[Paleopsych] The New Atlantis: Charles T. Rubin: Daedalus and Icarus Revisited

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Charles T. Rubin: Daedalus and Icarus Revisited
The New Atlantis, Number 8, Spring 2005, pp. 73-91.

    Doubts about the goodness of scientific and technological progress
    are hardly new, and fears about the dangers of human knowledge existed
    long before it became plausible to worry that the fate of the entire
    world might be in peril. The physicist Freeman Dyson offers one
    commonand very modernway of describing our predicament: Progress of
    science is destined to bring enormous confusion and misery to mankind
    unless it is accompanied by progress in ethics. In other words, we
    need some novel ethic to match our technological ingenuity. But
    progress in ethics might also mean what Abraham Lincoln had in mind
    when describing the principles of the Declaration of Independence as a
    standard maxim for free society ... constantly looked to, constantly
    labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly
    approximated. Dysons idea suggests new ideals replacing old ones as
    history moves technologically forward; Lincolns idea suggests more
    permanent human aspirations that serve as the measure of different
    ages. Either meaning poses very serious challenges. Genuinely novel
    ethics are not always genuine improvements, while many anciently
    articulated ethical goals remain elusive.

    The ambiguity in the meaning of moral progress is at the heart of a
    1923 debate between biochemist J. B. S. Haldane and logician Bertrand
    Russell, two of the greatest and most argumentative public
    intellectuals of twentieth-century Britain. Haldane, who would go on
    to an extremely distinguished career as a biochemist and geneticist,
    spoke under the auspices of the Cambridge Heretics discussion club.
    Russell, already a famous philosopher, answered him as part of a
    speakers series sponsored by the Fabian Society under the general
    title, Is Civilization Decaying? The published version of Haldanes
    remarks created no little controversy; even Albert Einstein had a copy
    in his library. There is also little question that Haldanes work
    influenced two of the greatest British critics of scientific and
    technological progress: Julian Huxley and C. S. Lewis.

    The titles of the essays, Haldane using Daedalus and Russell Icarus,
    support the common idea that Haldane writes as an advocate of progress
    and Russell as a skeptic. While this view is understandable, it is
    hardly exhaustive. Haldane freely highlights horrible possibilities
    for the future, and he is quite blunt about the socially problematic
    character of scientific research and scientists. Russell, on the other
    hand, can imagine circumstances (albeit unlikely ones) where the power
    of science could be ethically or socially constrained. The real
    argument is about the meaning of and prospects for moral progress, a
    debate as relevant today as it was then. Haldane believed that
    morality must (and will) adapt to novel material conditions of life by
    developing novel ideals. Russell feared for the future because he
    doubted the ability of human beings to generate sufficient kindliness
    to employ the great powers unleashed by modern science to socially
    good ends.

    Both authors explore the problem of relating moral and technological
    progress with sufficient depth that we would benefit by reexamining
    this debate with a view to our own time. But the manner in which they
    frame the problem stands in the way of articulating a clear moral goal
    that might serve as progresss purpose and judge. With serious ethical
    discussion thus sidelined, technological change itself becomes the
    fundamental imperative, despite the reasonable doubts both Haldane and
    Russell have concerning its ultimate consequences. And while Haldane
    is more loath to acknowledge it than Russell, the net result of their
    debate is a tragic view of mankinds future, marked by an
    irreconcilable and destructive mismatch between our aspiration to
    understand nature and the power we gain from that knowledge.

                           In the Image of Science

    Haldane begins Daedalus with a directness that does not characterize
    most of the essay that follows. Drawing on scenes of destruction from
    World War I and from casual discussion of the possible reasons for
    exploding stars, he asks whether the progress of science will
    culminate in the complete destruction of humanity or in the reduction
    of human life to an appendage of machines. Perhaps a survey of the
    present trend of science may throw some light on these questions. It
    is already revealing that Haldane gives this kind of scientific
    projection such a privileged place, for it suggests that in his mind
    the primary question behind the destruction of mankind is simply
    whether science will gain the power to accomplish it. If the central
    issue of our future is the power to destroy ourselves, then the most
    obvious way of avoiding that risk is preventing mankind from gaining
    that power in the first place. Yet Haldane sees no realistic chance of
    stopping the progress of science. He argues that believing in the
    future might strangely require a willingness to see all that we know
    destroyed and replaced. Even if we can avert apocalyptic disaster, we
    will remake ourselves in unrecognizable ways.

    Haldane believes that biology is likely to become the center of
    scientific interest in the future, and this is where the bulk of his
    essay is focused. But he digresses to discuss the situation in
    physics, which is in a state of profound suspense ... primarily due to
    Einstein, the greatest Jew since Jesus. Avoiding an inevitably
    technical discussion of physical theory, he decides instead to
    speculate on the practical consequences of Einsteins discovery. In so
    doing, he provides a preview of the logic that will inform his entire
    essay. Einstein heralds the end of the era of Newtonian physics, whose
    concomitant working metaphysic was materialism. This scientific
    revolution means the coming of a new metaphysical and moral order, and
    Haldane predicts that Einsteins work will bring with it a triumph of
    Kantian idealism (although he admits that he does not know exactly
    what this change will mean in practice). He projects further that some
    centuries hence physiology will invade and destroy mathematical
    physics. Overall, we are working towards a condition when any two
    persons on earth will be able to be completely present to one another
    in not more than 1/24 of a second.... Developments in this direction
    are tending to bring mankind more and more together, to render life
    more and more complex, artificial and rich in possibilitiesto increase
    indefinitely mans powers for good and evil.

