Monday, May 09, 2011

The Limits of Science

Plate - by Gary Wilson
Atheist philosopher Colin McGinn has written, in his The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds In A Material World:

"It is salutary to curb the scientific hubris that has dominated our culture during this [the 20th] century. Science has undoubtedly achieved wonderful things, but it has a dark side. The unbridled arrogance of science is part of what lies behind nuclear weapons, pollution, unnecessary animal (and human) experimentation. Showing that science has its limits is helpful in qualifying its image as all-conquering and invincible."

A few thoughts:

"Science" achieves nothing; scientists do. Of course McGinn knows this; he just speaks metonymically. But it is an important distinction to keep before us. To remember this makes it weird to hear someone say "I believe in science." Because "science" promises nothing, intends nothing, and expects nothing. But scientists do. We place belief (in the sense of trust) in persons. As McGinn says, scientists have a "dark side."

"Science" is value free; morally neutral. Science claims to tell us what is, not what ought to be. Thus science is descriptive, not prescriptive. Science qua science can explicate (or claim to explicate) what happens neurally when a moral choice is made, but in so doing and on that basis alone scientists cannot tell us what persons ought to do. (This is one of the errors Sam Harris makes in his The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.)