Liam's write-only LJ - A few thoughts on science versus the arts versus faith
October 16th, 2011
04:16 pm

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A few thoughts on science versus the arts versus faith
This is part of an email I wrote to a friend. Some of it is out of context, but there are bits of it I quite liked, so I thought I'd post it.

The friend is an English Literature graduate who has a very vague interest in science, but regards it as an amusing game and delights in stories that appear to poke holes in it, such as the faster-than-light neutrinos one. I sent him a couple of links I thought would possibly interest him - first, the Bad Astronomy blog's take on the FTL-neutrino result and then Jean Baptiste Queru's lovely little piece on the complexity of modern computing.


Read the second one first.

It's totally irrelevant, but it explains why such subjects are really hard and difficult to explain without a very VERY large amount of background knowledge.

To the point that in the modern world, there is almost no single thing that can be understood in a single lifetime. Collectively, we know so much about the world that no one human mind and brain can hold everything there is to know about, say, a grain of sand.

But if you have a little bit of the right kind of education, you know where to start, where to get a toe in a crack, and you can climb up the rock-face.

The snag is that if you don't have that specific special kind of education - if you have, say, a liberal-arts education - then you don't have that first tiny opening to put a toe into. And without that, there is no way up the wall at all. The only way is to walk away and spend several whole years doing nothing but solidly reading to educate yourself, and then you have the tiny crack and can start to climb. Several years of work to begin a climb that will take the rest of your life.

And I think that is tragic. That is why I think that pure arts education is, ultimately, a waste of time and effort. It doesn't equip you to understand the real world. It just shows you pretty pictures.

The best arts education, one that results from decades of work and a professorship or two, generally gives someone an excellent and unsurpassed understanding of the view of the other people standing on the ground. Some of them are very beautiful. It's a very nice view. It tells you what the other people standing on the ground think. It's not the real world, it's just an artificial, created thing which is not one millionth of a millionth of the mind-shattering real world.

A good understanding of the arts is something lovely and arguably well worth having, but it is to stand in a single small room admiring a handful of paintings on the walls and never to look out of the window and realise that you are in an airship, sailing along over the most astoundingly beautiful landscapes, over seas and mountains and forests and lakes and mighty cities filled with museums and universities and films and concerts - over all the knowledge and the beauty that the whole universe contains.

You seem to think that between us we could, as some sort of Socratic dialogue, write a book that would explain all of science to an arts graduate. Not so. One book, even one a thousand pages long, could not begin to provide a needle to scratch the surface of the rock-face.

You need to spend about a decade of your youth studying science to even be able to see the crack to put your toe into to start to climb the rock-face.

I gave up formally studying science nearly 25y ago. I am such a short distance up the rockface that my waist or knees are still level with your head, and I will probably never get any higher.

But from up here, I can see a view crammed with wonders and marvels that you and every other arts graduate, sitting or standing on the ground, cannot even begin to imagine. If I try to tell you, you will simply not believe me, it is so vast, so amazing, so wonderful, so beautiful.

The shortest, clearest description of a tiny part of it that I have ever seen was Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series. It is dated but it is wonderful, as in, filled with wonders and it will fill you with wonders. But it will take you some 13 hours to watch it, and that is like peering through a pinhole for an instant at the most beautiful sight that anyone could ever see - it is an eyeblink.

It's like the Venerable Bede's famous quote:

"O King, the present life of men on earth is like the flight of a single sparrow through the hall where, in winter, you sit with your captains and ministers. Entering at one door and leaving by another, while it is inside it is untouched by the wintry storm; but this brief interval of calm is over in a moment, and it returns to the winter whence it came, vanishing from your sight."

You can watch it for free here, in lo-res Youtube glory:
Episode 1 - The Shores Of The Cosmic Ocean
Episode 2 - One Voice In The Cosmic Fugue
Episode 3 - The Harmony Of The Worlds
Episode 4 - Heaven & Hell
Episode 5 - Blues for a Red Planet
Episode 6 - Traveller's Tales
Episode 7 - The Backbone of the Night
Episode 8 - Journeys in Space & Time
Episode 9 - The Lives of the Stars
Episode 10 - The Edge of Forever
Episode 11 - The Persistence of Memory
Episode 12 - Encyclopædia Galactica
Episode 13 - Who Speaks for Earth?

