Science, justice, and living

I'm a scientist, and as such, I'm a big believer in using evidence and reason to understand the world.  But I admit it's not the only way.  Our legal system doesn't rely solely on rigid rules, and neither should we in our daily lives.

A recent Ars Technica opinion piece talked about why physicists so often try to speak authoritatively about subjects far from their actual expertise, and come across as jerks in the process.  The basic problem is that physicists (and many other technical types) believe that they are experts in the most fundamental, most important kind of knowledge, and in addition they're experts at using logic to defend almost any position.  This dovetails nicely with my last post and the comments on it.

One of the points made over and over again by Parker Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness was that it's a mistake to ignore other kinds of knowledge, for example what you might call intuition.  Or spiritual knowledge.  Or social insight.  You get the idea.  What makes physicists look like jerks is the implicit value judgement that these sources of information are inherently inferior to the firsthand observational knowledge of the natural world that physics is based on.  For many years I was that guy:  I couldn't tell you how many times I was called arrogant because I refused to take anything but what I called "facts" seriously.  I know now that "facts" excludes a whole lot of truth.

Science and justice:
Our legal system was born out of the historical period when empirical rationalism was the leading theory on how to guide people's actions.  That is in contrast to, say, taking theological recommendations as was done in earlier ages.  So the justice system and our Constitution were designed to influence our society like an engineer would design road widths to influence the flow of traffic through different areas.  For example, we decided that drugs are bad for society, so we outlawed them and put punishments in place for those who use them.  It's all theoretically based on cause and effect, though of course some laws are better supported by evidence than others.

But the legal system isn't a machine, impartially reshaping everyone who comes through it.  There is a non-rationalistic, non-empirical element built in:  the jury.  The jury is there to enforce what you might call poetic justice.

Science and living:
What does this have to do with our lives, the choices we make every day?  I've always tried to live my life according to principles, making an informed choice about the best way to live and then sticking to those choices.  When I learn something new, I revise my choices.  It's all very scientific.  But I've been thinking lately that it needs an element of poetic justice.  A truth other than the factual kind, a truth from my inner life in addition to those from the way I've come to see the rest of the world.  My wife has described me as the "king of self-denial", and it's true, I have immense restraint when it comes to doing what I *think* is best as opposed to what I want in the moment.  I've never trusted my impulses.

The thing is, I'm now coming to distrust my very scientific informed choices.  When I look back, I can see that a lot of them were just retroactive rationalizations for following a subconscious impulse.  That impulse might have been to avoid something feared, to approach something desired, or to strike at something hated.  But all those impulses were hidden.  To make a close analogy, as the Ars piece noted, during training in rhetoric one argues towards defending a predetermined position; this position may not be the one you would choose, or even one you think is right, but its assignment to you was hidden from the audience.  The point of the exercise in rhetoric is simply to lay down logical arguments to support it.  It's a deeply unscientific, even antiscientific, practice, and I think we do it all the time to defend our actions retroactively.  We do what we want, and then afterwards we come up with a story about why we did it. 

If we're acting on our desires anyway, why not bring them out of the subconscious and into the light?  Why not see our motivations for what they are, and give ourselves a chance to decide which of them to give in to?  Our rules for having a good life may say one thing, but our sense of poetic justice--or maybe just poetry--may have something else to say.