The promise of science

As an engineer, I tend to take what I think is a pretty rational view of the world.  When making an argument, I prefer to rely on established fact, rather than appealing to emotion.  Thus, it probably comes as no surprise that I fall squarely in the "pro-science" camp.  I believe science is unrivaled in its ability to inform our understanding of the world around us.

But lately I've been paying attention to a worrying trend that I think has been playing out in public discourse, especially political discourse.  There seems to be a belief in some circles that science is a panacea for what ails humanity.  Furthermore, there are many who frame public policy discussions around a conflict between science and religion.  One only has to look at history to understand why someone might get the impression that science and religion are incompatible.

After all, religion -- particularly, but not exclusively, Western religion -- has often overreached in the past, attempting to explain things (like the motion of the planets) in spiritual terms that should instead have been explained through secular science.  The outcome of this overreach in the near term was often tragic for those who promoted science, and in the long term brought discredit (rightfully) to religion.

So I think there are some justifiable misgivings when it comes to basing public policy decisions on religion.  And while I am loath to come to the defense of religion, I also think that the effect of this historical context has been to polarize those who champion science into seeing science as the cure to all of society's ills, and looking at religious individuals with a measure of contempt, or at the very least, condescension.

When Third Eye Blind's frontman trolled Republican convention-goers in Cleveland with the taunt "Raise your hand if you believe in science," the subtext was that, if you don't "believe in science" (whatever that means), then you are an enemy of progress.  Science, then, is the means to move humanity forward.  But I find myself wondering, forward to what?

I want to be clear here -- I don't disagree with the premise that science is the most sensible way to guide public policy.  I think this is absolutely warranted by the fact that science provides the best means humans have found to make reliable predictions about the future.  And when you get down to it, public policy inherently involves deciding between multiple courses of action in the future.  Why wouldn't we avail ourselves of this powerful tool?  But I also want to call into question the notion that science is the sole keeper of "truth", or that science is a panacea for society's ills.

One of the central tenets of the scientific method is that one does not employ hypotheses that cannot be tested when attempting to answer a question.  But there are many questions we humans ask that cannot be answered with testable hypotheses.  But to conclude that such questions cannot have a "true" answer, since they fall outside the scope of science, is to presume that science has a monopoly on truth.  And to presume that science has a monopoly on truth is to (ironically) rely on an untestable hypothesis, or else make the circular argument that truth is defined as that which can be verified using the scientific method.

There are questions that cannot be answered by science, but it seems to me that this does not imply that the questions are not worth asking (or answering).  Alan Watts explains it beautifully in The Wisdom of Insecurity when he writes:

The scope and purposes of science are woefully misunderstood when the universe which it describes is confused with the universe in which man lives.  Science is talking about a symbol of the real universe, and this symbol has much the same use as money.  It is a convenient timesaver for making practical arrangements.  But when money and wealth, reality and science are confused, the symbol becomes a burden...
The scientific way of symbolizing the world is more suited to utilitarian purposes than the religious way, but this does not mean that it has any more "truth".  Is it truer to classify rabbits according to their meat or according to their fur?  It depends on what you want to do with them.  The clash between science and religion has not shown that religion is false and science is true.  It has shown that all systems of definition are relative to various purposes, and that none of them actually "grasp" reality.

I'd also like to call into question the utopian vision of the future that many who "believe in science" seem to possess.  First, there is reason to doubt that science can deliver this utopia solely on the basis that science, or the byproduct of applying scientific knowledge, seems to create as many problems as it solves.  Global climate change is one timely example that comes to mind.  But even if we suppose that science reaches a point in the future where it can resolve the problems that it has created, what does this future look like?

Science may one day lead us to a world in which hunger, poverty, and illness do not exist.  Our every material want will be provided for.  But even in this new world, man will still be man.  While walking across campus back in college one day, I overheard a preacher (or more accurately, a guy who would argue with and/or berate students, and win few converts) ask the students who had gathered to debate with him to "name one sin that science has eliminated."  While my first inclination was to raise my secular eyebrows at the mention of "sin", upon further reflection, I considered that most reasonable people, including atheists and agnostics, would agree that human frailties like greed, dishonesty, jealousy, etc. could be considered "sins", within the context of the question the preacher posed.  It seems doubtful to me that science will ever be able to eliminate these very human traits.  Consequently, it's hard for me to imagine science ushering in a utopian age.

Without a doubt, science is the foremost driver of progress.  But unless those of us who champion science take a moment to reflect on what we are progressing towards, and revisit our underlying assumptions about what it is that science promises us, I suspect that we will be left in this polarized state -- unable to empathize with those who take solace in spirituality.