Thursday, April 16, 2009

Science in Its Rightful Place

President Obama has stated in his inaugural address, "We will restore science to its rightful place." I guess that I am less that sure about where that place is.

What is science's place? If it has been displaced, what has usurped it?

I am sure to those (such as myself) who still hold a Modernist viewpoint, science is pretty much authoritative. And for questions that it was created to answer, science does pretty well. I am a big advocate of Western allopathic medicine, physics, information theory, and most of the rest of the Dead European White Man package. Given the choice between antibiotics and accupuncture and herbal cures, I say, "Pass the pills, please."

But physical science was created to answer one category of questions, not every category. One of the big lessons of the 20th century is that while science is good at answering questions of "how," (as in, "How do I build a bridge that spans the Golden Gate?"), it pretty much fails when asked the questions of "why," (as in, "Why should I not take everything away from people who are ethnically different from me?")

If science has been displaced, I think that it has been displaced by clearer thinking about "why" we should (or should not) attempt some actions. We should ask questions about the value of human life before we use science to design weapons of mass destruction. We should ask those same questions before we use science to justify subordinating human lives to those of animals.

During the High Middle Ages, theology was "The Queen of the Sciences," and served as the capstone to the Trivium and Quadrivium that young men were expected to study. This meant that the other subjects (including Philosophy) existed primarily to help with theological thought.

Science had better watch out. Nothing stays the same.

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