Tales from a Public Bar

For nearly thirty years now I have met up, two or three times a year, with a bunch of friends for a ‘social’ weekend of fun and frolics. At our last meet up we agreed, under the influence of drink, that our social gatherings always involved drinking in pubs and that it might be a good idea to do something different. As a result, this weekend I found myself, although desperately underprepared, running a half marathon. I say underprepared because I thought we’d never do it and only started pounding the back lanes of Devon about four/five weeks ago when we registered!

Anyway, the route took us over an area known as Salisbury Plain and ended at Stonehenge (yes that one). Given we’ve had monsoon conditions in the UK recently (what a friend has described as the wettest drought since records began) it was quite a surprise to find the grey constant cloud cover had been replaced by a bright sunny summers day. These rather pleasant conditions appeared to turn into searing desert heat five miles out!

Well, we finished it (just) but obviously, as we were dehydrated, we headed off to the city of Salisbury ….err…yes, to the pub (see first paragraph).

The pub we ended up in was very pleasant and turned out to be the preferred drinking place for Wessex Archaeology. This is the regional archaeology unit that conducts archaeological digs and research both locally and nationally. As a result the place was full of archaeologists and we got talking to one guy in particular. When he found out that I was a scientist the conversation took an interesting turn. It went something like this:

Arch: “For thousands and thousands of years there was no separation between natural law and science. They were seen as the same thing. Only by the 19th Century do you get that separation.”

Me: “Not sure if Galileo would agree with you”

Arch: “O.K. but generally speaking there was no separation, there weren’t ‘scientists’ as such in ancient Egypt”

Me: “Mmm…so who designed the pyramids? They may not have seen themselves as scientists, but they were.”

Arch: “No, they were engineers, not scientists. I agree, we’ve engineered solutions since the dawn of time. Engineering got us to the Moon, not science. The idea that science helps us understand the world around us and asks questions about existence and reality is very recent – and actually philosophy does that much better.”

Me: “But the Greeks wondered about the nature of reality and world around us, they did all sorts of experiments – not related to engineered solutions.”

Arch: “Well, they were natural philosophers”

Me: “Yeah, but come on that’s just another name for it.”

Arch: “I’m not so sure. Actually, I wonder what the world would look like if we’d spent the money we’ve spent on science on philosophy instead?”

Me: “Bloody awful! The difference between science and philosophy is that science delivers. I’d rather have antibiotics than Focault”

Arch: “Yeah, but what did the Moon missions deliver? Teflon. If they’d spent the money on building a perfect replica shark, they’d have got the same results!”

Me: “Hang on, you said the Moon landings weren’t science! But that aside, they delivered far more – even, well especially, philosophically. That Earth Rise photograph kick started the whole environmental movement, you know that whole Blue Planet thing?”

Arch: “Yes, but that wasn’t the aim”

Me: “But science doesn’t work in a linear way. We only have Penicillin because Flemming couldn’t be bothered to wash up!”

Arch: “Billions of dollars for a photo and a frying pan!”

Me: “But it was aspirational – the Stonehenge of a our time.”

Arch: “No, no, that’s just my point! Stonehenge is a good example of something that connects us to the natural and the spiritual. Not sure if a Saturn 5 rocket does!”

Well, the conversation continued on and off for the rest of the afternoon, but I became increasingly incoherent the more we ‘rehydrated’.

I know this is a curious blog, but I wonder if anyone out there might like to comment on these questions? Does science really contribute to our understanding of reality anymore than philosophy does? Can the practice of science add to our emotional (I use that term to avoid words such as spiritual), aspirational side? If that archaeologist is right, have we lost or gained in separating science from art and philosophy?

I’d be very interested in what you think?