A Place for Virtue

Science as a virtuous practice

Re-Assembling Reality #28, by David A. Palmer and Mike Brownnutt

This has been a long journey. In the early essays, we put up mind maps of what we might have wanted science to be like (#5). We said that, on the Enlightenment View, the objectivity of science meant that science must be independent of a person’s character. “2+2=4” is true for all people; not just for the virtuous. And all people, not just the virtuous, can know that 2+2=4.

Under the Enlightenment Vision of science, scientific knowledge should be independent of a person’s character. (Source: Authors; adapted from Essay #5.)

Let religion, then, foster virtue. But virtue has no part in science.

In this Essay, we will revisit this idea, and show that it is wrong. Very wrong.

Growing Pineapples

Have you ever grown a pineapple? Do you know how to grow pineapples?

Step-by-step how to grow a pineapple

If you live in a place with a suitable climate, I heartily recommend the practice. There are few things sweeter than a pineapple you have grown yourself. So let me tell you how it works.

First, buy a pineapple. (Let us skirt around the chicken-and-egg problem here. Just buy one.) Cut off the top, and set it to one side. Eat the rest of the pineapple. (Do not neglect the eating step. It is very important, for reasons we will come to.) Leave the top to dry out for about a week.

Remove the lower-most leaves from the base of the dry stump, until you can see root buds. Place it in a jar of water for about two weeks, until a good number of roots have grown.

Leave the crown to dry for a week. Remove the lower-most leaves. Leave in water for two weeks. Plant in a large pot. (Note, the pot here is not large enough. It needed re-potting when it was larger, and that caused pain.) (Source: Authors.)

Plant the pineapple in a large pot. Putting the tiny little stump in a 45 cm pot may seem like overkill, but if you put it in anything smaller, you are making your life harder in the long run. The crown will grow to be about a metre across, and the leaves will be stiff and spikey. You can start in a small pot and re-pot it later if you want, but it will take leather gloves and safety goggles. You do not mess with a fully grown pineapple plant.

One year on, your pineapple plant has beautiful leaves. (Source: Authors.)

Put the pot somewhere warm and sunny. Water it. And wait.

Watch it grow. Bigger. And bigger. Water it some more.

Watch summer turn to autumn. Water it some more. Watch it grow.

Celebrate Christmas, New Year, Easter. Rejoice as new life bursts forth across your garden. Water your pineapple plant. And wait.

Summer. Autumn. Christmas. Again. Water it some more.

Be glad you were advised to choose a large pot all that time ago, because the plant is now large and draws blood when you get too close.

Spring. And finally there are flowers. Beautiful, delicate, purple flowers. Watch insects buzz and climb all over it. Watch it gently swell to form the body of a pineapple. Water it some more. Wait.

Watch flowers grow. Watch flowers die. Watch the fruit form. (Source: Authors.)

Watch the flowers die. Watch the yellow body of the pineapple grow and turn green. A month. Two. Three. Keep watering.

Watch the body turn brown. Gently squeeze it to see if it is ripe. Give it a gentle tug to see if it will come. No. Wait. Maybe another month.

Watch.

Then one day, it is ready. A long reach over the barbed leaves. A firm grip. A gentle twist. Away it comes in your hand.

Be exceptionally pleased. All the more pleased if you literally had to had to wait half your life to finally eat what you planted. (Source: Authors.)

Call your family. Call your friends. Call your neighbors. Call every guest you have had to your house in the last two years that you have proudly shown your growing pineapple to. Throw special dinner party. Cut up the pineapple and share it around. Enjoy the sweet — oh so sweet — sticky juice running down your chin, fingers, wrists.

One cubic metre of warm sunny space that you don’t mind giving up for two years. Two years of watching and waiting. For one very sweet pineapple.

Do you know how to grow a pineapple?

In one sense the answer is “Yes.” If you follow the above instructions step by step, you can grow a pineapple. You know the instructions. So surely you know how to grow a pineapple.

But there is a difference between knowing the instructions, and knowing how to follow the instructions. When I show people my pineapple plants, they often insist, “I could never do that!” Why not? “How can I wait two years for a pineapple? Just waiting?”

And there is the key.

An impatient person knows what every step is for growing a pineapple. But they do not know how to grow a pineapple. Because they do not know how to wait for two years.

There are YouTube videos that will tell you all sorts of things: How to grow a pineapple (in 3:19). How to make money on the stock market (in 9:22). How to do Houdini’s escapes (5:22). How to get rock-hard abs (in 59 seconds!) How to raise children (in 14 minutes). There are even videos that tell you how to be patient (in 3:37). But there are few that inculcate patience in you. (Honourable mention, though, to John Cage’s 4'33" on loop for ten hours.)

A video which tells you how to get rock-hard abs, but which does not inculcate in you certain character virtues (such as patience, tenacity, determination, delay of gratification, day after day after day after day) has told you how to get rock hard abs. But you still do not know how to do it.

