scientific knowing and life-change

Science fascinates me.

I’m not sure which I love more; the answers we’ve got or the remaining questions we hope to answer. Science is such an important thing to support. It has given us so much.

We humans should value science as an invaluable tool in life. But how does this tool work? Are there ways in which we can mis-use the powerful tool of science?

I’m reminded of a quote from the film Jurassic Park. Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Even without modern science all it does for us, humans already have ability to do all kinds of things that non-humans can’t. Modern science has given us (among other things) even more ability to do even more kinds of things. We can communicate in all kinds of ways (like blogging!). We can split atoms. We can make it rain. We can change our gender. We can make pills that (theoretically, at least!) make us feel better. We have lots of ability.

Interestingly, in spite of how much ability and options we have, humans are often unsatisfied with how their lives are. Walk into any popular book store and you won’t have to look too far to find all manner of books offering ‘the Secret’ (pun intended) to a happy, convenient, fulfilled life.  I’m disappointed to see that many Christian authors (or is it more the publishers?) have picked up on this kind of ‘self-help’ approach (i.e. the best-seller ‘Your Best Life Now’).

What am I getting at?

Well, I guess I’m thinking (as least) two things…

First, I’m thinking about how great science is and how much it can help us. Secondly, I’m thinking about how scientific knowledge and advanced technology doesn’t seem to always make us feel fulfilled.

I mean, on one hand, I’m so grateful for scientific knowledge! I love learning new facts about all kinds of things, and sometimes – even often – these facts can help me live better. I recently went to the dentist, and the facts he shared with me (including brushing and flossing techniques!) will really help me take better care of my teeth and gums!

But on the other hand, many facts don’t seem to help us as much. My knowledge of the spin-rate of a distant pulsar (while undeniably interesting and helpful in regard to knowing and appreciating a detail of how the universe functions) doesn’t help me to be patient with others or to spend less money on clothes I don’t need. Whether I think of my wife as 1) a collection body parts (brain, arms, heart, fingers, etc.), 2) a collection of many living cells (hair cells, skin cells, muscle cells, etc.) or 3) as a collection of atomic particles, I’ve still got to figure out how to love her and be faithful to her.

We might liken the tool of scientific knowledge to transportation methods. More and more scientific knowledge could be analogous to faster and more efficient ways of getting around. (no analogies are perfect, are they?) The value of science (and transportation) is not to be neglected, but perhaps we should all remember that while science reveals a lot of detail about time, space and matter, it doesn’t tell us what to do with them. The car gets you from ‘a’ to ‘b’, but can’t tell you where you should be going (or when to come back, for that matter!).

Scientific knowing?

Treasure it. Use it well.

Changing your Life? Learning to Love? Looking for Fulfillment?

Now that’s something quite different…

29 thoughts on “scientific knowing and life-change”

  1. “we should all remember that while science reveals a lot of detail about time, space and matter, it doesn’t tell us what to do with them.” Is this an issue, though? I don’t hear anybody suggesting we should be using science for “Changing your Life? Learning to Love? Looking for Fulfillment?

    Mind you, I have come to the conclusion that recent discoveries in brain science can be useful in considering strategies for dealing with aging itself. Maybe there is scope for a similar approach in love and fulfillment?

  2. Yes, science is sometimes used to encompass far more than it is – its just a method, a systematic way of finding and validating knowledge. It does not claim to be good or bad or to change your life for the better. As far as whether it can help people change their lives, love and be fulfilled etc, well some scientific knowledge can play a part in this. For example, chemicals used to treat addictions can make a big difference for people, understanding the influence of hormones can make for a more harmonious marriage and so on…
    Oh and Dale, you don’t want to defeat aging do you? Could make the wait for the ‘coming right’ awfully long ; )

  3. btw, these geeky stereotypical photos of male scientists are a bit much! Apologies if by some small chance they are real people you know – was a bit worried after seeing Ken’s self portrait ; )

  4. Thanks Jack,
    Yes, while the powerful tool of science can indeed help us to “change our lives for the better”, it is unable to aid us in any way to judge what that “better” is…
    It’s a very careful statement, and I don’t want to be misunderstood…
    Scientific understandings, can reinforce but not provide our judgments about what is good and what isn’t…
    Our judgments about what is good (or not) can, of course, be informed, strengthened and expressed with and through science, but scientific observation, theories and knowledge cannot give us any values on which we base such moral/ethical judgments…
    -d-

  5. Yes, science is sometimes used to encompass far more than it is – its just a method, a systematic way of finding and validating knowledge. It does not claim to be good or bad or to change your life for the better.

