What is a good life: can science and medicine tell us?

Saturday 17 October, 10.00 until 11.30, Frobisher Auditorium 1, Barbican Battle over Life and Death

It is increasingly assumed that various aspects of human life can and should be understood in terms of science and medicine. For example, our consciousness, happiness, morality, politics, sexual orientation and so on are regularly presented as being scientifically explicable. When we want to answer the questions that confront us, or decide upon a course of action, we turn increasingly to data and scientific research and health advice.

Today, human characteristics tend to be attributed to our genes and our biology, failing which they are attributed to our ‘environment’ – a scientific category which supposedly encompasses society and all of its rich dynamics. Recently, the field of epigenetics has been seized upon as a possible route through which our experiences and lifestyles might be inscribed in our biology – and the biology of future generations. Increasingly, the energies of governments, charities and campaigns are devoted to promoting public health and persuading people to live healthily. Longevity is often extolled as a virtue in itself and regarded as so important that measures can be taken to restrict our behaviour in order to promote longevity, such as bans on smoking or increasing the cost of alcohol.

But the ancient question of what (if anything) we should be living for, and what it might mean to lead a good life, is more elusive than ever. Have we left ourselves any room for a non-scientific assessment of our lot, and how to improve it? Are there occasions when we should reject scientific and medical authority? Indeed, is scientific authority used as cover for old-fashioned moralism or pre-existing prejudices? Or does science finally provide us with objective, testable evidence about the best way to live? Is the rise of scientific thinking about how to live our lives, and why we live as we do, a symptom of the failure of ethics to provide a satisfactory answer?

Watch the debate

Dr Nessa Carey
international director, PraxisUnico; author, The Epigenetics Revolution

Nancy Hey
director, What Works Centre for Wellbeing

Angus Kennedy
convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination

Jeannette Pols
professor of social theory, humanism and materialities, University of Amsterdam

Rob Lyons
science and technology director, Academy of Ideas; convenor, IoI Economy Forum

Produced by
Sandy Starr communications officer, Progress Educational Trust; webmaster, BioNews
Recommended readings
An introduction to epigenetics

DNA is a vitally important starting point for life, but it's how it's used by cells and organisms that is really important.

Nessa Carey, Royal Institution, 2015

The vital importance of being moral

To be moral requires something routinely denigrated today: individual freedom.

Angus Kennedy, spiked, 25 April 2014

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