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The scientific worldview

CONTEXT

This article is about the knowledge revealed by science, for an account of science itself see Science

This series of articles on philosophy began with a discussion of the way we all have a worldview, an opinion about the way the world is, its meaning, purpose, physical composition and the way we see ourselves as fitting into the whole, including our attitudes  towards other living creatures and our fellow human beings.

The article on Immanuel Kant then examined how we acquire knowledge and the likely limits to what we can know with confidence. Outside the limits of secure knowledge lies metaphysics, our rational speculations about the nature of reality. Many people today turn to science for explanations about the material world, bearing in mind that science too has a metaphysical foundation of assumptions. Our main philosophical difficulty is with the contrast between appearance and reality. Our world of common sense (the world as represented by our human perception, cognition, and language) seems to be at odds with our understanding of the world as represented to us by science. The article on representation discusses these two contrasting worldviews through the ideas of the manifest image and scientific image.

Star-forming cloud of dust and gas in the constellation Cepheus
Image captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer
The cloud is c. 120 light-years wide & 2500 light-years away from us at the edge of a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy called the Orion spur
Stars are born in clouds like these. When the cloud of dust and gas becomes so dense that it can block out light then parts will collapse into newborn stars; the whole cloud doesn’t form stars all at one time. Winds and radiation from the biggest and hottest first generation stars blow away parts of the cloud and compress other parts causing further star formation. Color in this image is representational: blue and cyan represent light at 3.4 and 4.6 microns, primarily emitted by stars; green and red represent light at 12 and 22 microns, emitted by the relatively cooler dust particles in the dark clouds
Ancient Greek mythological character Cepheus was father of Andromeda
Courtesy NASA

Science as a worldview

Over the course of human history science has emerged as a secure source of knowledge. The great world religions have provided people with comfort and explanations but depend ultimately on acts of faith. The strength of science lies in it providing demonstrable knowledge that enables prediction and therefore management. Its potential is evident to us all through the wonders of modern technology. It is not secret knowledge available to just a few initiates – it is accessible to anyone willing to take the time to study what it has to offer. Most importantly it can be tested and, if necessary, improved.

Unconvinced by religions and political ideologies many have turned to science, not as a moral code, but as the most compelling explanation of the world and its constituents that we have.

Perhaps one way of indicating the strength of a scientific worldview is to imagine what the world was like before any scientific knowledge was available. So, for example, we can imagine our ancestors asking questions about the universe, questions that they regarded as unanswerable – except in supernatural terms.

How did the universe begin? How did it come to have the structure that we see today? How old is it, and how might it end? Why has the universe taken the form we see today – a system of galaxies, stars, planets, elements, molecules, and living organisms, all part of an expanding matrix of space and time? What is the fundamental ‘stuff’ of the universe. Could the historical course of the universe have been different? Can we predict what life might be like elsewhere in the universe?

Science has brought us a long way towards answering these questions and it is worthwhile looking in this article about what it tells us. The answers it gives us have been the result of millennia of painstaking research gradually building on what has gone before. And the answers it provides are miraculous, totally awe-inspiring, a profound testament to human ingenuity.

Many questions remain unanswered. Are there multiverses? Can we meaningfully ask what happened before the Big Bang? What is the role of the human mind and consciousnessness in our explanatory systems – our uniquely human perception of everything – sometimes referred to as the anthropic principle. Are there limitations to our minds and understanding and, if so, can we find out what they are? How could something so staggeringly complex as human consciousness (matter that has become aware of itself) arise? Are the categories we use to understand the universe (galaxies, stars etc.) and the explanations we have woven in response to the above questions just the result of our uniquely human perception of the ‘external’ world, simply subjective terms applied at a particular time and place . . . temporary explanations that are among many equally valid and constantly changing worldviews?

Cosmological explanation

For almost all of human history grand questions about ourselves and the universe, like those posed above, could be answered in only one way. The origin of the universe, how and why things were the way they were, and especially the brevity and fatefulness of human life, was given meaning and order through a spiritual world of god(s) and other supernatural beings that had varying degrees of control over the material world. Humans might not be able to see a reason and plan in their unpredictable and often painful and ephemeral lives, but there were spiritual beings that both understood and controlled what was happening, giving everything from the entire universe to each element within it a cosmic purpose (see meaning & purpose).

