Most right-thinking people today consider the preservation of endangered species to be an ethical imperative. The underlying assumption (correct in the vast majority of cases) is that the endangered species have been brought to the brink as a result of careless human activities. Habitat destruction, hunting, pollution, and other aspects of the modern industrial age have stressed the biosphere so heavily that some ecologists consider it to be a mass extinction event. One of the many animal species facing extinction in coming years is the Tasmanian Devil. However, unlike many others, the Devil is going extinct because of a naturally occurring pathogen: Devil Facial Tumor Disease. This raises an interesting question: Should human beings always seek to prevent the extinction of animal species, regardless of the cause of that extinction?
So, the other week I got into a minor flame war (more of a potshot skirmish really) with an astrologer on twitter (full disclosure: I started it ;). It all started over the remarks Brian Cox (scientist, rock star, all-around cool dude) made on his most excellent Wonders of The Solar System television program. Clip after the jump.
I seriously considered not posting this one. Two things went wrong: I didn’t get my choice of topic in time, meaning I was assigned the negative side of a topic I would usually argue affirmatively on. Secondly, I was super busy this weekend and didn’t leave myself enough time to do a proper job. But I thought in order to maintain the intellectual honesty of this series I should post the less stellar examples along with the ones I am more proud of. It was an interesting exercise the try and argue a position I am opposed to. It’s something everyone should try at least once; I think if you don’t find it difficult you should question how secure your positions really are. So as a last disclaimer, I’m not sure how effective the following arguments are. You decide!
Topic: Human cognitive processes can be investigated by creating computational models. (CON)
Computer models, though important to the study of cognition itself, are of limited use in studying specifically human cognitive processes.
Now that exams are over, I have time to reflect on the material I’ve covered over the last 4 months. From Cognitive Systems and Philosophy of Perception to Functional Programming, I’ve had an extremely varied curriculum. A strong common theme which ran through all my school work this term was the ethical practices and ramifications of scientific work: from discussions of the bioethics of genetic modification, to more abstract debates over what rights, if any, we should afford to a hypothetical True AI.
As good as this has all been, and as much as I believe that ethics should be given a more prominent place in all undergraduate science programs, one simply cannot escape the fact that when it comes to advancing the frontiers of scientific knowledge, ethics can be a big ol’ wet towel. How much more advanced would our civilization be if we weren’t guided by our silly moral principles? How many more answers would be within our grasp if we didn’t have to give so much thought to the rights or general physical well being of our fellow man?
In order to answer that hypothetical, I’ve compiled a short-list of unethical experiments which would genuinely advance our scientific knowledge: