The Invisible Things

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Progress, Ethics and the Finitude of Means

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As petrol costs continue to rise, there seems to be an abundance of discussion about governmental regulation of price gauging and even some philosophical talk of alternative energy. As much as I am intrigued and hoping for a paradigm shift in our reliance upon fossil fuels, I can’t help but suspect that it is a long way off. While new types of transportation solutions are a start, even if they are still very much in the concept phase, my concern is the pre-technological paradigm shift that is needed in our scientific motivations. How does this in any way relate to Christian philosophy and apologetics? Stick with me, I promise to make the connection, however loose, long-winded, or disconnected my approach may be…

Let me begin by suggesting that the past two decades have seen exponential growth in technology, both on the scientific and consumer level, which ultimately seems to have become the goal of science itself. In other words, it seems that science, at least on the popular level, is expected to produce technology, which in turn is expected to progress society towards something better. Yet, it seems that any sincere scientist would hope that at the root of their study is a fascination for the universe and a desire to understand it more. For the Christian, this inductive study of the creation is rooted in the image of God in which we are made. As I suggest in my past two posts concerning the relationship between faith and science, the questions that man asks regarding his existence and the universe must be approached bilaterally- from both observation and philosophy, as science ideally gathers data and philosophy provides the framework through which to interpret it.

However, some scientists disagree. In 1985, Dr. Gerald Feinberg, Professor of Physics at Columbia University wrote,

Scientists now consider that scientific inquiry dominates the human intellectual adventure…Many philosophers argue, as do I, that ethical questions do not have answers in the sense that scientific questions do. (from ‘Solid Clues’).”

While I certainly agree that there are substantial differences between the approaches that science and ethics may take in providing answers to questions, or even the types of questions that they can answer, it is a false dichotomy to limit questions categorically to ethics and science. In fact, if one is determined to create such a dichotomy, ethics is the wrong choice and should be substituted with philosophy. Ethics is a system of moral principles dependent upon a philosophy. Without a grounded philosophy, a system of ethics is meaningless and could allow for anything. (I would even go further to say that philosophy cannot be the ultimate counterpart to science in this hypothetical dichotomy, as the philosophy itself depends upon its epistemological root, but this gets our discussion into much choppier waters than I am ready to navigate in this post!) But, to suggest that science dominates the human intellectual adventure is irresponsible and ignorant of the reality of science’s need for philosophical guidance. This is along the lines of the projected face of the Wizard of Oz declaring it’s independence from the true ‘wizard,’ the man behind the curtain.

Feinberg goes on to write,

“There is no valid reason for any society to limit the type of questions that scientists may investigate or to constrain the type of answers that scientists may find to the questions that interest them…Society is no more justified in regulating the curiosity of its scientists than it would be in regulating their eating habits, or regulating the expression of artists.”

Society is certainly not justified in arbitrarily setting limits for scientific inquiry, but clearly no one is advocating this. Ethics, on the other hand, derived from philosophical determination of the nature of mankind and the universe, should naturally affect how science proceeds. This certainly does not mean policing the thoughts of individuals, so Feinberg can rest assured that even ethics cannot limit the types of questions that scientists ask. This does, however, mean that ethics should prevent certain methods from being used for the purpose of answering questions, as well as determine the value of study relative to its expected impact upon society. For example, while many would agree that it was nobody’s business what sorts of questions Josef Mengele asked in his own mind, it became the world’s business the moment he proceeded to use men, women and children as the subjects of his depraved inquiry. Even today it is fashionable to decry the use of animals in scientific testing, of course it should be pointed out that tolerance for this practice is much lower in the case of the cosmetics industry than it is in cancer research. So while it is true on one hand that ethics cannot allow men to attempt to police the minds of other men, it is true on the other that one’s curiosity does not have preeminence over society. Moreover, thoughts of Mengelian proportion aught to compel psychiatric and/or spiritual council rather than be indulged simply because they are one’s right to think. Likewise, many questions are lawfully and rightfully asked, but the means of attaining answers to these questions have the potential to wreak havoc upon mankind. Thus, our responsibility toward the protection of one another trumps curiosity.

Dr. Liebe Cavalieri, in his book “The Double-Edged Helix: Genetic Engineering in the Real World,” responds to this particular type of thinking when he writes,

"I suspect that many of the implications of [modern science] have been cast aside by the scientific community because a more enlightened view would require a general examination of societal problems, and the solutions to those problems might place constraints on the scientific enterprise.”

In other words, in constructing this false dichotomy of science and ethics at odds, a world is created in which scientists can rightfully turn a blind eye towards considering the effects of their exploits. In doing so, the actual progress or improvement that society can expect is likely stunted. Cavalieri continues,

“Many scientists fail to take note of the possible ill effects that could follow from their work; they make the implicit, vague assumption that all science is good, as though its beneficent application were foolproof. This leads to the illogical conclusion that any and all goals are equally desirable in the search for knowledge, and this is somehow connected with freedom of inquiry…Some scientists hold up the specters of Galileo or Lysenko at any suggestion of public accountability, although their histories are not relevant to the issues of public and environmental safety raised by [modern technologies.]"

But all science cannot be implicitly good, as the example of Mengele so simply points out. Even questions such as how to apprehend cures to disease or improve food supply to the world are posited out of a moral and ethical framework. If it were not morally right to care for the sick, I can see little reason why science would be calibrated toward such results on its own accord. If there is such a thing as ‘good’ science (meaning science for good, rather than science well done), then there must also be such a thing as ‘bad’ science. Bad science could be as obvious as exploiting others for immoral purposes or as subtle as methods extended for a goal that brings short-term benefit but ultimately contributes to the harm of society. This is why ethics, as a system, and ultimately morality, must shepherd science.

I began this post with a remark about our present condition, some twenty years after Feinberg and Cavalieri wrote on the issue, which finds us uncertain of our future as we seem hopefully dependent upon fossil fuels and outgrowing our ability to sustain ourselves. It would be unfair to suggest that the scientists of the past, enthusiastic to develop society and get motors running (literally), should have known better and suppressed their knowledge of petroleum refining to prevent a massively disproportionate dependence upon it years later. However, now that we are existing within such an enormous machine, it may be time that we consider the costs of being liberated from our dependence. At that, I will conclude with Cavalieri’s seemingly prophetic remarks (made in 1985) regarding our situation and future:

“The physical realities of finite energy supplies, the limited ability of the environment to absorb pollution, population growth and the finite potential for food production, and, ultimately, the projected thermal instability of the planet force the inevitable conclusion that growth must cease within a few decades…The practice of science as we know it cannot continue unrestrained, in the present milieu, for its results are bound to be applied by the industrial establishment in the name of progress…Scientists will have to develop a social conscience, convey this to the people, and above all, teach their newly acquired wisdom to the technocrats. To call for an awakening of scientists, technocrats, and the masses on whom technology is practiced sounds all but hopeless, to be sure. But there is no other way to halt the impending technological disaster.”


Written by Christopher Butler

April 25, 2006 at 6:29 pm

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