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I'm a scientist. The results of my research may generate technologies that could

I'm a scientist. The results of my research may generate technologies that could potentially be used in both and offensive and defensive military applications. These same technologies could potentially help people as well. Here are two examples: (1) My work could potentially create odor-sensing devices to target "enemies" and blow them up, but the same work could aid land-mine detection and removal. (2) My work could help build warrior robots, but it could also help build better prosthetics for amputees. For any given project, I have to decide which agency(ies) my lab will take money from. I do not want to decide based on the name of the agency alone: DARPA has funded projects that helped amputees and killed no one, while I would bet (but do not know for sure) that some work sponsored by the NSF has ultimately been used in military operations. So I'd like to base my decision on something more than the agency acronym. How can I start to get my head around this? What sorts of questions should I...

I am happy to read Miriam's and Thomas's replies to this question, because it is one that I somewhat unexpectedly faced when I switched from being a professional philosopher to being a professional computer scientist (albeit one with a highly philosophical bent!).

The first time the issue came to light was when I gave a talk to computer and cognitive scientists at the University of Texas at Austin about 20 years ago. One of my hosts was Benjamin Kuipers, a leading researcher in artificial intelligence, who had done groundbreaking work, as a grad student supported by military funding, on "way finding": How to program computers to give and to follow geographic directions. He told me that after he got his Ph.D., he realized that, as a practicing Quaker, he could not in good conscience continue to take military funding, especially if that meant that he would have to fire grad students or postdocs who would be working under his direction if the military asked him to do something against his beliefs and thereby took away his funding. So he changed the entire line of his research to medical applications of AI, which were funded by such organizations as NIH. His full story and arguments in favor of not taking military funding can be found on his website in an article titled "Why Don't I Take Military Funding?" .

The second time the issue came to my attention was when a visitor to our computer science department at the University at Buffalo lectured about autonomous vehicles--automobiles, equipped with AI-programmed computers, that can drive themselves--a project funded by DARPA. During the question session after the presentation, one of my colleagues, Tony Ralston, asked this question: "How can you justify this research when obviously its main purpose is to develop autonomous military vehicles for warfare?" Of great interest to me was that during the reception afterwards, the conversation focused around two groups: students and faculty asking the visitor technical questions, and students and faculty asking Tony Ralston questions about the ethics of militarily-funded research. Another colleague, also a practicing Quaker, suggested that it was OK to take such funding on the grounds that the work she would do was not aimed at killing people--better that the military give their money to her than to someone with other ideas.

My personal decision has been to refuse military support. There have been some negative consequences (lack of funding, etc.), but I feel comfortable with my decision.

But read Kuipers's arguments--they're quite interesting.

Adding to Professor Solomon's good points: One question that you seem not to be raising, but should, is whether research is alright when it does more good than harm. This cannot be universally correct. Think of the Tuskegee experiments. Or think of the horrific experiments German and Japanese doctors conducted on prisoners. The latter experiements apparently yielded very useful results -- so useful that the US offered immunity to doctors willing to share their knowledge and know-how. Still, participation in such experiments is generally wrong even if, in the long run, the benefits outweigh the harms. Philosophers have discussed these issues -- often in the context of criticizing or defending utilitarianism (or, more broadly, consequentialism) -- under two headings (which will enable you to retrieve relevant literature). They have debated whether negative duties (not to harm) have greater weight than positive duties (to help or benefit). And they have debated whether harms that are intended ...

I would appreciate some recommendations on texts (for a layperson -- a

I would appreciate some recommendations on texts (for a layperson -- a nonprofessional philosopher) whose subject is the philosophy of science.

And I'll chime in with my favorite: Okasha, Samir (2002), Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press), which I think is a terrific survey and lives up to its title of being "very short". I'd also agree that it's probably best to look at a survey such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, or something like Okasha's book, before diving into one of the classics.

