Looking at HiTech through the Lens
of the Five Moral Precepts
A Talk given by Professor Ronald Epstein at CTTB on September 15, 2015.1
My main concern in this talk and in all my work on technologies is how they impact what it means to be a human being, particularly in terms of our potential for transcendence, awakening, and ultimately our ability to become Buddhas. If we think that we are no more than bits of information, then we are fundamentally no different from computers. That means no transcendence, no awakening, and no Buddhas.
Technology in itself is neither good nor evil; it has no inherent nature. It is ultimately empty. The New York Times technology reporter Matt Richtel wrote recently:
Just as food nourishes us and we need it for life, so too — in the 21st century and the modern age — we need technology. You cannot survive without the communication tools; the productivity tools are essential. And yet, food has pros and cons to it. We know that some food is Twinkies and some food is Brussels sprouts. And we know that if we overeat, it causes problems. Similarly, after 20 years of glorifying technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies and some technology is Brussels sprouts.2
Western background: Greek myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus.
In the myth, the titan Prometheus is punished for bestowing upon humans the gift of technology (craft, skill, art, applied science) without the civic wisdom needed to use it correctly and without harm.
Albert Anderson does an excellent job of drawing out the important ramifications of this famous Greek myth:
… [T]he character Protagoras3 expands upon the ancient myth. After the gods created mortal creatures, they assigned to Prometheus (whose name means forethought") and his brother Epimetheus ("afterthought") the task of giving each mortal creature the equipment it would need to live well. Epimetheus persuaded Prometheus to let him do the job, and he invited Prometheus to examine his work when it was done. So, it was Epimetheus who gave speed to some animals and strength to others; the power of flight went to a few, whereas others received underground habitation; some ate from the trees, others roots, and "to a certain number for food he gave other creatures to devour." In this way each was given the power to preserve itself. Protagoras continues: Epimetheus, being not so wise as he might be, heedlessly squandered his stock of properties on the brutes; he still had left unequipped the race of men, and was at a loss what to do with it.
As he was casting about, Prometheus arrived to examine his distribution, and saw that whereas other creatures were fully and suitably provided, man was naked, unshod, unbedded, unarmed; and already the destined day was come whereon man like the rest should emerge from earth to light. Then Prometheus, in his perplexity as to what preservation he could devise for man, stole from Hephaestus and Athena wisdom in the arts together with fire—and he handed it there and then as a gift to man.… "Although man acquired in this way the wisdom of daily life, civic wisdom [politike techne] he had not, since this was in the possession of Zeus. The point of all this is that Prometheus suffers4 because he stole part of what humans need to live, but the most important part—civic wisdom—was lacking. Without civic wisdom human beings are a menace to themselves, to other creatures, and to the earth itself. This has since become clear in the current ecological crisis. Prometheus, the forethinker, should have known better. Technological mastery, without civic wisdom, spells disaster.5
Chinese mythology also deals with the issue of right and wrong use of technology. A well-known example is that of the sage-emperor Yu and his work in flood control.
Life on the planet is in serious danger on a number of fronts. Technology is both the cause of that danger and part of the possible solution to that danger. Prof. Thomas Chang in his very edifying previous lecture in this series pointed out the dangers of unclear morality, in regard to famous scientists trying to figure out during World War II whether they should participate in the development of nuclear weapons.
Professor Chang also mentioned the parable of the boiling frog.6 The parable can also be employed to contrast the danger of nuclear war to the dangers of decrease of empathy. If the big bang of mutual assured destruction is the equivalent of throwing a frog into already boiling water, then letting it sit in water coming to a boil slowly is like the slow decrease of empathy and our ability to relate compassionately to one another.
The fast boil and the man who saved life on the planet
Mutual assured destruction, or mutually assured destruction (MAD), is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of high-yield weapons of mass destruction by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender.7
The launch of such weapons would end all human and most other life on the planet.
Here is the story of someone who saved life on the planet. His story is now the subject of a major motion picture, which will be released next month.
Apparently, if it weren’t for Stanislav Petrov, we’d all be dead. Peter Anthony’s documentary [film] tells the story of Sept. 26, 1983, when the Soviet Union’s satellite warning systems reported that the United States was commencing a nuclear attack. And one man, Lieutenant Colonel Petrov, had the courage to treat it as what it was: a false alarm.8
…[Thus] the world was saved from potential nuclear disaster. In the early hours of the morning, the Soviet Union's early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States. Computer readouts suggested several missiles had been launched. The protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own. But duty officer Stanislav Petrov - whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches - decided not to report them to his superiors, and instead dismissed them as a false alarm. This was a breach of his instructions, a dereliction of duty. The safe thing to do would have been to pass the responsibility on, to refer up. But his decision may have saved the world.9
His reward for saving the world was a reprimand for not following orders and a reposting to Siberia.
Now the slow boil:
Our greatest slow boil threat may be one you may not even know about--the radical decline of empathy due to social media. Buddhism teaches that our personal problems and the problems of the world are best solved through the application of great compassion. It is our most powerful tool for ending human suffering. A high level of empathy is a prerequisite for the development of great compassion. Or to put it another way, without empathy the Bodhisattva vanishes from view.
