The English word “person” has a long and convoluted history. Though the word itself likely derives from the Latin, persona, referring to the masks worn in theatre, its meaning has evolved over time. One of the biggest conceptual overhauls came in the 4th century AD during a church council that was held to investigate the concept…
It’s difficult to overstate our society’s fascination with Artificial Intelligence (AI). From the millions of people who tuned in every week for the new HBO show WestWorld to home assistants like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, Americans fully embrace the notion of “smart machines.” As a peculiar apex of our ability to craft tools, smart…
Though we often take for granted that humans are persons, they are not exempt from questions surrounding personhood. Indeed, what it means to be a person is largely an unsettled argument, even though we often speak of “people” and “persons.” Just as it’s important to ask if other beings might ever be persons, it is […]
Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Coltan Scrivner for the month of January. Coltan will be writing a series of posts on personhood from different disciplinary perspectives. When I moved to Chicago for graduate school, one of the first things I did was go to the Lincoln Park Zoo. Just like with other zoos I’ve been […]
To contemplate the nature of humanity, there must exist endeavors from both the sciences and humanities. Each branch of knowledge brings to the table its own unique perspectives, assumptions, and models of learning. The sciences teach us about the natural world and it’s functioning. From the microscopic investigations of DNA to the search for exoplanets, science has defined the latter part of the Anthropocene – the epoch in which the global ecosystems have been subjugated and forever changed by human activities. Science ushered technology into a dimension that was previously unimaginable, where there seems to be no end to the artificial extensions of our biological domains.
With its jumpstart from the 17th century Enlightenment, scientific inquiry and discovery has revolutionized our world. The Age of Enlightenment saw a rising of reason, skepticism, and individual thought from which there was no precedent. The Cambrian Explosion of scientific knowledge, the Enlightenment brought about scientific discoveries that rewrote the trajectory of human existence. Philosophes, freed from the dogmatic ideology of the past, drew up the blueprints of our future. However, as successful and revolutionary as the Enlightenment was, it proved unsuccessful at reaching the core of human spirit, unable to tap into the emotional side of human nature. In an attempt to fulfill the unsatiated desire to understand the core of humanity, the Romantic era was ushered in. The 19th century champions of creative arts filled the emotional gap left by scientific endeavors. Expressions of individuality, residues of the Enlightenment, flooded the arts. The importance of aesthetic value was stressed, and the human imagination was extended in all directions. Romantics attempted to divulge the secrets of the human experience, the continuum on which humans ride in the cosmos. A more focused and anthropocentric approach, Romanticism succeeded where the Enlightenment had failed, but failed where the Enlightenment had succeeded.
As science and the humanities grew increasingly complex, their existence seemed to be a fixed dichotomy, henceforth irreconcilable. Answering two fundamentally different types questions, the humanities and science are both essential to a holistic understanding of our existence in the larger cosmos. As our technoscientific advances increase at an astounding rate, our defining of the Anthropocene becomes ever more acute. Advances in science and technology drive our imposition on nature; our ability to repurpose the existing and to create anew are changing the landscape of Earth. To counteract the effects of science and technology on nature, we turn to… science and technology. Science shows us how to do things, however, it lacks in the ability to show us what we should do. This requires a taste of the humanities. The humanities represent the venture into and extension of our human continuum. They attempt to unveil and explain the idiosyncrasies of human thought, creativity, and overall existence. Much like the scientific endeavor, the humanities’ endeavor is a never-ending quest. There is always something new to discover that has the potential to shift our way of thinking or understanding.
As we penetrate deeper into the depths of nature, we must apply the knowledge and revelations from the humanities to our excursion. As we continue dominion over the Earth and extend our understanding of nature, we must give ourselves a course to follow. Because the humanities explore and explain our specialized place in the cosmos, they are in the best position to evaluate our intrusions upon nature. Questions of value cannot be answered by science. As prescient and imaginative as science is, it still follows the shadow of the humanities. Science fiction drives the frontiers of science. Our explorations into human nature and creativity are the precursors of scientific explorations. A coalescence of these two primary branches of learning is essential to our continued existence. Each serves as its own weight in the balance. To see the larger picture of our existence in the cosmos, we must turn to science. To understand our own existence and the intricacies from which it is fueled, the humanities are irreplaceable. To wisely advance in our existence, we must amalgamate the two into a functional framework.
Carl Sagan once stated, “… the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any time that has come before.” This statement becomes truer every day, as scientific and technological innovations are occurring at an ever-increasing rate. Studies suggest that less than 30% of Americans are “scientifically literate,” meaning that over 70% of Americans would have trouble reading – and understanding – the science section of the New York Times. So, why is this important? After all, everyone has their strengths and weaknesses.
