“Here it is important to judge worthily of the works of God and to have a vast idea of the extent of the universe… For if we imagine that beyond the heavens there is nothing but imaginary spaces, and that all the heavens are made for the services of the earth, and the earth only for man, we will be inclined to think that this earth is our principle abode and this life the best. Instead of discovering the perfections that are truly within us, we will attribute to other creatures imperfections that they do not have, so as to raise ourselves above them.” – René Descartes, Letter to Princess Elizabeth, May/June 1645.

Cosmic virtue in our analysis so far has consisted of excellence of conduct with respect to Nature, the Earth, science, the seeking of extra-terrestrial life, and the effort to extend humanity and other terrestrial life to new worlds. In point of fact these forms of virtue are externally directed, but there is a final form which is more internally focused, a kind of intersection of internal virtue and cosmic virtue which I will call, co-opting a term from Neil DeGrasse, the cosmic perspective.

It begins with ancient Western and Eastern philosophy. While Pythagoras devised the term ‘kosmos’ for the greater world, it was the Stoics who developed the concept which was adopted by Western civilization. They saw the universe as eternal, cyclic, and synonymous with God or Providence. In their view the cosmos is rationally ordered, creative, autonomous, and uniform. Virtue then is to “live according to the benevolence and orderliness of the universe. The consequence of such a life is apatheia, or euthymia, spiritual peace and well-being.”1 But the Stoic view of the cosmos imposes a natural law or duty on humanity to mimic the other parts of nature by serving and respecting others and promoting the cosmopolis or rationally ordered world.

At nearly the same time in China, Confucius founded a philosophy on a theme of universal order. “The power of spiritual forces in the Universe – how active it is everywhere! Invisible to the eyes and impalpable to the senses, it is inherent in all things, and nothing can escape its operation.”2 In the Liki, he explains that li (social order) is based on heaven or nature, originating in T’aiya, the Primeval Unity, which was divided into heaven and Earth, and transformed into yin and yang.Li  is a great channel through which we follow the laws of Heaven and direct to proper courses the expression of the human heart.”3

(continued next post)


1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 8, page 21.

2Yutang, Lin (editor), The Wisdom of Confucius. The Modern Library, New York, 1938. Page 108-109.

3Ibid., pages 237-238

Share this post:

COSMIC VIRTUE – PART XIII – COSMOLOGY ( further continued)

The last ethical consideration in activity regarding the cosmos is the question of moral priorities. With so much human and environmental need right here on Earth, many ponder the rightness of consuming precious resources on the limited tangible rewards of astronomy, astrophysics, and space flight. For this blog, I will concede the direct value of these is small, though likely more knowledgeable scientists and project directors might contend otherwise. Still I think the value of our journey into space and of knowledge of the cosmos justify the investment.

Stephen Hawking offers these intangible benefits of space research: (1) it instills an enthusiasm for all science, (2) it accelerates technological progress with some everyday applications (e.g. scratch resistant glass, water filters, and the exercise treadmill – all developed by NASA), and (3) it offers a novel perspective of Earth and thereby motivation for its preservation. He surmises that the current ¼  of 1 % of GDP for the adventure, wonder, and future of the human race seems reasonable and unlikely to interfere with other important concerns while the funds used would in all likelihood not be diverted to those  concerns in any case.9

Hannah Arendt is less specific but equally compelling. “The magnitude of the space enterprise seems to me beyond dispute, and all objections raised against it on the purely utilitarian level – that it is too expensive, that the money were better spent on education and the improvement of our citizens, on the fight against poverty and disease, or whatever other worthy purposes may come to mind – sound to me slightly absurd, out of tune with the things that are at stake and whose consequences today appear still quite unpredictable.”10

The practical philosopher may struggle to justify billions of dollars being spent now for a future benefit by no means certain but perhaps less about tithing a small fraction of our present resources for the good of our descendants and for cosmic objectives. If humanity represents the best agent we know of capable of furthering the priorities of the universe, then such an investment in the future is both ethical despite diverting resources from current human needs and strategically sound in terms of bringing about the greatest potential towards that end. Virtue then only requires the calculus of such a choice integrate candidly the many factors in so monumental a decision. For myself, I choose to be a lifelong student of science, especially astronomy and astrophysics, and support a World effort at the exploration of space, colonization of habitable but vacant worlds, and the search for extraterrestrial life, while, perhaps naively, suggesting we fund all of this by a complementaryreduction in military, not social, spending. 


