I've recently been writing a philosophical piece for the local journal of conservative and liberterian thought. The piece in question is about philosophy, and to a lesser extent, imagination (the two are utlimately related). One thing that I have been thinking about as I write this columns (it's still not finished) is the lack of philosophy and imagination in the sciences (and really, of most displines).
This lack of contemplation is manifest in many ways-- the gradual displacement of ethics from the field of science, the disconnection of many scientists' research interests from the possible outcomes of their research, etc. The development of fusion gives us a new energy source, but what else does it do for us? There is little discussion as to whether this new source of virtually unlimited energy will reshape the way in which we live;I think that it's generally assumed that life will go on much as it has before, with electricity being produced with fusion instead of other means. No one considers that by making energy more abundant, fusion may change many aspect of our civilization-- namely, because we won't have to worry so much about a "power budget" or about air polution. Will we begin to develop more "automated" means for housing? If electricity isn't a concern, then can we have the "computerized and integrated" house systems sometimes imagined in science fiction stories?
Part of the result of the divorce between philosophy/imagination and the technical aspects of the many disciplines is that the former becomes ignored entirely. In other words, we see more and more "science, for the sake of science" (with a few or a single application for any one piece of research), with little or no thought as to how such research may change civiliztion. Too often, the overarching end of science is that it "betters mankind's understanding of nature."
Granted, it does do that, but I am increasing driven to ask, "In what manner?" Science has becom so specialized that only a the experts can actually understand most (if not all) of the significance or ramifications of a new discovery. If a new discovery about blackhole physics can only be fully understood by 10 people worldwide, and only be hundreds or thousands in its "important form", then is humanity's knowledge really truly expanded? If those ten men were to die, then that knowledge would be lost with them.
One physicist said it in a different maner. He said that it is exciting to be able to learn something new about the universe, to know something that he didn't know before. This is quite true, but he could have done that without doing research (in the sense of developing a new theory or performing a new experiment). If he were to cease performing experiments, he would be able to learn more by reading the experimental notes of other physicsist for the rest of his life-- and there are likely enough published papers for him to do this.
I do not mean to speak out against science for its own sake-- so long as it is not divorced from ethics, it is wonderful to learn new things about the universe. And we have certainly seen many good developments that have coem from the sciences (even in recent times). The problem is that sceience has become cold, with the flame of imagination becoming only a dull glow. Are we really furthering mankind's understanding of the universe, or are we merely satisfying our own lusts for knowledge, or worse, mere information?