In the eyes of many people in the second half of the twentieth century science had encountered a real epistemological and identity crises. If concepts like fields and waves, invisible forces (gravity) and movements, heat and entropy had already had the character of the bizarre and incomprehensible for non-physicists in the nineteenth century, these concepts were still quite comprehensible in comparison to those that physicists had to develop in the 20th century in order to describe the nature of the atoms on the one hand and the vastness of the universe on the other. The concepts of quantum theory and relativity on space, time, and matter vastly contradict our daily experiences. And the central role of chance in the theory of heredity fitted very little in the belief system of people. At the same time, the insights of the physicists (and later the biologists) had created mighty instruments that expose mankind to existential dangers. The scientists were thus confronted with social criticism in which latest with the nuclear mushrooms over Hiroshima and Nagasaki emerged the outline of an enormous social responsibility. In addition to these ethical dilemmas, there were tangible conflicts of interest. Last but not least, the growing complexity of large-scale scientific projects such as the Manhattan Project, NASA’s moon program, the LHC at CERN, or the nuclear fusion reactor ITER (referred to as ‘big science’) led to a fragmentation and ever greater lack of clarity within the scientific landscape causing methodological doubts on the side of the scientists themselves.
We might consider all this “growing pain” in the sciences’ path towards adulthood. Within a few years the scientists had had to say goodbye to what they had considered profound certainties. They had seen entire buildings of thought collapse (and this in times of great geopolitical unrest), then suddenly faced a multitude of new knowledge, but nevertheless clearly understood how little they still knew about central aspects of nature and man.
In the second decade of the 21st century this crisis seems to be overcome. The great confusion surrounding the interpretation of quantum physics and heredity theory is over. We have grown used to the dangers of nuclear energy and genetic manipulation. One might even think that the natural sciences are as healthy and lively as never before. Over the last 25 years, they have celebrated unprecedented successes: new frontiers in cosmology, breathtaking discoveries in the field of genetics, breakthroughs in neuroscience, technological upheavals in nanophysics, new exciting possibilities in information science, novel quantum technologies, and much more. And did the World Wide Web not have its origin with the particle physicists at CERN? In giant steps we walk ahead. There is an irrepressible scientific curiosity, and technological revolutions create unprecedented economic and social opportunities. Even though the public is hardly aware of all this.
Although such a statement may sound a little dilapidated, but a deeper consideration of the development of modern science compels us to realize that we are at the epochal threshold of a new age, a period of possibly further dramatic scientific discoveries, with which our ideas about our world and the universe, about space and time, about matter and substance, about man and nature will change dramatically once more. And at the same time we will experience technologies that, according to the physicist Michio Kaku, will enable us to move and manipulate objects with the sole power of our thoughts, new bio- and neuro-technologies will perfect our bodies, potentiate the abilities of our minds and extend our lives, the later perhaps even for an indefinite period. With the help of new nanotechnologies, we will transform objects into one another or make them emerge apparently out of nothing. Quantum computers will dominate complexities that today still leave us awed by their unpredictability and uncontrollability. The best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari (“A Brief History of Mankind”, 2014) already speaks of “Homo Deus,” the human being, who is soon to use genetic, neuro- and information technologies to obtain almighty (godlike) qualities.
Even those who (like the author of these lines) remain somewhat skeptical with respect to the scenarios of Kaku and Harari and some of their underlying assumptions (e.g. that the relationship between mind and matter will soon be resolved scientifically) will hardly get around recognizing that science has already gone some ways towards realizing these scenarios. “God-given” plagues like famine, pandemics, and war only remind us of a distant past (at least in the West), as Harari points out excessively in his new book (which of course does not mean that these do no longer exist in the world; they are simply no longer part of our everyday experience; at most we know of them through television from distant worlds and times). “What’s next?” we ask. Overcoming death? This possibility is already seriously contemplated (it is big topic in technology crazy Silicon Valley). Eternal happiness by manipulating our brain chemistry or physiology? Nothing new, one might think. What started with the hippies in the 1960s we have already grown quite a bit further, haven’t we?
