Why this century is unlike any other

Daniel Alroy

2015, October 7

Gene therapy. Biotechnology now makes it possible to identify and correct disease genes. Such cures are heritable. These techniques are the same as the ones needed to replace a non-disease gene by a better performing gene. Expert opinion is clueless as to how to proceed. The West recoils from such germline modifications and has prohibited doing it in humans. The more pragmatic East rejects the West’s reaction. These different moral perspectives cannot be expected to be resolved anytime soon. For this reason, each side is likely to follow their own moral guide. In that event, the current century would be the initial bifurcation of Homo sapiens into two divergent genetic populations. This impending development points to the need to know what ought to be done, not merely what can be done.

Global warming. Three million years ago the carbon dioxide  (CO2) in the atmosphere was 400 parts per million (ppm). The resulting warming climate melted polar ice and caused the sea level to rise some twenty meters above the current level. The first industrial revolution replaced muscle power with machine power by burning fossil fuel, which produces CO2 as a by-product. Electrification and the introduction of automobile transportation accelerated CO2 emissions, which recently reached the 400 ppm level. It is projected to double by the end of the century. The warming trend cannot be reversed or stopped this century even if all CO2 emissions cease. This human produced crisis points to the inability of society to take into consideration, and effectively act on long-term global issues.   

Updating C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures. C. P. Snow, in his 1958 lecture Two Cultures, observed that science and technology have a large and growing part in modern culture. He proposed that being ignorant of science is being ignorant. From a current day perspective, Snow proved right that without understanding science a person is ignorant. However, his implication that knowledge of science makes a person educated requires review and revision. Philosophy, science, and technology may be viewed as three levels of an inverted pyramid where philosophy is at the base, science is the middle, and technology is the top level. Such a pyramid shows that philosophy has the widest scope. It is the only part of knowledge that addresses the differences as well as the commonalities between the sciences. Furthermore, science and technology provide information only about what can be done, but does not what ought to be done. Addressing the issue of what ought to be done is within the exclusive domain of philosophy. For these reasons, philosophy is the most important part of knowledge. Hence, to be educated is to be philosophically informed. 

Concepts and consequences


Homeostasis. Life is characterized by homeostasis -goal-oriented, negative feedback processes aimed at maintaining vital variables (e.g. glucose) within given set points. These set points are characteristically far from thermodynamic equilibriums. This is true of the entire tree of life. Thus, ultimately, biological explanations are goal-oriented. 


Resolving the is/ought problem. It is said that prescription cannot be derived from description. This is known as the is/ought problem. However, deriving description from prescription is straightforward. The voluntary goal-oriented action couples an array of alternatives of what can be done, with goal-oriented act of selection from the available alternatives. Once the goal-oriented act of selection is decoupled what remains is an ordinary physical causal procedure. 


Universal versus non-universal systems of ethics and law. Natural Law is the view that moral and legal systems should be based on innate commonalities of human nature. Locke’s tabula rasa assumption, which underlies present-day theories of knowledge, denies that any mental capacity  is innate. As a result, moral and legal systems of the West are non-universal. Such intrinsic non-universality cripples the capacity to reach long-term global consensus on global concerns such as gene therapy and climate change. Setting aside the empirically false tabula rasa assumption would make possible to undertake the reformation of the moral and legal systems of the West.  


The element of time. The revolution in biotechnology is moving with great speed. It is to be expected that global warming will cause migration of tens, if not hundreds of millions persons. Society lacks the conceptual tools of addressing these challenges. The bottom line is that the reconstruction of the foundation of knowledge is an urgent matter.


Quote of the Week

Abraham Lincoln

About ten days ago, I began to dream… There seemed to be death-like stillness about me. I then heard subdued sobs…. I arrived at the East Room…. Before me was a catafalque…. on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others were weeping pitifully. “Who is dead in the White House?” I demanded…. The President… He was killed by an assassin. ”Then came a loud burst of grief from the crowd, which woke me up from my dream.  I slept no more that night; and although it was only a dream, I have been strangely annoyed by it ever since.

Recollections of Abraham Lincoln 1847-1865. W. H. Lamon. Special legacy reprint series. Kessinger Publishing.

© 2015 Daniel Alroy