In this corner: former Fox News personality and non-college graduate, Glenn Beck. Glenn Beck is a neo-Luddite. He is afraid of technology. He is not alone. Many conservatives fear technology. Conservatives are, after all, wedded to the past; to the status quo. Anything new and innovative is dangerous because it disrupts their comfort zone and their sense of privilege.
Science is a friend and an offshoot of liberalism. Science birthed the democratic revolution and cannot flourish outside of a liberal environment, because, as Timothy Ferris writes, “science is inherently antiauthoritarian” (The Science of Liberty, 2010). Conservatism is, by contrast, inherently authoritarian. This is why we have books like Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science (2005) and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality (2012).
In the other corner: The Singularity, what some see as humankind’s destiny. In Episode 65 of the Big Bang Theory (“The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification“), which aired in 2010, Sheldon becomes obsessed with living long enough to transfer his consciousness into a machine, and his estimates (numbers don’t lie, he insists) reveal that he will miss “the singularity … when man will be able to transfer his consciousness into machines, and achieve immortality”.
The idea of the singularity excites some. As the Singularity Institute informs us, the Singularity is,
A future that contains smarter-than-human minds is genuinely different in a way that goes beyond the usual visions of a future filled with bigger and better gadgets. Vernor Vinge originally coined the term “Singularity” in observing that, just as our model of physics breaks down when it tries to model the singularity at the center of a black hole, our model of the world breaks down when it tries to model a future that contains entities smarter than human.
The Singularity and transhumanism horrifies others. Like Glenn Beck: “I didn’t know about it. You didn’t know about it. We have to know about it.”
Beck: Our future is going to change in the next five years, and no one is even talking about it. We have to talk about technology, the good side and the bad side. We have to have the moral and ethical debate. It is what was missing the last time progressives were in charge and there was an explosion of science, because the Nazis were there. They took new technology and they killed as many people as they possibly could…all these experiments done in the name of goodness and science and saving people!
But, of course, the Nazis were not progressives. They were conservatives. Hitler was a Catholic, a tithe-paying bourgeois Catholic, till the day he died; never, despite all his manifest crimes, excommunicated by his church. His anti-Semitism was an outgrowth of centuries of Christian, not progressive, anti-Semitism, an anti-Semitism that still lurks within conservative Christianity.
The Nazis, as Timothy Ferris relates, were not pro-science. “Hitler wanted to harness the power of science,” as Ferris says, but Hitler said, “Instruction in the sciences must be considered last in importance” (Ferris, 2010), which sounds a lot like the Republican position today. Hitler distrusted what he called “Jewish physics” in favor of “Aryan science” which was really nothing more than pseudoscience founded on 19th century prejudices that had an even older pedigree. We get something similar from the Republicans, like “sound” versus “junk science” in place of Aryan and Jewish science (Mooney, 2005).
Beck’s rant about Nazi scientific experimentation is groundless. As Ferris points out, “such obscenities can be described as science only in the rather distant sense that, say, Theodore Kaczynski’s ‘Unabomber Manifesto’ can be called philosophy” (Ferris, 2010). Remember, Hitler kicked the scientists out of Germany because they were mostly Jews. His rejection of science is one of the reasons he lost his war.
There are many books on the subject. To reference just a few that I’ve read, in Globe Quake (2012), Christian Post columnist Wallace Henley looks at the specter of the digital revolution and sees the conservative world being torn apart. Henley’s answer is to turn to God: “the light radiating from this hope cannot be doused, even if the Globequake rips apart all the power plants!”
Maxwell J. Mehlman, in Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares (2012) takes a more nuanced look at what he calls the “promise and peril of genetic engineering.” Mehlman is, like Henley, not a scientist but a bioethicist. Mehlman does not see inevitable catastrophe, but challenges that can be surmounted by caution. How, he asks, do we balance what we can do with what we should do?
With the power to shape our own gene pool, we could, he argues, theoretically, genetically engineer ourselves out of existence.
