Four essays on science, art, epistemology, and values
The four essays grapple with the nature of science in its many philosophical aspects. The first essay, "Mind and Matter--Science and the Humanities," discusses how we gain knowledge of the world around us and specifically, how scientific knowledge is, like everything else, at root subjective. But objectivity is not an illusion. Everyday objectivity arises from wide if not universal assent, and science is a new refinement of this very old process. But in recent years, a post-modern critique of science has claimed that scientific knowledge is no more objective than more common forms. The counter-argument made by some scientists is that the humanities, particularly ethics, are largely subjective. It will be argued that neither extreme is correct. The essay closes with a call to seek the common ground between science and the humanities.
The second essay, "Metaphor, Beauty, and Creativity," investigates the common ground between science and the humanities in aspects that many would not expect. Metaphor, usually considered to be the exclusive realm of the humanities, is shown to play an important role in the creative process of scientific discovery. And beauty, that penultimate of the fine arts, re-appears in science as the conviction that the simplest explanatory theory is the correct one, which reflects the poet Coleridge's definition of beauty as "unity in variety."
The first two essays explore the impact of subjectivity on science and the humanities, but common sense forces us to recognize that there is a hard-core reality to the world. The great philosopher Immanuel Kant recognized that the subjective nature of knowledge prohibits us from knowing "the thing in itself," which raises the unsettling question of how we can know the real world by science or other means from our subjective prisons. In spite of the irreducibly subjective nature of all knowledge, it is commonplace in science to assume that our physical knowledge of the world, expressed in terms of the concepts we invent to describe nature, can be reified, i.e., we assume that these concepts are true reflections of that hard-core reality we are forced to grapple with in everyday life. Are scientists blatantly wishing away the subjective origins of their knowledge in their arrogant reifications? This question is addressed in a somewhat technical way in Essay 3, "Can Physics Discover Reality?".
The fourth essay, "The Values of Science," considers the ways in which science is and indeed must be ethical, and ways in which it is ethically neutral as one would expect of a branch of knowledge to be that claims to be objective. This essay was inspired by Jacob Bronowski's great book Science and Human Values. The essay closes with a quote from Bronowski which casts strong doubt on the fundamentalist religious claim that situational ethics is relativistic and that an ethical and social order requires rules derived from the Bible . In Bronowski's words, "The values by which we are to survive are not rules for just and unjust conduct, but are those deeper illuminations in whose light justice and injustice, good and evil, means and ends are seen in fearful sharpness of outline." Albert Schweitzer's Reverence for Life, a particularly deep, embracing, and overarching value worthy of Bronowski's insights, will be considered elsewhere.