Will Science and Technology Lead Us to Utopia?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Many people in our western civilization are optimistic that things are always getting better.  If we continue to invest in education, if we produce more advanced technology, and if we push scientific understanding as far as it can go, then we will eventually reach a paradise on earth.  This paradise is inevitable, they believe.

This optimism can be traced back to the eighteenth century, to the period known as the Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment thinkers sincerely believed that man’s reasoning powers were unlimited and that science and technology would eventually prevail.  According to Professor William F. Lawhead, one of the central beliefs of the Enlightenment was that “all problems, theoretical or social, can be solved through science and concerted, rational effort.”  Sound familiar?

Those who continue to hold to the ideals of the Enlightenment, however, have at least one major counter-example to answer to, that of the Holocaust.  I was reminded of this counter-example by Professor J. T. Bridges, whose research yielded the following chilling quotation from author Michael Berenbaum:

The Holocaust, by its scope, nature, and magnitude transforms our understanding of human culture and human existence.  An unspoken premise of the advocates of culture and education is that the refinements of culture and learning somehow make us into better people and intensify our moral worth.  Yet the Holocaust was perpetrated not by the least cultured and least sophisticated of nations but by the most cultured and most advanced of societies.  Furthermore, the elements within that society that proved capable of perpetrating the evils were not the least cultured, but came from all spectrums of society including philosophers and scientists, musicians and engineers, lawyers and ministers, artists and intellectuals.  No segment of German society proved immune. . . . We see that people could love good music and kill young children.

A people with some of the most advanced science and technology, sophisticated culture, turned into Nazi Germany.  You will excuse me if I harbor some doubts about the utopian hopes of our modern day Enlightened.  Clearly science and technology, education and culture did nothing but make the Nazis into more scientifically advanced, more educated, and more culturally sophisticated killers.

  • Walter Tucker

    I”m reading “Ideas Have Consequences” by Richard Weaver for a philosophy class. If you go by what he says in that book, which I agree wholeheartedly with his position, the focus on the particulars is leading us in exactly the opposite direction.

    I used to think that science and technology could lead us to paradise. But, while there is good in science and technology (I spent most of my life working in that realm and would like to think some good came out of it), it has become clear to me that we have the Garden event unfolding where mankind lacks trust in God and looks to itself to fulfill its needs and in the end end up farther from God, the true source of life and paradise, than ever. It is so easy to think that the progress and successes of studying and manipulating the particulars is leading us to a better life, but what you find is that we are merely making ourselves more like animals or even mere machines with no sense of purpose or real value and are slowing dying.

  • Anonymous

    Oooh, argumentum ad Hitlerum (again).

    May I suggest you change the name of the blog to “Tough Questions Answered (by suggesting atheists are Nazis)”?

  • The Chisel

    do you listen to yourself bill?

    This is disgusting.

    It’s truely unfortunate that someone out there might read your blog and take this seriously. unfortunate and quite frieghtening.

  • Anonymous

    When I was a child, the world was huge and overwhelming and I believed everything that my parents and teachers told me. As I became a teenager, I found that I could figure out much more for myself than I ever would have guessed and I erroneously concluded that there was nothing that I could not eventually understand. As I became an adult, I realized that my capacity was not so unlimited as I once believed it to be. Nevertheless, I didn’t respond to this realization by returning to the childishness of trusting authority without question.

    It may well be that Enlightenment thinkers were overly optimistic about the capacity of science to achieve utopia. However, seeking to return to an earlier state of ignorance and magical thinking is not an attractive option.

  • Todd

    I suppose in lieu of evidence, slander is still an option… I only dignify this post with a response so that someone who takes it at face value may read it twice. Sometimes it takes two sniffs of the pile to confirm the smell.

  • Ian

    To be fair to Bill, the piece he quotes does mention ministers. There are pictures of Catholic clerics giving the Nazi salute, so it is just not an attack on atheists.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think Bill deserves the benefit of the doubt any longer:

    http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org/?s=hitler

  • Boz

    Steven Pinker thoroughy demonstrates that violence decreases over time.