    Well said Jack. Science is really just a process. The best process we know of for discovering the truth about the workings of the natural universe.

  6. My avatar isn’t a self-portrait Jack. It was actually drawn by a clown in the old Moscow Circus about 35 years ago. I don’t mean to misrepresent myself (I have a lot less hair on my head now) but I value the drawing as I got to shake hands with the famous clown Popov. Even when I was told later that the clowns chose the weirdest-looking people in the audience (and at that time in Moscow beards were thought to be evidence of homosexuality) it didn’t take away from the presentation.

    Strategies to deal with aging relate to new evidence on how different mental/brain exercise influences the brain.
    Actually, I agree completely with the assertion that science doesn’t answer questions of value (I don’t think anyone claims that it does) I don’t think any other human philosophical/religious/ideological endeavour does either.

    I guess the other response I have is to be very careful when people talk about the limits of science. History is replete with examples of failed claims that science could not answer certain questions (e.g. the composition of stars). Not so long ago most scientists thought human consciousness was beyond the methods of scientific investigation – yet here we are doing that research.

  7. Actually, I agree completely with the assertion that science doesn’t answer questions of value (I don’t think anyone claims that it does) I don’t think any other human philosophical/religious/ideological endeavour does either.

    Thanks Ken,
    So, just to confirm, values are completely relative and/or socially constructed, right?
    So not only all objects but also all actions have no value or meaning? Philosophy, religion and such have answered absolutely none of our questions of value?
    So there would be zero meaningful difference –in terms of value– between, say, eating an orange and beating a child? Eating or Beating, no difference in value? Orange or Child, no difference in value?

  8. Great story behind your pic Ken – perhaps the clown was hitting on you ; ), given the beard and all. I hope I didn’t offend you – just wanted to draw attention to the stereotypical use of older, bearded blokes with think rimmed specs as scientists.
    I think people do elevate science to something beyond a method of testing & validating knowledge. I read on a blog comment on Soul Purpose about how some people try to fill the void in their life with science??? And people accuse others of being ‘followers of science’ as if its a belief system. I’ve also seen some Christians act very wary of it as if discovering knowledge was some sort of a threat.

    Look forward to your reply to Dale, where do the answers come from regarding questions of value?

  9. Hi,
    Sorry to be contacting you here like this, but I couldn’t find a ‘contact’ link. I read one of your comments on another blog about mercy ministries in australia and you said you would like to know more about the exorcisms they did to us. So please email me if you would like to chat and I will try to fill you in. Hope you can get my email addy from this post??
    And feel free to delete this comment because it’s way off topic from your blog!
    thanks

  10. Hi – not sure if you mean me or Dale? The mercy ministries case was certainly of interest to me and there seemed to be little detail released about the ‘exorcisms’. I’m sure there are many who would like to hear the truth on that one, and I don’t think Dale would mind you posting it here (but you better wait for his go ahead) otherwise my e-mail is bridge_house@yahoo.co.nz
    Hope you are doing OK among all the controversy.

  11. Hi there, ‘ex mercy girl’,
    Thanks for finding me (or Jack?)…
    I agree with Jack’s suggestion, and have no problem with you posting that here in this thread…
    Is that OK? Or do you just want to keep it private (in an email)?
    Either is OK with me…
    Cheers,
    -d-

  12. Dale, I don’t know how you got this:
    “So, just to confirm, values are completely relative and/or socially constructed, right?
    So not only all objects but also all actions have no value or meaning? Philosophy, religion and such have answered absolutely none of our questions of value?
    So there would be zero meaningful difference –in terms of value– between, say, eating an orange and beating a child? Eating or Beating, no difference in value? Orange or Child, no difference in value?”

    But it does suggest something I often suspect. When people talk about the limitations of science – questions science cannot answer – they are really suggesting that these questions can be answered by their own specific ethical stance.

    It seems to me that it would be more logical to pose the question – can a specific ideological or philosophical viewpoint answer these questions? Really, it is logical for proponents of such viewpoints to make their own claims in this area and enable them to be scrutinised.

