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Coda: Science as a Way of Knowing

Science is a wondrously successful way of knowing. Science seeks explanations of the natural world by formulating hypotheses that are subject to the possibility of empirical falsification or corroboration. A scientific hypothesis is tested by ascertaining whether or not predictions about the world of experience derived as logical consequences from the hypothesis agree with what is actually observed.Testing a scientific hypothesis involves at least four different activities. First, the hypothesis must be examined for internal consistency. A hypothesis that is self-contradictory or not logically well-formed... Science as a mode of inquiry into the nature of the universe has been successful and of great consequence. Witness the proliferation of science academic departments in universities and other research institutions, the enormous budgets that the body politic and the private sector willingly commit to scientific research, and its economic impact. The Office of Management and the Budget (OMB) of the U.S. government has estimated that fifty percent of all economic growth in the United States since the Second World War can directly be attributed to scientific knowledge and technical advances. The technology derived from scientific knowledge pervades, indeed, our lives: the high-rise buildings of our cities, thruways and long span-bridges, rockets that bring men to the moon, telephones that provide instant communication across continents, computers that perform complex calculations in millionths of a second, vaccines and drugs that keep bacterial parasites at bay, gene therapies that replace DNA in defective cells. All these remarkable achievements bear witness to the validity of the scientific knowledge from which they originated.

Scientific knowledge is also remarkable in the way it emerges by way of consensus and agreement among scientists, and in the way new knowledge builds upon past accomplishment rather than starting anew with each generation or each new practitioner. Surely scientists disagree with each other on many matters; but these are issues not yet settled, and the points of disagreement generally do not bring into question previous knowledge. Modern scientists do not challenge that atoms exist, or that there is a universe with a myriad stars, or that heredity is encased in the DNA.

Science is a way of knowing, but it is not the only way. Knowledge also derives from other sources, such as common sense, artistic and religious experience, and philosophical reflection. In The Myth of Sisyphus, the great French writer Albert Camus asserted that we learn more about ourselves and the world from a relaxed evening’s perception of the starry heavens and the scents of grass than from science’s reductionistic ways.This point has been made with sensuous prose by John Updike in his recent Toward the End of Time (1995): "It makes no sense: all those blazing suns, red and swollen or white and shrunken or yellow...The validity of the knowledge acquired by non-scientific modes of inquiry can be simply established by pointing out that science dawned in the sixteenth century, but humanity had for centuries built cities and roads, brought forth political institutions and sophisticated codes of law, advanced profound philosophies and value systems, and created magnificent plastic art, as well as music and literature. We thus learn about ourselves and about the world in which we live and we also benefit from products of this non-scientific knowledge. The crops we harvest and the animals we husband emerged millennia before science's dawn from practices set down by farmers in the Middle East, Andean sierras, and Mayan plateaus.

It is not my intention in this section to belabor the extraordinary fruits of nonscientific modes of inquiry. But I have set forth the view that nothing in the world of nature escapes the scientific mode of knowledge, and that we owe this universality to Darwin's revolution. Here I wish simply to state something that is obvious, but becomes at times clouded by the hubris of some scientists. Successful as it is, and universally encompassing as its subject is, a scientific view of the world is hopelessly incomplete. There are matters of value and meaning that are outside science's scope. Even when we have a satisfying scientific understanding of a natural object of process, we are still missing matters that may well be thought by many to be of equal or greater import. Scientific knowledge may enrich esthetic and moral perceptions, and illuminate the significance of life and the world, but these are matters outside science's realm.

On April 28, 1937, early in the Spanish Civil War, Nazi airplanes bombed the small Basque town of Guernica, the first time that a civilian population had been determinedly destroyed from the air. The Spanish painter Pablo Picasso had recently been commissioned by the Spanish Republican Government to paint a large composition for the Spanish pavilion at the Paris World Exhibition of 1937. In a frenzy of manic energy, the enraged Picasso sketched in two days and fully outlined in ten more days his famous Guernica, an immense painting of 25 feet, 8 inches by 11 feet, 6 inches. Suppose that I now would describe the images represented in the painting, their size and position, as well as the pigments used and the quality of the canvas. This description would be of interest, but it would hardly be satisfying if I had completely omitted esthetic analysis and considerations of meaning, the dramatic message of man's inhumanity to man conveyed by the outstretched figure of the mother pulling her killed baby, bellowing faces, the wounded horse or the satanic image of the bull.

Let Guernica be a metaphor of the point I wish to make. Scientific knowledge, like the description of size, materials, and geometry of Guernica, is satisfying and useful. But once science has had its say, there remains much about reality that is of interest, questions of value and meaning that are forever beyond science's scope.

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