Read PDF Living in a Technological Culture: Human Tools and Human Values (Philosophical Issues in Science)

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Over time, the very idea of social norms fades, as it becomes unpleasant and often impossible to police social behavior. Washington and Hollywood are seen as the culprits of cultural dislocation, and they certainly play a role. But their actions are often reactions to forces generated by another iconic location: Silicon Valley, our shorthand for disruptive technological innovation.

Laissez-faire capitalism has long been considered unworkable. Today, however, technological advance approaches the status of laissez-faire, which has prompted a laissez-faire attitude about cultural norms.

Academic Tools

Of course, there are some restrictions on research, especially when it involves human or animal subjects. And one can find calls for restraints on future scientific and technological development.

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These, however, are usually pretty weak beer. But one finds little that is likely to prompt action by policy-makers. No senator or Washington think tank is arguing that we freeze funding for research on artificial intelligence AI while we assess the risks, or declaring that do-it-yourself biology should be illegal. On the contrary, everyone expects things to accelerate. We could call this the Wizard of Oz thesis about science and technology: our eyes are drawn to the flash and smoke of controversies but do not attend to who is at the controls.

Kaczynski called attention to the peculiar belief that whereas the efforts of scientists and engineers are viewed as beneficial when the effects are positive, they are seen as neutral when the consequences are negative. Thus, when applicants for National Science Foundation grants are asked to describe the potential broader impacts of their research, these are always assumed to be positive in nature. Now, I admit that this is a hard argument to make stick. The chain of causality running from scientific discovery to technological innovation to political, economic, and social effects is often long and winding.

As with climate change, the effects may become visible only far downstream, via drought, civil war, migration, or reactionary politics. The problem of the downstream, knock-on aspects of ethical responsibility was raised long ago by Aristotle. He noted that although a drunk may not be responsible for his actions, he is responsible for being drunk. Aristotle discussed how the paths by which praise or blame are apportioned can be quite intricate.

Scientific Objectivity

But the difficulties he identified are now multiplied ten- and a hundredfold by a global culture where the fates of billions of people are tied to one another. Living in a society whose interactions are so complex, so distant and diffuse in time and space, ethical cause and effect becomes dauntingly difficult to identify. You call a corporation and work through a menu of options, then are asked to prove your identity, then transferred, then put on hold. Globalization exacerbates our powerlessness, which feeds fantasies of libertarian rebellion.

But although our complaints are about our credit card company or our phone service, cable bill, or mortgage lender, all these companies presuppose massive systems of information and communication technology created by the wizards behind the curtain. Consider one interpretation of the opioid crisis. US men are twice as likely as US women to die from an overdose. The causes of this difference are unclear, but we do know that certain occupations that were predominantly filled by men and demanded physical strength have been in long-term decline. Politicians call for retraining miners and construction workers with the skills of computer programmers, but they rarely acknowledge the fact that there is a percentage of men who rebel at such work.

They reject desk jobs, sometimes from a lack of ability, but more often because of disinclination. Some blue-collar workers are loath to learn new trades. Deny these people an outlet consistent with their nature and many will become discouraged. And some will turn to pharmaceutical relief such as opioids. And die at a higher rate. Granted, this is a just-so story. And it may seem unfair to blame science and technology for such problems.


Why point to this node in the chain of causality, when there are so many other links that also bear responsibility? The point is less to place blame on the creators of these capacities than to point out their implication in the drama, and to challenge the still-dominant faith in the clean hands and neutral standing of scientists and engineers.

Scientific discovery and technological innovation are not neutral acts. People mean a variety of things by the phrase technological determinism. It is sometimes understood in analogy with Marxism, as technology determining the economic and social structure of a society. Or it denotes the belief that technological development has a momentum of its own and cannot be halted. We seek to take responsibility for our decisions and conclusions, and this necessitates having control over them.

Through this unshackled spirit of free inquiry, new knowledge and new ways of looking at ourselves and the world can be acquired. Without it we are left in ignorance and, subsequently, are unable to improve on our condition. We make reasoned decisions because our experience with approaches that abandon reason convinces us that such approaches are inadequate and often counterproductive for the realization of human goals. Therefore, in matters of belief, we find that reason, when applied to the evidence of our senses and our accumulated knowledge, is our most reliable guide for understanding the world and making our choices.

We base our understanding of the world on what we can perceive with our senses and comprehend with our minds. Supposed transcendent knowledge or intuitions that are said to reach beyond human comprehension cannot instruct us because we cannot relate concretely to them. The way in which humans accept supposed transcendent or religious knowledge is by arbitrarily taking a leap of faith and abandoning reason and the senses. We find this course unacceptable, since all the supposed absolute moral rules that are adopted as a result of this arbitrary leap are themselves rendered arbitrary by the baselessness of the leap itself.

