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Is science a force for good?

‘When we hear it said that science has already failed to make us good, I always want to draw attention to the time-scale of things. There have been recognizable men for about a million years. There have been fairly highly developed human societies (I stand to be corrected on this) for about twelve thousand years. If we date the description of the scientific method from Bacon, then it has been in existence for three hundred years. It has been seriously applied to medicine and natural sciences for about two hundred years with the results we know. It has been applied to human social behaviour for eighty to a hundred years. In that time it has already produced a greater revolution both in human awareness and, I think it is true to say, in human ethics, than religion has produced in several centuries - and its rate of progress in all these fields tends to be exponential; it is likely to go faster the farther it moves…’

Alexander Comfort, The Case for Humanism – or Can Science Make us Good?

For many humanists, science is something to be celebrated. It has both helped us to build the modern world, through life-saving and life-enhancing technology, and it has enriched our lives, enabling us to satisfy our curiosity and our desire for knowledge. The scientific endeavour therefore enriches the human experience both individually and collectively.

Many humanists are not, however, naïve. A celebration of science’s potential is not the same as the belief that the results of science are always a good thing for humanity. Some of the horrors of the twentieth century brought home to us that the exploitation of scientific development can be harmful as well as beneficial. Scientific knowledge, like other kinds of knowledge, is amoral – neither moral nor immoral – though how such knowledge is obtained and used can and does raise moral questions. It is for society to decide how, or whether, to use the knowledge produced by science.

‘Science is a facet of human enquiry that is reasonable and rational. It can stand as a model for other types of reasoning and as a model for testing beliefs and qualifying thought. But it is a human invention itself and therefore will be as good and as effective as the humans that are involved in it.’

Jeaneane Fowler, Humanism: Beliefs and Practices

If specific scientific developments turn out to be for the good of humanity, then humanists will typically support them, unless the costs are too great (and this includes environmental and social costs, as well as economic). If, however, such developments would do more harm than good, then they are likely to be opposed. This opposition, however, is normally not to the new knowledge we have gained, but to the way it might be used.

Whether one thinks that overall the fruits of science have been positive or negative, it is too late to turn back the clock. We must try to employ our scientific understanding in ways that benefit humanity and allow human beings to live happy, healthy, and flourishing lives.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK

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