Finding Nemo

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Philosophy part IX: Man's Dominion over Nature

Good old days ?
One of the questions that philosophers love to poke at and good Adam Smith capitalists love to gloss over is the proper role of mankind in the world order.  In the Old Testament God promised mankind absolute authority over all the animals, and this divine-sanctioned right to rule the Earth reached a peak during the period of Manifest Destiny in the new world.  Native Americans were sub-human obstacles in the way of the God's chosen, buffalo existed to be slaughtered, natural prairie to be plowed over and planted.

Francis Bacon (1521-1626) proclaimed that the new science was "the ultimate dominion of humanity over nature, as promised in Genesis, and as a study of God's works".  Like Aquinas, he viewed science and nature as just a legitimate source of revelation as the study of God's word.

Now just think about that for a second.  Science was no longer a threat to religion, it was actually elevated to be equal to scripture!  It was the dawn of the Age of Reason, the birth of the Enlightenment.  For someone like me, it was also when philosophy finally became really interesting.  Why?  Because, for the first time, it wasn't OK to just guess, to speculate and proclaim "truths".  Now, it had to be backed up with actual evidence or rational thought.

The new invention of smog
But at the same time, the authors also sound a warning--the Enlightenment also led to the Industrial Revolution and the modern world, where humanity has finally achieved Bacon's vision.  Today we truly do have "dominion over the earth" as promised by God.  We have in our hands the power to destroy ourselves and almost all life on Earth, to give birth to machines which could one day enslave us.  And to all but the most blind conservatives, scientific consensus has established that we are heading towards irreparable damage to the Earth's oceans, forests, and fauna.

Unfrozen cave man engineers
We have been granted the power of the Creator, but we are stuck with the wisdom of mere human beings, essentially chimps with a slightly better processor glued to the front of our brains.  After all, we have been "human" for 200,000 years, but modern technology arrived virtually just an instant ago (the transistor has been here for only 60 years).  How can our primitive brains possibly evolve fast enough to cope with these new developments?

It is this that modern philosophy fears most.  They view themselves as the antidote to the Enlightenment, the nervous voice of wisdom and caution in an age of exponentially advancing technology, multiplying out of control like a global plague.

The antidote has been found, ironically, in indigenous races that for all intents and purposes have been exterminated by the industrialized West.  The madness of a people destroying the cure to their own illness still goes on today, as untold medical compounds are eradicated every day in rain forests and the underwater jungles of coral reefs.  (About 7000 medicines prescribed by Western doctors are derived from plants.)

Alien Eden
The Native Americans and their belief that all things are sacred, that man must live in balance with nature, that each living thing should be killed only as necessary and honored as a gift, is the theme explored in the popular Avatar movie.  These beliefs about our intimate connection to nature and the inherent spiritualness of all life is also found in African tribal religions, Jainism, and is reminiscent of Lao-Tzu's Tao and Chu Hsi's Tai Chi.  In other words, this "secret" keeps getting rediscovered only to be immediately trampled under the boot of progress.  As the Earth gets bulldozed into a wasteland, when will the day arrive when it turns around to squash us instead?


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