Point/Counterpoint: Science and meaning


Murphy Temple ’12

A society is defined by its culture. It derives meaning from the art, music, literature and creative interpretations of the human experience produced by its members. Over the past several decades, however, the world has become increasingly scientifically inclined. The global population tends less toward creation and more toward calculation and objective explanation. Events that may have been experienced or described in emotional or creative terms in the past, such as the waxing moon or the sprouting bud, have now all but lost their spiritual value. Due perhaps to this lack of creative inspiration, truly great opera, murals and poems, for instance, are no longer produced with the high levels of artistry of the past.

While scientific advancement has undoubtedly resulted in life-saving medical technology, increases in production efficiency and elucidations of previously mysterious natural phenomena, it has been at the expense of the humanities. Few students even at first-tier schools like our own have grappled with the Western canon, and the classical language requirements so prevalent several hundred years ago are comparatively absent from most modern secondary schools and colleges. Additionally, students today have at their disposal myriad technological distractions, such as Facebook and cell phones, and they devote countless hours to these diversions each week — time that the 19th-century student might have devoted to Greek compositions or Whitman-esque poetic musings on nature.

Lamentably, however, the degeneration of human expression and cultural depth is likely as irreversible as the scientific development that has caused it.


Matthew Gerken ’11

Men of old found meaning in a variety of theological and mythological beliefs. Some clung to Christian redemption, some to the Tao and some to the pagan personification of the forces of nature. These men might have doubted whether they had discovered the right meaning, but what they had in common was that they never doubted that such a meaning existed. The concept of the existential crisis is a thoroughly modern phenomenon.

It is tempting to say that science brought us here. The scientific revolution discovered the law of inertia, removing the need for the gods to move the stars. Now, children attending Sunday school learn about evolution and decide that there is no longer any need for a Creator. Increasingly complex theories about multiple universes and quantum vacuums seem to explain away the improbability of our existence.

But the idea that our lives lack meaning cannot be blamed on science properly understood. The fault, rather, lies with scientism — the perverse and modern myth that the natural sciences have absolute epistemological authority. A naturalistic methodology is proper when one is looking for scientific explanations, but it does not follow that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth.

Science can reward us with much knowledge, but it has never been in a position to answer the deepest questions. Science might eventually give us a seemingly complete and materialistic view of man, but we should expect as much, since science itself is necessarily materialistic. If we recognize these limitations, we might also recognize that true meaning has been there all along. The lens of scientism has simply stopped us from looking for it.


  • abb3w

    There's a distinction between stating that the scientific method is the ultimate arbiter of truth, and that the present theories of science provide complete answers to all questions. Perhaps Mr. Gerken might like to take a philosophy of science class to help clarify the distinction to him.

  • MJG

    Sure, but the latter comes about through accepting the former, and both are wrong.

    Also, if I hadn't heard such bad things about a certain prof, I probably would take the phil. science class.

  • Michael Koelle

    I would like to add the perspective of a scientist to the “Point/Counterpoint” column of October 17, in which two students debated whether science has “stripped the world of meaning.”

    Science adds meaning to our world. Science is not restricted to mere calculation and objective explanation – it provides deeply meaningful insights that help us understand both the universe and ourselves. Physics has shown us that extraordinarily simple and elegant laws underlie fantastically diverse and complex phenomena spanning the universe. It has revealed worlds previously far beyond our imagination. Biology and chemistry have shown that humans are deeply connected to every other living thing on earth through an astonishing and complex set of molecular machinery common to all living organisms, such as the universal genetic code shared by all life. We have answered some questions that puzzled humans throughout history, and yet raised even more questions to take their place. Science does not just produce the technology for Facebook and cell phones - it produces beauty and wonder.

    The traditional artistic and scholarly pursuits (opera, murals, poems…) have not lost their meaning. Is a painting any less beautiful because we understand what the paint is made of and how our eyes and minds perceive it? What is true is that as science has added new and powerful ways to view the world, the traditional pursuits no longer exclusively define our culture. Those who love and concentrate on these traditional pursuits may naturally lament the loss of focus on them. As the two students pointed out, we must cherish artistic and other traditions and not fall prey to the idea that science is the ultimate arbiter of truth. However, it is important to emphasize not just that science does not strip the world of meaning, but also that it in fact enriches our culture immeasurably.

    Michael Koelle
    Director of Undergraduate Studies
    Associate Professor
    Department of Molecular Biophysics & Biochemistry