The particular spiritual beings varied in both number and kind according to the particular human culture as did their degree of involvement in human affairs. Each culture had its explanation of how the world had arise (cosmogony) and how the gods and spirits had originated (theogony), why the world was the way it was (cosmology) and how it would end (eschatology). Though the details varied, there was nevertheless a universal message believed by humans everywhere – that there was indeed a cosmic plan: humans were a part of this cosmic plan but they could not control it. This was the best available explanation of everything until just a few hundred years ago.

Gradually across the world a new mode of thinking arose that placed emphasis on solving problems with reason and logic, working on theories about the physical world by doing experiments to see what happened and modifying these theories when the results disagreed with the assumptions being tested. This method, called science, began to increase its social influence, at first combining forces with religion (as natural theology) but gradually removing the need for spiritual explanations. Particularly important here was Darwin’s theory of evolution pubished in 1859 which indicated that humans were not specially and uniquely created by the Christian god, a heretical idea for its day. However today, 150 years after Darwin‘s publication, most people in the world believe in some form of spiritualism and that there is no conflict in maintaining both scientific and spiritual ideas: materialism (the view that there is no need for spiritual explanations of any kind) is a minority view.

Let’s pause and consider for a moment what those ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle would have made of the following Big History narrative: it is only a very short outline of today’s scientific grand narrative but it gives a taste of what has been accomplished. Built up mostly over the last 300 years the scientific grand narrative gives us a compelling explanation of the shape, size, origin and age of everything there is, this surely ranking as one of humanity’s greatest achievements. The last 50 years have seen major advances in theoretical cosmology and our understanding of the universe.

Origin of the universe

Our universe originated in the Big Bang 13.75 ± 0.11 billion years ago and it is currently both expanding and cooling. Until about the 1920s the universe was considered to be entirely a part of our galaxy, the Milky Way consisting of from 100 to 400 billion stars, but we now know that the observable universe consists of a ‘cosmic web’ of about 170 billion galaxies. In the 1950s radio-telescopes picked up bright high-energy quasars which in the 1980s were established as surrounding black holes (extremely dense areas of spacetime with gravitational force so strong that no particle or electromagnetic radiation ‘nearby’ can escape) at the centre of massive galaxies.

The universe is expanding rapidly and we only see the stars and galaxies whose light has had time to reach us, the number of these receding as space expands. Measurements of the observable universe’s geometry suggest that the our universe is infinite and flat. Recent studies are suggesting that our universe is just one of many universes (multiverses) and that this hypothesis can be tested by measuring the distribution of background radiation which can serve as empirical evidence of the collision of our universe and others.

The mass of a body is a measure of its energy content and physical bodies in the universe attract with a force, gravity, which is proportional to their mass. In the theory of general relativity, the effects of gravitation are ascribed to space-time curvature instead of a force. The equation e=mc2 indicates that energy always exhibits relativistic mass (depending on the velocity of the observer) in whatever form the energy takes.

Origin of stars

Stars are formed by the condensation of matter under gravity, this producing intense heat which we see as coloured light. At a temperature of 20 million degrees celsius hydrogen atoms undergo nuclear fusion to form nuclei of helium. A single helium atom has a mass slightly less than the combined mass of the hydrogen atom that formed it, this mass being released as energy during fusion. When a glowing ball of gas begins the nuclear reactions in its core, it becomes a star.

Origin of the elements – stellar nucleosynthesis

The foundational building blocks of the universe are elements we now list in the Periodic Table. Each element has a specific atomic number and the Periodic Table proceeds by adding one to the former element. As we have discovered the property of these elements we know the conditions under which they can be formed and exist, the number of elements that can exist naturally on Earth being less than 100.

The onion-like elemental layers of a massive, evolved star just before core collapse - not to scale (Courtesy Wikipedia)

‘Onion’ elemental layers of a massive star just before core collapse – not to scale
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Rursus – R. J. Hal Accessed 10 Sept. 2015

How did these elements arise? The most abundant elements in the universe are hydrogen and helium which formed in the Big Bang. Current conclusions concerning stellar nucleosynthesis were not established until 1983. As part of the process of stellar evolution the first atomic nuclei of hydrogen and helium emerged from the quark-gluon plasma about three minutes after the Big Bang and later progressively heavier elements with greater atomic numbers arising by nucleosynthesis.

