My Photo


  • Michael Moorcock
    "a genuine philosophy for the 21st century"
  • Mary Midgley
    "this matters - read it!"
  • Kendall Walton
    "wonderfully refreshing and inventive"


Game Design

Blog powered by Typepad

« The Mythology of Science | Main | Rumours of God's Death »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I'm curious as to how you're apply this frame to the creation of transhuman artificial intelligences.

I don't see transhuman artificial intelligence coming about in my lifetime, whilst I see issues pertaining to environment, cloning and potable water shortages as being more immediate.

At the moment, we can make AI that behaves like an insect. So, just another 400 million years of evolution to recap. :)

Of course, that doesn't preclude talking about the ethics of a-life. I tell you what, let me sort out Animal Rights first (although this is a while off yet...), then I might add something on ethics of a-life to compliment it.

Best wishes!

I was going to say, this is like an aetheist blaming the artists for the preponderence of religious art in the Rennaissance, but it's not even like that.
Science and engineering are two seperate disciplines, and everything that you've blamed on science here is in fact the result of excessive engineering of a scientific solution. Sure, they couldn't have done it without the scientists arriving at the solution, but once the solution is there, the scientists move on and the people who paid for the science take over (after all scientists aren't very interested in what they already know).
Of course all the scientists could independently ethically evaluate every line of research they have the opportunity to undertake, and I'm sure many do. And if they come up with an negative evaluation, they could all say 'No, we refuse to undertake this'. And the people who were going to pay for it would say 'Well where do we turn to get the job done?' and the scientists could only reply 'Educate a new generation, we're off!' What then would be their relationship with society? Ostracised and impotent, most like.
If ethics are relative, then they are not independently absolute, since social relativity demands compromise and acknowledgement of the positions of others - the social trumps the absolute. The furthest you can get from this is within the capitalist system where you might have scientist/entrepeneurs like Venter, but how many similar examples exist? If the scientific ethical agenda is necessarily one of compromise with the larger society, then it is in fact the society's ethical agenda. If proportional democracy is the best case society we've seen, then scientists form only a tiny minority of the electoral register.
You want the scientists to hold back the tide, it seems, and then mop up if they let it through.

zenBen: "You want the scientists to hold back the tide, it seems, and then mop up if they let it through."

I want nothing more than scientists to admit that the practice of science is not risk free. This seems a small admission. I'm willing to make this concession: are you?

"If the scientific ethical agenda is necessarily one of compromise with the larger society, then it is in fact the society's ethical agenda."

Perhaps ideally, yes. But this isn't what we see at this time.

"What then would be their relationship with society? Ostracised and impotent, most like."

You presume that the people who pay for research are society as a whole. Do you believe this to be the case?

Thanks for biting back on this one - I was hoping for some discussion, which is why I came out so polarised, but it didn't happen.

Best wishes!

I think I can make that admission, yes, and I believe most other scientists do the same - but almost always on behalf of competing research, not their own :D The politics of funding and prestige.

I don't presume that society pays for research, quite the opposite - but it wouldn't take much recalcitrance on the part of scientists, before 'society' would begin to question their already imperilled and tenuous independence, if not the need for them at all.
I believe that unless those who have the money publicise it, the money to do science is usually far less publicly visible than are the scientists. So the scientists have a more delicate path to walk in relation to public opinion. Perhaps this is only right, but it disempowers scientists to a great degree.

If you decouple the research aims from the begging bowl, you give a vast amount of power directly to the scientists. But you take it away from, for want of a better phrase, the shadowy power-brokers. So maybe in that hypothetical case, with the visibility of the science community matched by their power and third parties removed, the ethics of the whole system would shape up?

zenBen: I find this a fascinating proposition. Could we really separate capitalism and science? I just don't know, but it's an interesting thought to ponder...

Given that I'm now involved with various organisations trying to do science (if not Science), I thought I'd just drop in the comment that most scientists are perennially searching for resources to further their own research aims. Grants and specific projects are generally inconveniences - you do the minimum to satisfy the grant giver, and then continue with your preferred research with whatever resource is left over.

Perhaps if scientists were more open about their research agendas, and were less involved in bidding wars as to who could do the most research on the topic specified in the call, people would trust them more. However in order to do that, a 30-year-old (or more) trend towards the enslavement of the scientist by the accountant has to be reversed...

