Monday, March 21, 2011

Science Among the Human Talents

Here's Adam Frank on natural science and natural calamity:

Science gives us so much. It is the engine of our capacities, forging tools like the life-saving technological capacity to predict tsunamis. It is also the lens of our greatest aspiration, yielding broad narratives of cosmic and planetary evolution that set our personal stories in context.

But at some point we crash up against domains where science, or at least science alone, cannot help. In those moments, when we are numb with the immediacy of great suffering, explanations can become clay on the tongue. In that shattered place, our other human talents often find their place. In poem or paean, in music or metaphor, in silent homage to whatever powers make sense to the heart in that moment, we may (or may not) find our way. [emphases mine]
Whether science provides more than clay-tongued answers depends, it seems to me, on the particular question at hand. If the question is why can't we prevent this when we can carry around more computing power on our portable phones than was aboard the craft that put human beings on the moon? or simply why me?, then fair enough -- to the extent that science provides answers to these questions, they come across as a little leaden and incomplete.

However, scientific explanations of natural disasters can bring tremendous comfort in comparison with some human talents. Cold science sounds pretty good in the face of assertions of "karmic justice" by idiotic hillbillies; a no-frills primer on weather patterns, plate techtonics, and ocean wave dynamics feels a lot better than filthy televangelist boilerplate that detects god behind the suffering and calls it just.

Science does not have every answer, but unlike the exercises of some other human talents -- especially our penchant for dreaming up elaborate narratives featuring supernatural forces and beings -- it reliably works toward accurate answers. It works toward answers that, moreover, stay within the bounds of what the evidence shows, neither excusing nor blaming, neither attributing causation or denying it, without strong, provable support. Scientific answers will sometimes leave our hearts wanting, but especially if they are understood for what they are, they will not intensify the agonies attending the realities they're explaining.


Aziraphale said...

I don't think an atheist need disagree with Frank. It's surely true that poetry and the other arts can provide consolation in ways that science cannot (and was never intended to)

Dale said...

Aziraphale, I don't disagree with Frank, but I think he's left out an important qualification. It depends, I say.