Scientists not giving human life its meaning

 

WHEN IT comes to science I’m with Bob Geldof. The DNA discoverer Prof James Watson told a Dublin audience last week that scientists could find a cure for cancer within 10 years and my first thought was: So what, if we are only going to live our crummy lives the same way? And for every you or I who gets an extra few cancer-free years, so will a Kim Jong-un or a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Incidentally, I’m also with Geldof in knowing “absolutely f***-all” about science (his words, naturally, not mine). I still remember the withering look my father, an engineer by training, gave me when I tried to convince him I could create a perpetual motion machine out of a sequence of large and small cogs.

At least I’m scientific enough to know these first two points may be related. I studied humanities and feel more at home in that camp and am therefore prone to downplaying the achievements of science.

Yes, technology lets me download excellent Philosopher Zone podcasts from Australian national radio ( tinyurl.com/ 829lpkc) but it has also lumbered me with the life-draining experience of maintaining four email accounts while also monitoring Facebook, Yammer and Twitter.

Anyone who knows a bit of history, moreover, will be wary of scientists’ claims that they are making the world a better place. Simply knowing more than the next man does not give you the higher moral ground.

Ludwig Wittgenstein put it best: “Wisdom is all cold and . . . you can no more use it for setting your life to rights than you can forge iron when it is cold.”

I had practical experience of this last week when I watched a BBC documentary showing Michael Mosley swallow a tiny camera to stream images of his digestive system from top to bottom. It was interesting but it didn’t make me a better person.

This may all seem self-evident. In fact, I hope it is self-evident, but it needs repeating because

of the way we are being love- bombed by science through the likes of Euroscience Open Forum 2012, the conference at which both Watson and Geldof spoke.

To its credit, Esof 2012 contained a diverse programme and the one event I got to – a mesmerising reading of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen by Rough Magic Theatre Company – explored this very issue of the interplay between science and morality. However, the overarching narrative of Esof 2012 was that science is a marginalised and under- appreciated activity, which could not be further from the truth.

The scientific community has enormous influence, in some cases is extraordinarily well funded and it is capable of “capturing” the world economy and global politics in the same way international finance does – and with the same lack of accountability.

Just think of the power wielded, for example, by some of the world’s largest technology and pharmaceutical firms.

The main cause of unease last week, though, was the way Ireland Inc was so keen to genuflect before the men in lab coats. They might hold the key to economic recovery but there is another type of recovery – a recovery in values and convictions – which they may, inadvertently, help to undermine.

I mean, what is it we really need in this country at the moment? Progress in broadband or in moral standards?

The science fraternity will cry “false dichotomy” but what it tends to overlook is the impact its work has on long-cherished value systems. I’m not talking about religion only. All belief systems – including belief in human rights and the dignity of the individual – face a real threat from scientific discovery or, perhaps more accurately, exaggerated claims on its behalf.

Take advances in genetics, for example. Rightly or wrongly, they have encouraged us to see things in a deterministic fashion. Now more than ever we tend to view our moral transgressions, not as matters of personal responsibility but rather as the inevitable product of traits we inherited from our parents.

In this environment, relativism has also become a more attractive proposition. We have less and less faith in our ability to adjudicate between competing value claims. Above all, however, science’s inexorable march towards atomising everything lends weight to the idea that life has no meaning – beyond perhaps the survival of the species.

This isn’t to say scientists should stop discovering stuff. That would be plainly ridiculous. However we urgently need a debate around what values we are capable of holding on to, if not upholding, in a more scientifically literate world.

Wittgenstein’s maxim “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” is commonly invoked by scientists who wish to shut the door to any discussion of morality or ethics.

Wittgenstein’s formulation was published when he was in his early 30s,though, and he spent the rest of his life disavowing it, acknowledging that you could not be human without engaging in fuzzy, unscientific, value-laden talk. In later life, when people came to him for advice, he would reply: “Just improve yourself; that is all you can do to improve the world.”

Maybe I am being a bit unreasonable, but the human part of me – the part that sees people as ends in themselves and not just means to an end, that sees value in friendship and love and that knows good and evil are facts and not just perceptions – says good riddance to Esof 2012 and longs instead for a week-long conference on the meaning of life.

Compared to that, the nature of life is, well, interesting.

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