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Rationality and Science: A Social and Environmental Philosophy by Kenneth Wilson

This chapter concerns itself with rationality in its scientific guise. Typically science is often taken to be the paradigm instance of rationality in the modern period. In addition to science being a key representative of reason, it has also become separated from religion, the historical locus of thought about values and ethics.

My concern in this chapter lies in two areas. The first of these lies in the distinction between fact and value, science and ethics, and the second, with the notion that science is ethically neutral. In the discussion of these issues I aim to show that there are confusions and inconsistencies involved which force one to reconsider the status of science and the sense in which it is rational. Indeed I am at pains to counter a tendency which sees scientific facts as somehow determining what our values ought to be, when in actuality scientific facts provide no such solutions.

scientific guise

Fact and value, description and prescription and science and ethics do not have an equal status. As Habermas points out:

What seems to belong to the idiosyncratic traits of Western culture is not scientific rationality as such, but its hypostatisation. This suggests a pattern of cultural and societal rationalisation that helps cognitive-instrumental rationality to achieve a one-sided dominance not only in our dealings with external nature, but also in our understanding of the world and in the communicative practice of everyday life.[1]

This may be interpreted as indicating that the dominant model for the rational agent is for that agent to be a scientific agent. A good example of this approach may found in Harold I. Brown’s monograph entitled Rationality.[2] Perhaps the best explanation for the dominance of the scientific model of rationality is that science gets practical results.

The phenomenon is also likely to be connected to what Habermas has termed the “differentiation of value spheres” in the modern world which is somewhat analogous to the division of labour. For the agent one of the salient characteristics of the modern world-view is “cognitive specialisation.” H. D. Thoreau’s description, in Walden, of his attempt to regain some semblance of integrated, independent self-sufficiency, is an example of a reaction against such specialisation. Notably however, Thoreau’s experiment ultimately failed.

No doubt the scientific model of rationality has its benefits; yet, the specialisation with which it is connected also has its costs. One of these is that the proverbial left hand does not know what the right is doing. Specialisation results in a fracturing or fragmentation of the epistemic domain. The scientific model of rationality cannot be unquestioningly accepted. There are legitimate criticisms one can make of this aspect of the modern world-view. Moreover, such criticisms may be clearly distinguished from the epistemological relativism which has commonly been used to criticise science. Possibly the most extreme form of such epistemological relativism is to be found in the writings of the late P. K. Feyerabend.

One does not have to employ relativism in this way to legitimately criticise scientific rationality. Consider the following example. The research project undertaken at CERN undeniably produces empirical facts and theories in a (relatively) value-neutral way.

However, when we come to consider that CERN manages to justify large capital investment, this is very much a consequence of value-judgements (policy decisions) made by those who fund this basic research. Looked at in this way, CERN’s activities can be seen to take on a distinctly ethical dimension, because CERN competes for investment with other researchers, such as those interested in the application of intermediate technology to developing and underdeveloped countries.

Just as in the case of CERN, we are often presented with the image of the scientist who disinterestedly pursues his or her research irrespective of any ethical considerations. For him or her the ethic is simply that science is pursued. This is obviously critical of science and our fragmentary world-view, in that, a key aspect of the scientific endeavour is the neglect of matters of value and ethics. My question is how rational is it for the scientist to behave in this way? It is not that a position against knowledge is being advocated, rather, science cannot completely exhaust what knowledge can be. Yet we live in a culture where we behave as though scientific knowledge is the only sort of knowledge there is. This suggests an important imbalance.


In effect, I am advocating a move away from allegedly disinterested scientific research towards a greater and more involved pursuit of human affairs. For it seems that the great problems which face us to-day are matters of our responsibilities and duties in relation to each other and the environment. By contrast, the scientist’s tendency to isolate, separate or disengage him – or herself from direct involvement in matters of value, is seen here as problematic, since it pushes off to one side, or diminishes the importance of, matters of value and ethics.

Following on from the previous chapter, the medieval period may reasonably be described as one in which a Catholic sense of ethical correctness drove the orders of the day; although this has to be tempered with the observation that in some respects it was extremely intolerant of deviation from the orthodox, papal view. Here I have in mind the persecution of all sorts of heretics, witches and so forth. Although it is with hindsight, one surely cannot condone such abhorrent projects as the Inquisition.

