The Grief Lectures 2010 – Part Three

by | Aug 31, 2010

In the previous two posts, I looked at the first lectures by Royal Society president, Martin Rees. This post relates to his third of four lectures, ‘What We’ll Never Know’. Lighter on the doom, it is a less dark story than the previous lectures. Indeed, Rees makes little mention of the climate.

So why am I making an issue of Rees’s lecture here? One of the points we’ve tried to make is that climate politics are a symptom much more than a cause – they don’t exist in a vacuum. We have also noted that as a cause, even environmentalism’s wildest rebels have more in common with members of the establishment than with the ‘man in the street’. Environmentalism in all its forms has a distinctly elitist flavour. Authoritarian arguments are given legitimacy by claims about the necessity of ‘saving the planet’ in spite of the consuming masses callous disregard for their own survival, and their ignorance and indifference to environmentalism’s lofty aims. It’s hard not to wonder, therefore, if the establishment has not absorbed environmentalism much more to save itself than the planet and the hoi polloi who inhabit most of it. Environmentalism as a symptom, then, exists within a constellation of other symptoms of the present, and Rees – as charming as he is – gives us some insight into the prevailing perspective. Some deep malaise afflicts the establishment’s thinking.

The trouble is with perspective itself. As I discussed in the previous post, in his previous lecture, Rees sought to put our situation in cosmic perspective, seen through the eyes (or antennae) of aliens.

… in just a tiny sliver of the Earth’s history, the last one millionth part, patterns of vegetation altered at an accelerating rate. …Then, in just one century, came other changes … the aliens could predict that the biosphere would face doom in a few billion years when our sun flares up and dies. But could they have predicted this sudden fever less than halfway through the Earth’s life?

Rees found the widest possible perspective from which to speak. And it was there that he located authority for his argument. And it is the same in this lecture. He talks about our attempts to understand the universe through Newtonian physics, and then through Einstein’s insight, quantum mechanics and string theory, ending at the possibility of parallel universes. Although he commendably points to the problems of reductionism – for instance, he talks about the inability of physics to explain the phenomena that emerge from it, such as chemistry, and then biology, and then psychology – he nonetheless seems to need a place from which he can speak objectively. It is as if unsatisfied with the view of the human world that humans have of themselves. In this lecture, Rees continues to search for the widest possible perspective.

But there may be mysteries, too, at the largest conceivable scales. There could be far more beyond our horizon, as it were, than the vast expanse that our telescopes can observe.

Between the infinite, the infinitesimal, the simple and the complex are us mere humans, trying to make sense of it all. And herein lies the problem.

One thing that’s changed little for millennia is human nature and human character. Before long, however, new cognition-enhancing drugs, genetics, and ‘cyberg’ techniques may alter human beings themselves. And that’s something qualitatively new in recorded history – and disquieting because it could portend more fundamental forms of inequality.

Rees is intensely aware of the vastness of space – most of which is inert and unchanging – and the possibilities that are created by virtue of its laws, but in his narrative, it is human nature that has remained fixed.

Putting his ideas about the augmentation of the human body and experience to one side, how does Rees know that human nature and human character have not changed for millennia? Is ‘human nature’ the same in 2010 as it was in 2010BC? And for that matter, is our ‘character’ the same now as it was then?

What is it now, and what was it then? One reason Rees might not have detected a change in human nature is that there may be no such thing.

Our condition – here in the West, at least – has changed considerably. (Why is Rees worried about inequality developing between fictional humans inhabiting the far future, when plenty of inequality exists right here today? )Thus the argument that our ‘nature’ and our ‘character’ has not changed must depend on the idea that these things are not in any material way determined or influenced by our condition. On Rees’s view, something intrinsically human exists — there must be a ‘human nature’ and a ‘human character’ which exists apart from its condition. But what a dim view of humanity it is that sees it in such mechanistic terms. It is as if only drugs, genetic engineering and other technologies can modify humanity. But surely the important thing about humanity is its ability to change itself.

In defence of his idea of human nature, Rees might want to argue that you could take a 2010BC human at birth, bring him to the present, and he’d accommodate to his 2010AD home as well as any of his new contemporaries.

This may well be true. However, this defence fails to explain away the paradox that, even in Rees’s own projection, it is humanity that alters its own ‘nature’ and ‘character’ through its own efforts. This form of self-modification is qualitatively different, to Rees, it seems, to the modification to human experience that has been effected by the development of language, civilisation, culture, and of course, science and technology. But no drug could cause a language, culture, or science to spontaneously develop between individuals. And it was not by force of ‘nature’ that such things developed in human populations. Nature did not invent the science that creates the possibility of changing our material bodies.

Rees maintains that human nature has not changed for thousands of years, but do we really want to believe that prehistoric humans experienced the world in the way we experience it, without our language, culture and conditions? Is our character the same, with or without protection from the elements, with or without the material security afforded by technology? Are humans the same, and do they relate in the same ways, with or without the means to develop socially, materially, and intellectually?

He then talks positively about the possibilities that science can create. And this is where the scientist really ought to shine. He discusses the automation of the process of discovery – space exploration, the development of new theories and new technological processes. But it leads to a disappointing question…

are there intrinsic limits to our understanding, or to our technical capacity?

The answer must be a better question: how can we ever possibly know what the limits of our understanding are? To have knowledge of limits of knowledge is to know them, or the limit itself is meaningless. The limits of our understanding are, by definition, beyond our understanding. The question about the existence of limits must therefore be equally pointless.

