Science: The Big Kahuna

22 January 2006


Today's show addresses the question  "What is science."    Our guest, Peter Godfrey Smith, has already posted a very intresting blog that addresses that question better than I could.   So I won't say anything here about the distinction between science and non-science.   Instead,  I want to focus a bit on the cultural and social impact of science, and a little bit on its relation to philosophy.   

It seems to me that science is really the big kahuna, as they say in Hawaii, in our culture.   It is humanity's most successful cognitive endeavor ever and by a pretty long shot.    It has given us deep understanding into almost all  constitutents of the  material universe from the workings of the smallest micro-particles to the large scale organization of the cosmos at large.  It has increased our understanding of life, of the dynamics of the fragile ecosystem of the lovely planet on which we live, of the human psyche, of the evolution of human culture and on and on and on.    And it has all happened in the relative blink of an eye.    Moreover,  science has played an amazing role in increasing our power to manipulate the natural world, for good or ill, in ways that serve human needs and satisfy human ends.

If I sound gung-ho about science, that's because I am.   It is a spectacularly successful human endeavor.  Without it,  human life would be much less grand than it is.

Still, there is no doubt, I think, that the progess of science has had its costs.   The increased power over nature with which it has endowed us may outstrip our wisdom.   Science has constantly given the lie to archaic beliefs and practices, beliefs and practices that sustained centuries old cultural formations.  But  if  science sometimes leaves archaic cultural formations in tatters and shreds,  with what does it replace them?  For better or worse,   where culture and social practices are concerned, science has mostly the power to destroy and little power to build.    I won't  go so far as to say that science has no positive role to play in cultural formation.  If we are to achieve a more environmentally sustainable way of life,  for example, then a more complete scientific  understanding of  the dynamics governing our fragile and precious eco-system seems essential to bringing a new way of life about.    One could easily multiply examples of ways in which increased scientific understanding can be instrumental to the positive  reconfiguration our cultural and social practices.

I have to admit that  I mostly  applaud the scientific overthrow of cultutral formations based on illusion, superstition, error, authority and the like.   Still,  I think that the  "destructive" side of science is too often overlooked or greeted with a shrug by those like me who fully and completely endorse the canons of scientific rationality.   It is not obvious to me that our ability to reform our culture and society can keep pace with the ability to undermine archaic forms.   A  century and a half  after  Darwin's theory of evolution  swept away the rational foundations of religious belief,  according to many,   religion still persists  as one of the dominant causes of strife, division, and illusion throughout human cultures. 

Why is that?   Because religion offers life-sustaining, hope-sustaining narratives to people.    And the  theory of natural selection offers no immediate replacement.  It tells us how not to live.  But it tells us nothing, and probably can tell us nothing,  about how we ought to live.    Even if the promise of religion is  a false promise, it is still  a promise.  Are we better off "at sea"  or better off moored in an illusory but safe-feeling harbor?   The answer is not entirely obvious.

I am not suggesting  that science's  inability to directly and immediately replace the cultural formations it sometimes  rationally  undermines  is any reason at all to slow the pace of science.    Let science progress as fast as it can.  Let the human mind be free to explore the deepest reaches of reality  Let truth and reason be our only idols. Let the pursuit of truth sweep aside all illusion and error.   Still,  I do think it is  important that we take the work of cultural reformation utterly seriously.  It will do us no good to be cognitive masters of the universe if in the bargain  we cannot build cultures that sustain and affirm human life.   

I do not  claim that it is impossible for us to have both no holds bar science and life affirming cultures.   Indeed,  I think one of the jobs of philosophy in particular and the humanities at large is to take the deliverances of science as inputs - though only one set of inputs among others -- and to churn out new cultural formations,  or at least imaginings of new cultural formations.    We humanists, philosophy included,  are partly in the business of re-imagining human possibilities, ways of living,  cultural forms, social practices.   Some of that re-imagining can be a re-imagining in light of the deliverances of science, especially such deliverances as threaten to undermine archaic cultural formations. 

So the bottom line,  if we let science proceed apace,  even in its cultural destroying mode, we  must also let philosophy and the humanities proceed apace in their  culture re-imagining mode.    Some people have thought that the sciences and the humanities partake in or help define two distinct  and competing cultures.  But I think this is a mistake.   Science and the humanities are best viewed as partners in the process of culture formation.   Science more often plays the wrecking crew.  And the humanities are more often the builders and re-imaginers.  But even this dichotomy shouldn't be carried too far.   Science can be a spur and can provide constructive input into the process of reconfiguration and re-imagination.  And sometimes, it's the job of the humanities, especially philosophy,  to deliver the message that certain  archaic cultural formations simply have no on-going rational basis in light of the progress of science.

Comments (5)

Guest's picture


Monday, January 23, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

a tie-in between philosophy and "newa

a tie-in between philosophy and "newage" philosophy the belief that what you think about you will get?ie: if you think you are getting sick you will get sick?if you think you will get in an accident the chances are you will?what you look for you will find. In sub-atomic theory when looking for an electron the electron only shows up in the area you are looking at. Maybe there is some credence to this ?newage? stuff?!

Guest's picture


Tuesday, January 24, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

Science may well be ?humanity's most successful

Science may well be ?humanity's most successful cognitive endeavor ever.? However, this begs the question as to what constitutes success. Clearly, many other beings in the world are greatly diminished at our expense. But, is even the human condition much improved, or have we just dressed up perennial misery with a few new baubles and bangles?
I agree with the sentiment that wisdom has languished while science has raced ahead. While Ken seems eager to scour the tarnished traditions of antiquity with the acid of science, I would propose that a gentler, less corrosive solvent might be a wiser choice. A healthy human ecosystem requires a broad diversity of viewpoints. What is true, remains true regardless of whatever priests, politicians or scientists believe.
Knowledge is the low hanging fruit. Wisdom is a little harder to reach.

Guest's picture


Monday, February 6, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

I listend to the podcast version of this edition a

I listend to the podcast version of this edition and I enjoyed the clarity you and your guest brought into this matter. In order to be perfect one of you might have included a 'footnote' about the relationship between science and literature. I will always remember Duerenmatt's "Die Physiker" (the phisicists), a play about scientists and their implicit responsability towards humanity.

Guest's picture


Sunday, March 19, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

I feel that science is a kind of belief, quite sim

I feel that science is a kind of belief, quite similar to other religions in many ways. Today's post on my weblog is about that subject;
Feel free to take a look.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, May 10, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

There is a crisis in modern fundemental physics to

There is a crisis in modern fundemental physics today, string theory claims to be a scientific theory of gravity and particle physics, but it can't make any falsifiable predictions. This has led many researchers to ask, is string theory a scientific theory or simply metaphysics, or something else?
The father of string theory Leonard Susskind has advocated the abandonment of falsifiablity as criteria for scientific theories and has advocated for a new philosophy of science:
What are the predominate philosophical views on this subject??
John G.