Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Not Sunday

with 4 comments

It is Thanksgiving week-end, and as on all Thanksgiving week-ends, I have become majorly disoriented.  Yesterday felt like Saturday, today feels like Sunday, and I’m going into panic mode because I have a lot to do on Monday.  I also have a lot of papers to correct, the super-duper, extra-long, have-to-be-MLA-documented papers that I do earlier and earlier every term to give the students time to fix. I need to give them time to fix, because the average grade on these things tends to be around 40.  Out of 100.

The grades are that low because nobody ever listens, or maybe because nobody believes it when college teachers say “do it this way or you fail.”  What I get most often from students, even good ones, is the indignant declaration that all the information in the Works Cited is there, so why should it matter if it isn’t in the right order?

 In other words, I’m not looking forward to going back to the fray this coming week, because it will in fact be a fray.

I’d probably be feeling better about it if I could only get it into my head that it isn’t yet Sunday.

Tomorrow is Sunday, but that’s a nervous breakdown for another day.

In the meantime, I’m reading my way through this year’s entry by James Schall, one of my favorite writers and a man who is well into his eighties by now.  I find this depressing, but Schall probably does not.  He’s an old-fashioned Jesuit.  He tends to think of death as part of life and eternal life after this one as an absolute certainty.

The book is called The Modern Age, and the chapter I’m reading at the moment concerns two things that Schall finds related:  the Christian doctrine of the (absolute necessity of) the resurrection of the body, and various modern phenomena such as cloning, sex change operations and in vitro fertilization.

Schall is a philosopher and a theologian, which means he either knows even less than I do about the science of this sort of thing, or that he cares less. 

He’s a big proponent of the idea that the first duty of every human being is to know what is, on the assumption that only when we know what is can we know ourselves.

And that is why, I think, that I’m feeling so frustrated about the fact that he has (at least so far) said nothing about the to issues involved in this kind of thing that interest me the most.

The first is mostly just a perplexity–in some of these cases, we don’t actually do what we’re saying we’re doing. 

There may come a time, for instance, when we can in fact change the sex of human beings at will, but that time is not now.   What we call “sex change operations” at the moment are largely, if radically, cosmetic.  The DNA of a human being who has undergone such an operation remains distinctively male or female as it was at birth, as dows that body’s functioning when it comes to hormones.  That’s why people who have undergone such operations must take hormone supplements for life. 

This is not, in and of itself, a reason not to perform those operations, or undergo them, but it does give me pause on an existential level:  if we are not actually accomplishing a change of sex when we perform or undergo such operations, what are we accomplishing?  And why?  What does one get from such an operation–and the attendant problems of a lifelong regime of hormone therapy–that could not be accomplished simply by living as the sex one preferred to be.

And don’t tell me that just living as the sex one would prefer to be is “living a lie,” because until we have the technological problems of sex change actually worked out, the operation is living a lie, too.   It’s just considerably more expensive and considerably more physically dangerous.

But that is, essentially, a matter of psychology.  What seems more fundamental to me is the other question:

How much can you change the physical human being before that human being no longer possesses “human nature?”

All secular attempts to discover and articulate an objectively based moral code assume that human nature is something largely fixed and inborn.

Note the “largely.”   I am not denying the importance of nurture here.

Still, there are things that are considered to be not only common to all human beings, but common to all human beings in all times and all places regardless of race, creed, upbringing or culture–jealousy, sexual passion, a sense of justice, an awareness of death.

Okay, that wasn’t even pretending to be an exhaustive list.  But the fact that human beings over a vast array of different times, places and cultures all experience at the most basic level the same things is not only the basis for believing that an objective moral code is possible, it’s also the basis for believing that we can understand each other at all. 

We read Homer and the Bhagvad Gita confident that we not only can, but will, “get” them.  Modern filmmakers dig up the epics of lost civilizations and turn them into superhero movies.  We watch Othello working himself up at Iago’s lies and roll our eyes, because Othello is just like our idiot brother in law.

But here’s where the doctrine of the resurrection of the body has a point–if we no longer have the experience of our bodies, we are no longer human.   To be actual, real human beings, we must, first of all, be physical. The promise that we would somehow “survive” death as a ghost, that we would be able to split soul and body and still be ourselves, is false.

And we can see, in one case, how a change in the way we experience our physical bodies has caused an intellectual and emotional disconnect with previous generations.  We’ve talked about it here, in the past:  the fact that we can no longer “understand” death in the same way that an Elizabethan playwright or a classical Greek poet did.

We do not experience death, or the immanence of death, in anything like the same way.   John Donne would have found the death of a child heartbreaking, but perfectly normal.  Children in his era frequently died before their 12th birthdays.   It was part of the reason families had so many children.

For that matter, John Donne would have found it perfectly normal for a wife to die in childbirth.  For centuries, childbirth was the single most common form of death for women under the age of 40.  A first childbirth was a leap into the unknown–no way to tell, until you’d undergone it, whether your body could safely deliver a child at all–but subsequent childbirths remained dangerous for a host of reasons. 

The entire concept of courage is different, I think, for somebody who expects that death can come at any time anyway and someone who thinks “normal” means living to a ripe old age.

I also happen to think that this is part of the disconnect between the West (or the industrialized nations as a whole, to include Japan) and radical Islam–radical Islam is a product of societies where death is still a common thing, commonly experienced and ever-present.

But here’s the thing–if we accept that in changing the physical reality of human beings in any way we also change human nature in at least some way, we are not at the same time saying that we should not make such changes.

As far as I’m concerned, the change in the nature, experience and consequences of childbirth have been largely to the good.  I am, as I’ve noted here before, one of those people who would have simply been dead in any society other than the modern one.

