Ever since I was a child I’ve had a fascination with science. For me, science was, and still is, a form of exploration. It’s about learning and knowledge. Finding out how something works, how a creature lives, or learning the names of clouds, constellations, trees and birds. I’d say science is about wonder and curiosity.
Many, many years later I came across the writings of the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, who wrote that there were three ways to think – science, philosophy and art. I was a bit surprised when I first read that, but the more I came to understand it, not only the more it made sense, but it became, for me, a basic tool.
Briefly, he said that science was thinking about function – how something worked; philosophy was thinking about concepts – our frameworks and our world views; and art was thinking about percepts and affects – what we perceive and what we feel. I took all of that into my daily medical practice, figuring out what wasn’t working in somebody’s body, mind or life; developing my concepts of health, illness and disease; and working with both what I perceived and what I felt in a consultation.
A couple of years ago I had an experience on my daily commuter train which really woke me up – you can read about it here – but, let me just rehearse it for those of you who don’t want to diverge off down a link – I was sitting next to a student who seemed to be revising notes (I presume for an exam. Her subject was “clinical research” and what struck me was her key points about the “scientific method” – they were – Observation, Description, Explanation, Prediction and Control.
Well, I am very, very keen on observation and I like to describe what I observe. I’m also very keen on finding explanations for things (I think one of the definitions of a doctor’s job is “a person who tries to understand” – but that’s another story!). I also know that I was taught how to diagnose (which I see as a level of understanding) and to prognose (predict).
To be honest, neither diagnosis nor prognosis are nearly as simple as they are often taught. The older and more experienced I became the more I came to realise that diagnosis is never complete (you can always understand more deeply and/or more widely), and that prognosis is about possibilities and probabilities not about certainty.
So I was particularly surprised to find the student’s notes on “clinical” research describing the final step of the “scientific method” as “control”.
Since then, I’ve come to see that for many science is exactly about this – control. Scientism, the belief that everything can be explained using science, seems to be about power. This way of understanding and approaching science seems to be what has been adopted, not only by the industrial-commercial-military complexes, but by all those who seek control over others and over the world. It seems to be based on an understanding that if we take enough measurements, collect enough data, analyse it with statistical and computing tools, then we will be able to make accurate predictions which allow us a high degree of power to control.
Well, for some reason, I woke up this morning with this phrase in my mind – “The Power OR the Glory – two approaches to science” – and so, this post!
I’d like to re-state the case for a science based on wonder and curiosity instead of one based on power and control. For me, the joy of that scientific method is the revelation of, and the revelling in, the GLORY of this Universe and of our lives.
I was looking for some paper to start to jot down some thoughts about this and stumbled across an old notebook where I’d made some notes about the book “Planet Narnia” by Michael Ward (haven’t even thought about that book for a long, long time) – and here’s what I read –
The glory of science is to progress as new facts are discovered to be true, and such progress meanest that ‘factual truth’ is a provisional human construct. Which is why the wise man does not think only in the category of truth; the category of beauty is also worth thinking in.
Wow! How does that happen? How do I stumble across exactly the phrase “the glory of science” in a notebook stuffed away in a drawer full of scrap paper on exactly the morning I wake up with the phrase “The Power OR the Glory – two approaches to science”? In fact, who on earth wakes up with a phrase like that in their heads anyway? OK, I do!
Seriously, there’s way too much to explore there than I can write a post about this morning, so let me just finish with what I wanted to say in the first place –
There are two approaches to science – power (what I’d say is our current dominant model) OR glory – based on a humble curiosity and a joy in the awe and wonder of this life.
My hunch is, we could do with cultivating more of the latter, and less of the former!