The quote below sums up Lennox’s short-sightedness in what science is able to and will be able to do, and in the way that it does what it does. We’ll see the same short-sightedness again in the next section ‘Aunt Matilda’s Cake’, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves:
Furthermore, take the claim that only science can deliver truth. If it were true it would at once spell the end of many disciplines in schools and universities. For the evaluation of philosophy, literature, art, music lies outside the scope of science strictly so-called. How could science tell us whether a poem is a bad poem or a work of genius? Scarcely by measuring thee lengths of the words or the frequencies of the letters occurring in them. How could science possibly tell us whether a painting is a masterpiece or a confused smudge of colors? Certainly not by making a chemical analysis of the paint and canvas. Science can tell you that, if you add strychnine to someone’s drink, it will kill them. But science cannot tell you whether it is morally right or wrong to put strychnine into your grandmother’s tea so that you can get your hands on her property (40).
The first questions we need to ask is ‘How do we know if a poem is a bad poem or a work of genius? How do we know if a painting is a masterpiece or a confused smudge of colors? How do we know the morally right from the morally wrong?’ The answers to these questions evolve as our experience increases, as our knowledge increases and even as times change. There have been many works of art that were ignored in their day only later to be proclaimed as monumental. And there are also many that are lauded in their day only to fall into obscurity because they did not stand the test of time. Lennox is expecting science to be a gauge of popular opinion coupled to a time machine, and when it is not he says that science has limits.
Or maybe Lennox subscribes to the idea that beauty and morality exist objectively, and as science cannot invent an instrument for tracking down these elusive truths then again it is the fault of science. The good news is that there already is a device that does this for us. Although as I’ve shown above it sometimes doesn’t get it right immediately, but if we have enough of them we can get a snapshot of the current consensus on truth. It’s the answer to the 3 questions I asked above – the human brain. If science could read the brain, and it could read enough of them, then although science would be unable to detect truth it would be able to tell when it’s about.
Now the next question is ‘Will science be able to read the brain well enough to know when we know we’re experiencing these truths?’ I don’t know, but I do know that a few weeks ago I saw a story that I mentioned here about a woman controlling a robot arm with her mind. At the time I said that when my parents were young that story would have been believed by bugger all people. Even the fledgling sci-fi crowd would have deemed it, well, sci-fi. The doctor interviewed said that the big leap forward recently had been in the improvement of the software used to interpret the brain’s signals. Where will that software be with another 20 years of development? Another 50? Another 100? And when it is linked to other technological advances that go into making the brain / robot interface I have no idea to what depths the human mind will be able to be understood.
But my point is not to wax on the speculations of what might be, for that will surely come. My point is to show that Lennox is short-sighted in chiding science because the chemical analysis of paint or the parsing of the words of a poem lead to dead-ends in the search for truth. While they might be dead-ends he fails to acknowledge that there are other ways forward. And just to show how limited his thinking is in this area, let’s take his dead-ended claims at face value and posit some what-ifs.
What if a painting was found that was thought to be by a master. If after giving one opinion on the authenticity one is told that a chemical analysis of the paint and the canvas showed them to be an exact match for others used by that master, how would that inform one’s thinking on the quality of the work? Whatever that first opinion was this new information, information that Lennox regarded as useless in the search for these out-of-reach truths must surely inform the second opinion in some way. So yes Lennox, looking at one piece of information in isolation doesn’t put one on the royal road to truth. Fortunately most scientist have the sense not to make such an elementary mistake. Unlike Lennox whose going to use the same weak arguments in the next section.