I wonder if you could even spare the time - one hour of each workday evening for two weeks - to watch Cosmos right through?

The sum total of the demonstrable truths of what we can tell about the world is called "science". It isn't a thing, it's not a worldview or a state of mind or a process. It's just a very big list of facts, carefully worked out and tested.

But our modern educational system says that all this is just an alternative and that it's perfectly OK to sail through secondary school and university, choosing to completely ignore the whole thing and just learn about, say, one type of music or one type of poetry.

This is an injustice, a mistake, so vast that I can't find the words to describe it.

It is one that you can undo, but to do so will require dedicating a significant portion of the rest of your life to it.

It is not something one can acquire from a few chats in the pub and writing them down.

Meanwhile, back to the one-room art gallery in the airship for a moment.

The religious mindset is to say that the paintings in the room are the whole world and that you must completely ignore the view out of the window, that everything else you can see is all lies. It is, ultimately, nothing more than hate and fear of the truth. The different religions can't even agree on a set of paintings, but all agree that the truth is to be ignored and denied. They say that what is most important is not observation, but the magic property of belief in the images in the paintings.

I do not care how beautiful the paintings are. I do not care if the paintings offer the greatest source of reassurance against fear, that they tell one that one's life has meaning and matters and is important when one needs that feeling of safety more than ever.

No. What matters is that they deny the truth. They tell their faithful not to believe in experience, in reality, but in myths that cannot be shown to be real. They say that seeking to show them as real or not is evil, and extended all the way to the ultimate, they teach, without exception, that to test the truth is wrong and evil and that you must accept the stories instead.

To deny the view from the window, to tell people not even to look, is a hateful, wretched and evil thing, and this is why I have no respect for any faith, individual or institutionally collective.

It is a destroyer of minds and lives. I hate it and I would like to see it extirpated from the world. The real world is infinitely more beautiful and majestic and moving than any of the lies of any religion, so vastly greater than the miserable myths of ancient primitives that those "prophets" could not even begin to conceive of the greater truths they were denying. It doesn't matter if they thought they were gaining power and prestige or if they really thought they were saving some alleged magical parts of the people they ordered around.

The truth will make you free, and the only way to tell if something is true is to test it. Don't take people's word for it. Ask for the evidence. If it's real, they will happily oblige. If they don't - if they say, no, read this book, listen to this man's words, THIS is the REAL truth, this is all you need - then they are fakers and liars. It's really simple.

Current Music: Vangelis
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From:purplecthulhu
Date:October 16th, 2011 06:28 pm (UTC)
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I like a lot of what you're saying here, and appreciate the effort you're making, but I would call you up on one thing. From where I stand science is not 'just a very big list of facts, carefully worked out and tested'. Instead it is an approach, a mindset, a method for taking what you think you already know, testing it, adding to it and, and this is most important, for finding making progress when you find out that you're wrong.

When the emperor was told he had no clothes it was the end of him, because being right was essential to what he was. Finding out that something is wrong in science is instead cause for celebration - it means we've found something new.

If I were to throw away everything I know in astrophysics and start again in, say, bioinformatics, I'd still be ahead of someone coming into that field from an arts background. Not because of any specific technical skills I have, though they would help, but because I'd have the mindset of a scientist, knowing how to work through things, test them, check them, and be able to build on what's gone before.
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From:unwholesome_fen
Date:October 16th, 2011 08:40 pm (UTC)
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Absolutely. It is a great misconception (one which seems to be widely shared in the non-scientific world) to imagine that science delivers facts.
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From:kissmeforlonger
Date:October 16th, 2011 07:02 pm (UTC)
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Wow.

My gripe with hardcore scientists is that generally they think they are right and nothing else is worthwhile. This has done nothing to alter that view.

The fact that you see nothing worthwhile in the arts does not mean that is the truth. Maybe you are as incapable of understanding it as the arts specialists you criticise so much are incapable of understanding science.
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From:jfs
Date:October 16th, 2011 09:18 pm (UTC)
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I'm largely in agreement with this.
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From:lproven
Date:October 17th, 2011 05:26 pm (UTC)
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I don't believe that I said I saw nothing worthwhile in the arts.

