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An Understood World

Sarah Chaffee

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Reading an article by astrophysicist Adam Frank at NPR’s 13.7 blog (“Can Science Save The World?“), I found myself resonating with his story of hope in science:

More than anything before it in human history, science was an approach to the world’s uncertainty that demanded results. Answers needed to be worked out in public and they needed to be demonstrably true over and over again.

In that new approach came a new kind of success. Ancient horrors like disease and hunger were, for the first time, beaten back. Human lifetimes were extended and then filled with unimaginable miracles like air travel and instantaneous communication. It was no accident that some saw in science the chance to build better versions of society. Science, they hoped, would lead us to a better world. It would save us even from ourselves.

Then he asks, “Were they right? Is science that longed-for place where we can put our trust for positive change in the midst of uncertainty?”

No — if that means that science is supreme. But yes, if that means understanding science for what it is — a tool for learning to interact with the physical world.

People curious and able to grasp information about universe; a world that is able to be understood. This sounds like intelligent design. Frank notes:

What makes science remarkable is that while we discovered its methods on our own, those methods are fundamentally a collaboration with the world. Science could not lead us to understanding if the world didn’t have the possibility of being understood. In other words, there is no separating ourselves from the world because science is always a dialogue with something more than us. In that way, science calls us to see a hope and a power in our own capacities even as it reveals our interdependence with all things.

Compare what he says to the central argument of The Privileged Planetthat our place in the universe is habitable and fitted for discovery. Or Michael Denton’s Firemaker — that the earth allows for combustion, and humans are uniquely suited to harness fire.

Science exists in a relationship to the human capacity for understanding, situated as we are in an observable, compressible cosmos. This realization becomes a recognition that science is not absolute, apart from human beings. Frank notes:

History shows science has played its role in any number of dubious plans. For years, class prejudice and racism were cloaked behind the mantle of empirical science in the form of eugenics. Decades later, in a different domain, it was a misplaced confidence in technological progress that allowed us to miss the environmental impacts of our burgeoning society for so long. Both these examples illustrate an essential point that science, on its own, is not going to save us.

Frank, however, points out four truths that science tells about us: (1) It’s important to invite diverse ideas to be heard, (2) promotion of truth is the only path to success, and (3) there is something besides oneself — which fuels compassion.

These are values that characterize a science driven by the acknowledgment of intelligent design — there is truth to be gained and defended, the recognition that no one human being has the lowdown on truth, and the observation that as human beings we all matter.

Science is a valuable tool for learning about the world. Our ability to use it, and use it wisely, demonstrates design.

Photo credit: View from Gemini XI, September 14, 1966, by NASA/Dick Gordon.