Sunday, October 22, 2017

Wisdom, Horror, and the Folly of Secular Humanism

In a 2010 conversation about science and society, Stephen Colbert asked Neil deGrasse Tyson if knowledge is always good, if it’s always better to know or if we might sometimes be better off left in ignorance. Colbert brought up the classic case of Oedipus, who clawed his eyes out when faced with the ghastly truth that he had accidentally killed his father and married his mother. In effect, Tyson defended secular humanism, answering that it’s always better to know, because knowledge is empowering and allows us to improve our circumstances. He pointed out that at perhaps every stage of technological development, naysayers insisted we should be content with what we have and should stop exploring the unknown, and yet applying the next great discovery revolutionized society and made sweeping improvements that we now take for granted, such as electricity, computers, and medical treatments.

“Is knowledge always a good thing?” Colbert asked him (at around the ten minute mark of the video).

“I have to say yes,” said Tyson, “because it empowers you to react and possibly even to do something about it...”

Later in the discussion, Colbert asked Tyson about the dangers of certain technologies, such as nuclear weapons, and Tyson replied that politicians and society at large are responsible for how we apply scientific knowledge. We can’t hold scientists alone responsible for the wisdom we may lack collectively, if we choose to destroy ourselves with the power that science provides us.

Corruption by Technoscientific Supremacy

What Tyson says there about technological progress and the difference between empirical knowledge and wisdom is indisputable. But neither Colbert nor Tyson considered in their exchange that scientific objectivity and technological progress might themselves negatively impact our capacity for wisdom. The optimistic presumption is that our personalities and values will progress along with our technology, so that at some point we’ll find ourselves in something like the heroic future of Star Trek. But whereas a secular humanist like Tyson will lambaste anti-intellectuals for their religious fantasies that hold back scientific and technological advances, he’ll depart from the realism that’s needed to control nature in those ways, when he presupposes that there should be no limit on our empirical knowledge or power. In principle, if we weren’t easily corruptible primates, there might be no drawback to learning all we can about how natural processes work. But because our kind is infamous for letting even fifteen minutes of fame go to our head and for the flat-out psychopathy that coincides with our immense concentrations of power, as in boardrooms, palaces, and governments across the world, Tyson’s nonchalance should give us pause.

When Tyson blames the dangers of weapons of mass destruction on politicians and society as a whole, for misusing the power of scientific theories, he’s assuming that science and technology are socially neutral, that they can be used for good or for ill depending only on the accidental identity of their users. If you hand nuclear weapons to religious terrorists, they’ll swiftly destroy the planet, but if you keep them safe in the arsenals of Western neoliberals, those weapons will secure a global détente based on rational fear of mutually assured destruction. Indeed, there are cultural differences that affect how technologies are used and which devices are invented in the first place. But the presumption that our knowledge and our tools are neutral, that they don’t even shape the artificial environments to which we must adapt ourselves is a vacuous meme. The point shouldn’t be the postmodern one that knowledge is itself a tool or a social construct that has only subjective merits. Instead, the point is that an extreme concentration of knowledge and of technological applications amounts to an amassing of power which inevitably distorts the informed culture and corrupts those who consider themselves modern and advanced.

For example, the world-famous arrogance and anti-intellectualism of at least half of all Americans might seem paradoxical at first glance. After all, the United States is a world-leader in science and technology, and that depth of understanding might have humbled Americans with an appreciation of the fragility of life in a universe the sublime magnificence of which is matched only by its mindless neutrality towards each of us. Instead of being sobered by the implications of their country’s scientific mastery, however, Americans are notoriously xenophobic and jingoistic. The reason, of course, is that American science has made the United States relatively wealthy as a whole, which has allowed Americans to build a superpowerful military force that preserves American economic privileges by having meddled in the affairs of most other countries since the end of WWII. Militarism thus seeped into American culture to such an extent that the virtual religion of American football is made to feel sacred by the presence of the American military in patriotic ceremonies at football games. And far from relishing its understanding of nature, at least half of the American population prefers fundamentalist religion and a cheap conspiratorial worldview to suit the whims of its beloved right-wing demagogues. Again, this American global leadership, which could not have been established without American scientific dominance and technological innovations, had the unintended effect of making most Americans incurious and self-obsessed. 

