George Saad’s paraphrase of the famous papal encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” (John Paul II, 1993), attributing all sorts of University problems to a lack of objective standards, is amusing and bizarre (“It’s All Relative,” 11/17/09).
Believing the premise for a second, he seems to believe the problem “occup[ies] every aspect of life at the University.” For the students who aspire to the hard sciences or the most popular major on campus, economics, the answer would be quite different. Students in these disciplines seek truth in results that directly relate to the real world. And most of them, quite objectively, aren’t relativists.
That said, their skepticism is rooted in the belief that our models will be overturned, refined or extended. As Feynman said on even his own self-criticisms: “I am, of course, not sure of that.” Most scientists are happy living in tandem with skepticism. After all, if we claimed objective knowledge of the universe, it would be a pretty boring subject (and a pretty wrong one).
Which brings us to the most curious part of the article. There is no (and I mean objectively no) discussion of the reasons objective truth exists, just the repeated sentiment that it makes everything work out so much more cleanly. Ironically, the sentimental (read: relative) criterion of accepting ideas because they make us feel good is at the root of his complaint about “inventing the truth for ourselves” to begin with.
One question seems to nag at me, though—for someone so focused on objective knowledge, how did he get half of the student body so wrong? Maybe (surprise), what we personally hold to be objectively true can sometimes be wrong—driving, of course, the need for skepticism. As Feynman said on winning the Nobel Prize, “I am, of course, not sure of that.”
And trust me, we math majors are not self-conscious and awkward because we don’t believe in proving things.
Class of 2010