Thursday 1 September 2011

A Future Without Science? (2011)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIV No. 2 Autumn 2011

By Ian James Kidd

The history of science is often depicted as a series of progressive triumphs - but is that view a myth - or a reality?

Scince is one of the most powerful and pervasive features of modern human cultures. We can all agree with that statement, even if it is hard, when pressed, to specify just what we mean by 'science'. Yet most of us will have various images and ideas in common when pressed on the question of what science is ­ shining laboratories, colourful molecules, particle colliders, and the like.

Some of these images and ideas enjoy rich histories, whilst others are quite new, but certainly those grasping for a definition of science have a rich resource to appeal to and much to go on. Some will cite theories, like those of evolution, or laws, like those of gravitation and thermodynamics. Others will prefer to talk about the institutional and disciplinary structures of science, pointing to distinctions between natural and social science, or theoretical and applied science. Yet others will gesture to the fact that ours is a 'scientific culture', one shaped and, perhaps, defined by the presence of scientific knowledge, practices, and institutions.

Such diverse possibilities will not, of course, provide us with a neat definition of science - as a body of knowledge, a particular method, or a 'way of life' - but the very fact of such a diversity of answers does indicate one useful fact: science informs much of contemporary human life, has done for some time and, one supposes, will continue to do so into the future. Or will it?

There seems to be a strong presumption that, barring catastrophe, the sciences will remain central and valued features of human cultures into the future. Often this presumption is implied, rather than explicitly stated. For instance, authors who write stories set in the future inevitably envision that future as a scientific one, even if some of those stories, such as H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, depict a rather grim outcome of contemporary science and technology. This presumption seems to reflect the power of the sciences over our imagination. 
Few people could really take seriously the idea that in the year 2453, say, human cultures might not be 'scientific' in any sense we would recognise. Or if they turn out not to be, then something, somewhere down the line, must have gone very wrong - perhaps a meteorite impacted the Earth and brought an end to civilisation, taking science and everything else with it. That is a dramatic scenario, but it indicates just how influential the presumption of a scientific future is. One can understand why people are naturally keen to ensure the persistence of science ­ after all, it is, at present, the best resource we have for understanding and manipulating the material world. But is it possible that, sometime in the future ­ whether in decades or centuries ­ human beings might cease to be engaged in science?

The history of science is often depicted as a series of progressive triumphs, with one generation of intrepid inquirers passing on their knowledge to the next. The resulting image of scientific progress was nicely captured in Newton's remark about 'standing on the shoulders of giants', a beautiful image of long-term intellectual co-operation. Some enthusiasts for science have even gone as far as identifying science as a necessary and inevitable stage in human evolution; the nineteenth century French philosopher Auguste Comte identified science as the third and final stage of human cultural evolution, after the religious and the philosophical.

Such admiration for science is understandable, but one worries that it disguises a very important fact: science might never have arisen. A whole array of factors could have prevented the emergence of the sciences ­ the social and intellectual climate, political factors, wars, and so on. The writings of many early natural philosophers, like Descartes, indicate a constant anxiety about whether their fledgling sciences would take flight. Moreover, the establishment of those sciences, as authoritative sources of knowledge about the world, was also dependent upon wider social and intellectual factors. Had history taken a different path, science might have disappeared. Could events in the future bring it about that science, like the gods and monsters of the past, disappears? But how could science actually cease to be a function of our culture?

The sciences are such an omnipresent feature of modern life that few stop to reflect upon them. Schoolchildren are taught about science; newspapers have science correspondents; television channels have specialist science programming; considerable amounts of money are spent ­ by governments, charities, and corporations ­ on encouraging scientific research and applying it to the improvement of human life (or, for the cynical, the maximisation of profits). But the philosophically-minded should always be alert to unchallenged presuppositions, especially when those presuppositions protect and disguise something powerful. Science is powerful, but often poorly understood, even by those who do it. The philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos, once joked that the average scientist understands science about as well as a fish understands hydrodynamics. Like all good jokes, this points to an important truth: science is so pervasive and so much taken-for-granted that serious critical questions about its central place within our life are rarely asked.

