I came across this ridiculous essay by some local jackass in response to the theme of this year’s Edge.org dinner, “A New Age of Wonder.” It seems Mr. Dreher would like to remind us that we’re all wretches and would be much better off remaining as ignorant as we can, fearing technology and trusting in religion. He takes us on quite a journey as he attempts to sell his idea, and I would like to be your guide along that journey, pointing out the best parts. I’ll start where he starts, with Marry Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Here’s where these techno-utopians lose me, and lose me big time. The myth of Frankenstein is important precisely because it is a warning against the hubris of scientists who wish to extend their formidable powers over the essence of human life, and in so doing eliminate what it means to be human.
Indeed Mr. Dreher, you are lost. The warning of Frankenstein is a warning against precisely what you are arguing for, continued ignorance, reverence for that ignorance, and fear of new knowledge and applying it.
Immediately after Dr. Frankenstein’s creation breathed its first breath, the doctor was overcome with remorse and revulsion. Why? Because of these ridiculous fears ingrained in us by the ignorant, usually a religious source. After having been abandoned at birth, the creation stumbles through the world where he’s met with nothing but fear and revulsion at what he was. He eventually spent a year observing a family from afar, learning what it is to be human, but then once he tried to befriend then he was met with fear and revulsion again. This continued until he eventually decided to seek revenge from his creator. He did, and Frankenstein eventually died, we’re told that his creation later went off to destroy itself, so that no one would ever know of its existence.
Now Frankenstein’s creation is generally referred to as a monster, and indeed it performed monstrous acts, but it did so from a lack of guidance and as a reaction against unfair treatment. Had Frankenstein not fled, and instead guided his creation, the story would have been much different. The ignorant like to say that Frankenstein’s tragedy was due to his hubris, but it was due to his irrational fears and abandonment of his responsibilities. Knowledge is not the evil here, nor is the pursuit of it and subsequent application of that knowledge. Ignorance is the evil, an evil which triggers fears which in turn prompt actions which are harmful. The cautionary tale from Frankenstein then is to both not fear what’s new and to behave rationally and responsibly.
The thing I don’t get about the starry-eyed techno-utopians is that they don’t seem to have taken sufficient notice of World War I, the Holocaust, and Hiroshima… The two wars and the Holocaust should have once and forever demolished naive optimism about human nature, and what humankind is capable of with its scientific knowledge.
Indeed! For instance the geniuses behind personal computers and the internet should never have gone forward with their work knowing that with human nature being what it is, their efforts would be used by jackasses like Mr. Dreher to perpetuate the reverence of ignorance and fear of technology. I mean, am I the only one who sees the irony of a man bemoaning the dangers of humans having technology via the internet? So aside from Hiroshima, personal computing and the internet, was there any good that occurred in the 20th century due to the hubris of humans seeking and trying to apply new technology? Do I actually need to make a list?
Scientists, the Promethean heroes, tend to chafe against any restriction on their curiosity — which is why some of them (Dawkins, et alia) rage against religion. The best of humankind’s religious traditions have been thinking about human nature for centuries, even millenia, and know something deep about who we are, and what we are capable of. How arrogant we are to think the Christian, the Jewish, the Islamic, the Taoist, and other sages have nothing important to say to us moderns! What religion speaks of is how to live responsibly in the world.
Yet it’s religion which put stem cell research on hold in this country, held back the development of biology and medicine in the West due largely to its prohibitions against human dissection (for centuries, the drawings of Leonardo, incidentally made by illegally obtaining and dissecting cadavers, were the only anatomy references permitted) and should I invoke Galileo? Religion does indeed reflect something of what it means to be human, but often it’s something which is ugly and destructive. Anyone who doesn’t scream out loud at the line about scientists who “chafe against any restriction on their curiosity” should have their heads examined. If religion’s contribution to humanity is to retard its curiosity, then THAT is why any rational human being should rage against it.
Lastly, I’d like to address both an essay he cites by Wendell Berry, and his contribution to it. First, Berry, who himself quotes poet Edwin Muir…
The nineteenth century thought that machinery was a moral force and would make men better. How could the steam-engine make men better? Hitler marching into Prague is connected to all this.
It also connected the United States, and ushered in the Industrial Revolution, which I’m guessing these religious types still haven’t fully recovered from. Now this is indicative of this nonsense which Mr. Dreher is espousing, which is essentially that human nature is evil and we humans are wretched things. That’s a fairly common idea across multiple religions, this idea that you are wretched. Why? Well then you need help, “salvation” if you will. How do you get that? Ah, through the religion. Marketing 101 states that a product needs to satisfy a need, and in lieu of a need, create one. Every religion follows this, telling you you are wretched or by exploiting tragedies like the recent disasters in Chile and Haiti by serving up their product to people who clearly are in a wretched state. Anyway, the point Mr. Dreher is making is that because we’re so wretched, we can’t have technological advances because we’ll ONLY use them to do wretched things, but even the most cursory look at humanity’s history would show that that is not the case. Now Berry’s words…
Scientists who believe that “original discovery is everything” justify their work by the “freedom of scientific inquiry,” just as would-be originators and innovators in the literary culture justify their work by the “freedom of speech” or “academic freedom.”
The hard and binding requirement that freedom must answer, if it is to last, or if in any meaningful sense it is to exist, is that of responsibility.
There’s a saying which goes, “science is a cold bitch, and I love her for it.” I would change that to truth, for the truth doesn’t care about whose delicate sensibilities are offended, whose life’s work suddenly becomes meaningless, or whose long held beliefs get exposed as false. The truth simply is the truth, and it owes no responsibility to anyone or anything. It is we who have a responsibility to it, to not try and hide or distort it out of irrational fears or other selfish reasons, such as trying to perpetuate something as antithetical to human development as religion. Dreher goes on to further quote Berry and his descriptions of the “mourners” who mourn the loss of their ignorance in light of knowledge…
What did they mourn? Without exception, I think, what they feared, what they found repugnant, was the violation of life by an oversimplifying, feelingless utilitarianism; they feared the destruction of the living integrity of creatures, places, communities, cultures, and human souls; they feared the loss of the old prescriptive definition of humankind…
Again, the truth cares not for your delicate sensibilities. The truth is simply the truth, and I for one would prefer to know it than to delude myself. I’d like to believe I can fly, but I’d best not act on that belief. Hell, millions acted on the deluded belief that they could afford a home in this country, and look what happened. It would have been nice if someone was dolling out the truth over the last decade to these people, but instead you had bankers and realtors all selling a delusion for personal gain, much like Mr. Dreher here is doing, what Mr. Berry seems to be endorsing, and any dealer of religion does.
And finally, back to Mr. Dreher…
What Berry identifies as “superstition” is the belief that science can explain all things, and tells us all we need to know about life and how to live it. In other words, the superstitious belief in science as religion. He is not against science; he only wishes for science to know its place, to accept boundaries.
First, the pursuit of truth cannot have boundaries, but where Mr. Dreher is implying that science shouldn’t go is where science doesn’t go. Beyond advising us that we shouldn’t be smoking or eating those deep fired, bacon wrapped blocks of butter, science doesn’t tell us how to live. It makes no moral pronouncements, and the suggestion that it does is pure bullshit and meant to invoke fear just as invoking Hitler and Hiroshima was.
I would agree that human nature has it’s dark side, and that humanity does need moral guidance, but religion is a terrible source for that guidance and regardless of our technological advancements, without moral guidance and empathy, we’d be in dire straits. I mean, Cain merely needed a rock, right?