Saturday, April 04, 2015

Dawkins and 'potential people'

Richard Dawkins thinks we're better off than a very peculiar kind of abstraction. 

So here's a provocative quote from Dawkins, and not the normal "I'm-against-all-religion" kind either:
“We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” -Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow.
This whole concept of 'potential people' having value is somewhat strange, when you think about it.  I mean, really, are we saying anything at all when we talk about potential people?  Can we really compare ourselves with an abstraction, a potential person, that, by stipulation of the claim, does not exist?

Suppose we did compare ourselves with said -- can we meaningfully say we are any better off than that which won't exist?  Couldn't we also we we are always worse off than they, since they never suffered, but all of us inevitably do? It looks equally appropriate either way -- which make me suspicious that no comparison is really going on.

Now and then I note that Kant was friendly to this sort of talk about 'potential persons', and used the notion as a claim against the morality of abortion. In short, Kant held that living things have species-specific 'anlage' or "predispositions" that express themselves appropriately in given circumstances, giving rise to different kinds.  Humans are no exception, the argument would go, especially since we must be seen as having souls from the moment of conception, and thus predispositions to humanity and personality.

So too, the pious affirm the value of potential people in an additional way: as reason to "go forth and multiply."  Apparently moving as many as one possibly can from potentiality to actuality is especially pleasing to God, as religious birth demographics show.

Potential people -- such a strange addition to one's metaphysical furniture!



[image] "Connecting with potential employers on Linked-in" (Accessed 4/4/15)