    This statement is an answer of sorts to the original question: Will
    man survive, and what will he be like? Haldanes answer hardly seems
    like much of an advance over where the essay began: Self-destruction,
    he suggests, is a genuine possibility as we increase indefinitely mans
    powers for good and evil. But in fact, Haldane has laid out two
    crucial elements of his larger argument. First, there is the implicit
    definition of progress: bringing mankind closer together, increased
    complexity, artificiality, and open-endedness. We will see how this
    view culminates in his picture of a united humanity working to
    transcend itself, and in his turn to evolution as a form of salvation.
    Second, as Haldane understands the world, scientific discovery brings
    with it a horizon of belief that sets the parameters of daily life.
    While Haldane will speak of labor and capital as our masters, his
    essay attempts to show how it is really the scientists, the Daedaluses
    of the world, who discover new ways of seeing and doing, and at a far
    deeper level are in control. This point is reiterated in yet another
    digression on the decay of certain arts, which Haldane describes as a
    consequence of artists not understanding the scientific and industrial
    order in which they live. This view of sciences role in setting the
    agenda for human life has crucial consequences for the ethical
    question that is supposed to be the motive force behind the essay. If
    science shapes the parameters of human aspiration and human virtue,
    then morality is simply an effort to respond to mans ever-increasing
    and ever-changing power over nature. We judge ourselves in the image
    of science, not science in the image of some transcendent idea of the
    human good.

                          The Malleability of Morals

    When the main topic of the essayadvances in biologyis taken up, the
    subject is again introduced with a digression. To foretell the impact
    of future development in biology, Haldane looks at four biological
    inventions of the past to see the nature of their consequences. Three
    inventions are stated directly: domestication of animals,
    domestication of plants, and production of alcohol. A fourth is only
    hinted at, involving an unspecified invention that focused male sexual
    attention on the female face and breasts rather than buttocks. Haldane
    also mentions the invention of bactericide and birth control.

    These biological inventions have two common characteristics. First,
    they have had a profound emotional and ethical effect on human life.
    Second, the biological invention tends to begin as a perversion and
    end as a ritual supported by unquestioned beliefs and prejudices.
    Haldane asks us to consider the radical indecency that milk drinking
    introduces into our relationship to the cow, or the process of
    corruption which yields our wine and beer. Any innovator who would
    suggest such disgusting things would clearly at first be considered
    outside the bounds of civilization. But civilization adjusts. In a
    typical bit of satire, Haldane wonders what strange god will have the
    hardihood to adopt Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, tireless
    workers for birth control and other secular causes of the nineteenth

    Haldane takes the figure of Daedalus as instructive about the changing
    status of beliefs. Daedalus had no care for the gods, and the gods
    failed to punish him even for so monstrous an act as breeding a woman
    with a bull. He was the first to demonstrate that the scientific
    worker is not concerned with gods, and thus he exposed himself to the
    universal and agelong reprobation of humanitywith the exception of
    Socrates, who was proud to claim him as an ancestor. The point here is
    ambiguous. If there is ongoing disapproval of Daedalus, then Haldanes
    case that mankind adjusts its ideals to its technologies seems
    questionable. Yet insofar as the West is heir to Socratic rationalism,
    it is somehow also heir to Daedalus.

    Haldane tries to clarify his argument that yesterdays perversions
    become todays unquestioned beliefs by presenting the bulk of his
    projections about biology in the form of an essay from 150 years
    hence, written by a rather stupid undergraduate reviewing the progress
    made in this period. The student presents the most remarkable
    achievementsa global food glut, the transformation of the color of the
    ocean to purple due to the same microorganism that created the food
    glut, the elimination of deserts, ectogenic children, and genetic
    engineeringin a deeply matter of fact and unreflective way. This is
    his world, and while intellectually he understands it has not always
    been so, he is reasonably content with the way things are. Haldane
    follows this mock essay with his own speculations on birth control,
    eugenics, behavior control, the abolition of disease and old age, and
    the transformation of death into a physiological event like sleep,
    shorn of its emotional terrors.

    In arguing that we adjust our ethics to our inventions, Haldane
    exploits two truths about human life: over time, many ideas of right
    and wrong do change in response to changed circumstances, and most
    people do have a fairly thoughtless understanding of the sources of
    the ideas of right and wrong that inform their moral horizons. But
    Haldane draws too much from these observations, because he fails to
    connect them in any way. He neglects to think about the possibility
    that greater reflection on moral principles might lead to less
    malleability. Socrates, after all, proceeded in his investigations by
    holding open the possibility that opinion could be distinguished from
    truth, even in moral matters.

