Since I write about science-related topics, I sometimes find myself in discussions about the role of science in finding “truth” (discussions that seem especially relevant as we come to the end of the Darwin bicentennial). An argument that surfaces in the more heated of these chats is that science is an overvalued discipline—a secular deity defaulted to by those with a dangerously inflated view of humankind’s wherewithal.
This argument often comes from two sources that are in most ways polar opposites. The first, and most obvious, is theistic. In this view, science has become a false replacement for God. Our “faith” in science is a flimsy proxy for faith in higher power(s). Humanity was limited by its creator from the beginning, so what makes us think we can pretend to the throne with trite explanatory powers of science? We may as well be climbing the tower of Babel to shoot arrows at the sky. This devotion to science isn’t just arrogant, it’s an affront to the almighty. Worship of reason is making us blind.
The other source is on the far side of the philosophical field from the first: postmodern-atheistic. In this view, as with the first, humankind has replaced God with science, but since there never was a God to begin with, Science (capital “S”) is just as empty a figurehead as what it replaced. In some ways this view is even more critical of science than theism—it paints humankind as naïvely privileging one discipline above all others in an effort to save ourselves from the plainly inevitable. Has science saved us from wars, from age-old religious conflicts, from diseases and disasters? Science can’t fend off the barbarians at the gate any more than it can cure the common cold, and we just lived through the bloodiest century in history as proof of its failures.
Both of these positions target the same foe, which I’ll call the hard position of science. The hard position is all or nothing: either science is the highest order discipline for uncovering the truth and showing the way to a better future, or nothing is. Science demands our respect because only it is capable of getting us where we want and need to go. It stands apart from every other conceivable route to knowledge because all the others are corrupted by varying levels of subjectivity and bias. Only the empirical route of science yields objective truth.
Before I discuss the alternative, it’s important to mention that I personally don’t know anyone who holds exclusively to the hard position of science, and seldom do I even read a book written from this position (with a few exceptions. E.O. Wilson comes to mind). Overall, it’s little more than a straw man target, no more legitimate a characterization than an atheist painting all Christians as science-hating fundamentalists.
The alternative to this straw man is what I’ll call the pragmatic position of science (I’m not going to use “soft” because it implies meanings that don’t apply here). The pragmatic position, by my definition, views science as one of our best tools for figuring out our place in the world and our world’s place in the universe. To the extent that truths can be uncovered, science is one of our most effective methods for finding them. But it’s not the only one. Logic is another, as is philosophical inquiry and the humanities, among others. All of these are tools that, at their best, broaden knowledge, expand understanding and help us determine how we can leave the world in better shape than we found it.
The pragmatic position doesn’t claim for science, or for scientists of any stripe, an “objective” privilege. Paraphrasing the pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty (who was paraphrasing Daniel Dennett), there is no magical “sky hook” available to pull anyone out of their perspective into a rarified position of seeing things “as they truly are.” Humans are bias-prone through and through, and despite efforts to assume a different perspective, we still see the world through our own eyes.
And that’s exactly why we need the tool called science. You can’t move a boulder alone, but with the right tools the challenge shifts from unthinkable to possible. Science is one of the best tools we have to reach beyond our limited capacity. It’s not a flawless tool by any means, and it can’t right all the wrongs that beset our brains. But when compared to several other modes of inquiry, it’s one of the best we have.
In response to those who target the hard position straw man, we might ask where we’d be if science wasn’t in our toolbox. For example, for every disease that still plagues us, another has been cured or made less harmful through a steadfast scientific dedication to improving lives. Another example: for every species that has suffered extinction at human hands, others have been saved through dedication to better understanding the natural world and the impact of our actions.
Hundreds if not thousands of similar examples could be named, but the point remains the same: we can’t rid ourselves of the problems that come with living on this planet, but having science in our toolbox gives us an opportunity to manage many of them, some of which would otherwise finish us off for certain.
Targeting the straw man generates sound and fury, but when it comes to providing concrete alternatives to the explanatory and edifying role of science, it signifies precisely nothing. If supernaturalism or postmodernism were reliable tools for expanding understanding and improving our lot, we’d have every reason to value them as much or more than science—but the truth is, they’re not. In fact, the absolutism endemic to both makes them philosophical cul-de-sacs.
Science, in contrast, is an open road. It’s not the only road, but without it we wouldn’t get very far. Indeed, we might have dead ended already.