ThinkLONG

The Oxford Martin School Blog

What is Science for?


13 May 2008 14 comment(s)


In the 21st Century School's Distinguished Public Lecture on 12 May [summarised here], Professor John Harris claimed that it serves to bring about ethically desirable consequences, while Professor John Sulston emphasised the fact that it satisfies human curiosity. What purpose do you think science serves? 

Part of the appeal of Sulston’s position is that it provides a strong justification for pure (as opposed to applied) science, and for allowing pure scientists to set their own agendas. But it may be possible to justify unimpeded pure science without attaching any value to the satisfaction of curiosity. After all, it is plausible that promoting pure science is also what will have the most ethically desirable consequences in the long term. Must we value curiosity for its own sake in order to justify pure science? 

Another set of questions arises from the example that Professor Harris used to illustrate the ethical value of science. Harris claimed that we should use synthetic biology to create beings that are better-than-human. Both Harris and Sulston emphasised that there would be a need to regulate any such project, to ensure that the right sort of beings would be created, and to minimise unfair competitive advantages that might be enjoyed by the enhanced beings. But will we be able to regulate synthetic biology such that its benefits will outweigh its risks? If so, how? And who should decide what would count as a better-than-human being? Finally, what characteristics do you think a better being should have?  

This blog provides the opportunity to continue the discussions and debates that arose from this lecture. 

 Submit your comments by clicking the "Add comment" link below. (Your email address will not be shown on the website.)


Comments:


Andrew Steele wrote on 13 May 2008 at 20:35

In his talk, John Sulston was keen to emphasise that the distinction between pure and applied science was in many ways purely semantic. However, his two-pronged justification for research, segregating the ethical reasons for scientific research and the pure, unbridled curiosity is a purely semantic distinction also.

Blue-sky research clearly has ethical ends: if you don't know about a hazard to humanity, it is impossible to mitigate it. It is also clear that scientific research, like composing music, creating art or writing literature, brings pleasure to those engaged in it and those who appreciate it subsequently. For these reasons, it is almost certain that for a species to engage in some quantity of research is ethically justifiable, or even morally necessary.

However, just like music, art or literature, science has no 'intrinsic' beauty: those who claim it does are simply expressing their enjoyment in practising or learning about science in an overly grandiose way. The only imperative to practise science?or, indeed, to do anything?can be the ethical one.


Anders Sandberg wrote on 13 May 2008 at 20:50

Regulation, to be effective, requires recognition that a field requires regulation (which in turn implies recognizing the field and some reasons for regulation) and an understanding of how it would likely affect the field. This can in general not be done a priori. We do not know beforehand what a new technology will produce or how it will be (mis)used, we can only reason from prior experience, which is of limited use. Before a field has developed far enough for us to amass some experience about how it works, what can be done, what can go wrong and how people apply it regulation will be premature and likely be ineffective (e.g. intellectual property regulation on the Internet) and/or have unintended effects (such as strangling a desirable emerging technology in red tape).

Regulating synthetic biology cannot be done before we have synthetic biology, except in attempts to prevent the whole field from emerging. Regulating human enhancement cannot be done without some experience with it; current regulation are either local to particular situations of little general applicability (doping in sports, military drug use) or due to older regulations not directly intended to regulate it (medical regulations). There is also a lack of recognition of the commonalities of enhancement from drugs, genetic interventions, education and information technology: if enhancement itself is worth regulating all such activities should be regulated together. This seems unlikely to happen, and a more likely approach would be local regulations for different kinds of enhancements .

Such local regulation would be unlikely to prevent or control the emergence of better-than-human-beings, since they can emerge from many research directions, possibly as a surprise and not necessarily as a recognized *kind* of being. We already have entities such as the Google search engine and multinational corporations that exhibit superhuman capabilities without being a being. It might even be unwise to attempt to design such beings according to a strict top-down plan, since we want to allow the emergence of new benefits unknowable for lesser minds such as ours.

Hence thinking in terms of regulation as control is likely to be mistaken: we are very unlikely to be able to control our "mind children". Regulation as influence on the other hand is feasible: by being clear on what values we want to promote (such as curiosity, the good life, freedom, safety etc.), keeping an eye on what is actually going on and being developed, and creating regulations and incitements that promote them in general we have a higher chance of influencing future developments in a beneficial way.


