The human species is nothing short of incredible. While we have the capacity for atrocities such as war, prejudice, racism, and violence, our intellectual and compassionate capacities far outmatch the less desirable things we are able to do. We can love, and love deeply. We can do for others, and others do for us. We can invent, make use of our surroundings, and generally work towards what we conceive to be the greater good for ourselves and those around us. At the base of the inventions and achievements that have marked human life as intelligent is the methodology by which we organize the world around us. We label, categorize, catalogue, and attempt to make sense of every single part of our reality. The “correct” methodology has long been thought to be the field of Science, with a capital “S.”
It is rare to find a purely objective field of study—history involves the study of our species, English focuses on distinctly human creative works, Psychology examines the human psyche, and even the natural sciences, supposedly devoid of any sort of subjective interpretation, are founded on principles put forth by humans. Even numbers, the basis of objectivity (if one takes science and math for objective truth) characterize a concept that was created by mankind in order to better express our ideas. As humans, we are deeply embedded in everything that we do, everything that we study, and everything that we attempt to make sense of. Even when we are not focusing exclusively on the “human being” in our study and work, we are analyzing and participating in a world that has been named by him.
The end objective of making sense of the world, however we choose to study it, seems to boil down to the same simple motive: figuring out where it is exactly that we fit into the grand scheme of life. The simple fact that we attempt to figure out where we fit presupposes a need for discovering why it is that we matter.
Organizing and evaluating our existence as people, races, cultures, societies, and biological things, is nothing less and nothing more than a validation of our existence. We put names on why we do what we do, why our environment works the way that it does, how we tend to group ourselves, and what relationships these hold, in order to better make sense of the role that the “namer” plays. Science claims that its conception of the world reflects it objectively—that it is the one and true measure of validity and truth. This belief is directly reflected in how we name advancements in Science: we call them discoveries, not interpretations, as if figuring out that a certain chemical should be named in a certain way, has simply been hidden from us all this time, and not that we have chosen to name it that. This is not to say that Scientific advancements are arbitrary; rather, it is to say that these advancements serve to further a field whose constraints and consequences have been determined by humans. Advancements are determined in the same language as those who created the field.
For example, we look to the sky at night and call the shining lights above, “stars.” We call them stars, and say that they are a part of the field of astronomy, which we say explores the nature and mechanisms of space and celestial objects. We have given “stars” a name and a place because they matter to further evaluating our role in existence. They partake in a universe that supposedly influences our own Earth, and on a more abstract level, give us something to admire and gain a sort of inspiration from; in short, something as far away as stars are named because they are relevant to the life below them.
As humans, we experience unease when we are not able to quantify things or place them into a formula. It seems that answers devoid of science are chalked up as faith, opinion, conviction, and anything but valid. We want to think that the question has always been “does science reflect the truth?” This question presupposes an a priori fact: we matter. If we did not, there would be no use in trying to figure out “our” world. If we did not believe that we mattered, putting an order to the madness around us would not make sense because there would be no point. However, the true question has never really been, “are our classifications accurate?” That is a question that we may never come to fully understand or reach consensus on. Rather, the question should be, are we correct in classifying in the first place? Do we matter?
My intention in writing this piece is not to prove the question that I have posed in one direction or another, but simply served to pose it in a different light. We need the practice of science, in that our participation in it validates our belief that we have purpose, just as our practice in philosophy, art, mathematics, and language also give us purpose. While science matters, Science does not matter. It is not the content, but the framework that gives its practitioners and believers, purpose. Our participation in it, if we so choose, is enough. Its accuracy will never be validated. When we find reason to participate in our world, we have reason. When we act as though our interests and actions matter, they do matter. The importance of how we live our lives does not lie in whether or not the beliefs we subscribe to ever turn out to be true. Our choice to have beliefs, and live in accordance to them, is enough. The best part about this whole thing isn’t that we become any closer to figuring it out as we go. The best part is that perhaps at one point along the trajectory of our infinitely significant, forever unimportant lives, we will discover that so long as we do create, categorize, and participate in utterly human activities, the very nature of our participation will always yield the same answer: we have purpose.
Image courtesy of Juli Morató, Flickr Creative Commons