Sunday, March 20, 2005

Modernism Part 17: Addicted to Mysteries...

In the last section I admitted that this dichotomy (Modernism vs Romantic enemies of the Enlightenment) is flawed... as are all dichotomies... even though it explains the behavior of polemical people far better than the superficial "left-right political axis."

But pause a moment. I can't help it. I must reiterate one aspect of all this, yet again, lest it be missed.

The romantics' classic fixation on snobbish secrecy.

Before science, the chief traditions of knowledge were magic, religion, craft guilds and scholasticism. For all of their differences, these general systems seem to have shared some very consistent buttressing attributes. For example, they generally tended to emphasize the mysterious nature of their close-held procedures and arcana. All raised obstacles against unsanctioned outsiders who might attempt mastery of the inner lore.

All spoke of how daunting or dangerous it would be for the masses to know what the lay in the locked grimoires of hierarchical authorities - be they mages, shamans, guildmasters, priests... all the way to platonist or confucian philosophers.

Today you can see a plethora of new or upstart groups that have risen in varied forms to join these older ones. They come in bewildering variety of styles and specifics - while sharing this ancient legacy of secretive exclusivity. The particular paranoia can range from UFO cults to Straussian neocons, yet if you scratch below the surface veneer, all display startlingly similar character traits. Especially a nearly identical need to rationalize contempt for the masses while withholding vital information for use by a special and worthy elect.

I am NOT saying that all of these groups are equally right or wrong about the specifics of their beliefs! Today, either liberals or conservatives may offer better arguments on this or that issue. Moreover, religion certainly delivers benefits that are attested to by millions. My remarks here are not aimed at particular notions but at an all-too common trait of human beings who like to hold notions.

Whether the surface dogma is quality or dross, there remains this underlying shared current - something psychological that is separate from the surface details. Indeed, this deeper agenda can push in a direction diametrically opposite to what a person or group claims superficially to believe. Take, for example, those who, in the name of promoting freedom/democracy, all-too often seem to foster behaviors that undermine both.

One telltale sign of underlying romanticism is a deep fealty to mysteries. To secret codes hidden in the Bible, or in UFO-spun wheat fields, or conspiracy theories, or a desperate need to control mass media and clamp down on government information flows. From the sublime to the ridiculous and all across the range of intellect, what they all cater to is the most delicious, voluptuously attractive self-image of all. The notion that - "I know what's going on in the world and all you clueless fools do not."

This classic human way of viewing the world is one of the reasons that romanticism is... well... romantic! The appeal offered by mystery is very much in the tradition described by Joseph Campbell. And it may be the biggest reason why romantic writers, no matter how much science education they claim, simply never get what science is really about.

Writers like Michael Crichton and Margaret Atwood (to use our earlier examples from the far right and far left) are inherently - probably at the level of unchanging personality - unable to perceive that secrecy - not science - underlies nearly all of the failure modes that they draw out in their dire tales. Their scenarios would evaporate in the presence of CITOKATE. Is there even a chance that someday they will perceive their shared, incredibly consistent and predictable pattern? While secrecy is 'bad' when practiced by their villains, it is never villainous per se. Because secrecy is romantically delectable, and it dramatically empowers hubristic mistakes to go out of control.

As for dry accountability ... that's a pallid modernist thing. (Who else but a modernist would find anything appealing in an acronym like CITOKATE? ;-)

In order to see just how alien the scientific worldview is from pre-enlightenment ways of dealing with knowledge, take a look at how many scientists compete with each other in order to get shows on PBS, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, the History Channel and so on. Listen as they gush and fizz as eagerly as some school kid, excitedly sharing what they know with fellow citizens who (after all) paid for the research with their taxes.

It's a very public manifestation of what goes on every day, on 10,000 university campuses, where ideas ferment and snotty grad students stand up to professors, sometimes gleefully proving them wrong. (Admittedly at some minor risk.)

This is not a revised version of magical and guild systems, with abject apprentices serving domineering masters (though some professors - being human - try to act that way). At best, science is the polar opposite of such systems. Scientists understand this. But romantics cannot even perceive it.

