GEGEN DEN UNTERGANG: Peter Kafka (HOME) > Six Essays > Ethics from Science? (1990)



Ethics from Science?

This text was distributed as a “non-official contribution” among the participants of the “Workshop on Bioscience and Society”, Berlin, November 25-30, 1990, organized by Silke Bernhard in the style of her “Dahlem Conferences” for the company Schering AG at the 100th anniversary of their first research laboratory. I had to act there as the moderator of discussion-group 2 (“Does bioscience threaten ecological integrity?”), and I wanted to provoke the participants a bit more than the official papers which had been distributed as a basis for the discussions. Partially, the unpublished text was used in a short summary report, which I had to present to the final panel. This appeared in Schering Foundation Workshop 2 – Round Table Discussion on Bioscience and Society (J. J. Cherfas, Ed.) Springer-Verlag, Berlin 1991.

1. The self-delusion of risk-assessment

The four discussion groups in this workshop on interaction between bioscience and society deal with four questions. The first two of them are “does bioscience threaten human integrity?” and “does bioscience threaten ecological integrity?”.

Two aspects of human integrity may be distinguished, because man lives on two different levels. In the “biologistic” view he is defined mainly by the molecular structure of his chromosomes and those connection patterns of neurons which are genetically fixed. We may subsume this biological phenomenon, which has proven its viability on the time-scale of millions of years, under the concept of the biosphere or the “ecological system” – i.e. all the time-tested interactions within “Gaia” and, eventually, “the Universe”. On this level, from physics up to the animals, complexity is already nearly infinite, but on the mental level (represented in space, time and matter by human cerebra and the cultural phenomena springing from them) it may become still very much higher.

Although, on either level, integrity cannot be defined operationally or in any other scientific sense, damage to this complex web is not only a threat but an empirical fact. If interference on the relatively low level of chemistry has already shattered the climate of the earth, and if human activities now exstirpate one or more living species every hour, it would be absurd to claim that interference at still higher levels of complexity is more likely to create less problems than it “solves”. So, scarcely a scientist will deny the possibility of threats from bioscience to the ecosphere as well as to human individuals and societies. The general answer to the first and second question will be yes – but the attitude towards the unknown threats and the proposals for action will still lie anywhere between megalomanic hope and humble modesty. Let me give two examples:

(a) “Having understood the basic laws of physics and biochemistry, we now have to improve man and his environment on the physical and biological level. Since there may be a chance of success, humanity cannot evade this task. If we weigh the benefits and risks responsibly, an overall positive result is very likely. But even if we fail, and destroy more than we improve, this is no threat to human dignity, as long as we acted in good will. The essentially human cannot be harmed by individual death, by loss of species, or even by the end of the world.”

(b) “Complexity on the level of organisms and ecology is so high that hasty “problem-solving” is likely to create far more new problems. On the other hand, it is evident that in the realm of mind and culture ideas have evolved which are able to deal with such “old-fashioned” problems as need, disease and death. Therefore, let us try and restrict our activities as far as possible to the mental and cultural level and renounce all interference with mind’s natural roots.”

How do scientists and the society steer between such extremes? Is there a generally convincing way of finding out, which might be more reasonable?

The questions to the third and fourth discussion group are: “What’s wrong with the interaction between bioscience and society?” and “What actions are required to improve the uneasy relationship between bioscience and society?”. The discussions in the four groups are meant to be guided by the general heading of the workshop: “Do current and anticipated developments in bioscience require a new covenant between science and society?.

Most active scientists will feel uneasy with this question. Wasn’t the old covenant sufficient, which made it perfectly clear who is the superior partner in this relationship? Society has needs, scientists offer inexhaustible hope. Natural selection within the economy of science has taken care that most of them are optimists. No wonder that, since God died of enlightenment, science had to take over the role of the “opium for the people” – which secures fat living at least for the big dealers. For them, there was nothing uneasy in this relation. And didn’t it bring permanent progress?

Society wants progress – and the more it has had of it, the more it needs. Some already find it a shame that science will not find a cure against death before they die. On the other hand, the fear of “side-effects” is growing equally fast. Clearly, some kind of suppression is necessary in the fight between contradictory fears and hopes. It organizes itself in the interaction between science and society. Like with the hen and the egg, we cannot say where the process starts. Society feels a strong urge to get away from where it is, because the present state seems rather intolerable in spite of or because of all former progress. Experts offer some beneficial innovation. Society asks about possible risks. The experts describe those which they can anticipate and say society should now do the “weighing” between benefits and risks. Society says the experts must help with that weighing, and calls them into a committee for risk-assessment. Since it is utterly unscientific to talk about, or even mention, something which one doesn’t understand, the problem of the “unanticipated” dangers is suppressed from the discussion. Even if a risk should become hazily visible, one can always add weight to the clearly recognized benefit which promises to deliver us from “the urgent problems of mankind”, such as hunger, disease, lack of resources and sinks and other degradation of the environment.

