THE CULTURAL CHALLENGE POSED BY SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY & CHANGE By Max Bade (Article)
“And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven:
this travail has God given to the sons of man to be execercised therewith”.
Ecclesiastes I, 13
Essential Evolution and Nature of Science
In its simplest and etymological form, science means “knowledge”; “knowledge gained by methodical study”.
Even though mankind continuously has gathered “knowledge” over time through trial and error at first, and later through precept, “knowledge gained by study and reasoning” is of more recent origin.
It presupposed, among other, the development of language and writing. The latter developed around 4,000BC with the Sumerians and the Egyptians. When the Greeks, ca 600 BC started to systematize the acquisition of knowledge and developed the rudiments of applied and theoretical science, they already possessed an extensive knowledge base from predecessor civilizations such as the Egyptians, and the Babylonians (who could not, unlike the Greeks, overcome the religious schism in their scientific endeavors).
The gradual development of the principles of the “scientific method” by the Greeks occurred when their mythology appeared no longer a satisfactory description of the world. “Physics” was the start and “Philosophy” based on the former provided a more objective means of gaining knowledge. According to Jacob Burckhardt (Griechische Kulturgeschichte Vol. II, VIII, 5), no trials of disbelievers could stop the process. Fearlessness of the individual, and freedom combined with curiosity and Greek particular capacity to raise principled questions and translate culture (through the arts and philosophy) ended up by creating a sort of “empire of the mind” that spread under the hellenisation process promoted by Alexander the Great and later, in a derivative form, through the Romans. The keys to this empire of the mind were the establishment of “reasoning”(the ability to solve problems without going through trials and errors); the application of “scientific methods”(i.e. following specific steps in order to achieve given results) and the development and use of ever increasing abstract ideas (a detail saving device which allowed the use of an ever increasing scope of knowledge).
Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) tells us about the Romans, the barbarian invasions, their “fall” and the establishment and spread of the “Church” up to the 1500’s AD. The Church was an all-encompassing institution that, in general, did not favor the promotion of “science” in spite of the fact that some scholars, such a St Thomas de Aquinas, attempted to have the Church come to terms with the Greco-Roman past. It appears inconceivable to us the story of Galileo (who recanted officially his convictions), and the story of Leonardo (who, out of fear, wrote his Notes side-reversed), and it appears outright barbaric the generalized “burning at the stake” for “sorcery” up to the mid 1700’s. In principle however these acts were no different from the Asebien-trials of the Greeks since they responded to the intrinsic fear of the established authority to be destabilized or replaced.
The “Church” after the demise of the roman empire (which it replaced in many ways) and up to our days, consisted in a highly organized institution based on a body of dogma and rites and interpretations that provided a complete system covering human morality, human hopes and fears and an exposition of past and future history of the Universe. It was based on belief, not, reason. As Bertram Russell (A History of Western Philosophy III, I, 1), explains, the authority of science, is a very different thing from the authority of the Church, since it is intellectual not governmental. No penalties fall upon those who reject it, no precedential arguments influence those who accept it. It solely prevails by its intrinsic appeal to reason. It is however a piecemeal and partial authority since it pronounces only on whatever, at the time, appears to have been scientifically ascertained which is a small island in an ocean of nescience. And there is yet another difference: the pronouncements of science are made tentatively, on the basis of probability and are regarded as liable to modification. Science deals with the physical world, in a partial, esoteric, piecemeal and tentative fashion hence it is dissatisfying for anybody looking for a more general explanation of the world.
John Gribbin (Science- A History-1543-2001) describes how the Renaissance made the promotion of scientific thought and method once again the basis for an “empire of the mind”. Like all great movements which transform an entire society, science drew its strength from a combination of factors that were long in the making. By the 17th century most of these factors had come into play and began to reinforce each other. The result was a rapid increase in scientific knowledge, a flood of discoveries and inventions. Essentially, what had changed from previous periods, and fostered the development of science was: 1. the marriage between theory or science and practice or technology (Bacon); 2. testing theories through experimental methods (Bacon); 3. application, whenever possible of mathematics (Newton); and 4. sharing of knowledge and discoveries with others (Royal Society).
In the case of science and technology, Bacon postulated correctly that if both joined forces both would benefit immensely. For, the rationalist could submit their axioms to experimental tests and the empiricist could advance by a better calculated operation instead of proceeding by trial and error. The conscious union of science and technology achieved an extraordinarily fruitful union. Re the experimental method, it essentially was an appeal to observation and testing as the surest way towards truth. While Bacon introduced inductive reasoning, it was Newton’s law of gravity that was one of the earliest triumphs of the experimental method. And because the experimental method deals with things quantitatively, it was inevitable that mathematics should take on a new significance.