In its efforts to enforce its power, the medieval Church surely transgressed the boundaries of the ethical. Once the hegemony of the Roman Catholic church had been swept aside by the Reformation, the increasingly dominant mode of enquiry became driven by a conception of reason which no longer had a Christian ethic at its core; rather knowledge in itself came to be seen as, perhaps, the ultimate goal. This ushered in a proliferation of newly burgeoning fields of enquiry, while ethics retained its mainly theological basis.

The new, atheological fields of enquiry, most notably early modern science, were no longer imbued with the constraints of the medieval Christian ethic. It may be said that a fully blown rejection of medievalism did not arise until the anti-clerical advocacy of reason Enlightenment thinkers put forward. However, the great achievements of the early modern scientists such as Copernicus and Galileo were quite at odds with the dying power of medieval Catholicism. In a sense then, the Renaissance and the Reformation prepared the way for the stronger rejection of religion in general which is a characteristic of much radical Enlightenment thought.

The advent of the modern period may be seen as a fragmentation of the medieval world-view, in which, since divine revelation had changed its role, now thinkers turned their attentions to a myriad of topics which had not been seriously examined since ancient times. I would tentatively suggest that a further key characteristic of the early modern period, then, is a new significance for the distinction between fact and value. The rise of theoretical curiosity in the guise of science, saw itself as separate from questions of ethics. This is a position to which many in the scientific community still adhere. This is also noticeable in the literature on the philosophy of science.

The main concern in this field, is with the epistemological status of scientific knowledge, as opposed to its moral and ethical status. In addition, science is often taken to be the paradigm case of what counts as rational. Taking these observations together, it is peculiar that the paradigm case of rationality should also exhibit the absence of an ethical component. This state of affairs may be said to rest on the division between fact and value, which, as has been suggested, has its origins in the early modern period. In this chapter the aim is to argue against a simple division between fact and value, and science and ethics respectively, on the ground that if a form of rationality as important as the scientific is devoid of an ethical component, then it has to be seen as deficient.

Furthermore, I incline to see this as one of the symptoms of the crisis of modernity, in that, not only are matters of fact seen as taking primacy over matters of value, but also that the connections between these domains have been neglected. The primacy of fact over matters of value is reflected in the dominant role science plays in modern societies. Further, this observation may be emphasised by noting the general tendency not to fully explore the ethical implications of scientific developments. From the point of view of science, ethics is considered, if at all, post factum rather than being the starting point. Somewhat paradoxically, if the crisis of modernity is real, and if it is to be resolved, then science would be one of the most important tools to bring this about. However, we may well be looking at a rather different kind of science in this respect.

As to an explanation of this ethical absence, if philosophers of science have not considered ethical concerns important, perhaps taking their cue from scientists themselves, then the most obvious explanation is that science is modelled as having little or no impact on human actions in the world. Yet clearly, this cannot be true, since virtually every scientific result will have an impact on human affairs, at least to the extent that these results are applied. So while this model may be operative, it is obviously erroneous. A second explanation, might be that ethics deals, as it were, with the interactions of intentions between agents.

On this view, science, defined as an umbrella term for the primary natural sciences of chemistry, physics and biology, deals with objects in which intentions are not at issue. In other words, one need not worry about the ethical consequences of the study of objects and processes which apparently have little to do with human affairs. Again, this is a powerful myth, since the operative word is ‘apparently’. Against the tendency to see scientists as involved in a recondite world of theory and experiment which is divorced from real, lived human experience, even the most abstruse of theoretical work has a habit of eventually becoming applied. Indeed, this is one of the arguments often used by those who seek to justify pure, basic scientific research, that is, it will have applications, though it is not known what these will be at present.

A further aspect of the division between science and ethics, is that ethical concerns are only to be bothered with, as it were, after the fact, rather than prior to it. In the case of the pure, theoretical work at issue here, it may be argued that since any applications which may transpire are some way off in the future, it is not possible to say what the ethical implications would be. A paradigm instance would be Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Nuclear bomb

Indeed Einstein is quoted as saying that had he known what would be done with his theory, then he would have been a shoemaker instead. Surely, this is the comment, assuming it is not apocryphal, of someone who is somewhat naive; since, to suppose that the domain of realpolitik would not make Machiavellian use of such discoveries is unrealistic.

