what is the rightful place of science?

What do you think President Obama meant by the "rightful place" of science?

What do you think is the rightful place of science?

What I think is largely informed by my Christian faith, as well as my reading of Heidegger (particularly his essay "The Question Concerning Technology") and certain contemporary thinkers like Wendell Berry (particularly his book "Life Is A Miracle"). I'll articulate this further when I'm not distracted by preparing for a road trip.

Talk amongst yourselves.


Peter said...

In context, and considering the gleeful response of many atheists I read (all of whom mistakenly think that President Bush was anti-science), the appropriate interpretation seems to be this:

The rightful place of science is for science to become the primary moral arbiter of our society. Who needs God? We will become gods.

Science will tell us what is physically possible for us to expand our power over the world, to overcome the limitations of our physical bodies, to maximize our sexual pleasure, to avoid any negative consequences of any action we might choose, and to minimize our mortality.

What is physically possible is thus morally imperative. You must not stand in the way of "progress."

There are no other ethical considerations. That is all.

Michael said...

Peter is exactly right. It's the religion of progress--the conquest of nature and the progress of history combine in the apotheosis of man; it stems from the secularized version of Christian salvation history that Nietzsche sees in Hegelian/progressive historicism, and that still remains in the heirs thereof.

Peter said...


Has a great para on this:

“In their policy promises, also published yesterday, Obama/Biden said they will: ‘Restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically-valid evidence and not on ideological predispositions.’ (12) In short, we can expect under Obama the intensification of managerial, ideology-free and principle-lite politics, only it will have the grand title of ‘respecting science’. This is not history so much as physics.”

Veronica Mitchell said...

That phrase caught my ears too. I know what I HOPE he means by it: that science will be allowed to be science. Just that. That discovery by empirical method will be allowed to reach conclusions by observation rather than by political fiat. That the EPA will be allowed to write its own scientific conclusions without political dictates from above. There are less ambiguous ways to say that than "restore science its rightful place," but ambiguity is what stirs the soul. Apparently.

Zanshin said...

I didn't hear the context of Obama's comment and I don't feel up to generalizing the thoughts of "that one"'s ilk, but I'll talk about what I think is the rightful place of science.

Proverbs 25:2 says "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings." Among other purposes, creation provides us with a giant easter egg hunt to discover what God says is good, what he poured his love into creating, what seemed to him like a nifty way for things to work. Inferring God's meaning can get a little tricky because creation is fallen, but there's still a lot to learn.

So science is nothing less than the glory of kings and one inroad into our purpose to "know, love, and serve God, and to enjoy him forever." It also has parallels to Adam's responsibility to give names to the animals.

Most people would agree that science isn't the only way or even the primary way we should discern the realities of the world around us; there's far more to be learned from human interaction and love, for example. I also think most people who give any half-serious thought to ethics would agree that science is on a different, if intersecting, plane than ethics.

So what is the rightful place of science? To be practiced as a delight for which we are designed; to be lauded as a pursuit of and revealer of truth; to be funded as an investment for the betterment of our welfare; and to be captive, as everything else should be, to ethical and moral principles.

Bea said...

It definitely was one of the more attention-grabbing references in the speech. In context, I thought Obama was talking almost entirely about the environment: that this administration believes what scientists are saying about climate change. In that sense, he seemed to imply that the "rightful place" of science is going to be higher than it was in the previous administration.

But I also thought the examples he gave assigned science a subordinate role: to develop and implement solutions to problems identified on other grounds. For instance, he talked about harnessing the sun and the wind, and part of the rationale behind that was scientific (climate change) and part of it is political (the international consequences of our reliance on oil). So there is a role for political and ethical thinking (to define problems and decide upon directions), and the role of most science is to figure out the HOW once the rest of us have decided on the WHAT.

Julia said...

I think it's unlikely that Obama meant an Enlightment-style "science is our religion and is going to solve everything" mantra, as the first commenter seems to think. In the context, I took this as a repudiation of specific things that happened under Bush with NASA and EPA scientists. And as a scientist, it's hard for me to see those things and NOT believe the Bush administration was anti-science. The fact that Obama has appointed people like Steven Chu to important posts makes me hopeful that he doesn't have the same dismissive distrust of science. I think I read somewhere that "the nerds are back in charge" at the DOE, the EPA, and such, which of course makes this nerd happy.

And to answer the question in your title, I think the rightful place of science is as a human endeavor (like art, philosophy, or whatever) that helps us understand ourselves and the world around us. It's not going to save us, but it will tell us things that those other endeavors can't.

Julia said...

Oh, and here's something else that sums up my feelings: http://xkcd.com/54/

happygeek said...

I just tend to avoid science. i is smart lik that.
However, I just read this article's interpretation on the whole issue.
Can't say I totally agree with him, but he makes some interesting observations.

Kimberly said...

Ok, so I am behind in my bloggy reading. I would like to think that President O has beneficent goals, like some posters think, but I have my doubts. I think that he is now going to label anything that he WANTS to do as "science" and therefore untouchable.

Because, no matter what anyone says, scientists do NOT agree on things like climate change, or stem cells, or the need to 'conserve', etc. So, I think that scientific debate will actually be squelched under this administration. But I am not surprised.

joel hunter said...

Oh, oh, now we really can't have pregnant references to the wizard of the Black Forest--post-Kehre no less!--simply dropped for wandering phenomenologists to trip over. Out with it!

The rightful place of science? The same place that any systematic, theoretical investigation of the world-as-sensed can be pursued nondogmatically, but communally alongside other truth-disclosive orders of analysis irreducible to one another (but mutually informing one another, i.e., with highly porous disciplinary borders), in an integrative complex of elucidatory human tasks which set forth the primordial aim of nothing less than wisdom, human flourishing, or if we want to get all Hellenic about it, "that human and social kind of excellence."