Periodicals; Mormons; Religious thought; Philosophy and religion
Independent national quarterly established to express Mormon culture and examine the relevance of religion to secular life. It is edited by Mormons who wish to bring their faith into dialogue with human experience as a whole and to foster artistic and scholarly achievement based on their cultural heritage. The journal encourages a variety of viewpoints; although every effort is made to insure accurate scholarship and responsible judgment, the views expressed are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Mormon Church or of the editors.
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Rees, Robert A.
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26 I Dialogue A convenient starting point for discussion is the stereotype of the scientist drawn by Harping in "The Abacus and the Rose": Professor Lionel Potts doesn't know what the sun weighs, but he knows it weighs something. Something exact, to three places of decimals. Lionel Potts knows that everything weighs something. Everything can be measured and photographed and spectrographed and God-knows-what-o-graphed. That's it: Everything in Lionel Potts's world can be graphed—just graphed. Everything can be described. Who would dare tell Professor Lionel Potts, FRS [Fellow of the Royal Society], that beauty cannot be described? Who would hope to persuade him that description is not enough? That life, life outside the laboratory, also calls for judgments?17 Potts's business, as we have all been told since early childhood, is to make precise measurements of natural phenomena, and then to fit these data into an orderly, usually mathematical, scheme called a "theory." In this view—known variously as positivism or operationalism18—science deals with two kinds of statements and only two: empirical propositions which can be verified by sense experience, and formal definitions or tautologies (as in mathematics). Statements of value, feeling or purpose are considered meaningless for science. Thus a scientific theory is to be judged solely by its ability to account for all known observations and to predict the course of similar events in the future. Clearly, science without substantial objectivity, or without careful measurements, is no science at all. But Harping's description of Potts as a man bent on quantifying the universe, oblivious even to "a single impulse from a vernal wood," is very superficial. Potts may not be a metaphysician, but he cannot make a single measurement or focus his dispassionate eye on any aspect of physical reality without asking a great many difficult questions, all of which call for personal (which is to say, subjective) judgments: What shall I measure to begin with? And once the data are in hand, what is to be done with them? Why do I claim that identical pulses of electricity in the same kinds of wires represent protons in one case and neutrons in another? If a measurement does not agree with a theory which has successfully explained all previous measurements, is the measurement in error? Or must the theory be revised? Suppose two theories explain the measured data equally well. Which theory is right? And what does "right" mean, anyway? The concept of scientific theory as a purely objective resume of experience shatters on these questions, precisely because science is much more than mere measurement. It is fundamentally a search for intelligibility in nature. Hence, "an accurate determination of the speed at which water flows in the gutter at a particular moment of time is not a contribution to science," writes Michael Polanyi,19 because standing by itself, it is neither profound nor of intrinsic interest. And the problem of selecting interesting and profound experiments is only the beginning. The data arising from such experiments can be fit by an infinite number of mathematical functions, which thus embody them in a comprehensible pattern. But each such function or set of functions may have a completely different physical interpretation, and lead to divergent predictions for the future of the system being studied. Operationalism cannot give us a self-evident, logical criterion for choosing one mathematical embodiment of the data over another. Moreover, the question of extrapolating from a theory which comprehends present measurements to predictions of future behavior necessarily involves judgments of value.