Scientific discovery will continue to flow from laboratories in the coming century. But the nature of research is such that the results cannot be anticipated, so predicting what the next major advancements will be is really informed guesswork. As Sir John Maddox, former editor of the science journal Nature says: "The questions we do not yet have the wit to ask will be a growing preoccupation of science in the next 50 years."
The sheer magnitude of this statement should indicate how exciting scientific research can be. With every breakthrough that provides us with insights, new challenges need to be met and new questions arise, some of which we may have never before considered. The unexpected discovery of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere, for example, led to the understanding of how human activities were damaging the ozone layer.
Still, based on current scientific progress it's reasonable to surmise that we may well be able to answer some of humanity's most basic questions within the next few decades, including whether life exists elsewhere in the universe, what the genetic instructions are that make us human, and many others.
Extraterrestrial life may actually exist right here in our own solar system, perhaps as microbial organisms hidden in the oceans that scientists say are buried beneath the ice on Europa (one of Jupiter's moons), or beneath the surface of Mars. Scientists have also so far found about 28 other planets orbiting distant stars. These are thought to be lifeless bodies many times larger than Jupiter. However, in the coming decades many more planets will undoubtedly be found, and we may finally discover whether there are other Earth-like planets orbiting some of the stars in the sky.
At home, researchers are furiously working to decode the human genome (the entire genetic make-up of human beings). It's a formidable task. Just listing the units of DNA that make up the human genome would fill the pages of 200 big-city telephone books! And that's not even beginning to describe the functions of the individual units. Scientists now expect that the full sequence should be complete by 2003, but it will be a while longer before we understand the intricacies that could provide valuable clues to help diagnose and treat many diseases.
Meanwhile, computers continue to gain power exponentially. IBM is currently working on "Blue Gene", a new supercomputer destined for biological research. When completed in five years, it is expected to be two million times more powerful than today's desktop computers - so powerful that it could download the entire Internet in just one second! Some researchers even say that artificial intelligence could surpass our own in the next few decades, and that some of the great scientific discoveries of the future may actually be made by computers.
It's certainly an exciting time for science, but in our race for the widespread application of scientific knowledge it's easy to forget that our technologies also carry costs. We cannot forget that science advances incrementally and the application of new processes and theories should be treated with caution. Scientists are fallible, and simple mistakes can prove costly. The respected scientists at NASA, for example, lost their Mars Climate Orbiter in October because the calculations designed to put the craft into Mars' orbit had been formulated using both metric and imperial measures, and ended up hurtling the Orbiter to its demise.
Perhaps the most important advancement science can make in the next century would be to help usher in what has been dubbed the second Copernican revolution. Today we can only marvel at the complexity and interconnectedness of the Earth's ecological systems. We can hope that continued research will result in a clearer picture of these processes, enabling us to better understand the Earth's ecological limits and then find the best ways to live within them.
Reprinted with permission from David Taylor, David Suzuki Foundation. DAVID SUZUKI PHD is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster (CBC's The Nature Of Things). He is the author of more than 30 books and a recognized world leader in sustainable ecology. He lives with his wife and two children in Vancouver, B.C.
The word "science" means knowledge. Modern science relies on the careful observation of facts and then using inductive reasoning attempts to generalize theories about the laws of nature. Any exceptions to predicted events must be explained adequately as being caused by other factors, or the theory is not considered proven. The experimental method tests particular hypotheses by attempting to control some factors while isolating the effects of others. The resulting theories about these causes and effects can then be applied in useful ways in engineering and technology. By knowing how things work, we can work with them with greater skill and precision.
