Transformation of Values and the Scientific Project

Håkan Snellman


Contribution to the Fourth Yoko Civilisation International Conference

"Science and Religion in the Age of Crisis", Awaji, Japan, 18-21 September 2005
published in "The meaning of Life in the 21st Century", iUniverse, (2008).
© H. Snellman, 2005.


The relation between scientific knowledge and social values is highlighted in the paper by Dr. Ludwig Siep for this conference. Dr. Siep takes up four aspects of this difficulty that he considers especially relevant. In my reflection on this relation I will try to connect to some of the points brought forth by Dr. Siep starting from a somewhat different perspective.

The "scientific project", as I would like to call it, can be taken to start with Galileo. In 1609 he put his telescope to the eye and saw that there are mountains on the moon and moons around Jupiter. This is the starting point of the observational and experimental attitude, so characteristic of modern science. At the same time the rational thinking on which the project is also based took form in mathematical modeling of physical processes. Francis Bacon in England and René Descartes in France argued for the total abolition of the "final causes" proposed by Aristotle1 in the newly proposed criteria for scientific knowledge. Step by step a new knowledge system replaced the old one of Aristotle based on finding the preordained order of everything in the universe. Bacon formulated the aim of the new knowledge in his famous dictum: "Knowledge is power".

Descartes also argued for a division of reality into the material and the mental, which are mysteriously connected only in man via the pineal gland, and introduced a new order in nature based on localization of phenomena in space according to a system of coordinates. In England, Isaac Newton formulated a mechanics for natural phenomena based on the coordinate description of Descartes and the forces of nature. In his mechanics, the "imaginary" forces are the powers that accelerate the particles. From this time on the main idea in physics and natural philosophy has been that mechanics is the fundamental way of describing nature. This paradigm led to the notion of statistical mechanics in the 19th century and prevails today in the form of quantum mechanics.

In order to obtain power over nature, Francis Bacon clearly saw the problem caused by the final causes of Aristotle. Bacon realized that in the description of nature, there must not enter any aim with Nature. Teleology must therefore not be accepted, since it could interfere with the aim of obtaining power over nature. "Enquiry into final causes is infertile, and produces, like a virgin consecrated to God, nothing" was his astute parabola for this insight. In denying the use of final causes, the scientific project becomes totally focused on obtaining power over nature through the study of the material and effective causes. And we have been very successful in this. The project has brought man to the Moon, split the atom, transplanted hearts, and claims to be able to create a "theory of everything". But in the process man has lost his soul, and the crisis we find ourselves in, advocated in the title of this conference, is due to the essentially total absence of guidance as what to do with all this power. It comes without the slightest hint as to what it should be used for, and I trace this to the abandoning of final causes.

Still, some critics rather early saw the danger with this new "objective" type of knowledge, the new science. The Italian lawyer Giambattista Vico for example, argued in his work Nuova Scienza that the new science aimed at studying nature is impossible, since man cannot know the aim by which God created nature. Science, or knowledge, can therefore only be obtained about the world of civil society and its institutions, which man can come to know since he has created them.

However, the time of final causes was over with the introduction of chance as a mathematical model for processes in nature by men such as Simon de Laplace, James Clerk Maxwell, and Ludwig Boltzmann, who formulated statistical mechanics to describe systems with many degrees of freedom. With Charles Darwin's use of chance as a model even for biological evolution, the last hope of keeping final causes in the description of natural phenomena died. In the 20th century the French Nobel laureate Jacques Monod in his book Le hazard et la nécessité2 clearly stated that no intermingling of facts and values are permitted in science, and that science systematically must deny that true knowledge can be obtained by the use of final causes. This tradition has been carried on in works of Richard Dawkins and other modern biologists.

Today, after 400 years of scientific endeavor along these lines, we have reached a situation that in some respects is much more serious that ever before in recorded human history. The environment is threatened, fresh water is becoming a rarity, the air is polluted, carbon dioxide is increasing causing the climate to change, the ozone layer is being depleted, many plant and animal species are becoming extinct, serious diseases are harder and harder to cure and pandemics lurk around the corner, and so on. Was it not our understanding that the new science was to give us the means that should save us and take us out of the crisis? At least that was Francis Bacon's expectation, when he wanted to use it for obtaining utilities for man. How then can it have brought us into such a predicament?

One of the interesting aspects of this crisis is the so-called green movement, the significance of which is to protect nature, the supreme good,3 from man himself. In some sense we are all culprits in this, not least the scientists themselves, who not without a certain arrogance often do not listen to anything that could threaten their claimed freedom from values and morals, all in the pursuit of Scientific Knowledge and Truth.

