The Societal Goodness of Science and Technology

 

The judgment for the goodness or badness of any matter is not possible without using a framework of reference. In justifying the position immediately presented, its context rationally begs two key issues: “What characteristics does a good society have?” and “Do science and technology help in achieving the ideals of a good society?” These are the delimiting parameters that will frame the discussion in this paper.

The first question requires a deeper scrutiny of humanity’s ultimate goals of existence. If it is a natural consequence for sociable animals of the same kind to coexist with one another, then it must be a biological mechanism for the survival and prosperity of the species. Homo sapiens has undoubtedly been successful at that, and it is all largely to the credit of the social structures that it has put in place for its own sake. This can be also observed in other animals of lesser intelligence whose collective structures serve to ensure the consistent determination of every life form on earth – to adapt, survive and multiply.

Thus it can be said that what makes a society good is if it helps sustain the life and propagation of its component members by providing for and supporting each other’s material and immaterial needs. This paradigm can be tested by looking at the issues confronting our current society. The recognition of social inequality among members of various genders, races, religions, cultures, and economic conditions all aim to align the conditions of marginalized or displaced people to the aforementioned purpose. The concentric layers of society have roles that serve the welfare of each human being – from the family, city, country, geographical regions and the global community. Governments and other authorities in society prioritize advocacies for social change to respond to all aspects of human crises such as disparity, injustice, overpopulation, pollution, illiteracy, poverty, under/unemployment, terrorism, political conflict and the like, all in an effort to reach out to as many citizens as possible and help ease the problems they face. Society, in the context of collective existence, therefore serves a purpose for the advantage of its components – either unconsciously as observed in the natural interaction of biologically interacting beings such as a pack of wolves or a colony of ants, or consciously and deliberately as exhibited by intelligent beings such as we, who study, manipulate and take advantage of it for our own ends.

However, it must be emphasized that society’s function is not simply an extension of each person’s survival motives. The dynamics of society work in such complex ways as to make it uncertain that if all members of society equally strive for the same value in similar means, they will necessarily and equally get it. Such is the case when people enjoy the resources of nature without regard to its sustainability, or when a given society focuses too much on productivity so that its output exceeds demand so as to decrease the output’s value, or when the skill-set of the workforce are lopsidedly focused so as to render a big chunk of the population under- or unemployed. Those are simple and contrived examples because clearly there are larger solutions to resolve or at least alleviate the bad effects of such circumstances, but the point is that the needs of humankind have evolved in huge leaps compared to the natural self-regulating design of other collective beings we see in nature.

Letting nature take its course no longer applies to our society because human intelligence has cheated nature and will continue to do so in accelerated fashion as we learn more about this world. This is where science and technology come in. Science has primarily been the tool of the modern era to pursue knowledge about nature, and its application in the form of technology has enabled our societies to grow exponentially. By this single fact alone, it is without a doubt that science and technology have indeed served the ultimate purpose of survival and propagation of the species.

But this straightforward justification is not enough without seeing the complete picture. From the rise of industrial machinery, our societies have evolved from mere agricultural states to modern production based economies with greater social problems than the earlier times. Advancements in nuclear technology, genetics, and industrial technology have been used quite responsibly so far, but could potentially cause devastation to the whole humankind and global environment. Our reliance on some commodities as required by technology has produced power and influence to those aspects of society who have the resources that give them control, thereby creating conflict and displacing those who could not afford such technology. Technological change has changed people’s cultures and some of them, for the worse. Various forms of environmental degradation, including global warming, are caused by technology and attitudes that place greater value to immediate material results as opposed to long term and larger effects to nature. Any technology, no matter how nobly conceived, could result to unanticipated bad effects to society once it takes a strong foothold to the values of the majority. From the preceding refutations, it is fairly clear that any good benefit of science can be negated depending on the motivation, consequence, and control of the people who pursue and apply it. Thus an argument based on utility is hard to resolve.

The pursuit of science is empirical in nature, while sociology, practical and theoretical. When science is viewed in the context of society to justify its goodness, one has to encapsulate it in the same methods of understanding society. The contentions that scientific knowledge is a social construct, and that technology is imbibed with slanted societal motivations, are appropriate in doing this judgement, because the only way to circumvent the problem of comparing apples and oranges is to make one similar to the other. Hence, for the classic science advocate to present a convincing argument, he must speak in the language of the critical sociologist. The only way to do this is to find a common ground between the values of science and the values of society.

The first step towards finding a commonality is drawing the bottom line behind the criticism, as judging whether an entity is good or bad is to criticize it to its core relative to the core values of the entity that is doing the judgement. Critical social thought aims to reveal science as just another tool to resolve human tribulations and simultaneously expose the hidden and assumed ideologies that may be the causes of societal problems brought about by the prevalent, tenacious and almost religious trust that the world accords to science. Meanwhile, the supposed pure discipline of science boasts of objectivity to uncover the unaffected truth; but since the pursuit of any knowledge, scientific or not, cannot escape from human values, science is bound by social implications – from politics to economics. Seeing science in lenses of relevant social contexts aims to uncover the social reality behind the pursuit of the truth.

On the other side, we have to let go of the material offerings of science through its application, but rather, focus on the core values that we can derive from it. If we say that science is good for society, then it must support the aforementioned aim of social criticism. What then are these values?

