According to the “law of the instrument,” if you give a child a hammer, everything she meets will have to be pounded. We are prone, in other words, to go about problem-solving with the tool we know rather than the one we need. So as a philosopher with some thoughts on the putative problem of insufficient public support for science, I risk being subsumed by the law myself when I counsel that it isn’t more science that we need but more philosophy.
The instrument of science is, to be sure, the greatest tool humanity has at its disposal. We owe our extraordinary success as a species to our unparalleled ability to harness the basic functions of our sensory apparatus—to detect and respond to environmental stimuli—and direct them to become the methodic, ordered, disciplined and cumulative interrogation and control of the sensible world.
In the last century alone, scientific advances and their resulting technological innovations have led to the doubling of the average life expectancy of human beings, an exponential increase in our capacity to distribute information that is connecting and empowering people all over the planet, a theoretical revolution in our understanding of the universe, and the development of the attendant means to physically explore it. Scientific activity has been the undisputed engine of our advance.
According to the law requiring consistency in the use of one’s metaphors, however, what’s under the hood can’t also be behind the wheel. A responsible society needs to harness the power of science and direct it with a steady hand. Hard choices must be made, for example, about which avenues to pursue and efforts to prioritize given limited resources.
The wise society must also insist on the sober-minded consideration of the implications that emerging technologies might have and be alert to the fact that what promises greater comfort and even luxury can nevertheless prove disruptive to the practices and institutions that have provided structure and meaning to the lives of its people. The fruits of science are not inherently good and ought only to be consumed judiciously.
It is an open question whether we are to count our own society as wise. Certainly, many of the men and women who devote their lives to science would not and have said as much, taking to the streets in great numbers the past two years to voice their dismay. Their message, as conveyed by Rush D. Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the eve of the second March for Science this past April, is clear: “They want others in society—those who are not scientists, those who make public decisions—to recognize the power and effectiveness of evidence-based thinking.
The marchers, most of whom have worked in science or related technical fields where collection, verification, and analysis of unbiased evidence is the principal goal, are frustrated by public decisions based on ideology or wishful thinking rather than verified evidence,”
Public deliberations, and the decisions that follow, are presumably about what matters to a society and why; they are meant to be enactments of its values. This makes them philosophical, not scientific. Debates about social priorities and the protection of the sources of meaning will not be settled by some technological innovation or smartphone app. Nor will the accumulation of verified evidence, essential in its proper sphere, help us much here.
Our current problems have less to do with a failure to appreciate science than with a grossly inflated estimation of profit, an aim which tends to warp everything to better serve it. We, scientists and non-scientists alike, need brighter stars to guide us, and so we need critical reflection on the kind of society we want to live in and leave to our children. This calls for honest and open dialogue about who we are and who we want to become.
Our best science should inform such a dialogue, of course. Without the understanding that science provides concerning our natural condition, our philosophical conceptions of how to live would be empty and untethered to reality. But the need is mutual, for without the mapping of normative space rendered by philosophy, our scientific explorations of the physical world would be, if not blind, then dangerously nearsighted in their purpose. Both are essential for our society to truly thrive. Marching for science is important and should continue, but we would be wise to start marching for philosophy.