Science and Technology
Bhikkhu P. A. Payutto
At the outset we must acknowledge the innumerable
blessings bestowed on us by science. Nobody will dispute the enormous
value science has for us. In order to be able to give this lecture, I have
travelled all the way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in only one hour. Back in
the days of King Rama I, you would have had to wait three months for me to
get here, and for that matter I probably wouldn't have come at all. For
this we must acknowledge science's contribution to travel.
Looking around at
communications, we see radios, telephones, fax machines, televisions,
videos and satellites, all of which have arisen from scientific and
technological developments. Other obvious areas of development are in the
medical world, where so many contagious diseases have now been virtually
eradicated. Cholera is now quite rare, bubonic plague no longer exists,
and smallpox has all but vanished. We no longer have to fear these
infectious diseases. In olden times one could die from an infected
appendix, but nowadays an appendectomy is a relatively simple operation.
Even brain operations are getting easier. Sophisticated tools for accurate
examination and diagnosis are more and more accessible. X-Ray machines are
being replaced with computer X-Ray machines, and now we have ultra sound
and MRI. It's almost no longer necessary for the doctor to examine the
patient, the machines do it for him. These are all examples of extremely
valuable technological advances.
But on the other
hand, when we really look into it, we find that science, and in particular
technology, has created a great many problems for humanity as well. In the
present time, particularly in the highly developed countries, there is
even a fear that the human race, and indeed the whole world, may meet
destruction at the hands of this technological progress. It might be a
very instantaneous kind of destruction, at the flick of a switch, so to
speak, or it could be a slow and gradual kind of destruction, as the
gradual deterioration of the environment.
Even within the
immediacy of our everyday lives we are threatened by dangers. We can't be
sure whether our food has been contaminated with chemicals or not.
Sometimes the plants and animals used for our food supply are treated with
hormones to boost their growth. Hogs are given special additives to make
their meat turn an appealing red color. Poisonous substances are sometimes
used in foods as preservatives, flavor enhancers or dyes, not to mention
the uncontrolled use of pesticides. Some of the people who sell these
foods wouldn't dare eat them themselves!
Two kinds of technology
The application of science
which effects the changes in the natural world is called technology.
Technology is dependent for its existence on the knowledge obtained
through science. It is the tool, or channel, through which humanity has
worked to manipulate nature in the pursuit of material comfort. But at the
same time, the dangers which threaten us are also contingent on this
technology. Technology is thus both an instrument for finding happiness
and a catalyst for danger.
Now in answer to all
this, scientists may counter that by "science" we mean only pure science.
Pure science seeks to discover and explain the truth, its concern is
primarily the search for knowledge. Whatever anybody wants to do with this
knowledge is their business, not the concern of science. Pure science
tends to shake off responsibility in this regard.
Technology has been
accused of using scientific knowledge to its own ends, but this is not
entirely true. Initially, technology was aimed at bringing benefit to
humanity, but nowadays there are two kinds of technology. One is the
technology which is used to create benefit, while the other is used to
seek personal gain. What we need is the technology that is used to create
benefit, but the problems of the present time exist largely because modern
technology is of the kind that seeks personal gain.
If we constrain
ourselves to creating benefit, the repercussions arising from
technological development will be few and far between, but whenever
technology is used to seek personal gain, problems arise. Thus we must
clearly distinguish between these two kinds of technology.
The place of ethics
Be it the wrong
utilization of scientific knowledge, the utilization of technology for
personal gain, or even utilization of technology to destroy the earth, all
these problems have arisen entirely as a result of human activity, they
are a matter of utilization. Because they are rooted in human activity,
their solutions are an ethical or moral concern.
These problems can
only be simply and directly solved through moral awareness. Only then will
technology and science be used for constructive purposes. With moral
awareness, even though there may be some harmful consequences arising from
lack of circumspection or ignorance, the prevention and rectification of
problems will be on the best possible level.
Mankind has looked to
science and technology to bring benefit to human society, but there is no
guarantee that science and technology will bring only the benefit that
humanity hopes for. These things can be used to create harm or benefit.
How they are used is entirely at the disposal of the user.