The underlying assumption of science is that everything in the universe can be understood, that there is a reason or cause for everything, that everything is determined by these causes. This has led some to question whether we as humans have free will or whether it is merely a psychological illusion. The view presented here is that causality is not simple and linear but complex and multidimensional. In this scheme science typically investigates horizontal causality but pays no attention to the vertical causality that comes from higher spiritual dimensions. I believe that everything that happens in the universe is determined by causes but is not necessarily pre-determined in an infinite regress. Certain spiritual principles and physical laws may have been established by the Creator of the universe, but the universe is not a spiritless, mindless machine. Spirit extends itself into creation as the souls that we are and in other spiritual entities. Thus operating in the freedom of spiritual creativity we are able to cause events of our choosing within the matrix of the laws and principles that have been established. We also have the ability to learn about those laws and principles through our experience in creation with our spiritual awareness. By understanding and cooperating with them we are then able to improve the quality of our creativity and experience as we choose. Thus the Spirit and creative side of life is free and self-determining, while all of creation is subject to cause and effect.
Therefore the more spiritual awareness is involved in a situation the more freedom of choice will operate, and results will be less predictable, more alive, and less mechanical. To ignore the divine Spirit of human beings while limiting the focus to physical science may yield generally correct mechanical observations; but as we move into the life sciences and then the social sciences, prediction is less accurate, because we must allow for the freedom of the human spirit. Let us look at some of the main levels of science in this respect.
Although physical science attempts to be as objective as possible in removing all subjective factors, the recent discoveries at the frontiers of physics in quantum mechanics and relativity have shown that the experimenter is part of the experiment and that the observers and their method of observation can actually affect what is observed. Nevertheless, if we put aside the extremes of the very small, the very large, and the very fast, in most practical situations the mechanical laws discovered by Newton and others have enabled mankind to advance rapidly in technical facilities. The knowledge gained by science in physics, chemistry, astronomy, and mathematics in the last three hundred years as applied by engineering has given us a continuing series of technological revolutions. In one sense, pure science is only a quest for knowledge and is not responsible for the applications in technology made by engineers with that knowledge; but in a larger sense, we are interconnected, and scientists' research leads directly to new technological developments. Thus even pure scientists have a social and ethical responsibility to think out the consequences of their work.
The biological sciences study living organisms and their effects on each other and their environment. In modern science the realization has been growing that the planet earth is a living system with sensitive but adaptable homeostatic balances. However, the recent technological advances of mankind are beginning to have serious effects on the living environment, posing new dangers to our health and survival as well as those of other species. Ecology is the life science which attempts to integrate these factors together in a holistic system.
Although we cannot predict exactly how plants and animals will behave according to physical laws, by studying their genetic traits, instinctual habits, and characteristic responses to environmental influences we can generally estimate in probabilities what they are likely to do. We must not only analyze single organisms and species but also how their actions will affect the entire ecosystem. For example, in agriculture where chemical fertilizers and pesticides may be used, we need to examine how this affects the living quality of the soil as well as the crops and all other organisms in that environment, studying also the long-term consequences of these practices.
Through hybridization and now even genetic engineering we can shape and even alter evolutionary patterns. Such creative tampering can have major consequences which may be destructive if we are not careful. With this creativity comes tremendous responsibility. For the good of the whole planet such activities must be carefully monitored and regulated by responsible public agencies.
With the increase of controlled experiments in modern times, more and more animals are being subjected to dangerous and often life-destroying tests and vivisection such that a substantial number of people are now protesting this inhumane treatment of other species. Many of these experiments are performed in the name of medical science for the purpose of alleviating human suffering. Ultimately a balance must be found in each case between the probable value of the experiment for humans and the actual suffering experienced by the animals involved.
In recent generations the average human life-span has been greatly increased, owing largely to the discoveries and practices of medical science. Immunization and vaccination have virtually eradicated the danger of many diseases. Antiseptic methods control most infections. Repair of fractures, wounds, and burns have become more efficient. Sophisticated surgeries, including organ transplants and artificial organs, are becoming more common. Various drugs are available. Yet, of course, people still become ill and eventually die. More complex technology and health care is increasing, not decreasing, the costs involved though.
People are complaining in some cases that extra medical efforts are becoming a burden, a hindrance, and merely an extension of suffering in terminal situations. Individuals are rightly demanding the right to maintain person control over their own lives. As people begin to understand that death is not the end but merely a transition to a new spiritual life, the psychological trauma of dying will diminish, and we will be more able to let people go when the time has come.
