Scientific Knowledge and Human Responsibility

Håkan Snellman

Department of Theoretical Physics
Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden

© H. Snellman, 1993. Published in "Human Responsibilities - Approaching the 21:st Century", L.H. France (1995).
Abstract: The relation between the scientific world view and the life view is discussed. Modern scientific knowledge is based on the aim to get power over nature. The knowledge-system that is used in modern science denies any values and therefore any meaning to the world by its very construction. This has a profoundly negative influence on our life view and leads to alienation and a sense of meaninglessness, whitnessed by several leading scientists. It can also bee seen as a cause of the negative influence on nature and the environment that is taking place in our time as our access to knowledge and science-based technology has increased dramatically during the last century.
We propose that one should start the other way around and begin with the life view. By changing the choice of aim for knowledge to be in harmony with our life view we discuss the prospects of creating a new knowledge-system that will stand up to our responsibilities as human beings facing the 21:st century.

On its journey through time mankind has been engaged in many different projects during known history. In Medieval times the west was e.g. engaged in the building of the great cathedrals. During the last four hundred years part of the western cultural elite has been occupied with what could be called 'The Scientific Project'. During the last part of the twentieth century, this project has reached something of a climax and its achievements are, in some respects, of a seemingly unprecedented nature, producing a technology that has taken man to the moon, split the atomic nucleus, transplanted hearts and does not only claim that it knows how the universe was born, but that it can produce a Theory of Everything.

Nevertheless, many signs indicate that this project might now come to a close1. The reasons for this is partly that its aim is beginning to be fulfilled but also that its devastating effect on our environment and its negative effect on our thinking begin to become just too obvious to be ignored. A new era is imminent, and it it is time to transform this project into something else. Rather than just leaving it, which we anyhow think is not viable, we should consciously change it in certain ways, so as to better fulfil our deeper needs. How this could be done is discussed later on, but let me say already here that it relates to our life view.

To explain this, let me first say what I mean by world view. This is a picture of the physical universe: how it is composed and how it functions. The Scientific Project has constructed this picture by concentrating on the question "how". The life view on the other hand should tell us how to live, and comes as a response to the question "why".

The Scientific Project has given us a world view, which in many ways makes an astonishingly coherent tale. But at the same time this world view exerts a strangely depressing effect even on its very own creators. Many scientists have testified to the meaninglessness and alienation they experience when confronted with this world view.

The Nobel laureate and particle physicst Steven Weinberg in his book "The three first minutes"2 writes:
The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.

Stephen Hawking said in an interview:

"Just because there is order in Universe does not mean that there is meaning".

And Jacques Monod, also a Nobel laureate in chemistry, writes in his book "Chance and Necessity "3:

"Man must at last finally awaken from his millenary dream; and in doing so, awake to his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. Now does he at last realize that, like a gipsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world. A world that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes as to his sufferings or his crimes."

Many more examples could be given.

This pessimism might at first seem inconsistent, since the world view and the life view are not the same thing. But the point is that the world view that comes out from the Scientific Project in many ways attach to our life view in such a way as to also fill this with meaninglessness. Thus the life view and the world view are in fact intimately connected, interwoven, and the life view that conforms with theworld view, becomes deprived of meaning. In fact, in adopting the Scientific world view man cannot live with an incompatible life view, and so to speak "gives up". Only by adopting a life view that is in harmony with the world view can she live without a deep intellectual conflict. We trace this to a deliberate change in the structure of knowledge - that knowledge that we are prepared to sacrifice so much to achieve - that took place when mankind entered upon The Scientific Project.

The exact circumstances for this might never become fully known. Certainly there grew during the renaissance a strong urge to liberate ones thinking from all bounds and dogmas from the church.

But is this the whole story? Perhaps there were conscious forces that sought to counterbalance the spirituality that had grown too strong during the medieval times. This does not mean that they were not basically of a benevolent character. In fact, there is much to suggest that civilizations rise and fall somewhat like organisms4 and that they furthermore are governed by patterns designed by a higher intelligence5. This notion of a Plan was present in historical thinking well into this century. But, as Francis Fykuyama6 has pointed out, the present pessimism in the west goes back to the two World Wars and the horrible things that took place then. In view of these, the notion of a Plan could not be upheld.

