Is Science of Any Value?
First of all, I love science for the understanding of nature it gives us. Human beings have extraordinary capacities, considering that evolution ought only to have equipped us to solve humble problems, such as hunting antelope and avoiding being eaten by lions. In the last century our minds have taken us to the heart of the atom and the furthest reaches of a vast universe teeming with galaxies. So I’m not “anti-science” by any stretch of the imagination.
I’m also not “anti-technology”. But technologies are more ambiguous than the theories they are applications of. Technologies can and do help us to us live healthier and happier lives. They also can and do allow us to cause death and suffering on an unprecedented scale – to both human and non-human life. This ambiguity is well put in Richard Feynman’s book The Meaning of it All:
“Is science of any value?
I think a power to do something is of value. Whether the result is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how it is used, but the power is a value.
Once in Hawaii I was taken to see a Buddhist temple. In the temple a man said, “I am going to tell you something that you will never forget.” And then he said, “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.”
And so it is with science. In a way it is a key to the gates of heaven, and the same key opens the gates of hell, and we do not have any instructions as to which is which gate. Shall we throw away the key and never have a way to enter the gates of heaven? Or shall we struggle with the problem of which is the best way to use the key? That is, of course, a very serious question, but I think that we cannot deny the value of the key to the gates of heaven.”
My worry is that today’s economic systems are running amok, totally out of control, as if with a mind of their own, thought of course human minds are behind them. Every day it seems, technology is applied to opening a little more the gates to hell and closing a little more the gates to heaven. Every ocean or river we poison, every forest we cut down, every species we drive to extinction, every nuclear warhead we build is opening a little more the gates to hell and closing a little more the gates to heaven. We need merely to pause, to reflect upon what our politics and our economics is doing with our technology, to realise it is insane and suicidal, and decide to act differently. But it seems we are incapable of pausing. We have become locked into an industrial system that demands we produce more every year. Slowing down is quite impossible.
Is science beneficial to the human race then? This sounds like a no-brainier. We are living much longer healthier lives than only a few centuries ago thanks to scientific theories and the technologies they inspire. But wait a moment – the human story isn’t over yet! If it turns out that we use technology to destroy ourselves – through ecological collapse or nuclear war (or some manner of bio-tech or nano-tech “accident” perhaps?) – then taking in the whole timeline of human existence on earth, perhaps mankind would have been better off without science at all? Much as I love science, it isn’t clear yet whether it has been a blessing or a curse on our species. Look at the world today and it is clear to anyone that our scientific knowledge has outpaced a thousand-fold the collective wisdom to safely apply it.
I think scientists have a role to play here. It is time we had an honest conversation with the non-scientist public about what science should be and what it should not be. And as I argued recently, it is time for the scientist to Walk Away From Empire. This is hard, I am not claiming otherwise. I recently discovered Guy McPherson’s blog and was moved by his personal account of doing so:
“I had the brass ring. And I let it go. My parents were lifelong educators. So are my only brother and my only sister. Among them, only I reached the pinnacle of the educational world: I was a tenured full professor by the age of 40. I walked away from that life, which I loved, an act that made most people think I’d lost my mind. I walked away after trying to change the morally bankrupt system in which we are immersed when I realized the system was changing me, and not for the better.
I let go of the brass ring after I realized the first step toward destroying this irredeemably corrupt system is to leave it. Because I was born into captivity and assimilated into the normalcy bias of a world gone bonkers, I left later than I should have, and long after I realized the immorality of the system. A large part of this delay resulted from my inability to identify where and how to leave the system. I had come to see the industrial economy at the apex of western civilization as a horrific system but, because it was the only system I ever knew, I didn’t know how to escape it. Finally, after several years of thought and a few aborted attempts to reach escape velocity, my wife and I developed a set of living arrangements on a small property with another small family where we try to model agrarian anarchy.”
Although “grabbing the brass ring” as an idiom means merely career success or the like, I find it telling that McPherson calls forth the metaphor of a “ring” in place of Feynman’s “key”. Like with Tolkien’s ring of power, our scientist ring bearers may intend to do good with the power of modern industrial technology. But the ring itself has intentions, fashioned as it is in the fires of global empire. The only choice I can see for the conscientious scientist of today’s world is to cast the ring aside, as McPherson did and I am in the process of trying to do, and seek to fashion a new narrative for science.
The old narrative is that of the “scientific expert” piling up new technologies for global industry at accelerating pace. Where the pubic find this to be a dizzying and confusing process, one they might fear and reject out of hand, they are chastised for their backwardness, their failure to embrace these wonderful new technologies. They are never told that their foreboding about the “pointy-headed” scientists, their quezyness, their sense of vertigo looking down on the offerings of a technocracy, is founded upon entirely rational fears – even if these fears aren’t always explicitly understood or well articulated by those feeling them. But I say, yes, the public is right to fear science in its current incarnation, under its current narrative. I fear it myself – we are not in control of what we are doing.
That is why we need a new narrative for science, one that involves us all as decision makers in the appropriate use of technology, one that considers the benefits and drawbacks of new technologies, a human-centric economy that allows the possibility of slowing down, if this is indeed what people desire. These pre-capitalist values of the enlightenment still haunt our dreams, despite much effort on the part of corporate propagandists to eradicate them. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra express this idea, that of values deeply felt but deeply buried, in their lovely song Thee Olde Dirty Flag:
There’s trumpets in heaven,
six feet underground.
Mighty and muddy,
they faintly resound.
In a world gone mad and piling up products for the sake of production and technologies for the sake of technology, we need to return to these more measured, traditional values. Whether science will help or hinder us in doing so will depend upon the choices that today’s scientists make. If science is to be Carl Sagan’s “candle in the dark” – lantern, as opposed to key or ring – then more scientists must act upon their individual revulsion at Empire’s dictates and become honest men.
Why do we need more scientists to be honest men? (and women, of course! and cosmopolitans!) Cognitive dissonance is a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions (e.g., ideas, beliefs, values, emotional reactions) simultaneously. So Wikipedia has it. Most scientists are not pathological and so cannot go to work each day believing both that 1: “I am a good person” and 2: “I am helping bring about a violent collapse of civilisation”. Most reconcile the dissonance via The Myth of Scientific Progress, a.k.a. :
The problems that exist in the world today can be solved by the level of thinking that created them.
This is a dishonest resolution. I think most scientists know this, on some level at least. I want more of them to find an honest resolution. Perhaps then a violent collapse can be averted?