Pernicious Prometheus

Prometheus brings fire to mankind Heinrich fueger 1817

It should probably seem strange to us that one of the memes we often use when trying to grapple with the question of how to understand the powers brought to us by modern science and technology is one inspired by an ancient Greek god chained to a rock. Well, actually not quite a god but a Titan, that is Prometheus.

Do a search on Amazon for Prometheus and you’ll find that he has more titles devoted to him than even the lightning bolt throwing king of the gods himself, Zeus, who was the source of the poor Titan’s torment. Many, perhaps the majority of these titles containing Prometheus- whether fiction or nonfiction- have to do not so much with the Titan himself as our relationship to science, technology and knowledge.

Here’s just an odd assortment of titles you find: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, Prometheus Reimagined: Technology, Environment, and Law in the Twenty-first Century, Prometheus Redux: A New Energy Age With the IGR, Prometheus Bound: Science in a Dynamic ‘Steady State’ . It seems even the Japanese use the Western Prometheus myth as in: Truth of the Fukushima nuclear accident has now been revealed: Trap of Prometheus. These are just some of the more recent non-fiction titles. It would take up too much space to list the works of science-fiction where the name Prometheus graces the cover.   

Film is in the Prometheus game as well with the most recent being Ridley Scott’s movie named for the tragic figure where, again, scientific knowledge and our quest for truth, along with its dangers, are the main themes of the plot.

It should be obvious that the myth of Prometheus is a kind of mental tool we use, and have used for quite some time, to understand our relationship to knowledge in general and science and technology specifically. Why this is the case is an interesting question, but above all we should want to know whether or not the Promethean myth for all the ink and celluloid devoted to is actually a good tool for thinking about human knowing and doing, or whether have we ourselves become chained to it and unable to move like the hero, or villain- depending upon your perspective, whose story still holds us in his spell.

It is perhaps especially strange that we turn to the myth of Prometheus to think through potential and problems brought about by our advanced science and technology because the myth is so damn old. The story of Prometheus is first found in the works of the Greek poetic genius, Hesiod who lived somewhere between 750 and 650 B.C.E. Hesiod portrays the Titan as the foil of Zeus and the friend of humankind. Here’s me describing how Hesiod portrayed Zeus’ treatment of our unfortunate species.

If one thought Yahweh was cruel for cursing humankind to live “by the sweat of his brow” he has nothing on Zeus, who along with his court of Olympian gods:

“…keep hidden from men the means of life. Else you would easily do work enough in a day to supply you for a full year even without working.”

In Hesiod, it is Prometheus who tries to break these limitations set on humankind by Zeus.

Prometheus, the only one of the Titans that had taken Zeus’s side in coup d’état against Cronos had a special place in his heart for human beings having, according to some legends, created them. Not only had Prometheus created humans who the Greeks with their sharp wisdom called  mortals, he was also the one who when all the useful gifts of nature had seemingly been handed out to the other animals before humans had got to the front of the line, decided to give mortals an upright posture, just like the gods, and that most special gift of all- fire.

We shouldn’t be under the impression, however, that Hesiod thought Prometheus was the good guy in this story. Rather, Hesiod sees him as a breaker of boundaries and therefore guilty of a sort of sacrilege. It is Prometheus’ tricking Zeus into accepting a subpar version of sacrifice that gets him chained to his rock more than his penchant for handing out erect posture, knowledge and technology to his beloved humans.

The next major writer to take up the myth of Prometheus was the playwright of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus, or at least we once believed it to have been him, who put meat on the bones of Hesiod’s story. In Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound, and the fragments of the play’s sequels which have survived we find the full story of Prometheus’ confrontation with Zeus, which Hesiod had only brushed upon.

Before I had read the play I had always imagined the Titan chained to his rock like some prisoner in the Tower of London.  In Prometheus Bound the rebel against Zeus is not so much chained as nailed to Mount Kazbek like Jesus to his cross. A spike driven through his torso doesn’t kill him, he’s immortal after all, but pains him as much as it would a man made of flesh and bones. And just like Jesus to the good thief crucified next to him, Prometheus in his dire condition is more animated by compassion that rage.