Tom Douglas wrote on 13 May 2008 at 20:28

I agree that it's difficult to see how engaging in science could be justified by the intrinsic value of scientific inquiry or scientific knowledge. Attributing any such value to science would seem to imply that it would sometimes be justified to tolerate ethical costs (human suffering, loss of lives etc.) in order to obtain scientific knowledge, even if we knew that that knowledge would itself bring no ethical benefits. This strikes me as strange.

Perhaps what Professor Sulston had in mind was actually what you mention in discussing the benefits of music, art and literature: that science sometimes has ethical value merely in virtue of the fact that it gives us pleasure to satisfy our curiosity. It seems to me, though, that any ethical reasons we have to engage in science because of the pleasure it causes to scientists will be swamped by much stronger ethical reasons to engage in science because of it's potential to yield useful (e.g. life saving) technologies. So if this is indeed Professor Sulston's view, it's not clear that his view is very far from Professor Harris's.


Loane Skene, Academic Visitor, wrote on 14 May 2008 at 20:11

In considering what science is 'for', there are far more compelling purposes than to create the ?supermen? of the future envisaged by Professor Harris, or to enable us to live for millions of years. Science can help us to understand who we are, where we came from, why people behave in the way they do and how we can live better lives. Ask the kid sleeping rough in the streets of Oxford if they want even to double their life span! Their needs are more fundamental, as are the needs of most of us.

The James Martin 21st Century School is already wrestling with some of these issues, for example in its programmes on the ethics of the new biosciences and the future of humanity. These projects may include a broader notion of 'science' than the traditional one but they also involve scientists from backgrounds as diverse as molecular biology and neuroscience.

On a different issue, one should not dismiss too readily the private funding of scientific research. It does not stop research, as Professor Sulston suggests. At most, an intellectual property interest in favour of the funder, such as a patent, temporarily delays research and the application of research results, and increases the cost of research or changes its direction as researchers choose unpatented research tools to avoid those costs. Patent holders are required to make known the details of their invention in order to obtain the patent. Other people are then entitled to use it provided they pay the fee for doing so. But, most importantly, at the end of the patent period, the invention is in the public domain for everyone to use. Governments have limited funds and, without a financial inducement, much valuable research would not be done at all.


Nick Anthis wrote on 15 May 2008 at 20:28

If it were up to me, I might have entitled this event something more like "Science for a Brave New World", as it was more of an exercise in futurism than in basic philosophy. Beyond John Harris' discussion about science's role in eventually creating immortal humans or--in his view more likely--a new race of intelligent beings to succeed humans, what I found particularly poignant was the discussion on the role of science in improving our world. The point was made that in order for science to fulfill its potential of doing the greatest amount of good for our world, not only do we need to nurture scientific inquiry (through public funding of science and effective science education), but we need to also regulate science in a way to protect against unethical and harmful applications, and we need to ensure that the fruits of scientific discovery are distributed as broadly and as equally to society as a whole as possible.

The regulation of science is always a tricky issue, and the absolute last thing we need to do is stifle potential beneficial innovations due to our own naive fears and prejudices. Because of this and the fact that it is very difficult to anticipate what ethical issues will arise from the exponential and unpredictable advancement of science, this regulation will always largely be reactionary. But, this doesn't mean we can't be more proactive than we are now. An excellent example of this was the recent passage in the United States of GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. GINA, which has now been passed by the House and the Senate and only awaits the president's signature before becoming law, will protect against employers and health insurers discriminating against employees or insurees based on the results of genetic tests. In an age when genetic testing is becoming increasingly common, this is an absolutely necessary prerequisite for a 21st Century society. The only problem is that GINA was originally proposed in 1995. Although many back then could see the wisdom of such legislation, it took 13 years until the necessity of it was so incredibly undeniable that passage became unavoidable. And, by this point, the negative consequences of not passing it had already emerged, particularly in the large numbers of people who were opting out of genetic studies for fear of discrimination.

Clearly, then, the need for GINA had been anticipated long ago, and hopefully we can do a better job of acting on such anticipations in the future. Of course, this doesn't mean that being proactive is a blanket prescription, since the Bush Administration ban on federally funding embryonic stem cell research was also quite proactive. The difference here is that the ban was most certainly not guided by rational scientific-based opinion, but rather by religious pandering. It's difficult to broadly define what sorts of legislation are needed--and what sorts aren't--but a pretty good rule of thumb is that prevailing scientific opinion is generally a good guide. Also, we should be particularly skeptical of blanket bans on certain areas of research or on the funding of those areas.

