Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Identity Crisis

Sometimes, oftentimes, I wonder if I actually "count" as a scientist.  If I'm really a scientist, or just someone with high-functioning autism and a love of applied mathematics.

I don't find myself fitting in with the rest of the scientific community, or not very well.

I don't hold to empiricism, or naturalism, or logical positivism, or modernism, or any of the other epistemologies associated with science and atheism.  I don't think repeated experiment is the only way to know anything.  It's certainly a very good way, but there are others as well.  Just for instance, I find Sacred Scripture - namely the Bible - to also be a valid source of knowledge, and one with which empirical knowledge must be reconciled.

I don't think further scientific research represents "progress" of the human race.  I don't see science as an end of itself -- I see it more the way a hot rod enthusiast might see fixing up an engine.  I think sometimes technology has hurt society.  Some scientific investigations are morally wrong, and I don't care how much "progress" comes of them.

Also, I have a hard time calling some things "science".  Like biology largely seems as scientific to me as sociology... which is to say not at all.  Just because someone made observations and calculated some p-values doesn't make it science, in my mind -- whether it makes it "science" objectively from modern definitions is something else.  When people cite "scientific" studies of giving orange jello to half the subjects and green to the rest and noticing an increased risk of later heart disease in those who ate the orange, I give that about as much weight as anecdotal evidence.  Whether I "should" give it more weight isn't the issue -- in terms of statistics, double-blind clinical studies carry far more reliability than anecdotes -- but I just don't find it compelling intellectually.  Physics I do, computer science I do, math I do, most chemistry even... but a lot of other fields cited as "scientific" fall short of the sort of absolutist, logically necessary quality that I consider true science.

I'm also largely uninterested in experimental results.  The process of performing an experiment is exciting to me, and understanding how an experiment works is exciting, but the meaning of the results doesn't entice me at all.  Data seems mostly like an irrelevant detail, after the planning and arrangement of the equipment to make it.  Of course, being in theory, I've never actually done a real experiment -- and likely for this reason.

There's a lot of things, that really make me feel like I am not a scientist at all.  Like I'm just some guy playing at it because it's neat, but not really living it the way my peers do.  It's not my worldview, it's not my hope, it's not my canon of truth and goodness.  I just study it because it's fascinating.

Sometimes, I think that I really don't have any business studying physics, and that I should instead drop out and go to seminary or something.

So there you go.  Sometimes, I don't feel like I'm really a scientist, and like I shouldn't call myself that no matter how much science I do or study, and that I should probably do something else with my life; and it's likely most real scientists would agree.

Oh well.


Anonymous said...

After your many years in science I wonder if you've come to change you mind about how we've come to know things? The only truth I can accept beyond repeated experiment is mathematical truth. Scripture doesn't even hold a faint candle to the deeply profound and complex truth of mathematics.

I've found theorists don't really make very good scientists, but that doesn't mean you can't be good at what you do. In high energy physics especially nobody has said anything new that we know to be true in decades - that hasn't stopped theorists exploring and playing with the equations of the world, discovering mathematical truth where there is no physical truth.

I hope you didn't go off to the seminary, it would be an awful waste of a clearly intelligent mind.

Reece said...

Thank you for the kind words.

I didn't have too many years, in the broad scheme of things. I was in undergrad about three years, then in graduate school for five. I published one paper in Physical Review D, and while it's a pretty neat paper, it's influence factor is and probably will remain at around 0. While I'm pretty proud of it, it's likely that as I a physicist I will always remain more broadly known for my theory about the Berenst*in Bears than anything else.

I dropped out recently. Combination of a lot of things, but in large part what I felt was a lack of academic support from my advisors and also a dearth of financial support from the university and from federal grants. I applied at some other schools where I thought I'd get more support to try to finish my PhD elsewhere, but got rejected from every single school. Apparently it doesn't look too good to quit grad school after five years.

Right now I'm getting ready to teach high school physics at a private Christian school in my hometown.

So, any pretension I've made to being a scientific expert was probably only that: pretension.

I might go to seminary still. My girlfriend wants me to. But it costs a lot of money. If I end up marrying her, then it is likely that I will at some point in my life.

After my less-than-illustrious career as a graduate student, I did not manage to change my mind about sacred scripture. Though I acknowledge your point about mathematical beauty; some of the insights afforded by things like Lie algebra are jaw-dropping.

I wish you luck in your own intellectual journey.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear that.. as a fellow 5th year theoretical physics graduate student, I know the pains of funding. I'm scraping through only because of the support I'm able to eek out teaching disinterested undergraduates.

Good luck with your teaching, my high school physics teacher had a huge influence on me. I don't know whether to thank him or curse him for where I am now..