Why I don't trust nature.

Of all the objections leveled against the various technologies I advocate for, the one that irritates me the most is non-argument that it's "unnatural". There are reasons why the naturalistic fallacy (the claim that "X is good because it is natural") constitutes an invalid argument. But let me explain what it is in particular that I dislike about nature, and why I am all too eager to violate it as far as is possible.

Now, in one sense, the term "nature" can be used to describe everything that is, was, or will be. This is the sense of the term that Spinoza uses, and that many physicists and other natural scientists use when they talk about "laws of nature". Such laws are inviolable, because they are merely descriptive. In this sense, nothing is "unnatural". Translators of Spinoza often capitalize this "Nature", and I'll just follow their convention to more easily distinguish this sense from the other I wish to talk about. I have no problem with Nature.

My problem is with a different sense of nature, what we might call biological nature. This would essentially include every living organism, all products of biological evolution, life and the processes that sustain it. I would go so far as to say that I hate this nature, and that, ultimately, I would like to redesign its products from scratch.

Here's why. Evolution has produced some remarkable things, no doubt. None of us would be here without it. But evolution is a blind, unintelligent force. As I like to explain in my teaching, evolution is simply the result of things not dying off until after they have in some way perpetuated themselves. Natural selection weeds out only the most pernicious combinations of genes. Thus, the bulk of the genetic material in organisms is entirely superfluous. Synthetic biologists are coming to realize this as they try to create organisms without all the useless clutter.

For example, there is no reason why organisms should age. Aging is simply the product of the accumulation of harmful mutations within species and individuals. Complex life is self-repairing. The only reason we become old and decrepit is because our mechanisms of self-repair eventually break down over time. With the right treatments, however, aging should be completely reversible.

In short, biological nature produces that which is barely good enough, while at the same time producing much that is not going to be successful at passing on its genes. If that weren't bad enough, what does perpetuate often does so out of dumb luck, chance, or contingency--whatever you want to call it. Adaptations are real, but they are always imperfect, the creation of a blind, idiotic force.

Let me be more specific and talk about human beings. Most of us are full of defects and inefficiencies that cause us no end of suffering. Evolution, like the rest of nature, is totally indifferent to our well-being. Some people are born with robust temperaments that allow them to resist the various ills of the world, but many of us are not so fortunate. Some people are such that they will suffer no matter what their circumstances. (I sometimes feel as though I should be included here, because despite having never undergone significant hardship, the bulk of my life has probably been miserable.)

That which we call happiness, flourishing, or even a meaningful and fulfilled life, is on one level a complex, ongoing (but never permanent) series of neuro-chemical reactions. Some people are lucky to have brains which easily produce such states of affairs, but most of us are not. Similarly, some people experience many great external goods in their lives, while others get shafted. Because even Nature is indifferent to us, there is no guarantee that decent people will have tolerable lives. (Plus, whether or not a person is morally decent is itself a product of various contingencies; there is such a thing as "moral luck": some people have to face situations in which whatever course of action they choose will result in some significant ill.)

Biological nature has produced but one thing which may be able to redeem it: intelligence. With intelligence, the world can be reordered in such a way so that suffering is not so ubiquitous and so that so many human desires are not left unsatisfied. Thanks to products of intelligence such as civilization, science, technology, and medicine, we may some day be able to reproduce far more readily the complex chemical reactions which constitute meaningful, happy existence. Whether this be through the use of drugs, genetic augmentations, or integration with our machines is really a matter of indifference. However, if we leave things to chance, if we refuse to tamper with nature, then many of us will continue to lead miserable existences. I would sooner die than embrace that nature.

I think there are primarily two reasons why people put trust in nature and want not to tamper with the natural order. On the one hand, they assume that the universe is not indifferent, but that it somehow cares for human affairs. The easiest way to believe this is to believe in a powerful entity with a human-like psychology that created nature for the sake of human good. (Now is not the time to argue against the existence of a benevolent God, but one would think experience would offer more than enough examples to show that even if such magical beings existed, they don't give a damn about what happens to you.)

But even the more secular among us might still attribute benevolence of a sort to nature, by misunderstanding evolution, thinking of it as quasi-teleological, shaping species in ways that are for their own good. But evolution has only predisposed us to survive long enough to reproduce, and even then, many of us will fail at this task. There's no reason to believe that nature will lead human beings to flourishing without our active intervention.

The second reason people put trust in nature is because it has produced an order that works "for the most part". We have often seen that tampering with this order produces undesired consequences. But this is merely a problem of lack of knowledge. Once we understand the workings of nature sufficiently well, we should in time be able to repair any of the damage that we cause in trying to change it. And the only way to learn how to do such things is to experiment, and to try and see what we can do.

Some people may be content to leave well enough alone. But I, and many like me, never will. Life sucks, but it doesn't have to. Knowledge is power, and its power confers upon us a responsibility to reorder the world in ways that are more conducive to our flourishing, and to the well being of other sentient species. Pain and suffering have their uses in the current scheme of things, but they are merely a cruel side effect, a gross excrescence of the natural order. They are no more necessary than any other of the ills in the world.

Look, people, it's this simple. If we don't play God, nobody else will. Nobody is coming to save us. Nature is just going to do its thing, and unless we are willing to make chance and contingency our objects of worship, then we would do well to embrace intelligence, foresight, and knowledge as the keys to making a better world. Anything less is a complete abdication of our duties.

Ours is a simple choice: dumb luck or intelligent foresight, nature or civilization, passivity or progress.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Listen, if you are serious about learning as opposed to simply holding on to your perceptions, spend time listening/reading Bruvce Lipton.... and, to quote Bruce... "stay away from the dinosaurs..."