How Seriously Should We Take the Modern Project?

Would it be possible to apply the political wisdom of Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech—“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it”—to understanding the role of modern science and technology in our lives, and the course it is likely to take in years to come? 

Despite its subtitle, Mastery of Nature: Promises and Prospects, edited by Svetozar Y. Minkov and Bernhardt L. Trout, does not for the most part concern itself with the questions of “whither we are tending.” Nevertheless, on that question there seems to be an interesting divergence of opinion among those few of the book’s contributors who express an opinion. 

Robert C. Bartlett, at the conclusion of his discussion of contemplation in Plato and Aristotle, comments that, “Among some today, I am told, the desire to conquer nature has as its ultimate aim the wish to conquer death . . . There appears to be today a new-fangled version of assimilation to God, which takes the form of our seeking God-like powers.” Bartlett adopts the tone of someone taking a skeptical stance toward some remarkable traveler’s tale, wishing not to appear to be credulous. Could such goals, he wonders, really be intended seriously?

In a subsequent chapter, Stuart D. Warner implicitly supports Bartlett’s skepticism. Even in Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method (1641), Warner suggests, statements like, “We could free ourselves from an infinity of maladies of body as well as of mind, and perhaps also even from the debility of age, if we had sufficiently ample knowledge of their causes, and of all the remedies provided for us by nature” are “hyperbolic, a rhetorical device” used to try to co-opt hope from Christianity in pursuit of a “this-worldly alternative.” Why should our modern-day heirs to Descartes be any less prone to “extravagance” than he given that, as Bartlett again reports, the co-opting has not been entirely successful? For today there are still “serious people” who, in the face of such technological enthusiasm, believe that “the way and the truth and the light” are the true route to immortality.

The Mere “Buzz Buzz” of the Mayfly?

But Bartlett need have traveled no farther than the concluding chapters of this multi-author volume to substantiate what he has been told. There we have his fellow contributor Lise van Boxel’s deeply sympathetic presentation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoroughgoing deconstruction of the whole idea of the human in the name of “taking hold of human evolution.” I concluded from her essay that she believes Nietzsche has in fact destroyed any ground for rejecting modifications of the human, ranging from regeneration of limbs to extensions of our sensory capacities to immortality. At any rate, she likens objections to human life-extension to those of a mayfly skeptical that a meaningful life could extend beyond one day—all just so much “Buzz Buzz.” (Of course, it is not impossible that life-extension would indeed undermine the meaningful life of this imagined mayfly, as a mayfly.)

Based on the three aforementioned essays, we are left with a question with regard to “whither we are going”: Is it a mark of serious people not to take too seriously the more extreme-sounding statements of our technological projectors, or is it the mark of serious people not to take too seriously objections to those projects? Actually, those who edited and introduced this collection are well aware that our mastery of nature might bring with it the most frightening possibilities. They are aware that, in light of those possibilities, we reasonably wonder: “What are the alternatives?” (“What to do, and how to do it.”) But having introduced that theme, Minkov and Trout immediately suggest that “Perhaps, however, we should take a step back and investigate what mastery of nature is,” in other words investigate its “origins.”

“Perhaps” is not an argument that, in advance, explains or justifies why the best thing to do is turn away from the most urgent questions. Yet ultimately the essays in this diamond-like volume (both brilliant and hard) stand as the best justification for the proposition that understanding where we have been is a necessary prelude to thinking about where we are, where we are going, and what is to be done.

Two points become very clear. The first is that the “project” of “mastery of nature” is not a project in the same way that my perennial effort to clean out my basement is a project. I attempt to clean my basement as one among many efforts which may serve disparate or shared ends. But the project of mastery of nature was self-consciously articulated by its intellectual proponents as a comprehensive horizon, a world view, a Weltanschauung. In Martin Heidegger’s terms, as Mark Blitz points out in his contribution to this volume, it is “an understanding of being” or “a dispensation of being.” 

Hence the usual questions concerning our world of modern science and technology hardly exhaust, indeed may barely touch, the most serious issues that it poses for us. Day to day we are caught up in “What is possible?”; “What is profitable?”; “What is helpful?”; “What is safe and effective?”, usually focusing on this or that actual or proposed innovative discovery or invention. Stepping back and asking “big” questions about some new process or device usually means inquiring into what commentators would call its “impact on society or politics,” or how it relates to equality, autonomy, or any other “value” deemed relevant by the commenters.

In the vast majority of cases, such discussions take place within the horizon of mastery of nature. In contrast, the contributors to the present volume understand that unless we are aware of the “promises” that define that horizon, we are unlikely to be able thoroughly to confront the “prospects” that it creates for us. And yet when many of them look more closely at the otherwise familiar promises that constitute the horizon of modern science and technology, they find that all is not what it seems. The horizon is, they believe, not as comprehensive as it may seem.

