Friday, May 29, 2009

Restraining Voices

A year ago to the day, I posted the second part of a two-part post about high technology. About the promises made regarding the development of scientific knowledge, and the validity of technology’s constant promise to make the world a better place. It’s one of the opinions that I still hold strongly: that the pursuit of the answers to life’s mysteries should not be undertaken simply because questions still exist.

And now, having seen the movie Angels and Demons just recently, it seems like a good time to revisit the subject. Because one of the subjects that I didn’t touch on in any great detail is also a subject that is at issue for the characters of that movie: what role does society or religion play in the growth of technology? Who governs what questions we pursue? And how is one of the most age-old conflicts in history, religious tradition versus scientific progress, to be resolved in today’s world?

On both sides of the divide, arguments can be made against any interaction between the two. In Angels and Demons, one of the priests in the movie gives a speech to the College of Cardinals about the war that they are in, the war between the traditionalist Catholic Church and the science-based Illuminati. While that speech isn’t openly militant, that same priest reveals his true colors later in the movie, considering the development of antimatter and its characterization to be sacrilegious.

 Likewise, although it isn’t as present in the movie, from the days of Galileo and his persecution by the religions of the time, science has had little reason to like religion. The attitude expressed by the priest in Angels and Demons may lead some with those views to openly attack the development of technology, but the responses are far too often as intolerant and hostile as their provocation was. For the movie, the chosen response of the “Illuminati” (complicated story there…) was probably ever so slightly over the top.

The fault lies in considering it a war at all. The fault lies in thinking that religious beliefs are incompatible with scientific study. Certainly, it’s not regarded as unusual for even devout followers of a religion to turn to scientific study, and no small number of books professing to link religion and science have been written. We’ve come a long way from the days where scientists had to recant their studies or be branded as heretics.

The question, then, turns to the role that religion will play. Or should there even be one? With its ever-increasing separation from the levers of power, organized religion has (in the Western world, at least) lost much of its power to control scientific progress, it would seem. Not only is religion no longer inclined to continually decry scientific progress; even if they did, progress would likely continue unchecked, since heresy is no longer a crime as it was in older times.

And while I certainly don’t think that a return to that level of religious power would be a good thing, I do think I will mourn the loss of influence there. Because with its passing, yet another check on humanity’s completely unrestrained growth is gone. In his speech before the cardinals of the Catholic Church, in the movie, the priest in question advocated the Vatican’s striking back, firmly, at the never-ending progress of science. He suggested that they act as a restraint on the continued development of science, as a moderating voice.

And maybe that is a good thing. Maybe the world needs a God… not necessarily as an arbiter of our morality or as the final judge of our actions, but as a reminder that some mysteries will remain mysteries. No level of scientific effort will conclusively prove or disprove the existence of a deity. To living members of the human race, the question of a higher power will remain just that: a question, an unknown.

That, I feel, is what the human race needs right now. I feel like we stopped needing to answer questions about the world around us five or six major answers ago. I will not deny that our technological growth has brought with it major advances in the human condition, but I feel like the benefits we gain from continually pursuing mysteries have ceased to be the point.

Today, we don’t unravel the mysteries of the universe to better our condition. Either we’re simply questing after greater power (at a cheaper price) for ourselves, or we’re simply answering questions because they exist. And I think it’s about time that halted. I think it’s time that we started looking at why we seek for all the answers to the mysteries around us, and more importantly, came to grips with the idea that some of those mysteries will never have answers.

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