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Modern Technology and American Values

by George K. Schweitzer

The Scientific-Technological Revolution

One of the most important years in the history of Western Civilization was 1642. In that year, Galileo died and Isaac Newton was born. These men stood at the center of an amazing series of discoveries which in retrospect came to be known as the Scientific Revolution. In the period 1625-1698, there appeared Galileo (1564-1642) whose derivations of the laws of motion constituted the basis of modern physics, William Harvey (1578-1657) whose recognition of the circulation of the blood launched the experimental approach to medicine and biology, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) whose invention of analytic geometry started modern mathematics, Robert Boyle (1627-1691) whose research on the interaction of gases led him to the basic idea of a chemical element, John Ray (1627-1705) whose studies of the plants and animals of Southern England laid the foundations of modern systematic biology, Anton von Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) whose well-made microscopes permitted him to see protozoa and bacteria to inaugurate microbiology, Niels Steno (1638-1686) whose observations in Scandinavia of rock outcroppings and fossils set in motion modern geology, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) who gave us a complete systematization of mechanics and the mathematical apparatus to handle it (calculus), and Thomas Savery (1650-1715) who invented the steam engine which induced the technological conquest of energy.

This revolution rose out of a new view of nature which was a unique combination of Greek deductive logic and Hebrew inductive contingency. This approach to the natural world was worked out over several centuries prior to 1642, as the outlooks of the two major streams of Western influence, Greek and Hebrew, interacted in medieval society. The net result was the attitude that today is referred to as the scientific method. The method consisted of the postulation of a correlational scheme of order, plus an imperative empirical (experimental) testing. In other words, both head and hand, both imaginative theory and experimental manipulation were required. This new insight was coupled with a developing medieval craft tradition that reached its greatest heights in attaining the clock, the organ, and the water-powered mill. The Scientific Revolution gave rise, in turn, to a rapid series of further startling revolutions -- the Industrial Revolution, the Transportation Revolution, the Electromagnetic Revolution, the Chemical Revolution, the Nuclear Revolution, the Electronic Revolution, the Biochemical Revolution.

Colonial Settlement

During the same period (1625-1698), the eastern section of what was to become the United States was being settled by carriers of this technological thrust. Four major groups were involved. First, there were the Massachusetts Puritans (1629-1640) who came from Southeastern England. They came with a fanatical spiritual purpose; an intolerance of difference; an ethic of hard work; a strong appreciation of education; an exclusivistic, legalistic, militaristic church structure; and a marked male dominance. Second, there were the Virginia-Maryland (Chesapeake Bay) Cavaliers (1642-1675) who came from Southern and Southwestern England. They brought with them poor whites to work for them, and soon began importing slave blacks for the same purpose. They brought a double-level society of the elite and their servants, an inheritance system of aristocratic elite leaders, an exclusive high church-governmental cooperative, and a high male dominance. Third, there were the Pennsylvania Quakers and German Pietists (1675-1715) who came from the North Midlands of England and from the Rhine Valley. They had a strong work ethic; a commitment to equality, simplicity, non-violence, and reciprocal liberty; a pronounced anti-hierarchical view; a personal, contemplative, inclusive, tolerant religion of societal concern; and a very moderate male dominance. Fourth, there were the back-country Scots, English, and Scots-Irish (1715-1775) who came from Southern Scotland, Northern England, and Northeastern Ireland. They came through Pennsylvania into the back-country of the middle and southern colonies. These people were spartan, individualistic, scofflaw, aggressive, violent, tough, adventuresome, low legalistic church, folksy, anarchic, exclusivistic, anti-intellectual, and libertarian. They held to a very strong male dominance.