As Dr. Siep argues, can the gap between scientific knowledge and social values really be maintained and justified?

To put this question in a wider context, I will consider the significance of human life as a link between the world of material processes and the world of cosmic purposes. Human activity in general, and the scientific project in particular, should then connect the material with the spiritual. The causes are to be found in the world of material processes, or facts, whereas the purposes connect to values. Our task as human beings is then to bring these two worlds into harmony by seeking the appropriate values that will bring the scientific project into reconciliation with the cosmic purposes. At the same time man must be understood as a cosmic being, and natural science should bring him into a deeper understanding of his home in cosmos. Instead, as has been observed by several contemporary scientists, man feels alienated in face of his findings through the project and the universe seems accidental. This situation is part of the present crisis of man and is the logical consequence of the Copernican principle. I trace this among other things to the abolition of final causes in the description of nature and to the abandoning of the spiritual aspect of reality in the description of nature after Descartes.

For the continuation of my talk I would therefore like to introduce the idea of "transformation of values". In physics during the last few centuries we have studied transformation of energy. We know that energy can appear in many forms -- radiation, kinetic energy, potential energy, mass, heat, and so on -- and which can be transformed into each other. In fact, it is in one sense quite legitimate to describe most of our knowledge of nature as the knowledge of transformation of energies. And the energy of any system is that quantity which governs its evolution in time. Therefore, in order to discuss values, I suggest the study of transformation of values. By this I mean that certain values, for their realization, give rise to other subordinate values in a long chain of values that transform into each other. And the implicit suggestion here is that the cosmic purposes from which the values are ultimately derived drive the spiritual evolution of existence.

Values are related to aim, meaning, and intent. A man wants to build a house with view over a lake. For him the aesthetic value in watching the sunset over the lake from his veranda is his main aim with the house. The architect that he commissions takes this as an opportunity to acquire new clients and therefore makes efforts to design a house that will make him famous. For him, the house project has a very different meaning. The builder intends to expand his company and feed his family, and the worker wants to earn money to buy a new car. None of these subordinate values are in contradiction with the overruling value of the original commissioner of the house, but appear naturally as a chain of transformations of the original value as it becomes realized.

In a similar sense science can be seen as a servant of higher values at the same time that it is based on its own values and can be served by subordinate values by those who carry it out. Much of this is understood in Dr. Siep's discourse.

The new value on which modern science is based goes back to Francis Bacon's "knowledge is power". Of course power can be a means for many other aspirations and values: statesmen, politicians, the military, all want to get hold of this power for their own aims. There are also internal values in science. The scientific project therefore intermingles gladly with all kinds of values and aims, and in this process transformation of values sets in.

Let me now come to another one of the points raised by Dr. Siep. He points out that there are values that are invented or discovered and come from, for example, a religious founder. And of course science could be influenced by such values. Interestingly enough, the Catholic Church distanced itself from the scientific project soon after the trial of Galileo. In this it implicitly claimed that its own value system was not compatible with that of the scientific project. In modern times this claim has been reconsidered, and there are reasons to see the original course of action as an unfortunate mistake, which led to a development of the sciences out of touch with spiritual values.

In the light of such a value statement the scientific project would immediately, so to say, get magnetized, and the magnetization would bring its elements to align themselves with this aim, to the extent that it is possible. Still, few of the subordinate aims might need to be radically transformed. It would still be able to accommodate talented people who want to feed their families by taking part in the project, and there is nothing to prevent someone to pursue a career from it for the Nobel Prize, as long as it is in conformity with this new aim.

It is quite clear that such a higher aim, if adopted, would have a deep impact on the scientific project. Certain research projects will not lead to a realization of the value statement and would therefore not be pursued. In fact, the method of science can be utilized for many different purposes, and some of them cannot in any civilized society be considered as tolerable, independent of how much scientists claim that all research must be free. The problem with this lack of moral guidance from within the knowledge system itself has led to ethics committees being set up in many universities to supervise the research programs.

As we ascend to higher values they have a tendency to coalesce entirely in line with the dynamics of value transformation. The transformation of values should therefore be seen as a normal and healthy evolution of the individual taking part in society. Any higher society would have such a value hierarchy visible enough for the individual to detect, even if he is not forced to apply him/herself to climbing all the steps in one lifetime. For the individual herself, the climbing of these steps then constitutes her evolution as human being by accommodating these values as her own.