It is not possible for an impatient person to know how to grow a pineapple. If a person does ultimately learn how to grow a pineapple, they become, in that process, a patient person. It is not possible for an impatient person to know what a self-grown pineapple tastes like.

And patience is only one of many virtues fostered by (and required by) pineapple growing. Respect is another, for example. If nothing else, it develops respect for pineapples. Before I ever grew them, I would not think anything of leaving a pineapple on the side until it was too soft to eat, and then throwing it away. If I still wanted a pineapple, I could walk to a shop and buy another one. A few minutes, a few dollars. No big deal.

Hopefully, you now understand why I told you at the start of this section to eat the original pineapple. If you do not understand this by now, you will certainly understand once you have grown a pineapple yourself. In the mean time, please simply trust me: eating the pineapple is important. Do it, even if you do not understand why. I do not want a wasted pineapple to weigh on your conscience once light dawns.

Doing science

Let us separate out three kinds of knowledge:
— Knowing how…
— Knowing what it’s like…
— Knowing that…

Knowing how

The first category involves skills: knowing how to grow a pineapple, how to get rock-hard abs, how to play the piano, how to align a laser.

A narrow view of skills sees them as good (or not) because of the ability that the skill itself brings:
— The skill of knowing how to grow pineapples is useless because it is easier and quicker to just buy pineapples from a shop.
— The skill of knowing how to get rock-hard abs is useful because it makes you healthier.
— The skill of knowing how to play the piano is useless because, once you got to Grade 8, you never touched a piano again; now you study engineering and all the money your parents spent on lessons was for nothing.
— The skill of knowing how to align a laser is useful because then you can take measurements of atomic spectra and generate useful scientific knowledge.

But we have seen in the case of pineapples that learning a skill requires certain virtues. Even viewed in a narrow utilitarian manner, these virtues have a usefulness that reaches far beyond the usefulness of the skill itself. This is not limited to pineapples. It holds for all skills.

It may be that the ability to play the Moonlight Sonata is not immediately relevant to being an engineer. But what about the ability to return to minutely tedious tasks, hour after hour, day after day? That skill will serve an engineer very well. And it is fostered by learning to play the piano. What about the ability to keep the bigger picture in mind, and also work on that one tricky piece that ruins the functioning of the whole? Or the ability to take correction from someone who is more skilled than you, and combine those with your own creative insights? Or the ability to say that you are not going out with friends this evening because there is something you need to work on; knowing that the pay-off for that work will not come for months, and will not be appreciated by most people anyway? These are all skills that an engineer needs, and they are skills that learning the piano teaches you.

A child starts her training to be an engineer. (Source: pxhere.)

Beyond such utilitarian views, developing virtues is arguably a good end in itself. As such, society benefits when people are trained as scientists. Certainly, society benefits because society learns that we are making the world hotter, and we need to stop burning things. But society also benefits because society with scientists in it (if the scientists have beet properly trained) is a society with patient people in it. And that is a good thing.

Certainly, there are virtues that can be fostered by a monastic life. But there are also virtues that can be fostered by an academic life. Why else would we call them academic disciplines? It is unfortunate that science, in its attempt to distance itself from religion, has lost sight of this key aspect of the practice.

Knowing what its like

Knowing the skill of how to grow a pineapple is not the same thing as knowing the experience of eating a self-grown pineapple. Knowing how to play the piano is not the same thing as knowing what it feels like to entertain a packed auditorium. But they also cannot be separated.

Did the audience connect with the music? Were they entertained? Or did they just clap at the end? There is a free flow back and forth between knowing how to entertain an audience, and knowing what it’s like to stand before an audience that you have genuinely entertained.

In like fashion, there is a free flow back and forth between knowing how to align a laser, and knowing what it is like to stand before a well-aligned laser. The gratification of seeing a small, steady, blue spot at the output. To tune it and see the wavelength smoothly change without mode-hops or instabilities. To look at the output on a spectrum analyser and know that — after hours, weeks, months, or even years of work — you have a laser that is happy.

First, align your laser. Just make sure all these optics are OK. (Source: Authors. h/t Quantum Optics and Spectroscopy Group, Innsbruck. )

An impatient person will never align a laser. And a person who has never aligned a laser will never know what it is like to stand before a well-aligned laser.

Knowledge that…

Scientific knowledge, we are regularly assured, is of the type “knowledge that…”. Because of science, we know that the world is getting warmer. We know that it was human actions which caused it to get warmer. We know that there are certain actions which we can take now to avert the worst of the disasters to which our current path is leading.

Science textbooks provide knowledge that. Science exams test knowledge that. Science papers publish knowledge that. Nobel prizes are awarded for knowledge that.

No science exam ever assessed the patience of the students, or examined the students for virtue. No PhD defense committee cares if the student knows what it feels like to do science. No one sits a student in the lab to see if the hairs on their neck rise, ever so slightly, when the sequence of relay shutters is clicking ever so slightly out of sync [1]. This, we are told, is because science involves only knowledge that.

