Conversations About Complex Issues. Part 1: Progress as Illusion and Reality
29.04.2022

We have found ourselves in a period that can be described as “a time to gather stones together" or to find answers to the most difficult questions including those related to science, culture and education. They have become as important for the domestic public discourse as the issues of Russia's foreign policy and economy. This is probably because many people have suddenly realized how strongly they are connected with the most significant events taking place in the country and the world. Here are the questions:

Is scientific and technological progress a blessing or a curse for humanity?

Does a country's technological sovereignty compensate for the loss of its intellectual sovereignty?

Isn't it time to use social, humanitarian cultural tools to fight the discourse of subordination to Western values ​​and standards, including educational and scientific ones?

Is it necessary to abandon the Bologna system of higher education if it suspended the right of the Russian representation in the process?

How to develop critical thinking and love for the motherland among young people?

So far, these and other equally burning issues have been discussed mainly by public opinion leaders — politicians, writers, TV presenters, journalists, and bloggers. But they are not the heads of scientific 577A3941_вертик_Э_Галажинский.jpg organizations and universities, therefore are not directly involved in the development and implementation of relevant policies.

That is why it was especially interesting for us to ask Eduard Galazhinskiy, Rector of the National Research Tomsk State University, these difficult questions. Our first conversation was devoted to scientific and technological progress, its role in the life of modern society and ensuring the sovereignty of Russia.

—    “Scientific and technological progress" is a frequently used expression that we have been hearing everywhere since middle school. It brings us to the conclusion that we all know what it means. However, society has developed an ambivalent attitude towards this phenomenon. Some perceive it as an undoubted blessing that provides humankind with new opportunities. Others believe it is an inevitable evil that will eventually destroy our civilization. And considering the terrorist acts and military conflicts taking place in the world with the use of high-tech weapon of mass destruction, this will happen sooner rather than later. What do you think about this? 

—    Indeed, in the last two decades, very pessimistic moods regarding scientific and technological progress have prevailed in society due to many factors. For example, there is a fear of technology getting out of human control and its “self-reproduction”, which foreshadows Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity. Another factor is that most people choose a higher standard of living and comfort with the help of modern technologies, but do not want the burden of constant concern for nature. As a result, freshwater resources are depleted, huge polyethylene “islands” are appearing in the oceans, the planet and people are beginning to suffocate due to the lack of treatment facilities and waste recycling plants. There is also "high-tech" garbage in space that has accumulated over 60 years of exploration! 

2.png

Scientists have calculated that there are now almost 128 million pieces of space debris larger than 1 millimeter and 34,000 particles larger than 10 centimeters in space. About 3,000 satellites have failed due to debris damage and have become space waste themselves. Ninety-five percent of the space objects catalog consists of space debris. In May 2016, a space debris particle a hundredth of a millimeter flew into the International Space Station and left a chip with a diameter of about 7 millimeters. To prevent more devastating consequences, the Station regularly changes its orbit, dodging debris. Scientists suggest that at some point we will no longer be able to launch new satellites, as the orbits will be completely occupied by debris. This can happen due to a cascade effect called the Kessler Syndrome: a rapidly growing amount of space debris will produce other debris, and this, in turn, will produce new debris in a chain reaction. The general nature of the cascade effect is the same as that of a nuclear chain reaction.

 There are other references to support the thesis of a relatively quick "end of the world" due to technological progress especially when it concerns the development and production of the most advanced weapon. It is not surprising that for so many people, and not just social philosophers, the image of today's and tomorrow's world has become exceptionally gloomy. 

— It is a paradox: new technologies are being produced, but there is no progress as a progressive movement towards a better future. 

— Well, it depends on how to look at it. In 2018, Canadian-American cognitive psychologist and science communicator, Steven Pinker, presented a completely different - bright and joyful - image of the world created as a result of scientific and technological progress in his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Given the above, at first glance it seems impossible. Nevertheless, Pinker set himself this super-task: to prove to a desperate humanity that progress is indeed a blessing and a progressive path to a brighter future made possible only through science. 

