A blog about belief

Debunking vs explaining

In Art, Philosophy, Science on October 23, 2011 at 5:20 pm

I’m often surprised how many smart people I encounter who think of science as some kind of beauty-destroying machine.  This is a particularly common reaction to the attempts of neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists to understand how people relate to art.  I appreciate the need for different ways of talking about things, particularly when it comes to things as slippery as aesthetic responses, but there’s an anti-intellectualism I can’t abide in the idea that coming up with an explanation for something diminishes it.  There is no reason why our more subjective ways of thinking can’t stand alongside scientific theories, although perhaps science might prod us to adjust them a bit so that they’re less likely to lead us to bad decisions.  If science finds a way to reduce spiritual feelings to the workings of our brain, that doesn’t invalidate them or drain them of their power.  If anything, it validates them by providing evidence for their consistency with the way of looking at the world that’s proven most practically successful for us.

In that last statement I have tacitly given science a privileged position over other forms of knowledge.  I will not recant on this point, but I stop short of imputing that spirituality needs the validation of science.  That, I admit, gets us into worrisome territory.  I do suspect that some people who claim they’ve had a spiritual experience are kidding themselves, but there is a major ethical problem in calling someone else’s claim to have had such an experience bullshit, even if we’ve got MRI scans to back us up.  If someone says they’re experiencing a vision and our cognitive models of spirituality say otherwise, that means that either their claims are false or our models are flawed, and there’s no clear way to decide this.  The scientific standard of truth and those proper to spirituality need not overlap, and an attempt to use a scientific model to debunk something that was developed to sufficiently different ends can be backed up by nothing other than power.

That is, I suppose, the standard postmodern criticism of science.  But using theoretical models in the way I’ve described is not doing science.  Despite the popular image to the contrary, the driving purpose of science is not to debunk.  It is to explain.  Debunking only comes into play when the ideas in question contradict the best scientific models with respect to predictions that can be objectively tested; in that case and only in that case is it in science’s province to investigate who’s right.  Homeopathic medicine is something that’s ripe for refutation, and that’s good, because it causes objective harm.  Sudden irruptions of spiritual knowledge are generally not something that science could coherently debunk, and that’s great, because that sort of experience has resulted in some of the most astounding poetry humans have produced.

It’s because of this that I don’t think scientific investigation is anathema to art, even if we direct it towards art – even, further, if we direct it towards our apprehension of those spiritual sorts of truths that science can’t make heads or tails of.  If we approach the phenomenon of spiritual knowledge empirically, which I think we might as well, we cannot rightly treat that spiritual knowledge as a rival theory to science; instead, we must treat it as something to be explained.  The fact that it has to do with truth of another sort doesn’t mean that science can’t deal with it in that way, and the fact that science might be able to fully explain it doesn’t mean that it can’t still serve as an explanation in its own right.


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