The End of Science

How's that for a dramatic title? I am actually here talking not about the cessation of science, but rather its purpose. Bruce Charlton wrote another thought provoking editorial, Conscience in Science.  Charlton takes his theme from C. S. Lewis' essay, First and Second Things. In that essay, Lewis was making the very Aristotelian point that if you treat a less than ultimate end as the ultimate end, you will not achieve either the greater or the lesser end.

Charlton believes that this idea can provide an answer to the following questions:

Why is modern science less efficient than it used to be [1], why has revolutionary science declined [2], and why has science become so dishonest? [3] One plausible explanation behind these observations comes from an essay published by CS Lewis in 1942: First and second things [4].

Those three questions are worded pretty strongly. I think it would be interesting to look more closely at those three questions to see to what degree they represent the actual state of science, but for the moment, let us take them at face value. Charlton is then claiming that science has become collectively deranged by seeing itself as an ultimate end, rather than serving an ultimate end, which Charlton identifies as transcendent truth.

Charlton's argument here reminds me an argument often repeated by James Schall, that modern politics also sees itself as an ultimate end, and has become deformed thereby. Schall's argument is inspired by a passage in Aristotle's Ethics:

For it is absurd to think that Political Science or Prudence is the loftiest kind of knowledge, inasmuch as man is not the highest thing in the world. - Aristotle Ethics 1141a20-22

Science at least has a better claim here; science sees itself as knowledge about every [natural] thing, so at least in its own terms it could claim the highest kind of knowledge. However, Charlton is claiming that science is not really interested in knowledge per se, and that is precisely his complaint. Science, like politics, and like many other things, can be pursued independently of any vision of a greater good. Each thing sees itself as a First Thing, and there is nothing to orchestrate the whole.

The question is thus: does science [or politics] have a purpose beyond itself by which it can be judged, and that is available at least in principle to the uninitiated, or is its purpose wholly immanent, only judicable by those trained within the discipline?

Stated this way, I think the conflict arises between transcendent purpose and fitness to evaluate. The transcendent purpose provides us with the external referent, while those best suited to judge whether that external standard have been met are those with the greatest ability and experience within the discipline. Charlton thus proposes that it is incumbent upon the most eminent and accomplished scientists to police themselves. But in order to do so these scientists must value truth over success. It is only by placing science as a lesser good that it can truly achieve it's potential.

In this respect, science is paradoxically stronger when a Second Thing than as a First Thing. Because science is stronger when science is embedded in the larger value of truth, and when truth is embedded in the still-larger value of a concept of the good life. Of course, not all concepts of the good life will be equally supportive of good science; indeed some transcendental concepts are anti-scientific.

I really like the last bit of this paragraph. Charlton has correct identified that any ordering of goods is intrinsically related to a concept of the good life, and there are many different ways of doing this, but not all of them are in fact good, and we can tell the difference.

Cross-posted to Dead Philosophers Society