Human World

Martin Luther King’s warnings about science without soul

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a hero of mine, and he’s likely a hero of yours. He was a champion of love and social justice, and I’ve learned a lot about him, and from him. But, when I got to work today, I realized I didn’t know a darn thing about Dr. King’s thoughts on science – a conspicuous mental omission on my part. With Google’s help, I took care of the problem.

I discovered a WIRED article which talked about MLK’s Nobel Peace Prize speech, given in Oslo in 1964. At 35, he was the youngest recipient of the prize.

Dr. King brushed shoulders, that night in Sweden, with some of the leading scientific thinkers of his time. Yet, in his speech, he argued – in the loveliest possible way – that science and technology don’t mean too much, if moral and spiritual progress don’t keep stride. Dr. King’s words are so profound, I’m cut-pasting a chunk of his speech:

This evening I would like to use this lofty and historic platform to discuss what appears to me to be the most pressing problem confronting mankind today. Modern man has brought this whole world to an awe-inspiring threshold of the future. He has reached new and astonishing peaks of scientific success. He has produced machines that think and instruments that peer into the unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. He has built gigantic bridges to span the seas and gargantuan buildings to kiss the skies. His airplanes and spaceships have dwarfed distance, placed time in chains, and carved highways through the stratosphere. This is a dazzling picture of modern man’s scientific and technological progress.

Yet, in spite of these spectacular strides in science and technology, and still unlimited ones to come, something basic is missing. There is a sort of poverty of the spirit which stands in glaring contrast to our scientific and technological abundance. The richer we have become materially, the poorer we have become morally and spiritually. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.

Every man lives in two realms, the internal and the external. The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion. The external is that complex of devices, techniques, mechanisms, and instrumentalities by means of which we live. Our problem today is that we have allowed the internal to become lost in the external. We have allowed the means by which we live to outdistance the ends for which we live. So much of modern life can be summarized in that arresting dictum of the poet Thoreau: “Improved means to an unimproved end”. This is the serious predicament, the deep and haunting problem confronting modern man. If we are to survive today, our moral and spiritual “lag” must be eliminated. Enlarged material powers spell enlarged peril if there is not proportionate growth of the soul. When the “without” of man’s nature subjugates the “within”, dark storm clouds begin to form in the world.

While MLK was specifically concerned with ending racial injustice (and he gets into that later in the speech), his statement here is more general: supercomputers and rockets are great, but they don’t make for a more loving world.

One of today’s leading scientists seems to be saying the same thing. Her name is Dr. Sherry Turkle, and she’s a professor of The Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and also head of the school’s Initiative on Technology and Self. An interview about her new book, Alone Together, ran yesterday on FastCompany.

Alone Together is all about Dr. Turkle’s concern about human overuse of technology. In writing the book, she interviewed lawyers, architects, management consultants, and businesspeople. In other words, her research on the implications of the “you’ve got mail” feeling is thorough. She talks about her concern that, in the midst of so many emails and texts and wireless chatter, we’re losing one another.

What businesses need to do is remember that these technologies are precious. My book doesn’t put these technologies down. It puts these technologies in their place. You need to put a fast deal in Abu Dhabi? There’s nothing better, and nothing in my book suggests this technology should not be used widely and deeply to solve such problems. What I’m against is a kind of technological promiscuity, where that technology, so perfect in that [Abu Dhabi] circumstance, is the technology you think is perfect for people to bring into a board meeting, when they need to be working on a problem together. In that case it’s not the technology of choice. They’re not physically present with the people they need to bond with and deeply connect with, and need to make very consequential decisions with. I hate the metaphor of addiction: it implies we have to get it away, give it away, wean off. This is great stuff. It’s not heroin. It’s just something we need to learn to use when most appropriate, powerful, and in our best interest.

It sounds like she’s saying the same thing as Dr. King: that technology, while being a magic and marvelous thing, is distracting us from the real meaning of what it means to be connecting together, and even what it means to enjoy a rich solitude, when alone.

All these words (those of Dr. Turkle and, of course, Dr. King) make for great and enriching mind candy on this Martin Luther King day.

They leave one to wonder: were MLK’s words on science prophetic? Are the advances of science as out of balance with the human condition as he thought? And, fast-forwarding to the present, are our phones and our computers – which are supposed to help us share information – actually barricading us inside a wisdom-less world, because we’re not authentically interacting?

The speakers-of-wisdom are telling us that we need balance between science and self. And I feel it, and I get it. The irony, of course, is that I’m pondering this on the Internet.

E.O. Wilson on EarthSky 22 for January 14, 2011

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January 17, 2011
Human World

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Beth Lebwohl

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