What’s Science For?

What exactly is science for and what can it really tell us? Answers to this get thrown about the place all the time. No sensible person could deny that science is the only way to tackle questions like “How did the earth come to be?” and “What is the shape of the universe?” but what’s more up for debate is whether science can answer the “why” questions. Why are we here? Why is this right? Why did he have to die?

It was an article in the latest issue of New Humanist that got me thinking about this. The article, by a physicist, argued that physics can answer the “why” questions- specifically the question of “why are we here?” The author, Michael Brooks, explains, “We can’t delve straight into the question of why we are here, of course; we have to split it into bite sized parts” It’s here that I feel he, and others like him, miss the point. Breaking the thing up into empirical questions destroys the point of the question to begin with.

So am I committing scientific heresy? Well, maybe. But I don’t think science has ever really been intended to answer this kind of question. When we ask “why are we here?” we don’t want to know by what mechanism we came into existence, we want to know what our purpose is, or if we can even have such a thing. This is a question we can’t just break down into chunks; we have to swallow it whole. Science may provide an answer but it will be an answer to a question that no one really asked in the first place. To steal from Wordsworth- we murder to dissect. Maybe this is why the answers tend to be so big, and so varied, because we just have to make some all encompassing statement (like “God did it”) or stay quiet.

I choose to stay quiet.

If grand statements of faith just don’t feel right and statements of empirical fact just dodge the question, it’s perfectly reasonably to say we don’t have a clue why we’re here, or even if the question itself makes much sense. There’s nothing unscientific about that, it’s just reasonable.

So why do we do science? Well firstly, many important questions are empirical, even if The Big One isn’t. But I don’t think there’s any harm in stating that, you know, it’s just awesome. In my General Relativity lectures today we started warping spacetimes. Warping spacetimes. With just pen and paper. That’s cool as hell- as far as I concerned, that’s more than enough reason for science.

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