Growing up in Houston meant that I could visit NASA any time. On every visit I would stare in awe at photographs of the big blue planet in space. The rocket launchers, astronaut training facilities, and all of the geological species from space fascinated me, but I don’t recall ever feeling any sense of compassion for what the astronauts or rocket scientists were doing; I just thought their inventions were neat. The word ‘astronaut’ became synonymous with ‘play’.
Reflecting on my own research endeavors, I’m realizing that I haven’t really dedicated too much consideration to the moral compass guiding my pursuit in science. Perhaps I’ve put too much faith in the basic goodness of my human nature and maybe I’ve let my “Oh, that’s cool!” instincts take over.
Lately though, my thoughts have been more transcendental in nature. In recognizing the preciousness of life, I’m realizing that striking a balance in nature and employment is necessary. Compassion combined with a clear awareness of the wider perspective (including long-term consequences of a technology) must be a key motivation in the scientific process. (I hope to write more thoughts on genetic engineering in the future)
In the current paradigm of science, only knowledge derived through a strictly empirical method underpinned by observation, inference, and experimental verification can be considered valid. This method involves the use of quantification, measurement, repeatability, and confirmation by others. Many aspects of reality as well as some key elements of human existence, such as the ability to distinguish between good and evil, love, artistic creativity – some of the things we most value about human beings – inevitably fall outside the scope of the method.
Scientific knowledge, as it stands today is not complete; therefore we must clearly recognize the limits of the empirical realm. In recognizing these limits we can genuinely appreciate the need to integrate science within the totality of human knowledge. Otherwise our conception of the world, including our own existence, will be limited to the facts adduced by science, leading to a deeply reductionist, materialistic, even nihilistic world view.
I’m not necessarily opposed to reductionism, but I recognize that problems arise when reductionism, which is essentially a method, is turned into a metaphysical standpoint. Understandably this reflects a common tendency to conflate the means with the end, especially when a specific method is highly effective.
In summary, this has become an overly convoluted writing about my scientific motivation and my quest to better define this motivation with respect to a principled moral compass.