Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, April 16, 2007

POINCARÉ: The Value of Science

In The Value of Science, Henri Poincaré makes the observation that “most men do not love to think.” Most men do not love to work either but they still do it because they have to pay the bills. That’s not so with thinking. Thinking is more like cleaning out the attic. It’s something we can let slide for a day or two, or even for another twenty or thirty years for that matter. Therefore, Poincaré points out that “It is needful then to think for those who love not thinking.” Since there are so many of us who love not thinking the question is: who should do the thinking? The philosopher Plato addressed this question long ago and for him the answer was obvious: philosophers are best equipped to do this sort of thing. But Poincaré was a scientist. Who did he believe should be in charge of the hard thinking? You don’t even have to read the book to guess the answer.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Poincaré is wrong. He makes a good case that scientists should do the really hard thinking in society. He also believes that the value of science goes far beyond our everyday needs (which is, incidentally, precisely the same argument Plato makes for philosophy). Poincaré says “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.” Then he goes on to describe in more detail just what he means by beauty: “I mean that profounder beauty which comes from the harmonious order of the parts and which a pure intelligence can grasp.” That’s not how most of us define beauty. This definition has a certain Platonic intellectual ring to it and Poincaré openly declares that “intellectual beauty is sufficient unto itself.” Plato himself couldn’t have said it better. We should pursue science for its own sake, not for what we get out of it. It’s an end in itself because it’s both beautiful and inspiring.

But that’s not enough for most folks. Beauty and inspiration are ok but they also want what is called, in modern terminology, a better return on their investment. So Poincaré gets practical and makes the sales pitch that “this disinterested quest of the true for its own beauty is sane also and able to make man better.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Anything that can not only give psychological health but also make us better men is bound to appeal to the practical side of Americans.

The problem is Poincaré’s fanatical devotion to scientific study for its own sake. He has no doubt whatsoever that “The search for truth should be the goal of our activities…” He’s probably right. We should search for truth. It makes us better men and psychologically healthy. But there are other things in life besides studying science. The scientist/philosopher Pascal says that “God alone is man’s true good.” Science is important to Pascal too but he sets a different value on it than Poincaré. Pascal did some hard thinking himself and believed that the goal of our activities should be the salvation of our souls. As Pascal puts it: “when I survey the whole universe...and man left to himself…what will become of him when he dies…I am moved to terror.” For Poincaré this is a non-issue. As far as he’s concerned “geologic history shows us that life is only a short episode between two eternities of death…Thought is only a gleam in the midst of a long night.” When it’s time for us to leave this old world behind, that’s it. It’s lights out. Forever. So much for life in this world. But since we’re here now we should make the best of it and think about what it all means. Science helps us think harder. So do art and music. And for those who do not love to think there’s always baseball and golf.

-- RDP


Blogger SMJ said...

In The Value of Science, Poincaré distinguishes between two kinds of thinking: the kind which aspires to improve man's condition on earth (utilitarian ethics), and the kind that attempts to understand nature itself, including man as part of that nature (ontology). One is a distinctively moral concern and the other is not, for science does not concern itself with value judgments. Poincaré might have entitled his book "The Value of Thinking" because that is the essential role of formulate questions about the nature of existence, and to try and answer those questions in a rational, orderly fashion.

So, when Poincaré says that "most men do not love to think" he is only stating the obvious. There is no implied condemnation. Human society does not want or need everyone to be a scientist, philosopher or politician, but someone has to perform these roles in order for a civilized life to even be possible.

Poincaré believes that to ask what is the value of science is analogous to asking what is the value of truth, or what is the value of beauty? You either feel the necessity of these things in your life or you do not.

"The things which seem to us beautiful are those which best adapt themselves to our intelligence."

And, in fact, Poincaré believes that the love of truth is essentially the same as the love of beauty, because the study of nature reveals a fundamental order or harmony that is intrinsic to beauty. Like Pythagoras, Poincaré believes that rationality and beauty are symbiotic aspects of nature. That is to say, both are necessary in order for either one to exist. This arrangement is eminently practical because human society (as well as nature) requires order, and order is always preferable to chaos.

Regarding Tolstoy's desire to help mankind, Poincaré has no objection:

"For my part, it need scarce be said, I could never be content with either the one or the other ideal; I want neither that plutocracy grasping and mean, nor that democracy goody and mediocre, occupied solely in turning the other cheek, where would dwell sages without curiosity, who, shunning excess, would not die of disease, but would surely die of ennui. But that is a matter of taste and is not what I wish to discuss."

The role of science is simply to reveal the mysteries that God or nature have created. Again, there are other roles for people to play who lack the means or will to investigate nature. There need be no hostility between men of science and men of the cloth. But their respective areas of enquiry must necessarily lead in different directions...

"The search for truth should be the goal of our activities; it is the sole end worthy of them. Doubtless we should first bend our efforts to assuage human suffering, but why? Not to suffer is a negative ideal more surely attained by the annihilation of the world. If we wish more and more to free man from material cares, it is that he may be able to employ the liberty obtained in the study and contemplation of truth."

Where this truth finally leads us is not for Poincaré to judge.

Is science harmful to mankind? Possibly. If the knowledge that science makes available to us is put to bad use then it can, and often does, lead to human suffering. But this is nothing more than to acknowledge the fallibility of man. Is religion harmful to mankind? Sometimes, when it leads to persecutions by Grand Inquisitors. Name anything that, in the wrong hands, cannot be put to a bad purpose. Science claims neutrality as to the moral ends for which knowledge (or truth) is used. For better or worse, civilization moves ahead. Progress will follow as long as men seek truth, and refuse to accept bogus theories or knuckle under to the frail illusions of the past.

4/16/2007 11:31 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home