Our obsession with scientific inquiry and progress is really a reflection of our deepest obsession: to know what life is all about. The root Latin word, scientia, simply means ‘knowledge.’ Though these days the word ‘science’ has generally been narrowed to refer to particular kinds of knowledge gained in particular kinds of ways. The first definition of ‘science,’ for instance, that appears in my Oxford Dictionary is ‘the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.’ So according to our contemporary understanding of ‘science,’ the particular kind of knowledge we can gain through the ‘hard sciences’ is knowledge of ‘the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world.’ And the particular kind of way that this knowledge is gained is through repeatable ‘observation and experiment.’ This is certainly the most common understanding and aim of contemporary science: to gain knowledge of natural phenomena through observation and experience.
Yet ‘science’ originally encompassed any organized body of knowledge. In fact, my dictionary includes the ‘archaic’ definition: ‘knowledge of any kind.’ Out of this broad understanding of science, theology was actually thought to be the ‘queen of the sciences’ in late medieval times. It was considered to be the highest form of legitimate knowledge about life, one that all other bodies of knowledge were ultimately integrated into. But this broad understanding of science (also read: knowledge) radically changed over the course of modern history. What’s occurred could be called the Great Narrowing of Knowledge. What we can know and how we can know have both been ruthlessly restricted over recent times. Many influential historical figures and forces have worked to narrow knowledge to strictly deal with quantifiable physical phenomena that can be subjected to controlled observation and experiment.
The narrowing of ‘science’ definitely parallels improvements made in the tools used to observe our natural surroundings. The creation of instruments like the microscope and the telescope had a huge role in sparking the Scientific Revolution, for instance. Such instruments allowed scientists to observe nature in new ways and at new levels—and what was found frequently sent a shock through our collective system. Our reliance on religious traditions—and not simply our previously limited technology—received a great deal of the blame for our ignorance of our natural surroundings. Not only that, such traditions were increasingly considered to be outmoded and unnecessary. New tools allowed us to gain new knowledge about nature; we apparently no longer needed to rely on traditional knowledge since we could rely on our ability to know through reason and direct experience, aided by new technology. Even more broadly, the modern movement not only became characterized by anti-religious attitudes but also by anti-historical attitudes. The future was thought to be what really matters, not the past. And so, unsurprisingly, the invention of new observational tools coupled with the widespread rejection of religious and traditional knowledge was also paralleled by a rise in materialist ideology.
The materialist assumption is simply that matter is all that exists, so matter is all that matters. Materialism has become the scientific orthodoxy in many predominant places. The pressure to conform to this current creed can be great because those who dare to doubt materialist ideology risk being denounced and excommunicated as heretics by the reigning scientific priesthood. But its assumptions and explanatory power still deserve to be questioned. They deserve to be seriously scrutinized because the process of continually scrutinizing what we think we know about the ‘real world’ is the lifeblood of healthy science.
Materialism also deserves to be questioned because it is seriously questionable as an all-encompassing philosophy of life. Many significant aspects of our human experience are ill-explained or entirely disregarded by its reductionist explanations. For example, subjective consciousness and the life of the mind, as well as free will and our ethical intuitions, are important aspects of our lives and human experience that do not fit well, if at all, within materialism.
We must really ask ourselves, can knowledge gained strictly through natural scientific inquiry adequately explain all of reality? Can naturalistic assumptions adequately account for the rich diversity and depth of all the experiences we have in life? Can materialism adequately account for our powerful experiences of beauty and awe, of goodness and evil? What about the wonders and mysteries and power of love? Call me a Romantic, but I think not entirely. Scientific methods of knowing have certainly allowed us to learn much about the natural world. But we would do ourselves a collective favour if we acknowledged that such methods are not the only way to seek and gain knowledge of what’s real and knowable. Nor can all of our human experience or all phenomena of life be neatly measured and tested in carefully controlled circumstances.
Guiding our scientific pursuits are some of life’s great questions: What is reality? What is knowledge? What ways can we gain trustworthy knowledge about reality? We should be careful to not let our prevailing answers to these sort of philosophical issues to harden in unquestionable dogmas. Especially since our investigations into the nature of reality and knowledge are actually motivated by even more basic investigations into the nature of our existence: Why are we here? What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is the best way to live? Who are we? Though matters of meaning and purpose are not formally within the bounds natural scientific inquiry by virtue of its methods, it is impossible for these issues to not get tangled up with our scientific investigations. Because motivating our commitment to scientific inquiry is our essential hunger to know what life is all about.