How Superficial Science Can Compromise Human Dignity
David Gelernter: We’re seeing wisdom and moral seriousness come under attack and often from the same people who want to do the genetic engineering.
David Gelernter is professor of computer science at Yale, chief scientist at Mirror Worlds Technologies, contributing editor at the Weekly Standard, and member of the National Council of the Arts. He is the author of several books and many technical articles, as well as essays, art criticism, and fiction. The "tuple spaces" introduced in Carriero and Gelernter's Linda system (1983) are the basis of many computer-communication and distributed programming systems worldwide. According to Reuters, his book "Mirror Worlds" (Oxford University Press, 1991) "foresaw" the World Wide Web and was "one of the inspirations for Java"; the "lifestreams" system (first implemented by Eric Freeman at Yale) is the basis for Mirror Worlds Technologies' software. Gelernter is also the author of "The Muse in the Machine" (Free Press, 1994), the novel "1939" (Harper Perennial, 1995), "Machine Beauty" (Basic Books, 1998), and most recently, "Judaism: A Way of Being" (Yale University Press, 2010).
It’s nothing new to find ourselves faced with threats to the dignity and integrity of human life, but these threats are going to be more and more seductive, not only because they offer to do fancier and fancier jobs for us - leaving us lazier and lazier - but they exist in a world in which religion is increasingly suppressed among educated people.
Religion is not suppressed politically or legally, but my students at Yale as students in colleges across the country, have no concept of what the Bible is, or what’s in it, think of it as a toxic book, know nothing about Christianity, less about Judaism.
So, at the same time, when the threats to human dignity and integrity are going to be ramped up to extraordinary levels of stress, where we most need wisdom, and moral seriousness, we’re seeing wisdom and moral seriousness come under attack and often from the same people who want to do the genetic engineering.
Crusading atheism is sort of a cause today. It is popular, I don’t want to say among scientists - that's too general - but it is certainly among prominent people in the scientific community. There are prominent people who are religious Jews or Christians in the scientific community, but there are also prominent people who have taken their atheism to the public, successfully, who are crusading atheists who preach atheism in an aggressive way as a consequence of science.
They play on peoples' weakness and ignorance insofar as most people don’t take the trouble to learn science. It’s easy for a scientist to say, “I’m smarter than you are because I know it and you don’t.” “I understand the genome and you don’t. I understand physics. I can do hard calculus problems and not just 12th grade level ones.” "So, you can see how much smarter I am than you are. And when I tell you there are no more absolutes and religion is trash, and furthermore we ought to go ahead with human cloning, we should go ahead with genetic engineering and implants of all sorts which will smudge the line between human and machine."
We’re getting into a moral conflict of interest which is tremendously dangerous. I don’t think we will succumb. I think human beings have faced hard challenges. The Second World War was as difficult a crisis as mankind ever will face. Fifty million people died. Humanity teetered on the edge. State paganism was preached aggressively by Hitlerite Germany, which despised Christianity as much as it hated Jews. Hitler didn’t hate Christians as people, but he hated Christianity.
The Japanese empire revived state paganism in preference to the more sophisticated religion of Buddhism and Christianity that had been popular in Japan. Stalinist Russia was an aggressively pagan nation, suppressed Christianity. That was a crisis. That was an enormous crisis and we rose to the occasion. We defeated it. It damaged us. We still have the scars. I think we’re going to face a crisis in the coming century that will be different in character. We never see the same crisis twice. I know we have the moral strength to rise to the occasion, and I hope and pray that we do in practice.
In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.
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