Reverence for the Given? Further Thoughts on Cosmetic Neurology

23 March 2005

In my pre-show reflections,  I tried to isolate what exactly was being claimed by those who worry about tinkering too much with the  Wisdom of Nature.   What that argument really comes down to, I think, is the claim that we ought to have a certain reverence for what I called the given order of things.   I didn't say whether I thought that claim was true or false.  We began to talk about it a bit on the air, but we barely scratched the surface.  In this post-show  post, I want to delve a little more deeply -- though I don't pretend to get to the bottom of things here.

First,  let me  mention that a pretty powerful argument  against the wisdom of  nature was given a long time ago by John Stuart Mill in his essay "On Nature."  It is a brilliant essay.  Here's how Mill sums up his case against the so-called wisdom of nature:

It will be useful to sum up in a few words the leading conclusions of this Essay.

The word Nature has two principal meanings: it either denotes the entire system of things, with the aggregate of all their properties, or it denotes things as they would be, apart from human intervention.

In the first of these senses, the doctrine that man ought to follow nature is unmeaning; since man has no power to do anything else than follow nature; all his actions are done through, and in obedience to some one or many of nature's physical or mental laws.

In the other sense of the term, the doctrine that man ought to follow nature, or in other words, ought to make the spontaneous course of things the model of his voluntary actions, is equally irrational and immoral.

Irrational, because all human action whatever, consists in altering, and all useful action in improving, the spontaneous course of nature:

Immoral, because the course of natural phenomena being replete with everything which when committed by human beings is most worthy of abhorrence, any one who endeavored in his actions to imitate the natural course of things would be universally seen and acknowledged to be the wickedest of men.

The scheme of Nature regarded in its whole extent, cannot have had, for its sole or even principal object, the good of human or other sentient beings. What good it brings to them, is mostly the result of their own exertions. Whatsoever, in nature, gives indication of beneficent design, proves this beneficence to be armed only with limited power; and the duty of man is to co-operate with the beneficent powers, not by imitating but by perpetually striving to amend the course of nature---and bringing that part of it over which we can exercise control, more nearly into conformity with a high standard of justice and goodness.

If there's anything about Mill's argument that gives me pause, it's his apparent confidence that by "perpetually striving to amend the course of nature"  we can bring it "more nearly in conformity with a high standard of justice and goodness."   I am  much more of a pessimist than Mill seems to have been.   If you look around at our interventions in the course of nature,  it's clear that they have done a great deal of good.   Electric gadgets of a dizzying variety, modern medicine, modern means of communication, modern means of transportation --  all are due to man's relentless attempts to exploit and improve on that which is merely given. Where would we be without these?   But the benefits have often been purchased with  many costs to both the non-human and human worlds.  Next season, we're planning an episode on the very idea of progress.  It is no doubt a non-trivial question whether the substantial benefits that modernity has brought compensate for the costs. 

     The words of  Wordsworth come to mind: 

The World is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours
And are up-gather'd now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I'd rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn,—
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn..

I don't think I'd go quite as far as Wordsworth does here.  I would rather not be a pagan raised in an outmoded creed -- even if it did  mean  living more in "harmony with nature."    Still,  I do see his  point and it paints a cautionary counterweight to Millian enthusiasm for restless intervention in the course of the antecedently given.    Unless we can have some degree of confidence that our relentless drive to improve upon that which we merely come across  will, on balance, promote a just and life-affirming human order and leave us with a non-human world that is beautiful, bountiful, and varied, then better, perhaps,  not to intervene at all.

Can we have enough confidence that our interventions and exploitations will leave us better of rather than worse off?  I don't pretend to know the answer to that question.  I want rather to focus on the nature of the question itself.  I want to insist that the question is not one that is made for the scientist alone or even primarily.   Nietzsche once said that the scientist belongs in the hands of someone stronger than himself.   I take him to have meant in part  that science cannot create new  cultural and social formations on its own.   I think he is right about that.   Science contributes to cultural formation  only via the intervention of philosophy, the arts, politics, the forces of production, etc.  In fact,   the  most  direct impact of science upon culture is often destructive and not constructive at all.  By that I mean that science often undermines the foundations of standing cultural formations and makes it impossible for us to go on as we have been.  It puts questions to us, sometimes quite urgent questions, but it hardly ever tells us how to answer the questions.   Even if we focus just on technology and not on basic science,  it is not the thing in itself that brings about cultural change, but the social practices, institutions and arrangements that grow up around the thing that really matter for the pursuit of justice and happiness.  The rapid rise of cosmetic neurology and psycho-pharmacology raises, I think, many  culturally and socially urgent questions. John Perry points some of them out in his pre-show post here.   We cannot  look to the practitioners of cosmetic neurology  to provide the answers for us.  Forming a new culture based on our new found power to tinker with the fine structure of our own neurochemistry is a collective task in which the scientist plays a role, to be sure, but only one role among many.

But now we need to ask what, if any role, should any reverence for the given play in either our attempts to hold back the advance of science and technology or our attempts to create new cultural formations.  My own inclination -- and it is  little more than that at present -- is to think that they should play no role in the conduct of basic science.  Let basic science procede in an unbridled and relentless fashion.    On the other hand,  when it comes to exploiting the results of basic science in the form of technological innovations, a certain humility is required.   There are no merely technological fixes for the problems of human life.  It is not the machine or the medicine that solves a problem but the machine or the medicine as deployed by human beings.  We ought not to give ourselves instruments that we cannot deploy wisely and judiciously.  Especially if those instruments have as much potential  power to remake our given  biological nature as the products of neuropharmacology seem to have.   I do not mean to be suggesting that we try to stop  technological innovation.   I am suggesting that  we learn to see  technological and social and cultural innovation as inextricably intertwined.    I think an attitude of respect for the given --  an attitude that dictates that  when we do disturb  given arrangements in the human and non-human world, we do  so gingerly, cautiously,  with an absence of hubris -- is practically necessary, even if not morally obligatory. 

Such an attitude provides something of a  check on our restless and  over-anxious drive to master nature, to channel it to our ends.  But I believe that  drive to be ultimately  unstoppable.  It can be slowed, perhaps, at the margins,  but it  cannot be extinguished, at least as long as we remain the kind of beings that we are, with the kinds of cultures in which we now find ourselves.  I doubt even that the drive should be extinguished even if it could be extinguished.    The  deep problem is that there is  a mismatch between the pace of  cultural formation  and the pace of scientific and technological innovation.  Cultural formation is a  slow  cumbersome, highly fallible and dispersed process.  Scientific discovery and technological innovation happen,  at this stage of human history, at a pace that far outstrips the capacity of culture to respond.   If we cannot and should not slow the pace of scientific and technological innovation,  can we  increase the pace at which cultures are reformed?   Ought we?

Comments (1)

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Friday, March 25, 2005 -- 4:00 PM

"Let basic science procede in an unbridled and rel

"Let basic science procede in an unbridled and relentless fashion."
I think the humility necessary in the application of the discovery should permeate the discovery process itself. I would not allow the discovery process a loophole from humility. I think it is more important the closer you get to the heart of discovery. The further out in applications that you get, the more intertwined the discovery becomes with the culture and there is much less of a chance to put the genie back in the bottle.