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.