You can blame the rise of Trumpism, in fact, largely on America’s mastery of technoscience. Trump’s troglodytic vulgarity reflects the mass culture of solipsistic consumerism, and that culture in turn is produced by the decadence sustained by America’s global superpower. To be sure, the concentration of sociopolitical power long predates the United States. Ancient empires had their peasant classes as well, since the exploitative, sociopathic political elites of their day nurtured self-serving myths that kept the masses in line. The postindustrial version of this degradation of the masses involves the familiar economic divergence between the professionals, technocrats, and plutocrats, on the one side, and a herd that’s immersed in a culture of spectacle divorced from natural reality, on the other. The former class enslaves the latter with a civic religion featuring a selection of secular noble lies. Scientific expertise and high technology thus only feed into the Age of Reason’s forms of recurrent class exploitation and decadence. Trump is supposed to be the outsider’s instrument of vengeance against the neoliberal elites who lied to the masses about the advantages of globalization. But that self-destructive plan is itself a sign of America’s mass psychosis. The power elites may deserve comeuppance by way of humiliation, and associating with Trump in any capacity may be degrading, but faith that President Trump will restore American greatness is on an equal footing with the deranged ramblings you’re bound to hear behind closed doors in a psych ward.

How do you proceed from godlike empirical knowledge and technological power to a sadomasochistic asymmetry between dehumanized technocrats and infantilized consumers, which might as well be the relation between the machines and the slumbering human captives, as depicted in The Matrix? Over a bridge of corruption by the concentration of power which no large group of human animals can traverse without being altered once it reaches the other side. Hording of knowledge and high technology is corrupting, because it enables the few to exploit the many, whereas in principle, as I said, these powers could be enlightening and humbling. That principle is as irrelevant as an economist’s model of human nature which defines reality away by its gross oversimplifications. Perhaps scientific knowledge can make us wise, but that would require a philosophical sensibility which is rare.

The Scientific Worldview: A Tale of Epic Horror

There is, though, a deeper reason for the inverse relationship between technoscientific progress and wisdom or wider cultural progress. After all, philosophical naturalism, which is the upshot of scientific theories, could just as easily horrify as humble us. Indeed, the horrific existential implications of our position in nature have impacted the West since Sade’s taboo tales of modern free-for-alls led Dostoevsky to worry that everything is permitted in modernity, and Nietzsche’s postmodern prophecies were twisted by the Nazis who sublimated modern angst with their reign of terror and nightmare of world domination. So another cause of the West’s mass psychosis is that to escape from the unsettling implications of scientific truths, we turn away from wisdom to fantasies and diversions, bread and circuses. And notice that the two causes are interrelated, since one of the reasons we prefer nonsense to wisdom is that we’re sold nonsense as popular entertainment by the wealthy few who profit from our ignorance and pliability, who themselves have been corrupted by the concentrations of technoscientific power.

On the contrary, says a liberal humanist like Neil deGrasse Tyson, science and technology only enable us to satisfy more of our desires, and it’s up to the liberal state to protect our right to choose how we want to live. The liberal trusts that when we’re left to fight for ourselves in civilized competition, the best ideas win out because paradoxically we’re forced to help each other, such as by selling what someone else wants, to further our self-interest, as Adam Smith said. So it’s as if God blesses capitalistic and democratic nations with his “invisible hand.” As Thomas Frank points out, this is the root of Democrats’ opposition to progressives like Bernie Sanders: the centrists believe that a free society is meritocratic so that those who succeed, the class of professionals, deserve their power while those who fail, such as the American blue-collars under economic globalization, need only to be retrained. The system itself is fair, not rigged, and the result of all this free-thinking and wheeling and dealing, besides progress in science and industry, is wider cultural progress since individual happiness lies in the freedom to choose—even if that choice should end in failure, the alternative being tyranny.