9Hawking, Stephen, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Bantam Books, New York, 2018. ISBN 9781984819192, pages 166-169

10 The Great Ideas Today 1963, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1963. Page 43.

Share this post:


The third category of activity regarding the cosmos for ethical consideration is space exploration and colonization – what in the 1960s was called the ‘conquest of space.’ For more than 60 years since Sputnik 1 became the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth in 1957 there have been ongoing efforts to explore the solar system and send humans into space. The main ethical consideration is the desirability of human colonization of other worlds.

It appears inevitable that humans will expand beyond our home planet as a means to ease the pressure of population growth and stress on Earth or simply as adventure. Given the threats of nuclear war, climate change, and the like, Carl Sagan argued for our need to be a “two planet species.” Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, is bolder in his book, The Future of Humanity, naming the first chapter: Toward a Multiplanet Species.2 His case is condensed in an amusing epigram preceding this chapter by science fiction writer, Larry Niven: “The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right.”3

Peering back 50 years ago to the infancy of space exploration we find philosophical discussions already underway.  Harrison Brown, a physicist who worked on the atomic bomb project, expresses what seems to me undeniable. “Those who are not stirred by the thought of man’s traveling to the planets are either devoid of curiosity or lack a sense of human destiny…Not to venture to the planets would be a negation of one of life’s most noble purposes –understanding ourselves and our origins.”5

Hannah Arendt focuses on the unlikelihood human space travel will extend beyond our solar system or perhaps immediately surrounding systems. Still she argues even this cannot be judged against external or logistic issues, rather only by whether it is ‘self-defeating.’  If the urge is based on curiosity, the need to understand, or the desire for greater human stature, the project may disappoint because (1) human examination of the cosmos is limited by our status as human observer and (2) future science like prior science will continue to diminish the place of man in the cosmos.5

Paul Tillich expresses some concerns: (1) space photos of Earth objectify it, (2) space exploration may alter the cosmic framework of religion, and (3) governmental  investment in  the space program propagate a scientific elite that may threaten democracy. Nonetheless he senses the findings of inevitable space exploration will affect “the meaning of life in all its dimensions.”6

Aldous Huxley, a literary writer, conveys doubt as to the value planetary colonization would have on solving problems here on Earth just as European colonization of the Western Hemisphere failed to solve the problems of modern Europe. He doubts humanity is enhanced by attempts at ‘cosmic imperialism.’7

Herbert Muller, a 20th century historian, sees space exploration and colonization as potentially meaningful depending on our motives while calling attention to the fact that interest in space travel says something about the purposelessness many of us feel here on Earth. He also notes the poignant paradox that despite all men knowing they will die they still go on living as if they will not, pursuing goals that will outlast them- now to include the conquest of new worlds.8

(further continued)


2Kaku, Michio, The Future of Humanity, Anchor Books, New York, 2018. ISBN 978-0-525-43454-2, pages 7-15.

3Ibid., page7.

4The Great Ideas Today 1963, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1963. Page 61.

5Ibid., pages 35-47.

6Ibid., pages 49-59.

7Ibid., pages 21-33.

8Ibid., pages 5-19

Share this post:


“… an actual change of the human world, the conquest of space or whatever we may wish to call it, is achieved only when manned space carriers are shot into the universe, so that man himself can go where up to now only human imagination and its power of abstraction, or human ingenuity and its power of fabrication, could reach.” – Hannah Arendt.

