Thursday, December 14, 2006

Has science really answered all the big questions?

The most important discoveries will provide answers to questions that we do not yet know how to ask and will concern objects we have not yet imagined.
- John N. Bahcall, astrophysicist (1935-2005)

The end of physics, of medical research, indeed of science itself has been predicted on several occasions. "The big questions have been asked and answered," goes the mantra of these people of limited vision.

In physics, for example, a proof for the big Bang is supposedly close, the working mechanism of black holes is understood and the "theory of everything" (that which would combine Einstein's relativity with quantum field theory into one all-encompassing theory) is close.

In medicine, after half a century of deadend research, cancer is now understood, genetic research now involves detail-arranging within the larger known pictures and the methods by which disease organisms spread is known (though vectors are not necessarily known for each disease).

In biology, chemistry, geology and the other hard sciences the general setup of stuff and of natural laws is understood, if not actually proven yet.

However, as Bahcall said, maybe there is so much more that science cannot pursue because it doesn't even know what questions to ask. Look at how rapidly the Industrial Revolution spread after the invention of the steam engine, how every continent became covered with railway tracks after the locomotive was created, how many people have "wheels" since the invention of the horseless carriage and how much of the universe has been studied since humans first ventured into space.

Neurobiology and the operation of the brain are the least understood of the sciences. But researchers believe they know how these work, they just need to connect the dots. In fact, they know very little about the brain because the brain is so complex and humans are relatively stupid when it comes to understanding the most important and critical organ of our bodies.

Those who say that science has almost concluded the asking and answering of the big questions don't understand that we don't even know what other big questions are at this time.

The so-called soft sciences, such as psychology and sociology, can hardly claim mastery of the concepts by which the human brain operates and influences what we call the mind. Even that sentence may be confusing because most people equate the brain and the mind. The mind, even to scientists, is so mysterious that we don't know what questions to ask about it. We poke and prod to see what reacts in the brain, but how it works is a mystery.

At this point, scientists are afraid to make it easy for people to link the human mind and what religions call the soul because science, by definition, must deal with the concrete. Scientists tend to avoid those concepts which cannot be proven or at least understood in manageable human terms.

Fear not! All of the big questions have not been answered because we don't even know what they are.

If you can imagine a big unanswered question, you may be the first to ask it. You will be rejected and reviled in your lifetime, but some day you may be praised as a great thinker who asked what others were afraid to imagine.

As is the case with artists, the value of science thinkers as heroes and visionaries rises greatly after they are dead.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems, striving to prompt you to ask the big (but scary) questions.
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