First, he explained that the cause of all pessimistic moods is a cognitive bias inherent in all people. The bias is quite consciously and ruthlessly cultivated by the media and all sorts of conspiracy 3 Пинкер.png theorists. For example, if most of the media simultaneously report on an epidemic or a terrorist attack, to regular people they seem larger than they really are. Here is another example of how people perceive reality: from the information flow, they highlight and remember negative events better than positive ones. To overcome a cognitive bias, we need to purposely train our brain. How many people actually do that? That is why the vast majority of the impressions in our memory confirm the catastrophic scenario for the further development of scientific and technological progress. 

Actually, according to Pinker, everything about the progress is just wonderful. He argues his point of view with the help of reliable statistical data and indisputable facts confirmed by official sources. For this reason, his non-fiction book contains a large number of graphs and tables relating to all the main spheres of the life of society as it develops. And they all confirm that life on planet Earth has become better. Compared to earlier times, by the end of the 20th – beginning of the 21st century, life expectancy increased by 2 to 2.5 times and its quality improved significantly, taking into consideration people’s health, nutrition, security, education, access to information, equality, and so on. Many of the tables contain the names of specific scientists whose discoveries have saved millions and millions of lives. 

Pinker-vaccination-lives-saved-chart-1024x603.jpg

 At this point I would like to mention another scientist and French philosopher Raymond Aron, who, back in the middle of the 20th century, expressed the idea that social progress cannot be reduced only to statistics and calculation, since this is a very complex and contradictory process. Eventually, he even wrote a book called Progress and Disillusion: Dialectics of Modern Society. The author comes to the conclusion that the entire history of mankind suggests that there are socio-political, economic, and technological changes, but there is no upward developmental progress. American writer, William Pfaff, generally considered progress to be a “dead idea” and an “illusion” that the West needed only to pursue its colonial policy towards other nations and impose its values ​​on them. The illusiveness of progress is explained by the fact that it is observed in certain, more often ideological, spheres. In other spheres of life it does not occur. For example, no one will deny that the norms of international law, including human rights, are constantly being improved. However, people are not getting better morally. They destroy old values ​​and do not create new ones. 

— Many people will not like this approach to progress. It deprives humanity of all hope. How can one live without the idea of a “better future”? 

—  Entire nations have lived and still live in such a paradigm. For example, the Chinese, for whom there is no progress, but there are cycles of dynastic empires. These empires are absolutely self- 5.jpegsufficient, live on the principle of "here and now", and nothing else interests them. Dynasties succeed each other without progressive movement forward. And for those who are not ready to say “goodbye” to the idea of ​​progress, Stephen Pinker wrote the book we mentioned above. To be fair, we should admit that he is not the first and only thinker who has tried to look at progress as an obvious good and to argue his view with the help of a “reasonable explanation”, based on facts and scientific discoveries. In 2011, British physicist and philosopher David Deutsch published his book The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. It is believed that Deutsch's book influenced Pinker so much that he decided to continue the topic started by the British scientist. According to both, progress is undeniably linear and incremental. At the same time, Pinker emphasizes that the main impetus of developmental progress was the Enlightenment ideas about the dominant and enduring role of scientific knowledge and its practical application in human life in the development of progress. 

6.jpeg

This ideological "mechanism", created by the philosophers of the 18th century Enlightenment, ensures endless progress, no matter what. Thus, for Pinker, the entire history of society is the history of progress. A great number of facts in his book do not allow readers to doubt this. However, the author's selection of mainly Anglo-Saxon scientists, as well as some of his ideas and political affiliations, give rise to serious reflection and doubt. 

