The promise of science - follow up

I recently shared my most recent blog post on the promise of science with my good friend Adam, who happens to be one of the sharpest guys I know.  I find his way of thinking to be very precise, methodical, and lucid, which appeals to my engineering-oriented mind.  He also happens to have a law degree from Harvard, so you really need to stay on your toes and know your sh*t if you want to debate him.

Anyway, he sent me an email with his thoughts, and I thought it was so well-written that it would be a shame for it to die in my inbox.  With his permission, I've posted the bulk of it below.  I had some responses, but thought it ruined the flow of his argument to include them in-line, so I'll try and include them as a comment to this post.  Enjoy.

- Justin

Adam's reply

"My first reaction is that I think you are talking about 'Science' on a couple different levels at once, and I'd like to separate them out for a clearer discussion.

"First, I want to sort out the 'Third Eye Blind at the RNC' version of 'Science.'  I suppose it would be easy to laugh this off as a non-serious use of the term, but I think 3EB are a good example of a use of 'Science' that is fairly prevalent: as a stand-in for a group of concepts relating to people's belief in rational policymaking and generally atheistic thought.

"I think this is a valuable and non-trivial use of the word!  Though it's hardly the same thing as 'employment of the scientific method to test and prove hypotheses about the nature of the world around us,' or whatever.  Instead, I think this is mostly a short-hand way of talking about whether the people in question accept certain scientific-ish truths about the world.  To 'believe in Science' means to accept the reality of manmade climate change, of evolution, of, I don't know, plate tectonics and the heliocentric solar system and that vaccines don't cause autism.

"These are all, I think we can agree, good things to accept as true, in the sense that they are demonstrable and provable, and the recognition of them as scientific truths can lead to greater progress in our society (more on 'progress' in a second).  And they are also a convenient litmus test for separating (many but not all) conservatives from liberals.  Not to mention a source of I'm-smarter-than-you sniggering at the benighted simpletons that are thought to occupy most red states (On that point, I'll just say that I do wish most of those GOP voters would accept these scientific truths as part of their worldview, but I don't want to blame them for not so accepting:  that fault falls squarely on their party leaders, who have, in my view, bamboozled and betrayed them by using silly non-disputes as wedges to gain votes.  But whatever).

"I mentioned 'progress,' and that leads me to the second way I think the term 'Science' is used in your blogpost: to mean technical advancement in our world.  In this regard, 'Science' does appear to have more-or-less a 'monopoly' on 'truth,' in the sense that Christianity did not help us understand how airplanes work, or rockets, or let us land on the moon, or invent Tang, or Velcro; Buddhism did not aid in developing GPS, or the Polio vaccine; Islam did not influence the development of HTTP or the laying of undersea fiber-optic cables.  And, sometimes, these religions, or other systems of belief beyond strictly-speaking 'religion' (such as superstition, cultural norms, prejudices, etc.), have actively stood in the way of good and real progress (I could list many examples, but let's just get it over with and say Holocaust and move on).

"I guess Watts is right that Science is just 'a convenient timesaver for making practical arrangements,' but damn is it convenient and practical!  Science, as a system of belief and thought and a way of approaching problems, has yielded immense and powerful results that -- and make no mistake on this point -- have created tangible benefits in this world, and increased the happiness, or at least the ability to be happy, of billions of people.  I know that we don't normally use 'truth' to mean 'knowing how to build rockets' or whatever, so it's imperfect to use 'truth' in that way (as I did in the previous paragraph), but to the extent 'truth' extends to the notion of Science being the best system we are aware of for understanding the universe and using that knowledge to make practical improvements in people's lives, then, yes, it is a way of getting at the truth.

"But that brings us to the third point: Science as a method for the moral and social growth of humanity.  This seems to be mostly what your post is about, and so my apologies for leaving it until last (but I wanted to get that other stuff out of the way first!).  I think the reason Science gets wrapped up in this 3rd concept is because of a combination of #1 and #2 above.  When Science is producing such tangible, and demonstrably helpful and good results (#2), and when it's also been co-opted, as a concept, to help us separate 'people who believe in progress' from those who allegedly don't (#1), it seems only a short slide down the slippery slope to arrive at this almost-religious notion of 'SCIENCE' as a philosophy for life.

"This takes on its most malicious form, I think, in the people who think that other ways of looking at the world -- especially, but not exclusively, religion -- need to be actively stamped out.  You know, like Christopher Hitchens.

"I don't like that stuff.  I think that religion does a lot of good in the world:  it's inspired great works of art, great systems of morality, and it influences people's happiness and self-worth every day.  There's nothing wrong with that.  And there's nothing wrong with admitting that Science can't fill that role for everyone.

"I think there is value that Science can provide in this arena, though.  To the extent it can temper our most extreme beliefs, by, first, alleviating the ills that often drive us to extreme behavior (hunger, other shortages), and, second, to the extent it can provide perspective that might cause us to rethink our relationships with each other and our place in the universe, Science can also be a powerful tool in this 3rd category as well.  And I think people can (and do) live complete and moral lives without the presence of religion at all (insert Google search for 'morality without religion' here).  And that's not even to mention this aspect of Science, as an aid to increasing our sense of wonderment at the sublime beauty of the world, which might be something else real and powerful that Science can provide to the world.
"But my point is that I agree with you, and Watts, that while Science might provide powerful and illuminating perspective, it cannot alone eliminate the human traits that are at the root of a lot our problems (greed, jealousy, suspicion, hatred, prejudice, etc).  In that regard, the way people use 'Science' (as in #1, above), is asking the concept to bear too heavy a load.  To think that 'Science' is a panacea that will cure all our problems -- that merely eliminating hunger and removing all want will somehow usher in, by default, a new utopia -- is crazy.  I would ask, though - is that really what people are claiming?  In fact, some thinkers, at least, seem to be recognizing that scientific 'progress' (in the #2 sense) will only create more societal problems.

"Still, yes, I agree with the sentiment you're channeling - the belief that seems to permeate discussions of 'Science,' that simple progress-for-progress's-sake will bring about moral and societal improvements almost as an automatic corollary.  This is a dangerous view, I think, because it offers up the (false) hope that we won't have to do any work to make it happen.   The United Federation of Planets didn't just happen by accident once the world had had enough scientific progress.  And in this aspect, I think you are right to say that people need to be disabused of the notion that Science will simply save us from ourselves.  It's only a tool, a means to an end -- a powerful, helpful tool, but without a firm notion of what we are using the tool to achieve, we won't be accomplishing anything."