Is the development of the modern sciences and related technologies a good or a bad thing? The question is by no means a recent one. Not only was it raised at the inception of such development by its very promoters, like the humanist Rabelais, but it dates back to the beginnings of Western civilization, since it was at the core of the myth of Prometheus. There are fanatics on both sides of the fence: For most philosophers of the Enlightenment, science was the new redeemer of mankind, while a minority rallied around Rousseau, cursing science, and promoting, as Voltaire put it, running on all fours, eating acorns, and drinking from streams. As usual, the reasonable answer comes from the conservative, for whom man is neither a god nor a beast. Unfortunately, the issue is blurred, because more and more of our contemporaries believe that playing God is just the best way to be a man.
So there are actually two issues. One is the age-old question itself. And the other involves the location of the narrow line behind which man behaves like an animal, and beyond which man only yields to suicidal hubris—a border that the classical conception of human knowledge helped to draw.
What is the goal of science as understood by modern scientists? Is it to know why water boils at 100 degrees Celsius and not at 99? Why a particle of matter is attracted by another interested Newton only because he was at heart a theologian and not exclusively a modern scientist. For the latter it suffices to know how things behave, as precisely as possible—i.e., as measurably as possible. Why they do so is a metaphysical question, and the word says it all: It means metascientific. Sure enough, the scientist thinks he explains a given phenomenon by relating it to another: He will say A is the cause of B. But this only means that whenever he takes notice of water reaching the temperature of 100° C (at sea level), then he will also observe that the water starts boiling, which is to say that whenever a certain constant correlation between two phenomena may be observed, the scientist is satisfied (unless he discovers another sequence). But in no case will he ask why A and B might be related. In other words, to the modern scientist, the very notion that they are what they are because they are oriented toward an end, which then would be their ultimate cause, is totally irrelevant. In a nutshell, to modern scientific eyes the whole world is literally meaningless: It is and remains what it is because some kind of general equilibrium prevails, which is just a result and not an intended end. Anything may produce anything, Hume used to say. He was right, but only because he assumed all we know about what we see is what we are accustomed to seeing. One can observe the world; to try to understand it is pointless.
Now where can such a dreary outlook come from? The question is seldom asked, because it is assumed that to raise it is to make a show of an utterly unscientific approach to things. But isn’t that intellectual terrorism? Why should it be forbidden to ask why science is only what modern scientists claim it to be? Could it be that most modern scientists have something to hide?
Yes, indeed, for they recoil to confess they do not care about the nature of things, but exclusively about the dividends of what is not a full-fledged science, only a pragmatic view of things. They care not about what things are, but only about what they can do with them; their goal is not to know things but to use them. Just the reverse of Archimedes, who built devices because he wanted to defend Syracuse, but otherwise despised science destined for utilitarian purposes. In other words, modern science is not more scientific than classical science; it is the product of a decision to consider things in such a light that they may be manipulated with a certain amount of reliability. But then again, why should such an emasculated concept of science prevail over the classical one? It cannot be argued it teaches more about things, since in its own words it concerns itself with phenomena rather than with the essence of things and, moreover, with constantly revisable hypotheses about these phenomena rather than certitudes. Therefore, the only reason must be an exclusive interest in knowing how things can be put to use. But then why such a passion for the manipulation rather than the knowledge of things? I think there is no other answer than this: Men resent all limitations to the accomplishment of their fancies and don’t conceive of themselves as having to stoop to anything, including a so-called nature of things; they see themselves as creatures endowed with a license to think and do as they please. Modern science is what is called “science” when men decide, for the sake of a freedom they want as unfettered as possible, to evade what they consider the clutches of nature, or God’s overpowering hand.
Hence, for instance, the typical transformation of reality through analytical geometry into an abstract-concrete one that is essentially usable: Reality must be transformed into a virtual one, so that man can play God with it. Hence modern science’s two more or less explicit ambitions: to turn the world into a gigantic amusement park where men will eventually enjoy playing, and to put an end to human suffering and its crowning one, death, by treating men’s bodies as machines whose parts may be replaced as they wear out.
In such a Weltanschauung, how can science ever be a bad thing? Even admitting mistakes may occur, or unintended consequences of unchallenged license, science stands to correct science, and progress to overcome all the miseries of mankind.
At the risk of being dubbed senile, I think one must keep repeating the same basic principle. There are two philosophies, two mindsets, or two creeds, and only two: the traditional one and the modern one. Indeed, there are those who claim man is a creature of his own making, whose nature is to make his own nature, but there are also those who maintain man has a Maker and, for his own good, must live within the bounds of the nature his Maker has endowed him with. This does not mean he is not free, but that the meaning of his freedom is that each man can be held responsible for what he does, and is the only one to be blamed for the evil that befalls him if he strays from his own nature.
Thus, there is another science besides the modern one, which, up until Descartes, was by no means considered as belonging to a realm of knowledge different from, and even less opposed to, the realm of philosophy, but merely complementary. For the goal of all possible knowledge was to reach beyond the veil of appearances (phenomena) to the hidden reason why all things are as they are. Nothing exists in vain, without reason; the old Aristotelian principle was the supreme principle upon which all science was erected. Hence the wisest of wise men could write that stones fall because their natural location is on the ground.
