Aziz Ali Dad
Any major development in the field of science and the world of ideas leaves an indelible mark on the course of history and human consciousness. Sometimes society resists an invention or a novel idea because it defies received knowledge. At the same time new ideas form a new worldview through which people find a new niche in society.
Throughout history mankind formed different worldviews to make sense of life and its relations with other entities, and define our stature in the bigger scheme of things at the cosmic level. Historically, the emptiness and unfathomable nature of space engaged the minds of our ancestors. They tried to fill the lacunae of knowledge about space and celestial bodies through magical, mythical and theological understanding. This clearly testifies to the fact that the worldview of societies changed throughout history. It is this change that enabled us to progress from hunting, pastoral, agriculture and industrial to the post-industrial stage. However, never in history does the disintegration of worldview occur as rapidly as in the modern age under the influence of science and technology.
The ramifications of scientific theories did not remain confined to the realm of science alone, rather they exerted great influence on society and belief systems by disrupting the old ways of perceiving, acting and managing human affairs. The first great challenge to human stature and theological worldview came from Nicolaus Copernicus who rejected the geocentric view of the earth, and provided scientific foundation for a heliocentric view. The Copernican revolution reduced human stature in the cosmos and rocked the very foundation of theology. The second challenge came in the shape of Darwin’s theory of evolution which asserted that human beings are not creatures fallen from grace, but have really evolved from primates.
So intense were the psychological and epistemological ramifications of the ideas of Copernicus and Darwin that theology still finds it difficult to respond. These ideas have helped science investigate and explicate the universe without resorting to teleology supported by religion. Free from the fetters orthodoxy and scholasticism, today we have become capable of unravelling secrets hidden in the depth of the seas, and filling our space with invisible air waves of communication. Man’s journey to the moon became possible only because of modern science and technology.
Our travel to the moon necessitated the process of re-conceiving our relation to the universe. Such events radically altered the ways of seeing not only the world, but also our fellow beings. After the launch of the first satellite into space, Hannah Arendt in her paper ‘The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man’ raised questions about the stature of man and status of ideas associated with humanism in the age of the conquest of space. She brilliantly analysed the psychological undercurrents and philosophical ruptures generated by this event. Man’s landing on the moon ended the view that had seen the terrestrial human abode in humanistic terms because it is inhabited by humans whose eyes were earthbound. Now the view of the earth from above is far from earthbound human eyes, rather it has close affinity with divinity.
The earth has been our abode for millennia. It is our rootedness in the earth that has given birth to our mythical, mystical, theological, religious and even scientific worldviews. Though these worldviews and associated cosmologies reached out to the heavens, they remained deeply rooted in the earth. However, the first spacecraft into space in 1957 was a watershed in human history for managed to defy gravity and catapult humans into empty space. Hannah Arendt in her book ‘The Human Condition’ declares this occasion as an event that was “second in importance to no other, not even to the splitting of the moon.”
We should have taken cue from intellectuals like Arendt who keep their critical vision clear despite the euphoria that seizes the whole nation. Unfortunately, South Asians have a tendency to lose critical dimensions of a major development or achievement, and its impact on collective psychology, culture and society. Our jubilation on the detonation of atomic bombs illustrates this fact well. Although space technology takes our bodies into space, it has also enabled us to fill the horizon with propaganda. Space satellites have enabled us to spread hatred at a cosmic scale. In 1977, the world sent phonograph records on the Voyager Spacecraft to outer space so that contact would be established with anyavailable intelligent extraterrestrial life-form. Aliens might not have heard our music, but they may have noticed how we filled the space with machinery catering to hate and propaganda.
India has recently landed on Mars. The event was celebrated with great gusto. Proponents of the Indian space programme are euphoric for this latest development shows the increasing scientific capabilities of India. On the other side, criticism remained confined to the oft-repeated, however valid, argument that such a programme does not suit a nation mired in poverty. Beyond these arguments, the event also had major political, psychological and intellectual implications. Politically it increased the stature of India by placing it well ahead of other Asian superpowers, such as Japan and China, who have attempted Mars missions but haven’t been able to reach the red planet. Psychologically, it infused new pride in the nation and enabled it to enter the elite space club.
The most far-reaching impact of the conquest of space will be on the ways we see the world and perceive fellow beings. The expanse of the universe humbled our ancestors, but in the modern age scientific inventions and achievements increase our arrogance on the one hand, and reduce our stature on the other. Aggrandised by scientific achievements, the arrogant mind deems the existence of backward people as a blot on the face of the earth. Indeed, the very presence of humans in space enabled them to look down upon earth. This attitude permeated into the psychological makeup of the victors of space who form the elite space club. This mentality is well reflected in a cartoon in the New York Times which shows “two members of the ‘Elite Space Club’ reading a newspaper on India’s feat and look perturbed with an Indian farmer knocking at their door.”
Now India is in the same club. It is in a position to look down on Pakistan from space. In order to extricate itself from the constant extraterrestrial gaze of India, Pakistan may ignore earthly issues and make efforts to reach the pantheon of the space club. Iqbal has “love for those youngsters who pull the stars down”. Why should we hesitate to follow a poetic dream? The space race between India and Pakistan stems not from the thirst of knowledge, but from wounded egos. It attempts to compensate our earthly failures. Nothing is more dangerous than a being with inflated ego and equipped with atom bombs and satellite technology.
The contemporary telo-techno scientific worldview rejects the earthly concept of humanism because it deems certain ideas and entities like humanism and humans superfluous. With the conquest of space there is a strong likelihood of throwing humanity into the dustbin of history. It is high time we critically rethink this worldview, which has created earth alienation and enabled mankind for the first time in history to annihilate the earth a hundred times in a nuclear Armageddon. We have succeeded to live without magic, mythology and theology, then why treat science as infallible, sacred and timeless like religion?
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org