“For think not that because I suffer therefore I would behold all others suffer too.”

To the chorus who inquires as to the origin of his suffering Prometheus list the many gifts besides his famous fire which he has given humankind. Before him humans had moved “as in a dream”, and did not yet have houses like those of the proverbial three little pigs made of straw or wood or brick. Instead they lived in holes in the ground- like ants. Before Prometheus human beings did not know when the seasons were coming or how to read the sky. From him we received numbers and letters, learned how to domesticate animals and make wheels. It was him who gave us sails for plying the seas, life in cities, the art of making metals. What the ancient myth of Prometheus shows us at the very least is that the ancient Greeks were conscious of the historical nature of technological development- a consciousness that would be revived in the modern era and includes our own.

In Aeschylus’  play Prometheus holds a trump card. He knows not only that Zeus will be overthrown, but who is destined to do the deed. Definant before Zeus’ messenger, Hermes and his winged shoes, Prometheus Bound ends with the Titan hurtled down a chasm.

Like all good, and more not so good, stories Prometheus Bound had sequels. Only fragments remain of the two plays that followed Prometheus Bound, and again like most sequels they are disappointments. In the first sequel Zeus frees the Titans he has imprisoned in anticipation of his reconciliation with Prometheus in the final play. That is, Prometheus eventually reconciles with his tormentor, centuries later many would find themselves unable to stomach this.

Indeed, it would be a little over a millennium after Hesiod had brought Prometheus to life with his poetry that yet another genius poet and playwright- Percy Bysshe Shelley would transform the ancient Greek myth into a symbol of the Enlightenment and a newly emergent relationship with both knowledge and power.

Europeans in the 18th the early 19th century were a people in search of an alternative history something other than their Christian inheritance, though it should be said that by the middle of the 19th century they had turned their prior hatred of the “dark ages” into a new obsession. In the mid to late 1800s they would go all gothic including a new obsession with the macabre. A host of 19th century thinker including Shelly’s brilliant wife would help bring this transition from brightsky neo-classicism and its worship of reason which gave us our Greco-Roman national capital among other things, to a darker and more pessimistic sense of the gothic and a romanticism tied to our emotions and the unconscious including their dangers.

Percy Shelley’s Prometheus as presented in his play Prometheus Unbound was an Enlightenment rebel. As the child resembles the parent so the generation of Enlightenment and revolution could see in themselves their own promethean origins. Not only had they shattered nearly every sacred shibboleth and not just asked but answered hitherto unasked questions of the natural world their motto being in Kant’s famous words “dare to know”, they had thrown out (America) and over (France) the world’s most powerful kings- earthbound versions of Zeus- and gained in the process new found freedoms and dignity.

Shelly says as much in his preface:

“But in truth I was averse from a catastrophe so feeble as that of reconciling the  Champion with the Oppressor of mankind.”

There is no way Shelley is going to present Prometheus coming to terms with with a would be omnipotent divine tyrant like Zeus. Our Titan is going to remain defiant to the end, and Zeus’s days as the king of the gods are numbered. Yet, it won’t be our hero that eventually knocks Zeus off of his throne it will be a god- the Demogorgon- not a Titan who overthrows Zeus and frees Prometheus. There are many theories about who or what Shelley’s Demogorgon is- it is a demon in Milton, a rather un-omnipotent architect  a bumbling version of Plato’s demiurge- in a play by Voltaire, but the theory I like best is that Shelley was playing with the word demos or people. The Demogorgon in this view isn’t a god- it’s us– that is if we are as brave as Prometheus in standing up to tyrants.  Indeed, it is this lesson in standing up for justice that the play ends:

To defy Power which seems omnipotent

To love and bear to hope till

Hope creates

From its own wreck the thing it contemplates

Neither to change nor falter nor repent his like thy glory

Titan is to be

Good great and joyous beautiful and free

     This is alone Life Joy Empire and Victory

Now, Shelley’s Prometheus just like the character in Hesiod and Aeschylus is also a bringer of knowledge and even more so. Yet, what makes Shelley’s Titan different is that he has a very different idea of what this knowledge is actually for.

