September 2015

Editorial, Sep 2015

Written by Tom McGuire

I'm neither a scientist, nor a philosopher who is well acquainted with the intricacies of science. It is therefore a subject I approach with some trepidation, knowing that my limited knowledge prevents me from voicing forth with any true authority. Yet it is precisely this notion of the scientist as expert and authority that makes me cautious.

For we live in a world increasingly shaped, governed and interpreted according to science. As possessor of this uniquely powerful knowledge, the scientist is put in a position formerly held by the priest or the shaman in more ancient societies. It was thought that mysterious laws, inexplicable to the layman, were revealed to a special few. Those who knew these laws held a special power over others stemming from their exclusive possession of truth. To a time traveler from the distant past, we live in a truly magical world. How do aeroplanes fly? What makes a lightswitch turn on? What is wifi? How do M&Ms get inside those slightly awkward to open packets? Most people don't really know the answer to those questions, or they bluff their way through trying to explain it based on a very basic understanding. We tend to think that if you want the real secret, the nuts and bolts behind the magic, then ask a scientist. They know.

Although science emerged from a branch of philosophy known as natural philosophy, it seems the child has outgrown its parent and doesn't see the need to stick around at home anymore. Stephen Hawkings, the intellectual pin-up boy of theoretical physics, even announced four years ago that "philosophy is dead". Apparently questions about the origins and purpose of life can be neatly settled by blackboard equations. After all, isn't everything just energy? Physics tells us what that energy is and how it moves. When the energy forms more complex structures like DNA, then chemistry and biology are there to provide an explanation. So, goodbye philosophy. It was great knowing you. But now we have all the answers, or nearly all - now it's just a matter of collecting more data and refining the algorithms.