Friday, July 20, 2007

A way of thinking

Thoughts on science and society

Much more than a strict methodological formula or inflexible algorithm, the process of scientific discovery uses a uniquely human form of cognitive reasoning. It is a form of inquiry that pools together often seemingly unrelated perspectives and reveals profound “truisms” beyond cultural and societal constraints regarding the natural world.

Though, unlike other human activities (i.e.; song, dance, and culture) it is probably much more difficult for scientific inquiry to take root and flower in a given society. Contrary to what many might assume, it is not a particularly “western” phenomenon. Several cultures and societies gave rise to the elements necessary allowing for a scientific form of inquiry.

These conditions, however can be fleeting and temporary as Susan Haak (Defending Science-within reason) notes “As Glasglow reminds us, Arab astronomy, mathematics, and chemistry were once unrivalled; but the rise, early in the second millennium, of Taqlid, the Islamic doctrine that there are no truths beyond those revealed in the Koran, scientists and scholars were banished. And so, rather than growing and flourishing, Arab science declined- leaving its footprints on our language, however, from “alkali” to “zenith”. The ancient Chinese…invented gunpowder and the compass, and were great navigators- until in the fifteenth century they decided that nothing beyond the celestial empire was worthy of discovery, and burnt their great ships just before Columbus set forth with his tiny flotilla to discover a New World.”

Indeed, these histories threaten to repeat themselves as todays' societies struggle with many fears- whether or not they are legitimate- regarding scientific inquiry and often recoil from disturbing realities and philosophical implications. For example, the cost of research might be exorbitant compared to other demands, technological advances (cloning, genomics, and fetal research) force a re-evaluation of deeply held beliefs, and the lack of science education can lead to a profound mistrust of this way of thinking.

Further, science does seem to have limits in answering critical questions with respect to a variety of human endeavors such as politics, literature, entertainment, law, and logic. Additionally, there are a multitude of scientific questions science can not answer or has even thought of asking. Haak states “…we humans have limited intellectual and other resources: limited intellectual integrity, respect for evidence; limited imaginative powers; limited capacity to reason; and limited sensory reach.”

On the other hand there is reason to be optimistic with what this form of inquiry can offer. It should be possible to follow a dream, ride the ebb and flow of emotion; that is, live a fully human life and pursue the realities of true inquiry. Haak notes “…one of the most remarkable things about the natural sciences has been the ways they have found to overcome human limitations: instruments of every kind, extending innate human powers of observation; the calculus, statistics, computers, extending innate human powers of reasoning; metaphors, analogies, linguistic innovations, extending innate human powers of imagination.”

Many so called metaphysical questions may never have answers, but there might be a place where some of these questions may eventually blend with those of the natural world. Again Haak notes “…there is no sharp line between cosmological and metaphysical questions; nor are there very clear criteria for identifying and individualizing questions. Thinking of how cosmologists first transmuted, and then at least partially answered, the metaphysicians’ question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ when they developed their account of the accretion of matter, we might speculate that, if physicists were to find the ultimate laws, the demand for an explanation of those laws might be eventually transmuted into a kindred, yet different and more answerable, question.”

This way of thinking; that a combination of probing inquiry and honest realism might be implemented in a way to help resolve, or at least honestly consider solutions to a variety of human issues and problems heretofore assumed to be non science related may open new vistas of meaningful discovery.

Ben Goldacre probes this idea in an interesting post relating that scientific inquiry may indeed prove useful for effectively evaluating different possible solutions to societal problems. He notes “There is no sense in which I am a hardliner on trials, and I’m totally down with the idea that there can be many different kinds of evidence, but one thing has always puzzled me: in these days of “evidence based thinking” in Whitehall, why don’t we do randomised controlled trials on social policy?”

In a similar vein Haak states that “The social sciences, of course insofar as they concern themselves with local and contingent social roles, rules, and institutions, have a much more markedly historical aspect than the natural sciences. And that the historical contingencies of human societies might eventually be derivable from completely universal laws of nature seems, to put it mildly, much farther-fetched than the idea that cosmological events such as the big bang might be. Even if there are laws governing the universal aspects of human nature variously expressed in this society or that, and even if such laws were known, there would remain not only a vast array of details to be discovered, not only the ramifications of self-fulfilling (or self-undermining) predictions, but also the permanently open possibility of new manifestations of those laws in new social arrangements. So, though thus far the social sciences seem to lag far behind the natural sciences, the scope for future spurts and breakthroughs seems enormous, and the future prospects limited only by the possibility of the extinction of human societies.”

This is indeed food for thought especially considering that old societal paradigms may not provide the stable structure needed to sustain humanities present expansion into previously unexplored philosophical, mental, and physical realms.


Haak, Susan. Defending science- within reason. Prometheus books. New York. 2003

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