Way back in 2011, a commenter on this blog asked “Where is this soul? If it can’t be measured, it is not real.”
Our lives are made up of a hundred things that are real but not measurable even in principle. The quality of sunlight that transforms your mood after a week of overcast days; the poignancy of Still Crazy After All These Years; the heart-swelling sense of honour and decency when Santos offers Vinick the post of Secretary of State; the piercing half-real clarity of Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte; love.
I strenuously resist the reductionistic impulse to claim either that such things are mere artifacts of an evolutionary process, that they are are “not real”, or — heaven help us — that they are “not relevant”. In truth, these things are what we are. They are the first things we know as children, they are the last things we will remember as old age claims us. They are what make us human. They separate us from automatons. You can argue that, for example, love within the family has the evolutionary explanation that children’s survival chances are enhanced if their parents “love” them. And that’s true so far as it goes; but it only explains what love is made of, not what it is. That is something else altogether, and science is not the right tool for understanding it. For that, you need art.
Don’t mistake me — I am a big fan of the scientific method (and I hope my publication record bears that out). But it’s an all-too-common tendency in scientists of my acquaintance to observe that the scientific method works well for many kinds of inquiry, and leap by faith to the conclusion that it’s always the best way of understanding anything. It’s a leap that’s quite unsupported by evidence. And from there, it’s only a short step to unconsciously assuming that “right” is the same as “scientific”. But it’s not. It never has been. Humans had understanding long before they had science. My fear is that in focussing too intently on the scientific method, we lose sight of other ways of knowing — and therefore, of other things to know.
[This post is recycled from a comment that I made on a much earlier post.]