Once we’ve admitted that, however, the question becomes–how do we decide what, if anything, is “too much” change in the human body and therefore “too much” change in what it means to be human?

There has been at least some religious and moral objection, somewhere, to each new medical innovation–to anesthesia in childbirth, to vaccinations, to corrective surgery of things like hare lips, to sex change.

What I keep trying to figure out, without much success, is whether or not there is a logical construct that would provide some kind of guidelines for when what we’re doing is a Good New Thing and when what we’re doing is Completely Unacceptible.

Sometimes it simply seems that Huxley had it right where Orwell had it wrong.  The future isn’t 1984, it’s Brave New World, where the drive to create the New Social Man will no longer stop at reconstructing the mind but go on to reconstructing the body.

But the real thing that nags at me is this:  when I get to thinking about these things, the back of my mind keeps saying:  why the hell not? 

It’s not that I can’t see we’d have something to lose, or that what we’d have to lose would be profound.

It’s just that pain and suffering and death seem to me good things to get rid of, even if getting rid of them would not, and could not, produce that vaunted heaven on earth.

Maybe it’s just that, at this time of year, I get oddly morbid about everything.

Or maybe I just need tea.

Written by janeh

November 26th, 2011 at 10:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Not Sunday'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Not Sunday'.

  1. I don’t think anything like cloning or sex change surgery makes or doesn’t make one human. I do wonder a lot about why there is such a strong impetus to provide people who are convinced that they are of the opposite sex even though physically and hormonally they aren’t such extreme and apparently sometimes dangerous surgery. I could see it in the extremely rare cases in which the genetic, hormonal and physical attributes at birth don’t match up, but even in such situations, going along with the genetic and hormonal clues would seem to be the best bet (as at least one famous case illustrated). I don’t wonder why some people are convinced against all evidence that they are of the opposite sex – people are often convinced of things that are contrary to the evidence. But in this case, it’s considered a violation of their rights not to provide such surgery. It’s almost like the tendency of certain people to be convinced that their noses are ugly and to insist on repeated surgery to ‘fix’ it.

    I think that although reducing pain and suffering and postponing death may be admrable aims, there is no way, humans being mortal, that they can be reduced to zero. Moreover, there are always trade-offs. There’s no guarantee that one’s psychological suffering will end after the thrill of getting the sex change surgery is over. As we age, the possibility of surgery to reduce pain has to be balanced against the possiblity of death on the table and the certainty that a fairly long chunk of what’s probably a relatively small amount of time left will be spent in painful recovery. Maybe it’s better to control the pain as much as possible, endure what’s left, and take as much pleasure as possible in the small joys during the good hours.

    Of course, suicide eliminates pain in the victim, if not in the survivors.

    Perhaps that’s why suicide is so popular these days that people want to call it a right (although not one to be extended to the young, attractive and healthy). We have achieved so much control over the illness mortals are subject to that we can’t accept that there are things beyond our control. So we save our illusions of control by destroying our faulty, failing bodies.

    Maybe eventually we’ll be able to create artifical bodies so our minds can go on indefinitely. But as Practchett (a suicide advocate, by the way, faced with a slow death) says several times, if you die you can’t have any emotions because you have no hormones (if that’s the word). We’d need not only artifical bodies, but ones that operate like real bodies, with chemically-moderated moods and everything, otherwise the brain-in-the-bottle wouldn’t be the same as the brain-in-the-body, and I don’t think it would be entirely human. But maybe humanity’s descendants would simply rfe-define ‘human’.

    It’s a morbid time of year. I get increasingly morbid until Christmas.


    26 Nov 11 at 11:59 am

  2. We’ve got two problems here, and I’m not sure I know the answer to either. Software first. As far as the human experience goes, I think Niven and Pournelle called it–there are a lot of ways to be human. We connect with some experiences out of the past–but not all, and not always the same ones. I can empathise with Achilles sulking in his tent because Agamemnon took back part of his loot, but while I can understand that both of them think looting cities and killing husbands is a great way to meet girls, I can’t see that part of the world from inside Achilles’ head, if you will.

    The sad thing is, some people could, and fifty or a hundred years from now, that may be more rather than less common. I don’t think we’re going to be able to put any part of the human experience behind us, but we’ll connect with different parts of our past better in some places and times than in others. I saw something lately to the effect that Dickens was very popular currently in the cities of sub-Saharan Africa, which are perhaps more like 1848 London than 2011 London is.

    As for hardware alterations, I don’t know. Physically, if we can get past sleepiness, pain and fatigue, we’ll be quite different. Purely mental states are more obvious, but tricky. At what point do we become hybrid or computer systems? And think carefully before you answer. I carry some of my memory on shelves, and some in a metal and plastic box, or access it by fiberoptic cable. The young lady at Chic-fil-a this morning clearly kept all her computational skills in a metal casing. Would I be inhuman downloaded to a computer and having no hormones? If so, does that mean I’m less human now, when the hormones don’t flow as they did 40 years ago? Or could hormones be replicated by software?

    Might take a look at Barbara Hambly’s “Darkmage” books–The Silent Tower and The Silicon Mage–which approach the problem twice from different angles. For myself, even were the technology here, I’m not prepared to be downloaded, and not prepared to give the franchise to a downloaded personality.

    With maybe one exception. Some years ago, an insurance company computer gave up and cancelled the policy of every “Smith” they had. I’d let that one vote. The ability to feel frustration is very close to my definition of “human.”

    (The literacy test to to keep cats from outvoting me.)


    26 Nov 11 at 4:05 pm

  3. Man is something to be surpassed.


    27 Nov 11 at 8:09 pm

  4. “Man is something to be surpassed.”

    You first, ab! :-)


    27 Nov 11 at 10:57 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 210 access attempts in the last 7 days.