pp. 290-292 in Bioethics in Asia

Editors: Norio Fujiki and Darryl R. J. Macer, Ph.D.
Eubios Ethics Institute

Copyright 2000, Eubios Ethics Institute All commercial rights reserved. This publication may be reproduced for limited educational or academic use, however please enquire with the author.

C1. Ethics in the Age of Science and Technology

Michio Okamoto.

UNESCO ABCf97 President

The 19th and first half of the 20th centuries were the era of physics. Its crowning achievement was the splitting of the atom, which led to the atomic bomb, one of the most serious problems the World presently faces. It is said that the second half of the 20th and the 21st century will be the era of the biological sciences. The highlight of this age will probably be the results of elucidating the mechanisms of the brain, and although this will be difficult, how these give rise to the mind. This achievement will probably give birth to even more serious issues for humanity, for example in eugenics.

In this way modern-day science and technology, along with their brilliant successes, also give rise to serious problems for humanity, but the importance of always paying heed to the influence of the results of science and technology on humanity and the Earth, and their futures is something that thinking people have all come to acknowledge recently.

There is always argument over this issue as to who has the greatest responsibility, the scientists and technicians, or the policy makers, but either way for those of us born into this modern age of science and technology these issues must be treated as unavoidable problems of humankind as a whole.

At heart these issues are problems of value. Some argue they are unrelated to science and say scientists have no responsibility, but there is room for argument here, and looking once again at the process leading from the splitting of the atomic nucleus to the atomic bomb we see that this problem of the linked progression from discovery of a scientific fact, through its technical realization to application is one that also troubled the German atomic physicist, philosopher and man of religion Karl Fredrich von Weiszelker, who was pressurized by the Nazi's to assist in construction of an atomic bomb around 1940. Wherever this responsibility might lie, when we consider such responsibilities what are the moral and ethical codes that form the basis for our thoughts? Originally this kind of moral and ethical problem is deeply related to religion, and one school of thought would have it hat religion is indispensable to such considerations, however, though it depends greatly on the culture of the era and the nation in recent times accompanying the development of science and technology, when we look at the gradual worldwide weakening of concern for religion then it becomes very important just where at present outside of religion we are to find our morals and ethics on the basis of present-day science and technology.

As a present-day trend, considering its high-tech medicine and treatment, this is an extremely urgent issue for medical science. Here I would like to close this meeting with just a few points from which I have recently been considering these problems. Starting from my conclusions, the first is does the man known as one of the founders of modern science and technology, Rene Descartes have anything to say to us about morality, and it so then what?

The second is the fact that the present day cutting-edge of science and technology has drawn very close in its ethics and morality to the assertions of religion.

The third is, considering also the purpose of this conference, isn't there some role that science and technology, and ideologies of the East Asian countries including those of Islam, India and China which all gave birth to their own outstanding sciences, although they may not have dominated the world in the same way as Western science and technology, and of Japan which look in and developed Western science, can play in solving the problems of humanity and the Earth, that the development of Western science and technology has and is causing?

I will start with how Rene Descartes considered ethics and morality.

1. Reading Rene Descartes

When we debate modern science and technology, I think there can be no disagreement with listing the name of Descartes among its founders. It goes without saying that Descartes advanced the theory of the duality of mind and matter, and by distinguishing mind and body promoted the development of scientific research of the material so bringing in todayfs so-called Western and modern era of science and technology.

This philosophy clearly dividing mind and matter greatly impressed people of the middle ages, perplexed and suffering from the ways of the Christian Church of the time, just as if scales had fallen from their eyes, and in the three hundred plus years since, the West of course, but also our own country has seen the introduction of science and technology as synonymous with modernity, slowed to absorb it, and in Japans case, being apt to set more stove by the technical applications of science than the science itself, has promoted these, achieving the economic development leading up to the present day. Although this development of science and technology, and its practical uses have resulted in a convenient and favoured lifestyle, they have caused resource problems, and the global environmental problems of the destruction of nature, carbon dioxide, CFCs, overpopulation etc. Another thing we must not forget is that as a result of emphasizing material aspects, consideration of peoples spiritual side has been lacking, bringing with many problems such as lack of education.

