The Mastery of Science and Technology

Dialogue between Jim Garrison, Larry A. Hickman and Daisaku Ikeda

The following are excerpts from Living As Learning: John Dewey in the 21st Century (Dialogue Path Press, 2014), a dialogue between SGI President Daisaku Ikeda and two past presidents of the John Dewey Society, Jim Garrison, professor of philosophy of education at Virginia Tech, and Larry A. Hickman, professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Their discussions focus on the work of the American philosopher and educator John Dewey (1859-1952).

Exhibits at the "Exhibition of the Industry of all Nations" at New York's Crystal Palace in 1853 [© Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images]

Daisaku Ikeda: Dewey, as if anticipating the problems that society would run up against, warned that human beings might be reduced from the masters of scientific technology to the tools of it. The tendencies toward quantification and mechanization that he warned against led to a society in which people were forced into a standardized mold and treated as a uniform "product"--one of our world's great problems today.

The establishment of a sound ethical system is an urgent issue in today's science-based society.

Jim Garrison: I primarily teach courses in education for teachers from all disciplines, and I have noticed a disturbing pattern. Students with degrees in science or engineering are confident in the powers of these disciplines but rarely have exposure to courses in the philosophy or ethics of science. Meanwhile, those without a background in the techno-sciences are much more likely to distrust science and technology and may even see it as a definite evil.

Many of the nonscientists among my students often participate in the contemporary rage against reason. What they are rightly rebelling against is scientism: the narrow, dogmatic use of scientific results rather than the tentative methods of hypothesis, testing and revision that are never absolutely certain. Dewey, too, rejected "The Quest for Certainty," which is the title of his most extensive work on the theory of knowledge (epistemology).

Generally, few students, regardless of background, have been exposed to ethics or philosophy of any kind. There are now more offerings in the curriculum at Virginia Tech, and I am starting to see positive results in my classes.

Larry Hickman: I advise students of science and engineering to study the histories of their own disciplines and acquaint themselves with the work being done by philosophers that addresses the ethical dimensions of scientific and technical change. Their professional lives will be greatly enriched, I advise them, by the study of philosophy, and courses in the humanities will prepare them for the ethical decisions their professions will demand.

Dewey thought that philosophy at its best is a kind of liaison officer helping the various disciplines to communicate with one another.

Ikeda: Dewey insisted that development of a wholesome society must rest on the formation of a new individualism: "It is through employing them [science and technology] with understanding of their possible import that a new individualism, constant with the realities of the present age, may be brought into operative being."

He also wrote, "The greatest obstacle to that vision is, I repeat, the perpetuation of the older individualism now reduced, as I have said, to the utilization of science and technology for ends of private pecuniary gain."

Garrison: From Francis Bacon, Auguste Comte and others, Dewey took the notion that the sciences can allow humankind to take control of its destiny intelligently by engineering a better future, but only if we are caring, careful and fully reflective.

The problem is that thus far the science of nature in the hands of global capital has tended to make nature the unwilling servant. Worse still, it has turned science on human nature and made human individuals themselves unwilling servants of techno-science.

Dewey often made the classical Greek observation that anyone who takes the purposes of his conduct from another is a slave. Thus far, the power of science has been used by the rich and powerful to enslave the minds of the masses.

John Dewey [© Hulton Archive/Getty Images]

Ikeda: How to open enslaved minds to the possibilities of freedom, independence and humanity--this is the challenge of humanistic education. In light of Dewey's ideas on this, Professor Garrison, how do you think modern education should be reformed?

Garrison: Dewey believed we must accept the place in history into which we are born and then strive to transform its muddy waters into beautiful blossoms. So, we must accept the capitalist economy along with the techno-sciences we have inherited. However, if we can realize the promise of pluralistic democracy, we can put science and capitalism to new purposes for the good of the people.

Instead of education as molding human resources into interchangeable parts for the global production function, we must reaffirm moral equality and educate every individual to actualize his or her unique potential to make unique contributions to the democratic community.

Ikeda: You have explained Dewey's view of education with a wonderful metaphor. As you know, the Lotus Sutra, the quintessence of Mahayana Buddhism, also employs the simile of the lotus flower blooming out of muddy waters.

The Lotus Sutra teaches a way of life in which, though we exist within the difficult reality of our world, as it swirls with greed and hatred, we can shine radiantly with the noblest humanity and contribute to society--just as the lotus rises to flower in purity from the muddy waters.

Starting Where We Are

Hickman: Dewey was born the year that Americans drilled their first oil well. He died the year that the hydrogen bomb was tested. He took it as a part of his challenge as a philosopher to understand the human impact of the many scientific and technical changes that occurred during his lifetime.

I think he would have loved the metaphor of the lotus, rising from muddy waters to produce a pure bloom, since it was so close to his own ideas about taking things as we find them and reconstructing them so as to create value.

Ikeda: The key is to become strong, wise and good, and make what life presents to us into opportunities for creating value.

Regarding technology today, short-term profit is the driving force, and there is fierce competition to make new discoveries and findings without sufficient examination of their effects on either human beings or the natural world. As a result, technological and scientific advancement is destroying the natural world and the very foundation of human life, and threatening our ecosystem.

This reminds me of something [second Soka Gakkai] President Toda said: "One cause of people's misfortune today is that they confuse knowledge and wisdom . . . Knowledge may serve as a door that opens the way to wisdom, but knowledge itself is definitely not wisdom."

Garrison: The disaster of techno-science in the contemporary social context of global capitalism is that we apply knowledge without wisdom. The old individualism places knowledge before wisdom, because it wishes to use knowledge to exploit nature and other human beings. The new individualism seeks to use knowledge wisely to alleviate suffering and liberate human creativity and self-expression.

The problem is not the techno-sciences but the purposes to which they are put. First, I believe that we must avoid the excesses of scientism, so that we can properly understand the power of science as a cultural phenomenon. We must avoid harnessing the power of science to traditional purposes, which often tend to oppress individuals and groups.

We must release critical, creative intelligence, as refined by modern science into all cultural domains, including religion, the economy, philosophy, the family and individual life. Humanistic education emphasizing cultural criticism, creative imagination and social responsibility cultivates such new individualism, which resembles what you, President Ikeda, call the human revolution in a single life.