Indeed, few if anyone living in a liberal, developed society in Europe, Australia, or North America would trade their liberties, or what I called their slavery to consumerism, for the old-fashioned hardships of the majority in a war-torn dictatorship. This is the basis of the joke about “First World problems”; we spoiled liberals moan about our anomie or our gas prices or the death of American cinema, while most people in the parts of the world that make all our stuff are impoverished or raped or summarily executed by warlords. There has indeed been cultural progress over the last few centuries. But the reason this progress is taken for granted and ultimately counter-productive is that while liberalism, the social philosophy that arose from the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, spares us from primitive forms of domination, this very enlightenment alerts us to an even greater despot waiting in the wings: Mother Nature. While the benighted, conquered masses are able to persist in their delusion that their squalid ways of life are heaven-sent, we cognitive elites, luxuriating in our liberal humanistic oases have been duly informed by generations of scientific progress that God is dead. In place of God there is nature, which we try to control with our technical know-how, but which reigns over us all in the end. Of course, scientists are only the messengers, but there’s still this causal if not a moral connection between technoscientific progress and the opposite of wisdom. Naturalism entails cosmicism, that is, the humiliating, terrifying truth of our cosmic insignificance in godless nature. This truth threatens to overwhelm us with existential conundrums which we tend to avoid by falling for convenient newfangled mass fictions, such as the nationalist pap most Americans drool over. And so this is another reason to doubt Tyson’s presumption that technoscientific progress is culturally neutral. 

For the liberal, the key to cultural progress and thus to wisdom is a proper education which prepares us for a wide variety of experiences. And yet the state of Western humanities departments is deplorable. Far from guiding young adults, by teaching them the glory of humanism and the reasons why we value freedom and reason, the English, art, philosophy, history, psychology, political science, law, and economics departments of colleges and universities have been invaded by armies of bureaucrats who cater to consumerism by turning professors into salespeople and by converting the humanities into fraudulent businesses. Ill-prepared to excel in learning from their underfunded public school training, especially in the United States, and spoiled by an overprotective approach to parenting, undergraduates mostly want an extended adolescence. Higher education provides this by treating the students as consumers who have paid for several years of infotainment which they mean to imbibe in safe spaces, after which they’ll have “earned” their diploma regardless of whether they’ve learned anything of lasting value. Much of the profit from this scam is funneled to the administrators who run these diploma mills, such that the undergraduates are taught less by the allusive professors than by harried graduate students who are paid a slave’s wage and who have little more experience in life than the undergraduates who are supposed to be mentored. In short, just as postindustrial economies in general are financialized and so transformed into giant casinos selling, in effect, frauds, higher education has been taken over by a cynical business class of paper-pushing middlemen. Whereas the internet offers for free all the information you need to master the principles of humanism, and so higher education facilities can boast only the prospect of being guided by experts, whom they increasingly fail to provide because of the funding problem, and the promise of accrediting emotionally immature graduates with a practically meaningless certificate, since they’ve only been infotained for several years.

Meanwhile, the science, engineering, and business departments are booming, and so the smart, ambitious undergraduates head there, because graduating in any of those fields has a higher monetary upside. Businesses want workers with technical skills—until it turns out robots can perform those tasks better, and the business is bought out by a competitor because the business failed to innovate because none of its employees are humanists. That is, those who avoid the humanities in their higher education (because those less technical departments are in disarray) lack higher training in how to be a good human! If business leaders needn’t be wise to excel in the marketplace, the business can be automated, which means the scientists and engineers are in danger of losing their jobs just like the blue-collar workers, and academic institutions are fraudulent in toto. If businesspeople only delude themselves into thinking they need employees with just narrow technical training, because these employers aren’t wise in the first place, their businesses should fail. In any case, what science, engineering, math, and business do excel at is presenting students with nature in all its exquisite inhumanity. That message is heard loud and clear across the campuses: the sciences are booming, because that’s where all the investments are, because that’s where reality is found. Scientists manipulate the real world, you can measure their progress, and so you can profit from that knowledge. But again, the humanities, which are supposed to provide some insight into how we ought to manipulate nature without destroying ourselves, have been colonized by cynical administrators who only want to keep their Ponzi schemes afloat.

