Sunday, November 12, 2006

the scientific mind , emotions and ethics

i recently saw the movie "12 angry men". it was excellent. it created the opportunity to discuss so much about so many things. one amongst those, was this business of scientific, logical thought.

the concept of science as we know it today - mostly based on what has come out of the west - claims logic to be the supreme tool of the scientific mind. logic is elevated to such a status that people even proudly define the sum of their existence by solely that which they have logically worked out. in my opinion "cogito ergo sum" has certainly done its bit to help science limit intelligence and the scope of human existence, not to mention its adding to the tensions that the fragile relationship between science and ethics is fraught with. if science is on terms of the barest civility with ethics, it accords emotion pariah treatment.

it was this last thing that the movie brought out so well - that the scientific mind is still at the end of the day a human mind, with whatever wisdom, maturity, prejudices, ideals, ethics and impressions the owner acquires through lived experience. science tends to focus only on the facet of rationality and treat it as an isolated entity. a lab coat can cover only so much of a person - the rest that is at best ignored (and unfortunately mostly battered) by science is very real. so a scientist is actually given a very unfair deal. like any stereotype, this one is a very damaging one to have to conform to. given the increasing power of technocracy, i think its imperative that this be addressed.

science demands of its followers that they forget their emotions and feelings. it requires that the entire experience be completely mechanical and devoid of the human component. even if a person feels profoundly unhappy about what theyre doing, theyre expected to behave mechanically. such a system automatically breeds the completely farcical justification of any means being valid for a "worthy" end. (after all, this is the system that systematically breaks the person to build the Scientist.)

the taboo on emotion is manifested in different ways. for example when a conservation biologist is writing a paper on an animal, (s)he will omit to mention in their paper the open secret of how the animal is cruelly and slowly killed for commercial use, rather than write it and risk the charge of being "too emotional". or the words will be sterilely packed in expressionless phrases - the doctor will merely state that the patient "exhibited symptoms of prolonged sub-clinical depression" rather than say that the patient had been grieving inconsolably for the last 3 years.

an ideal is a concept we feel a strong emotional connection to, that the intellect also approves of and hails as exemplary. the pursuit of knowledge is as much an ideal as any other. at least as it started out, science was a structured discipline to be used in this pursuit. the quality of science as it exists now is questionable because at least from the recent past, science, as the tool of governments with unethical agenda, has been forcing its brightest sparks to ignore their experience, knowledge, judgment - and emotions.

right from the willingness to seek more facts about an issue, however troubling the new truth may be, emotions do sway and influence the scientist and his study. science denies several painful dilemmas that the scientist faces by banning the existence of emotion.

automatons cannot perceive right and wrong and be discriminating. an automaton is incapable of evolving or adhering to an ethical code. history holds many examples of people dedicated to science and seriously lacking in ethics. maybe torn between loyalties, in a conflict between science and ethics, so many scientists have caved in and betrayed the very ideals they started out to uphold, eventually winding up in an emotional crisis and unable to come to terms with the blood on their hands.

the first examples that spring to mind are the scientists involved in the building of The Bomb. oppenheimer, appalled at the result of his final blind rush in the name of science, campaigned vociferously against the hydrogen bomb, and ravaged by politics and politicised science, he finally gave up with a broken spirit. haunted by what he had helped created, bethe refused to be part of the project to build the hydrogen bomb. many of the others, like pauli, went into severe depression. after the war, einstein (whose work was the basis but who was hardly actively involved in the building of the bomb) wept and apologised to the visiting japanese physicist hideki yukawa.

"In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose."
- Oppenheimer

in a more contemporary context, we see abdul kalam today desperately voicing pacifist sentiments after having fathered indias nuclear program. a broken old man hugging children and asking for peace in almost desperate naivete.

i would call these intellectuals the casualties of science. men crushed by the juggernaut of science drawn by beasts like pavlov and skinner. if this is what science does to intelligence with a conscience, isnt it high time we re-examined the scientific stereotype and what it demands?

feminist issues



Blogger Krish said...

