Science versus ethics

The scientific revolution can be said to have begun when a Polish cleric named Nicholas
Copernicus, reversing Ptolemy, the...
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7.Science Versus Ethics


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7.Science Versus Ethics

  1. 1. Science versus ethics d/articles/2006/07/24/science_versus_ethics/ By James Carroll | July 24, 2006 IN ISSUING last week's veto of legislation to fund stem cell research, President Bush centered his opposition on the destruction of embryos. To him, that marked a boundary. ``Crossing the line,quot; he said, ``would needlessly encourage a conflict between science and ethics that can only do damage to both, and to our nation as a whole.quot; Leaving aside the political ramifications of this debate, what are the implications of the dichotomy the president has drawn ``between science and ethicsquot;? Do scientists carry on their work in one realm, while ethicists do theirs in another? Does the expertise of a researcher exclude concern for the moral meaning of research? When we define ethics as a discrete specialty, as, for example, by establishing a separate office in hospitals for the medical ethicist, does that mean that questions of right and wrong are not central to the work of others in healthcare? An inch below these questions are others about science and religion, because the assumption that many make is that moral thinking is tied to religious belief. God is the source of moral law, and if you want to know what is right and what is wrong, then the expertise of theologians or pastors is called for. To the realm of science, in which every question opens into a new question, belongs a necessary skepticism, but the realm of religion is defined by the certitudes of revealed faith. Scientists should be free to do their work, but religious authorities should be at their elbows, reviewing it for moral significance. The one knows only what can be established by observation, while the other knows truths that are eternal. Sometimes, both scientists and religious figures affirm this dichotomy, with scientists so focused on the narrow inquiry of testable knowledge that they disavow any interest in broader questions, and with religious people appealing to received absolutes that are broad enough to apply to even the most unprecedented scientific investigation. What occurs in the Petri dish can look very different to two such views. This is a formula for the conflict ``between science and ethicsquot; of which Bush warns. But what if the revolution in human thinking initiated by the age of science involves a simultaneous and intrinsic revolution in ethical reasoning? What if the scientific method is a moral method? In that case, certitudes in the realm of religion would be overthrown every bit as much as those in the realm of science. Such a shift, seeming to eliminate all appeals to authority outside of testable experience, would be so fundamental that humans of both kinds -- researchers and pastors -- might prefer to act as if it had not happened. Might prefer to act, that is, as if science and ethics are two realms apart.
  2. 2. The scientific revolution can be said to have begun when a Polish cleric named Nicholas Copernicus, reversing Ptolemy, theorized that the earth revolved around the sun, and when Galileo Galilei then proved the theory with a telescope. Religion's problem here was not only with what was being observed (a heliocentric universe, not a geocentric one, as in the Bible), but with the experimental mode of knowing. The scientific method prizes experience (investigation and observation) over ideology. Reason over faith. The starting point of experience is not God's existence (``In the beginning, Godquot;), but the person's (``I think, therefore I amquot;). How do I know I exist? Not because God tells me (``God said. . .quot;), but because I can experience myself asking the question. The self-awareness of the thinking being is the start of sure knowledge, which is why close attention to such awareness (observation, investigation, experiment) is the absolute value of science. When the Enlightenment, expanding broadly on the insight of scientists, thus gave primacy to the experience of the individual, religion correctly understood that claims for its own primacy, not to mention God's, were under assault. Religion therefore launched its battery of anti modern anathemas, as if reason were the enemy of faith. When science triumphed anyway, religion settled for a separate realm in which the scientific method (the primacy of experience) would not apply. Science, for the sake of its independence, accepted the dichotomy. The result, however, was a disaster for both. Religion, speaking generally, remains hostage to primitive thinking. Science generally shirks its responsibility to confront the moral implications that are intrinsic to all learning. Bush, even with an exacerbating veto, warns of conflict between science and ethics. But he, like all of us, is at its mercy. James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe. © Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.