Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Science: "A Convenient Reality" or "An Inconvenient Truth"

My thought today centers around science and the cultural advancement called technology. In a nutshell, I am thinking that "Science informs and absolute science misinforms one absolutely." This sums up my thesis with regards to people placing undue emphasis by putting all their eggs of hope into one basket of science. Too much faith on technology will most likely deceive us, misinform us about its intended purpose. I have seen advertisements that promote their latest LCD television technology, that a baby looks so real that it seems to be enough for the mother just to look and hug the monitor. Other ads show a cat jumping at the fish tank on the TV to show that the cat can be fooled into thinking there is a fish waiting to be eaten inside the TV. Indeed, flipping the remote control to see what we want to see is a convenient way to virtualize our lives. Advertisers are masters of manipulating unsuspecting viewers to buy what they do not necessarily require, or to transform a want to a need.

Putting our whole life of hope upon an assumption is risky. I am not talking negatively about science or technology. What I am concerned about is the uncritical trust that science and technology can solve everything, under the false notion of "With technology, man can do anything." Nay, for technology cannot create happiness, although it can virtualize it. Modern science cannot even find a foolproof cure for the common cold, or even to heal cancer which plagues a huge number of people every year. Science cannot turn back time, and neither can it predict the future. Almost every conceivable film or story about time machines are self-contradictory, as they fail to correlate how changing the past can link forward to a future that makes sense, without adequate knowledge of how going back to the past can change the present. The best course of action in those movies is to let life make its own natural conclusion.

An Inconvenient Truth
While it is true that human progress in terms of science and technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, it is also true that man's self-inflicted harm on the environment has grown at exponential levels in the recent few decades. In Al Gore's remarkable documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," the statistics are alarming.
  • The arctic ice cap have been reduced by 40% in 40 years, increasing both risk of flash floods worldwide as well as increasing global warming;
  • The amount of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) released. What took 650,000 years then to approach 300 parts per million now take only a few decades to exceed it;
  • The 10 hottest years on the planet earth occurred within the past 14 years;
  • The past few years have seen unprecedented storms, hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons. Remember the tsunami of 2004, hurricane Katrina of 2005, and the Cyclone at Myanmar in 2008?
  • Polar bears are said to be found drowned, due to a shrinking ice mass! In fact, according to a CNN report, scientists were saying that two-thirds of the world's polar bears will disappear in 50 years time. Sad...
  • "We’re putting more pressure on the Earth. Most of it’s in the poorer nations of the world. It puts pressure on food demand. It puts pressure on water demand. It puts pressure on vulnerable natural resources, and this pressure is one of the reasons we have seen such devastation of the forest, not only tropical but elsewhere. It is a political issue." (Al Gore)
Al Gore's first priority in addressing this issue of global warming is to persuade governments to take charge and allocate sufficient resources to walk their talk. This is important. There is another more important aspect. The society themselves have to be educated on the need to care for the environment. Christians need to revisit (if they have not) the first mandate of creation: To care for all of creation placed under our care and charge. This has never been rescinded. Indeed, we must be careful not to admire the products of science so much, that we ignore the consequences of the process of producing them. We must avoid supporting non-environmental friendly producers in the name of 'low cost.' We must support environmental conscious activities even though it may cost us a few more cents. Global warming is one consequence of man's unrelenting pursuit of using technology to achieve their perception of happiness. Possession of knowledge about science/technology can unwittingly become an obsession with science/technology.

Faith and Hope in Technology?

Sci-Fi movies such as "The Matrix," the "Terminator" series and "Battlestar Galactica" have portrayed the consequences of a future that puts too much faith in machines, allowing them to eventually take over the world. While I will not venture to paint technology and science on such a pessimistic note, I will caution anyone who aims to rely solely on science to dictate their worldview. Egbert Schuurman's "Faith and Hope in Technology" is a succinct critique on technology playing the role of a redemptive force. He argues that such beliefs will degrade, deform and degenerate whatever human values we have in society. Arguing for a 'responsible' way to develop science and technology, Schuurman equates the 'technological culture' with that of a 'secularised culture.' He attacks the underlying assumption which declares 'truth is by nature scientific.' Rather than allowing science to straitjacket us on how to live, Schuurman advocates faith in God as the way to regulate any thinking on science and technology. I agree. Technology can be used to send a man to the moon. The same technology can also send nuclear missiles to terminate lives. Man as 'lord and master' should not see created earth as a place to exploit and take advantage of. Instead, he should be the gardener who cares for the earth, and at the right time, harvest the fruits of his labour in a responsible and ethical manner. He should develop technologies to help human beings appreciate one another's humanity better, rather than to compete and aggressively use people as a means to their ends. Like Schuurman, I feel that man's desire to 'control and conquer' lies in his utter unwillingness to subject himself to the king and creator. An enthroned self cannot adequately care for his own. He needs to let Christ be enthroned in his heart. Anyone claiming to be 'autonomous' is living in fantasy. No one on earth is autonomous, as everybody need one another, whether directly or indirectly. Schuurman warns us that:
"In our Western culture science, technology, and the economy have become allies. Human autonomy first attaches itself to the possibilities of technology and subsequently shapes the character of science and economics which in turn fortifies technology. In short, the complex of science, technology, and economics is controlled and characterized by a scientific-technical ideal of control and a materialistic passion for consumption. Via this ideal of control people claim to solve all problems, old and new, and they guarantee the increase of material prosperity and the maximum provision of conveniences to consumers. So far as this is concerned, one could also say that the ideal of control held by scientists and engineers found a complement in the utilitarian ideal of the consumer. [Egbert Schuurman, "Faith and Hope in Technology", Toronto: Clements Publishing, 2003, 206-7]"

