Thursday, 22 July 2010

But what about science?

When I think about future civilizations I often find myself spontaneously worrying about the future of science - will it survive, can it be revived?

Yet my worry is irrational - because science is not and never has been a part of the human condition: it is merely a localized and timebound phenomenon - at least, 'science' in the sense of a separate and recognizable system or institutional structure has been historically and geographically unusual.

Indeed, I suspect that science is in reality much, much more limited in its reality than in appearance. Most science is, after all, a kind of Laboratoire Garnier simulacrum: I mean like those TV adverts of bespectacled, serious-looking people with white coats and clipboards, who wander through a white room of test tubes and retorts, ticking boxes... 

It is also possible that science is actually the upper end of, and is a very unusual combination of, a distribution of general intelligence, creativty and motivation which differs widely between different societies of different sizes; such that a critical mass of such rare people has never been likely, and in fact has near-zero probability in most places at most times throughout history.

If so, real science is very seldom going to be common - even under ideal conditions, which are unlikely to emerge and even less likely to be sustained; and we should be careful not to confuse this with first a professionalization then later routinization of the external (but not core) features of real science.

A future society either will, or will not, have science as a recognizable activity - but there is not much (apparently) that we could (or should?) do about this: real science (when it really existed) was essentially a by-product, not a planned-product.