Sunday, 11 May 2014

Compulsory Scientific Service for the Fully Alive

Like many other transhumanists, the American sociologist Steve Fuller who currently holds the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick, UK, doesn’t think much of the precautionary principle (Steve Fuller, Towards a Proactionary Welfare State). All it does is hamper progress by unnecessarily restricting our choices. Basically, it turns us all into cowards, and this cowardice deprives us of all the great goods that we would be likely to achieve if we weren’t so damned careful all the time. We should therefore discard the principle and live instead by the proactionary principle, which encourages us to take (even considerable) risks if the expected gain is large enough. And this should of course be reflected in the law, which currently is far too restrictive. Of course there will be victims, people who are going to be “violated in the process”, but that is a price worth paying. We can also find ways to compensate those victims for their noble sacrifice (undertaken in the name of science and the progress of humanity), presumably by progressing ourselves and thus benefiting from their bravery. The value of our individual lives is overrated anyway. We should realise that our own personal survival is of little importance, given what is at stake here. “This is the largest and most difficult lesson because it calls on people to consider everything they value as negotiable, including their own lives. A proactionary welfare state would remove the taboo that locates the value of life primarily in the body of one’s birth. The legacy of decisions taken in one’s life would play a larger role, as risk-takers are rewarded in ways that keep their spirit alive even if their material existence undergoes radical transformation.”

I’m not entirely sure what that is supposed to mean, but in the given context we must assume that the radical transformation Fuller talks about includes what is commonly called the death of the individual. But Fuller is not content to demand that people be free to take great personal risks in order to speed up scientific progress, should they be willing to do so. He also believes that, if they prove unwilling, we (that is the law of the state) should actually compel them to offer their services to science and thus (at least potentially) sacrifice their own health and well-being, perhaps even their lives, for the greater good of humanity’s progress to posthuman glories. Just like the precautionary principle and the value of individual, embodied life, or life as we know it, Fuller argues that patient choice is much overrated (Steve Fuller, Suspended Ethics). It is in fact an absurd idea. Why do we have to be nearly dead to make it permissible for us to be subjected to risky and largely untested medical procedures? Why do we not use the “fully alive”?

Fuller appears to be puzzled by this “absurdity”, despite the fact that the answer is pretty obvious: because the nearly dead don’t have much to lose. If the procedure kills them, then they are not really worse off than they would have been if it had not been tried on them. Yet if you’re fully alive and healthy, then one should think that the prospect of being seriously harmed or killed as a result of the experiment (whose purpose remains obscure in Fuller’s article, but presumably would be some kind of enhancement) provides you with an excellent reason not to take part in it – unless of course you don’t put much value on your own health and survival. Not putting much value on our health and survival is of course exactly what Fuller expects us to do, but as far as I can see he doesn’t provide any good argument for it. I can only imagine that it is some murky notion of the common good that is meant to justify the demanded revision of our attitude towards our own lives. But just in case we remain unwilling to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, the law should see to it that we do anyway. Although it would certainly be best if people made that sacrifice knowingly and willingly, the safest course of action is to make sure that they do by introducing a compulsory “scientific service”: “I see this very much on the model of compulsory national military service. Just as people are expected to bear arms when their lives are threatened (a la US Constitution 2nd amendment), they should also be compelled to participate in military service, if only to understand better all that is involved and at stake in maintaining one's life. Indeed, I would welcome compulsory ‘scientific service’ replacing compulsory military service in the long term.”

For me, this is the stuff of dystopian nightmares, and I am rather worried about the ease and nonchalance with which essentially totalitarian ideas like these are being accepted and promoted by academics and public intellectuals who really should know better.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Notes on Dickens: David Copperfield Remembering His Mother’s Face

David Copperfield (which I’m currently reading) is a fictional autobiography. The narrator, David, is a man who tries to reconstruct, and perhaps to recover, his life through memory. In this, he resembles Proust’s Marcel, being, like him, in search of lost time. In the second chapter of the book he recalls events that occurred when he was still a little boy of perhaps six years old and his mother still a very young and handsome woman. David’s father had died shortly before he was born, and David and his mother had been very close until she met a new man whom she would soon marry. The man turns out to be a tyrant, his mother is too weak to oppose him, and David is sent away to a boarding school in another part of the country. Yet the adult David, looking back on his life, remembers his mother as she was before that time, shortly after she had met that man and when she still dared to show her son how much she loved him. And it is in his memory that the person that she once was is kept alive:

“Can I say of her face – altered as I have reason to remember it, perished as I know it is – that it is gone, when here it comes before me at this instant, as distinct as any face that I may choose to look on in a crowded street? Can I say of her innocent and girlish beauty, that it faded, and was no more, when its breath falls on my cheek now, as it fell that night? Can I say she ever changed, when my remembrance brings her back to life, thus only; and, truer to its loving youth than I have been, or man ever is, still holds fast what it cherished then?”

David’s mother is of course long gone, and even if she were still alive, she would be old now and no longer innocent and girlishly beautiful. Yet in his memory she still is and will always be, as long as he is there to remember her. What interests me in David’s account is the suggestion that the past is not really gone, that it is not really past at all, except in the sense that we can no longer fully access it, no longer go there. It is rather like a place that we once lived in, but now have been barred from ever visiting again, and which is still out there, somewhere, unchanged. Like a Garden of Eden (though not necessarily a nice one), whose gates have been slammed shut in our faces and are now guarded by a couple of cherubim to make sure that we can never go back there again. It suggests that time is just another form of space, and that is exactly what I feel when I look back at my own life. (I suppose you could say it is a B-Series experience of time, which knows no past or future, but only earlier and later.) It feels as if I had lived in different temporal worlds, as if the boy that I once was still existed in a parallel universe, and the troubled teenager in another, and the student, and the young father in yet another. It is phases of my life (not moments) that each seem to have created their own universe. Each of these phases is connected to particular places, which today are of course no longer the same places, not because they have changed so much, but because I no longer belong there. They would no longer know me. Those creations are not possible worlds of events that have never occurred because I didn’t act in such a way that they would occur (but which could have occurred if I had), but actual worlds, of events that did occur, which my memory (and a strange sort of longing) presents to me as worlds that still co-exist with the world that I am currently inhabiting.

I’m not even sure this idea makes sense, but then again, it is time itself, and not any particular account of it, that seems to defy understanding. How can we understand that there once was a time, not long ago, when we didn’t exist, and that there will be a time, very soon, when we no longer exist? How can we understand that we might easily have not existed at all, and generally, that something that exists at one moment can at some other moment not exist? How can anything ever be lost for good, simply disappear from the world? How can the world itself have a beginning, and how an end? And how can it not have? Perhaps those philosophers, from Parmenides to John McTaggart, who have claimed that there is, ultimately, no time, that time is an illusion, are right after all.