Human Flourishing or Human Rejection?

Sometimes, when we criticize transhumanism here on Futurisms, we are accused of being Luddites, of being anti-technology, of being anti-progress. Our colleague Charles Rubin ably responded to such criticisms five years ago in a little post he called “The ‘Anti-Progress’ Slur.”

In his new book Eclipse of Man, Professor Rubin explores the moral and political dimensions of transhumanism. And again the question arises, if you are opposed to transhumanism, are you therefore opposed to progress? Here, in a passage from the book’s introduction, Rubin talks about the distinctly modern idea that humanity can better its lot and asks whether that goal is in tension with the transhumanist goal of transcending humanity:

Even if the sources of our misery have not changed over time, the way we think about them has certainly changed between the ancient world and ours. What was once simply a fact of life to which we could only resign ourselves has become for us a problem to be solved. When and why the ancient outlook began to go into eclipse in the West is something scholars love to discuss, but that a fundamental change has occurred seems undeniable. Somewhere along the line, with thinkers like Francis Bacon and René Descartes playing a major role, people began to believe that misery, poverty, illness, and even death itself were not permanent facts of life that link us to the transcendent but rather challenges to our ingenuity in the here and now. And that outlook has had marvelous success where it has taken hold, allowing more people to live longer, wealthier, and healthier lives than ever before.

So the transhumanists are correct to point out that the desire to alter the human condition runs deep in us, and that attempts to alter it have a long history. But even starting from our perennial dissatisfaction, and from our ever-growing power to do something about the causes of our dissatisfaction, it is not obvious how we get from seeking to improve the prospects for human flourishing to rejecting our humanity altogether. If the former impulse is philanthropic, is the latter not obviously misanthropic? Do we want to look forward to a future where man is absent, to make that goal our normative vision of how we would like the world to be?

Francis Bacon famously wrote about “the relief of man’s estate,” which is to say, the improvement of the conditions of human life. But the transhumanists reject human life as such. Certain things that may be good in certain human contexts — intelligence, pleasure, power — can become meaningless, perverse, or destructive when stripped of that context. By pursuing these goods in abstraction from their human context, transhumanism offers not an improvement in the human condition but a rejection of humanity.

For much more of Charlie Rubin’s thoughtful critique of transhumanism, pick up a copy of Eclipse of Man today.

the Baconians of Mountain View

One small cause of satisfaction for me in the past few years has been the decline of the use of the word “postmodern” as a kind of all-purpose descriptor of anything the speaker thinks of as recent and different. The vagueness of the term has always bothered me, but even more the lack of historical awareness embedded in most uses of it. I have regularly told my students that if they pointed to a recent statement that they thought of as postmodern I could almost certainly find a close analogue of it from a sixteenth-century writer (often enough Montaigne). To a great but unacknowledged degree, we are still living in the fallout from debates, especially debates about knowledge, that arose more than four hundred years ago.

One example will do for now. In what became a famous case in the design world, five years ago Doug Bowman left Google and explained why:

When I joined Google as its first visual designer, the company was already seven years old. Seven years is a long time to run a company without a classically trained designer. Google had plenty of designers on staff then, but most of them had backgrounds in CS or HCI. And none of them were in high-up, respected leadership positions. Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions. With every new design decision, critics cry foul. Without conviction, doubt creeps in. Instincts fail. “Is this the right move?” When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such minuscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

What Bowman thought of as a bug — “data [was] paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions” — the leadership at Google surely thought of as a feature. What’s the value of “daring design decisions”? We’re trying to get clicks here, and we can find out how to achieve that.

With that story in mind, let’s turn to Michael Oakeshott’s great essay “Rationalism in Politics” and his account therein of Francis Bacon’s great project for setting the quest for knowledge on a secure footing:

The Novum Organum begins with a diagnosis of the intellectual situation. What is lacking is a clear perception of the nature of certainty and an adequate means of achieving it. ‘There remains,’ says Bacon, ‘but one course for the recovery of a sound and healthy condition — namely, that the entire work of understanding be commenced afresh, and the mind itself be from the very outset not left to take its own course, but guided at every step’. What is required is a ‘sure plan’, a new ‘way’ of understanding, an ‘art’ or ‘method’ of inquiry, an ‘instrument’ which (like the mechanical aids men use to increase the effectiveness of their natural strength) shall supplement the weakness of the natural reason: in short, what is required is a formulated technique of inquiry….

