Recently Australia celebrated Science Week when all around the nation people celebrated the discipline’s wondrous achievements. As usual, there was a particular focus on science in schools with the theme this year being Future Earth. This event came at a sensitive time when science sees itself under threat from what it sees as the anti-rational forces on the planet, mainly religion and politics, particularly wrapped in the package of those such as Donald Trump.

Scientists are angry and have been holding meetings and even ripping off their white coats and marching in the streets to protest what they claim is not just an assault on them, but an assault on truth. This is, of course, based on their belief that science is truth. They are claiming victim status as they see their funding being cut or their work being disparaged, or perverted, by ignoramuses outside the field. Science Week, therefore, became a major public relations campaign to convince us all how much we really need it and why our taxes should continue to flow to it.

As a philosopher, working in the debased and impoverished humanities, I can’t help smirking a little about science’s predicament. The phrase, “Welcome to my world” comes to mind as I think about how today’s totally science- and business-dominated universities completely ignore the work of myself and my colleagues and merely tolerate us as some form of quaint anachronism; how when it comes to access to funding, whether from taxpayers or industry, we have been shut out and actively discriminated against by scientists and vilified as charlatans.

But I will be generous and offer to continue contributing my taxes to science, even though I can’t get any back for my own work. I like science and have friends who are scientists. I think it is important and like most of us, I owe science something. Not only do I draw on scientific data to update myself on our culture’s knowledge base, I also owe science and its lackeys, engineers, for vaccinations, antibiotics and other assorted pills and medical technologies, clean water, refrigeration, my television, car and computer, my heating and most importantly, the compression gear that helps me keep sprinting and lifting weights.

But there are some other things I and future generations owe science for such as climate change and pollution, including air pollution, dioxins and oestrogens, nuclear arms, superbugs, obesity, mind-numbing virtual realities, over-population, species extinction, accelerated entropy and finally, the ideology of scientism, the dogmatic view that science has a monopoly on truth.

I have, therefore, a condition for my continued support. On behalf of humanity, I want an apology from science and I think Science Weeks around the world would be perfect occasions to get it. I want science to say sorry for helping turn a planet conducive to the proliferation of diverse life forms into a dying cesspit.

As the conditions for life on our world continue to deteriorate under the weight of massive science-aided human exploitation of every possible resource, science keeps putting itself forward as the solution and never seems to admit that it is a big part of the problem. Apart from the threat of natural disasters, life flourished pretty well on this planet for millions of years before science emerged. This was life which was largely constrained by natural processes in ways in which it could not destroy the conditions for life itself. The past three hundred years or more, however, the age of science and reason, has seen many of these constraints overcome by the scientific and mathematical products of human imagination leading to the potential catastrophes we now face.

I am not the only one saying this. The respected astrophysicist Martin Rees has been warning us for decades that hubristic, unregulated scientific advance would create the conditions for our ultimate destruction. Those operating in the twilight zone between science and the humanities such as Ronald Wright and Jared Diamond have also warned of scientific and technological progress accelerating us to the ultimate collapse of civilization. This is perhaps the real story of the relationship between science and Future Earth that we need to be teaching in our schools.

In light of this, what I would like to see in global Science Weeks is not just a celebration of science and scientism, but the history and philosophy of science. This is the story of how science emerged from the increasingly abstract thinking of our earliest philosophers. How through losing our sense of reality scientia became abstracted from sapientia, or wisdom, to become the pursuit of data for its own sake. How all of reality eventually became reduced to something meaningless which could be simply measured using coordinate geometry and calculus and how science eventually became the bitch of capitalism, colluding with business to justify the production and consumption of all sorts of crap.

It is the story of the great philosophers of science and mathematics in the 20th Century such as Kurt Gödel, Bertrand Russell, Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, Imre Lakatos and Thomas Kuhn, who all in their own way revealed the limits to the scientific method and questioned its relationship to truth. It is also the story of the early 20th-century physicist, mathematician, and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, who revealed how science creates the world in the images of its lifeless abstractions and in so doing, destroys much of what is important in the experience of life.

What I would like to see in Science Weeks is a little humility and contrition and an admission that it is time for the prodigal child to return to the home of its parent, philosophy, before it does any more damage. I would like to see a little self-reflection and critique rather than an orgy of self-congratulation. I would like to see a genuine effort by science to re-connect with wisdom and re-engage with the humanities in a dialogue about where humanity is heading and why. I would like an acknowledgement that, like the Ancients, all of those engaged in genuine inquiry into the nature of reality are doing science.

Featured image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

About The Author

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Glenn McLaren teaches philosophy at Swinburne University. Melbourne, Australia. Prior to becoming a philosopher he spent most of his working life as a fitness trainer. His main interest, therefore is in health, both of humans and the biosphere. As a process philosopher, he has a particular interest in transforming philosophy to make it more relevant to addressing our current and future global crises.

  • Lilian Wang

    Interesting. 🙂