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Science as Insight vs. Science as Power

What are the core purposes of science and math? Evaluating the idea of "knowledge as power" in the computer age

Should machines replace mathematicians? This phrase is the headline of a new post by science writer John Horgan, who comments on the current state of mathematics and the growing potential of AI and computers to do all the “heavy lifting” of the mathematical enterprise. Horgan notes that mathematicians were the ones to develop computers in the first place, but now, with the advent of advanced computing and artificial intelligence, the role of human-driven mathematics is getting vague. However, maybe math is more about input and output but a “way of being human.” For Horgan, data and computation don’t get to the heart of scientific and mathematical endeavors. It needs to mean something more than an impersonal process geared towards calculable ends.

Horgan not only talks about math in his article. He also relates the discussion to the core purpose of science. Science, in one definition, means gaining insights into nature. However, in today’s utilitarian society, science is less about contemplating the beauty of nature and more about securing power over nature for the sake of our ease, convenience, and control. He writes,

We value science for its applications, too. Sentimental science writing, including mine, implies that science’s purpose is insight into nature. In the modern era, however, science’s primary goal is power. Science helps us manipulate nature for various ends: to extend our lives, to enrich and entertain us, to boost the economy, to defeat our enemies. Modern physics, to most of us, is unintelligible, but who cares when physics gives us smartphones and hydrogen bombs?

-John Horgan, Should Machines Replace Mathematicians? — John Horgan (The Science Writer)

The comment hearkens to a famous observation from the writer C.S. Lewis, who said in his book The Abolition of Man,

There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.

It sounds strange to equate “applied science” (i.e., technology) with magic, but doing so reveals the potential of using scientific knowledge merely as a means to power instead of “insight,” as Horgan writes.

Peter Biles

Writer and Editor, Center for Science & Culture
Peter Biles graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois and went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories and has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma and is the Writer and Editor for Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.

Science as Insight vs. Science as Power