May 25, 2007

Science is the vehicle through which we learn about the building blocks of the universe and of ourselves. Applied science – technology – is what allows us to make use of those whats and hows to physically improve our environment and our lives. In a world where unthinkable journeys have become eighty days and then less than eighty hours, where communication with anyone in almost any part of the world is only a heartbeat away because we have ringed our globe with satellites; where it is commonly assumed that medicine can always do something – and all that, now, for a longer period of time than our own human lifespan (let alone our human memories) : we take so many of its discoveries and applications so much for granted, it can be difficult to conceive of just how profoundly its discoveries have altered how we live our lives.

At its best, science seeks to constantly to revise itself with new insights and new discoveries; and to find physical ways to solve the world's problems. Hypotheses fitting the observed data are tested and revised and tested again, always seeking better understanding, a more accurate model. We can learn as much or more from a completely contradictory experimental result as we might have from an experiment supporting our guesses, because while supporting evidence might allow us to more firmly place a small building block, contradictory results can show us that our entire foundation is shaky to begin with.

At its worst, the pursuit of science becomes dogmatic: driven no longer by the desire to learn so much as by the desire to support or perpetuate an existing dogma: be it a determined advocacy of a particular hypothesis or agenda; or an end goal of an unending profitability.

But science alone gives no answers to other, equally sweeping questions, such as how or when (or even whether) to make use of a specific scientific finding; or even why these patterns exist at all – and seek none. Although technology can give us a historically unprecedented dominance over our environment, it can't tell us what to do with that knowledge. It can't give us a preferred perspective through which to filtre its findings. It can’t define for us a value hierarchy, or identify what should be a society's priorities. It can't suggest to us whether we should be considering those priorities on a personal or societal timescale; for an individual or family or country or world.

After all, technology is just one of many tools to use in working to achieve those priorities. When it itself becomes one of those priorities, we start seeing something very close to a closed causal loop where the societal priority it fulfills is its own self-perpetuation – and again the question raises its uneasy head: why?

Especially, what science can never give is a Reason. If we are ever to see ourselves as more than a random collection of sentient chemistry, we will have to seek elsewhere than in the mirror of science.

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