Science & A Greater Good

“The goood thing about science is that we can be flexible” replied my professor to a dilemma I had about lab time availability. “The good thing about science is all of it” I thought; instead I thanked him for resolving a scheduling issue.

There is a knee-jerk reaction in many people as it relates to their perception of a scientist. They crush dreams and comforting, warm beliefs as they humbly contribute to the improvement of living standards. They’re elitists but work just as many hours as anyone else — blue or white collar. They make errors and corrections (see nutrition, or even clinical practice for that matter). Yet people fail to realise that only smarter scientists ever end up making those corrections — not the rabid conspiracy theorists or natural health gurus touting ‘prevention’ as the be all and end all. Fatal accidents aside, we all die by disease and/or degeneration, regardless of how we live. This is not preventable and no amount of super-foods or vitamins will ever change that.

As is the case anytime we require certain expertise, we trust those relevant professionals. Specifically, we trust the institutions which cultivate and license these professionals, whether they are plumbers, lawyers or massage therapists. In no field is this ‘legitimacy framework’ more solid, more self-correcting, than in science. The gold standard of respectability, acceptability, recognition, and reliability is to be able to apply the scientific method to your field of study — whether it’s politics or climate change models.

There is no bigger shame in the scientific community than to be exposed as deliberately biased in your research. Manipulating data is the quickest way to cut your chances of another grant to essentially zero. The field’s correction mechanism coupled with these significant consequences for misconduct makes for an incredibly powerful source of knowledge and by extension, human progress. Science is truly build on each research groups’ discoveries.

In hopes of having justified a scientist’s existence, the crux of this text is to address social attitudes towards these often godless, heathen scientists, and more broadly, to academia. Admittedly, not all academics are created equal and — while tempting — this will not be a diatribe on postmodernism. It also won’t be an argument against the existence of god. Yes, this is about something deep, but something people of faith may fail to have acknowledged about the sciences. It has to do with how an ethical atheist or an agnostic in the field tends to see him/herself in the world as part of something larger than themselves. Additionally, this text presents a streamlined derivation of a morality (an extended version of which shall be presented at a later date) for those convinced they live devoid of a celestial onlooker.

The mere nature of how science operates, like any congregation or wider society, creates interdependence. The quantity and quality of knowledge at this point in human history makes it near-impossible to be an expert in one field, let alone a second. There is a community and it facilitates improvement in the quality of life for all humanity. The motivations of a seeker of justified true beliefs (knowledge) presuppose that wisdom itself is an intrinsic good. Success is not defined by making a discovery, it’s in what motivates one toward that (potential) goal. That motivation is to learn what is true and good.

Note: There can be parallels drawn between the scientific search for truth and the general theological conclusion that acts can be deemed definitively good or bad. While perception skews all interpretations, the event itself is one and irrefutable in its unfolding a specific way i.e. when nobody is watching. Just as scientists believe that nature is a certain way and that humans are part of what defines nature itself, our acts/behaviours can thus be graded on a morally objective curve, much like conclusions in a journal paper. Disputations begin in the modes of how we judge; we must be cognisant that various societies’ incongruent unfolding normative states lead them to objectively inaccurate moral judgements. Moral relativism is not real — we cannot all be right because we are then also simultaneously all wrong. There must be logical consistency in a view; there is no continuity which accommodates all of them. A state of energy and matter where all is infinitely horrible for every being able to conceive it could, in theory, come to exist. The opposite is also true. All other states lie somewhere in-between. Facts are facts and at least as far as ethics go, atheist moral objectivists can agree with theologians: there is one truth on how we ought to act in different cases, regardless from where we might believe justifications stem or even which conclusions we each draw (though again, only one is correct).

The sheer magnitude of knowledge we’ve amassed has inevitably led to the compartmentalisation of the study of nature. Put crudely and with levels of system complexity in mind, there are physicists, chemists, biologists, psychologists, sociologists, and environmentalists. Many have unavoidably been neglected, but this is less an exhaustive Oscar’s list of recognitions than it is an attempt to get a point across. Sorry Humanities, you make life worth living, just not in a way I’m able to articulate. “Another honourable mention goes of course to Philosophy: without you, this text would not have been possible. I’m eternally grateful, get drunk and enjoy the rest of your evening”.

To tie something of a spiritual meaning to — as an almost-scientist — our existence, we see ourselves as part of this studied nature. There is something stifling about attempting to understand a higher level of complexity by means of studying the one below. For example, studying a single mind provides very little insight into how we interact in crowds, much less in broader society. Even in leaping from the brain to the mind, one encounters difficult problems.

There’s a constant balancing act between our attempts at self-improvement and assessing the adequacy of our contribution and role in society. It’s in this sense that we praise the existence of life in the universe; its emergence from complexity. But we collectively attempt to work it out and we will never stop. Economists and evolutionary biologists have settled on a term: reciprocal altruism (basically, cooperation). It works practically, ethically and consequently in our general quest for truth. Once we’re here we add to our shared existence in a positive way; a duty we have to those we forcefully pass the burden onto when we’re gone.