Oh...a good one this is!..but fraught with fallacies! First..let me ask you the reason for tagging this as a feminist issue..(This IS a rhetorical question). Let that rest..

I think the scientists(Oppenheimer to APJ) were saner and happier till they were scientists..the problem comes only when they come down from the scientific pedestal and enter into this, they betray Science..not their emotions![;)]..well, that is just another perspective of things!

The emotion part that is being upheld so furiously, is fraught with interpretations...the only issue i see here is Science's ruthless annihilation of interpretations - rather than facts..when you are dealing with facts, there can be no differences- like the sun is hot and water is is only when you let emotions creep in, are we entering into a dangerous world, where we are unsure of ourselves, unsure of others, and unsure of everything what is wrong in being content with a singular definition and enjoy life![;)]..i hope u understand my def of enjoyment is different from yours and i have a basic right to be content with it!

And Science anywhere(not just west) claims logic to be supreme..infact it is called Science only when it evokes logic..I am appalled at what you call, Science limiting fact had it not been for science, we wouldn't know what is intelligence![:)]..and I wonder how can you make such sweeping generalizations about Science..Can you name a single thing that is devoid of science and logic??

Can you say me an emotion that has got no logic in its formation and that has got no Science behind it? Can you say how else do [i]you[/i] define your existence, devoid of science and rationality? The mere fact that you are able to think(or even imagine) of other definitions is because Science enabled you to understand them!

Ethics...this point is baffling at the least and laughable at the best!..what ethics, whose ethics? Do you mean to say Personal Ethics? or Societal Ethics?. I am afraid Science doesn't tell its followers to forget their only tells them to be aware of its consequences!! When you know of a consequence and then you go and do something, its not the fault of Science..When Atom Bomb was developed, Science didn't hide the ill effects of was the same "national pride" of human emotions, that went ahead with the is not science's mistake when you decide against the warnings it gave, went ahead with your emotions and then curse yourselves..had you been a scientist(I mean a rational one devoid of any emotions, then may be you wouldn't have even thought about the atomic bomb as such a great "weapon"..its the emotion of victory, emotion of oneupmanship and emotional ethics of "my country vs yours" that created any is not is not Science that dropped the atomic bomb - it is human emotions of revenge and victory. It is not science that feels sorry for the human lives that were lost, it is the human emotions.. "Worth" is not defined by Science..if you define it clearly, Worth is not a science's is Emotions..for ex..the same roti would be worth a million dollars to a starving man, while its worth next nothing to the uber-rich who had just thrown it science would only see it as a roti..not its worth...the worth is defined by the emotion..again in a slippery pitch!

If Science is used as a tool by Governments with "unethical" agenda, it is hardly the Science's fault!..It is rather the ethic's fault..ain't it??..

I enjoyed reading this piece, though I didn't agree to it!..Good Job!

6:07 am  
Blogger Krish said...

On the last line I forgot to mention on how the "unethical" govt is ethic's is ethic's fault, because it isn't hard enough on those unethical govt!. If a Government can know before hand what would be the fall out of the unethical behaviour and if it is hard enough, no govt would be unethical...would it?

6:56 am  
Blogger Sriharsha Salagrama said...

"...the scientist and his study..."
point well taken. I'm drafting a post on science as traditionally a male prerogative... It should be up on sthreeling in week's time :)

11:35 am  
Blogger Sriharsha Salagrama said...

Correction Kirsh; Oppie was very much an active scientist when he went up to Harry Truman and said "Mr. President, I have blood on my hands"
If your point is that Oppie was not behaving as a scientist but as a human when he made that statement, then it could hardly be considered 'coming DOWN for the scienitific pedestal'. Being a good human being ranks a tad higher than being a good scientist.

Secondly; at the core of Science is "INTERPRETATION". Quantam Physics especially (and Science generally) is all about building analogies: about INTERPRETING matter as a particle or as a wave. If you talk about about being unsure as an emotional idea, not a scientific one; may one remind you of a certain Mr. Heisenberg?

