On the Meaning of Science

Whenever science is praised, its advances are often exemplified in light of the enormous practical benefits through which they had eased the labours of human life. The prolongation of life, the construction of machinery, the improvement of welfare are themes that give a somewhat distorted impression of science as solely an enterprise for practical gain, serviced entirely for the necessities of human need. Indeed, the practical success that science so often enjoys, while instrumental for its preeminent recognition in society, has also quite often than not, held it hostage to driven interests of utilitarian concerns.

Science should be recognised primarily as a method of formal inquiry, pursued as an avocation and employed to understand the natural world unsullied by any measures of practical significance. The standard definition of science as a system of thought to understand why and how means that it ought to be pursued solely for the sake of the improvement of knowledge, without any regard at all as to what it may lead to. Indeed, recognizing that fundamental role of science also cements any possible use that it might, henceforth, engender and that we might be, hitherto, unaware of. Directing science towards conveniences of comfort or enrichment, thus, detracts from its inherent value. It is a notion that is incongruent with the ethos of scientific thought – subjecting idle curiosities about nature to the objective analysis of empirical observation and logical synthesis, just for the sake of knowing. A continued interrogation of nature should always persist, with an ultimate goal of falsifying the closest approximations to truth.

Indeed, the scientific method represents the most powerful and reliable system of thought ever conceived. A most reasoned derivation of factual information is what science does best and is what science should, primarily, be praised and recognised for. Scientific progress proceeds by a progressive refinement of previously established theories. The fact that the scientific method recognizes and accounts for its own fallibility, alone,  is a quality that is unrivaled in all other systems of thought and one that should be held in the highest of esteem.

Why, then, do we reduce the prominence of science only for its servicing of human need? Why do we often speak of science as a “potential for cure”, “a driver of economic growth”, or “a generator of prosperity” and not, as often, a most reasoned interrogator of the natural world, a most reliable winnower of non-truths, or a most correcting sceptical inquirer ever moving to the truth?

Why is basic research, which is a rightful representation of what science is, most often an undeserving target of budgeting cuts? Only when promises of national prosperity or national security are advanced that scientific research seems to be amply funded. This does a disservice to pure science, which is indeed the intellectual edifice upon which all practical derivations of human use so conveniently rest and without which any practical significance would not exist. Who would have possibly envisioned that Newton’s mere curiosity of wanting to understand the nature of light alone would, later on, be entirely fundamental to the existence of our modern societies? Would Michael Faraday ever have predicted his discovery of a magnet inducing an electric field in a coil or its significance? Indeed, commenting on Faraday’s discovery, a politician had asked “But, after all, what use is it?”, whereupon Faraday replied “Why sir, perhaps some day you will be able to tax it.”

To shun fundamental science as not much of a worthwhile pursuit means not only degrading the essence of science but also carrying the risk of missing out on potential rewards that future discoveries, hitherto inconceivable, might possibly bring about. Science should not be defended by pointing at its practical achievements. But, it should be defended because it is science. The same way that art is regarded as an embellishment of human life and immune to any need for practical significance, science should, in the same light, be regarded as an enlightenment of human life, done only for the sake of doing it.

We reap the fruits of curiosity every day. But, crucially, we must also ensure that we perpetually nurture the new seeds of curiosity.

“Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” – J. B. S. Haldane 


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