The Paradox of Scientific Technology and the African Predicament

Alloy S Ihuah PhD Department of Religion and Philosophy, Benue State University, Makurdi. Western science and sophisticated techniques have no doubt made an explosive and tremendous impact on human society. Such explosive impact has far reaching consequences; consequences that spell good and evil for society; consequences that snatched humankind out of the cruel forces of nature and yet threaten them with collective suicide. The expression Paradox of Western Science and Technology means here that the many advances of science and technical endeavours have improved the quality of human life, and are destroying life as well. This increasingly paradoxical dimension of western science and technology most obviously endears Einstein’s comment that, “concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all technical endeavours… in order that the creations of our mind shall be blessing and not a curse to mankind” (Nwagwu, March 26, 1998:22). But such right conception of the ends of life, which itself is wisdom seems not to part of the defined project of western science, for while there is tremendous increase in knowledge in scientific civilization, it is not accompanied by increase in wisdom. Today therefore, our scientific civilization kills, destroys and dehumanises largely, hence science and technology have demonstrated that they constitute a double-edged sword. In their paradoxical dimensions, they have assumed more purposeful and purposeless, more meaningful and bizarre, more useful and destructive, and while achievements in the enclave of science and technology have served to prolong life, they have also served to provide resources through which the foolish application of scientific techniques, man would be exterminated from the surface of the earth. These bundle of paradoxes of science and technology are said to be part of the mysterious nature of man himself, the homo faber, who, within his same nature, has the power to degenerate into lower forms of life which are brutish, but who also has the power to be reborn into the higher forms which are noble. Thus, with the conquest of land, sea, and outer space, science not only offers a one-dimensional image of the person, but also presents the human person with the temptation to and self-deification, self destruction to the detriment of the divine nature of man. One is thus inclined to assert the paradoxical nature of the human person that,

ours is an age that is marked by embarrassing contrast between the spectacular scientific and technological achievements on the one hand, and a shameful degradation of the human person on the other (p. 17).

It is perhaps this unprecedented achievement of science in modern times that have lured the African into the fool’s paradise, where he or she is unable to recognise his or her nature as a paradox. Though richer materially, Africans have become morally and spiritually poorer. It must be made clear here that, though efficiency and speed form the index of the hitechnology which the African too is a beneficiary, the African continent is yet to experience progress and development which are said to accompany such technology. In Africa, abject poverty cohabit with stinking wealth, there is the phenomenon of starvation on the one hand, and what is referred to as ‘influenza’. The new scientific and technological values have destroyed the African humanistic value system. Today, Africans are no longer their brothers’ keepers. Though we live within the world of enormous wealth and unbridled luxury of a few, a greater majority are experiencing utter poverty. The western scientific and technological mindset has further destroyed African values which today allows humanity to destroy or to squander goods that other people need for their lives. Ehusani very vividly captures this neoAfrican spirit thus:
whereas the “Structural Adjustment Programme” embarked upon in the last few years by African countries including Nigeria, has condemned thousands of the peasant population to death by hunger and starvation, African millionaires have multiplied their ranks, as is evident from the swelling account of individual Africans in European and American banks, the number of ultra-modern mansions now springing up alongside shock and thatch huts in African towns and villages, and the fleet of expensive foreign cars which now ply the scarcely paved roads that run through these towns and villages. (Ehusani, 1991:11)

It may be said, here, that the atomistic view of western scientific technology and its reductionist view of reality has encouraged and promoted collective selfishness of one class of people against another, thus, reducing a vast segment of humanity to the culture of the ghetto, making them more vulnerable to diseases and epidemics, drug addiction, crime and countless social and psychiatric problems. At best, the legacy of western scientific and technological civilization for the African could be summarised in what Thoreau says is an “improved means to an unimproved end” (King Jr. 1968:172). The men and women of Africa have been empowered with every technique of information and communication, yet they remain unschooled ignoramus in the experience of communion. We have perfected and erected bureaucratic structures where communication thrives and communion is nonexistent;

and so “every improvement in communication makes the bore more terrible” (De Marco, 1982:61). It is no wonder that today traditional African society experiences intense loneliness and alienation, and the modern city dweller suffers while in the midst of many, and city life in Africa is, millions of people being lonesome together. These paradoxes of human nature, but in particular, those which prevails in Africa, appears to inform the thinking of Vatican II when it says that; “there appears the dichotomy of a world that is at once powerful and weak, capable of doing what is noble and what is base, disposed to freedom and slavery” it continues: Man is growing conscious that the forces, he
has unleashed are in his own hand and that it is up to him to control them or be enslaved by them. Here lies the dilemma (Vatican II, 1973:105).

