The explosive expansion of Western science since the sixteenth century has led, with a delay of two centuries, to an equally explosive development of technology. In this situation, modern man tends to be swayed by appearances and thinks that science and technology are the most important of all human activities, as expressed in the quote attributed to Einstein:
One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.
We could confront this paragraph against this quotation by E.F.Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973):
The Second Law of Thermodynamics is nothing more than a working hypothesis suitable for various types of scientific research. On the other hand -- a work by Shakespeare, teeming with the most vital ideas about the inner development of man, showing the whole grandeur and misery of a human existence. How could these two things be equivalent? What do I miss, as a human being, if I have never heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The answer is: ‘nothing.’ And what do I miss by not knowing Shakespeare? Unless I get my understanding from another source, I simply miss my life.
Schumacher confronts science and technology against other high human activities, such as poetry, the visual arts, music, love or religion, because the latter can give a meaning to life, while the former do not. He claims that science aims to find out how things work, and technology to build things that work.
All higher human activities (including science and technology) can provide man (or some men) with reasons to live, but it is true that science and technology are tools. They are instrumental in nature, since they serve to understand the world or to manipulate it. Their purpose is not in themselves, but in the use made of them. Instead, art, love and religion can arouse aesthetic, love or worship feelings, but they do not have, in principle, a utilitarian purpose.
In another article in this blog I mentioned that science and technology are neither good nor bad, precisely because they are tools. Like any tool, they can be used for good or for evil. Therefore, whenever tools are made available, their possible misuse must be taken into account and means to avoid it must be provided. This ethical component is clearer in technology than in science, and much more than in the other fields of human activity we have mentioned: art, love and religion.
Modern materialism has turned science into an idol, as somehow is expressed by the aforementioned words by Einstein, while the best human activities, those that give meaning to life, are usually neglected, regarded as illusions, or unimportant epiphenomena. This is the reason why materialism leads inevitably to despair, or to a skeptical view of life. When materialists deny that this is true in their case, perhaps they are right, but this is because in the depths of their being, whatever they say, they do not feel really materialistic.