Friday 13 March 2020

What is science? Part 2


Our standard of living today is almost exclusively down to science. If you compare how people lived in the early nineteenth century with today the difference is extraordinary. Even if I were rich in the days of Jane Austen, I would live in a house heated by wood and coal. The light after dark would be supplied by candles. Travel even within Britain would be long and arduous. To get to Australia would take months of dangerous travel. I would be at risk of dying from numerous diseases that are now easily cured or else eradicated. Many women would die in childbirth and a large proportion of children would die in infancy. The change between then and now we owe to science.

Science can justly say that it has brought about greater progress than any other human activity. Perhaps it is for this reason that there is a modern tendency to worship science and also medicine which is really a branch of science.

But science has a tendency to let its success go to its head. Scientists and doctors have become the modern equivalent of priests, dispensing wisdom and telling us how to live our lives. People go to the doctor as if they go to confession. Doctor, doctor forgive me I surpassed my alcohol unit limit last week. I eat too much chocolate. I smoked a cigarette.

But what has medicine really achieved? People on average live longer. It is much less likely that we will die as babies, or in childbirth or from typhoid, polio or a whole host of semi forgotten killers. But if the goal is simply to prolong life, what has really been achieved?

Most of us who are reasonably content with life want to live as long as possible. We know that we must die someday, but we hope to put it off for as long as we can. But for what?

Does it really matter if someone dies age 80 or 90? Of course, if I were 80, I would prefer to continue living for a while, but when I’m 90 I will still want to keep going. Eventually I will die. Will it matter at that point if I died when I was 90 or 80? Will it indeed matter that I didn’t die in child birth or as an infant?

Medicine focusses on extending life as long as possible. But medical science rarely asks why it should do this. Here is why it is necessary to think about what science is for and indeed what it is not for.

Medicine today takes the view that it should boss everyone around and tell us to drink less alcohol, eat less fat and sugar do exercises every day and never smoke. If we do all these things there is a greater chance that we will live to be 100 and possibly spend the last twenty of those years in a nursing home with dementia.

It isn’t unreasonable to have a goal of lengthening life as much as possible, but length on its own is not enough. A short journey is equally as pointless as a long journey if there is no destination.

Science needs to think more about the purpose of its discoveries. It’s all very well saying that we are only interested in truth as if scientists were merely doing metaphysics. But science has real world consequences.

Again, look at what science has discovered since the days of Jane Austen. It discovered the internal combustion engine and allowed us all to drive cars. It discovered the machine gun and the tank. The aeroplane and the possibility of such planes dropping bombs. It discovered phosgene and mustard gas. It discovered Sarin.

In Jane Austen’s time there was a limit to the damage that even someone like Napoleon could do. Muskets and cannon balls could kill lots of soldiers, but they could not destroy worlds.

Science gave us the means to destroy our world both by means of pollution and by means of nuclear destruction. Science too did much to destroy the faith that nearly everyone had in 1815.

So not only did we give up our sure and certain hope of eternity, we gave it up for mere longevity and a longevity so tenuous that it could be destroyed by any major war or any crazy dictator or terrorist who wanted to release whatever horrors science had discovered.

If we had had no science, or if we had stopped in 1815, we would have had all their disadvantages, but our world would not be pumping out pollution and carbon dioxide, our wars would not involve the deaths of millions. Did twentieth century medicine save more than science killed? How many may be killed by science if our world becomes uninhabitable?  

It is natural that human beings want to discover. There is no way we can just stop. Neither in 1815 nor 2020. But scientists should attempt to evaluate not merely what they can discover, but what they ought to discover.

Too many scientists in various universities around the world are simply doing what is necessary to keep their jobs. They make experiments, they present papers, but to what purpose? Not everything is worth discovering. Does it matter how a star so far away that we could never go there behaves? Will the sum of human happiness around the world be improved by this discovery or lessened?

Science has a record for good and for bad, but despite ethics committees it rarely questions itself fundamentally. Science has no understanding of morality, because morality is not subject to scientific proof. But morality is just as true as science is. It’s just a different sort of truth. Until and unless science takes morality seriously there is the clear and present danger that it discovers still another means of destroying our world. Science may be trying to solve the problems of climate change, but without science there would have been no problem to solve.