The art of research which Bacon recommends has three main characteristics. First, it is a set of rules; it is a true technique in that it can be formulated as a precise set of directions which can be learned by heart. Secondly, it is a set of rules whose application is purely mechanical; it is a true technique because it does not require for its use any knowledge or intelligence not given in the technique itself. Bacon is explicit on this point. The business of interpreting nature is ‘to be done as if by machinery’, ‘the strength and excellence of the wit (of the inquirer) has little to do with the matter’, the new method ‘places all wits and understandings nearly on a level’. Thirdly, it is a set of rules of universal application; it is a true technique in that it is an instrument of inquiry indifferent to the subject-matter of the inquiry.

It is hard to imagine a more precise and accurate description of the thinking of the Baconians of Mountain View. They didn’t want Bowman’s taste or experience. He might have been the most gifted designer in the world, but so what? “The strength and excellence of the wit (of the inquirer) has little to do with the matter.” Instead, decisions are “to be done as if by machinery” — no, strike that, they are to be done precisely by machinery and only by machinery. Moreover, there is no difference in technique between a design decision and any other kind of decision: the method of letting the data rule “is an instrument of inquiry indifferent to the subject-matter of the inquiry.”

Oakeshott’s essay provides a capsule history of the rise of Rationalism as a universal method of inquiry and action. It focuses largely on Bacon and Descartes as the creators of the Rationalist frame of mind and on their (less imaginative and creative) successors. It turns out that an understanding of seventeenth-century European thought is an indispensable aid to understanding the technocracy of the twenty-first century world.

On Monstrosities in Science

In response to my previous post about dolphin babies and synthetic biology, Professor Rubin offered a thoughtful comment — here’s an excerpt:

A wonderful, thought-provoking post! I suppose that “taking these speculative and transgressive fantasies about science too seriously” would mean at least failing to look critically at whether they are even possible, given what we now know and are able to do. That is indeed an important task, although it is also a moving target–the fantasies of a few decades ago have been known to become realities. To that extent, taking them “too seriously” might also mean failing to distinguish between the monstrous and the useful. That is to say, one would take the fantasies too seriously if one accepted at face value the supposed non-monstrousness of the goal being advanced or (to put it another way) if one accepted the creation of monsters as something ethically desirable.

I’m grateful for Charlie’s comment — you should read the whole thing — not least because it gives me the delightful opportunity to pontificate a bit more on the moral implications of this sort of monstrosity.

There are indeed a number of technologies that are on the border of the monstrous and the useful. And, just as many things that decades ago were considered technically fantastic but are now realities, there are many practices that were once considered morally “fantastic” (i.e., monstrous) but are now widely accepted, such as in vitro fertilization (IVF, the technique for producing so-called “test-tube babies”) or organ transplantation. (Though these technologies have become broadly accepted by society, neither are by any means wholly uncontroversial or devoid of moral implications—many still find IVF morally problematic, and proposals to legalize the sale of organs for transplantation are a matter of ongoing controversy.) Scientists sometimes make what was once monstrous seem acceptable, but largely through showing that what is monstrous can be useful — meaning that a seemingly monstrous practice has some actual benefits, and that whatever risks it poses are relatively limited. This is the refrain often heard in debates over assisted reproductive technologies, that though IVF was once considered monstrous, after forty years and millions of babies provided more or less safely for infertile couples, the practice is, advocates claim, now largely unobjectionable.

To take a biotechnological example that is in some respects analogous to Ai Hasegawa’s dolphin-baby project, consider the possibility of growing human organs in pigs or other animals. There is something monstrous about human-pig chimeras — creating them violates taboos relating to bodily integrity and the immiscibility of species — but there is something very useful about having a ready supply of kidneys or pancreases, and so human-pig chimeras are a logical extension of Baconian (forgive the pun) science’s effort to relieve man’s estate and all that. Whether human-pig chimeras or any other useful but monstrous innovations of Baconian science are ethically acceptable is just the sort of question that deserves serious attention.

reasonable

Unlike IVF or human-pig chimeras, it seems very difficult to imagine a situation in which ordinary people could see the birthing and eating of dolphins as useful, that is, as conducive to securing the possession or enjoyment of anything a rational person might consider good, such as health. Though Hasegawa does offer a justification for the project with a few bromides about overpopulation and saving endangered species, it goes without saying that the gestation and consumption of dolphins by human beings could hardly contribute to ameliorating these perceived problems. In her description of the project, Hasegawa states that the gestation of dolphins could “satisfy our demands for nutrition and childbirth” and poses the question “Would raising this animal as a child change its value so drastically that we would be unable to consume it because it would be imbued with the love of motherhood?” As for nutrition, it is obviously patently irrational to gestate your meal — the energy required for such a project far exceeds the nutritional value of the “product.”