In retrospect, however, this idea might have been too quickly abandoned. We can see that the development has brought the Earth together in a way that would seem almost inconceivable to earlier generations. With the communication satellites we can now be virtually instantaneously in audio-visual contact with any place on the Earth. In this sense the late fifties indicate a breaking-point in history.

Whatever view one takes on this, it seems today necessary, on so to speak "objective grounds" to change the conditions for this project. In a way it looks at present much as a gigantic steamer steering straight into the harbour with full speed, threatening to crush all the villagers as well as the crew in a gigantic catastrophe. There is no longer any time to reform and awaken the captain and the steering-man. We must quickly take hold of the rudder and change its course. The problem is that the rudder is underwater, and many otherwise intelligent people with good will thinks that there is no rudder, or that we anyhow cannot come to act upon it. The ship thus seems to have an inbuilt blind life by its own.

It is my contention that this is not true, and that not only is there a rudder, but that also, as soon as we have located it, found out how to make it work, we can control it. This is really what I want to talk about. I also would like to give some hints of directions in which we could go, instead of towards where we are heading at present.


The Scientific world view gives us no more meaning to live by than a skeleton gives us as a company. This realization, that science, our creation, is not what we need came early to poets an visionaries. Already in William Blake's poetry science is mercilessly denied as being able to contain a viable world view. And in Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" we find another hint that our new creation is a monster. Too few elements go into it and it has no real emotions.

E.F. Schumacher, of "Small is Beautiful" fame, has written about this problem in his book "A Guide for the Perplexed"7 which was published just after his death in 1978. In this book he distinguishes two types of problems that life faces us with, "divergent problems" and "convergent problems". The divergent problems are such that can not be solved by continued development of knowledge or refined technology. They are problems that are part of the conditions for human existence. They can only be solved within man himself as a result of his spiritual development in a wide sense.

It might be tempting, as Schumacher does, to classify our dilemma as a divergent problem. We continue as before but try to mix in morality from other sources in a large proportion to compensate for the amoral element in science, thus applying a kind of moral cosmetics.

Nevertheless I am convinced that this is not a possible way forward. What is required is that we change our view on knowledge. We must find an alternative to the present view that knowledge is power. To do so would certainly be a revolution in human existence. However, I can see no other way, that in the future perspective can create a stable basis for human welfare and evolution. We are the creators of this science and it is now up to us to bring it to life by realizing that our first attempt only ended up with a skeleton or at best a meaningless monster, however cleverly designed.

By making another attempt and creating a new science, a new knowledge system, in the image of what we are - human beings not primarily power-seeking but human beings capable of love, respect, care and consideration - I am convinced that we can not only endow the skeleton with warm living flesh and blood, but also blow spirit into it. Then it will have a chance to become our true companion which will sustain our development into ever higher spheres of creativity that will enable us all to flourish.


From another point of view our situation is much like the man in the Sufi story looking for his key under a poole of light outside his house. His friend comes past and asks what he is looking for.
- For my key.
- Where did you drop it?
- Over there in the darkness.
- But why do you then look for it here and not where you dropped it?
- It is brighter here.
Of course it would be better for him to look for it where he dropped it. But what he does not tell is that the key is neither under the light-poole nor in the dark corner outside. These are all places we would like it to be in. It is the way we would like to look for things, outside ourselves. The truth is that we never dropped it. It is in our pocket. We have just suppressed our knowledge of it. In fact we no longer recognize it as a key. It looks so shamefully simple, yet to use it so immensely difficult. That is why we look elsewhere.

The Making of Knowledge
What then will be the characteristics of such a new science? Three things are needed for knowledge.

1. An aim for the knowledge.
In the Aristotelian system of knowledge this aim can be described as the aim to find the correct place for things in the given order of the universe. This thinking reached its highest peak in the "Summa Teologicum" of Thomas Aquinas, which integrated Aristotelian thinking with Christian theology.

