Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity

The new book Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity, just published by Rowman & Littlefield, brings together essays examining the future — particularly scientific and technological visions of the future, and the role that virtue ought to play in that future. Several of the essays appeared in The New Atlantis, including essays about robots and “friendly AI,” and most of them grew out of a conference that New Atlantis contributing editor Peter A. Lawler hosted at Berry College in Georgia back in 2011. (Professor Lawler edited this new book, along with Marc D. Guerra of Assumption College.)

Lawler’s own introductory essay is a real treat, weaving together references to recent movies, philosophers and economists, the goings-on in Silicon Valley, and a Tocquevillian appreciation for the complicated and surprising ways that liberty and religion are intertwined in the United States. No one is better than Lawler at revealing the gap between who we believe ourselves to be and who we really are as a people, and at showing how our longing for liberty is really only sensible in a relational context — in a world of families, communities, institutions, citizenship, and interests.

Charles Rubin’s marvelous essay about robots and the play R.U.R. is joined by the essay that Ari Schulman and I wrote on so-called “friendly” AI. The libertarian journalist Ron Bailey of Reason magazine makes the case for radical human enhancement, arguing, among other things, that enhancement will allow people to become more virtuous. Jim Capretta and William English each contribute essays on demographics and our entitlement system. Dr. Ben Hippen discusses organ donation (and organ selling).

Patrick Deneen, Robert Kraynak, and J. Daryl Charles each offer wide-ranging essays that challenge the foundations of modernity. Deneen discusses some of the assumptions and tendencies in modern science and modern political science that corrode the very institutions, traditions, and beliefs that made them possible. Kraynak shows how thinkers like Richard Rorty and Steven Pinker must scramble to explain the roots of their beliefs about justice. Do their “human values” — mostly just secularized versions of Judeo-Christian morality — make any sense without a belief in God? And J. Daryl Charles looks at the ways that genetics and even evolutionary theory affect our understanding of moral agency, a question with implications for fields such as criminal law.

Each of the editors offers an essay about education: Lawler critiques the libertarian critique of liberal education, and Guerra explores the ways that liberal education fits (sometimes uncomfortably) in the broader setting of higher education.

The collection is rounded out by Ben Storey’s smart essay about Alexis de Tocqueville and technology — focusing not just on Democracy in America but on two of Tocqueville’s lesser known works.

So far, Science, Virtue, and the Future of Humanity is only available in a hardcover format that is rather costly (more than $80 new). Here’s hoping it comes out in a more affordable format before long. Readers of The New Atlantis and of our Futurisms blog, and indeed anyone interested in a deeper understanding of the meaning of progress, will find much to learn in its pages.

“Liberal Education Deserves a Whole Lifetime”

Speaking of liberalism and the Socratic method — and the Singularity, for that matter — here’s New Atlantis contributing editor Peter Lawler:

The “Socratic method,” so to speak, was conversational, and its results hugely time-consuming and inconclusive. The conversation in the Republic takes 14 hours, and when it’s over it’s unclear anyone knows what justice is. One thing the guys do end up agreeing on is that conversations of that importance deserve a whole lifetime. Who has that kind of time these days? (Well, things may change if the singularity really comes.) But the truth remains that liberal education does deserve a whole lifetime, and anyone who doesn’t have it is missing out.

Also, speaking of drugging people out of their psychological ills:

A good clue at what you miss is described by the philosopher-novelist Walker Percy. He contrasts the old method of conversational psychiatry (often Freudian), which involved a huge number of expensive, talky sessions and got unreliable results, with the new drug-based psychiatry which often gets fast and reliable results. The alleviation of symptoms, however, isn’t the same as really knowing what’s wrong with you. That’s why Percy said you have a right to your anxiety as an indispensable clue to who you are. Anxiety, of course, can be prelude to wonder and the joy of shared discovery. You have the right not to be diverted in one way or another from knowing the truth about who you are. The old-fashioned doctor of the soul was far less about cure than about understanding.