The question that I wanted to ask the panelists on Monday (but didn't have a chance to ask) was whether they have a certain suite of legislation in mind that they believe needs to be passed now to provide a threshold level of safety and a greater assurance of scientific good in the near (and distant) future. I would be quite interested to hear their take on this question, as I'm not even sure what I think of it myself. Beyond GINA, a few things come to mind--such as carbon dioxide emission caps, universal health care, scientific independence from political meddling, more inspired scientific education to ensure a basic scientific literacy in the general population, and stronger regulation of the drug industry--but I'll freely admit that these are both overly broad and surely short-sighted. Regardless, these are visible targets, so nothing should prevent us from acting on them now. Besides, who knows what sorts of new challenges await us right around the corner?


Nick wrote on 16 Jul 2008 at 20:08

Regarding so-called Luddites and the idea of progress,, ( to quote Ralston Saul)
?The inevitability of technological progress was used against the artisan class in the early nineteenth century as a reason to exclude them rather than negotiate their reintegration. This exclusion provoked a political explosion that began with the Luddites in Britain and lasted a century - provoking communism, fascism, false populist dictatorships, urban violence.
Yet a classic part of contemporary managerial vocabulary is to attack as a Luddite anyone who wants to work out a non-exclusionary approach to technical progress. In 2004 the acting managing director of the IMF, Anne Krueger, accused the NGOs of being Luddites.
"The progress they opposed stood to benefit a much larger cross-section of the population." This is classic, official misrepresentation of Western history.
The Luddites were not opposed to progress. They just wanted to be included, wanted not to starve, not to be humiliated.
Today's version of the old technological determinism takes place within a much broader assertion-that of global determinism. This is presented as relentless modernity - uncontrollable technology driving mere humans. In reality the argument has nothing to do with modernity. Its central message is that humans are rendered passive by the logic of dumb machines.?

Regarding ?financial inducement? and the all important intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy; although I think his ?Nothing more worthwhile than Tradition, scripture authority or even revelation? comment his highly questionable I think Dawkins was right to evoke this idea of being compelled toward a Brave New World that is something like a perpetual Gorgiasian-orgasmic-Omega point; no, not his words exactly.

The outstanding implication of what might now be referred to as ?Kluge? (as oppose to human nature or original sin) is that sexual desire is a poor judge of character.
Who is Miranda to judge this Brave New World? Goodly creatures indeed.

"I must uneasy make, least too light winning make the prize light"

Vetting or abetting? This is the question, and it has everything to do with the question of what science is for. Just today in the Daily Mail (shock horror) there was an article about a woman who?d had something like seven abortions,, the first to a bloke that lost interest in her when he found out she was pregnant,, supposedly failure of contraception was the problem. I think it more likely the real problem was that probably her greatest power was wasted on a scoundrel,, and so rewarding his philandering ways. (I?m not cynical, it?s cynical to be in denial).


Andrew Steele wrote on 26 Feb 2010 at 20:48

In his talk, John Sulston was keen to emphasise that the distinction between pure and applied science was in many ways purely semantic. However, his two-pronged justification for research, segregating the ethical reasons for scientific research and the pure, unbridled curiosity is a purely semantic distinction also.

Blue-sky research clearly has ethical ends: if you don't know about a hazard to humanity, it is impossible to mitigate it. It is also clear that scientific research, like composing music, creating art or writing literature, brings pleasure to those engaged in it and those who appreciate it subsequently. For these reasons, it is almost certain that for a species to engage in some quantity of research is ethically justifiable, or even morally necessary.

However, just like music, art or literature, science has no 'intrinsic' beauty: those who claim it does are simply expressing their enjoyment in practising or learning about science in an overly grandiose way. The only imperative to practise science?or, indeed, to do anything?can be the ethical one.


Montessori school chennai wrote on 13 Apr 2010 at 20:11

Interesting questions to be pondered over. Science distinguishes humans as superior to other beings. If better human beings could be created why not such research be supported? Science is not merely about curiosity of knowledge satisfied but also the means to a better living for posterity.


Anders Sandberg wrote on 19 Nov 2009 at 20:00

Regulation, to be effective, requires recognition that a field requires regulation (which in turn implies recognizing the field and some reasons for regulation) and an understanding of how it would likely affect the field. This can in general not be done a priori. We do not know beforehand what a new technology will produce or how it will be (mis)used, we can only reason from prior experience, which is of limited use. Before a field has developed far enough for us to amass some experience about how it works, what can be done, what can go wrong and how people apply it regulation will be premature and likely be ineffective (e.g. intellectual property regulation on the Internet) and/or have unintended effects (such as strangling a desirable emerging technology in red tape).

