Thursday, October 22, 2009

Max Weber says...

What is the meaning of science as a vocation...? Tolstoi has given the simplest answer, with the words: 'Science is meaningless because it gives no answer, the only question important for us: "what shall we do and how shall we live?"' That science does not give an answer to this is indisputable. ...

Today one usually speaks of science as 'free from presuppositions.' Is there such a thing? It depends upon what one understands thereby. All scientific work presupposes that the rules of logic and method are valid; these are the general foundations of our orientation in the world; and, at least for our special question, these presuppositions are the least problematic aspect of science. Science further presupposes that what is yielded by scientific work is important in the sense that it is 'worth being known.' In this, obviously, are contained all our problems. For this presupposition cannot be proved by scientific means.

--"Science as a Vocation."

This is why, altho I'm not personally religious, I can't accept atheism as a principled position. Scientific knowledge is immensely useful and aesthetically satisfying, but people can live without it. What we cannot exist without is knowledge of "what shall we do and how shall we live." Religion at least purports to give an answer to this question, science can't. So if the two are really irreconcilable, science will have to go -- at least until someone else can speak to that question with authority.

I ran across this quote recently in Alain Supiot's Homo Juridicus and it inspired me to reread the Weber piece. What a wonderful essay. I particularly like -- because I like anything I can take as a personal rebuke -- his observation that "the dilettante differs from the expert ... only in that he lacks a firm and reliable work procedure." And his insistence -- a genuine rebuke, to professors who try to use the lectern as a political platform -- that political speech can take place only "where criticism is possible."

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