In The Scientific Project the aim was formulated by Francis Bacon as "Knowledge is power", that is, to have power over Nature. This has later become reformulated to the more innocent-looking expression "predictability", which is at the centre of the modern concept of knowledge.

2. A set of criteria for what knowledge should be like.
This means that the statements and claims of the investigations are subject to a series of tests that decide wether the knowledge-claim is valid or not.

In the Aristotelian scheme there were four causes that one should know in order to have knowledge: the material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause and the final cause. Only when a claim could stand up to all four of these criteria did one have knowledge.

In The Scientific Project these four criteria have been exchanged by a set of other criteria that make up predictability. First of all that the notion of finality had to be abandoned. Francis Bacon says of this that "inquiry into final causes is sterile, and like a virgin consecrated to God, produces nothing." If there is a purpose with nature, that might interfere with my wish to get power over her, if I respect that purpose. I therefore must avoid this by denying that there are any final causes. Instead we start with repeatable events, we interpret events in a cause-effect relation, we invoke locality, i.e. that all relevant causes can be found in a limited place in space and time, and and so on. These criteria are all various aspects of predictability.

3. A daily practice.
This practice is the basis for the scientific method, which refines and cultivates certain attitudes in our daily life into science. It is also the common ground we have to refer to in order to reach consensus.

The Role of Free Will
In order to understand modern science and the world view we have to somewhat discuss the notion of free will, even if this is one of the more controversial concepts introduced into human thinking.

Basically the problem is how we can know that our will is free. As usual we must start from the existential experience that there is something called will. It is in fact difficult to understand this notion of will, unless there is implicit in it the idea that it is at our disposal, and thus free, and not something that only occurs as a result of other causes.

The only other possibility seems to be that everything we do is fully determined. In that case this discussion, and any arguments for or against the notion of free will, is just playing to the gallery. Everything is determined, whatever we say. If one of us is convinced in the one direction or the other - whichever direction - is determined, even when it comes to discussing the notion of free will. All that is left then is to accept that we live in illusion. This seems too absurd a view to take. Thus, we have to accept the idea of free will.

It is basically this free will that make us human beings and not machines. Our physical bodies may well be mechanical and chemical machines, but they are run by something called an I which has free will and consciousness. It is this notion of free will that makes it possible to choose an aim, a purpose. In fact the will is in the choice of aim. An aimless free will would be just a random generator. Therefore there is another choice: if I have no free will I need not be fully determined by the past, I can be fully undetermined, by being a random generator. Free will is a third option, a unit with aim. This is free will, and from this aim derives the notion of morality. What is beneficial to my aim is good, and what is detrimental is bad. The aim can then be egoistic or altruistic. This produces different kinds of actions. Truly altruistic aims must have a certain amount of consensus.

Now, the idea of physics, as I have already mentioned, is that I use my free will to determine all different types of experiments I would like to do to test my theory. This theory is not truly determined by the data, but is a free invention by my mind, to organize the data. This point have been stressed in particular by Einstein, who very elegantly used it himself to create the Theory of General Relativity.

We can also see that for the will to be free, unbounded, in modern science, the aim must be egoistic in a certain sense: I don't want to have to care, then I cannot do the experiments I need. The choice made by Francis Bacon and with him by modern science was to get power over nature. As long as this aim is not directed towards other humans and their free will, it looks neutral. In fact there was soon consensus about it. And to facilitate this consensus it was claimed, as a token of harmlessness with respect to others, that "the new knowledge was for everybody". This is the notion that has persistently been persued by science. Otherwise the whole project smells too much of "black magic". The risk for this has always been present in the consciousness of society. It is from this fear that characters like "Faust" and his kin derives.

It is claimed that natural science is value free and thus amoral, outside of morality. However, as I see it, this is not entirely correct. The value is in the power, the predictability. A good theory gives great power, great predictability.

In some sense science has bought the confidence from society by the idea of "free access to all its results". Scientists have then been given "carte blanche" to exercise their free will, without restrictions, but the results are now becoming alarming. The power we have achieved comes without guidance. At the same time it is an irony of the whole project that we more often than not have to excuse us by saying: "Sorry, it was impossible to foresee!" when some adverse result of modern technology occurs.

