In Defense of Scientific Inquiry

A frequent and erroneous criticism of science is that because it has been used for evil, a scientific worldview is foolish if not dangerous. Commonly cited examples of this abuse include eugenics, social Darwinism, and weapons manufacturing. As the argument goes, being too scientific – be it individually or as a society – will lead us down a corrupt path, perhaps as extreme as the Nazi regime’s goal of a racially pure utopia. Science is cold and calculating, and those who put too much stock into will end up eroding their own moral and ethical fiber. Additionally, this is often presented as the reason why religion is vital, if not superior, to science.

There are many problems with this perception, particularly the notion that science and religion are on the same spectrum (more on that later). While it’s certainly true that science has been manipulated to serve dark ends, those objectives were not the product of scientific inquiry. Racist, murderous, and totalitarian ideologies have always existed, and evil people will always co-opt any institution or system they can to further their aims, whether its religion, politics, or science.

Furthermore, these ideologies tended to be rather unscientific, regardless of what their proponent claimed. Social Darwinism, if one bothers to look at the history of it, was hardly backed up by any scientific evidence (Darwin himself never proposed such a thing, despite the name association). Nazi and eugenicist concepts of race were similarly unscientific, and were at best the product of a misunderstanding of scientific conclusions (and at worst outright nonsense that merely cloaked itself in science for legitimacy).

The most important refutation, however, goes back to my previous mention about science and religion not being comparable. Science is a methodology, not an ideology: there is no creed or dogma from which scientifically-minded individuals can commit atrocities. Science is an instrument, not an institution or belief-system. Plenty of tools are used for evil, but the fault lies with their wielder, not the mechanism itself. We don’t discount the value of automobiles, rockets, or planes just because they’ve been used in warfare.

Non-scientific and irrational motivations are what lead to the misuse of science, not “too much science.” There is simply no such thing. Humans derive their values from all sorts of other places, since science is absent of any principles besides the importance of reason, empiricism, and falibilism (although if we construe it broadly, science can better our values: a commitment to rational thinking, for example, can inform our ethics and morals).

Regardless of how it’s been abused, there’s no denying that scientific inquiry has proven to be the only reliable method of gaining knowledge about our world and universe. The fact that it’s been misapplied or misunderstood is a problem of human nature, not science. Science is constantly evolving, just like the rest of us. Scientists have been wrong plenty of times, and they’ve been guilty of as much immorality and incompetence as anyone else. But the beauty of science is its ability to explore, ask questions, and seek to improve upon itself. Given all the problems our planet faces, we could use more scientific thinking, not less.

An Open Mind

Making the rounds on Imgur is a presumed letter written by a professor of Cross-Cultural Psychology and sent to his students following a prior dispute about his curriculum (the university and the professor’s name are, of course, withheld). Aside from eloquently scolding some of them for their behavior – which you’ll learn about as you read along – his lengthy tract makes excellent points about the importance of challenging one’s views, keeping an open-mind, and facilitating an atmosphere of free inquiry.

As a university graduate who loved school, I could certainly relate with the instructor’s dismay and subsequent suggestion. I even deal with or witness similar incidents. A lot of people, even in their vibrant and curious youth, are too embedded in their preconceived beliefs; they seem regard an education as nothing more than a path to get a degree and make money (and in fairness, this mentality stems from institutional flaws within the education system, as well as pernicious societal influence.

But even outside the university environment, we should strive for the kind of honest and free-thinking that is outlined in the letter. We’re not perfect, and we’ll always be prone to bias, irrationality, and prejudice. But the point is to at least try and, most importantly, not infringe on other people’s efforts to learn too (in or out of school).

The Universe

The universe is on a scale that is literally incomprehensible to the human mind. We can convey it mathematically of course (which is itself a remarkable feat), but our imaginations can scarcely piece together just how big it is, and how much is contained within its seemingly infinite expanse. This chart, a bit difficult to navigate given its size (go figure), gives just an inkling of what I mean.

How does one visualize an area that is 10 billion light years in its dimension? Indeed, how does one even visualize a light year in the first place: the number itself is unreachable by normal cognition. Moreover, how do we envision the billions of planets, stars, and galaxies that compromise this universe when can’t grasp even a single example of these? The size of my city is huge enough, yet my state, country, continent, or planet are each well beyond my mental faculties.

This chart, which is itself to large to post here, greatly illustrates what I’m talking about. First you have planets, then solar systems, than a collection of millions if not billions of these solar systems as galaxies, than a collection of all these galaxies known as nebular – and so on and so forth, with one indescribably large unit of stuff comprising even more indescribably large units.

I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps our universe is itself a component of an even larger unit. Not only could we have multiple universes, but these can each be part of something else entirely. Given what we know about the structure of matter, is it really to unlikely to consider such a possibility? Consider the history of the human understanding of the world.

Early humans knew only of the immediate geographical area they lived in. Most people that have ever lived didn’t see much beyond their town or village, let alone know of the existence of other communities elsewhere around the world. Even the nomadic types could only see so much within their lifespan. As empires formed, the world as those societies knew it grew, though it often extended a little bit beyond the borders. It took generations of gradual technological innovation, exploration, and expansion to shrink our planet enough to even realize it existed.

Thereafter, we began to finally probe the distant “heavens,” only to realize with time that the confines of what constitutes physical reality was larger than we thought. We keep pushing the limits of what we once thought were our confines. Who’s to say we will not somehow manage to shrink the universe itself?

Going into the other direction, there are infinitesimally small objects that form everything around us: with regards to organisms, there are cells that in turn have organelles, which in turn have molecules, which in turn are comprised of atoms, which furthermore contain sub-atomic particles, and so on. No matter how you slice it, it seems everything is constituent of something, and many of these units are beyond our level of analysis, whether they’re too big or too small.

It wracks my brain trying to comprehend these things in the first place, let alone trying to articulate it in writing. My physical size and perceptual scope relative to the grand reality around me can be both awe-inspiring and nerve-racking. My body is compromised of trillions of smaller objects that all come together to form the fully functionally and living being that I am. This body is in turn part of a larger system, including billions of other organisms who share this planet, and billions of other planets – perhaps some with organisms of their own – that make up this universe.

It’s this sort of realization of our reality that makes existence itself almost magical.