Reflections on Science

Since Mag­ic was found­ed, sci­ence and lov­ing have been the twin pil­lars of our orga­ni­za­tion­al phi­los­o­phy. From hard expe­ri­ence we have learned that what we mean by each of these words is often dif­fer­ent from what oth­ers have come to under­stand by them. We have writ­ten the fol­low­ing to explain how we define sci­ence, and why we deem it so impor­tant that more of us refine and extend our prac­tice of science.

We use sci­ence in a very spe­cif­ic way, to refer to

  • a set of behav­iors, and
  • what we have learned by those behaviors.

The set of behav­iors we call the sci­en­tif­ic method. We include in it: ques­tion­ing, observ­ing, rea­son­ing, imag­in­ing, test­ing, and repeat­ing this process. By observ­ing, we mean with our eyes, with our oth­er sens­es, and with our con­scious­ness, as when we ‘look inward.’ We mean using our naked sens­es, as well as the instru­ments we have invent­ed to extend our senses.

What humans have learned by the sci­en­tif­ic method includes the con­tents of the var­i­ous sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­plines, plus a great deal more. In fact, it includes much of the infor­ma­tion by which you and we live our every­day lives. Con­sid­er the fol­low­ing example.

When some­one trains a dog to sit, both per­son and dog can be prac­tic­ing sci­ence. The train­er won­ders how to turn a ram­bunc­tious pup­py into a well-trained pet. She reads a book in which oth­ers describe reward­ing the ani­mal for obe­di­ence, and pun­ish­ing it for dis­obe­di­ence. She uses bis­cuits and a shock col­lar to rein­force and dis­cour­age behav­ior in response to the com­mand, “Sit!” If we imag­ine the dog’s per­spec­tive, we view the sit­u­a­tion dif­fer­ent­ly. Won­der­ing how to secure food and affec­tion, Spot observes that the train­er can be a source of both, and learns to sit in order to get what she wants.

Of course peo­ple can prac­tice sci­ence with vary­ing degrees of com­pe­tence. Some­one can read and believe the first dog train­ing book she encoun­ters, or can fol­low the instruc­tions in it blind­ly, with­out regard to the out­comes she observes, or she can con­sult a friend … In short, she can be full of ques­tions, or ready to believe, very obser­vant, or hard­ly so, extreme­ly care­ful in draw­ing con­clu­sions, or quick to assume, con­sci­en­tious about test­ing the ideas she gath­ers to see whether they are a basis for her to pre­dict with con­sis­tent accu­ra­cy, or full of ratio­nal­iza­tions for beliefs at odds with expe­ri­ence, dili­gent in refin­ing her thoughts, or con­vinced that she knows enough. By sci­ence we mean more than sim­ply draw­ing con­clu­sions on the basis of expe­ri­ence. To prac­tice sci­ence well, we wring each expe­ri­ence for as much valid infor­ma­tion as we may extract, and just that much. We ful­ly exploit life’s lessons, and we stop short of imag­in­ing them to be more than they are. Of course, any of us will fall short of such an ide­al­ized prac­tice, but we may use it as a stan­dard towards which to aim.

Seen in the light of the above dis­cus­sion, every­day life is filled with sci­ence, and the lines between sci­ence and art, sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, sci­ence and lov­ing are far from dis­tinct. Con­sid­er your own life. How do you know which end of a tele­phone goes to your ear, to peel an orange but eat the skin of a toma­to, how to read the char­ac­ters on this page and make them into words and sen­tences with mean­ing, how to walk, how to talk, how to do any of the myr­i­ad tasks by which you care for your­self or oth­ers, or secure your liveli­hood? By the def­i­n­i­tion of sci­ence we offer here, you know all of these things at least in part as a result of prac­tic­ing sci­ence. “But,” you protest, “sci­ence isn’t every­thing.” And we quite agree. By our def­i­n­i­tion, how­ev­er, sci­ence is the only known way to learn from expe­ri­ence so that we may pre­dict the future with bet­ter-than-ran­dom results. You and we may hold many oth­er ideas which go beyond sci­ence, and we may be very attached to them, but we will fail if we use these as a basis for predicting.

Why do we care about know­ing the future? Because we want to live in it, and we can only do so by meet­ing cer­tain con­di­tions. Our under­stand­ing of this is evi­denced in the three ques­tions which under­pin each of our lives: “What do I want? How can I get it? How do I know?”

Sup­pose for a moment that we decide to make sci­ence at least a par­tial response to the third ques­tion, and to use it, as we’ve described it here, to shed some light on the first two ques­tions. What do we see when we con­sid­er our wants and the means to sat­is­fy them? Look­ing at the world, we can see that sur­vival and repro­duc­tion are dis­tin­guish­ing qual­i­ties by which we may dif­fer­en­ti­ate liv­ing from non-liv­ing enti­ties. Think­ing about the activ­i­ties at this very moment of the near­ly six bil­lion humans alive today, we can see just how impor­tant these basics are: about a third of us are asleep; anoth­er eighth are eat­ing. A third of the rest of us are infants and young chil­dren. Already we have account­ed for five-eighths of humankind. The vast major­i­ty of those whom we have yet to cat­e­go­rize are work­ing to secure life’s neces­si­ties for them­selves and their off­spring. This pic­ture remains large­ly unchanged if we lim­it our field of view to a sin­gle con­ti­nent or coun­try, or if we trav­el through time to con­sid­er the lives of those who lived in the past.

