Throughout Human history, Productivity has required an understanding of nature, whether it meant predicting the seasons for agriculture or navigating the seas for trade through astronomy or curing diseases through medicine. European societies gained a huge advantage over other societies by creating incentives for exploration of ideas by institutionalizing patent & copy right laws in the late medieval period and eventually by enshrining the notion of free speech.
Productivity leaped ahead in these societies, which promoted a culture of intellectual exploration of ideas. And never has there been a society where a scientist like Einstein gained a degree of popularity transcending his own time to become the visual cognate to the word “genius”. All this gave a great boost to the social status of many scientists in these societies. And in the 20th century people across the world are now familiar with the name ‘Einstein’. Meanwhile, the establishment of awards to scientists has been an annual affair for over a century by the prestigious Nobel committee. However, the nature of progress itself thus far should not reassure us with regards to the future.
Rational thinking and skepticism are not natural to us. In the last 3 centuries, beginning in Europe and now spreading to other parts of the world, Science has helped make progress possible, not just in productivity but also in understanding our place in the cosmos & in doing so has made us intensely question the received knowledge of religion. I would argue that it is science that first did so, and only later has literature provided a challenge to religion. In the absence of this form of scientific thinking it would not be possible to create a buffer of certain & sure (& non-religious) knowledge of the real world, based on which one could challenge religion with confidence.
However, as we walk into a new age of greater productivity, we might take pause to notice what can go wrong or what headwinds might lie ahead? What is the place for technical education in a future society where a kid might own a machine many orders smarter at physics than Steven Weinberg? This question might seem ad-hoc and futuristic but I wish to deploy this to ask how the incentives for higher education courses might be distorted by easy access to greater material comforts. What would be the incentive in such a society to spend many hours a day to rigorously study science as intensely as we do now? The Productivity that has been accrued through sciences & engineering is now being distributed into many other fields of study. Particularly the confabulation sciences of sociology & the rhetorical field of law. This has started churning out individuals with university degrees whose main skill is in creating, engineering & channeling social movements; or in producing fashionable inanities in societies alongside religion. This is perhaps the future we are walking into. Study of science is very important as it trains us in rational thinking. In this specific mode of thinking, honed over years of study, is not valued, it could affect the critical thinking faculties of entire societies. Demand for the more difficult higher-level STEM education might no longer be valued as it is now. Alternately religious people of certain kind might very well decide to ditch learning of sciences or for that matter anything injurious to their belief or choose to not enroll their kids in school either. If we follow the currently fashionable liberal idea of providing everyone with a decent Universal basic income, we will have given religious people the ability to isolate themselves from society altogether or to have a higher TFR while not having to worry about the costs & also disengaging with education altogether.
Here the logic of liberalism might fail. Unlike the impression of religious demographic edging out liberals due to heritable nature of conservative beliefs, what should really concern us is that the ideas of Liberalism, atheism, rational thinking are by themselves rare when considered through long history of humanity and are a by-product of the confidence gained in the last 3 centuries of human endeavor, to glean scientific principles from natural world. It is in this enterprise that individuals whose personality had attributes of openness to ideas, creativity & rational thinking, thrived. And as a result, these ideas contributed to the productive fitness of these societies and such attributes are now valued over the older values of tribal loyalty and obedience. However, whether this might continue to be so always in the near future is something to keep a watch out for.
There are but two sources of productive income for the economy of any society. The fundamental economy of natural resources where natural sciences have great utility. And the other source is of derived economy which is one of services. The growth of status of individuals from derived economy whether it be entertainment industry or others belonging to dismal sciences, now might cast a shadow on this society’s ability to value truth over fiction.
This has a terrible effect on a civilization, in forgetting where real productivity comes from, and can lead instead to anti-science movements. Whether it is banning stem cell research or denying global warming or evolution, or ideological opposition to use of technology in agriculture. These movements are precisely possible because the groups responsible for leading them do not incur the costs for such nonsense. Their access to resources, political power or even the fact that they enjoy the trust of significant segments of population, gives them an immunity from reason. And if the coming age of abundance is real, then we must ready ourselves for the fact that these tribes of unreason might grow over time as they shall not incur costs for their views. All this while another blow strikes in the form of receding value of rational technical STEM education, as STEM subjects will no longer accrue any additional advantage over those who do not enroll in them. This will happen at some point in the future as advances in automation will not stop at cars and other mechanical utilities, it will eventually out-compete humans at level of most advanced math and sciences as well.
It might be time to abandon the belief that one could profitably continue to keep society stable irrespective of people’s belief or that one could profitably keep influencing others to moderate their views in a world where all are not informed of basic scientific truths. Time to accept that those influenced by reading only the Bible for example are adding to a social demography not supportive of reasoning as much those who are also influenced by reading Aristotle. And unless u get both sides to read the works of Aristotle it wouldn’t be the same society. It is necessary to value the concept of mental hygiene of society as a whole and to compulsorily enroll all students into basic courses of science and reasoning(philosophy) whether or not they lead to any productivity at all, unless one wishes to be swamped by tribes of unreason.
For the battle of democracy will descend into mob rule in the absence of minimum mental hygiene being forced on all participants. The critique of Saudi Arabia as a country that has spread much fanaticism due to its excess resource of oil should make us ponder whether similar phenomena might confront us in our own societies and the rest of the world. In every society, some create true wealth through real knowledge of natural sciences or are upholders of this true knowledge while others in the same societies spread much fake knowledge or distract societies into popular inanities. So far, the usefulness of sciences in increasing productivity has provided an incentive for rational thinking.
However, once we begin basic income for all, some group might find ways to isolate themselves while others descend into endless inanities & pleasure seeking, the battle for social dominance between many groups might begin again. If you think this might be exaggerated, consider that the most powerful country in the world with far more Nobel prize winners in sciences than any other country, is also the one that has rejected global warming as real. Ignorance needs to only persist long enough as to become self-sustaining or to incur no costs for the people being so and technology and wealth might help to sustain this long enough to distort many societies.