It is in this that the basic failure of the project lies. We go for predictability but we do not really get it. We become blind to the consequences of our power. And the part in the knowledge system that is mostly responsible for this is the "postulate of locality", which says that we do not need to care. We can see from this that there is a kind of built in inconsistency in the knowledge system. By locality I want knowledge only about a part not of the whole. But there is no such knowledge, since the whole is connected. Knowledge is knowledge of the parts and their inter-connectedness in the real world.

Free will also appears in another crucial place in science, namely in the interplay between natural laws and boundary conditions. The natural laws are those aspects we cannot influence with our will. They have been laid down by God or by providence depending on how you look upon it. The boundary conditions on the other hand are precisely those aspects I can affect with my will. It is in the interplay between these two polarities that technology develops. In the observational situation I can only use my will passively, and wait for the right conditions to occur, while in the experimental situation I usually can use it manipulatively.

Our World View and the Picture of Man
Each era is reflected in the contemporary view of what the world can be likened to.
In the Aristotelian view the world was an organism. During the first centuries of science it was a machine, first a clockwork, then an electrochemical machine. It is significant that it now is a quantum mechanic process: a chance-process that grows and then dies away, either in a sigh or in a doomsday implosion, the final crunch, depending upon how much mass it has. This view of the cosmos does not give any meaning to it, since the meaning had been taken out of it already from the beginning, by the criteria of what constitutes scientific knowledge. Only what is predictable can enter into physics and acts of will, which are not predictable, cannot become parts of such a natural scientific description. For these there is no repeatability. The universe that can be described in its entirety must by necessity be mechanical, if only quantum-mechanical.

There is, however, also a clear relation between our view on the universe and our view of man. When the universe is seen as a machine, man is also seen as a machine. This "hermetical" relation between macrocosm and microcosm is with us the whole time right through history. Accordingly we are now beginning to describe ourselves as a quantum mechanic stochastical process8.

It is significant, but also frightening, that we have such difficulties with handling our inner reality. Better not notice it, not take it seriously, let it be an epiphenomenon, a stochastic process: then we do not need to feel any responsibility. Our feelings and our soul are probably nothing but the "fifty-eleventh" order of radiative corrections to the electromagnetic processes of the atoms and molecules in our interior! In that case, practically anything can be tolerated and justified. Accordingly we now begin to justify human conduct by genetic arguments. One of many examples of this is the justification of egoism that is appearing in the new biology. "The selfish gene" is in one sense nothing more than a justification of "the selfish self".

Through the natural scientific world view Nature has become merely a resource for us to exploit to satisfy our desires, which are much greater than our needs. In Shinto, Nature is called "shizen", a word that also means "supreme goodness". How far have we in the west not allowed ourselves to go, when all values have been trampled on until only one is left: how to get power over nature?

The Inter-connected Reality
The error with science lies in the very criteria for how it is conceived, not only with how it is applied. The central culprit in this is the locality criterion, which has the force of a postulate. It says that I do not need to care. Locality means that I only care for a part. However, there is really no such knowledge, since everything is connected. Knowledge is knowledge of the parts and how they interconnect in reality.

Here we come agin to the relation between our daily lives and the refinement of knowledge through science. As the project starts to produce knowledge we begin to apply it. Thereby our daily practice is modified to be more in line with the knowledge system. All of us, since we utilize the ensuing technology, tend to become more scientific-minded in our daily thinking: thus more one-sided. This affects our behaviour towards nature. The reason is that our aim is our value. What we value is this type of knowledge that is power. All other types of knowledge become less and less valued. Soon only things that are "scientifically proved" are considered worth while. All the rest is floatsam, whish-washy thinking and so on. Gadually this affects our life view, since this aim takes over. In fact only by taking this aim as our value can we live in harmony with the scientific world view. The consequence that we have to pay is this growing feeling of meaninglessness. It simply comes from power being our only meaning. Meaning and value go together, and both go together with aim.

