quotes science

Quote #261: The art of the soluble and the aches of incomprehension

Like other amateurs, Koestler finds it difficult to understand why scientists seem so often to shirk the study of really fundamental or challenging problems. With Robert Graves he regrets the absence of ‘intense research’ upon variations in the – ah – ’emotive potentials of the sense modalities’. He wonders why ‘the genetics of behaviour’ should still be ‘uncharted territory’ and asks whether this may not be because the framework of Neo-Darwinism is too rickety to support an inquiry. The real reason is so much simpler: the problem is very, very difficult. Goodness knows how it is to be got at. It may be outflanked or it may yield to attrition, but probably not to a direct assault. No scientist is admired for failing in the attempt to solve problems that lie beyond his competence. The most he can hope for is the kindly contempt earned by the Utopian politician. If politics is the art of the possible, research is surely the art of the soluble. Both are immensely practical-minded affairs.
Although much of Koestler’s book has to do with explanation, he seems to pay little attention to the narrowly scientific usages of the concept. Some of the ‘explanations’ he quotes with approval are simply analgesic pills which dull the aches of incomprehension without going into their causes. The kind of explanation the scientist spends most of his time thinking up and testing – the hypotheses which enfolds the matters to be explained among its logical consequences – gets little attention.

Peter Medawar, from a review of Arthur Koestler’s “The Act of Creation” (New Statesman, 19 June 1964) and republished in ‘The Art of the Soluble’ (1967)

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