    This demonstration includes the single data point mentioend in the OP.

    http://edge.org/conversation/mc2011-history-violence-pinker

    http://www.amazon.com/Better-Angels-Our-Nature-Violence/dp/0670022950

  • Anonymous

    But..but… Hitler! Darwinism caused the Holocaust! Atheists have no morals!

    Did I mention Hitler?

  • Andrew Ryan

    And his middle name is HUSSEIN – did anyone mention that? Oops, wrong thread.

  • What exactly was disgusting about the post?

  • Where is the slander in my post?

  • I never mentioned Darwinism or atheism in the post, so why did you bring those things up?

  • The Chisel

    Essentially you try to negate any and all of the good that science and education have brought about, by saying that those things lead to Nazism.

    If it wasn’t for education and enlightenment, then the Allied Nations would never have stopped Germany. Your comment for one, detracts from the supreme sacrifice made by millions of that generation, and slaps war veterans in the face.

    Also, you’re saying that the greatest method we have for understanding the universe that God created leads only to evil? This insults man’s intelect and persuit of understanding the natural universe, and thereby (if you feel that Man is created in God’s image) you also insult God.

    If you truely, truely feel that science and technology can lead us only and unavoidably to the evil of facism and genocide, then it’s time to quit your blog, sell your house and car, and become a Menonite – so you can avoid all of the evils that technology and science bring.

  • Ian

    When Steven Pinker shows a decline in violence the statistics he uses to graph the decline are in some cases misleading. He uses deaths per 100,000. With a much higher population the number of deaths does not appear so large in recent times, but can be very high numerically.

  • Andrew Ryan

    How on earth is that misleading? Proportionate to population figures on deaths is the most honest way and makes the most sense. That’s how we compare all these things – road deaths, cancer, teen pregnancies etc. Any valud historical comparison must be set against the population at the time.

  • Boz

    that is not misleading, that is standard practice. It is the best way to do comparisons over time.

  • Andrew_EC

    I already posted the link. This is, by my count, the ninth time you’ve called atheists Nazis.

    Or were you suggesting that your cute little use of “modern day Enlightened” was not meant to indicate atheists?

  • Ian

    It might be standard practice, but it is a problem. 20 odd million people died in the second world war. That is quite a high number and using proportionate to population figures make it seem less than it is. The death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of many people is a statistic. Stalin could randomly go through a list of people he didn’t like including his son and it didn’t matter to him because there were still many Russians left.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I don’t agree Ian. Your WW2 argument is backwards and actually works against you. Rendering 20 million deaths as a proportion of the lower world population then shows that it’s the equivalent to several times as many people being killed now. An equivalent now would be perhaps 60 million deaths. That makes us see that war’s losses as being MORE horrific, not less.

    What airline would you rather fly with –

  • Andrew Ryan

    Sorry, what airline would you rather fly with:
    1) One that flies 100 people each year, but has had 10 deaths a year the past decade; or
    2) One that flies 100,000 a year, but averages 20 deaths a year?

  • Ian

    I take your last point, but people talk about 6 million Jewish deaths in WW2, not the number of deaths per 100,000 of the total Jewish world population

  • Andrew Ryan

    Yes, 6 million deaths is objectively a huge number of people to murder in such a short time, or even if it was over a greater period, like Stalin. But if you’re going to judge how violent we are as a species, and whether we’re getting better or worse, the only way that makes sense is to calculate it proportionate to the population. Back to my plane analogy, a thousand road deaths a year is appalling, but if there are a hundred times more journeys made now than 60 years ago, it’s clearly safer than 300 deaths in 1961.

    Back to the holocaust, there were probably nations in WW2 that suffered a similar number of deaths. The holocaust stands out as uniquely horrible for several reasons. The intent, the method, the attempt at complete genocide, the cruelty, and other reasons too.

  • Chisel,
    I did not say, nor have ever said, that science and education brought about Nazism. It is a truly lop-sided and twisted reading of my blog post that would lead anyone to that conclusion.

    I detracted from the sacrifice of war veterans in my post??!! Are you reading the same thing I wrote? I think not.

