The Scientific Spirit and Modern Society

The scientist inquires into nature to discover what relationships exist between things. By his nature the scientist is one who does not think that he possess the entire truth, as he continues to grasp at it. His quest is to possess this truth and he devotes his life to creating experiments to test hypotheses and theories expressed in propositional knowledge.

The scientist can take many paths as he meanders through the abyss of existing knowledge and ideas looking for new ways test his hypothesis, but two paths are particularly worth highlighting. The first path and the one that is most common within modern societies in that which might be known as that of the builder. This path takes the scientist in the direction of proving theories and developing knowledge that can benefit mankind. The builder sees the great power of scientific knowledge to assist us, and consequently while he is committed to knowing the truth, he must necessarily become more possessed by a spirit of beneficence than a passion for grasping the truth. Over the course of his quest he has gone from experiencing a wide eyed awe towards nature that reaches out to meet it, to an attitude that wishes to merely experiment on nature in order to benefit mankind. While he started as primarily a thinker, he is now primarily an actor or doer.

The path of the builder is the most dominant path for the scientist in modern society as the scientist must justify his worth in terms that the society he inhabits understands. Given that most modern societies are fundamentally oriented around growth, economic concerns and improving material conditions for people the scientist must justify his worth as someone whose work benefits mankind, rather than simply someone who is enamored with the quest for truth. While Socrates was enamored with the spirit of science in that he devoted his life to questioning the nature of reality and knowledge, he would not be funded as a scientist because he refused to produce any tangible artifact that might benefit mankind.

Not always, but typically, the builder becomes a specialist. As a specialist he focuses in one narrow field of study to see what useful knowledge can be grasped within that narrow field for a particular set of practical problems, rather than a builder who wants to grasp the whole. That the builder typically becomes a specialist is not at all surprising as in order to fully experiment on one narrow aspect of nature in depth a scientist needs to devote much time, and study and there are very few scientists who are able to conquer more than one narrow region because of the simple demands of time that are required to fully understand this region.

In addition, the structure of scientific inquiry as it is constituted institutionally in modern society exhibits a structure of divisions in which one must primarily be a botanist, psychologist, physicist or member of another discipline, such that the demands of conformity to a professional discipline confine the scientist to working in a particular field. Of course the professional scientist can examine other fields outside of their work, but this must always be something separate from his professional work, and this pursuit must always compete with other pursuits such as friendship, love, family and other leisurely activities.

The second path for the scientist is far more difficult to pursue in modern society and somewhat ironically it tends to be at cross purposes with the professional scientific discipline. In this path we have those whose fundamental concern is to understand the whole. These individuals typically make unreliable researchers as their task cannot be confined to simply figuring out some particular sphere such as understanding the impact of the consumption of sucralose on appetite. These people are creative seekers who jump from one area of interest to another driven by their desire to synthesize their insights into some coherent understanding of the whole, rather than obedient workers who will be sure to accomplish the task to which they are assigned or have agreed to. Some of them may be able to make a career through scientific inquiry because of their genius and novel insights, but this will always be in tension with the spirit by which they are animated, as those who are driven by this spirit are not necessarily interested in producing treatises but in simply grasping the whole. This last point is one that has been made by many including Arendt, but I think it is worth reiterating because it points to the separation between building intellectual systems for the benefit of mankind or for glory, and to the pure quest for understanding.

This is all to say that the professional discipline of science is not simply a constitution of the spirit that continually pursues an understanding of the whole. Rather, the professional discipline of science is a historical manifestation of many factors, and those of who are captured by the aforementioned spirit may be marginalized and degraded, rather than supported by the institutions of science as they exist in modern societies. Consequently, the institutionalization of science may be as much of a threat to the spirit of continuous inquiry directed at understanding the whole as those who decry science in favour of unreflective forms of faith and tradition.

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