Science and Values

Philosophical Reflections VI

The world external to our consciousness is real and objective, enabling us to learn about it by using our senses, our reason, and testing our ideas against what actually happens. The formalisation of this process has led to science, our most powerful system for learning about the world.

Attempts to show internal inconsistency or fundamental limitations to reason and science (thus showing a need for some other, mystical source of knowledge), have been discussed in previous chapters, and found wanting. But other attacks, from the perspective of values, have been launched. Science is either deficient because it cannot give us values, or worse, it destroys the basis of values.

The Basis of Ethics

Typical of the claim that science is deficient if it cannot prescribe ethics is this speech from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (where would these articles be without him?):

“Largely through science, billions of us live in one small world… But science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live. Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it. Science can make pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it … And [the power science gives] will force everyone to ask the same question – What should I do with my power? – which is the very question science says it cannot answer.”

That is, science has so improved human life that there are now billions of us, but this isn’t good enough because it can’t tell those billions how to live. One can as validly criticise one’s heart, because it cannot oxygenate the blood it pumps; one’s hand, because it can both create and destroy.

The purpose of science is no more and no less than to learn the facts about reality. Science cannot discover values, because facts have no values: facts just are. Science can learn how best to heal a man, or how best to torture him: such facts exist whether we know them or not, whether we wish them or not, and in themselves are just facts of physiology, not values. Whether such research is good or evil has meaning only within the context of our values: and determining the proper values for human beings is the task of philosophy, not science.

The Structure of Philosophy

The place of science can be clarified by reference to the structure of philosophy. The foundation of philosophy is metaphysics, and rooted in it are epistemology and ethics. There are further derivations, but these do not concern us here.

Metaphysics is the study of the fundamental nature of things. Thus the metaphysics I have described in previous chapters is: consciousness exists; an external reality exists; our nature demands that we learn about this reality; and we can, because its nature is that it is objectively real.

Epistemology is the study of how we can gain and validate knowledge about reality. Thus my discussion of the Inquiry Method – the interplay of senses, memory, reason and experiment – is the foundation of an epistemology. Epistemology is rooted in metaphysics, as the nature of reality clearly affects how it can be known.

Ethics is concerned with values and morality: how we should behave. Ethics is affected not only by your view of reality, but also by your epistemology: an ethics based on a belief in the efficacy of reason will differ from one based on the primacy of faith and feelings.

Clearly, science is merely an offshoot from epistemology. As a tool for learning about reality, science may guide you in your choice of metaphysics, thereby indirectly affecting ethics. However, its function manifestly is not the determination of values. To criticise it for being unable to do what it is not meant to do, as Crichton does, is invalid.

Science has not generated some new need for values: we have always had such a need (as beings of volitional consciousness, we need some basis on which to decide how to act). If our values are inadequate, then our metaphysics and ethics are inadequate: it is philosophers who have failed.

The Destruction of Values

If science affects metaphysics and through it ethics, has it actually been destructive of these? A prime example of such claims is Bryan Appleyard’s Understanding the Present: Science and the Soul of Modern Man (as summarised by the author in the Weekend Australian of June 6-7, 1992, Weekend Review 4):

“The new cosmos was a machine. Whether we were part of it or not was irrelevant – it just ground on regardless. Humankind lost its place in the universe … it produced machines, cured diseases and generated wealth so efficiently that everybody was affected. Science was so flamboyantly good at these things that it must be right, it must be The Truth. But if it was right in that way, then humankind was a purposeless nothing. Trying to discover meaning or morality in such circumstances was pointless … The oddest thing about the science I have been describing is not simply that it creates a cosmic machine that does not need us, but that science only actually works on the assumption that we do not exist … The scientific world view has denied us an external anchor for our values … Science implicitly denies the self its place in the world and its source of values. So the self resorts, finally, to a pagan art devoted to its own cultivation and worship … If you do not believe in any ultimate mystery in the world, then there can be no ultimate mystery in the human self … Science has had a devastating effect on the human sense of self and purpose … The open-endedness, the valuelessness, the apparent objectivity and effectiveness of science have progressively stripped away any reason to value one way of life, one system, above another. Modern scientific attitudes – because of science’s effectiveness rather than any conspiracy by scientists – destroy purpose in life, reduce us all to a condition of blank, adolescent nihilism.”