    I also never said that science and technology always lead to Nazism and genocide. Again, you are consistently reading into the post things I never say. You are trying to guess what I’m saying instead of just reading my words and trying to understand what I actually wrote.

    My point was simple. Those people who think that science and technology, in and of themselves, will inexorably lead mankind to some kind of utopia are hopelessly naive. Nazi Germany is a major counter-example of this dreamy, utopian thinking.

    There is more to the meaning of life than chemistry and physics. Those things are great, but they are only a part of reality, and hardly the most important part. God, love, friendship – all of these things are more important than science and technology.

    Do you disagree with that?

  • “Modern day enlightened” refers to anyone who believes that science and technology, in and of themselves, will inexorably lead mankind to a utopia. There are people of many different worldviews who share this perspective, including some religious folks. I also know that there are many atheists who are not so naive, and would agree with me.

    So, no, Andrew, I did not say that Nazis are atheists in my post. I didn’t write that and I would appreciate you reacting to what I write instead of guessing what I mean and putting words in my mouth.

  • Andrew_EC

    Click the link above. You know exactly what you’re doing, and I’m far from the only one to notice it.

  • Todd

    “According to Professor William F. Lawhead, one of the central beliefs of the Enlightenment was that “all problems, theoretical or social, can be solved through science and concerted, rational effort.” Sound familiar?”

    It does sound familiar. It rings of a textual, wink wink, clearly insinuating those “familiar” people need to “answer to” the Holocaust as you put it in your next sentence. I wonder to whom you are referring? Certainly not atheists…

  • The Chisel

    Bill,

    In your post you postulate: “Will science and technology lead to paradise on earth?” and state that you disagree with scientific enlightenment. Then, in your largest and only point of argument you source material that references Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and says “the Holocaust was perpetrated not by the least cultured and least sophisticated of nations but by the most cultured and most advanced of societies”

    This leads your reader to infer that you are equating science with Nazism, as is evidenced by the reactions of your regular readers who have been incensed by your statement.

    If you do not want your readers to infer information from your post and form their own opinions on what it means, then you should make a greater effort to practice clear writing techniques.

    Perhaps you should include in your post “I am not saying that science leads to Nazism. However, I do not believe that paradise on earth can be achieved without faith”. Or, perhaps you should not source and agree with material that uses the existence of Fascism and the tragedy of the Genocide as the basis of its argument.

    The disgust on my part is that someone would trivialize such events in an effort to strengthen their position. And yes, doing so (trivializing the loss of human life in this manner) greatly insults veterans, war dead, and decedents of Holocaust survivors. To think otherwise is rather shortsighted.

  • The Chisel

    I can’t believe I missed this in my first reply. You’ve even made a direct comparison in your own reply to my comments!

    Bill Pratt Said: “My point was simple. Those people who think that science and technology, in and of themselves, will inexorably lead mankind to some kind of utopia are hopelessly naive. ***Nazi Germany is a major counter-example of this dreamy, utopian thinking.***”

    No, it is not.

    Nor can you say, “I never said that science leads to Nazism” and then use Nazism to draw comparison from during your rebuttal!

    You don’t have a leg to stand on here Bill.

  • I will make this as simple as possible. There are those who argue that science and technology, in and of themselves, inexorably lead to utopia. Nazi Germany was one of the most scientifically and technologically advanced nations on the planet when it committed all of its atrocities. Therefore, the argument that science and technology, in and of themselves, always lead to utopia must be false.

  • Vince Hart

    I will make this as simple as possible. There are those who argue that science and technology, in and of themselves, inexorably lead to utopia.

    Bill,

    Who are they? Can you give me some citations?

  • Andrew,
    Please find a single quote in the articles you linked to where I call atheists Nazis. Just one quote, Andrew. I’m waiting….

  • Andrew_EC

    Is that the line you use to assuage your conscience so that you can sleep at night? “Oh, as long as I use euphemisms like ‘modern day Enlightened,’ I’m not actually calling anyone a Nazi….”

    *shrug* to each his own, of course, but you might want to think about how well you’re modeling your Jesus to us nonbelievers.

  • Anonymous

    I’m waiting . . .

