Delight Springs

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

McKibben's end, Sagan's rationality

In Bioethics today we consider "the natural order," and the conservative idea that we must perpetually refrain from altering or upsetting it. Nature is regarded, in such terms, as something wholly separate and apart, something to behold and admire and hold at arms' length from the grubby culture of reconstructive engineering that aims to optimize human interests above any presumption of natural sanctity. 

Russell Blackford has little apparent use for that attitude. Parts of nature merit the preservationist's protection, but we're the part with a stake in self-preservation and, as has been well expressed by Carl Sagan, "we speak for earth." This is fundamentally a pragmatic perspective, and one that I tend to favor. 

But, I have issues. I resist Blackford's sanguine willingness to play dice with the next generations. Resistance may be futile, but we're still a free species. Right? 

In A&P, we get Sagan's personal and cosmic perspective on God and religious experience, and "Acts" in the Good Book. (442-493)

Bill McKibben has been a hero of mine ever since he published The End of Nature and effectively re-launched the modern environmental movement a quarter of a century ago. I'm not sure he's always right, but I know he's always passionately clear-headed and honest about the high ecological stakes we and our fossil fuel Overlords have been gambling with. 

In Blackford's fifth chapter, McKibben's Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age is curtly critiqued as needlessly alarmist. His worries over the prospect that our genetic interventions may rob future humans of meaning are dismissed lightly. Blackford spends inordinate attention on "immortals" and not enough on the potential flattening of ordinary life for us mere mortals, in the brave new transhuman world.

True, "we are ill equipped to predict what activities and experiences will be satisfying , joyful, or meaningful for future people who might grow up and interact in environments quite different from our own." That being so, we should err on the side of liberty, for them and for ourselves. 

But that hardly lets us off the hook, when we try to confront the impact of our choices on the predictably-shrunken capacity for choosing of our near (not futuristic and remote) descendants. It hardly supports the breezy and cavalier notion that "if I want my daughter to stand six feet tall, run two-hour marathons, and remember every e-mail address of Yahoo!, how is that any different from deciding I want to dine on Honey Nut Cheerios?"

Isn't it obvious? I don't get to eat for two.

 "These are the most anti-choice technologies anyone's ever thought of," writes McKibben. "In widespread use they will first rob parents of their liberty, and then strip freedom from every generation that follows. In the end, they will destroy forever the very possibility of meaningful choice." (190)

He then goes on to offer an example of the sort of scenario he has in mind, when parents predictably start to panic and think they have to upgrade their kids just to keep up with everyone else who's doing it. "If not, their kids may lose..." 

And then he talks baseball, and steroids. The very first abusers may have had a choice, but subsequent copycats will have felt (rightly or wrongly, but in human terms understandably) compelled to keep up.

Unless I missed it, Blackford does not address or disarm these scenarios. They're serious.

I do want to make effective alliance with the risk-takers and enhancers as against the Luddites and anti-technologists, truly, but I see no evidence that any of them (including Blackford) has grasped or grappled with the profundity of concern expressed in Enough. It's not an idle grumble about the unpredictability of life in the 24th century, it's about the lives our very children and grandchildren will be free (or not) to live.

Carl Sagan, on the other hand, was entirely keyed in to the challenges that will confront our human future. Let's hope he was prophetic: "there is a pervasive human wish to give a rational explanation for the existence of a God or gods." 
Or, a rational explanation for their absence. In all events, though, Sagan remains open to what Einstein (following Spinoza) called a cosmic religious feeling, "something not very different from the sum total of the physical laws of the universe."

Religion on anything less than a cosmic scale tends to conjure gods too small to call divine.

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