The Impact of Science on Society



by Prof. P. Krishna

Ex-Rector, Rajghat Education Centre, Krishnamurti Foundation India, Varanasi 221001, India


Though modern science is of relatively recent origin, having started with Galileo about 350 years ago, it has made very rapid progress and completely transformed outwardly the manner of our living. It is said that our life outwardly has changed more in the last one hundred years than it did in thousands of years earlier, because of the scientific knowledge accumulated over the last three centuries, and its application in the form of technology. So the impact of science on society is very visible; progress in agriculture, medicine and health care, telecommunications, transportation, computerization and so on, is part of our daily living.

In spite of all this progress, the consequent development of technology and industry, and the conveniences, comforts and power we have got through this knowledge, in no part of the world are human beings happy, at peace with themselves, living without violence. It was hoped that the development of science would usher in an era of peace and prosperity, but that has been belied. On the contrary, if we look at the level of violence throughout the world during a ten-year period, from 1900 to 1910, or 1910 to 1920 and so on, in every decade, in every country, the graph is going up. So, on the one hand, greater prosperity — so-called globalization — and, on the other, greater violence, sorrow, tension, and newer diseases.

Krishnamurti raised the question: Has there been psychological evolution at all in the last two or five thousand years? Have we progressed at all in wisdom, or the quest for truth, inwardly in our consciousness? Science has generated tremendous power; knowledge always gives power and is useful because it increases our abilities. But when we do not have wisdom and love, compassion or brotherhood, which are all by-products of wisdom, then power can be used destructively. Sixty- five percent of all the scientific research being done currently is directly or indirectly meant for developing weapons, and supported by the Defence Ministry in every nation. In the last one century, 208 million people have been killed in wars, which is without precedent in any previous century.

So, does humanity deserve to have the knowledge which science is generating? We do not let children play with fire, for they might set the whole house on fire or burn themselves. And is not humanity in that state, without wisdom? There is hatred in our motivations; we are badly divided into groups — caste, national, linguistic, religious and other groups. Is it then responsible for scientists to generate knowledge, giving more and more power, without the wisdom to use it rightly? Responsibility from a theosophical point of view is universal responsibility. It means not saying: ‘I am only responsible for generating scientific knowledge.’ You are also responsible for the whole of society, all of humankind, and even the earth. We are living in a scientific age, but what is so great about the scientific age? Have we used the discoveries of science to be more protective, kind and gentle, to bring about greater prosperity and peace?

We have been at war for thousands of years, but we now have nuclear weapons. Joy Mills in her talk said: ‘It is important to watch your next step, but before you take the next step, make sure that you have a long vision, which gives the direction to that step. Is the new knowledge, which is a new step, in the right direction? Through genetic engineering we might develop new power, but can we ensure that we will use that power for the benefit of mankind and for the earth at large? We cannot ensure that. If we cannot, is it responsible? Yet, all the nations of the world are spending huge amounts in developing scientific knowledge, as if that is our priority. Are the problems of humanity today caused by not having sufficiently fast aeroplanes or computers? Of course not. The problems exist because of lack of understanding of life and the psychologically primitive state in which we find ourselves.

Einstein is on record saying that had he known that his equation E = mc2, which stated a great truth about Nature, that mass is just another form of energy — will be used to make atomic bombs and kill large numbers of people in Japan, he would never have done that research or published the findings. That is something which has already happened in the last century. So, why do science?

Of course, we should distinguish between science and technology. Science is the quest for truth about Nature. Its aim is not to produce technology, but to understand how Nature works and discover the tremendous order and intelligence operating around us. If Nature were chaotic, if sometimes a stone went up and sometimes down, then there would be no science. But definite causes produce definite effects, and that is why science is possible. The scientist does not create order, he merely studies it. We are living in a very intelligent universe. A million things take place in perfect order within our body without any conscious voluntary effort on our part, but we have not discovered order in consciousness, which is virtue, peace of mind, love, happiness, compassion, freedom from conflict, non-violence. Socrates wrote that there is only one virtue — that is order in consciousness, though we may describe it in different words in different situations. And the quest for truth, and wisdom, which is the essence of Theosophy, is the quest for order in consciousness, and coming upon virtue.

