Biting the Apple

Why Science Can't Take Us To Utopia

As I write these words, a new gadget craze is once again sweeping the world: this time, it’s the Apple Watch. If you believe the hype (and the pre-orders suggest that millions do), the Apple Watch is set to be a wild success. The marketing promises us that it will change our lives, allowing us to communicate with loved ones in new ways, play yet-to-be-envisaged-games, and track our health and sleep patterns. Apparently it even tells the time. I say this not to mock, as I’m a sucker for new technology, especially Apple products. Back in 2007, I remember queuing for hours outside a mobile phone store in London for the privilege of being among the first to own an iPhone.

Apple

We love technology, we’re addicted to our gadgets, and the ubiquity of digital devices in our lives has been a major contributor to the popular idea in our culture that science is a panacea for all that ails us. Glowing media reports of the latest technologies reinforce the modern fairytale that science alone can connect us, heal us, improve us, save us even. Many science aficionados take this one step further, contrasting the wonders of forward-looking science with the perils of backward-looking religion. Listen to these impassioned words from physicist and atheist Victor Stenger:

Faith is folly. Faith is bad. It is not something to respect. We should be fighting its negative influence on the world … Science flies us to the moon. Religion flies us into buildings.[1]

Clever as that may be is, it’s not actually true. Science may have gotten Stenger’s rhetoric into near-earth orbit, but it did not get us to the moon. Rather, the Apollo programme was ultimately the result of politics, eye-watering amounts of money, and a desire to outdo the Russians. Likewise, it was not science that gave us the Apple Watch, but clever design, business acumen, and millions of dollars spent in advertising. Science itself, science alone does nothing, in precisely the same way that the scribbled equations on a blackboard don’t create rockets, blueprints themselves don’t construct buildings, or the mere idea of a blog post, much to my chagrin, doesn’t produce finished copy.

Our modern confusion about science arises from a misunderstanding about what science actually is. Science is simply a tool for discovering a certain type of truth: it’s a method for pursuing knowledge in the physical world, largely through experiment and observation.[2] But if this is the case, it raises some fundamental questions, the first being why the pursuit of knowledge is a good thing. Here’s the late Christopher Hitchens, waxing eloquent:

[W]e are in need of a renewed Enlightenment, which will base itself on the proposition that the proper study of mankind is man, and woman … The pursuit
 of unfettered scientific inquiry, and the availability of new findings to masses of people by easy electronic means, will revolutionize our concepts of research and development … And all this and more is, for the first time in our history, within the reach if not the grasp of everyone.[3]

What a tremendous vision Hitchens paints: a renewed Enlightenment, no less! But just a moment: why, precisely, is the pursuit of knowledge through the sciences such a good thing? You might possibly be able to construct some kind of argument that scientific research which advances the quality of life (perhaps a new cure for cancer, or a way to increase crop yields) has value. But that’s desperately utilitarian: what about when it comes to more arcane areas of research? Do we really need to know why onions make people cry? Or that chimpanzees can recognise each other from photographs of their bottoms?[4] What possible use is such knowledge and why is it so wonderful that it can reduce a pickled old cynic like Hitchens to dewy-eyed romanticism? Why, in short, bother doing science at all: why not cut all government funding for science and spend the money instead on one really wild party? (We’d even invite the nerds). In short: what is it about science and the pursuit of knowledge that is so darned special? I put it to you that this is not a question that science can answer for us.

But there’s a second problem with utopian views of science, namely that the knowledge unlocked by science is value-neutral and can be applied in many different ways, for good or for ill. In his book, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, historian George Dyson tells the fascinating story of the development of the modern computer, an invention that changed the world, but that had curiously mixed roots. Born of the need to develop a mathematical machine that could calculate the results of nuclear explosions, the first programmable computer developed at Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Studies also found service exploring digital simulations of evolution. Dyson remarks on the irony here, that the birth of our digital world was steeped both in creation and destruction:

Three technological revolutions dawned in 1953: thermonuclear weapons, stored-program computers, and the elucidation of how life stores its own instructions as strings of DNA … The new computer was assigned two problems: how to destroy life as we know it, and how to create life of unknown forms.[5]

The tale of the computer is, in one sense, the story of all science and technology. Each new discovery enables new technologies and these can be used for good or evil. If science gets the credit for flying us to the moon, it must also get the blame for biological warfare, environmental pollution, weapons of mass destruction and the near-permanent state of distraction our digital devices have reduced us to: cloud-connected zombies awaiting the next ping of our phones or buzz of our Apple Watches. If science is this Janus-faced, how do we decide which applications of science, which technologies are good, bad or indifferent? By what compass can we navigate the myriad choices science has made possible? Again, these are ethical questions, questions of the common good: not questions that science itself can answer.

The problem is that science has so rapidly given us knowledge and power—and traditionally those are the very areas where humans tend to go astray. This is a thread in human history that goes right back to the very beginning. Consider, for example, the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the garden, to whom God gave tremendous freedom and responsibility and just one restriction: “Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die”.[6] Cynics have sometimes suggested this was a command designed to enforce ignorance, but that’s to naively miss the message at the heart of the text. By our own efforts, cleverness (or technology), we humans can create all manner of things: but we cannot create good—for good is rooted and grounded in the character of God. By disobeying God’s one command, Adam and Eve attempted to reach out and define good and evil for themselves, and in so doing, over-reached and fell.

Today, as our technological prowess accelerates ever faster, as the digital world expands quicker and quicker, as science gives us ever more knowledge, I would suggest that we have gone the other way to Adam and Eve. Rather than try to grasp the power to define good and evil for ourselves, we’ve run from the question, hidden behind science, allowed technology to charge headlong, dragging us behind it. Our motto has become identical to that of the evil artificial intelligence, GlaDOS, in the best-selling computer game Portal: “We do what we must because we can.”[7]

Yet whether we try to define good and evil by our own means, as Adam and Eve did, or ignore those categories and chase the technological rabbit down whichever hole it leads us, we are guilty of the same mistake: forgetting that without a living, active connection to God, the source of all life, truth and goodness, then no matter how cunning the machines we build, technologies we invent, or knowledge we win, they will ultimately let us down. We may be plugged in: but we’re not connected.

The trouble with technology is that we make our tools, then our tools turn right around and make us. In contrast, the Bible is not anti-science nor anti-knowledge, far from it: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind” said Jesus.[8] But at the same time the Bible also warns that we are easily enslaved and all the more by things that outwardly look good: be they apples or Apples.


[1]      Victor J. Stenger, God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012) 23.

[2]      See the first two chapters especially of Ian Hutchinson, Monopolizing Knowledge (Belmont, MA: Fias Publishing, 2011).

[3]      Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great (London: Atlantic Books, 2007) 283.

[4]      Both were examples of Ig Nobel winners, a prize awarded each year to scientists engaged in the most unusual research projects.

[5]      George Dyson, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe (New York: Pantheon, 2012) 9-10.

[6]      Genesis 2:17.

[7]      From the song Still Alive, performed by Ellen McLain, written by Jonathan Coulton.

[8]      Matthew 22:37.

Dr. Andy Bannister is a popular speaker, author and broadcaster. Andy is the Director of the Solas Centre for Public Christianity and an Adjunct Speaker with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. Andy speaks and teaches regularly throughout the UK, Canada, the USA, and the wider world on issues relating to faith, culture, politics and society.