In the scientific project we can see this evolution illustrated if we follow a PhD student from passing his or her thesis, via the permanent faculty position, until he or she starts to serve in the university. Sooner or later the option to enter into science policy might open. At these moments there is again a transformation of values, since when science is understood as a factor in the life of the society, it must subordinate itself to the values in society. Again there might be another step where the society or nation must subordinate itself to a higher purpose, serving the family of man rather than the individual nation, or simply the planet. Here the values coming from invented or revealed values might be the appropriate ones.

Seen in this light, the scientific project could become one of several parallel ways to create a positive and bright destiny for mankind at the same time as it gives the individual the possibility to transcend himself and evolve spiritually. The question is then: Is the present scientific project appropriate to such an aim? Does it in fact harmonize the material processes with the cosmic purposes?

I am convinced that this is not the case and that the aim of the project today must be reformulated. The aim that came from Francis Bacon can no longer be kept, as it is too one-sided. It is also not sufficient to apply value cosmetics to a project aimed primarily to achieve power over nature. We need to redirect the project with an aim that is better in harmony with higher values. I have earlier proposed that such an aim could be formulated as "Knowledge is responsibility". Responsibility does not deny the use of power, but requires that the power be balanced by a consideration for "the other part in the quest", that is for nature, and since man is intimately connected to nature, for mankind as well. What use do we have of a knowledge that could lead to the destruction of mankind and of its higher values? Why should we permit such knowledge to be sought? The only consistent way seems to me to deny that such knowledge is real knowledge.

As we reconsider the scientific project, it is clear that it has brought us many benefits. We have learned to study the cause-effect relations, we have learned to concentrate, we have been able to give up certain superstitions, and we have come to learn the long and complicated chains in nature that tie the various kingdoms to each other and to man. We are also slowly learning to understand the nested structures of the universe, from the elementary particle to the atom, from the atom to the cell, to the ecosystem, to the Earth, to the planetary system with the Sun and the lifecycle of stars, to our own galaxy in the Virgo cluster, to the expanding universe, and all the levels in between.

Now, real knowledge should be such knowledge that connects man to his home in the cosmos and also to his purpose on this Earth. When knowledge is responsibility, it asks of us to build it on care for the whole in general, and for nature in particular, including man. This will require a restructuring of the ways in which we set up and pursue our research programs, without destroying any of the useful results of the present-day scheme. The demand for responsibility will by its very nature ask for the value transformation I talked about earlier, and as a base for this take the sequence of nested structures, with their associated chains of values.

Let me end this discussion with a few remarks.

Different criteria for knowledge validation define different knowledge fields.4 When Francis Bacon rejects the final causes of Aristotle, the field of "knowledge" expands, since fewer criteria admit more knowledge claims as valid ones. Modern science has specified the criteria slightly different from Bacon, who, for example, suggested the inductive method to be used for knowledge acquisition. Today, we invoke repeatability, predictability, locality,5 cause-effect relations, and so on as criteria for scientific knowledge-validation, and use the hypothetic-deductive method as an instrument for theory building. When we investigate these criteria, we can see that "locality" might be a practical request, since causes coming from far away are difficult to get hold of, but it drives forth a fragmented knowledge ideal. Locality implies that we do not have to care about the environment, and that we should not consider the whole. But this is just what experience has taught us, that we have to care for the whole. The isolated experiment might be successful, but what has happened outside the laboratory? By the laws of thermodynamics, we know that a lowering of the entropy in the laboratory to gain information has to be paid for in terms of an increase of the entropy outside it. That is actually the same as that which happens in our backyards, where the "køkkenmødding"6 from our lack of concern for the environment piles up.

An interesting aspect of the scientific project is that it is the very program itself that has brought forth the means and techniques by which its negative environmental effects can be detected. Our possibilities to care have therefore increased with time.

A better knowledge is a knowledge that cares for the whole in an appropriate measure. This could be achieved by relating each particularity to the nested structures to which are associated the nested values in the transformation of values that I talked about earlier.

Whatever position one might take concerning this, we have a task in front of us to find a more appropriate knowledge system, a higher form of scientific knowledge which can assist us in building a brighter future for mankind. There should be no conflict between the point of view of religions and those of science here. If both are to contribute to the salvation of man, they have to join hands to overcome the crisis that we face today.


1The "final cause" refers to the end, the reason for which a thing is done or exists, or the purpose of something. The other causes of Aristotle are the material cause, the formal cause, and the efficient cause.

2J. Monod, Le hazard et la nécessité. Edition seul (1970).

3In Japanese, nature is called shizen, meaning also, according to ancient tradition, "the highest good".

4The quality of the knowledge related to various criteria for knowledge validation is seldom discussed.

5Locality means that the efficient causes can be finitely localized in space and time.

6Køkkenmødding: Originally a Danish word used by archeologists for the garbage heap.