The first group, the Puritans, moved through New York up the Mohawk Valley, then along and on the Great Lakes into the northern tier of the United States. The second group, the Cavaliers, largely followed the southeastern and southern coastal routes to North Carolina, then South Carolina, then Georgia, then Alabama, then Mississippi, then Louisiana, then into Texas. The third group, Quakers and Pietists, moved chiefly from Pennsylvania down the Ohio River into the middle-northern tier of the United States -- southern Ohio, northern Kentucky, southern Indiana, southern Illinois, then into Missouri, and westward. The fourth group, the back-country peoples, moved into the western parts of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, then down the Ohio River and through the Cumberland Gap to Kentucky and Tennessee, then westward and southwestward to Texas. This latter group more than any other set the frontier values which developed during the earlier years of the westward movement. These values were materialistic, adventurous, risk-oriented, mobile, versatile, innovative, pragmatic, wasteful, optimistic, violent, nationalistic, individualistic, hard-working, egalitarian, self-reliant, assertive, self-serving, exploitative, and opportunistic. Most of these remain in our present, non-frontier society, and are especially strong in the areas settled by the back-country peoples. Now, the question that I want to pose is this: Do these have survival value in a society in which the frontier has shifted from the geographical to the technological?

The Two-Edged Sword of Science and Technology

At its beginning, every one of the above-mentioned revolutions gave rise to magnificent utopian expectations: economic, health, cultural, peaceful, even spiritual. As time wore on, it began only slowly to dawn on perceptive people that all inventions, discoveries, and new techniques carry a built-in repercussive ambiguity. They can be used to produce intentional good or intentional evil, often simultaneously, and they inevitably result in unforeseen effects, also both good and evil. Further, the extent of these unforeseen potentialities is unrecognized or masked by euphoric enthusiasm.

A few examples will illustrate the point. The science of physics has probed into and given us a detailed understanding of the secrets of the atomic nucleus. These have been put to use in the production of nuclear medicine and power, in nuclear warfare, and have given us radioactive pollution and very difficult disposal problems. The discipline of chemistry has revealed in exquisite detail the secrets of atomic combination. These have permitted the synthesis of fertilizers, pesticides, fuels, plastics, and hormones; have given us deadly chemical warfare agents such as sarin; and have resulted in the greenhouse effect, ozone-layer destruction, and contamination of the air, water, and ground. The field of molecular biology has unlocked many of the mysteries of genetic material, putting into the hands of the informed few vast potentialities for healing, as well as for exploitative control. The science of biochemistry has yielded the psychotropic drugs and antibiotics with similar possibilities. The exploding area of computer science is setting before us now expert systems, neuronete, and artificial intelligence; all of which, once again, can be employed for weal or for woe.

Medical research has developed superplumbing, organ replacements, non-invasive three-dimensional imaging, and electro-neuro-circuitry. The great healing advances have fostered one of the major planetary threats -- the unregulated population explosion. The discipline of psychology has successfully mapped large tracts of the topography of the human psyche, and knows both comforting and threatening information about human emotions, motivations, intelligence, and presuppositions. All of these permit both the liberation of people from inner unbalance, and the enslavement of people by influencing their societal activities. For instance, what part do you think very clever application of powerful psychological insights played in the last presidential election? I think you see the pattern, and you can continue the list: electronics, sociology, microbiology, etc.

These illustrations bring out the realization that all advances are purely instrumental; they are tools which enhance our capabilities to fulfill our desires and goals; capabilities which can have both good and evil outcomes. Also, it should be evident that as our scientific and technological advances become more astonishing, they give us capabilities for ever greater good, and at the same time, ever greater evil. Science and technology have laid in our hands the capability to bring to the planet the greatest good it has ever seen -- the potential to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the ill, restore the insane, teach the ignorant, to deliver the captives, to release those in all forms of economic, political, or psychological bondage. Simultaneously, science and technology have laid in our hands the capability to bring to this planet the greatest evil it has ever seen -- air-water-earth pollution; nuclear, chemical, biological, psycho-biological warfare; population explosion; technologically-supported racial and ethnic hatred; economic oppression; control over mankind and nature through computers, drugs, electronic monitors, spy satellites, genetic manipulation, and propaganda; leadership by greedy, power-mad, corrupt, self-seeking, short-sighted, hedonistic manipulators.