The reply that if Einstein had not worked out the theory of relativity, then someone else would have done so, is almost certainly correct. But this points to a general lack of concern on the part of scientists, with the full implications of their work, rather than making it morally justifiable.

Indeed there does seem to be a dominant view that the programme of science must be carried out irrespective of however Machiavellian the world is; and this is premised on the assumption that any and all additions to the store of scientific knowledge is progress. Paradoxically, underlying this is a position which sees science as providing the ultimate solutions to humanity’s problems. In other words, humanity’s problems are to be solved by appeal to scientific facts rather than a more elusive appeal to the primacy of matters of value, that is to say, ethics.

In spite of this, there are several cases from literature which deal directly with knowledge in its moral aspect. Perhaps the earliest of these is Adam and the apple from the Old Testament; another would be the myth of Pandora’s box; a third would be the story of Faust; and a fourth Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World could also be added to the list. Each of these examples illustrates the general principle that knowledge need not automatically lead to a utopia.

Although each of the cases cited differ in points of detail, it might be said that they may be taken to indicate the general truth that humankind is often ill-equipped to deal with the challenges knowledge presents. Given that despite the best efforts of the Aufklärunger, the modern world remains rather dystopian, I am sceptical whether science can provide any ultimate solutions; rather the application of science tends to magnify already pre-existent moral dilemmas. As has been demonstrated by the Cold War, it was a close run thing whether civilisation would survive it.

Given all this, is this position anti-science? On the one hand, despite the recent influence of epistemological relativism in the philosophy of science, I have few doubts that science does in fact generate real, previously unknown understandings of nature; on the other, I have many doubts whether the development of science is to be equated with progress, particularly in view of the ethical absence in science. Virtually the only area of science which has a strong, widely respected code of ethics is medicine.

Ultimately, as has already been pointed out, all scientific results are in principle applied ones. Given the hypertrophy of science and its importance in industrialised societies, in a sense, the tail is wagging the dog. By this is meant that rather than attempting to establish what are legitimate ethical concerns, and then on the basis of this, going on to roll out an appropriately tailored research programme; what actually happens is that scientific research programmes are rolled out and then only afterwards, if at all, is ethics worried about.

This states one of the essential concerns of this chapter. To the extent that the scientific mode of rationality exhibits an ethical absence, that is to say, it is a matter of facts rather than of values, can this be described in some sense as irrational? Although scientific rationality is often taken to be the exemplary case of rationality, perhaps this is a fundamental mistake. There is something fishy about the scientist’s preference for an interest in non-human domains. To emphasise this, consider the case of a cleric whose main concern is to do good in the world and help feeble sinners. In contrast to the scientist, the cleric’s raison d’être is direct involvement with human affairs.

Let me be clear that I do not claim that all scientists are disinterested in human affairs, rather I refer to those to whom such disinterest applies. Equally, I do not claim that all clerics are as I have described. With these caveats in mind, I argue that there is a real and important difference in these cases. In the case of the scientist, the starting point is with matters of fact, while in the case of the cleric, the starting point is with matters of value. At issue here is the question of how rational it is to be solely concerned with matters of fact.

Thales of Miletus

One answer to this question is encapsulated in an anecdote concerning Thales of Miletus. It is said that he fell into a well one night, due to his intense concentration on the starry firmament. On this happening, the story continues, a milkmaid burst out laughing at the demise of the great thinker. (Who can say what would have befallen Thales had his interest been directed to the milkmaid.) The moral of the tale is that ill befalls the person who fails to pay due attention to the matters of this world. Furthermore, the anecdote can be read as indicating that theoretical interest in the non-human domain is problematic, and it implies that the truly wise ought to be primarily concerned with human affairs rather than the mysteries of the cosmos.

For millennia humankind has had a persistent interest in the cosmos at large, which may be said to reflect an urge to understand the workings thereof. How much close analysis can such theoretical curiosity withstand? This question is a reflection of a concern in some circles that humankind in its theoretically curious mode may be tampering with aspects of nature which are better left alone. Underlying this in its turn, is the idea that it is but human arrogance to suppose that ultimate answers may be milked from the cosmos.

