Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

“Without God everything is permitted”

April 20, 2018

My wife and I have been reading, aloud to each other, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s 1880 novel. A key motif is whether “without God everything is permitted.” That’s become a major talking point against atheism; the notion that atheists have no reason to be moral. Indeed, the idea’s societal reverberations may well be traceable back to Karamazov.

It was written when atheism was beginning to be important. Nietzsche soon declared, “God is dead.” Dostoevsky was himself deeply religious, yet in Karamazov he does not cavalierly dismiss the opposing point of view. Rather, he wrestles with the moral implications.

I have previously discussed morality without God. If we need him for morality, we’d be in trouble, because of course he’s a fiction. But in truth, whatever moral codes religions prescribe, they are merely a reflection of our pre-existing moral intuitions, rooted in evolution. Our ancestors lived in groups wherein cooperation, morality, and even altruism aided survival. People with tendencies toward those virtues lived to pass along their genes. These norms became further embedded through culture; religions are cultural inventions and again merely incorporate the moral ideas already a part of a given culture.

Further, each of us figures out, using common sense and our rational minds, how to live. Most of us do what’s right because it feels right. Our empathy for others dissuades us from actions harming them. And we realize it’s better to live in a society where people treat each other decently than in a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” None of this requires a God.

In Karamazov, Ivan hallucinates a conversation with the Devil. And in it, the Devil makes this remarkable speech — imagining what he thinks Ivan himself would say:

“Once every member of the human race discards the idea of God (and I believe that such an era will come, like some new geological age), the old world-view will collapse by itself without recourse to cannibalism . . . . Men will unite in their efforts to get everything out of life that it can offer them, but only for joy and happiness in this world. Man will be exalted spiritually with a divine, titanic pride and the man-god will come into being. Extending his conquest over nature beyond all bounds through his will and his science, man will constantly experience such great joy that it will replace for him his former anticipation of the pleasures that await him in heaven. Everyone will know that he is mortal, and will accept his death with calm and dignity, like a god. He will understand, out of sheer pride, that there is no point in protesting that life lasts only a fleeting moment, and he will love his brother man without expecting any reward for it. Love will satisfy only a moment in life, but the very awareness of its momentary nature will concentrate its flames, which before were diffused and made pale by the anticipation of eternal life beyond the grave . . . And so on and so forth. Very sweet!”

The Devil is being sardonic, as the final words show. He’s mocking Ivan. And yet this speech — put in the Devil’s mouth by the very religious author — actually expresses pretty well my own humanist ethos.

In the next passage the Devil invokes twice the “everything is permitted” trope — the new “man-god” can “jump without scruple over every barrier of the old moral code devised for the man-slave.”

Yet scruples are integral to our essential human nature. Our morality, which is self-built, does not enslave us, but liberates us, to live good lives, despite lacking ennoblement conferred by a god.

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America’s war on refugees

April 5, 2018

Way back in 2015 (a different epoch), when I wrote here comparing America unfavorably with Germany regarding refugees, my daughter (working in the Middle East for a refugee aid organization) chided me that we’ve actually taken in more refugees than any other Western nation.

That was then.

My lawn sign

Our annual refugee quota had averaged 95,000. Now it’s been slashed to 45,000, and actual admissions will likely be far lower. Our infrastructure of charities helping refugees is crumbling because the pipeline is running dry. Partly it’s because Trump has put additional restrictions on intake from 11 countries on a secret list, said to include South Sudan, Syria, and Iraq. In other words, many of the people most desperately in need of refuge.

This panders to Trump’s most rabid nativist fans, and reflects his own personal vileness.

He’s also trying to build a wall, impose a Muslim travel ban, kick out dreamers and millions of other undocumented residents, and even to cut traditional legal immigration almost in half. He’s already ordered out tens of thousands of Haitian, Salvadoran, Liberian, and other refugees, many of whom have lived here legally for decades under a special program.

A lot of them are now heading north to Canada: refugees FROM America!

All these policies are not only cruel, but harm our own country. We should welcome immigrants and refugees not just because it’s the right thing to do, the humane thing, but because they’re good for America, making it stronger and better. (As it does for Canada.)

