Thursday, February 19, 2015

Science is a tool

Francis Bacon
The utopia The New Atlantis, written by Francis Bacon, a contemporary of Galileo and pioneer of modern philosophy of science, describes a perfect society that would automatically arise from the practice of science, which the inhabitants of the island of Bensalem have made the basis of their society and its government. Like many of his encyclopedic followers, who a century later created the myth of indefinite progress, Bacon believed that science in the future will save man and solve all human problems, opening the way to a paradise on Earth.
This mistake is common. Tools are often confused with their good uses, forgetting that the same tools can also be misused. Let’s look at a few examples, among the thousands that could be cited:

·         A hammer can be used to place a work of art where everyone can see it, but it can also be used to destroy it, as someone tried to do with Michelangelo’s Pietà.
·         A scalpel can save a life when it helps a surgeon to remove a malignant tumor, but it can also be used by a murderer to kill a human being.
·         An atomic bomb could deflect an asteroid that would threaten to crash into Earth, but it can also obliterate a town, killing hundreds of thousands.
·         In a paper published in 1970 (The sin of the scientist, also included in the collection The stars in their courses, 1971), Isaac Asimov wonders if science can be used for evil. His answer is unequivocal: Yes! He mentions, as the worst sin of scientists in history, the invention of poison gas (what we now call chemical weapons) in World War I.
Isaac Asimov
Science is a tool, and tools are neither good nor bad. What is good or bad is the use we make of them. Science can contribute to the improvement of the world and human beings, but it cannot save us from our own evil, because it gives us greater means to exercise it.
Should there be, then, something above science? Of course! Science describes phenomena and formulates theories to explain them. It works exclusively in the indicative mood: this is so (a description); this causes that (an explanation). Since Aristotle formalized logic, it is well-known that from two premises in the indicative one cannot infer a conclusion in the imperative. Science cannot lead to a conclusion of the form you must do this, not that. (See C.S.Lewis, The abolition of man, chapter 2).
As every other tool, science must be under the control of ethics. We must not say: if it can be done, it should be done. Thanks to science, today we can destroy ourselves. Should we do it?

Manuel Alfonseca

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