Here I am trying to point to some sense of restraint for theoretical curiosity. The dominant and opposite position is that scientific rationality has the capacity to solve humanity’s problems; and, this being so, it cannot be restrained in any way. In response to this, it may be pointed out, the real problems of existence reside in the moral-political domain. Thus, if this is the case, then the hypertrophy of scientific rationality as a problem solving mode is rather an illusion.

To recap, my concern is that a modus operandi which does not have an ethical dimension at its core, does nothing to resolve the problems of the moral and political domain. In this sense, scientific rationality does not make existence any easier, rather it makes it more difficult. On this view, scientific rationality is a contributory factor to the crisis of modernity. Given that this diagnosis is correct, what corrective measures might be taken in response? Already I have tried to point to a sense of restraint for scientific rationality. This has definite problems. It was a form of restraint that led to Galileo’s house arrest. Since I cannot condone the action of the Holy See on this occasion, I would say that a mistake was made. However, it is suggested that legal rather than theological restriction may be a viable option.

In order to clarify my position, it is scientific rationality in its pure, theoretical mode that I see as most problematic. Applied science at least has the advantage that it is easier than in the pure case to establish exactly whether implications are malign or benign. The problem in the pure case is that there may be a time lag of many years before applications are found. Therefore, from the point of view of the moral and political domain, such pure investigation is an unknown quantity. Consequently, again from the point of view of moral-political deliberations, the fewer unknown quantities one has to contend with, the surer one’s ground.

One of the paradoxes of the operation of scientific rationality is that it has led to the continuance of life on Earth being more uncertain than at any other time in the past. If the future of life on Earth is more uncertain than hitherto due to the role of the scientific understanding of nature, what sort of advance does this amount to? The simplest model of the epistemic is that it is additive, and that the more epistemic “units” there are the better. However, the use the epistemic is put to matters a good deal.

For example, one could have a very small quantity of knowledge, but use it extremely well. Similarly, one could have a very large quantity of knowledge, but make terrible use of it. In other words, an increase in the amount of knowledge does not entail that people are correspondingly increasingly able to use it. Opposed to the view that scientific knowledge is subject to accretion is that of the epistemological relativist who argues that scientific knowledge merely changes in appearance, thus casting doubt on the notion of scientific progress.

Irrespective of which view one subscribes to, there is little doubt that science has grown enormously in importance in the modern period. As has been noted, I incline to view this hypertrophy as a factor contributing to the crisis of modernity. Thus, the epistemological model suggested here is one in which scientific knowledge may well be additive in some complex way; but, such accretion does not entail that advance and progress will come about in the broader sense. Never before has humanity been in the position of having brought its own existence into question. Since the scientific understanding of nature is one of the key factors which made this possible, one has to question the role of scientific rationality in society at large. It may be said that there is something irrational about a mode of analysis which has resulted in the continuance of life on Earth being brought into question.

If scientists have little or no power over how their results are to be applied, then one has to at least question the moral status of those who quite intentionally bring about consequences which they cannot specify. In the mundane world of the non-scientist, doing things the consequences of which one cannot specify amounts to gambling – taking a chance on the unknown. Ironically, although Einstein famously said that God does not play dice with the universe, he took an almighty gamble with the destiny of humanity, to the extent that his work made possible the development of nuclear weapons.

nuclear weapons

Of course it is a difficult matter to determine which areas of research ought not to be pursued. Nevertheless, I incline to the view that there are areas on which a moratorium ought to be declared. As things currently stand, there are many areas of research which, although they may not be quite out of bounds, are nevertheless regulated. The point made then is that such regulation can be extended such that scientific rationality is more fully bounded by a body of values. (This is the view in which the dog wags its tail.) For some, the very idea that scientific rationality could be restricted is anathema.

In reply there are professional bodies such as lawyers, teachers and clinicians which have a code of conduct which can lead to members being struck off. Why is there no corresponding apparatus for scientists? Indeed the Nobel laureate Joseph Rotblat, has suggested that such an apparatus ought to exist. (Notably, Rotblat resigned from the Manhattan Project.) Again it is a powerful myth that scientific rationality and its associated knowledge is value-neutral. As has been argued, even in the purest realms of theory, eventually such results may well have applications; and, when science is applied it inevitably impacts on human beings whether for good or ill.

