I think I have discussed this topic before. I know I have thought about these things in the past. Sadly, I lack much in the way of new insights, but may have reached some new conclusions. This is all inspired by a recent TED talk by Sam Harris in which he maintains that science (probably should have used a capital "S") can answer moral (capital "m"?) questions.
I have wondered (aloud, loudly, repeatedly, and in front of anyone I thought could do anything about it) why it is that we have huge, costly, massively intricate, scientific projects to discover the physics of black holes and the origin of the big bang, but don't spend much time on how we should live in order to be happy, healthy, and to survive as a species.
We tend to do that don't we? Once we have a classification we're satisfied. "He's just a kook", "He's just another fag", "Another of those annoying Christians", "Just a damned athiest", I've heard the phrases over and over again for my entire life. "Oh, you're one of those people". Gaak.
But that is what we do, isn't it? Classification equals definition for most of us. A nice general classification and we can rest, we don't have to think about it anymore. "He's just another right-wing nut job". "He's just another leftist wiener". Sadly, I think most of science boils down to this.
That's not a criticism of science. Well, not a harsh one. Most science (man, I feel the need for capitals), boils down to bean-counting. As scientists, we tend to take things apart and enumerate the pieces. This is a good thing, not all science can be "pure" reasoning. We're not all physicists though maybe (in some senses) we should be.
The main reason that science (IMNHO) never seems to tackle the "big" questions of "How do we live well?" "How do you maximize human happiness?" is that they're hard. It's much easier to fire up the mass spectrometer or even splice the genome. Yet, I have this nagging, niggling suspicion that we're making a mistake by not doing some of this sort of investigation in a draconian fashion.
Honestly, I don't believe in extreme measures for all things, but it seems to me we are approaching a time when they are needed and moreover possible. People talk about draconian measures and then dismiss them. "If only everybody would just..." should probably always be ignored, but the time is upon us when we can, and possibly could, make some sweeping cultural changes.
We need to stop doing things that don't work and start working hard on an alternative. I constantly hear "Well, what we have is better than nothing." Well, in some cases, it isn't.
We could solve the energy crisis, be independent of petroleum products in general, in twenty years. We simply need a draconian measure one that can actually be accomplished. Pass a law that says "20 years from January 1st, 2011, all use of internal combustion engines will cease." January 1st 2031, your Crown vic ceases to be a vehicle and becomes a sculpture. That isn't a lawn mower anymore, it is a "collectable."
Start another "draconian" project for power plants. Built enough nuclear plants to accommodate anticipated energy needs in 2031 and set dynamite around all non-nuclear power plants with a 20 year timer (well, figuratively speaking).
Now don't start! I'm not an idiot. I know how problematic such solutions are. But they are do-able. With a 20-year head start, the people invested in oil who are keeping other forms of energy from being primary would have time to become invested in something else. You billionaires can stay billionaires It's OK by me. With a 20-year head start, we could solve some of the problems that make nuclear plants a poor solution to dependence on petroleum. We might find alternatives that would let us start tearing down nuclear plants as fast as we built 'em. We might discover an alternative to that internal combustion engine that is so central to so many problems. Think about that for a moment. The internal combustion engine is over a century old. In that time it has not fundamentally changed, only been refined to an extravagant degree. Isn't there some other way to do this, to accomplish the same work? I'll bet there is.
Now back to my original premise. How about a massive undertaking to find out how the human race should live in order to be happy? This has been the province of philosophy and of theology. Science has regarded these as "soft" areas, philosophy and theology being difficult to quantify. OK, they're "soft" and hard to quantify. Let's not discard them, Let's fix the problems. As with my assertions above, we are now in a position to undertake "extreme" projects looking for "draconian" solutions.
How about a massively funded and staffed project to assess cross-cultural values? Why not find all the things we all agree on? If there aren't any, lets find out why not and discover some new values that we can agree on.
How about an "extreme" project to feed the planet? We have literally thousands of organizations trying to do it piecemeal. It isn't working. What we are doing is, in some cases, actually bad for the regions we are trying to help. Is it possible for all those thousands of groups to surrender their fiefdoms and follow the principles of a greater project? Yes. All it requires the same kind of organization we give to a moon landing. We can do these things.
I have to refine my thinking on this subject (yes, I hear you snickering). I'll write more later.