The Honor Blog
Today is: Apr 10, 2020
Post From: Jan 7, 2018
The Honor of Science
Well, I am not doing very well at posting regularly. I hope I can get into a rhythm in the near future . . .
I am convinced that the most important subject a person can study is Physics. I don't blame you if you are shaking your head; my students usually don't believe me either. And since I would rather not use this space to argue about the value of different subjects, let me tell you what I think Physics teaches better than any other subject. (Then you can come up with your reasons for believing that your favorite subject teaches it better - that will be a fun discussion to have in another space.)
More than any other discipline, what Physics demands of students is critical thinking. In the hard sciences, that skill goes by the name `scientific method', but under either name it is the most important skill a person can employ, no matter what field of endeavor he or she pursues.
Presented in basic terms, the scientific method teaches practitioners to 1) observe the world, 2) formulate an explanation for those observations, and 3) test the explanation with new observations . . . which returns the critical thinker back to step 1. A true scientist pursues this cycle until new tests no longer force changes to the explanation which he or she has formulated - at which point the explanation rises to the level of being considered a theory.
Reading that explanation should make clear that the essence of the scientific method, of critical thinking, lies in the tests which are performed. Essentially, a real scientist is always - ALWAYS - seeking evidence that his or her theory is incorrect. Scientists work to construct tests directed at weak areas in their theories in an effort to prove those theories to be incorrect. That is worth repeating: A real scientist is striving, at all times, to prove him- or herself INcorrect.
Of course, knowing human nature as you do, it will come as no surprise that no one really wants to be proven wrong. For that reason, it should be obvious that science requires a great deal of Humility - a scientist must give his or her first allegiance to the truth, and must be prepared to set aside his or her ego in order to follow that allegiance. Of course, seeking the truth also means - by definition - that the scientist is motivated by Wisdom. It is always Wise to pursue the truth (though learning the truth does not always mean that a person will behave wisely once it is found). Critical thinking also requires Discipline, since the scientist often must set aside his or her wish to cling to a disproven explanation, and it requires Industry, since the scientist often must work diligently and creatively to devise good tests of a theory. And, of course, a really good scientist will continue to pursue the testing no matter what temptations and obstacles are placed in his or her path - a commitment which requires Courage.
Given the depth to which the Virtues are embedded into the skill of critical thinking, it is clear that applying the scientific method is an extremely honorable thing to do. That is true no matter the nature of the issue being examined - from the natural world to human interaction to spiritual concerns, every discussion of important matters should place critical thought at its center.
On a side note, I find it interesting that science and spirituality are so often set at odds in modern culture. I believe they absolutely are compatible - while you cannot measure spiritual factors, you certainly can recognize their existence and apply critical thinking skills to understanding them.
Unfortunately, our culture applies plenty of pressure to ignore critical-thinking skills. As I mentioned before, no one likes to be proven wrong, so it is difficult for anyone to actually undertake the effort to seek out that proof. Even worse, it is very difficult for a person to accept the results of tests which contradict their favorite beliefs wen when those tests are performed. As a result, critical thinking plays far too small a role in modern American culture - illustrating that Humility is the most challenging of the Virtues.
It is for that reason that an understanding of Physics is so essential for our children - not for the subject itself (though it truly is fascinating), but because it trains students to think critically. Not only is that an honorable thing to do in and of itself, but infusing critical thought into our culture helps to reassure everyone that they can trust their fellow citizens to act honorably - that is, it helps to foster the Virtue of Hope.