  13. Thanks Ken,
    My comments were a clarifying-attempt at following part of your comment to a possible logical extention. You had said that “any other human philosophical/religious/ideological endeavour” was unable (like science) to “answer questions of value”. As I indicated, I wasn’t trying to put words in your mouth or assume anything, just checking if that particular logical extension would reflect how you see the ‘answer-able-ness’ of the value questions…

    Before the question of whether these value-questions actually can be ‘answered’ or not (and what that might even look like), comes the question of which realm of rational enquiry do they belong to or in?

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I think that while science can contribute meaningfully to these ‘value conversations’, the conversations themselves –instead of belonging ‘in’ or ‘to’ the field of scientific observation/explanation– belong ‘in’ or ‘to’ the field of philosophical reflection.

    In short, the ‘how’ field (science) can have a part in any ‘why’ conversation, but the ‘why’ conversations themselves exist in the ‘why’ field (philosophy) – that is –after all– why they are ‘why’ questions…

    I know you might well not be comfortable with this, and again, I commend you on your robust zeal for scientific discovery, but think this ‘why’/’how’ distinction holds…

  14. I don’t buy into “why/how” distinctions (I have often had to answer “why” questions in my scientific research, for example).

    But, this aside, I don’t see that a philosopher (or priest) can give me a more definitive answer to questions of value than a scientist, baker, milkman, etc. They can certainly ‘reflect’ on the question (and they are trained to do this at great length) but in the end their answer doesn’t have any more intrinsic truth than that from an individual of any other profession.

    Society has to more and more face ethical questions (often generated by humanity’s progress in knowledge and research). We form ethics committees, etc., to help resolve such questions. In coming to decisions on such matters it would be criminal to only allow philosophers (or priests) to serve on the committees, or only allow input from philosophers (or priests). We quite rightly recognise that these questions are democratic ones. And we certainly don’t rule that scientists or bakers have no input.

    Unfortunately, a undemocratic approach is sometimes taken by politicians who believe that religious leaders have a special role on such questions. The ethics committee established by President Bush is an example. He stacked his committee with such people who have since made what many consider quite immoral decisions on ethical questions.

    My lack of comfort is not about recognition of limits or bounds to scientific inquiry. It’s about groups claiming for themselves special rights on moral and ethical matters. I don’t see that these groups have any special role in telling me what is right and wrong.

  15. Very well, Ken,
    Just to be clear, I’ve never said that scientists (or bakers, etc.) should be excluded from ethical discussions. In my view, literally everyone has a right (responsibility even?) to input into such conversations – precisely because literally everyone does philosophy (at some level – similar to the fact that everyone does ‘science’ at one level or another).
    …gotta run – lunch is on the table!
    -d-

  16. …I have often had to answer “why” questions in my scientific research…

    This might be a good example of what I’m trying to say. But first a clarifier (just to be crystal clear) about “why” questions…

    It should be obvious that I’m not talking about scientific ‘why’ questions… For example, the question: ‘why’ does grass sometimes turn brown? has the obvious answer about heat and water levels, etc. That, of course, is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about ‘why’ questions which deal not with processes but with such ‘unscientific’ things as worth/value, purpose, person-hood, etc..

    Now, having made that clarification, let me say that I have no hesitation or doubt that you indeed have answered (or at least have engaged in the process of answering) ‘why’ questions in the midst of scientific research; but I suggest/propose that your specific action of engaging in that process (of answering ‘why’ questions) was a philosophical action, rather than a scientific one. This primarily philosophical action can be (in your case probably was!), of course, scientifically informed, but it remains a primarily philosophical action nonetheless…

    This is splitting hairs, I know, but hairs I judge (philosophically, of course) worthy of splitting… :) Understanding one another fully is worth all this blogging, huh?

    -d-

  17. I think even ‘why’ questions about values can be investigated scientifically. For example, why do we identify with a group, why do we sacrifice ourselves for others.

    There are questions such as ‘what’ is (absolutely) right and wrong, ‘what’ is the purpose of our life, etc., which may not be capable of investigation (depending on what is actually meant by the question). But no other field of endeavour is capable of investigating these either. (Some people would claim that these questions themselves have no real meaning).

    Of course there will be philosophical traditions who offer ‘answers’ to such questions – a code of behaviour as it were. I think religions have had such a role in codifying morals and ethics, in the past. My point is that their answers have no more authority than those of the scientist, baker or milkman on such questions.

  18. Ken says: My point is that their answers have no more authority than those of the scientist, baker or milkman on such questions.

