Thursday, November 02, 2006


"Sure we can build planes that fly ... "


"And we can manipulate the genome, but can we actually exceed the 'limits of nature'?"

In response to an early 1800's proposal to light English cities by gas, chemist and philosopher William H. Wollaston remarked,

"[They] might as well try to light London with a slice from the moon."

While Wollaston expressed incredulity in the face of such brazen ambition, others criticized the proposal on aesthetic grounds or on the grounds that it was “against nature”. This poem, originating during the debate, seemed to decry innovation itself:

"We thankful are that sun and moon
Were placed so very high
That no tempestuous hand might reach
To tear them from the sky.
Were it not so, we soon should find
That some reforming ass
Would straight propose to snuff them out,
And light the world with Gas."

Source: http://www.foresight.com

These reactions were not unique to the gaslight proposal. Whether in Astronomy, Medicine, Aerodynamics, Machination or Genetics, innovation has long been met with these two voices of opposition: the Voice of Pessimism and the Voice of Doom. The pessimist cries loudly that said innovation is impossible, while the doom sayer resists change for fear of losing something essentially human or of eating and drinking judgment on humanity.

However, the streets of London were lit by gas, and later by electricity; the Wright brothers did fly; a man did walk on the moon. The telephone became a common household item; followed by the radio, the television, the personal computer. Wherever naysayers and prophets have drawn a line and declared it the “limit of nature”, we have pushed beyond. This fact affords us great optimism with regard to future innovation, but is there a line which nature will not allow us to cross? Will we sail to the edge of the world and fall off? Or, since one generation's interaction with its world (innovation) changes the world of future generations, will the “limit” expand in measure as our knowledge expands? And is our sense of what “offends nature” shifting, as well? Is the “limit of nature” a mere phantom?

If we know how to make a thing work, why can’t we make it work every time? Planes crash, the power goes out, phone service is patchy and computers provide us with many hair-pulling demonstrations of the familiar acronym, FUBAR. How large a margin of error can we allow and still call an endeavor a “success”? And can we ever say we have exceeded nature's limits if we continue to experience episodic failure? What are the “limits of nature” if, in fact, they exist at all?

12 comments:

Andrew Crick said...

One way to travel from A to B is to use the internal combustion engine. One way to travel for a trillion watts of energy is to use the Gulf Stream. The side-effect of gaining our new mode of transport, may be to end one in nature.

The 'limits' of friendship may be broken by theft or violence. Confidence is lost and can be hard to regain. The way I see breaking the 'limits' of nature is similar. We can lose the 'confidence' of a beautiful world, which may then retreat, leaving us with increasingly ugly, dull and brutal forms.

Thus with the initial example, if the ice caps melt due to excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from cars, boats & planes, the North Atlantic may become desalinated. This may mean that the top current of the gulf stream, having carried it's load of energy northwards, is unable to sink and be carried back by the lower levels. The cycle warming Europe stops.

But for this argument to make sense, there has to be room within 'the limits'. What can be gained by staying within them? Will that give a clue to what they are? To quote Jacques Maritain:

"My contention is that ... the beauty of nature is all the greater, the aesthetic delight or perception in the face of Nature is all the purer and the deeper, as the impact of human life upon Nature is more profound and extensive. This may come about through the power of imagination."

I think that the forms of exchange; what we can gain from Nature and what it can gain from us, do change as we progress in knowledge and technology. But I think when we fail to act with imagination, to make the jump to seeing the ice caps melting if we continue the way we're going, for example, then we are guilty of theft and violence - losing the confidence of, breaking the limits of, nature.

Tying back to your original post, I think when referring to nature it might be more profitable to use the expression 'borders of change', rather than 'limits'.

'Limits', to me, suggests one type of experience when crossing them - which results in arguments of whether or not it's possible to cross them, resulting in the pessimist and the doomsayer. With 'borders of change', you are bound to cross them, change will happen, and so the question becomes 'What change will happen? Will be for the better, or for the worse?'.

