Life, synthetic and soaring

Ready or not, we’re back! In Bioethics today Craig Venter discusses the first synthetic genome and the conversion of species, and in A&P Alex Rosenberg says there’s a lot less to consciousness and the brain than folk wisdom allows. 

Let me just say, a propos of both classes, that I hope you’ve been savoring the first two episodes of the new Cosmos as much as I. They provide an ideal backdrop for the most basic questions about life and its meaning(s). Neil deGrasse Tyson nailed it in when he said the awareness of our kinship with every form of life is nothing less than a soaring spiritual experience. 

Nothing about synthetic biology necessarily disrupts that special feeling of universal relatedness, just as nothing about human selectivity in “sculpting” our best friends the canines over the past 15,000 years necessarily compromises our species’ mutual loyalty. But something unsettling lurks, nonetheless. We should explore that.

Rosenberg’s scientism, turned towards our own thinking and feeling selves, seems to subvert intentionality or “aboutness,” potentially threatening the integrity of experiences that soar. No? We need to talk about that too. I’m concerned that Rosenberg’s proposed elimination of spontaneously instigating ideas, in exchange for the alternative vision of ourselves as naturally selected and programmed behavioral machines without free will or purpose, leaves no room for voyages of the imagination like Neil Tyson’s and Carl Sagan’s. Or Craig Venter’s?

And lest we forget, we’re still deep in the Good Book’s “Histories” where the forest of meaning and wisdom often seems lost in the trees of transient events. All those Persians, Spartans, Samians, Scythians et al, fighting and dying and evidently not learning history’s lessons. But we’ll keep looking. “Nothing comes without trouble,” (57.38) and “hurry always brings disasters,” (58.20), and as Xerxes knew, “success attends those who act boldly, not those who weigh everything.” (60.27) 

Xerxes may just have had something to say about synthetic biology and the soaring human spirit, after all. And something about aboutness, Professor Rosenberg?

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