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The good, true, and beautiful

November 1, 2013

I quite often feel that my greatest task as a father is to raise children who love what is good, true, and beautiful, and who are therefore aliens in this popular culture. – Rod Dreher

A good friend of mine recently told me about his sister, a nurse in Texas. He described with a tinge of regret that she doesn’t believe in evolution. Given my writing here you’re probably not surprised to hear I pushed back. Why is it sad? Who cares whether she believes in evolution? She is a nurse after all! If she actually needed evolution, surely she would have learned it by now. I’ll never forget Matt’s final, exasperated response: “Evolution is true Praj. Quantum mechanics is true. The truth matters.”

Rod Dreher’s post reminded me of that conversation. Both Matt and Rod insist that some things are worthy and important just because; no justification or reason needed. But whereas writers like Rod routinely affirm their subjective values, scientists tend to shy away from them. This attitude is understandable. The logical, data-driven study of nature is how we market ourselves. But that narrow focus misses the reason so many of us study science in the first place. It is quite often a sense of wonder and amazement. We do care about aesthetics.

It’s these values, I feel, that animate scientists’ response to creationism. In public we argue that creationism will affect economic growth and corrupt science literacy. And we believe that to a certain degree. But it’s a small part of the story. More importantly, we view scientific truth as intrinsically good–the true is beautiful and the beautiful is true. We are horrified when that beauty is corrupted. I wish we could express our horror at creationism exactly as we feel it: as something that is wrong whether or not it has any tangible negative consequences.

There are of course limits to “I just feel this way” statements. Rationality and evidence are important for public discourse and are profoundly useful tools. But if we use them exclusively; if we don’t allow some space for moral values; if we don’t accept we all have ‘just-because’ beliefs, we are left making arguments we don’t really believe. I don’t know a single scientist who actually thinks reading a sticker prevents children from understanding differential equations. Yet scientists suggest otherwise all the time.

As important as it is, science-based reasoning can be taken too too far. Subjective, intrinsic beliefs can enter a discussion without overwhelming it.  Unless and until we scientists can acknowledge the aesthetic components of this debate, we will have no choice but to engage in behavior we criticize in others.

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