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Further Reading

DISPATCHES

A Grave New World

When science trumps religion, our personhood is the casualty

By Hunter Baker

Prior to the Bush-Kerry presidential race of 2004, the Democratic party tested several strategies for gaining traction against a wartime incumbent with a strongly religious base. One of them was to point to the President’s Council on Bioethics and Bush’s own lack of enthusiasm for stem-cell research and to claim that a conflict between science and ideology had developed. “Ideology” likely filled in for the usual villain of “religion” here, seeing that the Democrats were trying to avoid at the time the appearance of agnosticism (a difficult position to maintain for a party hoping to return to majority status). National Public Radio—as well as most major newspapers—spent a little time publicizing this “war,” but the bigger and much more pressing issue of the war in Iraq proved to be the real attention-grabber. Thus, the proposed battle between science and ideology settled back into hibernation.

The idea behind heralding a war between science and ideology—or, let’s be honest, religion—was basically to force the voting public into an either/or situation. Clearly, the Dems thought, no “enlightened” person would ever choose subjective belief over hard science; thus, the morons relying on religious values to help them make decisions would be quickly shunted aside. (Daniel Dennett once suggested that such “ignorant” people should be confined to cultural zoos while their children are disabused of their parents’ dangerous and useless notions.)

But the deserved “winner” of a so-called war between science and religion isn’t actually all that obvious. The truth is that we really must pay attention to concerns raised about science (religious, ideological, etc.) because of its ability to subvert our humanity. Discovering what can be done through the manipulation of the natural world is scientific, but actually doing these things is a human decision whose basis is not limited to the scientific method. Thus, we discover that we can split atoms, harvest cells from embryos, alter human brain chemistry, or implant foreign objects under human skin to create pleasing shapes. But we must choose whether to wipe out a major metropolitan area in a massive explosion, kill a human at an early stage of maturity for the sake of one older and better formed, control a child with a chemical switch rather than through the exertion of discipline, or make large breasts and pouting lips our sexualized standard of beauty. Science can’t make these choices. Rather, they revert to the human soul, which cannot be accounted for by science and has no place in a purely naturalistic understanding of the universe.

The philosopher Francis Schaeffer was fascinated by those who, while claiming to base their lives and decisions on purely scientific grounds, find themselves unable to live that way. What he understood was that although scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as justice, we all expect to be treated justly. Though science understands nothing of courage, we are ashamed when we fail to display it. Though there is not a scintilla of quantitative evidence for love, we seek love desperately and hold the experience of it more dearly than gold. Thus, the experience of being human points to a reality behind the reality we acknowledge scientifically. If science can’t explain the conscience or most of the variety of fundamental values by which we order our lives and decisions, then there must be some other way of perceiving and knowing.

Though often losing the public relations war, critics of reductionist scientific philosophies have a nearly invincible case that is well-demonstrated by those who would claim to refute them. For example, famed philosopher John Dewey wrote convincingly of how Darwinism had liberated the universe of purpose. Yet, within a few pages, the reader finds Dewey proclaiming the need for a “just industrial order.” In other words, despite his insistence that the universe proceeded with no purpose, Dewey proved unwilling to toss away the concept of justice. But what is justice in a random and unordered cosmos? Why couldn’t Dewey accept the full consequences of his intellectual position? The answer is simple: A reality that is purely scientific just doesn’t square with the experience of being human.

But what if we lose the trick of being human? What if we become something else? Something posthuman, maybe? For many, such a move would be a step forward out of religious voodoo and emotionalism. But what if posthumanity is not all it’s cracked up to be? Fortunately for us, two authors have already addressed the possibility of such a posthuman future: Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and George Orwell in 1984.

Orwell’s book has probably received more attention (and major film treatment) because it resonated perfectly with the type of totalitarian states playing chess for the globe in the Cold War—and because it had an attainable date for a title. His posthuman future envisions the humanity being crushed from man by governments utilizing scientific coercion to brutal effect. The result is that a person can be made to deny his own mother.

Huxley, on the other hand, provided no media-friendly timeframe; his characters live “in the year of our Ford.” If the book were written today, it might take the name of Bill Gates or some other groundbreaking corporate titan to make the same point, which is that technology has taken the place of God. In Brave New World, posthumanity has been brought on by a more charming scientific oppression. Birth has been moved entirely from the womb to the laboratory. Genetics predetermines social position and function. The mass of men and women are merely two-dimensional characters who don’t trouble themselves with history, focus largely on entertainment, and believe it is “better to take a gramme, than to give a damn.” Anti-depressants, birth control, and consumerism are the thin trinity that gives shape to their days. Sound familiar?

In Huxley’s world, science has enervated the essence of being human to the point that no one ever asks the big questions or has any major life experiences. Of the two characters who retain their connection to anything recognizably human, one chooses exile and the other hangs himself, real men incapable of living in a plastic world. Huxley’s book shows us what can happen when science is not rigorously wedded to the pained consideration of the soul. Is our own love affair with technology taking us to his future?

Look at news and entertainment. Through the internet, satellite, and cable, we have an amazing array of options for taking in programming. But this sort of broadcasting eventually gives way to narrowcasting.