The African predicament lies truly in this dilemma in the fact that the creations of man (science and technology), have been more of a curse than a blessings, while Africans never cease to speak of noble ideas, they watch the continent, as it were, helplessly degenerating in humanity. The many wars, terrorist activities, ethnic and religious clashes in which sophisticated weapons are freely used attest to this. Dr. King Jr. exposes what could be described as the true African situation that, the African Heads of State continually issue calls for world peace, yet, “they come to the peace table accompanied by bands of brigands each bearing unsheathed swords”. On leaving the disarmament talk table, they go directly to launch latest nuclear missiles (King Jr. p. 182; Ehusani p. 17). Perhaps, the most devastating blow to the soul of Africa is located in the nineteenth century when most of Africa was colonized by various European powers. The several years of colonial experience sapped the African heritage, which involve both material exploitation, cultural expropriation and anthropological impoverishment. Though highly certificated in the disciplines of western thought and knowledgeable in the technique of the west, the African suffers gross ego distortion. In general terms, the African continent has become the most bastardised and misused continent, and they themselves have been milked of their selfconfidence. In one word, they have been dehumanised. Perhaps the account of an American journalist reveals the African experience in more greater details.
The colonialists left behind some schools and roads, some post offices and bureaucrats. But their cruellest legacy on the African continent was a lingering inferiority complex, a confused sense of identity. After all, when people are told for a century that they’re not as clever or capable as their masters, they eventually believe it (Lamb 1986:140). 3

The implication here is that, the clashes of the two world views; western, macrocosmic “superior” new world meant a displacement of the smaller “inferior” old order, in place of which the new western “superior” order that succeeded it became a disaster. In the language of Chinua Achebe, “the ‘whiteman’ has indeed put a knife on the things that held Africans together and they have fallen apart”. Western scientific and technological civilization thus means for Africa, the collapse of a whole vision of life, of all beliefs, of every authority, the loss for a people of their identity, i.e. the collapse of African humanistic heritage. This neo-technical culture has engendered wars and terrorist activities, tribal and communal clashes in which lethal weapons are freely used. Today too, our towns and cities are being brutally terrorised by armed robbers, hired assassins, thuggery and banditry. African citizens have become prisoners in their homes, with high walls, iron bars and metal gates. Africa has become a battle ground in which every body is fighting everybody.
Thirty-years after independence of most African nations, not one of them is yet to boast of political stability. As one country launches a return to democracy another reverts to military dictatorship; as one country begins a national reconstruction after a bitter civil war, another declares the onset of a religious war, and as the workers of one country return to work after a period of total strike, the students of another country go on the rampage. Africa now records the highest number of refugees, most of whom are not being displaced by natural disasters but are rather on the run from totalitarian regimes, military dictators or rural ethnic militia. It is a continent in turmoil (Ehusani, 1991:20).

Ehusani captures this ugly scenario most vividly:

The question to be answered here is whether the loss of humanity by Africans has got something to show for it. Africans want scientific knowledge and technical know-how. Though they have traded out their humanism, they have not been able to gain what they want; scientific technology. They have lost their humanity, and so have become children without heirs and so slaves of the creations of their minds. This scenario is best described by K. C. Anyanwu as the crisis of science which entails the crumbling of man’s beliefs, assumptions, and ideas about reality, a situation that portends grave consequences on human conduct.
It means that reality no longer fits into our presuppositions about it, and this crisis has profound consequences on our conduct… It means that we are no longer able to determine the direction of change, to control events and to know how we are related to the world (Anyanwu, 1983:70).

Perhaps, this state of affairs of science means also a crisis of perception a condition which prevents humanity from having a holistic view of reality that would enable it to

organise its actions positively; to determine the line between the permissible and the forbidden, order and disorder, so as to deduce the principles of human association and determine the standard of our values. But in particular, the crisis of western science is founded on the mistaken assumption that there are absolute authorities in cultural modes of thought, and that the Europeans and, or the west are dictators in this regard, who must lord it over the rest of the world. In human situations, it must be said, all our cravings for truth, all our disputes about knowledge and quarrels about conscience are cultural activities or cultural quests, and they have all arisen from our desires as human beings to fulfil ourselves. This, Macneile Dickson argues, is why “all reasoning is in a manner biased, and the bias is due to the nature, surroundings and education of the thinker”. He posits further that,
There are in the realm of thought no absolute authorities, no dictators. No man, living or dead, can claim oracular powers… All philosophies are in the end personal… systems of thought are the shadows cast by different races, epochs, and civilizations (Dickson, 1958:13).