Perhaps start with a look at the entry "scientific explanation" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-explanation ). After that, I would get started with three classics: Sir Karl Popper: The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959) Ernest Nagel: The Structure of Science: Problems in the Logic of Scientific Explanation (1961) Thomas Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970).

Can there ever be a meaningful distinction in science between the "unknown" and

Can there ever be a meaningful distinction in science between the "unknown" and the "unknowable"? I see no reason why science should not,in 100,000 years or so, unlock what now seem to be unknowable questions like the nature of a Prime Mover, if he exists, simply by accruing more and more knowledge of the universe. We know pretty much what happened a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang and we acquired this knowledge in about 100 years so why assume everything before that is unknowable? Surely the scientific method would insist that this is "presently unknown". Is it that metaphysics and the persistence of religious belief color our approach? Is "unknowable" even a valid term in philosophy, and, if so, what definitive, unassailable examples are there of it (which would also apply, say, 100,000 years from now)? Thanks in advance.

Let's begin by distinguishing two senses in which something might be said to be unknowable. In some cases something is said to be unknowable because it isn't the kind of thing about which, in principle, knowledge could be had. For example, do you know the minimum number of hairs a man must have on his head to escape being bald? Well, there is no such minimum number to be known or discovered, because the concept of baldness is too vague for this. Do you know what time of day it is now on the sun (Wittgenstein)? Would you be happier dead? Again, there's nothing to be known or discovered in these regards. Philosophers have said about such cases that "there is no fact of the matter." Let us set these cases aside, because they are not the ones that interest you.

In the cases that interest you, there is a fact of the matter. And the claim is then either that it is impossible for us (human beings including all future generations) to know this fact or even, more dramatically, that it is in principle impossible for any beings to know this fact.

I believe that, contrary to what you are suggesting, there can be and there really are unknowables of both these kinds. Let us begin with the first kind of case, with knowledge others might have but we humans can never acquire.

Physicist believe that the universe is expanding and that some parts of it are moving away from us (or we from them, this does not matter) at extremely high speeds. According to their theory, it is physically impossible for us ever to catch up with those objects so as to examine aspects of them that leave no trace in their emissions. Intelligences living in those parts (if there are such) can know those details, but human beings cannot ever possibly find them out.

You may object that perhaps our physicists are wrong. Perhaps future scientists will invent a form of space travel that is much faster than the speed of light and would allow human beings to travel to those parts and examine them closely. This objection is sound, but it misses its mark. It shows that what we now believe to be unknowable may yet turn out to be knowable. The objection does not show that there could not be anything unknowable. After all, present physics might also turn out to be right on this point, in which case human beings can really never possibly know various details about those fast receding parts of the universe.

Now let's proceed to unknowables of the other kind, facts that no one could possibly ever know. Some mathematical and perhaps also some physical facts are so complex that there isn't enough stuff in the universe to represent or to encode them; it is in principle impossible to know the first 10^1000 prime numbers, for example. Some experiences are unattainable for any physically possible conscious life form: No one can know what it is like to be at the center of the sun, because there is simply too much heat and pressure to introduce and maintain there the complex molecules necessary for conscious life. No one can know the last thoughts of beings whose planet was sucked into a black hole (whose gravitational pull, so physicists tell us, no information-bearing emissions can overcome). No one can know what laws of physics held true in the universe a billion years before beings like oneself came into existence (I'm a bit skeptical here about the knowledge you claim about the moment of the Big Bang -- knowledge that relies on extrapolating present natural laws backward in time). No one can know through which of two little holes some minimal particle or photon reached a sensor, because any way of acquiring this information would have interfered with its reaching the sensor.

Again, some of these examples are disputable. Perhaps it will turn out that some of these things can be known after all. But your question, as I understood it, was whether there might be unknowables in the second sense. And to this question the answer is yes. There might well be. And the progress of science may well teach us that things we deemed knowable are in fact unknowable (just as it may indeed also teach us that things we deemed unknowable are knowable).

