Search This Blog

2. What is Science?: 6 Questions

Think back to your English classes. Yes, way back when. Remember the 6 Question Words? They were drilled into us as the foundational questions we humans ask. Who? What? Where? When? How? Why? Let’s revisit them here.

Which are questions asked by science?
Who?    No, that is a History question.
(“Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”)
What?   Sure, that is a great Science question.
(“What is the average airspeed of an unladen swallow?”)
Where? No, that is the realm of Geography.
(“Where is the North Pole?”)
When?  Again, that’s History.
(“When was the War of 1812?”)
How?    Yes, another key Science question.
(“How does warp drive work?”)
Why?    Here is where this topic gets interesting.

Let’s ask a common why science question: “Why is the sky blue?” Sounds like a science question. If we try to rephrase it, we find that this could be one of two questions: “What is the mechanism causing the sky to appear blue?” or “What is the purpose for the sky being blue?” If we are asking the first, then it is actually a science question. It is really a cleverly disguised ‘what’ or ‘how’ question. If we are asking the second, it is truly a why question. A pure why question is about purpose, reasons, etc. It is a philosophical/ theological question, not a science question.

So we humans ask six basic questions: Who are we? Where do we come from? What is our universe made of? How does it all work? When did it all begin? Why are we here in the first place? Science answers two of them—one third. Granted, it is a very powerful third, but still only a third. Furthermore, this implies that science and religion are not fundamentally in conflict but should complement each other as they answer different questions. This concept is known philosophically as NOMA, or Non-Overlapping MAgisteria. It basically means that the areas of authority of science and religion (and the other fields) don’t overlap. (For a bit more on this topic, see the post, Vibrant Dance:  War Report!)

With this in mind, let’s look at a noncontroversial scientific subject like human cloning. A researcher, looking at the world from a purely scientific perspective, asking the ‘what’ and ‘how,’ looks at cell division (mitosis) and asks, “How did that happen?” As part of checking it out, other questions arise: “What factors affect it?” “Can I do the same thing?” “If cells can clone themselves, what about bigger organisms?” “Higher” organisms reproduce either sexually or asexually, and there is usually genetic variation in the offspring, whereas with a cell it is usually impossible to tell the parent from the child. In sexual reproduction, where there are gender differences within a species, the parent from each gender contributes half of the genetic information. This is done through the process of producing special reproductive cells (gametes) with only half of that parent’s genes (meiosis). These gametes are known as eggs (female) and sperm (male).

The scientist understands all of this and knows that eggs have the special property that when they have a full set of chromosomes, they start cloning themselves as the first step to forming the full organism. So, if a higher organism is to be cloned, then it must be done by removing the half load of genes from an egg and reloading it with the mother’s full genetic set, and then letting the egg do its thing. So we get cloned fruit flies, mice, and so on, and finally a sheep. (Good Baaa, Dolly!) As we progress up the organism complexity chart, we look to the top and see good ol’ Homo sapiens, and we wonder if the process works on organisms in that rarified stratum. So far, the scientist is merely investigating the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of various kinds of biological reproduction. As it is truly impressive work, it gets noticed by the larger community. The ‘why’ folks, the theologians and philosophers, start looking at the research from their perspective, see where the scientist is headed, and comment, “We obviously are doing this cloning thing, but should we?”

The scientist is asked to comment on the concerns of the why group, and responds, “Those are good questions. I haven’t really thought about it, as I’ve been concerned with looking at the mechanisms and trying to understand and manipulate them.” The rest come back with, “You haven’t thought about it? You have a moral obligation to examine the ethics of what you do!” The scientist responds, “I suppose you have a point. However, my training is in the ‘what’ and ‘how,’ not the ‘why.’ If you want me to comment on the why issues, we all have to recognize that I am stepping out of the science and into philosophy. If you want me to stick to science, I can tell you all about how organisms reproduce, what obstacles there are to multicellular cloning, what its current limits are, what the biological risks are, as well as the possibilities. My business is understanding nature and how we can manipulate it. Your job is to set the rules on who can use which of these tools, when and how.”

It would be nice if things were that cut-and-dried—if our roles were that independent of each other. Fortunately or unfortunately, they aren’t. A human being by nature is an interdisciplinary organism, not a single-function robot. Every human being asks all six questions. Each one of us is a historian, a scientist, a geographer, and a philosopher. So it is reasonable to ask scientists about the ethics of their research. But we have to remember that we are not asking scientific questions.

Since professional scientists have focused their talents and energies on asking the ‘what’ and ‘how,’ we need to realize that when we ask them the ‘why’ questions, their answers tend to be colored by their desire to fulfill their training and explorations.

We as scientists need to realize that our research has implications in the ‘real world’ and that the results will be available to fallible and even malicious human beings, and so we must adjust our perspectives as scientists accordingly. We also must be mindful that even if we understand all of the mechanistic mysteries of the universe, it will neither answer all of our questions nor solve all of our problems.

Thus, NOMA is not a truly workable philosophical model today as much of our research runs into walls between the six questions, and not just in biology. Cosmology and physics also run into areas of overlap repeatedly. As this series progresses, we will examine a framework for how a relatively peaceable interplay between the magisteria can be achieved.