'Limits' seems to imply that change is not good, that we shouldn't have invented the aeroplane. That it is either wholly good, or wholly bad. 'Borders of change' acknowledges that we will invent these things. Having done so, how should we use them? What effect do they have on us and the environment?

The quote from Jacques Maritain gives me room for thought. It allows me to think that there can be good change. And from his words, I think the key to whether the change I make is for the better, or for the worse, is the use, or failure to use, the power of my imagination.

What do you think about the use of the word 'limit'. Is the assumption that a static world is good? Or perhaps that a good world is static?

Rachael King said...

Andrew: Thanks for your comment. I apologize for my delayed response; I've been ill.

If you are using the word "limit" to mean a point, beyond which we have defiled nature and summoned from it "dull and brutal forms", then your "Borders of Change" or some similar phrase may indeed be desirable. If we take "limit" to mean an actual boundary that cannot be crossed (like the back wall of my closet), the question demands a different answer. Of course, a discussion intent on absolutizing those boundaries may prove futile; quite possibly, we are as unable to divine future change as our grandparents were able to imagine the internet. Moreover, as we have seen continuously demonstrated, the arenas in which it was believed God or nature would not allow our meddling, there we have successfully meddled.

I do think it is helpful, though, to a degree, to use the word, "limits". A speed limit, for example, is a recommended boundary, beyond which safe travel is significantly hindered. Are there limits we should set for ourselves (perhaps recommended by nature) to guide our interactions with the world? How can we determine what these limits are?

Wendell Berry writes, “Without a lively recognition of our own limits, we cannot even approach the issue of the limits of nature”. What are the limits to being human? In other words, what defines humanity? In determining this, we can only look to the past and the present, to what it has always meant to be human. Because of this, I would argue that speculations about the future possibility of human mind transcending body or body transcending space and time are irrelevant to the present question (though I would enjoy a philosophical discussion in this vein). What we currently know as “being human” is that we are beings, mind and body, and we interact with our environment in a particular time and a particular place to create new environments (change).

It seems evident to me that our ability to interact with and change our environment is essential to a definition of humanity. I think the doomsayer is the only person who believes a static world is a good one (or a good world is static). As I see it, there are two types of doomsayer: the arrogant type, who believes that change is bad because she is so sure that her present knowledge is immutable and complete (the Roman Catholic Church’s reaction to Galileo, for example); and the misguided type, who believes that humanity’s relationship to nature is necessarily an adversarial one, prescribing us the goal of leaving on the earth as light a “footprint” as possible. The first type is easy to dismiss (though not always easy to bypass), but the second type is more difficult to argue with because it arises out of virtuous intent. However, upon closer examination we see that it is inconsistent and, when played out logically, effectively diminishes human life. Avid environmentalists often perpetuate a false idealization of nature sans humanity, as if the world is pristine and balanced as long as we keep our grubby hands out. In reality, all of life sustains itself by consuming or changing other life. Why is it the right of a grizzly bear to fill its belly with salmon, but not the right of a man to shoot that bear to sustain his own life? I don’t know if you are perhaps falling into this misconception when you describe the world as a “beautiful world” which may retreat if we “lose its confidence”. I think you are right that we can defile nature, inciting a horrendous backlash; but to assume that nature isn’t already defiling itself, apart from us, is, I think, wrong. In fact, we alone, in the natural world, are able to heal or reverse defilement. We need to see ourselves as part of nature, rather than distinct from her.

In his essay, “Getting Along with Nature”, Wendell Berry defines nature as “…the sum of the changes made by all the various creatures and natural forces in their intricate actions and influences upon each other and upon their places.” He goes on to say, “And so it can hardly be expected that humans would not change nature. Humans, like all other creatures, must make a difference; otherwise, they cannot live.”

