By Adam Frank
In posts by both Stu and Ursula we have seen arguments about the dangerous lack of balance between human economic activity and the planetary environment. At the root of the issue is how human economic systems - driven by the explosive growth of scientific/technological capability - have yanked on strongly coupled atmospheric, oceanic and biological systems regulating conditions on the planet. In short we failed to notice that we live on finite world.
Marcelo gave took us in a different but related direction when he asked, "Who controls science?" As he eloquently pointed out, assuming all will be well with the unconsidered advance and application of science "is to put very powerful guns in the hands of a morally immature species".
The points made by these posts are deeply connected and strike at the very heart of what this 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog is all about.
What is the proper context of science within a culture that is dominated by its fruits and poisons?
Isaac Asimov, the great master of science fiction, once looked at the world's problems and drew exactly the wrong conclusion. He wrote,
"The dangers that face the world can, every one of them, be traced back to science. The salvation's that may save the world will, everyone one of them, be traced back to science."
Asimov got it (at least partially) wrong because Logos, the purely rational and analytic vision, is but one human response to the world. There are other ways we make sense of the cosmos. Mythos, the need for narratives that speak to what we hold sacred and create meaning by setting us into context against the Universe, is the other. One of the great failings of the modern age is the belief that Mythos and Logos can be neatly separated. Science lives on one side of the divide and -- well everything else -- lives on the other.
There are examples of cultures choosing which technologies to embrace and which to reject. After becoming experts at the design and manufacture of guns the 17th century Japanese decided to reject them so completely that when American warships showed up off the coast in 1855 the commander of the USS Vincennes thought the culture was ignorant of firearms. The rejection of guns by the Japanese at this time was made for a variety of reasons. At least some of those reasons were about deeply held core cultural values. And that is the problem the world now faces.
We have yet to develop global core cultural values strong enough to stand up against the relentless economic application of scientific and technological innovation. At some point there should be the ability to say "No thanks". No thanks to (you can fill in your favorite here): dangerous forms of genetic manipulation; unsustainable resource exploitation; invasive electronic technologies; purple plastic penguins. Markets alone are not strong enough to realize this because of the downward pressure that has turned a planet of potential citizens into a global marketplace of consumers.
It is remarkable is that we have managed to create a truly global culture through the application of our science and technology. That is new and admirable development for our rather young species. What is not clear however is if there will be time to also develop the imaginative resources -- the powers of mind - that can sustain that global culture against the pressures it forces on the globe.