The Nature of Nature

At the foundation of the totalitarian enterprise is the belief that everything is possible—that is, the conviction that there are no limits to what human beings can do here on earth.  We can remake both the world and ourselves.  We can trace this vision of hyper-autonomy back to the founders of the modern scientific project, Bacon and Descartes, who first suggested human beings could attain the exalted position of masters and possessors of nature.  We all live amids…

  1. Matthew Moyer

    Excellent post. The idea that has most affected me from my undergrad days has been the Elullian thesis from my philosophy of technology class. In a nutshell, man is no longer master of his society’s values. Rather, it is the efficiency-chasing leviathan of millions of apparently atomized techniques that steer the normative underpinnings our of world today. It is a chilling thought, and even chiller to know that it was the understanding of such principles that drove Ted Kaczinsky to madness.

    Baby, it’s cold outside.

  2. Matthew Moyer

    This raises the further question of whether a principled conservative can call for interference in market activity on the basis of maintaining values that are not necessarily entwined with ultimate efficiency.

  3. Mike Poliquin

    This belief that all is possible — that humans can wield God-like power for themselves — dates back to the story of the Fall of Man early in Genesis. Eve hears from the serpent that she and Adam might be like gods and believes that it is worthwhile to disobey God to attain that.

    Every instance where humans take control over the act of creating life is an equivalent error, a violation of the ultimate natural law: “Accept what you are.” We don’t descend to or below the level of animals, we simply steep ourselves in sinful arrogance.

    I don’t know that animals are capable of being that sinful, but once God has given dominion or has chosen His people, I believe that he never rescinds those gifts.

    Very interesting topic with a lot of compelling side trips.

  4. Tom Meyer
    Flagg Taylor, Guest Contributor:

    We can trace this vision of hyper-autonomy back to the founders of the modern scientific project, Bacon and Descartes, who first suggested human beings could attain the exalted position of masters and possessors of nature.  We all live amidst the enormous material benefits of their revolution in thought, but we must also wonder whether this understanding of the natural world and man’s place in it is sufficient…

    When we play God, do we not become even lower than the beasts?     ·  

    I think it’s a mistake to generalize the benefits of the scientific revolution as material and the consequences as moral: both weigh in on both sides, and in fairly equal proportions.  Just to stick with the example of productive medicine, think of the incredible moral progress we’ve made in the reduction in mortality both for women in child birth and for newborns in the last century.  The amount of allievated suffering is simply unfathomable.

    Naturalism, like technology, is a fickle friend.

  5. katievs

    Thank you for a great post, Professor.

    More and more I understand the evil overwhelming our society as involving a rejection of the given, which is of course, too, a rejection of the Giver.

  6. Flagg Taylor
    Tom Meyer

    Flagg Taylor, Guest Contributor:

    ·  

    I think it’s a mistake to generalize the benefits of the scientific revolution as material and the consequences as moral: both weigh in on both sides, and in fairly equal proportions.  Just to stick with the example of productive medicine, think of the incredible moral progress we’ve made in the reduction in mortality both for women in child birth and for newborns in the last century.  The amount of allievated suffering is simply unfathomable.

    Naturalism, like technology, is a fickle friend. · Oct 17 at 10:26am

    Tom,

    Good point.  I would just emphasize that all of this material and moral progress is not without its problematic consequences.  “Progress, yes; but a modest, cautious, ameliatory progress, chastened by the experiences of history and guided by a sense of human limits as well as possibilities.” (Gertrude Himmelfarb)  Whether the material and moral benefits weigh in “fairly equal proportions” is a key question.

  7. SMatthewStolte
    FlaggTaylor At the foundation of the totalitarian enterprise is the belief that everything is possible—that is, the conviction that there are no limits to what human beings can do here on earth.

    Mussolini: “In the Fascist conception of history, man is man only by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family, the social group, the nation,and in function of history to which all nations bring their contribution. Hence the great value of tradition in records, in language, in customs, in the rules of social life.Outside history man is a nonentity. Fascism is therefore opposed to all individualistic abstractions based on eighteenth century materialism; and it is opposed to all Jacobinistic utopias and innovations. It does not believe in the possibility of ”happiness” on earth as conceived by the economistic literature of the XVIIIth century, and it therefore rejects the theological notion that at some future time the human family will secure a final settlement of all its difficulties. …”
  8. Michael Hanby

    Being neither a true conservative (that is, a true liberal in the classical sense) nor a libertarian and thus unsure of what if anything my presence could add here, I have sat on the sidelines for months as a (nevertheless appreciative) reader of Ricochet.

