Reflections on Science, Technology and the Human Spirit
Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Paper prepared for the
Triglav Circle 2018
Chateau de Poussignol, Blismes, France
30 June-1 July 2018
Too often in our world, science and religion are seen as in conflict, if not contradictory. As a Baha’i, I have never had that problem, and chose a career in science because it seemed to be the best expression of my spirituality. These reflections emerge from this experience of science in harmony with the human spirit.
First, it may help to explore what we mean by the human spirit. It is obvious that we have a physical reality, with a body subject to the constraints of any animal. Science is itself a proof of our rational or intellectual reality, which distinguishes us from all other animals. There might be more controversy in the scientific community about whether we have a spiritual reality, yet some form of spiritual experience is so widespread that it is hard to deny that there must be something behind it. Here I am assuming the acceptance of this spiritual reality.
Once we admit the existence of a spiritual reality that we all possess in embryonic form and that must be developed, this comes to justify our higher human purpose, to cultivate the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness. There is, in fact, an essential connection between the outer and inner dimensions of our existence.
“We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.” 1
I have been fortunate that my own spiritual tradition has from the beginning had great praise for science. Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote:
“Knowledge is as wings to man's life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words. Great indeed is the claim of scientists and craftsmen on the peoples of the world.... In truth, knowledge is a veritable treasure for man, and a source of glory, of bounty, of joy, of exaltation, of cheer and gladness unto him.” 2
“The source of crafts, sciences and arts is the power of reflection. Make ye every effort that out of this ideal mine there may gleam forth such pearls of wisdom and utterance as will promote the well-being and harmony of all the kindreds of the earth.” 3
The son of the founder of the Baha’i Faith, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, similarly wrote:
[Humans are] “the highest specialized organism of visible creation, embodying the qualities of the mineral, vegetable and animal plus an ideal endowment absolutely minus and absent in the lower kingdoms - the power of intellectual investigation into the mysteries of outer phenomena. The outcome of this intellectual endowment is science which is especially characteristic of man. This scientific power investigates and apprehends created objects and the laws surrounding them. It is the discoverer of the hidden and mysterious secrets of the material universe and is peculiar to man alone. The most noble and praiseworthy accomplishment of man therefore is scientific knowledge and attainment.” 4
We see Science and Religion as two complementary knowledge systems, both of which are necessary to guide civilization forward:
- science without religion falls into materialism;
- religion without science tends to superstition and fanaticism.
Unfortunately, both these excesses are common in the world today, and are behind many of our difficulties and crises.
The problem is that science and technology are neutral, their discoveries can be used for good or evil. It is religion, broadly defined to encompass all spiritual traditions, that provides the ethical framework and moral purpose for science and technology.
It is in this framework that we can explore some of the dichotomies that science and technology present to us today, and to consider how the human spirit can best profit from the wonderful tools that science has given us.
Technology can liberate or imprison
As physical beings, we have all sorts of practical limitations, which dominated our potential for most of the existence of the human species. Life was largely devoted to meeting our physical needs and avoiding life-threatening situations. Now we can dive under the sea, go to the moon, fly faster than the speed of sound or go anywhere on the planet, speak to anyone around the world, record our thoughts and experiences, and manipulate our environment as we wish. It would seem that our liberties have no limits, and the consumer society is there to cater to our every want. And that is the paradox. We have trapped ourselves in our consumer culture, forced to keep upgrading our technologies to avoid falling behind. Our home is our castle, protecting us from unwanted encounters. and our motor vehicles are similarly designed to protect us from other people. We have become prisoners to our technologies. Rather than liberating us from the struggle for existence so that we can devote our energies to more important things of the spirit, we surround ourselves with distractions so that we do not have to face the spiritual void within ourselves.
Technology can unite or divide
Now that it is technically possible to encounter and exchange with every other human being on the planet, we can for the first time experience and profit from the unity of the entire human race. The rich diversity of human experience is available at our fingertips, not only as it is at present, but as it has been documented down through history. We have access to all the holy books, all the discoveries of science, all the literary, artistic and musical masterpieces from every culture, all the richness of human experience. We can converse, exchange pictures, interact and collaborate as never before in history. This is the perfect foundation for us to live together in peace and harmony. Yet the technology also seems to bring out all that is worst in human nature. We spread fear and hate of others, manipulate public opinion with “alternative truths” and false news, bully and intimidate, slander and corrupt, and find wonderful new outlets for criminal activity. Humanity today seems ever more fragmented and divided in our technologically united world.
Technology for independence or dependence
Science and technology have not yet freed us from all human limitations. We still can fall ill, have accidents, and must some day grow old and die, although perhaps with modern medical science much better than before. Still, the choices before us at any point in our lives are greater than ever. We are even independent of day and night, although we have to sleep at some point. Most technologies are now so portable that we can take them with us everywhere, and be in contact when and where we want. Yet the result seems more often than not to trap us and make us dependent. At least in the more developed parts of the world, the new technologies have led to new kinds of dependence. Everyone seems more preoccupied with their smartphone than their immediate surroundings or the people around them. The World Health Organization has declared video and on-line game dependence as a mental illness. Professional life often requires being constantly available wherever and whenever the work requires it. Social media are designed to trigger the same pleasure centres as cocaine. Technology is the new opiate of the people.