Regulating synthetic biology cannot be done before we have synthetic biology, except in attempts to prevent the whole field from emerging. Regulating human enhancement cannot be done without some experience with it; current regulation are either local to particular situations of little general applicability (doping in sports, military drug use) or due to older regulations not directly intended to regulate it (medical regulations). There is also a lack of recognition of the commonalities of enhancement from drugs, genetic interventions, education and information technology: if enhancement itself is worth regulating all such activities should be regulated together. This seems unlikely to happen, and a more likely approach would be local regulations for different kinds of enhancements .

Such local regulation would be unlikely to prevent or control the emergence of better-than-human-beings, since they can emerge from many research directions, possibly as a surprise and not necessarily as a recognized *kind* of being. We already have entities such as the Google search engine and multinational corporations that exhibit superhuman capabilities without being a being. It might even be unwise to attempt to design such beings according to a strict top-down plan, since we want to allow the emergence of new benefits unknowable for lesser minds such as ours.

Hence thinking in terms of regulation as control is likely to be mistaken: we are very unlikely to be able to control our "mind children". Regulation as influence on the other hand is feasible: by being clear on what values we want to promote (such as curiosity, the good life, freedom, safety etc.), keeping an eye on what is actually going on and being developed, and creating regulations and incitements that promote them in general we have a higher chance of influencing future developments in a beneficial way.


Tom Douglas wrote on 23 May 2008 at 20:00

I agree that it's difficult to see how engaging in science could be justified by the intrinsic value of scientific inquiry or scientific knowledge. Attributing any such value to science would seem to imply that it would sometimes be justified to tolerate ethical costs (human suffering, loss of lives etc.) in order to obtain scientific knowledge, even if we knew that that knowledge would itself bring no ethical benefits. This strikes me as strange.

Perhaps what Professor Sulston had in mind was actually what you mention in discussing the benefits of music, art and literature: that science sometimes has ethical value merely in virtue of the fact that it gives us pleasure to satisfy our curiosity. It seems to me, though, that any ethical reasons we have to engage in science because of the pleasure it causes to scientists will be swamped by much stronger ethical reasons to engage in science because of it's potential to yield useful (e.g. life saving) technologies. So if this is indeed Professor Sulston's view, it's not clear that his view is very far from Professor Harris's.


Loane Skene, Academic Visitor, wrote on 08 Jun 2010 at 20:42

In considering what science is 'for', there are far more compelling purposes than to create the ?supermen? of the future envisaged by Professor Harris, or to enable us to live for millions of years. Science can help us to understand who we are, where we came from, why people behave in the way they do and how we can live better lives. Ask the kid sleeping rough in the streets of Oxford if they want even to double their life span! Their needs are more fundamental, as are the needs of most of us.

The James Martin 21st Century School is already wrestling with some of these issues, for example in its programmes on the ethics of the new biosciences and the future of humanity. These projects may include a broader notion of 'science' than the traditional one but they also involve scientists from backgrounds as diverse as molecular biology and neuroscience.

On a different issue, one should not dismiss too readily the private funding of scientific research. It does not stop research, as Professor Sulston suggests. At most, an intellectual property interest in favour of the funder, such as a patent, temporarily delays research and the application of research results, and increases the cost of research or changes its direction as researchers choose unpatented research tools to avoid those costs. Patent holders are required to make known the details of their invention in order to obtain the patent. Other people are then entitled to use it provided they pay the fee for doing so. But, most importantly, at the end of the patent period, the invention is in the public domain for everyone to use. Governments have limited funds and, without a financial inducement, much valuable research would not be done at all.


Nick Anthis wrote on 20 Oct 2008 at 20:39

If it were up to me, I might have entitled this event something more like "Science for a Brave New World", as it was more of an exercise in futurism than in basic philosophy. Beyond John Harris' discussion about science's role in eventually creating immortal humans or--in his view more likely--a new race of intelligent beings to succeed humans, what I found particularly poignant was the discussion on the role of science in improving our world. The point was made that in order for science to fulfill its potential of doing the greatest amount of good for our world, not only do we need to nurture scientific inquiry (through public funding of science and effective science education), but we need to also regulate science in a way to protect against unethical and harmful applications, and we need to ensure that the fruits of scientific discovery are distributed as broadly and as equally to society as a whole as possible.

