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When Science lets us down

February 9, 2013

Through science the western world has achieved some awesome things in the last fewFatalism of Science centuries, which have provided a lasting legacy for us all. From the laws governing planetary motion, to the laws governing tiny electrons. From the telescope, to the microscope. From medicine to give us longer life, to rocket science to send us out to the moon and beyond.

Yet there remains some areas where science cannot help us. Where, when it tries to help us, it causes more harm than good. The science of eugenics; the free market economic science of the 19th century; the science of selfish genes. In all these cases science seems to be more dogmatic, more divisive in society between its supporters and its opposition.

The reason I think is the clear impingement here of scientific authority on domains where individuals are better left to make moral decisions for themselves based on their own intuition and conscience. The free market doesn’t rule society, people do. People who can choose to provide welfare for the needy in spite of the ruthless free market. Selective genetic breeding doesn’t determine who we choose to love and have as a partner and spend our lives with, we do. And our genetic make up doesn’t have an inclination towards selfish behavior, such that we should just fatalistically go along with it, we choose how to behave.

We have some freedom and power over our own decisions in these areas. It is what makes them a source of moral debates and issues. Science lets us down when it tries to take our moral autonomy away here. The was probably the biggest mistake of the 20th century. We need to learn from this and grow as spiritually autonomous beings: Neither submissive to gods commands and punishments for our behavior, nor to scientific explanations for our behavior.

  1. So, are you arguing for a subjective existentialism, or what. Without science and/or god, where does the morality come from – reason? The categorical imperative? whim?

    • In certain areas we have spiritual autonomy over our decisions. The morality does not come from god, science, or a rational formula. It comes from within. I suppose the foundation is therefore compassion.

  2. Yobbo permalink

    I’m not sure if you have read Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”, but it makes no moral statements. Dawkins himself has said he regrets the title, and a better title would have been “The Immortal Gene”.

    The premise of “The Selfish Gene” is pretty basically that the genes themselves don’t care how that they propagated, and that propagating an identical gene in a different person is just as satisfactory a way to reproduce as propagating itself.

    Basically, genes don’t care whether or not the organism they live on dies, survives, or even reproduces personally. All they care about is that more people with the same gene survive.

    Dawkins suggests this is the evolutionary force behind altruism or self-sacrifice.

    • Yes, these are some of the claims of Dawkins. And I see it is very much your view that it makes no moral statements in the selfish gene. And I am sure defenders of free-market economics in the 19th century would have said similar for their science. The point is that these sciences can have unintended moral consequences that become dangerous. Because they tend to justify certain ways of behaving. The title of his book clearly had this effect and it is a bit late to take that back, which is exactly my point about unintended consequences

  3. Yobbo permalink

    So, to put it more clearly:

    A view of evolution that suggests genes are only spread if the host survives would mean that any gene that caused altruistic or self-sacrificing actions would be detrimental, and therefore would not survive the process of natural selection.

    But when you understand that the gene is probably present in other people in your tribe, self-sacrifice can actually be a Darwinian advantage as far is the gene is concerned, since if by performing the sacrificial action you are helping others to survive, the gene is still being propagated by those survivors.

    As an example:

    You probably share most of your genetic material with your sister. If a gunman tried to shoot her, and you jumped in front of her to take the bullet – you might die, but she will live. And she will go on to reproduce her genes (which are mostly the same as yours) to next generation. No evolutionary disadvantage.

    And the example still works on the level of the entire human race, since genetic differences between us are tiny. So if, by sacrificing your own life, you can save the lives of a million others, you are increasing your evolutionary success of your genes 1 million times over.

    And so, this is why human beings have a *natural instinct* to help each other. Because by doing so, they were more successful as a species.

    • and this is where you are impinging on dangerous moral and spiritual territory. I say that I act morally in these circumstances out of compassion. Not out of a natural instinct that I am fatalistically determined to follow, but out of a compassion that I choose to follow.

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