Philosophy and Technological Sciences Four Questions for Petra Gehring

Petra Gehring; © Photo: Katrin Binner
Petra Gehring | Photo (detail). Katrin Binner

In the past century, the rapid progress in the natural and technological sciences has both impressed and inspired many philosophers, but also caused them to warn against the drifting apart of the disciplines. Yet do philosophers and scientists really have something say to one another? An interview with the philosopher Petra Gehring.

Prof. Gehring, do philosophers and scientists really have to something say to one another – and if so, is it important that they say it?

Yes, I think so. Both direct their research interests on the same world – a world that calls for technology and is changed by technology, but whose profound changes go far beyond what can be observed and understood with technological scientific means. I don’t mean by this reflecting only on the dangers, the undesired technological consequences. I also mean thinking about what “desirable” technological achievements mean for society and everyday interaction.

It’s not as if philosophers are more responsible

In his programmatic book, The Imperative of Responsibility, the philosopher Hans Jonas called for “an ethics for technological civilization”. That was in 1979 . Since then a whole series of “hyphenated ethics” has arisen. We now have “bio-ethics”, “medical ethics”, “economic ethics” and so on. And the participation of philosophers and social scientists in technology assessment commissions has long been mandatory. Has this made our use of technology more responsible?

Not necessarily. Even if “responsibility” is a philosophical issue, it’s not as if philosophers are more responsible than other people. Responsibility can’t be infused into technology simply by means of assessments or evaluations. I look upon the role of ethics experts quite skeptically. Commissions play an ambiguous part: they suggest that decisions about whether, for example, we want to live in a world in which interventions in the human brain or genome are allowed can be professionalized. But these are political questions. They concern us all. As citizens. Public ethics discussions, on the other hand, often start before the possibilities are even there. They thus pave the way for new technological possibilities in the heads of citizens – they test acceptance and, while we are getting used to considerations of the most risky kind, in effect produce acquiescence. Ethics can function like a patient information leaflet for new technologies: simply the fact that an ethicist is present flags out safety.

Isn’t it precisely the task of philosophy to expose such attempts to misuse science for issuing clearance certificates? To formulate clearly the sort of questions that you just posed and transfer them to where they really belong – ultimately, that is, addressed to us all?

Oh yes – I see a lot of critical questions that precisely philosophy can introduce into the discussion on the development of science, but also into the discussion of (to use an old-fashioned word) “scientificness”. Philosophy has two and half thousand years experience with both sides of the border between science and non-science. The alternative to the use-oriented sell-out of philosophical arguments isn’t the mute retreat into a windowless ivory tower, but rather a lively back and forth between alert attention to the present, readings and joyfully intense and critical communication. As you’ve said: Addressed to colleagues, but also to “us all”. Nowadays ivory towers are open twenty-four hours, have many windows, doors and cable connections to the whole world.

The metaphor of a common language is seductive

We hear again and again that the core problem of interdisciplinary cooperation in commissions and research projects is that philosophers, humanities scholars and social scientists on the one hand and natural and technological scientists on the other don’t speak a “common language”. What do you make of this diagnosis?

The metaphor of a common language is seductive. The tricky thing about the scientific division of labor is of course that there’s no uniform rationality at work in the various disciplines. Does a universal language really ensure understanding, or does it rather simply translate differences out of existence? Staying with the image, I think it would be better for each discipline to learn foreign languages, that is, to bank on multilingualism on all sides. Also between technology and philosophy. That takes time, but cooperation is much more interesting if it enters into what only the other partner knows or can do.

Petra Gehring, Dr. phil., is Professor of Philosophy at the Technical University of Darmstadt. Her areas of research include the theory and critique of life sciences, their “ethics” and technology, digital media and the relation between technology and power.