    This excellent post has finally forced me to cough up the price of a latte to join in the discussion.  Though I would quibble perhaps with the implied premise of Mr. Taylor’s question, namely that some subtle form of totalitarianism is not already upon us, it seems to me that his is a question that desperately needs to be asked and to be rigorously thought through. As I understand it, the question you have posed is whether there is something in our most fundamental and cherished notions, perhaps even in our notion of freedom itself inasmuch as this underlies the modern ‘technological’ approach to nature, that leads ineluctably to its opposite and whether our immersion in and commitment to this notion serves largely to conceal the fact from us. 

    Actually, your post suggests more than this.  But is that a fair restatement of at least part of the dilemma?

  9. SMatthewStolte

    “…  This notion runs counter to experience which teaches that life is in continual flux and in process of evolution. In politics Fascism aims at realism; in practice it desires to deal only with those problems which are the spontaneous product of historic conditions and which find or suggest their own solutions. Only by entering in to the process of reality and taking possession of the forces at work within it, can man act on man and on nature.”

    That is from the Doctrine of Fascism. Available online, here. I think this suggests that there is something problematic in your claim about the heart of Totalitarianism.

  10. Flagg Taylor
    Michael Hanby: As I understand it, the question you have posed is whether there is something in our most fundamental and cherished notions, perhaps even in our notion of freedom itself inasmuch as this underlies the modern ‘technological’ approach to nature, that leads ineluctably to its opposite and whether our immersion in and commitment to this notion serves largely to conceal the fact from us. 

    Actually, your post suggests more than this.  But is that a fair restatement of at least part of the dilemma? · Oct 17 at 11:06am

    Michael,

    Glad to have you aboard.  And yes, that is a fair restatement and well put. 

  11. Flagg Taylor
    SMatthewStolte: “…  This notion runs counter to experience which teaches that life is in continual flux and in process of evolution. In politics Fascism aims at realism; in practice it desires to deal only with those problems which are the spontaneous product of historic conditions and which find or suggest their own solutions. Only by entering in to the process of reality and taking possession of the forces at work within it, can man act on man and on nature.”

     · Oct 17 at 11:07am

    The fascist rejects the materialism of the Communist.  But he embraces the notion that he can comprehend the flux or movement of history and then intervene accordingly–he can “take possession of the forces at work within it.”  The stuff about “realism” and the “spontaneous product of historical conditions” aims to convince readers that their project is of course in accord with history’s movement.  But Engels and Marx do precisely the same thing in The Communist Manifesto.  Only WE understand where history is headed.

    Nonetheless, fascism, in practice, never attained the level of totalitarian control (in Italy) as in Germany or the Soviet Union.  So perhaps there is something intrinsic that makes this so.

  12. SMatthewStolte

    [NB: Cross-posted with the above post. I haven’t read initial response yet.]

    Michael, are you the Michael Hanby over at JPII?

    Flagg,

    I’m afraid I’m very skeptical of the whole narrative about modernity and the ‘modern project’ (I know those aren’t terms you used, but your post is playing off of that narrative). I’m just not convinced there’s much coherence to the concept. Linking Bacon & Descartes to Hitler, Mussolini, & Stalin might be possible, even without the greater historical narrative, but it I can’t see how. That’s why I’d like to have the concept of ‘totalitarianism’ clarified so that the theory linking them into modernity either (a) reflects what totalitarians actually thought, or (b) accounts for any apparent disparities between the theory and the appearances. 

  13. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Flagg Taylor, Guest Contributor: At the foundation of the totalitarian enterprise is the belief that everything is possible…  We can remake both the world and ourselves.  We can trace this vision… back to the founders of the modern scientific project, Bacon and Descartes, who first suggested human beings could attain the exalted position of masters of… nature. 

    While many non-scientists look at science in the way you describe, anyone who does science — any science (including math and computer science) — at even a fairly basic level constantly runs up against the limits imposed by nature:

    • No data ever fit a theory perfectly (there’s always experimental error).

    • Nothing can be measured with arbitrary accuracy — and there are inescapable trade-offs between measuring one property and another.
    • Even in the Platonic world of mathematics, no theories containing the ordinary rules of arithmetic can be self-verifying.
    • Many computations, however basic in theory, cannot be finished within the estimated lifetime of the universe by even our fastest computers, and it’s reasonable to suppose that there’s only so fast computers will ever get.

