Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Leave Space Alone!

Some of you may be familiar with the BBC Astronomy programme The Sky At Night, the Beeb’s longest running show presented once a month by Patrick Moore. It’s generally a relaxing watch, with plenty of photos of deep space and so on, a balm to the senses in providing a brief escape from the repetitive round of humans on planet earth.

Anyway, there was an anniversary edition a couple of weeks back and a number of astronomers were asked what they hoped for in terms of the future of Astronomy and the study of space. My stomach turned at their answers: all of them were eager for bases and colonies on the moon, missions to Mars and, of course, the prospect of humanity colonising the solar system seemed to have them creaming their trousers with anticipation.

No, I thought, please, NO! The main reason it’s calming to look up at the night sky is because it provides a release and escape from human woes and allows us to put our own puny lives in perspective. I, for one, could never look at the moon again knowing there was a colony of humans up there, sullying it with its presence. Humanity, leave Space alone! Keep your plague and your curse and your meaninglessness and your restlessness and your egotism and your violence to the rock where you spawned and will perish. Don’t destroy the silent beauty of the stars with your filth and disease!

Leave Space alone!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Science Won't Save You

The latest phenomenon in popular science publishing is a group of books claiming that we shall be able to derive a system of ethics from the latest studies in evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and biology. In place of religious gurus, we now have scientific gurus who promise salvation to mankind.

Underlying all of this is the unquestioned assumption that life itself is good. This manifests itself in the phrase ‘evolutionary advantage’, which essentially means survival. To exist is to have an ‘advantage’. Our ancestors were ‘an evolutionary success’; other creatures were ‘failures’. ‘We’ adapted so as to be here. Of course, all of this ignores the fact that every creature must die, that ‘success’ in evolutionary adaptation simply means delaying death for a little while longer. 

Similarly, by speaking of ‘group advantage’ the notion of a common purpose and a solid ontological identity is reintroduced.  ‘We’ are going somewhere, ‘we’ are ‘heading in the right direction’.

As a result of the imposition of the language of agency, goal, and manipulation on the blind processes of biochemistry mankind can, under the guise of science, reassume its dream of purpose and progress. 

Yet all that can be derived from mechanistic materialism is that everything is but an amoral, mindless manifestation of matter and energy.

It appears that science, for all of its self-proclaimed ‘intergity’, ‘lack of bias’, ‘objectivity’, and 'clear-sightedness’ has become just one more vehicle in humanity’s desperate quest for meaning and purpose.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Robert Nozick and The End of Humanity

Many of you may be familiar with the philosopher Robert Nozick, author of Anarchy, State and Utopia, a book that rapidly became the libertarian bible after its publication in the 70s. The tone of that book is clear, unsentimental, and cold, while yet affirming the value of individuals and their choices. Imagine, then, my surprise when one day I was browsing around Amazon and came across a reader review of Nozick’s The Examined Life that mentioned his belief that the end of humanity would be no tragedy. I was intrigued enough to order the book and thought his reflections interesting enough to share here.

Before he address the issue of humanity’s status in the universe, Nozick offers a warning in a chapter discussing the necessity or otherwise of the world’s existence: 

We are aware of the warnings that one shouldn’t speculate about certain things, and how those people who do will realize it would have been better had they not been born.

You said it, Prof.

Nozick’s musings on humanity come in a chapter about the Holocaust. Although he never states explicitly if he is (was) a practicing Jew, Nozick views the slaughter of six million Jews by the Nazis as a unique event in human history whose special import cannot be denied.

I believe the Holocaust is an event like the Fall in the way traditional Christianity conceived it, something that radically and drastically alters the situation and status of humanity...Mankind has fallen.

It now would not be a special tragedy if humankind ended, if the human species were destroyed in atomic warfare or the earth passed through some special cloud that made it impossible for the species to continue reproducing itself. I do not mean that humanity deserves this to happen. Such an event would involve a multitude of individual tragedies and suffering, the pain and loss of life, and the loss of continuance and meaning which children would provide, so it would be wrong and monstrous for anyone to bring this about. What I mean is that [...] its loss would now be no special loss above and beyond the losses to the individuals involved. Humanity has lost its claim to continue.

In response to the criticism that mankind has been a savage creature throughout his long and distinguished career on Planet Earth and that the Holocaust was merely an extra-large dollop of normal human savagery, Nozick states

Perhaps what occurred is that the Holocaust sealed the situation, and made it patently clear.

[Humanity] no longer deserves not to be....If a being from another galaxy were to read our history, with all it contains, and that story were then to end in destruction, wouldn’t that bring the narrative to a satisfying close, like a chord resolving?

Nozick states that he is not a Christian, but declares that whatever meaning Christian teaching may once have had

The Holocaust closed the door that Christ opened.

Revealed religion is no longer enough (at least not Christianity; Nozick talks elsewhere in the book about Judaism, but never states explicitly his own beliefs regarding the ‘special status’ accorded to the Jewish people in the Old Testament). Instead we need to ask if humanity can redeem itself without divine aid:

Is there anything we can do by our behaviour over time, so that once again it would be a special and further tragedy if our species were to end or be destroyed?

Perhaps...we need to change our own nature, transforming ourselves into beings who are unhappy and suffer when others do, or at least into beings who suffer when we inflict suffering on others or cause them to suffer, or when we stand by and allow the infliction of suffering. This latter change, however it occurred, at least would cut down greatly on the amount of suffering humans inflict. Yet there is so much suffering in the world, if we were unhappy whenever others suffered for whatever reason, we would have to be unhappy all the time...

Perhaps it is only by suffering ourselves when any suffering is inflicted, or even when any is felt, that we can redeem the species...What Jesus was supposed to have done for humanity before the Holocaust, humanity must now do for itself. 

Someone might think that...if we all do take humanity’s suffering upon ourselves, that involves many additional events of actual suffering. So if that were the only way humanity could redeem itself, wouldn’t it be better to leave it unredeemed? How much of a tragedy is it if humanity’s ending were not to be a further tragedy – and isn’t that a tragedy we can learn to live with?

However, Nozick still appears reluctant to give up entirely on humanity:

Yet being part of an ongoing human enterprise that is worth continuing may not be a trivial part of our lives and the meaning we think these have. It was against that background, taken for granted until now, that many activities found their point of significance and many others found a place to permissibly be. One cannot share or dissolve that context yet leave everything else as it was.

And that’s where he leaves it. Interesting stuff. Of course, many questions arise, amongst others:

Can someone’s past suffering be ‘redeemed’, particularly when that person is dead?

Do we all bear a burden in the light of the Holocaust, or is Nozick attributing unjustifiable weight to that particular persecution?

Would added suffering be an improvement? Would it somehow ‘redeem’ us?

Personally, I share Nozick’s views on the enormity of the Holocaust. Surely no one living in its aftermath can be under any illusion that scientific and technological advancement necessarily imply human moral improvement. The Holocaust was only possible because of technology and was based on a concept of race superiority derived from a particular reading of Darwin, much and all as Dawkins, Hitchens and co like to attribute all the world's misery to religion. (Interestingly, when asked about the Holocaust, Dawkins said it was a ‘blip’ on the glory road to the city on the hill. Hmmmm.)

And as for us all suffering when someone else suffers, it certainly sounds highly effective (much like the treatment meted out to the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange). Can’t see too many people signing up, though, much and all as I like the idea of humanity permanently bedecked with sackcloth and ashes.

Anyway, food for thought....