“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”— O. Wilde

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Nature, virtue and why we never learn

The following headline in the UK’s Guardian newspaper tells a many layered story.

Syphilis cases increase by 163% in London in five years[1]

As we know from history, sexual relationships are the cornerstone of any society. Without children, a society disappears. If children are not raised appropriately, then the society suffers. At the heart of this process is the family. The family is usually defined by the sexual relationship that produces children. However, all of this changed dramatically with the advent of modern natural science.

In the past, nature was the guide for our behaviour. Nature modified by reason usually sufficed, within certain constraints, to ensure the survival of a family, community, and state. The community reinforced what nature and reason had identified. What modern natural science did was to sever those links so that reason could conquer nature and remove the apparent constraints that appeared to inhibit freedom. Man could determine his destiny and move beyond what nature and nature’s God suggested. Man was free because God was dead and man’s reason, as expressed in modern natural science controlled nature. For a time, the utopia, especially the sexual utopia, seemed within grasp. Men and women could be free to indulge whatever sexual fantasy or behaviour that they chose.

The sexual revolution gained full speed with the advent of the web. The web, applications, and algorithms allowed men, women, and even children to find sexual partners. Moreover, they allowed them to pursue them in ways that they appeared to avoid any natural constraints. When the HIV/AIDS crisis hit many people changed their sexual behaviour. Nature had a way of reminding man of what they owed it even if man thought he could ignore nature.

The Guardian story has the following comment almost as an aside without considering the deeper story it contains.

The recent rise in cases of syphilis comes after a historical decline in the late 1980s and early 90s, when the spectre of the HIV pandemic encouraged many people to change their sexual habits.

For a time, man listened to nature. He realized that nature had not been conquered, tamed, or even fought to a draw. Nature told him that he needed to change and he listened for a time. What is curious is that no amount of rhetoric moral, ethical, or medical could change the pattern of behaviour. Yet, the spectre of nature’s intransigence suddenly spoke in words, or in a language, that could not be ignored nor could it be negotiated or even tricked.
There is a saying in Latin that gives us a glimpse of nature’s language. The phrase is:

Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret

This can be translated as:  “You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she always comes back.”[2] Nature will not be denied. What is curious is that the lesson was learned and yet man in his pride thought that the lesson could be forgotten. With technology, computer applications, and algorithms nature could be outsmarted. Yet, it is nature that returns. As we apply more and more anti-biotics, we fail to learn the basic lesson or listen to what nature has to tell us. There is logic, a rhythm, to nature that we ignore at our peril.

Sexual licentiousness is only one small way in which we ignore nature. The way that we treat the environment is the best example. Even though we may debate the science or even the consequences of climate change, one thing that is not debatable is that we no longer live in balance with nature. We live within the age of pride. We believe that if we can think it we can achieve it. If we can achieve it, then we must achieve it. For to deny what we can achieve, we deny our freedom. For modern man and even post-modern man, there is no greater sin than that which denies freedom or knowledge. It is as if we have forgotten Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein: the Modern Prometheus was a horror story and we take it as an instruction manual to satisfy our deepest appetite for freedom. Yet, our hubris has reached a reckoning. Nature will not allow us the digital domain that will provide us a utopia where all our dreams, fantasies,  ambitions can be set free. Even as we agree to live according to an algorithmic master that is harsher than nature or nature’s God for it promises us “freedom”, we cannot escape nature.

We might reverse all of this and see the error of our ways. We might try to live with nature or even live in balance with nature as guided by our digital masters. However, the damage is done. Man’s appetites cannot be satisfied for if HIV/AIDS was not enough to restrain us, then neither will the coming plague that we will have created in our prideful belief that we are masters of our destiny and command nature.

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