Saturday, July 24, 1999

Science and Ethical Values

After reading Richard Feynman's "The Meaning of It All" (see the previous story of this column), I reminded myself of an unfavorable comment on this book in Book Reviews column of the journal Nature. The writer of the relevant review was an assistant editor of the journal, Stephen Battersby [1]. He writes:
... we hit a snag: in print, and unedited, Feynman doesn't always make sense.
Then Battersby quotes Feynman's words, "ethical values lie outside the scientific realm," commenting that this should be a comforting opinion for someone who worked on the bomb. He even says that here Feynman reveals himself to be surprisingly inarticulate.

The reviewer confuses here science as a branch of knowledge and its application. As I suggested in the previous essay, Feynman's attitude towards the relations between society and science shown in his first lecture can be the target of criticism. However, one of Feynman's arguments in his second lecture, from which Battersby quotes the above words, is that the ethical aspect of religions has not been historically affected by the religions' retreat from their metaphysical position, which in turn has been brought about by scientific discoveries, and that, together with other reasons he describes, this confirms the independence of moral questions and scientific knowledge. Some of Feynman's additional reasons are surely given not so clearly, but I find no problem in accepting his conclusion. Scientific facts and knowledge cannot by themselves serve as the principle of decision in ethical problems. If religions have something useful in the age of science and technology, it would be to think about ethical standards and to provide good examples of these.

Though Batterby's review is a little too scathing, it is true that the unedited record of lectures can be disorderly and include many defects, and his final words, "Don't visit him for sacred wisdom," are not off the mark.
  1. S. Battersby, Nature Vol. 394, 144 (1998).
Read essays related to Richard Feynman: "What Do I Care What Mr. Feynman Thinks?"

Monday, July 19, 1999

Scientists' Responsibility for Society

In the earliest part of his 1963 John Danz Lecture at the University of Washington (Seattle), the Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman talked about the good and evil aspects of a consequence of science [1]. However, he did not talk further about the scientists' responsibility for relations between society and science, saying that these were far more humanitarian problems rather than scientific problems. The reason for Feynman's "actively irresponsible" attitude towards social problems was also given by himself to be the thinking that being responsible for those problems was an ineffective use of his time [2].

On the contrary, Carl Sagan, a gifted astrophysicist and recipient of the Public Welfare Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, U. S. A., was a pioneer in understanding the global consequences of nuclear war, and had the opinion that it was the particular task of scientists to alert the public to possible dangers of the application of science [3]. His argument can be summarized as follows: The effects of today's technology is so big that these can cause the destruction of the global civilization and even the annihilation of our species. Therefore, the price of moral ambiguity and the ethical responsibility of scientists are too high.

Comparing these different attitudes of the famous scientists, I would like to conclude: The "active irresponsibility" is the privilege only no-ordinary geniuses can enjoy. There are many Feynman fans in the world over. Though I am one of those fans, I fear that his attitude might give so many ordinary scientists an excuse for being irresponsible for the use of science.
  1. R. P. Feynman, "The Meaning of It All" (Addison-Wesley, 1998).
  2. C. Sykes, ed., "No Ordinary Genius" (W. W. Norton & Company, 1994).
  3. Carl Sagan, "The Demon Haunted World" (Random House, New York, 1996).
Read essays related to Richard Feynman: "What Do I Care What Mr. Feynman Thinks?"

Wednesday, July 14, 1999

Dyson's Prediction of Future

In his new book, "The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions" (Oxford University Press, 1999), Freeman Dyson contends that the driving force of scientific revolutions is more often new tools rather than new concepts. A tool-biased view of the history of physics was written by the experimental physicist Peter Galison [1], while a concept-biased analysis was made by the theoretical physicist Thomas Kuhn in his famous book [2]. Being a theorist, though, Dyson considers that Galison's view of science more pleasing, and predicts that three new technologies - solar energy, genetic engineering and the internet - will be the most important things in the twenty-first century.

Dyson's books [3] have always fascinated us by his wide-ranging intelligence, great insight, keen analysis and convincing arguments based on concrete examples. "The Sun, the Genome, the Internet" is not an exception. An additional agreeable character of his writing consists in the fact that he attaches importance to social justice realizable by technology. He expects that the gap between the rich and the poor would be narrowed by the ethical application of science.

In the final chapters of the new book, Dyson discusses the future of the society under the inexorable growth of techniques suggested by the two big surprises that happened in 1997. These surprises are the cloning of Dolly and the defeat of the world chess champion by the IBM chess-playing program Deep Blue. The first of the surprises makes Dyson think about reprogenetics, which is a possible future technology offering the parent the opportunity to improve the quality of life of the child by removing bad genes and by inserting advantageous ones [4]. I could not read his discussion about this possibility without reminding myself of the scientific fiction Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

(A modified version of this essay is posted as tttabata's review of "The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet" on the bying-info page of this book at

Note added later: I have found that Richard Feynman said a thing similar to the above in his lecture [5] delivered in 1963: "The very rapid developments of biology are going to cause all kinds of very exciting problems.  . . .  I just refer you to Aldous Huxley's book Brave New World, which gives some indication of the type of problem that future biology involve itself in."
  1. Peter Galison, "Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics" (University of Chicago Press, 1997).
  2. Thomas Kuhn, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1970).
  3. Freeman Dyson, "Disturbing the Universe" (Harper & Row, 1979); "Infinite in All Directions" (Harper & Row, 1988); "From Eros to Gaia" (Penguin Books, 1992); "Imagined World" (Harvard University Press, 1997).
  4. Lee Silver, "Remaking Eden" (Avon Books, 1997).
  5. R. P. Feynman, "The Meaning of It All" (Addison-Wesley, 1998).