The promised land of scientists and businessmen in gene-technology, like the promised lands behind all those other doors which key-technologies (or picklock-technologies, or even breakthrough-technologies?) are supposed to open, will be full of new problems, and more urgent ones. But this will not be due to the “current and anticipated developments”. The greatest threats come always unexpected. However, since this is also true for the biggest successes, the experts as well as the majority in society tell themselves and each other that the unknown very big risks and benefits will just be in equilibrium and can be left out in the “weighing”. If something goes wrong, scientists and technologists cannot be held responsible for unanticipated trouble. Neither can society. Responsible action is by definition up to the present and foreseeable standard of science and technology – which is defined by the same experts who do the riskassessment, though usually in a different committee which society called for that purpose. (For instance, since all the mutual regulation of genes is far too complex to be ever understood, it is serviceable to declare an “additive model” the present scientific standard …)

So, what about the unanticipated developments? Society can’t be held responsible. It has regulated by law that scientists and technologists act responsibly if they act according to the present standard, and the enforcement of the law is controlled by experts and other members in “ethicscommittees”. Everybody has done his best. Now, if God isn’t responsible, and the scientist isn’t, and the technologist isn’t, and society isn’t – who is?

2. The Devil-Theorem

Obviously, there is something wrong with the logical structure of the old covenant. A reliable concept of responsibility must be included in the common minimal basis for an ethics of science and technology. In a pluralist world-society this cannot be expected from any of the old gods. Emancipation from truth in the sence of any religious fundamentalism is certainly worth striving for. Neither can the ethical basis come from research about how our genes influence the growth and the functioning of our neural networks. A “biologistic” ethics would be as ridiculous as ethics from quantum mechanics. There is, however, a fundamental truth which is able to convince instead of indoctrinating, and which comes even before the laws of nature. This unevadable truth is logic. Surprisingly, in scientists’ considerations about ethics, a very simple logical insight is usually being suppressed:

If results of a creative act are not clearly forseeable, the difference between “good” and “evil” is a matter of the time-scale and the “degree of globality” of the action. The consequence: One has to “wait and see”, and old diversity must not be sacrificed quickly to “unification”.

It took billions of years until God “saw that it was good”. Hans Machleidt, a German biochemist, active in education and in the chemical industry, a member in many committees, recently wrote: “Gene-technology has as its contents the planned new combination of the genetic material of living beings. This science has learnt from nature by patient observation, and is by now 15 years old …” He was argueing against intervention from politics which was then threatening the “impetuous dynamics of progress” and the “innovation dynamics” in our country. Mentioning both nature and the 15 years, he touches the fundamental problem but doesn’t see it.

We know now that creation followed the general principle of self-organization. This principle is surprisingly trivial: At each stage, from big bang through the formation of matter, astrophysical structures, the origin and evolution of life, up to our thinking and feeling, the unavoidable fluctuations explore the “neighbourhood in the space of possibilities”, and a more viable situation survives. Nobody will quarrel any more about this Darwinian tautology which does not mean more than “probably, something more likely is going to happen”. Now, the more viable is likely to be of higher complexity, if there is a larger number of neighbouring possibilities to be tried via the fluctuations, and if there is time to try more and more of them until something is found where “things fit together still a bit better” and which is therefore “selected” according to the laws of probability. The proper meaning of time is the growth of complexity – which we perceive as the creation of values. Big Bang has provided time and free energy, combinatorics provides an immense number of possibilities, and the laws of physics have made possible long-lived environments in which manifold trial and error could go on.

Remember how the number of possible relation structures grows with the number of related objects: Between two points you can draw a line or not – which makes two possibilities. With three points you find eight, with four points sixty-four … How many points do you need in order that the number of possible different relation structures is larger than the number of atoms in the universe? The answer is: Twenty-four points! So, obviously, there is always an immense number of “better” possibilities in the neighbourhood – but there is practically no chance of finding them by “planning” because the “worse” possibilities are always infinitely more frequent. Even if all matter of the world were used to build a computer, and if this would run for the age of the universe, not even all relations between 24 points could be tried. This is why “planning replaces chance by error” …

At any epoch in this process of self-organization of the universe, there will be a “front of evolution” in the space of possibilities. (Because of the isolation of stars and planets, there might be many quite independent fronts at the moment.) The speed of innovation at such a front is likely to be accelerated, because higher evolutionary speed carries a selective advantage by definition. Clearly, this will lead to a run-away instability at this front. Due to lack of time for trial and error possibilities will be realized in which things don’t fit together anymore. The front will cut its own roots to the whole and will collapse. In a spatially large system with many different local fronts this has to be judged as one of the usual errors which are absolutely necessary for evolutionary success. As long as the run-away and collapse remain spatially restricted, trial and error will go on elsewhere in space and at other fronts in the space of possibilities, too. In a spatially finite system, however, accelerated evolution must eventually lead into a global crisis. The evolutionary “success” will (again by definition) spread in space – i.e. “geographically” - until global run-away is reached. Then “the whole” (or the whole “island”) must fall back to a “lower level” in the space of possibilities.

