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?"

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