Trump’s saying other countries “send” us their worst people is a moronic lie. Migrants are not sent, they’re self-selected, and those with the courage and grit to leave behind everything familiar and start fresh in a new country are the best people. Certainly better than those creeps who revile them.

It’s a lie that migrants cost us money. To the contrary, their productive efforts and talents add to our national prosperity. In fact, with an aging population (collecting ever more benefits) and declining workforce participation rates, we desperately need the new blood of immigrants to refresh our employment pool. It’s a major reason why America’s economy is fizzier than in other countries even less receptive to immigration.

And it’s a lie that immigrants and refugees cause crime or threaten terrorism. In fact their crime rate is lower than for the native-born. None of the three million refugees we accepted since 1980 has ever been involved in a fatal terrorist attack.

All these lying arguments against immigrants and refugees are fig leaves to cover up the naked truth. This is racism. The people being kept out and kicked out mainly have brown skins. That, plain and simple, is the animus behind Trump’s actions.

He also lies in blaming Democrats for lack of a DACA solution. He himself was responsible for creating the problem in the first place; he lied when he said he wanted a legislative fix; he did his utmost to torpedo every effort. And he blames Democrats. What a sicko.

From The Economist

The Economist’s Lexington columnist (who covers America) wrote recently about a South Sudanese teenager he’d met in an African refugee camp in 2000. Read his great article. That refugee now lives in Michigan in a four bedroom house with two cars; he’s so far contributed over $100,000 in taxes. Lexington tells this success story not because it’s exceptional but because it’s typical. And the goodness doesn’t shine just in America. Most migrants doing well here send money back to home-country relatives, uplifting those people and places too.*

Finally, immigrants and refugees understand and uphold, far better than most natives, what America is all about, the ideals and values it stands for (or used to). Everything Trump turns his back on. He’s un-American.

America was great because it was good. Now it’s breaking my heart.

* I wrote here a poem in 2016 inspired by a Somali refugee. I sent him a check; he told me he sent the money to his mother in Africa.

Words you can’t say on TV — or can you?

April 3, 2018

The late great comedian George Carlin’s most famous routine was “The seven words you can’t say on TV.” That was in 1972.

My wife and I are longtime devotees of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. Naughty words — “fuck” came up constantly — have always been bleeped. I found this annoying and silly. If you know the word will be bleeped, why say it?

We’ve also been watching Jordan Klepper’s The Opposition (a sort of Daily Show spin-off). The other night, Jordan said “shitty” and it was not bleeped. I turned to my wife and pointed this out. She, ever word-wise, suggested that perhaps “shitty” (even though it includes the four-letter word) wasn’t bleepworthy because it merely means having the characteristics of shit, which is not the same as shit itself.

Immediately afterwards we watched a DVR’d Daily Show. And guess what? Shit! The plain word was spoken — unbleeped.

So apparently we’re down to six words. Still a long way to go before George Carlin’s ghost can find rest. But at least now I feel free to properly revise this blog’s “posted in” category list.

The Children’s Crusade

March 30, 2018

The recent student marches about guns spotlight how America’s civic culture has gone off the rails. It’s not the marches — it’s the reaction to them.

There’s long been a tendency to demonize and delegitimize those we disagree with. It was pioneered by the left. But today’s Republican right outdoes them.

Typical was a radio commentary by Herb London, the once-weekly “conservative” pundit on our local NPR station (a slot I once filled myself). London has intellectual chops and used to be a responsible, articulate conservative voice. But like so many on the right, he’s drunk the Trump Kool-Aid, been blinded by it, and has lost all objectivity and decency. His diatribe against the students was nasty, brutish, and ridiculous. He called them symptoms of an “ideological crack-up;” decried educators and politicians “who should know better” encouraging and supposedly manipulating them. They’re too ignorant and naive to know what’s what. “Guns can kill,” he said, but “so can knives. A gun in the hands of St. Francis is not a weapon.” And he spoke of “hardening ideological positions” undermining “civil discourse.”

Look in the mirror, Herb!

Others have accused the students of being paid shills, or even actors. Anything to deny the reality of what they represent and the plain reasonableness of their pleas. They want to outlaw mass killing weapons. Nikolas Cruz could not have killed 17 people with a knife. The Las Vegas shooter could not have killed 58 and injured 851 with a knife. Nor even with ordinary guns.

