Thursday 1 January 2009

Learning to Play God

Since mankind first learnt to rub sticks together to produce fire it has constantly found itself confronted again and again by the same question.

The form the question has taken has varied, but ultimately, one could call it one of the most important of checks/balances on human development that exists.

Indeed, one could argue that we HAD to invent a personalised God merely for that purpose.

We have always been aware that great and terrible forces exist in the universe. Forces upon which we depend for our very survival.
And we have always been faced with the dangers of acquiring knowledge. Because every time we have acquired new knowledge, the possibilities of what we could do with that knowledge has arisen. But of course, we knew that we didn't know everything. We always knew we could be wrong.

And what if we were?

Could we take the risk?

What were the risks of taking that leap into the unknown? Could we cross a line which would disrupt the very fabric of the universe and- end it?

Fear of that answer has so often held us back.

And humanity has always been kept in check by a marvellously simple equation.

What we don't understand, is what God does.
Therefore, you don't meddle with the unknown. It is forbidden. By God.

The effect this has had has actually meant that only when we have truly understood something, does the real question come before us; We think we understand this enough now to DO this. There is a risk, yes, we could be wrong. But here is the evidence we've built up over the years. If we're wrong, yes, the results could be fatal. But we think we know enough now to make sure that doesn't happen. If we're right, the benefits to us all of taking this step will immeasurably outweight the risks.

And that has always been it. Knowledge.
And throughout history that has been the story of human advance. What we haven't understood, we've ascribed to a deity. And as history has progressed, over and over again mankind has had to ask the same question 'This is something we only allowed to God. Do we take over responsibility for it? Can we? Will life be better for us if we do? Do we know enough to take that risk? Has this now become something that we can say with certainty that we know enough about to be able to take it on?'

And of course, it has all been about systematic advances. Advances in knowledge.

Let me first just say simply, that 'Playing God' actually means Mankind deliberately planning and utilising basic laws of the universe. It means mankind judging that it knows how laws of the universe work and using that knowledge to attempt to gain benefits for itself that it does not believe that the universe will give it if mankind does not consciously take those steps.

Now this is not a new phenomenon. There are many things we take for granted today that at one time were deemed blasphemous and ungodly. The Amish take this to extremes, but we shouldn't forget that when Photography came out, it was deemed by many to be a blasphemy, a devilish art.
The idea of Man flying was once seen as such. If God had meant Man to fly, he'd have given him wings.

But there have been other, deeper advances which were so unnerving that people feared doing them. Yes, they could see the possible benefits. But what if they were wrong? Could the whole world literally fall apart?

One such was the idea of not having Kings. Most religions emphasised the idea that God appointed Kings, that God had chosen Monarchy as the way countries should be governed. And the idea was, that was because other forms of government didn't work. Up until the late eighteenth century the wisdom was that you couldn't run a country much larger than a city without a King. Republics only worked in city states, as the Romans had learned. Rome had outgrown Republican government and needed an Emperor. The English too had learned that. They'd cut off the head of their King, but found Republics didn't work. Because England was too big to be a Republic. So Kings, despite their faults, were the only way you COULD govern large countries. And large countries were powerful and wealthy countries. Most people wanted their countries to be powerful.

So, the ideas of Rousseau and others might sound good- but the fact was, Kings worked. If you got rid of Kings, you'd have anarchy. Civilisation would fall apart.

Well, the Americans decided to take the risk. And then so did the French. And whilst the French experiment of being Kingless went full circle and ended up with Napoleon, the fact was by 1814, one only needed to look across the Atlantic to see two whole continents of kingless countries.
And whilst the story of these kingless countries didn't immediately suggest that having no King was much of an improvement, still, they proved the theory that large countries need a king to not be true. And over the course of the century, kingless countries learned to make Republicanism work and proved, on the whole (personal opinion) that in the long run, Republics are intrinsically far healthier, freer and naturally more democratic societies.

It was one rule that supposedly God had made- people must obey a King- that it now seemed he hadn't made, or if he had, had only meant it to be till we grew out of the need for them. Which we clearly had then, and certainly have now.

But the nineteenth century brought a far more significant revolution. The knowledge revolution.

At the start of the century, so much was still unknown. Certain things were still the province of God. As in, the fabric of the universe itself; matter, the forces that operated it, the mysterious nature of life itself. These were firmly the province of God. And understanding these things was always going to be a huge step.
Because understanding these things potentially gave us huge power for good or ill. But what if we used that power and were wrong? By definition, couldn't we accidentally unravel the universe?

We had to be sure we knew what we were doing.

Often we don't appreciate the largely imaginary risks people took. They turned out to be right to take those risks. But, for example, the first train to go over fifty miles per hour was- according to physicians of the day- risking asphyxiating it's passengers.