There seems to me a causal connection between the opposite states of these two sides of academia. The deeper reason why the one is booming while the other is bust is that the former indirectly causes the latter. The more we’re informed about nature’s brute materiality, the more alienated we are from the liberal myths of the Age of Reason, which no longer speak to us after several centuries of European and American imperialism ending in postmodern nihilism and apathy. The greater our genius at controlling nature, the less confident we are in the benefits of rational enlightenment, let alone in our pet projects which are next to nothing in the cosmic timescale, with no deities to encourage us but the debauched oligarchs who plunder fattened nations. We lack the courage to keep the modern faith. To be sure, our power ensures our social freedom, and we’re dimly aware of the truth of nature as far as it can be rationally represented, but we’re faced with the terrifying realization that we have no idea how to live well in the face of natural reality. Instead of passing through the ring of fire, instead of confronting and creatively overcoming the existential lessons, we distract ourselves with the rest of the circus. We prefer our extended adolescence and our status as infantilized consumers; we carry on with the parasitic labours of bureaucrats and centrist functionaries, protecting the social system at the expense of its members; we regret our having sold out our Generation X ideals, and overcompensate by shielding our children from unpleasant realities; we chase money and happiness and ignore the fact that our luxurious modern lifestyle is ephemeral madness that rests on a holocaust for most large animal species and Third World labourers.

A secular humanist trusts that we’ll figure it all out with reason and liberty. But what if nature, through reason, informs us that liberated secular life, with no redemption from our horrific fate in death and oblivion is a farce? We’re free only to dither and stumble along as we contribute to our self-destruction in our obliviousness to what we’ve lost precisely because of what we’ve gained through our technoscientific mastery. To paraphrase the character Jesus, we’ve gained the world but haven’t profited because we’ve lost our soul. We’ve lost our ability to fulfill our higher calling, as reflected in the selling-out of the humanities departments; we’ve lost faith in our ultimate values, because they end properly in horror, in the realization that the death of God entails our disgrace unless we can wear his crown and live as gods. That, though, would require wisdom and the apocryphal responsibility that’s supposed to be shouldered by those with great power. We have all the power and none of the responsibility, because we shirk our obligation to be fully godlike: we have the empirical understanding of how nature works, and the machines to bend much of nature to our will, but as Nietzsche pointed out, we lack the will to recreate our values, to create awe-inspiring new worlds from our imagination, instead of rehashed versions of old frauds and dominance hierarchies.

It was always thus, despite our hope that the ancient founders of our Western traditions must have figured it all out. The ancient Greeks are rightly celebrated for their love of knowledge, but the triumph of their philosophy and military prowess was short-lived. Classical Athens, the philosophic jewel in the Hellenic crown, being the home of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle among other luminaries, triumphed over the Persians in 479 BCE, forming the Delian League of Greek states and reigning as the hegemon only from 448 BCE to 430 BCE before its supremacy naturally corrupted the Athenians, whereupon they used their power to create an Athenian empire at the expense of the other Greek states. This caused the civil war which led to Athens’ downfall at the hands of Sparta. Eventually, the other Greek states turned on each other until Macedon conquered Greece, and Alexander the Great, having been tutored by Aristotle, sought to civilize the known world according to philosophical ideals. All of Greek intellectualism, however, was overshadowed by the Roman Empire, which conquered Greece in 146 BCE and made a mockery of Greece’s intellectual heritage by shamelessly copying it while simultaneously demonstrating its irrelevance, since the Romans hypocritically cared primarily about the business of efficiently running an empire, at which they excelled especially in the East. Plato practically invented Western philosophy but thought that democracy is only a step away from tyranny. He believed that during the fall of Athens to Sparta, Socrates had sought to restore Athenian culture and inspire the rise of philosopher-kings, but was instead executed by the democratic state for corrupting the minds of the youth and for impiety (atheism). According to Plato, this was what we might call an Orwellian reversal of the truth. Far from corrupting the youth, Socrates was overturning the degrading standards put in place by a democracy in decline. And Socrates believed in the true gods who were only stalwart philosophical humans, in accordance with humanist principles which impel us to cast aside vulgar theism as a charade for the gullible mob. In any case, Athenian democracy was limited even at its pinnacle, since only male citizens could vote, which excluded women and slaves. 