This Republican denialism about assault weapons is of a piece with all the other right-wing Trumpian assaults on reality — from evolution to climate science to imaginary voter fraud to every idiotic conspiracy theory, condemning the Mueller investigation as a partisan witch-hunt, and believing the most stupendous liar in political history while calling the truth “fake news.”

And like so much else in today’s Republican discourse, their gun-rights absolutism is marked by disingenuousness. Saying anything to cloud the waters. After every mass shooting they splutter about mental health (which they never act upon either). Other recent diversionary nostrums include redesigning schools to eliminate winding corridors; installing metal detectors (with armies of operators, making schools like airports — great idea); even equipping classrooms with buckets of rocks for kids to hurl at shooters.

And of course arming teachers. This crackbrained idea is so obviously problem-fraught that nobody (except perhaps the fool in the White House) takes it seriously. It’s a sham, cooked up to distract us from the real issue: the insanity of allowing anyone to obtain military-style assault weapons whose only raison d’etre is killing a lot of people fast.

Yet this insanity has actually become part of the GOP’s own raison d’etre. Partly it’s because of the NRA, once a responsible gun hobbyist group, now transmogrified into a fire breathing fetishizer of The Gun as holy object. But why so many Americans buy into this extremist craziness is hard to understand. There is the notion of guns defending against government tyranny. (Good luck, the government controls vastly more firepower.) And fear of government “taking guns away.” Oddly enough, it was Trump — not Obama or Hillary — who actually said, “I like taking guns away early. Take the guns first, go through the process second.” Why didn’t this make his gun-loving supporters’ brains explode? (Because they have none?)

The students were not proposing to take away anyone’s guns; yet still they were declared the enemy. Here we have high-schoolers, for a change, stepping up to the plate and making their voices heard on a momentous public issue, of great personal concern to them. To quote what has become a ubiquitous chant, “This is what democracy looks like.” Such civic engagement by young people is a wonderful thing. And most Americans agree with them; after all, they’re marching against a policy that is literally insane.

Nevertheless the Trumpian NRA Republican right insults, demonizes, and delegitimizes them. What a disgrace that is. By smearing the students’ honest nobility, Republicans cover themselves with shame. Yet again.

My criticism of Republicans may sound partisan. I would remind readers that I was a committed Republican, a conservative Republican, for 53 years until 2017 — when I could no longer bear to be associated with what the party has become. It breaks my heart.

America Trumped (my “Trolley” article)

March 21, 2018

The wonderful New York State Writers Institute (founded by William Kennedy; headed by Paul Grondahl) has published a very interesting online magazine, The Trolley. (Click here.) I was asked to contribute an article, a follow-up to my blog review of their October symposium on post-truth politics.* The magazine’s inaugural issue focuses mainly on the same general topic.

Since the last election, I’ve been grappling with the really dramatic lurch our civic life has taken into uncharted territory. It has a lot of aspects, and I’ve written a lot trying to unravel them. For this Trolley article, I aimed to draw all these strands together into one big picture, titled America Trumped.

I consider myself a student of history. And we are at an historical hinge point, with huge implications for the future of this country and, indeed, the world. I am not one of those fatalists who believes human beings are at the mercy of forces beyond our control; it’s why I continue to call myself a rational optimist. It is by using our rationality that we can master our situation. That’s how we’ve progressed so enormously since the Stone Age. And in order to master our situation, we must first understand what it is. Such understanding is a key quest in my own life; after half a century at it, I feel I’ve made progress. That’s what I’m trying to share on this blog, and in my Trolley article.

* Find it here; scroll down past a few later posts.

White Rage

March 7, 2018

Alice Green

Carol Anderson’s book White Rage was discussed recently at the Albany Library by Alice Green, Director of the Center for Law and Justice and a longtime activist.

Anderson is a historian and her book takes a historical view. In Green’s telling, the basic theme is that whenever black Americans achieve some advancement, there’s white pushback. And while “black rage” has been very visible, with obvious sources in what they’ve suffered (beginning with slavery, and subsequent discrimination; yet most blacks are patriotic), white rage is a more elusive phenomenon, mostly hidden for a long time until recently.

