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Science for Insight or Science for Power?

Photo credit: Benjamin Lizardo via Unsplash.

“Should machines replace mathematicians?” That’s the headline of a new post by science writer John Horgan, who comments on the current state of mathematics and the growing potential of AI and computers to do all the “heavy lifting” in the mathematical enterprise. Horgan notes that mathematicians were the ones to develop computers in the first place, but now, with the advent of advanced computing and artificial intelligence, the role of human-driven mathematics is getting to be less certain. However, maybe math is not only about input and output but a “way of being human.” For Horgan, data and computation don’t get to the heart of scientific and mathematical endeavors. It needs to mean something more than an impersonal process geared towards calculable ends. 

Science’s Core Purpose

Horgan not only talks about math in his article. He also relates the discussion to the core purpose of science. Science, in one definition, means gaining insights into nature. However, in today’s utilitarian society, science is less about contemplating the beauty of nature and more about securing power over nature for the sake of our ease, convenience, and control. He writes, 

We value science for its applications, too. Sentimental science writing, including mine, implies that science’s purpose is insight into nature. In the modern era, however, science’s primary goal is power. Science helps us manipulate nature for various ends: to extend our lives, to enrich and entertain us, to boost the economy, to defeat our enemies. Modern physics, to most of us, is unintelligible, but who cares when physics gives us smartphones and hydrogen bombs?


Science and Magic

The comment reminds me of a famous observation by C. S. Lewis, who wrote in The Abolition of Man:

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.

It sounds strange to equate “applied science” (i.e., technology) with magic, but doing so reveals the potential of using scientific knowledge merely as a means to power instead of as a source of “insight,” as Horgan writes.

Cross-posted at Mind Matters News.