The Values of Science


Aside from the fact that I am basically omnipotent regarding your grade in this class and that grades (and the various forces related to them) are, at least in part, what motivate students to do what they do in school, I assume it is the obligation of any teacher to explain why the subject he is teaching is worth bothering about in the first place.  That's what I'll try to do here.  But to start, I'm going to need to go into something of a philosophical digression.

There are essentially two types of values: existential and utilitarian.  Existential values are things that we value in themselves.  Freedom, pleasure, avoidance of pain, security, pride, things like that.  They are, in the end, why we do what we do.  Utilitarian values are those things which are valuable because they are used to achieve existential values.  A spoon doesn't have any real existential value (we don't sit around one in awed ecstasy on Friday nights), but it can be used to eat ice cream which tastes good and that's an existential value, so the spoon has utilitarian value.  A book on how to paint well, likewise, can be used to achieve something of existential value, appealing art.  The book has utilitarian value.  The two big categories of utilitarian values are tools and information.             

All right, with that rather technical aspect out of the way, let's get back to reality. And just to make sure we don't miss anything, let's see if we can begin at the beginning.  About seventeen or eighteen years ago one night, your father looked at your mother, felt a rush of romance, and nine months later you showed up.  Well, not exactly.  You were there physically, probably wailing and waving your limbs around, but the "you" that you think of as "me" actually evolved during childhood as your brain developed.  Anyway, you've been around for a while on this big sphere, there's a fairly stable "you" now and you're probably at the point when, of relatively free will, you're able to decide what to do with the time that you've got.  "Doing" is what we spend most of our time thinking about.  How should I do this?  How can I do that?  What will I do today?  What am I going to do in college?  What am I going to do with my life?  Whether we succeed or fail in what we attempt, we are basically entities of doing, of action.           

Now, by the word "action," a relationship to physical reality is implied.  We are physical beings, made of the same stuff that plants and other animals are, even what rocks and rivers are.  And when we act, we don't do so in isolation.  We interact with a physical reality made of both inanimate objects, like the earth and the sky and automobiles and wristwatches, and animate objects, mostly other people.  So that's one big point to remember.  We are physical, we exist in a physical universe, and our entire lives are made up of actions and interactions of and within this physicality.  By the way, this is called materialism.        

Now I need to go into another little digression about how we do what we do, or more exactly how our brains do what we do.  One of the biggest jobs of your brain is providing you with an accurate model of the world around you.  (More precisely, your cerebral cortex has millions of models called neural networks about the millions of aspects of your life.  And interestingly enough, the reality "you" live in isn't the actual physical reality of the universe, it's the compilation of the models in your brain.  Hence the possibilities of magic tricks, hallucinations, and psychotic delusions.)  Now your brain uses the models to decide how exactly it can accomplish the things that you want to accomplish within your everyday reality in sort of the same way that explorers use maps to navigate geographic reality.  There is a difference in that your reality and your brain are much, much, much more complex than any map or landscape.  Nevertheless, the analogy does hold true for one important point.  It is critical that the map or model be accurate.  If the geographic map isn't accurate, the explorer won't reach his destination (unless he's very lucky) and if the model of reality in your brain isn't accurate, you are unlikely to accomplish what you set out to (again, unless you are very lucky and hit it by random chance).       

Having said all of that, this is where science finally comes in.  In a nutshell, science is by far and away the best collection of methods for determining accurate models of reality.  It works and it works really, really well.  That's why modern medicine and modern engineering are so amazing and why our lives are so extraordinarily different from aboriginal societies.  Modern cultures use the information gathered by science for development and this information has an accuracy and precision second to none.  Now I'm not going to go into the exact methods of science, at least not here, but just to repeat, science is the best way of acquiring information about what reality is like.  And that's important, again, because we need to navigate physical reality to accomplish what we want to accomplish and we need good models of reality so we can navigate successfully.  

Science can be especially valuable when it corrects models we use that are incorrect.  People tend to believe all sort of things that aren't true for all sorts of reasons like: (a) they want to believe something is true (b) they have emotional ties a certain belief (c) it's much more comfortable to have a belief than to admit that you don't know something or to accept uncertainty about something (d) everyone else seems to think it's true (e) lots of people have told them it's true, etc., etc.  Now you'd go insane if you started to question absolutely everything you believe, but it's really not that bad of an idea to take your most important and most deeply held beliefs and the ones that guide most of what you do and ask yourself, "Why do I believe these things?  Do I have good reasons?  Do I have any evidence?" and then maybe look at what the evidence is, at least look if there is any.  Most people think of science as just test tubes with chemicals, dissecting frogs, memorizing rocks, and things like that, but the fact is that the process of science has been used to investigate just about everything under the sun and you'd be hard-pressed to find a topic that doesn't have some kind of scientific evidence holding sway one way or another.  You'll see what I mean if you bother to spend some time wandering around a good university library, seeing what they've got on the things that interest you.  So that's the big value of science, the utilitarian value.  Whatever you want to do, whatever you want to accomplish, whatever problems you have to solve, chances are there is some scientific information to give you at least something of a guide if you just spend some time seeking it out.  

Science has other values too.  One is that there is some comfort in simply knowing that the world around you makes sense.  If you understand some basic ideas in physics, you can use them to explain almost everything that happens around you.  Some people couldn't care less about this, but for others it's just sort of nice to see an order in the universe.  Things don't seem so uncomfortably random and inexplicable.          

Finally there's something of an existential value in actually doing science.  There's a certain subtle pleasure in seeking out the hidden rules of the universe, in being part of the big endeavor of scientific discovery.  It's sort of like you're working on this huge jigsaw puzzle of reality and even though you may only put in a few pieces in your lifetime and they may not be key pieces, at least you're still helping on the puzzle, filling in your little spot, and you get to have the knowledge that you're working on the exact same puzzle that all the great scientists of the past have worked on.  They had to leave the table, but you can be there if you choose to be, just to see what you can add.