Margaret Somerville is one of our best ethical thinkers. In a speech she delivered at the Sydney Institute in 2007 she went head to head with Richard Dawkins and James Watson in presenting this way-forward in the discipline of ethics. Her “science-spirit” view is also a valuable descriptor for a way of integrating science and faith.
I suggest that three views about the proper roles of science and religion in society are currently competing with each other. I call them the “pure science” view, the “pure mystery” view and the “science-spirit” view.
Proponents of the pure science view believe our rational cognitive capacities are our most valued features. This view is intensely individualistic, liberal, post-modern, and personal rights-based. It is uncomfortable with uncertainty and seeks certainty through science.
The pure mystery view is often associated with fundamentalist religious beliefs. People who espouse this view tend to be conservative, traditional and protective of community. They often adopt a literal reading of symbolic discourse. Like people in the pure science camp, they are uncomfortable with uncertainty, though they seek certainty through religion instead of science.
Adherents of the science-spirit view are excited by the new science, experiencing it as increasing our sense of wonder and awe. But they also believe ther is “more” to humans than their genes – that we also have a spirit dimension. Science-spirit people are comfortable with uncertainty and recognize that it can require them to draw lines in grey areas when dealing with ethics. They accept there is much we cannot control. And they try to hold science and mystery in creative tension.
The burning question the science-spirit view raises is this: Can we find the moral will, political consensus and the courage to recognize that in some circumstances we have to say “no,” even at personal cost; at the cost of less rapid “progress” in science; at economic cost and at a political cost?
With the new techno-science we hold the essence of life in the palm of our collective human hand and, with this, the future of the planet and of ourselves, including our very nature. With stakes this high, we need the courage to say “no;” the courage to exercise “wise ethical restraint.” In working out what that requires, one of the most fundamental questions we must constantly ask ourselves is: Can the future trust us?*
For an award winning view of a future in which humans do not say “no” and do not use “wise ethical restraint,” see the writings of another Canadian author, Margaret Atwood. Her fictional book entitled Oryx and Crake (Seal Books, 2004) offers a particularly bleak picture of a world without ethical restraint.
*This quote is an excerpt of an adaption of a speech delivered at The Sydney Institute, June 4, 2007. See Geez magazine issue 10, Summer 2008, pages 58-61. Margaret Somerville is founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. She received the 2004 UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science, and is author of The Ethical Imagination (Anansi, 2006).