According to both Atwood and Crichton, - and to those on all sides who share their underlying world view - those scientific boffins are dangerous and need to be controlled, lest they unleash demons to wreck the world. Never mind that an open society should find the errors faster than any elite ever could, enabling (as we have seen time and again) modern society to both have its cake and eat it. Instead of trusting openness, we should turn instead to more secrecy. Leave policy to those who have worked out The Truth from basic principles. To ideologues who know what’s right by their very nature as philosopher kings, sages, priestesses... whatever... without having to prove anything at all.

Above all, do not look upon the future as a realm that can and should be improved by the active will of assertive, pragmatic human effort.

Accept the benefits of past modernism, without ever acknowledging a possibility that the best may be yet to come.

...Next posting... how this relates to science fiction...

PS... one of you spoke of my participating in a web ring or such on this topic. I certainly am willing to try to promote the concept of pragmatic modernism as an alternative to insipid Left-Right cliches... On the other hand, my productivity as a science fiction author has suffered badly of late. My wife wants me to do less of this, not more. Especially with a lot of happy but frenetic activities, of late.

So yes, I'll contribute to any such discussion. But others must do the organizing. The only REGULAR participation I can promise is what I'm doing right now. Scribbling a draft minifesto for grownup humans who don't need manifestos....


Anonymous said...

It's interesting to hear a view point that objects to religions in the past for being secretative about their beliefs and knowledge. As a pastor I passionately believe in teaching exactly the same things I learned in colleague and oppose those of my collegues who think people either can't handle or don't want the truth. Of course this gets me in to trouble all the time, when I tell people that many of their old cherised beliefs were tossed out by most Biblical scholars over half a century ago.

But anyway enough rants and on to my point, is openness always good? As I've already tried to put across I'm a strong believer in openness. However, is their some knowledge that should be kept secret, e.g. how to build an atomic bomb or human cloning. While I in principal have nothing against human cloning, when we can have some reasonable guarentees that it's not going to produce people with long term health issues, with cloning information out in the open we have people trying to do it against societies wishes and before proper safeguards or tests are in place.

Is this good? I am forced to say no, although there are times when I wish some scientific research wasn't restricted by an overly cautious public tainted by misaprehensions, I have to say I don't like the way some groups are jumping in way to early trying to produce viable human clones, without properly understanding the consequences.

Is this a price worth paying for complete openness? I don't know for sure, but I think I'm inclined to say yes, althgouh I think the issues need to be addressed, because some areas of scienctific knowledge are dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the spelling errors in the first paragraph. It should of course read "As a pastor I passionately believe in teaching exactly the same things I learned in college and oppose those of my colleagues who think people either can't handle or don't want the truth.

Anonymous said...

I must agree with your wife, Dr. Brin:

Spend more time on writing books!!!

I have eagerly read your website and this blog mini-series, but wouldn't it be more effective to put these ideas into the mouths of your characters?

You see, I have failed to induce my friends to read your essays, but I can get them to read your books - even if I have to loan them mine :-/

disclaimer: I'm not a writer, YMMV ;-)

Anonymous said...

Dr. Brin,

I have enjoyed reading this series of essays on your blog. However, I would like to offer this criticism: the names "modernism" and "romanticism" are confusing and dumb, and you should pick new terms to describe your ideas.

The problem is, basically, that when I try to discuss your ideas with friends who haven't read your essays, they all think that by "modernism", I'm talking about something different than what I actually mean. Instead of having a useful discussion, we end up with confusing considerations of cubism and James Joyce. --Who according to me has got nothing to do with modernism, and who according to literary scholars is the epitome of modernism.

I think it works much better if we -- for example -- define forward-thinking as the idea that humanity can (and does) continually improve, while backward-thinking is the idea that we have regressed from a lost-lamented golden age. Put like this, most people will claim that they are forward-thinkers (not least because of the negative connotation of the phrase "backward-thinking", but I do that on purpose).

Then, we can argue that forward-thinkers generally believe that people are smart (so that they can improve), while backward-thinkers believe that people are stupid. Therefore, forward-thinkers tend to believe in criticism and accountability, because a society of smart people can best solve problems by working together. Backward-thinkers believe in secrecy and control of society by an elite, since a society of stupid people can hardly be trusted to make decisions for themselves.

From there, we can point out how some literature, and much of politics, is characterized by backward-thinking, and how it would be improved if forward-thinking ideas were used instead.

