“The task of humanity…is to create a global civilization which embodies both the spiritual and material dimensions of existence.”
The Universal House of Justice
Dec 18, 2011. Last week, I blogged about how the role of science in society was changing. I illustrated those changes by discussing the decline of Bell Labs and NTT Research Labs, two industrial research labs that played an important role in scientific and industrial development in the United States and Japan respectively in the 20th century.
I am using the example of the labs to help illustrate the Baha’i point of view that both science and religion are needed if the world is to advance:
“Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone!”
This week, I want to use the important lessons to be learned from Bell Labs and NTT Research Labs to elaborate on some of the future changes that need to take place if science is to become a “wing” of the bird of humanity that benefits all the people of the world.
Lessons To Be Learned
Both Bell Labs and NTT Research Labs were large – each had more than 10,000 employees – and both were the research and development organizations of national telecommunications monopolies. They epitomized the focused, wealth-building, centralized, and highly top-down form of science and engineering typical of the late 20th century.
The lessons that are to be learned from them and their decline – if I may recapitulate – include on one hand the power of concentrated scientific research, and on the other hand the limitations of concentrated control of the fruits of that research.
In the first case, massively concentrated scientific research of the type which these labs excelled at played an important role in 20th century scientific and technical development. Bell Labs, for example, developed transistors, microwave and RF technologies, lasers, optical fibers, e-mail, and the precursors to the internet. These are the fundamental technologies of the 21st century.
NTT Labs played a similar developmental role in Japan, first helping create the giant electronics firms – NEC, Fujitsu, Toshiba – that are at the core of the Japanese electronics industry. Then, through NTT DoCoMo, playing a major role in the development of the modern cell phone industry.
But despite the wealth of scientific and technological productivity of these two labs, the benefits to society of much of their research was limited. (The exceptions, of course, are transistors and lasers which – in effect – escaped from Bell Labs and grew rapidly into important technologies.)
It was only when the telecommunications monopolies – AT&T and NTT – that controlled the labs were broken apart that the telecommunications industry exploded with creativity and rapidly developed the new technologies that have lead to the cell-phone and internet technologies we see today – and with them the global information and communications networks that reach to all except the most remote part of the world today.
So the lesson is twofold: (1) concentrated research can create scientific and engineering advances that can change the world, and (2) scientific and engineering advances require new forms of social organization – the telephone monopolies of the 20th century were inadequate – if they are to proliferate and benefit large numbers of people.
The lesson for those with goodwill towards the whole of the world is, I submit, that the fruits of concentrated scientific development are real, and that focused scientific research – if successively and massively implemented – can create fundamental changes in how the world functions.
But, in the world that we live in today, scientific research focused on the real needs of the people of the world often does not take place and the mechanisms for implementation the potential fruits of such research are lacking. To echo the Occupy Wall Street crowd, the world is mainly structured for the material benefits of the “1%”.This is due, I think, to the lack of true religion and the concurrent rise of materialism:
“Should a man try to fly … with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.”
If we are to fully use the power of science, then it must be harnessed for the benefit of all.
This should be viewed as the next step in an ongoing series of scientific revolutions – and it is a step that is just dawning. It includes the expansion of scientific literacy and the extension of the capacities of science to all the members of the world’s communities and all the members of their various component social groups.
When this happens, it will level the playing fields for all of the world’s peoples and allow them to take their destiny into their own hands. When this happens, science will belong to all. It will more radically change the world than anything in the most fevered dreams of the most ardent revolutionaries of the past.
Truly, universal scientific literacy will be “power to the people”, for there is no greater power known than the power of the mind.
Changes in Social Organization
The other lesson to be drawn from the story of Bell Labs and NTT Labs is that the sharing of the benefits of science is determined by social organization. The fruits of the great scientific advances of these labs were only widely made available when monopoly control of the telecommunications industry was ended.
Similarly, if the fruits of the benefits of society are to be extended to all, there needs to be massive shifts in the social organization of world societies, much as there were massive shifts in the world’s telecommunications and internet industries.
If that shift is to extend to all corner’s of the globe and to all communities, that is an undertaking that our present forms of social organization – now seemingly incapable of maintaining even the strength of the world’s leading industrial democracies – are unprepared for and incapable of doing.
Here is my argument and a challenge. We have seen hugely increasing rates of change, both in technology and in the expectations of people everywhere. Now, the main benefits of those changes are the citizens of the world’s leading industrial nations, and to a lesser extent, citizens of resource-rich regions. (But of course benefits seem to be slipping away even as I write from most people in these countries – wealth and privilege is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few.) Real and needed social change, accordingly, must take place if the benefits of science are to be extended to all. The challenge is to create opportunities for such change.
We have argued earlier – and quoted the Baha’i Writings as saying – that this requires religion to play a central role. Here is the grand picture I want to paint:
- Four hundred years ago, the scientific revolution began as Islamic learning merged with European creative energies to explore the earth and the heavens and create unparalleled new technologies.
- Two hundred years ago, enlightened European thought labored to cast aside the world’s great religions, thinking them retrograde and an impediment to the world’s evolution.
- Now, we live in a time of unmatched material prosperity for some, and chaos and despair for most others. But, we stand on the brink of yet another world revolution promised by the growth of knowledge and the possibility of universal scientific literacy.
- The means to achieve that long promised new world is not science alone, it requires a rejuvenated and re-energized religion.
- We now know that the enlightenment rejection of religion was – to the extent that it saw religion as superseded by science – juvenile and ignorant. The circle has turned, and it is the ignorance and political baggage of the secular, nationalistic, materialistic heritage of two hundred years ago – and yes, many scientists – that impedes progress.
- The relationship of science and religion has gone nearly a full circle. Four hundred years ago they were in accord, two hundred years ago in conflict, and now the relationship is coming back to its starting point. Science and religion need to come into accord again if we are to realize the dreams of both for the future.
Next week, we will continue further our exploration of the coming together of science and religion.
This is the 10th in a series of blogs on religion and science working together to create a global civilization. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. He did extensive research in quantum optics in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.