Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1).
Our society tells itself a comforting story of progress: people consider the many scientific and technological advancements over the past three hundred years and tend to focus on the positive results. It seems hard to argue too much: at no point in human history has daily life been so thoroughly transformed in such a short time. The narrative of progress is a very tempting one, yet with it comes the great peril of science and technology: knowledge all too easily leads to arrogance.
The premise of “progress” itself lends itself to arrogance. If we have “progressed,” it must mean that we are better than those who came before us. For untold generations people presumed that people of olden times lived better, proved wiser, and enjoyed a better time than those in the present. Today the situation is exactly reversed: people today are confident they live better, prove wiser, and enjoy better times now than their ancestors did in the past. We have so much greater understanding of things; we enjoy a higher quality of life, at least in material terms, than did our ancestors; we tend to live longer. The failures and limitations of our ancestors have been exposed and even magnified in light of current developments and understanding. Doubtless there are many things we understand better than our ancestors did; yet is it possible that our ancestors understood other things better than we do? No doubt many of our ancestors would have greatly appreciated the higher quality of life we enjoy in material terms, but would they prove willing to abandon the sense of community, camaraderie, and inter-connectedness they enjoyed which we have lost? Our ancestors sinned and transgressed in many ways; do we think we have escaped such transgression, or is it that we are blind to the logs in our own eyes while very perceptive of the specks in the eyes of our ancestors? We presume that modern life is “progress” at our peril: modern life is certainly different, and comes with some benefits, but that does not mean that modern life is “better.” The Preacher is wise: time is cyclical; what has been will be; there is nothing truly new under the sun; yet to say the former days were better than these is not according to wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, 7:10). We can appreciate the differences in modern life that make it better while critiquing and lamenting those differences that have made life worse.
Expansion of scientific knowledge and development of technology has led to great and unjustified arrogance. It did not have to be this way: we can imagine a world in which scientists and innovators recognize the divine order of things and in humility seek to gain better understanding of the creation in order to glorify and honor their Creator. Instead we live in a society which two centuries ago decided to assume a mostly “dead” universe with life as the great exception as opposed to the previous model in which the universe was understood as alive and made for life. Therefore those who have gained greater understanding of science and technology are all too easily tempted to believe they have become the masters of the universe. They seek to learn so they can control and manipulate; whenever humans have attempted to learn so as to control and manipulate, they have established a culture of death. And so it is today: with our fossil fuel driven economy we oppress the creation, over-exploit its resources, create deserts, and call them paradises. Far too many scientists, and those trained to believe in a scientific mindset, have given themselves over to scientism, presuming that science and the scientific method is the means by which to explain everything. Thus they presume God cannot exist because He does not fit in the box of their scientific methods; they try to explain everything based upon what can be ascertained through scientific exploration. They have thus created a diminished desert of life and call it paradise, because their desert is at least ordered according to their specifications of what they can understand. We hear continual stories out of Silicon Valley of men and women who believe that the technology they develop is The Answer to All Our Problems, and who consider themselves as gods upon the earth. They have gained great wealth from their innovations and thus they presume they can run the world. They imagine that all the world’s problems can be solved with just better application of technological know-how. No matter what, in such a view, there is always better living through science and technology.
Far too many blind themselves by such delusions. The scientific endeavor is good, even excellent, in its appropriate sphere; yet much of life, especially the parts of life worth living, cannot be reduced to biological impulses and what can be explained by science. Scientism, almost by necessity, leads to an Epicurean posture: life is meaningless; thus, we should do all we can to avoid pain and enjoy life responsibly. Ancient Greeks proved wiser than modern man: they recognized that Epicureanism was a possibility, but did not presume it was the given or default philosophical posture, and appreciated many other perspectives. Beauty, meaning, and truth give life its value, and none of these can be fully appreciated through a purely scientific perspective; when one hears that altruism and the humanitarian impulse is deemed to be an evolutionary misfire, one should surely see the diminishment of humanity and the dullness of imagination left to us in such a purely materialistic perspective. Just as science cannot explain all things, technology cannot fix all of our problems. In fact, technology creates problems as it might fix others. Can you remember the halcyon days when it was imagined that social media would be a means by which humans would be able to come together and share in life together despite physical distance and be a force for good? It did not take long before the pursuit of money made it more profitable to use social media to tear people apart and to fear The Other and reinforce tribal allegiances. Now many who helped set up social media are filled with lament and regret. As it went with social media, so it goes with all sorts of science and technology. All such knowledge and development are morally neutral: they are tools. They can be used for good or for evil. Unfortunately, people with the best of intentions become so dazzled with the possibilities for good that they dismiss and prove blind to the equally likely possibilities such tools possess for evil until it is too late. People become so enamored with the idea of progress they forget they have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory and maintain a propensity to sin. In our attempt to become masters through science and technology we become enslaved and entrapped to what we have made; we may dominate for a season, but may find ourselves undone by the consequences of our domination.
In all such things we can perceive the hand and judgment of God, and He is right, just, and holy to do so. Ever since Babel man has arrogated himself against God and His purposes, and every time man has ultimately found himself frustrated. “Civilization” and “progress” prove thin veneers, easily penetrated by danger, disaster, and distress; for all we have learned about the universe and our technological advancements, we have not made much “progress” regarding metaphysics and philosophy, and “the good life” remains as elusive as ever. We might be more comfortable physically, yet agonize and suffer greatly mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as we become more isolated through our science and technology.
There was a time when people could look upon three hundred years of advancement, what they deemed to be a great and refined time of civilization, and had every reason to imagine it would go on forever. That time was the Roman Empire of the middle of the second century, and their way of life did not go on forever. They may have felt as if they had progressed, but a time would come when they would “regress.” We do not prove as different from them as we might like to think. Knowledge makes arrogant; science and technology can be wonderfully effective servants, but they make for despotic and terrible gods. May we recognize the peril that can arise from overconfidence and overreliance in science and technology, glorify God as God and use science and technology in ways which honor His purposes, and find life in the resurrection in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry