Science can’t tell you what is worth doing. And that’s probably okay.

I used to be the kind of a person who is obsessed with science, evidence, and facts. I thought that if we follow evidence wherever it leads, we’ll have all our questions answered. I thought that nearly all problems are due to insufficient education. If only we can teach everyone about how science works and how do we know what we know is true, the whole world will reject superstition, get rid of tribal conflict, save the planet from climate change, and live happily ever after together, exploring the stars.

It took me some time to realize that there exists a lot of questions that science is unable to answer. Coincidentally, these are usually of the most important kind. Even though science is the best tool we have to discover how the world works, it’s pretty helpless when it comes to deciding what should happen next. We can use science to predict all possible consequences of every choice, but someone will still need to decide “Is this what I want? Out of all the options at hand, which outcome should we prefer and why?”.

There’s no objective answer to questions of this kind.

After testing everything you can, and gathering all possible evidence what will happen in each case, you’ll still need to make a value judgement which of these outcomes is better. You’ll need to say that you value one thing more than another for no other reason that this is what feels right.

Of course, there are moral frameworks inspired by science. They value human life, because it’s the most complex thing in the known Universe, or because there’s no evidence there will be an afterlife to look forward to. The most popular one of such moral frameworks is utilitarianism that seeks to maximize happiness and minimize suffering of all sentient creatures on Earth.

But there’s no law of the Universe saying pain is bad and happiness is good.

A different moral system could say that pain is good as long as it fuels growth. Taken to its logical consequence, pure utilitarianism would lock us all in virtual realities, so that we can experience nothing but everlasting joy. If that feels somehow wrong, it means there are things in live that you value more than the experience of permanent bliss. Again, you value them because of your choice, gut feeling, subscribing to some moral code, not because there is objective evidence that valuing such things is better. Saying that something is better is already a value judgement of its own.

Using science as the only tool to make sense of the world is like trying to communicate in a language that only has adjectives and nouns. We can analyse, classify, and write down all the facts, but no one has any clue about what happens next. (Then someone tries to make the nouns behave like verbs, and we end up with Java, the most utilitarian language of all).

Science provides no moral solid ground on its own.

There can be no evidence of what is right or wrong. For someone who strongly believes in evidence and wants to build their whole world on top of that, this may come as a shock. You may spiral into outright nihilism like I did, unable to find any goal since they’re all equally arbitrary and therefore meaningless.

But in the end you may realize, we’ve all been building our castles in clouds for the whole time. Even though there’s no solid ground beneath, they are all somehow working just fine.

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