And by the time you get to physicists being able to state confidently that they know how atoms are composed- not only that, it is possible to dismantle them and create new elements- when you have biologists isolating the different chemical components of cells and saying which one does what, when life no longer holds any mystery but is understood in terms of chemical reactions and electromagnetic impulses, then the question changes.

Because the question now shifts. Because these things are no longer in the province of 'mysterious workings of God'.

What we do know, is that these things compose the fabric of the universe we live in at a root level.
And we know that using that knowledge always poses the same question.

If we get it right, it's a leap forward.
If we're wrong, we unravel the universe that we're living in.
Is it worth the risk?

It has only been in the twentieth century that questions like this have reached the magnitude they have. And they will increase in magnitude. Because we are going deeper into the structure of existence itself.

I think myself, we embarked on a whole new road when Little Boy landed on Hiroshima. It was a dark event, certainly. And it's all too easy to focus on the negatives of what has to be considered a war crime. It was.
But by the same token, would we have actually seized the chance to really unleash atomic power had we not been engaged in that life or death struggle?
It forced one side of humanity in that barbaric intra-special conflict to play God. To actually do it. To actually take the risk and unleash the enormous power we theoretically knew was at our disposal, but no one dared unleash for fear of the consequences.

It has changed the world. We're still reeling from the shock of it. Because now the atom bomb exists, we're all pointing missiles at eachother. But we're still sitting there behind them knowing the obvious. That we can't actually go to war. Not really, Superpowers can indulge in play wars against dictators they don't like, but Superpowers can't really go to war. It would last ten minutes and that would be it.

So in a sense, the atom bomb has meant one thing. Wars of the old type will never happen again. London will never suffer another Blitz. Millions of young men will never again sit in trenches, rushing over the top to face machine guns. There will never again be conscription. War is over. We'll either grow out of it, or blow ourselves up.
That's what the Atom bomb means.

It's forcing us to grow up or die.

And in terms of what Atomic power actually means, it offers us a future we could never have thought of once. It's still developing technology, but we've learned how NOT to do it. I get annoyed sometimes at the Luddites in the green lobby who refuse to see that Nuclear power, when manage properly, is the cleanest and most efficient form of power that exists. And the more we encourage it, the sooner we'll get to cleaner and more efficient- and safer forms yet. As in, Fusion as opposed to Fission reactors.

So that's one example of a power of 'God' we have bitten the bullet with and taken unto ourselves. Power to dismantle the fabric of matter.

Today though, we still have several questions on the table. Things it is technically feasible for us to do. And we know that, like with splitting the Atom, once done the genie can't be put back in the bottle. But the problem is, the question doesn't start when the genie is released. It starts when someone produces a bottle with a genie in it. And right now, Mankind has several genie pushing at the corks of their bottles.

The most obvious one, is genetic engineering and cloning. Most people step back in horror at hearing those terms.
Playing God.
But people aren't objective about this. The only way to be objective about these things is risk assessment.
We know a lot more about these things than we once did. We also have ample evidence to study the negative effects of a flawed Eugenics policy in the only society to introduce an entire Eugenics policy based on the flawed concept of racial superiority, rather than looking at specific genes.

We have knowledge and data of a different kind and are able to use it for far different purposes. We forget that evolution is a blind watchmaker. Evolution didn't happen to suit us. The world isn't actually stacked with animals and plants designed for our benefit, as we once thought it was. But- it could be. And whilst it is true that when we create plants and even animals to suit our needs these creations most certainly aren't natural in the traditional sense, the moral considerations that should be troubling us are the risk factors. Are we in control of what we're doing?

The big fear is that genetically modified plants and animals could supplant and extinct the natural ones. I would argue that that is always preventable, the ultimate safeguard being that really, we should be keeping genetic samples of all known species in laboratories somewhere, just in case their extinction is threatened, but otherwise I cannot quite why we would hold there as being any moral difference between any artificially created strain and one occurring in nature. The only difference is that we don't accord our own handiwork the same respect as that of nature. Yet by the same token, we allow for the possibility that our own handiwork might supplant nature's handiwork by nature's own laws. Illogical morality, really.

We should feel free to create species, but also commit to preserving all species, even if that is only as preserved specimens. We never know when we might need them.

As to tinkering with human genes, even cloning, my view on this, is that we're not looking at an if. But a when. It doesn't matter how much we protest against it, or fear it.
It is something we will do.

No stopping it. Because the bottle with the genie in exists. And no, we probably still don't know enough about it to risk it yet. But the day will come.
The day will come when the knowledge of human genetics is so great that a huge number of possible advances in our quality of life will be there for the taking and the perceived risk will get smaller as knowledge progresses.

Like it or not, the day will come when steps are taken to prevent transmission of crippling hereditary conditions, such as haemophilia. And once we start doing that, other things will become the norm too.

