Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Semi-good (but significantly wrong) ideas: OK, then what? (With reference to Political Correctness and Transhumanism.)

One of the problems about ideas, about discussion, debate, advocacy - is that it may be so difficult to get people en masse to accept a truth (even when it is true) that those who advocate it never get to the point of discovering its consequences.

They never get to the point where you can say - "Okay, let's accept everything you say is valid: then what?"

People never get to this point, even inside their own heads, because they are so engaged by the process of advocacy, trying to persuade, implement, monitor etc. They never get to the point where they are forced to imagine that the thing they advocate is actually in place - and then doing the thought experiment of what difference it actually makes - what kind of consequences will ensue.

This problem is particularly bad when the advocacy is for something which is wrong in some way, or is pushing against unacknowledged realities - something which goes against the flow. Bad ideas of this kind never get near to being implemented, and therefore their advocates never get near to being compelled to see their undesirability.

The most obvious and dominant way that this is shown is, of course, mainstream New Left politics - political correctness. There is an arena where the mass of the population go along with ideas, policies, rules about things like democracy, equality and diversity that - if they were implemented in the desired way would be very obviously destructive (if the evaluation was honest - and that is a big 'if) - but which never get near being implemented because they are so riddled with errors, omissions and illogic.

But the phenomenon is very pervasive and cuts very deep in much secular thinking which is intended to tackle the fundamental problems of life. For example, the main ideological alternative to Christianity is Transhumanism - the idea that the primary problems of life can be solved by knowledge, science, technology. The analysis starts from defining these primary problems in terms such as pain and suffering, lack of joy and happiness, and death - so the ultimate aim is making people feel completely happy all the time (unless they chose otherwise) and each person lived for (say) several centuries.

This is such a difficult and unlikely goal, that Transhumanists will never come to the point where they are compelled to consider the consequences of their wishes; and the extent to which even if they achieved all their hope, the fundamental problems of life remain untouched

The emotions of suffering and happiness, and the significance of imminent death are extremely important problems - but even if they could all be solved the ultimate problems remain untouched: problems of meaning, purpose and my relationship to meaning and purpose - problems about the significance of my life.

Transhumanists could contend that they are not offering a complete answer, as indeed they are not, but that reduced suffering, greater happiness, greatly-extended healthy-lifespan are all things good in themselves - and which might enable people better to tackle the primary problems - but that is now what I see.

What I see is people who use the Transhumanist project so as not ever to acknowledge, consider, think-about the real primary problems of life. People who are so absorbed by the difficulties of getting what they want that they never recognize that - even if they could have it - it would leave the basic problems of life completely untouched.

I see people who are so wrapped up in 'the fight' that they do not know what they are fighting for. In effect, each has made the implicit decision that "the meaning and purpose of my life is the advocacy of Transhumanism". The practical strategy, the actually-lived approach to the problems of life, is so to fill one's mind with the problems of funding, achieving and implementing Transhumanism that there is no room in the mind for anything else - the means have completely displaced the end.

I often feel that the same applies to religions which offer 'more life' as their goal - which offer 'me as I am now' (but eternal and healthy) an eternity in a paradise of sensuous gratification; and fail to see that this is just more of the same old stuff. Or ideas of reincarnation as an endless recyling of versions of me as I am now - and they don't notice that this means that an eternity of staying-alive or recycling would be as meaningless/ pointless as they perceive the present to be!

They are, in effect, trying to solve the fundamental problems of lack of meaning, purpose, existential satisfaction by perpetuating lack of meaning/ purpose/ satisfaction forever!

All this may be perfectly understandable human behaviour - but it is frustrating to contemplate!


Note: There are many other problems with what is currently termed the Transhumanist project, but which has been around for a few hundred years - as is explained in CS Lewis's essay The Abolition of Man and his novel That Hideous Strength; but I take Transhumanism as my examplehere, being the most complete and 'idealistic' of the current world-betterment schemes.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I agree, but I don't really see how Christianity avoids this problem. Certainly during my time as a practicing Mormon, I was often troubled by the "OK, then what?" question. Religion brought me many benefits, but a well-grounded feeling of significance was certainly never one of them.

The problem is that a thing can have meaning or purpose only with reference to something else. (It has to mean something or be for something.) The idea of "ultimate" or "absolute" meaning or purpose is therefore incoherent. Religion's strategy for keeping nihilism at bay is precisely the same as Transhumanism's: to hold up a goal (Heaven) which is so remote from the world as we know it that we become absorbed in pursuing and advocating that goal and never stop think to ask "OK, then what?"

(If you can show me how the above reasoning is incorrect, I will be eternally grateful and most likely become a Christian again on the spot! No pressure, though.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - I think the answer is quite simple and you already know it - but presumably it is not what you are looking for.

What is required, demanded, is a level of ultimate explanation which (by definition) cannot be proven but must be assumed; and which satisfies our deepest personal longings, and which is not forced-upon us in any way, but voluntarily chosen as that which we will live by.

This choice may seem arbitrary, but it isn't because if it is not assented to at the deepest level then it simply does not work.

What is assented to is - must be - regarded as 'objective' - true for everybody' the personal choice involved is in assenting to it, and not in 'making it up'.

This choice may be in error, indeed is bound to be at-least incomplete and distorted (because of the constraints of being a Man, mortal, limited in numerous ways) but that does not substantively affect the situation; because the very nature of the choice involves all such acceptances of human finitude and error.

It is this which is lacking, and the perceived need for it is lacking, the concept of it is lacking, in Transhumanism and other utilitarian or hedonic secularisms - and there is a basic dishonesty, evasiveness, denial about this situation.

My sense is that what blocks you is that you want the truth and reality of the bottom line assumption to be both compelled upon you (by facts and reason) and removed from possibility of error. My feeling is that to demand these, is to be smuggling assumptions into the primary evaluation - and be trying to evaluate the primary decision by these secondary assumptions.

By contrast, I feel that there is an absolute purity and simplicity about the bedrock of faith; it presents itself existentially - 'me confronted with everything', as a single primary choice.

I think this was what CS Lewis described in Surprised by Joy as his final conversion (although this was confused for me by being preceded by a lot about God hunting him down - which was something altogether outwith my own pre-Christian experience).

"The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears a moment of wholly free choice. In a sense. I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being, there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corslet meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional. I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, “I chose,” yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite. On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done. Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, “ I am what I do”. Then came the repercussion on the imaginative level. I felt as if I were a man of snow at long last beginning to melt. The melting was starting in my back – drip-drip and presently trickle-trickle. I rather disliked the feeling.”

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Thank you. I will save your reply, reread it, and mull it over a bit.

(I read Surprised by Joy in, I think, my early teens, and enjoyed all of it except the description of the actual conversion, which I simply could not process. Going by this excerpt, I think I should reread the book now; I think I am better prepared to understand it.)