Advances in genetics, neuroscience, brain imaging, and other areas are turning the Big Questions over to scientists.
The old Big Questions -- "What is the nature of goodness?" "What is free will?" "Who am I?" "Why does God allow catastrophes like earthquakes?" -- have the effect of that odd and slightly embarrassing statuary which you might find in the corner of a dusty antique store. Most of us just keep walking.
The new Big Questions, the ones that make us stop, are often more specific:
"How do mirror neurons in the angular gyrus allow us to empathize with other people?"
"If, as one study showed, 300 milliseconds usually elapses between a wave of brain activity and our conscious decision to take an action, does that mean that our sense of free will is just that, a mere trick of consciousness after our brain has already triggered the action?"
On the one hand, it's refreshing to dump the cant of philosophy and the filigreed talk of theology, and replace these ancient discourses with the stuff of science.
But here's the rub. Science is complicated. And its results come in bits and pieces, through experimentation, double-blind studies, the slow accumulation of data. So, by and large, we leave it to journalists to give us progress reports. And journalism is not designed to address the Big Questions.
Journalism is written to deadline. It is usually written by generalists. It relies on the memorable detail and the quick turn-of-phrase to sell copy.
In the days of the old Big Questions, journalists generally stayed away, since there wasn't much to report (except perhaps... "Bernard Williams' latest response to Parfit's thoughts on diachronic identity!" which doesn't make a very good headline).
But now, with the Big Questions migrating out of the cluttered offices of philosophers and theologians into the labs of scientists, journalists are finding that they have something to write about:
Who cares if the data is conflicted, or incomplete, or if its implications would take some seriously complicated explaining to convey properly? Data is a ripe peach hanging off a tree, an easy filler, for journalists.
And this presents a problem for us, as readers and parents.
Take, for example, two articles in yesterday's New York Times:
The first, This is Your Brain on Politics, could be found on the back page of the Week in Review. I read it and felt an immediate sense of frustration. Brandon Keim of Wired debunks it here. Thank you, Brandon Keim.
The second, from the same day, In DNA Era, New Worries About Prejudice, skimmed over recent findings in genetics to warn about the controversies that these findings might provoke. It linked to a blog called Half Sigma, in which there is a cursory and inconclusive discussion about the possibility of IQ differences between races. It is an example of that against which it warns.
What we have here is a trickling out (and articles about trickling out doing more trickling out) of inconclusive scientific data.
Now there's nothing wrong with the inconclusive nature of science -- indeed, that is why it is the last, best hope of humankind, in my opinion. Science is a language game which recognizes, even celebrates, the inconclusiveness of knowledge. It shows an appreciation of process, and it therefore implies a faith in the efforts of people to adjust, refine, change for the better. I'm all for that.
But the inconclusiveness of science does not match up well with our insatiatable need for certainty, stability, consistency. As animals under stress, we constantly seek a means of making decisions today, now, with what we know at the present. People don't have time for process on a daily basis.
So how will it play out? As science gives us provocative slices into the Big Questions, will we zig and zag as it tells us dubious findings as to race and IQ, the female brain, children and music? Or will we learn to rely on some other frame of reference, some new approach for this new age?
What will be our lodestar after we accept that true knowledge is not, and will never be, forthcoming?