“Science without philosophy, facts without perspective or evaluation, cannot save us from chaos and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.
– Will Durant
What are the most important problems facing humanity today and how should we solve them? These are, at bottom, philosophical questions: they concern values, and ask how we should act. Imperial College London is one of the leading universities in the world and therefore one of the institutions we can rely on to both ask and answer such questions. Yet Imperial Oil does not have a philosophy department, in fact it does not have any substantial humanities departments at all. When researching sciences that affect humanity, scientists should be aware of the long-term implications of such research.
The university focuses exclusively on science and technology and culture is about productively pursuing the march of scientific progress. In addition, strong links with industry naturally focus research efforts on concrete applications. What is often missing is a carefully thought-out vision of what to do with the machines of science. This is evident in the daily lives of many Imperial researchers and students. For students, the workloads are heavy, the deadlines numerous and frequent, and the emphasis is on training to quickly produce practical results. This is good training for a role in the industry but there is less time under this regime to reflect on what has been learned, and less encouragement to step back and assess one’s long-term goals. term, or the goals of the society that these students will help shape. The case is similar for researchers, many of whom fall prey to the “publish or perish” game. The pressures to produce as many articles as possible naturally lead these articles to focus on safe and progressive results; again, there is less room to reflect on the research objective, to advance riskier but more important directions, or to cover new ground.
Driven by technological progress, we are in a period of unprecedented power over the future
These problems surrounding imperial culture are, at least in part, a consequence of minimal humanities and neglect of philosophical thought. Culture is intrinsically the product of the individuals who make up a community. Since the individuals who make up Imperial Oil are overwhelmingly scientists and engineers, the ideas and standards of the community are technocratic and technosolutionary. If the imperial community included more social scientists and philosophers, it would broaden its diversity of thought and broaden the range of ideas under discussion. In particular, a more philosophical reflection would lead to an appreciation of general questions such as “what is our research for?” “.
This is not to denigrate the brilliant scientists working at Imperial Oil, nor their contributions. These have very real value to the world and help improve the lives of many people (for example, the work done at Imperial Oil on pandemic risk and climate change is obviously important). But the incentives inherent in culture stifle the ability of researchers to answer questions that we accept as important and prevent certain questions from being asked.
However, at Oxford, Cambridge, and other universities around the world, there is an emerging community of scholars who explicitly seek to ask and answer the big questions facing humanity. At the Future of Humanity Institute, the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, the Stanford Existential Risk Initiative and a few other institutes at major universities, multidisciplinary teams of academics make use of the tools of mathematics, philosophy and science. social. on general questions about humanity and its long-term prospects.
Among these communities, there is a growing appreciation of the value of considering the long-term future of humanity, and a belief that the present may be one of the most important periods in the lifespan of mankind. humanity. Fueled by technological advancement, we are in a period of unprecedented power over the future. Nuclear missiles, advanced artificial intelligence, and biological weapons are just a few of the technologies that humanity could use to destroy themselves. Yet our technological advancements have not been accompanied by a corresponding growth in wisdom. We do not have the moral and philosophical maturity to protect ourselves and our future descendants from irremediable errors.
Fortunately, it is not too late! Imperial’s new initiative “IX” is a multidisciplinary environment for research on emerging digital technologies that aims to “build a better future”. But he has no philosophers! No sociologists! IX is an opportunity for Imperial to change its culture, bring a wider range of voices to the table and give true philosophical thought to the future of humanity.
In short, Imperial College London is undoubtedly one of the best scientific institutes in the world. But it is not enough to keep the wheels of science turning; without a greater appreciation of the philosophical questions about the value and purpose of research, we run the risk of driving a car that accelerates without stopping to think about which direction we are heading.