Sunday, February 12, 2006

on grooviness

Here's one from cam:

I've been thinking lots this week about connections between literature, philosophy and science, after hearing Neal DeGrasse Tyson comment in a lecture that Philosophy in Science had a useful purpose through the 19th century, but was irrelevant now. He later discussed how physicists like Brian Greene and his string theory peers have ventured too far from science in that they can't test empirically their theories. The string theorists are philosophers, not scientists, from Tyson's perspective.

I remember seeing a carton posted on the Biology dept bulletin board when I was in college. The cartoon depicted a physician telling a man he had an incurable illness and only a few weeks to live. In the last frame he say's "So, what do you think of E.M. Forster"? Someone had penned on the cartoon: "Biology - the real pre-med".

While I laughed at the cartoon, I'm sure I chuckled for different reasons than the biologist who posted it. Yes, the context was ridiculous, but who wouldn't want their physician to be well-rounded, to be informed by something other than just cells under the microscope and results of lab tests? (I'm not arguing whether reading Forster would provide that, so substitute your favorite writers or philosophers.)

I recently discovered Raymond Carver's poem 'What the Doctor Said' (published in "New Path to the Waterfall", 1990) and recalled that cartoon I saw over 25 years ago. The persona in Carver's poem is equally uncomfortable with the doctor asking if he was a religious man as he was with the scientific facts of his cancer. Neither suggestion is useful when receiving the diagnosis.

When I looked at the slides Tyson displayed in his lecture - photos of the Crab Nebula, of the Andromeda Galaxy, and other shots from the Hubble -- I couldn't help but think that they were artistic and, somehow, poetic. They seemed beyond awe-inspiring. I thought they embodied a truth beyond what they tell us about stars and black holes -- the level of 'truth' that we don't know fully but that helps us to understand our world and our relationship to it.

Scientific theories do need to be able to stand up to the rigors of testing, must be supported by facts. Philosophy must not disregard data that it doesn't like because it is inconvenient to one's argument. But, is quantifiable data the only way to understand the world?

If science is the quest to know our universe, isn't it attempting to do, in another manner, what philosophers and writers have been doing since humans first shared their thoughts with others? It is another way to try to find meaning in our existence, both individually, and in a broader, universal, sense. Therefore, shouldn't the two disciplines draw upon each other more, rather than less?


Amy Charles said...

In general? Sure. I think the problem is in making meaningful connections. It's not hard to get artists to admire astonishing and vivid results of science; not hard either to find scientists who admire poetry. Getting further than that is, in my experience, very tough.

My own sense is that understanding what the science says changes how we view ourselves and the universe, often radically, and that this has real social and emotional consequences which should be borne out & examined in art. But, you know, that's one artist's view.

Central Content Publisher said...

I'm always wary of scientists who claim something is *only* philosophy, when Scientific Method itself is still only philosophy.

tideliar said...

I think it would terribly helpful to have scientists interested more in the philosophy of science. I thnk nowadays we lack a broader understand of life, or a view of the bigger picture if you like. Public perception of science and scientists is at an all time low. The "public" are generally distrustful of science, yet seem to lap up what is spoon fed to them by the media. I think if we engaged with our work and what it does, and what it means on amore emotional level, things could change. However, most scientists I know pride themselves on being rational and thus cold and logical (even when it's patently not true). I think this may be a difficult bridge to cross...