Thursday, July 21, 2011

How should we respond to scientific success?

Until Newton came along the heavens (i.e. stars in the sky) were a mystery and their relationship to earthly events was unknown. Not surprisingly, astrology was influential. But the success of Newton (and Laplace) at showing that the same laws applied to both the earthly and celestial realm led to a philosophical earthquake, and ultimately the Enlightenment. People became confident that humanity would soon explain and understand everything. It was just a matter of finding and implementing the right method.

This leads to a critical issue: Should scientific success lead to wonder and humility or does it naturally lead to hubris?

These thoughts were partly prompted by reading Isaiah 40 this morning which includes:

12Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
   and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
   and weighed the mountains in scales
   and the hills in a balance?
13Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD,
   or what man shows him his counsel?
14Whom did he consult,
   and who made him understand?
    Who taught him the path of justice,
   and taught him knowledge,
   and showed him the way of understanding?

This may be saying that contemplation of the natural world should lead to humility, particularly when it comes to gaining a real understanding of deeper issues of truth and justice. This is certainly not the direction that Enlightenment thinkers went with the initial (modest) successes of science.

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