If we ignore morality
or ethics, instead of creating benefit, the most likely result is that
science and technology will bring problems, stressing as they do:
1. the unrestrained
production and consumption of goods with which to gratify the senses,
feeding craving and greed (raga and lobha);
2. escalation of the
power to destroy (dosa); and
availability of objects which lure people into delusion and carelessness
In so doing,
technology tarnishes the quality of life and pollutes the environment.
Only true moral awareness can alleviate these destructive influences.
technological progress, even the beneficial kind, tends to increase the
propensity for destruction. The more science and technology advance, and
the more keenly destruction seems to threaten mankind, the more is
morality necessitated, and the more will the stability and well-being of
humanity be dependent on ethical principles.
In any case, this
subject of ethics, although a simple and straightforward one, is largely
ignored in modern times. Most people want to live without problems, but
they don't want to solve them. As long as ethics are ignored like this,
problems will persist.
Science and technology
cannot be separated
It is not only science
that has fostered technology's growth -- technology has also been a
decisive factor in the development of science. It is the scientific method
that has enabled scientific learning to progress to where it is now, and
an essential part of the scientific method is observation and experiment.
The earliest forms of observation and experiment were carried out through
the five senses -- eye, ear, nose, tongue and body, particularly the eyes
for looking, the ears for listening and the hands for touching. However,
our sense organs have their limitations. With the naked eye we can see a
limited number of stars and a limited portion of the universe. With
technological development, the telescope was invented, enabling science to
make a Great Leap Forward. Microscopic organisms, invisible to the naked
eye, were made visible through the invention of the microscope, allowing
science to once again make great advances. Pure science, then, has relied
heavily on technology for its progress.
The tools used for
scientific research are products of technology, that is why science and
technology have been inseparably connected in their development. In the
present day, scientists are looking to the computer to further their quest
for truth. Capable of collecting and collating vast amounts of
information, much more than the ordinary human mind, the computer will be
indispensable in the testing of hypotheses and the formulation of
The benefits of
science appear to the mass of people through technology. Humanity must,
however, learn to choose between technology for creating benefit and
technology for seeking personal gain.
Reaching the limits and
finding no answer
Science has advanced so
far-reaching that it seems to be approaching the limits of the physical
universe and, as it approaches the limits of that world, it is turning to
the mysteries of the mind. What is mind? How does it work? What is
consciousness? Does it arise from a physical source, or is it entirely
separate from the physical world? These days computers have Artificial
Intelligence. Will the development of Artificial Intelligence lead to
computers with minds? This is a question some scientists are speculating
Modern methods of
observation and verification seem to have transcended the limitations of
the five senses. We have developed instruments to expand their limited
capabilities. Whenever the senses are incapable of perceiving any further,
we resort to these technological instruments. Now, even with these
instruments, we seem to have reached our limit, and scientific
investigations are reduced to mathematical symbols.
experimentation and analysis enter the sphere of the psyche, science
retains its basic attitude and experimental method, and so there is a lot
of guesswork and preconception in its operation. It remains to be seen
whether science can in fact enter into the domain of the mind, and by what
Values and motivation
Even though pure science
tends to be distinguished from applied science and technology, pure
science nevertheless shares some of the responsibility for the harm
resulting from these things. In fact, in the last hundred years or so,
pure science has not really been so pure. There are values implicit within
pure science which the scientific fraternity is unaware of; and because it
isn't aware of these values, scientific research comes unwittingly under
What is the source of
science? All sciences, be they natural or social sciences, are based on
values. Take economics for example. What is the origin or source of
economics? It is want. What is want, can it be observed with any of the
five senses? It can't, because it is a quality of mind, a value. The
discipline known as science claims it is free of values, but in fact it
can never be truly value-free because it involves mental qualities.
Where is the source
of the physical sciences? The source of science is the desire to know the
truth of nature, or reality. This answer is acceptable to most scientists,
and in fact it was given by a scientist. The desire to know nature's
truths, together with the belief that nature does have constant laws,
which function according to cause and effect, are the two foundations on
which science bases its quest for nature's secrets.
