A call for scientists to be humble
June 6, 2012
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Russell Stannard (particle physics professor emeritus at the Open University) issues the call in the Huffington Post here. The call is warranted, he says, because
In his recent book The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking announces, “philosophy is dead.” He goes on: “Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” According to him, scientists will in time be able to explain everything and there is no need for other kinds of thinking (which, it should be noted is in itself an expression of the philosophical position known as scientism).
The job of science is to describe the world we find ourselves in — what it consists of, and how it operates. But it appears to fall short of explaining why we are presented with this kind of world rather than some other — or why there should be a world at all.
Finally we ask whether the scientific enterprise, even in this more limited domain of describing only interactions with the world rather than the world itself, might one day achieve complete knowledge. I think not. After all, what do we do our science with? Our brain. But how come we have a brain? It is something that evolved in response to the need of our ancestors to find food, shelter, and avoid predators. It enabled them to survive to the point where they could mate and pass on their genes. The brain was part of their survival kit. Why therefore should anyone think that such an imperfect instrument should be capable of mastering all knowledge regardless of whether it has any relevance to survival?.. All we can realistically do is achieve whatever knowledge is open to us to understand. This might well fall short of the expectations of my more optimistic fellow scientists. I think a little humility is in order.