At this point one can hear the modern scientist laughing his head off. But can he really escape such evidence as the one presented, for instance, by modern biology, a science that cannot but conjure up some sort of finality when it tries to explain how an organ is built to fulfill its function? Even notwithstanding such references to a “cause finale,” modern scientists must be accused of distorting the Aristotelian approach. It takes some stupidity to think Aristotle, or any of the classical thinkers of olden times, could have dreamed of claiming the absolute knowledge that they all thought only the God of all gods could possess: Philosophy is the love of wisdom, not the possession of wisdom. What moderns cannot understand, because they are obsessed with reaching absolute freedom, is that for centuries it had seemed only normal to think of the world not as some meaningless, though fortunately regular, assemblage of atoms one could manipulate at will, but as a cosmos: a carefully crafted work of art combining the richest variety of parts with their perfect unity so as to obtain the beauty emanating from perfect harmony. How could one hope to understand any part of the universe unless it was presupposed to have a function, an end within it? Hence the crucial point: Even if men failed to determine the end of any given object, they were given the only master key that could open all doors.
And this is particularly true for any understanding of man. Far from being like a free-roaming particle, man was defined as an animal who had been endowed with two tightly connected functions: first, thinking, which means trying to understand the harmony in the world around him and within himself; and second, trying to fit into the natural order of all things thus discovered, which may be translated into being useful, helping to maintain the order. Men must do this first within themselves (which is what morality is all about); second, in their relationships with others (politics is basically about introducing order among men); and third, in their dealings with nature (which is to refrain from following Icarus).
It is on the basis of such contrasting overviews, I think, that the question of whether the development of modern science is a good thing makes any sense.
Again, in a world that has no intrinsic meaning, and where men are supposed to enjoy total freedom, the risk of unfortunate consequences does not even exist: Science is an omnipotent deity, but totally subservient to men. Why should there be any limit to men’s ambitions if men are unable to conceive of anything as unnatural, and moreover think all perverse effects can be righted?
But everything changes if it can be presumed that the notions of a nature, both of all things and of man, are not hollow ones: Not only does there appear a criterion for judging man’s endeavors and ambitions, but there is solid ground for the opinion that it is harmful to man to transgress the supreme law of nature. Properly understood, the notion of nature is intrinsically normative: One must follow nature, because nature is just another name for the extraordinary ordering of things that allows everything to coexist, so that the minutest damage to one part is liable to induce destruction of the whole. The ultimate crime becomes hubris, trying to escape one’s nature.
But to follow nature is an easier task for a stone than for a man, a creature always tempted to believe the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, because science is in itself a capacity to see beyond it. On one hand, science allows man not to live like an animal, which is only natural because he is a man rather than an animal (something today’s environmentalists tend to forget). On the other hand, science is what allows man to transcend whatever condition he lives in, in order to see the other side of the fence. The ever-increasing propensity of man to recreate nature, whether on a political or on a medical level, is something that has been hailed since Descartes. Modern science is a potential curse, for it is a constant temptation to ignore the bounds within which it is natural for a man to live; it is but the development of what was traditionally the evil side of human knowledge.
Classical wisdom did not imply that everything was clear-cut, and that includes the precise boundaries between what might be deemed respectively natural and unnatural. But I think one thing was cut and dried: the notion that man is no omnipotent god, nor an omniscient one, so that he must be in constant search of what nature made him and allowed him to be. Even if it was his responsibility to draw the line, at least he knew there were things he was not supposed to do.
Hence a distrust of technical progress. It is often said that technology is neutral: One can hammer the head of a nail or the head of a man. I think the more sophisticated the techniques, the less innocuous they are: Where cars exist there is a temptation to speed, and the resolve to drive slowly can only be weakened by the increasing ease with which cars are made to go fast. If science is power, science provides ever more powerful means to satisfy man’s wishes, but these include his passions: Is not the availability of these means bound to increase the chance that he will yield to them? Of necessity, said Plato, a man of power is bound to be an evil man.
If the modern scientist is the man for whom God is dead, is there any way he may be induced to wonder about his own science? How can there be any reason to wonder, since, God being dead, everything is permitted?
But that does not prevent the traditional philosopher from predicting that there are two evils awaiting our new Dr. Frankensteins and the crowds that acclaim them.
One is mental imbalance. When everything is permissible, why should one thing be preferable to another? Is the average man, enthusiastic at first about doing whatever he pleases, capable of refraining from acknowledging the subjectivity of his choices—i.e., the growing awareness that they are arbitrary? Passions may justify choices, but only for so long. Then man starts drifting from whim to whim until he realizes utter freedom means meaninglessness. Is it not striking that the more horizons science opens, the more people escape into virtual reality, mental illness, or drug addiction?
Something else is obvious. The progress of science—the development of the power of man—is increasingly wielded, not exclusively over things as used to be the case, but over man. And to whom is this progress entrusted? It is crucial to realize it is entrusted not simply to individuals (a danger that is every so often stressed) but to individuals who are—what else could they be?—human beings, a danger of a much more formidable nature, for it amounts to man playing God to man, which is the sum of all evils mankind has managed for centuries to inflict upon itself.