    For his most ancient examples, the truth of the ethical transformation
    Haldane describes is so shrouded in myth and mystery that we cannot
    say anything with certainty. Haldane does not even attempt to produce
    evidence of a period of revulsion concerning milk, alcohol, or the
    female face. He is on more solid ground with the cases of sanitation
    and birth control. But the growing acceptance of both, in the face of
    what Haldane would see as mere traditionally minded opposition, tells
    us nothing in and of itself. We would need to examine, for example,
    whether opposition to cleanliness was any more or less defensible in
    its moral claims than opposition to birth control. Since Haldane does
    not find it necessary to reflect on this point, he leaves himself open
    to the charge of holding an unreflective and dogmatic belief in
    ethical relativism, which from the start transforms all moral claims
    into cultural prejudices. Indeed, when Haldane speaks in his own voice
    about what the future holds, he notes that I am Victorian enough in my
    sympathies to hope that after all family life, for example, may be
    spared, even as it becomes unnecessary for women to bear children. His
    only imaginable response to the abolition of the family is rooted in
    emotions trained by the mores of a particular time and place.

    At this point in the essay, it appears that Haldane can provide no
    assurances that scientific progress will not lead to our demise. In
    fact, that demise might be brought on by the way changes wrought by
    science create new moral desideratanew norms that adjust our
    expectations to things that we once saw as evil, blinding us to a
    self-destructive course. And even if science does not lead to our
    demise, a man of the past looking into the future is unlikely to see
    what he would call progress strictly speaking; he is likely instead to
    see horrifying change and a generation that complacently accepts

    This part of Haldanes essay culminates with the observation that the
    conservative has but little to fear from the man whose reason is the
    servant of his passion, but let him beware of him in whom reason has
    become the greatest and most terrible of the passions. These are the
    wreckers of outworn empires and civilizations, doubters,
    disintegrators, deicides. This free-spirited view of human affairs
    might be tolerable if one were confident that something better would
    be built on the wreckage of the old. But on Haldanes own
    understanding, as presented so far, no such claim can withstand the
    fierce gaze of the reasonable man. So it may come as no surprise that
    Haldane tries to shift somewhat the ground of his argument.

                              Might Makes Right

    This shift begins with Haldanes argument that science should be seen
    from three points of view: First, it is the free activity of mans
    divine faculties of reason and imagination. Second, it is the answer
    of the few to the demands of the many for wealth, comfort and victory.
    Haldane legitimately reminds us of the bargain on which modern natural
    science rests, which allows the free activity of science for the sake
    of the benefits it produces. (Of course, if those benefits are
    inherently double-edged, one might reconsider the terms of the
    original bargain.) Third, science is mans gradual conquest, first of
    space and time, then of matter as such, then of his own body and those
    of other living beings, and finally the subjugation of the dark and
    evil elements of his own soul. These conquests, Haldane acknowledges,
    will never be complete but they will be progressive. And the question
    of what he [mankind] will do with these powers is essentially a
    question for religion and aesthetic.

    This last point is breathtaking, as Haldane seems to understand. For
    what are the dark and evil aspects of the soul that require conquest?
    Not, apparently, the passion of unadulterated reason; not the urge to
    destroy civilizations or commit deicide; not the urge to murder a
    rival or satisfy a monstrous lust. Not, alas, if Daedalus is to remain
    a model to be admired. And how do religion and aesthetic suddenly rise
    to such a prominent place in shaping mans fate, or is their impotence
    in the face of scientific advance precisely the point? For Haldane
    acknowledges that the scientific powers now being given to mankind are
    like giving a baby a box of matches; we seem to possess the power of
    gods and the wisdom of infants. How can we expect this all to turn out
    well? In what sense can we call the conquest of nature and of the
    human soul progressive?

    Haldanes hope is that the tendency of applied science is to magnify
    injustices until they become too intolerable to be borne, and the
    average man whom all the prophets and poets could not move, turns at
    last and extinguishes the evil at its source. But with the impotence
    of religion and aesthetic already confirmed, we are left to wonder
    what Haldane means by injustice, or by what standard evil will be
    recognized and judged. To clarify what he means, Haldane offers the
    example of war. By making mankind more powerful, science has created
    the reductio ad absurdum of modern warfare, and thus created the
    circumstances that make world government more possible, since it is
    the only vehicle that might stop apocalyptic self-destruction. (He
    wrote this essay, remember, in the wake of what was then historys
    bloodiest war and at a time when the League of Nations still seemed to
    hold promise.) As Haldane puts it: Moral progress is so difficult that
    I think any developments are to be welcomed which present it as the
    naked alternative to destruction, no matter how horrible may be the
    stimulus which is necessary before man will take the moral step in
    question. Our moral future thus depends on flirting with the
    technological brink, which we seem destined to do whether we like it
    or not.

    Haldane seems to believe that science first pushes society to become
    more just according to the local standard of justice (the scientific
    worker is brought up with the moral values of his neighbors). But then
    science, by increasing our power and changing our circumstances, helps
    to destroy that standard (an alteration of the scale of human power
    will render actions bad which were formerly good). So at the very
    moment that society is forced to become more just, it is on the way to
    becoming more outworn. When Haldane concludes that the prospect for
    humanity is hopeful if mankind can adjust its morality to its powers,
    he means that progress can only in the most limited sense be seen as
    the achievement of what was ineffectively advocated by prophets and
    poets. His effort to soften his teaching on sciences power of moral
    destruction fails; progress is not the realization of old ideals but
    the necessary birth of new ones. It is just because even the least
    dogmatic of religions tends to associate itself with some kind of
    unalterable moral tradition, that there can be no truce between
    science and religion.

