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Arkady Grudzinsky


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Are scientists responsible for the consequences of their discoveries?

Edith Widder concluded her talk about finding the giant squid with a controversial remark: "Exploration is the engine that drives innovation. Innovation drives economic growth." This was said in a context that we know less about oceans than we know about space and that we need an organization comparable to NASA to study the oceans.

This sparked a lot of concerns like the one expressed by Peter Graham: "human experience tells us that when something of value is discovered, there are plenty of less well intentioned people who WILL exploit it for financial gain and couldn't care less about the future of humanity or of our planet so long as they make their fortune. That is also part of our human nature. I would be horrified to see a NASA-like organisation set up to explore the depths of the oceans, even though I fully support people like Dr. Edith Widder. Keep the "money sharks" away from our oceans."

I would argue that benefits to humanity brought by scientific research are not limited to "economic growth". We never know what knowledge and possibilities research would open. Someone may use the knowledge to create a weapon of mass destruction, someone may exploit the newly discovered natural resource, but someone may find a cure for cancer or find a solution for energy crisis. Should fear that someone will misuse the knowledge preclude a scientist from doing the research? Should scientists use discretion in choosing funding sources for the research?

Ethical issues are never simple. I don't expect an easy answer, but rather an exchange of ideas. Here are a couple of links to appreciate the complexity of the issue:

Topics: ethics science

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    Mar 12 2013: Of course not. Vicarious responsibility does not exist. A scientist is someone who is trying to learn more about the world we live in. If someone in the future decides to use that discovery for evil, that is the future person's fault, not the scientist.

    Can you blame our fire-discovering ancestors for the burning of witches in Salem? No. Weapons don't kill people, people kill people.
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      Mar 12 2013: Generally, I would agree, except for the cases when the research is ordered for explicitly immoral purposes such as development of a gas chamber for mass killings.

      Once you mention the witches, perhaps, on the same note, you may agree that "religion does not cause harm, people do"? Best ideas in the world have been used to justify violence and atrocities.
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        Mar 12 2013: Great point.

        Religion is also a tool. An obsolete tool, in my opinion. It served as a "filler" explanation until better explanations are discovered. As our scientific ignorance recedes, so too does the need for superstition and religion. But back to the point, this tool can be used for better or for worse. It all depends on the person.
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          Mar 12 2013: In my opinion, religion is not a tool to explain physical world. It's a tool to drive our internal motivations and align motivations and cultural beliefs of people across societies and nations. Religious beliefs shape cultures. You may think, religion is obsolete in this role, but I would argue that in the absence of it, other beliefs and institutions of the same nature will inevitably form. E.g., I think, American belief in democracy, individual freedom, and human rights is a belief of the same nature - it holds a nation together, in the Soviet Union, communist party with its propaganda machine and mind control played the role of religion to get people think and act in unison. An ideological institution of this kind will always be needed in society. Throughout the history, rise and fall of ideologies accompanied rise and fall of nations, empires, and civilizations.

          I totally agree with Random Chance that religion is a great power along with science, we need to understand how both work and use them responsibly for good.
        • Mar 13 2013: I agree with both of you. It is the person using the tool who is responsible for the consequences, not the inventor or creator. However, I would really leave religion out of this discussion. While religion is responsible for the creation of ideas and beliefs, religion does not create things in the sense of physical inventions. However, it is as influential as physical inventions and like Arkady said, we need to understand its impact.
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        Mar 12 2013: In terms of creation myths and dogma, religions do attempt to explain the physical world. It just so happens that we now have the technology to prove them wrong.

        Believing in deities may never die out, but organized religion is a different story. Spirituality is becoming more and more abstract these days that many theists are believing in a "prime-mover" that initiated the universe but does not interact with us in any way. The reason for these "new-age" beliefs is the need for people to explain the beginning of our universe (physical reality).

        If you think religion is a "great power", then you should provide one tangible thing that a religious organization can accomplish that a secular organization cannot. Don't worry, I'll wait.
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          Mar 12 2013: This is a bit off-topic, but, hey, why can't I derail my own debate? :-)

          It is interesting that when Jonathan Haidt at the beginning of hist talk http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_humanity_s_stairway_to_self_transcendence.html asked the audience, how many people consider themselves religious, there were very few responses. But when he asked how many people consider themselves "spiritual" in any sense or form, majority raised their hands.

