Sunday, February 12, 2012


Extremis

There aren’t too many pictures of Arduans around, so I went with a picture of some dolphins. I don’t know if there’s any truth to the belief or not, but some people think that dolphins might be as intelligent as humans. Since everybody oohs and ahhs over dolphins, and they get all the fresh sushi they want, and pretty girls pay to swim with them, they might be smarter than your average human.

Extremis is a sci-fi novel set about 500 years in the future. In that time mankind has emigrated to the stars, and has fought several interstellar wars with a variety of species. The novel begins shortly after its predecessor, Exodus, ended. In the previous novel the Arduans had fled their home world because its sun was about to explode in a supernova. They encounter humans, and because of their religion they do not believe that humans are fully sentient.

The Arduan religion is based on two things: telempathy, the transmission of feelings, and re-incarnation. Now neither telepathy nor telempathy have been proved in humans, but I’m sure that the long-married have experiences that involve thinking the same thing simultaneously, or finishing each other’s sentences. Re-incarnation is something that is trickier. Some of us say things like “In my next life, I’ll come back and get you,” without ever believing in re-incarnation. Some people believe in re-incarnation without necessarily believing in it as part of their religion. For others it may be part of their religion. Its part of Hinduism and Buddhism, though Buddhism is a bit of a special case.

In Buddhism, at least in the Hinayana or Theraveda school of Buddhism, there is nothing that we recognize as a soul that gets re-incarnated. What gets passed on is the karma itself.

Hinduism, unless I am mistaken, seems to have more of a belief in something that the West would recognize as a soul, and that is re-incarnated.

Since it’s been about 40 years since I studied either religion in a formal sense, I welcome correction on either or both of these religions.

So the Arduan religion is similar to Hinduism, but with the addition of telempathy, which is called selnarm by the Arduans.

Now for most people, even strong believers, the after-life is a belief not a fact. There’s no experiential reference that lends them comfort or knowledge. Most believers in re-incartnation have no recollection of their past lives. At least, I’ve never heard that it was very common. So even though I believe in heaven and hell, it is always possible that there will be nothing there except a vast abyss and nothingness. This haunting fear is what sets us apart from the Arduans. They have actual experience of their past lives. For them re-incarnation is a fact.

The book raises a question about the nature of personhood. What exactly counts as a person? If the issue is taken as an intra-species question, then there are at least two ways of judging whether someone is a person. It can be approached as a biological issue, or it can be approached as a psychological/sociological question. On the biological level it would seem the terminus ad quo, starting point, for human life is conception. Despite feminist asseverations to the contrary a fetus is a baby. It will not spontaneously emerge as a cockroach, rooster, gila monster, or anything other than a human infant. Its biological destiny is set in its DNA the moment it is conceived, and barring mishap, it will emerge as a human. The definition at the terminus ad quem is murkier. It would seem to depend on the absence of some marker that indicates life. In between those moments it is a person.

If you look for some non-biological definition, you may wind up with a definition based on a psychological or sociological definition of life. Can the being before you exhibit signs that you interpret as evidence of consciousness? Now that position has ramifications. The fetus and the infant do not exhibit signs of consciousness. Neither do the comatose. The retarded and the insane exhibit either a limited or a different consciousness. Should they be regarded as persons? Should the Ph.D. at Princeton regard the Downs syndrome child as having the same rights as himself, or should he regard that child as “life unworthy of life?” If, as I understand Peter Singer argues, certain people should be up for euthanasia because they are too ill or infirm, what prevents that position from sliding over into ethnic or religious groups that happen to be on the outs with the people in power?

If you’re dealing with another species, can you determine their sentience based solely on biology? I rather think that you have to look for markers based on social and psychological concepts. Do they create art? Do they communicate? Various other markers can probably be thought of. But what if your mode of communication is so totally different from theirs that you can’t tell whether or not they communicate? What if they’re at the beginning of their cultural evolution, just as we were 50,000 years ago? How do you make the determination that they are sentient?

There are more questions than answers when it comes to inter-species relations. At least I have more questions than I have answers.

Next up a book on the relations of science and religion, The Seven Pillars of Creation.

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