I think that by presenting the argument in this way, without mention of "modernism" and "romanticism" and by clearly defining all of the terms that we're using and showing how they're linked together, our argument is stronger, clearer, and more persuasive.

It's also a more modernist, er, forward-thinking argument, since we're presenting "forward-thinking" as a new, better way of looking at the world, rather than some lost-lamented "ism" from the past. (Not saying that nobody else thought this way before, of course -- just, society as a whole isn't used to characterizing ideas the way we do, and nobody else had a word that captured exactly what we mean.)

Of course, there's no need to present the argument exactly the way I did...for example, you could just as well start by defining "smart-people-ism" and "stupid-people-ism" to characterize how people view the "masses", then argue that "smart-people-ism" implies continued improvement in society while "stupid-people-ism" implies a lost-lamented golden age, and go from there.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, I've actually had conversations with people (more than one) who believe quite openly that people are stupid and that things were better in hunter-gatherer societies than they are now. (I argue that we live longer, are healthier, and have more stuff than hunter-gatherers did; they counter that some hunter-gatherer societies had life expectancies as long as ours, they were healthier because they got more exercise, and our "stuff" doesn't make us any happier.) But I think that those hunter-gatherer proponents would have looked at me funny if I called them "romantics".

Anonymous said...

Here's another thumbs up for more fiction.

Consider how many more people have read 1984 than Orwell's essays, or his Homage to Catalonia.

JGF said...


It sounds like congratulations are in order! I sympathize with the spousal priority problem. I tell my wife I need to save the Englightenment, she tells me I need to complete our tax forms while she holds the kids at bay.

I'm the guy who wants a 'webring' or blogring of the allies of 'pragmatic humanism' -- except I used the more dramatic term "guardians of the englightenment".

Since you're "abdicating" this "historic" responsibility, and since I too may have other mundane duties, we need to find a volunteer to set things up. Someone who'd host a content aggregator of blog members. Perhaps you know of a happy would-be volunteer?

BTW, I realized 'Guardians of the Enlightenment' suggests the acronym GOTE, which sounds, in english, like GOAT. I think that's a feature as it might inspire some free religious fundamentalist publicity (as long as they don't decide to take direct action!)

Anonymous said...

The scientific method may work that way in the abstract, but in general scientists try to explain facts in the context of existing theories. See Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, or the
Wikipedia entry
on the book for a summary.

That Wikipedia entry quotes Kuhn quoting Max Planck: "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it".

JGF said...


By the way, there's a very cheap way to create an effective Blogger "community" of 'Guardians of the Englightenment. Simply add the string GOTE to your interests list in your profile.

This tag is then used as part of Blogger's ad hoc ontology. It shows in the profile as a hyperlink, which resolves as follows:

So add this tag to your profile ...

JGF said...


By the way, there's a very cheap way to create an effective Blogger "community" of 'Guardians of the Enlightenment. Simply add the string GOTE to your interests list in your profile.

This tag is then used as part of Blogger's ad hoc ontology. It shows in the profile as a hyperlink, which resolves as follows:

So add this tag to your profile ...

David Brin said...

* The Cardassian Scot said..."However, is there some knowledge that should be kept secret...?"

My contrarianism guarantees that I will always be 'aggressively moderate.' This results in some strange situations - eg my liberal friends thinking I am a flaming free-enterpriser while libertarians calling me (me!) a "statist."

Another example - The Transparent Society has made me a principal spokesman for openness and reciprocal accountability. And yet, as "Mr. Anti-Secrecy," I am nevertheless remarkably ready to posit exceptions.

Take for example my role on the International SETI Committee... the only science fiction author on a panel set up by the IAU and IAC to consider advisory procedures for how researchers should behave in the event of discovering extraterrestrial life. On that committee, it seems that I am the guy who speaks up occasionally to suggest that discoverers not immediately blab absolutely everything to the media the very instant a sighting is confirmed! This is because I CAN imagine downer scenarios... even though I am deeply skeptical of the usual sci fi cliche ("everybody would panic".)

Certainly military and weapon technology and diplomatic/strategic/tactical plans merit secrecy. Indeed, many operations in and out of government can justify info-restraint on a short term basis.

