Beyond the Limits of the Scientific Method: Ethics

Albert Einstein once commented that science can tell us what we can do but not what we should do.   Some might think that generally science, engineering or technology are just about the facts, and so nothing more than the scientific method ever has to considered when measuring the validity of an experiment, invention, discovery, new technology.   But science and technology do not exist in a vacuum.    The scientific world is not a closed system separate from the rest of the universe.   Science and technology reside within the matrix of all human experience, of the environment, and of the known universe.   The facts are often not inert, but have the potential of changing, improving of damaging the matrix of life itself. 

Thus science and technology are not just limited to the empirical universe, they exist in a bigger context, which is not limited by hard, cold facts – the universe of humans and of ethnics.  And for believers, science exists within the realm of creation and God’s reign. 

Keeping science and technology within the framework of human ethical discourse is the subject of the 12 August New York Times science article “Handle With Care.”   One of the troubling issues of technological advancement is the “technology might be useful, even life-saving. But it would inevitably produce environmental effects impossible to predict and impossible to undo.”  The great example of this is the setting off of the first atomic bomb – scientists feared possible catastrophic collateral damage and suggested many scenarios, but despite the prodigious minds working on the project they did not foresee that “the bombs would generate electromagnetic pulses intense enough to paralyze electrical systems across a continent.”   Science is neither omniscient nor infallibly prescient, something which scientists who reject religion might do well to remember.  “Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems, cited the bomb in a famous 2000 article in the magazine Wired  …  He said it was common for scientists and engineers to fail ‘to understand the consequences of our inventions while we are in the rapture of discovery…'”

In other words scientists are often so involved in the details of their work that they forget the bigger context in which science occurs – life itself.   The TIMES article suggests that scientists are increasingly waking up to this concern especially as technology progresses and the inventions are ever more powerful and represent greater threats to all humanity and the global reality.

Scientists have other fears – the public might misunderstand their work and come to foolish conclusions about what is being done, the scientists  might lose control of their project if ethical oversight is required,  and the bottom line the scientists might lose the monetary benefits and rights to their work if public or ethical control is demanded and their patentable discoveries must be revealed.

Of course, religious leaders have for years raised ethical questions about science, but the Enlightenment spawned separation of faith and reason, science and religion, has created such antagonisms that the ethical questions from religion are often dismissed as alarmist.   “‘There is no one to say “thou shalt not,”‘ said Jane Lubchenco, an environmental scientist at Oregon State University and a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.”  No one she means from the scientific community.  There is no moral authority that science recognizes, which is part of the problem of a system that has no higher authority then human rationality.   We need only remember that Fascism and Communism, the two philosophical systems which wreaked havoc and death on the Twentieth Century were both the full grown children of Enlightenment human reason and fully in agreement with atheistic scientific rationalism and used this reasoning with massively fatal effects.

For Christians, I think this article means that we have to far more fully understand and engage the science and the scientists involved in advancing technology.  I don’t think this will be accomplished by rejecting scientific discovery and advancement in the name of biblical literalism.  We need to think about Einstein’s comment – science is determining what can be done, we should be engaging scientists about what should be done.  To continue to make the only discussion with science over the literal truth of Genesis is to abdicate our responsibility in the things that science is actually doing by engaging in a philosophical argument that cannot be resolved by science or religion.

Science, however, not only tries to keep religion at bay, it also endeavors to keep democracy far from its doors and does not want to have to respect the wishes of the majority (it sees this as allowing “politics” to interfere with science).  Some scientists want no influence from religion or politics or public concern because they want nothing but human reason (and generally their own personal opinion) to govern what they do, invent, insert into the world).  They want not only God but humanity itself to keep out of their work.   And having watched Fascism and Communism operate without concern for God or mankind in the 20th Century, why do these scientiest find public concern so offensive?  No religion has been able to inflict the death and suffering on humanity that science has.