Seeing the wood in the trees.

A discussion between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence M. Krauss included this quote from Richard Dawkins about a conversation he had with Tony Benn;

It became very clear in the course of our discussion that he had not the slightest interest in whether Christian beliefs are true or not; his only concern was whether they are moral. He objected to science on the grounds that it gave no moral guidance. When I protested that moral guidance is not what science is about, he came close to asking what, then, was the use of science. A classic example of a syndrome the philosopher Daniel Dennett has called “belief in belief.”

As I read this my ‘ideas challenged‘ indicator leapt into the red ‘explore further‘ zone. Tony Benn had a valid point there but Dawkins seemed to be deriding it. This is not the first time I have encountered shoddy thinking from Dawkins. His argument in this article is hopeless. The analogy of a faulty car is specious. If the faulty car had been Christine out of the Stephen King novel, then the analogy would have been more accurate (and his argument destroyed).

Tony Benn’s point was that science should be the servant of moral guidance. I am in agreement with this in so far as science should be in the service of humanity. If science can improve the physical welfare of humankind then that is ‘good’ because it allows more humans to pursue moral and spiritual development (or whatever you decide is the reason for living). If science can improve the physical welfare of humankind to an unnatural degree, for example, extend human life to 1000 years, is that still desirable?

I would argue yes, as it allows greater moral and spiritual development. However, the ramifications have to be thought through. Will this lead to overcrowding? Will it reduce the physical well being of others? Will population control have to be introduced? Will the other species on the planet suffer? If these outweigh the benefits then the decision must be that such a development would be undesirable.

Another question. Say genetic science coupled with epidemiology became so accurate that it could predict when and how you would die – “congratulations, proud parents, here is your child’s birth certificate.. and death certificate,” what would you do with that knowledge? Is it desirable? Will it improve moral standards? Is all knowledge ‘good’?

A belief in science is just another belief; the question is still, what do you do with that belief?

One Response to “Seeing the wood in the trees.”

  1. Nev says:

    What if, for instance, science shows that negroes, as a group, really are intellectually inferior to every other race ? If
    science is there only for our benefit then that means we can’t investigate it or reveal any results. Dawkins would argue that
    science exists independent of humanity. Of course we see it through the filter of humanity but its laws were still operating long
    before we appeared and will go on operating long after we’ve gone.

    The question “what good is science” is one that the Inquisition must have asked. And one that Nazi germany did ask –
    scientists were comparatively free to study what they wanted but if their results didn’t conform to the Nazi ideology then those
    results would not be published.

    Of course then, if science is expected to be “in the service” of mankind then crap science like that of Lysenko can occur (look
    him up) because it’s what the leaders want to hear.

    Just like anything, science can be used for good or evil but if you’d encountered Einstein’s notes on his desk and you’d realised
    the implications of them when it came to nuclear weapons, would you have forced him to cease his researches ?

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