A number of thinkers have identified the division of labour between science and ethics and fact and value in the modern world-view, as being deeply problematic, one such is MacIntyre. He has written of the potentially beneficial effects of a return to medieval Thomism, as a response to the fragmentation between fact and value brought about by the transition to the modern epoch. Of course, MacIntyre’s position is nothing new. Virtually all through the modern period there have been those who have written of the benefits of a return to the alleged holism of the medieval, as a response to the problematic aspects of modernity.

While much may be usefully learned of medieval thought, I cannot see it as a viable route to deal with the crisis of modernity. My justification for this arises from an elementary observation: religion simply does not have the power it once did. The notion that one should reinstate religion at the core of the modern body-politic, amounts to a rejection of some of the most valuable tenets of modernity – such as the idea that the human future is a consequence of human actions in the present, that is to say, human destiny is in our own hands, not those of God.

As has been made clear, there are real problems with modernity. And perhaps a return to a more integrated, holistic world-view, would indeed be desirable. However, the claim that this could or should be achieved by a return to a pre-modern mode is just not possible – there is no going back. Perhaps it is possible to build an account which goes some way to solving the aporia of modernity by arguing for the reconnection of fact and value, by reconnecting science and ethics. This does not necessarily entail a return to perhaps more integrated modes of thought which have been previously held – though I am the first to admit that we may learn much from these.

It is clear that the fact-value distinction is a valuable one, and nothing is to be gained by collapsing it in favour of either concept. Since, if one collapses the fact-value distinction in favour of value then we are forced into sceptical anti-foundationalism in which all is but interpretation; while, if the fact-value distinction is collapsed in favour of facts we are forced into an all too naive realism which denies the importance of values. What can be done is to attempt to rebuild the connections, the relationships between these.

It may be noted that facts are immanently loaded with value-judgements, in the sense that, any given fact would not exist unless someone, somewhere decided that it has some importance – importance being a value-judgement. For example, consider the fact that: an atom of hydrogen contains one proton. This is a crucial premise for much of chemistry and physics. However, despite appearances, this empirically tested proposition is deeply value-laden. How? That this fact has currency in our culture and has been transmitted, reflects a set of values about what is thought important. In addition it is worth noting that this fact, like so many others from natural science, is partly composed in its form by what nature will allow as well as by that which humankind takes an interest in.

One might also take an example from philosophy, such as the year of Hume’s death in 1776. On the one hand this is a clear fact. On the other, it is a reflection of what we consider important in that this piece of knowledge has been transmitted at all. What these examples show is that we select information from reality around us based on a sense of value-judgements concerning what is important to us. Put more orthodoxly, it is often argued that facts are never theory-neutral; and as such, they always contain an element of value generated in association with the interpretation which goes along with theoretical constructs.

From the point of view of values, values very often (if not always) pertain to some empirical state of affairs, that is, facts. For example, one may subscribe to the principle that capital punishment is unethical. This is a value-judgement which is based on an empirical state of affairs, namely, the killing of people for the crimes they may have committed. Therefore, while tradition is followed here in the sense that it is a mistake to attempt to derive one from the other, nevertheless the point made is that facts and values are intimately connected. Thus the distinction is one of emphasis and perspective, rather than cast-iron separation.

The denial of strong links between facts and values is a profoundly conservative doctrine, for it denies the possibility of the advocacy of a moral position based on empirical data. For instance, the requirement for basic infrastructure in many parts of the world is a world away from the provision of infrastructure in the West. The debate here is about international responsibilities and it depends on the presentation of empirical data. One of the realities of empirical data is that it forces value judgements upon us. Indeed, as has been argued, the creation of empirical data can itself entail value-judgements.