The universe consists of 90 or so elements that have formed within stars. These are in the overall proportion of 85% hydrogen (H), 14% Helium (He) and 1% of everything else. The particular elements formed during condensation depend on the mass of the star: small (masses up to 0.5 that of the Sun), medium (0.5 to 1.5 that of the Sun), or large (over 1.5 solar masses).

When a small star runs out of energy in its core it begins to collapse, heating up but not hot enough to generate any further nuclear reactions although it will heat up to white heat, producing a ‘white dwarf’ which then progressively cools down.

Medium size stars like our Sun collapse when the core runs out of hydrogen, it will collapse as with small stars. Again, the collapse heats the core but at about 100 million degrees new nuclear reactions will begin: the helium is produced from hydrogen as further fusion forms oxygen and carbon, the building blocks of life. The star reddens and grows brighter to become a ‘red giant’.

 

Periodic table indicating the origin of each element. Elements from carbon to sulfur emerge in small stars, elements beyond iron in large stars, elements heavier than iron arise in supernovae Courtesy Wikimedia Commons Cmglee Acc. 10 Sept. 2015

The Periodic Table
Showing the origin of each element
Elements from carbon to sulfur arise in small stars; elements beyond iron arise in large stars; elements heavier than iron arise in supernovae
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Cmglee Acc. 10 Sept. 2015

 

When the Hydrogen in the core of a large star is exhausted, its huge gravity takes over and condenses the core. As the 100 million degree mark is breached the Helium reactions begin and the star becomes a Red Giant, but more luminous and larger than the Red Giants formed from Medium stars and when he helium runs out in the core it collapses and further nuclear reactions begin, the carbon changed to oxygen and silicon but when the carbon runs out the core collapses again, higher core temperatures are reached and further nuclear reactions occur, this time using Oxygen. This process continues for several more stages. Each time a nuclear fuel runs out in the core, the core collapses, raising the temperature and triggering further nuclear reactions, each set of reactions lasting for a shorter period than the last and continuing through the elements until iron is formed. Nuclear fusion of atoms lighter than iron atoms has produced energy. This is what has resisted the force of gravity during this process. However, any nuclear reaction involving iron (Fe) consumes energy so when the core is made up totally of Iron, gravity finally takes over and the core collapses again, this time catastrophically. In a moment it reduces to almost nothing, the vast heat of shrinkage exploding the outer layers of the star in what we call a supernova. The vast heat is now enough to create all the heavier elements beyond iron (Fe56) in the Periodic Table and blast them into space. So, elements with an atomic weight greater than that of iron can only be formed in the vast heat generated by a supernova. So, heavy elements, like CNO and P, arose well after the Big Bang, being formed inside stars and then spread through the universe. In this way the human body is truly made of stardust.

Our Sun (and the solar system of planets, including Earth) is 4.6 billion years old and will remain stable for approximately 11 billion years. The Earth and its organisms do not produce the elements of which they are made: these elements originated in the furnace of stars as the cycle of collapse and explosion was repeated again and again. The elements of both the Earth and our bodies were made in the stars: we are, indeed, made of ‘stardust’. Life on Earth has been built from the chemical element carbon which is part of one of the great geochemical cycles of the Earth, the Carbon Cycle. Carbon produced in stars is part of the matter that makes up the Earth and its atmosphere. Carbon molecules are energy-rich and taken up from the atmosphere as carbon dioxide by plants and with the use of sunlight in a process we call photosynthesis convert this to other compounds. In trees carbon is mostly stored as the woody chemical lignin, and in herbaceous plants as cellulose. Carbon forms the chemical ‘backbone’ of not only the amino acids and proteins that make up organic tissues, but also the nucleotides that ‘code’ the hereditary material, DNA, contained in all organisms. This genetic code has left a chemical trail back to the most recent organism that was a common ancestor of all living things on Earth which existed 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

 

DNA animation

The DNA double helix
A giant replicating molecule that encodes the genetic instructions for the development and functioning of all known living organisms. Elucidation of this structure is attributed to James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 based on and X-ray diffraction image by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Origin & diversification of life

How did life appear from inorganic matter (abiogenesis)?

