The polls tell us that we as a collective whole are becoming less religious and less concerned about sacred and holy things, at least in the Western world.
At the same time we are becoming more and more entranced with science and technology, what the ancient Greeks called τέχνη (Techne).
Most people walk around with a fairly advanced computer that we call a smart phone. We drive “smart cars” that have all the latest gadgets. Medical advances assist the human family in living longer and healthier, and for most people science and technology are usually seen as “good.”
Few seem to be concerned with the technological advances that are on the horizon; but is science and technology always something “good?” And more to the point, should scientific advances, in any area, be severed from the holy?
For the most part, science and technology have gone unrestrained and unchecked for decades. In the modern West, because of our separation and denial of anything transcendent and holy, at least in a practical way, we seem to have few, if any, limits or restraints upon our use and advancement of science and technology.
In a very real sense it feels as if scientific progress has become untethered and is allowed to float free.
The proof, I think, is undeniable; take for example what the Nazi’s did in the name of science and progress in the early twentieth century.
Richard Stockton explains, “At Auschwitz, Dr. Josef Mengele injected dye into the eyes of children to see if he could permanently change their color. He also famously tried to create conjoined twins by stitching his patients together.”1
But it wasn’t just Nazi’s that did horrific things to humans in the name of science and technological advancement. During the 50s and 60s American scientists subjected unsuspecting soldiers and patients to plutonium to see what would happen.2
In more recent times we have had the cloning of animals and the tampering with DNA. There are even scientists today who think that the next great advance will be the placing of microchips into our brains so that we can control our computers and TVs without keyboards and remotes.3
Other examples could be multiplied, but the fact is that we have continued to remove barriers to the progress of technology, the main barrier or tether is the sacred.
If we look to the ancients and question them concerning τέχνη, what do they have to say on the subject?
In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, we are presented with the question of whether or not man should have unhindered access to science.
The play provokes us to ask, “Are there things that man should not know? Is there such a thing as forbidden knowledge, and if man does acquire such prohibited knowledge will he destroy himself with it?”
Dr. Warren Gage, in his lectures on the classics, makes the point that only a reverence for the holy will restrain man from going beyond what they ought to in the realm of science and technology.4 The point is that there are certain things man should not know.
Right away, the modern man cringe at the idea that there is anything that should be out of bounds for us, but Milton corroborates Dr. Gages’ assertion in his epic poem, Paradise Lost:
From the beginning, that posterity, Informed by thee, might know. If else thou seek’st Aught, not surpassing human measure, say.5
Noted classicist, Victor David Hanson, states that
“To Sophocles… there is always a price to be paid for relentless human progress that, in Euripides’ words, makes ‘us arrogant in claiming that we are better than the Gods.’”6
We in the modern world have made extraordinary leaps in fields of science and technology, and as a result, we have computers, smart cars and phones, etc.
But we also have bigger bombs, the ability to post live videos of rapes, tortures, and murders, so thousands and even millions of people can see in real time the depravity of humanity.
Of course it isn’t as though humans wouldn’t be doing these wicked things if the technology wasn’t available.
We would still have murderers, rapists, and tyrants, wars, and the like.
The fact is that sinful humanity – living in a broken and sin cursed world – tends towards evil, but with unrestrained technology, he tends to do much more damage by carrying out those evils on a larger scale.
My main goal in writing this post is not to demonize science and technology, but rather to get us to think biblically and classically about it.
Scientific and technological advances should be used to build up the human family and to better society, and certainly there have been those advances that have helped us.
But technological advances should always be tethered to and restrain by a reverence for the sacred.
When it comes to future advances in τέχνη, I submit a better way forward is to stop asking “can we” and instead ask “should we?”
1 – http://all-that-is-interesting.com/evil-science-experiments/2
3 – http://www.computerworld.com/article/2521888/app-development/intel–chips-in-brains-will-control-computers-by-2020.html
4 – Gage, Warren. CC604 Dante and Milton, Lesson 20.
5 – John Milton, The Harvard Classics 4: The Complete Poems of John Milton, ed. Charles W. Eliot (New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909), 246.
6 – http://www.nationalreview.com/author/victor-davis-hanson