Saturday, May 19, 2012

Book Review: The Impact of Science on Society

The Impact of Science on Society is authored by Bertrand Russell - an eminent British philosopher who lived in the era of the World War II.

The Great War had a great affect on Russell's thought process, making him a vehement critic of war. He stood against the British policy of extending the war on Germany, and was sent to jail for speaking against the wind of his time.

When reading 'The Impact of Science on Society' it is necessary to understand that Russell is trying to create a more stable and sustainable world. For him, the only possible model for a stable society is that the whole world comes under a single government. He proposes United States to take this role. Russell writes:
"A scientific society can be stable given certain conditions are fulfilled. The first of these is a single government of the whole world, possessing a monopoly of armed forces and therefore able to enforce peace. The second condition is a general diffusion of happiness,.... The third condition (which supposes the second is fulfilled) is a low birth rate everywhere, ... The fourth condition is the provision for individual initiative both in work and play." — pg. 139
The First Condition
In modern times, the United Nations can be a substitute for Russell's idea of a single monolithic government. The mandate of UN should be increased allowing it greater interference in domestic policies. People might agitate on grounds of nationalism and patriotism, but in the end, the coming generation would simply forget how the world was conquered by a single power in the bygone days. It should be noted that people will only forget the 'love for their nation' if the second condition is fulfilled.

The Second Condition
Russell rightly says that it is only through 'the diffusion of happiness' a monolithic structure can acquire some legitimate grounds for setting up a workable mechanism. The vast majority of the people in the world believe in consequentialism - a doctrine in ethics which says that actions are either good or bad depending whether the output of those actions are good or bad. Therefore, if  teenagers in Karachi is able to acquire the same living standard as in any other parts of the world, they wouldn't even thing about the bygone age of their forefathers.

It is to be noted that past is mostly worshipped in societies where the future is dark and bleak. They worship past out of nostalgia. This nostalgia allows them to continue living, even in the most dire conditions possible. On the other hand, when the present is brighter than the past, people simply don't care what happened before. The past becomes unthinkable for many. The German diplomat recently commented:
"Before 1940s peace was unthinkable between Germany and France, but after 1950s war is unthinkable between Germany and France."
The collective 'diffusion of happiness' which the people of France and Germany have enjoyed can be replicated in other parts of the world.

The Third Condition
Population growth is the biggest problem of all. In the future, scientist and economists are going to call this the mother of all problems.

World Population Growth. Source: SUSPS

Just 9000 years ago the world population was near one million. In the last 250 year, i.e after the Industrial Revolution (1750 onwards), the world has experienced a population explosion. The graph becomes asymptotic as we approach 2025.

In such a situation,even maintaining nominal standard of living becomes a major problem. Just read today's  DAWN. The article clear states that Pakistan is going to face sever water shortages in the year 2025. It should be kept in mind that the Great Indus flows through the heartland of the country. If Pakistan is going to face a severe water shortage, the conditions in Africa are bound comprehension.

An exponential population growth with a gradual decrease in earth's resources signals that progress might becomes an unachievable goal for many. The oil is going to end at the turn of this century, the radioactive waste is going to be a major international debate issue in the coming decades. The lack of oil and free-space to dump radioactive waste on our plant, will pollute the Milky Way. That's the only place we can dispose off our waste. A decrease in population with a decrease in living standards is the only way forward to solve this anomaly.

Russell comments on population growth is really prophetic. Planers have to understand that an ever increasing population at such a rate is disastrous for the coming generations.

The Fourth Condition
For Russell, individuals have a big role in making the world more liveable. Even if we get a control on the  population accelerator, the world can only be a better place if everyone does more than his destined role. The will to change is an integral part in how Russell envisages a better tomorrow.


Russell also criticises the role of science which had made man into a living cog with no more usability that a machine which produces efficient output. Russell writes:
"What science has done is to increase the proportion of your life in which you are a cog, to the extent of endangering what is due to you as a hero or as a common man." — pg. 76
Russell says that it is the duty of the modern democracy to stop the ultimate conversion of man into machines.
"The idolatry of the machine is an abomination. The Machine as an object of adoration is the modern form of Satan, and its worship is modern diabolism" — pg. 77
In Russell's definition, a good society is characterised  by three qualities. 1) The man should be useful, 2) He should consider himself secure in times of misfortune and 3) He should have the opportunity for taking new initiatives, in all ways, not positively harmful to others.

Unfortunately, neither a capitalistic society nor a communist society can fulfil such a goal. Russell writes:
"Under capitalism. the incentive is fear of starvation; under communism, it is the fear of drastic police punishment. Neither is quite what the democratic socialist wants." — pg. 82
In this sense, Russell acts like a Pakistan Molawi Shaib or Allama Iqbal. They too vehemently criticise European ideas, but are unable to formulate a new theory out of their own meta-physics. Russell has the benefit of being a European, hence his criticism is on his own meta-physics rather than an alien meta-physics.

Science, for Russell, has become a tool for changing the conception of the world (pg. 98). The materialist world around us is a miracle of science. Nowadays, empiricism has become a touch-stone for identifying truths. A 100 years ago, no one would have heard about DNA being used as a tool for identifying the real parents of a baby. Centuries ago, there were strong tribal and family structures. Family identification was never a problem in these bygone societies. The DNA verification technique has allowed us to view the world through a totally different perspective. Now, it is not just through strict family hierarchies that a court might order a decision on a birth identification issue, the DNA report (simply a cluster of some amino acids) also holds the same validity as that of family hierarchies. This is how science has changed our conception of this world.

Russell also mentions the limits of science. Although, if he was living today he might have amended the following sentence:
"Science, while is has enormously accelerated outward change, has not yet found anyway of hastening psychological change, especially where the unconscious and sub-concious are concerned" — pg 134

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