Disciplines of Inquiry

There is nothing new about human inquiry; it is a feature of all human life. What is of more recent origin is the way that our inquiry has been shaped in order to respond to needs that have become apparent. We want greater prosperity but recognize that prosperity is not defined by having cash in hand.

For ease of communication and consistency of focus, we organize our knowledge into the disciplines of history, physics, sociology, philosophy, and so on. This is a sensible thing to do, provided we do not fall prey to the illusion that each discipline is self-contained; instead, to be useful and to flourish, a discipline has to be open to influences from other disciplines and aware of the incompleteness of its own structures. For example, when I was first introduced to the study of science at school, the first paragraph of each section of the textbook (often in small print) would frequently provide a brief background account of the social context that led to the topic becoming a focus of intellectual interest and experiment.

The account would usually include reference to one or two of the key scientists (including the dates of their lives) who had contributed to the development in understanding of the topic. In the case of magnetism, for example, Maxwell and Hertz would be mentioned along with the names of specific theorems, perhaps a relevant formula, and some practical implications. It was explained to us that this was not simply a background introduction to the important scientific facts that followed in the rest of the chapter but was integral to the science that was being explained. Science was a process of discovery, not a set of independent facts integrated into a wholly independent system that explained everything; it was the product of the curiosity stimulated by personal interest and societal need. Scientific explanations of natural or social phenomena, together with their practical outcomes, were owned by authors whose ambition (and even vocation) was to contribute to the well-being of society. Thus Boyle’s law stated what Boyle discovered about the expansion of gases, Faraday’s law explained electromagnetic induction, and so on. We were told that we inherited their legacy; it was now up to us to make good use of it. It was made clear to us that this was not only a matter of applying to the best of our ability what they had taught us in tackling the problems society currently faced; our responsibility was to enter into the tradition, take up their conversation, and leave a legacy on which future generations could continue to build.

We can see the interaction of the social environment with personal needs and the stimulus of human ingenuity and imaginative intellectual inquiry in the case of energy. Every human needs the kinetic energy produced naturally in the body through the consumption of food. This leads to the use of energy to produce food through hunting, fishing, the cultivation of crops, and so on. Crop production requires water, which is what stimulated the adaptation of techniques to divert water, and to a lesser extent store it, for irrigation. But to be useful, food had to be transported. To begin with, no doubt, humans would have had to carry it, drag it, or move it on water. The growing demand for power, not only for transport but for manufacture, stimulated the development of other energy sources: wood, peat, coal, and oil.

Ideas also need to travel, a dimension that is underlined by the success of the World Wide Web, which offers almost instantaneous communication but also requires energy. The production of energy has moved through periods of water, steam, electricity, nuclear fission, and soon, it is hoped, nuclear fusion and green energy. Failure to appreciate the social, political and economic influences of and upon science and technology leads to a failure to grasp its human dimension.

Nothing that I have said denies the importance of what is often called “blue-skies science”—that is, the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. This too is important for humankind as an expression of its true nature. We want to know; we are endowed by God with the natural disposition to inquire. And we want to put what we know to good use in the furtherance of human well-being and the healthy evolution of the world; for that we are grateful. But if we are to do this well, we need to know what is meant by “a good education.”

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