A hell beyond

Karl Popper said: “Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell.” Think about how badly the promises of multicultural utopia through diversity have gone, and then think about the level of hell that experimenting with the entire food chain in search of transspecies utopia could lead:

The well-being of large and long-lived free-living mammals could be secured even with today’s technologies. Expanding the circle of compassion further is more technically challenging. Until a couple of years ago, I’d have spoken in terms of centuries. For sociological rather than technical reasons, I still think this kind of timescale is more credible for safeguarding the well-being of humans, transhumans and the humblest of nonhuman animals alike.

Certainly, until the CRISPR revolution, talk of extending an abolitionist ethic beyond vertebrates sounded fanciful because compassionate interventions would pass from recognisable extensions of existing technologies to a speculative era of mature nanotechnology, self-replicating nanobots and marine drones patrolling the oceans. For me, the final piece of the abolitionist jigsaw only fell into place after reading Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986) — a tantalizing prospect, but not a scenario readily conceivable in our lifetime.

Then came CRISPR. Even sober-minded scientists describe the CRISPR revolution as “jaw-dropping”. Gene drives can spread genetic changes to the rest of the population.

Whether for large iconic vertebrates or obscure uncharismatic bugs, the question to ask now is less what’s feasible but rather, what’s ethical? What kinds of consciousness, and what kinds of sentient being do we want to exist in the world? 

Naturally, just because a pan-species welfare state is technically feasible, there is no guarantee that some sort Garden of Eden will ever come to pass. Most people still find the idea of phasing out the biology of involuntary suffering in humans a fanciful prospect — let alone its abolition in nonhuman animals. The well-being of all insects sounds like the reductio ad absurdum of the abolitionist project. But here I’m going to be quite dogmatic. A few centuries from now, if involuntary suffering still exists in the world, the explanation for its persistence won’t be that we’ve run out of computational resources to phase out its biological signature, but rather that rational agents — for reasons unknown — will have chosen to preserve it.

Man never learns. In his attempts to improve the world, he has made things worse more often than he has made it better. The remarkable thing is that it is mostly people who believe evolution by natural selection has produced this world who are seeking to bring it to a crashing halt. I shudder to think the ways in which this latest plan for utopia could go awry and bring about a hell on Earth beyond the imagination of the average SF writer.

It does raise some interesting thoughts concerning the philosophical arguments against the existence of God related to the so-called problem of suffering. (I’ve always regarded them as rather stupid, but they do exist and therefore require addressing.) Since Man apparently has the power to end the “involuntary suffering” involved in the food chain, but thus far has declined to do so, is this similar evidence that he either a) does not exist, or b) is not benevolent?