When I was in college, I had a professor who taught a World War 2 class, & I remember that one day when I was sitting in his office, he made an off-the-cuff remark that was so insightful & profound that it stuck with me till today. Looking back on it, it’s funny because I don’t think he meant it to be insightful or deep, which shows that if you spend a lifetime acquiring knowledge & wisdom, even your throwaway comments can be gems. He said, “Societies show you their highest ideals in what they build. Once, it was cathedrals & temples; at that time, God was the highest ideal. Inevitably though, God began to decline as the highest ideal, and in his place, nationalism rose. The era of nationalism was marked by nations racing to build empires, expand borders, build armies and dominate one another until nationalism finally culminated in WW2, which blew up the world and ended nationalism’s reign as the highest ideal almost instantly. Today the highest ideal is science; everywhere you look, you see people trying to master their environments with technology.”
People built skyscrapers, roads, and finally, computers which today rule over us if you take their ubiquity as a measure. Even the most disconnected rural elder in the most undeveloped village comes into contact with a computer at least once a week. The most passionate religious missionary can only dream of bringing everyone into contact with God at least once a week. But just as God & nationalism saw their star ascend and eventually fall, science is having its day.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a science denier or even someone who disdains science with an ignorant skepticism. I’m triple vaxxed, and my formal education is in engineering, which I still use every day in my work & I’m excited about AI. However, I believe science has failed us as a species. It’s not the fault of science; the blame sits with us. See, God needed faith & so did nationalism (it just changed the object of faith from god to your country), but science asks for no leap of faith. No, the follower of science has no time or patience for faith. Science doesn’t need faith because science prizes nothing above the skeptical mind, and what does science reward the skeptical mind with? That which the skeptical mind wants more than anything else – certainty in measurable figures. As the age-old saying goes, “numbers don’t lie,” and science will give you all the cold hard figures you desire.
And you know what? It’s been amazing. Infant mortality plummeted. Diseases? One by one, eradicated. Polio, wasn’t that what Teddy Roosevelt had? Or was it the other Roosevelt? Who cares? Polio was dispensed with so long ago that it’s not worth arguing about. Voyages that once took months now happen in hours. Lifespan increased, and so did the quality of life until it didn’t. See, as we continuously applied science, our lives improved. In the beginning, our most urgent needs were addressed, disease & danger, each handled through science and technology. So it was only a matter of time before the scope of science was aimed squarely at the human condition, and it makes sense. Diseases & conditions that previously bought humanity to its knees are now minor nuisances and oddities. The bubonic plague that wiped out 1/3 of Europe’s population is easily treatable today. Why shouldn’t we believe that we can do anything through the power of science? Through science, we decided we were going to scratch humanity's oldest itch, the search for meaning.
So we began looking at morality and meaning through the exacting lens of science. Rationalism ruled supreme, and anything nonsensical was tossed out. We decided we would only trust what we could measure, and almost overnight, the meaning was stripped away from our lives. Holidays? You mean just another regular 24-hour day. God? A fairy tale for people trying to cope with endless nothingness. The Soul? Alright, buddy, stop messing with me, next you’re gonna tell me you believe hell or, even better yet, morality. Objectively speaking, there is no right or wrong, only what the world around us sees as palatable. Might makes right, and that’s why customs evolve and don’t stay the same. Morality is cycled and changes with every generation. If morality were an objective reality, it’d stay the same like the laws of physics, but it isn’t, and it doesn’t. Back in the day, people believed it was wrong to work on Sunday, but now it’s OK, and the only difference is how people perceive it. It’s all about what the crowd believes.
But something about this way of thinking doesn't sit right. You hear the arguments, and fine, they’re rational, but I don’t care what’s rational or not; I’m not a useless being in an uncaring universe, or to put it in Redditor terms, I’m not just a meat sack with feelings on a spinning rock. No way, it doesn’t matter what you tell me; there’s no way this is pointless. If you use the same reasoning that led to the conclusions in the last paragraph, the argument eventually collapses in on itself; watch: If it all means nothing, why do you cry when someone dies? Why do you want love? Why do you care what happens to your mother in her old age? If nothing matters, you’d intuitively act and feel like it doesn’t matter. But you don’t & the crazy thing is you didn’t choose to feel those feelings- they came pre-installed, and no matter what you do, you can’t remove them like a useless appendix; you can’t shake a guilty conscience or grief. Life has meaning, and we respond to that. Logically that’s a false statement, but why would you use your head and logic to challenge what the heart knows? And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I mean when I say science is in decline- I don't mean we should abandon science and technology; I mean that people are slowly realizing we can't use science to solve all our problems. Sorry for the clickbaity title.
Like a toddler that figures out a new word and uses it for everything, we discovered science and figured we could use it to solve all of our problems. In our ill-advised blind pursuit of comfort, we tripped badly, we figured we could get certainty on infinity, and in doing so, we kind of broke the world. Depression & anxiety are the norm, people are isolated, birth rates are nose-diving, and the future is a scary looming figure on the horizon for most in the world.
“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”, wise words from Albert Einstein that are more than applicable here today. It’s high time we recognize our error in expecting science to solve everything. The greats before us understood there is a knowing with the mind and a knowing just as valuable with the heart. Today we look at this thinking as foolish or illogical, but it is worth considering what only thinking with the mind has yielded. When my professor shared his thought with me that day, I paused for a second because I sensed that the takeaway from his insight was that science, too, would decline just as god and nationalism did. That evening as I got stuck on an NYC subway for hours, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was sitting in a tomb of science.