So humanity has succeeded in the quest for science, because there is order already there. Newton only discovered gravitation, which existed a million years before Newton and will exist a million years hence. The laws of Nature are independent of the scientist. If you ask why Nature is ordered, the scientist cannot answer. He can only say: ‘I am a student of Nature. I observe and find that order there and I am studying the laws that govern that order.’ The technologist takes the knowledge which the scientist discovers and uses it to make guns, or a motorcar, or generate electricity. Technology is a by-product of science, but science itself is the quest for truth about Nature.

Before Faraday, who discovered electromagnetism, it was thought that electricity and magnetism are two completely separate things. But he discovered that if you push a magnet towards a metallic wire, a current is generated in the wire, as shown by a galvanometer’s deflection. He was very excited about this new discovery. After he demonstrated this in a big hall, somebody asked: ‘All this is very well, but of what use is this discovery?’ And he replied: ‘It is a new-born child. Of what use is a new-born child?’ Today we know that discovery has made possible this microphone, these lights and fans, motorcars and aeroplanes and so on. But that was not the reason why Faraday discovered electromagnetism; he was just studying Nature.

Human beings use the knowledge gained by science and decide what kind of application to make of it. If there is wisdom, we will not use knowledge for destructive purposes. And if there is no wisdom, we are violent and selfish, and use knowledge in a destructive way. History shows that man has used it and is still using it primarily for destruction rather than for construction, bringing our planet and our lives to a level of danger which never existed before. Scientists are pointing out that the third world war would be the last, if it takes place. So is there anything we can learn from science as Theosophists interested in wisdom, in coming upon a deeper understanding of life and of ourselves? Science, or scientific knowledge, does not deal with values per se, with what is right and what is wrong — it does not say that you should be kind. Scientific knowledge is said to be value-neutral. But one must discover what is called the scientific spirit, for the spirit is always more important than the technique, the knowledge or the method in any activity.

Although in society we have valued scientific knowledge and its application as technology, we have not really valued the scientific spirit, without which it is wrong to call ours a scientific society. We are an unscientific society. Science says that the whole earth is one, that we are all citizens of this planet, but it is we who divide ourselves and say, ‘This is my culture and this is my country and I will work only for this.’ For the benefit of our nation we have armies to exploit other nations. All this is not scientific. War is not scientific in spirit.

This is also true of many things in our life. There is the spirit of religion, which is wisdom, and there is the outer form or structure of religion: the rituals, the manner of praying, the beliefs and so on. Without the spirit, rituals become hollow, empty. There is the spirit of art, which is the sensitive perception of beauty in sculpture, painting and so on, and there is the technique. You can learn the technique, but if you do not have the spirit, you do not become a true artist. There is the spirit of education, the vision, and there is the technique of education, depending on whether education is regarded as merely training somebody to earn a living, or as meant to draw out his entire potential. If there is no vision, the technique, the method, and the steps go wrong. The path becomes mechanical.

So what is this scientific spirit? What can we learn from science which is precious? To understand this, let me take the example of the particular science I am familiar with, which is fairly basic to all science, that is, physics. It begins with observation, for understanding any phenomenon in Nature calls for careful observation, honest documentation and measurement, and recording. Then having collected a lot of data about the phenomenon, you look for correlations among them. From empirically found data, correlations between two variables are established, and then guessing what is the underlying reality which would cause those correlations. That is what the physicist calls ‘the model’ — that is where his insight or his genius manifests, for he has to guess what is unknown.

Whenever scientists talk about theory, about reality, they are talking about an imaginary model of the underlying reality. Nobody has seen electrons actually going around a nucleus inside an atom. That is a conjecture, a model about the underlying reality. To this model they apply logic, using the existing known laws determined from previous work and the peculiar form of logic called mathematics, which is a product of the human mind. And then they deduce ‘a theory’, and try to explain all observed facts and also predict new facts which have not been observed until then. Then again the scientists go back to observation and do experiments to check if their predictions are correct. If the experimental values do not tally with the theoretically predicted values, they either modify the model, or they discard it altogether and start all over again. It is a deep quest because they are not accepting the reality as they see it. They are saying there is an underlying reality which is not visible, and we are going to find it. But since it is not visible, we have to guess, to imagine it, and that is the model.

