Monday, October 24, 2016

Brave New World: Fr. Perrone on the present and future of life in the western world

Eduard Perrone, "A Pastor's Descant" (Assumption Grotto News, October 23, 2016):
"I am a man, and nothing human is alien to me."

These well-known words of the Roman playwright Terence are often quoted. I'm sorry to say that I feel a lot less secure about them now than I once did. Things human are becoming far too bizarre for me, and I, like the aging man that I am, reflecting on the disparity of things now from way-back-when, feel estranged from some of the weird goings on in the contemporary world.

I have at times ruminated on some of these things which -- pace Terence -- make me feel much alienated. I have written on occasion about the allowance accorded to college students to choose their sexual identity from among over fifty options which, in the event, turned out to be too restrictive (!) In the same vein, students at a local Catholic high school expressed no surprise when one of their number declared his alternative gender preference. It was discovered that many of the students there are now undecided as to what sexual identity they will adopt. I have also written in some past pastor's column about the transhumanism which aims to so augment the existing limits of bodily and mental capacities so that the new product will transcend homo sapiens, leaving it behind as a mere passing phase in the evolutionary process. We have already recovered (I think) from the shock of tansplants of major bodily organs, of genetic engineering, and of human cloning. Now comes an article given to me by a thoughtful member of my Tuesday night adult catechism class which tells of serious research being done in head transplants. Not to be outdone by the egregious moral transgressions of a decade ago, some bold and bright scientists are working towards the day when one's head can be affixed to someone else's body. The metaphysical and moral questions have not even been completely thought at this point. For example, whose identity will the composite man take on: the identity of the head transplantee or of the corpus? Children engendered by such: whose parents are they? And so on. The incongruity of such a hybrid man reminds me of a fable I once read by Thomas Mann titled The Transposed Heads (the author claims it to be a tale of India) in which a skinny intellectual man and a muscular airhead exchange heads. (Those interested can read the story for outcome of the tale.) Never once did I imagine that such a thing would be written up as a possibility. And yet here I am, reading a mag article on the very topic.

Nothing alien to me? I suppose, to give Terence his due, his saying still holds good for reason that none of these freakish transformations are truly exemplars of human nature as it was intended and created by God. We are living in a brave new world, as someone famously predicted, and it seems that it will only become more and more strange and morally undetermined so that we who have known and wanted to live by the dictates of our rational human nature will find ourselves very much outside, that is to say, alienated. There doesn't seem to be a way to halt the regress of morals unto the point where total chaos reigns, what is likened by some to a Dionysian frenzy, to where -- to phrase it somewhat obliquely -- all Hades will break out in public. This would be, should it ever come to pass, a far worse punishment on the human race than an act of God. We would have, in that case, a hell of our own making, rather than a punishment imposed.

When we add to the specter of this scary future the possibilities of the political disorder that may well befall us following the November election, we get a whole lot more to be worried about. That said, we must be convinced about the one thing I have over and over asserted in preaching, namely, that we must hang on mightily to our Catholic faith -- never apostatize! -- pray, and do penance in reparation for all the crimes being committed -- and those further contemplated -- in this increasingly godless world.

Lest I give the wrong idea about my intentions here, let me add that a Christian always lives in hope, never in despair. The final outcome of all things is a given of our faith. Moreover, grace will not be lacking to all who seek it. In my current reading, a biography of Solzhenitsyn by Joseph Pierce (the same who lectured here a few weeks ago), I take inspiration from a man of incredible courage and indomitable faith, having once himself been an atheist and a Communist who then became a Christian and an outspoken critic of all totalitarianism and idealist systems and of the corrupted leanings of the western world. His is the story of good winning out over tremendous political evils and personal suffering. Hope, courage, tenacity, prayer: these are the themes of his life which encourage me.

I want you, my parishioners, to be strong in faith, constant in prayer, and unflappable in spirit.
Related: Joseph Pearce, "An Interview with Alexander Solzhenitsyn" (Catholic Education Research Center, St. Austin Review, 2003).


Michael Leahy said...

A great article. My hope would be that the technical abilities of modern scientists might not match their hubris. With the decline of moral integrity I would expect a corresponding decline of dedication, concentration and conscientousness, all qualities required in the pursuit of knowledge and its subsequent translation into viable technology. The recent disastrous failure of the EU Mars lander, something which should be old hat nowadays, the incandescent 'smart' phones, the incredibly fragile Twin Towers (those planes would just have bounced off any medieval castle), the universal decline in the quality of commonplace artifacts, may be straws in the wind that these manic plans may not turn out as intended. It seems much more likely that they will unintentionally create some vicious strain of a plague in the face of which mankind will be immunologically naked.

When one thinks about it, the more ambitious scientists seem to get, the less common seem to be the true geniuses. In the first half of the twentieth century we had Einstein, Lemaitre, Planck, Heisenberg and the mathematician Godel, all monumental geniuses whose revolutionary discoveries led to the technological advances we now enjoy. Where are the new great discoveries? The new geniuses? Head transplants involve no new science-it is merely Frankensteinism. Incidentally, I don't think any of those five gentlemen were atheists.

Pertinacious Papist said...

Mr. Leahy,

Great comment. "... planes would have just bounced off any medieval castle"; "In the first half of the twentieth centur we had Einstein ... Goedel, all monumental geniuses ... The new geniuses ... merely Frankensteinism." Well-said. Thanks for your thoughts!

I used to tell my students when still teaching in NC that we were entering a new 'dark ages', and my students would simply blink at me uncomprehendingly. They had their cell phones and iPods. How could they possibly comprehend?

Michael Leahy said...

I read a book during the summer called The Genius Famine by Dutton/Charlton which described a dumbing-down of the human race they considered ongoing for the last two centuries. Examples included the decline of theoretical and practical science, despite the early 20th century renaissance; the decline of classical music; literature; painting; philosophy (becoming mere linguistic analysis); and very much else.

The culprit they diagnosed was due to Progress itself-reduced infant mortality. This, they proposed, has led to the survival of human beings bearing fatal or adverse genetic mutations that otherwise would not have survived. They believe that these problems are most exacerbated in the neurological system, being the most complicated, and that this explains what has been a steady decline in intelligence for some time. Being moral chaps, they could offer no solution-there are probably liberals who would advocate targetted genocide-but the problem seems to me naturally self-limiting. As intelligence continues to decline and civilisation in a corresponding manner, it should be only a matter of time before infant mortality begins to rise again, leading to a consequent revival in intelligence. Hasn't Our Lord made things so nicely balanced-when things get rough He ensures higher brain power, when we get too soft, well, this won't last?