Morals and Values in Modern Science

The aim of our project is to explore through a series of case studies 1) how the values inherent in knowledge-making practices – from theory construction to experimentation – are themselves subject to change, and 2) how these changes take place in the wider context of the interplay between knowledge-making practices and the wider scene of socio-cultural practices, and 3) how these changes are reflected in and influenced by epistemological discourses.

    Values in modern science can be ascribed significance with an attention to at least three different roles they can play in knowledge production in general. 1) Orientation. The context of values in which knowledge-making practices are situated focuses attention on certain aspects of phenomena, suggests questions to be asked and concepts to be used, that is, it provides a framework for problems and their possible solutions. So values, on the one hand, circumscribe the territory deemed worthy of exploration, and also the concepts and methods with which exploration is deemed appropriate to be conducted: they determine what kinds of questions one is asking, and what kinds of answers one is seeking. 2) Limitation. Values, on the other hand, also determine what lies outside the realm of conceivable research: the kinds of questions one is not asking, and the kinds of answers one is not seeking. As the other side of their orienting role, values have a limiting function: while turning attention to certain problems and certain ways of dealing with problems, they also turn attention away from alternatives that might be deemed relevant against the background of a different set of values. 3) Justification. Values provide a source from which the directions, practices and outcomes of inquiry can be justified in epistemic, moral and social contexts. The need for justification can arise in relation to specific concepts, methods or insights, and what counts as justification is relative to the values relevant in the context where the need for justification arises.

    With an attention to the threefold function of values in knowledge-making practices, our research has a double focus on cases taken from the history of science and the history of philosophy, and we intend to highlight cases taken from the seventeenth to the twentieth century period illustrating the historical transformation of values orienting, limiting and justifying scientific inquiry. This defines the two foci of attention of our research:

1) How values and their functions are reflected in knowledge-making practices. Commitments to values are typically hidden and rarely made explicit, but they can be reconstructed as hidden premises of arguments or the hidden content of metaphysical and epistemic concepts (e.g. space, knowledge), and they can be seen reflected in the accepted kinds of premises and the status assigned to various epistemic practices (as e.g. experimentation).

2) How values and their functions are reflected in philosophical discourses. Philosophical reflection can be ascribed manifold functions in relation to knowledge production. It can serve an ideological function by making sense of scientific inquiry, i.e. by showing its significance in a wider context of epistemic, social or moral values. It can also have a more direct effect through articulating and elucidating values, and thereby increasing their influence on knowledge production; or through performing a dialectic function by taking concepts out of their practical contexts and refining them so as to be more effective epistemic devices, etc.

These foci are of course not entirely independent and sometimes they facilitate or collide with one another. Our project is to explore their interconnections and significance for the historical and philosophical understanding of science.