The Tragedy of Science

Well, still quite busy, but perhaps I can make some time for a brief discussion.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I have been looking through a book called ‘Modern Science and Human Values’, by William Lowrance. There are many interesting ideas in it, and I haven’t yet even made it halfway through the book, but I want to bring up one of his comments. The book is all about the ongoing effect that scientific knowledge and technological inventions have on the developments of the human species. Early on in the book, Lowrance states that his approach to the subject is one in which he views technical progress as ‘deliberately directed tragedy’. Where ‘tragedy’, he clarifies, is taken to mean “the deliberate confrontation of deeply important but nearly irresolvable life issues.” He goes on to say that “tragedy begins in our knowing of causalities, in our intervening in particular causes, and in our technical enlargement of interventional possibilities.” Examples of this are quite prevalent from the large scale to the small. With the production of atomic bombs, the question arises, when and where do you use them? What are the costs (in terms of money or people) of using them or not using them? With the development of medical technology, and the rise in cost associated with more complex machinery, the question can be asked, when is it too costly to preserve a life? The tragedy of these situations is due to competition between two or more values on a stage where there is no clear winner.

I agree with Lowrance’s view that science gives us tragic confrontations, for the same reason as gaining any sort of knowledge can open up difficult choices. It’s the well-worn idea that ‘ignorance is bliss’. The humanities – art, literature, music, etc. – can help us in this regard, teaching us how to deal with tragedy, with the tragic confrontation of values.

This theme has more or less been an undercurrent to much of what I’ve written about so far in this blog, and I want to continue to explore to it, to hash out the relationships between science, technology, values, and progress and to begin to address in some small way the questions that arise at the boundaries of these topics. Science and technology present us with many difficult issues. Rather than embrace ignorance, or make a blanket decision to forgo all technological advancements, is there some way of deliberately determining the level of technology to accept in our daily lives? What are the tools I need to live my values and attain my goals? What are the tools that humanity needs? How do we, as a species, deal with the uncomfortable truths that science might uncover?


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