    Haldane eventually returns to what is central in his essay: the
    influence of the man for whom reason has become the greatest and most
    terrible of the passions. The essay concludes with a poetic evocation
    of the lonely figure of Daedalus, conscious and proud of his ghastly
    mission, Singing my song of deicides. From this point of view, moral
    progress would mean adopting the view that mythology and morals are
    provisional or situationalwith Daedalus creating the situations. In
    effect, Haldane transforms might makes right into the hallmark of
    moral progressan odd but deeply telling conclusion for an essay that
    has come to be seen as an optimistic assessment of the future of

    Why does Haldane fail to appreciate this result? One reason is clearly
    his romantic image of the scientist as a crusader for truth without
    regard to consequences, and another reason is the need to free the
    scientist to work unmolested despite all the acknowledged problematic
    consequences of doing so. But more deeply, this moral concession to
    scientific might is perhaps obscured for Haldane by his understanding
    of the evolving character of scientific powerthat is, by his idea of
    the gradual conquest, first of space and time, then of matter as such,
    then of his own body and other living beings, and finally the
    subjugation of the dark and evil elements of his own soul. Part of
    what Haldane has in mind by this growing, but always incomplete,
    process of conquest is evident both in his look backward at past
    discoveries and his look forward at future possibilities. By looking
    to both past and future, he is attempting to overcome our prosaic
    acceptance of current abilities, to highlight how remarkable they
    would look from the perspective of the past, and how we might be
    similarly impressed (or naïvely horrified) by what the future will
    make possible. He wants us to be awed by what human beings can achieve
    through our divine faculties of reason and imagination, and so to
    believe in the self-transcending possibility of self-directed
    evolution. By realizing the temporary character and utter foreignness
    of the human past, we might put our faith in a post-human future.

                             Inventing the Future

    This post-human project comes out even more clearly in Haldanes story,
    The Last Judgment, where he attempts to look forty million years into
    the future of mankind. In this vision of the future, mans use of tidal
    power changes the orbit of the moon, drawing it close enough to be
    destroyed and to destroy all life on Earth. In the meantime, mankind
    makes multiple efforts to reach, colonize, and terraform Venus, taking
    half a million years to achieve the first successful landing.
    Realizing the hostile conditions for life on Venus, a group of men set
    out to restart evolution; for by then, natural selection had been
    stopped and mankind had reached a state of happy equilibrium
    indistinguishable from utter stagnation. Confronted once more with an
    ideal as high as that of religion but more rational, a task as
    concrete as but infinitely greater than that of the patriot, man
    became once more capable of self-transcendence. After only ten
    thousand years, a genetically engineered offshoot of humanity is
    created, at odds with its environment, hence driven and unhappy, hence
    a being that can survive on Venus. These early settlers develop into a
    superorganism of individuals mentally linked to one another, and they
    prepare a race capable of colonizing the outer planets. Read in
    conjunction with Daedalus, the story illustrates Haldanes view of the
    consequences of our increased scientific and technological powers: on
    the one hand, destroying Earth and all human life, and on the other
    hand, self-consciously directing human evolution into a form that can
    thrive elsewhere. The noble goal of self-transcendence does not
    produce happiness, but happiness means stagnation.

    Haldane was familiar enough with the work of H.G. Wells to anticipate
    the likely reaction to such a story. In its own time, it fires the
    imagination, and hence serves the authors purpose: to inspire people
    to look to the future for guidance rather than the past. Seen in
    retrospect, its very quaintness fuels pride in actual accomplishments.
    But this way of understanding progress has a troubling side as well,
    which is well illustrated in British author Olaf Stapledons work Last
    and First Men, written very much under the influence of Haldane. The
    book is a future history covering some two billion years, being
    dictated to the author by one of the last men. During this period,
    eighteen species of menall of them human descendants but few
    recognizably humanrise and fall, first on Earth, then on Venus, then
    finally on Neptune.

    The Stapledon story, whose early millennia clearly elaborate on The
    Last Judgment, is rich in satire and imagination. Stapledon creates
    distinctive races of men with their own abilities, physical
    characteristics, and cultures: men that can fly, men with telepathic
    powers, men that are nothing more than huge brains. Civilizations rise
    and fall due to violence or stagnation; religions and social movements
    form on the basis of misunderstandings; the past is forgotten and
    rediscovered. But at a certain point all the races face the necessity
    or desire for self-transcendence, the inner drive or external push to
    be more than themselves. And it is just at this moment that most races
    destroy themselveseither deliberately via successful evolution of
    their successors, or unintentionally by unwise use of their scientific
    powers. Despite the cyclical character of the story, marked by the
    rise and fall of different races, there is also a broad progressive
    tendency in the races increased power over their physical worlds, over
    their own bodies and minds, and finally over their own pasts.

    Some races are happier than others; some periods of time are more
    blessed. But overall, the last men look back at the story and see it
    as a tragedy. If actual grief has not preponderated over joy, it is
    because, mercifully, the fulfillment that is wholly missed cannot be
    conceived. The last men discover that their own end is coming due to
    the disintegration of the Sun, and they cannot conceive of a way to
    save themselves. Instead, they engage in two god-like efforts. The
    first is an attempt to redeem the tragic past by participation in it,
    exemplified by sending this history back to their ancestors.
    (Stapledon does not here trouble himself much with the paradoxes of
    time travel.) The last men hope that what they see as signs of
    providencesigns for which they are not responsibleare evidence of a
    future intelligence yet greater than their own. The second god-like
    effort is an attempt to seed the cosmos with life, in the hope of
    beginning somewhere else the long evolution towards intelligence.

