June 26, 2003
Good science, bad science

Steve Talbott and I agree that science radically challenges and changes our understanding of who we are and what it means to be a human being. Talbott thinks this is a bad thing whereas I think it is a good thing.
I also think however that Talbott defeats his own argument, in an otherwise brilliant debunking of Bill McKibbon's 'Enough' that can be found in
NetFuture #144.

McKibbon is worried that we should lose ourselves completely through genetic alteration. Talbott rightfully challenges this idea: "No one can, in absolute terms, rob someone else of meaning."

And he is right of course: No amount of genetic alteration will undo the fact that even the genetically altered human being will be a self, and experience as a self. It is not robbed of meaning.
So what then does science in fact do to humanity? It clearly does not rob us of introspection. It liberates our understanding of self from any binding it might have had to arbitrary facts of the flesh such as 'we can only run 35 km/h - and only for a short while'. As far as I am concerned that purifies our spirit. It doesn't debase it.

The notion that once upon a time there was some 'ur'-people, living in a golden age, and being essentially and purely human is one of the really old chestnuts of (political) philosophy and it is almost implied by Talbott's reasoning. Talbott makes repeated reference to meaning and purity of human spirit that once was ours but now is lost:
He adopts from McKibbons book the idea that The automobile wrenched us loose from local community; television isolated us from our immediate neighbors; divorce as a mass phenomenon cast a shadow of uncertainty over every family; and the natural world itself has been arbitrarily re-shaped according to our habits and appetites, so that it no longer offers us "a doorway into a deeper world".

But there has never been a golden age. The car less (preindustrial) society kept masses of peasants unfree and poor, since industrialization was not feasible when transportation was slow and difficult and expensive and thus did not offer as many jobs in the factories and the cities. Televison taught me English, so that I could understand Talbott's and McKibbon's reasoning. The divorce free society kept women all over the world bound to their homes, unfree and entirely at the mercy of their husbands, relying solely on his income for stability. I do grant that medicine has deprived us of some of the profound insights of the past, such as the fact that pneumonia and tuberculosis kills you with almost absolute certainty.

Posted by Claus at June 26, 2003 03:15 AM
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