“The Blob” was one of those horror movies from the 1950’s that I, as a young boy, found right on the boundary of “too scary to watch”. The blob that consumed everything you saw as safe was scary, to be sure, but at least, at the end, a young Steve McQueen could save the day. (The scariest movie, because of its utter hopelessness, was “On the Beach”.) And so the “blob has come down to us as something that is scary only to the very young.
A younger Christianity once found science very scary — although history shows the conflict to be a little less about science versus religion, and a little more about intra-church politics than we usually notice. But eventually, much of the Christian world reached a peace treaty with the secular world based on the notion of non-overlapping magisteria. Religion has its realm; science has another. Peace is kept by neither side jostling the other.
However, many people do not realize just how much territory has been ”occupied” since Galileo first stood under the judgment of the church centuries ago. They are still debating evolution when the science, like the 1950′s horror monster, has already enveloped them and moved on.
As science acquires the capacity to explain more and more that we once considered miraculous — as it asserts the authority to enter what had once been ceded as the magisterium of the church — what responsibility does it have to maintain rigorous scientific standards in drawing conclusions about phenomena in the newly “occupied” territories? How does science envelop religion while still being respectful of religion, and faithful (irony fully intended) to science?
The following paragraphs describe some things that come out of simple extrapolation of basic Western science. Simply an exercise in consciousness-raising about consciousness when you look at science on time scales well within our technological imaginings, let alone out into deep time where all of human history looks like the lifespan of a mayfly. These are among the miracles that science asserts the capacity (now or eventually) to explain. So what does science owe religion? And what does science owe science?
Within the lifetime of Charles Darwin, his half-cousin, Sir Francis Galton put forward the notion of eugenics as an approach to improving humanity as a whole by selectively encouraging breeding of people felt to have desirable traits and discouraging breeding by people with undesirable traits. Of course, Galton did not originate the practice of “negative eugenics” — societies have been culling the weak in times of stress to preserve resources for the group as a whole for thousands of years. But eugenics quickly gained the support of some of the most famous and progressive personalities in American and British society early in the 2oth Century.
After the horrors of Hitler’s Germany, eugenics seemed to have died. However, the ethical issues never seem to be far away and underlie a whole set of concerns reemerging in modern medicine as possibilities of cloning, stem cell research, or designer babies force us to confront the growing power of biotechnology to probe and, sooner, than we might have thought, take control of the expression of our own genetic heritage.
I don’t know whether this power will be good or bad; I suspect learning to use new powers are always part of growing up as moral beings. My point, however, is that the growing intensity of the debate simply shows how near the powers are to becoming scientific reality. We’re talking about the development of significant genetic modifications perhaps on the time frame it took to go from the Wright brothers to Mars landers.
This would give us powers to cure many diseases and create many new material goods – which is why so much money is being poured into biotechnology — but what might it also create? Would we want to increase our average IQ by 20%? Make our bodies age more slowly? Change our bodily forms to more closely match cultural sexual ideals? Make ourselves more accepting of our cultural norms and belief systems? Those are all things we’ve already tried to produce in our children without conscious control of our genetics. Even questions about the meaning of life — or at least why we ask questions about the meaning of life that we choose to ask — can rapidly fall within a controlled evolution paradigm.
Cyberlife is another element that is on the science horizon, and that is forcing us to think anew about what it means to be “alive”. Perhaps it may someday force us to ask what it means to be self-aware. We already all use “anti-viral” software to protect ourselves from programming code that replicates and spreads. More interestingly, we have discovered that mimicking evolution can be a highly efficient way of optimizing computer programs to solve some extraordinarily complex problems.
Finding ways to create machines that can achieve goals in the real world — to create artificial intelligence — at a level comparable to humans has been an active area of science since the 1950′s. In some ways it has been enormously successful. In other ways it has been enormously disappointing. The mechanisms that underlie some human problem solving play to the enormous speed and memory advantages of computers, but some of the methods used by our minds don’t appear to rely on those strengths at all. For example, as the artificial intelligence link above points out, computers are great at playing chess, but inferior at playing “go”, despite vast effort at programming computers to play the latter game.
This suggests an approach of increasingly improving life by matching machine intelligence with human intelligence — although it will cost a lot more than the $6 million man of the TV show — to get the best of both types of intelligence. We already have myoelectric prosthesis, in which signals from residual nerve clusters in the human body are sensed by electrodes and used to more naturally control the movement of artificial limbs. What the human brain might be able to control remotely by mind with a few centuries (decades?) of technological development — power systems, transportation systems, etc. — is clearly a question subject to scientific exploration.
The modern species of humanity has been around on the order of 100,000 years, according to the best fossil and mitochondrial DNA evidence. Civilizations based on agriculture rather than nomadic hunter-gatherer methods have been around on the order of 10,000 years. Civilizations based on rudimentary scientific observation beyond that necessary for agriculture have been around longer than, but on the order of, 1000 years. The industrial revolution began on the order of 100 years ago.
Human technological capabilities do seem to be accelerating. But how far? What if technological civilization lasts 1000 years more? Ten thousand years more? One million years? If our capabilities are god-like to our ancestors living at the end of the last ice age, would we even be able to relate to the capabilities of our descendents 1,000.000 years from now? Would we even recognize them as our descendents?
And what about civilizations elsewhere that got millions of years of a head start on us? The search for such civilizations has itself been a matter of science since at least the Green Bank Conference in 1960. There are even classification systems for the level of technology in such civilizations, at least one of which extrapolates from growth in energy consumption the emergence of a galaxy-wide human civilization in as little additional time as the time humanity has already been on earth — a time that is a geological nothing.
Again, my point in the above discussion is that these are all issues that science already considers within the realm of scientific inquiry. They all can and do generate papers and presentations in peer-reviewed journals and conferences. And I haven’t even touched any of the exotic ideas that scientists are suggesting as working hypotheses to explain gaps we know we do not understand!
The above topics are simply extrapolations of things we think we do know. Their uncertainty is so large that they have little or no predictive value. They permit earth to be everything from the most advanced civilization currently alive in the galaxy to the equivalent of a preserve for primitive wildlife. But the issues are clearly within the realm of science as scientists (in some disciplines, at least) already practice it.
And I have long since crossed the border defined between the natural and the supernatural, between the scientific and the philosophical or theological, when the concept of non-overlapping magisteria was defined in the West.
So I am suggesting that the boundary between science and religion can no longer be a matter of the phenomena being described themselves. It isn’t about whether or not we consider the meaning of facts versus the nature of facts either. As I’ve noted above, science is already probing scientifically the “meaning of meaning” as it probes the mysteries of the human brain and infers things about the nature of the human mind. It isn’t even about repeatability, since evolution and history themselves are sciences, yet we are nowhere close to hoping to repeat them even in simulations.
But as it contemplates its new responsibilities over what once was the realm of religion, science has a responsibility to itself not to fall into the same logical trap it claims creationists fall into: “If hypothesis X (evolution) can not explain everything, than hypothesis Y (creationism) need not yet explain anything, no matter how large the holes in hypothesis Y in absolute terms.” The same logical trap exists when X is religious, and Y is secular instead.
Science cannot start accepting sloppy evidence for its own explanations of the “miraculous”, i.e., evidence so sloppy it would not accept the evidence in any other field of its own endeavors.
In fiction, we can have Sherlock Holmes say, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains — however improbable — must be the truth.” I would suggest that for science to be true to its own methods, even when dealing with the “miraculous”, it must say something else. “When you have eliminated the impossible, and whatever remains is still highly improbable, it is most probable that you have not yet imagined the truth.”