As the traditional diseases caused by germs and viruses are successfully treated, we find that death is more likely to result from a general deterioration of health and nebulous illnesses like cancer and heart disease. This is turning the focus of health care more toward general prevention and health maintenance through holistic healing methods to reduce the psychological and physical stresses caused by pollution and various irritations. People who want to live in a healthier condition for a longer time are finding that good nutrition, proper exercise, peace of mind, and the avoidance of pollutants such as smoke, drugs, excessive alcohol, and environmental hazards are ways that individuals can look after their own well-being. In this way healthy people are less likely to be subjected to the problems and costs of medical treatment, which in many cases may cause iatrogenic disease.
With the success in the natural sciences, philosophers and scholars have been attempting to apply scientific methods to the study of human relations and social institutions. Some have tried to ignore human freedom and use mechanistic and positivistic models for analyzing behavior. Yet most modern social scientists have had to fall back on statistical averages, group tendencies, and estimated predictions.
The value of the social sciences is that they give us more knowledge about ourselves and others so that we can make wiser decisions. Research does not limit our freedom of choice; rather the knowledge gained makes us more aware of the options available and the problems that most urgently need addressing. Surveys and other data-gathering methods can provide us information for more intelligent social planning. Nevertheless, science alone, which usually claims that it is value-free and unbiased, cannot tell us what to do with that information. Therefore in making policy decisions we must individually and collectively apply the divine principles and other pertinent values. Science can gather knowledge but cannot act without a decision-making process that is and must be guided by philosophical values of one kind or another. Yet the knowledge we can acquire about how and why people behave the way they do as individuals and in groups and organizations is certainly going to enlighten our decision-making in evaluating the probable consequences of our actions.
Since social science works with people, it must be especially sensitive to ethical concerns. Natural science is used to manipulating objects in experiments. However, human beings do not want to be manipulated like material possessions; this concern places definite limits on experimentation with human beings. Any experiment which attempts to find out if one thing is better than another is likely to be unfair to half of the subjects. Experiments have often been performed where information is concealed from the subjects, and in some cases outright lies have been told to people. I seriously question this practice, because it seems to me that lying obscures the revelation of truth. First of all, it is difficult to know to what degree the subjects believe the experimenters. Secondly, when students read or hear about such experiments, they tend to become more skeptical of social scientists; this damages the credibility and integrity of science itself. Generally, in experiments involving humans it is best if they are voluntary and fully informed of the nature and results of the experiment.
Because of the limitations of experimentation and the complexity of social behavior, most social research is merely empirical, which means a study of experience as it spontaneously occurs. This inability to artificially isolate specific factors leaves the social scientist to try to analyze and evaluate various combinations of factors and interrelationships. However, since life is whole and interdependent, such holistic methods may prove to be the most practical anyway. Furthermore, in social science we are the objects of our own study and must apply the results to ourselves. In this way knowledge and freedom are perfectly interdependent and, through trial and error and correction, lead to wisdom.
Now with the aid of computers we are able to develop more complex models in order to try to replicate the various factors and interactions in a system; this is called operations research or systems analysis. Thus we can experiment with the model in order to study the likely results of adjusting various factors. Frequent comparison between the model and reality helps us to continually correct and perfect the model. In this way we can synthesize those factors that are within our control, those that are controlled by others, and those that are controlled by the laws of nature. Such enterprises usually require the teamwork of many scientists, engineers, and assistants working together. The knowledge gained by this can help us to see the many ramifications of the consequences of our decisions and actions. Although we cannot predict perfectly because of the uncertainty of the human freedoms involved, calculating the probable results and risks can help us to develop wiser policies. The more comprehensive and holistic our model is, the less chance we will leave out important factors and consequences. Human intelligence is always required to design the original model, to program into it the needed corrections and adjustments, and most importantly to interpret the meaning of the results and make decisions based on value judgments.
Most scientists today completely ignore the occult sciences. Neither accepting nor understanding the basic premises of the occult, they do not bother to study how these disciplines work and therefore make few attempts to check their validity. On the other hand, the occult is easily abused by the unscientific, and many people drift into superstition, jumping to unwarranted conclusions and not realizing that all actions are spiritually created within ourselves and other spiritual beings with whom we are interacting.
