Knowledge is bought at the price of ignorance. We must surrender one for the other. A simple transaction you may think, and one we should be ready to make. However, the loss of ignorance, and the innocence that so often accompanies it, may be more of a wrench that we expect.
Some argue that things have gone too far, that science has wrought a new kind of havoc and that we should resist so-called advances with a neo-Luddite fervour. A simpler world can be conjured in our minds; one without dilemma and expectation and an overload of information, where the ills that currently befall the planet would have been averted. A world where we live simply – simply getting on with it. This is, of course, a fantasy. Life was never simple – it has always been hard, without mercy and often cruel. We were given, or we evolved, our brains – the most sophisticated computers on Earth – to survive. That survival depended on us being able to discover and invent and change. To imagine a pre-scientific world as a better place is to ignore some basic facts. To regard our present day as somehow soiled by innovation and invention and discovery does a gross disservice to many great minds and to the very essence of what it means to be Human.
Our lives before antibiotics were not better. Our hunger before innovations in agriculture was not noble. Our fears of the dark, and the unknown and the supernatural were intense and should not be forgotten.
Giving up the benefits of scientific discovery is not a solution; it is just the formulation of a different problem. When we acquire new knowledge we may feel that we have advanced, that we have become better. Alternatively, we may feel that such new knowledge will change us and our societies adversely, and that it should be resisted, even outlawed.
A modern day example of this may be the continuing controversy over stem cell research. Such research holds much promise to help those with diseases that have, until now, resisted cure. But, stem cell research also poses significant ethical dilemmas for some, to the extent that any potential benefits are, in their eyes, overshadowed by the damage it does to us as Humans with religious and ethical sensitivities. Would it be better to shelve such research? Would it be right to abandon any attempt to find a compromise that would satisfy the zeal for scientific advance on the one hand and a conservatism born of morality on the other? Such debates often drive our scientific agenda, but they are not new.
Galileo was a scientist who watched the stars and the planets. He concluded, through careful observation, that the Earth rotated around the Sun and not, as had been held as the truth, vice versa. He came into conflict with the Church and in his day that was about as bad as it could get. In temporal matters they represented a virtually totalitarian regime holding sway over life and death, and in spiritual matters they held all the cards, deciding not just on your fate in this life, but for all eternity. Galileo was asked to recant – to admit he was wrong – and he did, because he wanted to live.
An interesting counter factual world can be imagined if this attitude of an authoritarian church had been allowed to persist in it repression of scientific discovery. Kingsley Amis, in his novel “The Alteration”, describes a twentieth century world where the Reformation has never taken place, because one death had been avoided, that of Prince Arthur, Henry’s elder brother and first husband of Katherine of Aragon. No death, no remarriage for Katherine, no accession by the second son to the throne of England as Henry VIII and no Anne Boleyn. In Amis’ imagined world London is still a semi-rural landscape, there has been no industrial revolution, and electricity has never been harnessed for power. A simpler world, yes – but one where children still die of simple infections and men and women toil in fields with only horses and oxen to help. Not only is there no Internet, there are no books. There is little education and no possibility of turning wonder into discovery. Is that where we want to live?
As Humans we have, it is believed by some, a hard wired morality. We can distinguish right from wrong from a very early age, and the power of what we ought to do often overwhelms us. Part of that “ought” I would argue is to move forward. We are designed for discovery. We ask questions and work out how to find answers. We are designed to walk upright and look up at the stars, not to scrabble in the dirt. We have the capacity to ask for more and work out where to find it. We face our problems by finding their solutions. In short, to deny progress is to deny us our birthright.
Yes, moving forward sometimes takes us into unfamiliar territory. New discoveries raise new spectres as well as provide new hope. As we saw above, we face fresh challenges in medical ethics with the discovery of new techniques and cures. Advances in physics give us new computing powers, but also the bomb. Chemistry provides poisons as well as drugs and Engineering weapons as well as harvesters. I began this blog with the thought that the price of knowledge was a loss of ignorance and innocence. Perhaps, it is more than that. Perhaps, discovery is bought at the price of our humanity. Perhaps with every step forward we also step down, and our advance is nothing more than a descent. It was Darwin who coined the term “The Descent of Man” in the 19th century. And, it was the polymath Bronowski who preferred the opposite, when he created his landmark television series, “The Ascent of Man” in the 1970s. Our scientific discovery undoubtedly takes us forward, but the question now seems to be does it simultaneously take us down or does it raise us up?
I have no doubt on this point. Our field of vision has expanded and our horizons have broadened as we have toiled to achieve the scientific discoveries that have shaped our modern world. We are higher and we see further now than ever before, not just because we have climbed, but because we have climbed on to the shoulders of giants. The sacrifice of ignorance and innocence and a simplicity of life that exists only in nostalgia is a very small price to pay for such a view.
© Allan Gaw