The Scientist as Poet; the Baal Mesorah as Scientist

by Mordecai Plaut

Is there anyone who does not acknowledge that — if nothing else — we should be grateful to science for all the modern devices that make life easier for everyone? Yes.

Although most people assume that modern technology is merely applied science, this has been challenged by a group of scholars who specialize in the history of technology.(1) While we do not propose to give a full discussion of all the issues, we do wish to summarize the basic points.

For these purposes, science is thought of as the knowledge and understanding of the world per se. Technology is the knowledge and understanding of how to do things, whether it be to calculate the stress load of a member of a proposed structure, to design a working irrigation system, to build an apartment building, or to design a computer. Thus, science is concerned with developing an understanding of, say, the human body, while the corresponding technology is concerned with changing the operations of portions of the body.

In the classical view of things, these pursuits were clearly distinct and separate. Artisans were concerned with doing things, and philosophers with understanding. In later times, when certain skills were considered important for educational development, these became known - separately but in a single phrase - as the arts and sciences. In the past two hundred years or so, people have come to think of technology as applied science and of science as theoretical technology. It seems that many who have studied carefully the relationship between the two argue that the classical view is more accurate.

In both of these enterprises, it is necessary to analyze existing material and to synthesize it in new ways. However, the emphasis is markedly different. In technology, the goal is primarily new solutions, different ways of synthesizing existing knowledge. For the scientist, on the other hand,it is sufficient to achieve a new or more exact analysis of some phenomenon.(2)

If we think of many of the things that really changed life, such as indoor plumbing and improved transportation and communication, it is evident that they are not the results of the application of an understanding of the laws of nature. The railroad and its engines, the automobile, and even the airplane were the products of tinkerers - technicians - rather than scientist. In an extremely trenchant observation, Braudel points out that the improvements in transportation of 150 years ago were the results of developing technology that had already been available for hundreds of years.(3) The construction of improved roads, the maintenance of the vehicles used for transportation, and the proliferation of staging posts, all of which resulted in vastly improved and swifter transportation, were not the result of new knowledge of any kind. It is interesting that the development of the older technology to its limits of possibility occurred only about twenty years before it was replaced by the railroad.

In only a few cases, such as the chemical industry, is there any clear application of basic research. In fact, in many fields the benefits flow in the opposite direction: from technology to basic science. In physics, astronomy, and even medicine, breakthroughs are often the result of the development and construction of new machines and the use of new techniques. Larger telescopes, more powerful particle accelerators, and electron microscopes are all technical advancements that led to knew theoretical knowledge.

Furthermore, many inventions have occurred before there was any theoretical understanding of the reasons for their effectiveness. Sahal cites the invention of the steam engine and the gas-filled electric bulb. The trial and error of the search for a practical electric light bulb has been retold many times.(4) A good example of this is the design and manufacture of electronic computer chips, which found early applications in games and consumer goods such as watches and calculators.

A striking difference between science and technology is the attitude of the respective practitioners toward publishing their work and reading about the research of others. This has been detailed by Price.(6) Scientists are interested in producing papers to publish. There is pressure on them to produce regularly. This is not only because their professional advancement is dependent on their publications, but also because scientific papers are the real end product of their work. The appearance of the paper establishes their claim to ownership of the work and also enters it into the permanent archive of cumulative scientific achievement. Technicians, on the other hand, are concerned with producing things rather than papers. They are typically averse to publishing their findings. To do so gives advantages to others more than to themselves. They reap the largest reward for themselves when they are able to prevent others from learning the details of the innovations they develop.

This divergence in approach is, incidentally, carried over in their attitudes toward reading professional literature. Technicians are eager to read as much as is available so that they may benefit from the work of others. Scientists are different. They "seem to have considerable resistance to reading more than they absolutely must... To put it in a nutshell, albeit in exaggerated from, the scientist wants to write but not read,and the technologist wants to read but not write."(7) (The original is emphasized. Scientists get their information about recent developments mainly through direct personal contact.)

On the whole, science cumulates mainly on the basis of previous science, and technology advances on the results of previous technical work. Except in a few cases, their progress is substantially independent. Also, as Price argues, science is concerned with intellectual and literary achievement while technology is aimed at material achievement.

Thus we must return to our starting point and raise the question that - if not for the modern devices that make life easier - is there anything for which we should be grateful to modern science? And furthermore, since science does not put bread on most of our tables, what has it done for us lately?

A hint may be had from the literary nature of science described by Price. As Thomas Kuhn notes, there is a universal human desire to have a psychologically satisfying view of the world in which one lives.(8) Every civilization and culture known supplies its participants with some theory of the larger context in which man finds himself. In cultures other than the modern Western one, this task was never combined with the task of describing the observable world. One of the important distinctions between modern science and the theories of early cultures is certainly that science holds itself bound by the constriction that whatever it says be compatible with observed phenomena. This, no doubt, makes of science a very powerful system and also helps make the atmosphere congenial for the flourishing of technology. Technology returns the favor by providing enormous amounts of phenomena about which modern science can theorize.

