Delight Springs

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Venter in space, reality tough and tender

Covering classes for a colleague again today, with new students (and a few old) and topics (actually a VERY old topic last time, abortion). It's like Opening Day, a blank slate, a fresh start, a rising sun. Everything I love about morning.

In the p.m. it's back to Bioethics and A&P, in both of which we'll be concluding the texts we've been immersed in. Fresh starts there too, next week.

Craig Venter concludes Life at the Speed of Light on a scifi note: Andromeda Strain and antibiotic resistance, biological teleportation, digits and robots to the stars, the (re-?)creation of Martian life, searching for life in new worlds (did you hear about the possibly-hidden Super Earth VP (aka "Biden") on the edge of our solar system?), Venter in space:
In the past decade, since my own genome was sequenced, my software has been broadcast in the form of electromagnetic waves, carrying my genetic information far beyond Earth, as they ripple out into space. Borne upon those waves, my life now moves at the speed of light.
Along with all those old episodes of "Amos and Andy" and "Lost in Space," et al. We need to get clear on how we as a species want and intend to apply the technologies about to be enabled by synthetic biology, lest we all get lost. Beam us up? Boldly go, sure. But the Trek transporter is not what Venter has in mind. He wants to move digital blueprints, not bodies. And he wants to move the human imagination. "Wherever this new era of biology is heading, I know the voyage will be as empowering as it is extraordinary."

"When life is finally able to travel at the speed of light, the universe will shrink, and our own powers will expand." Are we ready for that? Our next read is Humanity Enhanced. It too will challenge us to face a faster pace of life.

Reading and discussing Alex Rosenberg's Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions has been a perverse pleasure for me. I find his Tough-minded brand of Scientistic Atheism too tough to swallow, but it's tons of fun to wrestle with. This will be a good time to revisit Pragmatism and its classic Tough/Tender distinction (but I'd swap Dogmatical for Pluralistic):

The Tender-Minded

Rationalistic (going by ’principles’),

The Tough-Minded

Empiricist (going by ’facts’),

James's point was that we're all astraddle the artificial line that dichotomizes these attitudes, but I think Rosenberg's well beyond it. He says he's no fatalist, but given everything he's already and repeatedly told us about our incapacity even to think about the world (let alone act spontaneously and meaningfully upon it) that just sounds like marketing. Or a salvage operation.

But it's too late for that now, he's already convinced me he does not hanker for any pragmatically cherry-picked view that would leave room for each of us to have determined for ourselves "what we did in life" (and thus avoid a fated end). So we can either follow Rosenberg's Rx, take a little Prozac pill and see if we feel better in the morning; or we can consider alternatives.

I'm still with WJ on this, who admits that a professional philosopher is expected to be more precise and committed to counter-intuition than the average "layman in philosophy."
Most of us have a hankering for the good things on both sides of the line. Facts are good, of course–give us lots of facts. Principles are good–give us plenty of principles. The world is indubitably one if you look at it in one way, but as indubitably is it many, if you look at it in another. It is both one and many–let us adopt a sort of pluralistic monism. Everything of course is necessarily determined, and yet of course our wills are free: a sort of free-will determinism is the true philosophy.
The thing about James is, he never allowed himself the luxury of philosophizing strictly as a professional philosopher, he always remembered that he was also a man. He always imagined trying to explain his positions to non-professionals at, say, the laundromat. He knew humans will never hesitate to "mix incompatibles" when a mix is what their experience and their hopes require.

That's why he said his lifelong mission was to "defend experience against philosophy."

In today's final reading Rosenberg declares even Richard Dawkins too soft and squishy on reality. In the "Tough" column, he would add Meaningful (or Meaning-seeking). Rosenberg says a Tough-minded Atheist has no use for that.
Richard Dawkins has succumbed to the delusion that a substitute for religion is required and available from science. People ask Dawkins, "Why do you bother getting up in the morning if the meaning of life boils down to such a cruel pitiless fact, that we exist merely to help replicate a string of molecules. His answer is that "science is one of the supreme things that makes life worth living."
 Well, that's part of the answer. Another big  part is our curiosity and creativity about life and reality, the very source and spirit of our interest in science in the first place. We desire to know, to find out, to spread out in the galaxy. And that brings us to our next read, The Varieties of Scientific Experience, a kinder, gentler, more meaningful scientism. If Dawkins can't sell you on "the beauty of science" or tell you a convincing human story, I'll bet Carl Sagan can.
Human beings are machines constructed by the nucleic acids to arrange for the efficient replication of more nucleic acids. In a sense our strongest urges, noblest enterprises, most compelling necessities, and apparent free wills are all an expression of the information coded in the genetic material. We are, in a way, temporary ambulatory repositories for our nucleic acids. This does not deny our humanity; it does not prevent us from pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful. 
 It does not render us without meaning or purpose, amongst many other expressions of the varieties of human and scientific experience.

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