It is time now for us to change this and to choose another aim, that gives new meaning to life and therefore can give a world view that can harmonize with our life view, as we approach the 21:st century.

Everything is connected. Life cannot easily be taken apart into pieces. The world view and the life view are connected on a deep level. This connection is related to "the immanence problem". How much of the world is outside of me and how much is inside me? The relationship seems anyhow clear: the more we push reality outside ourselves, the more we let the world view govern our life view. The more we let reality be inside ourselves, the more we gauge our world view with our life view. In theology this appears as the immanence and transcendence question: is God within us or is He outside us. Again a question of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm.

Why not use this relationship in a constructive way? Since, as we saw, the notion of knowledge has been changed in the past, deliberately, by men that choose a new path, it can be changed again. In this very fact lies our hope. We have to use our free will to chose another aim. With this new aim will come a new set of criteria for knowledge-making. And it must all be founded in our daily practice, our daily living. If we continue to live in an irresponsible way, there is no hope for us to change, however much more knowledge of the same kind we accumulate. It is the method that is wrong.

I have earlier suggested9 that we as new aim could choose precisely "responsibility": "Knowledge is responsibility". We then no longer focus on how to get the manipulative power. We begin to listen to the needs of the environment, the interconnections in the structures that surround us, embedded in a chain of meanings. Responsibility relates directly to the question "why". In order for this to get a hold in the world view, we must begin to reintroduce teleological arguments and models into theory-building. Our existence will then become structured by encapsulate meanings that reaches into each other and from which the responsibility can be deduced. It might sound utopian, but I am sure that our present path also seemed utopian to its pioneers once.

Let us take responsibility for our world view by affirming our good faculties: to love, to be responsible, to show consideration and concern. We can all see that we have to cultivate these faculties if we shall be able to live peacefully and acceptably together in society. They should then not be considered some kind of cultural cosmetics that can be applied to a destructive science built upon power-seeking and greed. Ultimately it is a question of an act of will. We have freedom to chose our world view and our picture of God. The world view emerges from a pure act of will in a truly magical sense. But the difference between black and white magic lies in the difference to chose "power" or, for example, "responsibility" as our aim. To chose "power" implies in the end that we cut ourselves off from higher influences and let everything emerge from ourselves. To chose "responsibility" means that we try to attune ourselves to a higher will and try to co-operate with it.

Whatever choice we make, we must take the full consequences of it. Therefore it comes with our responsibility that, through an act of will, we start to create a world view that is a symbol of such a meaningful, intentional universe and, therefore, of God: a world view that leads to a responsible and creative relationship with our fellow beings, to the future of our children and to Nature, a symbol that is fundamentally "anti-Monodean" if I may say so. Thus it could be phrased as follows:

"Man must at last awaken from his centennial dream; and in doing so, awaken to his total interconnectedness with everything, his fundamental "con-cosmicality". Now he realises at last that, like a world-citizen he lives in the centre of a benign world, a world that is attentive to his music, just as expectantly encouraging with respect to his hopes as compassionate to his sufferings and sad in the face of his crimes."

1. See e.g. Bryan Appleyard, Understanding the present. Science and the soul of man. Picard (1992) [back]
2. Steven Weinberg, The three first minutes. Basic Books (1977)[back]
3. Jaques Monod, Le hasard et la nécessité. Éditions de Seuil (1970)[back]
4. See e.g. A. Toynbee, A Study of History, Oxford (1935). Similar ideas have been put forward by Rodney Collin in his "Theory of Celestial Influence", Watkins (1956), and J. Bennett, The Dramatic Universe, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964-1974[back]
5. See e.g. E. Scott, The People of the Secret, Octagon Press (1978) or I. Shaw, The Sufies, Octagon Press (1962)[back]
6. Francis Fukuyama: The end of history and the last man. Free Press (1992)[back]
7. E. F. Schumacher, A guide for the perplexed. Abacus (1978)[back]
8. D. Zohar, The quantum self. Fontana (1991)[back]
9. H. Snellman,"Behöver vi en ny kunskapssyn?" in Postsekulariserat Interregnum, ÅSAK (1991)[back]