Along with the above recognitions, there has dawned on us that one thing our science and technology cannot tell us is how to use them to ensure and enhance our survival on Planet Earth, rather than to destroy ourselves by drowning in our garbage, strangling on our gaseous emissions, being cremated by our nucleonics, hemorrhaging from our radiations, being painfully devoured by our carcinogens, languishing from the destruction of our immune systems, murdering each other from our violent greed, suffocating from our oxygen loss, being poisoned by our toxic waste, losing our slight remaining rational defense against being brain-washed by drug destruction of our minds, and 1000 other points of blight. What, then, determines what it is that we do with our science and our technology?

Values For Tomorrow; If Tomorrow Is To Be?

It is our values, our ultimate commitments, our deepest desires, our absolute presuppositions, our basic or elemental hopes, those deepest beliefs in the innermost reaches of our psyches which guide, shape, and govern our behavior. Every individual, and every society, has such a set of values which determine the uses to which all our tools, including those of science and technology, are applied. These tools become the instruments and mechanisms by which the society hopes to survive and to enhance its existence.

Down through the 20-billion-years of evolutionary history in our portion of the universe, as energy became matter, and matter became life, and life became mind, and mind gave rise to personhood, the species which have survived and prospered are those which adjusted and adapted when the environment underwent changes, both rapid changes and slow changes. In our day, science and technology have produced an unparalleled and very rapid change in the human environment, as we discussed previously, and so the question of major import is, what individual and societal values can ensure our survival, and can we make the change, can we adapt rapidly enough to avert our eradication?

In my judgment, individualistic, aggressive, hedonistic, self-centered, egotistical concern is no longer a survival value. It may once have been, but not now. In short, if we continue to practice its corollaries of greed, violence, exploitation, waste, manipulation, rampant consumption, and poisoning of ourselves and each other -- mentally, morally, biologically -- then escalating conflict and a resultant extinction of the species homo sapiens is inevitable. If, however, somehow, enough of us can catch the vision of moving our addictive self-concern away from ourselves to a compassionate, caring, self-sacrificing, informed, intelligent, innovative, creative concern for the species, for the entirety of mankind, for all persons, this will constitute a dedication that has survival value. The amazing aspect of this is that it does not take a lot to do it. All major survival values in cosmic history have been practiced at first by only a few. All major advances in human society have been set in motion by only a few, and these few have been those who perceived and then began to practice the survival value that was called for in the environmental change of the time.

Every major articulated religion of the world has stated this profound insight, and has invited mankind to it. There is a key aspect to this societal, compassionate concern. We are to be tough-minded and tender-hearted. We are to be tough-minded because the answer to our dilemma is not less science and technology, but more and better mathematics, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, engineering, and so on. We are to be tender-hearted because the answer to our dilemma is the compassionate, concerned, altruistic application of our science and technology to ensure and promote our survival. The trouble has been, and continues to be, that we are soft-headed and hard-hearted. Our scientific and technological capabilities, and our supply of highly-trained dedicated investigators, are dying away in this country. Our continuing obsessive preoccupation with aggressive, greedy, pleasure-seeking, anti-intellectualistic, self-service has absolutely no survival value.

There can be no growth in our standard of living without growth in productivity, no growth in productivity without growth in technology, no growth in technology without continuous research, invention, and innovation, and no growth in innovation without altruistic dedication. We in this country are losing at every stage. If we are to prevail, our business leaders, our politicians, and especially our students need to embrace our dedicated scholars, our devoted scientists, and our innovative engineers, rather than our greed-oriented mercenary managers, athletes, and entertainers. Likewise, our business leaders, our politicians, and especially our students need to embrace the self-sacrificing servant roles of the great spiritual leaders of the major religious traditions, rather than the pseudo-religious vultures of acquisitive, power-mad, self-seeking, self-glorifying, materialistic, exploitative greed.

Two statements of Albert Einstein (1879-1955) say it all ever so clearly. A paraphrase on the first is that science and technology without altruism are blind, and altruism without science and technology is lame. That is, our science and technology are given no constructive purpose without altruism or dedication to the total welfare of others, and altruism without the giant instrumentation of science and technology cannot fulfill its aim of bringing the best to all people of the planet. The second statement that Einstein made is, "Only a life lived for others is worth living."