We still have no definitive answer to the question of the origin of life although we know that there must have been a powerful interplay between the inorganic and organic, organism and planet, after the 100 million years it took for the mantle to form and as life emerged in the early history of the planet through the formation of atmosphere, intensive battering by meteorite showers, volcanic activity, and a general cooling while passing through hot and cold geological periods, as well as being hit by a massive meteor that killed the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago. Life depends, and must always have depended, on the existence of self-replicating molecules, something that we know happened on Earth at least 3.5 billion years ago based on microbe fossils known as stromatolites (found today in Western Australia). It requires energy, water, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, sulphur and phosphorus. The last universal common ancestor ancestor (known as LUCA) from which all organisms now living on Earth have descended is estimated to have lived some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago (sometime in the Paleoarchean era) with the earliest evidence for life being biogenic graphite about 3.7 billion years old found in rocks of Western Greenland and fossils of microbes in 3.48 billion-year-old sandstone deposits of Western Australia.

We know that carbon acts as the chemical backbone for organic molecules like the amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins and the four nucleotides (A-adenosine, T-thiamin, G-guanine, C-cytosine) which constitute the complex molecules of the genetic code found in RNA and DNA. How such molecules were formed remains a mystery, one suggestion being that they were formed in space or in the oceans adjacent to hydrothermal vents.

 

The tree of life

The Tree of Life
Created from completely sequenced genomes
All life originated from the last universal common ancestor – LUCA
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

 

Subsequent organic change over many generations resulted in the plants, fungi, other microorganisms, and animals (including humans). Most importantly we have found out that the source of inherited characteristics in organisms are genes that are located in chromosomes that occur in every cell of every organism’s body in a chemical we call DNA which ‘codes’ for all the characteristics that are manifest in our bodies. Every cell of our body contains about 2 metres of DNA (when unravelled) and this comprises about 22,500 genes (sections of the chromosome responsible for certain characteristics). The chemical building blocks of genes are called nucleotides or bases and these ‘code’ for the amino acids and proteins that build the body. Genomics, just one aspect of the modern field of biotechnology, began in 1996 and is the science that now sequences and analyzes the complete set of DNA within a single cell of an organism. The human genome (its full complement of genes) was fully sequenced in 2003 and consists of about 3 billion base pairs. We know that sometimes the DNA can change unpredictably to produce unexpected characteristics or ‘mutations’ and that these are subject to the natural selection process. We also now realise that natural selection is pervasive: it acts at every level of biological organization, including species, individual organisms and even molecules like DNA itself and proteins.

End of the solar system & universe

Our solar system is a minute part of the galaxy we call the Milky Way. The Earth and Sun are about five billion years old, being formed at about the same time as the other planets in our solar system. In three to five billion years the Sun will swell to become a Red Giant, engulfing the Earth as it does so.

The universe consists of about 5% atoms, 68% dark energy and 27% dark matter (which deoesn’t emit, reflect or absorb light). We know very little about dark energy and dark matter. There is calculated to be about six times more invisible ‘dark matter’ in the universe than visible matter but this is insufficient to pull the universe together under gravitation due to the presence of ‘dark energy’ which is pushing matter away and unlike matter, dark energy does not dilute as space expands. Currently the galaxies are moving apart at an ever-increasing rate. The ultimate fate of the universe depends on uncertain factors such as its shape and the role of dark matter. The ‘Big Rip’ theory suggests the expanding universe will disintegrate into unbound elementary particles and radiation; the ‘Big Crunch’ claims that current expansion will reverse and a callapse ensue, leading to a dimensionless singularity. Perhaps there is a continuous repeated cycle of ‘Big Bang’ followed by ‘Big Crunch’, a scenario described as the ‘Big Bounce’. However, there is a growing consensus among cosmologists that the universe is flat and gravitational forces are insufficient for the universe to contract again so it will continue to expand indefinitely, cooling as it does so until in 10 billion years the stars will have mostly burned out and faded until in about 100 billion years there will be universal darkness – what physicists refer to as the ‘Heat Death’ or ‘Big Freeze’ as the temperature approaches absolute zero and total darkness descends.

What remains?

