Friday, October 8, 2010

The alternative to science

I sometimes wonder, if there does happen to be a God, if he's frustrated about how much we know.  He gave us eyeballs, so we can see sunsets, dropoffs and wild boars, and somehow we know about dna, atoms and quarks.  He gave us legs to get around, and we're flying across the world 30,000 feet above sea level.  He gave us mouths to talk, and we're communicating with computers that God himself would probably be impressed by.

These brains, that he probably thought were good enough so we could make rakes and spears, have gotten us a long way out of the savannas and mud huts.  We do things that should be impossible daily, breezing through at least fifty miracles just to get ready for work.

Human ingenuity has gotten us here, but it wouldn't have gotten us this far without science.  Science is modern magic, giving us as much awe and wonder as Zeus with his lightning bolts.  For how important science is to our modern lifestyle, most of us (this includes me) know pitifully little about it.

A friend of mine once said that the science fiction and fantasy genres are interchangeable, that the role that magic plays in one, technology plays in the other.  I'm not entirely on board with the basic premise, but there is some truth to the statement.  To we lay people, there doesn't seem to be much science can't do.  We don't always think of the research process, the grants, the journals, the trial-and-error, the trying to turn hypothesis into theory.  We just think of the end results.

Science isn't technology, even though it often uses technology, and sometimes results in new technology.  Science is just the narrowing-down of truth.  It's getting rid of all of the alternative explanations until you seem to be left with only one, and then seeing if that one conforms to reality.

It's easy to get irritated with the scientific process, especially when results are slow in coming, biased for political reasons, or when the accepted paradigm gets turned over, and it turns out that everyone has been thinking the wrong thing for the last twenty years.  Not to mention that the very cool-hearted impartiality that science embraces can be off-putting, as in the case of vivisection, or, for some, stem-cell research.

If you want the truth, though, science is necessary.  In its most basic form, science arises naturally in our behavior, when we're investigating who knocked down the vase, or who was it that wanted you to call them back.  Almost every day, there's occasion to gather evidence, cross possibilities off of your list, and even--like putting a dog treat on the counter to see if the puppy can even get up there--experimentation.

Even if you frown on some scientists, or some experiments, you should never frown on science in general, because it's just a part of being human.  It's not the opposite of paranormal belief, it's not the opposite of religious belief.  It's the opposite of guessing.  It's the opposite of assuming everything, knowing nothing, and learning only the most basic of facts.  Knowing the leaf falls, but not knowing why, nor wondering why.  Because once the wondering process starts, discovery is inevitable.

The alternative is the blissfully ignorant life of your pet, or the woodpecker in the back yard.  A life of love and loss, a life of survival and the gradients between desire and contentment.  Perhaps a satisfying life.  But a life in a world no bigger than your own stomping grounds, with no knowledge, or interest, of what's over the hill.

And maybe it's because I am a human, and I'm built to wonder, but I couldn't live that way.

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