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

  1. a set of behaviors, and
  2. 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.