Thursday, 23 April 2009

The value of science

In keeping with my tradition of leaving everything to the last minute, I have once again found myself with five days left before an essay deadline and I have not yet produced an essay. But there is something altogether quite different about this essay than any other I have been set to date.

First of all, I have never written a Sociology essay in my life, and I will probably not write another one after this (unless I give in to the urge to work for or some such website which is continually advertising itself on GumTree), but that is altogether irrelevant.

No, the fascinating thing about this essay is that, actually, I really am writing about one of my strongest convictions! So far throughout my academic life both at school and at university I have maintained what I would deem as a healthy interest in most essay material. I engage with the topic, think about what's been said, form my opinion and write a couple of pages to demonstrate the above. It's relatively pain- and hassle- free (if you discount any all-nighters pulled to achieve this goal) but this time, I feel like a woman possessed!

"What is the value of science?" Max Weber, the 'father' of Sociology, asks. And then subsequently concludes that it is, in today's culture of "rationalization and intellectualization", meaningless. Pointless. Worthless.

Don't be alarmed, I won't copy + paste all the *ahem* 1800 words (out of 4000...) that I've been slaving over, but I will make a few general points.

1) Weber does not dismiss that science has instrumental value, and in any case an argument against such a view would be hard to come by. We see the effects of scientific advancement all around us, and while it is not my aim here to discuss whether or not science has improved our general conditions of life, suffice it to say that some things at least are easier to do - like vaccinate against a deadly disease like smallpox. (Courtesy of Robert Koch. Or Louis Pasteur, but let's go for Koch. If this is the £64k question and you lose, feel free to track me down and beat me.)

2) New scientific discoveries are constantly being made, and so few scientists' legacies live on - there is simply too much to investigate. (The more I know, the more I realise I don't know, but at least I know something, even if, like Socrates, "I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.") And even those things which survive to be passed down through countless decades of Nuffield textbooks are constantly, in one way or another, being questioned. Everyone always uses the example of Newton's laws, which did so well to describe gravitational attraction for hundreds of years until it was discovered that they did not hold for subatomic particles. The fact that the scientific process goes on indefinitely is just part of what science is about; for the scientist, it is all about the thrill of the chase!

3) At the heart of it, science answers the most fundamental question of all - "why?" Whatever way I look at it, all questions boil down to that, whether they are scientific or not. The fact that science deals with "mere" empirical reality is not (as Weber may have you believe) its downfall - that is simply what it investigates. No one would ask a detective to carry out a post mortem on their dead pet - that is just not what a detective does (unless he happens to look uncannily like Dick Van Dyke, in which case he can do pretty much anything). Science answers our "why?" questions with all it has at its disposal, and what it has at its disposal is physical reality. Science describes reality to us in such a way that we are actually able to comprehend it. Einstein once said, "The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." I feel we are quite lucky to be living in it.

But despite all this, and in spite of my optimistic manner, there is still a line of thinking that says all human endeavour is futile. A mathematician friend of mine, commenting on this, said the other day, "You might as well kill yourself. I'm not saying that you should. Just that you might as well."* Perhaps Weber was thinking along such lines himself. In any case, it is up to each of us to decide whether or not human activity is futile. That is not a question science has the answer to. But it is more fun to think, or at least pretend, that we're here for a reason; then we can go about answering "Why?"

(*Please don't.)

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