Sunday, May 13, 2007

Ipsa Scientia Potestas Est (Knowledge itself is Power)

“The only elevation possible to man lies in the depth of humiliation.”
--Dag Hammarskjold

Our age is one of unprecedented powers and unprecedented fears. 400 years of scientific and technological advancements have allowed us to understand a wide range of physical forces and compel them to serve our will. In the 21st century, no species on earth can remotely match our immense capacities—the very power of the stars, the fundamental ciphers of life, and perhaps eventually the mysteries of mind are within the grasp and mastery of human intelligence. Through the advent of Homo Sapiens, it seems that nature has evolved her Lord and Master.

Or so it seems.

The great irony of our age is that the triumphant march of man’s dominion has hardly brought about the confidence and security that should accompany any power worth its name; on the contrary, technological mastery has often—though not always—increased human helplessness and fear. For instance, the knowledge and mastery of nuclear fusion and fission is arguably the greatest technological achievement of the physical sciences—the culminating movement of our dominion over fire. Yet together with the still unfulfilled dream of practically unlimited energy, came the very real nightmare of worldwide apocalypse and the prospect of man’s extinction.

The power to wield the flame of the stars has come at a steep price. And more is to come. In pursuit of another dream, this time, the call of a world without disease and maybe even death, a world where nature has been reshaped through a second Genesis to suit our convenience and pleasure—we seek to decipher and master the codes of physical life.

Yet the power to tame death and reshape life is in fact also the power to destroy life and our humanity.

Even if we ignore the host of ethical dilemmas that come even with the benign use of this power, it is plainly na├»ve to expect that genetic engineering will merely be used for wondrous cures and the prolongation of life; or that it will only be used to create benign organisms that will sweetly serve the will of men. Throughout history, it is hard to name a single major technological advancement that has not been turned to ruthlessly destructive purposes. From the most ancient times, the mastery of a new metallurgical or chemical advancement (the casting of bronze, iron and steel, the discovery of gunpowder) or new forms of power (steam, electricity, nuclear power) have resulted in ever more perfect ways to murder human beings. The nuclear bomb is but the culmination of the ancient urge to ‘kill thy neighbor’.

Genetic engineering will inevitably take this further—barring some unprecedented miracle of course. Instead of the spectacular but crude and wasteful firestorm of a nuclear blast, we may soon achieve surgical and precise mass murder (scientifically targeted, perhaps along racial lines or some other genetic division) through cheap, quiet, invisible and self-replicating organisms that will leave priceless property undamaged and hated enemies dead. The sheer rich diversity of killer organisms that can be engineered through the wonderfully adaptable medium of DNA must surely excite the imaginations of military scientists and the incipient Hitlers of the world.

Suffice to say while our mastery of genetics will indeed bring great advances in the healing arts, the capacity that Bill Joy, the former chief technology officer of Sun Microsystems, has called ‘knowledge-enabled mass destruction’ (KMD) also becomes a distinct possibility. The chief distinction of KMD, as compared to plain vanilla mass destruction (e.g. nuclear fireworks), is that the main ingredient needed for KMD is basically information. In the decades to come, the ability to manipulate the genetic code and breed virulent organisms might well be possible for mere teenagers; akin to the programming ability needed to code for computer viruses today. No exotic and expensive ingredients like refined plutonium or heavy water, no vast investments in exorbitant infrastructure are needed for governments or cranks or pranksters or bio-terrorists to unleash innovative plagues. Mass killing will be cheap and democratized.

Again, it is hard to see how humanity has increased in peace and serenity through our increased mastery of nature.

So what is the problem? Is it that technology is an evil that should be abolished? Or that humanity’s quest to understand and master the universe is a fundamentally mistaken impulse? To abolish technology is to abolish civilization and risk the extinction of mankind; even if it were really possible, it is a cure that brings about the nightmare it seeks to avoid. 6 billion people cannot possibly survive if we are to return to the Stone Age; and even Neolithic cultures use fire and tools. More importantly, the thirst for discovery and the will to power is inherent in the makeup of human beings. Taking away science and technology eliminates the fruits, but not the root of our dilemma.