Still, we mustn’t kill or consume indiscriminately. A human being is a different thing from a bear and this difference is a key to defining our limits. To demonstrate this, Berry describes the repeated habit of lynx populations to over-consume snowshoe rabbits, to which nature responds by starving to death significant numbers of lynx. The “carrying capacity” of a species’ particular habitat, not the carrying capacity of its stomach, he tells us, is what determines the species’ prosperity. He then correlates the lynx’s behavior to human over-consumption of land and soil, which can lead to human starvation. Berry writes, “Unlike other creatures, humans must make a choice as to the kind and scale of the difference they make. If they choose to make too small a difference, they diminish their humanity. If they choose to make too great a difference, they diminish nature, and narrow their subsequent choices; ultimately, they diminish or destroy themselves. Nature, then, is not only our source but also our limit and measure.” This uniquely human ability to recognize patterns and courses within nature and approximate the outcomes, resonates with what you called “imagination”, and I agree with you that it gives room for thought and supplies a rough guide for action.

You don’t like the word, “limit”, and I suspect most of us in the free world don’t. It does imply less than infinite power. But I don’t believe it implies that change is bad or even undesirable. Boundaries allow for definition: they give shape and contour to a thing. My house would be a poor house, without walls. To say there are no limits to being human, is to say there is no such thing as being human. When we recognize our limitations, stemming from who we are and what the world is, we can change infinitely within those bounds.

So, our concern for the prosperous continuation of our species is defining and limiting. Other than that and the obvious current limits of time, space, matter, and knowledge, what else limits(or should limit)us?

Anonymous said...

There may be a line at which Nature will not allow us to cross, however it seems fruitless and foolish to try to define what that line is. We run the risk of sounding like Wollaston when he made his comment about lighting London with a slice of the moon.

Albert Einstein and C.S. Lewis could not seem to accept the idea of the true randomness exhibited in quantum mechanics. Einstein said, "God does not play dice." Lewis, in Miracles seemed to feel similarly that it's not that we can't predict the behavior of these systems, it's that we just don't know how to predict the behavior yet.

What's interesting about that example is that further advances and time have seemed to show that Einstein and Lewis were wrong--they were basing their views on their past experience and philosophy, but Nature seemed to behave pretty radically different from what they expected.

While I don't think we should go through life as an agnostic, saying that truth is unknowable, we need to have a certain degree of humility about our knowledge and beliefs and accept the possibility, however remote, that what we "know" today could be shaken to its core tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Clark's Three Laws:

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Rachael King said...

Anon: I agree that an attempt to find the "outer limit" of scientific possibility is fruitless, as is speculation as to whether or not a limit exists. We simply don't have enough information and it isn't really germane to our present lives.

What is significant for us is the question of what it means to be a human actor and participant in nature, because this will guide us in setting limits for ourselves. At this point in history we are physically limited by space and time (one may have theories as to why we will or won't always be, but those are of the speculative and therefore fruitless nature). My question is this: beyond these physical limits and the preservation instinct, what else should limit our research and use of inventions or technologies? Anything? I've only just dipped into an interesting book by David Rothenburg, called "Hand's End: Technology and the Limits of Nature". In it, he asks the question, "Do you need a reason to use a dishwasher?"

A better question than how far we are able to push nature, is how far (or in what direction) we *should* push and why. I allow that the answer to this in specific cases is highly individualistic (My mom shouldn't use a dishwasher, whereas I definitely should), but are there any over-arching rules of interaction that govern us all?

Rachael King said...

Also, thank you for pointing out the need for humility re: our knowledge and beliefs. Humility is key to any real knowledge. Still, as you point out, it is not the same thing as agnosticism or habitual doubt. We must act, and we can only act on what we already know. I may wake up tomorrow morning to find that my twelve year old son has developed an independence from food, but in the meantime I had better stock the refrigerator.

Anonymous said...

