A Forum of Ideas on Ethics in Science

Following up the respected American physicist Richard Feynman's idea of a forum on this subject in which his position leads off the forum, we present below this CalTech professor's main ideas here, along with some comments on them, before going on to some other scientists' viewpoints and remarks. Frontiers in Science, ed. Hutchings, Jr., 1958 is the main source here.

1. "All scientists will agree that a question--any question philosophical or other--which cannot be put into the form that can be tested by experiment (or in simple terms, that cannot be put into the form: If I do this, what will happen?) is not a scientific question; it is outside the realm of science....The value of the result (i.e.) Should I do this? must lie outside of science because it is not a question that you can answer only by knowing what happens; you still have to judge what happens--in a moral way....Science is an enabling power to do either good or bad--but it does not carry instructions on how to use it....The sciences do not directly teach good and bad." -ibid., pp. 261, 266, 315-6.

Here is Feynman's central thesis. In discussing this a quote from Hunter Read also of CalTech is in order: "Science has become too important for society to permit either its practicioners or its philosophers to claim diplomatic immunity, free from contact with the rest of contemporary civilization." -ibid., p. 220. "...diplomatic immunity" here means in terms of science that ethical standards ACTUALLY are involved, that scientific work CARRIES NO INHERENT EXEMPTION from ethical standards. Now, to go into the specifics of Feynman's position, it appears that "If I do this, what happens?" is largely a question of balance, of equivalence as in the equal sign in math, of cause and effect. "Should I do this?" which Feynman says is a distinct matter is--from a certain viewpoint--a bit past simple equivalence or balance. Perspective and proportion are major facets of truth, as is balance. Truth/knowing/science cannot have balance without there being perspective/proportion as well. This is then the second phase, if Feynman followers will have it so expressed, in the pursuit of science/truth/knowledge: one must step back and consider the whole. Now in science certainly there is the immediate focus and immediate experiment, but there is as well the opportunity to step back into the larger picture. Science and scientists are not exempt from this process, and Feynman of course did not mean to exempt himself from perspective. Now, does science carry instructions on how to use nature? Well, yes, the laws of science by their very existence illustrate to all who observe what the "instructions for use" are. Again, Feynman did not have this sort of interpretation in mind. Professor Feynman of course meant and did state that science like education and other pursuits is a double-edged proposition where good or bad usage may occur. Certainly, but many people also state cases of "bad science" meaning that scientific directions at times get confused, distorted and go rotten awhile. Perhaps Feynman wouldn't use that terminology but he no doubt understood the reference well enough.

2. "The attitude of uncertainty is vital to the scientist, and it is this attitude of mind which the student must first acquire." -ibid., p. 310--this naturallly refers to testing propositions. In contrast, Feynman states that "certainty and faith (are) demanded in religion..." -ibid., p. 314. Now, one may state that this demand stems from bad religion, but nevertheless Feynman has made an excellent point.

3. "The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, tossed out, more new ideas brought in; a trial and error system." -ibid., p. 266. And yet the U.S. check and balance system does allow for longterm perspective thru the judicial branch--therefore Feynman perhaps underestimates our political process somewhat, as experiment on specific ideas is counterbalanced by the longterm perspective that develops in our national process. It should be noted that Sir Isaac Newton, master of the Mint for 28 years, put Britain on the gold & silver standard. Newton certainly considered the longterm perspective when he chose this system over an unbacked by precious metals papermoney system.

4. "Mathematics is not a science from our point of view, in the sense that it is not a natural science. The test of its validity is not experiment." -Feynman: Six Easy Pieces, 1963, p. 47. Well, it appears that Feynman enjoys controversial ideas, but it is doubtful that mathematicians agree with Feynman that math is not derived at least in part from experience. Our logic is tested daily, afterall.

Now for other points of view: Fred Hoyle, Linus Pauling, J. R. Oppenheimer, and others will be given space below.

Fred Hoyle: "New and important developments (in science) will be necessary--and in the not very distant future--if civilization is to avoid running into a period where the average share begins to decline disastrously." -ibid., p. 277


Linus Pauling: "I believe that science as a whole is becoming simpler rather than more difficult. Many parts of physics have already passed thru the stage of greatest complexity--the stage at which the body of knowledge in the field consists of an aggregate of largely disconnected facts....On eway in which an increased knowledge of the nature of the physical and biological world can be of value to the individual citizen is thru the conferring on him of an increased equanimity, an increased confidence in natural law and order. The sources of happiness are not so bountiful that mankind can afford to neglect such an important one (as science)." -ibid., p. 288

J. R. Oppenheimer: "The English words for color distinguish spectrally what we call color, by the hue. The Greek words have to do almost entirely with depth and brightness, and you can't find a Greed word for blue. You can find one that sometimes means blue....The greatest of all protections against narrowness, and the greatest relief and opening, is comradeship and that ability to learn from others of what their world is like." -ibid., pp. 345, 350.

Mark and Elizabeth Prophet: "Man in the state of becoming God is the essential link (and the so-called missing link) in this cosmic evolutionary chain. Without the link there can be no chain; without the chain there can be no link." -Climb the Highest Mountain, p. 407


Elting Morison: "We are not yet emotionally an adaptive society, though we try systematically to develop forces that tend to make us one. We encourage the search for new inventions; we keep the mind stimulated, bright and free to seek out fresh means of transport, communication and energy; yet we remain in part appalled by the consequences of our ingenuity and too frequently try to find security through the shoring up of ancient and irrelevant conventions, the extension of purely physical safeguards or the delivery of decisions we ourselves should make into the keeping of superior authority like the state. These solutions are not necessarily unnatural or wrong, but historically they have not been enough, and I suspect they never will be enough to give us the serenity and competence we seek." -op.cit., p. 337.

Michael Denton: "Aside from any quantitive considerations, it seems intuitively impossible that such self-evident brilliance in the execution of design (in nature) could ever have been the result of chance. For, even if we allow that chance might have occasionally hit on a relatively ingenious adaptive end, it seems inconceivable that it could have reached so many ends of such surpassing perfection....To gain a more objective grasp of the level of complexity the cell represents, consider the problem of constructing an atomic model. Altogether a typical cell contains about ten million million atoms. Suppose we chose to build an exact replica to a scale one thousand million times that of the cell so that each atom of the model would be the size of a tennis ball. Constructing such a model at the rate of one atom per minute, it would take fifty million years to finish, and the object we would end up with would be the giant factory described above, some twenty kilometers in diameter with a volume thousands of times that of the Great Pyramid....In terms of complexity an individual cell is nothing when compared with a system like the mammalian brain. -Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, 1985, pp. 327-30.

This subject then of ethics in science is VERY LARGE. -Roger Petrol, Sept. 4, 2002.


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