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Eric Cohen The Permanent Limits of Modern Science— From Birth to Death ONE OF THE GREATEST EFFORTS TO TH IN K ABOUT THE M E A N IN G OF m odern science is Max W eber’s essay on “science as a vocation.” W eber’s m editation was originally given as a lecture in 1918, w ith the bloodbath ofWorld War I in the immediate background, and with some of the Enlightenm ent optim ism of the previous decades shattered by the dark specter of high-tech warfare and the haunting images of dead young bodies. W eber came to defend the dignity of science, but also to describe the perm anent limits of science on questions of value, which is to say, the great hum an questions that m atter most. He came to rebuke those who seek false com fort in old gods th at no longer exist, or in churches that provide shelter from the real dilemmas of modernity. But he came also, first and foremost, to rem ind scientists that they serve gods, too—or ideals and interests that the m odem science of nature can aid but cannot vindicate. As W eber put it, citing the novelist Tolstoy: ‘“ Science is m eaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question im portant for us: ‘W hat shall we do and how shall we live?’ That science does not give an answer to this is indisputable. The only question that rem ains is the sense in which science gives ‘no’ answer, and w hether or not science m ight yet be of some use to the one who puts the question correctly” (Gerth and Mills, 1946:143). Over the past few years—and past few centuries—there has been intense debate about the role of science in society. There has also been social research Vol 73 : No 2 : Summer 2006 785 considerable discontent am ong scientists about w hat they see as the “unscientific” or “antiscientific” character of contem porary politics. But this discontent—over stem cells, global warm ing, intelligent design, sex education—has rarely helped to “put the question correctly.” W hat we need to ask is: W hat m oral principles should govern the conduct of science, and w hat m oral priorities should govern the actions we take on the basis of current scientific knowledge, especially w hen fundam ental hum an goods seem to be in conflict? This is a question about science but not a scientific question. The m odern scientific m ethod equips us with wonderful new powers and new knowledge, both to improve hum an life and to destroy it. But science itself does not tell us how to live or what to value in a world m ade new by scientific knowledge. The princi­ ples of biology cannot tell us w hether to develop bioweapons or destroy hum an embiyos for research. The principles of physics cannot tell us w hether to build nuclear pow er plants or atom ic weapons. Science needs to be governed by philosophical ethics and democratic politics. This essay aims to explore the complex relationship between the scientific study of nature and democratic deliberation about the civic and hum an good. It begins by trying to reframe our general approach to science, ethics, and politics; then it looks at two specific controver­ sies in health policy—at the end of life and the beginning of life—in which science offers no intrinsic limits or guidance to govern the unin­ tended consequences of its achievements or the insatiable character of its ambitions. Finally, the essay tries to show, by specific example, that even those who disagree bitterly about some areas of science policy can nevertheless w ork together to set some limits on science, espe­ cially when unfettered experim entation threatens those aspects of our hum anity that elevate us above the very nature we seek laboriously to study and master. PERHAPS THE ONLY VALUE INTRINSIC TO SCIENCE IS THAT KNOWLEDGE is good and m ore is better. The good scientist makes discoveries, and his discoveries m ake him good in both senses of the term —skillful as...


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