Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Regenerate science

Sitting in a meeting recently with a group of people each of whom was staring down into one or other electronic gadget, the following quotation came to mind:

“In our contemporary world it may be said that the more a man becomes dependent on the gadgets whose smooth functioning assures him of a tolerable life at the material level, the more estranged he becomes from an awareness of his inner reality. I should be tempted to say that the centre of gravity of such a man and his balancing point tend to become external to himself: that he projects himself more and more into objects, into the various pieces of apparatus on which he depends for his existence. It would be no exaggeration to say that the more progress ‘humanity’ as an abstraction makes towards the mastery of nature, the more actual individual men tend to become slaves of this very conquest.” – Gabriel Marcel, Men against Humanity (London: Harvill Press, 1952)

Technology is far from neutral, as it is frequently assumed to be in both popular and scholarly writings on this subject. “The medium is the message” (McLuhan), and a technology is not simply a technique that may be employed for good or ill. It bears within itself a value system and a worldview - perhaps even a metaphysics and a theology. Telephone, television and the internet, for example, change our sense of space and time, and have a variety of effects on the relationships within the family and the wider social community. Some of these effects will be humanly beneficial, others less so, but an assessment of the technology is not possible without paying attention to the overall pattern of these effects, and to the purpose or function of the technology in relation to the purpose of human life itself. In what respect is a given tool actually serving the true end of man?

As a matter of fact, I think the portable computers we all use now are a great boon, and I could hardly do without mine. But this does not stop me noticing that this very dependence is a kind of warning sign. We are addicted to technological change in a much more serious way than simply psychologically. This makes “technology assessment” impractical, to say the least. We are running too fast to stop and assess anything – if we are not to stumble over our own feet and be left behind in the race, we have to assume we are running in the right direction.

In his classic work, The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis compares the Baconian scientist with Goethe’s Faustus. “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious - such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”

But Lewis is no Luddite. He thinks another kind of science and technology is possible. He goes on, “The regenerate science I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself.” Goethe and the Romantics were on to something. My book is trying to point in that direction, to encourage us to reflect on the elimination of formal and final causes from science, and the disconnectedness of our lives, and to begin to imagine another way of doing business, another way of making scientific progress – a “regenerate” science, perhaps.

Image by Giovanni Sades from FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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