October 5, 2020

We have all heard the story: Once upon a time, humanity believed itself at the center of a universe made for its benefit — until Copernicus and Darwin set us straight. Yet just as humanity was being demoted, it also discovered a dizzying new power in the act of demoting. Following from a radical lowering of humanity’s view of its own importance came a radical new optimism in its powers of reason. The ritual abasement inaugurated by scientific discovery was in turn to be meliorated by scientific power. Our uplift would come first from the ennoblement of scientific pursuit, and finally from the technological quest to remake the cosmos to fulfill our desires, to attenuate our miseries and mortality.

A core task of The New Atlantis is to recognize that what are often described in our culture as debates about science and technology are really proxies for battles over this origin story of modernity — the story of the benighted ancient and medieval worlds giving way to the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason. Whether we find foods made from genetically modified plants and animals to be a triumph for material prosperity, or instead a dangerous bid for rational control over a natural world from which we have perversely alienated ourselves, has much more to do with our orientation to the modern project than with some neutral reading of safety studies. Likewise, when Neil deGrasse Tyson gleefully informs us that he has “no doubt” that between any two scientific discoveries, the one that says that humans are less significant is more likely the right one, we can reasonably assume this is not based on a systematic evaluation of p-values from the latest issues of Nature. Often our culture would be better served if we could discuss our frustrations with and hopes for the modern project more directly, without the scientific subterfuge.

The New Atlantis has also long served as a home for the frustrated, for the wayward who recognize folly and danger in the modern project’s embrace of science and technology as its avatars. Liberated from the supposed cruelty of the ancient and medieval worlds, humanity finds itself with previously undreamt-of capacities for destruction, which we can now exercise with the coolly rational push of a button. Where the confidence of scientific reason at first breathed new life into democratic ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, these now seem threatened by technologies undreamt of by any ancient despot for manipulating human bodies, reproduction, desires, and thoughts. Freed from the oppression of tradition, we find ourselves yearning for community and place. Relieved of the burden of belief that we were made in the image of God, our technologists pursue the transhuman dream of remaking us as gods.

If The New Atlantis aims to reveal these many ironies of the modern story, we also aim to understand it as a story — as much an exercise in mythology as history, by its advocates and detractors alike. Our essays note that what we often think of as distinctively modern concerns were present long ago: Ancient Greeks wondered whether a universe of deterministic atomic motion could leave room for free will; medieval monks worried over existential ennui. Conversely, much of what we now think of as the story of modernity’s rise — that scientific iconoclasts who discovered nature’s mechanical laws rid our cosmic picture of soul, enchantment, and God — is a later invention that modern science’s actual founders would have balked at.

In attending more carefully to the real history of the modern project, The New Atlantis also aims to draw attention to the risks inherent in critiquing it. If the temptation of those who see heroism in modernity’s origin story is to believe that so much change can be laid at the feet of a few astronomers speaking boldly about their observations of the stars, the temptation of those who see only loss is to attribute too readily those changes to the philosophical flaws of Bacon or Descartes or Locke. The critique of the mythology of modernity risks validating it, and becoming another mythology itself.

It is thus a recurring question of New Atlantis essays to what extent the sense of vertigo, uncertainty, and alienation that so many experience as the modern condition owes to contingent facts of history, and to what extent these are simply written into the human condition. The unfulfillable yearning to feel truly at home in the world may take many forms, whether as the memory of a lost moment we can return to or the vision of a place we might yet build. Grand projects, we believe, will as a rule be frustrated. And the larger the wave one seeks to let loose to wash away the ills of the world, the more chaos wrought when it crashes against the rocks.

Yet chastened by this sense that the tragic runs deep not only in the modern but the human condition, our work sees the ultimate purpose of critiquing the modern project as one of reforming it. We remain committed, that is, to the hope of renewal. We can seek new ways of joining the rhythms of the natural world without asking the world’s poorest farmers to forego the blessings of abundant food and energy. We can look to our past to relearn laudable models of the scientific enterprise as a celebration of human potential rather than a battle over our centrality in the cosmos. And though we may never feel fully at home in this world, we may and must learn to find a better place in it, to strengthen the bonds of family and community.

This possibility for renewal, accessible to all women and men of goodwill, is a task that cannot be won once and for all but must be committed to anew by each generation. It is a task to be lived more than written about. And yet it may be only by articulating this more humanistic vision of science and technology that we can salvage the fruits of the modern project while attenuating the temptations it engenders to escape finally from ourselves.