The other day I reviewed the new documentary Bill Nye: Science Guy. The documentary begins with the following quote from Carl Sagan:
“Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy.”
Carl Sagan was a fantastic popularizer of science, one with the soul of a poet … a rare combination indeed. But the man was no philosopher as this quote well illustrates.
To see the problem, let’s begin with another statement:
“My Dyson vacuum is far from a perfect instrument of cleaning. It’s just the best we have.”
The problem here is clear enough: Dyson vacuum cleaners are great instruments of cleaning where the cleaning we want to do involves sucking up dirt off the floor. But Dyson vacuum cleaners are very poor tools when it comes to other forms of cleaning such as scrubbing bathroom tiles and toilet bowls or brushing and flossing teeth.
So here’s what one should say:
“My Dyson vacuum is far from a perfect instrument for cleaning the floor. It’s just the best we have.”
By the same token, science is a great instrument of knowledge for understanding nature. But it is not particularly helpful at attaining knowledge in countless other areas such as how to write poetry, reason ethically, know where your body is located in space at any given moment, or figure out what your spouse wants for your anniversary.
Oh, and as Sagan’s comment makes clear, science is also a poor instrument for making nuanced and accurate epistemological statements.