Science and the Sphinx
Every once in a while during the philosophy of AI classes we get involved with ethical issues. Sometimes students ask me afterwards whether it would be possible to treat ethical issues a bit more systematically (so help me, it's true). I'm always a bit reluctant to do so because when I was a philosophy student I tried to stay away from classes on ethics as far as I could. The whole idea of getting taught about good and bad seemed completely ridiculous to me. I knew what good or bad was, of course, and who were these middle-aged losers anyway, thinking they could teach me. But now that I'm slightly more.....mature myself, I'm starting to think that there may be something to ethics after all, if only in the same way there may be something to theology and esthetics. They're all, if you'll pardon me saying so, about 'tastes' of sorts that can be felt quite strongly and may have some remarkable consequences. So, for as long as my middle-age may be blossoming, I might be writing a bit more on such topics. Superficially of course.
So, for starters, let's consider Francis Bacon on Science and the Sphinx
Sir Francis Bacon has been called one of the first great enthusiasts of science. He retells the famous Greek myth (here's the full, 2-page, text) about how the Sphinx lay in ambush for travelers near the mountains of Thebes, attacking them with riddles and tearing them to pieces if they couldn't give the right answer quickly. Oedipus (the one who would later turn out to be a complex) had no fear, after being promised the sovereignty of Thebes. The Sphinx confronted him with the question what kind of animal was born 4-footed, then became 2-footed, then 3-footed and at last 4-footed again. Oedipus' quick reply 'Man' (going from birth to old age) made him victorious and he carried the sphinx on an ass back to town, became king of Thebes and lived anything but happily ever after.
Interesting is Bacon's suggestion that this fable was
"apparently in allusion to Science (...) Science, being the wonder of the ignorant and unskillful, may be not absurdly called a monster. In figure and aspect it is represented as many-shaped, in allusion to the immense variety of matter with which it deals. It is said to have the face and voice of a woman, in respect of its beauty and facility of utterance. Wings are added because the sciences and the discoveries of science spread and fly abroad in an instant; the communication of knowledge being like that of one candle with another, which lights up at once. Claws, sharp and hooked, are ascribed to it with great elegance, because the axioms and arguments of science penetrate and hold fast the mind, so that it has no means of evasion or escape."
For me it is significant that Bacon does not mention another similarity that one nowadays would notice almost without thinking: the 'tearing to pieces' of human beings. After all, a big-time worry many people today have about science is that what we tend to think of (and cherish) as essential to human beings (rationality, consciousness, free will, just to name a few in the context of cognitive science), is being dissected with clinical precision, sometimes without leaving a single trace. Students asking for discussions of ethical issues may have exactly this in mind (but then again they may merely want to know whether it is ethical to ask for pay raise more than twice a year).
Bacon only says that when the riddles pass on
"from contemplation to practice, whereby there is necessity for present action, choice, and decision, then they begin to be painful and cruel; and unless they be solved and disposed of they strangely torment and worry the mind, pulling it first this way and then that, and fairly tearing it to pieces."
Contrary to Bacon's view, however, the present-day worries I mentioned above start when the riddles are answered. It is the scientific answers to questions about who we are that make many people feel uneasy (rightly or wrongly so is another issue that I'll leave aside for the moment).
Is this an indication of a change in the perception of how science affects our self-image, since the time of Bacon? We shouldn't forget the troubles people like Galileo, Bruno, Descartes and Spinoza had in speaking openly about their scientific and philosophical views. This is a big topic that needs some explanations about 17th century debates (e.g. concerning the Cartesian animal-machine thesis) that I'll get back to later.
Another question is perhaps more complex: It is one thing to say that scientific answers to basic questions about ourselves can be unnerving, but can such answers be true and morally wrong at the same time?
Geez, am I really going to treat this systematically? There are some things I don't like about being a middle-aged loser (though I have to admit that it's not half as bad as I thought it would be). Think I'll have to figure out a way to skip my own classes.
Look here for a brief explanation of the more recent depiction (shown above) of Oedipus and the Sphinx by another famous Francis Bacon.