Essay 04 - The Sciences

 28 September 2000 


Humanity has been around a long, long time. Or so I've been told, at least. There seems to be evidence of many thousands of years of human existence before the first semblance of progress or civilization. Now, my life has been shaped by civilization, and it is hard for me to imagine human beings without it. What could have happened that changed us so much, most likely forever?

According to Wilson, "Science, its imperfections notwithstanding, is the sword in the stone that humanity finally pulled." In light of our history, it seems that he has hit the nail on the head. However improbable it may sound that 'scientific thinking' brought about civilization, something must have happened to start the process that we still are a part of. While it is likely just the discovery of agriculture or something like, it was progress, in the sense of the word that our culture takes to heart today.

Science is perhaps first the idea that human life can be improved upon, and then the search for ways to improve it. Wilson claims, in his chapter Ariadne's Thread in Consilience, that the study of physics is the foundation of all science. If you consider science to have been born of the enlightenment, this idea makes sense. Certainly most scientific knowledge today ties itself down toward the base laws of the universe offered by physics. Or, at least, it could, and as Wilson says, would benefit by doing so.

I think, however, that science, in one form or another, has been around much longer than just the last few hundred years. If science is the act of trying to understand the world around you, then Wilson does better to compare it to the Ionians. If it is the act of solving problems, I think that, in once sense at least, science's roots lay not in physics, but in such simple things as agriculture, masonry, and their like.

Surely someone can understand and attempt to solve problems with a certain thing without having an absolute reductionist understanding of the thing, however much more competent such an understanding might make one. Wilson would do well to say not that science's roots lay in physics, but that reductionist science's roots lay in physics.

It seems likely at this point that all science will eventually be explained reductively, but in saying that its foundation lies on that form of thinking both gives reductionism too much credit and portrays our early forms of scientific thought very poorly.


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