Bertrand Russell, a renowned British philosopher and a prolific writer, wrote a very interesting book in 1952, titled The Impact of Science on Society. In fact, the book consists of some lectures which were delivered by Russell at Ruskin College in Oxford, three of which were subsequently repeated at Columbia University, New York.

My purpose of writing this brief piece about a book that was written sixty-four years ago is purely intellectual and not technical or factual. I am interested in sharing what a great professor of philosophy thought of science and its effects on human society with you all. Second, there may be a lesson, or a piece of advice, for twenty-first century Pakistanis with regards to making their lives meaningful. Above all, I shall try to sketch out the picture of Medieval Europe and the beginning of modern science and the present-day Pakistan.

Russell begins his lecture by arguing:

“Man has existed for about a million years. He has possessed writing for about 6,000 years, agriculture somewhat longer, but perhaps not much longer. Science, as a dominant factor in determining the beliefs of educated men, has existed for about 300 years; as a source of economic technique, for about 150 years. In this brief period it has proved itself an incredibly powerful revolutionary force.”

Russell argues that during the Reformation individuals who had a firm belief in scientific methods and inquiry challenged the unfounded traditional beliefs, and science, as a philosophy, started transforming human society from the age of myths to the age of reason. 

First everything based upon ancient authority and superstitions was challenged by human observation and reason, and then scientific explanations of all happenings from pestilences to broad changes in the universe were given by the scientific minds. This fundamental change in human belief system led towards the development of a new philosophy of life and universe, argues Russell. He believes that it was “the victory of humanity and common sense”.

There is no denying the fact that all scientific thinking, inquiry and research were violently responded to by the holders of traditions. People who questioned or refuted ancients beliefs were thought to be sinful and a cause for human miseries. Therefore, such sinful people were frequently killed or exiled during the early regions of scientific world.

Science as a technique changed everything; dynamics of economics were radically changed, war became more dangerous and horrific but less frequent, patterns and dynamics of human interaction got changed, and above all the modern state became more and more powerful. 

Russell believes that “Magna Carta would have not won if John had artillery.” It is with the advent of science that has made the modern state more capable of detailed central control and more fearful for the rebels or revolutionaries. 

Electricity, argues Russell, has changed the means of sending messages from one place to other and to a great extent it has enhanced the state’s power in controlling its citizens. In industry, a handicraftsman is no longer useful because heavy machinery is there to serve our purposes more efficiently.

This is how science, as a philosophy and as a technique, changed, or transformed, the world.

As Russell had seen the destruction and causalities caused by the WW2, he also had some fears with regard to future wars and the use of atomic bomb, or to be more accurate with regard to the progress of science and stability in human society.

Therefore, Russell offers some conditions which are necessary to be fulfilled in order to make progress and prosperity and to retain stability in a scientific society. Those conditions, in Russell’s view, include; the abolition of war, the dispersion of power, a general diffusion of prosperity, a low birth rate everywhere, provision for individual initiative both in work and play.  Above all Russell dreams for a powerful single global government/authority.

It’s not appropriate to waste our time in pointing out Russell’s impracticable solutions or his limited political understanding of a complex world. It’s better to come to the purpose of writing this piece.

It is greatly dismaying and embarrassing that this is the story of a world which is known as Europe and America---highly educated and technologically advanced world----not of Pakistan. And, for a while, when one looks at Pakistani society, it is heart-wrenching to observe that it is now like the Europe during the period of Mr. Thomas Hobbes and the unfortunate Vesalius. One can feel that, may be, we are not a part of this highly rationalized and civilized modern world and are struggling somewhere in Middle Ages.

Still in our case superstitions, unfounded traditional beliefs and the monopoly of clergy over every social, political and, interestingly, private affair prevail and dominate. Isn’t it so?

Still in our society those who challenge the traditional morality or any unfounded norm are either mobbed or branded as spies and traitors. One can’t doubt that every political activity is done under the cover of liberalism and democracy in this modern world, but on this premise to condemn all sort of scientific and rational thinking with savage invective is dangerous.

One can challenge my observation and prove me wrong in a typical Pakistani style---that is to silence the one who questions or disagrees with the majority---but I have a few questions for such patriots. Do our professors, apart from a very few exceptions, at universities not profess the ideas that modern science is contrary to Islamic principles and it has nothing to do with us or even with the progress of human civilization? And do we not indoctrinate an unscientific attitude into young minds and make them monkish and futile for further inquiry or free observation?

Also, how do we treat those men and women who question our traditions, beliefs or religion?

We need an objective answer!

The lamentable point is that most of our universities and professors are doing in the twenty-first century what the Church and popes did in Europe in Medieval Ages.

The bottom line is: Europe, before the triumph of reason, remained in Dark Ages and under the control of clergy, but when it came out of the shackles of irrationality and ignorance it contributed a lot in the development of human civilization. Pakistan, that is may be in its own Dark Ages, needs to understand that living in our own myopic and non-scientific world is dangerous not only for our own survival but for the whole human race. Hence, it is necessary for Pakistan to root out the old trees of ignorance from its soil for the sake of progress and prosperity.

To change this irrational and highly biased attitude an energetic propaganda is important, but not sufficient. Governments, as Russell argues, have the power of persuasion through propaganda to bring social or political change in modern time. The government in Pakistan needs to change its priorities, and focus on education. It is education that ultimately brings any permanent change in the society, whether it is good or bad.

But the thing to be remembered is that it is not as easy as it seems. There will be a strong emotional, religious and political opposition to this radical change in our education system. Different groups have different interests in our polity, and challenging the status quo means challenging those powerful power groups. But it is evident that modern states have the ability to suppress any undesirable rebellion as it has both the power of propaganda and artillery. This is what gives us a hope for a bright future, if our government takes its step.

Individual voices, however, will be, too often, silenced by these powerful groups, therefore a strong governmental intervention is essential in introducing this necessary educational change in our society.

Author’s Note: The Impact of Science on Society is a must read for all educated Pakistanis to understand the life and science in Medieval Ages, as to what European learned men were thinking in twentieth century about the world, humanity and the progress of human civilization to realize what our own intellectual contribution in modern globalized world is.