It is its orientation toward experience, and its success in describing and organizing it that is continually stressed - almost flaunted - by modern science. Yet the riddles of the observable world can hardly be called the prime movers of scientific research. In virtually all fields of scientific inquiry, the central problems have long left the realm of the readily observable. Scientists are largely concerned, strictly speaking, with explaining the readings of instruments which are thought to respond to the effects of increasingly subtle events. It is not only that the problems of, say, quantum chromodynamics are not stimulated by the things we encounter in a day at the office or on a hike, but even the solutions are difficult (to say the least) to connect in any way to the macroscopic, man-sized world.(9) All that there is under direct observation are digital readouts, lines on scopes, and such "phenomena." These are related to physical phenomena only through sensory mechanisms, amplification circuitry, and interpretive systems (such as filters). All this must be supported by theories on the operation of the components of the instrumentation, and only then can it be used as data in the construction of further theories.(10) Since science is practiced at such a remove from everyday experience, it is clear that understanding our familiar world cannot provide a credible motive for the practice of science as it is now done.

The why of science can only be understood along the lines of the human imperative to grasp coherently the larger context in which people function. The scientist works to achieve for himself of herself and for the rest of society a "psychologically satisfying world-view."(11) By constructing deeper and more comprehensive models he hopes to succeed in making sense of the world. This emphatically subjective motive has a decidedly unscientific character to it. Although science prides itself on being the result of a dialogue between logico-mathematical theory and experience, and scientists do deal with numbers and abstract structures, yet the motive behind it all is reminiscent of what drives poets and creative writers. This is the literary motive of scientists in a deeper sense.

The material which remains of the efforts of other cultures to answer this need we call myths. It has been a constant theme of Levi Strauss that myth is the attempt to deal with the larger questions that confronted the authors.(12) Modern science is really a modern mythology, though it speaks mathematics and sees the world. Though these latter features sharply distinguish the recent from the early efforts, the similarities remain. Some of the excesses of modern scientists are easily understood in this light. In particular, for example, consider the enormous interest in black holes and extraterrestrial intelligence in recent years. Both are long range extrapolations from established theory and, though they may eventually turn out to be real, for the moment the excitement they generate cannot by any stretch of our senses be construed as empirically based. The primary favorable "basis" for both is speculative reason. All available evidence, especially for extraterrestrial intelligence, or even extraterrestrial life, is negative. There seems an obvious parallel here between these discussions and early tales of mythical places and beasts.

There is another similarity between modern science and earlier mythologies: both are not directly related to truth. This is not to suggest that scientific models are in the same class as myths, which have been falsified by observation, or, if not falsified, at least opened to ridicule. The latter were not as concerned with the empirical as is modern science and do not always stand up to the test of experience as well as modern theories, which were invented with empirical constrains in mind. Although the ancient myths are absurd, if not false, there is no reason to think that modern scientific answers are true. As modern philosophy of science has attempted to clarify the differences between physics and metaphysics, the logical relationship between theories and the data which are said to support them, and the observational meaning of theoretical terms, it was found that a direct relationship between scientific theory and truth is lacking.

It seems clear from the work of Kuhn,(13) Popper,(14) and Quine,(15) among others, that the values of truth and falsity are not directly applicable to individual statements of the sciences, and that even for larger theories they remain more like distant guiding lights rather than strict immediate standards. Quine's argument - on logical grounds - is that any given experiment really tests the whole system rather than any individual statement, since it is always possible to make suitable systematic changes to preserve any particular point. The system that is tested is the whole fabric including the broader scientific theory and even the logic and language in which the theories are formulated. He also argues, again on logical grounds, that it is always possible to have two theories which account for a given body of data that are otherwise equivalent in every respect except that they are logically incompatible with each other. There is no way to determine any preference between them, and it is certainly impossible to declare either true. A handy example of this can be found in the basic positions taken by Galileo and the Church in their discussions about the structure of the solar-terrestrial-planetary system. Galileo maintained that it is heliocentric and the Church that it is geocentric. The current view is that heliocentrism and geocentrism are nonexclusive alternative descriptions (since everything is relative, see "Notes on an Outmoded World View"), but in those times the theories were seen as two mutually exclusive competitors. Although the exclusive versions of the two theories are probably not "equivalent in every respect," yet they are both unquestionably empirically adequate as we know since Einstein. Thus they are adequate to provide a crude illustration of two acceptable though incompatible theories, and they are more familiar than other, more technically correct examples are.

Continues . . .

To Contact Me

Back to main page

Related essays: Notes on an Outmoded World View

How to Succeed in Knowing Without Really Seeing