  • Seeing your comment below just shows me that you cannot find any place where I call atheists Nazis. Why? Because I’ve never said that and I don’t believe that atheists are equivalent to Nazis. The actual makeup of the Nazis included atheists, theists, and every other kind of worldview.

    I do believe that the leaders of Nazism were heavily influenced by Darwin’s ideas on evolution, but they were also influenced by anti-Semitism and German nationalism. It’s a complex issue.

    Andrew, your problem is that you have constructed an imaginary picture of who I am and what I think, based on some amalgamation of your experiences with Christians over the years.

    I ask you, once again, to read my actual words and treat me as an individual, not as a stereotype.

  • Andrew_EC

    Bill,

    Your problem is that you’re fundamentally dishonest.

    No, you haven’t said the phrase “atheists are Nazis” in that order.

    Is that significant? No. What’s important is what I — and others — have called you out for on this thread: your REPEATED efforts, using cutesy language, to claim that atheism leads to Nazism.

    Like I said: if that hairline distinction — “well, I didn’t CALL you a Nazi!” — helps you sleep at night, well, that’s up to you.

    But I reiterate: you claim that your objective on this blog is to interact with nonbelievers and to answer tough questions. Blaming us — insinuating that we’re caricaturing you! — when you’re engaged in a Monty Pythonesque wink-wink-nod-nod-say-no-more bit of slander is repugnant, and it’s undermining whatever it is you think you’re doing with this blog.

  • Andrew_EC

    Notice, by the way, that Bill once again reiterates his Darwinism = Nazism claim below. I do think the cute protestations — “hey, IN THIS POST I didn’t say that Darwinism = Nazism!” helps to illustrate the fundamental dishonesty at work here.

    Bill: if you want to believe that Charles Darwin caused the Holocaust, then you’re a sick, sad, deluded little man — but I can’t stop you from holding that stupid belief. All I can do is suggest, as a first step, that you at least own up to what you really believe instead of playing this wink-wink-nudge-nudge-say-no-more “well, I didn’t say that in THIS thread, so you’re being mean!” shtick.

  • Andrew_EC

    “They” are the atheist Darwinists who directly led to the Holocaust — not that Bill will say precisely those words in precisely that order. He’ll just insinuate it and then indignantly deny it when you call him on it.

  • Vince Hart

    Andrew,

    No doubt.

    Bill,

    Still waiting . . .

  • Ian

    Didn’t the writer HG Wells believe that science would lead to utopia, excluding, admitedly, ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’? He also was in favour of eugenics and was anti Zionist. He was neither an atheist or a Christian.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I don’t know – did he? I’d like to see a cite or quote for that. I think most people accept that science is simply a method. Its purpose is to establish what is true given the best available evidence. Better technology can make one more efficient at curing diseases or more efficient at killing your enemies. Not sure who would deny that or what this has to do with religion or lack of religion.

  • Ian

    Andrew, I can’t do a reply to you directly because of the indentation problem, but this is from his novel ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ on Wikipedia where it says ‘One of the major aspects in the creation of the World State envisioned by Wells is the complete crushing and eradication of all organized religion—an act deemed indispensable in order to give the emerging “Modern State” a monopoly over education and the complete ability to mould new generations of humanity worldwide into the required shape.’ He also says’Wells … envisages a benevolent dictatorship—’The Dictatorship of the Air’ (a term likely modelled on ‘The Dictatorship of the proletariat’)—arising from the controllers of the world’s surviving transportation systems (the only people with global power). This dictatorship promotes science, enforces Basic English as a global lingua franca, and eradicates all religion, setting the world on the route to a peaceful utopia. When the dictatorship chooses to murder a subject, the condemned person is given a chance to take a poison tablet.’

  • Andrew Ryan

    Ian, you’re quoting a summary of a work of fiction – it’s not possible to judge if that was Well’s own view, or even if he meant this view of the future to be utopian or dystopian. You yourself pointed out a book he wrote where science is used for evil, and it’s not the only one (see The Time Machine’s view of mankind destroying itself through ever-increasing firepower.

