Science and Technology

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:

“Our physical world is no longer symbolized by the stable and periodic planetary motions that are at the heart of classical mechanics.  It is a world of instability and fluctuations, which are ultimately responsible for the amazing richness of the forms and structures we see in nature around us.”
Ilya Prigogine and Gregoire Nicolis

Defining Questions

How will the future of science and technology most change the world we live in?

How do we effectively manage emerging technologies, many of them with the capacity not just to do great good, but also great harm?

What will reality, as conceived through the eyes of science, look like in times ahead? As part of this, how will we best understand the relationship between scientific truth and less objective truths (such as those of art, love, or religion)? And how will science come to answer the biggest of its questions: What is existence?  What is life?  What does it mean to be human?

The future

Science has played an important role in culturally mature perspective’s emergence. I use scientific advances frequently for illustration, both because they have been great and because science’s right-hand nature makes contributions particularly explicit. The emerging realities of physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics have all confronted us with worlds in which uncertainty, change, and complexity have newly integral roles, where truth comes to include ourselves in its equations, and in which limits derive inescapable importance. Such insights came at a cost. Major parts of the surety and predictability that had been science’s great gift to the Age of Reason have had to be surrendered. But the reward has been a century of remarkable achievement (and achievement that has often served to inspire related conceptual courage in other spheres).

What lies ahead? There is no reason to assume that the contributions of science (and technology) in the next century will be any less transformative—and transformative not just of what we see in the world, but how we see our worlds. As important, if Cultural Maturity is right, will be changes in how we see science. A couple are particularly pertinent.. We should come to better appreciate science and technology within a broader systemic perspective—more as ways of knowing than knowing itself. We should also better recognize the importance of moral/ethical concerns in both technological innovation and scientific discovery.

Future Advances

With regard to specific discoveries, Cultural Maturity’s predictive power is very limited. The most fascinating specific scientific and technical advances will surely surprise us—as is always the nature of discovery. Cultural Maturity does predict that many of these achievements will continue to push the edges of what we understand, and in ways consistent with culturally mature perspective. Scientific and technological innovation is only in part a product of simple discovery. What we can see, even with the most objective of observation, is a function of what at any particular time and place we are capable of seeing. Scientific and technological advances represent some of the most important forces driving us toward culturally mature understanding. And, simultaneously, we are able to conceive of them and make use of them because we are taking first steps toward such understanding.

Certainly scientific and technical advances will be key to many of the most critical challenges ahead: energy sustainability, climate change, world hunger, the risks of global pandemic, and the escalating pace of habitat degradation and species extinction. Our profound inventive capacities will be key to addressing any of them.

Continued innovation in the world of information should have some of the greatest transformative impact. Increasingly sophisticated communication capacities will link us in ways we could not before have imagined—as a species, and, also, by drawing on more of our cognitive complexity, more deeply with ourselves. They should also confront us in new and deeper ways with fundamental questions not only about communication, but also about identity. Today’s new digital reality in which anywhere on the planet is but a few keystrokes away and where means of communications tend increasingly to be decentralized, interactive, and multi-modal (and with this engaging of multi-intelligences) has already produced significant changes in how we think about ourselves. And what we have seen is certainly but a beginning.

We should also see scientific discoveries with special pertinence to some of Cultural Maturity’s more philosophical insights. Continued penetration into the deep mysteries of the cosmos and the subatomic will bring us ever closer to creation’s origins. We should also get a better handle on whether we are alone in the universe. In the biological sciences, particularly in genetics, immunology, and environmental biology, advances should continue to dramatically inform our understanding of life and what it takes to sustain it. Cultural Maturity adds that the kind of conceptual leaps its describes —that help us appreciate living systems as life—should have an increasingly important place in what biology has to teach us. The cognitive sciences along with innovations in computer technology may also push our understanding of what it means to understand—and more, what it means be human—in dramatic further ways.  Increasingly we will live amongst inventions that are, in certain ways more intelligent than ourselves (as even your pocket calculator already is).