The source of science
is within this human mind, at desire for knowledge and faith. Without
these two mental qualities it would be impossible for science to grow and
develop. The motivation which drove the early developments of science, and
which still exists to some extent, was the desire to know the truths of
nature. This was a relatively pure kind of desire. In later times, during
the Dark Ages, this desire to know was actively suppressed by the
Christian Church and the Inquisition. Those who doubted the word of the
Bible, or who made statements which cast doubt on it, were brought before
the court and put on trial. If found guilty they were punished. Galileo
was one of those brought on trial. He had said that the earth revolved
around the sun, and was almost put to death for his beliefs. At the last
moment he pleaded guilty and was absolved; he didn't die, but many others
were burnt alive at the stake.
At that time there
was overt suppression of the search for truth. But the stronger the
suppression, the stronger the reaction, so it came about that the
suppression and constraint of the Dark Ages had the effect of intensifying
the desire to know the truths of nature. This desire has fired the
thinking of Western cultures.
This drive can still
be considered a relatively pure desire for knowledge. The science we have
nowadays, however, is no longer so pure. It has been influenced by two
important attitudes or assumptions:
1. That the
prosperity of mankind hinges on the subjugation of nature.
This attitude stems
from the Christian belief that God created mankind in his own image, to
take control of the world and have dominion over nature. God created
nature, and all of the things within it, for man's use. Mankind is the
leader, the hub of the universe, the master. Mankind learns the secrets of
nature in order to manipulate it according to his desires, and nature
exists for man's use.
One Western text
states that this idea is responsible for Western scientific progress. The
text states that in ancient times, people in the East, particularly China
and India, were scientifically more advanced than the West, but owing to
the influence of this drive to conquer nature, the West has gradually
overtaken the East.
So the first major
value system is the belief in Man's right to conquer nature. Now we come
to the second major influence:
2. That well-being
depends on an abundance of material goods.
This line of thinking
has exerted a very powerful influence on Western industrial expansion. It
has been argued that industries in the West were created to address the
problem of scarcity, which is found throughout Western history. Life in
Western countries was beset by hostile elemental forces, such as freezing
winters, which made farming impossible. People in such places had to live
exceedingly arduous lives. Not only were they subject to freezing
temperatures, but also food shortages. Life was a struggle for survival,
and this struggle led to the development of industry.
The opposite of
scarcity is plenty. People in Western countries saw that happiness hinged
on the elimination of scarcity, and this was the impulse behind the
Industrial Revolution. The awareness of scarcity and the desire to provide
plenty, is in turn based on the assumption that material abundance is the
prerequisite for happiness.
This kind of thinking
has developed into materialism, and from there, consumerism, a significant
contribution to which has been made by industrialists working under the
influence of the first line of thinking mentioned above. Coupled with the
assumption that happiness is dependent on an abundance of material goods,
we have the belief that nature must be conquered in order to cater to
man's desires. The two assumptions support each other well.
It seems as if the
pure desire for knowledge mentioned earlier has been corrupted, coming
under the influence of the desires to conquer nature and to produce an
abundance of material goods, or materialism. When these two values enter
the picture, the pure desire for knowledge becomes an instrument for
satisfying the aims of these secondary values, giving rise to an
exploitative relationship with nature.
The assumption is
that by conquering nature, mankind will be able to create unlimited
material goods with which to cater to his desires, resulting in perfect
happiness. The search for methods to implement this assumption naturally
follows, leading to the marked material progress we have seen in recent
times, especially since the Industrial Revolution. It has been said that
the science which has developed in the Industrial Age is a servant of
industry. It may be claimed that science has paved the way for industry,
but industry says, "Science? That is my servant!"
Together with the
development of industry we have observed the gradual appearance, in
ever-increasing severity, of the harmful effects contingent on it. Now,
with the danger that threatens us from the destruction of the environment,
it is all too clear. The cause for this destruction is the powerful
influence of these two assumptions: the desire to conquer nature and the
drive for material wealth. Together they place mankind firmly on the path
to manipulating, and as a result destroying, nature on an ever-increasing
scale. These two influences are also the cause for mankind's internal
struggles, the contention to amass material comforts. It might even be
said that modern man has had to experience the harmful consequences of the
past century of industrial development principally because of the
influence of these two assumptions.
