Everything has been figured out except how to live

The title of this blog were words famously spoken by the French Existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre. What Sartre was alluding to is something similar to what author John Horgan points out in his controversial 1996 book ‘The end of Science’.  Horgan argues that science, in the last 50 years, has figured all there is to figure out, and all that is different in modern times is how we apply existing scientific thinking onto different aspects of current-time reality. Horgan also believes that modern research pursuits are more aligned to philosophy than they are scientific discovery; of the questioning of what is consciousness and what is the meaning of life – arguably the thing that scientific instruments cannot touch upon or begin to answer, but this is what we fundamentally want to discover.

The reason I bring up the idea that everything has being figured out stems from my current situation and experience of doing a PhD. What I am learning from my data thus far is simply that – my own learning. I can find existing theories and concepts that explain what it is that I have so far ‘discovered’ and what I continue to observe. I am constantly having to ask myself ‘so what’ for my research – especially when a PhD is supposed to uncover something novel. What is my novelty other than a localized inquiry which is based on a specific time and context, bounded to my own researcher subjectivity? All I have to give to the world, much like everyone else, is my own individual perception of it; which is bounded by my entire existence as being unique and entirely my own. No one else has walked the path I have walked. Is this not enough to give back to the world? Science would argue not.

Yet interestingly, although it may be easy to argue that new discoveries are made each and everyday, the thinking behind such discoveries is not ‘new’. Even early day philosophers had theories about existence that only 21st Century scientists are now confirming. We make discoveries about what is already in existence, which means all we are doing is developing language as a new way to understand aspects of existence that we didn’t quite understand previously, but were always ‘there’. Additionally, the continuation of what is known is needed for the perpetuation of knowledge, as knowledge can arguably be lost when we do not repeat it.

Perpetuating Knowledge

Science is cumulative, meaning it builds on what came before it. Along the way, we learn how to adapt and refine such knowledge in order to apply that knowledge to our current social context. This view has allowed us to change the scenery of the world, but not necessarily the situation associated with it. We still do the things we have always done as a species – eat, sleep, walk, run, laugh, cry, breed, fight, love and die. The only difference is how we do those things, thanks to advances in technology, language and education. However, standing behind all of this is still the human and the limitations of our current knowledge and ways of thinking. Scientists are also bounded to their own brand of philosophy, whether they acknowledge their worldview or not in their pursuits, which influences how they look at the world and why. It appears that science and technology changes the scenery of the world, and our understanding of it, but it does not change our existential condition. We repeat our social practices precisely so we continue to perpetuate the same knowledge; refining it along the way. But, so what?

What is revealed in science is not so much about the science itself, but the revelations it provides about our existence through our human pursuit of discovery

Everything science ‘finds out’ reveals things about us as humans. As a result, how we live-in and understand the world changes. This is fundamentally what is needed for us to ‘wake up’ to our own existence. Most truth about existence is found in art, not science, but we cannot create art without some type of science (technology) behind art’s creation. We cannot have one without the other. What is actually taking place then is a process of alchemy – of changing the material of the earth into technology, and translating human experience into words and art.

At the end of the day, all science and art is trying to point out ways of living and an understanding of life. In a way, the two critique ‘what is’ whilst we as humans always struggle to create ‘what could be’. In our pursuit of science, do we grasp for life without actually living it?

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