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Buettner, "Science, religion, and ethics in the writings of Joseph Needham," 1987

USC dissertation in Religion.
August 27, 2009

Lanny Steven Buettner, Ph.D

Abstract (Summary)

Joseph Needham (1900-), one of the first to have recognized the relevance of post-modern science for ethics, has developed a system of thought which attempts to unify the various disciplines of science, religion, philosophy, history, and art. Scientifically, a biochemist; religiously, an Anglo-Catholic; philosophically, an organicist; politically, a socialist; a historian of science; and a poet and folk dancer--Needham asserts that these various forms of experience are only unified by ethics, which he defines as "the rules whereby men may live together in society with the utmost harmony and the best opportunities for the development of their talents in the common good."

An Oxford scholar and a leading socialist scientist in England from the late 1920s through the early 1940s, Needham has written many articles on links among science, religion, philosophy, history, and ethics, believing that social evolution is continuous with biological evolution and is leading to a socialist world-government, maintaining, however, the need for a religious dimension to life dominated by science and technology.

Shunning reductionism, Needham links science and ethics through a number of general patterns observed at all levels of physical organization, suggesting that elements of one level aggregate to form new levels whose organization cannot be reduced to the rules of the lower level. Human beings are the highest level reached yet, wherein ethics describes the aggregation patterns needed to move to still higher levels of social integration. The scientific community also demonstrates and recommends a "democracy which produces experts" as the best form of social organization.

Since the 1950s, Needham's study of the history of science in China has provided new insights along these lines, suggesting a more organic, less mechanistic, approach to science, and exposing him to Taoism and Neo-Confucianism, systems which relate ethics to the natural world without the need for supernatural revelation.

Needham's organic approach to ethics and naturalism challenges the traditional meta-ethical typologies, which have trouble unambiguously including it in any one type. Combining modern science, socialism, and Chinese philosophy with the romanticist agenda, Needham's ethics are relevant today, particularly in light of more recent scientific discoveries.

Advisor: Crossley, John P., Jr.