We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. There are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions and pass them on. It is our responsibility to leave the men of the future a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant; if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, "This is it, boys, man is saved!" and thus doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been don many times before.
Through all the ages men have tried to fathom the meaning of life. They have realized that if some direction or meaning could be given to our actions, great human forces would be unleashed. So, very many answers must have been given to the question of the meaning of it all. But they have been of all different sorts, and the proponents of one answer have looked with horror at the actions of the believers in another. Horror, because from a disagreeing point of view all the great potentialities of the race were being channeled into a false and confining blind alley. In fact, it is from the history of the enormous monstrosities created by false belief that philosophers have realized the apparently infinite and wondrous capacities of human beings. The dream is to find the open channel.
What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say to dispel he mystery of existence?
If we take everything into accoutn, not only what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn't know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know.
But, in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.
This is not a new idea; this is the idea of the age of reason. This is the philosophy that guided men who made the democracy that we live under. The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, tossed out, more new ideas broght in; a trial and error system. This method was a result of the fact taht science was already showing itself to be a successful venture at the end of the 18th centruy. Event then itwas clear to socially minded people taht the openness of the possibilities was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to progress into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.
I would now like to turn to a third value that science has. It is a little more indirect, but not much. The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn't now the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he as a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty--some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.
Is nobody inspired by our present picture of the universe? The value of science remains unsung by singers, so you are reduced to hearing--not a song or a poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.
Perhaps one of the reasons is that you have to know how to read the music. For instance, the scientific, article says, perhaps, something like this: "The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of a rat decreases to one-half in the period of two weeks." Now, what does that mean?
it means that phosphorus that is in the brain of the rat (and also in mine, and yours) is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago, but that all of the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced, and the ones that were there before have gone away.
So what is this mind, what are these atoms with consciousness? Last weeks potatoes! That is what now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago--a mind which has long ago been replaced.
That is what it means when one discovers who long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms, to note that the thing which I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance. That atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, then go out; always new atoms but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.
From time to time, people suggest to me that scientists ought to give more consideration to social problems--especially that they should be more responsible in considering the impact of science upon society. This same suggestion must be made to many other scientists, and it seems to be generally believed that if the scientists would only look at these very difficult social problems and not spend so much time fooling with the less vital scientific ones, great success would come of it.
It seems to me taht we do think about these problems from time to time, but we don't put full-time effort into them--the reason being that we know we don't have any magic formula for solving problems, that social problems are very much arder than scientific ones, and that we usually don't get anywhere when we do think about them.
I believe taht a scientist looking at noscientific problems is just as dumb as teh next guy--and when he talks about a nonscientific matter, he will sound as naive as anyone untrained in the matter.
Another value of science is the fun called intellectual enjoyment which some people get from reading and learning and thinking about it, and which others get from working in it. This is a very real and important point and one which is not considered enough by those who tell us it is our social responsibility to reflect on the impact of science on society.
Is this mere personal enjoyment of value to society as a whole? No! But it is also a responsibility to consider the value of society itself. Is it, in the last analysis, to arrange things so that people can enjoy things? If so, the enjoyment of science is as important as anything else.