Shelley was well aware that given the brilliant story of the rebellion in heaven and the Fall of Adam and Eve that had been imagined by Milton Christians and anti-Christians might easily confuse Prometheus with another rebellious character- Lucifer or Satan. If Milton had unwittingly turned Satan into a hero in his Paradise Lost the contrast with Shelley’s Prometheus would reveal important differences. In his preface to Prometheus Unbound he wrote:

The only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus is Satan and Prometheus is in my judgment a more poetical character than Satan because in addition to courage and majesty and firm and patient opposition to omnipotent force he is susceptible of being described as exempt from the taints of ambition envy, revenge and a desire for personal aggrandizement which in the Hero of Paradise Lost interfere with the interest. The character of Satan engenders in the mind a pernicious casuistry which leads us to weigh his faults with his wrongs and to excuse the former because the latter exceed all measure.

That is, Prometheus is good in a way Satan is not because his rebellion which includes the granting of knowledge is a matter of justice not of a quest for power. This was the moral lesson Shelley thought the Prometheus story could teach us about our quest for knowledge. And yet somehow we managed to get this all mixed up.

The Prometheus myth has cross fertilized and merged with Judeo-Christian myths about the risks of knowledge and our lust for god-like power. Prometheus the fire bringer is placed in the same company as Satan and his rebellious angels, Eve and her eating from the “Tree of Knowledge”, the  story of the construction of the Tower of Babel. The Promethean myth is most often used today as either an invitation to the belief that “knowledge is power” or a cautionary tale of our own hubris and the need to accept limits to our quest for knowledge lest we bring down upon ourselves the wrath of God. Seldom is Shelley’s distinction between knowledge used in the service of justice and freedom which is good- his Prometheus- and knowledge used in the service of power- his understanding of Milton’s Satan acknowledged.

The idea that the Prometheus myth wasn’t only or even primarily a story about hidden knowledge- either its empowerment or its dangers- but a tale about justice is not something Shelley invented whole cloth but a latent meaning that could be found in both Hesiod and Aeschylus. In both, Prometheus gives his technological gifts not because he is trying to uplift the human race, but because he is trying to undo what he thinks was a rigged lottery of creation in which human beings in contrast to the other animals were given the short end of the stick. If the idea of hidden knowledge comes into play it is that the veiled workings of nature have been used by power- that is Zeus- to secure dutiful worship- a ripoff and injustice Prometheus is willing to risk eternal torment to amend.

Out of the three varieties of the Promethean myth- that of encouraging the breaking of boundaries in the name of empowerment (a pro-science and transhumanist interpretation), that of cautioning us against the breaking of these boundaries (a Christian, environmentalist and bioconservative interpretation), or knowledge as a primary means and secondary end in our quest for justice (a techno-progressive interpretation?) it is the last that has largely faded from our view. Oddly enough it would be Shelly’s utterly brilliant and intellectually synesthetic young wife who would bear a large part of the responsibility for shifting the Prometheus myth from a complex and therefore more comprehensive trichotomy to a much more simplistic and narrowing dichotomy.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus would turn the quest for knowledge itself into a potential breaking of boundaries that might even be considered a sort of evil. Scientists in the public mind would play the role of Milton’s Satan – hero or villain. Unfortunately in drawing this distinction with such artistic genius Mary Shelley helped ensure that the paramount promethean concern with justice would become lost.  I’ll turn to that tale next time…

I’m going to London! (sort of)

For interested readers of Utopia or Dystopia this Sunday, October 20th there will be a live discussion on The Transhumanist Wager held by the London Futurists. I’ve been invited.