I think it's probably more interesting to discuss what limits we put on ourselves in using technology or knowledge than when we should stop ourselves from gaining that technology or knowledge. I really don't think you can draw a line and say, "beyond this point, we will learn no more. It's just too dangerous."

I think one of the over-arching guides we can use when deciding to use a bit of knowledge or a particular technology is, "will the use of this hurt myself or others?" It might be that watching too much TV dulls your senses, or maybe using the dishwasher is harmful to your energy bill and therefore your finances because you are single and only use up 1 or two dishes at a time. Humankind has the ability to create mass destruction with nuclear bombs. Obviously it's good that we're not using those every day.

The more difficult questions are the ones that are more nebulous. What happens when we have the ability to design humans down to the entire DNA structure (as in Gattaca)? Does that directly hurt someone? Not really... But something about that offends me, if not Nature.

Rachael King said...

Sometimes, in order to gain knowledge or acquire technology, we have to do ethically questionable things. Some people would say that an infertile woman's current-day option of in vitro fertilization is only possible through morally offensive tampering with life (creation of embryos outside the womb and the inevitable discarding of the ones that go unused). While I wouldn't call any new technology inherently bad, I do think the ethical questions surrounding it extend to more than just our use of it; namely, how we arrive at it. Your proposed rule of thumb for using technology, "Will this hurt myself or others?", could be applied to the means of discovery, as well as the use of the end product.

One thing to consider in light of the escalating rate of technological development, since the Industrial Revolution, is the way in which use of technologies changes what it means to be human. Technologies push the human experience of cause and effect further and further from us. Rather than scrubbing food off my dinner plate, I toss it into a machine and come back in the morning to clean dishes. Presto Chango! Like magic. Is something human lost in this exchange? Is what I get in return worth what I lose? If nothing else, the dishwasher removes me one degree from the washing of my dishes. It could be argued that my dishwasher makes me less intimate with my dishes, and when we cease to know a thing intimately, we can easier cease to care for it. If I don't care for my plates and saucers, I will come to see the cleaning and storing of them as burdensome, which could lead me to wonder, "what is the point in all this time-consuming bother?" and therefore view my actions (loading and unloading the dishwasher) as meaningless. Belief that our actions are meaningless is very demoralizing and tends to create stagnancy.

This is a silly example, but hopefully demonstrates what can happen when technology takes over what was once done manually. I am not a luddite. I love my internet access and my dvd's and the medical care available to me and my family. I'm just proposing we think through the ramifications of technological advancement, as we go.

Andrew Crick said...

Here are four responses in reaction to an event:

Bits and splinters of wood lying on the floor
Spiders scurying to find new nooks and crannies
A cat running out through the door
A dog barking, unsure of what to do

Now, after you've got the dog to stop barking and you peer round the wardrobe to see what's happened, you see a person, next to a large hole in the back of your wardrobe.

When talking about limits earlier, you used the example of the back of the wardrobe as an 'actual boundary that cannot be crossed'.

But I see it as a boundary that can be crossed, with a variety of consequences. I think this example might be the key to working out our differences, and I see it as relating to 'anonymous's' comments on the use of technology.

I'd like to carry on with the example, and bring in the personal level:

If it was me you found having broken the back of your wardrobe you might be angry that I damaged your property to try and prove a theoretical point.

However, if in the process of escaping from a fire I'd broken it trying to get through the disused window behind it, your concern for the wardrobe would vapourise.

With things, I find it harder to think of 'limits' because the things can be so neutral in relation to what's going on. With people, I find it easier because that's the way they act and respond. We think in terms of boundaries, we're aware of each other's boundaries, so when they're crossed, in a good way or a bad way, it means something. A friendship can become more intimate as a boundary is crossed, or a friendship can be broken as a boundary is crossed.

