NoOne said: "Ask yourself if science has explained consciousness. Do we have an objective theory of subjectivity? No, we don't. And yet, we turn a blind eye to this huge gaping hole in our worldview. Or we try and cover the hole with bandaid by using terms such as epiphenomenalism, complexity theory etc. And then we (the ones connected to science) wonder why there's so much hostility toward us."
This is a huge topic.
The brief response. I see scientists as the LEAST-hated priesthood in human history. (You have no idea what common men/women thought of their priests, most of the time, but evidence suggests that average folk have always despised the moralistic bullying and patronizing insistence on secret knowledge. Scientists actively and enthusiastically try to share their "secrets" on PBS. Still, that makes them "least-hated"... not "best liked.")
The longer (though still brief) answer? Here is a short piece on sanity that I recently sent to the organizers of a conference that I'll be attending in June, concerning future threats such as advanced WMD.
"100 years ago we were told by confident and educated men that humanity was finally entering the era of understanding the human mind. Marx, Skinner & Freud were only a few of those offering simplistic, mechanistic models of human nature. These models not only proposed to explain and predict pathways chosen by societies and individuals, but offered means to channel those choices in desired ways. e.g. toward economic justice, rational order, or 'sanity'.
Humanity has since gone through a hellish process of discovering just how complex we really are. None of the models worked! And yet, old habits die hard. We are still coaxed to accept simple explanations from a narrow list of options, most of them occupying snug niches along a hoary-ridiculous left right political axis.
The good news is that all of those oversimplistic models also proved unworkable as methods of mass social control. As Aldous Huxley pointed out in Brave New World, our nature as inconveniently diverse, complicated and variable beings should mean there will always be some way to evade ultimate and systematic tyranny, even when it is empowered by advanced tools of science.
As we descended from the naive hopes of 1905 into the 20th Century's nadir of despair, it was practical men and women who found tortuous pathways leading upward, toward a decent society. Scientists - while still occasionally tempted by grand reductionism - have generally accepted the fantastic complexity of human nature and concentrated instead on the hard work of filling in the foundations of understanding, one brick or fact at a time.
Along the way, over-arching terms like "sanity" fell into deserved disrepute, because of their former role in helping elites to repress diversity, criticism and dissent.
And yet, the premise of this conference will be fundamentally faulty if the aim is somehow to anticipate and neutralize every kind of innovative WMD or other destructive failure modes FOR ALL TIME. This is not a game that can be won indefinitely by a dedicated professional protective class. The curve of accelerating accessibility to technological tools will increasingly favor what Thomas Friedman called the "super-empowerment of the angry young man."
If the world continues to be FULL of angry young men, there is no way that efforts at anticipatory prevention can succeed over the long run. Endeavors aimed at perceiving and neutralizing potential WMD in the near term can only be effective if they are aimed at buying time, so that a more long term solution can come into play. The solution of addressing the supply of likely users of WMD.
Careful appraisal suggests that there are only two possible classes of long term solution that have any hope of success -- (1) panopticon surveillance of everybody and severe social control, limiting individual volition and access to tools, or (2) a rapid and profound increase in the general level of human sanity, empowering autonomous citizens to solve problems rapidly and independent of supervision from above.
You almost never hear the latter approach discussed. (Perhaps because such an eventuality would undermine the position and privileges of the professional protective class.) Some will deny that human nature allows for possibility #2 at all. And yet, if you step back, is any other solution even remotely plausible, over a lengthy span of years?
Is it time, after a century of decline, to bring "sanity" back to the discussion table?
Yes, the word went into exile for some very good reasons. It was used by social elites in many cultures as a bludgeon to enforce conformity. Conformity of behavior, values and emotion. Dissidents against entrenched authority have all-too often been diagnosed as mentally ill. Harmless eccentricity was treated as dangerous deviancy.
But here is the ultimate irony. We have busily built a society whose modern standards and prevalent propaganda themes promote the very opposite of stodgy conformity! I have elsewhere relentlessly pointed out that the principal moral messages in modern film, music and art are (1) suspicion of authority, (2) tolerance of diversity, and (3) romantic appreciation of individual eccentricity.
Yes, there have recently arisen social forces deeply inimical to these teachings. But such forces face a long uphill struggle in any culture war against the three messages that fill almost every movie and song.
And so we face the irony that THIS culture's core values are rapidly coalescing around diversity, eccentricity and independence as central desiderata. So, might such a culture come up with a new and appropriate definition of sanity that is consistent with such values? A definition that does NOT preach conformity but rather relishes independence and flexibility of thought? One that cherishes diversity, yet nevertheless gently encourages palliative and caring attention to focus on people who need urgent help by the standards of a laid-back and tolerant civilization?
People wracked with anguish, for example. Or rage. Or the drug-high of relentless and unreasoning indignation. Inability to plan effective measures to achieve genuine self-interest. Inability to either cooperating with others or compete with them fairly? Might it be "mentally ill" to oppress and limit the options of others? (And that might include those who are too quick to accuse others of being mentally ill!)
Any of us would likely agree that those traits are sick in ways that truly merit attention. Attention that might increase society's overall safety without quashing creativity, eccentricity or freedom to disagree.
I contend that our long term safety from the proliferation of WMD will depend upon building a civilization in which very few of society's free and mature citizens will want to use them. In a culture that does not oppress, "insanity" will essentially boil down to the very same motivations and drives that we have the most reason to fear. Drives that will propel "angry young (or old) men (or women)" to use weapons of mass destruction against their neighbors during the coming century.
What long term solution can possibly work, other than SOME version of "sanity" becoming the norm during the next few decades?
Defining that word will certainly be a matter of extensive debate. But ultimately, it must be brought back from exile andincluded in the discussion, because all other measures are mere palliatives, buying time."
All right, it was more of a paper than a brief note. I'll be presenting it several places this summer. One can hope.
==See the next entry on Modernism ==