    What drives them, even knowing that there is a limit to their days, is
    that same impulse for self-transcendence, which becomes their effort
    to redeem the whole tragic history of intelligent life. With the end
    looming, they seek to make the finite eternal:

      If ever the cosmic ideal could be realized, even though for a
      moment only, then in that time the awakened Soul of All will
      embrace within itself all spirits whatever throughout the whole of
      times wide circuit. And so to each one of them, even to the least,
      it will seem that he has awakened and discovered himself to be the
      Soul of All, knowing all things and rejoicing in all things. And
      though afterwards, through the inevitable decay of the stars, this
      most glorious vision must be lost, suddenly or in the
      long-drawn-out defeat of life, yet would the awakened Soul of All
      have eternal being, and in it each martyred spirit would have
      beatitude eternally, though unknown to itself in its own temporal

    Is this passage simply like others in the story, where Stapledon is
    more obviously satirizing self-deceptive mystical beliefs? And are we
    to believe that the real future of intelligence rests with the last
    mens effort to seed the galaxy with life? If so, then the tragic
    element of the story becomes the final moral lesson: If intelligence
    arises again, why should not the whole bloody mess simply repeat
    itself in some new way? Yet it seems more likely that this passage is
    not satire at all, and through his own future history Stapledon comes
    to an important insight: perhaps the human desire for
    self-transcendence is really a world-transcending aspiration, an
    attraction to infinity. Properly understood, that attraction might
    open the door to genuine religious faith.

    Haldane approaches a similar conclusion at the end of The Last
    Judgment, where he acknowledges that religion and science teach some
    of the same lessons, although for different reasons. Religion says
    that it is a mistake to think that ones own ideals should be realized,
    because Gods ways are not our ways. Science says instead that human
    ideals are the products of natural processes that do not conform to
    them. Religion teaches an emotional attitude to the universe as a
    whole, a sense of human limitation that is only confirmed when science
    illuminates the awesome immensities and complexities of the universe.
    Both teach us to conjecture what purposes may be developed and to
    think grandly about human plans and our unselfish cooperation in them.

    Both religion and science, in other words, teach that events are
    taking place for other great and glorious ends which we can only dimly
    conjecture.... Without necessarily accepting such a view, one can
    express some of its implications in a myth. If there is even this
    degree of convergence between religion and science, why prefer myths
    of the future over existing stories of Gods presence in history? Why
    look to the future instead of the past? The answer, for Haldane, is
    because such future-oriented stories are obviously provisional,
    because they glorify human power and achievement and carry the
    authority of science, and because they can be constructed to propose
    no moral absolutes.

    Daedalus is a delightful essay, literate and witty. As a scientist,
    Haldane deserves credit for refusing to provide a guarantee for the
    human future, and he is right to suggest that our uncertainty stems
    from the old paradox of human freedom re-enacted with mankind for
    actor and the earth for stage. But for all the charm of Daedalus,
    Haldane does not recognize that this great paradox is being reenacted
    without a moral compass, and thus without any serious basis to call
    what may happen in the future, even if we do not destroy ourselves,
    genuine progress. The substitution of science fiction for religious
    tradition is not obviously an advance when it comes to making serious
    judgments about great and glorious ends, particularly if those ends
    finally derive from Daedalus willful quest for power. In the end,
    scientific progress parallels moral progress only if might does indeed
    make right. And while Socrates might honor the curiosity of Daedalus,
    even he could not accept such a blind definition of the human good.

                         Servant of the Ruling Class

    Bertrand Russells reply to Haldane does not start in an especially
    promising way. He characterizes Daedalus as an attractive picture of
    the future as it may become through the use of scientific discoveries
    to promote human happiness, which hardly seems an adequate description
    of Haldanes intention or his belief that the future happiness of our
    descendants will probably not look attractive to us. In contrast,
    Russell thinks that science will continue in the future to do what it
    does in the present: not serve human happiness in general but serve
    the power of dominant groups. This is a proposition that Haldane would
    not necessarily deny, although he has a deeper view of exactly who is
    whose master. Russell then says that he will focus on some of the
    dangers inherent in the progress of science while we retain our
    present political and economic institutionsyet again, a premise with
    which Haldane would almost surely agree. So far, at least, there would
    seem to be no real debate between the two men.

    Like Haldane, Russell divides his discussion into various fields of
    science (physical, biological, anthropological), and he freely
    combines projection into the future with satiric commentary on the
    present. In laying out his broad purpose, Russell eventually
    adumbrates his first real differences from Haldane. Acknowledging the
    huge effect science has made in shaping the world since Queen Annes
    time, Russell observes that the impact of science can take two basic
    forms: first, without altering mens passions or their general outlook,
    it may increase their power of gratifying their desires, and second,
    it may change their outlook on the world, the theology or philosophy
    which is accepted by energetic men. Russell will focus, he says, on
    the first kind of effect: how science serves existing desires rather
    than how it creates new worldviews.