I take partially your point about ethics and science. Science is defined to not have an ethical viewpoint. That does not per se make it unethical. But the point to be noted is that when you give an endorsement to a scientific fact that has been established by unethical means (Pavlov's dogs being a case in the point) then it is just not good enough to say "I did the experiment in the spirit of scientific inquiry". The spirit of Science must be tempered with a sense of ethics. The scientist cannot give up his moral code any more than the Nazis could have at Nuremberg. Following orders is a duty one has to one's government but this duty must be tempered with a moral code; just as following the spirit of inquiry is the duty a scientist has towards Science; but which has to be tempered with a moral code. To glorfiy one without accounting for the other is to do a disservice to both.

11:56 am  
Blogger Krish said...

Guess this comment box is now, Godwin's Law Compliant!![;)]

10:46 pm  
Anonymous icarus said...

In what way do emotions overlap with the process of scientific thought? Aren't they mutually exclusive? Emotions and ethics come into the picture only when there is a choice to be made. Oppenheimer had to choose if he wanted to go ahead with the project after discovering the possible disastrous consequences. Pavlov had to choose if he wanted to continue his experiment after he discovered that the dogs were suffering. These personal choices (emotional/ethical) are outside the domain of scientific thought.

If you're stating that the process of scientific or rational thought diminishes a person's capacity to exercise that emotional or ethical choice, I don't quite see how...

A scientist may choose to ignore any premonitions about his experiments themselves (as in the case of biology) or their consequences if he or she is driven by a desire to succeed 'at any cost', refusing to choose between right and wrong. But such corruption is not in any way restricted to Science... we have corrupt accountants and corrupt politicians too. The difference is in the scale of the damage caused by their actions. The Enron scandal or the Gujarat riots only affected a limited set of people, at one point in history. Not quite so with the scientists who invented the gun...

11:21 pm  
Anonymous IdeaSmith said...

Is this the story of a jury discussing a murder case? I thought I knew the movie by name, having seen another language version of it, but the plotline doesn't sound familiar.

1:26 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I doubt if the scientists who worked on the Manhattan project had a gun to their head. No, they knew what they were doing, and I believe they did it willingly. Perhaps not for personal glory, perhaps for their dedication to take science further. The problem is, they didn't stop and think if they should.

It was all very nice of Oppenheimer to regret what he's done, but I find it difficult to believe that all those years, when he was working on his pet bombs, he did not realize that they would actually be used, and I find it difficult to believe that as a scientist, he did not have a fair idea about the magnitude of the destruction his bombs would cause.
Nope, scientists are not casualties, they are conveniently short-sighted people, who turn off reason and logic when it suits them. And given the years they have spent in training themselves to think logically and clearly, this kind of lapse is nothing short of criminal.

7:14 am  
Blogger m. said...

krish: if you thoroughly disagree, let me merely say the feelings are mutual! i think harsha has answered you pretty eloquently, so ill merely add that a discriminating consciousness is more representative of the level of intelligence because it transcends the binary limited world of logic.

harsha: thanks - you saved me some work :D

krish: one of the best ways to make us callously forget the human race's crimes, in order to enable some of us to continue perpetrating atrocities would be to ridicule the issues in question in order to minimise their magnitude.
if you notice most symptoms of system failure are treated with mockery by mass media so that we dont take them seriously and actually do something about them. its an old strategy.

icarus: ..after he discovered that the dogs were suffering. ah. it was a great feat of perceptivity to actually figure out that a dog whose insides were pulled out and hooked to gadgetry was in pain, wasnt it. what the...?!
and anyway, so much for his "perceiving" it - he didnt let someone else's mere suffering cramp his style. go science.
being unbiased is the official excuse to sanction monstrosities of that kind. sorry. im not buying it.

ideasmith: yes, the movie is about a jury discussing a man's guilt. it triggered off a line of thought that led back to something ive felt for a long time.

senthil: *applauding* :)

9:51 pm  
Blogger Sriharsha Salagrama said...

dear kirsh,
If one were talking about a situation of personal ethics v/s doing justice to a principle, it would be unreasonable to expect that there would be no mention of the Nuremberg trials.

