A Philosophical Double-Helix

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In 1953, a year after deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) was identified as the molecule that carries the biochemical information responsible for the physiology, anatomy and development of a living organism, the scientists James Watson and Francis Crick discovered its now famous doublehelix structure. In 1962, along with Maurice Wilkins they were awarded a Nobel Prize for their discoveries concerning the molecular structure of nucleic acids. Decades later, Watson assisted in the creation of the Human Genome Project, a recently completed thirteen year research effort to sequence thedouble- helix’s three billion constituent base pairs. The project is intended to facilitate genetic research in the future, and in particular to provide biomedical scientists with information crucial to ascertaining the role played by faulty genes in causing disease. The results could direct them to a new kind of treatment – gene therapy. This is evidently an enterprise of international significance requiring sustained, open debate based on informed, responsible opinions. It was therefore astonishing to hear James Watson state a few months ago on Newsnight: “I think gene therapy is a good idea because it could help make people more intelligent, and it can’t be nice being stupid.” Why is a scientist responsible for arguably the most important scientific discovery of the twentieth century expressing opinions this misinformed in a debate stemming directly from his work? The answers lie rooted within the history of science and its development as we understand it today. It is only really in modern times that has become meaningful to talk of ‘scientific method’ – an established set of procedures and approaches embodied in a distinctive philosophy of nature. In the past, individuals had to justify their procedures on a metaphysical level, which blurred the distinction between discoveries themselves and their philosophical context. But what does this mean and why is so important? To study nature at all, a few basic assumptions need to be made, such as that the world can be understood rationally in a progression from the simple to the complex, for instance, and obeys ‘laws’ which may be formulated mathematically. The reason science, and physics in particular, takes on these assumptions is not because they are a priori justifiable, but because they seem to work. In the past when an agreed scientific framework did not exist, these issues were open to debate, and were ably fostered by a classical education. However, science has now proved itself so successful that it has become arrogant in thinking that its methods are the only path to truth. This has reached such a level that some scientists believe questions like “what is consciousness?” to be answerable solely in scientific terms based on a mathematical theory and associated qualitative explanation. One physics lecturer at Oxford proclaimed during a lecture “it’s not going to be a philosopher who explains how the mind works.” But how can a scientist do it without knowing the flaws and assumptions inherent in his method? This is indicative of a generation of scientists who are isolated from both the rich historical and philosophical framework of their subjects and also the greater context of man’s attempts to understand his existence. Moreover, many eminent scientists do not believe this context to be important. Richard Dawkins, for example, noted for his dogmatic views, contempt for religion and staunch defence of reductionism, is Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. The appointment underestimates the importance of the way in which a particular scientific discovery should be presented to the public and also Dawkins’ ability to do so. Scientists now have limited means of communicating their discoveries to both the scientific community and the layman, especially in fields which depart significantly from daily experience. Meanwhile, currently unquestioned metaphysical assumptions may need updating and most importantly, scientists need to understand the limitations of their approach to a conception of the nature of the universe. Consequently scientific developments with the potential for significant social impact are often inaccurately represented to the population by the media. James Watson might be a Nobel prize-winning genius, but he is no philosopher or ethicist. We live in an age when science is the most important route to knowledge. Scientists are being asked for opinions on all sorts of questions they do not know how to answer because of their isolation from a meta,physical context. Until this changes science, and the misinformed public, will stumble blindly on believing that real truth is scientific truth and that religion, philosophy and theology are merely intellectual divertissements with no real authority.
ARCHIVE: 4th week TT 2003

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