Friday 11 June 2010

Motivation in science - understanding reality

A scientist needs to want to understand  reality - this entails believing in reality, and that one ought to be truthful about it.

The belief in reality is a necessary metaphysical belief, which cannot be denied without contradiction - nonetheless, in modern elite culture it is frequently denied (this is called nihilism), why is why modern elite culture is irrational, self-contradictory (and self-destroying).

But obviously, a real scientist cannot be a nihilist - whatever cynical or trendy things he might say or do in public, in his heart he must have a transcendental belief in reality.

Science also involves a metaphysical belief (i.e. a necessary assumption, not itself part of science) in the understandability of nature and the human capacity to understand. Without this belief, science becomes an absurd and impossible attempt to find the one truth among an infinite number of erroneous possibilities.

Nonetheless, in modern elite culture, a belief in the understandability of nature and human capacity is routinely denied - another aspect of nihilism. Among many other consequences, this denial destroys the science which makes possible modern elite culture.

Explaining reality is a second step which may follow understanding, but explaining needs to be preceded by the desire to understand - again because there are an infinite number of possible explanations, none of which can be decisively refuted.

Modern science is undercut by many things - one is the difficulty for modern scientists of living by the proper motivations and beliefs of a real scientist. The transcendental beliefs are difficult to hold in isolation; it is difficult to refrain from asking *why* is it that should humans have these beliefs and motivations? Difficult to avoid the idea that they are arbitrary or delusional beliefs.

Committed scientists in recent decades have often justified themselves by emphasizing that science is enormous 'fun' - but this is a foolish and desperate line of defense. Many things are 'fun' for the people who happen to like them, but science was supposed to be about reality.

Hitler and Stalin seemingly enjoyed being dictators, perhaps found it ‘fun’  – but does that justify them?

Of course the ‘science is fun’ line is mostly trying to avoid the ‘science is useful’ trap. Because the usefulness of science is something intrinsically accidental and unpredictable. And of course science might well turn out to be harmful – fatal.; so usefulness cannot be guaranteed . If you try to get usefulness directly, you won’t get science – aims such as usefulness need to be set aside when a scientist is actually trying to understand reality.

Likewise explanations, predictions and so on – these are second order, contingent aspects of scientific discovery. Understanding must come first.

There never will be many people who are genuinely motivated by a desire to understand, and successful science also requires ability and luck.

Not just ability and luck: faith. Doing real science is an act of faith that if the scientist approaches his problem in the proper way and with sufficient effort, he will be rewarded by understanding.

(Rewarded not necessarily with the understanding he expected, but something just as good, or better.)

This is a religious kind of concept; a concept of just reward for proper devotion.

So real science is, at heart, a spiritual vocation – although this may be expressed in a variety of languages, with different levels of insight, and often indirectly.

Obviously it would be best if scientists did *not* talk about their spiritual vocations too much, especially in public. However, if they *are* going to speak honestly about the motivations of real science, then this is the kind of language they would need to use. This is the kind of language they did, in fact, use until about 50 years ago.

But when, as now, the language of spiritual vocation is ruled-out from public discourse (as foolish or fanatical) then scientists will inevitably be dishonest and misleading in public on the subject of science – blathering-on about usefulness when asking politicians and bureaucrats for money, and emphasizing fun when entertaining undergraduates .

In the end, by excluding all mentions of transcendentals or metaphysics, scientists end-up being untruthful with themselves – which is of course fatal to science. Bad motivations will yield bad consequences. The just reward of understanding reality, of understanding the truth, is not given to those whose devotions are dishonest.