First of all, I mean the very idea of ​​linear progress, which in a certain sense is fatal, given that we live in a highly complex turbulent time characterized by non-linear processes with unpredictable results. Maintaining this complexity and the diversity of alternative scenarios for the development of society without its transition to a chaotic state is one of the main concerns of our time. However, for some reason, it is not reflected in Pinker's book. In addition, he is sincerely convinced that all technologies, even artificial intelligence, have never been and will not be beyond human control. It is unclear what this belief is based on. Security provided by the latest technology is above all for Pinker, as well as freedom and privacy. One of his most controversial ideas is the need to educate intellectuals in cosmopolitanism as a sense of their not belonging to any nation, tribe, or team. In his opinion, dependence on "tribal and team" ideas is the main barrier to quality thinking. According to Pinker, the national, institutional, and other self-identity of scientists is the enemy of progress. Conservatives, with Trump at the head, are also enemies of progress. Leaders like Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, and even George W. Bush, who “expand their circle of empathy” and seek to take care of the health of not only their nation, but also the population of the poorest countries in the world, are another matter. 

Thus, while advocating for cosmopolitanism and not belonging to any nation or team, Pinker himself demonstrates the exact opposite, the typically Anglo-Saxon or, more precisely, modern American thinking, which is common not only for the US media, but also for most of the American academic community. He argues that all countries that are not part of the Anglo-Saxon or American world should, like "natives", constantly catch up with the "locomotive" of Western progress in general and Western liberal values, science, and education in particular. 

— Do Russians also belong to such "natives"? 

— According to such personalities as Steven Pinker, Bill Gates, Elon Musk and the like, probably yes. 

— But in recent decades, Russia has really tried to “catch up” with Western Europe and the United States in many areas, including science and education. 

— The United States did the same when they tried to catch up with the Soviet Union in the Space Race. To accomplish this, the US significantly restructured not only the scientific sphere but also the 7.jpeg system of school and university education. No, the "natives" by definition are not able to be the first to go to space. So it's not about us. 

Another thing is that the same country, no matter how developed it may be, cannot forever secure a leadership position in the same areas. It will always be caught up and at some stage overtaken by other countries. However, if you go too long only in the wake of someone else's progress, there is always a risk of turning into a technological “colony”. First, it gets connected to the progress (visa cards, the Internet, social networks, etc.), then blackmailed with the threat of being turned off completely. In addition, this inevitably leads to the loss of one's own identity. This topic, in a certain context, was raised at one time in the West, when, for example, the French began to protest against the expansion of the English language in their universities and schools.

By decree of 1972, special ministerial commissions were established in France. They were designed to develop French terminology for new scientific and cultural realities in place of English equivalents. “Journal Official” regularly publishes lists of approved and mandatory words. So, for example, the term “logiciel” was offered instead of “software”; “palmarês” — instead of “hit-parade”, etc. France still has a very strict Language Law (1994) that enforces penalties for its violation. According to this law, French is the language of education, work, trade, and public services. All documents must be drawn up only in French. The same requirements apply to information in the media and any advertising. 

8.png

Nevertheless, today, despite the existence of similar laws in a number of European countries, the real cultural situation is approaching critical. Tens of millions of immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and other developing regions of the world not only do not want to assimilate with the cultures of their host European states, but also actively influence them, trying to subordinate them to their traditions and even religions. Countries that are outposts of Western European civilization are at risk of losing their national cultural identity. This problem is so acute that some European political leaders propose its solution in their election campaigns. 

So-called “cultural inbreeding" is no less dangerous. Cultural closeness can lead to the emergence of a huge number of poorly educated people, overwhelmed by extreme nationalist ideas. The metaphor of inbreeding, as you know, came from biology, where inbreeding as a scientific concept means "breeding within oneself" through "self-pollination" and "self-fertilization", the inevitable consequence of which is degeneration. This phenomenon is dangerous for any sphere, not only for nature and culture. Universities support the idea of a “clean line” (another biological metaphor indicating “genetic homogeneity”) as a continuity of scientific schools and cultural traditions. However, they accept the possibility of a constant influx of “fresh blood” — new theories, concepts, ideas, new forms of cooperation, and so on. Without this synthesis of tradition and innovation, there is no true development. The main thing is not to go to extremes. 

— Let’s get back to Steven Pinker. Do you recommend reading his book to understand what scientific and technological progress is? Or is it the “extreme” that it is better not to go to? 