Science, Technology, and “Ways of Knowing”

But as important as new discoveries if the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate will be changes that have more to do with how we think about science and technology and understand ourselves in relationship to them. A couple of key changes tie directly to Cultural Maturity’s themes.

A first “how we think and science and technology” topic turns to how Cultural Maturity reframes truth. Cultural Maturity challenges us to step back from our observing, to be attentive to the different ways we process information and their implications. We confront the essential question of whether scientific truth itself provides sufficient guidance. Most precisely, this is two questions. Scientific truth is a kind of information—objective, repeatable observation. Galileo described science’s task as “To measure everything measurable and to make everything measurable that is not yet measurable.” The first question—does such information capture all there is?  It is also an approach to interpretation. The second question—can rationality explain all that needs explaining?

Cultural Maturity does not at all leave us with the conclusion found in some extreme post-modern positions that scientific truth is simply another cultural construct, that its conclusions are no more true than a particular society’s assumptions about right social behavior. But, culturally mature perspective does suggest that science is best thought of as an approach to knowing—one with limits as well as profound gifts. It emphasizes that we can never fully separate our knowing from ourselves as knowers. And there is that important added recognition that scientific thinking relates most immediately to particular ways of knowing.

Limits are most inescapable when it comes to understanding ourselves. Certainly rationality alone leaves us short when in comes to any of life’s more  “left-hand” concerns—the artistic and esthetic, love and affection, experiences of a spiritual nature. Einstein reminds us that “We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has of course powerful muscles, but no personality.”

And objective/material observation confronts its own kind of gifts and curses reality. It is what ultimately defines science’s contribution In the world of classical science, it matters not who is doing the observing, someone from New Guinea or New York, someone with long hair and a ring in his ear or an Annapolis grad. And one plus one always equals two; it never equals three or four. But too easily we confuse the ability to make measurement with sufficiency of measurement. When we do so, we left with a rather odd sort of objectivity. Einstein here too, put in his two cents worth: “Not everything that can be counted counts. And not everything that counts can be counted.” An “objectivity” that leaves out major portions of the data can hardly in the end be called objective at all.

If ascribing rigidly to right-hand methodology doesn’t simply dismiss important variables, it strongly biases what we consider important. Researchers working in my own field of psychology, for example, have only very recently begun to regard phenomena such as love and spirituality as worthy topics of study—even though the average person would list them near the top of personal concerns. Such limits take added significance with reflections in these pages on the cultural tasks ahead. A rationalist/materialist worldview in isolation leaves us unable to effectively engage and articulate culturally mature perspective—and not just because it leaves our more poetic concerns. Science has a hard time getting its arms around phenomena that require systemic understanding of our second sort. None of the terms I’ve used to point toward the needed, more complete kind of understanding—maturity, wisdom, creativity, purpose—can be well captured within a traditional scientific frame. We have to accept that traditional scientific perspective, however powerful and wonderful, may not by itself be sufficient for studying many of the topics that in the future we will most wish to address.

Logical/material absolutism leads us most blatantly astray with scientism. Science applies rationality and objective/material observation. Scientism, in contrast, equates rational materialism with truth. Historian of science Timothy Ferris put it this way with regard to science and rationality: “It is the faith of [classical] science that nature is rationally intelligible.” With scientism that becomes a fundamentalist faith.

All of this is not to say that science at its best can’t help even with culturally mature concerns of a more human sort. As twentieth-century science has taught us, limits are just as ultimately inescapable when it comes to the creaturely and the merely physical. Modern understandings of both the subatomic and the cosmos give mystery—at least things out of sight and beyond prediction—new pertinence. (Quantum mechanics is objective and rational in the sense of being an elegantly powerful predictive tool.  But it leaves even its greatest experts wondering if there aren’t things missing and scratching their heads with regard to what it all means.) And we confront the inability of mechanical systems thinking to explain life—and ultimately much of anything if explanation is to be at all complete. Neither of these observations diminishes our appreciation for the scientific method. Quite the contrary, they reflect the expanded sophistication and dynamism of understanding that twentieth-century science has been increasingly about. But they do suggest the importance of a more humble and self-reflective science.