But it is, at heart, essentially entertainment, decoration, and no, I do not think that it is of equal status with scientific understanding.

If you equate "worthwhile but not as important" with "not worthwhile", then that's your problem, not mine. :¬)

As for other attempted explanations of the universe - that of the mystics, psychics, religiously-inspired, whatever; the many and conflicting "alternative views." Well, fine. Let's put them to mutually-agreed tests of validity and accuracy. Let us check them and see if they are true.

If they are not true, then we discard them and move on. So far, every single one that has been so checked has not been true, but I retain an open mind; perhaps something will show up one day, and that would be wonderful. But the important thing is to accept that they might be wrong, and if they're shown to be wrong, then we let them go, we bury them and we continue hunting.

Things which this has been done for so far, and which have been conclusively demonstrated not to work, include but are not limited to:
* clairvoyance and remote viewing
* dowsing
* telepathy
* telekinesis
* spirit communications, mediums and automatic writing
* reincarnation
* acupuncture
* chiropractic
* homeopathy
* psychic surgery, healing, prayer, laying on of hands, reiki, etc.

All these have been /extensively/ tested, in many if not all cases, in tests worked out with practitioners of these things. All have failed.

I submit that it is safe to say that all are completely bogus, have no basis in truth and they do not work. Not at all. Never.

And this is one of the things that the mystically-inclined fraternity just will not accept. Which therefore means that it is not worth listening to such people, because they are not rational. They will not listen to reason. They are irrational, which is another way of saying that they are effectively insane.
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From:augeas
Date:October 16th, 2011 08:05 pm (UTC)
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> I wonder if you could even spare the time - one hour of each workday evening for two weeks - to watch Cosmos right through?

I dunno though, I *did* sit through the entirety of James Burke's "Connections". Prospects for having nothing to do for the duration of the long winter evenings after Christmas remain excellent ;/
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From:lproven
Date:October 17th, 2011 05:50 pm (UTC)
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You could do it in a few evenings. Well worth it. Torrents would probably be better quality.

And FFS stay teaching something somewhere to someone if you possibly can until you have an alternative sorted out and confirmed.
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From:unwholesome_fen
Date:October 16th, 2011 08:50 pm (UTC)
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It seems to me that the problem is too much specialisation. Everybody should be learning science, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be learning arts as well. You also seem to be reducing arts to just the appreciation of art. You seem to have forgotten about philosophy, social sciences, history, languages etc. I don't see how anyone can understand the human condition without knowing something about all of these things as well.
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From:lproven
Date:October 17th, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)
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It's a blurred line, I'd say. Yes, some understanding of all of them is vastly beneficial, and I would tend to say that for things like bachelors' degrees, you need to be able to demonstrate /some/ basic competence in all the main areas.

("Main areas" to be defined, of course. That should be fun.)

But actually, today, how much of this is actually doable? I mean, yes, it would be awfully nice, but is it remotely realistic?
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From:steer
Date:October 17th, 2011 02:44 pm (UTC)

Re: Art for art's sake

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Do you really think Brian May should have said to Freddie "No thanks, I don't want to be in your band, I'll stick with astrophysics."?

GOD YES!
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From:lproven
Date:October 17th, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)

Re: Art for art's sake

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I'd go along with that, yes.
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From:a_cubed
Date:October 17th, 2011 04:18 am (UTC)
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I think you're missing one fundamental issue here which is that one can't study science without a basi understanding of mathematics and logic. Whichever branch of science you're in, somewhere at base you have to deal with logical deductions based on equations and numeric data. I know many scientists who have a significant grasp of language, artistic symbology, legal principles etc. I know very few arts or humanities graduates who understand calculus, set theory (beyond Venn diagrams), propositional (let alone predicate) calculus at all. To me, that's one of the two toe-holds to get you going in science, the other being the scientific method that purplecthulhu talks about. Without both of these you can't understand science. The debate about whether the nutrinos actually travelled faster than light or simply appeared to do so from a particular frame of reference can only really be understood in terms of some moderately advanced mathematics (I studied special relativity in second year of a joint maths/computing course so I've got the basics if I wanted to go back and brush up on it). The concept of why the speed of light in a vacuum appears to be a hard limit of the universe can only be properly understood with mathematics, not words.
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From:lproven
Date:October 17th, 2011 05:37 pm (UTC)
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Conceded, but it is so very tricky that I am not sure it is entirely doable.

