Saturday, November 1, 2008

The meaning of life


Aesthetics, eugenics, religion, and meaning ... is the meaning of life really 42?


In the typically heated way of the culture war, an evangelical correspondent pointed me to a discussion of the sanctity of life as espoused by the pope, written by an adherent of eastern orthodoxy(!). It took as its foil a line of thought called "transhumanism", which promotes complete freedom in the future direction of humanity, including technological enhancements of all kinds. So while the pope promotes a conservative view that humanity is inviolable and should not be tampered with from conception to unassisted death, the opposite view is that human life is improvable in many ways, up to a radical redefinition through genetic tinkering and even wholesale technological replacement of our bodies/minds. Both sides could be painted in either invidious or glowing terms, and what struck me is that the path between this Scylla and Charybdis is quite a bit easier than it is made out to be.

In the linked discussion, note the fascinating admission in the third-to-last paragraph that man makes his own gods, selecting / evoking whichever god matches the philosophy of the age. (Ed. note: the author didn't mean to admit this- he only said that others "invoke", "invite the advent of", and "summon" gods that are presumably false, while leaving unsaid that the god he and the pope invoke is presumably true, for some reason). Note also how moving this essay is, and at the same time how bizarrely hyperbolic. Note at the end the abjuration of any possibility of "conversation" between the two sides, and also the miracle of conversion, versus the tragedy of apostasy. And then the closing words: perfect and unremitting enmity!

On the one side, true conservatives might decry all improvements to the human condition, including relief of suffering with drugs, spectacles, housing, and indoor plumbing. And in contrast, radical improvers might promote human cloning, genetic reprogramming, an arms-race of sci-fi enhancements, and coercion to produce only the highest-"quality" babies and also to abandon life when it is no longer ideally fulfilling. Obviously, both are straw men, but illustrate the extremes between which reasonable people navigate on the issues of what this life of ours means, and where it is going.

We would not be human if we didn't use our minds to ameliorate our condition, so extreme conservatism is definitely out, and has been since well before the paleolithic. On the other side, radical improvement suffers from several problems, though given the length of the probable future of humanity, all radical eventualities will doubtless come to pass in some form. How can we consciously define improvements to the human condition? It is one thing to address discomforts, pain, and suffering along the way, and something quite different to decide collectively to alter the very experience of humanity.

To date we have stumbled into the future by virtue of biological evolution and blind cultural development. Animal breeders have changed other species, for instance changing the minds of dogs so that they love humans, or hate small game, or herd sheep. For ourselves, we have not used this power, other than through the unconscious status-seeking, war-making, child-making instincts that rule our social affairs in what we take as our state of nature. We have not grasped this nettle explicitly, and for very good reason- the hubris involved is overwhelming. The attempt eugenicists (and Nazis, and Spartans) made to consciously improve the species fell afoul of the impossibility of disentangling narcissism and pride from power. Defining the human condition is a god-like power, and however plastic the human condition has been in practice, our awe before the matrix of cosmic parameters that create and confine the human condition makes us reluctant to change them, and rightly so.

Even characterizing the human condition is impossible, it being the object of every work of art, and of every Socratic life that examines and seeks to know itself. The human condition is infinitely protean, diverse both by our biological endowments and by the fertility of culture through which we continually transform over time. Concomitantly, humans are temperamentally torn between seeking change and novelty, and of bemoaning a past golden age while thinking that the current age is going to hell in a hand-basket. We simply lack criteria to guide or justify sweeping change in the human condition, and thus our position must be extremely humble.

So despite the fact that improved understanding of biology puts ever greater powers of transformation in our hands, we will never really know what to do with them. A critical distinction exists between what we may do to ourselves and what we do to others. If I am the only sufferer, I can take mind-altering drugs, get tattoos, and cosmetic surgery, making permanent alterations of virtually any kind. If genetic interventions become available to allow alterations like hibernation, hairlessness, or enhanced religiosity, I would presumably be free to do what I wish to my somatic body, guided only by my aesthetic sensibilities and calculations of risk. But when it comes to my children, let alone those who are unrelated, the ethics change immensely.

Here our moral sensibility and the humility mentioned above become paramount. Each person should be unique, and should have the right to freely explore his or her own existence and potentials. Their nature must not be predetermined by others (which would coercion of an egregious sort). This is an argument against cloning, of course, since making copies of one's self is the most narcissistic and controlling thing one could do, and making copies of someone else would be simply toying with another human.

Restricting debate then to issues of diseases, defects, and suffering to be ameliorated, these still have plenty of complexity. Is deafness a birth defect to be avoided? Down syndrome? Shortness? Huntington's disease? In the first place, it seems wrong to leave this decision entirely to parents, for the same reason that parents do not have total control over their children after birth either. Society should put general bounds on what interventions meet the test of unmistakable benefit (by current ethical consensus), in which Huntington's disease surely fits, but not shortness, gender, eye color, etc., or even deafness. Parents should then be allowed to intervene in the former traits if they wish, and be prohibited from intervening, selecting, etc. for the latter. While life itself is not a right for unborn children (within certain bounds), given the many other interests involved in having children, restrictions on tampering with their nature certainly should be.

All we have to judge these questions are our aesthetic and moral senses (as well as our rather paltry ability to reason out consequences), out of which have arisen so much of what are called the "humanities". One of these humanities is religion- an art of living (and an axiology, or practice of valuation, of life) which makes particularly broad claims while being, along with all the rest, the production of people straining to understand their existence and their limits. It is a bit ironic that religions, while claiming unimaginable knowledge of nature and transcendence over it, are almost uniformly and extremely conservative, holding that whatever nature does is right, no matter the suffering. We hardly need such mystical contradictions to value what we have and step gingerly into the high-tech future of humanity.

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