There is anoth­er near-uni­ver­sal pat­tern of activ­i­ty, less promi­nent but still ubiq­ui­tous. We find evi­dence of it in cave paint­ings and cathe­drals, in pyra­mids and sim­ple grave­stones. Humans seek to become com­fort­able with the knowl­edge that sur­vival is a game with an end, and that the lives of our prog­e­ny also will end. In every human soci­ety stud­ied to date, we find signs of peo­ple’s strate­gies for com­ing to grips with the tran­scen­dent, with what lies beyond mate­r­i­al exis­tence, beyond our sens­es, beyond death. The search for inner peace in the face of mor­tal­i­ty, out of which much of reli­gion and phi­los­o­phy has grown, is anoth­er side of human yearning.

In just a few min­utes, using a sci­en­tif­ic approach, we have dis­cov­ered that mate­r­i­al desires like sur­vival and repro­duc­tion, and tran­scen­dant desires relat­ed to our aware­ness of our mor­tal­i­ty, are com­mon to vir­tu­al­ly all peo­ple. Almost with­out excep­tion, each of us pur­sues some bal­ance in sat­is­fy­ing these two basic cat­e­gories of needs. An obvi­ous ques­tion is, “How might we use sci­ence to do that?”

We meet our mate­r­i­al needs by inter­act­ing with our sur­round­ings, includ­ing oth­er peo­ple. How do we know how to inter­act? If we exam­ine the cells in our bod­ies, we can see there cer­tain instruc­tions, cod­ed in chem­i­cals just as clear­ly as the thoughts on this page are expressed in let­ters and words and sen­tences. These instruc­tions are the basis for many of the process­es by which we remain alive. We also can exam­ine our brains, and find there dif­fer­ent­ly-cod­ed instruc­tions — some of them the results of our expe­ri­ences — which inform oth­er behav­iors. These two kinds of instruc­tions, the ones which are chem­i­cal­ly encod­ed at con­cep­tion or dur­ing our ear­ly devel­op­ment, and the ones we acquire through expe­ri­ence, com­prise the entire known com­ple­ment of infor­ma­tion we car­ry. Like a piece of com­put­er-con­trolled machin­ery, we are able to do only what we are informed to do. And like many machines, we have both read-only mem­o­ry, (e.g. our genes) and pro­gram­ma­ble mem­o­ry (e.g. much of the con­tents of our brains).

By sci­en­tif­ic study of the his­to­ry of life on Earth and of the cur­rent inter­ac­tions of life with the envi­ron­ment we can dis­cern a very clear pat­tern. Life exists by main­tain­ing a match between the instruc­tions it car­ries and the envi­ron­ment in which it oper­ates. (We use ‘envi­ron­ment’ here to mean all that with which an organ­ism inter­acts. For any organ­ism this may include oth­er liv­ing things of the same or dif­fer­ent species.)

Because each human gen­er­a­tion spans a decade or more, we have rel­a­tive­ly infre­quent oppor­tu­ni­ties to revise our genes. A sin­gle-celled ani­mal by con­trast may repro­duce every few min­utes. So a great deal of our adap­ta­tion to envi­ron­men­tal change comes as a result of learn­ing. And we are in many ways well-equipped to learn. We have a vari­ety of acute sens­es. We have a com­par­a­tive­ly large brain. We have invent­ed a host of tools, from books to com­put­ers, to radio com­mu­ni­ca­tions by which to share our lessons. At any moment we like­ly face a diverse selec­tion of pos­si­ble futures, some more prefer­able than oth­ers in terms of the sat­is­fac­tion we imag­ine. By our cur­rent choic­es we influ­ence the like­li­hood of pre­ferred out­comes. How may we choose the behav­iors which make what we want more prob­a­ble? By under­stand­ing the pat­terns of cause and effect. Any free­dom we enjoy is an out­growth of our abil­i­ty to make mean­ing­ful choic­es. These depend upon bet­ter-than-ran­dom pre­dic­tion. Such pre­dic­tion in turn rests on the pres­ence of repeat­ing pat­tern. Thus, our suc­cess­ful adap­ta­tion, in terms of sur­vival needs and repro­duc­tive activ­i­ties, depends heav­i­ly upon our abil­i­ty to learn well from expe­ri­ence. And this is pre­cise­ly what we have defined sci­ence to be: a method for learn­ing well from expe­ri­ence, and an accu­mu­la­tion of valid lessons thus learned.
But there is more. We also rec­og­nized a set of tran­scen­dent desires. How may we use sci­ence to come to grips with these? First, we may explore their roots, in our aware­ness of the cer­tain frus­tra­tion of genet­i­cal­ly-informed desires. We will die. The males among us will fall short of repro­duc­ing the thou­sands or even mil­lions of off­spring we are poten­tial­ly able to sire. The females among us will also fall short of bear­ing the dozens of chil­dren of which we are capa­ble. Indi­vid­u­als of both gen­ders will face unwant­ed uncer­tain­ty about the well-being of those daugh­ters and sons we do bring into the world. Even if we vest our inter­ests in humankind, or more gen­er­al­ly in life itself, those of us famil­iar with expec­ct­ed future of bio­log­i­cal and plan­e­tary evo­lu­tion face the dis­qui­et­ing thought that both peo­ple and all oth­er Earth­ly life will some­day almost cer­tain­ly be gone.

