Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Ends of Science

Selections from Eric Cohen's article in First Things, 167 (November 2006): 26-30.

....The trouble is that most scientists — at least most modern biologists, whose work dominates the public imagination about science — do not seem to reflect much or deeply about the limits of their method, or about the moral significance of the ends they seek and the means they use....In the public realm, most biologists seem, all too often, like scientific geniuses and moral simpletons, applying rational rigor to their investigations of nature but relying on feeling as their only moral compass. And for all its appreciation of nature’s complexity, the scientific mind seems no rival for the Bible or Aristotle or Machiavelli in understanding human complexity. Next to the philosopher, the neuroscientist still looks, all too often, like a fool....

For it turns out that the methods of science cannot vindicate the ends of science, and the knowledge acquired by scientific methods cannot always justify the particular experiments used to acquire it. Yet scientists desperately want such vindication in the eyes of their fellow citizens: Good science (meaning interesting, promising, exciting) needs to be seen as good (meaning virtuous, praiseworthy, compassionate) by everyone. And so scientists have invented a new method to defend the unfettered freedom of the old one: They claim the mantle of science while making ethical claims (“embryo research is good”) that rest on no special scientific basis at all, and they portray their opponents as antiscience for raising ethical questions that are entirely consistent with the scientific facts (“embryological development begins at conception”)….

From the beginning, science was driven by both democratic pity and aristocratic guile, by the promise to help humanity and the desire to be free from the constraints of the common man, with his many myths and superstitions and taboos. The modern scientist comes to heal the wretched bodies of those whose meager minds are always a threat to experimental knowledge. Salomon’s House, where the elite of Bacon’s scientific utopia would decide which inventions to publish and which to hide, existed both to protect men from science and science from men. It offers a new salvation and seeks to elude the oppressive trappings of the old one. It brings a new compassion and a new contempt. This was true in the beginning, and it is true today….

[C]all it the original sin of the scientific Enlightenment— [it] still haunts modern science: Perpetual progress is not the same thing as perfection. Infinite progress also means infinite discontent, as man is left in a state of eternal becoming with no end. “Indefinite perfectibility,” Condorcet’s dream, is an irreconcilable contradiction.

Perfection, after all, is an end, a limit, something definite. Christ embodies the perfection of love. The philosopher grasps the perfection of knowledge. Yet the scientist destroys the possibility of perfection by seeing a world in permanent flux. Perhaps the only perfection available to the modern scientist is stoic acceptance of contingency on the way to oblivion—and indeed, there is no necessary contradiction between stoic philosophy and modern natural science. Yet stoic acceptance of nature is precisely what modern science, technological from the beginning, is incapable of embracing in spirit. Modern science portrays a world where acceptance of our fate within nature is all we can do, and yet it remakes knowledge in such a way that technological striving is seen as the only thing worth doing. Modern biology, like Sisyphus, is haunted by temporary successes and ultimate failure. It fends off death but cannot eradicate it; it explains death’s role in natural selection but not the death of individual men still thirsty for salvation….

[Max] Weber’s essay on “science as a vocation” is perhaps the best starting point for understanding the limits of scientific aspiration in our time. Weber praised scientists for living in the world of facts and criticized those who sought salvation by pretending that the old gods still exist. But he also reminded scientists that they have nothing privileged to say about the realm of value, the realm that matters most to human beings seeking knowledge of how to live. Like everyone else, the scientist must decide which ends to pursue, which gods to serve, which demon will “hold the very fibers of his life.” And these are exactly the questions that the scientific method cannot answer. Divine salvation may be an illusion but so is believing that science can tell us how to live in the world it dissects and describes, and how to live well in a world where scientific power is so readily, so seductively, so dangerously, at our disposal….

In every area of public life where science and morality intersect, there are questions about the use of science that science itself can never answer. On stem cells, scientists can tell us the potential benefits of destroying human embryos but not whether the progress of medicine justifies the willful destruction of nascent human life. On drilling in Alaska, scientists can estimate the potential oil reserves and the potential harm to the ecosystem but not whether we have a moral responsibility to expand the domestic oil supply or to preserve an unsullied wilderness even with economic harm to ourselves. On human exploration of space, scientists can estimate the economic and human costs of putting a man on Mars and the potential benefits of such a mission to the advance of human knowledge, but they cannot say whether human greatness in space is more worthy of public funds than ongoing research into curing AIDS. Science is power without wisdom about the uses of power.

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