  • Ian

    Andrew, I will also quote from the book ‘Atheist delusions’ by David Bentley Hart. He writes that in the aftermath of Christianity the author has an unease that over time that a number of respected philosophers, scientists, medical lecturers and bioethicists in the academic world not only continue to argue for eugenics but do so mercilessly. The late John Fletcher complained that modern medicine continues to contaminate the gene pool by preserving inferior genetic types and advocated legal coercion to improve the quality of the race. He favoured Linus Pauling’s proposed policy of segregating genetic inferiors into a caste by affixing indelible marks to their brows. Peter Singer argues for the right to infanticide for parents of defective babies. Lee Silver looks forward to the day when humanity will take responsible for its own evolution. Some transhumanists argue for cross-breeding with men with canine hearing and elephants’ tusks.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Ian, I can equally quote from religious movements that cited the bible to back up eugenic ideas. I don’t really think quoting back and forth like that proves anything or gets us anywhere:

    “The Social Gospel movement, led mostly by Congregationalist and Unitarian ministers, grew rapidly in these years among mainline Protestant churches. The Social Gospel reconceived Christianity as being less about faith and salvation, and more about, as Rosen writes, “ushering in the Kingdom of God on earth through [social] reform and service.”

    Many Social Gospel adherents viewed eugenics as God’s plan to reconcile the truths of science with the Bible. Toward this end, Bible verses were reinterpreted and found to contain what had theretofore been secret eugenics messages. Thus, in one minister’s sermon, Noah’s flood was God’s own eugenics policy for eliminating a human race that had degraded and become inferior. Others insisted that Christ’s Parable of the Talents was actually about improving the population: In eugenics exegeses, “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him,” took on a whole new meaning.”

  • Vince Hart

    Ian,

    I don’t know whether Wells believed that or not. Do you think that is who Bill was referring to?

  • Ian

    Vince, I don’t know. Bill is sometimes inscrutable. He leaves you hanging on the line trying to guess what he means.

  • The Chisel

    Ian said: “Vince, I don’t know. Bill is sometimes inscrutable. He leaves you hanging on the line trying to guess what he means.”

    lol, and then he’ll try to lambast you for drawying your own conclusions. (see my discussion with him above)

    I wouldn’t expect any answere to your question either. Bill has posted his next topic, wich I’ve noticed usually means he will now disregard this entire topic.

  • Boz

    Vine Hart, that is a good point.

    Bill Pratt, specifically who are you arguing against? Can you give an example?

  • Bill Pratt,

    I’ve lurked through this blog and the comments, leaving me with one question: “At what point does the Golden Rule apply in apologetics?” I ask because in the past you have chided Richard Dawkins saying, “As we’ve mentioned about Dawkins before, he avoids, at all costs, actually engaging with the best of Christian thought.”

    If you do not appreciate Dawkins approach–for not engaging the “best of Christian thought”–should you, in applying the Golden Rule, at least refrain from doing the same? I.e., should you engage the best of critical thought if you are “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you”?

    Having interacted with you for a bit, I notice a pattern of plausible deniability. What I see is you start off your blog posts with “Some people say…” or “I overheard an atheist say…” or “Some liberal scholars claim….” without identifying quotes or particulars. What appears to me is you are making broad, nebulous strawpeople, and if Christians equate it with atheism (or Darwinism or Nazism or whatever denigrating –ism is currently in vogue) that would be just fine with you.

    However, if some critic questions your premise, by not specifically linking “some people” to any particular identifier, you can claim righteous martyrdom that you are being vilified for saying something you did not.

    Thus plausible deniability: if Christians interpret these blog entries as being about non-Christians—great for you! If critics claim it is inaccurate—you are a martyr for being accused of something you did not [precisely] say! A win-win.

    If that is sufficient for you—fine. Personally, even as a Christian, I would be disappointed this is “the best” you have to offer. Especially in light of your complaints regarding critics doing exactly what you engage in. One wonders how practically applicable Christianity is if its apologists do not feel the need to follow the Golden rule when discussing its particulars.

  • I’m not sure why I’m responding to the atheist feeding frenzy that has erupted on this blog post, but I guess I’m feeling masochistic today.