We can place our faith in some unprov­able but hoped-for after­world, but the very incon­crete­ness of such an alter­na­tive makes it less than sat­is­fy­ing. Per­haps more impor­tant­ly, believ­ing in that which lies beyond expe­ri­ence can too eas­i­ly be extend­ed to deny­ing expe­ri­ence itself when it is in con­flict with our beliefs. With such behav­ior we under­mine our abil­i­ty to sat­is­fy the mate­r­i­al needs and desires per­tain­ing to sur­vival and repro­duc­tion which are informed by the genes in our every cell.

Iron­i­cal­ly, a sci­en­tif­ic approach affords some com­fort. The cycling of mat­ter and flows of ener­gy through the liv­ing world are well-doc­u­ment­ed. With each breath, for exam­ple, each of us inhales some atoms which were once breathed by every sin­gle human who ever lived sev­en­ty years on this Earth! Ash­es to ash­es and dust to dust are lit­er­al­ly true. We are but a rest­ing place for sun­light on the way to heat, for moun­tains on their way to the sea. These are the facts, dis­agree­able though they may be in terms of our genet­ic agen­das. Our task then, is to play out the genet­i­cal­ly-defined role grace­ful­ly, tem­per­ing it with the lessons of expe­ri­ence so that we may bal­ance liv­ing well and dying well. If we look, we dis­cov­er that this con­clu­sion has been reached by many wise peo­ple in diverse cul­tures wide­ly sep­a­rat­ed in space and time. More­over, we find that the ways of being all of them com­mend to us can be sum­mar­i­ly described as ‘lov­ing.’

For cen­turies an ethos of mate­ri­al­ism and denial has been ascen­dant among humans. We have increas­ing­ly neglect­ed the need for tran­scen­dance by imag­in­ing that we might some­how avoid the cer­tain frus­tra­tion of genet­i­cal­ly-informed desires which is inher­ent to our mor­tal nature. The alchemists searched for the elix­er and the philoso­phers’ stone with the hope of attain­ing ever­last­ing life and unlim­it­ed pow­er. Today the bio­engi­neers and the pro­po­nents of count­less oth­er tech­nolo­gies con­tin­ue this mis­ad­ven­ture. Of course we want to reduce human suf­fer­ing, but to pre­tend that we can suc­ceed in that goal by cur­ing can­cer, or build­ing a faster com­put­er, even as we add a hun­dred mil­lion peo­ple to our pop­u­la­tion each year is some­thing oth­er than sci­ence. It is the pur­suit of sci­en­tif­ic know-how with­out admit­ting to the neces­si­ty of sci­en­tif­ic know-why. It is, “By what means?” with too lit­tle atten­tion to, “To what purposes?”

Since the time of Galileo, per­haps long before, those who wield author­i­ty based in beliefs root­ed beyond every­day expe­ri­ence have resist­ed the expan­sion of the sci­en­tif­ic domain. Yet a hand­ful of peo­ple in each gen­er­a­tion have pushed the bounds of sci­en­tif­ic inquiry and sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge fur­ther and fur­ther across the realm of human experience.

As we pass into the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, we will rede­fine our rela­tion­ships to each oth­er and to the Earth we share. We will recon­sid­er care­ful­ly the pur­pos­es to which we live, the ways we may fur­ther them, and how we know these things. If we become a species whose indi­vid­ual mem­bers are adept at the prac­tice of sci­ence we will be joined in paint­ing a more accu­rate pic­ture of our­selves and our cir­cum­stances, and in using our under­stand­ing to live and die bet­ter. We will more read­i­ly resolve our con­flicts by appeal to the lessons of expe­ri­ence, rather than to some author­i­ty. We will accept a less grand place for our­selves in the uni­verse, and renew our atten­tion to bal­anc­ing mate­r­i­al and tran­scen­dant desires. We will refor­mu­late the social con­tract to reflect our fuller under­stand­ing of our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, includ­ing the increas­ing futil­i­ty of seek­ing indi­vid­ual gain at oth­ers’ expense. And in the process of accom­plish­ing all these things, we may at last join sci­ence and loving.