Going Back to the StartPosted: March 15, 2012
I spent most of my childhood thinking I would end working up as some sort of scientist. This was the source of my motivation to learn most days. It was a conceit that led me to take the MCAT even when I had little interest in ever becoming a doctor. But more importantly, it was an interest that fueled my curiosity in philosophy, in nature, in myself, in other people. Nothing gave as full and unflinching a look at human origins and motivations and, in contrast to the preoccupations of our lives, the scale and overwhelming indifference of the universe.
This edifice of self-critical skepticism, where every theory had to be retested and placed under a microscope, still stands as one of human civilization’s highest achievements and is still the best vantage point to see the world as it would be without mankind. This is not to say that I don’t agree with some of the critiques of science and the way it’s currently practiced in America. I’m convinced, for instance, by the anti-foundationalist view that the base of science depends on human biases and projections (e.g., even seeing a mess of spinning energy as a particle reflects our bias toward nouns, towards beauty, conciseness, etc). But even accepting this critique, science as an ongoing process remains capable of critiquing its own shortcomings. And it will get closer each subsequent time around. I know that here too, communities of scientists (especially with the right funding sources) can resist new information as intensely as any other society of people. But reality has a funny way of reasserting itself, and that’s something scientists (some, if not all) end up being far more receptive to.
As someone enormously skeptical of any arguments from authority, someone who sees power politics in ideas and in every aspect of private and public life, there is part of me that deeply misses the intellectual honesty and the boundless curiosity of wanting to understand how things are. I think it would be naive to call any of science’s current pronouncements true or timeless, but even that seems to recommend the project as all the more worthwhile. Certainly there have been enough paradigm shifts and revolutions in science to demonstrate that it’s a continuing process, but each time around, the new structures are incrementally better at explaining more than the ones before. In other words, it seems to me that this process is truer than any single output that it produces.
I wrote this because I find that I sometimes I miss studying the sciences enormously. I feel nostalgic in a way, and there is a definite feeling of wonderment that law certainly does not convey. But I also had a greater appreciation of humanity’s capacity for progress, and I felt more certain that getting at the truth mattered, far more certain than I do now that I’m immersed in political theory, litigation, and economic history. And it’s enormously saddening and troubling to me to see so many in America’s political class (and in turn so many of its citizens) have turned against something that—if the end of the middle ages signified anything—should always stand beyond politics. I suppose it’s not without precedent that people in power would deny that the world is rationally knowable so that they could impose an agenda more easily. We did of course have a middle ages, and as someone who was raised Catholic, I know all too well that strands of the middle ages are still alive in America today.
In response to this nostalgia and—not to overstate it—despondency, I find myself very drawn to science journalism and commentary at the moment and to science books when I allow myself the time. I read Robert Krulwich’s post for NPR last night called Two Ways to Think About Nothing, which besides being a beautiful, interesting post also hits a theme that always mattered enormously to me as a student who couldn’t pick between them—that scientists aren’t so different from those in the arts. They both strive after new ways of seeing, and they’re both encouraging people to pay greater attention to the world.