In the 1970s, a celebrity on the Johnny Carson show was quite likely known by almost every television viewer. Today, the definition of a celebrity has diminished drastically in scope. A person can be known only to a relatively small segment of the population and yet be considered a star. As programming meets the proliferation of our tastes, the community-experience aspect of television (originally one of it’s saving graces) surrenders to exclusive and isolated viewings. Today’s broadcast “hit” is yesterday’s mediocrity hovering near cancellation. News now comes in several flavors.

On the one hand, these circumstances are refreshing; those who didn’t accept the common left-of-center viewpoint of the major networks have flocked to other options. The downside is that conservatives now get their news through a conservative lens, liberals through a liberal lens, and polarization increases exponentially. The ironic thing is that although we are all fully “wired,” the bridges between us are crumbling. Left-wingers like to tout their status as “the reality-based community.” Their characterization of themselves is correct only in that it reveals how all of us are now living in a series of alternate realities, our statements sounding incredulous when spoken to one another. We have become less like people and more like packages of pre-determined positions.

The massive increase in cosmetic surgery is another indicator of Huxley’s prophetic prowess. Though the novel doesn’t explore the issue specifically, it is interesting that men and women praise each other as being “pneumatic.” The definition of that word is “filled with air.” The implication would be that the right body parts are swollen and full.

In the real world, parents are giving teenage daughters breast implants as graduation gifts. Actresses emerge from their late thirties with bigger breasts and blown-up lips. We’ve even begun to hear of labial lifts. On the male side, we see abdominal implants, butt implants, and chest implants. Some even work to increase the size of sexual organs. Bleached teeth, sculpted chins and noses, and newly-full heads of hair become ever more noticeable. Our skill at science has enabled us to escape the character-building exercise of becoming comfortable in our skin. Instead, we continue to raise the stakes on appearance and prove we didn’t really mean it when we said beauty is just skin deep. The race to modify, to enlarge, to sculpt reveals a mass shallowness and insecurity amplified by science’s power to offer the easy way out. Easy, but not necessarily beneficial. Conformity is the result. Not conformity around some sort of powerful ideal of love or justice, but rather mere conformity to a particular anatomical style. Pneumatic.

A synonym for pneumatic is “engorged.” The men and women of Brave New World have sex casually and attend movies that stimulate all the senses. We are already well down the path of this transition to posthumanity. Our time is one in which the biggest names of the hard-core porn industry are as well known as legitimate artists of the stage, screen, and recording studio. Barry Sonnenfeld, the well-known director of Men in Black and other successful films, recalls doing lighting work on a porn film. The process rendered him sexually numb. One imagines that this happened because Sonnenfeld is still human, and seeing sex turned into a cynical tool of factory-line production and mass titillation interfered with his sensibilities and the very structure of what he conceived of as proper for a sexual relationship. Given the increasing acceptability of pornography on general-interest television, radio, and print outlets, one imagines that sensitive souls like Sonnenfeld will become immune to the warnings of their minds and hearts that a violation has occurred. Eventually, we, like the denizens of Huxley’s world, will care only about having fun, being pneumatic and engorged, and taking pills to kill the depressing effects of introspection.

Just as sex is transformed from extended intimacy to crass “getting off,” reproduction and family likewise take a turn for the worse in a posthuman future. Those living “in the year of our Ford” don’t have children, thanks to the practice of their “Malthusian drills” (contraception)—or of abortion in the case of failure of the drill. All children are grown in labs. Children don’t have mothers and fathers. Thus, no one is a mother or father. The result is an adolescence that never ends.

Here, too, we are working our way toward unsavory posthuman ends. The birth-control pill is our own “Malthusian drill,” and as enthusiastically as it has been accepted and used, it has led to the severing of the link between sex, marriage, and procreation. We use abortion intensively, despite the certainty of legalization advocates that it would be a rarely used emergency measure. We screen our pregnancies for defects and often abort those children who fail to meet quality standards or don’t match gender preferences.

It took thousands of years of human history to lead to what was once considered the highly civilized situation of men committing themselves to women in a protected family state. That arrangement provided intimacy for the partners and stability and protection for women (particularly when pregnant) and children. It also ensured that children received the guidance of two persons fully invested in their welfare and able to impart perspectives from both sexes. In order to deal with the mass reality of broken homes and incompletely parented homes, the nuclear family is being eased out of the limelight. The change can be viewed as liberation, but it might also be seen as a forfeiture of something hard-won from times of barbarism and savagery, when fatherless families were quite common. Even in intact families, both parents frequently work. Calls for state-sponsored daycare, preschool, and after-school programs increase in volume and frequency with each passing day. The result is that children are under institutional supervision for a greater number of hours for more years of their childhood. Huxley’s children are all children of the state. Our kids have begun sharing this fate.

The threat of a posthuman future is a real one. If we accept the always-open invitation to trade in our unquantifiable moral and spiritual concerns for only those things that are reliably scientific and measurable, then an utterly banal posthumanity awaits us. The bright side? Well, if Huxley’s book is any indication, by the time we reach this horrific moment in history, we will probably be way too numb and fragmented to care.

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