Behind the prosperity
These two assumptions are
not the whole picture. There are also two major trends which have served
to support them:
The Industrial Age is the age of specialization. Learning has been
subdivided into specialized fields, each of which may be very proficient
in its respective right, but on an overall level they lack integration.
The purpose of the
specialization of learning is to obtain knowledge on a more detailed
level, which can then be brought together into one integrated whole, but
the specialists have become blinded by their knowledge, producing an
unbalanced kind of specialization. In the field of science there are those
who feel that science alone will solve mankind's problems and answer all
his questions, which gives them little inclination to integrate their
learning with other fields of knowledge.
This kind of outlook
has caused the belief that religion and ethics are also specialized fields
of learning. Modern education reduces ethics to just another academic
subject. When people think of ethics, they think, "Oh, religion," and file
it away in its little compartment. They aren't interested in ethics, but
when it comes to solving the world's problems, they say, "Oh, my
discipline can do that!" They don't think of trying to integrate their
learning with other disciplines. If they really were capable of solving
all problems as they say, then they would have to be able to solve the
ethical ones, too. But then they say that ethics is a concern of religion,
or some other specialized field. This brings us to the second trend:
2. The belief that
ethical problems can be solved without the need for ethics. Supporters of
this idea believe that when material development has reached its peak, all
ethical problems will disappear of their own accord.
According to this view,
it is not necessary to train people or to develop the mind. This is a line
of reasoning which has recently appeared in the field of economics.
Economists say that when the economy is healthy and material goods are in
plentiful supply, there will no longer be any contention, and society will
be harmonious. This is to say in effect that ethical or moral problems can
be solved through material means.
This is not entirely
wrong. Economic situations do have a bearing on ethical problems, but it
is a mistake to oversimplify the situation by believing that ethical
problems would somehow disappear of their own accord if the economy were
healthy. It might be said, however, that this line of reasoning is true in
one sense, because without morality it would be impossible for the economy
to be healthy. It could also be said that if ethical practice was good
(for example, people were encouraged to be diligent, generous, prudent,
and to use their possessions in a way that is beneficial to society), then
economic problems would disappear.
The statement, "When
the economy is good, ethical problems will not arise," is true in the
sense that before the economy can be healthy, ethical problems must be
addressed. Similarly, the statement, "When ethical problems are all
solved, the economy will be healthy," is true in the sense that before
ethical problems can be solved, economic problems must also be addressed.
The phrase "ethical
problems" takes in a wide range of situations, including mental health and
the pursuit of happiness. Thus, the attempt to solve ethical problems
through materialistic means must also entail dealing with moods and
feelings, examples of which can be seen in the synthesization of
tranquillizers to relieve stress and depression. But it would be a mistake
to try to solve ethical problems through such means. This kind of relief
is only temporary, it soothes the problem but does not solve it.
Many branches of
academic learning strive to be recognized as proper sciences, but the
specialist perspective causes funnel-vision and discord, and in itself
becomes an impediment to true science. Specialization is inimical to true
science. Even physics cannot be called true science, because it lacks
integration; its facts are piecemeal, its truth is partial. When truth is
partial, it is not the real truth. Without the whole picture, our
deductions will not be in accordance with the total reality. The stream of
cause and effect is not seen in its entirety, so the truth remains out of
These two trends,
specialization and the belief that ethical problems can be solved through
material means, pervade the Age of Industrialization. Coupled with the two
assumptions previously mentioned, they intensify problems accordingly.
Many of the points I
have mentioned so far come within the domain of religion, and in order to
see this more clearly, I would like to enter the subject of religion
itself. I have been speaking about science, its origins and development,
now let us take a look at the origins and development of religion and try
to integrate the two.
Britannica, 15th Ed., (1988), s.v. "Science, the History of," by L. Pearce
Williams (vol. 27, p.37). [Back to text]
Sincere thanks to
Ti.nh Tue^. for transcription of this article.