The notion that matters of fact and matters of value may be reconnected, without collapsing the distinction, has strong implications for philosophy in general and the philosophy of science in particular. As far as philosophy is concerned, if the term is interpreted as meaning the ‘love of wisdom’, and we interpret ‘wisdom’ as knowledge with a moral content, then it would appear that we deny the very validity of philosophy if it is argued that the moral and the epistemic are separate. To know that water boils at one hundred degrees centigrade, is not wise. But to know this fact and that boiling water might burn a child, if one is not careful, contains an element of simple wisdom. As far as the philosophy of science is concerned, this field is normally seen as being quite distinct from ethics. Given this, one has to at least ask whether it lives up to its self-description. The argument normally given for the separation of ethics and philosophy of science, is that scientific knowledge is ethically neutral.


In opposition to this view, scientific knowledge is in fact ethically ambiguous, since it can be used for either good or ill. It may be pointed out that it is scientific knowledge in itself which is ethically neutral. This could be held to be true if it could be conclusively demonstrated that there exists a pure, theoretical dimension to, say, physics. Although it has been argued that all science should be seen as intrinsically applied, suppose that this theoretical dimension does exist. Secondly, suppose that this theoretical dimension has no applications, thus defending the claim to ethical neutrality.

Thus, the scientific knowledge produced can be described as non-ethical. Given this much, it is legitimate to ask of the scientist how he or she justifies an activity which has no ethical component. In other words, how does the scientist justify the absence of ethical concerns? If the reply is that knowledge is good in itself, then has the scientist succeeded in justifying him- or herself? Here then there is a contradiction, for, if the scientist says that his or her activity is ethically neutral, this cannot be squared away with scientific knowledge being good in itself. So, if science is ethically neutral, then scientific knowledge cannot be good in itself. Equally, if scientific knowledge is good in itself, then science cannot be ethically neutral.

The dilemma of the scientist, however recondite and seemingly inapplicable his or her research might be is: what are its practical implications? An often cited line taken by many is that scientists have no idea what the practical applications or implications might be. Consequently, one may be forgiven for asking: why conduct the research if one does not know what its implications are likely to be? Particularly since there is no guarantee that such results will be beneficial.

Again, the standard response, is that knowledge is valuable in itself, and no attempt should be made to restrict the “adventures” of the enquiring, scientific mind. However, as has been argued, knowledge and indeed scientific knowledge is ambiguous in that it can be used for good or ill. Thus, if the adventures of the enquiring, scientific mind are to be restricted, it would seem to make sense that this is done in the direction of promoting the benign and preventing the malign.

A final question presents itself: if in conducting some programme of research, the scientist proves a result which has undecidable or unknown implications, in what sense then can this be seen as an addition to the store of knowledge? On a narrow interpretation the scientist has proved his or her hypothesis, and perhaps extended the theoretical model; on a broader interpretation the scientist may be said to have generated more problems than he or she solved by the proof of his or her hypothesis. On the second, broader interpretation, one could be forgiven for suggesting that scientific research can be epistemically counter-productive.

What I mean by this is that, if one generates more problems than one solves, then it is at least questionable whether one is making any headway at all. Consider a case from engineering: the inventor of the combustion engine must have had a strong impression that he had solved a problem. Equally, he must have had little or no inkling that by doing so he would contribute to the creation of a problem, that is to say, global warming and dependence on a finite, non-renewable resource, namely, oil.

It is for considerations such as these that scientific progress can be seen to be less clear than one might hope. The applications of theoretical curiosity, have rarely received all the most careful consideration they might deserve. Science often deliberately simplifies its problem complex, classically by ignoring or playing down ethical and moral considerations. As such, it has become a compliant play-thing for foci of power in the modern world, which themselves often show a Machiavellian disregard for ethical issues.

In conclusion, as I have attempted to show, to the extent that science only considers value-judgements after the fact, then this may be seen as problematic. If the crisis of modernity is to be resolved then, as I have argued, this is unlikely to come from science alone; rather, full and open debate about what constitute legitimate priorities, and in which value-judgements play a primary role, appears to be more important. The paradox of scientific rationality is that it makes a value out of pushing value-judgements to one side. Thus, perhaps the challenge for scientific rationality is to find a role for itself in which it informs the debate about legitimate priorities, rather than continuing in its present dominant role in which ethics is considered only post factum.


[1] Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 Vols., (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), Vol. 1. p. 66.

[2] Harold I. Brown, Rationality, (London: Routledge, 1990).


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