The question is not quite as facetious as it might sound; it is really rather metaphysical; and it is a question that will ever more inevitably pose itself the more the sciences find themselves constrained rather than liberated by the mechanistic paradigm to which they have been committed for four centuries now. I should note, however, that it is also a question that makes sense only if one is using the word “think” with the perversely distinctive connotation given it by Martin Heidegger when he advanced the somewhat Orphic claim that “die Wissenschaft denkt nicht,” (science does not think). For there is, he insisted, an enormous and inviolable distinction to be drawn between the calculative and quantitative concerns of the scientist on the one hand and, on the other, the properly philosophical or contemplative act of reflection that is the exclusive province of the genuine thinker.
You see, “thinking,” late in Heidegger’s increasingly self-indulgent idiom, is something that is more primordial even than philosophy; it is an original meditation on the difference between being and beings. It is, properly speaking, an act of ontological reflection, an attentive waiting upon the mystery of being as such. The sciences, however, are of their nature quantitative investigations of the physical realm and so must not presume to concern themselves with the being of the world or to imagine that they can do so, even when they are at their most purely theoretical; they cannot transcend their essential but limited vocation to measure things. So vast, indeed, is the Kluft—the gulf—between calculation and genuinely contemplative thought that, from the vantage of the latter, the former scarcely qualifies as thinking at all.
Now, as is ever the case with Heidegger, the partitions he erects between philosophy and all other spheres of inquiry tend to frustrate trespass from only one side: The sciences cannot aspire to philosophy, but philosophy has—even if only by metaphysical inadvertence—a necessary power for determining the nature, problems, and limits of science. Modern science relies on a certain metaphysical picture, that of the Ge-Stell (as Heidegger annoyingly calls the modern philosophical scheme of presentation and representation), which reduces the world to a collection of objects set before a subject, with no medium of ontological participation between them. Beings are ours to quantify, examine, manipulate, and master. Modernity is the age of the world-picture, and the sciences as we know them could not have come into existence, or accomplished such prodigies of discovery, invention, and destruction, apart from a very particular set of metaphysical prejudices, all of which were provided them by philosophical tradition. And so, by implication, philosophy retains a power, to reflect on the nature of the sciences, that they themselves lack.
All charmingly pompous and perverse, of course. I have to confess that I sometimes find it tempting to adopt Heidegger’s distinction, if only because it seems to accord with so much recent experience. If only one thing has been learned from the intervention of some of the more buoyantly atheist biologists and physicists in popular debates over belief and unbelief, it is that possession of the impressive calculative gifts needed for scientific work do not necessarily entail an equally impressive aptitude for abstract logic. But, more charitably, Heidegger’s distinction may in the end do no more than take the sciences at their word, as it was given in troth at the dawn of the present epoch. This, after all, is the foundational myth of all modern scientific culture: that true science is a chastely inductive discipline, innocent of all metaphysical commitments or presuppositions, which stoutly refuses to presume any kind of causal finality or purpose in nature, or to consider the natural order in any but mechanistic terms. Modern science was born in a proud and defiant rejection of “thinking.”
At least, so the story goes. In reality, the bracketing out of finality and form has generally been a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance. Pure induction, utterly free from purposive expectations, is more or less an impossibility. Biologists, for instance, tend to treat the objects of their scrutiny as intentional systems, because any other approach would lead only to an interminable succession of abortive constructive lunges in the dark; the question that guides their investigations is usually “What is this for?” And it is a matter more of dogma than of scientific scruple to assume that this is only a convenient fiction of method. Nor are the life sciences particularly fruitful without some invocation of formal order. It is possible to dissolve organisms into a haze of molecular ingredients and genetic codes, but such is the hierarchical nature of life that it is questionable that the formal complexity and reproductive power of those organisms can ever simply be reconstructed entirely from a molecular-chemical basis resting on even more-basic physical laws.
At the very least, it is conceivable that the life sciences could reach a point where their practitioners would find it obvious that the mechanistic model of organisms—a fortuitous arrangement of intrinsically dead elements that function as apparent unities only as a result of accidental juxtaposition and evolutionary attrition—is simply inadequate as a picture of life, and especially of life capable of reproducing itself. It is a purely speculative question, of course, but what if the most scrupulous researches in biology should finally disclose a natural order in which there are no machines at all, and in which life can be understood only through the postulate of some formal causality directed to an end?
And perhaps the issue becomes more pressing when one shifts one’s attention from biology to physics. After all, for nine decades now we have been roving the ghostly boundary regions between the classical Newtonian universe and an all but inconceivable quantum realm without finding any secure place of repose: that liminal region where all the sure and solid constants of space and time as we know them melt away into a mist of potentiality, superposition, entanglement, spukhafte Fernwirkung, and so on. And it may even be the case (so one very venerable formulation of quantum mechanics would have it) that this realm of the indeterminate in fact never resolves itself into the dimensions and regularities of classical space apart from the presence of consciousness—and this precisely because consciousness is an exception to the laws that govern the physical order.
Does any of this matter? Granted, it is a mistake for any scientist to consider the rules of method to be a comprehensive account of reality; but for all the necessary purposes of research, the method surely suffices. Perhaps scientists make the most progress when, in regard to metaphysical questions, they remain austerely incurious. From Newton’s “hypotheses non fingo” to Niels Bohr’s formulation of the Copenhagen interpretation, the preferred disposition of the modern sciences has been a radical pragmatism. If our inventories of physical events and our theories together yield accurate predictions, what more need be accomplished? At the boundaries of the paradigm, the sciences reach a limit, both empirical and imaginative. Within the enclosure of those garden walls they are perfectly free to accumulate facts, of which the supply is inexhaustible, and to interpret those facts by enucleating theories, of which the possible varieties are incalculable; but beyond those walls lies the realm of the metaphysical, which they have no calling to explore. Maybe Heidegger was correct, then: Science should only calculate and compile—should gather the flower nearest at hand—and ought not to think at all.
I do not know, to be honest. It really is a question, I suppose, of what one thinks the purpose of scientific knowledge to be. For Francis Bacon, for instance, the best rationale for seeking to establish a new, genuinely inductive scientific method, stripped of all metaphysical fancies, was that it would allow humanity to extend the empire of human reason ever further over phenomenal reality. For him, true knowledge was simply efficacy, the power to dominate, alter, and use. I, however, prefer to believe that a more wholesome aspiration than that prompts the scientist’s yearning for understanding—a still more passionate, more irrepressible longing for those truths that the facts merely adumbrate. And so it seems to me we should allow ourselves at least to ask whether the sciences might arrive under their own momentum at mysteries to which, ultimately, no merely quantitative solution can be formulated.
It may be that for four centuries we have been enjoying the fruits of a mechanistic illusion, which remains our tacit picture of reality as much as a result of cultural inertia as of conceptual solvency. Should that picture begin to dissolve, precisely because it has prompted too many questions that it cannot coherently answer, then the pragmatic “unthinkingness” of modern science may have to be progressively abandoned. At least, it is diverting to wonder whether the epoch of “thoughtless” science may one day prove to have been a necessary but transitory interval between periods more tolerant of a certain fluidity in the boundaries between empirical observation and metaphysical speculation. There might come a time when theoretical science—especially if it is understood as something more than the rather sordid project of power for power’s sake—may find itself obliged, by its own discoveries and intractable perplexities, to start thinking once again after all.