          Although religious beliefs do affect how we view physical reality, I think, explaining physical reality is not the main goal of religion. Rather, it's shaping our attitude towards physical universe and each other. Religious beliefs (or similar to them) are needed to determine our role in the universe and society.

          You may enjoy this essay about religion and its role in human life by Leo Tolstoy.
          The style of this essay is superb. If you haven't read Tolstoy, you may appreciate why he is such an acclaimed author (and that's only an English translation). There are a few quotes that I'd like to paste here, but they are rather extensive.

          Re: "If you think religion is a "great power", then you should provide one tangible thing that a religious organization can accomplish that a secular organization cannot."

          Have you watched this talk? http://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_atheism_2_0.html

          Alain de Botton, an atheist, has a few examples of things that religions give to humanity that secular organizations don't. He, actually, suggests that secular organizations should also provide these things, but, apparently, they do not. And if they can or will, I'd argue that they will have many attributes of a religious organization. So, why reinvent the wheel?
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          Mar 12 2013: Can't help it to paste a couple of quotes from Tolstoy's essay:
          "Moreover, every man who has ever, if only in childhood, felt the religious sentiment, knows from his own experience that such a sentiment has always been awakened in him, not by external, terrifying, material phenomena, but by an internal consciousness of his own frailty, solitude, and sinfulness, and connected not at all with any dread of the unknown forces of Nature. Hence man may, both by external observation and by personal experience, ascertain that religion is not the worship of deities, evoked by superstitions fear of unknown natural forces, and only proper to mankind at a certain period of their development, but something independent altogether of fear, or of a degree of culture, and not liable to destruction by any access of enlightenment; just as man's consciousness of his finality in the infinite universe, and of his sinfulness (i.e., his non-fulfilment of all he might and. ought to have done), always has existed and always will exist while man remains man."
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          Mar 12 2013: And: "But you may perhaps say that the invention of man's relation to the universe is a subject not for religion but for philosophy, or, in general, for science, allowing that the latter term is more inclusive. I do not think so. I hold, on the contrary, that the supposition that science in its widest sense, including philosophy, should concern itself with the relation of man to the universe is altogether erroneous and the chief source of disorder in the ideas of our .educated society as to religion, science, and morality. Science, including philosophy, cannot institute any comparison as to the relation of mankind to the infinite universe or to its source, if only because, before any sort of science or of philosophy could have been formulated, that conception of some sort of relationship of man to the universe, without which no kind of mental activity is possible, must have existed. As a man cannot by any kind of movement discover the direction in which he must move, but all movement is made imperatively in some given direction, so it is impossible, by the mental efforts of philosophy or of science, to discover the direction in which this effort should be made, but every mental effort is inevitably accomplished in some direction which has been already given it. And this direction for all mental effort is always indicated by religion. All philosophies known to us, from Plato to Schopenhauer, have followed inevitably the direction given by religion."
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        Mar 14 2013: Can you think of one tangible thing that a religious organization can accomplish that a secular organization cannot?
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          Mar 14 2013: So, you ignore what I said and repeat your question without comments as if it was never answered. If you believe it was not answered or you believe that I have misunderstood your question, you might want to explain what you mean or why do you think that I am not answering what you ask. That's what fanatics do - repeat same things over and over, verbatim, regardless of what others say. Do you expect a dialogue or just want to drive your point through my head like a nail?

          Anyway, I'll try again. Have you watched de Botton's video? I think, no secular organization can give you a purpose for your life, teach you how to live it and make you believe it. Do you know secular organizations that do that?
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          Mar 14 2013: Yes. I can. United States of America.
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        Mar 14 2013: I repeated my question because you did not answer it. I read all 3 of your replies, and you failed to answer the only question I asked of you. Only in your most recent response did you give me an answer: "no secular organization can give you a purpose for your life", to which I completely disagree. My life has been given purpose by the secular ideals of discovery and truth. I hold objective truth in higher regard than any happy lie or blissful ignorance.
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          Mar 14 2013: Which secular *organization* gave you these ideals, may I ask? You may not realize it, but I would claim that you may not give credit for your ideals to any secular organization or individual. Although you hold objective truth in highest regard, this ideal is not based on objective truth. It's an irrational belief, similar to a religious belief.

