Alexander Hermes, Contributing Writer
Dr. Phillip Reid Sloan, professor emeritus of liberal studies and of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Notre Dame, gave a lecture titled “The Converging Life Sciences and Human Dignity: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives on Contemporary Biophilosophies” to a full Art History Auditorium last Thursday night.
The lecture was part of a larger series incorporating aspects of the History and Philosophy of Science concentration, coordinated by Dr. Christopher Mirus. Sloan began by giving a brief history of scientific development. He then proceeded to explain philosophical dilemmas occurring in modern science and presented a means of debating about and solving these issues.
Sloan noted that there are two forms of scientific inquiry. The first is to study for a contemplative understanding and the second is to study for power or for the ability to alter the world around us. The first aim of science, that of pure knowledge, was understood by earlier philosophers and scientists as a goal in and of itself. Although this is still somewhat the case, the real ethical debates have stemmed from the use of knowledge by modern science as a means to control or alter the world around us.
“Their goal is not contemplative knowledge, but power,” Sloan said.
This is not necessarily a bad goal. As Sloan explained, the advances in technology have led to incredible improvement in our daily lives.Recent advances, particularly in the areas of life sciences, however, have led to ethical dilemmas about how we obtain and use scientific power, especially in the realm of human life and dignity. Sloan noted that the “debate centers around what is life and what is a human being.” Far from engaging in these debates, some are turning a blind eye and denying the need for ethics in science. These are proceeding with experiments and procedures in scientific settings without considering their implications.
One concept which affects our perception of life is called reductionism, which Sloan defined as a process by which phenomena are “explained in terms of the level below it, and so on right down to the atomic level.” Thus, life sciences are now being understood in terms of chemistry and physics. Though this process can be helpful in understanding different aspects of a phenomena, what it does not account for is the concept of life or consciousness.
‘‘There [is] no place for causation or the immaterial,” Sloan stressed.
Human behavior, life, consciousness and dignity are not quantifiable but should still be of concern. Sloan pushed for re-examining previous philosophical discussions about what it means to be human and the fact that our own knowledge of scientific facts is an abstraction and thus a philosophical question in itself.
As Sloan finally posited: “We need to think more deeply about ourselves in relation to science.”