As an aspiring Buddhist (philosophically, not religiously) I’ve long believed in the artificiality of simple dichotomies: black or white, good or bad, god or the devil, you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists. But some dichotomies seem genuine: positive versus negative charges, for example, or inhibitory versus excitatory synapses. And in the sciences, at least, there is the enduring tension—sometimes positive, sometimes negative in its own way—between theory and empiricism.
Think about theoretical physicists on the one hand and experimentalists on the other, or the cosmologists as distinct from the telescope-using astronomers, or—something I’d like to think I know at least something about—theoretical and empirical biologists.
I recall a colloquium during my graduate days, presented by a highly regarded mathematician-cum-ecologist, intended to advance what was then seen as a hot topic: ecological energetics. It began with the following show-stopper: “Posit a spherical moose.”
There was another one (I’m not making this up), that involved an illuminating, theoretically solid—indeed, stunningly brilliant—analysis of activity patterns in a hypothetical frog, which concluded that the “animal” should be maximally active at dawn. An altogether admirable piece of work, albeit somewhat spoiled by the fact that in the audience was a field biologist who, unbeknownst to the theoretician, had been studying a real frog that met essentially every hypothesized characteristic of the modeled critter … and was active only at dusk!
Ideally, theory and empiricism are mutually reinforcing, and to a wonderful extent, this is true of science generally. Therein lies much of its power. I’m thinking of how the Michelson-Morley experiment paved the way for acceptance of Einstein’s special relativity, and how the early 20th-century consilience between natural history observations and the mathematical analysis of population genetics gave rise to the modern synthetic theory of evolution.
Tension nonetheless persists between theoreticians and empiricists, leading to versions of the following joke: A stranger approaches a shepherd with this wager: “If I can tell you how many sheep are in your flock, I get to take one. If I’m wrong, I’ll give you $20.” The shepherd agrees and to his amazement, the stranger makes a quick calculation, then announces the correct number: 127. As he is about to depart, the shepherd interrupts with “My turn now. If I can guess your profession, will you give back my animal?” The stranger agrees, whereupon the shepherd announces: a theoretical biologist. And he’s right! How did he know? “Because that’s my dog you’re trying to walk away with.”
Are there comparable tensions (as well as mutually reinforcing payoffs) between theoreticians and empiricists in the social sciences and humanities? Between devotees of literary theory and believers in “close reading”? Between economic modelers and data-gatherers? Between philosophers of art and artists? Or is this dynamic uniquely pronounced in the natural sciences?