While the theoretical and practical changes came slow and in subtle ways, over time they did contribute significantly to overturn a hierarchy of intellectual values, freed civilized man from many obsolete prejudices (just think of the geocentric vs. heliocentric views of the heavenly bodies!), knocked the shackles from their minds and turned their thoughts from the past to the future. Above all, it filled them with a new and intoxicating self-confidence. The new learning allowed man to see himself as independent and rooted itself in his pride, whereas his religious beliefs had been the fruit of his humility. The so called “Age of Reason” suggested that man was intended to control his own destiny instead of bowing fatalistically to the will of an inscrutable Providence.
This evolving scientific and technological empire of the mind has, however, brought with it other and unexpected consequences and augurs further as yet incomprehensible results. These, are briefly discussed below.
Pour bien savoir les choses, il en faut savoir le detail, et comme il est presque infini nos connaissances sont toujour superficielles et imparfaites.
While the original development incentive of technology and science have been related to basic necessities (food, shelter, defense, procreation) a long sequence of events have led humans to control their own food supply (domestication of plants and animals; irrigation) which allowed surpluses and urbanization and with it the study of other subjects and elements. Over time, the latter have become preponderant in the human activity and mind. Science thus spread to subjects unrelated to the basic necessities.
The gradual ascendancy of science and technology has occurred with many of the intrinsic characteristics associated with “change” whenever it presents itself: there is resistance by contrarian-interested parties; a flurry of actions and reactions justifying the old and the new; the unemployment (demise) and employment (ascendancy) associated with the new; the gradual disintegration of inertia and the eventual and self-congratulatory acceptance of the new. The process appears non-ending, ready to be repeated over and over again.
Change, represents the sum total of the progress achieved. It appears as a continuous process that has steadily accelerated over the last two centuries to the extent that the overall scientific and technical base has expanded into multitudinous directions simultaneously with an apparent preference towards the “more”, “better” and “faster”, be it applied to fast foods or weaponry. But the accelerating change process has also been associated with unsettling spiritual side-effects.
The transition from Diderot’s Encyclopedia (which contained a sum of the known scientific and technological inventions up to the 1760’s) to the steam-engine applications left ample time to understand its significance and relate it to what might be called “the rest of the intellectual life of the day”. Fundamentally, the satisfying understanding of most changes in their justifying concatenation of concepts from its origins to its results was generally possible for the average educated person. Watt may be taken not only as the father of the steam-engine but as a significant precursor and promoter of the science based society we live in today. In his time (1736-1819), change (from, say, the Newcomen to the Watt engine) took the better part of Watt’s life (ca 50 years). There was, in other words ample time to observe, study and relate to define a “sense of purpose” of it all. It appeared relatively easy still during the Industrial Revolution to “understand” change from its origin to the results (say the sequence of the Newcomen and Watt engines to Railroad, and Steamships). The “why”, the “how” and the “what for” were relatively clear in those days.
Since then however, science and technology have changed exponentially, building on what had already been discovered at ever increasing speeds. Gamow’s “Thirty Years that Shook Physics”, may perhaps illustrate the fact that not even with a highly learned interpreter, the average non-specialist of the day could “understand”. The why, how, and what for can no longer be grasped unless one is a specialist in the field and the speed with which change is foisted on us makes it doubly difficult to keep up with its significance. The satisfying unity between the man’s self and the outside world of yore has been burst with the complex and speedy changes. As a consequence a good amount of despondency and frustration permeate the feelings of the average learned person of today as he is becoming increasingly aware of the significance of Mephistopheles’ expression “Thou equallest the spirit that you understand, not me” (Goethe, Faust I,1).
Not content or believing in their own limitations, scientists have resorted to the invention and use of increasingly sophisticated and fast equipment and computers; established as a general rule, teams and team work and interdisciplinary approaches and applications. The individual such as Leonardo or Max Planck seem to have been eclipsed by broader corporate bodies of scientific synthesizers and interpreters more adapted to bring the varied, the complicated, and the numerous together into new results and change. Further down the line one finds the translators, the technologists the promoters and financiers in the ever more roundabout and complicated production processes which the common person hardly understands.
Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the promotion and propagation of the “new” and the resulting “change” has increasingly relied on “economic growth”. The economies themselves have become increasingly sophisticated in their ability to raise capital, create employment, raise production of the necessary and unnecessary alike, and create physical “wealth” together with a new and searching spiritual “poverty”.
An essential element of the process has been further gains in knowledge through “research” which is carried out by a plethora of Business Corporations, Non-profit Foundations, Universities and Colleges besides the research that a given Government may carry out. All of these institutions have turned out to be more “information than knowledge factories” which under the principle of “publish or perish” have created unwieldy masses of partial and often doubtful knowledge which gets promptly reproduced in numerous scientific society journals only to be forgotten in the immediate after.