The story begins with Reconstruction, after the Civil War. The federal government did much to assimilate the freed slaves as citizens, with the 14th Amendment enshrining equality before the law, and the 15th giving black men the vote. Really extraordinarily progressive (in the true sense). Not only did former slaves vote, many were elected to high office in the South (including two U.S. Senators).

But, as Green noted, slaves had been extremely valuable property, and taking it away left some angry people. When federal troops departed the South in 1877, the pushback came, with whites using violence to terrorize and subjugate blacks. Black voting largely ended.

And when the Supreme Court endorsed segregation in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, it put Jim Crow race-based oppression into high gear. While the Court okayed “separate but equal,” the reality was very unequal.

In 1954, Plessy was reversed in Brown v. Board of Education. A genuine advance, Green acknowledged. And of course there was pushback. Public school integration was violently resisted (Little Rock, etc.), and many Southern communities tried to evade it by recourse to non-public schooling. (Schools today continue very segregated.)

This febrile atmosphere engendered the 1960s civil rights movement, with some dramatic results, the passage of civil rights and voting rights legislation. There was again pushback; but enough acquiescence that the face of American society was altered. In particular, unfettered voting by Southern blacks empowered them and made a big difference.

In Green’s view, though, pushback now took the form of heightened emphasis on policing and criminal justice (Nixon’s “law and order” theme), with the war on drugs ramped up. In practice it was a war on black communities, disproportionally affected, and devastated by the mass incarceration of their inhabitants.

When a black man became president, many of us felt we’d finally overcome the demon of racism, entering a post-racial Eden. Of course, it turned out a lot of whites just couldn’t stand seeing a black man in the White House. Indeed, can’t stand whites on track to becoming a minority in America.

Electing Trump was certainly a manifestation of their pushback. His slogan really meant make America white again. He’s brought white rage out of the closet, legitimizing it. Meantime, Republicans have undertaken voter suppression efforts targeted particularly at blacks, to prevent another Obama being elected.

I used to reject claims that America is fundamentally racist, contending instead that while racism obviously persists, it is confined to dark corners of our society, and to benighted people who really don’t matter. Of course, being seen as people who don’t matter is part of their grievance, aggravating their white rage. And we’ve learned that it’s more intense and more widespread than it had seemed before Trump came along.

Last May I wrote a blog post, “Why so many blacks in ads?” (suggesting it’s because they convey a positive vibe of hipness). That post continues to attract a far higher rate of hits and comments than any other. Take a glance at those comments. I’ve frankly been shocked at the crude, unabashed racism most of them express. And a friend pointed me to this article, with a brutally candid portrayal of the mindset of white rural Christian Americans (no small part of the country) — which includes a big dose of racial attitude. The article’s author, coming from this community, thinks nothing can change their minds.

There is the idea that blacks are racially inferior, with a sense of grievance against them, that somehow their inferior character and behavior is being unjustly rewarded (a prominent theme in comments to my mentioned “blacks in ads” post). These ideas behind white rage are not reality-based — much unlike the all too factual sources of black rage. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

Yet my optimism endures. Green seemed to imply the historical trajectory is from bad to worse. But bad as things may seem now, we tend to forget how really awful they were in the past. And in the question period, I said, “If I were a Martian hearing your talk, I’d be very puzzled by something: the fact that Obama was elected, even though, as he himself said, he was actually black before the election.” (He was re-elected, too, while black.)

We’re still a very divided society, with most blacks experiencing life very differently from most whites. These divisions are very visible in the news and public discourse. And as noted, the Trump era has brought racism out of the closet and in our faces. But is America actually growing more racist? No. To the contrary, the trend of public attitudes over time is progressively ever less racist and more tolerant. And at the nitty gritty ground level of routine day-to-day social interaction, what strikes me is how well we actually get along with each other. This is still a very positive contrast against an awful lot of places in the world.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor will a paradise of racial amity be built in a day, or even a century. But again: it is not getting worse. While the white Christian rural Americans in that cited article lash out against ethnic minorities as scapegoats for their own failing dysfunctionality, it will catch up with them. Racism is not winning, but inexorably losing. That’s why we see so much pushback; it is the desperation of losers. It can do much harm in the process, but won’t change the ultimate outcome.

