Enhancing humans to find a TOE
Cyclist Lance Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey. He gave short answers such as "Yes" to questions whether he's been using illegal compounds during every single triumph of his. It's hard to imagine why he would be saying "Yes" in the case that the true answer is "No". That's why the newer answers probably supersede his proclamations over many years.
He's been lying to us for years. Bad Lance. To lie is obviously wrong.
Of course, I never knew whether he would be doping. The hypothesis that his victories were due to unusual gifts from Mother Nature and hard work, aside from several comparable legal things, was always compatible with the basic laws of physics. Someone has to win even if no one is doping. And the individual races aren't independent from each other which makes it more likely that the same winner will be seen many times.
On the contrary, when the concentration of illegal substances in a community is nonzero – and they're probably rather common in cycling (and other sports: to some extent, Armstrong is just a scapegoat) – the person who wins is more likely to be one of those who took them than an average contestant simply because the substances are potential explanations of the success or its part.
East Germany used to be a superpower in sports – many of them. For such a small nation, it was incredible. Years later, we would learn that much of their excess above average was due to doping as well – it was pretty much omnipresent. But how much worse doping really is relatively to legitimate sources as a source of success?
Well, if you allow me to ask this blasphemous question and give an answer, I will be unable to hide that I don't really care about sports. It's surely cool to be fair in sports. And it's impressive to be really good. But it's not too impressive. When it comes to strength, speed, endurance, and stamina, aside from similar words that are helpful for sport professionals, it boils down mostly to some physical prerequisites of the athletes. Nature probably had to be generous to their body if they became so good although very hard work is usually needed to get the extra small advantage over others who are physically gifted by Mother Nature.
Now, as a physicist, I don't really separate Nature from "the rest". Chemical compounds we can produce are parts of Nature, too. They interact with everything else. They obey the laws of Nature. They are Nature. When a company produces vitamin C, it's the same L-ascorbic acid that you may see in wild Nature. (Well, you should be careful about molecules and their images, about chirality, because much of biochemistry is highly sensitive to it.)
It's not just some abstract knowledge about the unity of Nature. My emotions and moral judgment are affected by this knowledge, too. If humans are able to chemically improve themselves, well, then it is just another way how Nature may operate. It may be impressive if someone is very strong for purely natural reasons. But once again, if someone is strong for other reasons, it may be the same strength, physically speaking. From a truly meritocratic vantage point, I find it bizarre to be impressed by the former only. It's hard for wild Nature to produce or evolve physically extraordinary individuals but it's Her problem. Nature in the broader sense may achieve it by producing humans who are clever enough to understand some biochemistry, too. ;-)
Of course, athletes who are doping are also running the risk that they damage their health – usually other things than those they may improve by the illegal substances. But this is only the case when the imitation of wild Nature is imperfect. In some cases, people imitate Nature perfectly. They may produce lots of compounds that are in principle indistinguishable from the natural ones.
Imagine that we would find some (safe) compounds – or some similar technology to enhance the humans – that can make people much more productive or ingenious physicists, much more Einstein-like or Fermi-like. Would we ban them? After all, science is a sports-like competition as well so it should be fair, shouldn't it?
My answer is that I care about the outcomes of the process – scientific insights – much more than I care about some literal kosher rules how they should be obtained. So if some tremendous progress in theoretical physics were possible by applying the miraculous technology to someone who would agree to be enhanced, I would want him or her to be enhanced! ;-) The results – pretty scientific theories that fit together and agree with observations – are the truly amazing entities in this whole game.
In comparison, sports are stupid childish pissing contests in which people compare their abilities and physical attributes – most of which they cannot change. It's fun as a recreational activity or a way to earn money (often lots of money), it's useful as an exercise to keep oneself in good shape, and it's a great source of activity for the fans (I am a sort of sports fan as well these days) but I admit that I consider the intrinsic value of these things to be low. The low value primarily stems from the fact that, as I wrote above, I primarily care about "results" or "products" themselves rather than "who did it" and in sports the "results" or "products" are qualitatively still the same.
As Richard Feynman would say, we don't live in a scientific era. People are obsessed with athletes or even models but they don't give a damn about scientists in particular. If you think about it impartially, you must agree how insanely this situation is. Lance Armstrong has earned something like $100 million for being a fraction of a percent faster than the next guys behind him. And this fraction of a percent was artificially engineered, too. It may always be engineered. But even if it were not, why do we ascribe value $100 million to someone's having speed while riding a bike – an irrelevant quantity by itself – that is a fraction of percent larger than that of other folks? It's just stupid, isn't it?
Enhancing humans to find a TOE