— I do recommend it, of course. But only if one reads it thoughtfully and critically. In addition, it should be remembered that Pinker wrote this book even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the most acute confrontation between the "collective West" and Russia, which has been intensified since the beginning of this year. Perhaps, if he were writing this book today, his position regarding progress as an unambiguously progressive movement for the better would be somewhat different, not so illusory.  

Here we can refer to Klaus Schwab, whose views on the digitalization of society have changed significantly over the past few years. If his 2016 book The Fourth Industrial Revolution can be called a kind9.jpeg of “ode” to digitalization, then his 2020 book COVID-19: The Great Reset is more of a dystopia. Yes, he did not abandon his main idea: the digitalization of society is an inevitable scenario for its development. But he began to see not only light, but also dark, even gloomy colors in this scenario. In any case, Steven Pinker's book contains a lot of interesting facts and statistics. It is quite relevant as a "reference book" on the achievements, foremost, of Western European science and its contribution to the development of human civilization. 

— Isn't it time to write a Russian analogue of such a "reference book" on Russian scientists and their discoveries that have made this world a better place? 

— It is time for that. There are many books about the life and work of a particular Russian or Soviet scientist or domestic scientific schools, but I cannot think of a book, in which ALL outstanding Russian with their discoveries and statistical data would be presented, confirming their great importance for all mankind. Such a book, as well as curricula for high schools and universities, created on its basis, are very much needed today. 

Our schoolchildren and students have no idea about what kind of prominent people the Russian land is capable of giving birth to. Patriotism and pride in one's country are brought up, among other things, on such knowledge. And this knowledge is very much missed today. At best, only the names of Mikhail Lomonosov, Nikolai Lobachevsky, and Dmitry Mendeleev can be heard from young people. Who is to blame? We are. The older generation. We did not explain, did not teach, did not show, and did not convince. In recent years, the younger generation has been "fed" mainly on "sugar syrup" — the entertainment content of social networks, with their lack of serious food for thought. Should we be surprised that in the minds of our youth (and not only youth) the expressions “Progressive West” and “Backward Russia” have turned into set expressions? Ignorance of the history and potential of their country has led many people to complete disorientation in today's events in Russia and the world and to deep depression. There is only one way out: to urgently correct educational and information policies. Otherwise, there will be no one to make progress in our country. 

— Is it possible to achieve significant scientific and technological progress by the efforts of one country, or is this process successful only when it is carried out globally?  11.jpeg

—    On the one hand, the globalist agenda certainly exists and is expressed in the global division of the labor market. In a highly complex world, one cannot survive without globalization and cooperation. An example is the modern production of microchips, 80% of which is located on the island of Taiwan. 

Chips manufactured by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) are used in almost everything: smartphones, high-performance computing platforms, PCs, tablets, servers, base stations and game consoles, IoT devices, digital consumer electronics, automobiles, and almost all weapon systems. Built in the 21st century, TSMC is the most valuable company in Asia, with a capitalization of $538 billion (as shown in 2021 reports). The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the demand for electronic devices that allow us to work, entertain, and communicate remotely. This was also facilitated by the growth of the military-industrial complex of countries producing the most advanced weapon. As a result, TSMC chips are currently among the most scarce products in the international market.

   12.jpeg

Why, given the acute global shortage of microchips, is no one except the Taiwanese particularly eager to produce them? Because such factories require highly qualified specialists and sophisticated equipment. Accordingly, they are the most expensive of all existing in the world economy. You cannot build them quickly anywhere. It takes at least three years and billions of dollars to construct and launch them, and then reach the planned capacity. The production of microchips consists of many stages that form a complete cycle, divided among many countries. It includes not only the development of technologies, but also the search, extraction, and processing of rare metals, and so on. In general, the cost of producing such a product from the beginning to the end of the cycle can be equal to the annual budget of an entire country. A comparatively inexpensive chip is obtained only when produced in large quantities. That is, if you make billions of chips, they will be cheap, and if you make thousands, then each will cost about as much as an airplane. However, one country does not need billions of chips. Therefore, it is more profitable for everyone, when only one country or region is engaged in the final production in large volumes, but at the same time, all the rest, participating or not participating in the global production chain, have the opportunity to buy this product. 