Every day more racists die than are born.

Trump says arm teachers — “problem solved!”

February 24, 2018

Fact: the more guns are around, the more guns get in the wrong hands, the more people get shot by them, and the more also get shot accidentally.

Many Americans keep guns at home, fantasizing that it’s protection. Fact: over a thousand children are killed annually, and thousands more injured, by those guns in the home. Instances of their actually protecting anyone are, in contrast, vanishingly rare.

Teachers with guns thwarting school shootings is likewise a fantasy. Fact: much more often, having more guns firing, in chaotic circumstances, will increase casualties. Much more often, teachers will use those guns wrongly, rather than against school shooters. And much more often, guns will get into the hands of kids, with altogether predictable horrible results. Much more often. These are incontestable facts.

No constitutional rights are absolutes. Freedom of speech does not protect shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Religious freedom does not protect human sacrifice. The right to bear arms doesn’t cover nuclear weapons. Nor should it cover military-style assault weapons whose only purpose is to kill a lot of people fast. Such weapons have no legitimate sports, hunting, or self-protection purpose. They should be banned.

Fact: this will never happen as long as Republicans, beholden to the NRA and gun nuts, remain in power.

Fact: Trump is a deranged ignoramus.

November 3, 2020: problem solved!

Does the Second Amendment cover fake guns?

February 21, 2018

Dodie Horton is a huge Trump fan who felt his election restored America. She’s a pistol-packing gun rights enthusiast, and Louisiana state legislator. Horton was featured on NPR’s program, This American Life.

She’d been approached by some local law enforcement about what they considered a serious problem: fake guns, brought by kids to school, that look like the real thing. So Horton duly introduced legislation criminalizing that. Kids as young as kindergartners could face up to six months in jail for bringing fake guns to school.

There had been the famous case of the seven-year old suspended for chewing a pop-tart into a gun shape. School shootings have made us crazy. What could be crazier than banning pop-tart “guns” — but not military style assault weapons? Well, at least the pop-tart kid wasn’t jailed.

It didn’t seem to Horton that her bill was a crazy overreaction to the fake gun problem (if it is a problem). But she was devastated when her GOP and gun rights pals fiercely turned on her. She pleaded with them: This isn’t gun control! It’s fake gun control! Fake guns aren’t guns!

Nor was she struck by the incongruity of what she was saying. Fake guns? Lock ’em up! Real guns? No problem!

But the gun rights crowd did oppose her bill. Not because it would be loony to jail kids for fake guns — but because of the sacred Second Amendment. They were unmoved by the argument that it refers to “arms” and fake guns aren’t arms.

This American Life interviewed an NRA guy, asking him to explain how Horton’s bill could possibly transgress the “right to keep and bear arms.” After hemming and hawing, he finally said it’s not an actual violation of the Second Amendment, but the “appearance” of one.

In other words, they are so absolutist about gun rights that not even fake guns can be banned from schools — let alone real ones. Maybe I was wrong when I said the Second Amendment obviously doesn’t allow howitzers — or nuclear weapons.

This American Life. You gotta love it.

Chris Gibson thinks we can put America right

February 11, 2018

He calls himself an optimist. He believes we’re on the wrong track, but can fix it.

After a 29 year military career, Chris Gibson won a New York congressional seat in 2010 as a Republican; then “term limited” himself in 2016, and became a college professor. Too bad, because the GOP sure needs such good guys.

Now he’s authored a book, Rally Point: Five Tasks to Unite the Country and Revitalize the American Dream. Sounds like every politician’s book. Nevertheless, my wife* and I went to a January 24 luncheon, hosted by the Times-Union newspaper, where its editor Rex Smith interviewed Gibson. I read the book.

Gibson feels the Republican party has strayed from its true conservative principles. (Some of his points echoed my own commentary in that morning’s paper.) He starts with the nation’s founding precepts, discussed with rare erudition and depth. For him the key idea is pursuit of happiness. He doesn’t mean hedonism, but invokes the ancient Greeks’ concept of eudaimonia, a life well lived; and psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, culminating with self-actualization. America was founded on the premise that government’s job is to promote such human flourishing. Really a revolutionary idea at the time.

