Traversing the Razor: Understanding

With the end of another academic year just inches (of note-riddled anxious paper) away, I thought I’d take time out to reflect on what science is, and what it isn’t. The skeptics and cynics amongst you will probably call me out as some kind of spiritualist, whilst the spiritual will decry my lack of soul. Such is the nature of these no-win situations. What interests me is how we can encourage rational thought in people, promote a scientific understanding of the world, and yet still live full and content lives. The simple acknowledgement of this problem probably sets me apart from the extreme, hard-line atheists, although I’ve always suspected them more of bluster than conviction there.

Science is, first and foremost, a method. However, this oft-quoted phrase is full of its own problems. To say ‘method’ suggests a particular sequence of actions leading to a goal. But it could be said that science does not actually have an end goal. Instead it has little stepping stones along a pathway to what is, in fact, a mystery destination. All it can do is provide consistency in traversing those steps. Most importantly, should you slip up, you can retrace your steps. So really, any approach to a problem will do, so long as it is repeatable. In this sense, the boring method section of any scientific paper is the most important part of all, as this is the instruction manual for other scientists to repeat your work to verify your results. There are no ‘rules’ in science, rather there is a requirement for repeatability.

Science is also a community. Spread far and wide, the scientific community does its work, communicates its results and lauds those with the greatest discoveries. This community also helps decide who will advance in their careers and who will languish. Contrary to popular belief perhaps, the scientific community is brutally competitive. Sadly, this results in a bias towards discovery, new ideas, big progress, and money. The very repeatability that is the cornerstone of science falls by the wayside as verification becomes passé. As we go through the 21st century, this aspect of science will become the deciding factor as to whether science continues to hold its place as the great arbiter of truth. One only needs look at politics to see that even good ideas do not stand in the face of ruthless ambition.

Science however, is not the only way to understand the world. As an individual, you are capable of grasping whatever meaning you like about the world. If you want a verifiable fact about the world, then science is your guy. But if you want to stare up at the sky at night and imagine great celestial beings carving out a grand drama worthy of Homer or Shakespeare, then that is fine too. How you personally understand the world is not going to change it. Although I would ask that you apply rational tests to ideas that you choose to disseminate (although golden space-born chariots gallivanting around the constellations does sound pretty cool; we owe a lot to fiction).

Our lives are spent searching for truth and meaning. Happiness, love, bliss; these are not scientific goals, although the gap between what we understand about these emotions and the space left behind is closing rapidly. It may be that one day we will not only understand these heights of the human condition scientifically, but also control them with technology. Some find that scary. To me, it would be a wonder of human achievement, and would not take at all away from the one thing we can all share – excitement, amazement and a true sense of awe. Reality is not a ‘creation’. Reality is just reality, and with its shifting sands of understanding, I find it thrilling.