Powered flight was once beyond the limits of human understanding. So too was the nature of the atom, and how it might be split. But each discovery toward them created possibilities – not just for the technology itself, but for the very character of human life. Splitting the atom and powered flight changed human politics, culture, and experience, in turn creating new challenges as well as new possibilities. What sense does it make, then, to talk about human nature and human character – which presumably determines the extent of the limits of itself – when this nature and character is so changeable? Do human character and nature have any intrinsic properties that make them subject to limits? Rees presupposes that they do. But first, he reflects slightly more positively on humanity.

Humans are more than just another primate species: we are special: our self-awareness and language were a qualitative leap, allowing cultural evolution, and the cumulative diversified expertise that led to science and technology. But some aspects of reality – a unified theory of physics, or of consciousness – might elude us simply because they’re beyond human brains, just as surely as Einstein’s ideas would baffle a chimpanzee.

Although Rees aimed for a cosmological perspective, it seems he has done so at the expense of a historical one. Concepts that seem to us to be relatively simply might well have baffled our predecessors. However, even within the experience of an individual, cognitive leaps are made such that it’s hard to know why we didn’t understand yesterday what makes complete sense today. And although Rees nods at our unique capacity for self-awareness, he seems to offer an understanding of this faculty as one limited by definition, rather than something which is defined by development. Self-awareness surely implies some ability to adapt – to develop – one’s own nature or character. Why isn’t taking a degree course, or PhD in mathematics, for instance, not as equally transformative as is modifying human faculties through some kind of bio-engineering?

In spite of his calling the difference between the faculties of humans and monkeys ‘qualitative’, in Rees view, the difference  between a bug, monkey and a human is a difference of mere degree. He puts their capacities into ascending order. But this may be a mistake.

The monkey-human-posthuman sequence allows Rees to speculate about the terminal point of humanity’s development, analogous to his cosmological perspective.

Ever since Darwin, we’ve been familiar with the stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past which led to our emergence. Many people envisage that  we humans are the culmination of the evolutionary tree here on Earth. But that doesn’t seem plausible to astronomers, because they’re aware of huge time-horizons extending into the future as well as back into the past. […] It won’t be humans who witness the Sun’s demise: it will be entities as different from us as we are from a bug. We can’t conceive what powers they might have.

But what if Rees is wrong? Not wrong about our descendants building a better biology for themselves, but wrong about such an ability turning them into non-human, or post-human beings. What if those beings are simply more human, not less? Conversely, there is no way we could say that a human is more monkey than a monkey is. Monkey nature, and monkey character really have remained the same. Monkeys have been unable to transmit any meaningful improvements to monkey life to their offspring. Yet expressions of human ‘nature’ persist, generation after generation.

What if the beings who watch the collapse of the Sun (from a safe distance, I hope) celebrate us and our era as the early moments of humanty’s leap away from being defined by nature towards being able to define ourselves instead. This is surely the possibility that self-awareness affords.

Rees imagines some capacity of our descendants to understand something about the universe that may defy our intellectual capability as it is given by ‘nature’. But in doing so, it seems that Rees is limited to understanding the development of human capacities as being given by their biology. Of course, the possibility of extending our intellectual abilities to understand the world through biological technology remains. And of course, we aren’t humans, with all the faculties of humans without being equipped by our biology. But do these facts really point to a fundamental limit, that can only be surpassed by evolving past humanity?

Rees’s cosmological perspective seemingly gives him authority to talk about the ephemeral and insignificant nature of humanity, and the precariousness of our condition. We know nothing, when seen from the scale Rees prefers. But his beings have discovered the material universe. They are our betters, yet they do not even exist. There are undoubtedly positives in Rees’s lecture. But they are half baked. Science offers us the means to better ourselves as mere biological beings, but only really to terminate humanity, rather than extend it.

The cosmological perspective and the post-human, are devices in a plot that tells us a story about us in the present. But it’s not Rees’s only story. We know about Rees’ doom-saying. And this story about our limited and narrow perspective is part of the same narrative as his prophecies. Because, as we have pointed out at length on this blog, it’s only when you take a narrow, limited, and negative view of humanity that you can make stories about our imminent demise, and the necessity of creating special forms of politics to prevent catastrophe from occurring. We are too stupid to adapt. The unnamed species that populate the future seem to exist in Rees’s story only to diminish us here in the present. It is only when you take such a view of humans as impotent to address their circumstances that the possibility of creating special politics, and special political institutions to deal with such crises is created. Those politics, it just so happens, help the political establishment wriggle out of its own crises: it’s own democratic failures; the growing distance and cynicism between it and the public; its aimlessness; and its lack of imagination.

An example. We are fond of taking that old truism from the environmental movement: ‘climate change will be worse for the poor’. It is through this simple claim that many moral imperatives were formed. If you didn’t reduce your carbon-footprint, your carbon sin would be visited upon the poor. Environmentalists reinvented ‘social justice’ as ‘climate justice’. But notice that the truism implies something else. It could equally be used as an argument for the creation of wealth. That it wasn’t used for such an end speaks about the implausibility of transforming the conditions that many humans endure. Poverty was taken as a given. It was ‘natural’.


  1. Philip

    — Poverty was taken as a given. It was ‘natural’. —

    True, and hair shirts as well. Away from the safe bounds of science, Martin Rees shows a remarkable ability to over-generalize and lose sight of the individuality and dynamism of the hoi polloi. On the other hand, such virtues seem to be automatically recognised and served by free markets. So long live free markets — and down with hair shirts, self-serving elites and the wretched RS.

  2. richard

    Everything is “worse” for the poor …..



  1. Climate Resistance » What Next for the Royal Society? - [...] in the scientific terms that neomalthusianism appears to demand? This was the conundrum that led Martin Rees to his…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.