In the actual case of Prometheus, it would be pretty difficult to argue that the bestowal of that power was bad, seeing that our entire human existence would be pretty near impossible without fire. But what about now, when the ideas that humans are exploring in scientific and technological realms are so large and could have such great impact? The thing that makes fire different is that for as long as humans remember, we understand fire. We know how to create it, how to control it, and how to extinguish it, and we are well aware of the consequences of doing all these things. With new knowledge in the scientific or technological realm, however, this is not always the case, and a problem occurs when our unlimited understanding of the consequences of a new discovery is not taken into careful consideration. Both Shelley and Joy show that this can quickly be masked by human instinct and the blind, passionate search for knowledge, and then bad things can happen.
As Frankenstein studies at Ingolstadt, he discovers how to create life. Once he is given this power, he completely enters a state that he cannot escape from, losing himself in this pursuit. He never once stops and questions the consequences of bringing life into the inanimate creature on which he is working. Before he succeeds he does not truly understand what he is doing, and in consequence, after the creature comes to life, he is not capable of dealing with it, as shown by the nervous breakdown he has almost immediately afterward. Tragedy obviously arises afterward. Had Frankenstein understood the consequences ahead of time, he never would have done anything with the knowledge he discovered; In fact, he refuses to even tell anybody else later, by chance a similar disaster happen again. In this action he is making the decision not to use the power he has. While the subtitle of the novel is “The Modern Prometheus”, Frankenstein is, in this moment, quite the opposite, refusing to give power to others.
Bill Joy uses the example of the atomic bomb, which also demonstrates this idea of regret after failing to understand the consequences of an action. The physicists involved on the project were so wrapped up in their original purpose that they did not fully understand the implications of the technology they were producing. After watching the effects of actually dropping the bomb, they were astonished and many came to regret the work they had done. While Joy may take some of his worries to an extreme, he is right in saying that we must “do more thinking up front if we are not to be similarly surprised and shocked by the consequences of our inventions.”
In society today, we are very much about the “here and now”. We have an extreme tendency to move ahead without analyzing the consequences of our actions, and if we cannot be sure what they will be, we go ahead with them anyway. We don’t take the time to realize our mistakes until later. Just in the last couple decades have scientists and doctors questioned the links that exist between smoking or sun exposure and cancer. Just in the last five years or so are we realizing that all our carbon monoxide production may not be such a good thing. We have no way of really knowing what impressive technologies we will have in the next ten, twenty, or fifty years. Some of these will no doubt bring great things such as medical cures and solutions to poverty. But along with this comes the reality that they could also bring negative effects in the short-term or long-term future. We were lucky with the atomic bomb, in that it only destroyed two cities. With the technologies that Joy discusses, the consequences could be a whole lot bigger than that.
So while Prometheus may seem like a good model, as in his story he gave important knowledge and power to humankind, we cannot always go by his philosophy. Knowing is not intrinsically wrong, but the power that knowledge brings us is may be a bad thing, if we don’t evaluate case-by-case the implications of each new discovery and technology, and make sure we have full understanding of it and the consequences of putting it into action. We shouldn’t have to stop research or technological development, and we definitely shouldn’t stop searching for knowledge. We should, however, be ready to make a difficult choice if need be and resolve ourselves to the fact that for our own good we may have to remain in darkness and leave the fire with Zeus.
Gill, N.S. "Prometheus in Greek Mythology." About.com. 12 January 2009