Saturday, January 20, 2007

Some Scientific Paradoxes

Tibor R. Machan

I recall when I was being educated at various colleges and universities the orthodoxy in vogue was that while scientists talk clearly and meaningfully because they were dealing only with facts, others were mostly uttering nonsense because they wanted to make value judgments. The value free approach was being hailed as superior, even by non-scientists, something that turned out to be rather paradoxical. After all, if value judgments are all meaningless, unsupportable by logic or research, how can it be known that the scientific approach is superior to others? Isn’t “superior” a term indicating value?

But for quite some time this paradox was dismissed and the idea that scientists get it right because they avoid value judgments was widely embraced. Up until environmentalism became a doctrine that scientists began to embrace!

Environmentalism is, of course, full of value judgments. So what are we to make of these value judgments—aren’t they just as meaningless as those made in, say, ethics, politics, or aesthetics? That is what would follow from the old idea that nothing can be true (or even false) aside of the value-free claims scientists offer us. How can we exempt the claims made about how we ought to—or should or must—conduct ourselves regarding environmental issues? Certainly these claims are value judgments, so how come they are passed off as true by the scientists who make them, while other value judgments are regarded as mere biases, prejudices, or subjective utterances?

Consider a recent book, Endangered: Wildlife on the Brink of Extinction (Firefly Books Ltd., 2006)~~by George C. McGavin, an Oxford University research lecturer, discussing species extinction. The author basically chronicles five great mass extinctions, all do to nonhuman causes, but then warns of a sixth caused by the fact that people have learned to change their environments to suit their needs and wants. He advances as fact some of the highly disputed contentions in science about how the Industrial Revolution, with its pollution, has helped produce climate change and its effects on animal species. Once he has gone through this story, McGavin gives the reader a bunch of suggestions as to what kind of actions people can take to stem all the destruction they have wrought.

First, why is the good researcher, consistent with the value-free approach, not satisfied with the possibility that human beings are part of nature and just like some elements of the rest of nature, they can destroy animal species galore. Why is their destruction not deemed to be simply a part of nature’s value-free unfolding? Especially with what so many scientists teach us, namely, that the course of evolution is inevitable, it is what had to happen, why is human evolution different?

But of course that would require scientists to accept some notions they tend mostly to reject, including the idea of freedom of choice. So not only do the likes of Mr. McGavin accept the idea now that value judgments, namely theirs, are well grounded and no at all subjective or arbitrary (as it was contended in the early 20th century about value judgments and why many scientists insisted on embracing a value-free point of view), they even embrace a stance that assumes something with which many scientists are very uncomfortable, namely, free will. Without free will it makes no sense to make any suggestions as to how people ought to conduct themselves, including as far as the environment is concerned. It is, once again, going to be Que sera, sera—what will be will be and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it.

But if this is wrong, as all the advice and admonitions from environmentalists clearly suggest, then we can actually debate the issue of just what is the right course for people to take—should they continue to insist on having their way with the wilds, transform it to suit their needs and wants, or should they defer to some other values, say, preserving the wilds even if they must make serious sacrifices in the process? Or perhaps some other idea could be right?

And then it could also well be that human beings are different from other animals—maybe even superior to them--exactly in being free to choose how they conduct themselves. So all this talk about people being governed—driven—by their genes or DNA or, especially, the forces or laws of evolution would have to be given up since all those notions imply that how we behave is just how we must behave, including when we destroy various species of other animals.

Machan is the author of Putting Humans First, Why We Are Nature’s Favorite (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).

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