A World Astir|Apr 3, 2005 2:16 PM| by:

The Age of Unification

One of the major thrusts of the future will be towards synthesis. In this article, the author deals with two great conflicts which need to be resolved and synthesized.  First is the age old conflict between Reason and Faith and the other is the more recent conflict between the humanist and the technocrat.  The views expressed here are significant because they come not from a philosopher but a technocrat and an authority on Information Technology.  Here is a modern, technical, specialist mind, who has led one of world’s premier research lab on IT, tackling age old conflicts with fine balance of the ancient Hellenic mind.  Interestingly, the author happens to be a native of Greece, settled in US.

No matter how consumed we become with our daily pursuits, we are never more than a mental half-step away from a much greater awareness of our existence on this planet.  This was starkly brought to my attention one night some years ago, and it was then, after an impromptu bull session, of all things, that I began to finally articulate in my own mind our final discovery catalyzed by the Information Marketplace.

It was 3.00 a.m. and my phone rang.  One of my dedicated young colleagues was panicked.  He and a handful of students and research staff members had just discovered a virus that threatened the lab’s computers.  I hurried over, imagining the worst.  But by the time I got there they already had it under control; the threat turned out to be less serious than anyone had expected, and we all felt relieved that the laboratory’s precious files and programs were intact.  Of course, at that hour, and in anticipation of an all-nighter, the pizzas had been ordered.  May be it was the lateness of the night or the ominous invasion from outside that  prompted them, but whatever the cause, they began heatedly debating the eternal question:

“I believe in something powerful, but not necessarily a man in a board.”
“Religion is the opiate of the people.”
“I am an agnostic.”
“I believe in God but not in these priests, who are pretty bad salesman anyway.”
“I am an atheist, and I am not ashamed to admit it.”
“If God is just, how come there is so much suffering in the world?”
“Maybe God is a computer.”
“No, God is a committee.”
“Miracles? Give me a break!”

And on and on.

I was about to leave when one of them said, “Hey, let’s ask Michael what he believes in”.  An uncomfortable silence descended as I groped for an excuse to avoid the subject.  But there was no graceful way out, and besides I have yet to meet the professor who can resist a lecture… on any topic.  So I let it rip:

“You’re debating the classic conflict between faith and reason.  Many of the world’s best minds and countless people have spent their lives trying to prove or disprove the existence of God.  In other words, they tried to use reason as a higher force to justify faith.  Similarly, many theologians and even some scientists have tried to use religion to explain nature, science, and why we are here.  That’s trying to use faith as a higher force to justify reason.  To me, neither faith nor reason can be subordinate to the other.  They are like the engine and the wheels of a car.  You’d better have both if you want to get anywhere. Like it or not, reason is full of inconsistencies and holes.  Russell’s Paradox is the perfect example”.

One very thin and frizzy-haired eighteen year old, who rose three inches above my six-foot-four-inch frame, volunteered that he didn’t know the paradox, so I repeated the classic quandary, first posed half a century ago by the famous English philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell: “Imagine a village where the village barber shaves exactly all the villagers who do not shave themselves.  Does he shave himself?”

“It is illogical to answer yes because then he would be violating the rule by shaving someone who shaves himself.  And it’s just as illogical to say no, because then he would be violating the rule by discharging someone who does not shave himself”.

“So this perfectly logical and reasonable rule ends up in inconsistent nonsense.  How do you know that the next logical rule or argument, perhaps one you use to support or debunk God’s existence, isn’t full of similar holes and inconsistencies?”

One of them burped pointedly, but most seemed to be absorbed by the argument.  So I continued: “Faith is full of holes, too.  If you jump off the terrace of this ten-storey building in the belief that God will take care of you… well, that would be a gigantic leap of faith!”

I paused for chuckles.  There were none.

“Questioning our faith with reasoned argument is just as unnatural as defying logic with blind faith.  But if we embrace both faith and reason and let them work together, exploiting their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses then we have something that is more powerful than either.  Look at our bodies.  They have been designed to do just that.  The cerebrum is full of neurons that process information; it is the very picture of logic at work, with every reflex and every idea having a cause and a result.  No doubt it is the basis for our being so impressed by logical thinking.  But then there are glands and secretions that trigger our emotions, our passions, our fears, and our beliefs.  These two are at play all the time.  Use one and ignore the other, and you are no longer human.  I’m sure there have been times in your lives when you have wanted to take an important step, like enter into a serious relationship or buy a house, and your reason objected.  So what did you do?  You recalculated the consequences and bent your logic until it agreed with your passions.”

