Science and innovation may be ‘inevitable’, but how we use it is not.
Recently, Joel Mokyr of City Journal provided a passionate argument for the importance of scientific innovation in the 21st century – both its possibility and desirability. Mokyr speaks with the fiery passion of the evangelist preacher, insisting not only of the inevitability of innovation in our time but damning or at least belittling those who are skeptical about further, explosive and ‘disruptive’ scientific progress.
With apologies to Mokyr, allow me to be one of those skeptics. This isn’t because I don’t think innovations in genetic engineering or computers are not possible; quite the contrary, I fear the consequences of success in this field. This is because Mokyr’s panegyric to science is fatally flawed, lacking any serious discussion of ethics, morality or philosophy – it simply assumes that unfettered science is ultimate benevolence.
Is it? Let’s start with Mokyr’s implicit assumption that any and all technological advancement is ‘good’ (whatever that means, more on this in a second). But this is simply false. It would be more accurate to say that science is neutral and that whatever humans do with it can be good or bad. The same nuclear technology that powers nuclear stations also destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The same nitrate used today to feed billions can also be used to make explosives that kill soldiers or civilians. The same is true of any other technology – it can be used for good or bad.
Which brings me to my next important point: Mokyr seems to not know or even care what ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is beyond observable material progress. Philosophers and thinkers from a variety of cultures are all swept away by the blithe materialism of Mokyr and company. The only thing Mokyr considers ‘bad’ is the horrific thought that people would be without any and all benefits of science and technology. Much though I enjoy using it, I find it hard to consider an iphone the equivalent of a pillcam.
This sort of thinking is bound up in a mentality I would call ‘human Darwinism’, in which the scientific process of the development of life becomes a moral imperative that must not be denied (TM). Not only can we genetically engineer children, but we must. Not only can we meld with computers, but not to do so would be contrary to ‘evolution’. Not only can humanity cease to exist as biological entities with moral standing, but it must. As for people who decide not to do so? Well, screw them, they are now our inferiors, anyway.
Choice, moral agency and standing are all thrown out the window in what can only be described as a moral tragedy. Charles Murray argues that the absence of belief in God has led to a downturn in innovation; I think it’s far worse than that: scientists, at least the good ones, were secular humanists in the very best sense of the term. Now far too many, especially the advocates of the ‘Singularity’ and the like, are materialists, who view the selfish and emotionally autistic race after immortality and our own personal desires to be the only positive good – with the only possible caveat being as long as everyone can be equally selfish and emotionally autistic.
What makes things even worse is that scientists often cloak their desire for unrestrained power with falsehoods about only wishing to benefit all (biological) humans and not to create a genetic or technological moral hierarchy of engineered superiors and ‘normal’ inferiors. Given the clamoring for singularities and genetic designing and the like, anyone who believes that genetic research or brain research is solely for curing diseases and disabilities is either a fool or a liar. Even more infuriating is Mokyr’s argument, echoed in many other venues, that ‘if we don’t do it, someone else will’. Since when was this a morally valid argument for anything?! Does Mokyr truly believe that we are all automatons, mechanistically forced by deterministic powers-that-be to do whatever ‘science’ says?
Some may understand this to be an argument against science itself. It is not intended as such. Rather, I believe that while science and technology were and are certainly very important to our lives, scientists do not have a monopoly on the moral, ethical and philosophical ramifications of how to use their discoveries. People such as Ray Kurzweil have every right to advance their vision of the future, but it is past time that the dissenters begin to have their say, and far better that we do so before the innovations are made and the views of the materialists prevail not because they won the debate, but because their opponents didn’t bother showing up.