Science is like Michelangelo. The young Michelangelo demonstrated his skill as a sculptor by carving the ravishing Pietà in the Vatican; the mature Michelangelo, having acquired and demonstrated his skill, broke free of the conventions and created his extraordinary later quasi-abstractions.
Science has trod a similar path. Through its four centuries of serious endeavour, from Galileo onwards, when evidence was mingled with mathematics, and the extraordinary reticulation of concepts and achievements emerged, science has acquired maturity, and from the elucidation of simple observations it is now capable of dealing with the complex. Indeed, the emergence of computation as a component of the unfolding implications of theories and the detection of patterns in massive data sets has extended the reach of the rational and greatly enriches the scientific method by augmenting the analytic.
The triple-pronged armoury of science – the observational, the analytic and the computational – is now ready to attack the real big questions. They are, in chronological order: How did the Universe begin? How did matter in the Universe become alive? and How did living matter become self-conscious?
When inspected and picked apart, these questions include many others, such as – in the first question – the existence of the fundamental forces and particles and, by extension, the long-term future of the Universe. It includes the not-so-little problem of the union of gravitation and quantum mechanics. The second question includes not only the transition from inorganic to organic but details of the evolution of species and the ramifications of molecular biology. The third includes not merely our ability to cogitate and create but also the nature of aesthetic and moral judgment.
I see no reason why the scientific method cannot be used to answer, or at least illuminate, Socrates’ question ‘How should we live?’ by appealing to those currently semi-sciences (the social sciences) including anthropology, ethology, psychology and economics. The cyclic raises its head here too, for it is conceivable that the limitations of consciousness preclude full comprehension of the deep structure of the fabric of reality, so perhaps in the third, arising as it does from the first, the first finds itself bounded. We are already seeing a hint of that with quantum mechanics, which is so far removed from common experience (I could add, as it maps on to our brains) that no one currently really understands it (but that has not inhibited our ability to deploy it).
The lubricant of the scientific method is optimism, optimism that given patience and effort, often collaborative effort, comprehension will come. It has in the past, and there is no reason to suppose that such optimism is misplaced now. Of course, foothills have given way to mountains, and rapid progress cannot be expected in the final push.
Maybe effort will take us, at least temporarily, down blind alleys (string theory perhaps) but then the blindness of that alley might suddenly be opened and there is a surge of achievement. Perhaps whole revised paradigms of thought, such as those a century or so ago when relativity and quantum mechanics emerged, will take comprehension in currently unimaginable directions.
Maybe we shall find that the cosmos is just mathematics rendered substantial. Maybe our comprehension of consciousness will have to be left to the artificial device that we thought was merely a machine for simulating it. Maybe, indeed, circularity again, only the artificial consciousness we shall have built will have the capacity to understand the emergence of something from nothing.
I consider that there is nothing that the scientific method cannot elucidate. Indeed, we should delight in the journey of the collective human mind in the enterprise we call science.
About The Author
Peter Atkins is a fellow of Lincoln College, University of Oxford. He is the author of about 70 books for students and the general reader, which include the world-renowned textbook Atkins' Physical Chemistry (11th edition, 2017) and Conjuring the Universe (2018).
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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