As a result, we are committed to the position that the only thing that can be called knowledge is that which is firmly grounded in the realm of human understanding and verification. Often intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, and flashes of inspiration prove to be excellent sources of novel approaches, new ways of looking at things, new discoveries, and new concepts.

We recognize that the tools for testing knowledge—the human senses and human reason—are fallible, thus rendering tentative all our knowledge and scientific conclusions about the nature of the world. To many this will seem an insecure foundation upon which to erect a philosophy. But because it deals honestly with the world, we believe it is the most secure foundation possible. We humanists wish to avoid these costly errors and have thus committed ourselves to facing life as it is and to the hard work that such an honest approach entails.

We have willingly sacrificed the lure of an easy security offered by simplistic systems in order to take an active part in the painstaking effort to build our understanding of the world and thereby contribute to the solution of the problems that have plagued humanity through the ages. We maintain that human values make sense only in the context of human life. A supposed nonhumanlike existence after death cannot, then, be included as part of the environment in which our values must operate.

The here-and-now physical world of our senses is the world that is relevant for our ethical concerns, our goals, and our aspirations. We therefore place our values wholly within this context. Were we to do otherwise—to place our values in the wider context of a merely hoped-for extension of the reality we know—we might find ourselves either foregoing our real interests in the pursuit of imaginary ones or trying to relate human needs here to a very different set of nonhuman needs elsewhere.

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We ground our ethical decisions and ideals in human need and concern as opposed to the alleged needs and concerns of supposed deities or other transcendent entities or powers. We measure the value of a given choice by how it affects human life, and in this we include our individual selves, our families, our society, and the peoples of the earth. If higher powers are found to exist, powers to which we must respond, we will still base our response on human need and interest in any relationship with these powers.

This human perspective limits us to human ways of comprehending the world and to human drives and aspirations as motive forces. We practice our ethics in a living context rather than an ideal one. Though ethics are ideals, ideals can only serve as guidelines in life situations. This is why we oppose absolutistic moral systems that attempt to rigidly apply ideal moral values as if the world were itself ideal. We recognize that conflicts and moral dilemmas do occur and that moral choices are often difficult and cannot be derived from simplistic yardsticks and rules of thumb.

Moral choices often involve hard thinking, diligent gathering of information about the situation at hand, careful consideration of immediate and future consequences, and weighing of alternatives. So when we declare our commitment to a humanist approach to ethics, we are expressing our willingness to do the intensive thinking and work that moral living in a complex world entails. Our planet revolves around a medium-sized star, which is located near the edge of an average-sized galaxy of as many as billion stars, which is part of a galaxy group consisting of more than thirty other galaxies, which is part of an expanding universe that, while consisting mostly of cold, dark space, also contains perhaps one hundred billion galaxies in addition to our own.

Scientific Objectivity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Our species has existed only a very short time on the earth, and the earth itself has existed only a short time in the history of our galaxy. Our existence is thus an incredibly minuscule and brief part of a much larger picture. In light of this, we find it curious that, in the absence of direct evidence, religious thinkers can conclude that the universe or some creative power beyond it is concerned with our well-being or future.

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From all appearances it seems more logical to conclude that we alone are concerned for our well-being and future. Human beings are neither entirely unique from other forms of life nor are they the final product of some planned scheme of development. The available evidence shows that humans are made from the same building blocks of which other life forms are made and are subject to the same sorts of natural pressures. All life forms are constructed from the same basic elements—the same sorts of atoms—as are nonliving substances, and these atoms are made of subatomic particles that have been recycled through many cosmic events before becoming part of us or our world.

Humans are the current result of a long series of natural evolutionary changes, but not the only result or the final one. Continuous change can be expected to affect ourselves, other life forms, and the cosmos as a whole. There appears no ultimate beginning or end to this process. There is no compelling evidence to justify the belief that the human mind is distinct and separable from the human brain, which is itself a part of the body.

All that we know about the personality indicates that every part of it is subject to change caused by physical disease, injury, and death. Thus there are insufficient grounds for belief in a soul or some form of afterlife. The basic motivations that determine our values are ultimately rooted in our biology and early experiences. This is because our values are based upon our needs, interests, and desires which, themselves, often relate to the survival of our species. As humans we are capable of coming to agreement on basic values because we most often share the same needs, interests, and desires and because we share the same planetary environment.