    This restriction appears curious at first sight, for it gives the
    appearance of circularity to Russells understanding of the results of
    scientific progress. If he thinks science is problematic under present
    circumstances, it may be because he is not interested in thinking (à
    la Haldane) about the manner in which science may form and change
    those circumstances. Perhaps he sees science serving the interests of
    todays dominant groups because he is not considering how it might
    create new dominant groups. Russell thus excludes from the start the
    possibility that science will be anything but conservative, and he
    appears at first critical of modern science precisely for this

    The divide between the two men turns out to revolve precisely around
    this difference of emphasis. The key to Russells response to Haldane
    is understanding why Russell thinks that, on balance, science is more
    likely to serve existing power structures than to challenge them.
    Russell announces his answer in brief early on: Science has increased
    mans control over nature, and might therefore be supposed likely to
    increase his happiness and well being. This would be the case if men
    were rational, but in fact they are bundles of passions and instincts.

                             The Cynical Utopian

    Russells focus in Icarus is on the physical and anthropological
    sciences, which he sees as having had a fourfold effect: increase of
    population, increase of comfort, increased energy for war, and
    increased need for large-scale organization. The fact that modern
    industrialism is a struggle between nations for two things, markets
    and raw materials, as well as for the sheer pleasure of domination,
    means that war and large-scale organizations are particularly
    important. The place of science in this struggle is ambiguous. While
    on one page he says that the national character of organizational
    rivalry is something with which science has nothing to do, just a
    couple of pages later he concludes that the harm that is being done by
    science and industrialism is almost wholly due to the fact that, while
    they have proved strong enough to produce a national organization of
    economic forces, they have not proved strong enough to produce an
    international organization.

    What stands in the way of international organization, he argues, is
    that the pleasure produced by rivalry is the driving motivation among
    the few rich men who control big business. To think that their goal is
    wealth is to misunderstand them, like thinking that scoring goals is
    the point of soccer. Were that true, teams would cooperate, for then
    many more goals could be scored. So too with business: more
    cooperation would mean more wealth. But in both instances, the really
    important thing, the team rivalry, would be missing.

    The power vested in these large organizations is already so great that
    the ideals of liberalism are wholly inapplicable to the modern world;
    there is no liberty except for those who control the sources of
    economic power, no free competition except between States by means of
    armaments. The only hope for freedom or democracy in a scientific
    civilization would be if economic and nationalistic competition were
    to produce one big winner, establishing a cruel and despotic global
    tyranny. But in time, Russell hopes, the energy of the tyrants at the
    top might flag, leaving behind a stable world-organization, a
    diminishment of the evils which now threaten civilization, and a more
    thorough democracy than that which now exists. Where Haldane looks to
    the possibility of self-destruction as the potential impetus to moral
    progress, Russell looks to tyranny as the potential pathway to peace.

    Both Russell and Haldane believe that scientific progress will be best
    assured under world government. But why this should be so requires
    some elucidation. Clearly, the key problem for Russell is rivalry
    combined with the power of modern science, which is one powerful
    example of how our passions and instincts lead to irrational results
    as circumstances change. It is clear how tyrannical centralized
    control could use the power of science to limit rivalry, but less
    clear how rivalry would not arise even with world organization, once
    that control loosened and the organization became a more thorough

    A telling example of how Russell sees world government and its
    relationship to science comes when he discusses the need to implement
    birth control measuresparticularly, he seems to expect, among
    non-white races, so that no nation will grow much faster than others.
    He expects white races, already showing signs of population decline,
    to use more prolific races as mercenaries, threatening a revolt that
    ends in the extermination of the white races. The casual racialism
    behind such thinking, however common at the time among progressive
    intellectuals, confirms the extent to which world government,
    tyrannical or not, is unlikely to be premised on human political

    When it comes to eugenics and the goal of producing a better race,
    however, Russell is not a naïve inegalitarian, and it is here that we
    reach the crux of his disagreement with Haldane. Like Haldane, Russell
    expects that eugenic efforts will be attempted and may even work, but
    on the whole he is skeptical about the moral prospects of positive
    eugenics. Where Haldane imagines democratic campaigning for this or
    that eugenic ideal (Vote for Smith and more musicians), Russell thinks
    that such decisions would of course be in the hands of State
    officials, presumably elderly medical men. Whether they would be
    preferable to Nature I do not feel sure. I suspect they would breed a
    subservient population, convenient to rulers but incapable of
    initiative. However, it may be I am too skeptical of the wisdom of

    Russell is also skeptical when it comes to the biochemical control of
    behavior. This novel capacity would give those in charge power beyond
    the dreams of the Jesuits, but there is no reason to suppose they will
    have more sense than the men who control education today. Technical
    scientific knowledge does not make men sensible in their aims, and
    administrators in the future, will be presumably no less stupid and no
    less prejudiced than they are at present. In this, at least, his
    utopianism about world government is moderated by his realism about
    human folly and perversion.

    Russell raises this skepticism to the level of principle: Science
    increases the power of those in power. If their ends are good, they
    can achieve more good; if their ends are evil, more evil. In the
    present age, the purposes of the holders of power are in the main
    evil, so science does harm. Science is no substitute for virtue; the
    heart is as necessary for a good life as the head. By heart, Russell
    means the sum-total of kindly impulses which make people indifferent
    to their own interest but in fact serve that interest, once it is
    properly distinguished from a rationalized impulse to injure others.
    Intelligence plus such deliberate desire would be enough to make the
    world almost a paradise.