    The reason I use words like “some people believe” or “some liberal scholars say” is that ALL people and ALL liberal scholars do NOT subscribe to the belief I’m going to write about. It’s that simple. I do not want my audience thinking that there are monolithic groups of atheists, agnostics, liberal scholars, or any other group. Your views, for example, differ greatly from other atheists I’ve dialogued with on this blog, so I don’t want to lump everyone together.

    Secondly, when I’m dealing directly with a prominent scholar and his particular view, I do provide quotations and citations. But many times I am dealing with viewpoints that I’ve heard from multiple people over a period of years, and the identity of those people may be completely irrelevant to the blog post. In those cases, I’m more interested in debating the idea, not debating the particular people who believe the idea.

    In this particular post, I am interested in the idea that science leads to utopia, and throughout the years I have dialogued with various people, both atheist and theist, that seem to hold that view in a weaker or stronger form. I also know, from history, that the view of science leading to utopia was very popular during the Enlightenment.

    Practically the only atheist I can think of that actually dealt with the idea in the blog comments was Vinny a week ago. Everyone else has been obsessed with figuring out if I am calling all atheists Nazis, which I’ve denied multiple times. I don’t really know how else I can say it, but I’m sure you’ll have suggestions for me.

  • Bill Pratt,

    Thanks for writing back. Not sure it was really a reply to my question, though. If you think Dawkins should engage with the best of Christian thought, by any application of the Golden Rule, shouldn’t you engage with the best of critical non-Christian thought?

    Or do you think the claim that science and technology inevitably leads to paradise on earth IS the best of critical thought? If so, I really do not think it too much to ask (as Vince Hart did, and many joined in after) for a citation to one of these critical thinkers.

    Likewise, if I claim “Christians say…” one would think I could link to at least one Christian who did say what I claimed!

    Suggestions for you? No…I just write what I see. If you want to ignore me or my input—that is perfectly fine. Having lurked on your blog for a number of months (I can’t remember the last time I provided a comment), I thought I would share what I see happening. *shrug*

  • Andrew Ryan

    Saying that science has the POTENTIAL to help create a better world is not the same as saying that it will INEVITABLY lead to utopia. Similarly, you can say that faith in God can lead to a better world without believing that no bad is ever caused by a misguided man’s faith.

    As for debating the idea, I don’t know anyone nowadays who would deny that science can be a tool for those with evil intent, just like I don’t know anyone who would deny the good achieved through science – for example the estimated billion lives that Dr Norman Burlaug saved from starvation through improving crop yields.

    On a side note Bill, I don’t see how criticising your posts constitutes an ‘atheist’ feeding frenzy. A differing of your views is not automatically ‘atheist’. I rarely post anything that I could not have also posted when I was a Christian. At any rate, you don’t mention religion anywhere in this particular blog entry, so why assume that disagreements with it are (anti) religious in nature?

  • Thanks, Andrew. That’s a very reasonable reply. I called it an atheist feeding frenzy because most of the people who have been attacking the post, and me personally, I might add, call themselves atheists. When I see comment after comment after comment piling on one another in criticism, I call it a feeding frenzy, and it just so happens that most of my most vocal critics are atheists.

    I generally welcome my atheist friends’ criticism, as long as it’s constructive and moving us forward in dialogue. Many of the comments on this post, however, have been anything but constructive. It seems that the main point has been to see how many ways we can call Bill a liar.

  • Anonymous

    I have a radical suggestion for you, Bill:

    If you don’t want to be called a liar, perhaps you should lie less?

  • Vince Hart

    Bill,

    I prefer to think of myself as an agnostic, but I’m glad you saw my comment as responsive. However, I note that you did not respond to it.

    I don’t think that ideas based on the inevitability of scientific human progress have held much sway in Western philosophy or culture since the 1st World War. Certainly since the invention of the atomic bomb, I can’t imagine any rational person seriously denying the possibility that science might just as well destroy humanity as lead it to utopia.

    The idea you are criticizing has been discredited for nearly a century.

  • The Chisel

    in regards to the “Athiest feeding frenzy”:

    Neither am I an athiest, nor did I ever mention it in any of my comments.

    My objection was to HOW you argued your point, not that you DID.