Most of the results of this research are utilitarian in nature and destined to produce consumer goods. In turn, most of these consumer goods are not “essential” (those related to our basic needs) but are made out to be “virtually necessary” to satisfy our relentless curiosity, our relentless strive to differentiate ourselves from others, and satisfy our sense of vanity. Countless sub-elements, such as the producing companies, the marketing strategists, the wholesalers and retailers and the countless ads ensure that the consumer continues to want the unnecessary. Nowadays, it seems that we are full of gadgets that our parents never felt the urge to believe they needed. But, of course, they did not need them because the media was not there! In a world of material satiation, where what we have today no longer seems desirable tomorrow and where as Oscar Wilde once said “everybody knows the price of everything but no-one knows the value of anything”, “hastio” (boredom, aversion, irritation, satiation, disgust all together) is the necessary consequence. Not a happy state of affairs.
Because of the piecemeal and often tentative authority of science, among the tremendous intellectual advances, it has also gnawed at most if not all formerly and firmly held beliefs leaving the average person with more questions than satisfactory spiritual answers. While religions have been in frank decline for quite sometime, science, it is conjectured, is not made to provide necessary and satisfactory alternative cosmic and moral views of the world. Thus, while science is advancing human knowledge and religions declining, the human spirit is as restless as ever.
The physicists believe in a “true” world in their own manner: a solid, for all beings equal atom-systematization in indispensable movements.
Corollary Questions and Challenges
Of the many questions that one may raise in relation to what was said in the previous sections there are few more important ones than the one related to the “what for”?
The answer, in today’s consumer society, does not appear all that simple. Some may say, “To make us even more comfortable than we are”; others, may say, “To make me live longer”, and yet others may assert, “To explore the universe” or “to help the tsunami victims more efficiently”. Which raises challenging corollary questions: what are the ultimate ends? And what are, but means, to such ends?
In the enormously complex situation of modern life, where ideologies, states, religions, economies, science, and culture in general appear in highly derived and intermingled forms and where most elements have lost their justifying concatenations with their origins, it is inevitable that one finds diverse and even antagonistic opinions as to the ultimate ends. There are so many different opinions! But, even today with all its caveats, much, if not most, of our daily life centers around survival and procreation factors of yore: food and drink, albeit through often elaborate “wining and dining”; shelter, through sophisticated homes; health, through scientific, technological and organizational activities; “work” in a specialized branch of the economy which serves to “feed, maintain, and educate the family”; and last but not least, procreation (one needs only to note how much time and effort goes into the subject “sex” to realize that Freudian views are not entirely out of place). “Defense” is no longer much of an individual matter today and it has been relegated to the society and its organization.
Irrespective, scientific endeavors have provided us with some objective answers. Through anthropological, paleontological, archeological and historical studies such as those reflected by Gordon Childe (Man Makes Himself) the ultimate goal has been recognized to be the prosaic “preservation of the human species over time”. More recent comparative biological studies (Langdon-Davies, The Seeds of Life) corroborate Childe’s conclusions. Ultimately, “Progress” (Change) would then be measured and judged in terms of objectively verifiable statistics indicating population growth over time.
Judging from the available vital statistics, population has been growing incrementally over the past two centuries, albeit unevenly around the globe. Science and technology have made a mockery of Malthus and his predictions: mankind equipped with its systems has been highly successful not only in its preservation but in multiplication. Nevertheless there are notable variations to the general scheme: the developed countries especially have stagnant or declining populations while the LDC’s have in varying degrees growing populations that are increasingly moving to supplant the declining populations in the developed countries. This in turn begs the question of what will become of the nation- state? How will the mores and governance fare? How will religious beliefs fare?
On the basis of the above, such answers to the question “what for”? Like “to help the tsunami victims more efficiently” appear clearly more as means or no more than an intermediate end. Ditto for the other answers. But besides this, it is easily seen that procreation, vital statistics, migrations, and partial truths of science contribute all to the prosaic and graceless realization that mankind has long left paradise.
Another question relates to the limits of science: how far can it go?
It is difficult to fathom, but certainly, it will go as far as humans will push it unless Armageddon-made possible through science-effects a change in humans, from the most successful to the worst preserved species. Particularly Greek gods seem to have been jealous of humans. Prometheus was bound for stealing the “light”, but so far this light has not been able to “unfold it all”. The Bible seems to think the same when it mentions: “....because though a man labor to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea farther, though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it” (Ecclesiastes 8.17).
