Friday, January 7, 2022

Science without Progress

There's a notion of science for which progress is essential to science. Science is a process of steadily broadening, deepening, and refining our knowledge about the world. It's a process of steady improvement. This year's science is better than last year's science, and next year's will be better yet. Whether this process converges on some ultimate theory that captures precisely the way things are, that's a bit beside the point. The sequence of integers 1, 2, 3, etc. steadily get bigger, without ever converging on some final largest integer.

For this kind of steady progress to be the way science works, two things must be true. First, we need a way to compare our scientific knowledge at one time to our scientific knowledge at another time. We need a way to tell which state of scientific knowledge is better. Once we have that measuring stick, then we can at least check empirically whether science is constantly improving. We can develop some kind of model of the evolution of scientific knowledge, and check whether at least the model guarantees continual progress into the future.

It's easy to sketch out a model of the evolution of scientific knowledge that implies perpetual progress. Such a model may not be accurate, though! A major question in examining the dynamics of science is its coupling with the world outside science, with social, ecological, and geological systems. Science is a social institution, intimately connected with the rest of society. When sources of funding, materials, equipment, and personnel dry up, science cannot thrive.

One measure of the state of scientific knowledge is the size of the total accumulation of scientific publications. As long as some library somewhere continues to accumulate the mass of literature, as long as scientific literature is not lost, then scientific knowledge will continue to advance, by this measure.

There are two problems with this logic. First, it is unreasonable to expect all scientific literature to be preserved in perpetuity. It's not even clear what exactly should count as scientific literature. Parapsychology, the study of phenomena such as telepathy, is an example of a discipline whose scientific status has been debated. Should raw data accumulated by scientific instruments count as scientific literure? As our boundary that defines scientific literature changes, our measuring stick to detect progress is being updated. We don't have a consistent measure by which to determine whether science progresses consistently.

Even if we maintained a constant definition of what should count as scientific literature, it is not reasonable to expect all such literature to be maintained in perpetuity. There is some expense involved in preserving information. There is additional expense involved in converting old literature to new formats. Not all printed literature is scanned to digital form. Digital formats are steadily changing, and obscure literature will generally be given a low priority for format conversion.

Even if a record of some coherent piece of scientific knowledge has been preserved in a library somewhere, it can easily happen than no one is alive any more who can make any sense of it. The papers involved may easily refer to scientific instruments that no longer exist, for example.

One can slog through endless such details to determine whether scientific progress is inevitable. In the face of impending climate catastrophe and the profound social upheavals that will bring, the idea that science will somehow weather the storm despite all the challenges... perhaps no amount of detailed argument will convince a true believer!

If progress is essential to science, but if progress is not a secure ground on which to build... must science then crumble, too? Can science survive and even thrive without progress? Is progess, after all, essential to science?

It is a vital project to develop a vision of science that does not depend on progress. We in that part of the world that supports science are at grave risk for a major decline in our general level of prosperity. Science will participate fully in the trajectory of decline and collapse. If we can maintain a thriving science despite that decline, our ability to cushion that decline will be significantly enhanced. We will be better able to respond to recurring crises in medicine, agriculture, etc. If the scientific community cannot find a way to dance with circumstances, we will all suffer from that failure.

An analogy should be useful in developing a vision for science that doesn't depend on progress. Darwin's theory of evolution shows how species are constantly adapting themselves to their circumstances. The steady extension and refinement of scientific knowledge is similar to biological evolution. But biological evolution does not imply any kind of progress. Species today are not more advanced or better adapted than were species ten million years ago. Species ten million years ago were reasonably well adapted to their circumstances back then, which were very different than the circumstances of species today. Some of these changes are surely geological, but they are largely due to the interdependence of species, the nature of the ecological web. When one species develops some new characteristic, that changes the circumstances of other species, pushing them to adapt in new ways. There is no fixed measuring stick by which to determine whether one species is more advanced that some other species.

When we dream of some ultimate scientific truth and view science as a path leading to that goal, progress seems to be essential to science. But if we understand science to be a practical approach to engaging with our experience, enabling us to respond more effectively to our circumstances, then it becomes natural that our scientific knowledge must shift and adapt as our circumstances change.

No comments:

Post a Comment