The problem with this view is that science is a driving force behind our sociocultural evolution. New ideas and new inventions are constantly redefining how we live our lives. As time goes on, science and technology will define most of life as we live it. Already, this is true. 100 years ago, people often lived day by day without electricity. Today, the most frightening thing most people could imagine would be a total loss of electricity. Imagine all of the things that simply wouldn’t work without it: phones, televisions, the Internet, lighting, heat and A/C, automobiles, and many parts of the manufacturing process for everyday items. We have built a society in the United States that is almost entirely dependent upon electricity. Personally, It’s difficult for me to imagine a world without electricity because everything I know is based on upon it. Life has become relentlessly complex and multifaceted. Most people have no idea how the world around them – that is, this semi-artificial world, or anthropogenic matrix – functions.
As time goes on, our day-to-day lives will become less and less “natural” and more and more artificial. This is not inherently bad. However, it does raise the standards for what we must understand about how the world, especially our anthropogenic matrix, works. Failing to keep a basic understanding of science and technology is destined to segregate the population, facilitating the rise of an “elite” few, resembling more of an oligarchy than a representative democracy. I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, and I don’t mean to imply that a “New World Order” is going to secretly control our lives. I do, however, think that if nothing is done about our general ignorance of science, we will slip away from the democracy that we claim to love so dearly. How? How can ignorance of science and technology lead to the failure of democracy? After all, you can vote regardless of your scientific literacy. While it’s true that you can vote while being largely ignorant of how the world works, this is part of the problem. To be clear, I do not think that there should be any kind of scientific literacy test in order to vote. This would only serve as fuel for the ever-broadening gap between those who understand science and those who don’t. In a democracy, everyone should be able to vote. However, given the state of knowledge that we currently have and the increasingly complex world in which we find ourselves, uneducated voting has disastrous consequences.
A Little Politics
Politics is, in its most basic form, the practice of influencing a population. This is done by verbally persuading people to get behind an action that will be set in motion order to guide the population down a particular path of life. The United States is a representative democracy, which means officials are elected by the public to govern the public. The United States is not a simple representative democracy; many modifications are set in order to give the minority a voice. However, in light of these modifications, “majority rules” is still the rule of thumb. On its surface, a “majority rules” system seems ideal. Going with what most people want or believe is the best thing to do seems like a solid idea. I agree that this is typically a good philosophy – that is, as long as those voting are educated on the matter at hand.
The Modern Intersection of Science and Government
The base of everything in our lives is built from science; it holds together our infrastructure. When a politician makes a motion to change or regulate something, he or she is making a change that affects our anthropogenic matrix, and, consequently, the natural world in which our matrix operates through such acts as deforestation, ozone depletion, species extinction, etc. If a constituent does not have a basic understanding of how the world works, then how can that individual make a good decision with regards to electing a public official who will pass laws that affect the world? Moreover, ignorance of science and technology (not to mention poor reasoning and logical evaluation skills that tend to accompany science education) leads to a vote based largely on emotion and superficial similarity. If you know very little about a subject, you cannot make an educated decision regarding that subject. If not based on an educated understanding, something else must be the base upon which you make decisions. The next best choice would be decisions based on reason and logic. Unfortunately, a fostering of critical thinking is also aloof in many educational settings. Science acts as a major source of training by which people learn to reason and form logical conclusions. In turn, many – though not all – who base their decisions on logical reasoning are in the same group of people who base their decisions on knowledge of science.
If you don’t use a knowledge of science to aid in political decision-making, it’s likely that you are more swayed by charisma and emotional triggers. Those candidates who are more like you, or at least are ostensibly like you, are more likely to sway your opinion. After all, that’s what politics is all about – persuading people. If most of your constituents are not scientifically literate, then you as a politician will be less likely to use science as a persuasion tactic and more likely to use charisma and emotionally charged wording that resonates with many of your constituents. Though not a valiant method of persuasion, it is a smart one. Unfortunately, this only perpetuates the current epidemic of scientific illiteracy.
Why Public Knowledge of Science Matters
One major problem with scientific illiteracy is that politicians can make a poor decision, intentionally or unintentionally, with no one to call them out. Regulations or the lack thereof concerning issues such as climate change, medical research, and irresponsible use of resources must be made based on the science that is used to study and understand these matters. If a politician uses a non-scientific basis for creating laws (a basis fueled by a constituency who is scientifically illiterate and, perhaps, an ulterior motive such as monetary stock in the decision), then consequences are sure to ensue. The effects can be immediate, such as lack of funding for education or medical research, or delayed, as with the consequences surrounding anthropogenic climate change.
Politics aside, understanding science and technology is imperative to functioning in our ever increasingly technological world. 100,000 years ago, one had to be a skillful hunter or gatherer; 10,000 years ago, one needed to be adept in agriculture; today, we must stay informed on, at the very least, the basics of science. Expertise is not required for social and political progress, but awareness is essential.