But that's the thing, isn't it? If you make something secret for a brief span, then your aim is probably to achieve a limited practical effect. (All secrets decay in value anyway, so make use of that fact and make it a virtue.)

OTOH, if you are trying to use secrecy to EVADE ACCOUNTABILITY, then the mere concept of time limits - or external supervision of the secrecy process - will be ruled out in a big hurry. (As we are seeing in today's rush to multiply government secrecy by more than an order of magnitude, on slim justification.)

No, I am not saying that "Secrecy is the root of all evil." What I say in The Transparent Society is that "There is no evil that cannot be made worse through secrecy."

* Anonymous said: " the names "modernism" and "romanticism" are confusing and dumb,"

And I agree. As I said at the beginning, "modernism" calls to mind all sorts of german and french architects from the 1920s and tyrannical urban renewal projects and all sorts of absurd and obsolete detailed notions... all of which distract from the set of underlying assumptions I am talking about.

Nu? We are breaking fresh ground here. And I am open to suggestions. You will see in the next section, where I reprint one of my short articles from some years ago, that I only recently started using "modernism." Before, I used "The Enlightenment" but that did not seem to clash as directly with romanticism...

You'll note that I consistently map "forward" thinking onto this general thing we are talking about. But be wary. Fundamentalists who yearn for the Last Days according to Revelations believe sincerely that THEY are "forward thinking". What they do NOT posit is that such books lose relevance as we begin standing up as adolescent Creators and apprentices, picking up God's tools... and getting ready for mature tasks in His laboratory! That image is extremely forward looking in the sense you mean.

(Don't let me forget to talk about the THEOLOGICAL implications of modernism... the most hubristic implications of all. Let that thought gell while watching the most assertively modernist, confident and faustian film of all time... Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan.)

So far, I see modernism as a word worth reclaiming. Under the ugly superficialities of Bauhaus and LeCorbusier runs a strong current of can do belief in human ability. It seems a good place to start.

* As for people who praise hunter-gatherer societies, claiming that such people were wiser than contemporary westerners, what I find interesting is how they seem to think this makes them nicer or more empathic toward "otherness" and other peoples. In fact, the opposite is true. Good people want and strive for their children to be better than them. If we moderns are less worthy than tribal peoples, it means that all of our ancestors strove for nothing! That they were utter failures at the greatest goal any parent could have.

In contrast, to say that we have grown mighty and marginally more decent and wise - while discovering science and its tools - does NOT insult our tribal forebears. It means their efforts mattered. They were rewarded with some success. We stand upon their shoulders, as we hope our children will stand upon ours. It is a vastly more empathic and loving and respectful image.

* As for scientists vs Lawyers, I do not see it that way. These are both modern groups, each working in one of the four "accountability arenas". See:

Parsing the common themes of all 4 arenas took a lot of work. I wish someone would notice. sigh.

* GOTE? heh.... Though "Citizens" may be better than Guardians. Citizens rise to the defense... but do not claim some special worthiness.

* As for Kuhn, his paradigm book was a breakthrough, but so was Popper's work on falsifiability. And Kuhn dolorously tends to posit that holders of an older theory have to be virtually killed off for a new one to rise. (The Planck quote.) Yes, this plays into human nature, but it is too cynical about science. I know some scientists who are obdurate... and many others who take joy in potshotting their OWN theories!

For examples of this joy, see great stuff at:

Planck was right in his day, but that was the day of CP Snow's infamous Two Cultures. If anything proves the power of modernism it is the fact that this supposed "gap" is today crossed eagerly by many. By artists who seek to be tech-savvy and technologists who listen to their artistic souls. UCSD's 6th College is dedicated specifically to bridging this gap and filling it in. One sign of this is the "Age of Amateurs" I keep talking about...

Great discussion. Thrive all.


PS Oh, those of you who do not know of the Brin-L discussion list should look at:

Anonymous said...

"The dichotomy I tend to use is scientists vs lawyers. The scientific method is by nature deductive - you observe facts, collect data, try to fit a theory to the results, then test, observe, and revise as more data arrives. For law, an inductive method is used. You assume your client is in the right, then try and make the facts fit your assumption."

I am afraid you got deductive and inductive switched. Induction is where you reason from detailed facts to general principles.

