The Limits of Science

The Limits of Science August 12, 2014

I love science. I love its potential to improve the world through innovation, and I love using it to learn more about the world around me. The physical world we live in is truly fascinating. But science alone does not give us values or ethical systems.

First are the things we value in or find meaningful. Science can tell us the fail rate of various birth control methods, and how STDs are spread and best avoided. It can also tell us the function sex has played among humans and in various other species. But science cannot tell us how we should personally view and practice sex. Some individuals may prefer to only have sex when they have a meaningful connection. Others may enjoy hooking up, meaningful connection or no. In other words, the value and meaning we form around sex is separate from our scientific knowledge of sex, though it may be informed by it. 

Second are the ethical systems we create. Biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote in the 1960s that India was so far gone with its overpopulation problem and food shortages that we should put them on a no-trade list and let them starve to death until their population was back to a sustainable level. Ehrlich’s beliefs were informed by his work as the preeminent population scientist of his time, but he could have argued for a different position based on a slightly different ethical system.

Science can do many things for us. It can give us vaccines, solar panels, and clean water. What it cannot do is tell us how to live, or where to find value and beauty. Many people look elsewhere for guidance on these things, often turning to religion. Some turn to philosophy in search of coherent ethical systems, or work to create their own.

I am reminded of a recent discussion of ebola. One friend said on facebook that newly developed ebola drugs should be mass produced and administered in Africa to stem the current outbreak. Another pointed out that there are all sorts of ethical problems with that, as we don’t yet know whether these drugs work or what side effects they might have. In other words, administering these drugs at a mass scale without the regular clinical trials is arguably iffy. And if supplies are limited, as they are stated to be, who should get the drugs is also an ethical question.

But let’s imagine that the ebola outbreak continues to spread, and shows no sign of being contained. As things spin out of control, might there be good reason to attempt iffy drug administration in what would amount to mass experimentation? Arguably so. But these are not questions science can answer. Science can create vaccines. It cannot tell us how to use them. If it could, we would not need bioethicists.

Fans of dystopian novels are familiar with these sorts of ethical issues. Dystopian fiction tends to begin with some disaster, and then with attempts to prevent future disasters by setting up a system we as readers find abhorrent. But of course, those setting up these systems have their reasons. They have typically seen massive disorder and bloodshed and feel that their systems, while robbing people of some of their freedoms, will be better for the people overall.

I am reminded of the Hunger Games (spoiler alert!). One thing I really appreciated about the trilogy was the sickening reality, most prominent in book three, that war is hell. All those deaths, all that bloodshed—you can practically feel Katniss wondering if it is really worth it. What are the deaths of 23 children each year in the games, and the hunger and police state many of the districts experience, compared to entire districts being wiped out, man, woman, and child? The rebellion cost Katniss her sister. Would she have preferred to live in a police state but still have her sister? This is not a question science can answer for us.

We see these same ideas at play in this preview for the upcoming movie based on The Giver. “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong,” one of the architects of the dystopian system explains.

Dystopian systems tend to be created by architects who value order over freedom. Freedom they see as dangerous—freedom can lead to war, starvation, death. Order means peace, stability, safety—or so they argue. But again, is this a question science can answer? Sure, we could try to measure happiness. But what do we base that on? How do we measure it? Such measures quickly become subjective rather than objective, and science is supposed to be objective.

There is much science can tell us, but it has its limitations. There are questions science cannot answer. Frankly, I don’t think science can tell us what to do when it comes to gender roles. Oh sure, science can tell us that women are just as intelligent as men, or that men are just as capable of nurturing as women. But science also tells us that women are on average weaker than men, and that women can bear children and breastfeed while men can’t. And what of the studies that argue that women are worse at spatial reasoning, or that men are naturally more competitive? Sure, we can call out pseudoscience when we see it, but honestly, my belief in gender equality is not based on science. It is based on something outside of science.

For questions that science cannot answer, people tend to turn to philosophy and religion. Neither of these offers only one possible answer to these questions—there are various philosophical schools just as there are various religious traditions. But while we may each believe that our own ethical system is best (or, at the very least, adequate), we cannot prove that scientifically, because ethical systems focus on questions science is not capable of asking. Ethical questions reach beyond science, though they may be informed by it.

Science tells us what is. Ethical systems tell us what we should do with what is.

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