Monday, January 20, 2014

Alan Lightman on Science and the Humanities

Physicist and essayist Alan Lightman distinguishes scientific work from work in the humanities and arts:
At any moment in time, every scientist is working on, or attempting to work on, a well-posed problem, a question with a definite answer. We scientists are taught from an early stage of our apprenticeship not to waste time on questions that do not have clear and definite answers.

But artists and humanists often don’t care what the answer is because definite answers don’t exist to all interesting and important questions. Ideas in a novel or emotion in a symphony are complicated with the intrinsic ambiguity of human nature. … For many artists and humanists, the question is more important than the answer. As the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a century ago, “We should try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Then there are also the questions that have definite answers but which we cannot answer. The question of the existence of God may be such a question.

As human beings, don’t we need questions without answers as well as questions with answers?
From a wonderful, thoughtful review by Maria Popova  of Lightman's new book.


pootrsox said...

Yes. Yes, we do.

It is the essence of being human, I think, to question and to seek answers plural, not merely "the" answer.

I suspect that the biggest failing of intellect on the part of the far right wing of US politics (and elsewhere) is the loss of that understanding: that for many questions there is no single answer.

It can be summed up by their persistent refusal to differentiate between the word "theory" as used by, for example, historians and literary critics and as used by scientists discussing their work.

kathy said...

Oh so false... I am a career scientist with a Ph.D. in chemistry. No problem I have worked on was clear and well posed. Virtually all the work I do starts with confusing, complicated issues and problems, and clarifying them so that they can be solved. Perhaps the physicists find their problems full hatched, like Athena from Zeus's head. But not me.

John said...

Kathy, I was thinking the same thing. Science is often a big mess, without clear ideas about what the questions are or what would constitute an answer. But at least the idea is that we can clearly understand the phenomena we study, whereas a lot of contemporary art is designed to not be understandable.