Friday, September 20, 2013

Against Boundaries 3

I have found Leon Wieseltier’s anti-scientism screed in The New Republic to be thought provoking, to say the least.  In the last post I pointed out this comment from the screed:
This is a fine instance of the incomprehension, and the buzzkill, that often attends the extension of the scientistic temperament to literature and art.
Read that in the light of the following passage from the same essay:
What von Mises and Diamond—and Pinker—deny is that the differences between the various realms of human existence, and between the disciplines that investigate them, are final.
Together those two passages suggest that “scientism” is indicated not only by reductionism or scientific triumphalism, but by any crossing of the boundaries between “the various realms of human existence” by “the disciplines that investigate them.” 
I pointed out in the previous post that this works both ways.  There is a lot of poetry and fiction that focus on science.  Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith comes to mind.  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s unforgettable story “The Birthmark” is another example.  I presented a poem by Szymborska in the last post.  If the boundaries between Wieseltier’s realms is indeed “final”, then surely these are illegitimate works. 
But what about art?  Last summer I returned to the National Gallery in London to view my favorite painting: “Experiment with an Air Pump,” by Joseph Wright of Derby.  It is a very large canvas, and I present it here. 

It almost more cartoon than work of art in so far as it tells a story (if that, with amazing artistic genius.  In the center of the painting is a glass chamber on a pedestal, with a bird inside.  The role of the living creature is to die and so demonstrate that a vacuum has been achieved in the glass. 
On the left of the canvas are three young men and a young woman.  The former are staring intently at the experiment.  The young woman is staring at one of the young men.  She is drawn away both from the experiment and the drama by more ordinary passions. 
On the right, one figure seems to be lost in thought.  Perhaps he is pondering the philosophical and ethical implications of what is taking place.  We also see a more mature gentleman comforting two young girls (presumably their father).  His finger held aloft tells that he is trying to explain what is going on, perhaps to reassure himself that he is doing the right thing. 
One of the young ladies has her head buried in her hands.  The other looks, tearfully but interested, at the dying bird.  We also see a boy holding a rope attached to a bird cage.  It is hard not to come to this conclusion: the bird in the glass is a family pet. 
In the center, just to the left of the pedestal, is the scientist.  He is dressed in a red robe and has long white hair.  He stares out into space while holding the top of the apparatus in his left hand and pumps out the air with his right hand.  He is terrifying. 
This is a view of science from an artistic temperament.  Joseph Wright clearly understands and, I think, appreciates the science that is going on.  He also recognizes a problem.  The passionate desire to understand things as they are is not necessarily in harmony with the more ordinary human concerns.  Atrocities have been committed in the name of science and not only by Nazis.  Many famous experiments could not be repeated today because they brutally abused their subjects.  The farseeing Wright was way ahead of us. 
Science does present a danger to human life, even it is one of the most magnificent expressions of human life.  Science is, in my view, only a specific case of philosophy; and philosophy has always been in tension with morality, politics, and religion.  Just ask Socrates in his last day.  The farseeing Wright reminds us to be wary. 
The moral of his morality tale is not to prohibit science or to draw boundaries between the realms of science and other disciplines.  It is to make sure that everyone is paying attention.  Artists and writers should vigorously invade the realm of science.  Mine its riches for all that they are worth to the poet and painter.  Sound the alarm when something is amiss. 
Meanwhile, scientists should investigate everything.  Not all questions are open to scientific investigation, but we cannot know which is which until some researcher frames her question.  There is no way forward, except for through. 
Critics of scientism are conservative in the worst sense of the word.  They are fearful of the implications of science and want to hobble her.  They are afraid that science will tell them things they don’t want to hear.  They are cowards. 


  1. I agree with almost all of this post - but not the end.
    First, I disagree with the idea that scientists should "investigate everything." In my view, Josef Mengele investigated things that ought never to have been investigated. Second, sometimes the reason you don't want to hear things isn't because you're scared. Sometimes it's because someone is butchering Tolstoy.

  2. Joseph Mengele was a monster. That is not because of the questions he asked but because of what he did. I am guessing that almost any scientifically coherent question in his research has been asked by genuine scientists, working both for knowledge and for therapies. What is the effect on the brain of repeated trauma? Mengele investigated that by having Jewish children slammed in the head. Scientists who are not monsters have surely asked the same question.

    You raise, however, a very important point. Are there questions we should not ask? I can't think of any. Can you?

    ps. These exchanges have been very thought provoking. Please keep the comments coming. No one else seems to bother.

  3. Thanks, Dr. Blanchard. But what if the question is, "What happens if we repeatedly slam Jewish Children in the head?" That would be a sort of knowledge. So, what makes a question "scientifically coherent?"

  4. If children of group X present a different response to head injuries than children generally, their physicians might want to know about that. A scientifically coherent question is one that is framed in such a way that its answer can be solved by investigation. There are, of course, limitations on what scientists can do in order to answer such a question. Moreover, scientific and technological knowledge put to the purpose of mass murder doesn't make the latter any less evil.