Research Western

Charles Weijer: A Question of Progress

What constitutes scientific ‘progress’?  What are the demands of good science?  What moral obligations do scientists have?

By answering questions such as these, researchers at Western’s Joseph L. Rotman Institute of Science and Values are able to better understand the moral and philosophical implications of advances in science and technology.   In the process, they are also bridging the gap between science and the humanities, and bringing together established research strengths in ethics and philosophy of science.

The new institute borrows heavily from the model of a science laboratory, creating an interdisciplinary space where graduate students and professors are able to engage in philosophical discussions that explore the basic foundations of science.  In the end, they hope the answers to otherwise intractable problems lie in the questions they ask themselves and one another.

“We wanted to challenge the notion that philosophy is always an individual or solitary activity,” says institute director Charles Weijer, who is jointly appointed between the departments of Philosophy and Medicine and holds the Tier One Canada Research Chair in Bioethics.  “Fundamentally, the institute is about building relationships between humanists and scientists.”

Working with colleagues in a variety of disciplines, Weijer and institute co-founder Robert Batterman – the Tier One Rotman-Canada Research Chair in Philosophy of Science – work at the interface between philosophy and science. “Our work isn’t arm-chair philosophy,” says Weijer. “We seek to explore ethical and knowledge questions that emerge out of the nitty-gritty of scientific practice.” 

From examining the applicability of mathematics to physical theories, to the moral implications of placebo-controlled experiments in medicine, the institute encourages researchers to ask critical questions that lie at the interface between ethics and the epistemology of contemporary science.  These lines of inquiry will help to foster the wider dissemination of scientific knowledge by making researchers more cognizant of the questions they ask.

Last year, a donation from Western alumnus Joseph Rotman allowed the institute to evolve with a broader mandate from the SEER (Science, Epistemology and Ethics Research) laboratory Weijer and Batterman built with funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Ontario Research Fund upon arriving at the University in 2005. 

“What worked about the SEER lab is that it included the key features of a science lab that could be imported in a salutary way into the arts and humanities,” says Weijer.   Speaking to the interdisciplinary nature of both labs, he adds that many of the strongest observations to emerge from various discussions about the philosophy of physics, medicine, biology or ethics have come from those outside their respective disciplines.

“We need to develop a thoughtful understanding of the direction science is headed,” says Weijer.  “People understand the power of contemporary science, but in the rush to progress, we are often left with ambiguous feelings about the unanticipated effects that scientific advances will have on our lives and those of our children.”

An ever-changing culture of innovation leaves no shortage of questions, but Weijer hopes the institute will become a leading international authority for informing public, government and policy makers when contentious issues arise.

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