Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change. Our task is not just to train more scientists but also to deepen public understanding of science.
Many times, because of the success of technology, we seem to forget that science is not a “thing” but rather a process,or even better yet, a worldview. It is a world where not only do the theories change, but often even the “facts” themselves. When Darwin started collecting information for the theory of evolution the earth was thought by many people to be 6000 years old, by many scientists to be hundreds of thousand of years, and a few scientists a couple of million. A few years later, many millions. Now, about five billion. A scientist’s “faith” cannot be in the “facts” or theories, they are ever changing. Their faith is in the method, that being open to new information and allowing the data to lead the way that some more light will shine into the dark corners, which will reveal even more dark corners. But along the way, pictures emerge, ideas come together and puzzle pieces fit, giving tremendous satisfaction and meaning. Until it all changes and we have to begin again. Humility is the virtue of a scientist.
True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.
This theme comes up over and over again in the great philosophic and spiritual traditions. There must be something to it. Something that most of us can’t actually do.
Those who assert that the mathematical sciences say nothing of the beautiful or the good are in error. For these sciences say and prove a great deal about them; if they do not expressly mention them, but prove attributes which are their results or definitions, it is not true that they tell us nothing about them. The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree.
― Aristotle, Metaphysics
There are many who seem to feel that math and science are somehow “soulless” and either can not recognize beauty or elegance, even worse as destroying beauty. I have never agreed with that sentiment, and obviously am in pretty good company. The beauty in our universe is in what is seen and seeing, as they say is believing. In reading the writings of great scientists it is generally impossible to miss their sense of awe in what they see.
The assumption that we are infallible can we justify the suppression of opinions we think false. Ages are as fallible as individuals, every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd.
― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
It is indeed the sense that we have infallible knowledge that leads to the suppression of human thought and ideas. One of the greatest sources of that feeling of infallibility is, of course, religion. How can it be wrong if God said it?
One of the great attributes of the scientific method is, in fact, humility, the idea that while we may be on the right track, any particular idea could be wrong in part or in whole. In science, one theory can refute another, so all theories have to be considered.
Political theorists such as Mill applied this to the public sphere and enthroned freedom of speech as a natural right so that everyone can have the opportunity to refute the “false and absurd” ideas of the age, even if those ideas are dearly and strongly held by a majority of people.