How Science is Like a Dating Website

What is science? Here’s my definition:

Concerning the past and present, science seeks to match the most coherent, simple, and plausible theories to the existing evidence; with regard to the future, it attempts to match predictions to evidence.

Put more simply, the scientist starts with questions and ends with matches. Of the universe, she asks whether a theory and evidence, or a prediction and evidence, are compatible–whether they make a “love connection.” And she stays for the answer.

Like Oedipus, scientists try to be brave, and not pluck out their eyes at the answers the universe returns. (Just like you do when you wait for those dating website emails.)

Anyway, that’s what I think science is and what scientists are up to. Am I missing anything?

By the way, one of the great surprises for scientists over the past few centuries is the discovery of a grand “love connection.” It turns out that we are all intimately connected, as Neil de Grasse Tyson puts it, “to each other, biologically; to the Earth, chemically; to the rest of the universe, atomically.” It’s a stunning revelation.

__________

And this brings up the issue of beauty in relation to science. Whether the scientist is religious or not, beauty is a provocation to inquiry. (Of course, ugliness may be a provocation to inquiry as well.) But this thought-provoking quote on beauty comes via Andrew Sullivan this morning:

“As the French playwright Jean Anouilh said, ‘Beauty is one of the few things in the world that do not lead to doubt about God.’ The Church intuits that immediately. When we’re in the presence of something beautiful — an act of forgiveness, a newborn baby, a sunset — beauty wounds us. It has a visceral effect on us that is delightful, that increases our humanity. Beauty also reveals to us that there is something more to the world and something more to beauty than the beautiful thing itself. It leads to contemplation. That contemplation consists of wondering at where the beauty came from. It would be impossible for a human being who has just received a bouquet of flowers to not reach into the flowers to find a card. The beauty of the flowers moves us to wonder about the sender. Then, when we know who sent them, we enjoy them all the more. Every act of beauty does the same to us. It moves us to find the author and the reason,” – Father Peter Cameron, O.P., in an interview with Our Sunday Visitor.

Or, perhaps, the author or the reason.

Of course, science can only discover material and secondary causes, not the mental/spiritual First Cause behind all causes (if there is one), and so we come to the question of God in relation to science and a problem: the final inference to God must always be absent evidence.

Imagine if physicists had a theory in which the Higgs boson (“the God particle”) existed, but they were never allowed to build the experiment to detect it and discover its exact properties. Fortunately for physicists, this was not the case, but if you’re inclined to faith, this is exactly your (unfortunate) situation in relation to God. Is the mere intuition of “something larger than ourselves” (William James’s phrase) a sufficient peg to hang God belief on, and is your intuition worthy of action (in the form of picking some religious behavior and engaging in it)?

And who is more productive–less engaged in a vanity–in the presence of the ontological mystery (the mystery of being): the scientist before her Bunsen burner or the religionist before her candle? Should we ignore the ontological mystery or gnaw on it?

Let a thousand matches bloom?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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5 Responses to How Science is Like a Dating Website

  1. This is a really nice post. It is more difficult than easily imagined to discuss and explain the beauty of knowledge. So many of us take for granted that knowledge will simply be willed to us by those funny scientist people who walk around in lab coats.

    That is not where it starts and ends… science starts in your childhood bedroom, discovery gravity, physics, anatomy and many other things. Discovery without guiding education is a wild ride that seldom ends in earth changing intuitions yet often enough it does. To not take advantage of all that science bequeaths to us on a daily basis is to ignore the possibilities and pleasures of simply knowing. That all important purpose of religion: to know. Nothing gives us knowledge like science does, nothing. Religion gives you something to pray about while science gives you something to go home and fix your problem with.

    If there is a purpose to life beyond surviving, it is to know. To know everything. To know more than was previously thought possible to know. Knowledge is power but more pointedly, knowledge is consolation. When you want to know why life is as it is, knowing is more than power, it is council and courage, strength and daring, it is the difference between death on this side and survival on the other side of the problem at hand. Science gives us these things, things that no prayer has ever given, that no god ever can.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      Science is useful to survival, but survival to what end? Religion is not a knowledge acquisition device (as the process of doing science is), but a gesturing to the ontological mystery. It’s like encountering a joke and feeling the urge to laugh. Or seeing a performance and wishing to rise to your feet and applaud. In the case of the universe, religion is a response to a dumbfounding awe at being a suffering and conscious creature embedded in this vast and incomprehensible Thing. Every gesture of religion is ultimately an ordering of that emotion.

      Atheists don’t feel they need to make any non-pragmatic gestures to the Thing; that getting lost in the acquisition of knowledge and resources is enough. Anyway, the Thing hears us not. On the atheist hypothesis, the Thing is not conscious and has no conscious being behind it.

      Theists feel they can’t live with such a hypothesis. They want to stand and applaud something and to speak and appeal to it. They want the larger picture to hold together in a way that isn’t a product of randomness; that isn’t absurd. They want a cosmos, not a chaos. The atheist is content with calling our universe a localized cosmos in a larger (perhaps multiverse) chaos. On atheist terms, at the bottom of all things is vast time and chance and that’s it. Theists find such an answer as to why we’re here upsetting, and wish to at least give a call-out and wave to the Thing–and, should he exist, the Nobodaddy behind the Thing.

      –Santi

      • What kind and noble notions you attach to the vehicle of oppression that monotheism is. Would it be that we are simply discussing the virtues of Wicca or polytheism, I would be inclined to stand on your side of the line in the sand, there to be counted before the line is cleansed by the tides.

        Waxing poetic to whitewash the argument from ignorance is always entertaining, or would be if the argument were not primarily used to oppress. The delusions we harbor and play with in our heads are the business of no other until we begin to use them to oppress others.

        The notion of a possible agency behind the ‘thing’ is not in itself a dishonesty. The claim that it is a fact and not just a notion is. A shout out and a wave to the “thing” is, in my opinion, a noble admission that we are not the reason for the play, but merely actors on the stage. This admission brings no ill. If only this were the entirety of religion.

        “Every gesture of religion is ultimately an ordering of that emotion.” except when those gestures are used to deny rights and happiness to others and to demand submission to the particular gestures of one religion over another or none at all.

  2. Love that Sagan mashup. I’m teaching a course this semester on “Science and Pseudoscience” at a tier 1 research university in the Midwest in a science college that is supposed to marshal the most talented undergrads on campus. I asked them the first day of class to write a short (1-2 paragraph) answer to the question “what is science?” The answers were mind-blowingly vague and obtuse. We live in this stunning technocratic marvel of a society but so few people ever even think about how knowledge is created and how we accept it as knowledge. Makes me believe the world needs a lot more historians and philosophers of science…But that’s a kind of confirmation bias, I suppose…

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      That’s a brilliant ice-breaker for just about any college class (if, as an instructor, you’re willing to face uncomfortable truths when you read the responses). It gives you a sense of whether the students have ever had any formal training in critical thinking (or whether they have even given the least thought to it). It’s a great process question. I may try it on my students this week.

      As for the zombie mass of humanity, epistemology is not what we’re wired for, but for socializing. Picking up cues from group dynamics, detecting liars at work, locating mates, identifying hierarchies, are what most of us, most of the time, are attuned to.

      What would thus be interesting (and perhaps a textbook success) would be a book that uses social thinking and dynamics as a bridge to teaching critical thinking. How, for example, might a social hierarchy be analogized to a definitional hierarchy?

      In a way, my above post is an attempt at making one readily understandable connection: drawing interest to the topic of science through something people actually like to do (hook-up).

      –Santi

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