The new picture presented by twentieth-century science strongly affirms the powers of rationality and objective measurement. Indeed it dramatically extends their reach. But it also better appreciates what the scientific method does well and what it does not. And it is a science increasingly open to a world—whether the inner world of our psyches or the outer world or creatures, societies, and galaxies—more mysterious and wondrous than either rationality or simple mechanical models easily capture.

Where does this leave the extreme version of scientism—the belief that everything is reducible to physical observation? Do we best discard it, see it as a victim of the fact of ultimate limits. Do we go so far as to think of it as a kind of Transitional Absurdity. Cultural Maturity seems to suggest this fate. But scientism will not give up without a fight—and that is good.  It should be a most fun and informative battle. Some of the most interesting of recent formulations keep the question open. For example, we witness the provocatively “life-like” yet ultimately mechanistic calculations of the sciences of complexity. Cultural Maturity’s reaffirmation of “ultimate” concerns at least predicts that this is a kind of question we will take seriously in ways we have not before and one that will generate intriguing, even enlightening conversation.

Science, Technology, and Ethics

Science—along with technology—is one of the places where that sense in which all questions in a culturally mature reality become moral—questions of value—has greatest significance. We’ve tended to assume that because science’s observations are objective, they are “value free.” And we’ve tended to treat technology as simply invention (and the more of that the better). Such assumptions may have served us in the Industrial Age. But they do not hold up to mature scrutiny and become obstacles when it comes to the challenges of good future decision-making.

Questions of value have most sweeping consequence with the new critical importance of taking responsibility for what we invent. The Manhattan Project and the poignant soul searching engaged in by many of its participants, for me, symbolizes this essential transition. The immense destructive power of the atomic bomb made it clear to its creators that the questions they confronted were as much moral as scientific. Innovations have always had pluses and minuses (the automobile makes us more mobile, but also pollutes the environment—the telephone lets us communicate long distances, but also disrupts our privacy). But, the scale of potential consequences today—for both good and ill—makes the moral dimensions of our choices impossible to ignore.  Astrophysicist Eric Chaiison put it pointedly in his book The Life Era: “If our species is to survive to enjoy a future, then we must make synonymous the words ‘future’ and ‘ethical.’”

Science’s moral leadership may most stand out—certainly must stand out—with emerging planetary challenges. The unbounded nature of its inquiry has always been one of science’s great strengths. Future inquiry should be no less so. But it should also take direction from the magnitude of the dilemmas we now face and the critical role science and technology must necessarily play in addressing them. Much of our success with the most difficult of challenges will depend on science’s willingness to take a newly explicit leadership role.

A Thumbnail Summary: Cultural Maturity predicts …

—that science and technology can and must provide leadership in confronting emerging planetary challenges.

—that science and technology will continue to expand and deepen the more dynamic and systemic picture of the world they introduced (and amazed us with) in the twentieth century.

—that in times ahead we will come increasingly view science as an approach to knowing with limits as well as great strengths.

—that we will better recognize that science and technology always have moral dimensions.

Thought experiments

Make a list of the kinds of discoveries and inventions that might most serve future human possibility and well-being. If you were designing a school for the twenty-first century, what approaches to teaching about science and technology might best support such innovation?

Imagine you were given the task of crafting social mechanisms to help assure that future discoveries will be used in ways that best serve humanity (and life as a whole). What might such mechanisms look like? On what bases might choices best be made?

Take your best shot at describing the world as science increasingly sees it—and as you think science may see the world in the future. What kinds of words or images get closest?