The question isn't any longer about stepping on God's toes- we know how people are made. It's just do we trust that people know enough about how people are made and the consequences of allowing people themselves to mess with the ingredients list to actually improve on what nature has done.

And whilst we've learned the dangers of tackling this with harebrained theories and no real knowledge (Hitler), and whilst the answer to that question is still 'No', one day the answer will be 'Yes'.
We DO know enough to take on this responsibility.

The other one of course that troubles us, is our environment.
Like it or not, our existence is having a radical effect on it. Nothing new there of course. The earth didn't start the way it is. Four billion years of life gave it this Oxygen rich atmosphere. But we're clearly having effects on it that maybe we don't want to be having if we want to carry on living here.

So what do we do?
Do we stop having those effects?
Or do we do something about it?

And again, implicit in that, is a wider question. The technology we are looking at, that is within our power, is again taking over a power once ascribed to God. The thing is, we know the theory of it. Already now, scientists can explain theoretically how human technology and satellites could 'terraform' both Mars and Venus. As in turn them into Earthlike environments.
And of course, people miss the obvious point is that if we do develop that technology, we can simply apply it to Earth too.

Terraforming could be used not just on Mars and Venus, but on Earth. Not just to keep earth the way we want it to be, but to make all of it the way we always want it to be. We could, ultimately control the weather and the temperature everywhere by satellites. We could plan an entire weather system that kept the entire globe pretty much temperate without extremes. And we wouldn't need to worry about the composition of the atmosphere because it would be perpetually controlled by satellites maintaining the atmosphere we desired.

Again, I have no doubt that this WILL happen. It's just WHEN. It's when we feel comfortable we understand enough to know that taking such a step won't result in us sitting on an atmosphere free rock exposed to cosmic radiation. But one day we'll feel that taking such a step is not much of a risk- that we really do know what we're doing. And the possibility of a perpetually verdant Earth with clean air, that can be achieved without sacrificing the perpetual advance of living standards will be worth what will now be a minimal risk. We'll know it COULD go wrong, but we'll be confident enough that our systems, our checks and balances that we have in place can protect us if it does.

We read Dystopian fiction, such as Brave New World and others and we often miss the point. These novels are warnings of the powers we are taking on. That one day, we will take on. But all Dystopias, are mirror images of Utopias. Because Dystopias are examples of what happens if we are wrong.
But we shouldn't read these novels and assume that the concepts of the advance are wrong. It is the SYSTEMS used to tackle these advances that are wrong, and THAT is the point Dystopian visions of the future highlight.
They warn us of the issues we will face when we get there.

I have only highlighted a few of the moral questions we will have to tackle. But of one thing you can be sure; every time the possibility of Mankind taking upon itself a power once reserved to God, eventually we will take it on. The question will simply be when we know enough to be sure we can, when we know our systems work.

I don't generally believe in adopting too anthropocentric a view of the universe. But I do believe that something very significant is at work in humanity. Something that underpins our entire society.
We don't admit it, but the entire history of human society has been about gaining knowledge to better our systems of living, of advancing our quality of life, about producing more of us, leading happier lives, living in more places.

And as these systems have advanced, yes, we have most certainly been taking power away from God and giving it to Man.
To Atheists I would say, well if there is no God, there is no issue here.
To believers I would point out that actually, I do believe in a deity myself, of sorts, though you might call my concept of a deity one of Impersonal Pantheism. And I would argue that if God didn't want us to learn to play God, he wouldn't have set up a Universe which it inevitable that one day we could.

We have been learning to play God since we started rubbing sticks together to make fire.
And our hearts tell us that role should be played by Man.
Because whenever we write the script for God, it is Man we cast in the part.


Anonymous said...

unfortunately there are revenge effects to every technological advance, and we are always blind to them until they happen. foresight is not our strength. for that reason i think dystopia is a more probable future for us than utopia. most likely we'll kill most of ourselves off, and that will have been our technological zenith. maybe the survivors will fund sustainable ways to live again, like our 'pre-civilized' predecessors did.

but i hope that's wrong. i hope we figure it our before it comes to that. hint: technology will have nothing to do with it. it will be in those systems you mentions - systems of living, systems of community, how we harvest and distribute resources, how we organize ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Brilliant post, Crushed. Marvelous ideas so well laid out. I have no trouble with playing god. the hallmark human evolutions are the things that make us more and more god-like. I've heard nothing attributed to gods that is not within the possibilities of eventual human accomplishment.

Hell, we've been creating life and taking it away since day one.

Anonymous said...

Off topic.. but Happy New Year crushed and everyone who reads this.

Anonymous said...

Amazing how God is trotted out as support for everything. I'm just reading "Black Wind" by F. Paul Wilson where we see it in the Japanese culture before WWII