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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Science and Serendipity



Science and Serendipity

Neither history, nor economics, nor the natural sciences seem to provide us with a solid argument for the exploration of space, but I believe that philosophy of science can. One of the main purposes of philosophy of science is to analyze the nature of science, and the issue before us is whether there is something about the nature of science that creates the conditions for serendipity. For if serendipity is a natural consequence of science, then science will be practical in a very profound way, and we will have an answer to the concerns of the social critics. As I will argue, this philosophical answer will also allow us to meet the most crucial ideological objections.

The notion that science is deeply useful or practical captivated some of the early philosophical supporters of scientific investigation, men like Francis Bacon in England (1620) and René Descartes in France (1637).

Descartes, whose development of analytic geometry had much to do with the eventual success of the scientific revolution, postponed the publication of his work on physics when the Church persecuted Galileo for defending views of the universe that disturbed the accepted harmony between man and God. Having to keep his research hidden, Descartes lamented, might be a grave sin against "the law that obliges us to procure the general good of mankind."[1] For as he saw it, "one might reach conclusions of great usefulness in life and discover a practical philosophy...which would show us the energy and action of fire, air, and stars, the heavens, and all other bodies in our environment, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans."[2] Once in possession of that knowledge we may apply it, as we apply those crafts, "to all appropriate uses and thus make ourselves masters and owners of nature."[3]

Descartes’ suggestive view, like Bacons, fails to meet the challenge I have undertaken in this essay: invoking it begs the question against the ideological critics, for it assumes what they most vehemently disagree with – that if we wish to procure the good of mankind we should practice science. Furthermore, it does not show us how scientific exploration and serendipity are related. It is clear, then, that we need a new argument.

[1]. Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, in Descartes’s Philosophical Writings, translated and edited by E. Anscombe and P.T. Geach, published by Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1969, p. 46. For some passages from the Discourse quoted below, I will favor the translation by H.S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross in The Philosophical Works of Descartes, Vol. I, Cambridge University Press, 1972.

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Ibid.

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