Usually the model gives approximately correct results, and they have only to modify it and make successive models closer and closer approximations to reality. It is fortunate that the logic called mathematics has an application in Nature. Somehow, Nature follows mathematics, which is really a mystery. Galileo wrote that mathematics is the language in which God wrote the universe, and this seems to be true. Mathematics, evolved by the human mind, actually applies. Einstein could do two hundred pages of mathematics, starting from certain hypotheses, using the known laws of Nature, and then deduce that when light goes near a star it must bend, and calculate how much it must bend. When twenty years later they are able to do the experiment because technology has got refined to that point, they find that indeed it bends by exactly the amount he has calculated, which means that those two hundred pages of mathematics apply in Nature. But if you ask: ‘Why do they apply?’ We do not know. If you ask why there are laws, we do not know. If you ask why Nature is ordered, we do not know.

So the spirit of science is one of great humility. It begins with saying, ‘We do not know the truth about Nature. I am making a conjecture, and I have found a method by which I can test whether this conjecture is correct or not, and to what extent it is correct.’ And that is how science has progressed — without accepting authority. A young student can question Einstein, and point out an error, and Einstein will agree and thank him: ‘Yes you are right I made a mistake.’ So nothing is accepted on authority. Science demands proof, observation, testing with experiments; and the truth must be something which is universal, which everybody can be convinced of. Of course, they limit themselves to studying phenomena which are measurable.

There is also much in life which is not measurable, which is the field of religion. But there are a number of values which are inherent, which we can learn from science. One, as we said, is humility. Scientists are not humble, science is humble. It encourages observation, testing what is observed, questioning, doubt; and the truth is the same for everybody. There is no such thing as American truth and Indian truth. There is no Indian mathematics and American mathematics. Either a stone is attracted by the earth and gravitation exists, or it does not exist; it cannot exist for Indians and not for Americans. So, it is a global activity, a dialogue among thousands of people who have never met, because that experiment is then repeated in another country by another group of scientists. And they write the results, and publish them, and everybody reads them. There is a process of dialogue and constant correction.

So truth is global, universal; it is not the private property of any individual. It is the same for everybody. These are values constituting the scientific spirit. In order to settle a dispute, violence is not used, nor authority. So the spirit is one of non- violence, of dialogue. It is also a truly democratic endeavour, based on cooperation, humility, and mutual respect. All scientists may not be true scientists if they do not work with that spirit, but science is done in that way. Unfortunately, the scientist adopts that policy in the laboratory but not at home nor in his life. A statement was made by Krishnamurti: ‘The scientific mind is a part of the religious mind, but the religious mind is not a part of the scientific mind.’ To discover the truth about Nature this scientific mind is competent; the same approach is also valid for discovering religious truths. Religious truths are also universal, not different for different people. That is the motto of the Theosophical Society, ‘There is no Religion Higher than Truth’.

We have not seen the truth, it is unknown to us, but we can in humility enquire, and conduct dialogues about our perceptions, doubt our perceptions, and thereby discover for ourselves what the truth is. Theosophy is essentially the quest for wisdom, and wisdom means seeing the deeper inner nature of things. That is precisely what the scientist is doing too.

We have taught science like a technique, to carry out our own purpose. Science has become the servant of society. The politician illogically, irrationally, according to whims, decides to go to war; and scientists, as employees, are helping him do whatever he wants, whatever his government wants. Science is no longer the architect of society, and students are learning the knowledge and techniques of science, not imbibing its spirit.

The same mistake is made in regard to religion; we have not imbibed the spirit of religion. When we really care for the spirit and delve deep, we will discover that the true religious feeling and the scientific spirit are not separate. Indeed, great scientists like Einstein and Shrödinger have come to the religious feeling, through science, through the perception of beauty in Nature. Whichever aspect of the earth or this universe you explore deeply — whether the human mind or the tree — you will discover marvellous beauty. When you go deep, truth becomes beauty and beauty truth, and that is also wisdom. The superficial understanding of ourselves, of religion, of the meaning of science, is the enemy of man. Theosophy is really to delve deep, in what area it does not matter. In the depths, there is wisdom.

Prof. P. Krishna
Last modified: Mon Apr 25 22:21:03 PST 2005