Among the very many thinking human beings who have dealt with the question, without a single exception all have thought that we would never unfold it. Consider, Byron, who is said to have mentioned that “science was but an exchange of ignorance for another”. Perhaps absolute knowledge is beyond us in the objective playing field. Einstein makes us believe as much. However that may be, it is undeniable that science and its practical application through technology and its promotion through business have done marvels in expanding the limits of knowledge and ignorance alike. And, irrespective of other ethical and philosophical points of view, through science we know more, we live longer and healthier than our fathers did and we continuously do more of the “recently inconceivable”. There should be little doubt about science’s relatively unfettered future development path, and through it we will know more and have more certainty than before.
In that marvelous comedy, “The Gods Must be Crazy” (Boet Troskie,CBS/Fox,1980) primitive life of the Kalahari-Bushmen is severely challenged by the arrival of a coke bottle through the “flatulent gods”. A coke bottle is dropped from an overflying plane and the Bushmen find very many competing uses for the bottle, of which there is unfortunately only one. Avarice and the resulting disharmony within the family are not considered desirable by the head-bushman. The bottle is returned to the “end of the world” and the Bushmen’s troubles cease....or so, we are wont to believe. It illustrates that “change” is not necessarily welcome. Ignorance is bliss? Perhaps for some. The general rule however has been otherwise: the acceptance of coke is almost universal today.
Hubble, Keppler, and other satellites look at the macrocosm or universe and its expansion way beyond our deterministic heliocentric or galactic conceptions and in the direction of the relative, the uncertain, expansive and hard to grasp, infinite. Yes, no doubt, we know more than prior generations, but Chaos still lurks prominently around mankind’s attempt to formulate Cosmos. With Particle Accelerators and Genome Studies we have gone deep into the microcosm with the express intent of establishing what matter and life itself consists of. Here also specialized knowledge has accumulated in leaps and bounds. Yet, while we are undoubtedly more “advanced” and longer living than prior generations, we are not necessarily “better” or “happier” than before.
The implication of the continuous research are many. To begin with, scientific efforts will continue to work on cosmology and the riddle of life at growing intensity. As a consequence, there will be an-ever-growing evidence that life itself evolved from a casual set of circumstances and that evolutionary mechanisms such as changing environments, meiosis and mutations are continuously at work on changes and adaptations. Then, scientific findings will require adjustments in human perceptions of reality, behaviour and beliefs. While the case of cloning leaves no doubt that not only sheep and pigs can be cloned the case of genome research holds considerable scope for some more fundamental changes in human capacities which may one day, perhaps, invalidate the mythical Icarus and Bellerophon stories.
Is it desirable for all, to understand and thereby avoid the creation of new classes of people? (E.g. besides the bushmen, those that know and those that don’t). It seems that the evolution of science has made this inevitable. Can we all understand? And if so, how? It would be nice and interesting, but our intrinsic limitations and “specialization” precludes this understanding as our capacities barely are sufficient for one specialization. Partial, subject matter based knowledge is commonly observed in society. Can universal education change this? To some extent it has, as ever larger proportions of the population have become literate. Undoubtedly more will follow. It remains to be seen whether population growth rates will be beaten by the higher education growth rates so as to close the “ignorance gap” over time. So far, and in general, this has not occurred; and in spite of the pervasive “democratization process” we continue to have classes of people. And so what? or what is wrong with it? Some people would say: levels of understanding will continue to differentiate humans. It should be “vive la diference” instead of “liberte, egalite et fraternite” which is but a pipe dream of the dogmatic.
Science, technology and innovation nevertheless, will undoubtedly help mankind to continue to try to close the ignorance gap. But through the very nature of science and technology, new levels of knowledge will continuously be created which will expand the scope of the ignorance gap to the point where it appears that we are chasing a rainbow. This, as was quoted before, seems to be the unsatisfying ....”travail that God...” has given to us.
But mankind also needs to vent passions, need society and its culture, need art and over a glass of wine in front of a fireplace exchange philosophical conjectures with friends. Science may set limiting parameters to knowledge but one should not let it influence one to the point where it sets limits to our imagination. In the end there is a need for a “balancing act” between the perceived rationality of science and the warm spiritual needs of mankind. Right now, the products of science, technology, innovation, the media and the economy all seem to have relegated the interpreting and soothing arts to a senseless collage depressing man’s spirit and at best making out of him a cynic.
Science and her assistants, technology and innovation on the one hand and the promoters like the media and business on the other hand all with their aforementioned limitations, nevertheless point to a solution to the spiritual restlessness i.e. through addressing a challenge: that of acquiring a wider and transfigured understanding of what is necessary to avoid the bushman’s and specialists world alike. And understanding here, involves “metaphysics” besides “physics” i.e. an empire of the mind, where the virtual meets the real and forms a more harmonious and satisfying framework of life than has been possible through science or religion or egalite et fraternite alone. Herein lays the modern cultural challenge.
2005, Rev. 14’
Tags: Max Bade