The trouble is where to set the baseline.

I got a BSc in Biology - a crap one, mainly because I severely smashed my arm, persisted anyway, got depressed and screwed it up; before that, I won the departmental "best student" prize. But my 1st year statistics course was so far over my head, I basically sank. The first thing the lecturer said was:

"I know you'll all be really worried and stressed over this, but don't be. It's basically just revision for anyone with a maths 'O' level. You'll be fine."

I failed my maths 'O' level and worked very, very hard, with extra tuition, to scrape (IIRC) a grade C. An 'A' level was entirely beyond my reach.

As an adult, acquiring an interest in some areas, maybe, with the right teaching, I might have made it through an 'A'-level. Maybe.

But I had no real understanding of integration or differentiation, poor algebra, passable geometry, one very poor rote-memorised stats tool - and still, I got the best student prize, and until I crashed my bike, I was doing great. Since then, I've improved my maths a little but it's not held me back - in fact, my meagre and partial understanding has helped me many times and I know more than most non-scientist friends or colleagues I've spoken with.

Including quite a few stockbrokers and bankers, worryingly.

But one of the key problems here is that a specialist's definition of "the basic working toolkit" would be unattainable for a great many people.

A lot of my friends have /Godel, Escher, Bach/ as one of their favourite books. I've tried 7 times now. I can't finish it.

Your "basic understanding" would sail kilometres over the head of most non-specialists.

I think a basic command of numeracy is critically important, yes. But you'd be surprised just how basic would be a level that is actually generally achievable by secondary-school students.
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From:digitig
Date:October 19th, 2011 12:57 am (UTC)
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Propositional calculus was covered on my humanities *foundation* course. (That part of the course was a bit of a walkover for me, as I used to work routinely with formal methods in computing). The scientific method was covered on the foundation course too, and later on we went into it in more detail than many scientists seem to be aware of, although because I did engineering I don't know whether that's because the scientists never knew the details or were taught them but forgot. There wasn't much maths (other than statistics), it's true.
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From:watervole
Date:October 17th, 2011 07:33 am (UTC)
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Sigh. I know what you mean. I have an acquaintance who believes that the Earth's crust occasionally flips round and the poles swap over. He is, of course, an arts person.

He will cite articles supporting his belief and is in no way swayed by my degree in Earth sciences. He doesn't know enough science to know why his belief is total nonsense. Doesn't even know enough physics to understand inertia or the energy that would be required to move that mass.

It's the same problem with climate change deniers.
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From:the_ladylark
Date:October 17th, 2011 09:54 am (UTC)
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Of course, there's a problem here in that he's *almost right* :)

The magnetic poles have been known to swap during earth's history. I believe we're due another one soon ('soon' being relative, and in geological timescales). Just not the actual physical ones...
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From:lproven
Date:October 17th, 2011 05:38 pm (UTC)
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Indeed so.
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From:childeric
Date:October 17th, 2011 07:52 am (UTC)
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Oh dear, oh dear... ;-) Science rocks, science rules, but it doesn't do science any good at all to have someone extolling its virtues by denying the value of all other forms of knowledge.

I work in a field - medieval history - which, by its nature, involves trying to make statements that cannot be tested in ways that would be deemed an acceptable way of establishing the 'truth' for most scientists. An important part of the scientific method as it is generally accepted is the making of law-like statements on the basis of observation. If an exception is found, as a result of this observation, to a previously-accepted behaviour or property of the universe, then the previously-accepted law is held to be in need of modification. If you observe apples falling from trees, then you suppose that falling is the sort of thing that apples do when they become disconnected from trees up to the moment that you find an apple that floats heavenwards instead. That is good and right and a sensible way of approaching things. It is not, on the other hand, the *only* way of doing things - of establishing truth, if you like. The historian, for instance, by the fact that what he or she studies is done and dead and can't be repeated or tested under laboratory conditions doesn't have this lovely luxury and simplicity that scientists do. We can't watch apples and watch apples until we're utterly convinced that unsuspended bodies will generally fall unless they are prevented from doing so. All we ever have is someone's account that a particular apple bounced along a roof and got stuck in a gutter or was intercepted by an unseen scrumper's hand and crunched down upon by the unseen scrumper's mouth in a juicy acidic glory of autumnal delight. Or, to take another example, we can't take an infinite number of minor commissioned officers from Corsica in an infinite number of late eighteenth centuries and test to see whether it's a general rule that they
will generally become Napoleon Bonaparte. So, basically, that plank of the scientific method is inappropriate to the study of humanity in the past. We cannot establish the truth or otherwise of what happened in a scientific manner. Now, according to you, there is scientific truth or there is nothing. That is just a teensy bit troubling to me, and probably ought to be to you too, as you've rather alarmingly rendered the majority of potential knowledge and understanding of the universe not worth having. You've also put me out of a job, but that's neither here nor there...