So is suppressing this urge for domination and truth the real solution? Personally, I think that humanity’s will to power and knowledge is not merely a good impulse, but a divine one. If man is truly made in the image of God, then we are meant to share not only in his love and being, but also in his knowledge and Lordship. In the ‘Incarnational’ view of humanity, man is meant to express the dominion of God over creation. However the crucial point is that it is God’s power we are meant to express, not our own. It is the Divine Will we have to obey, not our own desires.

In this view, if we aspire to reign worthily over nature, we should reign not as egotistic and greed-gutted lords, but as the servants of the Most High and the humble stewards of His garden. The light of science may well be the first penumbra of an ancient Fire touching the earth once more. Perhaps this is a test—a trial to see whether humanity will again abuse the gift of knowledge. This first ray of Wisdom reveals the physical world; with that comes some power over physical forces. But if we stop here and refuse a profounder Light that illuminates the secret infinities of human beings and the world—if we refuse the call of Wisdom to sincerely seek a deeper Truth, then we are twisting the powers of Light to uphold the tyranny of greed and bondage. We become the children of darkness illegitimately and insecurely enjoying the fruits of Light—more fearful slaves than true masters; and the very Power we 'possess' will bind and destroy us.

This point is not only neglected in the modern technological drive; it is positively denigrated. Perhaps like the mythic Atlanteans, we are making the age-old mistake of succumbing to arrogant hubris; drunk with a little knowledge and power, we turn our myopic obsession with physical and temporal things into the One True Way of viewing the universe; and we sweep aside both the worthless superstitions and priceless spiritual insights of past ages.

Dag Hammarskjold, the great UN General Secretary, once wrote that “the only elevation possible to man lies in the depth of humiliation”. Is humiliation then the necessary destiny of our civilization? A deluge of flame, plague, or mechanized horror—horsemen of the apocalypse that will obliterate our proud edifices and the lives of billions? Our pride and physical power grow triumphantly apace; our ethical and spiritual development limps helplessly behind. It seems hard to imagine a benign outcome unless we miraculously engineer a collective change of heart.

This is not a problem that can be wished away; so long as humans remain humans, in our ignorance and brutality and growing power, we could not escape the possibility of self-annihilation. Perhaps in the chess game of fate, this is already ordained; or perhaps checkmate is still far from certain, and we can avoid a crucifying endgame. Or some may argue that an end to our current civilization is not necessarily a bad thing; they point to the fall of Rome and the rebirth of a greater civilization after a thousand years. Perhaps we are too addicted to our current material preoccupations; perhaps an apocalyptic flame will clear the ground for new and greater things.

Perhaps. But no one should cheerily support a scenario that necessarily involves the death of billions and the suffering of all life on earth. If there is but one billionth of a chance that such a catastrophe can be avoided or at least ameliorated, we should work for it at all costs. In Issac Asimov’s Foundation novels, Hari Seldon, a great scientist, used his new science of ‘psychohistory’ to predict that the civilization he was living in—a Rome-like Galactic Empire—was coming to an end. 10,000 years of savagery and suffering was the predicted result. To ameliorate this outcome, Hari Seldon established two ‘Foundations’: one, technological and open, the other, psychic and secret, to serve as ‘arks’ and guardians of civilization that will reduce the period of anarchy to only 1000 years.

Perhaps something of this sort will be needed in the coming centuries. Even if the trajectory of doom is certain, something could possibly be done to slow down the fatal collapse; seeds, both secret and open, could also be planted that will germinate in the coming night. Even if the hand of death is already poised, ready to strike, the foundation for a new and greater civilization could be laid—and in a distant age, a chastened, humbled and resurrected humanity may finally reign over Nature in true wisdom and power.