Venter’s meaning, Rosenberg’s nihilism

Craig Venter’s next chapters in Life at Light Speed, in Bioethics, continue to limn “the new field of the biochemistry of information” and the stellar history of the bacteriophage phi X 174, “the first to have its genome artificially copied and activated.” It’s a long way from the sewers of Paris.

There’s a lot of blow-by-blow technical stuff in these chapters about how Venter’s team went about their project of digitizing and synthesizing DNA. Much of it eludes me.

But I perked up and took notice when Arthur Caplan took the stage, and went to work with a team of bioethicists to produce the report eventually published in Science: “Ethical Considerations in Synthesizing a Minimal Genome.”

“The only reason for ethics to lag behind this line of research is if we choose to allow it to do so.” And we may. But isn’t it empowering to be be granted a choice, still?

“It is disturbing that current regulatory methods provide little if any oversight of these technologies.” Indeed.

Venter seems miffed that the report pondered “the impact of reductionist science on ‘the meaning and origin of life'” without first having defined “life.” But we know what life is, it’s what happens while you’re making other plans. Some of us worry that our ability to make any plans at all, ever again, is at risk with this research. He thinks the greater risk lies in not doing the research.

“How we understand our own selves, and how we work with our DNA software has implications that will affect everything from vaccine development, to new approaches to antibiotics, new sources of food, new sources of chemicals, even potentially new sources of energy. Food will be manufactured — it won’t be grown in fields — in 50 years… If we don’t do the experiments, if we don’t try and use this new knowledge to solve some of the problems of poverty, of hunger, of disease, it’s going to be a pretty nasty world in 50 years, with 4 billion people, three times more than when I was born. But I’m an optimist. I think we have at hand tools that humanity has never had before, the tools to truly have control over nature, and if we use those wisely — and we use them — the future could be pretty bright.” Venter on the meaning of lifeTEDMay ’10

In Alex Rosenberg’s Atheist’s Guide to Reality, in A&P, we’ll consider the “bad news” that nihilism is true and the “good news” that nihilists are nice as can be. They’re not moral relativists, they’re not moral skeptics, they’re not Karamazovian anarchists who think everything’s permitted. They just don’t think there are objectively, demonstrably “right” answers to life’s persistent questions. We can’t reasonably hope to find “the right answers,” just answers we like. And as always, we still can ply our powers of persuasion to our hearts’ content.

Nice. Who could ask for anything more? Well, you could ask…

In a Rortian mood, I’m frequently inclined to agree with Rosenberg about this. I just wouldn’t call it nihilism, which seems needlessly alarmist and provocative.

The problem with Rosenberg’s version of godless scientism, in this case, is not (as he suggests) that it saps life of meaning and leaves us nothing to roll out of bed for. The problem is that it does not seem to allow for the personal determination of meaning and purpose.

The real bugbear in the vicinity is humanism, not scientism. The way to tame it is not by insisting on science as exhaustively expressive of all meaning and purpose, but by simply noting that various humans have found various meanings and purposes gratifying, motivating, and fulfilling. Not nihil, not “nothing.”

“Scientism can’t avoid nihilism.” Sure it can: just emulate humanism’s plurality of meanings and purposes, don’t try to express everything in a scientific idiom. “Not everything worth expressing can or should be expressed scientifically.” Let a hundred or a thousand vocabularies bloom, and see how quickly the specter of nihilism vanishes.

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