version of: May 23, 2004
Chapter 3: The Future of Science
There seems to be no room for old beliefs in a world accurately described by modern science, from a subatomic level all the way to the edge of the visible universe. And indeed, beliefs formulated thousands of years ago are obviously in need of revision. But what about the experiential content of those beliefs? The fact that the Sun seems to revolve around the Earth is still true, no matter what our theoretical advances have been in the last five centuries. And it was only by starting from a careful observation of the apparent movements of the heavenly bodies, that we could later come to our current insight into their motions. Similarly, what contemplatives have discovered throughout recorded human history is not only available to us, but still highly relevant in speaking about the human condition.
There are two enormous obstacles against harvesting the insights of contemplative traditions, and letting them come alive in our lives. One problem is that we are simply too busy. Our chances to really relax have gradually diminished, starting perhaps with the invention of electric lights, but especially over the last few decades, with faxes and email and cell phones demanding our constant attention, no matter where we go or stay. Our biological makeup, however, has not changed since our ancestors were sitting around a fire place telling stories, or wandering around or tending crops. Yet it has become almost impossible to find time to ground ourselves the way our ancestors did as a matter of course.
What is worse, we have reached a point where we don't even have the words anymore to describe what it is we are lacking. For someone growing up in a modern city, even the sight of a starry night has become such a rarity, and the notion of communing with nature has a quaint ring to it. When we do go out in the open, we feel we just have to do something: we can't just watch the water, we have to hold a fishing rod; we can't just stroll on the grass, we have to hold a golf club. While our bodies and minds crave for grounding, our thoughts just can't leave their utilitarian tread mill.
We have become so disconnected from our roots that it becomes difficult to really appreciate what the ancients have to tell us, when they talk about stilling the mind and seeing directly into what is. The whole notion that it is possible to shift from doing to being does not make much sense any longer. Already at elementary school age, children are being force fed with packages of activity, where in the past they had been free to roam around without any strict goals for hours on end.
A myopic understanding of science is the second huge obstacle blocking living access to old contemplative traditions. New discoveries tend to draw energy and attention in their direction, with the danger that other aspects of reality are overlooked. This is what happened in Western Europe, starting with the renaissance and the rise of science, and aided by both reformation and contra-reformation. A flourishing tradition of contemplative Christianity throughout the middle ages was marginalized completely, to such a degree that contact with Hinduism and Buddhism was needed to re-import some of the central tenets of contemplative investigations.
With all the advantages that the eighteenth-century Enlightenment brought, in terms of rationality and greater individual freedom, they left little room for mysticism; even the word itself got hijacked to apply to anything purposely vague and misleading. One fascinating aspect of this disaster stands out, though: where scientists went astray, science didn't. When scientists declare that something is incompatible with science, beware: they may just have their nose too close to the grind stone.
Scientists and philosophers proclaimed the new physics of the Enlightenment to show the world to be like a clock work in its regularity. Sensibly, artists like William Blake protested vehemently, insisting that science was leading people astray, calling for a different approach to studying nature. Interestingly, it may have been a very good thing that scientists did not listen, and did not change course. In due time, more than a century later, ever more precise studies of Newtonian mechanics that had been so derided by Blake gave rise to the discovery of relativity and quantum mechanics.
Especially radical is the message of quantum mechanics, that nature exhibits a deeply fundamental form of spontaneity, undreamed of in classical physics. An understanding of matter as dissolving into a play of interactions, partly spontaneous, would certainly have pleased Blake. The moral of the story is that science, continuing under its own lights, and allowed to penetrate deeper into reality, will overcome the prejudices of any and all scientists at any given time.
At any given time, scientists tend to be mesmerized by their accomplishments, and understandably so, given the enormous rate of progress and the dazzling insights that have been gained in the last few hundred years. But paradoxically, this mesmerization then leads to their conviction that the future will bring more of the same in only a quantitative, but not a qualitative manner.
At the end of the nineteenth century, physicists were convinced that they had unraveled Nature's secrets, with Newton's and Maxwell's equations in hand for mechanics and electromagnetism. Hydrodynamics and thermodynamics were increasingly understood as well, and getting a better grip on the rest would just be matter of details -- or so they thought. No one was prepared of the revolutions that would happen in the early twentieth century, when relativity and quantum mechanics would totally undermine the very foundations of classical mechanics.
Now, after one more century, a similar mood has set in: we seem to know most of the principles of how Nature operates, not only on the level of physics, but even on that of biology. Sure, we still have to unify gravity and the other forces, and we still have to figure out the wiring diagrams of brains and the network of chemical reactions in a cell. The first problem is not expected to affect anything but the first fraction of a second after the big bang, and the other problems are again seen as largely quantitative.
It seems inconceivable that there is still something altogether novel that is missing in current science on a qualitative level. Yet, if history teaches us a lesson, it is that we should be highly suspicious of such a quick and easy conclusion.
Science is Young
Science as we know it is very young. We could identify its starting point with the foundations of mathematical physics, as given by Newton, a little more than three hundred years ago. Or we could start with Galileo and Descartes, which would bring us back four hundred years. Choosing Copernicus instead would make this five hundred years. Let us be generous, and date science at five hundred years.
