A Cosmic Wrench in Our Power Grid

Thoughts on scientific, technological and moral advancement and religion.

The podcast, Unbelievable, with host, Justin Brierley, is becoming a favorite food for thought. I just listened to Steven Pinker vs Nick Spencer: Have science, reason & humanism replaced faith? Pinker is an atheist professor of Psychology from Harvard, and Spencer is billed as a member of “the Christian think tank, Theos”. The subject was “Pinker’s recent book ‘Enlightenment Now’, addressing his claim that science, reason and humanism are the drivers of progress in the world, not religion”.

As with most of the episodes I have listened to, this one was a very civil and respectful “debate”, really more of a dialogue, on the respective points of view. This civility and respect sets Unbelievable apart from more reactive “discussions” of controversial topics.

In this particular discussion, the focus was on Pinker’s optimistic view of humanism bolstered by science and technology echoing the familiar theme that we are progressing as a species as we free ourselves from religion with the aid of science and technology carrying us forward. Pinker minimizes the influence of religion on the enlightenment and the sudden advancement of science that accompanied it, while Spencer argued that the influence of religion is what fundamentally motivated and shaped those movements.

Spencer agreed with much that Pinker says about the progress of modern man, though he disagrees that science has shaped the moral advances we have experienced. He says that the value of the individual and sanctity of human rights is at heart a religious concept. He even points out that Pinker has to resort to the religious term, sacred, to describe these concepts as some evidence of the religious influence.

I have long toyed with the notion that we are not as advanced, morally, as we think ourselves. The 20th Century was the bloodiest of all centuries. Characteristic of the 20th Century was the genocidal bloodshed and cruelty of the atheist regimes under Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot and others. Some would add Hitler to the hit list of atheist genocidal despots, but that point is often argued, with religionists foisting Hitler on the atheists, and the atheists pushing him back on the religionists.

Hitler is somewhat of an enigma, generating an almost religious following marked by a personality that modeled a religion-like fervor. Pinker and Spencer debated whether Hitler was influenced by Darwinism, with Pinker countering that Hitler despised Darwin.

Though the truth of Hitler’s motivations my remain a mystery, and despite the unprecedented genocides perpetuated in the 20th Century, Spencer agreed with Pinker that we have progressed morally into the 21st Century. We generally exhibit a higher morality, however you slice it, (at least in the western world) in modern times than ever before, and this higher morality tracks scientific and technological progress.

As the two men carried on the conversation about the relative influences of religion and scientific and technological advancement on that progress, some thoughts occurred to me that I hadn’t considered before. I would agree with Spencer that religion (principally Judeo-Christian principles in the west) has largely carried us to this place where, ironically, we are finding no more need of God.

This perspective, also, flows from those same Judeo-Christian roots that holds out human pride as the principal problem (sin) of humankind. Having achieved a degree of independence and comfort through the advancement of technology, we believe “can do this” on our own (to paraphrase the testosterone influenced enthusiasm of my former teenage boys).

As I reflect on these things, I recall a recent study and analysis of our present environmental conditions that a group of people from our church did and presented to a small group of people interested in the intersection of science and faith. Our technology has arguably led to the threat of global warming. The jetsam of our very progress threatens our demise and poses some distinct dilemmas.

One of our members generated a chart that tracks our technological progress and the advancement of human comfort, health and wealth. The countries that have advanced most in these areas are the countries with the greatest technological advancement, and those countries, in turn, generate the highest concentrations of greenhouse gases that threaten our environment. The great dilemma is extending our technological advancements to the whole world while minimizing the unwanted effects of our progress.

The chart confirmed with compelling visual proof the great rise in our standard of living that we now enjoy that is undeniably linked to our technological and scientific advancement. This is Pinker’s narrative, and Spencer wholeheartedly agreed, though they had very differing views on the role religion has played in the outcome and the parallel moral achievements.

As they argued their points, I hit upon a thought that neither of them mentioned.

I continue to believe that we haven’t fundamentally changed as much as we like to think. We have barely left the genocidal 20th Century behind. Many parts of the world still experience barbaric cruelty the likes of which we would like to think is more characteristic of the Bronze Age than the 21st Century.

It’s axiomatic that causation doesn’t necessarily flow from correlation. That we have experienced, in the west, higher moral development than experienced in previous centuries at the same time that we have enjoyed the greatest advancements in science and technology doesn’t necessarily mean that advancements in science and technology  lead to moral progress.

We don’t have to look any further than Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to find that the correlation may be more of an illusion than reality. When people subsist in survival mode, they hardly have loving their neighbors as a priority. We see this even today where violence and cruelty tend to be more evident in poorer populations. Social experiments have shown that “good” people often resort back to more primal behaviors and attitudes in survival situations.

If this is true, then our advancements in morality may have more to do with the level we have reached on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs than the science or technology that brought us here.  We can afford to be more moral because army scrambling for survival. If our technology and scientific progress fails us, throwing us back into survival mode, we might lose any moral advancements we thought we had achieved. Our moral advancements have little to do with any change in our fundamental make up and more to do with our environment.

We had better maintain our scientific and technological advancement lest we slip into survival mode once again. This is not to say that we shouldn’t hail those advancements and be glad for the reprieve from the harsh realities of a brutal existence.

At the end, though, we aren’t much different for all of our scientific and technological advancement than our ancestors who lived more exposed to those brutal realities. Though we may stand today on our own two feet, we aren’t far from a catastrophe that might bring us to our knees. Just imagine if a cosmic wrench got thrown into our power grid?

Science is descriptive. Science informs us what is and what possibilities may be. But, science isn’t proscriptive. Science doesn’t tell us what ought to be.

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