Many people today wrongly believe that once science has “spoken” on a matter of public policy, allegedly non-scientific sources of knowledge and wisdom like history, metaphysics, ethics, law, and theology must dutifully bow the knee and remain silent. This is absurd for two reasons: first, it ignores science’s self-imposed limits, and second, while the knowledge of material reality provided by science is essential to guide public policy, it can never decide the moral issues involved. The final decision on policy is always a moral challenge – will this be good for people, or bad?
Should automation be applied regardless of the unemployment that would result? Should a company be allowed to collect genetic data on employees? Should research on human-animal chimeras be allowed? Should we limit the government’s powers of surveillance? Should we increase government funding for research and development? Should nuclear weapons be banned? These are simply not scientific questions. Science gives us knowledge, but not wisdom.
As important as these issues are, the controversy concerning the purpose of science remains the prime focus of this essay, and in fact, subsumes the debates already touched on. The future of science, and indeed of humanity, will be decided by this centuries-old controversy about the essential purpose of science. The two main responses are not scientific, because science cannot say what its essential purpose is. It is scientists and philosophers who must decide – and their judgments are necessarily based on metaphysical reasoning, not scientific method. Ominously, the stances they take inevitably determine the course and conduct of science.
First, there is the utilitarian response of the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution, which was driven not just by the quest for knowledge for its own sake, but by a practical, socio-political motive. Descartes made it plain: modern science would make humankind “masters and possessors of nature”, increasing “human utility and power” by means of technology. Achieving this clearly expressed vision meant focusing on those aspects of reality amenable to precise prediction and control, which required adopting the quantitative method. Though some scientists today may deny it, science continues, in large part, to be motivated by the moral vision of Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes to free humankind from disease, scarcity, and drudgery, and to enable humans to control and exploit the natural world.
Secondly, there is the view that science’s purpose is the incremental expansion of knowledge about the cosmos and humanity. In other words, the purpose of science is to discover truth. And since the truth about humanity and the world is not confined to material reality, many prominent scientists have agreed that scientific knowledge must be complemented by knowledge acquired through other disciplines. As Einstein said, “Science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of all kinds remain necessary.”
The importance of making the right choice between these two views cannot be overstated, and we must be guided both by science’s triumphs and tragedies. Science transforms the world with new materials, medicines, and machines. It drives economic growth, and ground-breaking research and new technologies typically generate start-up enterprises. Leading Infotech and biotech industries have blossomed as a result of the pioneering work done in and around research universities, and a global science leader like MIT can claim to have contributed to the birth of more than 30 000 companies employing some 4.6 million people.
The blue-sky research now under threat from funding pressures and blinkered commercial agendas has in its own idiosyncratic fashion produced immense and unexpected benefits for humankind. Penicillin and laser beams are obvious examples, but there are many others. Superconductivity, a quantum mechanical phenomenon discovered in 1911, showed that cooling certain materials to ultra-low temperatures enabled them to conduct electricity without resistance, allowing large electric currents to flow without a power source. This led to the development of the powerful magnets that make possible technologies like high-speed trains that levitate through magnetic fields and fMRI brain-scanners.
The benefits of science are staggering, but the downside cannot be ignored. Science today faces a very serious ethical crisis. Devastating weaponry, misguided priorities, dishonest claims, inhumane medical experiments, dangerous drugs, collusion with questionable corporate, political, and military schemes, ideological contamination, the erosion of professional standards, and other aberrations, undermine the image of science. The damage done goes beyond the immediate suffering because tarnishing the image of science is a death-blow to civilization itself.
Widely-respected science journalist, John Horgan, says, “In ‘The End of Science’, I predicted that scientists, as they struggle to overcome their limitations, would become increasingly desperate and prone to hyperbole. This trend has become more severe and widespread than I anticipated. In my 30-plus years of covering science, the gap between the ideal of science and its messy, all-too-human reality has never been greater than it is today.”
The ideal of science that Horgan talks about is the quest for truth, while the messy all-too-human reality is the utilitarian attitude so easily perverted by selfish agendas. The issue is as decisive as this: if the purpose of science is seen to be truth, then it will continue to be of immense value, and yes, usefulness. If, conversely, the purpose is seen to be usefulness, then science will be increasingly corrupted by those who define utility in terms of power and money, rather than the good of all people and the planet.
Science itself is not the issue – scientists and their sponsors are. Science doesn’t promote self-serving personal agendas, because science is not a person. It is a method of inquiry, invented by humans to find the truth about reality. When scientists depart from that ideal it inevitably becomes corrupted, and capable of terrible, even cataclysmic harm.
The moral collapse of the modern West is a devastating threat to both science and leadership. However, it is a reassuring fact that most of the ethical failures within the scientific community are exposed by scientists who have maintained their moral compass, and who understand that science is about humanity, and that it will only flourish when it is practiced with the virtues essential to it.
The reality is that just as snollygosters make misleaders rather than leaders, so too do they make science-saboteurs rather than scientists.
Science, properly understood, is indeed a magnificent model for leadership. Einstein saw the most incomprehensible thing about the cosmos as being the fact that it is comprehensible by humans, whose very purpose seems to be to seek truth and to live a life of virtue according to its precepts. Science, like leadership, is essential to the fulfilment of true human potential. As professor of physics Robbert Dijkgraaf rightly notes:
“Society benefits from embracing the scientific culture of accuracy, truth-seeking, critical questioning, healthy skepticism, respect for facts and uncertainties, and wonder at the richness of nature and the human spirit.”