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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Science, Technology, Philosophy, and Religion

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

How philosophical and theological assumptions can guide technological developments

(AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File)

Patricia Fachin, journalist with the Instituto Humanitas Unisinos in Brazil, recently interviewed Brian Green, assistant director of Campus Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, about ethics and technology. The views expressed are his own. In several postings, we will share some highlights of the interview. The full interview can be found, in Portuguese, at the IHU website. In this third part of the interview, Fachin asks Green about the practice of science and technology, and its relationship to philosophy and religion.

How have researchers in other sciences, such as biology, engineering, computer science and neuroscience dealt with moral issues involved in their research? What kind of concerns do they have in relation to these issues and how do they try to bring together their specific areas of research and ethics or philosophy proper?

I cannot speak much beyond my own experience. Technologists and engineers come to me, asking me questions and wondering what they should do. How they can make right decisions in their work? Not a lot of them ask, but a few; yet these few are highly motivated because they have often seen a glimpse of the bigger picture and it troubles them. The first thing they want to know is that they are not alone and that it is okay to see these concerns and to be concerned about them. Often the only thing it takes for an organization to make better choices is for one or a few people to speak up and raise the question of whether a course of action is right or wrong. If there are more people speaking up, even better. But if no one raises those questions, or if they raise the question and are then punished for it, bad decisions get made and evil starts to spread. In institutions, virtue should be encouraged and vice discouraged or the organization will quickly become pathological and destructive to society.

At least for the past two centuries there has been a discussion about the identity of philosophy vis-à-vis the advance of scientific research and philosophers have tried to provide answers to philosophy’s identity crisis. In relation to this issue, what does philosophy still have to tell us in view of the advance of scientific research and the so-called age of technique, for instance?

I see science and technology not as opposed to philosophy, but as branches of philosophy. Science is natural philosophy, codified into a method for attaining repeatable results about the world we live in. Technology takes those same results and tries to put them to work to facilitate achieving goals - typically goals which benefit humanity in some way (even weapons are seen as good by those who possess them). For example, science discovered antibiotics, and technology figured out how to make them and use them to save millions of lives. Without philosophical, and even theological, assumptions such as prizing truth, valuing the sharing knowledge, and using knowledge for the sake of helping people, science and technology would not have developed as they did. And if we forget those assumptions now, instead valuing falsehoods, secrecy, and selfishness, science and technology may stall or even fail as endeavors, as fake news, "alternative facts," science skepticism, and populist unrest might be indicating, even today.

Would you like to add anything?

As a last point, I would merely add that the Catholic Church has a very long history of promoting scientific and technological progress (in architecture, chemistry, physics, mechanical devices, etc.) while at the same time critiquing the development of technologies which facilitate evildoing. Even in the Middle Ages, at the Second Lateran Council, the Church tried to ban the use of the crossbow on fellow Christians. It did not work, and if only today's "high tech" weapons were crossbows; our worries would not have escalated. Yet the idea of weapons which are intrinsically evil (malum in se) has passed on into international law - and the very existence of this concept is to the Church's credit. The Medieval Church tried and failed, but the idea lives on, and someday it may not fail. 

The Church still speaks out and works against barbaric technologies such as nuclear weapons, and in Laudato Si Pope Francis reminds us that we can develop clean energy technologies too, and move away from destructive technologies. There is a significant quote from Laudato Si paragraph 79, where Pope Francis says, partially quoting Pope Benedict XVI, that "The work of the Church seeks not only to remind everyone of the duty to care for nature, but at the same time 'she must above all protect mankind from self-destruction'."

It bears repeating: the work of the Church, of all Christians, is to protect nature, and even more so humankind, from self-destruction. 

This is a moral mission, not a merely technological one; indeed, it is technology itself has made it possible for the mission to fail. Before 1945, human self-extinction was not a serious concern, but with nuclear weapons and then the Cold War, suddenly it was. Only by choosing the correct moral path can we continue our mission. Let us do what we can to forward this great work.

Sep 1, 2017

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