It is a pity I can’t quote the whole article, but the above gives the gist. There are significant errors of fact, such as a bizarre identification of Freudian psychology as “science”, and his quoted claim that science must assume we don’t exist. The former is a mere curiosity, but the latter is central to the validity of science.

If science must assume a demonstrable falsehood, clearly it is not right! Of course, this is nonsense. Science does require that reality is hard, that the wishes and prejudices of the experimenter can’t determine the results. But that is all. Clearly, the very fact of setting up an experiment makes something happen, that otherwise would not have. A scientist is not a passive observer, but an active prober of reality. However, the result of the experiment is a consequence of the nature of reality, which is what it is, not what someone might want.

It is the logical base of Appleyard’s argument which is most significant, however. What he hates about science is not any failures, but its success. The more it tells us about reality, the further it advances our knowledge, the more it destroys our values. By knowing what is, we lose all hope of meaningful values by which to live our lives.

The Irrationality of Values

There is only one underlying metaphysical belief which can account for such an argument: there is no rational basis for values or ethics. Why is the advance of science so terrible? Because it removes any intellectual underpinning for mystic beliefs. Why is that bad? Because mysticism – the unsupported assertions of men, beliefs based on groundless faith and feelings rather than on evidence – is the only possible basis of values.

Reality is. Learning about it does not create it. So Appleyard’s error is even more fundamental. He does not say science is wrong: indeed, he bewails its success in pushing our knowledge to the outer and inner limits. So it is not science he is bewailing, but reality itself: he wishes to shoot the messenger because he doesn’t like the message. His implicit argument is: “There can be no basis for values in reality and reason, only in mysticism that is beyond reason and beyond human understanding, which man might reach through ineffable means. But science has gone so far that there is no longer any room for mysticism in either the physical universe or man’s soul. So I reject reality and its apostle, science.”

Reason is man’s chief means of survival (if a man chooses not to live by his own reason, he must live off the reason of others). Reason alone is impotent: it must have facts on which to work. So how can it be that the more we learn, the worse off we are? Such an idea is contrary to the nature of human beings.

Yet we are told that the only way for a human being to live is by baseless emotion. If our lives are to have meaning, we must prefer ignorance to knowledge, blindness to sight, mystical insights (inherently beyond proof or even evidence) to rationality, the unfounded assertions of “spiritual leaders” to the judgement of our own mind, whim to reality. That is the total abrogation of man’s mind.

The Legacy of Philosophy

Even more than Crichton’s speeches, Appleyard’s thesis is a damning indictment of modern philosophy. For over 200 years, philosophers have argued that there is no reality, or if there is, we can’t know it. Consequently, they have argued that there is no objective basis for values or morality: we must choose between mysticism, arbitrary values that cannot be validated or evaluated (oxymoron intended), or no values at all. The pathetic end is those who devote their “philosophy” to wondering what “feed the dog” means, if anything. I pity their pets.

Meanwhile science, which says you can learn about reality, has advanced in leaps and bounds. This is why its progress has been so “terrible”: its astounding success undercuts the entire metaphysical base of the anti-reality philosophies which, in one form or another, have dominated Western thought.

But that is philosophy’s problem, not science’s. You can’t buck reality. If you spend your time trying to disprove the manifestly true and to prove the ridiculous, you’ll eventually come to grief. Appleyard is right, in a way: the progress of science reveals a huge vacuum in values and ethics, but it is philosophy’s failure he should be attacking, not science’s success.

So is there any rational basis for values and ethics, or must we, like Appleyard, retreat from the light of rationality into the grey mists of mysticism, or accept the living death of nihilism? I say there is a rational basis for value, and that value is human life; and the prime virtue by which it can be attained is rationality, from which the other virtues such as integrity, justice, productivity and pride are derived. I will deal with these questions in future chapters.

© 1993, 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.