Thursday, September 25, 2008

At the alters of science, economics and relative morality

Are our cell phones really safe, what about GE foods or new drugs?
The TV reported a court case involving the claimed harm from electromagnetic radiation that was lost on the grounds that it had not been conclusively proven that the specific radiation caused the illness.

Now I find this very interesting. It is of course a product of our enlightened age, where scientific proof is the new God and is the final arbiter on all things. As a society we have accepted this and generally accept it. In doing so have we created the age of pseudo-informed gullibility?

From a public policy perspective seeking conclusive evidence before acting is in my view irresponsible. In a community driven by moral values rather than economic incentives perhaps we could hope for better.

While we now accept that smoking causes cancer it is not understood why in some cases it does not. Indeed the failure of smoking to deliver cancer with scientific repeatability bogged the smoking debate down for years and to some extent still does. Do we have to wait for science stamp of approval before we believe anything?

Of course the true rationalist may argue, for instance, that a “safe” drug later shown to harmful was never proven safe. If causality between cell phone use and neurological damage is eventually established (perhaps at least as well as the smoking – cancer link) then they might argue that the scientists had done a good job in establishing the link and were wise to have been initially cautious, to await proof – they could have been wrong otherwise.

Wrong in what way – scientifically of course, to question the actual morality may require reference to an absolute. After all, why would a company knowingly market a product that may kill off its customers in 10 years – surely the morality of economics is enough to regulate conduct. Why give home loans to people who may not be able to repay them? But wait – it works, the market is correcting itself and all is well, none have been harmed (well not the ones that matter!). Why would a drug company market a diabetes drug that increased the risk of heart attack by 43% - surely there is no economic or moral gain in placing your customers at risk? … but they do have to wait until the risk is conclusively proven.

There are two sides to the proof problem in public health.
First is that we require “proof” when common sense should prevail. Would you sleep under EHV powerlines by choice, or that phone ‘attached’ to your ear all day or continue to take that medication? At some point acting morally to reduce the risk has to be recognised as the preferred option. But it will require a change in the public mindset, a turning away from the God of conclusive proof.

Second in our free market driven world of contestability most research is funded, directly or indirectly, by corporates with a vested interest. That’s good right? They will want to know their products are safe …. Perhaps this provides the reason for the paucity of well funded research in many of the areas of public health – of course if there was a possible pill to counteract the effects of electromagnetic radiation then the science would be there.

Perhaps I have grown cynical? But, while as a society we continue to not believe it because science says it can’t be proven - indeed the very oxygen of atheism – we place ourselves knowingly but unverifiably at risk. While we continue to worship at the alters of science, economics and relative morality perhaps we gain an insight into what lies behind the biblical lesson of the sins of one generation being visited on the next.

Is there a better way?

Hamba kahle - peace


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Machine or soul?

There is an interesting thread to atheist thinking that goes something like this:
1) There is nothing about us that cannot be explained (in time) in biological terms, including our thought processes and even our personalities. We are simply a biological body/machine, no soul or metaphysical component.
2) Because our actions/thoughts reactions/decisions can be explained (traced to the ‘programme’ we have written for ourselves as we grew up) we are without freewill and therefore in effect sophisticated, apparently autonomous, bio-computers. Implicitly such creatures have no soul, ipso facto no God.

Now some of this seems to make a lot of sense at first. Apparently our brain controls us; some of this control is hard wired (instinctive) such as the fight/flight response. Some of the way we are is determined by our experiences and what we have learned and expresses itself at the sub-conscious or conscious level. Exactly which is which – the old nature vs. nurture debate – is really not of specific interest to me here. It is the consequences that are of interest to me.

There are clear evolutionary advantages in being less dependant on hard wiring and being able to learn – or more specifically to be taught - how best to conduct ourselves. Waiting for, say, our knowledge of how to make fire to become hard wired is clearly less advantageous than being able to pass the knowledge on from generation to generation and within or between communities.

So the evolution of a superior capacity for learning and teaching has been good for us and has led to our ability to dominate other life forms on this planet. Together with learning however comes the ability to do things that may be bad for our (or others) survival in the short or long term, as either individuals or as a species.

I would like to focus on us as individuals and ask if our ability to think is open ended (i.e. we can exercise freewill) or is it constrained by the dictates of evolution and is our “thinking” a deterministic outcome of our “programming”.

In biological terms, if we are still “evolving” - I prefer developing - it is through the accumulation of knowledge and our ability to adapt our environment to us, rather than our biology to the environment. Now is the ability to learn/teach the final step in the evolutionary ladder. Theists believe not, believing that there is a further step in the development of a soul that is eternal and supersedes the physical body – seems like a logical progression to me.

The challenge to this theory is that the atheists argue that we are stuck at the biological computer stage. In support of this position they present research that demonstrates our advancing knowledge of how the brain works – its storage of memories and its decision making and in some cases what they hypothesise is the seat of consciousness.

But what is actually being advanced by those arguments? As I see it, nothing more than an explanation of how the bio-computer that is our brain works and we should draw no metaphysical inference from the science.

What it does ask though is where (if at all) is the dividing line/role between soul and machine?

As this is already a long post I will cut it off here with this most contentious question left hanging. In truth the answer to this may elude us and to debate may be futile, but as we draw a clearer line between machine and soul we should better understand both.

Hamba kahle – peace