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Skeptics & Terraformers

by Rick Lewis

What exactly is philosophy? Maybe people have asked you that, and perhaps you have a favourite answer, as I do. Mine goes, “Philosophy is any sort of systematic investigation of the nature of the world or of human beings.” I read that once somewhere and was impressed by its tidiness. Sometimes the inquirer then remarks, “But surely that would apply to science too?” And that gives me the chance to reply smugly, “Yep, science started out as a branch of philosophy.”

It was certainly started by philosophers. Aristotle either invented or reorganized sciences by the dozen, and remained the authority in fields such as physics and biology for almost two thousand years. Physics was known as ‘natural philosophy’ and was that branch of philosophy concerned with examining the natural world. In those days it relied mainly on careful observation and careful reasoning, just like the rest of philosophy. When ‘natural philosophers’ learnt to use repeatable experiments under controlled conditions, they gained a tool of immense versatility and power which was denied to their brethren in other areas of philosophy and science began to acquire the confidence and success which it has displayed ever since.

Even though science then went its own way, philosophers continue to be interested in it in at least two ways. Firstly, philosophy of science examines how science gives us knowledge of the world, and tries to interpret and increase our understanding of scientific theories. Secondly, the technologies spawned by science create all sorts of ethical dilemmas with which philosophers wrestles. This issue of Philosophy Now reflects on science in both of those ways.

Science isn’t a peripheral area of concern for philosophers – it is right at the heart of their activities, because it has to do with knowledge. Therefore skepticism is also connected with science. Skepticism has also been a recurring theme in philosophy ever since the days of Plato and Aristotle. In this issue we have skeptics of two very different sorts. Paul Kurtz (p.21) is the very model of a modern-day scientific skeptic. He considers that skeptical doubt is an essential part of the scientific process. The late lamented Charles Fort, on the other hand, was a skeptic about science (p.17). He believed that scientists are overly keen to explain away observations which don’t fit their pet theories. Throughout his life he hoarded observations of everything bizarre, from UFOs to rains of frogs dropping from the sky, to rescue the raw evidence which, he claimed, science wanted to brush under the carpet. Scientific skeptics would say that he should have treated reports of rains of frogs etc with more suspicion – with a healthy skepticism. They would have accused him of credulity.

Scientific advances are continually generating new technologies, and those technologies often raise troubling ethical questions. One of the best-known sources of ethical angst recently has been reproductive medicine. In this issue Neill Furr (p.10) discusses some of the problems and what he considers to be some mistakes in the way we usually think about them.

The problems of whether to allow various sorts of reproductive technology are with us today. Not so the other example of the impact of science which is discussed in this issue. ‘Terraforming’ is the procedure of taking an alien planet and transforming it dramatically over the course of a few centuries into the kind of place where you might be prepared to let your kiddies play in the open air. So far it remains mainly in the realm of science fiction, but the prospect of exploring Mars is now close enough that serious books of engineering are being written about how to terraform the Red Planet. Paul York (p.6) makes the case that this would be ethically wrong, and that we owe a certain consideration even to completely lifeless planets.

If by terraforming we just mean the transformation by human action of a planet’s atmosphere, biosphere and surface conditions, then it has of course been going on for some time. The impact of science on Mars may turn out to be colossal. The impact of science on the planet Earth already has been colossal and seems to be gathering pace. The question is whether or not the process is under control.

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