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Why Science Can’t Save Us

Martin LeFevre:  Though I’m sometimes accused of it, I’ve never understood why anyone would try to save this mad, dark world. It’s not about saving the world; it’s about saving oneself and humanity, which are essentially the same thing. And science cannot do so. Why?

Because knowledge, however accurate and extensive, still requires application, and application is a function of intelligence, which is a completely distinct capacity of the human brain than the accretion of scientific knowledge.

Because science doesn’t automatically confer wisdom, which is synonymous with intelligence. And because scientists are human, with all the same confusions and conflicts we all have.

And because science is, rightly and necessarily, an outward-oriented endeavor, not the inward-oriented exploration of human nature and behavior essential for self-understanding.

So what is intelligence, and how does it differ from smarts? We assume humans are an intelligent species, but we are not. An intelligent species is not one that is bringing about the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on Earth. The havoc that man, a sentient, potentially sapient species is wreaking on the biosphere cannot be compared, much less conflated with the five previous mass extinction events from asteroids or planetary volcanism.

An intelligent species is not one that accepts war as a given, much less reverts to trench warfare in the digital age. And an intelligent species is not one that views the desperate migration and suffering of millions of people in nationalistic terms. Finally, an intelligence species is not one that resigns to a world divided into the obscenely rich and the immiserated poor.

How many intelligent species are there in this galaxy? Given that intelligence transcends thought, science and knowledge, much less technology and “artificial intelligence,” there could be many. But they wouldn’t reveal themselves to a planetarily destructive species like Homo sapiens until we make the transition to an intelligent species.

With all due respect to science, it simply won’t work “to bring together experts across a broad range of scientific disciplines to help solve the greatest predicaments and puzzles that face our species,” as the proposed “School of Cosmic Future” at the University of Toronto intends to do.

The underlying, unexamined premises are: that science can save humanity; that the different disciplines of science can be woven together to form whole and cohesive solutions; and that scientific experts, or experts of any kind, are primary, the authorities we should turn to for solutions.

What other recourse do we have except science for addressing, as Sir Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, says, “the urgency of a situation where humanity has attained the ability to destroy itself along with the rest of the biosphere?”

The Enlightenment cornerstone of reason is necessary for science, but woefully insufficient for human behavior. Though it sounds unassailable, the idea that “taking collective action based on evidence and reason” is the way ahead simply doesn’t hold up to the overwhelming evidence of man’s past and present.

The “hard-won facts about the nature of reality” since Galileo are not immutable truths, as every true scientist will tell you, but prima facie evidence for prevailing paradigms and theories, painstakingly achieved but tentatively held.

The same attitude applies to non-accumulative learning, which is not translated and formulated into scientific knowledge. Insights that expand a field of knowledge are one thing; the state of insight that is beyond knowledge and the known totally another. The former is tested by experiment and evidence; the latter phenomenon occurs through self-knowing, questioning and negation.

The intent of the School of Cosmic Future to “bring the perspective of billions of years of cosmic time to a world that is sorely in need of some long-term thinking” is laudable. However, many people already have knowledge of the billions of years of cosmic time, and it has made them feel small and utterly insignificant, rather than yielding wonder that the universe could evolve a brain capable of comprehending the universe.

Besides, at a fundamental level, time is the impediment, indeed the enemy. When the linear movement of time — itself a projection of the human mind — ends, the human brain’s capacity for silently experiencing the mystery and harmony of the earth and universe is awakened.

In short, science can only “be applied to the preservation of life and civilization” when a higher potential of the human brain is ignited – the capacity for insight beyond the dimension of knowledge, scientific or otherwise.

What will save humanity and the earth?  When enough people from all sectors of society undertake non-academic philosophical inquiry, and take the time and make the space for self-knowing and spontaneous attentiveness in nature. Obviously scientists can also be self-knowing and do philosophy, but science does not equip scientists to do so any more than any other human being.

After a long, passive observation and meditation in parkland, I sit near the great oak at the entrance that anchors Lower Park. It’s an awesome living thing of stately grandeur and strength, with huge, gnarled branches stretching toward the sun and arching down and touching the high grass.

Nature is not God, but the numinous permeates nature and the cosmos, except for man. The beauty and strength of nature is not in man because our minds and brains are dominated and occluded by the things of thought, continuously busy with knowledge, experience and self-concern.

The evolution of ‘higher thought’ gave us humans the neural capacity not just for high science, but also for conscious awareness of the immeasurable sacredness and intelligence imbuing nature and the universe. It’s the greatest paradox, and contradiction. We can and must resolve it.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.