Setting the Record Straight

Kyle Munkittrick, the transhumanist blogger with whom we
has a newish perch over on one of Discover magazine’s blogs. In a
post today
, Munkittrick tries to zing Peter Lawler, a contributing editor
to The New Atlantis
. For now I won’t comment on the substance of
Munkittrick’s post; I just want to focus on a prefatory paragraph. He mentions
that Professor Lawler served on the President’s Council on Bioethics, then offers
this smorgasbord of smears and demonstrable falsehoods:

For those of you unfamiliar with
Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, they were the brilliant minds behind
halting stem cell research, focusing on it-worked-for-Bristol-Palin
abstinence-only sex education and being generally terrible philosophers and
thinkers. Charles Krauthammer was asked his opinion of ethical issues, I
kid you not
. In short, the PCBE happily rubber-stamped the backwards and
anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged
Christian base of the Republican party. I tell you all of this lovely
information so you have a working context for the luminary Big Think has
decided to employ.

Let’s look at these claims one by one.

Was the Council “behind halting stem cell research”?
No. First of all, stem cell research never “halted” — in fact, it received
funding from the federal government for the first time during the Bush
administration, and it flourished in the United States during the Bush years.
Second, President Bush’s stem cell funding policy was
announced on
August 9, 2001, in the same speech in which the president
announced he was going to create the Council. The Council didn’t even have its
first meeting until January
, after the policy was already in place. (The Council did, however,
publish an
extremely useful report in 2004
explaining the state of stem cell research,
as well as a
white paper in 2005
analyzing some proposed means of obtaining pluripotent
stem cells that wouldn’t require the intentional destruction of human embryos.)

Did the Council focus on “abstinence-only sex education”?
No. The Council never addressed that subject. Mr. Munkittrick is either
mistaken or lying. (Go ahead and search the Council’s publications
and meeting
for yourself. In fact, the only mention in all the Council’s
work comes from neuroscientist Patricia Churchland, an avowed secular humanist who,
in contributing a
to one report, criticizes abstinence education in passing.)

Was the Council composed of “generally terrible
philosophers and thinkers”?
I am happy to concede Mr. Munkittrick’s intimate
familiarity with terrible philosophers and thinkers, not to mention terrible
thinking. But this is a grossly unfair characterization of the Council. Among
its members were medical doctors, accomplished scientists, philosophers,
theologians, and lawyers, with a wide range of views. It also solicited
testimony and contributions from many accomplished and esteemed figures, also
with a very wide range of views. The Council’s members were very accomplished
people who often disagreed with one another on the subjects the Council debated
— disagreements that were sometimes very illuminating. (As for Dr. Krauthammer,
Mr. Munkittrick may dislike his views on national security policy, but that has
little bearing on his service on the Council.)

Did the Council “rubber-stamp the backwards and
anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged
Christian base of the Republican party”?
The latter part of this statement
is just inflammatory nonsense; the former part shows a plain ignorance of the
Council’s work. The Council was certainly not a rubberstamp, starting with its
first report, on cloning policy, in 2002
. It was such a diverse group of
scholars with such divided views that it couldn’t have been a mere rubberstamp
for any administration’s policies.

But policy wasn’t the Council’s chief concern anyway. As
Council member Gilbert Meilaender wrote
in an excellent essay for The New Atlantis
a year ago, “exploring
and examining competing goals” was the primary task of the Council. “Such
exploration is unlikely to result in a large number of policy recommendations,
but that is not its aim. The aim, rather, is to help the public and its elected
representatives think about the implications of biotechnological advance for
human life.” This is the assessment a reasonable person would have of the
Council’s work after reading any of its reports, all of which were
philosophically deep in their attempts to understand difficult bioethical issues,
but generally went lightly on the policy recommendations — so one gets the sense from this post that
Mr. Munkittrick is wholly unfamiliar with the reports issued by the body he so quickly

Finally, back to Lawler. A respected professor of political
philosophy, Lawler is the author of several wise books about modernity,
postmodernity, technology, and faith. I heartily recommend his latest book, Modern
and American Dignity
, as well as his previous book Stuck
with Virtue
; they both grapple with bioethical questions, and they both
reward careful reading.