    Russell is reasonably certain that science could increase the kindly
    impulses, but also reasonably certain it will never happen. Those who
    would make the discovery and administer the treatment (he imagines a
    secret society of physiologists kidnapping and treating world leaders)
    would already have to be governed by natural kindness, otherwise they
    would prefer to win titles and fortunes by injecting military ferocity
    in recruits. And so we come back to the old dilemma: only kindliness
    can save the world, and even if we knew how to produce kindliness we
    should not do so unless we were already kindly. The remaining
    alternatives, Russell believes, are self-extermination or world-wide
    domination by one group, say the United States, leading eventually to
    an orderly world government. Yet the sterility of the Roman empire
    leads Russell to conclude by wondering whether the collapse of our
    civilization is perhaps the best answer after all.

    Such glib and world-weary statements are part of what made Bertrand
    Russell the man we remember as Bertrand Russell. But there remains a
    serious claim being put forward. To Haldanes core assertion that
    science will produce progress by giving human beings the choice of
    reform or oblivion, Russell responds that we will likely, and perhaps
    even should, choose oblivion. Haldane looking forward sees future
    evolution as our best hope; Russell looking backward sees our
    evolutionary heritage as a fatal flaw. The full force of an analogy
    used by Russell at the beginning of his essay only becomes clear at
    the end: Dogs, he noted, overeat because they are descendants of
    wolves, who needed to be driven by insistent hunger. Under domestic
    circumstances, this retained drive hurts dogs. Likewise, human beings
    have instincts of power and rivalry that are inconsistent with our
    well-being, and hence self-destructive under present circumstances.
    And these instincts, it seems, are more likely to be gratified by
    means of science than altered. We are creatures of our nature,
    creatures of our passions. Coming closer to the technological brink is
    not likely to change this fact.

    This outlook helps explain why Russell does not meet Haldane head on
    by looking at the way science changes the outlook of energetic men.
    Whatever the guiding theology or philosophy of the day, however
    influenced it may be by modern science, natural instinct will win out.
    Science is no substitute for virtue, Russell notes, but he puts little
    weight on the ability of virtue to counter the raw human instinct for
    power, injury, and rivalry.

    Russells skepticism about the strength of virtue creates a moral
    vacuum, which leads him to dark and dire conclusions. One does not
    have to believe in mans overwhelming goodness to wonder whether
    Russells outlook is grounded more in fashionable cynicism than moral
    realism. If injury, power, and rivalry were as powerful as Russell
    suggests, then it is hard to see how life is not a great deal more
    terrible than it already is. Moreover, it is not obvious why the
    generous and kindly impulses must take a back seat to the darker
    passions. Russell assumes, at best by analogy, that the rivalrous
    impulses would be those more conducive to survival. But by his own
    admission, virtue is not simply unnatural and may act to our benefit.
    As an example, he cites the Quakers, who controlled a natural greedy
    impulse in the name of a moral principle (dont misrepresent prices)
    and had success as a result. If once useful impulses can become
    self-defeating, why cant kindly impulses take their places?

    In reality, we discover that virtue is of far less interest to Russell
    than it ought to be. His cynicism about moralitys sway over the human
    soul is really born of dissatisfied utopianism: If men were rational
    in their conduct ... intelligence would be enough to make the world
    almost a paradise. But as civilization is not made up mostly of
    Bertrand Russells, there is little hope for anything other than
    collapse. From this point of view, Russell looks like a disappointed
    Haldane, the Haldane who looks with apparent equanimity on the
    possibility that humanity may finally prove itself unworthy of
    survival by not surviving. As Haldane put it, At worst our earth is
    only a very small septic area in the universe, which could be
    sterilized without very great trouble, and conceivably is not even
    worth sterilizing. By different roads and for different reasons, both
    authors come to the same anti-human conclusion. The core difference is
    that Haldane believes we might become something better by shattering
    what we are now.

                         The Real Meaning of Progress

    So where does this debate leave us? It is telling that Haldane refers
    to G. K. Chesterton towards both the beginning and ending of his
    essay. The second time he quotes lines of poetry by Chesterton,
    without attribution, to acknowledge yet again the potentially
    destructive power of the human intellect. The first time he criticizes
    The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which prophesied that hansom-cabs would
    still be in existence a hundred years hence owing to a cessation of
    invention. Within six years there was a hansom-cab in a museum. In
    commenting on this apparent failure of prediction, Haldane gives some
    indication that he might understand that Chesterton was not really
    predicting at all, but satirizing predictors just like himself, who
    (in Chestertons words) project small things of the present into big
    things of the future, just as when we see a pig in a litter that is
    larger than the other pigs, we know by an unalterable law of the
    Inscrutable it will someday be larger than an elephant. But it is also
    possible that Haldane missed the more serious point of Chestertons
    book: even if the future were to look like the present with respect to
    hansom-cabs, it would not mean that we are failures in the ways that
    matter most. There would still be ample room for the whole range of
    human abilities and aspirations to play themselves out both for good
    and for ill.