    The classic post-modernist claim! ;)

  19. Come on – don’t avoid the issue with a ‘post-modernist’ label.
    If you think I am wrong let’s hear your arguments.

  20. I’m going to (perhaps predictably) back Ken up on this one. The post modernist argument is that we can never really know the truth anyway and so they end up treating all truth claims equally. This is more often used by people who have very weak arguments as an attempt to try to level the playing field. Ken’s argument is that in questions of philosophy the argument from authority doesn’t apply (as it doesn’t with science as well). Each argument has to stand on its own merits and those arguments can be formed by a philosopher, scientist, baker or milkman. Same with science.

    Some people like to think they have a mysterious other-worldly link to the deeper meanings of the universe and this usually involves religion somewhere along the line. But the fact remains that the methodology used by the religionists when making these kinds of arguments is often flawed. If you trace all their arguments back to their root they start with a massive leap of faith as the premise that isn’t allowed to be questioned. A bad way to try to get at the truth.

    If you can put forward a logical argument for a particular ethic then it doesn’t matter if you are a baker or a priest. And, once again, the same with science; if you can make an observation and put forward a testable hypothesis it doesn’t matter if you are a milkman or a rocket scientist.

  21. Ken,
    Thanks for giving me an example to work with…

    “I think even ‘why’ questions about values can be investigated scientifically. For example, why do we identify with a group, why do we sacrifice ourselves for others.”

    The ‘why’ that science can look into (in the group identity or self-sacrifice question) is that of biological, neurological and other phenomenon related to these events (identity/sacrifice)…
    The ‘why’ that science cannot comment on (in the group identity or self-sacrifice question) is that of meaningful-ness of the phenomenon related to these events…

    There are questions such as ‘what’ is (absolutely) right and wrong, ‘what’ is the purpose of our life, etc., which may not be capable of investigation (depending on what is actually meant by the question). But no other field of endeavour is capable of investigating these either. (Some people would claim that these questions themselves have no real meaning).

    You’re getting closer to what I’m on about here. Your notion that ‘some people’ would claim these questions have no ‘real’ meaning is indicative of your philosophical views. You don’t think (it seems) that those kind of ‘why’ questions have any ‘real’ meaning. This position of yours is a perfectly valid philosophical one to take, and it may well be informed by scientific observation/explanation, but it is nonetheless a philosophical position informed by science, rather than the other way round (a scientific position on our about philosophy). This next sentence is key: Science can observe/describe the physiological phenomena that occurs while someone is doing ‘philosophical cognition’ ( :) ), but cannot assess or give a judgement as to the value or worth of an idea arrived at via that same ‘philosophical cognition’.

    Your dogmatic statement, then, “But no other field of endeavour is capable of investigating these either” is not a scientific one, but a philosophical one. Science with its methods of observing and describing phenomenon/data (events), cannot offer a value judgment on whether certain questions have ‘real’ meaning or not…

    I would think it (philosophically) obvious that questions about ‘real meaning’ belong squarely in the realm of philosophical reflection!? And, again, our time at various other ‘tables’ (mathematics, politics, youth work, baking, law enforcement, etc.) will enrich such reflection, but it is philosophical reflection nonetheless…

    I’m not talking about philosophical authority – leave that to the side for a moment. I’m talking about what science can do and what it cannot… Geez this comment is long… :)

    So let me know if this helps…

    Cheers,

    -d-

  22. OK, I can accept philosophy with a small p. But it is a matter of granting, or not granting, authority to “institutionalised” philosophical, ideological, etc., schools. I guess with a small p we don’t do that.

    In a way my experience in science to a large extent influences my philosophical approach which sees truth coming out of reality rather than authority.

    I still wonder at the interest in “claiming” what science cannot do. Why do that unless science was actually violating some sort of limit? I don’t see that happening, although I am conscious that there have been attempts to inappropriately place limits in the past. (Hawkings, for example, makes the claim that a previous Pope had attempted to exclude science from investigating the origins of the universe – at t=0).

    Do you see science as somehow trying to do what it can’t, or shouldn’t, do?

  23. Thanks Ken,
    As I implied in the last paragraph in #23, “I’m not talking about philosophical authority”, or any distinctions between ‘small p’ or otherwise… (which, I suggest, is itself a philosophical distinction! :) )

    On ‘claiming’ what science cannot do:
    ‘Science’ doesn’t ‘do’ anything; it is a tool of discovery used by people. The concern (however well founded or not) is a) that science be used, discussed and represented properly (by people), and b) that we understand what is science and what is philosophy, and c) how they might affect one another, etc.

