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Scientific and Moral Reasoning

Raph Levien
On Science (November 2022)
Healing the World

I am a Quaker and a scientist. To be more precise, I am a Quaker and a computer scientist. Some would dispute whether my field is a true science, but what I do is pretty scientific, with gathering of empirical data and testing of hypotheses.

Science is what I do for a living, but more than that, it is a philosophy I try to hold to. If science and my Quaker faith were in conflict, I’d probably resolve that in favor of the principles of science. I’ll argue, though, that they don’t have to be in conflict, and this is a major reason I’m drawn to Quakerism.

Science and Quakerism hold much in common, but they carry important differences as well. To me, the main commonalities are the seeking of truth and the sense of continuing revelation. The main difference is the scope of questions that can be answered. Science deals with falsifiable hypotheses and cannot answer moral questions. Faith can.

Quakers are fairly well represented among scientists. Given my interest in physics, the ones I’m most familiar with are John Dalton (for whom a unit of atomic weight is named) and Arthur Eddington. The latter is most famous for boosting Einstein’s theory of relativity to a skeptical experimental community, but is also known for suppressing the work of Chandrasekhar (especially the theory of black holes, which has since been vindicated). Their dispute is discussed in the excellent essay “Chandrasekhar vs. Eddington – an unanticipated confrontation,” Physics Today, October 1982 (https://physicstoday.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/1.2914790). This essay is well worth reading both for the science and the light it shines on one of the most famous Quaker scientists. It is quite plausible that Eddington’s attacks were racially motivated, and many believe so, though there is little hard evidence. Science has never stood separate from issues of racial justice, and if Eddington were alive today, hopefully, he would approach the dispute with better interracial sensitivity.

Science as practiced by scientists is very different from the version taught in schools, where a series of unassailable facts is laid out in textbooks, and students are asked to take the material as gospel. The practice of science, by contrast, has no authority for truth, only theories that seem to fit the evidence. These then are refined in a process resembling continuing revelation. Famously, Newton’s laws of motion were found to be only approximations, highly precise at everyday speeds and scales, but breaking down near lightspeed, where the theory of relativity (as promoted by Eddington!) offers much more accurate predictions. Similarly, the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, while remarkably accurate within their own scales, are not intellectually compatible with each other, and physicists are working toward a new theory to unify them. I hope to see this in my lifetime.

Many of the major problems of our day require an understanding of science to resolve them. Climate change is almost certainly the most pressing issue, but it is not the only one. To me, it is clear that any mitigation of climate change will demand both scientific and moral reasoning. The lion’s share of climate change is caused by the burning of hydrocarbon fuels. Science has played a huge role in discovering the usefulness of these fuels and in developing technologies to apply them to transportation, lighting, food production, and a myriad of other purposes. Again, science alone will not get us out of this jam. Even though science can inform our range of decisions and their likely consequences, our problem-solving must be accompanied by clear-eyed moral thinking that takes into full account our responsibility to pass down to future generations a planet hospitable for humans and non-humans alike.

I believe science should play a role in peace-making also. For example, war crimes remain a common travesty; an integral part of war crimes is the ability of perpetrators to deny them, very often blaming their victims. Science can sometimes establish verifiable evidence in such cases. A good example of this concerns the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The open-source investigations team Bellingcat has published a number of articles that present compelling evidence that these attacks did occur, drawing on considerable scientific expertise (including the effect of chlorine on metal oxidation) to support their inferences.

Despite the usefulness of science, significant anti-science sentiment exists throughout the world. Recently, anti-science attitudes have played out as opposition to vaccines and other public health interventions (including masks) that could slow the spread of Covid-19; these attitudes also promote hoax treatments such as Ivermectin. This divide over public health measures is one of the hottest issues in the U.S. culture wars and, sadly, is doing much to drive us apart.

Humanity has a lot of work to do to become a science-literate species. A recent poll found that 35% of Russians believe the sun revolves around the earth, an increase from previous years. A study from the National Science Foundation from 2014 puts that number at 26% for Americans. Obviously, these trends do not look promising, and it is clear that anti-science rhetoric is widespread and mainstream.

Science as practiced is not perfect, and of course, it is wise to be skeptical of anything claiming to be authority. However, that the flaws and shortcomings of science should fuel anti-science sentiment is tragic. That Anthony Fauci received death threats for his public service as Surgeon General is appalling.

So, while I believe in the ideals of science, I also believe in paying attention to the various ways it often falls short. In addition to the fact that scientists are fallible humans, there are many incentives to distort the seeking of objective truth. The recent corrupt decisions by the FDA around Alzheimer’s medications did much to undermine truth in science. There is also a small but corrosive element of outright fraud among scientists, seemingly driven by incentives to rack up publication credit, regardless of actual contribution to knowledge. Elisabeth Bik has developed remarkable skill at detecting duplicate images and other telltale signs of forgery, and has continued to do wonderful work to uncover this type of fraud, but it is hard for individuals, no matter how bright and motivated, to make dramatic headway against systemic problems like these.

To me, science and Quaker faith are both approaches to seeking truth, but suitable for different domains. In my work on computer graphics, I have done significant study of color science, which contains many insights into the reflection and transmission of colored light, as well as ways that light is perceived by the human visual system. Yet – and not for want of trying – color science does not offer an equation or algorithm that represents the correct way to reproduce a particular color in a particular medium. Ultimately, the best way to reproduce color depends on human judgment, although that judgment will be informed by science. Many famous scientists have attempted to understand color, from Aristotle and Newton to the present day, but by far my favorite works on color theory are by artists, including Albert Munsell and Bruce MacEvoy.

I strive to live my life in this same way, seeking scientific insight for those questions that can be answered by science, and drawing on spiritual, emotional, and aesthetic resources for those that cannot. My senses of science and Quakerism are easy with each other, and I am glad to be of a faith where that is so.  ~~~

Raph Levien works as a research software engineer on the Google Fonts team, working on fonts and graphics technology. He designed the popular Inconsolata font, especially suited for computer code. He is a member of Berkeley Friends Meeting, and has served in a number of roles in Pacific Yearly Meeting.


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