Science offers a worldview. Sure, it is good for a lot of other things too (technologies for example), but I think the scientific worldview is one of the most important things science has to offer. It seems to me that the advances in physics over the last hundred years have left science in an awkward position, which both frustrates and fascinates me.
Ever since Isaac Newton, the prevailing scientific worldview has been one of mechanism, the idea that everything can be explained by physical causes. The universe is seen as a big pinball machine with things bumping into each other, each action causing an equal and opposite reaction, and so forth. Causal determinism follows naturally and has been the underlying assumption of science for the last few centuries. The great thing about the scientific worldview coming out of Newton’s work is that it made the universe understandable. Everything obeyed certain laws and moved about in an orderly fashion. We have all played billiards, so it is easy to imagine that everything from electrons to planets moves around like a billiard ball going straight until they bump into something else.
Then along came quantum mechanics suggesting that very small things are governed by irreducible probabilities. Then comes Big Bang theory saying that very big things (like the universe) were created out of nothing along with time and space. Then chaos theory threw a monkey wrench into lots of everyday things like the weather and boiling water, saying that they are, in principle, unpredictable. Then string theory comes along to suggest that all matter is grounded in tiny strings of energy vibrating in 10 dimensional space neatly tucked away where we can’t see them: at every “pixel” of space. These sorts of advances in science did not have the same effect that Newton did. While they did provide better mathematical models, which are able to predict the behavior of the physical world with great precision, they threw the scientific worldview all out of whack.
Causal determinism, which is so beautifully intuitive, is challenged by the indeterminacy and unpredictability of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. What does it mean, on a fundamental metaphysical level, for something to be random, or statistical in nature? Suppose either A or B can happen and it turns out that A always happens 30% of the time given an adequate sample. On a given instance where A ended up happening, why was it A and not B? The answer seems to be that there is no answer. But then, how do things know to do A 30% of the time and B the other 70%? Indeterminacy is harder to wrap your mind around than determinacy. Things governed by statistical probabilities are easy to calculate, but hard to imagine.
So, after a pretty good stretch of time where science seemed to be making sense of the universe and answering our questions about the way things really are, we started hitting some fairly substantial stumbling blocks about one hundred years ago. No one really knows what to make of quantum mechanics. No one knows why randomness at the small scale smoothes out to become Newtonian physics at the scale of household objects. Since the advances in science led to such vast disagreements as to “what it all means,” the old worldview, mechanism, is still widely believed to be the scientific worldview.
But is mechanism really the worldview of “science”? It is certainly the worldview of a lot of scientists, but I would argue that this is simply a holdover from the past. Science in its current state seems to me to have no worldview. Since there is no worldview to go along with scientific advancements of the last hundred years, the old worldview remains by default. Mechanism is so satisfying in its simplicity and explanatory power, we are reluctant to acknowledge that it has been fundamentally undermined. If there was something to replace it, that would be one thing, but nature (and apparently science) abhors a vacuum.
In this context, it is worth noting that some of the biggest conflicts between science and religion occur in the realm of worldviews and not specific scientific experiments. The free-will / determinism debate is a good example. Although specific experiments enter the debate from time to time, the real conflict is between worldviews. The heart of the objection to free-will is not that it conflicts with experimental findings, but that it conflicts with a worldview of determinism. The fact that determinism as a worldview has been undermined by scientific advancement seems to go unnoticed. And so, the biggest problem for free-will, in my estimation, is that we cannot imagine anything other than determinism. Ironically, this is also one of the biggest problems preventing science from developing a new worldview.
So, am I wrong? Does science have a worldview? If so, what is it? Or if you agree that science lacks a worldview, do we suffer for it? Does it matter?