In spiritual cosmology all laws, patterns, and actions are created and caused by spiritual beings, and they can be studied and understood by us in various ways to enhance our knowledge of ourselves and our universe. Most occult sciences work by means of the principle of correlation rather than direct causality; this fits in with holistic philosophy and the understanding of the multi-dimensional factors influencing spiritual causality. The world is not pre-determined, because we have free choices. Yet those free choices occur within, respond to, and are shaped by the environmental matrix of previously caused effects. This complex matrix can be studied not only by physical laws, ecological interactions, and social and psychological tendencies, but also in terms of the cosmic environment and the subconscious tendencies.
Most occult sciences attempt to increase self-awareness, usually of the individual, sometimes of the society. How do they work? Let us take astrology as an example. Astrology has been called the cosmic science of time, because it attempts to describe the characteristics of different moments of time qualitatively as well as quantitatively. Astrologers have discovered that different moments in time mean different things, and that cycles and patterns help us to understand those meanings. For example, the different seasons of the year or different times of day affect us differently psychologically, while the repetition of the same part of the cycle has something similar about it. These patterns do not cause us to do a specific thing, but the cosmic environment is one factor in how we feel and how we are likely to behave. Having empirically studied numerous cases over many centuries, astrologers have found that these patterns can be intuitively understood and correlated by means of archetypal patterns symbolized by the planetary bodies, the constellations of stars, and the mythological stories that have been passed on to describe the different characteristics that have been observed. The moment of birth when the soul usually enters the body has been found to be cosmically significant for the lifetime of that individual.
Other occult sciences may use the lines in the palm of the hand or features of the face or numbers in the calendar to try to describe patterns that an individual has chosen to work with in the embodied life. The purpose of reading these patterns is to learn more about oneself, the form we have created, our abilities and tendencies, our relationship to the universe, and why we are here. The abuse is to use these as an excuse or justification for not being personally responsible. Actually they are parts of the cosmic mirror to help us see and understand ourselves better. Because these sciences are complex and subtle, it is very easy to distort the picture and deceive ourselves. Yet they do offer us additional tools for self-knowledge if we choose to use them. Again, because of freedom they are not able to predict precise events but can only disclose some cosmic factors.
However, a psychic person may draw on other probabilities of a psychological nature in order to predict some events. Divination is more of an art than a science, although its purpose is also self-knowledge. A complete philosophy of science acknowledges that there are really no random or chance events in the sense of events without any cause, although the uncertainty principle indicates that we cannot predict certain events because of the limits of our knowledge (which I say is because of freedom). Thus all human actions are created or chosen either consciously or subconsciously. The premise of divination is that Spirit is omniscient and that our consciousness can contact and communicate with that omniscience. Not successful at direct and conscious communication with Spirit, some people attempt to find out things by means of the subconscious and the principle of correlation. An ancient and universal system that describes the cosmic patterns of human life, such as the Chinese Book of Changes or the western Tarot symbols, may be used as a book to read the combination of patterns. The combination is determined by throwing sticks, coins, dice, or cards in a way that allows the subconscious mind to arrange the sequence. The underlying assumption is that even accidents and seemingly random events are meaningful, because everything in the universe is meaningful. The interpretation of omens has the same responsibilities and pitfalls as occult science. The higher purpose of some is to attempt to understand and apply spiritual guidance as to what will be best for everyone. The lower motivation of others may be the unwillingness to think and decide for oneself in turning one's life over to external forces. Superstition results when we do not take responsibility for our own actions but rely on some irrelevant outside factor.SANDERSON BECK, Ph.D., is a prolific writer and peace activist. In 1982 he formulated World Peace Movement Principles, Purposes and Methods and traveled to 47 states and met with 600 peace groups to promote disarmament. He lives and teaches Philosophy (and other subjects) in Ojai, California.
Visit his comprehensive and eclectic website at www.san.beck.org