Even the boundaries themselves are neutral in a way, it's the intent of the person crossing them that matters. That's why I refered to 'borders of change' earlier. I also find it a handy term as it links easily to the phenomena of names. Naming something (such as 'your wardrobe') automatically introduces boundaries. When something changes and you don't know why, the end of the matter is to name to cause of the change.

If nature is there and named, and I am here and also named, then a whole set of boundaries between us must exist.

To quote Jacques Maritain again concerning the relationship between Nature and People:

"This interpenetration is quite perculiar in essence: for it is in no way a mutual absorption. Each of the two terms involved remains what it is, it keeps its essential identity, it even asserts more powerfully this identity of it's own, while it suffers the contagion or impregnation of the other. But neither one is alone; they are mysteriously commingled."

But before I go to far, what do you think about the example of the back of the wardrobe?

Rachael King said...

I can go with "borders of change", rather than limit. If I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying there are borders, which, if crossed, will result in essential change. For example, my wardrobe no longer fits the definition of a wardrobe once you have burst through the back. What you said about naming things is what I meant when I said boundaries give definition.

I like your term, because "limit" feels rigid and depressing, whereas "borders of change" is optimistic and a bit mysterious, making our goal not the crossing of a line, but the shaping of a new world, which we have the power to make either better or worse.

Please tell me more.

Which Maritain book are you quoting from?

Andrew Crick said...

Rachael: I find the phrase 'borders of change' brings in all the uncertainties and promise of a stretch of land. Rivers, woods and mountains included. The idea encourages me to be on the look out for who might be met, rather than scratching around in the ground for precise limits, trying to isolate, or capture, an unnamed something.

With the above example, I think your wardrobe would last a while longer before losing its name and becoming a pile of broken wood. But when is the exact point when is the name is lost? Is there anything that depends more on individual circumstances and is resistant to formula? Looking at a Rembrandt portrait next to one of his students, I found the students portrait neat, tidy, but in Rembrandts, I saw the person.

The phrase 'limits of nature' implies not only that there is a problem but that it lies outside of us. With 'borders of change' the 'problem' includes us. Or rather, the 'problem' becomes opportunities between us, for better or for worse.

I still find borders very interesting. Is there any regularity? Are some more definite than others? But thinking about the way the world works, I think the temptation can be to steer away from actual meeting and learning the character of names to settling for the increasingly dry sport of trying to trap what's going on in nice definitions.

The book by Jacques Maritain is 'Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry'.

Anonymous: You said: 'What happens when we have the ability to design humans down to the entire DNA structure (as in Gattaca)?'. I agree that if we become able to design a person’s character through a series of on/off switches, then everything would need to be rethought. If we are able to download a persons mind into a computer and duplicate it into any number of new bodies, then that would cause me to reject most of my beliefs. But in some breeds of chicken, genetic selection for long periods of continuous egg production has meant that the resulting chickens need to draw calcium from bone mass to sustain egg production. This turns into osteoarthritis (the report I read from the Humane Society of the United States, found here, quoted 80-89% of commercial egg laying hens suffer from this disease), meaning that the chickens become highly susceptible to broken bones. As well as being designed to accept life in a cage, this is rubbish for the chicken and anybody whose feelings are pricked by these facts. We're still struggling to produce the 'perfect chicken'. We're lousy at treating them well. We seem to be still living in the world of exchanges between desired outcomes. Given that, my beliefs in the specialness of human life may actually become stronger in the face of what we discover.

What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Andrew, I agree with your analysis. From the article you link to:

"To significantly improve the welfare of farmed birds, breeding programs must place more emphasis on skeletal and cardiovascular health in their selection of commercial strains. At the same time, there is growing need to select strains well-adapted to cage-free systems, such as aviaries and free-range systems that have significant welfare advantages"

Generally speaking, breeders will take a look at those issues only when it becomes either mandatory by law or profitable for them to do so. That's the sad truth...

If you include chickens in the category of "others" the guideline of asking the question, "will the use of this technology hurt myself or others?" seems to apply nicely here.