“About what one can not speak, one must remain silent.” The last line of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus tends to resonate with scientists, sceptics, atheists, and other fans of rationality. If your thought cannot be articulated sensibly in plain language then you had better keep it to yourself. Written amid the slaughter of World War I, the book became central to the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers who sat around the Café Centrale in the 1920s discussing which statements could be boiled down into verifiable empirical claims and those that could not. The latter, which included all of metaphysics and theology, they dismissed as meaningless nonsense. When the group finally convinced a reluctant Wittgenstein to visit them, he was so exasperated with their philosophy, logical positivism, that he took to turning his chair to the wall and reading Rabindranath Tagore poetry out loud during their meetings. They had misunderstood him, Wittgenstein explained. The ethical convictions, values and metaphysical ideas they had busily classified as “nonsense” were not worthless. In fact, they were the most important concerns in life.
I was reminded of Wittgenstein recently, when I read the firestorm of online criticism that followed the publication of a column in Nature magazine by Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.
In the piece, inspired by a visit to the Angkor temples in Cambodia and gamely entitled “Sometimes science must give way to religion,” Sarewitz drew some parallels between science and religion. (Note, however, that he did not support the misguided idea that science and religion were the same, or that science was nothing more than a belief system.) Worse, in many people’s eyes, was that he went further and argued that science alone is not enough—humanity will always need other ways of understanding the world. Citing the recent discovery of the Higgs boson, Sarewitz says:
“For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality…in practical terms, the Higgs is an incomprehensible abstraction, a partial solution to an extraordinarily rarified and perhaps always-incomplete intellectual puzzle. By contrast, the Angkor temples demonstrate how religion can offer an authentic personal encounter with the unknown.”
I have my own problems with the piece. But the vehemence of the attack on Sarewitz would have made anyone think he had advocated teaching creationism in science classes while smacking Richard Dawkins around the head with a copy of the Holy Bible.