The Strengths and Limits of Science

The transhuman technologies whose implications occupy so many of these pages, are all coming about as a result of the human institution of science.

Science is a wonderful thing ... I was taught in my early youth by my grandfather, a physical chemist, to revere it above other human institutions -- as a way of humanity finding a kind of truth and purity not present in most other human pursuits.

But still -- we mustn't exaggerate its scope and its power.

Science, as we currently conceive it, is based on finite sets of finite-precision observations. That is, all of scientific knowledge is based on some finite set of bits, comprising the empirical observations accepted by the scientific community. All the empirical knowledge currently accepted by the scientific community as the basis of scientific theory, could be packed into one large but finite computer file.

To extrapolate beyond this file, this bit-set, some kind of assumption is needed. Or, to put it another way: some kind of "faith" is needed.

David Hume was the first one to make this point really clearly, a couple hundred years ago ... and we now understand the "Humean problem of induction" well enough to know it's not the kind of thing that can be "solved." As Hume noted, just because we have observed the sun rise 5, 50 or 500000 mornings in a row, doesn't justify us in assuming it will rise the next morning. This prediction, this "induction," rests not only on our prior observations, but on some kind of assumptive theory.

The Occam's Razor principle tries to solve this problem -- it says that you extrapolate from the bit-set of known data by making the simplest possible hypothesis. This leads to some nice mathematics involving algorithmic information theory and so forth. But of course, one still has to have "faith" in some measure of simplicity!

So: doing or using science requires, in essence, continual acts of faith (though these may be unconscious and routinized rather than conscious and explicit).

This doesn't make science a bad thing, and it doesn't detract from science's incredible power and usefulness.

The body of human scientific knowledge is best viewed as a kind of living organism, as a mind unto itself -- a mind which grows, makes choices, and experiences joy as it confronts and creates ongoing surprises. Being a scientist is largely about communing with this mind -- about fusing one's individual mind with the greater collective mind of science. This fusion, though never quite complete, can have profoundly transformative effects upon the individual self, sometimes resulting in individuals who have very little self-sense and are primarily operative as subsets of the greater mind of science.

The mind of science is far more powerful than any individual human mind. Yet it is not absolute; it is not always "right"; and it does not escape the need to base its judgments on some raw assumptions, some assumptions that do not emerge directly from empirical observation or mathematical derivation.

The extent to which the mind of science will survive the transcension of humanity seems quite unknown. Perhaps the separation of science from other modes of life, growth and inquiry is an epiphenomenon of the human cognitive architecture. Perhaps science will merge together with other sorts of pursuit, in the psychology and community of superhuman minds. In this sense, the mind of science, like the individual human mind, could contain the seeds of its own transcension.

One thing that points to a possible "trans-science" is the study of consciousness. It seems that to really understand conscious experience, will require some new sort of discipline -- something bringing together subjective experience, shared social experience, and scientific data-gathering and relation-forming. Francisco Varela and David Bohm were two scientists who explicitly worked toward the formation of such a discipline -- and dialogued with the Dalai Lama and other spiritual seekers about the idea.

As Cosmists we must respect the pattern of science, which has brought us so far. But we must also be open to its transcendence, in ways we're now unable to foresee.

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