Can such general system-theoretical considerations teach us anything about our doom? Yes. At any epoch, the beings at the front of evolution – the present “crown of creation” – will incorporate the highest degree of internal complexity. (There is probably some meaning in such a statement, although it introduces a dangerous concept. The very idea of “internal complexity” of parts would imply knowledge of their relative isolation and the time-scales of all “border-crossings”. Properly defined complexity will not be a property of parts but of the whole. Even mathematicians are now realizing that a meaningful measure of complexity would have to deal with the history of the whole …) In order to replicate this internal complexity, the individual needs a typical lifetime. This span of life (or “generation time) sets a lower limit to the time within which an essential gain in complexity (“creation of values”) might be achieved. Of course, the complexity of the whole might be damaged already at a much slower pace, but faster change will not even allow to take into account the own internal complexity, i.e. the value of the present “crown of creation”. And still, until the speed of innovation has become so high that those beings drastically change their own essentials within their own lifetime, further acceleration and global unification will be selected for. The tautology remains true that probably something more likely is going to happen – but no longer is the rise to higher complexity the more likely. Global decomposition of complexity sets in and accelerates further towards collapse.

Have you recognized the global ecological and social crisis which we are experiencing right now on the time-scale of our own life? This is a singular epoch in the history of the earth, and evolution unavoidably had to run into it after its front had moved from spelling a few new letters per generation (in the genetic code) to trying new ideas in our neural networks within milliseconds. The basic principle of self-organization is still the same as ever. The front is now in our brains and their associations, and planning is just a different word for groping our way into the space of possibilities via fluctuations. However, the rate of fluctuations in brains, the speed of interaction between them, and the speed of their interference with the environment have made the system reach the point where destruction of the old complexity becomes more likely than its growth. The broken bits are still immensely complicated, but things no longer fit together in real complexity. The blossoms at the tree of life are still beautiful, but they expand like mad, drop the leaves in order to gain space and simplify the view for planning. Attempting to fertilize the tree they poison its roots … Inevitably, evolution now seems to destroy its own preconditions: the immense diversity and the leisure for selection.

A simple objection to this “pessimistic” system-theoretical argument is the following: The mind’s level of complexity is so much higher than that of any preceding dead or living structures, that the destruction or an essential reduction of the old biological complexity means a negligible loss of value. Isn’t it even possible that mind emancipates itself from flesh? Certainly, this is “possible” – as one of the infinitely many ideas in the space of possibilities! But how likely is it to be reached by fluctuations during our epoch at our front in this space? Clearly, the probability is infinitesimal. So, this objection is nothing but that old insinuation of the snake on the tree of knowledge.

You see: There is an old name for the problem. No surprise, since it was so obvious to human intuition long before the critical time-scale and the global scale had been reached through the evolution of science, technology and economy. The principle has long been recognized. It is called the Devil, “diabolos”, i.e. he who throws things into disorder. As an angel, i.e. as a part of the divine principle of creation, he has also been called Lucifer, i.e. the bringer of light – but then he tumbles down into hell – which we might call a black hole, the utterly simplified world, the bottom in the space of possibilities … He is the same figure as Prometheus, the “fore-thinker”. Remember Pandora’s box, and how its lid was taken off – i.e. its “discovery” or “de-tection” or “apo-kalypse” …

The Devil isn’t evil. He just wants to improve the world more quickly than this is logically possible. Just like scientists and technologists and politicians.

3. How to convince the Devil

You may say, God’s way is no longer reachable in our neighbourhood in the space of possibilities. We can no longer wait and “see that it was good”. The Devil has lead us already so far in the global run-away that we cannot but follow him further. I hope this is not true. Can’t we try a “moratorium” in all the key- and picklock-technologies? Maybe, ten times longer than that after Asilomar? Couldn’t we use that time to reduce all the activities which we have recognized as destructive to the roots of old complexity? With a reduction of 3% per year, we would arrive at 20% of the present level of destructive activities after fifty years. This is what we would have to achieve in the burning of fossil fuels, the setting-free of chemical compounds which have not been tested in co-evolution with the biosphere, in soil erosion and in many other activities – in fact in nearly every activity which is now considered to be essential for our “standard of living” and for “job creation”. If we could reach a new covenant, riskassessment would no longer deal with detailed experiments and techniques but rather with whole branches of applied science and industry. The word “break-through” would make you think of drowning under thin ice – not of getting rich booty after a battle.

Of course, all this will not be the topic of our workshop. I don’t expect the devil-theorem to be made the basis of an “ethics from science” before the ecological and social collapse has proceeded still further. Eventually, however, the “opium for the people” will no longer be able to suppress the pain; acts of sabotage will embarrass the dealers; social turbulence will counteract global simplification; big powers will collapse, and in some smaller communities people will re-discover why God could have seen that it was good. Then, they will understand that we must not try and improve the world in the language of nuclear forces or the genetic code, but in our own language. If the biosphere is conserved, or influenced only very slowly, if the front of evolution is basically restricted to our mental and cultural activities, and if diversity at this front is kept or re-gained, we may be able to organize boundary conditions under which evolution on earth can continue. The spreading of a logical insight is the only task which we have to fulfill in a hurry, and globally. The inevitability of the crisis does not mean that it cannot be overcome. The word crisis means decision.