Firstly, although it seems plausible that science is bound by the dynamics of society and therefore not value-free, the empirical methods of science impart an attitude of self-doubt that is parallel with the current pursuits of understanding society. It does not consider any form of knowledge that it acquires as absolute truth, labelling universal observations as only theories, thus making room for corrections and greater understanding of phenomena. This mindset is not different from criticisms that emphasize the social implications of science, providing multiple pictures of reality in various contexts, boldly stating that there is not a single, superior and absolute reality.

Second, even if the widely accepted scientific theories have a way of inculcating their seemingly arrogant persistence into the modern world, these beliefs were arrived at with constant scrutiny, proof and reliable exhibition of their usefulness through technology. The emphasis here is not on the ideology of the products of science, but rather in recognizing that society places great value to methods that work best for its people. Studying society has the same purpose: to discover the processes that make it work and fail for the people. The arduous evaluation of society’s major components, including science and technology, are executed not just for the sake of understanding it, but also to discover solutions to make society better. In fact, dissolving the fanaticism on science is to make it clear that this attitude affects some aspects of society negatively, producing an awareness that will theoretically be better for society.

Third, the empirical investigations of science are generally accomplished to serve humans’ trivial needs; but in general, the accumulation of its knowledge is for every single person to digest in order to deduce the deeper meaning of things, including the existence of man. This is not to displace the wisdom of other religions or other methods of knowledge acquisition. Rather, it is to find inspiration for man to continue living by seeking answers to old issues and the new questions that arise from new discoveries. Science can be and has been a useful tool to appease man about his curiosity. Likewise, sociology delves into the desires and tendencies of man as he lives in a society and how society affects him back, also responding to the same itch that science scratches. No matter which social angle we evaluate science against, we are exercising the same rationality in understanding human nature and condition.

From these arguments, we can claim that the societal goodness of science and technology does not just lie in their material value, but more importantly from the non-physical goods that also correspond with the goals of society. The humility in accepting that what we know are not absolute truths or realities, the arduous search for structures that work best for the people, and the constant inspiration to understand man and the world, are the most common features that put science and society in the same corner. In this context, science and technology are good for society.

The other more persuasive common denominator that induces congruence between science and society is their complementary nature. From the teleological perspective, science and technology are rife with doubt about their goodness because it has been shown that science is only as good as its purpose or its usage. On the other hand, we also cannot discount the fact that science has done well to serve the interests of humanity. To resolve these opposing stands, we might choose to quantify science’s future negative or positive potential, or measure its negative and positive effects in the past. But either solution is impossible, and so it makes sense to involve the ideals of studying society in this judgement. This is where society complements science. In studying the dynamics between the individual man and the community, sociology helps us get a grip on science and align it with society’s greater and good interests. Likewise, science complements the study of society by providing empirically reliable tools of measurement, methods and analysis.

This stance of cooperativeness does not justify the societal goodness of science by virtue of its utility, but of the inherent qualities of humanity that cultivate it. That is the systematic pursuit of knowledge, of finding order from the chaos. It seeks explanation of contradictions as observed in nature, the same as the proactive study of society that seeks resolution of human crises resulting from contradictions of power, ideals, and values. Although to critique science in specific contexts helps to reveal its negativity or positivity in various social realities, its discipline justifies – in its own right – the goodness of science. Using Kant’s moral philosophy, we can evaluate that the quest for scientific knowledge (suspending its consequences for this argument) is inherently good because the satisfaction of the thirst for knowledge for practical reasons or for curiosity’s sake will not contradict itself when universally applied. The goodness test here is to ask, if it is good for one person to practice and enjoy science and its application, will this goodness be contradicted if every single person on this planet does the same? If the mastery of nature is endowed to each person, will it come to a point when the mastery is negated? This is a test of consistency that every moral rule is subjected to.

Science is one exercise (among the numerous methods in the world) of the natural human instinct to grapple the world using the naturally given facility of intellect and reason. The human feature to ask and understand his world is what sets the species apart from the rest of the animal kingdom and has what made it immensely successful. Science and technology just happened to work for humanity and have thus been elevated as most widely accepted method of manipulating nature for man’s needs. Thus it follows that science and technology are motivated by the primal quest for survival. The nature of this act – systematically discovering nature to help us successfully adapt to it – does not contradict its purpose when applied universally. For when some scientific technology is known to be destructive to society, this realization will still form a part of the total body of scientific knowledge that is self-correcting. Mistakes and inconsistencies help strengthen and expand scientific knowledge. When such lessons are ignored, this conscious disregard can only be attributed to man’s irresponsibility. But that does not make the original act of scientific knowledge acquisition bad. It is the act of ignoring the lessons and mistakes of technology that are not good.

In sum, science and technology are acts that are good in themselves, blemished only when corrupted motivations are drawn in, or when the ignorance of the consequences is not acted upon. After judging science in the context of utility, and of congruence with society, Kant’s philosophy separates the act (or discipline) of science from the motives. This is the last draw from which the goodness of any entity is to be judged upon. The categorical imperative is what binds us into the moral beings that we are born to be, to ensure harmony among ourselves within society. It clarifies that no non-human entity, whether socially constructed or existing by default in nature, is deserving of human judgment – it is the act of man applied to such entity that should be judged. Although scientific knowledge is laden with the values of the people that develop it, the greater lesson that we can get from striving for its ideals of objectivity is the emphasis to the morality of what man can do, and currently does, to this knowledge.

As science and technology are here to stay, we might as well use them in the service of society. When we optimistically believe in the goodness of what science can do for us, we are aligning our energies to the goodness that can potentially come from it. The credibility that we place unto it will then force us to be vigilant of ourselves in its utility.

This entry was posted in Science and Technology, Science, Technology and Society, Sociology and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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