You've grasped my point, though. You're being far too absolute about science as the only way of understanding the world. I'm not sure I'll even admit scientific truth as the 'best' way of understanding the world; it's merely one way - a very very good way - of understanding those aspects of the universe whose character allows them to be analysed in that way. That is not in any way to diss the scientific method, which is brilliant, amazing, fantastic and one of the most emancipatory, revelatory and superb ideas that humanity's ever come up with. But not all thought about the world has to be scientific, and not all understanding of the world can be gained in a scientific manner.
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From:makyo
Date:October 17th, 2011 08:11 am (UTC)
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Science rocks, science rules, but it doesn't do science any good at all to have someone extolling its virtues by denying the value of all other forms of knowledge.

I was trying to figure out how to say pretty much exactly this myself.

I completely agree that science is brilliant, I completely disagree that arts subjects are in some way less worthwhile, and I'm undecided about the place of religion in the world, but I think that there are some valid points on both sides of the fence.

The Roman Catholic Church, for example, has caused some pretty horrific things throughout the last couple of thousand years, and I'm highly unconvinced they're even a net force for good in the world; the Quakers, on the other hand, have done some tremendously good things that we now just take for granted as being obviously right: prison reform, women's rights, treatment of mental illness, the abolition of slavery, conflict resolution, etc.
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From:the_ladylark
Date:October 17th, 2011 10:03 am (UTC)
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Taking your analogy..

Not all religions and religious forbid looking out of the window.

Some of them encourage looking out of the window, and going for excursions, but take pains to point out that the room in the airship with the paintings is always there if you want to come back for safety or a rest. They also attest that the paintings have been painted by the most skilled artist ever to exist, taking the most beautiful aspects of the view outside and pointing them out to you so you can recognise them when you see them and see things you might not otherwise have noticed.

I'm an agnostic myself (in the technical, scientific sense) but having been brought up within one of the more sensible (parts of one of the) world religions, I think you are doing large proportions of the world's population a disservice with your analysis.

I do however agree that teaching the scientific method from an early age, to all, to allow people to find the cracks in the rockface, is something crucial that we are failing with currently.
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From:lproven
Date:October 17th, 2011 05:43 pm (UTC)
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They do tend to assert that their explanation is the unassailable ultimate truth, though, no?

Not, as I (poorly) understand it, the original core of Buddhism, without the layers of mystical crap that have accreted round it over the centuries. And excepting the reincarnation bit.

But the rest? A magic man did it and ran away. Adore him or else. You're not allowed to even debate this let alone try to test it.

That is at the core of all of them, isn't it?
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From:emmajking
Date:October 17th, 2011 12:54 pm (UTC)
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I can only agree with purplecthulhu, a_cubed & childeric....

I think that the misunderstanding of science as a long list of "facts" which are "true" does it a great deal of harm. You only have to ask jamesb his views on Pluto to see what can happen when you tell people "these things are true! science has deemed them so!" - then, later, say "oh, no, sorry - not quite true after all". This belief some people have that science is a list of verified facts which are fundamental "truth" can lead to a great deal of dissatisfaction when scientists are viewed as "changing their mind" about things which people thought were amongst these hard-and-fast facts. It also leads to this odd belief the media (and, apparently, your friend, Liam) seem to have that the recent neutrino results would somehow be *bad* for science if they were true. As purplecuthulu pointed out, science is *not* a list of facts, it is an approach to understanding the world, the application of reason and logic to make the most sensible deductions we can from the information available (and, to slightly counter something childeric said, I would hold that it is perfectly possible to study history in a scientific fashion, and cosmologists are physicists who are well aware of the problems of not being able to reproduce results in the lab - cosmic variance is always an issue. We only have one universe to study, in the same way that you only have one history! That doesn't mean we can't be scientific in our approach to understanding it [Edit - I see you mentioned that yourself, after I started writing this!]). Consequently, unexpected results are the *best* thing that can happen in science, not the worst. Every physicist I know is pretty convinced the neutrino thing will turn out to be a mistake - it is the most likely explanation, given how well GR has stood up to everything else that has been thrown at it - but desperately hoping it will turn out to be true, because then we would learn something new, and all have to get really busy re-working our understanding of the universe, and we just love that ;)

