The Role of Science

Science can mean a lot of things to a lot of people, especially those outside of the scientific community. To many, “science” is more a set of images than a definition of thought; test tubes, bubbling beakers, lab coats, maybe with some insane hair and a Delorean or two thrown in for good measure. To others, science is the grade-school definition of “hypothesis->experiment->theory/law,” which dislodges anything that can’t be confirmed through laboratory experimentation, including history, sociology, and cosmology.

What we need is a definition that is both accurate to those who practice science and useful to the euthorian in everyday thought. Science involves both the collection of data (the test tubes and experimentation above) and the formulation of theory based on data. Without theory, data is meaningless; without data, theory is metaphysics, and does not fall into the realm of scientific thought. To put it simply, science is figuring out how stuff works.

To better understand the way the scientific approach differs from (and complements) other modes of thought, imagine you are a member of a bronze age tribe who had just encountered a mint-condition 1976 Mustang, fully fueled, which has fallen through a wormhole into a grassy meadow near your village. The village bard composes a ballad to the sleek, shiny lines of the vehicle. The priest quickly incorporates the mysterious machine into the local pantheon, and gets the stonemason to create a replica that can be placed in the temple.

The village wise man, our bronze age stand-in for a scientist, starts by examining the Mustang, then progresses to getting in and pushing buttons. When he turns the strange shiny removable tab to the right of the steering column, the car roars to live in thunderous glory. Ignoring the priest’s splutters about sacrilege, the wise man then finds a way to lift the hood and discover what’s really going on beneath it.

Science is figuring out how things work, often in the face of cultural ideas of what is proper, orthodox, or sacred. The reason science succeeds despite these cultural pressures is that science is useful in a way no other academic discipline is. By discovering the mechanisms that run the universe, science puts unprecedented power in the hands of those who care to learn from it. In that sense, science is far more like magic than theology, philosophy, or art; it is amoral, functional, specialized, and strictly temporal. A scientist, especially to our bronze-age tribe above, is a sorcerer, with a gnostic knowledge of the secret inner workings of things that takes years to acquire and decades to refine. Indeed, modern science descends nearly as much from the magical arts (astrology and alchemy come especially to mind) as it does from the early philosopher/scientists like Aristotle.

The analogy between science and magic is useful in another way. A common incomplete idea of science is that science is equivalent to classification; that the main purpose of science is the naming of things. This often derives from dim memories of high school biology and endless repetitive memorization of phylums, classes, families, and species. The result is the accusation against science of being a strictly reductionist affair, chopping “whole” entities like people and planets and animals into tiny, unconnected pieces.

Division and classification is important, but only as a part of the foundation of science. Taken alone, classification is nothing more than name-making, akin to the mythical Adam’s role in the garden of Eden. Properly viewed, though, classification is used to identify key elements of an overall dynamic pattern. In the full scientific view, the interrelation of the parts are as important as identification of the parts themselves, and it is the combination of the parts with their pattern of cohesion that makes the whole. Scientific understanding of an entity, far from being “reductionist,” is really an attempt at more fully understanding the whole.

For an example, consider the human brain. Scientific understanding of the brain and the mind is a favorite target for accusations of reductionism. The brain, say critics, shouldn’t be reduced to mere neurons and organic tissue–surely there must be something more, a spirit or a soul that makes us uniquely human. These critics’ idea of the “scientific understanding of the mind” is an image of a dead, dissected brain laid out on a sterile operating table, with neat labels provided for each disembodied piece. “Ventral Tegmental Area,” one label reads: “Love.”

That is classification, and it is a necessary precursor to science. Science itself, though, is understanding of how those parts interact inside of the living brain, of how these trillions of complex connections, coursing with electricity, create the information systems we know as minds. The deconstruction of dissection is required before the reconstruction of understanding can be achieved. Our wise man in the woods won’t begin to understand the car the gods have given him until he’s taken apart the engine and rebuilt it again. In the process, he will probably misunderstand the purpose of several parts, and his final model likely won’t be completely accurate, but it will still be a more complete understanding of the whole than he would otherwise have achieved.

Our working definition of science, then, is the deconstruction of a given system to component parts, and reconstruction of those parts into a working mental model that allows us to understand how the system works.

Science is also communal: this kind of model creation is far too complex for any one human to accomplish, and communication between scientists is essential to the process. There is a certain requirement of trust implicit and unavoidable in this system, as no one scientist has the time or resources to check the work of all of the other scientists that form the foundation of his or her work.

The system works nonetheless because all scientific work can be checked. It’s not divine (or inner spiritual) revelation, as is claimed in religion. It’s not rational discussion of how we should act, as is the case in philosophy. It’s not subjective creation of beauty, as with art. It is ideas about how the world works, and as such, can be tested. The main reason Einstein is considered such a genius, for example, was his discovery that Newton’s theories of gravitation don’t work in all cases. Fads and trends, sometimes shockingly incorrect, do appear, and often last for decades, but sooner or later someone will discover and demonstrate that no, the universe doesn’t actually operate like that, and more robust theories will take their place.

That’s all well and good for scientists, but what is the purpose of science to the euthorian and to our species as a whole? To answer that, go back to the analogy of science as magic.

Magic has three main functions: divination, power, and fun. Divination allows you to predict the future, power allows you to change it, and, let’s face it, knowing things about the world that very few other people do is fun. That’s the attraction of gnostic knowledge, and I suspect it’s as much a factor in science as it ever was in mysticism or sorcery. Science also allows for a deeper understanding of the beauty of the universe (also fun); indeed, the two go hand in hand. The as-yet only theoretical Higg’s Boson is presumed to exist because (to grossly oversimplify) it makes the math prettier. The draw of gnostic fun and the appreciation of beauty being more or less obvious, I’ll take a moment to discuss divination and power, for it’s those two factors that really drive the survivability of a culture in the long run.

Science, pre-technology, was mostly divination. Astronomy was probably the earliest form, and appears independently in several cultures around the world. Careful observation of the stars and seasons allowed for accurate predictions of future agricultural cycles, which led to the creation of stable, agricultural civilization in locales from Mesopotamia to the Indus river valley to central Mexico. Basic geological and metallurgical sciences led to the first instances of science as power, with the creation of metal tools in increasing strength. In Damascus and Japan, those sciences reached heights such that they can barely be matched even in modern industrial environments.

For the modern human, both aspects of science are extremely valuable. Science as power is widespread and too free in many areas, the Manhattan project being one obvious example. Science as divination is a necessary counterpart to power, as it helps us to see the effects of our technological processes. The divination science of ecology, for instance, allows us to understand the effects we and our technologies have on our environments; the power sciences of agriculture and energy production can then be made to adapt to futures we predict.

As was the case when black sorcerers were attempting to summon demons of the pit to do their bidding, power will always be more enticing than divination. As euthorians, we should always be careful to apply as much or more effort to understanding (both in scientific and other areas of our lives) as we do to influence. Understanding without influence is trivial, but harmless; influence without understanding can be deadly.

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  • [...] theoretically do it, and check the findings of the scientists working on it now. I’ll write a full essay concerning the role of science to a euthorian in the future. For now, consider the scientific world as simply a communal extension of [...]

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