01 May 2007

Should there be limits to science?

Should there be limits to science?

This is a wide ranging question which can take us into the realms of methodology, human endeavour, ethics, political philosophy, economics, philosophy of business and of nature itself. Furthermore, today we use the word science to cover a multitude of sins!

In effect we really must take a look at the question: what is science? But since this question might take us longer than what we would like let's look at another question: What is the difference between science and technology?

Technology is much easier to identify: it's the stuff we employ and use to get things done for us. The computer I'm using is technology, understanding how electrons behave is science. This, at least, ought to get rid of questions like: should science be used to build nuclear bombs?

A legitimate question we should ask is: should science always lead to better technology? For example, whenever we read an account on astronomy we are always assured that this is important to help us understand the universe and our creation. I mean, does it matter; isn't it enough that astronomers do what astronomers have to do, and discover things that they have to discover? Why should astronomers justify their existence, so to speak? And as for medicine. The feeling one gets with medicine is that any science done in medicine must lead to some cure or treatment. Then there is the matter of profit and commercial exploitation, but I don't want to complicate matters at this point.

It has been a long time since science was done by amateur gentlemen (at the time things were like that) for the sake of knowledge and curiosity. There was a time when the order of the day was 'science for science's sake.'

There are at least two arguments to link science with technology; understanding technology to mean machines with functionality. The first is that today's science is complex and involves people with different intellectual backgrounds to get anywhere. This means that if the best brains are to be used for the benefit of science then there ought to be some sort of social payback. There is also the little matter that even scientists wish to maximise their income. Secondly, given the competing interests for public and private money any scientific activity must be accounted for. And in our society, utilitarianism is a good indicator.

But should accountability tell us what kind of science we do? Take the following two cases. While a lot of time and money is used to research anti-matter should scientists research where human beings have souls? There is also another type of accountability: moral accountability. Let's take DNA research for example. While no one will object to research done on the connection between DNA and diseases, should science be concerned with artificially creating lethal micro organisms?

The issue here is who decides what the economic and moral limits ought to be. Taking moral issues first, should different interests groups, such as religions or for that matter, football clubs, influence what science should and/or ought to do? Maybe economic limits are less controversial; much as we don't like it, money does limit what we can and cannot do. We can all understand this limitation, but should the profit motive be the main or only criteria when doing science?

Limiting science for moral or economic reasons it not such a difficult task. And the issue whether to link science to a technological pay back could well be an academic question. There is, however an other source that can limit science and this is science itself.

Surely, the science that is done today will limit or develop the science that is done tomorrow. If we don't understand how the Earth's environment functions today, how are we expected to understand the weather changes that we seem to experience? And if we accept the inevitable link between science and the technology payback, how are we expected to solve issues of limited energy resources that will face the generations that come after us.

Even here, the limitations are of value judgements. We, maybe through our political and commercial systems, chose what research to carry out with our resources and efforts. But how do we cope with limitations that are imposed on us by nature and by the process of discovery. There are too many examples to illustrate this point. Maybe the whole of science is like this; today's little bit of knowledge will lead to tomorrow's big discovery. The very nature of black holes limits the type of knowledge and science that can be done on black holes. We can safely say that scientists will not be conducting field studies on black holes in the very near future. Before the discovery of calculus, by Newton or Leibniz, you take your pick, a lot of science was just difficult if not impossible. The third form of limitation is one that is limited by the evolution of things. I'm thinking here of the evolution of the personal computer. There are those of us who still remember the Sinclair Spectrum computer, things have moved on since the early eighties!

When we address ourselves to questions like 'should there be limits to science?' we are surely thinking of Frankenstein sort of creations. Some would also mention armaments, others question the ethics of certain scientific research such as stem cell technology. There are, however, more serious things closer to home that help limit science and these are our own intelligence, our limitations in understanding, our limitations in learning, our inability to identify opportunities, our lack of foresight, our capacity to have a herd mentality, our prejudices, our foibles, our superstitions, our inertia, our indifference, our lack of interest and so on. In other words our own limitations!

Take care


Jan 14, 2005

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