Murakami on bad scientists

In his book Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,  japanese novelist Haruki Murakami playfully depicts a likable but crazy scientist whose latest set of experiments involved messing with 26 young men’s brains, 25 of which unexpectedly died. In a conversation with the survivor, the likable, crazy scientist has this to say:

“Well, a scientist isn’t one for controlling his curiosity. Of course, I deplore how those scientists cooperated with the Nazis conductin’ vivisection in the concentration camps. That was wrong. At the same time, I find myself thinkin’, if you’re goin’ t’do live experiments, you might as well do something a little spiffier and more productive. Given the opportunity, scientists all feel the same way at the bottom of their heart.”

Now i have no intention of going into a “banality of evil” post. I am much more interested in the scientific virtue of curiosity. A long time ago, curiosity (but not studiousness) was a vice that described those whose desire for knowledge caused them sin:

the knowledge of truth, strictly speaking, is good, but it may be evil accidentally, by reason of some result, either because one takes pride in knowing the truth, according to 1 Corinthians 8:1, “Knowledge puffeth up,” or because one uses the knowledge of truth in order to sin. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIaIIae Q167)

Today, curiosity has become an important virtue, more because the meaning of the word has changed than because we understand it better than Aquinas did back in the day (1260s or so). The problem is that scientific curiosity – according to Murakami at least – is the more fundamental drive, whereas morality only kicks in afterwards. Science does not fundamentally search for the good, but only the true; and in our day and age truth (about how to build atom bombs, e.g.) can be very much evil. Science does not have an intrinsic means of steering away from investigating potentially evil truths, but must rely on an extrinsic moral principle variously understood by individual scientists.

The manifold messes we humans have occasioned by now on this planet call for a revision of how we do science. We need to somehow bring ethical reflection into scientific endeavors, so that scientists will only want to study what is good and will refuse to help others produce (environmentally or otherwise) dangerous objects. As to the how, i am regrettably not so sure.

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