June 21, 2012 | Posted By David Lemberg, M.S., D.C.

“We have ceased to live in a common world where the words we have in common possess an unquestionable meaningfulness.”  Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future

It was bound to happen. Last week, Nature reported that a Hungarian company “certified” that a member of parliament did not have Jewish or Roma heritage.1 It seems we have not come very far at all from the hatreds and behaviors that led to the Nazi atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s. But, of course, 70 years is the merest blip compared to 10,000 or more years of fear of the other.

However that may be, here we are concerned with ethics and the practice and value of science. In this instance a long chain of discoveries, from the elucidation of the structure of DNA, to the identification of the RNA sequences coding for specific amino acids, to the delineation of the “human genome”, to the identification of vast numbers of single nucleotide polymorphisms, has devolved to the lowest possible level of “identifying” genes denoting racial heritage.

Is this a problem of science as such? Or is it a problem related to what it means to be a human being, that notorious “riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”? Or is this virulent distortion of scientific progress merely what can be expected when the fruits of scientific research are placed in human hands? Modern science was born, asserts Arendt in her essay The Concept of History, when attention shifted from the search after the “what” to the investigation of “how”. Historically, science was concerned with exploring the natural world. Scientists such as Aristotle categorized, catalogued, and examined phenomena. The overall goal was to improve understanding of man’s place in creation. Investigation of the “how” was activity of an entirely different sort. Now scientists began to pull things apart in attempts to understand how things work.

Much of the weight for this profound shift may be placed on Descartes and his famous rule, de omnibus dubitandum est: doubt everything. If everything is to be doubted, the underpinnings of faith are shaken to the core. Things may not be as they seem, and the perceptions of our senses, which we interpret as information about the world around us, may not be relied upon. As a result, observation is no longer sufficient for knowledge and deep investigations need to ensue, i.e., everything needs to be deconstructed.

Worse, if we doubt everything we no longer have a ground for distinguishing right from wrong. Per Kant (and many others in the great tradition), the foundation for ethical principles is given. Fundamental issues can only be determined using a priori methods. But if doubt rules, then a priori matters vanish. And if we’re left to our own devices, to our own musings, the ultimate likely outcome of new developments in science is their hijacking to serve some nefarious purpose such as greed, power, or hatred.

This is not the fault of the scientists, whose focus, hopefully, is on doing their work. The fault, paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Cassius, lies in ourselves.

1Nature 486:167, 2012

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