It is, perhaps this attempt by westerners to superimpose their knowledge, systems and modes of thought on the nature and surroundings foreign to their cultural milieu that brings about a crisis in science which frontal offensive has produced today the destruction of the African states, cultural, economic and social institutions alongside its local elites, who are either destroyed or integrated into the western (or international system), but who have lost their responsibility for their nation, all in the name of progress or to be progressive. This ideology based on the belief that all scientific and technological progress necessarily, ineluctably have progressive effect on the whole of human life have collapsed. Thus far, the negative impact of science and technology does not any longer portray them as unified explanatory pattern of the world.
The faith in science that it makes clarity on all and makes all the universe intelligible, according to a coherent order of the causes and effects has lost its strength (UNESCO, Science Report 1996:214).

Hans Zehrer is more forceful and vivid in his argument that not only has science brought about the collapse of the European world view, his world is undergoing reconstruction. He says convincingly that:
Not only are we in the midst of a crisis of science today, but we have come to the end of that scientific attitude which dominated the epochs of modern Europe…. We can lay it down that scientific attitude which began to establish itself upon the Greek model at the period and which determined the achievements and successes of that historical period was faced with a reality in face of which it gives up, and in face of which its methods prove ineffectual; and we begin to grasp that this attitude of mind has played out its role and can attain no more success. If science be understood to mean what 5

occurred within this epoch, then science is played out; we are at the end of it today. (Zehrer, 1952:257)

Surely, the situation is worse in Africa, a continent which is outside the scientific culture of the west. While there are still more discoveries and breakthroughs, the crises in science still persist and human consciousness would not grasp their realities. Science has power and knowledge, but lacks wisdom to use the power and knowledge properly. The issue here is that, the basic assumptions about reality, the principles of its understanding, its worldview, its methods and standards have collapsed. So, science and technology which are said to be architectonics of progress are, themselves no longer regarded as sources, in themselves, of benefits to humanity. In reality, they are the causes of new forms of evil variously expressed in degradation of the environment, effects on human health, the dehumanising and the robotizing of society, the deepening of social and political inequalities. Put paradoxically, modern science, having endowed man with unrivalled powers of transformation of the world had, at the same time, have conferred on him an unrivalled potential for the destruction of the planet. The human being has the capacity for good as well as for evil, for hate and conflict, as well as for love and co-operation. In the present chaotic world of technology and mass culture, these mixed qualities of humanities have been too freely exercised that the individual too often feels lost and meaningless. Conclusion
The more knowledge makes progress, the more it understands why it cannot come to anything. Whenever we have the feeling to make progress in knowledge we see that it raises other problems… knowledge becomes convinced of its disability (Claude Levi-Strauss, 1997:45)

The quip above best expresses the paradoxical nature of science and technology. Most obviously, it posits in very clear language the crisis of science, which undisputed achievements, though, still has to contend with other resultant problems that defy scientific solutions. We have argued thus that, science and technology though beneficial in many ways, have conferred on man the power to destroy himself and to destroy the environment in which he finds himself. Although Science and technology have triumphed, they have simultaneously raised doubt as to their value. Such is what we have argued is the crisis of scientific technology which results from the fact that modern science and technology had developed losing sight of the original foundation on which they had been erected. We contended further that such misguided direction of science and technology

stresses ‘one dimensionality’ with oppressive character of the consumer society, man has been alienated even in community. While not arguing that there is no apparent solution, our modest proposal is that, change in human orientation is most likely to engender development and promote best the essential desires of man. But the question still remains as to whether the loss of humanity by Africans could be so regenerated. It is a fact that many Africans have virtually lost their human dimension to life and have so, become children without heirs and slaves of the creation of human minds and works of his hands. By the same margin, they have become dysfunctional human beings, having lost their humanity, which essential characteristics of personalism, hospitality, wholesome personal relations and the overwhelming sense of the sacred, has been infested with the cankerworm of western materialism and individualism. Our argued conclusion is that, all systems of thought are the shadows cast by different races, epochs and civilizations, and only a proper re-integration of same that could engender human sustainable development which here means a shift from the materialistic (western) to the humanistic.

Anyanwu, K.C. (1983) The African Experience in the American Market Place, New York, Exposition Press. Dickson, D. (1974) Alternative Technology and the Politics of Technical Change. London, Fontana, Chapters 1,2,3,7. Ehusani, G.O. (1991) An Afro-Christian Vision: “OZOVEHE”: Towards a more Humanized Word, New York, University Press of America. King, M.L. Jnr. (1968) Where DO We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Boston, Beacon Press. UNESCO Science Report, 1996 Zehrer, H. (1952) Man in This World, London: Hodder and Stoughton.


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