Daedalus And Icarus Revisited

  • Date: 04/02/14
  • Charles T. Rubin, The New Atlantis

The debate enshrined in Daedalus and Icarus suggests that today the great increase in our powers co-exists with a diminished capacity to think about them with any kind of moral realism. By slighting ethics, Haldane and Russell did not serve the cause of science well, since science only matters in human terms if it truly serves our humanity. And that is by no means guaranteed.

'Icarus' by Bertrand Russell and 'Daedalus' by J.B.S. Haldane

Doubts about the goodness of scientific and technological progress are hardly new, and fears about the dangers of human knowledge existed long before it became plausible to worry that the fate of the entire world might be in peril. The physicist Freeman Dyson offers one common — and very modern — way of describing our predicament: “Progress of science is destined to bring enormous confusion and misery to mankind unless it is accompanied by progress in ethics.” In other words, we need some novel ethic to match our technological ingenuity. But progress in ethics might also mean what Abraham Lincoln had in mind when describing the principles of the Declaration of Independence as “a standard maxim for free society … constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated.” Dyson’s idea suggests new ideals replacing old ones as history moves technologically forward; Lincoln’s idea suggests more permanent human aspirations that serve as the measure of different ages. Either meaning poses very serious challenges. Genuinely novel ethics are not always genuine improvements, while many anciently articulated ethical goals remain elusive.

The ambiguity in the meaning of moral progress is at the heart of a 1923 debate between biochemist J. B. S. Haldane and logician Bertrand Russell, two of the greatest and most argumentative public intellectuals of twentieth-century Britain. Haldane, who would go on to an extremely distinguished career as a biochemist and geneticist, spoke under the auspices of the Cambridge Heretics discussion club. Russell, already a famous philosopher, answered him as part of a speakers series sponsored by the Fabian Society under the general title, “Is Civilization Decaying?” The published version of Haldane’s remarks created no little controversy; even Albert Einstein had a copy in his library. There is also little question that Haldane’s work influenced two of the greatest British critics of scientific and technological progress: Julian Huxley and C. S. Lewis.

The titles of the essays, Haldane usingDaedalus and Russell Icarus, support the common idea that Haldane writes as an advocate of progress and Russell as a skeptic. While this view is understandable, it is hardly exhaustive. Haldane freely highlights horrible possibilities for the future, and he is quite blunt about the socially problematic character of scientific research and scientists. Russell, on the other hand, can imagine circumstances (albeit unlikely ones) where the power of science could be ethically or socially constrained. The real argument is about the meaning of and prospects for moral progress, a debate as relevant today as it was then. Haldane believed that morality must (and will) adapt to novel material conditions of life by developing novel ideals. Russell feared for the future because he doubted the ability of human beings to generate sufficient “kindliness” to employ the great powers unleashed by modern science to socially good ends.

Both authors explore the problem of relating moral and technological progress with sufficient depth that we would benefit by reexamining this debate with a view to our own time. But the manner in which they frame the problem stands in the way of articulating a clear moral goal that might serve as progress’s purpose and judge. With serious ethical discussion thus sidelined, technological change itself becomes the fundamental imperative, despite the reasonable doubts both Haldane and Russell have concerning its ultimate consequences. And while Haldane is more loath to acknowledge it than Russell, the net result of their debate is a tragic view of mankind’s future, marked by an irreconcilable and destructive mismatch between our aspiration to understand nature and the power we gain from that knowledge.

In the Image of Science

Haldane begins Daedalus with a directness that does not characterize most of the essay that follows. Drawing on scenes of destruction from World War I and from casual discussion of the possible reasons for exploding stars, he asks whether the progress of science will culminate in the complete destruction of humanity or in the reduction of human life to an appendage of machines. “Perhaps a survey of the present trend of science may throw some light on these questions.” It is already revealing that Haldane gives this kind of scientific projection such a privileged place, for it suggests that in his mind the primary question behind the destruction of mankind is simply whether science will gain the power to accomplish it. If the central issue of our future is the power to destroy ourselves, then the most obvious way of avoiding that risk is preventing mankind from gaining that power in the first place. Yet Haldane sees no realistic chance of stopping the progress of science. He argues that believing in the future might strangely require a willingness to see all that we know destroyed and replaced. Even if we can avert apocalyptic disaster, we will remake ourselves in unrecognizable ways.

Haldane believes that biology is likely to become “the center of scientific interest” in the future, and this is where the bulk of his essay is focused. But he digresses to discuss the situation in physics, which is in a “state of profound suspense … primarily due to Einstein, the greatest Jew since Jesus.” Avoiding an “inevitably technical” discussion of physical theory, he decides instead to speculate on the “practical consequences of Einstein’s discovery.” In so doing, he provides a preview of the logic that will inform his entire essay. Einstein heralds the end of the era of Newtonian physics, whose concomitant working metaphysic was materialism. This scientific revolution means the coming of a new metaphysical and moral order, and Haldane predicts that Einstein’s work will bring with it a triumph of Kantian idealism (although he admits that he does not know exactly what this change will mean in practice). He projects further that “some centuries” hence “physiology will invade and destroy mathematical physics.” Overall, “we are working towards a condition when any two persons on earth will be able to be completely present to one another in not more than 1/24 of a second…. Developments in this direction are tending to bring mankind more and more together, to render life more and more complex, artificial and rich in possibilities — to increase indefinitely man’s powers for good and evil.”

This statement is an answer of sorts to the original question: Will man survive, and what will he be like? Haldane’s answer hardly seems like much of an advance over where the essay began: Self-destruction, he suggests, is a genuine possibility as we “increase indefinitely man’s powers for good and evil.” But in fact, Haldane has laid out two crucial elements of his larger argument. First, there is the implicit definition of progress: bringing mankind closer together, increased complexity, artificiality, and open-endedness. We will see how this view culminates in his picture of a united humanity working to transcend itself, and in his turn to evolution as a form of salvation. Second, as Haldane understands the world, scientific discovery brings with it a horizon of belief that sets the parameters of daily life. While Haldane will speak of “labor and capital” as “our masters,” his essay attempts to show how it is really the scientists, the Daedaluses of the world, who discover new ways of seeing and doing, and at a far deeper level are in control. This point is reiterated in yet another digression on “the decay of certain arts,” which Haldane describes as a consequence of artists not understanding the scientific and industrial order in which they live. This view of science’s role in setting the agenda for human life has crucial consequences for the ethical question that is supposed to be the motive force behind the essay. If science shapes the parameters of human aspiration and human virtue, then morality is simply an effort to respond to man’s ever-increasing and ever-changing power over nature. We judge ourselves in the image of science, not science in the image of some transcendent idea of the human good.

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