I wasn’t sure I had impressed  them strongly enough.  I no longer held back.

“So it seems your impeccable logic, which you consider your most powerful asset for your careers as techies, works part-time as a whore to your passions!  And how many times have you done the opposite – suspended your quickly summoned intuitions about someone you just met or a place you just visited, when confronted by the irrefutable reason of your own observations?”

They winced.

“I see your disbelief.  You really think that reason is supreme.  You trust it.  You use it.  You are proud of it. I sincerely hope that none of you comes face-to-face with any serious misfortunes, like a terminal illness or the death of someone really close.  When people meet with such tragedies, they get little comfort from reason.  They desperately need another force that will sustain them and give them strength.  That force is faith.”

“The lesson here is that we should not single out faith or reason as superior.  Let’s instead accept that we need both and that we are better off if we learn to use them in concert, thereby strengthening ourselves with their combined power”.

“Which is a long-winded way to answer your question: Yes, I do believe in God.  And I consider it a waste to use reason to question God’s existence.  Instead, I try to use both faith and reason to tackle the good and the bad that life brings my way, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding, like all humans.”

The freshman from California tossed her hair and said, “Cool!” The burper asked loudly, “Did you use faith or reason on us just now?” Another student grimaced and mumbled that I sounded like his father.  And my frizzy-haired protégé said, “I know what you’re getting at.  You are on your favorite hobbyhorse about integrating the techies and humie, cleverly disguising it as an argument about integrating faith and reason.”

I admitted that they were way too bright for me.  I thanked them for protecting the empire from the evil virus and bid them good night.

As I drove home I mused that my frizzy-haired friend was right.  I have always been interested in pursuing the maximum breadth of knowledge that I could achieve, while striving to maintain sufficient depth to avoid dilettantism.  And I have always been intrigued by bringing opposites together: Faith and reason.  Art and technology.  Creativity and analysis.  Humor and seriousness.  All apparent contradictions begging to be treated in isolation yet harboring in their union a power greater than the power of each part.  So it is with the contrast between humanists and technologists.

The humie-techie split is a fairly recent distinction.  It started stirring during the Renaissance but blossomed during the Enlightenment – that eighteenth-century movement that sought the inner-relationship among faith, reason, nature and man.  Before the Enlightenment, people looked at these four pieces as an interconnected whole – some would say as a confused whole, where challenging one, especially faith, with any of the others, especially reason, could easily cost the challengers life.   The “enlightenment” of the people of that period helped them separate science from religion, mortality, and the literature of the ancients.  People could then pursue science independently, letting it drive them where it would.  This dissociation of reason came, as if by plan, just in time for the Industrial Revolution.  Or perhaps more accurately, it caused the Industrial Revolution by letting science flourish and become translated into the technological innovations that farmed the land, ran the factories, and transported the people and their goods.

However it happened, the increased wealth made possible by the industrial Revolution reinforced the “correctness” of the spirit.  The principle consequence, materialism, became a new god.  So did man, with his increasing preoccupation with self.  Reason, the original separatist, became yet another god with its own principal agents, the scientists and technologists.  As these practitioners became increasingly recognised for shaping the future, and as they increased their specialization, they moved further and further from the humanists, polarizing the split of the Enlightenment into the humie-techie split.  As I look at my own Institution, MIT, from this perspective, it makes good historical sense that it was formed 150 years ago, after the end of the Enlightenment and immediately after the first Industrial Revolution – just in time, it would seem, to consciously legitimize the importance of technology to the world, while unconsciously accentuating the techie-humie split.