Having disentangled, at least in part, the difference between philosophical and scientific cosmology last time, we now examine the ethical issues for humanity in general and ourselves as individuals with respect to it. It seems there are two types – that of action and that of contemplation. Today and next time we will consider the various ethical nuances of activities at the level of the cosmos. These fall into four broad categories: (1) the study of the physical space, (2) the search for extra-terrestrial life especially intelligent life, (3) the exploration of space, and (4) the moral dilemma of application of societal resources for scientific advances versus immediate human needs.

Detailed study of the physical universe is the arena of the trained scientist, an occupation seems to meet all the requirements of a virtuous activity as long as the scientist has integrity and shares his or her findings with the community at large. The amateur astronomer (‘citizen scientist’) can offer significant assistance to the specialist as for example in composite photographs of celestial bodies as seen on the NASA website ( Extra eyeballs aided by quality telescopes have identified new comets, nebulae, and at least twice seen celestial bodies slamming into Jupiter and leaving scars. For the less versed, the hobby of astronomy and purchase of a telescope or even binoculars literally ‘opens ones eyes’ to the magnificence of the heavens.

In two earlier posts I examined the philosophical implications of the ongoing search for life on other worlds.1 The ethical position seems to me to be this: we should seek truth when possible, and the truth about whether life on Earth is unique or not is an important one. If intelligent life is found outside our solar system, it is incumbent on us to investigate it, learn from it, reach out to it, and prepare for future contact. If intelligence is a valuable development of the unfolding universe, as it appears to be, then inter-communication between intelligent life forms may potentiate that value. Alternatively if extra-terrestrial life and intelligence cannot be found, the utter importance of preserving terrestrial species in general and Homo sapiens in particular is heightened.

(continued next post)


1See posts on this site, Current Reading: We Are Not Alone, dated 3/29/2019 and 4/1/2019.

Share this post:


“None knows whence creation arose:

And whether he has or has not made it;

He who surveys it from the lofty skies,

Only he knows – or perhaps he knows not.”

-The Rig Veda, X. 129



On the one hand cosmic virtue refers to understanding the nature and working of the world and the universe, meaning science in general, which has been the subject of the last six installments. On the other it refers to our disposition and inclination to the cosmos itself and the discipline of cosmology. On first glance, there can be no possible ethical relationship to the cosmos incumbent on us beyond our dealings with Nature and Earth. However I will propose there is a reflexive obligation on humanity and on oneself to connect oneself and one’s life with the cosmos, an outlook Neil de Grasse Tyson calls the ‘cosmic perspective.’ This is the subject of the current and the ensuing posts.

The word cosmos comes from the ancient Greek word, kosmos, meaning the world or universe, particularly as ordered by destiny or fate. Classical Greeks such as Plato and Aristotle added an intelligent principle called nous with its implications of divine justice and harmony, also called Providence. The Stoics adopted this model of the cosmos into their worldview, and from there it spread to medieval Christianity and eventually the Enlightenment where it manifested as theism and natural theology.

Cosmology has slightly different philosophical and scientific nuances. In philosophy, cosmology refers to the origin (cosmogony) and structure of the universe and encompasses portions of ontology or Being. Broadly considered it includes theories of space and time, contingency, necessity, and limitations and formal laws of the world and the origin of Evil. The philosopher correlates the principles of available science with inductive logic comparing the consequences with empirical facts and metaphysical truth. The value of this form of cosmology is to provide a framework for natural events, to define the limits of universe, and to uncover a means to transcend empirical reality.1 As an example, the biblical description of the universe implies a specific origin (not an eternal universe) by a Creator from nothing, thus justifying belief in an extra-cosmic existence and reality.

Alternatively, modern or scientific cosmology is a joint effort of the observational astronomer and the theoretical physicist to model the physical universe as a whole while omitting inductive or speculative philosophy. Resulting hypotheses are tested by additional confirmatory observations. The philosophical questions then center around methodological and epistemological concerns that are unavoidable in the unique system of the universe itself defiant of the experimental method.2  For this site our interest is in ethical implications for humanity, especially as they apply to the individual imposed by scientific cosmology. We pick up there next time.


1Runes, Dagobert D., Dictionary of Philosophy. Philosophical Library, New York, 1960, page 68-69.

2Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 2, page 238.

Share this post:


Last time we saw how science can become a mechanism of evil in three of the six general categories of human-caused evil, namely immaturity, accident, and error or poor judgement. Today we pick up the other three starting with human weakness. Weakness in this context includes intemperance, rashness, negligence, or cowardice. A gross example is the Chernobyl disaster which occurred in 1986 when a routine safety test was conducted 10 hours late, hence using an unprepared operating staff. The result was an avoidable explosion in the reactor core, 30 deaths, radiation exposure to the local population, and the need for an exclusion zone that forced the evacuation of 117,000 people.2

The fifth category is selfishness where a timely example is ransomware, computer viruses or worms developed to threaten a victim’s data or block access unless a ransom is paid. Whenever technology advances, there is likely to be the opportunity for unethical persons to commit theft, extortion, or other crimes. Last is the malicious use of science which hardly requires examples – consider poisonous gas or Nazi doctors. It is likely most science can be deployed intentionally for evil purposes by the imagination of the depraved.

This leaves the troublesome issue of whether science and more importantly technology are a net good or a net evil in the general sense. Contemporary scientific advances are occurring so rapidly and so permeate our lives that there is room to question whether the term ‘progress’ even applies. Does a cell phone in every hand lead to better quality of life? Do robotics threaten human employment and thus dignity? Can we really know whether gene modification is safe and cloning desirable? Is human freedom and privacy threatened by cameras on every corner and satellites monitoring all of planet earth? These questions and many others of this type are impossible to answer in a brief blog, but the principles we should follow are the same as in other areas of ethics. Two main rules apply: (1) there should be a net benefit over harm and (2) the individual should never be treated as a means, only as an end. A careful ethical analysis at the level of the individual and of society offer our only hope to remain agents of good in our ever changing world.


2Wikipedia, Chernobyl disaster..

Share this post:


“All our lauded technological progress – our very civilization – is like the axe in the hand of the pathological criminial.” – Albert Einstein.

So far in our analysis of the virtuous approach to science, we have looked at the ethics of the scientist in revealing the truths of the world and universe and at the ethical acceptance of this knowledge by the non-scientist especially in distinguishing valid science from pseudoscience. Today we arrive at the more perplexing dimension of the ethics involved in the use of science.

Clearly the compelling desire to know the truth of reality is a feature of human excellence or virtue. Moreover, many scientific discoveries offer tremendous benefits to our species in the production of food, the creation of shelter and creature comforts, reductions in suffering, maintenance of health and extension of lifespan. For the most part when science is developed and applied consistent with these aims in mind, the science is unquestionably a human good. Because purpose of this kind underpins science, I think it is unnecessary to belabor its virtuous use.

Instead it seems to me the more substantive issue which warrants exploring relates to the evil effects and uses of science. By ‘evil effects’ I mean unintended or collateral evils that occur as a result of or in spite of a benevolent use of science. An example is automobile engineering which permits greater mobility at the expense of environmental smog. Contrast this with ‘evil use’ which refers to employing scientific knowledge for intentional harm to others or to Nature. The archetypical example is the atomic bomb which required sophisticated research and design for the eventual purpose of killing hundreds of thousands of people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In my essays, Causes of Evil,1 I identified six broad categories underlying evils of human origin – immaturity, accident, error, weakness, selfishness, and malice. Science of course is not an originator of evil, rather a tool by which these six forms of evil materialize. Let’s consider them in turn in specific relation to science. Immaturity I noted is responsible for mostly minor evil at the level of the individual, but in the arena of science, is more serious. Our immaturity as a species has allowed us to ignore the environmental impacts of modern technology – thus the industrial revolution and population growth now threaten climate change and an irreversible decline of other species of life. Equally ominous is our adolescent concept of nationalism which has been used to justify nuclear arsenals capable of extinction of humanity itself.