Though much has been learned about the universe science is still looking for answers to many fundamental questions, like the nature of the dark energy and dark matter that make up so much of the universe. There are broad questions like ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ which may seem metaphysical but may one day have an empirical explanation. In physics there is uncertainty as to whether we can speak of the time before the Big Bang or, indeed, of the causes of the Big Bang. There is still the search for a ‘Unified Theory of Science’ that reconciles the apparent contradictions of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. We are not sure why the laws of physics should be as they are, and there is difficulty in explaing the origin of the complexity we see in the DNA molecule. There are still many intellectual challenges associated with Darwin’s theory of evolution (see Issues of evolution). We cannot explain the genesis of life, what consciousness is, the origins of the laws of Physics and Chemistry and why they are as they are, the ‘Goldilocks’ characteristic of the Universe’s fundamental forces supporting life and much more.

Research into consciousness and the operation of the human brain (1.3 kg, 86 billion neurons, 20-30% of body’s energy consumption) is still in its infancy as is the fast-developing field of genetic manipulation and other biotechnology. Do our minds have limits and where do they lie? Although we can accept that the mind is explicable in terms of physico-chemical processes how could any technology peer into a sleeping mind and discern what a person is dreaming?

Throughout history there has been a decreasing gap in our knowledge of the structure and processes that occur in the physical world and what was unknown tended to be given a religious explanation. The best example of this is the living world whose design, complexity, beauty, and functional variety seemed to suggest beyond question the work of a grand designer. Darwin, however, was able to give a compelling alternativer explanation, reminding us that the great mysteries of the universe do not necessarily require a spiritual explanation, and are not necessarily beyond solution.

Science as myth

Is science really some special kind of knowledge or is it, as all grand narratives appear to be, just one explanation among many that, in the future, will appear to be merely a story resulting from a particular time, place and circumstances – an imaginary reality or myth in modern guise?

Science & religion

Science has saved us from the daily terror of the unknown, but it has not satisfied us all. Humans are the only organisms aware that they will die, which is not a fact that we have accepted gracefully. From the Egyptian pyramids to the Terracotta armies of Chinese Emperor Qin early humanity was determined to pass with their earthly possessions into the afterlife. We have also found it extremely difficult to accept doubt, especially about the big questions in life (see worldviews). Religion offers the combined security of certain knowledge and eternal life. In these two critically important ways religion trumps science: for most of the people on our planet religion is the better offer.

If, as science indicates, there is no supernatural world existing over and above the physical world, then death is the end. Science itself, though impressive in its achievements and applications, is also just a series of working hypotheses, a best explanation – it is ‘for the time-being’, open to modification and improvement.

For science there is one last great frontier of demystification, and it is precisely the frontier that explores these larger questions: it is the frontier of the conscious and feeling mind that can give us a clear view into human nature.

There is much to be gained by a full acknowledgment of the role of human nature (the constraints of our species and, especially, the constraints of our minds) on our account of science. We will be much better informed if we understand the way that our senses and mind operate and how this might influence a scientific world view. This is itself a scientific problem – specifically a problem for cognitive science. Though there is still much that we do not know about our minds, we have no reason to think that this problem is deeply mysterious or metaphysical, it is simply the recognition that our minds structure the way we see and understand things and we need to find out how and why.

Cultural relativism

Science has its detractors. Many believe that science in western society has been elevated beyond its legitimate rank: it has been given a status that it does not deserve. Apart from the various religious accounts of the world which deal with the supernatural (which, by definition, is undetectable by scientific means) Kuhn’s idea that theory acceptance has some social basis can be extended, but not as Kuhn intended, to cultural relativism, the view that science has no privileged access to knowledge, it is just one among many truths that are culturally based. On this understanding other cultures, like Australian Aboriginals or American Indians, hold their own equally valid truths.

Limitations of science

It is generally taken for granted in academic circles that philosophers concern themselves with metaphysical questions which, by definition, are questions that cannot be answered by science. If they were scientific questions then they would be part of the science curriculum. Philosophical questions concern the nature of knowledge, of morality, of rationality, of human well-being, and concerns such as how we should live our lives and what happiness entails. Such questions, philosophers claim, are not soluble by scientific methods: philosophy reveals truths about a realm that scientists cannot touch. The humanities might claim a domain that science cannot touch (aesthetics, ethics, and more) even that this domain is in some sense a more direct or experiential sphere

‘Science and self. Science is mechanistic and analytic, not ethical and prescriptive. That makes it, at best, an incomplete guide. ‘The personal is not an addition to the biological: it emerges from it, in something like the way the face emerges from the colored patches on a canvas.’ I-You relationships, exercised within these contexts, have created “all that is most important in the human condition … responsibility, morality, law, institutions, religion, love, and art.”consequentialism, the notion that the ends justify any means. Moral good reduces to an arithmetic formula: The correct decision brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people, irrespective of any properties inherent in the act itself. But its proponents, such as Peter Singer, overlook ‘the actual record of consequentialist reasoning. Modern history presents case after case of inspired people led by visions of ‘the best’ and argues that all would work for it, the bourgeoisie included, if only they understood the impeccable arguments for its implementation.’ Since privilege cloaks their benighted eyes, ‘violent revolution is both necessary and inevitable.’ ‘Cooperation rather than command is the first principle of collective action’ (Roger Scruton)

Is science value free?

Science is concerned with facts and has no ethical status: it provides us with information about the material world. What people decide to do with that information is another matter. Countering this is the view that science is not so value-neutral as we might think. It is a theory-laden: they must choose what to study, that data can be interpreted in different ways and that its findings simply cannot be divorced from its applications. Much scientific research today, for example, is funded by the vested interests of private enterprise.
Students of the history and philosophy of science as well as scientists themselves have failed to find a compelling answer to the question of what makes science unique. Clearly there are important factors like experimentation, observation, and theory construction but these are not confined to science and there are many other factors involved: the testing of falsifiable hypotheses and use of finely-honed logic, the application of sophisticated scientific technology, and the exchange of information through scientific journals – but again, these are not exceptional.

Science as a modern Creation Myth

The urgency of the present moment brings with it the feeling that ‘now’ is more real, true and accurate than the ‘nows’ of other times. We find it difficult to think of ourselves as existing in a certain time, at certain place, under specific circumstances. Viewed from the point of view of the long duree, another culture or, maybe, projecting ourselves into the future, say one thousand years from now … our present-day realities and truths – the scientific Creation myth of today – will probably appear outmoded and constrained by space and time just like all those other Creation myths of the distant past – it seems we are inevitably just a product of our times.

What truth claims can we make about our present reality, our current scientific mythology?

Historian David Christian suggests that we can address this issue by considering two extreme views, one suggesting that ‘the modern ‘scientific’ account of origins is true, while all earlier accounts were more or less false’ and the other that ‘faced with some of the uncertainties of modern accounts of the past, [we] may be tempted to think that this is ‘just one more story’.

Christian suggests that we can acknowledge time and place without commitment to ‘nihilistic relativism’. Knowledge systems are ‘maps of reality’, they are ‘never just true or false. Perfect descriptions of reality are unattainable, unnecessary, and too costly for learning organisms, including humans. But workable descriptions are indispensable. So knowledge systems, like maps, are a complex blend of realism, flexibility, usefulness, and inspiration. They must offer a description of reality that conforms in some degree to commonsense experience. But that description must also be useful. It must help solve the problems that need to be solved by each community, whether these be spiritual, psychological, political, or mechanical.15 So, the strongest claim we can make about the truth of a modern creation myth is that it offers a unified account of origins from the perspective of the early twenty-first century.

Yes, claiming that the present is somehow special or privileged sounds like hubris; and we must, in the march of time, ultimately take our place, as did our ancestors; our ‘knowledge systems’ will undoubtedly move on.

Yes, science is ‘best explanation for now and it can always be improved’. And yet we must be careful both of our words and, even more, of our attitudes. Modern science has constructed nuclear bombs; it is capable of manipulating the molecular components of our bodies that control our appearance and behaviour; it can explain space and time, not as an impractical theory, but in a way that has myriad direct applications impacting on daily life. I am not suggesting that all this is good, but I am claiming that it is a totally different order from prayer, the gods making thunder in the sky, and Apollo driving the Sun over the horizon each day. Science is not ‘common-sense’ any more than it is ‘inspiration’, ‘flexible’ (what does that mean?). Though today’s science is clearly useful, I venture that scientists place greatest import in its explanations not its application. And why is the attempt to make a perfect description of reality ‘unnecessary’?

