The COVID-19 pandemic has forced popular consciousness to face mortality after decades of anticipating life extension and even the Singularity as a birthright. Yet it did not appreciably diminish the popular belief that technology would save the day and allow us to renew the march to progress before too long.
But to await salvation would be to expect more from technology than is reasonable. First, there are suspicions the pandemic itself may be the product of technology, of rogue experiments or bad lab containment.
Technology does not ‘save’ anything of itself; it works in both directions. It can construct an electric toaster as well as an electric chair, nuclear power plants or nuclear weapons, gene-based cures or biological weapons. Technology answers the question of ‘how’ but not ‘whether.’ That is up to us.
To answer ‘whether,’ one must refer to a container system of law, values, civilization and religion — something outside the scientific method itself. Whether the West should, like China, engage in creating human-animal hybrids, mutant bat viruses or head transplants is not even a scientific question. Isaac Newton, in his famous hypotheses non fingo “I feign no hypotheses” statement, anticipated the famous irony of the 20th century: it’s science’s business to demonstrate how rockets go up but where they come down is not their department.
[F]or whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called an hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy … To us it is enough that gravity does really exist, and acts according to the laws which we have explained
To choose the ‘right thing’ from among the possibilities of knowledge is in its broadest sense a religious question involving the sacred and the forbidden. These terms are now embarrassing to utter in public, yet Winston Churchill saw the quality of these ideals as the highest measure of a civilization. Speaking on the brink of total defeat at the hands of a technologically advanced Nazi Germany in 1940, he said:
But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.
Churchill could imagine a hi-tech brute. ‘What is sacred and what is forbidden?’ are questions even the pantheistic cultural elites cannot totally avoid in the COVID-19 crisis. When climate change activists say that ‘we have pushed nature too far’ or ‘Gaia is rebelling against the greed of capitalism’ (somehow never the Chinese Communist Party) surely they cannot mean that science or physical laws themselves are wroth with humanity since “occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.” They resort to a manner of speaking lest they admit a dangerous possibility via the backdoor.
But whatever you call it, there’s a growing realization that intelligence by itself, uncritically, can be an existential threat to humanity. Power, absent any definite guidelines to its wise employment, could well be the death of us.
The Cambridge Project at Cambridge University states that the “greatest threats” to the human species are man-made; they are artificial intelligence, global warming, nuclear war, and rogue biotechnology. The Future of Humanity Institute also states that human extinction is more likely to result from anthropogenic causes than natural causes.”
Noam Chomsky, pondering the question of why our most powerful instruments can’t find any aliens, concluded that technology probably killed them off.
Ernst Mayr, the grand old man of American biology [was] debating the possibility of finding intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. And Sagan, speaking from the point of view of an astrophysicist, pointed out that there are innumerable planets just like ours. There is no reason they shouldn’t have developed intelligent life. Mayr, from the point of view of a biologist, argued that it’s very unlikely that we’ll find any. … And what he basically argued is that intelligence is a kind of lethal mutation. …
He pointed out that if you take a look at biological success … as you go up the scale of what we call intelligence, they are less and less successful. By the time you get to mammals, there are very few of them as compared with, say, insects. By the time you get to humans, the origin of humans may be 100,000 years ago, there is a very small group. We are kind of misled now because there are a lot of humans around, but that’s a matter of a few thousand years, which is meaningless from an evolutionary point of view. His argument was, you’re just not going to find intelligent life elsewhere, and you probably won’t find it here for very long either because it’s just a lethal mutation.
The danger of relying on technology alone to guarantee survival was underscored by Oxford professor Nick Bostrom, the Director of the Future of Humanity Institute. He considered the hypothetical: if Mayr is right, then when does humanity kill itself?
As best we have been able to determine, the night sky is empty and silent—the question “Where are they?” thus being at least as pertinent today as it was when Enrico Fermi first posed it during a lunch discussion with some of his physicist colleagues back in 1950. …
We have every reason to believe that the observable universe contains vast numbers of solar systems, including many that have planets that are Earth‐like at least in the sense of having a mass and temperature similar to those of our own orb. We also know that many of these solar systems are much older than ours.
From these two facts it follows that there exists a “Great Filter”. The Great Filter can be thought of as a probability barrier. It consists of exist one of more highly improbable evolutionary transitions or steps whose occurrence is required in order for an Earth‐like planet to produce an intelligent civilization of a type that would be visible to us with our current observation technology. …
So one possibility is that the Great Filter is behind us. This would explain the absence of observable aliens. Why? Because if the rise of intelligent life on any one planet is sufficiently improbable, then it follows that we are most likely the only such civilization in our galaxy or even in the entire observable universe. …
The other possibility is that the Great Filter is after us, in our future. This would mean that there is some great improbability that prevents almost all technological civilizations at our current human stage of development from progressing to the point where they engage in large‐scale space‐colonization and make their presence known to other technological civilizations. For example, it might be that any sufficiently technologically advanced civilization discovers some technology—perhaps some very powerful weapons technology—that causes its extinction.
Maybe we got a sneak preview of the Great Filter from Wuhan. If so, who noticed? Perhaps the mesmerizing cavalcade of invention has lulled humanity into forgetting that the truly critical technology is that of moral choice. Today it is fashionable to laugh at such things; assert that the sacred and the profane are merely constructs; maintain we can believe anything and that at any rate, if things go horribly wrong that technology will rescue us from difficulty. A morning-after pill, a bailout, a cure. Only the neanderthals believe:
[T]here is an objective natural reality, a reality whose existence and properties are logically independent of human beings—of their minds, their societies, their social practices, or their investigative techniques. Postmodernists dismiss this idea as a kind of naive realism. Such reality as there is, according to postmodernists, is a conceptual construct, an artifact of scientific practice and language. This point also applies to the investigation of past events by historians and to the description of social institutions, structures, or practices by social scientists.
Where once human choice was deemed important, it is now incidental. To cultivate wisdom, the seven virtues were once urged upon the educated. Prudence, justice, temperance, courage; faith, hope, and charity were not merely constructs or exhortations to character, they were a survival checklist. Today it has been replaced by one demand: make it go away. The principal function of technology is to ensure freedom from consequences, to save us from our own bad judgment. We cannot conceive, as Churchill once did, of the possibility of being hi-tech brutes, even if that is what some of us may now be and what the Communist Party of China aspires to become. The possibility that there are some mistakes science can’t save us from has not yet crossed our minds.
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Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead, by Jim Mattis and Bing West. This is a book on leadership as seen through Jim Mattis’s storied career, from his wide-ranging leadership roles in three wars to ultimately commanding a quarter of a million troops across the Middle East.
The Centurions, by Jean Larteguy. Now back in print, this military cult classic has resonance to the wars in Iraq and Vietnam. When it was first published in 1960, readers were riveted by the thrilling account of soldiers fighting for survival in hostile environments. They were equally transfixed by the chilling moral question the novel posed: how to fight when the “age of heroics is over.” As relevant today as it was half a century ago, this book is an extended symposium on waging war in a new global order and an essential investigation of the ethics of counterinsurgency.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, by Robert A. Caro. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, and chosen by the Modern Library as one of the hundred greatest books of the 20th century, this book is a galvanizing biography of one man’s incredible accumulation of power, as well as the story of the shaping and mis-shaping of New York in the 20th century.
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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.