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pending
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The Purpose of Science

It works

Picasso was once asked it he was 'seeker'
He was scathing of the idea "I don't seek! I find!" (paraphrased)

Isn't the purpose of science to "find"; find knowledge or truth (whatever those might be)?

That sounds great until you've tried to defend it a few times.

A primary problem - many times noted is that what was taken as scientific knowledge a hundred and fifty years ago is not thought of as knowledge now.
Much has been superseded.
Much has been shown to be wrong.
Much has been shown to be not even wrong.

What does it mean to find knowledge in that context? Can that give science a purpose?

Let's consider Newton alone in the countryside avoiding the plague. He did seminal studies into the nature of light and into gravity during that time. Along the way he invented a version of the calculus.

I see a difference between his inventing the calculus and his theory of gravity.
He had a purpose in inventing the calculus - it was to help him solve the math problems that his theory of gravity presented.
But what was the purpose of pondering about gravity at the time?

Newton's thoughts have had absolutely huge practical results - but those results could not be the reason for the thoughts because Newton didn't have a clear idea at all what could grow from his research. I've not seen any evidence or even suggestion that Newton had the slightest inkling of what would grow out of his theory.

So those outcomes couldn't form a purpose for him.
Throughout the history of science we can see the same pattern - the early investigators of combustion and gasses had no idea that chemistry would be the outcome.

As science evolved that pattern became harder to see.
We moved from pretty isolated investigators like Newton into an intellectual tradition supported by public and private funds with a network of journals and personal connections.

That network was pretty good at generating problems to be investigated. The individual investigations all came to have a purpose - to work on those problems. And especially as technology started to emerge from scientific knowledge - technology presented very strong incentives to develop all sorts of scientific knowledge.

But does the sort of purpose that a particular investigation has to solve a tech problem really reflect the purpose of science as a whole?

Consider a more personal parallel - in my life I do things for a purpose. What is the purpose of me going to the bank to withdraw money? To enable me to buy groceries. Our lives are full of that sort of purpose. Local purposes that are relevant in particular circumstances - not very hard to understand.

But if you ask me the purpose of my existence I can only shrug and say "None" I just happened.

I do understand that many people are uncomfortable with this realization and there are all sorts of alternative explanations involving transcendental beings that give purpose to us.

That begs the question of the purpose of those beings.

Let's go back to the purpose of science - could it be that at the start science had no purpose but that it has evolved one.

Now that it has demonstrated the benefit of the information it produces perhaps it's purpose is to keep up the good work.

But is that sort of purpose really any use? How does that help us decide which research projects are worthy of support? And think of a recent example - the New Horizons flyby of Pluto.
It's gobsmackingly amazing - a decades long project implemented at huge expense. People have devoted their lives to and raised families working for that project. What was the purpose of that?

Well - proximately to learn about Pluto - duh.

But why would we want to learn about Pluto at all? Learning about what Pluto is like up close is very interesting but I can't see any practical benefit at all that would motivate a context of purpose. So let's revisit Picasso on this - he wanted to find and he was being disparaging who just seek - they move from one curiosity to the next without really trying to make sense of it all. What Picasso had was a method of working that produced results. But I don't think that Picasso had a purpose in his research - he had no goal. He was following his nose.

Same with Newton - he may have had his reasons for being interested in gravity - but would we call Newton's personal curiosity a purpose? Somehow - I can't think that personal curiosity is a purpose in the general sense - it may be what motivated Newton but it seems to be a category mistake to call all motivation a purpose.

Curiosity is certainly a motivation - but is it a purpose?

I'm seeing a distinction here - the reasons something happens is distinct from the purpose of something.

When things happen for reasons that is completely consistent with a deterministic reality.

Purpose is a different idea - Purpose proposes things happening in the interest of something - the whole concept is empty unless you have things with interests.

But perhaps the purpose of science is a genuine self-created purpose - the tradition of science has created a very fruitful framework - we live and adapt to that framework all the time.

But just like you and I have self-created purposes - maybe science has too. It's purpose is to provide the global framework within which so many people can live good lives exploring fruitful ideas. It's taken on a life of it's own - and while I like it and depend on it It's taken on a life of it's own - we can't guarantee that it's purposes will always be our purposes. Indeed many people think that's the case now.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.