Enhancement, nature & wonder

Today in Bioethics it’s Russell Blackford on enhancement and the oft-invoked but seldom-truly-honored Harm Principle of J.S. Mill (Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies). We may want to go back and look at that Blackford video [website, twitter] a bit too, to get the Aussie cadence in mind. Having the author’s voice in your reader’s ear makes the text a little livelier. 

Then in A&P, the first of Carl Sagan’s marvelous but long-neglected Gifford Lectures of 1985. They’ve literally been pulled out of a forgotten drawer, lovingly dusted by Ann Druyan, and restored to their rightful place at the center of our cosmic conversation. We’ll definitely want to sample his videos, though most of us probably already have that unique voice filed firmly. Maybe even joyously. I think this is my favorite quote in all the cosmos:

“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”

Once again, I’ll be making an attempt to connect dots between these two courses and their two coincident texts. Blackford and Sagan both represent the attitude of bold intrepidity in exploration of the inner cosmos of enhanced human capacity and the outer cosmos of the stars. Both defend “liberal” values. Both think we have to take some risks, personally and as a “transitional species,” if we’re to flourish. They’re not especially perturbed by the prospect of homo proteus, “a self-designing, self-directed, bafflingly varied form of life.” Sagan in particular was always more concerned about homo self-destructivus. 

Both would agree, we’re at (or at least approaching) a milestone juncture in our species history: we have the means and the technology to ravage and possibly destroy ourselves and our pale blue dot, “the only home we’ve ever known” and the only one we can occupy in large numbers for the foreseeable future.

But we also have, and are developing, the tools that just might save us. Grasping that, whatever else you think of the hubris of “playing Craig Venter,” was the point of our attempt to comprehend synthetic biology and its potential near-future applications.

Both dream big dreams of human (or trans-, or post-human) flourishing on an unimaginably satisfying scale. Sagan said something wonderful is somewhere waiting to be discovered. I think that’s Blackford’s premise too, though discovery for him may at first glance look more like invention. We’ll see. 

As previously noted, Sagan was “scientistic” in his way (which was not Alex Rosenberg’s). But he had an answer for those who would draw from scientism an ill-advised excuse to denigrate the human search for meaning, purpose, value, truth, beauty, and the good.

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. 

Experience: he took it seriously. Sagan saw – no, let’s use the timeless authorial present tense – Sagan sees science as a spiritual enterprise, once “spirit” ceases to be a repository of fear and ignorance and instead measures our sense of wonder and our will not merely to believe, but to find out.

If that sounds like a cheap shot (borrowed from Bertrand Russell) at William James’s “Will to Believe,” Druyan made sure to correct any misunderstanding by choosing for this published version of her husband’s Gifford Lecs a title mirroring WJ’s Varieties. 

Experience is always the crucial common denominator for humans, the mere fact of it far more unifying (when we’re honest) than any local or temperamental differences over its religious or scientific permutations. 

But there are outliers on both sides of the science-religion divide, extreme fundamentalists and eliminative reductionists who would bemoan and bewail and discredit one another’s testimony without the barest effort to understand its sources in experience. 

Bottom line, and working hypohesis: “experience” is not just a collection of stories we make up to console ourselves over the outsized cosmic immensity that sometimes makes people feel small. 

No, it’s where we meet reality, for James and Sagan and Blackford too.

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