Subtle Writings About the Mastery of Nature

The essays on the key early modern thinkers Niccolo Machiavelli, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, and Descartes actually problematize the idea of the conquest of nature. While not in the least denying that these thinkers advocated this goal in some fashion, each essay gives us cause to wonder (as in the quotation from Professor Warner, above) whether they did so in a completely consistent or honest manner.

Harvey C. Mansfield argues herein, for example, that Machiavelli “begins the shift to fact that occurs with modern science,” thus substituting “the authority of fact” for “the false imagining of revelation.” Yet, concludes Mansfield provocatively, to the extent that science depends on the existence of such facts as givens, it cannot be said to have mastered nature. 

Devin Stauffer suggests that Hobbes might not have been as certain about the truth of his metaphysical materialism as he wanted to appear, and thus concludes that Hobbes would have been more aware than we are today of “the most challenging alternative to what would become the modern scientific outlook.” 

In each case, a zeal for supplanting the claims of revealed religion combines with a certain philosophical honesty to loudly advance a project about which quiet doubts remain possible. 

From this point of view, we are not so surprised when we come to Paul Ludwig’s lucid essay on why Lucretius, a materialist, did not advocate the conquest of nature. Lucretius’ “epicurean” response to death, Ludwig suggests, is actually more consistent with finding happiness in a purely materialistic world than the scientific struggle. Lucretius is not trying to co-opt religion, and hence can  claim to overcome all its hopes and fears. But seeking to replace the religious quest for immortality with a science- and technology- based quest, our modern authors have no way of avoiding, and indeed must depend on, those same hopes and fears. Until the moment that immortality were to actually become a reality, then, we experience not stoic detachment and calm, but the same old unhappiness and disappointment that our limitations necessarily create in the face of imagined possibilities of perfection.

Or again, it is within the framework of this uncertainty about the grounding of the project of the mastery of nature that the debate one could tease out of the last two essays takes on a special significance. There, Adam Schulman and coeditor Trout seem to disagree about the extent to which science has given us access to the truth of the world (at least by Aristotelian standards).

If the foundations of the project of mastery of nature were not so firm as we might have been tempted to believe given its apparently comprehensive sway in our own time, what might the consequences be? They might be apparent in the Baron de Montesquieu who, rather curiously, according to Diana J. Schaub, nearly completely avoids discussion of science while treating commerce as “the shape in which science (as practical technology) ordinarily manifests itself.”  Similarly, according to Jerry Weinberger, Benjamin Franklin had some sense that the horizon of modern natural science was not comprehensive. While Franklin definitely saw its charitable purpose as superior to the charity of organized religion, he did not think “it would eliminate the need for wise and pragmatic political engineering” in the face of ongoing old-fashioned religious enthusiasm.

If we treat mastery of nature as a horizon among other possible horizons—and one that is not so comprehensive in its understanding—then surely we should be sympathetic to the examination of “consequences, critiques and corrections.” Given how often in this volume the project of mastery is defined over against revelation, and yet is also said to fail to definitively refute revelation either practically or theoretically, it is somewhat curious that no religious or theologically-minded thinker has a place among the criticism or corrections. Instead, while Michael A. Gillespie is very interested in taking Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s notoriously dissident account of modern science seriously, he acknowledges that in his treatment of nature “much remains mysterious and in some cases simply wrong.” Richard Velkley’s Immanuel Kant does not quite endorse the mastery of nature, and yet his reservations are founded in a conception of reason that “is complex and endlessly perplexing.” 

The best immanent critique of the horizon of mastery seems to emerge from Arthur Melzer’s beautiful essay on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which in a sensitive and convincing way makes what can easily appear as some of Rousseau’s most idiosyncratic and apparently inconsistent rejections of modernity seem rather like models of thoughtful probity.

Rousseau, in presenting us with a moral critique of the mastery of nature, seems to have found the real Achilles’ heel of the project. (If Christopher Nadon is correct, this is an outcome that Xenophon would have anticipated.) Centuries after Rousseau, it is tempting to understand “where we are” in terms of his anticipations. Public and private virtues hang by a thread in those parts of the world where comfortable self-preservation has made the greatest strides, and indeed the distinction between facts and values has made it nearly impossible to think about virtue as anything other than a matter of taste, probably a minority taste at that (although it persists at least as a minority taste.) 

But there is a silver lining in signs that we no longer take for granted the project of mastery’s cooptation of hope. Progress as either a fact or a concept hardly seems so inevitable as it might have seemed 50 or even 150 years ago. The very meaning of the term has become obscured and contested. Our technological elites, characteristically inclined to extremes, still engage in orgies of self-congratulation, but they are not immune to orgies of self-flagellation. If this volume is designed to help us confront the project of the mastery of nature, its greatest service might leave readers coming away from it with less, rather than more, certainty about “wither we are tending.”