Science has given us insights into the workings of life and the universe that go far beyond what common sense could have told us – and, in material terms, far beyond the imaginings of artists and poets. It has given rise to a whole new era of technology, known as “high” technology: building upon but qualitatively different from the traditional technologies of architecture and metalwork and carpentry and needlework in all their glories, and cooking and farming, all of which arose from craft. High tech is, as the Zanussi ads say, “the appliance of science”. Through medicine in particular, and now through IT, it has transformed the lives and the prospects of all humanity. All in all, science and its high technologies should help us to live in great numbers, and/or to control our numbers by agreeable means, and yet enjoy the company of other creatures in great abundance and diversity.
Beyond doubt, science is one of the triumphs of humankind and high tech is one of our greatest assets. Deployed adroitly, the two together really could help us to achieve the dream – convivial societies within a flourishing biosphere, for many thousands and indeed for millions of years to come.
But science has been horribly misconstrued, and it is not deployed adroitly. It is widely seen and presented to us, by some scientists and by many influential politicians (though not by scientists who are philosophically literate), as the royal route to omniscience. Some say and presumably believe that if we do enough of it we will one day know all there is to know. Or rather, they say: any question that science cannot answer should be seen as a non-question, and dismissed out of hand. Correspondingly, high tech is presented to us as the inexorable path to omnipotence. One day we’ll be able to bend all life on Earth, if not the universe at large, to our will. We will in effect be gods. Many find this idea repellent but many find it seductive. Politicians who aspire to be avant-garde approach the world’s problems with open-mouthed technophilia. Such uncritical faith in the power of technology, yoked to a naïve acceptance of neoliberal thinking and obeisance to the “free” market, is now the greatest threat to the future of humankind and the biosphere at large. What a pity.
For science and the high technologies that emerge from it must be subject to two kinds of caveat. First, as philosophers of science have been pointing out for the past 100 years at least, and other philosophers and prophets were saying for many centuries before that, science cannot deliver what lawyers impossibly demand – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Its insights are always partial and provisional. All science like all knowledge is in the end a story that we tell ourselves, and all stories in the end are human inventions, subject to human limitations. The power of the highest technologies is correspondingly limited. We cannot truly control what we cannot exhaustively understand. To suppose that we can is hubris writ large, which the Old Greeks rightly recognized as the greatest folly of all.
Secondly, all human thought and action must be put into a moral and indeed a metaphysical context. We should never stop asking what is good, and why. The question “who really benefits?” is an important part of morality, though by no means all of it (see VI.2). Much of modern high tech brings benefit and wealth to a few at the expense of the many, and of the biosphere, and seems designed to do so. That cannot be good.
So of course we need excellent science and high tech. Soon there will be 10 billion people on board and we cannot hope to come smoothly through the next few thousand years without excellent science and well-directed technology. But we have to put them both into perspective. On a practical and specific note, we should not, as now, be using the high technologies of agriculture to sweep aside traditional craft. The traditional crafts of farming, honed over 10,000 years (and probably nearer 100,000 or more), already provide in essence what the world really needs. The vast majority of agricultural science is designed to further the cause of industrialization – to produce hyper-productive if short-term systems that can compete most effectively for money in the neoliberal market. Yet what we really need is science-assisted craft.
In the following pages we will explore the wonders of science and high tech, and particularly of agricultural science and tech. But we will also do what conventional science education commonly fails to do, which is to put the whole caboodle into perspective – philosophical, political, moral, and metaphysical; ask what science really is, and what it is not; what high tech can do, and what it cannot; ask what is really good, and worth doing (and contrast that with what is commonly done). We will also address the biggest political question of all – a variation of Lenin’s “Who, whom?”: who should be controlling science, and for what purpose?