Here Gibson distinguishes between America’s two chief ideological currents. Traditional conservatism saw government as a facilitator and referee, to enable people to thrive in their own individual ways (exemplified by Theodore Roosevelt and his restraints on corporate power). Liberals and progressives, in contrast, want a more activist government, seeking to achieve outcomes, regulating everything in sight.

But obviously that dividing line has become very muddled. Gibson harshly criticizes modern Republican hostility toward equal rights for sexual nonconformists, as violating true conservative principles. And the religious teachings so many Republicans profess to follow. Gibson’s watchword here is “love,” which seems absent from today’s Republicanism.

He worries about the nation’s fiscal future — a subject I’ve harped on for years. In brief, government cannot keep spending way more than it collects in taxes. We borrow the difference, and can borrow a lot, yet the limits will be sorely tested in years ahead as deficits continue growing; while interest costs eat us alive. The recent tax legislation, even if boosting growth, will add to debt. Fiscal responsibility is another bygone traditional Republican conservative principle. The whole nation now ignores the debt issue — sleepwalking over a cliff.

A further problem Gibson sees is legislative abdication in favor of executive and bureaucratic fiat. Successive Republican and Democratic administrations are each denounced by their opponents as abusing power in imposing policies undemocratically. Gibson says this undermines legitimacy and divides the country; whereas issues being instead resolved through legislative give-and-take stitches the country together.

Gibson is pretty good on diagnosis; less so on remedies. It’s the usual wish list: campaign finance, gerrymandering and lobbying reform; term limits; motherhood; and apple-pie. And a balanced budget amendment — oh, please. As if the nation could, like Ulysses, chain itself to the mast to resist the siren song of spending. (The latest congressional budget (busting) deal shows the two parties can happily work together to waive such limits and raid the Treasury.)

Gibson also feels the Republican party is redeemable, and can be hauled back to its traditional principles — which he even imagines can unite the country. More fantasy. My old GOP is now the White People’s Party; a zombie that’s undergone demonic possession. There’s no exorcist in sight. (Gibson never even mentions race or immigration.)

And Gibson stresses that citizens must insist that their elected officials act responsibly. When 38% back Trump no matter what, and American political life has become a partisan tribal bash-fest. How do we cure this? Nobody has a good answer.

It’s often lamented that only half of Americans vote; even less in non-presidential elections. Republicans cynically work to make voting harder (mainly for Democrats). That truly stinks. But will more people voting cure our political ills? Non-voters tend to be the least informed and engaged citizens. Their participation will not elevate our politics.

Gibson also decries moral decay — too much materialism; not enough communitarianism and religious faith; with reinvigorating the institution of marriage being vital for raising the kind of good citizens he envisions. He wants to reverse our sociological history. (And strengthen untrue beliefs.)

Further, he sees a need for real leadership (his emphasis) that can rally the nation to do what’s needed. Yet elsewhere he says a strong man is not the answer. “The man on horseback” myth I’ve written about. Trump said, “I alone can fix it,” and Gibson thinks Americans are wrongly attracted to such authoritarianism because we’ve lost confidence in our ability to tackle problems democratically.

But the book’s conclusion says that “historically the American people follow leaders who inspire the best in us and who treat people with dignity and respect. Americans believe in founding principles and our own exceptional way of life and ultimately will not give that up for authoritarian approaches.”

I would have said exactly the same thing myself . . . until “grab them by the pussy.” Too many Americans no longer seem to understand, let alone honor, the nation’s founding principles, ideals, and values, that Gibson is so eloquent about. Without a populace being invested in those ideas, they cannot endure.

Am I too cynically harsh? As I said at the start, the GOP desperately needs people like Gibson. If the party had more of them, I would not have left it.

* When I asked her about coming, her “yes” actually surprised me; but she’s a remarkable person full of surprises.

 

Upgrading to Humanity 2.0

February 4, 2018

Tech guru Ray Kurzweil called it “The Singularity” – when artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence – and starts operating on its own. Then everything changes. Some, like Stephen Hawking, fear those super-intelligent machines could enslave or even dispense with us.

But in my famous 2013 Humanist magazine article, The Human Future: Upgrade or Replacement, I foresaw a different trajectory – not conflict between people and machines, or human versus artificial intelligence, but rather convergence, as we increasingly replace our biological systems with technologically better ones. The end result may resemble those cyborg superbeings that some fear will supplant us. Yet they will be us. The new version, Humanity 2.0.