A member of the general public is considered scientifically literate if they know “science says that…” Science says that the world is getting hotter. Any member of the public can know this. Impatient people. People who don’t know how to do a literature search. People who don’t know what what is it feels like to sit in a lab.

Developing a skill is intertwined with developing character. Developing experience of what feels right is intertwined with developing a skill. And (in the Enlightenment Vision) science, and scientific knowledge, must be independent of a person’s character. So science can only give us knowing that. And knowing that must be independent of knowing how or knowing what it’s like.

Either that, or the Enlightenment Vision must be wrong again.

The interconnectedness of scientific knowledge

Of course, it should be no surprise this far through the series that the Enlightenment Vision is wrong again.

Ask someone (anyone: a physicist, a biologist, a random person on the street) if they know what energy is needed to pull an electron off a hydrogen atom [2]. They will give one of three basic answers:

—Yes, I do know. I measured/calculated it myself.
— Yes, I do know. I read it/heard it somewhere.
— No, I don’t know.

First-hand knowledge that

If a person has measured the ground-state energy of a hydrogen atom themself, then they are an exceptionally patient person. They have spent time learning how to assemble detectors and traps, and how to care for some very unpleasant lasers. They have measured results than made sense, and measured results that made no sense, and they have double-checked them all.

If a person has calculated the ground-state energy of a hydrogen atom themself, then they are, at very least, a reasonably patient person. After only two years at university, an undergraduate physicist can calculate it to be -13.6eV. If they are more patient than that, they may have gone on to calculate the hyperfine structure. Only an unimaginably patient person has ever performed the ab initio calculation.

In any event, a person having first-hand knowledge that the ground state energy of hydrogen is -13.6 eV, necessarily also has some kind of knowledge how: either knowledge how to build a laser, or knowledge how to do the calculation. First-hand knowledge that is unobtainable without knowledge how. And knowledge how is unobtainable without having a certain set of virtues.

Second-hand knowledge that

What about a person who says that they read it somewhere, or heard it somewhere? There is no shame in this, and there is certainly nothing un-scientific about it. Most scientists (indeed most physicists. Indeed most atomic physicists) have never personally worked with hydrogen. They can only tell you the energy of the ground state of hydrogen because they read it somewhere.

There are, though, differences between different kinds of second-hand knowledge that.

When the person read it, did they read it on Wikipedia? On Google? Was it just the first hit that came up on Google? Did they dig deeper to work out why the top two Google hits give different answers? Did they take it from a book on the NIST website, or from the interactive database on the NIST website? Do they know why different places on the NIST website don’t give the same answer? What is the significance (or even the meaning) of the small print on the NIST number?

An impatient person is no more able to understand the NIST website than they are able to grow a pineapple.

What about when a person heard it from somewhere? When they heard it, did they hear it from a respected scientist? Do they know if that scientist has a habit of mis-quoting physical constants? Did they hear it from a friend in the pub? Does that friend work for a National Measurement Institute?

It is true that wombats poop squares. It is not true that people blink 4 million times a day. And if Zuckerberg had Olaf’s awareness that advancing technology is both our savior and our doom, he might go slower with the Metaverse.

Second-hand knowledge that, if it is to count as knowledge, requires us to know how to interpret the sources. If I do not know how to interpret the literature, then saying, “This book says the ground state energy is -13.7 eV” is no more scientific, and no better a claim to knowledge, than saying, “This book says that the universe was created in six days.” [3] If I do not know how to critically appraise the reliability of people’s claims of different issues, then the technological predictions of Mark Zuckerberg are no better and no worse than the off-the-cuff remarks of Olaf.

Knowing how to interpret the literature and how to weigh people’s claims is knowledge how. Thus, even second-hand knowledge that is unobtainable without knowledge how. And knowledge how is unobtainable without having a certain set of virtues.

Footnotes

[1] I will confess that it is too strong to claim that “no-one” does this. There are tremendously fruitful collaborations at the University of Innsbruck between experimentalists and theorists. One problem, though, is that some things are easy to calculate and hard to measure (and vice versa). On one occasion, in response to a theorist saying “Why don’t you just measure this?” the experimentalists took him to the lab so he could join them for a set of measurements. Twenty four hours later, bleary eyed and running only on caffeine, they stepped out of the lab with him and said, “That was the easy measurement. Do you now understand why we do not try to do the difficult measurement?” The collaboration was greatly enhanced by the theorist understanding what it feels like to sit in the lab.

[2] You could pick any other piece of scientific knowledge: the mutation rate of genes, the octane rating of bio-diesel, the effect of blue light on children’s concentration…

[3] This is not to disparage religion in general, or books in particular which say that the universe was created in six days. There is a need within religion, as in science, to be able to interpret literature.

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Mike Brownnutt

Mike Brownnutt

I have a Master's in theology and a PhD in physics. I am employed in social work to do philosophy. Sometimes I pretend that's not a bit weird.