|Science, Technology, and Human Values:
The Perpetual Struggle
|The quest for knowledge is an integral part of what it means to be human, and our interest in the unknown has fueled our discoveries since the beginning of our evolution. But although science and technology have made life easier for many people, they have aslo provided the tools for history's worst villains to play our their misanthropic desires.|
| The earliest form of man who learned to use tools when searching for his food - the first time that an animal learned to harness the power of fire - the creation of the first community of people living and working together - the growth of the first crop from the first bit of farmed land... All have been discoveries made at various stages in our evolution, and all have been early forms of science and technology. There is no doubt that these events have been beneficial to our species.
Technology is often seen as a force working to make the life of the average citizen just a little bit better and working to ensure that each succeeding generation will know more and be able to do more than their predecessors could have even dreamed. This is not a new view, but rather one that flourished around the time of the Scientific Revolution. Early scientists like Galileo Galilei and Johannus Keppler devoted their lives to the study of the unknown, hoping to understand the forces of life that had hitherto been explained only in traditional and religious tales. These men and others like them were instrumental players in our legacy of scientific endeavours, encouraging very early on the search for knowledge through experimentation and collection of data.
The work begun by early scientists certainly did not go unacknowledged, but rather fueled the curiosity of each new generation of intellectuals. Men like Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes hailed the benefits of each man taking an objective look at the world around him and gaining every bit of knowledge he could from his experiences. It became fashionable for the rich to be well-educated and to attempt to solve the mysteries of the universe through one avenue of science or another. Descartes and many others called for a collaboraton among scientists, suggesting that "...joining together the lives and labours of many, we might all advance together much further than a single individual could do on his own." People across the globe seemed obsessed by the idea of exploring every corner of the earth and possessing all her secrets. Chemistry, physics, biology, medicine... All are fields of study created by our insatiable appetite for information and control over nature's forces.
|If not for the efforts continually put forth by men and women in the interest of acquiring more knowledge, our society would never have come this far. A perfect example of a culture basking in the light shed by science and technology is that of America in the 1950s. We are all familiar with the image of the prosperous suburban family which seemed to proliferate in that strange decade caught between two wars. It was a time of a successful economy, a strong president, and a fierce sense of nationalism. Nature had finally been conquered with the first successful ascent of Mt Everest. Due to the amazing|
|medical advances being made, the world need no longer fear Polio, a disease which once ravaged the country. Color TV was invented, automobile sales skyrocketed, and the first McDonald's was built. It seemed a perfect time, a time when new inventions made life easier on just about anyone who could afford them.
Our society today isn't much far off, given our incredible dependency on our creations and our penchant for newer, bigger, and faster devices. Computers dominate our entire world now, everything from commerce to communication to entertainment. Few of us would readily give up our SUVs in exchange for a bicycle. The most respect in the working world goes to the "thinking" professions, like doctors, scientists, and CEOs. We are so used to cures for diseases that we are now becoming outraged that AIDS remains a mystery.
So if technology has given us so many wonderful things and inspired so many of history's greatest minds, then what's the problem?
| The trouble is that what we create doesn't always have such great benefits. Our advances can lead to amazing inventions that better the lives of millions, but they can also bring about weapons with incredible destructive capability. Ironically, one of the loudest voices in support of scientific exploration, Renee Descartes, also summed up the reasons why it isn't always a good idea. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes states "The greatest souls are capable of the greatest vices as well as of the greatest virtues." Essentially, Dr. Jekyll works miracles by day, but Mr. Hyde eventually surfaces and wreaks havoc.
Whenever people are engaged in making revolutionary discoveries, other are busy contriving ways to use that knowledge for control and power. The first communities created a sense of cohesion, but they also created a desire by some to rule over the lives of others. The use of tools made it easier for our ancestors to hunt or gather their food, but soon these same tools were turned on eachother and used for murder.
This news would certainly be no surprise to Thomas Hobbes, whose ideas on the nature of human beings serve as a pretty good explanation for why these abuses of technology are inevitable. Hobbes theorized that the basic nature of every person is that of competition, greed, and glory. In his Leviathan, he states that our natural tendencies would lead us toward a state of "war of every man, against every man," and that it is normal for certain people to desire to have control over others.
Other voices throughout time have echoed Hobbes' sentiments, warning of the imminent danger of a highly technological and structured society. Fellow philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau advised a return to nature, feeling that most of the problems of his society had a direct link back to its scientific foundations. He rejected the idea that science could solve the problems that plagued him, writing "...our souls have become corrupted in proportion as our sciences and our arts have advanced toward perfection."
A few hundred years later and choosing to use a horror story as her medium, Mary Shelley attempts to deliver the same message with her novel, Frankenstein. It is no coincidence that Victor's downfall is his limitless desire for information, nor that the pitiful wretch spawned from his experiments goes on to ruin his life. Shelley hammers home the idea that knowledge put to the wrong use can breed death and destruction.
|This theme became all too apparent in the real lives of people around the world during the 20th century. The leading countries engaged in an arms race, exploiting the knowledge of their scientists in an effort to build the most effective weapons of destruction the world had ever seen. Tensions escalated, and war after war broke out all around the world, sometimes with such incredible scope and magnitude that they were declared "world wars." The thirty years from 1915 to 1945 were the most concentrated episode of death in the entire history of humanity, a statistic which could not be possible without the technology that propelled those wars. Information necessary to build guns, tanks, grenades, hydrogen and atomic bombs... All beginning with things like chemistry or geology and ending in the decimation of entire villages and armies. The peace and prosperity enjoyed in the 1950s were shattered by the Vietnam war, proving that good times can't last.|
Descartes, Rene Discourse on Method Third Edition, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1998
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques The Basic Political Writings Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis 1987
Shelley, Mary Frankenstein Dover Publications, Inc., New York 1994
| The situation today isn't much different. Any look at the nightly news will show you numerous examples of wars being fought in various countries every day, people dying every day. Terrorism and germ warfare are beginning to emerge as new forms of threat. Killing is happening on a smaller scale as well, and it is every bit as frightening. The recent run of school shootings left many wondering who was to blame for the 47 children shot at Columbine High School in Colorado, or the 24 shot at Thurston High in Oregon. Was it the fault of the parents? The fault of the media? But no one can deny that none of the murderers would have had the guns in the first place if not for the initial experiments involving sparks and gunpowder.
Not all of our problems with technology involve weapons, either. The threat presented by too much technology can also be seen in the example of the cloned sheep, Dolly. Her cloning caused an uproar of concern over where to draw the line between science and morality, leaving people wondering how far is too far. There have also been opponents to the internet and its complete accessibility for just about anyone. With a point and a click, you can find step-by-step instructions for how to build a bomb, or even directions to the homes of abortion clinic doctors. The technology that created the internet also created the opportunities for unstable people to access information that they can use against others.
Each of these concerns can be traced back to the work of scientists, the work of pioneers exploring an area of unknown information. These ideas certainly aren't new and they aren't specific to just one society of people. According to Rousseau, "...the evils caused by our vain curiosity are as old as the world." And this is an important thing to note: the technology itself is not the problem. Indeed, it is our own "vain curiosity," the fact that we continually raise the bar of our expectations, that is to blame.
Searching for knowledge and truth is a noble aspiration, but to what extent will we take our search? How far will we go and how many must die before we can be satisfied with what we know and just live in peace? I am beginning to wonder if that will ever happen.