    This truth is likely to be lost if we understand the human story in
    terms of the aspirations outlined in Daedalus. Haldane believes in the
    possibility, although not the necessity, that science will lead to the
    progressive improvement of the world, because he thinks that human
    beliefs can accommodate themselves to the changing conditions created
    by the vast increases in human power. We are driven down that path by
    a hitherto inchoate, and potentially self-destructive, desire for
    self-transcendence, a desire that comes into its own when we have the
    power to make it real. Progress cannot be measured by human happiness,
    because happiness would produce stagnation. But Haldanes notion of
    progress is by necessity discontinuous, since the goodness of one
    stage of the human story will not be recognizable as such by those at
    a different stage. Only some imagined being of the far future, heir to
    the whole human narrative, might be able to look back and see (or
    construct) the thread that binds it all together, redeeming a chaotic
    and otherwise tragic past.

    Russell rejects Haldanes picture of progress, because he thinks that
    there is a fixity to those aspects of human nature that will lead us
    to use the increased powers granted by science to destructive ends.
    The powers of science could potentially be used to alter our nature,
    Russell believes, but our nature provides significant disincentives to
    doing so in any manner that will serve good ends. Generosity is in
    short supply, so we should not expect to be engineered or
    biochemically manipulated to be nicer to each other. To do so we would
    need to be nice already. Unlike Haldane, Russell in this essay does
    not explicitly make the realm of virtue and kindly impulses
    situational, but he does believe that morality is very weak in
    comparison with other drives. Absent some utopian re-ordering of the
    world, science really is giving matches to babies.

    For Russell, science places us on the edge of a cliff, and our nature
    is likely to push us over the edge. For Haldane, science places us on
    the edge of a cliff, and we cannot simply step back, while holding
    steady has its own risks. So we must take the leap, accept what looks
    to us now like a bad option, with the hope that it will look like the
    right choice to our descendants, who will find ways to normalize and
    moralize the consequences of our choice. Russell disarms virtue,
    Haldane relativizes it.

    The net result is that a debate about sciences ability to improve
    human life excludes serious consideration of what a good human life
    is, along with how it might be achieved, and therefore what the
    hallmarks of an improved ability to achieve it would look like. Shorn
    of serious moral content, the measures of progressif it can be said to
    exist at allbecome our amazement at or dissatisfaction with all our
    discoveries and inventions, our awed anticipation of what might yet be
    achieved, our terror about what might go wrong along the way. The
    result of framing the question of scientific progress in this way is
    evident in the very structure of most popular discussions of science,
    both in books and on television. Start with a little history to
    produce an attitude of pride that we know so much more than we once
    did. Look at what we know now, and stress the dangers of our remaining
    ignorance. Anticipate the future, and how humbled we are that those
    who follow us will know far more than we do if only we stick with it.

    Above all, the very thinness of any notion of progress that survives
    the Haldane-Russell debatelittle more than the fact of accumulation of
    knowledge and a vague hope that things might turn out well in light of
    unspecified yet grand civilizational projectshelps to explain the
    widespread belief that any effort to restrain science on the basis of
    ethics represents a threat to scientific progress. To see this as
    simply a result of the self-interest of scientists is to do them an
    injustice. Like Haldane, most scientists are probably unaware of how
    the belief that morality must adjust to scientific and technological
    change amounts to saying that might makes right. The sense of threat
    is partly due to the poverty of thought on the subject, and perhaps
    the narrow education that is required for making measurable scientific
    achievements. For restraint doubtless would slow accumulation, and
    (from this point of view) can only represent the triumph of fear over
    hope. But what is to be said for accumulation when Russell and Haldane
    have done with it? It serves either the power of the conventionally
    powerful or the power of the scientists.

    A clear-eyed defense of science needs to take seriously the original
    bargain that Haldane himself describes: that free research produces
    increased well-being. To investigate the meaning of well being, or
    doing well, means neither the dogmatic acceptance nor the dogmatic
    rejection of the moral values of ones neighbors. It requires avoiding
    cynicism and utopianism about human motives and possibilities. It
    requires a willingness to look at the question of the human good with
    care and seriousness. And even if such an investigation yields a
    complex and mixed picture of what a good life is and how science
    contributes to it, the defense of science still requires the
    willingness to encourage what is valued and discourage what is
    troublesome, knowing that we will face many grave uncertainties and
    honest disagreements along the way.

    The Greek tale of Daedalus and Icarus illustrates that doubts over the
    results of human knowledge and ingenuity are hardly new. The debate
    enshrined in Daedalus and Icarus suggests that today the great
    increase in our powers co-exists with a diminished capacity to think
    about them with any kind of moral realism. By slighting ethics,
    Haldane and Russell did not serve the cause of science well, since
    science only matters in human terms if it truly serves our humanity.
    And that is by no means guaranteed.

    Charles T. Rubin is an associate professor of political science at
    Duquesne University.

    Previous New Atlantis Articles by Charles T. Rubin
    [8]"Man or Machine?" (Winter 2004)
    [9]" Artificial Intelligence and Human Nature" (Spring 2003)

    Published by the [10]Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C.


    8. http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/4/rubin.htm
    9. http://www.thenewatlantis.com/archive/1/rubin.htm
   10. http://www.eppc.org/

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