Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Liberal Arts 6: In Honor of Pluto

Sixth post in my series on the importance of the liberal arts for civilization. Previous posts include:

A Vision for the Liberal Arts
The Value of Philosophy
The Value of History
The Value of Music and Art
The Value of Literature, Writing, and Speech

1. Last evening, something happened that hasn't happened in the history of the universe. A probe launched in January 2006 passed less than 8000 miles from the cold dwarf planet we call Pluto. It carried some of the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh with it, the man who discovered Pluto in 1930. He died in 1997.

It is a truly remarkable thing, that we could throw a baseball from a pitcher's mound spinning at 1000 miles per hour while moving at over 66,000 miles an hour around the sun accurately enough that would hit Pluto nine years later 3 billion miles away. I thank God, who deigns to let mere mortals know such things.

And he has let them know these things, not through the Bible in this instance, not through a special revelation given to a prophet in a congregation. But God has deigned to let us discover such things through science. Math and science are also the language of God.

2. I am truly amazed that so many Christians mock science. Do they mock the planes they fly on, the GPS devices they steer by, the cell phones they call and text by? Do they mock the medicines they are cured by, the computers they write by, the flat screen TVs they spend most of their time by?

No. I strongly believe that Christianity can co-exist peacefully with science. I shudder to think of the other alternative. I do not hold to the other alternative.

3. Science gets at one of the most important foundations of Western civilization--evidentiary thinking rooted in a quest for objectivity. Science tries to proceed with as few presuppositions as necessary. It proceeds to make hypotheses that it then tests until it arrives at one that works well enough to be called a theory. But even then, it does not rest on theories past. Theories are always open to revision or even abandonment, especially if new data arises that points in another direction.

This is the scientific method. It asks what the most likely interpretation of the evidence is. We all have biases. Scientists have biases. But evidentiary thinking requires us to suspend our desires for the truth to be a certain way in order that we can move toward what is more likely to be the truth, toward the best explanations of the data we have.

Many of us pretend to operate on the basis of evidence. We talk the language of evidence. But what we are really doing is trying to find a possible way to make the evidence fit our preconceived notions or desired theory. Science teaches us to determine what the most probable interpretation of the evidence is and to modify our preconceived notions accordingly. Again, I shudder to think of what the implications would be if Christianity could not survive such a method. I firmly reject that suggestion.

This quest for objectivity is the great hope for a democratic nation, indeed for a civilized world. Along with its companion, logic, it is essential for the success of civilization. Without it, society disintegrates into tribes and interest groups whose only common ground is the fact that they are all out for their own interests. Those who cannot think in an evidentiary way are liabilities to civilization.

4. Science and math play an important personal function for most of us. They humble us. At least they should. Dare we think we understand the thoughts of God when we cannot understand algebra? God is greater than algebra. Yet every yahoo thinks he or she knows what the Bible teaches. The evidence suggests they are hilariously wrong.

I am not, of course, suggesting that mathematicians and scientists should be leading society and making all the decisions. The gifts that enable a person to think in these ways can produce glaring blind spots in other ways of thinking. There are other inabilities that should humble the scientists of the world. Scientists need the other liberal arts to balance them out, including a sense of religion, as much as we need math and science to balance us out.

Nevertheless, if philosophy did not teach the student that the wise person is the one who realizes how little he actually knows, science and math are always around to help--if we listen.

5. It would be wise for all college-educated individuals to have some basic knowledge of the conclusions of science. Everything is made out of atoms. Space is expanding. Trees and humans exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with each other. All living things have DNA that maps out what they will look and be like.

These things are so basic to me that I can't imagine the view of the world people have when they don't know them. I seriously knew someone once who questioned whether we had really gone to the moon. I shudder to think about how that person decides how to vote. And woe to the person on trial who might have someone like that in the jury.

Everyone today seems to have an opinion on climate change, evolution, pollution, and so forth. But few get their opinions from science. They get their opinions from cable news. An educated person should be exposed to arguments on these subjects from someone trying to be objective who is an expert in science and hasn't been handpicked by a certain channel because of their target audience.

6. Most people do use some math in their lives. They have bank accounts. They submit taxes. THEY BUY LOTS OF STUFF. Perhaps not everyone needs to know algebra, but how to make a budget? Yes. Math can be taught in a relevant way.

7. Learning math and science can actually make a person a better thinker. Math is closely related to logic. Geometry teaches inference and proof. Algebra involves deduction.

When people ask, "When am I ever going to use this stuff?" The answer is that your brain will use these skills every day if you are a person who thinks clearly and reads the world around them well. Math expands your mental capacity. Becoming better thinkers is always a benefit to you as an individual and to society as whole.

8. Most people have such a narrow view of the world, yet everyone thinks they know everything about everything. If they are taught well, math and science expand our horizons beyond ourselves and our experiences to things we could not have imagined. They expand our "common sense" beyond what's true in Marion, Indiana, to what is true in the universe. They point us to God.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

Yes. Well said. Unfortunately, those who get their "science" from certain unnamed TV, radio, tabloid press and on-line sources won't read this, and it won't affect their behavior.