    It important that the ‘limit(s)’ of science are understood; for example in ethical discussions. And please hear me: I’m not saying science has no right or ability to contribute to ethical discussions, but it cannot take us all the way to ethical conclusions. That takes philosophical reflection and interaction…

    Simple stuff, really.

    -d-

  24. But you don’t give an example of where science intrudes beyond its limits!

    On the other hand, we can give examples of where “philosophy?”, or anyway “religion” has (and does) intrude beyond its limits and claim a knowledge, or answer, in areas which are really the province of science. That is a big problem still – in the US it’s become a big political problem.

    So, why the discussion on a non-question (non-one asserts that science claims to provide ethical conclusions – let me know if I am wrong)? The real question, surely, is the problems created by “religions” or “philosophies” intruding into the proper realm of science.

    The real discussion should be about the limits of “religion/philosophy.”

    I assert on this question that “religion/philosophy” “cannot take us all the way to ethical conclusions” either.

  25. Thanks Ken,
    Good philosophical engagement! :)

    Again, ‘science’ (the powerful tool of observation/description) doesn’t ‘do’ anything itself, so it cannot ‘intrude beyond its limits’. I agree that philosophy/religion should not try and ‘intrude’ into science, but I think it would be interesting to discuss the finer points of what we both think is happening (which lines are being crossed, etc.) in these instances… I’ll come back to that…

    But first, on “limits of religion/philosophy”, I can anticipate the ‘objective’/’subjective’ divide creeping in (or about to!)… I’m not interested in arguing which disciplines are more ‘objective’ than others. I’m convinced that the world doesn’t only need ‘knowledge’ in terms of having a firm grasp on mechanistic facts of physical processes (in other words, ‘scientific knowing’ – see title). This knowledge; this kind of ‘knowing’ is indeed valuable (in my philosophical opinion – others would disagree in various ways with me here), but the world also needs (in my view) other kinds of knowledge –other modes of knowing– which, while not ‘scientifically objective’ (whatever that means), are (philosophically speaking) nonetheless (in my view) needed for truly ‘knowing’ each other in more-than-scientific ways…

    (It should be noted that I didn’t say ‘other-than’… ‘Other than’ would imply the exclusion of scientific knowing, while ‘more than’ is inclusive of it…)

    To come back to the ‘intrusion’ issue:
    To me it’s simple. ‘Religion’ should not pretend to be natural science. It should not say, for example, “That organism did not evolve into this one, because Genesis 1 says…” The role of religion/philosophy (and the text of Genesis 1, for that matter) is not to make judgments about biological processes, but to consider value, purpose, worth and meaning, etc.
    On the other hand, ‘Science’ should not pretend to be religion/philosophy. It should not say (or be used to imply), for example, “These ideas or questions have no real meaning, because all that is really happening is physical phenomena…” The role of science is not to make judgments about meaning, but to observe and describe natural/physical processes, etc.

    As for ‘ethical conclusions’, I suspect humans will always disagree with our different versions of these conclusions (thus raising the question of how to best understand what an ethical ‘conclusion’ is or isn’t), but the ethical project/task (however conclusive or inconclusive, objective or subjective) remains a philosophical project/task, not a ‘scientific’ one… The seeming inconclusiveness of ethics need not hinder the ethical task any more than the scientific task need be hindered by theories that turn out to be incomplete or incorrect. We don’t always get things (ethics or scientific theories) right, but this should only make us work harder at them…

  26. Thanks Grant,
    If by ‘fulfillment’ you mean the neurological phenomena which accompany the feeling of ‘fulfillment’ (however that feeling may or may not be distinguished from other neurologically influenced ‘feelings’), then yes, your comment could be (neurologically/scientifically) correct.

    Some phenomenalist philosophers might agree (in part at least) with this idea, though others would not.

    As we’ve been exploring here, the realm of philosophy is the realm which explores issues of principle, value, meaning and purpose – including what ‘Fulfillment’ might be. The realm of science in general and neurology in particular, however, would be to observe and describe the biological/neurological phenomena taking place, etc. Science/neurology cannot make a value-judgment or ‘truth claim’ about what ‘fulfillment’ (or ‘goodness’, etc.) is or is not…

    I’ve downloaded the video – looks great. I’ve heard of her case before. I’ll watch it with intrest…

    -d-

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