In Ethics of Emerging Technologies (2006), Thomas F. Budinger, a professor of bioengineering, and Miriam D. Budinger, a pediatrician and scientist, look at the ethical challenges of some of these new technologies that so frighten Glenn Beck and his fellow conservatives, including genetic modification, cloning, brain modifications and enhanced human beings.
These scientists stress caution also, but caution of another sort – the “risk of overplanning or overreacting to a possible consequence.” They cite Y2K as an example of a certain disaster that never happened. Mehlman cites others, and also near disasters. Rather than taking an alarmist approach, the Budinger’s point to the dangers of stifling “the introduction of important new technologies.”
Ethical dilemmas abound. Nobody is denying that. Not journalists, not ethicists, not the scientists themselves.
Another way to look at the future is to ask where, reasonably, we might expect technology to take us. Paul and Joyce Shoemaker do just this in Chips, Clones, and Living Beyond 100 (2009). Here the authors take a look at the biosciences and biomedicine, at the genome and at cloning. The postulate scenarios up to the year 2025, including a bleak bio gridlock scenario that finds biotech in retreat in a stagnant global economy, and a Golden Age scenario. The Golden Age sees many diseases cured, and medical and healthcare advances including the “secrets of slowing down aging.”
For those of us who deal daily with the reality of genetics, the hysteria of a Glenn Beck can be troubling. The very technologies he knee-jerk opposes, could revive and strengthen my own genetic line and not only improve (and save) the life of my little boy, but could allow him to be not only an inheritor, but a progenitor.
If you wish to avoid future children suffering a genetic disorder, you want to have in vitro fertilization as a viable alternative to simply hoping for the best (a literally genetic crap shoot). But conservatives would deny us this option. You want the possibility of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD, which allows doctors to screen for defects before implanting a defect-free embryo into the mother. You want the possibility of gene replacement therapy, which would for the child affected, free him of the disease that could cost him his life, or, as in my son’s case, the looming threat of neurologic disorders than could ruin that life and all the promise it represents. It would not free his own children, but it would grant him the life any of us, including Glenn Beck, would expect for ourselves.
Science can do this for us. Prayer – and Glenn Beck’s God – cannot.
As the Schoemaker’s write, “moral questions will abound” in the future, not only around questions of the creation of life, but around its end. “A great need for protection against bioscience abuses, from terrorism and human cloning to invasion of privacy and adverse selection in job search and insurance coverage will arise” (Schoemaker, 2009).
These are our realities. Holy war is another reality, as is religion-based bigotry of any kind and severity. We could fear the future; we could even shun it and try, like Glenn Beck, to turn the clock back to the Inquisition and the Crusades, which, after all, Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum told us, were not so bad after all.
We know what the past was like: life was nasty, brutish, and short, in the words of Thomas Hobbes (The Leviathan (1651). We know what the Church offers us: a replay of what they have given the world before: inquisitions, holy wars, religion-based bigotry, including the relentless persecution of the constructed Other and the abrogation of the First Amendment.
The Singularity is Schrödinger’s cat, which Erwin Schrödinger explained thusly:
One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter, there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small that perhaps in the course of the hour, one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges, and through a relay releases a hammer that shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat mixed or smeared out in equal parts.
The Blaze asks, “How has technology been abused in the past by progressives” but the question Beck will never address is, “how has religion been abused in the past by conservatives?” Conservatism will not allow a nuances view of the past any more than it will allow a nuanced view of the future. Authoritarianism does not do nuance.
We won’t know if Schrödinger’s cat is alive or dead until we open the box. We won’t know the results of humankind’s march into the future until we have marched into the future. We can fear the unknown, certainly. It’s not an unreasonable emotion, since people always fear what they do not understand. But the future holds promise and hope for better lives, while the past, a well-revealed 2,000 year Church history, holds none at all for the living, and only an unproved and unverifiable paradise for the dead.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.