On the Varieties of Enlightenment

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: The fantasy fiction of the 22nd century will be living in a human body with a human brain.

This aphorism, by the way, is kind of what the Framers in Disciple of the Dog believe: that the world we live in is a massive fantasy role-playing game.

So the debate in the comments on “What is the Semantic Apocalype?” has got me thinking about ways to clarify the position I’m offering. So here’s a different comic strip:

Enlightenment 1.0, whose dream we happen to be living right now, turned on the wholesale critique of traditional knowledge. The authority of the ancient sources was thrown overboard, and we turned to reason and observation for our answers. In the early days, this revolution bubbled with intellectual promise: some thought reason alone was sufficient for knowledge, and various ‘systems’ were devised to provide knowledge of unobservables like truth, beauty, God, and so on. The plethora of competing systems, and the abject inability of any of their partisans to resolve their disagreements, quickly made this secondary Enlightenment project seem like a dead end. The consequences of this Enlightenment 1.1, however, were quite extreme. By dragging so many implicit norms into the light of explicit reflection and failing to make any positive, consensus commanding determinations whatsoever, E 1.1 managed to demolish all of our old ways of making sense of our life without providing anything new. Postmodernism attempted to make a virtue out of this failure: if received cultural norms can’t be trusted, then we must innovate our way into our normative future, make ourselves meaningful. Call this Enlightenment 1.2. (I see postmodernism as a radicalization of romanticism).

The original E 1.0 insight, meanwhile, kept chugging along, producing what has been the greatest explosion in human knowledge in the history of the species. Reason and observation, a.k.a. science, became the institutional backbone of society, giving us the grip we needed to throttle the planet and extort any number of technological and organizational goodies. But since human meaning turned on unobservables, it had nothing to offer us save tools to pursue what ever purpose we cooked up for ourselves. E 1.0, in other words, provided us with an endless array of means, but absolutely no end or goal. Thus modern consumer society: the pointless accumulation of means. Biological imperatives become the new consensual foundation: all the norms and laws and rights that make up our new cage are (implicitly or explicitly) rationalized as means, as ways to maximize the satisfaction of these biological imperatives, while leaving the question of meaning to individuals. E 1.0 led us to a promised land where we were no longer the chosen people: small wonder we have such a hankering for pre-Enlightenment worlds! Fantasy reminds us of what it was like to live in a meaningful reality.

If Enlightenment 1.0 allowed us to escape our normative prison, only to strand us in a meaningless world, the question is one of how Enlightenment 2.0 – which is happening as we speak – will transform things.  E 2.0 is set to tear down our biological prison the way E 1.0 tore down our traditional one. We escaped tradition to find ourselves trapped by biology. If we escape biology does that mean we are finally free?

I chose the rhetoric of constraint and escape intentionally, because it seems to be the register that E 2.0 enthusiasts are most inclined to use. Nothing like ’emancipation’ to sell toothpaste. But the fact is, constraints enable. The English language is a system of constraints. All languages are. ‘Escape’ any of those systems, and you escape communication, which is to say, imprison yourself in unintelligility.

Humanity is also a system of biological constraints. Breaking out of the ‘human system’ is relatively easy to do, so much so, that many of us live in perpetual terror of being ‘freed.’ Suicide, as they say, is easy.

The question is, what prevents E 2.0 from being a form of mass collective suicide? Is it the incrementalism of the transformation? Do E 2.0 enthusiasts think that the gradualism of the change will allow them to somehow conserve their identities across profound systematic transformations. This strikes me as wishful thinking.

I hate to say it, but the pro E 2.0 arguments always strike me as out-and-out religious: “Who you are now will pass, but after, oh what joy! Paradise awaits, my friend! Imagine a world without tears!”

Hmmm… I think the only thing we can say with any certainty is that who we are now will no longer exist, and that this sounds suspiciously like death. Whether you shut your brain down, or rewire it to tangle the stars: either way you are gone.

And this is something we should welcome with open arms? Because we have faith in some vision of techno-paradise?

To be fair they think their argument has a rational basis. E 2.0 enthusiasts typically rely on a straightforward optimistic induction: by and large, technological innovation has improved our ‘quality of life’ in the past, therefore, radical technological innovation will radically improve our quality of life in the future.

I don’t think the argument is remotely convincing because of the disjunct between ‘technological innovation’ and ‘radical technological innovation.’  This inductive chasm deepens once you make a distinction between tweaking our environment, exo-technological innovation, and tweaking ourselves, endo-technological innovation. ‘By and large, exo-technological innovation has improved our quality of life, therefore endo-technological innovation will improve our quality of life in the future’ does not follow simply because ‘our quality of life’  turns on a humanity that ‘endo-technological innovation’ promises to render archaic and ultimately extinct.

Their argument really is: By and large, exo-technological innovation has improved our quality of life, therefore endo-technological innovation will… well, we can’t say ‘improve’ because that is an artifact of our standards, which will almost certainly be thrown out the window, and we can’t say ‘our the quality of life,’ because we will no longer exist as we exist now, and no one can say whether we’ll be able to conserve our personal identity in any meaningful sense, let alone what ‘quality of life’ might mean to whatever it is that supplants us.

So their claims of techno-paradise might as well be declarations of faith, the substance of things hoped for…

The rest of us should be shitting our drawers.