Listening to Dr Li offer up examples of research experiments dating back to the first half of the 20th century, it became obvious that much of psychology's body of knowledge is built upon the exploitation of weak and vulnerable populations (prisoners, the poor or mentally ill etc.). I began to feel like an heir to an ill-begotten fortune built generations before me, but has since been whitewashed. Yet it's undeniable that knowledge gained from these studies have increased understanding of human nature. This reminds me of a quote AW once posted as a status update: "Behind every fortune is a crime." Of course, I'm not advocating that we discard any unethically gained knowledge. I just wonder whether we would be where we are now had the researchers of psychology's past adhered to today's ethical standards. Would a utilitarian dare argue that those breaches in ethics were/are justified given the findings' contribution to the greater good.
|Immortality in a cell: stained Hela cells via wikiCommons|
Think about the case of Henrietta Lacks, whose cervical cancer cells were harvest, unbeknownst to her or her family, to create the first human cell line which were then used (and continue to be used) in many research studies such as testing the first polio vaccine. HeLa cells, as all cells descended from Lacks' tumor cells are called, are "immortal". Rebecca Skloot tells this fascinating story which raises some thought-provoking ethical, as well as philosophical, questions in her book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
But such arguments seem moot. The knowledge gained is here to stay. Similarly, the ethics standards established are here for good reason. Yet, I think it's important not to forget our debts and the price we have had to pay to get to where we are. Most importantly, we should be mindful of the fact that much bad has been done in the name of good science.
Speaking of moot points, I sat in on the Philosophy through Film course. Today's lecture on skepticism was to prep us for a discussion of The Matrix next week (way better than the recent hit Inception). One of the lecture slides asked us to consider:
"Is the world real?
What can we know?
Are we dreaming?
Are we brains in a vat?
Are we part of a computer program?"
Dr Inglis went on to recount Plato's Parable of the Cave. "It's difficult and painful to doubt this world," Dr Inglis explained Plato's view. "The ones that do are not respected by the others." She went on to explain that Plato believed there was a higher reality -- forms -- to the one we perceive, which he likened to shadows cast by forms. Forms are perfect and true. The reality that we grasp is an imperfect, shadowy representation of form.
Unlike other classes I've been in, the students seemed to enjoy asking questions. One student asked, "Are we (i.e. humans) form or shadow?"
Another two students started a discussion on whether forms themselves had a higher form (Plato assumes that forms is a final reality.). "If we keep extending logic, there could be infinite higher realities. So why not just accept this level (what we are capable of perceiving) as reality?"
I loved this question, because it sums up my ambivalence towards philosophy. As a few many speakers at Edge's conference on The New Science of Morality echoed, psychology and neuroscience endeavours to unravel what "is" while philosophy has seemed more pre-occupied with how things "ought to be" without much acceptance for the limitations posed by human nature.
But between what is and what ought to be, there is also what could be? Ultimately, it will take something more than knowledge of who we are and who we ought to be to become who we can be. That something, I believe, is empathy and compassion. Our challenge is to find and maintain a balance cool-headed reason and warm-hearted compassion. The question is whether that balance can only be found in a moment as the pendulum of human history swings from one side to the other.