Accidental evil effects of the use of science vary in their magnitude. On the low end are reversible side effects of drugs given to promote health. At the other end of the spectrum is evil that came from the advances in 16th and 17th century nautical science – transoceanic travel followed with the unintended transfer of small pox to indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere, decimating their populations. Evils due to erroneous understandings or judgments based on science include the faulty use of intelligence testing in justifying racial discrimination and the historical treatment of homosexuality as a disease.

(continued next post)


1See posts this site dated 1/25/19 and 1/28/19.

Share this post:


“Science is not a body of facts…science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.” – Marcia McNutt, Geophysicist.1


In the last part we investigated the virtuous approach to science by the lay person. We look now at the corollary – the misguided path of pseudoscience. Given the difficult process of a reasoned analysis of scientific observations and experiments, it should come as no surprise that misunderstandings occur by the less scientifically literate and that intentional deceptions are accepted by the unwary. Thus a creation museum can unabashedly depict the coexistence of dinosaurs and humans when basic school textbooks demonstrate how preposterous that idea is.

In his book, The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan argues for the value of true science over the dangers of superstition and ignorance. He quotes Edmund Way Teale, “It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got you money as long as you have got it.”2 Sagan goes on to say “it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion no matter how satisfying and reassuring.”3 Pseudoscience, such as belief in UFOs, telepathy, and communication with the dead are often presented as following the methods of science, when in reality, they are contrived to appeal to our emotional needs. Sagan notes a linkage where pseudoscience is “embraced in exact proportion as real science is misunderstood.”4 Throughout his book he reiterates the dangers of pseudoscience and scientific ignorance in reducing health and life expectancy, waste of resources, danger to the Earth, even as threats to personal freedom.

J. Bronowski, in his book, Magic, Science, and Civilization offers another viewpoint. Science developed during the Renaissance once people ceased to believe in magic, which he defines as “the belief in a mysterious second logic of events which is different from the everyday logic of nature.”5 Modern pseudoscience is a form of magic whose proponents “try to command the world by some formula which is other than the truth.” But society cannot go backward; “it was an irreversible step in the cultural evolution of man.”6 In the end, Bronowski argues, magic and pseudoscience are wrong if what we seek is a “unitary sense of the human situation.” Only science offers a basis for a cultural environment where “the only plan we follow is the great unbounded, ethical plan of a set of values by which we direct our actions.”7 p. 88

In closing, true science, although more difficult, is the ethical position the lay person must adopt, while pseudoscience and superstition are evils that diminish our well-being, freedom, and society, and the course of humanity in fulfilling its role in the unfolding of the Universe. The meaning of our lives is lessened on multiple levels by a careless attitude towards science.

This brings us to the question of the ethical use of science, which is the subject of the next blog.


1Quoted in National Geographic, March 2015.

2Sagan, Carl, The Demon-Haunted World. Random House, New York, 1995. ISBN 0-394-53512-X, page 12.


4Ibid., page 15.

5Bronowski, J., Magic, Science, and Civilization. Columbia University Press, New York, 1978. ISBN 0-231-04484-4, inside cover.

6Ibid., page 2.

7Ibid., page 88.

Share this post:


Having investigated what makes for virtue in the method of science last time, we move now to what makes for a virtuous attitude towards science by the lay person. The first philosopher who expounded on the modern scientific method was Francis Bacon, who in 1620 published his Novum Organum (in contradistinction to Aristotle’s Organum). In this work he identified four false ideas and methods which had handicapped human scientific progress: (1) Idols of the Tribe – emotional factors such as the human ideal of celestial bodies moving in circles, (2) Idols of the Cave – individual prejudices, (3) Idols of the Market Place – the loose use of language such as attributions of events to ‘fortune,’ and (4) Idols of the Theatre – philosophical speculation and dogmas, such as religion. Bacon predicted with uncanny accuracy that human progress and knowledge would rapidly advance only through a new approach of controlled observation and experimentation, tabulation, and inductive generalization – the very foundations of modern science.4

Nonetheless even today society seems to have a split personality with respect to science: utter reliance on its incredible usefulness on one side (such as the technology inside a cell phones or a microwave oven) and undue skepticism on the other (for example regarding evolution or climate change). Many people trust science only when confronted with the tangible; thus few doubt the value of aspirin or acetaminophen in relieving symptoms of influenza, but a large minority refuse the flu shot.

