Advocating a non-utilitarian approach to science

Advocating a non-utilitarian approach to science

I would like to address the unease I sometimes feel when faced with some of the reasons put forward to justify the attention we should pay to science, and more broadly to knowledge. I have yet to define this unpleasant feeling.

Inspired by the art of masterful interrogation, Jean Seberg's latest version Until the last breath :

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Therefore, we must dare to say: “How uncomfortable is this?”

This feeling of unease is summed up in one word: utilitarianism, an attitude that consists of adopting an exclusively utilitarian conception of science and knowledge.

Interest in science only because of the progress it actually makes: science is seen only as a source of solutions to our problems of all kinds – our medical, technological, energy, environmental, economic, social, educational, psychological, and so on.

Like any truly serious problem, this utilitarian concept has powerful appeals! I also consider it a key to our modernity.

Let's be clear: It goes without saying that we can only rejoice in the progress that science has made. But do progress and the promise of progress sum up the value we are entitled to place on the practice of knowledge?

Time forces us to view science only through its utilitarian value

Because science has never been as productive in utilitarian applications as it is today: from artificial intelligence to artificial reproduction to… CRISPR/Cas9, From the promise of a quantum computer to the amazing achievements of deep learning or ChatGPT, not forgetting nanoparticles, mRNA vaccines or brain-machine interfaces, science has never proven its utilitarian value.

We live in this unprecedented period, which confirms, with Stabilo's great strokes, the true utilitarian potential of science. In other words, the times tend to increase this feeling of unease, that is – let us repeat – to push us to view science and knowledge only in terms of their expediency, relevance or potential.

Food for thought

44 minutes

Is there an alternative to this utilitarian concept?

They cared about science and knowledge… for their own sake!

Or rather, for what its practice arouses in us: knowledge that is a transformation of ourselves, of our belief system, of our representation of the world and of ourselves. Knowledge is seen as a continuous transformation, as a permanent birth of the self, as a source of rational wonder.

The mathematician Jean Dieudonné wrote an article whose title nicely illustrates this relationship to knowledge: For the honor of the human spirit.

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From this standpoint, the non-utilitarian conception of our relationship with science and knowledge in no way ignores the progress it has achieved. On the contrary, we rejoice in this progress, and we pursue it with determination and motivation (for example in medicine), but without forgetting that our research is also driven by the desire to know for the sake of knowledge!

Does this warning against utilitarianism retain its relevance outside science?

We have just noted that radical utilitarianism undermines a fundamental dimension of our relationship to knowledge. This effect becomes even clearer when applied to our interpersonal relationships: viewing our relationships with others from an exclusively utilitarian perspective opens a horizon that is neither satisfactory nor joyful.

In fact, we can take this criticism a little further by using it in the first person: summing up the value we place on ourselves in terms of the benefit we show ourselves! In short, to care about ourselves only within the limits of our utilitarian performance.

In light of this unprecedented societal pressure from utilitarianism, let us not forget that it is possible to be contemporary without abandoning the honor of the human spirit that we mentioned. Yours, mine, ours.

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