In fact, science has reduced human suffering and increased our quality of life more effectively than any other spiritual tradition. And this not only by the means of modern medicine, but also with physics, chemistry and biology. A time traveler from 1917 would see the world of 2017 filled with prosperity and wealth, but also full of miracles and even sorcery. But whoever makes this statement and perhaps even endeavors deeper insights into the world and himself through the means of science quickly finds himself or herself labeled a “shoddy materialist” or even finds himself exposed to the accusation that he has given the highest sphere of knowledge away to the “cold” rationality of science.
Such an accusation must be of some concern to its addressees, in particular because, with the future scientific progress and new technologies, scientists will face even greater responsibilities, and they are hardly capable of bearing these alone – and this not at least as scientific statements and findings inherently do not consider an important element of human life: values.
And whoever believes that the combination of scientific and economic rationality, i.e. the combination of technological innovation and capitalism, alone will lead to new paradises, will probably have to wait a long time for such nirvana. Because, with all the strength of competitive creativity and the associated variety of new ideas in a free market economy, there is no “invisible hand” in the real world that will ensure that everything will be fine and which leads us to optimal solutions that are desirable from the perspective of all humanity. If at all, this hand is blind, blind towards fundamental human values.
Hence, we need more than just scientists and economists, more than technology entrepreneurs, venture capital investors, and investment bankers to shape our technological future (even though to a significant extent this combination has brought us where we are today, a – Western – world of prosperity, health and peace; theologians and philosophers have so far been less involved in this development). Readers of my essays and books may have heart the thesis that an essential step towards meeting the challenges of future technological possibilities lies in an attitude of honestly grasping “what is”, in developing an uncompromising reflexive attitude to what one thinks and believes, and to finally subscribe ourselves to an unconditional intellectual recognition of the consequences to be expected from our thoughts and believes without falling into self-deception that “it is all going to be alright.” Such a spiritual as well as a scientific attitude should work with both, thought and action, in an unconditional incorruptibility, which is freed form inherent self-interests. In short, it is about a conscious, honest and mindful dealing with our environment and ourselves.
This principle could be an ethical cornerstone, not only in addressing the issue of appropriate resource allocation in the face of imminent climatic changes, but more generally in shaping the technological challenges of the future. And this in a field of an ever more omnipresent tension between civilization-critical doomsday rhetoric and fantasies on technological all-powerfulness.
This includes, if there is no consensus among experts in a specific area, an attitude of epistemic modesty, i.e. one should not have too much confidence in the reliability of the own opinion. For the success of the scientific method in the last 400 years could be most shortly described as follows: Its most essential insight was the discovery of our ignorance. There is simply no God-given and absolute truth, which provides us with orientation. It is in our human hands, to “deal with things” to rule…. or to destroy the world. And is it not ironic that it is exactly this insight that led us to universal human rights, the unconditional appreciation of the life and dignity of every human being, and the equality of man and woman (and where God is still in charge of the laws these principles are most violated)?
This new power modern science has given us, however, comes at a price: the loss of meaning. The modern, scientifically recorded and technological controlled world has no deeper meaning or higher purpose. It is just there. The motto of modernity could be – in the words of Yuval Noah Hararis (in his new book “Homo Deus”): “Shit just happens”. But if “shit” just happens, we can also let “shit happen”. On the one hand we are exposed to an enormous temptation – we can become the rulers of the universe (and at the same time of our own mortality and happiness), on the other hand we expose ourselves to great dangers, as we can irrevocably destroy the world and ourselves.
In this modern antagonism between power and meaning manifests itself the very dilemma of our scientifically assessed and technologically manipulated world. Humanity is more powerful than ever, and with every technological innovation, with every entrepreneurial success its power increases further. But at the same time, we live with an existential fear like hardly any generation before. Never before in history has our society been so individualistic, and never before have there been so many freedoms for the individual. At the same time, we see ourselves confronted with a deep longing for a higher common purpose. Today’s global society has thus the task of creating a balance between two very contradictory manifestations: it preaches individualism, but at the same time must ensure that we do not lose social cohesion.
What does this mean for the question on how to design our technological future? Well, an important part of the answer is: we need to consider and understand not only science and technology itself, but also the fictions and stories that promise our world a meaning – and thus ensure the socially necessary cohesion. And these includes religious traditions and spiritual experiences. The question whether science has really emerged from the crisis described above must hence remain open.