Joel Achenbach suggests the trouble is the human mind’s difficulty digesting randomness where our brains seek patterns which often can be deceptive. The same thing happens with scientists looking for specific outcomes or measurements, a type of error called ‘confirmation bias.’ We are also affected by our peers whose acceptance is transformed into emotions driving beliefs. Thus even scientifically literate persons tend to use their superior scientific knowledge to reinforce their beliefs rather than to test them. Intuitive error is a key factor as Dr. Andrew Shtulman has shown with studies on students advanced in science who he notes take longer to answer well known questions that counter intuition (for example, they answer more quickly that the moon orbits the earth than the earth orbits the sun).5

Scientists themselves are a factor in the problem. On the one hand their ardent political or even scientific advocacy tends to undermine their appearance of objectivity. On the other hand, frankly some experts express opinions under the rubric of science when there is insufficient data or experimental confirmation to back up their statements. Virtue regarding science for the lay person then is an attitude of objectivity in assessing scientific materials coupled with abstention from denial or disregard of unexpected, undesirable, or inconvenient evidence. It is a calculus based on a personal review of scientific data, studies, and methods and a careful judgment of the experts on whose opinion one relies.

Next time we will look at the other pitfall for the lay person– ‘pseudoscience.’ Join me then.


4Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper & Row Publishers, 1961, pages 373-386.

5Achenbach, Joel, The Age of Disbelief in National Geographic, March 2015, Volume 227 No. 3, pages 30-47.

Share this post:


“The scientific Weltanschauung…asserts that there is no other source of knowledge of the universe, but the intellectual manipulation of carefully verified observations, in fact, what is called research, and that no knowledge can be obtained from revelation, intuition, or inspiration.” – Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures of Psycho-Analysis.1

To begin, it is worth stating, human excellence (the classic definition of virtue) is perhaps reflected best in humanity’s greatest discovery – the methods of science. If Socrates is correct that virtue is synonymous with (or even just strongly dependent on) knowledge, then our most reliable knowledge, science, must underpin much virtue. Thus there are two components of a virtue of science: first the integrity of the scientist and second the attitude of the lay person to science.

Paul Sears reviews nicely what he calls “memoranda” or general principles of the scientist: (1) the wish to be a scientist with its heavy reliance on intuition and aesthetic impulse, (2) faith in the consistency of the universe, (3) a code of testing and continuously verifying phenomena of interest, (4) desire to probe beyond the limits of the senses with induction, deduction, and inference, and (5) willingness (at times) to attack complex problems in advance of knowing all the details. I would add to these (6) scrupulous accuracy and honesty in recording and reporting, (7) open-mindedness (to contrary or contradictory data and theories), and (8) responsible sharing of one’s results and discoveries with peers and society.

Two famous examples of scientific fraud illustrate the potential danger of scientific deception. Piltdown man, a forged fossil ‘found’ in 1912 was proposed as a 500,000 year old ‘missing link between humans and apes. It took 41 years before experts were able to demonstrate that the specimen had parts from three different species, the skull of a medieval human, the jaw and molars of an orangutan or a chimpanzee. An amateur archeologist, Charles Dawson, likely perpetrated the hoax with immeasurable harm to the course of physical anthropology.2

The second example is a 1998 study published in the highly reputable medical journal, The Lancet, by Andrew Wakefield purportedly showing a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, with data falsified for his own personal financial gain. The journal retracted the study after a detailed investigation revealed fraud, but child vaccination rates fell in Britain and elsewhere with resulting measles outbreaks that continue to this day.3

(continued next post)


1Freud, Sigmund, New Introductory Lectures of Psycho-Analysis.. Encyclopaedia Britanica, 1952. The Great Books, Volume 54, page 874.

2Wikipedia, Piltdown Man.

3Wikipedia, MMR Vaccine and Autism.

Share this post: