Federico Mengozzi

The morality of scientific progress

Richard Feynman on the value of science


Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? - Paul Gauguin

It was August 6th and 9th 1945 when the world completely changed.

It’s the day when the atomic bomb was first used by humans against other humans, respectively on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many are the aspects of the world this event has changed. It was a wake up call for everyone to notice that we now have so much power in out hands that we can very easily destroy ourself while many are minding their own business. It made us understand how simple is to do bad in the world, with all the consequences that it brings.

But it also shed light, or darkness for that matter, on the role that scientist played in this accident. I’m talking about the Manhattan Project and the scientists Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr and many more. This was probably The single most shocking evidence of the danger that doing science brings, along with its benefits. It made many more aware of the responsibilities that uncovering the secret of the universe carries.

Richard Feynman felt the urge the write down a few points summarizing what the value of science actually is and why it is not and should not be just a tool to hack the universe for one’s gains over the other.

Science enable us to do all kind of things

Science is not intrinsically bad, just as a knife is not itself intrinsically harmful, is does have a great potential but no instructions. It is we that have to decide what to do with this power. We cannot risk not being able to do many of the good things science has allowed us to do just because we can’t hold ourself accountable of the wrong we might decide to do. The famous quote from Charlie Chaplin is relevant here

You, the people have the power, the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Science is an intellectual enjoyment

Probably this is more personal that shared by the entire society, but is not to be underestimated. “The value of the world view which is the results of scientific effort. It shows that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. For instance, how much more remarkable it is for us all to be stuck, half of us upside down, by a mysterious attraction to a spinning ball that has been swinging in space for billions of years than to be carried on the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in a bottomless sea?”

“The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, comes again and again when we look at any question deeply enough.”

Science require from us an open mind

Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty, some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain. It can be, or at least should be, possible to question everything. This view doesn’t set definitive boundary on what we know, doesn’t set definitive boundary on what we should be able to think. It’s from really dark times that the great flourishing of society have risen, the human potential is certainly not unlimited but it’s also unknowable. By leaving at least one door open, we can still permit ourselves to dream and move forward. “What, then, in the age of reason is the meaning of it all? What can we say to dispel the mystery of existence?” it’s fair to admit that we don’t know, and that is ok. It’s the open channel that we need to move forward.

Ultimately it comes down to what we value and what we think our future, and our present by extensions (or the other way around?), should look like. Do we want exploit technologies for our present dominance? I’m not saying we shouldn’t trust in the progress, I don’t want to fall victim of Roko’s basilisk, but we should probably spend some times questioning ourselves about the morality of our actions, what we believe in and how and on what we decide to focus our life endeavors.

...I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think.

There are the rushing waves, mountains of molecules
Each stupidly minding its own business
Trillions apart, yet forming white surf in unison

Ages on ages, before any eyes could see
Year after year, thunderously pounding the shore as now
For whom, for what?
On a dead planet, with no life to entertain

Never at rest, tortured by energy
Wasted prodigiously by the sun, poured into space
A mite makes the sea roar

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns
Of one another till complex new ones are formed
They make others like themselves
And a new dance starts

Growing in size and complexity
Living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein
Dancing a pattern ever more intricate

Out of the cradle onto the dry land
Here it is standing
Atoms with consciousness, matter with curiosity
Stands at the sea, wonders at wondering

I, a universe of atoms
An atom in the universe

Richard Feynman

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