Technology for profit rather than service
Most technological innovation today is carried out by the private sector driven largely by the search for profits. In today’s materialistic economy, profitability is the driving force for a company, rather than just one measure of efficiency among others. It has become the end justifying any means. There are counter currents, such as in the open source software movement, but success is still largely judged by the accumulation of individual and corporate wealth. The result is a distortion of the aims of science and technology. Rather than making discoveries and inventions that will be of service to humanity, the pressure is to focus on those that will bring the most profit. This either means those that will appeal to the rich, who can afford to pay for them, or those that attract the most advertising revenue. This then leads to data profiling, reinforcing confirmation bias, and other manipulations to target consumers with the ads to which they will be most susceptible. There is little or no interest in technologies that will be of service to the poor and will empower them to self improvement, with the exception perhaps of the rapid spread of cellphones and phone-mediated payment systems and banking services which are transforming the lives of many poor around the world.
The privatization of scientific information using technology
One perverse result of the revolution in information technologies is the privatization of knowledge, including scientific information. The system of intellectual property rights has been steadily reinforced to protect and increase corporate profits. Much of this has focussed on the entertainment industry, but it has now extended to the privatization of scientific knowledge. A few multinational scientific publishing houses have bought up the most important scientific journals, including rights to all the back issues. These have been put on line for a price. Researchers in universities or scientific institutions have libraries prepared to pay for institutional subscriptions, but otherwise articles can only be read for a high fee. For researchers in poor countries, or those without an institutional affiliation, or retired, the scientific literature is available on line but beyond reach. This is science by and for the rich, excluding most of the world from accessing or participating in the latest scientific advances.
An ethical approach to science
If we return to our higher human purpose to develop the potential in human consciousness and to be of service to an ever-advancing civilization, then we must turn the motivations for and uses of science and technology to these purposes. A scientific knowledge of the integrated nature of the biosphere, our place in it and our responsibility for it, needs to be coupled with an ethical or spiritual motivation to change our behaviour accordingly. As the Bahá’í International Community has put it:
“Recognition that creation is an organic whole and that humanity has the responsibility to care for this whole, welcome as it is, does not represent an influence which can by itself establish in the consciousness of people a new system of values. Only a breakthrough in understanding that is scientific and spiritual in the fullest sense of the terms will empower the human race to assume the trusteeship toward which history impels it.” 5
Our approach to science and technology needs to change in fundamental ways as part of the general transformation needed in society and called for in the UN 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals. For example, science for the common good should be funded as we would fund other common benefits, with public support and philanthropy. Where discoveries are profitable, there should be mechanisms to direct at least a share of those profits back into the scientific enterprise.
Also, science should be accessible to everyone, and everyone should be empowered to contribute to scientific advancement. While there is a role for the highly trained scientist and elaborate scientific instruments at the cutting edge of research, science should not be restricted to an elite. Indigenous peoples have deep wisdom about their environments accumulated over many generations of careful observations. This is also science, although perhaps understood in a different intellectual framework. Everyone can learn to observe the world around them, and to think rationally in terms of cause and effect, while exploring, inventing and experimenting with solutions to their local problems. This is also a way to cultivate the potential in the human spirit of each person.
If we are to survive these turbulent times, where our technology is impacting the planet with everything from plastics to greenhouse gases produced from fossil fuels, and science is warning us to make rapid and fundamental changes before it is too late, we must draw on both our science and the powers of the human spirit to save us from ourselves. To the extent that we succeed in this, it will contribute to our spiritual as well as material advancement.
“As trustees, or stewards, of the planet's vast resources and biological diversity, humanity must learn to make use of the earth's natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable, in a manner that ensures sustainability and equity into the distant reaches of time. This attitude of stewardship will require full consideration of the potential environmental consequences of all development activities. It will compel humanity to temper its actions with moderation and humility, realizing that the true value of nature cannot be expressed in economic terms. It will also require a deep understanding of the natural world and its role in humanity's collective development - both material and spiritual. Therefore, sustainable environmental management must come to be seen not as a discretionary commitment mankind can weigh against other competing interests, but rather as a fundamental responsibility that must be shouldered - a prerequisite for spiritual development as well as the individual's physical survival.” 6
1. Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 17 February 1933, Compilation on Social and Economic Development, p. 4
2. Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, The third Tajallí, pp. 51-52
3. Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, Words of Paradise, Eleventh leaf
4. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, in Bahá'í World Faith, p. 242
5. Bahá'í International Community, The Prosperity of Humankind, Office of Public Information, Haifa, 1995
6. Bahá'í International Community, Valuing Spirituality in Development: Initial Considerations Regarding the Creation of Spiritually Based Indicators for Development. A concept paper written for the World Faiths and Development Dialogue, Lambeth Palace, London, 18-19 February 1998
Last updated 4 July 2018