More interesting is the idea that giving birth to a non-human animal could satisfy a woman’s demand for “childbirth” and that the act of gestating an animal could “change its value” and imbue it “with the love of motherhood.” Such statements indicate that this project does not really aim at helping people secure the enjoyment of things that they currently value, but at transforming values by questioning the relationship between motherhood’s natural purpose and context and its value.

Hasegawa’s project seems comparable to Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” for solving hunger and overpopulation by eating babies, which was a satire of amoral rationalistic utilitarianism. But one hardly gets an impression of an excess of rationality in Hasegawa’s proposal. The video portraying her giving birth to a dolphin might be seen as creepy or silly, but its creepiness and silliness comes from an absurd misapplication of parental sentiment, not the absurd absence of parental sentiment in Swift’s satire.

*   *   *

Hasegawa’s project is not the useful science of Bacon, but the “gay science” of Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that science (including both the natural and social sciences) had a tendency to undermine moral values as it studied them. In his typical overwrought style, Nietzsche prophesied that after scientists of various kinds completed their studies of the history, psychology, and diversity of moral values, then

the most insidious question of all would emerge into the foreground: whether science can furnish goals of action after it has proved that it can take such goals away and annihilate them; and then experimentation would be in order that would allow every kind of heroism to find satisfaction—centuries of experimentation that might eclipse all the great projects and sacrifices of history to date. So far, science has not yet built its cyclopic buildings; but the time for that, too, will come.

Hasegawa would seem to be one of those heroic experimenters who seeks to build new values out of the rubble of exploded notions of the good life (in this case, motherhood). The destroyers of these values have been those legions of industrious scientists over the twentieth century — including social scientists, many of whom have been highly influenced by Nietzsche — who have sought to explain or explain away moral values in terms of power or greed or evolutionary drives.

not reasonable

Sensible people should reject both halves of Nietzsche’s prophecy about the future of science. We should reject the premise that science has an inherent tendency to destroy moral values on both pragmatic and theoretical grounds. Pragmatically, it is unwise to give public credence to the idea that science undermines morality, since, whatever the real validity of that proposition, if it is accepted it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy — believing that science refutes morality could lead to the abandonment of morality. Theoretically, accepting the idea that science can refute morality seems to lead directly to relativism or nihilism. For if science qua science (and not overconfident deviations from science like scientism that lack the epistemic rigor that science must necessarily strive for) refutes morality, then there could be no true moral knowledge (for if moral knowledge were true, then it could not truly be refuted by science).

If we reject that premise, then there would be no need for the simply monstrous projects aimed at inventing or transforming values — Nietzsche’s “most insidious question” never emerges. Bacon’s science and its fruits often call for us to balance the moral need to avoid the monstrous with the moral demand to pursue the useful, and we will all surely continue to face dilemmas of how to balance these moral demands. But we need not worry about those who claim that the progress of science alters the nature of morality itself.

the supernova (concluded)

See part one here

Thirty years after that supernova made its remarkable appearance in Earth’s skies, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe would recall his first sight of it:

Amazed, and as if astonished and stupefied, I stood still with my eyes fixed intently upon it. When I had satisfied myself that no star of that kind had ever shone forth before, I was led into such perplexity by the unbelievability of the thing that I began to doubt my own eyes.

Like John Dee and Francis Bacon in England, Tycho knew that according to the Ptolemaic system that had been firmly in place for hundreds of years, the real problem was “that [the supernova] was in the celestial, not the Elementary Region” — that is, that is was not within the cycles of the planets, which were known to move and change (the word “planet” means “wanderer”) but in the more distant realm of the so-called “fixed stars,” the supposedly unchanging backdrop to the celestial machinery. Whether or not the exploding star was a God-sent sign to King Charles of France or not, it was a powerful blow to the Ptolemaic system.

