Saturday, August 27, 2011

Human augmentation and other scary stories for Evangelicals

Twenty-one years ago a philosopher by the name of Stephen R.L. Clark wrote an article titled, "World Religions and World Orders". He essentially complains (indeed in several places simply rants without argument) that "there are good reasons for being suspicious of the very concept of 'a religion', let alone a 'world religion'. As is often the case with these kinds of arguments against using certain concepts, the author just happens to be -- surprise! -- a socially conservative Christian, and sports the strange mythological, apocalyptic views often associated with that crowd: "My fear is that we shall instead live to see the rise and fall of Babylon, that tradition tells us must precede the Coming."[1] By this he means Jesus: The Sequel, whereby God's messiah won't be so meek and loving the second time around. An ancillary thesis to his anathema over the possibility a unified concept of religion is the possibility of a unified culture for the religious traditions of humankind:
"So there are at least two futures for us that embody some ideal of unity: the rationally crafted Kantian vessel, and the baroque contrivance pieced together by a struggling crew. As far as our biological future goes, the latter has my vote. I had rather imagine humankind, lifekind, continue on the drunkard's walk through God's immensity than be re-engineered by certified experts."
If you detect any anti-intellectualistic undertones in the above quote, you'd be right; the article is filled with little asides depreciating reason, science, and anyone who would dare think that human beings might be able to manage their own future without relying on conservative interpretations of late iron-age values, originating from more sandier parts of the world.

Now something unique that caught my eye in the article was this notion of being 're-engineered' by certified experts', and Clark does expand on this later in the article. Again, as is standard shtick for Evangelicals, his tone is that we can't trust trust scientists any more than we can leash them with pietistic values, so it's best to warn the faithful when possible. In complaining about the works of Chardin, a 1930s intellectual, Clark notes,
"Scientific industrialism -- although its spokesmen regularly denounce old-fashioned dualisms of of 'matter' and 'spirit' -- actually embodies a powerful dualism of its own, between wild Nature and the technosphere. Sometimes its fantasies are of a space-travelling civilization that need never again adapt itself to a non-human environment (precisely by placing itself in that most alien and deadly space beyond the living Earth). Chardin's fantasies of the fantasies of the Overmind [...] are to be realized through computer networks, genetic engineering, bionic enhancement of sense and muscle. Those of us old-fashioned faith-holders who suspect that we shall not be allowed to 'build a tower to heaven', nor yet to remake our bodies and the living earth, can expect to be denounced as backward-looking obscurantists, to be swept away (as Chardin hoped) in the tide of progress"[1]
As earlier noted, this article appeared over two decades ago, but science has the benefit of accumulative knowledge and expansive technology, even with the intellectual drag of conservative clergy prophesying doom about human advancement. So while the idea that we can remake ourselves was just on the edge of loony in 1990, it's now pretty much an accepted fact about what is coming down the pike. Actually it understates the case that it is coming, for the first round of the technology is already here.

In a timely coincidence with my reading, a new documentary[2] has come out just this week which examines the human enhancement themes showcased in a well-received video game. (Video games are the vehicles of 21st century secular mythology.) It shows what is the current state of the most advanced prosthetics, and how real people are using these computer-enhanced devices. The filmmaker himself, Rob Spence, is known as "Eyeborg", because he has a prosthetic eye that can be activated by waving a magnet in front of it. The eye can record video, and in the documentary it uses some of the video from his eye as part of the narrative cinematography of the film.

Seeing this documentary re-emphasizes just how forward and insightful was the thinking of that 1930s writer, Chardin; but how backward and neanderthalic is Clark's understanding of religion and culture.  Sadly, Clark has lots of evangelical ditto-heads who think the same way.  But Chardin had an insightful analysis about them too.



[1] Stephen R. L. Clark, "World Religions and World Orders" Religious Studies 26 (1990), pp. 43-57
[2] Rob Spence "Deus Ex: The Eyeborg Documentary" YouTube 8/25/11

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