January 17, 2014, by Stephen Mumford

What Science Cannot Teach Us

If I had a hammer, there’s lots I could do with it. I could crush a walnut, for one thing. But I might hang a picture on the wall, knock a bulge out of my car’s wheel arch, break some toffee, start a carpentry project. I could also use it to bash someone’s brains in. I’m not saying I would. But I could. The hammer is just a tool. It’s great for some things, less great for others, but the point is that I can use it to achieve some purpose. That purpose, the hammer cannot supply. I have to come up with it myself. And I’m quite happy with that. I like to decide my own plans.

Science is also a tool. It’s the greatest ever. It’s a kind of method of investigation that gives us theories, explanations and predictions. And it has a very wide application. With it, we can predict the weather, make vaccines, send men to the moon, have phone conversations across vast distances, explain the motions of planets, improve crop yields, cure some cancers and fly in aeroplanes. Science works, at least most of the time. It gets us what we want.

So great is science, and so well can it be used to achieve our ends, that one might be tempted to think it’s all that we need. Chemistry, medicine, pharmacy, engineering, physics, biology, even economics, all make some contribution to the commonwealth. But what does reading a novel get you, painting or poetry? And what’s the point of history, theology or philosophy if they don’t create some product that we could exploit?

Yet, like all other tools, we have to decide what we want to do with science. And science cannot tell us that. It will help us get what we want, but doesn’t determine what we want. There are countless things we possibly could do scientifically: build a doomsday machine, for instance, that could eliminate all life on Earth. But do we want to? Should we want to?

David Hume is known for articulating a fact-value dichotomy in philosophy. One never can derive what ought to be the case from what is the case, he said. Likewise, from a set of beliefs, no human action automatically follows unless one has accompanying desires. Even the fact that the room is on fire doesn’t dictate that you should escape, unless you want to live. Now I don’t accept the fact-value dichotomy unreservedly, nor belief-desire psychology, but I can see the attractions of both. And they suggest that it really is up to us to decide the purposes to which we put science. Do we want to cure disease or build that death ray?

If science doesn’t tell us the use to which it should be put, where do we find that out? There’s no entirely scientific answer to that question. But I know where I find my values: in films and literature, in poetry, music and dance, in history, the classics, cultural studies, philosophy and theology, in archaeology and art history. These things teach me what is good, empathy for others, an appreciation of different perspectives, how to be self-critical and reflective, how to relate to my fellow human beings and what is beautiful. And these things are absolutely crucial. Without them, or some such set of values, we would never use science for anything. Without a purpose, science is a useless tool, which sits like my hammer, unused on the table.

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