How then did the father of this modern science and technology, Descartes, view these problems? What were ethics and morality to Descartes? How did he view the person of man? We read to turn again to the roots, Descartes, and think this through. Indeed Descartes did distinguish matter from mind. He drew a clear distinction between "the prolonging" es extense, and "the thinking" es cogntaus but how about people? It is easy to think of the body as matter, but we cannot imagine a person separated from their body, nor a person without a mind. This point may seem a contradiction from the standpoint of Descartes' theory of clear duality of mind and matter, but people are exceptional, they are a union of mind and matter. Hence in Descartes assertion there are three categories, the prolonging, the mind reflecting on self, and the human, a union of matter and mind. We soon forgot this, but for medical science, which deals with people, it is very important. Descartes did not think of people as corporeal bodies separate from mind. Concerning morality there is a Cartesian theory of sentiment. Sentiment is the awareness arising from the direct pressing of the material body on the persons spirit. This may be surprise, love, hate, desire, joy, sadness but the moral standpoint seems to be found in viewing as good that which is advantageous from the point of view of its pros and cons with regard to life sustaining the body-in-union-with-mind in that union. Sentiment advantageous to the living person is good based on values of goodness and deeds in accord with this kind of sentiment. In particular the consciousness that regulates these various sentiments as running in parallel with the rational will is called the noble sentiment, and the roots of morality and living a goodly life are to be found in this, living a life according to the ruling of these noble sentiment. This was Descartes' reply to the questioning of Elizabeth of Holland, who was a good audience for Descartes philosophy.

2. Matsumoto Hajime's Computer

One of the forefronts of post-war science and technology development has been the computer. The purpose of this scientific and technological drive is to enable the computer to compensate the functions of the human brain, and recently, Japan in imitation of the West, has promised to invest large sums in brain research as part of the "Decade of the Brain". The pinnacle of these computers, said to have been brought to completion recently by Matumoto Hajime is the neural computer. The brain is said to be a computer with a "calgorithm" for automatically obtaining data-processing algorithms, but the outline of this is as follows. Information enters the brain. Through the sense organs it goes to the thalamus. Part of the information in the thalamus goes to the corpus which is the old brain. Another part of the information goes to the cerebral cortex in the new brain which can analyze and evaluate. At this time the former, that which went to the corpus, is roughly processed and judgment made. That is we can say this is a reaction of pleasure or discomfort, similar to the sentiment I spoke of in (1). After receiving this judgment, it passes to the latter, that is the cerebral cortex. In other words, after first being divided roughly into pleasant and unpleasant, information entering is passed on to the cerebral cortex which analyzes it in detail and makes a reaction to it. At this time information labeled pleasant by the amygdaloideum corpus on reaching the cerebral cortex works to promote the reaction of the cerebral cortex to that information, while information evaluated as unpleasant works oppositely in a suppressive manner. In other words, we could call this a kind of crisis control function, with information from the outside world first being rapidly processed and roughly evaluated in the old corpus, then spreading to the whole brain function from the new brain cerebral cortex. This is the marvelous crisis-control our brains perform. So Professor Matsumoto would say that love activates our brains. This is identical to the interpretations of religion.

3. The Cultural Foundation of Science

It is generally held that science is influenced by the paradigms of time and place. C.A. van Peursen presents this in the word "Discovery", before Science is born. In this all kinds of groundings, originality, values, ethics, politics, culture are included.

This "discovery" also sees scientists themselves as building the foundations giving birth to science, and as well as the process "discovery" science ethics, through "discovery" science ethics presents us with a figure like this.........

Doesn't this give us some important suggestions when we consider responsibility in science? And now turning our attention to the state of affairs in our own country where should we look for our own ethical and moral sources? Our country as well as the indigenous Shinto has also absorbed Buddhism from the Chinese mainland. The crystallization of these two over as much as two thousand years is the Bushido, Samurai Spirit, of Mr. Nitobe. Should we now think about this bushido as it concerns Japan, which did not import Western Christianity along with science and technology.

This bushido was the background of Sakuma, Ohkubo, Saigoh, Gotoh, Kido and others who completed the Meiji restoration, and even after the introduction of Western science many have returned to the bushido (ethics).

According to Mr. Nitobe, Christianity has contributed nothing to the Japanese. When thinking of the great influence of the Chinese classics on our people, the fact that Japan which during the Meiji Era esteemed neo-Confucianism highly is at present advocating the study of the Youmei school of Confucianism comes to mind. In any case now that the Western civilization of science and technology has run up against a wall, for our country which has always sought to me of Western knowledge in its own spirit, absorbing that which is different, and choosing the best. So that now it stands between Eastern and Western civilizations as one of the three centres of the modern world, reconsideration of non-Western civilizations, while devoting ourselves to Western science and technology yet still giving mind to other civilizations, is something whose importance I would like to point out. Here something to consider is Islam. From ancient times our country has learnt absolutely nothing of Islam. In the midst of these times leading from the 20th century to the 21st and beyond, as we hear of the worldwide expansion of Islam, having added my few brief words, I close my remarks.


Please send comments to Email < asianbioethics@yahoo.co.nz >.

To contents page
To Japanese version
To Eubios book list
To Eubios Ethics Institute home page