I think both of the above comments speak to an even larger issue, which scientific research is caught up in. Namely, the selfish or selfless motivation of the deployment of human resources. Global warming is the big current question here. If it were even more immanent, would that change our attitude? What would we do if threatened with an avoidable mass extinction event? Would we avoid it by deploying humanity's resources to good effect? On the evidence, I'd have to say no, because those questions hinge grammatically on the 'we', and I don't see any 'we'ness to the human attitude. It's all 'us and them'.

Think we've seen this kind of idea in the comments before.

I've just finished reading Hannah Arendt's 'Between Past and Future' which contains further thoughts in this regard. I was particularly struck by this thought:

"Seen from a sufficient distance, the cars in which we travel and which we know we built ourselves will look as though they were, as Heisenberg once put it, 'as inescapable a part of ourselves as the snail's shell is to its occupant.' All our pride in what we can do will disappear into some kind of mutation of the human race; the whole of technology, seen from this point, in fact no longer appears 'as the result of a conscious human effort to extend man's material powers, but rather as a large-scale biological process.'"

Or to put it another way: if we as a species were in control of science, what an incredible tool that would be - but it seems rather as if the scientist's commitment to science, instead of to society, has led us down a particular path without us ever actually choosing it.

Something has to change in the relationship between science and society - but as intimated here, finding a way to break already established patterns will be difficult.

Best wishes!

"Or to put it another way: if we as a species were in control of science" [italics mine].
Didn't that Arendt quote specify technology, not science?
I think you should step back and sufficiently delineate the areas about which we are discussing - science and technology are, as you seem to be saying in your latest comment over on the Mythology of Science post, quite different. In one sense, they can be seen as a pipeline, and in general there are dependencies and cyclical relationships inherent, but they are not homogenous.

In reply to your comment on Arendt, I'd say that technology can seem like an extension of a biological process, and this process is to facilitate individuals in doing less physical work. Like a crane, the things we can achieve through physical work grow on top of existing technology (like cars, only possible after one has advanced metallurgy) and then are subsumed into new technology in their turn (like robotics on car production lines).
The comparison with science is tenuous - the advancement (I hesitate to say progress anymore!) of science follows the impulse to do more work, this time mental. And it entails more work too, since the sum total of knowledge needed to be conversant in an area is always growing (a good reason to work in a brand new research area).

"Something has to change in the relationship between science and society - but as intimated here, finding a way to break already established patterns will be difficult."
If we can agree that science often tries to beat its own path, but is ultimately paid for by society and thus directed to a large degree, then it seems that maybe the problem is a kind of cyclical abrogation of responsibility. And, obviously, if we wish to break the cycle we have send all the arrows of the graph to one destination. In other words, responsibility must be wholly owned by one party. The question then is, do you want responsbility for the ethics of science to lie in the hands of an elite few (with associated problems like how are they chosen); or do you want it to lie with the uninformed masses (with problems like how do you aportion blame and punishment to so many? Democracy? Does it work for the world's biggest science spender, the U.S?).

Or there may be a third way. Doesn't spring to mind though.

The point about the Arendt quote is that we like to think that we are in charge of the scientific process (which feeds the technological process), yet there is little if any evidence to show that we really are in control. Rather, it is as if the technology has appeared as if from a purely biological process over which we have no control. Consider also this quote from the same essay:

"The simple fact that physicists split the atom without any hesitations the very moment they knew how to do it, although they realized full well the enormous destructive potentialities of their operation, demonstrates that the scientist qua scientist does not even care about the survival of the human race on earth or, for that matters, about the survival of the planet itself."

Note that 'scientist qua scientists' means 'scientist in the role of scientist'; it does not mean that such people do not have concerns in other roles - in their role as citizen, for instance.

I don't think it is necessary for responsibility to end up in one place for us to seize control of the process; the anarchy of research is actually an asset of a kind.

What perhaps is missing is a public space for discussion of science: the companies and universities that are primarily responsible for science/technology are still economically tied to the societies in which they are embedded, such that market forces have the main influence. If we can manifest the public space for discussion, the issue of how to organise and direct the process can be addressed. It does not need to be solved in advance, I suspect.

But it is manifesting this public space that we have failed to do, or even fully consider, until now.

in terms of epistemology science and technology are distinct. but at least if a scientist uses outcome focused ethics she will turn into a technologist: to worry about outcome means to worry about application of knowledge.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)