But this is a double-edged sword. Life shows that human civilization is not yet mature enough for such a progressive economic trend. Attempts to seize other people's resources, establish economic sanctions, and so on are occasionally made. In other words, there may come a time when economic feasibility can cost too much from the point of view of the national interests and sovereignty of the countries that buy high-tech products. Therefore, on the one hand, it is necessary for us to integrate into global technological chains, and on the other hand, we need to have our own production of vital goods and technologies. The former is more expedient economically, the latter — in terms of security. Therefore, a balance must be sought. Sovereignty must not be threatened. Today, issues of sovereignty and identity are key for Russia. Returning to whether the country can achieve significant scientific and technological progress on its own, I will answer affirmatively. Russia certainly can, considering its natural and human resources and its experience: such tasks have been set and completed more than once in our country. 

For instance, during the industrialization from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. Or after the Great Patriotic War, when the Soviet Union actually rebuilt its peaceful and military industry in just a 13.jpeg decade and a half, while Western experts argued that it would take the USSR many, many decades. In their forecasts, they did not take into account the Russian mentality, the Russian national character, and its unique ability to resist troubles and overcome difficulties. 

— Yes, sometimes we create difficulties in order to successfully overcome them later. What mistakes should we avoid today in achieving scientific and technological progress? 

— The most important thing is not to go to extremes, which is also in our national character. The fundamental importance is seen not only in the high-tech development, but also in high-hume technologies. Once, in the late 1990s – early 2000s, Pyotr Shchedrovitsky accurately revealed the meaning of the latter in his Tomsk Lectures on Management, talking about the true, deep reason for the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War. 

After the collapse of the USSR, it was necessary to urgently achieve parity in the area of humanities, as it was once done in the field of nuclear technology. But at that time this cruel lesson did not serve well: a significant part of our society, and especially the younger generations, continued and still continue to be captivated by Western culture and the “consumer society". Parity should be not only between the Western and domestic humanities spheres and their roles in the life of our society, but also between high-tech and high-hume. Many social scientists have come to the conclusion that the existence of society is associated with inevitable anthropogenic crises as factors in the growth of its entropy — a state of chaos. Hakob Nazaretyan, Soviet and Russian philosopher, believes that it is culture that has powerful anti-entropy mechanisms and prevents society from plunging into a state of complete chaos. He also proposed a hypothesis about the law of techno-humanitarian balance: the higher the power of production and combat technologies is, the more advanced means of cultural regulation are necessary to preserve society. Accordingly, if a disproportion between “strength” and “wisdom” arises and grows in favor of the former, then the phase of ecological and geopolitical expansion begins. 

On my behalf, I would like to add that such a disproportion can lead not only to the ecological and cultural expansion of a given society in relation to others. It can also lead to similar expansions on the part of other societies in relation to the given one. Russia urgently needs to restore its techno-humanitarian balance, as well as the dominance of domestic culture in the sphere of education, in order to avoid losing its identity and the catastrophe that happened to the USSR in the early 1990s. We all know that the period of crisis that the whole world and our country is now experiencing is a time of extraordinary opportunities. They should not be missed, remembering that scientific and technological development as a complex non-linear process can lead to a better state of affairs in the world and in a single country only if the techno-humanitarian balance is constantly maintained. 

— How would you sum up our first conversation? What would be the conclusion? 

— The only way to speak about progress is very, very conditionally. This is a reflexive concept, that is, a concept that people will always correlate with the real state of affairs in the world and in their country. Faith in progress will only exist if this state of affairs is more or less good. In all other cases, both philosophers and regular people become cynical and skeptical about progress. And yet, personally, I am close to the point of view of the Polish sociologist Piotr Sztompka. He believes that despite the collapse of the neoliberal model of the civilizational development with the idea of ​​progress “hardwired” in it, the origins of which can be seen back in the New Age and the Age of Enlightenment, this idea seems to be a global intellectual framework that philosophers, politicians, and economists have yet to master. 

The conversation was transcribed by Irina Kuzheleva-Sagan