I sat down to write a piece explaining why scientific research is essential to our societies and why we should invest in applied and basic science. Then I recalled I don’t believe in free will. This isn’t always easy... So I took out the “should” from the title because it’s not like we have a choice. Evidently, we do science! The question is why? And will we continue?
Natural selection, then and now
Developing accurate theories of nature that allow making predictions about the world are an evolutionary advantage. Understanding our environment and ourselves enables us to construct tools and shape nature to our needs. It makes thus sense that natural selection favors using brains to develop theories of nature.
As it is often the case though, natural selection favored traits that then extend beyond the ones immediately relevant for survival. And so the human brain has become very adept at constructing consistent explanations generally. If we encounter any inconsistency, we mentally chew on it and try to find a solution. This is why we cannot help but write thousands of papers on the black hole information paradox. This is why Dyson’s belief that inconsistencies between quantum mechanics and general relativity will forever remain outside experimental detection does not deter physicists from trying to resolve this inconsistency: It’s nature, not nurture.
In fact, our brain is so eager to create consistent theories that it sometimes does so by denying facts which won’t fit. This is why we are prone to confirmation bias, and in extreme cases paralyzed people deny they are not able to tie their shoes or lift an arm (examples from Ramachandran’s book “Phantoms in the Brain.”)
But leaving aside the inevitable overshooting, evolution has endowed us with a brain that is able and eager to develop consistent explanations. This is why we do science.
The question whether we will continue to do science, and what type of science, is more involved than asking whether scientific thinking has benefitted the reproduction of certain genes. The reason is that we have become so good at using nature to our needs that evolution no longer acts by just selecting the phenotypes best adapted to a given environment. Instead, we can make the environment fit to us.
Today, the major effort of societies is eradicating risks and diseases, optimizing crops and agricultural yields, and developing all kinds of technologies to minimize exposure to natural events. Natural selection of course still proceeds. It’s a process that acts on adaptive systems so generally and unavoidably that Lee Smolin famously uses it to explain the evolution of universes. But what does change is the mechanism that creates the mutations among which the “fittest” has an evolutionary advantage. Since we humans now create large changes on the environment in which we have to survive, the technologies that enable us to make these changes have become part of the random mutations among which selection acts. Backreaction can no longer be neglected.
In other words, natural selection can only act on expressions of genes and ideas together. The innovation provided by scientific progress is now part of the mutations that create species better adapted to the environment.
Applied and basic research
The purpose of scientific research is thus to act as an innovation machine. It enables humans to “fit” better to their environment. This is the case at least for applied research. So what then is the rationale to engage in basic research?
First note that what is usually referred to as “basic research” is rarely “non-applied,” but rather it’s “not immediately applied”. Basic research is commonly pursued on the rationale that it is the precursor of applications in the far future, a future so far that it isn’t yet possible to tell what the application might be. This basic research is necessary to sustain innovation in the long run.
Also note that what is commonly referred to as an “application” doesn’t cover the full scope of innovation that scientific research brings. Scientific insight, especially paradigm shifts, have the potential to entirely reshape the way we perceive of ourselves and our place in the world. This can have major cultural and social impacts that have nothing to do with the development of technologies.
Marxist thought for example has thrived on the belief that we differ only in the chances and opportunities given to us and not by heritable talents that lead to different performances, a fact now known to be scientifically fallacious. Planned economy seems like a good idea if you believe in a clockwork universe in which you can make accurate predictions, an idea that doesn’t seem so good if you know something about chaos theory. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is based on the belief that self-organization is natural and leads to desirable outcomes, and we’re only slowly learning the problems in managing risk in complex and highly connected networks. The ongoing change in attitude towards religion is driven by science shining light on inconsistencies in religious storytelling. And many scientists seem to be afraid what it could do to society if people realized that they have no free will. All these are non-technological examples of innovation created by scientific knowledge.
Having said that, we are left to wonder about the scientific research that is neither applied (immediately or in the far future) nor has any other impact on our societies. There very possibly is such research. But we don’t know in advance whether or not a piece of research will become relevant in the future. I previously referred to this research as “knowledge for the sake of knowledge.” Now I am thinking that a better description would have been You-never-know-ledge.
Since we have to manage finite resources on this planet, there is always the question how much energy, time, money, and people to invest into any one human activity for the most beneficial outcome. This is a question which has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis and greatly depends on what is meant with “beneficial”, a word that would bring us back to opinions and “should”s. So the above considerations don’t tell us how much investment into science is enough. But they do tell us that we need continuous investment into scientific research, both applied and basic, to allow mankind to sustain and improve the Darwinian “fit” to the environment that we are changing and creating ourselves.