Tuesday, 7 September 2010
What could be more profoundly sacred than science?
The truth is that science has become increasing pragmatic and functional over the centuries. Largely abandoning its ability to inspire awe, it is now Western culture’s chief problem-solver. Today, science’s primary purpose is to provide answers to many of the most serious challenges facing society. Whether it’s global warming or the latest disease pandemic, we look to science and its daughter – technology – for solutions. And their responses have been remarkably effective.
Mostly funded by government agencies and corporate interests, science and technology have significantly improved the quality of human life. For instance, the average human lifespan has increased by more than 40 years in the past century alone. This impressive record of achievement has transformed science into a belief system that is now worshipped like a religion.
As it has assumed the role of chief problem-solver, science has lost much of its capacity to evoke awe and wonder. Although it can generate exquisitely beautiful images of just about anything, science has become increasingly short sighted and limited. Preoccupied with narrowly defined technical problems, many researchers have closed their eyes to unfettered curiosity and open-ended inquiry about life. Why has this happened? It has happened because science has lost its commitment to deep observation.
Observation isn’t just about seeing. It’s also about using all our sense organs – listening with our ears, smelling with our noses, feeling and touching with our skin and tasting with our tongues. The most complete observation requires total attention and is about immersing one’s whole self in the experience of discerning the other.
At this level, observation is about understanding with our hearts as well as our heads. In the process, the separation between subject and object blurs. The observer becomes connected with the observed and a relationship is forged between them. Indeed, it is only through our senses that we can create and sustain relationships.
Nature writers such as Annie Dillard, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry and Barry Lopez understand this well. Their work is chock full of sensory awareness and insightful reflection. But this type of observation is almost entirely lacking from contemporary science. As Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson “You see but you do not observe.” Today, science is seeing but it is not observing. And without the willingness to fully observe life, science is unlikely to grasp its true splendor.
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Kate Davies teaches environmental science and is director of the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University Seattle.