Anonymous said...

Damn, I love your screeds. These diatribes make me think, and for that I thank you Mr. Brin.

Oddly, I'd probably not buy the non-fiction work "Why Romanticism Sucks" by David Brin, but here in this environment I'd pay for access to this site to read the same thing. :)

Tony Fisk said...

Worldmaker, I agree that a term other than 'romantic' is needed, for it imparts a warm and fuzzy 'Mills and Boon' sensation. (I know - it's being used in the Rome-antic sense, but it took a while for the penny to drop). I'd prefer something that draws attention to the underlying rose thorns rather than the dewy blooms of yesteryear. In that sense, I think 'conservative' is acceptable

But liberal?

Unfortunately, this term is already taken in Australia, and the Liberal party is actually the more conservative side of politics here. (See here for a neat cartoon on how they compare with the neocons at the moment! But, it's not about US ;-)

I'm not sure what a suitable alternative for liberal might be... progressive?

While I have the conch, has anyone else noticed a correlation between David's observation about our need for all-knowing don't-you-worry-about-that shamans, and most folks' preference for having this commentary expressed in one of his novels to get wider attention? A more passive don't-you-worry-about-that narrative?

Could it be that one of those neolithic buttons David mentioned is... laziness?

Hmm, the more I think about it, the more I suspect that laziness drives both axes. Conservatives don't want to go to the effort to change their ways and think about the future, while liberal/progressives don't want to go to the effort of doing things the same old laborious way, preferring instead to find easier alternatives now and take their ease later.

Anonymous said...

I'm not so convinced that "addiction to mystery" is universal among those opposed to modernity.

Mystery certainly appeals to romantics . . . but then there are fundamentalists, and at the current time fundies are *way* more dangerous than romantics.

Fundamentalists *hate* mystery and ambiguity. They don't like mystics. They believe the world and everything in it is pretty much known and fully explained . . . by scripture.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating and genuine site.

Regretfully I'm too busy right now to read the comments, so someone may have addressed my point already. Nevertheless, I'd appreciate your thoughts on the following.

One thing I think you overlook is that, while science certainly is in and among itself an open, unhierarchical and accountability-demanding system - thoroughly modernist, in this sense-, its relationship as a WHOLE to the non-scientific world is MUCH closer to your description of romanticism. Scientific people are not particularly known for their respect for the opinion and ability of the common man. In other words, there IS still an overall hierarchy, defined on the level of the scientific community and its activities vs. the non-scientific community, and in this scientists naturally see their community as on top, and perhaps more accurately something akin to a knowledge dictatorship. The difference from classical guilds is that entry into the scientific system is in principle democratic, and so is it's structure once you enter. But it is wishful thinking to claim it is not a system based on contempt for the masses, the maintanence of a perception of the mystery of its substance, and a "romantic" "we know and the rest of you don't" mentality.

Anonymous said...

I just found your site today and I am probably bringing up an old issue.

But it seems to me your dichotomy between forward-thinking and rearward-thinking can also be embodied somewhat in the ideas of trust and faith.

I trust that my mother will tell me the truth. As far as I know, she always has. My mother says that God created the world.

I don't necessarily trust Dr. Leakey in Africa when he says he has found a femur-bone from a x-million year old skeleton. I don't know Dr. Leakey, and I have no reason to trust him.

Science, as a system designed to build trust in a particular world-view, has to withstand the same criticism as other frameworks.
Once we step beyond my ability to understand the argument, it all comes down to trust again.

The age-old interest in the hypocrisy of specific religious leaders has now recently been matched by similar dark-humor interest in the untrustworthiness of scientists (as seen in the myriad conflicting opinions of scientific "experts" trotted out in court cases and news programs).
"He's got a Masters Degree in Science!!"

A priest might sell you an indulgence, a scientist might sell you an opinion. The fundamental feature of both events is the corruptability of human beings.

There seems to be no reliable method in either system (or _any_ system) to build a solid trust. So we rely on checks and balances
and hope that the bad apples somehow are overcome by the good.

Maybe that's why mysteries are so intriguing... what is evident isn't enough, either something more is out there: some new discovery to open our eyes or some new god to tell us the answers, or we are left with doubt that "true knowledge" exists at all, and despair.