Here’s the announcement:

This “London Futurists Hangout on Air” will feature a live discussion between Zoltan Istvan and a panel of leading futurists and transhumanists: Giulio Prisco, Rick Searle, and Chris T. Armstrong. Questions covered will include:

• Which aspects of the near future depicted in the book are attractive, and which are abhorrent?

• What do panellists think of the basic concept of the transhumanist wager, and of “the three laws of transhumanism” stated in the book?

• What are the best ways for transhumanists and radical futurists to use fiction to engage the wider public in awareness of the positive potential of transhumanist technologies?

Live questions

Futurists who want to join the discussion about the book and the issues raised are welcome to view the discussion live on Google+ or YouTube.

Viewers of the live broadcast on Google+ will be able to vote in real time on questions and suggestions to be discussed by the panellists as the Hangout proceeds.

Here’s how to view or participate:

This event will take place between 7pm and 8.30pm UK time on Sunday 20th October.

You can view the event:

• On Google+, via the page – where you’ll also be able to vote on questions to be submitted to the panellists

• Via YouTube (the URL will be published here 15 minutes prior to the start of the event).

There is no charge to participate in this discussion.

Note: there is no physical location for this meetup (despite the postcode given above – in compliance with something that the Meetup software seems to insist upon).

No Spoilers please – until the Hangout starts

Wish me luck...


Science, a religious or utopian project?

New Atlantis Island

It is interesting at least to wonder what the scientific revolution would have looked like had it occurred somewhere other than in the West. What latent goals and assumptions might the systematic and empirical study of nature have had if it had arisen somewhere in what were at the time more technologically and scientifically advanced civilizations: in the lands of Islam, in Confucian-Daoist-Buddhist China, in the Hindu lands of southern India?

We will never know, for what we think of as modern science emerged only once and in the context of a Christian civilization, although also one shaped by classical mythology, though more on that another time. Modern science’s latent goals and assumptions, for good an ill, are likely, then, to have been refracted through Christian religious ideas, ideas which are in many ways, I believe, again for good and ill, still with us.

Modern science emerged in a period of increasing rather than declining religious enthusiasm and its earliest proponents such as Descartes, Newton and Francis Bacon were religious and Christian men. The spread of religious literacy to the masses that grew out of the Reformation provided a wealth of ideas around which the project of understanding nature empirically,which was the essence of the new science, could be conceptualized.

One passage of the book of Genesis would prove especially important in the way the scientific project would be understood and granted theological justification.

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. Genesis 1:26

As Carolyn Merchant has written:

The problem of domination becomes the problem of the Scientific Revolution. Does humanity remain the victim of nature, fatalistically accepting the hand that nature deals in the form of failed harvests and deaths from unknown diseases, droughts, and fires? Or can humanity, by understanding those causes through science and manipulating them through technology, gain the upper hand? As William Leiss pointed out in The Domination of Nature, “the consequence of this view is to set the relationship of man and the world inescapably in the context of domination: man must either meekly submit to these natural laws (physical and economic) or attempt to master them.”

And yet, surely it matters what exactly this idea of dominion actually means, and it is our confusion over what this strange status of being a “lord” over nature is actually for and what its limits are that I believe are at the root of many of our contemporary debates about the proper relationship of science and technology to society and the natural world.

One of the key figures in the shift from pre-scientific to scientific thinking and its move to control nature was Francis Bacon. His utopia, The New Atlantis, reads today like a description of a research university. The members of the scientific institution which governs the island- Solomon’s House- focus their energies on observation and experimentation. They set up weather stations, work on understanding the properties of metals, research remedies on improving human health and longevity. They send out missions that are essentially involved in scientific and technological espionage seeking to bring back to their island of Bensalem useful knowledge discovered by other peoples all the while trying to keep their own knowledge and even their very existence hidden.

