Is There Such a Thing as Nature?
Every time Star Trek needed a new plot device Spock or one of his successors would discover yet another piece of physics just in the nick of time. You’d think that things would have been pretty well figured out in 200 years and certainly in 300, but the sequels continue to feature novel “I’ve-never-seen anything-like-it!” L rays and M rays and N rays ad infinitum and it’s a good bet they’ll keep on finding ‘em even when the intergalactic Borders is featuring the latest thriller, WC is for Water Closet. That’s OK for television science fiction, which has no more need of plausibility than my recent strenuous but rewarding dream involving Lindsey Davenport and Charlotte Church, In policy discussions, however, it is more problematic to begin with the premise that nature has limitless depths that will make possible a technological fix to any problem. Some economists and others such as Michael Creighton seem to think that the laws of fiction apply to the real world and that some thing will turn up to save the day after we’ve exhausted the oil and fresh water and good soil. Willing to recognize that any material resource is limited, they fail to consider that human ignorance is also a finite good and that we are using it up at a furious pace. Of course, I don’t know for sure that nanobots won’t turn the Arctic Ocean into lemonade. The point is, I don’t know they will either and neither do they.
Science and technology look very different when you view them prospectively instead of retrospectively. It’s easy to make a very long list of amazing discoveries and inventions, many of which were so surprising that it took a long time to figure out something they were good for. But that’s looking backwards. The tract record of predicted technical triumphs is less impressive, even if you discount the business about the gyrocopters. AI was the wave of the future in the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, and remains the wave of the future today. In disdain of innumerable announcements to the contrary, some in the New York Times, cancer remains largely incurable except in mice who, by a tragic irony, seldom have adequate health insurance. It’s even remotely possible that hydrogen cars just aren’t going to work. In twenty years of working on technology transfer, I’ve seen far brilliant ideas crash than triumph, which is not, of course, an indictment of brilliant ideas but a consequence of the fact that the sciences really are empirical, i.e. they are a form of wagering. Scientific triumphalists are like moronic statisticians who estimate the odds at the tables by interviewing people who are cashing in their chips. No wonder they’re so optimistic. But in science as the rest of life, it’s much easier to find something you like than to get exactly what you want.
Meanwhile, we are aware of various physical limits that seem to affirmatively rule out some of the fondest dreams of teenagers and libertarians. Perhaps some of these limits are not absolute or can be worked around, but limits like the speed of light sure look serious; and the onus on maintaining that they are defeasible surely ought to fall on those who blithely assume we can escape our ravaged planet and whip off to Alpha Centuri and will, too, as soon as the demand line crosses the supply line at the right price.
Truth told, I resist technological optimism for a personal reason. I find the notion that nature cannot stand before the human will somewhat sickening. My Father, who had a engineering outlook, used to pronounce “Whatever the mind of man can imagine, he can accomplish;” but even as a child this sort of 1930s, Raymond Massey-style Prometheanism repelled me. If nature offers the mind no limit, if it cannot stand before our wishes, it sublimes like dry ice, invisible in its perfect transparency. All that’s left is the likes of us, the little or not so little god of the world. I hadn’t even heard of Martin Heidegger in those days, but I guess even then I recognized that Being-in didn’t quite work without the-World because the content of our humanity is bound up with the things and their opacity. And I kinda like the things.
Of course reality is not really going to go away—the Periodic table and the Balmer series are not fads. Unfortunately a partial and temporary triumph of human will over the traditional limits of human life also presents a great danger, not only because the city in the clouds is going to come tumbling down one of these days but because even before that denouncement, the erstwhile happy citizens of that gated community are doomed to a terminal case of anomie and loneliness. As they used to say in Pravda, it is not accidental that some these folks are dreaming about the end of the world, some as Götterdämmerung, some as the Rapture.