Editor’s Note: The November 2015 issue of First Things features an article “Humanity 4.5” by Mark Shiffman (Villanova University, SERRC). We want to bring this article to the attention of our readers, but have password protected access. If you wish the access, please contact Jim Collier (email@example.com).
For ancient philosophers, the dignity of contemplation lay in its fulfillment of our longing for truth. The architects of modern thought championed analysis for the sake of ever-greater power and security. The utopian island of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis features a massive research facility for natural sciences, dedicated to “the relief of man’s estate.” Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences, the foundational text of modern physics, begins with an inquiry into the building of strong but buoyant warships, and ends with an analysis of the parabolic motion of projectiles, which allows for highly accurate artillery fire.
For the greatest salesman of this utilitarian view of reason, Descartes, the goal of rigorous thought is to “render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.” Thus empowered, we shall invent an “infinity of applications” which will not only enable us to enjoy the goods of the earth without effort, but also will free us from “an infinitude of maladies both of body and mind,” thus securing “the preservation of health, which is without doubt the chief blessing and the foundation of all other blessings in this life.” He envisions these medical “applications” ultimately allowing us to transcend the previous limits of our nature, freeing us from “the infirmities of age,” and even “rendering men wiser and cleverer than they have hitherto been.”