The Goal of Science
“The aim of science,” wrote Karl Pearson, “is nothing short of the complete interpretation of the universe.” Thus the goal of science is to understand and explain every aspect of the universe. This is to be accomplished by adopting the scientific methodology. By the universe one means directly or indirectly perceived physical reality. The working scientist seldom thinks in these terms explicitly, but this is what the scientific community as a whole hopes to accomplish in the long run. This is an enormously ambitious program.
One may describe this as the optimism or the haughtiness of science, depending on one’s perspective. Those who look upon this as unrealistic optimism point out that this goal cannot be reached, for at least two reasons: First, the universe is infinite in its complexity. As the poet John Dryden put it, “But how can finite grasp Infinity?” Secondly, one argues, not every aspect of the universe can be understood within the framework of scientific methodology. The contention here is that deeply experienced matters like love, and deeply cherished values like truth, and profoundly meaningful ethical principles like helpfulness and kindness, will never be fully amenable to scientific analysis. Many scientists will grant that the goal of complete explanation of everything will not be achieved in the course of just a few generations, but they share the hope, indeed the certainty, that the scientific quest for answers will continue for as long as the human species exists here on earth, and that eventually it will unravel in scientific terms the roots of deeply felt experiences, values, and the ethical principles.
In must be recognized that though the ultimate goal of science is to explain in coherent and causal terms every aspect of the perceived world, this does not mean that these aspects become less important or less interesting when one recognizes them through other modes. Whether it is the sunset or the rainbow, a leaf or a tree, grand music or interpersonal love, one can experience and enjoy these without explaining them, and that enjoyment need not be diminished when its cause is explained.
Contrary to general impression, it is not the aim of science to discover useful results which may be applied for practical purposes, although individual scientists may be engaged in such projects. Nor is it the goal of science to make life more comfortable for humankind, to find cures for diseases, or develop weapons of warfare, although individual scientists may be engaged in such activities. Science merely tries to understand, to offer explanations, to correlate the various observed phenomena in terms of well defined concepts and frameworks.