There is an interesting line in a Tears for Fears (yes, the 80s group) song: “I must learn to protect myself/ From the sins of science.” It is an interesting and somewhat haunting song. You can listen here. The background lyric repeats “Days of Fools” over and over again. This is an intriguing and illuminating song, and lyric.
If you have seen virtually any episode of Black Mirror (here, or on Netflix), you will probably agree that science has brought us magnificent and inconceivable advances, advantages, and opportunities. Anyone who does not have polio, drives a car, or understands space-time would surely concur.
Shows such as Black Mirror, or movies such as The Manchurian Candidate, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Children of Men, and Minority Report (a run-down of dystopian films is available here) depict in sometimes gut-wrenching detail what science and technology can render. They are dark, haunting tales of dystopia, tragedy, and absurdity. It’s the same vein that Stephen King and Edgar Allen Poe write in, or the incendiary novel 1984, or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Goethe’s Faust.
Shows and books such as these tap into a dark part of our unconscious. Themes such as murder, torture, privation, suffering, revenge, domination, and nihilism can get our heart beating fast and our mind racing. It’s harrowing stuff.
Back to the sins of science. What Black Mirror does stupendously is to illustrate the darker nature of humanity when coupled with science, the future, technology, and artificial intelligence. The episodes are all separate from each other, and the writers do a fantastic job of tapping into one’s brain and kicking up neurotransmitters that mean FEAR to the mind. Just watch one and see if it is for you. I love them, and my wife feels creepy and dysphoric after watching an episode.
Physicist and psychonaut Neils Bohr famously quipped: “Every instrument that man has invented, discovered, or developed has been turned toward destruction.” He is really onto something there. Science, bereft of or detached from ethics can be a horrific thing. Think of Hiroshima, or the MK-Ultra experiments by the CIA, or that we are just about to make the planet increasingly uninhabitable by human beings because we just have to drive cars and business just must make ungodly profits raping nature’s resources. As can be noted from the story of Ted Kaczyinski, “the Unabomber,” who was drafted into ongoing and unethical experiments by Harvard and the CIA (MK-Ultra), when science tinkers with the mind, and brain, bad things can happen. Ask any monkey who lives his or her life in a cage as unwilling participants in scientific research. Again, think of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
It seems like a truism that just because science can create something, doesn’t mean it should. Or because science can do this or that to humans, it doesn’t follow that it is ethical to do so.
Sometimes, when science seeks to discover some previously-unkown fact, phenomenon, or technology, it seems good. We are told it will help us. But what of unintended consequences? What of evil on the part of the creators of newfangled interventions, inventions, and tech? Did you know that no less of scientists than Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are literally worried about artificial intelligence? Have you ever seen Terminator 2? Imagine robots not only usurping human jobs, but literally dominating us? The Matrix depicts such dystopic visions in vivid detail. It’s scary as hell. No one has scared me more thoroughly than Orwell in the book 1984, I think.
So, science can sin. It’s like techne without arete or sophia or phronesis, if you know any Greek. The incredible playwrights, from Sophocles to Aristophanes, from Shakespeare all the way up to modern times, have sketched out in fascinating ways how humanity can go wrong. We are the species that has wrought incredible destruction and suffering, even while we love and show mercy and give charity. We are the best and the worst of life in the known universe. Our capacity for evil is legendary, and our gifts of moral virtue and wisdom and friendship are equally astounding. I can’t think of a better way to say it than in the words of the German psychologist and author, Erich Fromm: “The enormous power of the will for destruction which we see in the history of man, and which we have witnessed so frightfully in our own time, is rooted in the nature of man, just as the drive to create is rooted in it.”
We must learn to protect ourselves from the sins of science. Let us successfully make science just a tool, but use our wisdom and our judgment to determine what is truly helpful, and what has the potential for harm. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Our creativity is one of our saving graces, and one of our most frightening capacities.
As Vlad Dracul said in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 movie Dracula, What devil or witch was so great as Atilla, whose blood flows in these veins?!
Humanity as a whole can fairly ask: What creature has wrought as much horror and carnage as we, who have descended from the great apes?
I would like to share some trenchant thoughts about science, technology, the human condition, absurdity, and unintended consequences:
“But does science tell us how we should control the power we have, how we should use all the machinery and the utilities that science with its technological applications gave us? Clearly not. In fact, we live in a world in which, made dangerous by this fact, science has given us the untold power of atomic energy. But does science tell us how to use atomic energy, either in peacetime or in war, how to use it for the benefit of mankind instead of the destruction of mankind? In fact, the same scientific skills in medicine or engineering that help us to cure and benefit can also help us or enable men to kill and destroy.”
“…Everyone who is seriously engaged in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that the laws of nature manifest the existence of a spirit vastly superior to that of men, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. The pursuit of science leads therefore to a religious feeling of a special kind, which differs essentially from the religiosity of more naïve people.”
“Man is trampled by the same forces he has created.”
“It is part of human nature to think wise things and do ridiculous ones.”
“I believe that the control of our acts by our intelligence is ultimately what is of most importance, and what alone will make social life remain possible as science increases the means at our disposal for injuring each other.”
“The clever ones, up in the high places, know how childish and silly the workers are. They know that if the government dresses them up in khaki and gives them a rifle and starts them off with a brass band and waving banners, they will go forth to fight valiantly for their own enemies. They are taught that brave men die for their country’s honor.”
“The chief obstacle to the progress of the human race is the human race.”
“We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”
“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
“The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots.”
“Science is one thing, wisdom is another. Science is an edged tool, with which men play like children, and cut their own fingers.”
“The scientific method not only now, but probably never, will be able to discover the ultimate causes, nor will it be able to answer ultimate questions of value.”
“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.”
And, a tough one: “When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared; what thousands of disinterested moral lives of men lie buried in its mere foundations; what patience and postponement, what choking down of preference, what submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar; how absolutely impersonal it stands in its vast augustness, then how besotted and contemptible seems every little sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from out of his private dream!” ~
Here is a cool poem I wrote I bet you will like.