In a lucid essay on this event, the noted astronomer Owen Gingerich writes that “Tycho had, first of all, the imagination to formulate an interesting research strategy, secondly, the ingenuity to devise the instruments to carry out the research, and thirdly, the ability to draw significant conclusions from his results.” John Dee may have understood the general import of the event but only Tycho went about exploring it in a serious way. Gingerich is interested primarily in the technical challenges that Tycho faced, and triumphantly met, but he notes in passing that the Cassiopeia nova “was by no means the end of Aristotelian cosmology, but it was the beginning of the end.”

This is perhaps an understatement. C. S. Lewis in his The Discarded Image comments that “the great Nova in Cassiopeia of November 1572 was a most important event for the history of thought.” Lewis points to F. R. Johnson’s 1937 book Astronomical Thought in Renaissance England: A Study of the English Scientific Writing from 1500 to 1645 — which is still worth reading, by the way — for evidence that the community of natural philosophers in England at least, and presumably elsewhere, were deeply shaken by the nova’s appearance.

It’s a really fascinating moment in intellectual history. The Ptolemaic theory was already being challenged and would in any case have eventually fallen, but this single event did more rapid and serious harm to it than any articulated theory could have. A whole system of belief was effectively brought to its knees by a few incontrovertible astronomical observations.

the supernova (1)

a superbright supernova

Historians have long debated the role that King Charles IX played in the great and terrible St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of French Protestants in 1572. It has been common to give the primary responsibility to his mother, Catherine de Medici, and to see the King as meekly complying with her wishes — but one old tradition says that Charles said “Kill them all,” thus warranting utter extermination of the Huguenots.

It was widely believed at the time that Charles had ordered the massacre. Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s successor in Geneva, who would end up taking in many refugees from the persecution, believed that Charles had openly confessed to this role — or so says Francis Bacon in his journals.

According to Bacon, Beza believed that God had sent a sign of judgment upon Charles: a stella nova, a surprising new star that appeared in the constellation of Cassiopeia soon after the massacre — a star so bright that it could even sometimes be seen in the daytime.

Theodor Beza wittily applied it to that star which shone at the birth of Christ, and to the murdering of the infants under Herod, and warned Charles the Ninth, King of France, who had confessed him self to be the author of the Massacre of Paris, to beware, in this verse: Tu vero Herodis sanguinolente, time — “And look thou bloody Herod to thy self”; and certainly he was not altogether deceived in his belief, for the fifth month after the vanishing of this star, the said Charles, after long and grievous pains, died of excessive bleeding.

We do not know whether Charles took Beza’s warning seriously — he may have been too busy dying — but the star was not visible only in France, and at least one other great prince of the age was concerned about what it might mean. England’s Queen Elizabeth I called in her great advisor on matters scientific, astronomical, astrological, and occult, John Dee, and Dee — again according to Bacon — was able to demonstrate “that it was in the celestial, not the Elementary Region; and they are of opinion that it vanished by little and little in ascending. Certainly after the eighth month all men perceived it to grow less and less.”

Dee’s discovery was more important than we can readily perceive now.

To be continued…

The New Atlantis (final installment)

One last thought about The New Atlantis. Here’s how the Father of Salomon’s House describes the various roles of the members of his college:

For the several employments and offices of our fellows; we have twelve that sail into foreign countries, under the names of other nations, (for our own we conceal); who bring us the books, and abstracts, and patterns of experiments of all other parts. These we call Merchants of Light.

We have three that collect the experiments which are in all books. These we call Depredators.

We have three that collect the experiments of all mechanical arts; and also of liberal sciences; and also of practices which are not brought into arts. These we call Mystery-men.

We have three that try new experiments, such as themselves think good. These we call Pioneers or Miners.

We have three that draw the experiments of the former four into titles and tables, to give the better light for the drawing of observations and axioms out of them. These we call Compilers.

We have three that bend themselves, looking into the experiments of their fellows, and cast about how to draw out of them things of use and practise for man’s life, and knowledge, as well for works as for plain demonstration of causes, means of natural divinations, and the easy and clear discovery of the virtues and parts of bodies. These we call Dowry-men or Benefactors.

Then after divers meetings and consults of our whole number, to consider of the former labours and collections, we have three that take care, out of them, to direct new experiments, of a higher light, more penetrating into nature than the former. These we call Lamps.

