September 02, 2011

Playing God: because somebody has to

Metropolitan CathedralYesterday I was interviewed on BBC5 about whether scientists should play God. The reason was a cluster of news stories over the past days: UK stem cell stroke trial passes first safety test, Ethics of creating meat in a laboratory, Giant pipe and balloon to pump water into the sky in climate experiment, and Wales Gets Dedicated UAV Airport, Leaves U.S. in the Dust.

When first asked about whether I could participate the radio person called the stories "bizarre", and I think that contributes to the unease of people: these are things from outside the sphere of everyday experience that are going on, apparently important and supported by important people, yet disconnected from the logic of everyday life and possibly threatening it. But the real "playing God" aspect is of course that they seem to change the natural order of things.

I of course think that there is no more a natural order that has to be obeyed than there is an order to a pile of gravel: it has a shape due to history and gravity, but any other shape is equally OK. As humans we might want certain outcomes, and some outcomes hold ethical importance, but they get value not from conforming to a given order but through other aspects - the amount of happiness or suffering, how we go about implementing them, risk and resiliency, and so on.

Still, many people have deep intuitions that there is some kind of natural state one should not transgress on. A case in point is Clive Hamilton's criticism of geoengineering which seems to boil down to that we should be humble 'in the face of the superior power, complexity and enigmatic character of the earth'. But (as discussed at the link) this appears to either boil down to the commonsensical 'be careful when messing with complex and important systems' that doesn't carry much ethical weight (but some practical weight), or a very hubristic assumption that nature is guaranteed to be beyond us, a kind of claim that has historically failed again and again. It is hubris just when you fail, while success means it was just ordinary progress.

As Haldane put it, every advance in physics starts out as blasphemy (lightening rods! how hubristic to think you can evade Gods punishment... except that they usually work fine) and every biological advance as perversion (drinking cow's milk... yuck!). Then people get used to it and make them part of their everyday life, or even religion. Playing God is something we always do, and whenever it works out we then redefine it as normal.

Posted by Anders3 at September 2, 2011 03:39 PM