20 November 2006

Monday Quote Frenzy – Tarski on Science for Its Own Sake

I’ve been working through basic texts on the idea of the university. A frighteningly large number of them are titled ‘The Idea of the University’, as if they could not escape the shadow of the original by John Cardinal Newman. (Talk about the anxiety of influence!) Newman’s work delved into a number of topics that are still points of debate, of which one that he is particularly credited with kicking off is the idea that knowledge is worthwhile for its own sake, independent of any worldly use to which it could be put.

The argument tends to focus on the traditional liberal arts, presumably because they are the subjects frequently targeted as useless. The sciences, by contrast, are now considered so very useful that one seldom hears questions about the worth of even those parts farthest from the mundane (such as cosmology and string theory). But does that mean that scientific knowledge is in some fundamental way different from liberal knowledge? Or, should we expect that all other parts of liberal knowledge will eventually make the transition to utility, as have such other former philosophies as psychology and political theory? Or, as I prefer to think, are the sciences fundamentally liberal arts for which additional applications to worldly action have been found or fabricated?

An intriguing assessment of the virtue in treating science as knowledge of value for its own sake was made by the mathematician Alfred Tarski, as he closed out his 1944 article "The Semantic Conception of Truth and the Foundations of Semantics," published in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (vol. 4):

I should like to conclude this discussion with some general and rather loose remarks concerning the whole question of the evaluation of scientific achievements in terms of their applicability. I must confess I have various doubts in this connection.

Being a mathematician (as well as a logician, and perhaps a philosopher of a sort), I have had the opportunity to attend many discussions between specialists in mathematics, where the problem of applications is especially acute, and I have noticed on several occasions the following phenomenon: If a mathematician wishes to disparage the work of one of his colleagues, say, A, the most effective method he finds for doing this is to ask where the results can be applied. The hard pressed man, with his back against the wall, finally unearths the researches of another mathematician B as the locus of the application of his own results. If next B is plagued with a similar question, he will refer to another mathematician C. After a few steps of this kind we find ourselves referred back to the researches of A, and in this way the chain closes.

Speaking more seriously, I do not wish to deny that the value of a man's work may be increased by its implications for the research of others and for practice. But I believe, nevertheless, that it is inimical to the progress of science to measure the importance of any research exclusively or chiefly in terms of its usefulness and applicability. We know from the history of science that many important results and discoveries have had to wait centuries before they were applied in any field. And, in my opinion, there are also other important factors that cannot be disregarded in determining the value of a scientific work. It seems to me that there is a special domain of very profound and strong human needs related to scientific research, which are similar in many ways to aesthetic and perhaps religious needs. And it also seems to me that the satisfaction of these needs should be considered an important task of research. Hence, I believe, the question of the value of any research cannot be adequately answered without taking into account the intellectual satisfaction which the results of that research bring to those who understand it and care for it. It may be unpopular and out-of-date to say it -- but I do not think that a scientific result which gives us a better understanding of the world and makes it more harmonious in our eyes should be held in lower esteem than, say, an invention which reduces the cost of paving roads, or improves household plumbing.

Tarski’s full article is available on the Web. I used the version on the Computational Philosophy web site, which was transcribed into hypertext by Andrew Chrucky.


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