We have three others that do execute the experiments so directed, and report them. These we call Inoculators.

Lastly, we have three that raise the former discoveries by experiments into greater observations, axioms, and aphorisms. These we call Interpreters of Nature.

I think we see here a profitable way to reorganize institutions of higher learning. Who needs “departments” (English, Philosophy, Physics, Business)? We should have categories of people: we need Mystery-men, Inoculators, and Lamps.

It might also be interesting for each of us to ask, Which of these am I?
And as a P.S., please check out this overview of the book from the pages of this esteemed journal. It’s an account very different from my brief and amateurish one.

The New Atlantis (4)

The third section of The New Atlantis concerns the narrator’s interview with the Father of Salomon’s House, “which house, or college . . . is the very eye of this kingdom,” or, as is later said, “the lantern of this kingdom. It is dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God.”

When the narrator, having heard much of Salomon’s House, finally meets this Father — whose elaborate dress is, curiously, described in great detail — the great man describes the purposes and works of his community of scholars. What critics often note about this description is its emphasis on what we would now call experimental science, conducted according to an inductive method: this is the “Francis Bacon as the father of modern science reading,” and it’s right. But I’m interested in a few other things.

First: I noted in an earlier post that the effusive pieties of the early pages of the book seem to fade as the narrative moves on, and you can see that in the Father’s description of the House. It was the Governor of the city of Bensalem who had described the place as “dedicated to the study of the works and creatures of God”; but the Father says, “First, I will set forth unto you the end [that is the goal, the telos] of our foundation. . . . The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”

Enlarging the bounds of human empire — this does not exactly savor of divinity. And aside from a “God bless you” at the beginning and at the end of his discourse, the Father says not one word about their explorations as connected with those religious beliefs that, we are told, are so central to the life of this kingdom.

I think here of a powerful passage from C. S. Lewis’s great history of sixteenth-century English literature, a passage concerning the theory and practice of magic:

This glance at a forgotten, but influential, philosophy will help, I hope, to get rid of the false groupings which our ex post facto judgments of ‘enlightenment’ and ‘superstition’ urge us to impose on the past. Freed from those, we can see that the new magia, far from being an anomaly in that age, falls into its place among the other dreams of power when then haunted the European mind. Most obviously it falls into place beside the thought of Bacon. His endeavour is no doubt contrasted in our minds with that of the magicians; but contrasted only in light of the event, only because we know that science succeeded and magic failed. That event was then still uncertain. Stripping off our knowledge of it, we see at once that Bacon and the magicians have the closest possible affinity. Both seek knowledge for the sake of power (in Bacon’s words, as ‘a spouse for fruit’ not a ‘curtesan for pleasure’), both move in a grandiose dream of days when man shall have been raised to the performance of ‘all things possible.’ . . . Nor would Bacon have denied the affinity: he thought the aim of the magicians was ‘noble.’

So the calm, order, and harmony of Bensalem, indeed of the whole kingdom, exists so that the few wise men of Salomon’s House may without impediment dream their “dreams of power,” power that enlarges the bounds of human empire. Bacon repeatedly assures us that the wise men of Salomon’s House use their power wisely and for the benefit of their fellow citizens — that they are uncorrupted by their secret knowledge and the powers it yields them. Now that’s a dream.

The New Atlantis (3)

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Bacon’s unfinished The New Atlantis falls quite naturally into three parts. The first merely orients us to the story by explaining how the narrator and his crew came to this mysterious island. The second and third provide the real meat of the fragment, and stand in interesting relation to each other.

The second section describes in some detail a central ritual of Bensalem:

One day there were two of our company bidden to a Feast of the Family, as they call it. A most natural, pious, and reverend custom it is, shewing that nation to be compounded of all goodness. This is the manner of it. It is granted to any man that shall live to see thirty persons descended of his body alive together, and all above three years old, to make this feast which is done at the cost of the state. The Father of the Family, whom they call the Tirsan, two days before the feast, taketh to him three of such friends as he liketh to choose; and is assisted also by the governor of the city or place where the feast is celebrated; and all the persons of the family, of both sexes, are summoned to attend him. These two days the Tirsan sitteth in consultation concerning the good estate of the family. There, if there be any discord or suits between any of the family, they are compounded and appeased. There, if any of the family be distressed or decayed, order is taken for their relief and competent means to live. There, if any be subject to vice, or take ill courses, they are reproved and censured. So likewise direction is given touching marriages, and the courses of life, which any of them should take, with divers other the like orders and advices. The governor assisteth, to the end to put in execution by his public authority the decrees and orders of the Tirsan, if they should be disobeyed; though that seldom needeth; such reverence and obedience they give to the order of nature. The Tirsan doth also then ever choose one man from among his sons, to live in house with him; who is called ever after the Son of the Vine.