Bacon’s works, and not just The New Atlantis are surrounded by Christian themes and motifs. The inhabitants of Bensalem are given special revelation of the Christian gospels, their governing institution traces its roots to the Old Testament’s King Solomon. Many scholars such as the political theorist Howard B. White in his Peace Among the Willows have argued that this religious talk was all a clever ruse by Bacon, and that what he was really after was a reconceptualized idea of power that would strengthen the nascent modern state.

Yet White’s is not the only view. Stephen A. McKnight in his The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon’s Thought makes a compelling case that we should take Bacon’s religious rhetoric seriously. Indeed, if McKnight is correct the idea of dominion found in Bacon leans science much more in the direction of being a humanist and compassionate utopian project than being a road to human power.

As was the case with many of his fellow travelers in the early days of the scientific revolution, McKnight argues that Bacon was deeply influenced by religious ideas and their tumult swirling around him. He too spring boarded off of Genesis 1:26 to come up with new ideas about humanity’s relationship to nature and the development of knowledge over time.

More precisely, Bacon had the idea that in the “prelapsarian” state before Adam and Eve’s Fall human beings understood the work handiwork of God- nature- perfectly and without effort. Just as Protestants had revived millennial expectations that at last human beings were bringing into being the true nature of the Christian message,and therefore the possibility even in a postlapsarian world of living a Christian life,  Bacon believed that his “new science” would restore in some measure the dominion over nature promised to Adam and the knowledge of the natural world that the first parents possessed in their prelapsarian state.

Yet what was such dominion actually for, and why would God, in Bacon’s eyes allow such a restoration of human powers? There is a one word answer to this question- charity.

Here is McKnight:

It is well known that Bacon repeatedly links the knowledge of nature with the ability to bring relief to man’s estate. Most often this linking is associated with knowledge as power. What is often overlooked is Bacon’s emphasis on charity as the motive for using the knowledge of nature for the benefit of humankind. It is wrong, therefore, to link Bacon to a Faustian exercise of egomaniacal power. The understanding of nature enables humanity to enjoy the blessings that God provides.” (43)

If you don’t believe him, here is McKnight quoting Bacon himself speaking of the three types of reasons for which the dominion over nature that came from unveiling its secrets might be exercised:

The first is of those who desire to extend their own power in their own native country; which kind is vulgar and degenerate. The second is of those who labor to extend the power of their country and its dominion among men. This certainly has more dignity if not less covetousness.  But if a man endeavor to establish and extend the power dominion of the human race itself over the universe, his ambition (if ambition it can be called) is without doubt a more wholesome thing and more noble than the other two.  (97)

In other words, science is a project that can be directed by individuals against other individuals, by human groups (and we should include corporations) over and against other groups or is a project that is aimed at the benefit of humankind as a whole,which is how Bacon understood charity as in the improvement of “man’s estate.” We’ve essentially been faced with these three choices ever since.

McKnight is at pains to show that even the restoration of humanity’s prelapsarian control of nature did not mean, for Bacon, that human beings had assumed “God-like” powers. Man was an imitator not a creator. Bacon would have considered our confusion of our own powers with the powers of God a form of idolatry- turning our ideas and capabilities into idols to be worshiped. It was this question of the idolatry latent in the new science that would be the launch point of another great thinker of this period- John Milton.

I have written on Milton’s Paradise Lost before, so I will quote myself.

[Paradise Lost] is the tale of Lucifer and his angelic allies’ rebellion against God, the Son of God, and the angels that remain loyal to their Creator. Lucifer’s rebellion is sparked by his claim that angels are “self-begot”, and therefore owe no worship to God and his Son. The rebels are single-handedly casts out of Heaven by the Son of God, and into the depths of Hell, where they become monstrous, shift-shaping demons. Under the encouragement of the demon, Mammon, (literally “money”), they build Hell’s capital of glittering gold, Pandemonium. This city is supposed to replicate the glorious visages of Heaven, but, though more splendid than any earthly city, remains but Heaven’s pale shadow.

