Our very own Brave New World

Humanity will not make much further progress until it learns to embrace complexity and contradiction instead of instinctively trying to solve them.
– Rick Docksai (http://www.wfs.org/content/cautions-about-techno-faith)

Techno man 2

Anyone reading the last number of these blogs might be wondering by now, just what does this guy mean by “an ideology of technological humanity”? As my last blog on ideology argued, I am suggesting we have a fixed and increasingly pervasive view of humanity that shapes public discourse, policy, institutions and much of the day-to-day of modern life. If you suspect hyperbole is at work in such a statement, I want to assure you that I am not exaggerating. This ideology has gained the power and prominence it possesses because it supplies a roadmap of sorts through our increasingly complex lives.

If you consider the paradigm shifts I talked about in an earlier blog – the loss of Earth’s place at the centre of the universe, the advent of the theory of evolution, and Freud’s unveiling of our inscrutable inner life – each one was an undermining of a particular certainty or deeply held truth. The effects of each may have taken time to be felt (the ripples continue to spread as far as I’m concerned), but by the middle of the 20th century, the developed Western world was living with a deeply felt sense of uncertainty. God’s guarantee of human primacy had been compromised, we couldn’t claim inherent ascendancy in the “creation”, and we couldn’t even expect to really know ourselves, especially in light of all the misery humanity had visited upon itself in the first half of the century.

Above all else, ideology promises certainty. It lays out a set of assumptions, held to be inviolable truths, which give purpose and meaning to the world. Putting it another way, it promises that the world is comprehensible and meaningful, even if that meaning does not extend beyond our immediate existence.

Technological humanity is an ideology supremely suited to an increasingly post-religious Western world. Some will object to that characterization but I won’t withdraw it. While a majority in the world today would claim some brand of belief in a deity, anyone of my generation would know that religious practice, the formulation of laws and policies based on religious precepts, and daily life in general are not suffused with the religious sensibility that was waning but still strong when we were growing up in the 1950s and 60s.

In the midst of this crisis, technological innovation advanced with increasing speed and the standard of living of the developed world rose to heights previously unimaginable. Even if external validations of our superiority were fading, advances in standard of living and the phenomenal development of consumer society with its endless array of new and better products couldn’t help but have us swelling with pride. Sure there were problems: pollution and environmental concerns, poverty and famine, inequities, wars, extremism, etc. But still, for all of the mayhem, things were getting better and better. The notion of “progress” that had emerged with the Renaissance, regardless of any setbacks, was reaffirmed based upon the wondrous new things we were able to achieve.

Techno man

The ideology taking root as a consequence of all this is what I can only call a “faith” in the power of science to unlock every “mystery”, whether current or yet to come. I’m happy to see that the word “scientification” has made the urban dictionary, but I prefer the term “scientism” to describe the trend I am suggesting. This is science as faith, as belief, as ideology. In my use, the term asserts that science – an empirical method – provides the best – maybe even the only – avenue to truth. It would hold that all things (most importantly, human beings) can be viewed as mechanisms open to adjustment and to improvement. All we need do is find what makes the mechanism “tick”.

One result of this increasingly triumphant viewpoint is the subjection of all human behavior to “scientific” analysis. I have long been suspicious of the notion of “research” in the social sciences. From all I remember of my high school science classes (and my ongoing interest in such things ever since), the scientific method demands two thing more than anything else: control and clarity. In order for the results of any experiment to be considered valid, anything which might affect the result must be identified and controlled. Failure to recognize potentially intrusive elements can lead to the purported results of any experiment being discounted or, at the very least, seriously undermined.

When applied to human behavior – the purview of psychology, sociology and other social sciences – such a research model inherently lacks certainty. Valid social science research speaks more of trends and of possibilities than it does of absolutes. When we imagine human beings as nothing more than a rather complex amalgam of neurons firing and chemicals mingling in order to produce an “outcome”, we can claim a scientific validity for our research that doesn’t really exist. Still, when an entire society has become increasingly satisfied with such a technological model of humanity, voices raising objections aren’t given much of a hearing. Purveyors of the new orthodoxy of ideological techno-faith feel no obligation to listen to heretics.

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2 thoughts on “Our very own Brave New World”

  1. A very thought-provoking piece. Thanks Carl. Reminds me of why you were, unequivocally, my favorite teacher.

    “embrace complexity and contradiction instead of instinctively trying to solve them.” Ironically this is the doublespeak I use to deflect criticism from atheists when I defend the Creation. I embrace science as a tool rather than a fixed and formulated phrase by which to be pinned and wriggling on the wall. In this world, sadly, the validity of anything has to be supported by a complete explanation (scientific method), as opposed to true faith. The earth revolves around the sun because it is in fact the simplest explanation based on the language of science and mathematics. The formulas of orbit and inertia are elegant and intuitive. If the sun were to revolve around the earth, the scientific explanation might take up 1,000 pages, not unlike the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem.

    If you go back far enough in history (either evolution or creation) you’d find that even language itself originated as simply a tool to be put to work for humans. But then over time its use was corrupted to a point where “anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.” It was Karl Marx, of all people, who rigorously evaluated this change. Humanity appears to be satisfied with putting its own tools at the top of its leadership hierarchy. The constitution is the law of the land, for example. But even the constitution was ultimately a creation of people. So too, in time, I suspect, the databases and robots that, although built with good intentions, will ultimately enslave us all as a result of their inherent flaws. Just ask the person behind the airline booking counter or the police officer holding the database registry checker, or the teller at the bank who they will believe – you or the computer?

    I think the danger lies in the complacency that comes along with all the creature comforts made possible by technology. Social “scientists” are the worst because they are enamored with a kind of scientific method corrupted in such a way to be applied to people. In the meantime they’ve replaced the role of the church and have evolved into a virulent strain of so-called “evangelical atheism.” And yet they are the same people that have no appreciation of science whatsoever, just a vague trust that science works and if something goes wrong the science people will fix it. At least during the renaissance we had the notion of the “renaissance man”. Nowadays, the university is compelled to triage new entrants into specialized fields only, in the same way that government bureaucracy separates the specialists from management. The Brave New World exists today. The resemblance is uncanny.

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