The narrator then describes the liturgy of this Feast — for a highly liturgical ceremony it is — in considerable detail. It is clear that the whole point is to reinforce and consolidate the family patriarch as the source of social order. It’s strongly suggested that this is how a society is made to run smoothly: when its primary political unit is the family and its primary authorities the fatherly heads of families. It’s like Genesis 48 and 49 made into the first principle of political order — and make no mistake, order is what politics is about in this story.

But in light of the rest of the work, it would seem that this order is primarily good because it makes it possible for the natural philosophers in Salomon’s House to do their work. Bacon seems to be invoking a version of the Eloi-Morlock distinction — from H. G. Wells by way of Neal Stephenson — to suggest that the role of the Many is to preserve order so that the Few may pursue knowledge and wisdom. More about that knowledge and wisdom in another post. . . .

The New Atlantis (2)

Reading the first few pages of The New Atlantis, I was surprised by its effusive piety. God is invoked at every turn, and our narrator places particular emphasis on the Christian orthodoxy of the people of Bensalem.

I was surprised because not only is Bacon not noted for his devotion to Christianity, but he was often in his own day suspected of atheism. (While invariably affirming Christian truth, he would also say things like this: “Atheism leaves a man to sense, to philosophy, to natural piety, to laws, to reputation; all which may be guides to an outward moral virtue, though religion were not; but superstition dismounts all these, and erecteth an absolute monarchy, in the minds of men” — from the essay “Of Superstition”). If you look at his most famous writings, his Essays, you’ll see that while his moral meditations often invoke classical precedents and philosophical stances — especially Stoicism — references to Christian scripture are rare. Bacon certainly seems to be one of those figures of the early modern world, like Montaigne or Machiavelli, whose Christianity feels nominal at best, a discreet covering for skepticism.

Yet here we have repeated insistence on the orthodoxy of the inhabitants of the New Atlantic, coupled with many protestations of piety by the narrator.

Well, that stuff doesn’t last all that long. As I noted in my previous post, Bacon didn’t live to finish the book, and we don’t know how long it would have been, how detailed its portrait of Bensalem would have become. (It’s even possible that Bacon would have had his narrator visit other parts of the island, not just the city of Bensalem.) But it’s still interesting to see how nearly completely the piety is left behind.

The New Atlantis may be said to fall into three parts. The first describes how the narrator and his men arrived on the island, how they were received there, and how they were housed and cared for.

The second section deals with the domestic arrangements of the Atlantaens, with a focus on an elaborate ritual called The Feast of the Family, accompanied by a discourse on the wonderful sexual purity of the island’s inhabitants.

The fragment concludes with a detailed accounting of the works, inventions, and researches of the inhabitants of Salomon’s House: the “natural philosophers” (as Bacon would have said) or “scientists” (as we would say) of the culture. This section is as devoted a commendation of technopoly as one could wish for. It will be the chief focus of my later comments.

Bacon and the New Atlantis

I think I may continue, at least from time to time, this practice of book-blogging. I hope no one minds. But even if you do mind, I’ll probably do it anyway. I am an independent-minded blogger.

Anyway, I was thinking that if I can blog my way through a book that’s twenty-five years old, why not blog my way through one that’s four hundred years old? And why not let that be the book that this journal is named after, Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis? This one will just occupy two or three posts.

Bacon never finished The New Atlantis: it seems to have been one of his chief occupations in the few years between his being driven in disgrace from political power and his death. It is therefore impossible to know what his plans for it were: whether it would have been considerably longer and more detailed than it currently is, or only slightly longer; whether the scenes that we now have are essentially finished, or whether they would have been fleshed out more fully. So we’ll just have to take it as it is, and assume that it’s a fair general representation of Bacon’s thinking on the issues that concerned him. And these issues are important ones.