I’m reading Foucalt’s History of Madness and finding his methods useful in thinking about emerging technologies.

Foucalt begins by mapping artworks and historical events that demonstrate the structure of the experience of madness in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Through painting, he speaks of somewhat hilarious chimera creatures as expressions of madness in the dreams and fantasies of mankind. This madness is thrust into oneiratic (dream) realms, but the threat (and reality) of madness is a ubiquitous feature of the life of the mind and spirit in the late Middle Ages. The apocalypse with its chimeric beasts was thought inevitable, and all knowledge bittersweet folly. From Bosch in painting to Erasmus to Montaigne in letters, thoughtful people emphasized the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of knowledge (VUCA), a fallen metaphysical condition with direct implications for adapted structures of social control established by mercantilist and bourgeois societies.

The creation of chimera creatures in artistic spheres is common to all societies; even early cave paintings experiment with hybrids. A variety of shapeshifting wizards and mad scientists can be identified throughout history taking these chimera fantasies out of the realm of dreams and the sacred and into the realm of the practical effects of the real.

In the 21st century, chimera microorganisms in synthetic biology are considered one of the most promising research trends for solving most of earth people’s distressing issues.

By splicing DNA from potentially hundreds of species, bioengineers hope to produce chimera creatures that can solve many of the basic issues of human social organization, especially energy production and environmental conservation.

For many reasons, I can appreciate how religious organizations and civil society groups are quick to attribute madness to these research programmes.

First off, there is the flamboyant VUCA nature of genetic experimentation (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity.) Organizations like the ETC Group point to the volatility of microorganisms that freely exchange genetic material with whatever they come into contact with as justification for putting a halt to synthetic biology innovation. Importantly, the ETC Group does not seek to halt experimentation with chimera microorganisms. Rather, they would like to confine experimentation to the laboratory.

Why is the issue of confinement important? Because, confinement is always the primary method for dealing with madness historically. In the transition to modernity in the early years of 17th century France, 1 percent of the population was confined to General Hospitals. The point was not to eradicate madness — after all, what could one do? — the goal was simply to confine it. Notice how the ETC Group does not want to eradicate synthetic biology, they want to confine it to its proper sphere, where its madness can be free. But under no circumstances can it be permitted beyond the confines of that General Hospital of Laboratory Science.

Combining partially-understood functional units of DNA into elaborate concatenations is less objectionable when the venue of experimentation is the dream-like laboratory. Laboratories are dream-like in the sense that experimentation takes place in a realm apart that does not disturb.

For religious groups, laboratories are not a realm apart. In fact, the reasonableinvestigations of science transgress long-standing structures of the ethical ordering of societies. Beyond that, cosmic metaphysical distinctions are being transgressed in laboratories. The sacred realm of creation is tinkered with in these most un-dream-like laboratories.

By implication, as Foucalt elaborates inHistory of Madness, the behaviors of eccentrics who transgress the moral order and its ethical boundaries invite the cosmic forces of God and nature to visit doom upon society.

In slightly different but familiar language, most bioengineers and commentators on synthetic biology agree with aspects of this assessment. Chimeras, for example, may lead to pathogenic substances that have never been seen before.

As a result, who can blame folks for declaring today’s science and technology as leading inexorably to the chimeric appearance of the legendary and apocryphal horseman of the apocalypse, super-disease?

Foucalt’s History of Madness dwells incessantly on the realization that ethical perceptions and morality function as a constitutive basis for the social organization of emergent forms of human consciousness.

The same applies to emergent technologies.

The ethical sensibilities of bioengineers are not likely to perceive chimeras as inherently demonic representatives of a natural underworld that requires continuous repression by moral education. Rather, expertise acquired through a rational/realist metaphysics and suitable epistemology provides a potent toolkit of risk assessment and experimental isolation that silences both the charge of madness and the inevitability of apocalypse.

But scientists are not the only people with power of the machinery of science.

All it takes is a high-profile accident, effective media campaign, or combination of synchronistic events to modify the chimeric experimentations of these ambiguously mad/reasonable research programs.

In fact, the mind reels with exotic fantasies of chimera microorganisms making a mark on human history.

Terrorist plots, natural disasters, interventions by an evil genius — these are distinct possibilities these days. Entire Bosch-like universes can be constructed, entirely within the realm of actual possibility and realist empirical imagination. I am particularly intrigued by the evil genius figure.

As Foucalt points out in History of Madness, Descartes in his Meditations simply cannot cope with the true potency of the evil demon thought experiment.

And neither can we.

If a skeptical treatment of sensory inputs allows one to consider the metaphysical possibility of an evil demon, it would seem that not even one’s own thoughts can be trusted in such a world. Reason could be entirely madness. Such, indeed, was the basic feeling of Erasmus and others. For Descartes, rather than face up to the implications of madness, the power of the Cogito dominates (and represses) any question of madness, delivering certitude where none would otherwise be granted. This foundational moment in the history of rationalism has its parallel in the confinement of 1% of the population in newly-formed General Hospitals in France and comparable institutions throughout Europe in the 17th century.

But again, what if an evil demon produced this hallucination of reason? While it may seem trivial, in the 17th century the question itself threatens the social order.

In the 17th century, Descartes himself could have placed anyone who persisted in this question in a General Hospital without a hint of irony. The skeptical path, like the familiar paths of Albert Camus in the 20th century, “could lead as well to prison as to innocent, untroubled sleep.”

In the 21st century, the opposition to bioengineering offered by religious organizations and civil society groups re-introduces a skeptical antagonism to the machinations of science and society. Do the experts really deserve the power to assess their own reasonability?

Perhaps the power of democratic forms of governance is that competing forms of rationality can organize to influence social structures and forms of consciousness.

But people with chimeric capacities will not stop dreaming. In fact, as the tools of innovation diffuse through societies, chimeric imagination will increase in potency.

The Hieronymous Bosch of the 21st century could very well depict landscapes full of DIY biohacker self-experimentations. In such a world as this, the evil genius as a figure representing the threat of madness for the social order has been democratized.