Sunday, September 09, 2012

Something scientists should consider about nature

Here, for a change, I want to wander into philosophical territory. I should first admit that I am rather ignorant of it, since I never studied philosophy past the high school level. But my interest remained vivid and I read philosophical books regularly. More important, I believe that every scientist has to keep an eye – even if it is half-open – on philosophy. Isn’t science the daughter of philosophy? (After all, science used to be “natural philosophy”.) And ironically, aren’t I a doctor in philosophy (Ph.D.)?

One year ago I was talking about philosophy with a colleague in the lab (although I can’t remember how the discussion drifted to this topic!). At some point my colleague said that he couldn’t find any use in philosophy, and this baffled me. I mentioned the philosophy of science and Karl Popper as a counter example, but retrospectively I didn’t need to be so specific. Philosophy is important per se if it has practical applications for scientists it is a good thing but not its final goal. 

Nonetheless, I started thinking about examples of philosophical inquiries that have repercussions in the day-to-day life of scientists, and I realized there’s plenty. Here I would like to share one which I think is essential: the reflection on nature and natural phenomena.

Quite often, scientific research is questioned on the basis that it is not “natural”, or even “against nature”. I believe that such oppositions are groundless, but it is not so easy (or maybe not even possible) to dismiss them using scientific arguments only.

John Stuart Mill. Image Wiki Commons.
Should we reject some scientific or technical endeavors on the basis that they break loose from nature? Here philosophy is most useful, and I believe that the matter was set for good in 1874, with John Stuart Mill’s essay On Nature. This short essay is part of a collectionThree essays on religionpublished after the death of Mill.

The main issue with the words nature and natural, Mill notes, is that they can mean different things. He nicely sums up his whole reasoning in the conclusion of his essay:

“The word Nature has two principal meanings: it either denotes the entire system of things, with the aggregate of all their properties, or it denotes things as they would be, apart from human intervention.”

In other words, we have on the one hand natural as opposed to supernatural, and on the other hand natural as opposed to artificial. Thus, when someone says that something is not natural, what definition is that person using?

If the first meaning is intended (“the entire system of things”), we can lightly dismiss the objection. As Mill writes:

“In the first of these senses, the doctrine that man ought to follow nature is unmeaning; since man has no power to do anything else than follow nature; all his actions are done through, and in obedience to, some one or many of nature’s physical or mental laws.”

So much for the first meaning. But the second meaning (“apart from human intervention”) does not get a better fate:

“In the other sense of the term, the doctrine that man ought to follow nature, or in other words, ought to make the spontaneous course of things the model of his voluntary actions, is equally irrational and immoral.
Irrational, because all human action whatever, consists in altering, and all useful action in improving, the spontaneous course of nature:
Immoral, because the course of natural phenomena being replete with everything which when committed by human beings is most worthy of abhorrence, any one who endeavoured in his actions to imitate the natural course of things would be universally seen and acknowledged to be the wickedest of men.”

Nature is no guide for or moral choices and this should be obvious, as Mill points out. Hence, if I were told that such or such endeavor should be stopped because it is not natural (or against nature), my first move would be to bring the philosopher to the rescue. To use the nature argument is simply wrong. Case closed. Thank you Mr. Mill!

I think many scientists get trapped in public debates because they think that having the science right is sufficient. Most often it is not, in particular when ethical aspects are involved (so most probably always). In that respect philosophy is tremendously useful to a scientist’s reflection.

[Note: I was introduced to Mill's On nature as a PhD student, when I attended a lecture organized by the sciences-society interface at the University of Lausanne. Unfortunately I don't remember the name of the lecturer, but I'm very grateful to her for this insight!]

Many of Mill's texts can be read online, for instance on the classical utilitarianism website of the University of Texas at Austin:

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