Let’s clear up a few misconceptions.
Science is not the accumulated knowledge of the rules of reality. We know a lot of things about space and earthquakes, but the things that we know are not science. Science is the method that brought us those things.
Science is not The Rules: science is how we uncover the rules.
Common parlance holds that science is biology, physics, chemistry, and all those stuffy subjects that we already know. Never mind that these fields were extraordinary and awe-inspiring when they were first discovered. Once everybody knows them – less, once everyone can know them – the luster is gone.
It’s also common knowledge that certain domains lie outside the purview of science. Intelligence. Awareness. The nature of consciousness. Why being alive feels like this – why anyone feels anything at all.
This is faulty thinking. The domain of science is not the things that we already know. That’s “knowledge”. Science’s purview, science’s domain, is everything else.
Remember the mistakes of Vitalism. The vitalists believed that you couldn’t explain animate life. They believed that the body’s animation stems from the intangible vitality of the spirit, “Élan Vital”. After all, your muscles were just flesh, just muscle and bone. Complex, yes, but it doesn’t matter how complex you make a lump of clay: it will still just sit there. What gave them movement? It must be none other than life. Human willpower incarnate.
This wasn’t really an explanation. It didn’t tell you how your muscles moved. It didn’t lead to antibiotics or dietary techniques. It sure felt like an explanation, but science isn’t about feeling like you have answers.
Vitalism was popular in the early 1900s. Surely, science could explain the mechanical motion of objects. It could explain electric shocks and light beams and the action of molecules. But it couldn’t explain animation. It couldn’t explain life. Life jumped at the behest of concious thought, and science couldn’t explain that.
Until scientists synthesized urea, a component of urine, showing that the actions of bodies are not exempt from science. The walls began to crumble. Within a few short decades we began to understand how muscles actually move. We began to understand how the interactions of individual cells create muscle contractions. We discovered how your nerves transmit pain. We asked reality how life is animated, and we figured it out, and it led to huge improvements in medicine and longevity.
The vitalists did not understand the purview of science. To them, science was for the stars and the planets and the rocks, but it couldn’t explain animate life. Life was a sacred mystery.
But they misunderstood science. Mystery is not a property of reality: mystery is in your mind. The domain of science is not the things we already know. Science helped us uncover those things once, but science never lingers long after a mystery is solved.
The domain of science is everything which we don’t know. It is all the mysteries which remain.
Science has always been here to infringe upon the great mysteries, and that has always made people uncomfortable.
We act like we’ve accepted science into the fold, because it has helped us uncover so much of the nature of reality. But in every generation, it feels like science is done. It feels like all the surprises lay behind us. The things science has uncovered seem mundane, and so science must be the study of the mundane.
There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement
Every generation must come to terms with two facts. First, things are not mundane just because we know them. Second, science isn’t about the mundane: it’s about the mysteries. Everything you think science can’t explain is exactly what it must explain next.
The world is not mysterious: the world just is. The mystery is in our eyes, when we look at reality and fail to understand.
Science is what removes our blinders.