that science is valuable because it is art. And to say that knowledge is valuable in and of itself is a philosophical argument that is external to science itself - which again makes philosophy more primary, the determiner of value.

I say this not to diminish the importance science or those who pursue it and value it. I just think we should be clear about what we value it for.

Of course, there is also the answer that the character Hannah gives in the play, which could be true as well:

"It's all trivial - your grouse, my hermit, Bernard's Byron. Comparing what we're looking for misses the point. It's wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we're going out the way we came in. That's why you can't believe in the afterlife, Valentine. Believe in the after, by all means, but not the life. Believe in God, the soul, the spirit, the infinite, believe in angels if you like, but not in the great celestial get-together for an exchange of views. If the answers are in the back of the book I can wait, but what a drag. Better to struggle on knowing that failure is final."

What do you think?

posted by Mike Clawson at 2:53 PM | Permalink |


At 6/03/2007 06:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

But of course, when we say things like that, we are actually turning science into poetry. We are saying something about science that science itself cannot tell us. To say that science is beautiful says that science is valuable because it is art.

You beat me to it. It's a well kept secret among scientists, but we never do anything because we think it'll be useful. It ends up being useful, because truth always is. But if we were to set out to discover the useful instead of the true and beautiful, we'd end up nothing.


At 6/03/2007 08:41:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I've always suspected that Miko. :)

Actually, it doesn't surprise me at all. Most scientists I know (or whose biographies or books I've read) always seem to be motivated just by the sheer beauty of the universe and the thrill of discovery. To me these are noble motivations and very good reasons indeed to pursue science.