Is science good for its own sake?

Learning about the universe is not cheap. The Large Hadron Collider, for instance, has a budget of $9 billion US. This coming February, a $1.5 billion US device called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer will be sent to the International Space Station with hopes of showing that dark matter, which remains theoretical, exists. Neither project has the goal of ameliorating humanity’s lot by curing disease or solving our energy problems. Rather, they are justified because knowledge about the universe is good for its own sake. Two questions arise from such a claim. First, is it true that knowledge is good for its own sake? Second, at what point is the price of such knowledge overruled by more justified expenses?

I have a deep appreciation for science. I think experiencing a small part of the profundity of the universe helps us understand our place in it. While many despair that the sun will die in around five billion years, I find such knowledge significant because it is an amazing feat for humans to come to know such things. It also reminds us that life is finite, so we ought to make the most of what we have. Knowledge of

how statistically improbable it is that any of us came into existence makes me grateful for the opportunity to live. (It is worth noting, however, that my gratitude isn’t directed at any agent. I am grateful to the universe in the same way that I am grateful when my bicycle tire doesn’t go flat — there’s no use thanking either one.)

While science plays an important role in my life, I am cognizant that this doesn’t hold true for everyone. For most people, facts about the universe have no effect on their lives. Whether or not dark matter exists is as irrelevant for a life going well as hoping that the number of atoms in the universe is prime. If it happens to be the case that the number of atoms is prime, it is hard to see how my life has improved by that fact. Science (and particularly particle physics) is an expensive way to expand knowledge and it isn’t at all clear that it makes lives better in any objective sense. Science for its own sake is comparable to the arts — both deny that they have to earn their right to exist by, for instance, curing cancer. They enrich our lives, but it is unreasonable to assume that they enrich all lives to the same extent. If science is like the arts in this way, I can be just as satisfied with music or poetry, which cost significantly less than the Large Hadron Collider.

So, it is possible that science can be good for its own sake. What about justified expense? Suppose half of the world’s population considered science to be an important part of their lives going well, while the other half lived in poverty. Would governments be justified in spending more money on science than they do now because more people consider it important? No. The reason why is because the money, dollar for dollar, would do far more good raising people above the poverty line. If I can get the same amount of good from listening to a $20 album, shouldn’t I do that and spend the rest on the worst off? Indeed, it seems that any amount of money I wish to spend on the arts (broadly construed in this sense to include science for its own sake) is unjustified when people are dying of hunger and thirst around the world.

This is an undoubtedly extreme position. Taken to its furthest point, it seems to imply that most spending on science (to say nothing of clothing and cars and televisions) is immoral unless a line can be drawn to show that all money need not go to the worst off. One possibility is to argue that certain forms of science are good for their own sake, but also pay their way. With goal-oriented scientific research (in contrast to science for its own sake) it is incredibly difficult to predict what will produce objective results. Research to discover more about the world around us often proves useful for more practical reasons, just as science funded for its own sake often produces practical applications. One might object to my view by stating that science does pay its way, but we can’t know until after the fact which research project should be funded, so, by their reasoning, we ought to fund it all.

I doubt this approach works. It is highly unlikely that things like the Large Hadron Collider will produce the types of solutions to our society’s most pressing problems like disease and energy concerns. Some examples, however, do exist. It is noteworthy that past particle colliders have been important for developing technologies used more generally in society. Positron emission tomography, which can be used to make images of the inside of bodies to look for tumors, is one example. Most scientists and those who appreciate science (myself included) think justifying such experiments because of possible technology benefits misses the point. Theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss put it well: “It’s like trying to argue that manned space missions were useful for Tang.”

My argument doesn’t render useless the appetite for wonder science promotes. Taking money away from science research to give to the worst off is difficult to accept because of the result it would have on the already poorly funded field. If there was a way to have both, I would certainly promote it.

We have these societal problems because we are fortunate enough to live in an affluent society where we can grow old enough to get cancer and drive cars. Surely cancer at 80 years old is nowhere near as bad as dying at five years old because of malaria or poor nutrition. Yes, literature and the arts are something worth living for, but one needs the chance to live for them in the first place.

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