Don't forget love in the temple of science
These past ten years at MIT have been the happiest of my life. It has been both a joy and a privilege to have you as associates, as colleagues, as friends. You have each ministered to me in many different ways.
But I must confess that I speak to you with a little trepidation. I have always felt myself to be the priest of one religion in the temple of another. MIT is, of course, the world's preeminent temple of science and technology. This scientific and technological culture has its own world view, its own particular values and ethical standards, and even its own deeply-felt premises and beliefs. At MIT its aura feels overpowering. To a skeptic or dissenter it can be intimidating.
According to this world view science and technology constitute the only reliable path to knowledge. And new knowledge is the major legitimate source of wealth and power. And wealth and power are what is ultimately important. The success of science and technology in discovering new knowledge which gives great wealth and power, and the benefits that you and I and most of those we know enjoy because of that wealth and power give these beliefs great credibility.
At the time of MIT's founding it must have seemed obvious to many that the advance of science and technology would automatically improve the human condition. Indeed, if I understand Leo Marx correctly, in the mid-nineteenth century many imagined that the advance of science and technology and the improvement of the human condition were the one and the same thing.
Today this is all less than obvious.
While we enjoy the security, the comforts, the conveniences of modern society, out of the tail of our eye we can't help noticing the prospect of nuclear holocaust or the creeping environmental disaster that science and technology have made possible. Can we be trusted not to use that means for our own demise?
For my part, while I believe in the value of science and technology, my religion is different. According to my religion love is at the heart of the universe. This love is universal, embracing you and me and everybody and everything in the world. It offers a fundamental clue about the meaning of life. In my personal life I try regularly and methodically to cultivate an awareness of this love. It helps me recognize my solidarity with all people. It sharpens my sense of relationship with all living things.
This love is not only an individual thing. It has social, political, economic, and technological implications. It is about these broader implications of love that most of my discourse with you is about. Most of the time we don't speak of love explicitly. But when we talk about justice, peace, economics, technology, education, the human future, we are talking about it implicitly.
I would like to mention what seem to me to be three of the most serious challenges facing us and hint at how this conception of love might bear on them here at MIT.
The threat of nuclear holocaust is most obvious. For forty years our nation has sought security by planning and preparing and threatening and intending, in certain circumstances, to use nuclear weapons to annihilate our adversary. We have justified this by the claim that without these plans, preparations, threats, and intentions, our adversary would annihilate or even enslave us. We have accepted as necessary the constant increase and modernizing of our nuclear arsenal. There are those at MIT who have played a conspicuous role in the debate for arms control and the reduction of our nuclear deterrent. I am grateful to them. But love demands not just the reduction of nuclear weapons but the elimination of them. At the end of innumerable, long, complex, discussions, I painfully conclude I cannot in good conscience and in the name of love give my approval to plan and prepare and threaten and intend to commit mass murder.
The second challenge has to do with the widening gap between the rich and the poor. It is calculated that the world spends a trillion dollars a year on the military. Some of this money is spent by the wealthy and powerful to protect their wealth and their position of privilege against the poor. The United States is a leader in this war against the Third World. MIT, far from protesting this war, remains the nation's second largest academic military contractor.
But putting militarism aside, we must address what more than twenty years ago a scientist, James Bonner, described as "the clearly predictable result of our present policies ... the rapid development of a two culture world." The developed countries, he told us, "are now in a positive feedback loop in which technology, material wealth, and standard of living can grow exponentially for many generations to come. The rich will grow richer. Similarly, the poorness of the underdeveloped countries seems to be on the verge of a similar positive feedback loop, in which poorness itself leads to ever-deepening poorness." Last year Willy Brandt told us here at MIT that the way our system functions, the poor nations are now subsidizing the rich nations. For many years some Third World nations have called for a new economic order which would function so as to gradually narrow the gap between the rich and the poor. These suggestions have met implacable resistance from the wealthy nations generally.
Of course the reconstruction of the world economy so as to promote more justice and equality is a daunting task. At this point it is not even clear what such a reconstructed economic order might look like. Recently MIT has received a good deal of publicity for the report its special commission on competitiveness has published on the productivity of American industry. It has been described as a bottoms-up study. Love suggests to me that MIT might do an even more important bottoms-up study on what might be needed for a more just and cooperative world economic order.
The gap, of course, widens not only between the rich and poor countries, but also between the rich and poor within countries. In the past eight years American domestic policies seem deliberately designed to transfer resources from the poor to the rich. From the perspective of love this is a scandal.
The third challenge has to do with our care of the earth. Poisoning and ravaging the earth is no way to love it and to love present and future generations. And yet a glance at the daily headlines intimate that that is exactly what we are doing. Lester Brown's annual volumes on the State of the Earth and the Brundtland Commission report, Our Common Future, make sober reading, but they also offer policy suggestions that might serve love and create hope for both economic development and environmental preservation.
If MIT gave a higher priority to addressing these three challenges, it would be serving well both this generation and the future.
It may be just possible that we can begin to help move MIT to take these social implications of love more seriously. In any case we have together through the years over and over again raised up these issues for public discussion.
It is important that we continue.
Rev. Scott Paradise is the Episcopal chaplain at MIT. This column is based on a statement he gave to MIT's Technology and Culture Seminar this past May.
At the time of MIT's founding it must have seemed obvious that the advance of science and technology would automatically improve the human condition. Today this is all less than obvious.
Most of the time we don't speak of love explicitly. But when we talk about justice, peace, economics, technology, education, the human future, we are talking about it implicitly.
The United States is a leader in this war against the Third World. MIT, far from protesting this war, remains the nation's second largest academic military contractor.
Recently MIT has received a good deal of publicity for its special commission's report on competitiveness. Love suggests to me that MIT might do an even more important study on what might be needed for a more just and cooperative world economic order.