Today, this split is so ingrained in our society and in us that we accept it as a universal truth.  It starts from our earliest school days and is even considered cute. Children who like math are expected to dislike literature, and vice versa.  Parents reinforce the polarization. “Mary is like me.  She hates numbers, but she is great with art.”  Or “Jimmy is always tinkering with toys, just like his father tinkers with electronics and cars.  He’ll be a great engineer”.   Later on the polarization continues.  Young adults who go to college specialize in either the humanities or science and technology.  Institutions add to the conspiracy by focusing on one side of the divide at the expense of the other: “The student who underpays at the supermarket is either from Harvard and can’t count, or from MIT and can’t read.”  Later in life the divisions become calcified.  The artist scoffs at the engineer’s insensitivity.  The engineer laughs at the artist’s sensitivity.  Humanists defiantly repeat inside their heads and over loud-speakers the mantra that technology is a servile art to human purpose, while techies assert with equal defiance and repetition that humans are merely meat machines.

Why make such a big deal out of such a natural split? Surely we need specialties. Why get upset over the playful bantering among them? Please hold on, and you shall see.

Most humanists still think that technology is like wood and nails. They believe that people should first decide what objectives they want to pursue, based on the best humanistic thinking they can muster, and then go out and buy the technologies needed to construct their plans. In the days of the steam engine and electricity, that was somewhat the case. However, in the age of nuclear power, synthetic drugs, and information infrastructures, this notion is no longer valid. In our increasingly complex world, technological and social issues are becoming more and more intertwined. Whether designing a twenty-first-century automobile, deciding where to locate a nuclear plant, planning the growth of a city, leading a large organization, setting the privacy policies of a new health care system, or deciding where to live, we are all increasingly confronted with many mutually interacting technological and humanistic issues.

More important, new human purposes often arise out of new technologies. How can you know that you have the option to build shelters for the poor if you are completely unaware of hammers and that they can be used to build houses faster, cheaper, and better than clay and leaves? How can you set out to match the “help needed” people with the “help offered” people on a worldwide basis if you don’t know about information infrastructures and electronic proximity and how they can make such matches possible?

On the other side of the divide, scientists and technologists often become so preoccupied in their quests that the endeavors themselves become their principle goals. “Don’t give me all that soft stuff about human purpose. All I want to do is pursue scientific truth in the lab. Let somebody else deal with purpose and the administrative details and all the other nonsense that keeps science and technology from advancing.” Other techies offer less stereotyped arguments: “Radar was invented as an implement of war. No one could have anticipated then that forty years later it would become the cornerstone of the world’s air transportation system. Therefore it is fruitless to worry about purpose.” Such techie views are as one sided as the humie views we discussed earlier. Good technological innovation arises out of human purpose just as often as good human purpose arises out of a knowledge of technology. The techie-humie split has hurt both of these avenues to progress.

The growing division between techies and humies – really among the pieces within us blown apart by the Enlightenment – goes well beyond limiting our ability to comprehend and manage the complexities that surround us. The trouble it causes is bigger than it seems, affects all of us, and can be heard increasingly from all kinds of voices. The world’s people, having drifted away from their wholeness in the pre-Enlightenment age, sought comfort in the good life that the material gains of technology would bring. Having largely achieved these gains in the industrially rich world, we have discovered, often painfully, that something is still missing. Young people started telling us this by turning to nature, searching for spiritual directions, and moving to drugs and other artificial pleasures as their adult role models veered toward the amassing of wealth, greater self-interest, and greater pleasures. Psychiatry flourished and moral compasses increasingly began to point in all directions. The dissonance within us got louder.

This unrest got translated to a dissatisfaction with government and many people’s conviction that technology was the primary cause of all these problems in the first place. That’s as ridiculous as a society of beavers concluding that the dams they construct are the cause of their unhappiness. Like beavers, people are part of nature and build things for their purposes, which are just as much a part of nature. To accuse technology of bringing ills to humanity is no different than accusing the hammer you built of smashing your thumb. Of course it did, but you wielded it. And even though it caused you some pain, it also helped build your house. The alternative we sometimes hear, of stopping technological progress to save ourselves from further trouble, is just as unnatural, for it shackles the human spirit by keeping us from exploring the unknown.

People’s discontent and search for purpose is a symptom of a deeper cause. I believe that we are really longing for a way to blend those old forces that held us whole for millennia, weaving a strong net around reason, faith, nature, and man, until the Enlightenment came and yanked them apart.

