I spend a lot of my time thinking about life’s meaning, the purpose of it, and the role we human beings play and/or are supposed to play during our time on this planet. How do we know or decide what to do so that we make the best of our time? How do we know we aren’t wasting our time on futilities? Let us, for the sake of the line thought that I’m about to follow, assume that our senses are not playing jokes on us, and that we can objectively observe everything around us. Whether we use our senses or instruments to measure, well, life around us, science in general is trying to make sense of it all by studying pathology, biology, astronomy, physics, sociology and so on. We are describing patterns, uncovering hidden structures, disentangling complex relations. With each new thing we discover, we are inspired to unravel the mystery even more. With each new thing I learn, I come to the conclusion that I really don’t know anything at all yet, that there is still a lot more to learn. More patterns to be discovered, dynamics to explain, causalities to understand… It’s endless, or so it seems.
In every academic research paper, at least some words have to be dedicated to the scientific and/or societal relevance of the study; you have to explain why we want to know the outcome. In many cases you even need to be clear about the purpose of the research beforehand in order to secure fundings. You need to be able to tell why exactly that part of life is worth unveiling. Millions of people are involved in this process; there’s the scientists, the subjects, people in companies that provide the funds, people making the machines, educators and I could go on and on with this list. We have created an entire industry around the process of uncovering the mysteries of life. We are keeping each other busy each day in all aspects of society, just to have more things to study the next day. With each thing that physicists discover about the workings of the universe, more questions arise. With each thing we learn about cell structures and the ‘normal’, we want to learn more about pathological processes and how and why (again, the why-question!) things out of the ordinary happen. It’s an infinite process, or so it seems.
Even mathematicians don’t have all the answers. Some axioms exist, reasonings that are the base of all other reasonings, but at the end of the day we still can’t write down all prime numbers for example, simply because we can’t count into infinity. There just wouldn’t be an end to that list. We can only approximate all prime numbers by stating the proof for their infinity; if you have a finite collection of prime numbers, consisting of p1, p2, p3 … pn. Let’s name the product of all these primenumbers P. Then take P + 1 = Q. Either Q is a new prime number – which means the list wasn’t finite to begin with – or Q is not a new prime number, which means it must be dividable by another prime number on the list. But we saw that Q = P + 1 so deviding Q by any prime number on the list will give 1 as a residu. This proves that there is an infinite list of prime numbers. In math, even when you can say QED, you don’t have all the possible outcomes at hand.
In my opinion, there are several problematic aspects to wanting to find the answer to life and the way it works. First of all, different disciplines within sciences disagree on epistemological and ontological questions – the basic assumptions that legitimize the research in the first place. If alfas, betas and gammas and everything in between can’t even agree on the questions whether an objectively measurable Truth actually exists and how that existing or non-existent truth can emperically be observed, what are we suppposed to do with the answers that sciences provides us? How can we know if we’ve actually uncovered the “Truth” or if it’s just an interpretation?
Let’s take a positivist stance and assume for a moment that an objectivly measurable truth exists and that it can be captured by reproduceable, controlled experiments. Even if such a thing is possible, there is a second problem. There are many scientists across the globe working on the same subjects, but in rivalling institutions, for different companies, for different journals. The more you get published, the better your chances are of securing funds for future research. This makes science a competitive business, with academics trying to beat each other to the punch. This is not a bad thing per se, since competition can stimulate people to excell. What makes competition problematic in my opinion, is that different people working on similar topics can get opposing results, even when using similar methods. Even if, and only if there really exists one single method that reveals “Truth” with a capital T, different answers to the same questions suggest we haven’t discovered that method yet.
A third problem I have with finding the answers to everything, is this: what will we do when we have described how everything works? What will we do when we have explained every behaviour possible? What do we want to do with all the information we have gathered? For example, if we have discovered the perfect way to organize a society in terms of maximizing profits, civic participation, guaranteeing stability, security, equality, then what? What if we have discovered the perfect way to organize life? What do we do when we know how to deal with conflict once and for all? If we find out how we can make sure nobody dies from hunger anymore? What if, to put it simply, at some point we realize that science is done, that we have clarified every enigma there is, that we know how everything works, and how we can solve every abnormality that occurs, how we can cure every glitch in the system. What will we do then?
What is the purpose of science? Doesn’t it all come down to a normative philosophical discussion in the end? Why do we want to know how things work? So we can work out a utilitarian model where we secure the highest amount of happiness for the highest amount of people? Aren’t we trying to figure it all out, just to make as many people happy as we can? Is that the higher purpose of science? Or is that just something we tell ourselves to divert our attention from all the unjustice in the world (that is inextricably linked to science, in a way. Sometimes even caused by science – but this is the topic of a future blog entry, since I could easily write a book about how I think all the injustices in the world are interlinked. I’ll spare you the details for now because my ADD-brain is already imploding on me; I don’t want to confuse you with all my weird mental connections any more than I already am). Does science serve a higher goal, or are we just keeping ourselves busy?
But what if our senses are in fact playing a joke on us? What if there is no objective way to empirically measure the “Truth”? What if everything our senses register is a distortion of reality, a personal interpretation? There are numerous examples of how people’s perceptions differ. Lots of the ‘jokes’ our senses play with us, aren’t really caused by a fault in our senses, but in the way our brain processes the stimuli. Sometimes our brains aren’t capable of correctly (but then again, can we really be sure we know what ‘correct’ is?) processing the information. Consider colourblindness. Or autism. Or ADD. Manic Depression. Schyzophrenia. Gestaltt. Each of these ‘conditions’ relate to differences in how stimuli are processed by the brain.
Take deja vu’s, a personal favourite sensoric mystery of mine. Research suggests that 60% to 80% of people have experienced a deja vu – the sensation of inappropriate familiarity of a certain moment while living it for the first time, without being able to explain the origins of this familiarity – even at least once in their lives; they are likely to occur as a consequence of a disturbance in neurological pathways in certain parts of the brain. Freud has written about it, even suggested that the person suffering from deja vu’s could merit greatly from intensive treatment. He wasn’t the only one to be fascinated by this phenomenon; it has inspired great minds like Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Thomas Hardy and many more. This article in the American Journal of Psychiatry gives a nice introduction to the subject, so be sure to read that if you have time. Supposedly, feeling you’ve experienced a certain moment before, is just a trick your brain plays on you.
If there is no way of objectively knowing the Truth, then what is the point? Aren’t we just keeping ourselves busy with futile attempts to contribute to different versions of the Truth? Isn’t every form of science then ‘just’ a narrative, a scientist’s version of how he or she sees life? Why should science then have greater legitimacy over the narratives of ‘common’ people? But wait, we -social scientists, anthropologists, psychologists, etc. are already studying people’s narratives – we already value people’s personal versions of the Truth. Doesn’t that reduce science to an infinite proces that merely exists to keep up busy, that gives us humans a neverending purpose on earth of “trying to figure it all out”?
We are keeping ourselves busy to be able to keep ourselves busy, day in day out. What’s the point in all that? At least there is one thing we can be certain about, is that everything research discovers, gives us inspiration for further research. Whether you believe in altruism, or a Hobbesian leviathan; whether people are intrinsically good or that people just put their own personal gain first, it doesn’t really matter; people pursue happiness (their own or of others). Whether we strive for universal happiness and Truth (whatever that may be) in the long term or not; whether there is a Truth or not…
Some choose to believe in the explanatory power of religion, others prefer science. Whether you find the thought of an omnipotent power that created earth and everything on it in seven days more credible, or the thought of a big bang and particles and evolution… Some prefere to trust their senses and empirical ‘evidence’, some rely on faith and prefer a higher power. In the end, it is a personal preference which of the two you find most convincing.
I’m not sure. Science tells me that energy cannot be created from nothing, it can only change form. The energy that keeps your physical body moving and alive during your lifetime – from the moment you first flutter your tiny feet in the womb untill the last breath you draw – that energy has to go somewhere when you die. It takes a different form. Who is to say that that energy can’t change form again? That is hasn’t changed form before? Who says that life on earth isn’t some perpetual cycle of people being born and reborn on earth, trying to find the answer to all of it each time around? Who is to say that life isn’t just about being as happy as you can while you are alive? Who is to say that it isn’t all just a matter of finding a way to coexist and maximize the love while we’re here anyway?