Science Behind the Scenes

29 March 2012

Thursday


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Science has become central to industrial-technological civilization. I would define at least one of the properties that distinguishes industrial-technological civilization from agriculturalism or nomadism as the conscious application of science to technology, and the conscious application in turn of technology to industrial production. Prior to industrial-technological civilization there were science and technology and industry, but the three were not systematically interrelated and consciously pursued with an eye toward steadily increasing productivity.

The role of science within industrial-technological civilization has given science and scientists a special role in society. This role is not the glamorous role of film and music and athletic celebrities, and it is not the high-flying role of celebrity bankers and fund managers and executives, but it is nevertheless a powerful role. As Shelley once said that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, we can say that scientists are the unacknowledged legislators of industrial technological civilization. Foucault came close to saying this when he said that doctors are the strategists of life and death.

I have previously discussed the ideological role of science in the contemporary world in The Political Uses of Science. Perhaps the predominant ideological function of science today is the role of “big science” — enormous research projects backed by government, industry, and universities that employ the talents of hundreds if not thousands of scientists. When Kuhnian normal science has this kind of backing, it is difficult for marginal scientific enterprises to compete. Big science moves markets and moves societies not because it is explicitly ideological in character, but because it is effective in meeting practical needs (though these needs are socially defined by the society in which science functions as a part).

Despite the fact that progress in scientific research is driven by the falsification and revision of theories through the expedient of experimentation, the scientific community has been surprisingly successful in closing ranks behind the most successful scientific theories of our time and presenting a united front that does not really give an accurate impression of the profound differences that separate scientists. Often a scientist spends an entire career trying to get a hearing or his or her idea, and this effort is not always successful. There are very real and bitter differences between the advocates of distinct scientific theories. The scientist sacrifices a life to research in a way not unlike the soldier who sacrifices his life on the battlefield: each uses up a life for a cause.

I have some specific examples in mind when I say that scientists have been successful as closing ranks behind what Kuhn would have called “normal science.” I have written about big bang cosmology and quantum theory in this connection. In Conformal Cyclic Cosmology I noted at least one theory seeking empirical evidence for the world prior to the big bang, while in The limits of my language are the limits of my world I discussed some recent experiments that seem to give us more knowledge of the quantum world that traditional interpretations of quantum theory would seem to suggest is possible.

No one of a truly curious disposition could ever be satisfied with the big bang theory, except in so far as it is but one step — and an admittedly very large step — toward a larger natural history of the universe. Given that the entire observable universe may be the result of a single big bang, any account of the world beyond or before the universe defined by the big bang presents possibly insuperable difficulties for observational cosmology. But the mind does not stop with observational cosmology; the mind does not stop even when presented with obstacles that initially seem insuperable. Slowly and surely the mind seeks the gradual way up what Dawkins called Mount Improbable.

Despite the united front that supports fundamental scientific theories (the sorts of science that Quine would have placed near the center of the web of belief), we know from the examples of Penrose’s conformal cyclic cosmology and the recent experiments attempting to simultaneously measure the position and velocity of quantum particles that scientists are continuing to think beyond the customary interpretations of theories.

The often-repeated claims that space and time were created simultaneously in the big bang and that it is pointless to ask what came before the big bang (as earlier generations were assured that it was illegitimate to ask “Who made God?”), and the claims of the impossibility of simultaneous measurements of a quantum particle’s position and velocity have not stopped the curious from probing beyond these barriers to knowledge. One must, or course, be careful, for there is a danger of being seen as a crackpot, so such inquiries are kept quiet quiet until some kind of empirical evidence can be produced. But before the evidence can be sought, there needs to be an idea of what to look for, and an idea of what to look for comes from a theory. That theory, in turn, must exceed the established interpretations of science if it is too look for anything new.

We know what happens when scientists not only say that something is impossible or unknowable, but also accept that certain things are impossible or unknowable and actually cease to engage in inquiry, and make no attempt to think beyond the limits of accepted theories: we get a dark age. A recent book has spoken of the European middle ages as The Closing of the Western Mind. (In the Islamic world a very similar phenomenon was called “Taqlid” or, “the closing of the gates of Ijtihad“.) When scientists not only say that noting more can be known, but they actually act as though nothing more can be known, and cease to question normal science, this is when intellectual progress stops, and this has happened several times in human history (although I know that this is a controversial position to argue; cf. my The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited).

It is precisely the fact that science continues to be consciously and systematically pursued in the modern era despite many claims that everything knowable was known that sets industrial-technological civilization apart from all previous iterations of civilization.

Science goes on behind the scenes.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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