    How can any honest scientist truly feel like a master of nature, rather than her slave?

  14. Tom Meyer
    DutchTex: Another example in the news today: a little boy who has apparently told his mothers that he wants to be a girl and thus is having hormone treatments to delay the onset of puberty.

    “We shouldn’t be mucking around with nature. We can’t assume what the outcome will be,” McHugh said. · Oct 17 at 12:02pm

    This is identifying the wrong culprit; is the problem here technological progress, or a family who thinks an 11-year-old boy can make an informed decision about hormone treatments?

    On a lighter note, I offer Caveman Science Fiction.

  15. James Gawron

    Flagg, I am a religious person.  I find Darwin an idealogue not a scientist.  However, have you ever considered what the real implications of a strict Darwinian Interpertation would be for the issue you are discussing.   The standard Darwinian just so story goes like this.  1,000,000,000 years ago there was only uni-sexuality.  The Amoeba grew bigger absorbing food then split in half.  That was reproduction.  The innovation of having two genders started then and has been a mainstay of all higher life forms.  The trend is obvious as the life forms get more complex and sophisticated the differentiation between the genders gets more pronounced.  You would be forced to conclude that human sexuality itself plays a vital role in the survival abilities of human kind.  The nightmares you describe short circuit human sexuality and throw us back 1,000,000,000 years to the uni-sexuality of the Amoeba.  If Darwin is right it would be destructive for humanity.  If the Religious point of view is right then it is sin and destructive for humanity.  Perhaps Mary Shelly got it right.  Dr. Victor Frankenstein let his vanity create the monster.  He is us.

  16. Severely Ltd.
    SMatthewStolte: I’m afraid I’m very skeptical of the whole narrative about modernity and the ‘modern project’ (I know those aren’t terms you used, but your post is playing off of that narrative). I’m just not convinced there’s much coherence to the concept. Linking Bacon & Descartes to Hitler, Mussolini, & Stalin might be possible, even without the greater historical narrative, but it I can’t see how. That’s why I’d like to have the concept of ‘totalitarianism’ clarified so that the theory linking them into modernity either (a) reflects what totalitarians actually thought, or (b) accounts for any apparent disparities between the theory and the appearances.  · 

    I’d like to hear someone address SMS’s objections, and try to keep the terminology on a layman’s level, please.

  17. Flagg Taylor
    SMatthewStolte:

    SMS,

    I’m not arguing Bacon and Descartes were totalitarians.  I’m suggesting that their understanding of nature is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of the totalitarian project.  It doesn’t seek an answer to the question of should we do x or y, but how do we do x or y.  But the other point of my post (especially the quote from the woman who aborted a twin) is how seductive all of this progress or advancement can be.  It does seem to be a wonderful thing that this woman who had not been able to conceive a child could now get pregnant.  But this very process changed her view of “the natural order” (as she put it).  She no longer saw that order in the same way–one might say she ceased to see it as an order at all.  The totalitarians claimed, quite self-consiously, to be able create a new human being–in the case of the Nazis, to create the conditions for the flourishing of the master race (everyone else could be used for experimentation, etc.).  Hope this helps explain my thoughts.  Too much for a blog post maybe.

  18. Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    Flagg Taylor, Guest Contributor

    I’m not arguing Bacon and Descartes were totalitarians.  I’m suggesting that their understanding of nature is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the emergence of the totalitarian project.

    If it’s necessary but not sufficient, then it stands to reason that there were no totalitarian projects before Bacon and Descartes, no? Is this really true?

    I’m no historian, but I had always supposed that the totalitarian impulse was always part of man’s nature, only that less technologically-advanced eras simply lacked the means to implement peoples’ totalitarian delusions as effectively as modern people have.

    By Bacon’s and Descartes’ “understanding of nature”, do you mean modern technology itself, or do you mean their philosophy,  perhaps irrespective of advances in technology?

    If technology had never advanced beyond its state at 1650 (Descarte’s death), could totalitarianism have emerged simply from philosophy alone?

  19. DutchTex

    Another example in the news today: a little boy who has apparently told his mothers that he wants to be a girl and thus is having hormone treatments to delay the onset of puberty.

    “We shouldn’t be mucking around with nature. We can’t assume what the outcome will be,” McHugh said.

  20. david foster

    “The leading cause of problems is solutions”

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