I call this debiologizing, not roboticizing. We may be made mostly if not wholly of artificial parts, but won’t be “robots,” which connotes acting mechanically. Humanity 2.0 will be no less conscious, thinking, and feeling than the current version. Indeed, the whole point is to upgrade the species. Two-point-zero will think and feel more deeply than we can. Or, perhaps, can even imagine.

This transformation’s early stages fall under the rubric of “enhancement,” referring, generally, to improving individual capabilities, via pharmacology, hardware, or genetic tinkering. This gives some people the heebie-jeebies. But every technological advancement always evokes dystopian fears. The first railroads were denounced as inhuman and dangerously messing with the natural order of things. A more pertinent example was organ transplants, seen as crossing a line, somehow profoundly wrong. Likewise in-vitro fertilization. The old “playing god” thing.

The fact is that we have always messed with the natural order, in countless ways, to improve our lives. It’s the very essence of humanity. And the “enhancement” concept is not new. It began with Erg, the first human who made a crutch so he could walk. (No doubt Glorg scolded, “if God meant you to walk . . . .”) Today people have prosthetics controlled by brain signaling.

A lot of it is to counter aging. Euphemisms like “golden years” can’t hide the reality of decline, always physical, and usually (to some degree) mental. We’ve already extended life far longer than nature intended, and make people healthier longer too. If all that’s good, why not strive to delay decrepitude further still – or reverse it?

And why not other interventions to improve human functionality? If we can enable the disabled, why not super-able others? If we use medicines like Ritalin to improve mental function for people with problems, why not extend the concept to improving everyone’s abilities? Through all the mentioned means – pharmacology, hardware, genetics – we can make people stronger, healthier, and smarter.

Yet some viscerally oppose all this, as a corruption of our (god-given?) human nature. Paradoxically, some of the same people are cynical pessimists about that human nature, vilifying it as a fount of evil. Is it nevertheless sacred, that we shouldn’t tamper with it? Steven Pinker argued persuasively, in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, that humanity has in fact progressed, gotten better, and better behaved, mainly because in many ways we’ve gotten smarter. If we can make people smarter still, through all those kinds of technological enhancements, won’t that likely make us better yet, kissing off the ugliest parts of our (god-given) nature?

The idea of people being able to choose enhancements for themselves also irks misanthropes who see in it everything they dislike about their fellow humans. It’s the ultimate in sinful consumerism. An illegitimate “shortcut” to self-improvement without the hard work that it should rightly entail, thus cheapening and trivializing achievement. Life, these critics seem to say, should be hard. By this logic, we should give up washing machines, microwaves, airplanes, all those “shortcuts” we’ve invented to make life easier. And go back to living in caves.

A perhaps more serious version of their argument is that enhancement, taken sufficiently far, would strip human life of much of what gives it meaning. Much as we’ve progressed, with washing machines and microwaves, etc., and with health and longevity, still a great deal of what invests life with meaning and purpose is the struggle against the limitations and frailties and challenges we continue to face. Remove those and would we become a race of lotus-eaters, with an empty existence?

But consider that early peoples faced challenges of a wholly different order from ours. Getting food was critical, so they sacralized the hunt, and the animals hunted, which loomed large in their systems of meaning. Now we just saunter to the grocery, and that ancient source of meaning is gone. Does that make us shallower? Hardly. Instead it liberates us to focus upon other things. Maybe higher things.

The fundamental mistake of enhancement’s critics is to imagine life for a Human 2.0 by reference to life for a Human 1.0, when they will be as different as we are from our stone age ancestors. Or more so. Our future descendants, relieved of so many concerns that preoccupy us (and not detoured by supernatural beliefs), will find life richer than we can dream.

Of course there will be profound impacts – economic, environmental, cultural, social. Not only will 2.0 be very different, their world itself will be transformed by that difference. But with greater smarts and wisdom they should be able to deal with the challenges.

Our species is only a couple hundred thousand years old; civilization, ten thousand. Billions of years lie ahead. Thus we are humanity’s infancy. Adulthood will be really something.