This short period is only a blip in the history of humanity. Written scripts and cities have been around far longer, ten times longer in fact. During the first 90% of that period, there were crafts and there were attempts at abstract thinking for its own sake, but very little resembling modern science, where we use systematic empirical methods to describe the whole material world in mathematical terms.
But science looks even younger when we take a broader look on history. Agriculture started more than ten thousand years ago, well over five thousands years earlier than the earliest archeological remnants we have of cities and written texts. And the oldest cave paintings are older yet again, by a factor three.
We can only guess what the motivation was for our ancestors to paint these exquisitely colorful and expressive images, some time between 30,000 and 32,000 years ago, deep in a dark cave, using torches as their only source of light. Whether these paintings were shamanic imagery, or whether they were connected with particular rituals or served another function, we may never know. But across time, we can feel a bond of humanity in a very recognizable form, even though we appeared on this planet more than a thousand generations after the artists were working in this cave.
A Thought Experiment
Let us now turn our temporal gaze toward the future, another thousand generations from now. Imagine living in the beginning of the 321st century, in the year 32,003 for example. What do you think the history books will tell you about both science and religion? Let me paint two scenarios.
Scenario 1. You open a text book and you will find the following description:``Science took off in full swing between 1600 and 1700. By 2000, material reality was understood from the subatomic level all the way to the edge of the physical universe, and the complexity of life was beginning to be unraveled when the human genome was charted. By 2100, most everything about the natural world was understood, including the structure and function of the human brain, the most complex entity in the known universe. For example, psychology, sociology, economy, and political science became successful sub-specialties of neuroscience, and they explained all that happens in society in remarkable detail, by the year 2300. The human impulse for religion and art was explained during the next century. Science has not changed since 2400. For the last 29,600 years we have only been filling in ever smaller remaining details in our understanding of the universe.''
Scenario 2. You open a text book and you will find this summary:``Science has progressed in remarkable ways. Each time scientists thought that they had seen it all, they turned a new corner where they did not even suspect there was one. In 1500 the Aristotelian picture seemed to explain it all. What a surprise to find that nature could be described in such wonderful detail as Galileo, Descartes and Newton discovered! Around 1900, once more the thought was that all had been charted, more or less. And along came relativity theory and quantum mechanics, totally overturning the clockwork picture of nature. In 2100, an objective description of even the brain seemed to near completion, when a new form of mathematics was discovered, as revolutionary as calculus, which enabled us to describe the subject pole of reality. By 2400, when a description of nature in terms of both object and subject aspects of reality neared completion, once again a whole new vista opened with the discovery of metamathematics, the asymptotic study of the type of patterning that by its nature cannot be caught in descriptions, mathematical and otherwise. And this was only the beginning. We refer the reader to the entry on archeoscience for a complete list of the eighty-one other main breakthroughs after the year 2400.''
Taking for Granted
We have no way of knowing which of these two scenarios is correct. The truth may lie in the middle, or may be altogether different. Even if humanity will find itself on the brink of a destruction of civilization through human-triggered and natural disasters, the ensuing dark age may last only a few thousand years, but who knows? What is important, though, in comparing these two scenarios is to notice how most scientists seem to take scenario 1 for granted, often in a completely tacit way.
When a natural scientist talks with people in other academic fields, or with artists or proponents of religion or spirituality, he or she tends to portray science as the most accurate source of knowledge about the natural world. So far, so good. I think that is a totally correct statement. But in one breath, more often than not, this then leads to attempts to debunk other ways of knowing, simply because they seem to conflict with our current body of scientific knowledge. So far, not so good, in fact not good at all!
To be consistent, if science really is the correct way to describe reality, our reality already is such as will be described by future scientific discoveries which are already as real and probably more fundamental than what we have found so far. And since we cannot wait for a future science to tell us what will eventually been seen to be real and true, we have to look for alternatives.
This does not give us an open license to embrace non-scientific views of any kind, fundamentalist or new-age or whatever. A notion of `anything goes' is furthest from my mind. We have to use our own intelligence in looking, first, at the history of science, and then extending and connecting the dots. Clinging to comforting cultural messages from the past, or to comforting fantasies about the future, as such has nothing to do with science, past, present, or future.
So we have to tread carefully, and reason our way carefully. For example, in the nineteenth century the invention of steam engines forced an investigation of irreversible processes. In retrospect, it was amazing that physicists had studied mechanical processes for more than a hundred years, without paying much attention to the fact that their equations were invariant under time reversal, even though everything around us so blatantly shows an arrow of time.
Similarly, natural science has spent a few hundreds years studying objects, as if subjects could be completely left out of the picture, filtered out at first, with the aim of reducing them to explanations in terms of objects later. However, that strategy has begun to backfire in the twentieth century. As we will discuss in later chapters, cracks in the object-only picture are appearing in many places, from quantum mechanics to robotics to neuroscience.
While we cannot know the future, a careful and balanced reflection on the past can at least help us avoid making unwarranted predictions based on careless assumptions and prejudices. It is this type of reflection that can remove the second obstacle mentioned above, the notion that science has already explained it all, or will do so soon. As for the first obstacle, living in a hectic world, it is up to each of us personally to find ways to create silent spaces in our own life, in order to investigate reality in non-conventional ways.
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