Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man

The New Atlantis reprinted a 1963 philosophical treatise by Hannah Arendt entitled “
The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” and then asked several contemporary authors to respond. Not being a 1960s intellectual, I must confess that a lot Arendt’s points soared over my head, either as a result of not being a professional philosopher, her abstruse language, or both. However, I will do my best to interpret what she wrote and then write my reactions to that understanding. (I once got a “B” in a grad school class for doing this—note to aspiring grad students: your professor’s interpretation of the difficult philosopher is what’s important, not yours.)

One of the first places Arendt leads the reader into airy territory is with this statement:

“The goal of modern science, which eventually and quite literally has led us to the moon, is no longer ‘to augment and order’ human is much rather to discover what lies behind natural phenomena as they reveal themselves to the senses and the mind of man.”

This is one of Arendt’s primary concerns in the piece: she sees space exploration (which is, one must state, an engineering not a scientific feat) as the ultimate expression of abstraction in materialistic science. Arendt goes into great detail to describe the linguistic gap between the educated scientist and the non-educated laymen, stating that if scientists are not careful, they could create a totalitarian state by default, as the supremely important decisions before the laymen are no longer comprehensible to them.

This is actually more of a legitimate concern today than it was in the 1960s, when America had healthy schools and the majority of the world’s scientific elite. Now, we see report after report about the deplorable state of our schools, and their ability to teach
scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) skills; and in the midst of this rising technical ignorance, we have scientists and advocates pushing hard for global warming remedies that more than half the public doesn’t have the ability to evaluate, except on the basis of political or emotional inclination.

The next item that caught my attention was this:

“[M]odern science…has changed and reconstructed the world we live in so radically that it could be argued that the layman and the humanist, still trusting their common sense and communicating in everyday language, are out of touch with reality; that they understand only what appears but not what is behind appearances.”

This takes me back to
The Two Cultures, which I must move to the front of my reading/buying list, given my desire to translate between the technical and “real” worlds.” C.P. Snow suggests this very disconnect (which is not very far from the disconnect I’m experiencing with Arendt) is causing the artistic and scientific worlds to speak completely different languages. As a wannabe science fiction writer, I like to think that I can serve as one of those “Third Culture” types who can bridge the gap. But jeez, if philosophical literature is of Arendt’s sort and scientific writing remains what it is, what hope do laymen have of judging between two “upper classes?” This brought to mind The Bell Curve, which spells out some of the problems of educating the brightest students differently from the mainstream. For instance, what do the majority of folks with IQs ≤125 do when they are ruled by super-bright people who cannot even relate to them? Or what do they do when those elites do not even consider the problems/issues of the less gifted worth considering? As much as people hate the messiness of democracy, would they really prefer rule by a privileged, highly intelligent elite?

Another important concern of Arendt’s is the actual loss of stature man (this is pre-PC, so she doesn’t use “humanity”) faces due to scientific discovery:

“Has not each of the advances of science, since the time of Copernicus, almost automatically resulted in a decrease in his stature?”

As I understand her writing, Arendt is saying that science diminishes us as humanistic (feeling, special, emotional, moral) creatures; however, she also states that if we did not depersonalize our investigations, we could not understand the universe as we do. There is definitely truth in this. Rather than thinking, “It rained today because I forgot to propitiate the Sun God,” some human beings started thinking, “Where did that rain come from in the first place? How did it form?” This analytical, philosophical viewpoint—devoid of personalization or deity—was the contribution of Greek thought to the West, and gave birth to modern science, and it continues to pay dividends to this day. Facts proven in the real world by capitalists work just as well for totalitarians, communists, socialists, or fascists.

Technical positivists like
Ray Kurzweil, Arthur C. Clarke, or even the late Carl Sagan have worshipped at the godless altar of unceasing Progress. They fail to recognize that the scientific progress they ardently seek was once called “natural philosophy” and was part of an integrated worldview that included ethics, morals, aesthetics, and even theology. I would venture to say that much of humanity’s technological apparatus, while I admire it greatly, is often running amok like a group of Sorcerer’s Apprentices. One important role science fiction has is to provide warnings: “If you do X, you’d better be prepared for Y.”

Here’s a last elephantine sentence, which I’ll quote in full and try to eat one bite at a time:

“All our pride in what we can do will disappear into some kind of mutation of the human race; the whole of technology, seen from this point, in fact no longer appears ‘as the result of a conscious human effort to extend man’s material powers, but rather as a large-scale biological process’.”

This phrase called to mind (again) Kurzweil’s
The Singularity is Near. Even 45 years ago, Arendt had an inkling that we could and most likely would turn our technology on ourselves, engineering humanity as we’ve engineered much of the rest of our world. This, of course, is not something I anticipate with great enthusiasm, and neither does Arendt. She concludes by stating that if conquering space causes us to become scientific subjects, then our stature is, indeed, diminished.

Whew! Just translating that made my head hurt. I think I’ll take a break before responding more fully.


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