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Science and human values

Let us look at human values as a scientist looks at the phenomenon he chose for studying. What do we mean by human values? First of all, this is something we appreciate and want to have, or achieve. Values are something we qualify as good, and are prepared to set as our goals in life. Second, we usually do not include satisfaction of our physical needs into the concept, even though we appreciate it and have to achieve it all the time, often simply in order to survive. It would be fair to say that the concept of values describes that part of our goals which are not immediately necessary for survival. We call these aspects of life spiritual, as opposed to the other aspects, which are re ferred to as physical, or biological.

Goals of organized systems form a hierarchy. When two diffe rent goals come into confilct, we call for a higher goal, or a principle, or a value, which we choose to resolve the conflict. The thing which interests us at most today is the highest of these principles: the Supreme Goal, or the Supreme Value of human life. This is the problem of ethics. Philosophy and religion work on this problem traditionally. How does it look from the scien tist's point of view?

The first attempt of an answer leads to a discouraging result. Science is alien to ethics by its very essence. It ans wers only to the questions of how things are, but not how they ought to be. It does not say what is good and what is bad. As an American philosopher remarked, no matter how carefully you study the railroad schedule, you will not find there an indication where you want to go.

It is thinkable, however, that science could kill ethics as an independent subject. For somebody who lived in the 19th centu ry and took seriously and consistently the implications of the science of his time, like Karl Marx did, it was quite natural to believe that the problem of ethics was not real, but imagined.

In the nineteenth century the picture of the world given by science was broadly as follows. Very small particles of matter move about in virtually empty three-dimensional space. These particles act on one another with forces which are uniquely determined by their positioning and velocities.The forces of interaction, in their turn, uniquely determine, in accordance with Newton's laws, the subsequent movement of particles. Thus each subsequent state of the world is determined, in a unique way, by its preceding state. Determinism was an intrinsic feature of the scientific worldview of that time. In such a world there was no room for freedom: it was illusory. Humans, themselves merely aggregates of particles, had as much freedom as wound-up watch mechanisms.

With this worldview, the problem of ethics is not to decide what is good and what is evil, but simply to predict how people will behave in given circumstances. It is only a branch of sci ence, the science of behavior. This trend of thinking was the thoeretical basis for the Marxist economic determinism, and the Leninist totalitarianism which brought misery and dehumanisation to millions, if not billions of people. In the twentieth century the scientific worldview has undergone a radical change. It has turned out that subatomic physics cannot be understood within the framework of the Naive Realism of the nineteenth century scientists. The theory of Relativity and, especially, Quantum Mechanics require that our worldview be based on Criti cal Philosophy, according to which all our theories and mental pictures of the world are only devices to organize and foresee our experience, and not the images of the world as it "really" is. Thus along with the twentieth-century's specific discove ries in the physics of the microworld, we must regard the inevi tability of critical philosophy as a scientific discovery -- one of the greatest of the twentieth century.

We now know that the notion that the world is "really" space in which small particles move along definite trajectories, is illusory: it is contradicted by experimental facts. We also know that determinism, i.e. the notion that in the last analysis all the events in the world must have specific causes, is illusory too. On the contrary, freedom, which was banned from the science of the nineteenth century as an illusion, became a part, if not the essence, of reality. The mechanistic world-view saw the laws of nature as something that uniquely prescribes how events should develop, with indeterminacy resulting only from our lack of knowledge; contemporary science regards the laws of nature as only restrictions imposed on a basically non-deterministic world. There is genuine freedom in the world. When we observe it from the outside, it takes the form of quantum-mechanical unpredictability; when we observe it from within, we call it our free will. We know that the reason why our behaviour is unpre dictable from the outside is that we have ultimate freedom of choice. This freedom is the very essence of our personalities, the treasure of our lives. It is given us as the first element of the world we come into. Logically, the concept of free will is primary, impossible to derive or to explain from anything else. The concept of necessity, including the concept of a natural law, is a derivative: we call necessary, or predetermined, those things which cannot be changed at will.

Thus the modern philosophy of science leaves ethics separate from science, and, of course, extremely important, because the kind of life we have depends on the kind of goals we set. Science gives us knowledge, but does not immediately direct our will. The gap separating knowledge and will can never be fully bridged. It is true -- and important -- that knowledge can direct will, make certain decisions natural, highly probable or almost inevitable. But there is no necessity on the path from knowledge to action. With any given knowledge we are still free to set any goal at will. Goals can be logically derived only from goals, not from knowledge.

Then is there any way in which science is relevant to ethics? I believe there is. The link between the two is provided by the concept of evolution, and by the inborn feature of human beings which I call the will for immortality.

Copyright© 1991 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

V. Turchin,

Sep 1991


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