9:20 am  
Blogger sd said...

hello M.,

I come to your blog some times. This is the first time I am commenting though. I liked the post because it was passionately written!

"if this is what science does to intelligence with a conscience, isnt it high time we re-examined the scientific stereotype and what it demands?"

See there a few details that I do not agree with (some partially raised by krish) but my fundamental argument against your line of thinking is this:

1. There is far too much generalization. Why should we re-examined the "scientific stereotype" if a few people go awry. In fact I will argue there is no such thing as scientific stereotype. It is not possible for every scientist to be moral just as it is not possible for everyone is this world to be moral. Morality has nothing to do with logical thinking. Some immoral people might hide their immorality under the cloak of "scientific pursuit" but they know as well as anyone else if they are doing wrong. Bottomline: There is no "scientific stereotype". That concept is present only in our minds.

2. I think there is another kind of generalization that your argument suffers from: The area of science. Your arguments are based on experiment on animal subjects and the H-bomb. What about our scientific pursuits. As an example: What about mathematicians - "the bearer of logic". In mathematics logic is held supreme; so are mathematicians also to think emotionally?

Hope I have not taken too much space here!

12:12 pm  
Anonymous icarus said...

Okay, how about Pavlov had to choose if he wanted to go ahead with his experiments knowing fully well that his 'test subjects' would undego great pain and torture?

My point (which I supposed wasn't conveyed) essentially is that Science, as it is practiced, should not be equated with 'scientific thought'. In the post you seem to skip from one to the other without making this distinction clear.

12:39 pm  
Blogger Krish said...

Oops..I thought with I would rest with the Godwin's Law..but think the ghosts have come to haunt me!![;)]
@harsha: What you are essentially referring to is a "comma" in science..not a "period"{this is in ref to Heisenberg- a perfect gentleman}..remember, there were times when the entire scientific world thought that the earth was flat!! n there were thoughts that man can never fly!! us not put the lid on the uncertainty principle!- I dont think he said, I don't know which state is a particle in this moment..he only said, it is hard to determine the state...there is a lot of difference between unknown and indeterminable!!..May be you will think it of as a semantic issue..but it is far more than that! :)

Reg is not an accepted science, till your interpretations are proved by logic and hard cant go and say, I "feel", my "guess", "my heart says" etc..on a scientific platform!..hope you get the difference between the stages![:)]

Reg your second point on justice to a principle...when was this "principle" formed??? what was the yardstick to measure the correctness or wrongness of a principle...guess we are treading in a very dangerous issue..request you to not make sweeping generalizations!

"Being a good human being ranks a tad higher than being a good scientist." this a personal opinion or an proven truth?[;)]

@m: Reg Old strategy-Oops..did I tred on sensitive issues??..I don't want to invoke the dead!

@sd, icarus: Excellent point made..I hadn't put it this good!..Thanks from my side![:)]..n let us not judge history by the values we hold high today! wud b a folly.

9:30 pm  
Blogger m. said...

sd: stereotypes are present only in our minds. the same applies to "objectivity", "rationality" or "science". so it matters.
with reg. to your statements about mathematicians - are you saying because they deal with numbers they should be denied emotions? that kind of person is the one who would run the highest risk of reducing human tragedies to "mere statistics".
its easy to dismiss it as generalisation. dyou think maybe it should be reconsidered because these specific cases i mentioned are the people who are invoked in virtually any major discussion on science?

icarus: Science, as it is practiced, should not be equated with 'scientific thought'
howww interesting! so you're saying that "science" is independent of scientific thought. that there can be scientific deed without necessarily scientific thought. QED.

8:40 am  
Anonymous icarus said...

Quite Easily Done... I agree! :) That's not what I said at all! Anyway, this seems to be going the way of the (Genetically Modified?) təˈmɑːtəʊs and təˈmeɪtoʊs...

12:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Knowledge may indeed be morally neutral, but its application can be fraught with moral consequence.

7:12 pm  
Blogger Sriharsha Salagrama said...

"once rockets go up / who cares where they come down? / Its not my department" / says werner von braun

tom lehrer rocks doesnt he?!

8:44 am  

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