Science is more than the books it produces

These days it’s common to hear the modest disclaimer that there are some questions science can’t answer. I most recently came across such a show of humility by Dr John Kirk speaking on ABC Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor [1]. Kirk says that “science cannot adjudicate between theism and atheism” and insists that science cannot bridge the divide between physics and metaphysics. Yet surely the long history of science shows that divide is fluid.

Science is not merely about the particular answers; it’s about the steady campaign on all that is knowable. Science demystifies.

Textbook examples are legion where new sciences have rendered previously fearsome phenomena as firstly explicable and then often manageable: astronomy, physiology, meteorology, sedimentology, seismology, microbiology, psychology and neurology, to name a few.

It’s sometimes said that questions matter more in science than the answers. Good scientists ask good questions, but great ones show where there is no question anymore.

Once something profound is no longer beyond understanding, that awareness permeates society. Each wave of scientific advance usually becomes manifest by new technologies, but more important to the human condition is that science gives us confidence. In an enlightened society, those with no scientific training at all still appreciate that science gets how the world works. Over time this tacit rational confidence has energised modernity, supplanting astrologers, shamans, witch doctors, and even the churches. Laypeople may not know how televisions work, nor nuclear medicine, semiconductors, anaesthetics, antibiotics or fibre optics, but they sure know it’s not by magic.

The arc of science parts mystery’s curtain. Contrary to John Kirk’s partitions, science frequently renders the metaphysical as natural and empirically knowable. My favorite example is the work of Galileo. To the pre-Copernican mind, the Sun was perfect and ethereal, but when Galileo trained his new telescope upon it, he saw spots. The imperfections of sunspots were shocking enough, but a real paradigm shift came when Galileo observed the sunspots moving across the face, disappearing off one side, and then returning hours later on the other. Galileo’s epiphany must have been heart-stopping: he saw that the Sun is a sphere turning on its axis: geometric, humble, altogether of this world, and very reasonably the centre of a solar system as Copernicus had reasoned a few decades earlier.

An even more dramatic turn was Darwin’s discovery that all the world’s living complexity was explicable without god. He not only neutralised the Argument from Design for the existence of god, but he also dispelled teleology, the search for ultimate reason. The deepest lesson of Darwinism is that there is simply no need to ask “What am I doing here?” because the wondrous complexity of all of biology, up to and including humanity, are seen to have arisen through natural selection, without a designer and without a reason. It seems philosophers appreciate the deep lessons of Darwinism more than our modest scientists: Karl Marx saw that evolution “deals the death-blow to teleology”; Frederich Nietzsche proclaimed “God is dead … we have killed him”.

So why shouldn’t we expect science to keep penetrating metaphysics? We should we doubt ― or perhaps fear ― its power to remove all mystery? Of course many remaining riddles are very hard indeed, and I know there’s no guarantee we will solve them. But I don’t see any logic in flatly rejecting the possibility. Some physicists feel they’re homing in why the physical constants should have their special values. And many cognitive scientists and philosophers of the mind suspect a theory of consciousness is within reach. I’m not saying anyone yet really gets consciousness yet, but surely most would agree that it just doesn’t feel a total enigma anymore.

Science is more than the books it produces. It’s the power to keep writing new ones.