But yes, the lack of basic scientific training in quite a substantial part of the population is an issue. I agree that there is plenty of merit in "arts" subjects (and it's important to remember that just because, to us scientifically minded folk, things have greater value on account of being objective, this is not necessarily true for everyone, and other people's views are not automatically invalid because they don't agree with ours - there is certainly an argument that being happy is more important in life than being right!), but there is an problem with ability to understand some things if you don't have the right sort of background and training. I went to the University of Sussex, where for many years it was the policy that all arts students would do one science course (of their choice) in their 2nd year, while all science students would do one arts course, in the hope of producing more rounded graduates (here here!). By the time I got there, the science students were still doing arts courses - philosophy, art, history, religion, languages, whatever you wanted, one course for one year, as part of your degree - but they'd stopped arts students doing science courses. Why? Because every year, a whole year was spent trying to re-teach basic GCSE maths (algebra, trig & so on, before heading on towards calculus) to the arts students, because without it it was impossible to study anything *meaningful* in a science subject, all you could do was waffle about it. Since so much time was taken up trying to equip the arts students with the basic (and admittedly often quite boring, especially if maths isn't your first love!) tools necessary to really understand science, and so little spent teaching them anything they deemed exciting or interesting, the scheme was scrapped.
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From:emmajking
Date:October 17th, 2011 12:55 pm (UTC)
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Unfortunately, this problem persists, and consequently a significant majority of the population are forced to take science on faith - they have to believe what they are told by scientists, and have no reasonable way to pick who to believe and who not to believe. When you start talking about awesome mind-bending things like GR and QM that really does sound totally whacky and counter-intuitive, it becomes very difficult to differentiate it from woo. As a physicist with a speciality, I have a similar problem with other branches of physics, never mind other sciences, but at least I understand how the whole process works, how to figure out who is a good person to believe, and most importantly why the scientific consensus does deserve more weight than what some bloke says down the pub, or in a news paper, or on the telly, or on the internet, and it is a huge failing in our education system that more people aren't equipped with those skills.

Ugh. Keep this up and I'll be back on my guilt trip about not becoming a teacher.....

[Sorry, had to reply to my own reply, as my initial reply was too long for one comment!]
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From:childeric
Date:October 17th, 2011 04:49 pm (UTC)
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I was mostly being daft in all comments on this post apart from the first one, which I do actually believe.

I would entirely agree that history can be science-like in some of its methods: in its testing of theories against evidence, most importantly. On the other hand, I'm not at all sure that I'd want to put it like that ('science-like'), as that implies that scientific approaches to obtaining truth are a gold standard, with all others as inferior rather than merely different. However, I would argue that the inability to experiment, together with a rather different attitude towards the general and the individual (science, broadly speaking, and with important exceptions, chiefly concerns itself with the general; history, generally, is more concerned with the particular) mean that history can't be seen as a science (the case might be more arguable with kindred disciplines to history such as sociology, economics and so on). Yet I still heartily believe that history is worth doing and the truth that historical study generates isn't any 'worse' than that generated by science. It is merely different.

There are other ways in which I would take very serious issue with what Liam's posted here: for a start he's entirely ignored the fact that the scientific method is an historical artefact of a particular culturally-specific context in the history of the West. Where he says that arts graduates can't know anything about the world because they don't have scientific training, I'd say that scientists are *desperately* in need of decent historical training to understand what the scientific method is and where it comes from; and how deeply enmeshed in, dare-I-say-it, Christian culture it is and remains. But that's a whole different argument. :)
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