That said, today, many groups are rightly cautious or critical of science, in regard to issues about, for instance, the environment or safe energy sources. Such environmental and other worries are not new, of course, but science ­ as an institution and as a body of knowledge ­ has become entrenched within our life. Although there are public debates about science policy and periodic media frenzies about GM (Genetically Modified) crops, and so on, one rarely gets the sense that the idea of a world without science is even possible, let alone plausible. Even if certain policies, like animal cloning, are objected to on moral grounds, and even if other projects, like manned space flight, are criticised on financial ones, there is no real sense that science might cease to be a central and valued feature of our culture. For sure, there may be changes in the particular projects we pursue. But that science might cease to be a significant feature of human life seems so remote a possibility as to be practically inconceivable.

Yet, there are very many ways in which this could happen. An important point to start with is that science is not automatically valued by human beings. No-one simply 'does' science, period. Instead, we do science because we imagine that it will fulfil our needs and satisfy our interests. These interests can be intellectual ones (focused on curiosity and learning), practical ones (to improve health and the environment), or economic and political ones (to produce new materials and technologies for profit or to impress one's rivals). Other interests are available too, and doubtless new ones may emerge in the future. But the point here is that the value of science depends upon its capacity, whether real or imagined, to satisfy our needs and interests. In today's world, science is highly valued because we value curiosity and inquiry and see technology as an essential means of coping with certain features of our world. However, there are plenty of examples of cultures and communities which do not, or did not, value science in the way that we do.

Again, there are some cultures and communities which are indifferent to science. Examples might include the Amish, who value activities only insofar as they contribute to one's moral improvement. The Amish often report their puzzlement at the time and energy we spend on science because, to their minds, scientific research and development does not make one a better person. In a similar vein, Wittgenstein invited us to imagine a culture dominated by belief in a Last Judgement. The members of that culture, he suggested, would be quite justified in their disinterest in science, because it is hardly obvious that a deep knowledge of the structure of matter, or the behaviour of chemicals, will help one to save one's soul. And there are many people for whom knowledge for its own sake is not valuable; they prefer moral improvement, artistic activities, or committed religious practice. If, in the future, these sorts of moral, artistic, and religious concerns become dominant within human societies, the significance assigned to science will change. It might become the case that science passes away as a feature of those societies, for the good reason that such knowledge becomes a matter of indifference to people ­ it would not relate to anything they cared about.

One can also imagine cultures and communities which, far from being indifferent to science, view it as a source of corruption. There are many examples, both historical and contemporary, of those who see the sciences as something dangerous. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned that science 'owed its birth' to two key human vices, 'sloth' and 'vanity'. Human beings, lazy and vain as they are, suppose that through science they can understand how the world works and therefore manipulate it, satisfying their sloth and their vanity. Later philosophers shared Rousseau's worry. That melancholy Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, warned that 'in the end, all corruption will come from the natural sciences' because they present us with a new ideal for life ­ one of inquiry and knowledge ­ rather than embracing what Kierkegaard saw as the true goal of life, the Christian faith. In more recent times, there are many environmentalist, feminist, and pacifist critics who see science as a source or reflection of a disturbing human desire to dominate and control. For these critics, anthropogenic climate change, gender inequalities in the scientific ranks, and the deep complicities between science and the military are all good reasons to reassess the privilege we give to science.

The above examples are intended to indicate that there have been ­ and still are ­ communities and cultures which equate the sciences with indifference or corruption. The stories of Icarus, Faust, and Frankenstein are illustrative: perhaps we cannot yet control the knowledge and power that science promises, so that, for the time being at least, we should abandon it.

In the future, then, humanity may become indifferent to the sciences. Perhaps over the coming centuries, we will return to deep moral and religious concerns, so that an understanding of the fine structure of matter, or the properties of chemicals, no longer seems to be what really matters. Or maybe ongoing environmental ills will prompt us to regard science as a source of moral and intellectual corruption ­ one whose legacy is a desolate biosphere. I cannot say how likely these scenarios are. No-one can know the future; however, my point is simply that, despite the power and presence of science in the modern world, such scenarios are possible.

A future without science may then seem a remote possibility, but of course many ages were blind to the possibilities confronting them. A world without science may seem as impossible to us as a world without the Olympian gods may have seemed to an inhabitant Athens in the sixth century BC. If history teaches us anything, it is to expect surprises, no matter how disturbing they may be. Hopefully these remarks should give us one advantage: in taking seriously the idea of a future without science, we can, perhaps, begin to take measures to insure ourselves against it. The name of the Greek god of invention was, after all, Prometheus, which means 'forethought'. My proposal is, then, that we imitate Prometheus and enjoy his gifts to us ­ inquiry and technology ­ whilst keeping one eye, at the least, on a perhaps very different future.

Address for correspondence: Ian James Kidd at <>

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