This leaves us with a thought close to Socrates. A good part of intellectual progress consists in knowing what we can and what we cannot know. Or in the words of modern philosopher Clint Eastwood: "A man's got to know his limitations." (And women, too.)

Let's begin by distinguishing two senses in which something might be said to be unknowable. In some cases something is said to be unknowable because it isn't the kind of thing about which, in principle, knowledge could be had. For example, do you know the minimum number of hairs a man must have on his head to escape being bald? Well, there is no such minimum number to be known or discovered, because the concept of baldness is too vague for this. Do you know what time of day it is now on the sun (Wittgenstein)? Would you be happier dead? Again, there's nothing to be known or discovered in these regards. Philosophers have said about such cases that "there is no fact of the matter." Let us set these cases aside, because they are not the ones that interest you. In the cases that interest you, there is a fact of the matter. And the claim is then either that it is impossible for us (human beings including all future generations) to know this fact or even, more dramatically, that it is in principle...

The debate between science and religion has gone on for many years, and many

The debate between science and religion has gone on for many years, and many people think that they must choose one or the other to believe. To me, it's a lot like trying to collide two trains on parallel tracks. If one chooses to believe in God, then that person can still believe in the big bang or evolution while believing that God created the universe, because religion explains what happens on a spiritual level, and science explains what happens on a physical level. The two run parallel. Using this as a way of thinking, can science contradict religion at all, and why has the debate between the two gone on for so long when this explanation reconciles them?

Your idea works fine on a certain modest understanding of religion. If religion were only about the Divine, perhaps with the additional thought that God created the universe, then no explanation given by science of anything in the universe could interfere with religion.

Religions are typically not so modest, however. A typical religion may ascribe certain duties to human beings along with the freedom and responsibility to live up to these duties. And this can raise scientific (and philosophical!) doubts about whether human beings have the requisite freedom.

In response, you might propose dividing human beings over your two levels: into a physical body (brain included) and a spirit or soul. But this proposal raises further puzzles about the relation between these two parts or components of human beings. If religion attributes some of what you do to your soul it may compete with scientific theories that attribute all your conduct and thinking to physical causes. If religion attributes nothing you do to your soul, then it is hard to understand in what sense it is your soul at all or can bear any responsibility for what your body does.

There are philosophical accounts of how the kind of human freedom religions typically assert is compatible with any explanatory account science may end up providing of human thought and conduct. (A famous such account is given by Immanuel Kant.) But such accounts remain contested.

There is another, less obvious way in which science may interfere with religion: Science may provide an explanation of our religious beliefs, and some such explanations may tend to undermine these beliefs. Suppose, for example, that scientists develop a neat evolutionary explanation of why human beings are prone to believe in in gods. Such an explanation would not show that there is no god, but it might well undermine the conviction that there is. An analogy: Your strong belief that you have once spent a summer in Antarctica is likely to be undermined when you are shown a videotape of how you were hypnotized to believe that you once spent a summer in Antarctica and hypnotized to forget the hypnosis. In both cases, to be sure, the scientific explanation of the belief does not refute its content. You might say that God created a world in which religious beliefs emerge through evolution. Still, religious communities typically tell rather different stories about their origins, and these stories may turn out not to fit with the best scientific explanation.

Your idea works fine on a certain modest understanding of religion. If religion were only about the Divine, perhaps with the additional thought that God created the universe, then no explanation given by science of anything in the universe could interfere with religion. Religions are typically not so modest, however. A typical religion may ascribe certain duties to human beings along with the freedom and responsibility to live up to these duties. And this can raise scientific (and philosophical!) doubts about whether human beings have the requisite freedom. In response, you might propose dividing human beings over your two levels: into a physical body (brain included) and a spirit or soul. But this proposal raises further puzzles about the relation between these two parts or components of human beings. If religion attributes some of what you do to your soul it may compete with scientific theories that attribute all your conduct and thinking to physical causes. If religion attributes nothing you...