I like the image of a garden. God started creation and place Adam and Eve to take care of the garden, and to be fruitful and multiply. Rather than to see this 'multiply' mandate as merely producing more offsprings, I feel that multiply has a double meaning: to be fruitful in what we do, for the beauty of creation. In other words, to be fruitful and to multiply are to be seen as one whole rather than two discrete acts. Another observation comes through comparing Genesis 1:28 (command to man) and that of Genesis 1:22 (command to other creatures). In contrast to Elohim (God) being mentioned in Gen 1:22, in the command to man in v28, Elohim is mentioned TWICE. It seems to be that God is taking a personal interest in his version to the mandate given to man. Whenever God is mentioned in Scriptures, our spiritual light-bulbs should turn on.

With regards to Al Gore's documentary, while scientists may continue to dispute the numbers, I think we should take heed of his main message: "Global Warming is a real threat to human survival." I will venture to suggest that if Christians have been more active in proclaiming the need to care for the earth, there will be greater progress is spreading environmental awareness. Many Christians see the present earth more like a "This World is Not My Home" mindset that they are overly concerned with future heavens without much earthly good. We must participate in educating the Christian people and the public at large, that caring for the earth is very much a Christian activity. Otherwise, soon we may have no earth to take care of. The age-old saying that Prevention is better than cure is true for the environment too.

With regards to Schuurman's work, we should beware of the subtle temptation to turn science and technology into a god. Using the FIFO (First In First Out) analogy, technology is also a GIGO: Garbage In Garbage Out. We cannot become so infatuated with the promises of technology that we become blind to the problems and consequences resulting from the use of these tools. If the heart of man is not first made right with God, he can become a harsh taskmaster, able to exploit the earth with a simple command to divide and conquer, that leads to the sad demise of many. It is easy to simply separate faith from technology details, just like how many countries in the world to separate Church and State. Secular countries appear to have hit the right formula focusing on what works rather than ethical behaviour and human meaning. Many continue to favour the separation of faith and science. The problem is many of the implementation decisions require a solid grasp of ethics. Science cannot tell us what is right and wrong. Nuclear technology can be used for both good as well as for evil. Without faith, science and technology is like a car without brakes. Thus, Schuurman's book gives us an apt reminder to ensure that Christians in an increasingly technologically-crazed culture speak deep into the hearts of people who needs to make ethical decisions frequently. Below are seven implications:

  1. EDIFICATION: People in general needs to be reminded that technology is not the end, but merely a tool. They need to ask: "How does my use of technology shape my relationship positively with other people?"
  2. EDUCATION: Science and Technology departments at University need to have a beefed up curriculum on ethics and a greater emphasis on the humanities.
  3. EMERGENT: Any new technologies have to be consistently looked at with a critical eye, not only on its benefits but also the underlying consequences of using them.
  4. EMPOWERMENT: Use technology as a way to convey hope, rather than to blindly feed on the razzle-dazzle of technology which continues to be outperformed by newer technologies. The latest and the greatest is not necessarily the best.
  5. ENOUGH: The best way to manage ourselves is to recognize our own limits. While it has been said that technology can extend our limits, recognize that many things in life are limited, like 24 hours a day, number of effective friends we can have, etc. Learning to recognize our own limits will not only protect us from an obsession with things technological, it helps us maintain our own humanness.
  6. ENVIRONMENT: Be aware that every technological product comes with a cost, paid for by someone else. Cheap products often meant someone else have paid a heavy price elsewhere.
  7. EXPECTATION: If we interact too much with technology, we may become so used to the speed and versatility that we unconsciously impose a similar and unrealistic expectation of fellow human persons. Take time to switch off, and connect without the use of technology/science.
May these seven tips help us bring some sanity into a society that increasingly idolize technology into a god, blatantly breaking the first commandment. Little children, keep yourselves from idols.


No comments:

Latest Posts