In short, modern science is much more than a ‘workable description’ (a strange and demeaning euphemism). If we were to challenge the creation myths of the past we might insult our fellows and the consequences might have been dire for that reason, but today it is not the imaginary or fictive world of particular cultures that we are dealing with it is the material world on which we all depend. Mythology is not a useful word to associate with science. We might feel that science needs ‘putting in its place’ but this is not the way to do it.

Science as a grand narrative

So, is science just one among many possible grand narratives of existence?

Frenchman Auguste Comte was an Enlightenment thinker who coined the word ‘sociology’. He wrote the influential Course on the Positive Philosophy (1830-1842) a summary of the science of his day and he asked whether science could be used as a grand narrative for modern societies … ‘Can science integrate society?’. His view was that science did not compete with religion but emerged from it. Historically ideas had progressed through three modes of thinking, from religion, to philosophy, to science. Religion provided the working hypotheses necessary for any theoretical discussion to proceed. Philosophy then provided an explanation of the ways we think about theories: metaphysics acting as an intermediary between religion and science. Science provided true explanations. The sciences were arranged in a hierarchy which in his day he characterised as simple to complex, general to specific, independent to dependent (most encompassing): mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, sociology. Is this a gross oversimplification?

Today we are amused by the idea of Apollo in his chariot pulling the Sun up over the horizon every morning, or the stars as holes in the sky where the souls of Viking warriors pass after death in combat on their way to the afterlife in Valhalla. The pre-scientific mind did not believe in accidents. Without adequate physical explanations fortunes and misfortunes were explained in supernatural terms. Life was bloodthirsty so Gods were assumed to be bloodthirsty and human sacrifice was common.

But is this just our arrogance: we think we know so much better now, but perhaps in 200 years’ time our ancestors will laugh at us in just the same way. Is science, like every other grand narrative, just a story to be taken seriously now but looked back on from the future as just another product of a particular time, place, and circumstance, just another human imagined reality? After all, science is a constantly changing narrative, scientific facts change so science cannot be truth.

There are a number of factors indicating that science is not simply a modern myth. Many people will disagree with these factors, listed below, but they should give them careful consideration as it is all too easy to greet all human knowledge with equal scepticism.

So how is science different?

The miracle of today’s scientific grand narrative defies imagination. Greek philosophers over two thousand years ago pondering the nature of matter would be astounded by the account given here, not to mention what has been achieved using sophisticated modern technology to examine the universe at both micro and macro scales. Most important of all, the scientific narrative has been painstakingly and reliably pieced together so that the claims it makes can be demonstrated, tested, and possibly falsified: they are not dogmatic assertions, vague beliefs, or articles of faith. This does not diminish the emormous value and powerful influence on our lives of the arts and non-scientific matters – but it is a claim that science is much more than wishful thinking, a moral lesson, or an appealing story that is socially enforced – it is the closest we know to what we mean by ‘true’ – every step of its edifice has been worked through in meticulous and verifiable detail. What seems like the magic of instantaneous global communication, televisions, space flight, genetic manipulation and, yes, nuclear bombs (science can be used for good or ill), bear witness to the power of its methods.

A domain of knowledge and explanation that has allowed evolved apes to walk on the moon and to master the secrets of the universe, the atom and the gene – to have produced modern medicine and technology – is not just another story.

Commentary & sustainability analysis

Science is a body of knowledge that is under constant revision but this does not make it relativistic or subjective: from medicine to nuclear bombs and climate change we would do well to attend to its findings and explanations. We owe a great debt to those thinkers of the Axial Age who, against social pressure, paved the way for such a grand narrative to be possible.

One possibility that seems superficially both unlikely and arrogant is the view that todays scientific account of the world is essentially ‘correct’ in its fundamentals and that although there may be shocks in future (sush as the confirmation of multiverses, amazing new technologies etc.) future science will nevertheless look broadly as it does today. Scientific researchwill be mostly concerned with fine detail rather than making major breakthroughs. Such a claim could be made for botany. Research is, of course, endless as each step opens up new qustions. Even so, the basic questions about plant structure, function, and evolution have now, in principle, received answers.

Science, as a form of reason, is without doubt the most effective tool we possess to protect our present world and to manage it into the future.

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