The regulation of science is always a tricky issue, and the absolute last thing we need to do is stifle potential beneficial innovations due to our own naive fears and prejudices. Because of this and the fact that it is very difficult to anticipate what ethical issues will arise from the exponential and unpredictable advancement of science, this regulation will always largely be reactionary. But, this doesn't mean we can't be more proactive than we are now. An excellent example of this was the recent passage in the United States of GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. GINA, which has now been passed by the House and the Senate and only awaits the president's signature before becoming law, will protect against employers and health insurers discriminating against employees or insurees based on the results of genetic tests. In an age when genetic testing is becoming increasingly common, this is an absolutely necessary prerequisite for a 21st Century society. The only problem is that GINA was originally proposed in 1995. Although many back then could see the wisdom of such legislation, it took 13 years until the necessity of it was so incredibly undeniable that passage became unavoidable. And, by this point, the negative consequences of not passing it had already emerged, particularly in the large numbers of people who were opting out of genetic studies for fear of discrimination.

Clearly, then, the need for GINA had been anticipated long ago, and hopefully we can do a better job of acting on such anticipations in the future. Of course, this doesn't mean that being proactive is a blanket prescription, since the Bush Administration ban on federally funding embryonic stem cell research was also quite proactive. The difference here is that the ban was most certainly not guided by rational scientific-based opinion, but rather by religious pandering. It's difficult to broadly define what sorts of legislation are needed--and what sorts aren't--but a pretty good rule of thumb is that prevailing scientific opinion is generally a good guide. Also, we should be particularly skeptical of blanket bans on certain areas of research or on the funding of those areas.

The question that I wanted to ask the panelists on Monday (but didn't have a chance to ask) was whether they have a certain suite of legislation in mind that they believe needs to be passed now to provide a threshold level of safety and a greater assurance of scientific good in the near (and distant) future. I would be quite interested to hear their take on this question, as I'm not even sure what I think of it myself. Beyond GINA, a few things come to mind--such as carbon dioxide emission caps, universal health care, scientific independence from political meddling, more inspired scientific education to ensure a basic scientific literacy in the general population, and stronger regulation of the drug industry--but I'll freely admit that these are both overly broad and surely short-sighted. Regardless, these are visible targets, so nothing should prevent us from acting on them now. Besides, who knows what sorts of new challenges await us right around the corner?


Nick wrote on 07 May 2009 at 20:54

Regarding so-called Luddites and the idea of progress,, ( to quote Ralston Saul)
?The inevitability of technological progress was used against the artisan class in the early nineteenth century as a reason to exclude them rather than negotiate their reintegration. This exclusion provoked a political explosion that began with the Luddites in Britain and lasted a century - provoking communism, fascism, false populist dictatorships, urban violence.
Yet a classic part of contemporary managerial vocabulary is to attack as a Luddite anyone who wants to work out a non-exclusionary approach to technical progress. In 2004 the acting managing director of the IMF, Anne Krueger, accused the NGOs of being Luddites.
"The progress they opposed stood to benefit a much larger cross-section of the population." This is classic, official misrepresentation of Western history.
The Luddites were not opposed to progress. They just wanted to be included, wanted not to starve, not to be humiliated.
Today's version of the old technological determinism takes place within a much broader assertion-that of global determinism. This is presented as relentless modernity - uncontrollable technology driving mere humans. In reality the argument has nothing to do with modernity. Its central message is that humans are rendered passive by the logic of dumb machines.?

Regarding ?financial inducement? and the all important intrinsic/extrinsic dichotomy; although I think his ?Nothing more worthwhile than Tradition, scripture authority or even revelation? comment his highly questionable I think Dawkins was right to evoke this idea of being compelled toward a Brave New World that is something like a perpetual Gorgiasian-orgasmic-Omega point; no, not his words exactly.

The outstanding implication of what might now be referred to as ?Kluge? (as oppose to human nature or original sin) is that sexual desire is a poor judge of character.
Who is Miranda to judge this Brave New World? Goodly creatures indeed.

"I must uneasy make, least too light winning make the prize light"

Vetting or abetting? This is the question, and it has everything to do with the question of what science is for. Just today in the Daily Mail (shock horror) there was an article about a woman who?d had something like seven abortions,, the first to a bloke that lost interest in her when he found out she was pregnant,, supposedly failure of contraception was the problem. I think it more likely the real problem was that probably her greatest power was wasted on a scoundrel,, and so rewarding his philandering ways. (I?m not cynical, it?s cynical to be in denial).


Montessori school chennai wrote on 05 Nov 2010 at 20:45

Interesting questions to be pondered over. Science distinguishes humans as superior to other beings. If better human beings could be created why not such research be supported? Science is not merely about curiosity of knowledge satisfied but also the means to a better living for posterity.