The Information Marketplace, if left unchecked, will further aggravate this polarization, past what we may be willing to tolerate, and may well increase human dissatisfaction to the point where we will seek radical and wholesale change. If the physical technologies of the Industrial Revolution were responsible for setting the technologist apart from the humanist, then the information technologies with their disembodied virtuality and their disregard for physical proximity will further aggravate the split. Humies who already look with some contempt at the negative consequences for humanity of the factory and the automobile will double their contempt when confronted with the impersonal and remote processing and transporting of information, let alone the unbearable fake of virtual reality. Meanwhile, computer technologists and information specialists, who already feel sorry for the old-fashioned engineers who must remain at work within the constraints of the physical world will barely see the humanists across the great divide.

The rest of us will feel this heightened aggravation of the techie-humie split as a further reduction of our ability to cope with the increasingly complex world around us. Greater polarization among the parts of us dissociated by the Enlightenment will widen the disparity between the mechanics of our everyday lives and our deeper sense of human purpose. We will feel increasingly oppressed by our own dissatisfaction.

We don’t have to sit quietly by and observe all this. We can and should act. No doubt some people will foolishly strike at the technologies – try to break the hammer that bruised their thumb. But most of us will marshal our human energies to seek a new course. To move beyond this impasse, we will first try to understand it. We will then realize that pulling apart and isolating the various pieces of our self, as the Enlightenment caused us to do, was our historic process toward that goal. Just as the psychologist isolates the trouble spot and keeps looking at it before integrating it with the rest of the self, and just as the systems engineer isolates the faulty subsystem and analyzes it before reintegrating it with the whole system, we humans have been “studying” through our experiences the isolated pieces of our being, and feeling the consequences. But now we are confounded. Our world has become like a huge ball of intertwined red and blue string. Sooner or later, we will realize that we cannot begin to understand it by focusing only on one color. We can no longer proceed to make decisions as either techies or humies, ignoring, the other strand of life and the way the two are interwoven. It will finally dawn on us that if we do continue in this way, we will pay dearly for our insularity with more of the malaise that is already developing around us. More important and more to the point, we’ll miss all the good that can flow from reuniting the technologist and humanist that are within every one of us.

That is the big challenge before us at the dawn of the twenty-first century: to embark on the unification of our technology with our humanity.

That doesn’t mean that everybody will need to learn calculus and Latin. Nor does it mean that we will eliminate our various specialties, for we will still need them to cope with the complexities around us. It does mean, however, concerted action from all of us toward embracing, understanding, and accepting our two halves, whether they are within us or around us. How might this be done?

First, the high priests of the split will have to provide a good example by changing their ways: Humanists will have to shed their snobbish beliefs about the servile arts, and technologists will have to shed their contempt for the irrelevance of humanistic purpose and teachings. And both sides will need to actively bridge the techie-humie gap in their reflections and in their actions. Second, parents and educators will have to help young people (and themselves) learn about and experience the exciting and practical prospects for human wholeness. Toys, childhood stories, and the examples they set can go a long way toward instilling the values of integrated thinking in young minds. Curricula in high school and especially in the university will have to change in a big way, combining techie and humie knowledge and approaches in the teaching of the arts, the sciences, humanities, and management. Consider, for example, a hard-core humie field like literature or history; it could be recouched to explain how a hot current problem like clashing national cultures on the Web has been “handled” in its various incarnations from time immemorial.

Ultimately, all of us can contribute through our everyday actions and through our professions. Business-people can create new jobs across the humie-techie divide. They can begin sending the techiest of techies to make sales calls–they may not be as smooth as trained salespeople, but their experiences will certainly cause products to be improved. Politicians can begin learning about technology and using it is their plans, because most of them come from a humanistic background. They can also help enact laws that will facilitate, perceive and interact with our world in its full techie-humie splendor by reading, observing, and learning about “the other side” and by searching for opportunities to combine these extremes toward profit or self-satisfaction. In short, all of us need to recognize that we are more than we thought or were taught, and that the pursuit of our broader capabilities can hold great benefit for ourselves and for society.

Michael Dertozous

(The author is the Director, MIT Computer Science Lab. The article is from his book WHAT WILL BE — How the new world of information will challenge our lives.)