          Now, can you tell me, please, do you "hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal"? If so, to which category does this belief belong: objective truth, happy lie, or blissful ignorance? If objective truth, then what is the factual evidence for such belief? Do you think that the US nation would exist without this belief?

          How do you feel about reciting Pledge of Allegiance (with or without "under God") in public schools? What is it if not indoctrination? Is it not a ritual similar to reciting the Nicene creed and "Our Father" every week? What is a fundamental difference between a crowd reciting the Pledge in the same posture facing a symbol (flag) and a crowd reciting the Nicene creed facing a cross? Where, do you think, these "secular rituals" come from? Why is there a need for these rituals and irrational beliefs? Can a civilized nation exist without them?
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        Mar 15 2013: The public school system gave me those ideals. Learning about objective truth and the value of rational, critical thinking. My college years helped, but I was already the person I am now before I began college.

        Tell me, do you know what "objective" means? There is nothing irrational about believing truth is objective.

        Human rights are a human contruct. They only exist in our minds. You are attempting to confuse truth with morality.

        I feel very strongly about the Pledge of Allegiance. Did you know that the words "under god" were added to our pledge in the 1950's during the peak of anti-communist propaganda? Also, "in god we trust" was added to our currency in the 1950's as well. This is no ritual, it is a blatant and serious breach of the separation of church and state.

        I see no use for traditions. Actions that are helpful should be encouraged, while unhelpful or detrimental actions should be ceased.
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          Mar 15 2013: Re: "Tell me, do you know what "objective" means? There is nothing irrational about believing truth is objective."

          Objective means independent of our feelings or opinions. There is something called reality. Most people have an opinion that reality is independent of our opinions. That seems circular, doesn't it? Do you believe that circular logic is rational? Do you call it rational to believe that reality is real and independent of our beliefs? I have the same belief as you that reality is real and independent of my beliefs. It just doesn't seem like a rational belief to me. When you decide whether something is true or not, you are forming an opinion. So, how can you have a truth that is independent of your opinion?

          I have an irrational belief that my beliefs are irrational. I find this belief self-consistent. It does not require explanation or evidence. This belief gives me a lot of freedom. First of all, this implies that my beliefs are not any better (or worse) than anyone else's. I don't want other people believe what I believe. So, if you believe that your beliefs are rational and better than mine, I would ask you to provide evidence or a reason of why you believe that. On the other hand, I don't feel compelled to provide anyone with any proof or evidence, because I completely admit that there is none :-).

          Re: "Human rights are a human contruct. They only exist in our minds. You are attempting to confuse truth with morality." That's right. Human rights and moral values are not objective truth. They are also irrational beliefs. That's exactly what I meant. So, do you say that human rights and moral values don't concern you at all?
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          Mar 17 2013: Forget about "under God" and "In God we Trust". These things should not be on government symbols - I agree. That's not the point. What I mean is that even secular life has many traditions and rituals. E.g. celebration of the Independence day or the New Year, Inauguration ceremony, etc. Do you think that these traditions need to be abandoned?

          Re: "I see no use for traditions. Actions that are helpful should be encouraged, while unhelpful or detrimental actions should be ceased."

          Well, yes. Helpful actions should be encouraged until they become a habit and a tradition. That's how traditions form. Isn't that right? I think, for most of the rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, you can trace a certain practical reason. E.g. ban on sexual relations with parents and close relatives is, clearly, to eliminate in-breeding. Ban on sex during periods seems to promote procreation. There are sanitary rules on meat preparation, hygiene, etc. Religion seems to me a cultural way to enforce these "good habits" and spread them among population. Don't you think so? How do you spread uniform moral values among population if not by some form of "brainwashing" or propaganda? Mass-media didn't quite exist back then.

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