Science is certainly awesome. It has been suggested that before it really got off the ground in Western Europe after the Dark Ages, the entire continent of Europe probably knew less about the physical world than just one of the single Ancient Greek philosopher-scientists had done. By learning more we have revolutionized our world in so many ways, not least by releasing the chain of economic growth that has generated such spectacular wealth and lifted so much of humanity - if not enough - out of poverty, superstition, pestilence and ignorance. Not bad going.
However, science has to operate within its own sphere. Science is about understanding the physical world and, man being a tool maker, often results in the generation of technology that can manipulate the world to man's apparent benefit. The purpose for which these tools are employed has to remain a separate question. Despite a brief vogue for "political science", it has long been clear that social and political questions are far too complex for science to say anything about. There are still problems in predicting and controlling even relatively simple physical systems, nevermind whole human societies. Our societies are not like physical systems where one can simply extrapolate from current facts what lies in the future; and so it is very difficult to realize in advance the consequences of scientific developments.
And so it has been clear for some time that science is silent on the ultimate question for humanity, which is "How should we live together?" This question has largely been resolved in North America and Western Europe through the answer "by and with science", but this is not a judgement that science itself was competent to make; we have just been so impressed by the enormous benefits delivered to us by science and economic growth that we have enshrined technological advancement - and hence economic growth - as our guiding star. But despite these huge benefits, there have been warnings along the way - warnings that now seem to be growing louder. I speak of what I believe is called in scientific circles "the law of unintended consequences".
The problem really begun with the discovery of the Archimedean point, when mankind discovered that it could act upon the earth as if he was outside of it, not part of it - and radically change the things around us for our benefit. But by taking on this awesome power, we also took on the enormous risk of changing the world in some very, very negative ways without even realizing what we were doing. And if we're going to have centuries of scientific progress in decades, then that's going to mean centuries of societal change as well - an unsettling prospect when you think that the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century claimed something like as many lives as those of all previous centuries combined, in many cases due to developments linked to the advancement of science.
These unintended consequences have come about because the primary mover in changing the way we live has literally become the extent of what we can do to the physical world and the way we can control it. If we can do it, we do it. Even America, usually and correctly understood as a conservative society, is in reality constantly reinvented by economic and technological progress. Although there were earlier signs, the first really big warning that this might be a bad idea was the creation of the nuclear bomb, which for the first time delivered into mankind's hands the power to totally destroy all life on earth.
This was a radical new development that had huge implications for us all, a fact readily forgotten if you do not remember that these arsenals still exist and the possibility of the complete annihilation of the human species still exists. And it hasn't only changed our relation to our fellow man, but to nature itself: we can now actually destroy nature. In a way this was the logical conclusion of the central trend in modern scientific development, which is the subjugation of nature to mankind. Nature never did us any favours - what with all the scarcity and hardship it subjects us to - but, as Hannah Arendt has noted, destroying nature altogether means destroying our mastery of it.
These huge advancements in human capabilities are one of the ways science has given us unexpected problems. Another example of the same issue that we should be particularly aware of at the moment is the way that the microchip revolution has utterly changed the nature of our economies and the speed at which we do business, a factor not wholly innocent of involvement in the global financial crisis. The ease with which debt was repackaged and sold around the world has been responsible for great economic growth in recent years, but now in the twenty-first century it has also shown its claws: extreme volatility and the emergence of business models that were unsustainably based on these quick global transfers and can do significant damage to the global economy when they fail, like Bear Stearns did over the weekend.
What this example and others like it tell us is that in the twenty-first century, mankind has to be very careful not to let technology outstrip the social and political mechanisms which are needed to cope with that technology. It is the proper sphere of scientists to want to advance their knowledge as much as possible and produce benefits for mankind, but the consequences of their developments need to be subjected to a very different question: what impact will this have on humanity in every important respect and not just in terms of how much it knows about and can tinker with the physical universe? And this problem is only going to become more acute as the speed of scientific advancement and the process of constantly reinventing the world increases.
The most topical recent example is climate change. If the theories about climate change being caused by humanity are true, then the great engine of our economic and technological progress over the last few centuries has actually begun to radically and negatively alter the earth itself. This awesome power was completely unknown to all earlier civilizations, and we really need to be much more humble about just what we're capable of. The ecosystem exists in as precarious a balance as our political systems, and both risk being upended by our careless actions.
And then there is by far the most dangerous of all possibilities, the idea that we might create or tinker with life itself. Biotechnology is dangerous insofar as it promises "enhancements" to human life, through theoretical advances such as the ability to tinker with DNA in the womb and make a person stronger or smarter, or the possibility of somehow combining the human body with a machine to increase its capabilities. Such advancements carry the risk of creating a two-tier society - split between the "enhanced" and the normal - as well as giving new capabilities to humans which actually make them non-human; they change the nature of what it means to be human by eliminating, say, forgetfulness. While the standard by which we alter the physical world is clear - for our own utility - the standard by which we would tinker with human life itself is not clear at all, as we have nothing to measure it against.
By beginning to tinker with human life itself we may deliver some perceived benefits to an individual, but we will make that life less authentically human. The human mind lies in a beautiful and splendid balance which is not understood by the scientists, and to begin to alter the way it relates to the world will carry the most unintended consequences of all. Such advances may lie merely in the realm of theory at present, but if the last few centuries has taught us anything it is to expect the unexpected; and so we need to lay down strict limits on what is allowed and what is not. It seems that to begin to experiment with changing human life or the human brain itself - something so little understood, and involving realms of meaning and value that science is necessarily silent on - will carry the greatest risks of all.
By acting into the world and even on ourselves we risk destroying the conditions that have allowed human life to exist for so many millennia, perhaps completely by accident. We should be humbled by the enormous power of humanity in the twenty-first century, when we have literally taken on the role ascribed to God in all religion, the role of the creator - but remember that in these religious stories, it is God who is also the one with the capability to destroy. We have made these stories a reality for ourselves. But do we possess God's infinite wisdom?