I read about science a lot, though not in any systematic way. A popular science book will catch my eye on a remainder table at the bookstore, or I’ll read something online that sounds interesting and end up getting the author’s book from the library or even buying it. In fact, I’ve become a connoisseur of science writers, both scientists who are also fine writers, such as E.O. Wilson, and science reporters who know their material thoroughly, such as Natalie Angier.
I read about science for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that I love understanding how and why things work. And, of course, I read a lot about science because I write science fiction. I consider a strong understanding of science to be important in coming to grips with truth.
But I don’t think science is the only way to find the truth.
Recently, The New York Times ran two essays by philosophers on the subject of “naturalism,” an approach defined by one of them, Timothy Williamson, as “there is only the natural world, and the best way to find out about it is by the scientific method.”
Williamson went on to observe:
We might therefore define the natural world as whatever the scientific method eventually discovers. Thus naturalism becomes the belief that there is only whatever the scientific method eventually discovers, and (not surprisingly) the best way to find out about it is by the scientific method.
And then he asked:
Why can’t there be things only discoverable by non-scientific means, or not discoverable at all?
Williamson, by the way, is an atheist “of the most straightforward kind.” He isn’t arguing for religious or other supernatural explanations. He just thinks there’s more to life and human understanding than what science has been able to prove up to now, or maybe will ever be able to prove.
I agree. Like Williamson, I don’t believe in God. I think humans made up gods and religion to explain the world. At this point in human evolution, we have enough knowledge about how the world came about and how it works to no longer need the supernatural explanation.
But I don’t think truth is limited to what can be proved in rigorous scientific experimentation. First of all, even very good scientists err, and many hypotheses that receive wide support are later found to be erroneous. Science is constantly growing and changing, and the accepted truth changes with it.
Secondly, you don’t have to believe in the supernatural to find truth in studying the world from other approaches – as an historian, for example, or a philosopher, or a literary critic. Or a writer.
It was the other essay on naturalism in the Times that got me annoyed enough to write about why I, like Williamson, do not consider naturalism by itself a complete explanation of the world. In this essay, Alex Rosenberg made the following observation:
But what about other items on Professor Williamson’s list of disciplines it would be hard to count as science: history, literary theory? Can science and naturalistic philosophy do without them? This is a different question from whether people, as consumers of human narratives and enjoyers of literature, can do without them. The question naturalism faces is whether disciplines like literary theory provide real understanding? …
That doesn’t mean anyone should stop doing literary criticism any more than forgoing fiction. Naturalism treats both as fun, but neither as knowledge.
What insufferable arrogance! Literary criticism, not to mention fiction, is only for “fun;” it isn’t knowledge. And, I gather, so are history and any other disciplines that are not amenable to the kind of experiments that biologists or chemists can do.
Historians may not be able to design experiments to figure out what might have happened 500 years ago if a couple of elements of a situation were changed, but they can pull together all the facts that are available – including some added by science – to draw conclusions that give us a better understanding of the world.
The same can be said of other fields in the humanities, not to mention art. A painting or a song or a novel can give you an insight into the truth. That’s not supernatural; it’s just a different approach to understanding. Maybe some day when we actually understand how the human brain works – a science that is only in its infancy – we may know why those approaches are valuable to us. Now we can only know that they are.
Obviously the understanding that comes from art or history changes over time, just as the understanding from science does.
Right now, the world is all agog at the report that some experiments by CERN may have shown neutrinos traveling faster than light. No one knows yet if it’s really true; the people who designed the experiment have made the information available to see if others can find flaws in it.
I don’t have any idea what will finally come of it. But if it turns out to be accurate, it will turn all of physics on its head. Everything we think we know will have to be reexamined.
I don’t think scientists would set up experiments that have the potential of changing the way everyone currently thinks if they didn’t come equipped with one very important skill: Imagination.
Now, I don’t know where human imagination comes from – I doubt anyone does – but I’m pretty sure what nurtures it: the creative arts.
Without art, science will never be able to find the whole truth.
Flashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.
My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.
Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.