In a 2010 article in Scientific American, Jamil Zaki explained:
Humans are unlikely to win the animal kingdom’s prize for fastest, strongest or largest, but we are world champions at understanding one another. This interpersonal prowess is fueled, at least in part, by empathy: our tendency to care about and share other people’s emotional experiences. Empathy is a cornerstone of human behavior and has long been considered innate. A forthcoming study, however, challenges this assumption by demonstrating that empathy levels have been declining over the past 30 years. The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and published online in August in Personality and Social Psychology Review, found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.10
Dr. Sara H. Konrath, author of the study cited above, has commented on the link between decreasing empathy and technology:
…[W]e speculate that one likely contributor to declining empathy is the rising prominence of personal technology and media use in everyday life. Clearly, these changes have fundamentally affected the lives of everyone who has access to them. With so much time spent interacting with others online rather than in reality, interpersonal dynamics such as empathy might certainly be altered. For example, perhaps it is easier to establish friends and relationships online, but these skills might not translate into smooth social relations in real life. There have been significant declines in the number of organizations and meetings people are involved in as well as in the number of average family dinners and friendly visits (Putnam, 2000; Putnam & Feldstein, 2004). Indeed, people today have a significantly lower number of close others to whom they can express their private thoughts and feelings (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Brashears, 2006). Alternatively, the ease and speed of such technology may lead people to become more readily frustrated or bored when things do not go as planned (e.g., O’Brien, Anastasio, & Bushman, 2010), resulting in less empathic interactions. Furthermore, people simply might not have time to reach out to others and express empathy in a world filled with rampant technology revolving around personal needs and self-expression.11
MIT Professor Sherry Turkle attributes most of the drop in empathy and increase in narcissism to the negative effects of social media such as Facebook. It encourages and provides the venue for a progressive decrease in the breadth and depth of communication: face-to-face, phone, email, texting, etc. It encourages superficial relationships and public presentation of unrealistic persona.
What does this mean? Think about the potential scope, depth and richness of face to face communication. Then observe how the richness of that range decreases on Skype, then decreases more in email, and even more in texting. The skill of participating in the richness of communication between two people rapidly degrades if we do not practice it. The ability to feel empathy for the other must be learned and practiced at different development stages, because if it is not, it is difficult to make up for the loss in adulthood.
Use of Technology without Civic Wisdom Continued
Returning to our crisis of the use of technology without civic wisdom, a fundamental problem is that morality does not come from science. Philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) was one of the earliest to emphasize what he called the is/ought distinction: “a statement of fact alone can never give rise to a normative conclusion of what ought to be done.”12 Therefore, whatever a scientist’s ethical values (what one should or should not do) might be, they are not the result of scientific inquiry (the measurable characteristics of what is or what is not in the physical world). There are many scientists who have highly developed ethical standards as a result of possessing civic wisdom, but those standards and that civic wisdom are not based on scientific knowledge. They come from some other part of their lives. Thus making sure that scientists, in addition to their scientific education, are initiated into civic wisdom should be a major goal of higher education.
1 This paper does not explicitly acknowledge the use of quotations from my article “Application of Buddhist Teachings in Modern Life: The Foundational Role of the Five Moral Precepts” By Ronald Epstein, Ph.D., Research Professor, Dharma Realm Buddhist University, Third World Buddhist Forum, Hong Kong, April 25-27, 2012. Religion East and West, Issue 11, October, 2012, pp. 52-61.
2 Matt Richtel http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129384107.
3 In the Platonic dialogue of the same name.4 He is punished by the king of the gods Zeus. Wikipedia ‘Prometheus:’ “Prometheus, in eternal punishment, is chained to a rock in the Caucasus, Kazbek Mountain or Mountain of Khvamli, where his liver is eaten daily by an eagle, only to be regenerated by night, due to his immortality. The eagle is a symbol of Zeus himself. Years later, the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules) slays the eagle and frees Prometheus from the eagle's torment.”
5 Albert A. Anderson, “Why Prometheus Suffers” PHIL & TECH 1:1&2 Fall 1995.
6 Wikipedia: The boiling frog is an anecdote describing a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to threats that occur gradually, such as creeping state surveillance….The story's common metaphorical use is a caution for people to be aware of even gradual change lest they suffer eventual undesirable consequences.7 Wikipedia: ‘Mutual assured destruction’
8 “The Man Who Saved the World,” NY Times Fall Films Sept 9 2015.
10 Jamil Zaki “What, Me Care? Young Are Less Empathetic A recent study finds a decline in empathy among young people in the U.S. Scientific American, Dec 23, 2010 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-me-care/.
12 Wikipedia: “Fact-Value Distinction.” Also called the fact-value distinction: “The fact-value distinction is a distinction between what is (can be discovered by science, philosophy, or reason) and what ought to be (a judgment agreed to by consensus, or believed to be objectively morally binding). The terms positive and normative represent another way to express this, as do the terms descriptive and prescriptive, respectively. Positive statements make the implicit claim to facts (e.g., water molecules are made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom), whereas normative statements make a claim based on values or norms (e.g., water ought to be protected from pollution).”