The record, then, is that philosophical reason and freedom reigned briefly in classical Greece, but their free society didn’t empower the Greeks to deal wisely with the subversive truths of naturalism. Instead, Athens was corrupted and swallowed up by a bigger fish, and much as the United States turned to a mentally-deranged philistine like Donald Trump to solve its problems, the debased Athenians executed Socrates because they’d sought refuge from the God’s eye-view of philosophical naturalism, turning to their childish or exploitative religious fantasies. Likewise, technoscientific mastery condemns us to flounder in a thousand follies of free society, in the freedom not just from God but from wisdom and from anything worth trusting and living for—unless we acknowledge that nature is a horror show and that science is a messenger bearing ill tidings. Then we must engage in existential reflection and become fearless, empathic, creative, and worthy of godhood.


  1. HI Benjamin what are your opinions on lucid dreaming.

    1. I don't have strong opinions about lucid dreaming one way or the other, although I'd hesitate to try it because of a strange sleep experience I had a few years ago, which I described in the first half of the article below. That experience indicates to me that lucid dreaming should be possible, that the unconscious and the conscious self can be oddly mixed together in paradoxical consciousness. The question is whether that's an experience we should want to have. I've heard that lucid dreaming is fun, but my ordeal was of a waking death state.

      Another interesting question for me is whether there's a connection between dreaming (the unconscious), psychedelic hallucinations, and the origin of religion. I suspect there is, as I explore in the second link below.

      From that article: "Likewise, as consciousness fades in a near-death experience, it’s reasonable to assume that the dying person experiences something like a DMT flash and the associated dreamlike imagery; thus the reports of travelling down a tunnel towards a bright light that feels warm and inviting, and the conviction that the spirit world is real and awaits us all after we die. In fact, the process of dying may be like falling asleep and dreaming until we become so unconscious that we don’t notice the dream’s end; nature may pay us the courtesy of singing us each a bizarre lullaby before she turns out the light."

    2. Sorry for late reply, I agree but you don`t have to worry about any "dangers" of lucid dreaming though its totally safe to try out.

  2. I've been reading Herbert Marcuse's "One-Dimensional Man", and he has some interesting things to say about the topic of science and ideological neutrality. He claims that science actually makes us perceive reality in terms of quantification and operationalism, and in doing so allows advanced industrial society to better dominate nature and man. Here's a few relevant quotations:

    "The science of nature develops under the the technological a priori which projects nature as potential instrumentality, stuff of control and organization. And the apprehension of nature as (hypothetical) instrumentality precedes the development of all particular technical organization";

    "The technological a priori is a political a priori inasmuch as the transformation of nature involves that of man, and inasmuch as the 'man-made creations' issue from and re-enter a societal ensemble";

    "In this reality [constructed by technological operationalism], matter as well as science is 'neutral'";

    "The principles of modern science were a priori structured in such a way that they could serve as conceptual instruments for a universe of self-propelling, productive control; theoretical operationalism came to correspond to practical operationalism".

    I wonder what your opinion is of Marcuse's take on the topic of science and neutrality.

    1. I've read some of that book. The whole of the Frankfurt School interests me. (You might want to have a look at the linked article below.) Unfortunately, they're not good writers. Specifically, they're jargon-mongers and they over-complicate the issues to sound important. I'd recommend secondary sources such as Introduction to Critical Theory, by David Held, to avoid the jargon and the clunky writing. Maybe One-Dimensional Man isn't so bad in that way; I haven't tried reading it in many years.

      The neutrality he's talking about would now be covered by the idea of methodological naturalism. So it's a case of pragmatic confidence in scientific methods, which presupposes that everything can be studied and figured out from an objective stance. Nietzsche might have been the first to make the point that that stance can dehumanize us too. As he said, when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.

      I've also made this point in several articles. We become "zombified" the more we enlighten ourselves and experience the undeadness of nature, since we adapt to that environment. How we retain our dignity and our higher, existential calling is by appreciating the aesthetic qualities of nature, which turns us into artists and art critics.

    2. Thanks for the reply. The Frankfurt School thinkers are often (and perhaps rightly) criticised for their esoteric prose, but Marcuse is generally quite clear and tells you exactly what he's going to argue in any given chapter. He's certainly more lucid than Adorno.