Satan plots his revenge against God, and finds his opportunity in the weak link of God’s new creation- Adam and Eve. After a courageous and epic journey through the depths of Hell, Satan makes his way to the earthly Garden of Eden, where in the form of a serpent, he convinces Eve that the Tree of  Knowledge of Good and Evil God had commanded her and Adam not to eat of on pain of death, is instead the means to upgrade to a god herself.

Ye eat thereof, your eyes that seem so clear,
Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
Open’d and clear’d, and ye shall be as gods. (PL 286)

Eve takes the bait, and Adam the ever dutiful husband follows her lead. Rather than leading to godhood, eating from the Tree of Knowledge results in the couple’s expulsion from the Garden and the beginning of the sad fate of human beings until the arrival, promised to Adam by the archangel, Michael, of the Messiah.

If Bacon was trying to recover a prelapsarian knowledge of nature with his new science, Milton might be thought of as trying to unveil this prelapsarian world itself through his enormous powers of intuition, imagination and poetry. Yet, in Milton we also find a kind of moral critique that warns us not to confuse our new found material powers with the ability to self-generate, to actually be gods which is the driving force behind his version of Satan’s rebellion, and the Fall itself.

And this is what people today who talk of us “becoming gods” or “omnipotenders” or any such thing are engaged in- a category error thinkers and poets such as Bacon and Milton warned us against. Or, in secular terms they have taken but one piece of religious mythology, inverted it, and have confused themselves into thinking it is real. God in Christian mythology can be the architect, designer and controller of nature because he is thought to be somehow “outside” or “above” nature like a player of Simcity.

I often wonder whether the type of science we have would have emerged absent this Christian originating confusion that we are somehow “outside” of nature, or if science could have emerged at all without such confusion? There are no real answers to those questions. What we do know is that we are actually inside of nature and therefore incapable of exercising god-like sovereignty over it because affecting one thing means changing another which then affects us and so on and so on ad infinitum. There is no return to a prelapsarian state as either fully empowered human beings or as gods because no such state ever existed- it was a myth which allowed us to launch and exercise a new form of still very limited control over our surroundings. And still, we can not forget that such limited control is real and its results are astounding, but the powers themselves are morally neutral. The question is what should we use them for?

As Bacon pointed out, such control over nature can be used for a host of different ends. On the more disturbing side science and technology have increased our ability to exercise power over other individuals, and groups to lord over rival groups (including our fellow animals) though the most horrific and truly apocalyptic of these powers are those of states aimed against states, at least to date.

Even so it is undeniably the case that, at the same time, absolutely nothing has improved “man’s estate” more than science and technology. Because of the revolution Bacon helped spark we live better and longer and there are more of us than ever before. This science used for the benefit of others should be understood in broadest terms as Bacon’s charity. Freed from its Christian derived prejudice that only the well-being of human beings count because they are considered the only creature made in the “image of God” such charity is easily extendable outward to the animal world or perhaps someday sentient machines.

Though its exact boundaries and priorities are likely to be forever contentious, charity, unlike the similarly Christian derived desire to become “godlike”, is sensible and translates across a wide range of human value systems both secular and religious. Buddhists understand it, as do Muslims. As mentioned the urge to charity can be found at the heart of the secular left. And yet science is not often understood in this Baconian sense of charity ,or perhaps worse the best path to charity is too little seen in science.  Imagine, for instance, a world where a good portion of the Muslim obligation to charity, the zakat, estimated to be fifteen times global humanitarian aid went to science and technology to improve the lot of people in the poorer parts of the Islamic world.

In our diverse modern world Baconian charity is perhaps the only almost universally acceptable utopian project possible and our best road to survive as a species. Bacon’s question of whether or not we use science and technology primarily as our greatest tools for improving “man’s estate” as in charity, or instead use the as a means of power and control that serves our individual ambitions and group rivalries will inevitably decide whether or not newfound form of knowledge that we call science was ultimately a blessing- or a curse.