Does science make you a better person?

I was reading a review on Scot McKnight’s blog by RJS regarding a new book out, and echoed on this blog: It looks like an an interesting read. Great blog by the way if you do not already follow it.
RJS brings up some interesting topics, and the one that intrigues me relates to ethics.
Does science contribute positively or negatively to Christian ethics?

My thought is that while largely neutral, it can be a positive influence by providing an (relatively) objective viewpoint on sometimes complex issues, to which we can then apply a moral framework.

One scripture that came to mind for this is:

James 3:1: “Not many of you should presume to become teachers because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

I don’t think science improves our morals, but it does add to our moral responsibilities. For example, now wealthy people can find out if the baby they are planning to have will be born with severe genetic defects before it is even born. So now they face a “choice” that people from centuries ago never faced: to carry the child to term or to abort the pregnancy. Or now that we are aware of climate change, we are aware of a moral imperative that previous generations could not see so clearly (though some still did —way ahead of the science!)

So I think science heaps more onto our moral load, as well as scaling up our guilty actions in so many ways. If we choose to be better --I suggest it will always be for non-scientific reasons since no science can produce a moral imperative without some foundational outside help. But if that is true, then neither does it directly produce evil without outside help. What it does do is grant efficiency and ‘scale-up’ for what we were already inclined to do in the first place. So it is easier to more immediately see the fruits of our inner nature in a scientific age.

Even potentially more benign examples of science get shipwrecked on dangerous moral reefs. What could possibly be wrong with designing less wasteful automobiles? And yet, the improvements get squandered by our responses to the same: “oh --so now we can drive bigger vehicles without so much guilt!” or … “now I can drive more / car pool less, since I’m driving a hybrid.” And thus our gains are quickly redirected towards increased personal benefit and away from any real gain. It would indeed be a naive principle that states that any salary increase you give to somebody will all go into savings increase while their lifestyle remains unchanged. We all know how that works out for 90% of us.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be using science to strive for many improvements. I’m just claiming that we’re naive to think that science/technology is all it would take.

Science makes me a more effective person – for much better or for much worse. One would need to appraise the world today to decide which of those sides is winning out.

I worry about a parallel issue of what passes for news/entertainment (those two seem irreversibly intertwined now). Witness the fixation we have on who “dissed” who more or how much some politician does or doesn’t smile. Never mind what they think on any actual issues I guess. Packaging wins out over content. Even on an NPR news show (“Tech Nation” I think) I recently heard about all the great brain-research being poured into what it takes to persuade people of … x. And with nary a concern given to just what ‘x’ might be. The only item to celebrate on the show was that we now can do “it” more effectively! – with the hyper-charitable and breathtakingly naive assumption that only good people would make any use of such advantages. One can imagine our tech-enthusiasts being asked if these friendly persuasion techniques could be used to convince somebody that “sexual deviants” ought to be eradicated. Imagine the frantic back-pedaling and layered qualifications that would suddenly materialize … “oh – this could never be appropriately used for something so heinous! How could you possibly think science would ever be used for such hateful bigotry!” And yet it is far from clear to me that our actual moral accounting sheet would really show anything much better.

We can keep building better and better engines for our “car” (science / technology)-- but until the driver (us) learns that it’s best not to be drunk or inattentive, the improved engine performance and power only make things worse. That’s my ramble on the subject.


“We have guided missiles and mis-guided men.” --MLK Jr.

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