Science, Naturalism, and Truth

By Nancy Jane Moore

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 IlluminationFlashes 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.

Posted in Art, Science permalink

About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


Science, Naturalism, and Truth — 7 Comments

  1. I always laugh whenever I hear people talking about the scientific method as if it’s this beautiful infallible way of discovering things, as if it encompasses SCIENCE. But the scientific method is simple. It’s just make a hypothesis, design an experiment, restrict all the variables you can think of, and test, test, test. But not everything is amenable to experiments. Many experiments are reliant on the development of technology – which is science. But invention doesn’t fall under the prevue of the scientific method.

    As a linguist I’ve seen the results of subscribing too fiercely to the scientific method. Yes, designing experiments is good, and interesting, but there are so many variables, so many things in flux and change that there’s no way to eradicate them all. And sometimes trying too hard to eradicate them or ignore their influence means we are missing the whole point.

    Oddly enough, the comparative method of Historical Linguistics, which is intensely rigorous, seems to be the inheritor of pre-scientific method science. When you couldn’t do experiments you looked for regular systematic correspondences. Darwin used this method. Naturalism – in its old meaning – wasn’t experimentalism. And Darwin found these systematic correspondences, and was able to posit basic theoretical principles that with the discovery of the genome (and technology that allows us to actually examine it) are not verifiable.

    Literary theory and literature seem to be coming under attack because they don’t bother to formalize their method. Does that mean they don’t have a method? No. Does it mean that their results are suspect? No more than any other field’s results. My experience tells me that if you at any good literary theory – say Our Vampires Ourselves, by Nina Auerbach, you will see the same sort of process that you see in all science. First you must familiarize yourself with the data. Second, you have an intuition and you formalize that intuition into a hypothesis. Third you marshal evidence to support your hypothesis. With experimentalism you prioritize falsifiableness, which is good. It reduces the power of the demagogue. With comparativisim you seek systematic regularities. With literary theory you rely on analysis and logical deduction.

    In all three you must do your best to figure out what in your data set is noise and what is important. Without even one of these methods, our knowledge of the world would be so much poorer.

    And I will shut up now. ;D

  2. BTW, Prof. Williamson responds to Prof. Rosenberg in today’s NY Times. I particularly liked this statement:
    “But we should not take for granted that reality contains only the kinds of things that science even in the broad sense recognizes. My caution comes not from any sympathy for mysterious kinds of cognition alien to science in the broad sense, but simply from the difficulty of establishing in any remotely scientific way that reality contains only the kinds of thing that we are capable of recognizing at all.”

  3. Thank you Nancy, as a fellow atheist is always interesting to come across articles like this. I love science, but I also love history, and much like when I learned a lot about the world, I was shocked to discover that so many events of the twentieth century perhaps could taken place in some other way if the instigators had known enough about history to see why these things happened, what particular occurrences in the past (usually involving white men making poor decisions) led to them happening. And even when you go back as far as Ancient Rome and even earlier and see influences, etc. it just becomes so illuminating, just as one feels when they learn some biology or chemistry that explains so much.

    You justly talk about the importance of literary criticism, and the same could certainly be said for art and its critique, in its many forms. And yet science has no way of measuring this . . . it takes people and their imaginations . . .

  4. What a bombastic jerk!!! … not that I can scientifically prove that, of course, but empirical evidence suggests …

    And this … “Without art, science will never be able to find the whole truth.” … made me smile.

  5. IMHO once the word “truth” enters the conversation we’re no longer talking about science at all. Truth has meaning– I’m not saying it doesn’t. In science there is fact, hypothesis and theory. The word “truth” is used but it’s an evaluative concept used to determine consistency and verifiability of the results. To say something like “without art, science will never be able to find the whole truth” implies that the whole truth is something science is looking for. It isn’t and it shouldn’t.

    I think we must be careful what we ask of science. Science is good at is determining how things work, whether it is crowds, brain chemistry, atoms or beams of light. If I’m interested in figuring out the causes of poverty in the deep south or how a Roman bath is put together, I’m probably going to start with some sort of rigorous analysis that has its roots in a scientific approach. Will that tell me poverty is a moral evil? Likely not.

    We often ask of science what it does not seek: value, meaning, ethics. And, of course, truth.