Saturday, April 30, 2011

It's Unnatural...

I've a review of Philip Ball's excellent book Unnatural in today's Age, 'Getting to Grips with Unnatural Urges'.

Ball is a scientist and science writer, but not a proponent of scientism - that is, he's not a fundamentalist.  More a defender of scientific rationality, what George Orwell called 'a method of thought which obtains verifiable results by reasoning logically from observed fact.'

In Unnatural, Ball applies this method to ideas of 'natural' and 'unnatural' from classical Greek philosophy to contemporary bioethics debates.  In particular, he shows how many shibboleths are snuck into arguments by way of what's 'natural'.

Often, what folks mean by 'nature' is actually 'culture' in an old metaphysical uniform.  What's familiar and sanctioned is natural, and therefore good.  Anything that asks us to rethink these categories is against nature, and therefore bad.  (Think gay families or 'test tube' babies.)

It's a smart, erudite and sometimes funny book, which is clarifying (as ethics) and thought-provoking (as a history of ideas).  Here's a sample of my review:
Ball is not on an anti-Christian crusade. He is equally critical of foggy ideas in literature, journalism and science. Some newspaper commentary on biotechnology is certainly more fictional than Battlestar Galactica, for example, with its uncanny but very 'human' robots (see the 'Eights', above left). His timely passages against genetic determinism – the idea that DNA determines our physical and psychological fate – pack scholarly punch. For Ball, biologists and physicists have shibboleths too. ‘Myths and taboos exist for a reason,’ he writes, ‘but that reason is not about predicting the future. They are apt to… seduce us with grand narratives when the really important issues are rooted in the particulars of our times and cultures.’ 
Ball’s basic outlook is both Socratic and Delphic. It is Socratic, because it concerns the examined life. Each new advance in biotechnology can challenge our prejudices. For those who thought ‘test tube’ babies would be soulless, infertile things, we have Louise Brown, and the millions of IVF babies born since her birth in 1978. Her humanity was not stolen by artificial conception. Life changes, and our ethical debates must keep up – we cannot rest on our moral laurels. 
Ball’s vision is also Delphic: ‘know thyself’ is his counsel. His catalogue of historical fantasies, from how to make a cow (ingredients: one dead cow, needle and thread, herbs, a large dog’s penis) to the magically immortal Christian soul, is a primer on the capricious human mind. To live intelligently, we have to be mindful of our fears and desires, and the demons they feed in our psyche’s catacombs.
There's a small error in the text - someone's replaced 'physis' (the Greek word for nature) with 'physics'. Understandable, but a shame: the two words are certainly not identical.


Philosophy and Life said...

Hi Damon, Funny you should refer to the myth of the 'immortal Christian soul' - though the myth is that Christianity teaches we have immortal souls, not that souls are immortal. I was just in a discussion about this, it being after Easter, which centred around the point that Easter teaches resurrection not immortality. They are not the same thing, for Christianity has it that we die as Jesus died. In more metaphysical terms, 'the soul is the form of the body', Aquinas writes, following Aristotle to the letter, and adding the gloss, 'my soul is not I': it is but the form of the body, and I am not I if not embodied. It's a common mistake, one that lots of Christians make too, I guess. Mark

Damon Young said...

Thanks, Mark. As you know, I'm sympathetic to arguments for embodiment. And the Aristotelian position certainly seems less Platonic (if you'll forgive the adjective). But Christianity is bigger than Aquinas, isn't it? From St. Paul to Neoplatonism to folk religion, isn't there a current of thought and feeling, which sees the soul as a superior principle of activity, as opposed to the passive body? The earthly body is what decays and dies, while the soul is goodness, redemption, animation? (Hence Paul's specification of a new body, 1 Corinthians 15:42-49.)