14 May 2009

Gathering Facts Without Abandoning Meaning

Their lives were too human for science, too beautiful for numbers, too sad for diagnosis and too immortal for bound journals.

There's a fascinating essay up on the Atlantic's website entitled "What Makes Us Happy?" It features a prominent behavioral scientist, Dr. George Vaillant, who has been the champion of a 72-year study on the lives of a group of 200 Harvard graduates. Known as a "longitudinal" approach, such studies select a relatively narrow segment of the population but track it over a much longer period of time--a sort of antithesis to the Gallup poll.

What I found so intriguing about the essay (and the man it featured) was that for all the empirical data, the lives of the men who were being studied had not been reduced to that data. It struck me as a good example of the sort of science that a Catholic Christian could embrace. There were no cries of exhaustive explanatory power for what constituted the fullness of human existence, nor declarations of the uselessness of all other approaches to understanding human beings. Just patient, intensely observant attention. Here was a man who seems to instantiate the openness to all the purview of reason, as described by Lewis, Chesterton, and more recently, Benedict (you can read more about their diagnosis of the contemporary self-limitation of reason here).

While there's no clear exposition of the philosophical outlook of study's champion, the tone I gathered was mostly favorable, and I would recommend reading the essay if you've got a half hour or so to spare.

Via Arts & Letters Daily.

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