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Thousands (or millions) of species are endangered? Hire more Fish and Wildlife agents right now! The globe is warming? That has been the most ambitious play of all, because the scare scenarios are such that we would have to put the environmentalists in charge of the U.S. economy. They wouldn’t mind that, of course, but it was too much even for Republicans to go along. But Science and other publications promoted the issue with very little acknowledgment of the underlying controversy. The cheerleaders of government science have recognized this simple truth: crises work to our professional advantage.
These days, government science is also devoted to spreading false alarms about infectious disease. AIDS, and then African AIDS (in which no infectious agent was needed to make the diagnosis) proved to be the great 20th-century triumphs of empire-building public-health agencies. The consequences of drug taking (at home) and a ruined public health infrastructure (in Africa) were blamed on a virus, and literally billions of dollars were pried loose from taxpayers as scare stories spread without check or balance.
But the AIDS story may have run its course and the empire builders will need a new infectious disease before too long. Check with Anthony Fauci of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has been warning us about “avian flu,” the latest scam. So far, 55 deaths worldwide have been attributed to avian flu, but it could do wonders for the budget of public health agencies if they can add a few zeroes to those numbers. Don’t rule it out.
THERE’S ANOTHER CATEGORY of politicized science, in which it is not so much the crisis as the solution that is hyped. Here, the “crisis” is real enough, in a sense, as it is embedded in the human condition. I refer to disease, aging, and death.
A rising brand of utopian science believes that relief from these conditions can be bio-engineered. Again, however, the government is expected to foot the bill. In that sense it’s the same old story.
I have several chapters on genetic engineering, cloning, stem cell research, and the rest. Here, the great tendency is to over-promise. Readers should adopt a default position of disbelief whenever they see articles about these marvels. Notice what the stem-cell hullabaloo is really about: getting the federal government to pay the bills. But if stem-cell cures are just over the horizon, how come Bill Gates didn’t fund a biotech company himself, rather than support the California proposition that put taxpayers on the hook for $5 billion?
Meanwhile a handful of inventors and capitalists have shown an opposite, dystopian tendency. Their strange concern is that robots will become conscious and “evolve” faster than us, becoming our lords and masters. Bill Joy, the co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, wrote an article for Wired in 2000 (“Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us”) in which he argued that rapid technological progress threatens the human race. His argument might have come from the Unabomber Manifesto, and it was ready-made for the Aspen Institute. Joy’s gloom was fashionable, at least for a while.
His guru was Ray Kurzweil, whose futuristic book The Age of the Spiritual Machines showed how smart people can be devoid of common sense. Soon we will be able to download our minds onto computer hardware, then slog on indefinitely as software, Kurzweil fantasized. By 2029, machines will “claim” to be conscious and these claims will be “largely accepted.” Bill Joy heard all this from Kurzweil in a bar one night and became a believer on the spot. It was “only a small step to a robot species — to an intelligent robot that can make evolved copies of itself.”
Such predictions are placed close enough to our own time to seem impressive, and yet far enough in the future to be forgotten when they do not come to pass.
My own prediction is that neither the utopian nor the dystopian future will materialize. When it sinks in that genetic and stem-cell engineering is beyond our ken, the anticipated downloading of our minds will also be postponed — indefinitely. (By the way, don’t they know we haven’t even been able to get robots to move around the room without bumping into the furniture yet?)
Underlying the thinking of both optimists and pessimists is the assumption of materialism. Matter is all there is. Only material causes impinge on humans. Our “free will” is an illusion. When we “reason,” our conclusions are foreordained, and would be known to a computer fully acquainted with our antecedent brain state. Such computers are coming! Humans exist, therefore they must have evolved (how else could we have appeared).
Machines do things right now that require great conscious effort on the part of humans; sometimes they can do them better (beat the world chess champion, for example). Think what they will be able to do when they become more complex. They will become “more evolved” and smarter than us in every respect.
The reigning guru of science, Stephen W. Hawking, flaunted this philosophy in all its wondrous folly in 1998. He said:
Hawking thinks humans are nothing but chemicals that self-assembled over the eons into ever more complex molecules. Complexity morphed into consciousness at a certain point. It is this philosophy that has been the main support for evolution. We are indubitably here, so how did we get here if not by atoms randomly bumping into one another? Scientists support evolution rather than creation or intelligent design, Richard Lewontin argued, “because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism.” And that materialism is “absolute,” for “we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.” The alternative “is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.”
But “miracles” do happen. They happen every time we decide to do one thing rather than another. The claim that we only have an illusion of freedom and that our decision was determined by our chemical and electrical brain states belongs to the realm of philosophy, not science.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?