- And rather charming lies
You would have encountered science enthusiasts who have let their enthusiasm get the better of themselves. This type of a person believes that science, even if it hasn’t answered all questions, is getting there, and will soon do so. ‘We are working on it’ is the standard answer that such an armchair scientist is apt to give to any unanswered question (the ‘we’ here refers to science). In the case of the fundamental questions, this is usually a charming lie, sometimes uttered with the best of intentions. This response always reminds me of the man who fails to keep an appointment, and when asked his whereabouts replies that he is on his way and has just passed Thokar Niaz Beg bridge, when in fact he is clad in pajamas somewhere between bedroom and toilet at his house in Bahria Town.
Don’t get me wrong. I like science as much as the next man – only I believe science deals with but one part of the human experience. And that there are many fundamental questions that are simply outside its domain. And I am not talking about the purely philosophical and/or moral questions either: Why are we here? What is the best course of action for man? etc. Even if we focus on the working of the universe (the subject of science) there are insurmountable difficulties: every time a larger particle accelerator is built, something new is discovered. And even if we have not yet reached the limit there, we are not very far from it. To borrow the phraseology of science enthusiasts themselves: there is no reason to expect that man who lords over this tiny planet of one of the numerous solar systems in one of the numerous galaxies should completely figure out the universe.
So it is that many of the so-called scientific questions too have stubbornly defied any attempt at resolution. Questions regarding the creation ex nihilo of matter (or the beginning of the universe), the start of life in matter, and then the emergence of consciousness in life are fundamental questions that science, to date, has not even taken one step towards answering. Again, this is not to belittle scientific achievements. Much work has been done by scientists studying the evolution in all these fields. Science could, for example, tell us in minute detail what happened in the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang, but there’s absolutely nothing that explains the singularity that is the Big Bang. Similarly, the evolution of life and consciousness as postulated by science, even if taken to be sound, is distinct from the question of emergence of life and consciousness, although many people tend to throw all these things together. So, when somebody retorts to one of these questions by saying that science is working on it, he is either not being truthful or doesn’t know what he is talking about. Till the writing of these lines no reasonable explanation was available regarding any of these questions; and what’s more, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a big breakthrough any time soon.
So, when somebody retorts to one of these questions by saying that science is working on it, he is either not being truthful or doesn’t know what he is talking about. Till the writing of these lines no reasonable explanation was available regarding any of these questions; and what’s more, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a big breakthrough any time soon.
How something comes into being, and how it evolves after coming into being are two distinct things. The tendency to think of the first as some sort of a backward extension of the second is an old one. And it’s not science enthusiasts alone who have been prone to this error. Many religious systems and philosophies (Taoism, for example) maintain that opposite and contradictory aspects are present in all things, and that the motion of nature is the movement of something towards its opposite. Rightly or wrongly, they explain the working of the universe that way; not how the universe came into being. But trust some of the more enthusiastic disciples to stretch it in that direction and believe that the dialectic could explain its genesis as well.
Part of the trouble also lies in the fact that so many people confuse science with technology. They see technological miracles all around, and find themselves inclined to believe that because ‘science’ has addressed all our needs from a combined harvester to the photocopier with document stapling features, it would be reasonable to expect it to sooner or later unravel all our mysteries for us too. It’s true that technology has given us all the gadgets that we have needed (and many more that we didn’t need) – a satisfactory ironing machine apart, technology has no doubt given an excellent account of itself – but could the same be said about science? Why is it even a given that human beings have the capacity to figure everything out? There’s a lot of cockiness where there should be humility.
But what’s the harm in trying, some would ask. In fact, they would point out that striving to find answers to elusive questions that are all but impossible to answer is all the more heroic. There’s merit in this response, but ‘We are getting there’ is hardly the expression for it.
Of course, there are those who are very excited about, say, Lawrence Krauss’s explanation of a universe from ‘nothing’ (which has nothing to do with nothing); or the word salads that explain the origin of life from the fabled primordial soup. To think that these are the same people who accuse others of believing in fairy tales!