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Do we now live in an enlightened age?
Craig Rowley is a regular Webdiarist, an esteemed moderator and a Director of Webdiary. His articles have included Everybody's talking about the bird ... but it's a very human story, Show us your true colours: An adventure into the sea of Australian humanity, and most recently (with Richard Tonkin) Follow the Big Money: Bad Business with Baghdad.
by Craig Rowley
"We should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organisation of society." - Albert Einstein (1949)
Science and technology were hailed as the new hope of humankind, as the road to wisdom and the key to happiness and freedom. Enlightenment was meant to be "man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity". That's what Immanuel Kant told us. And way back in 1784 he wrote that if asked, "Do we presently live in an enlightened age?" the answer is, "No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment."
As Peter Gay pointed out in his prize winning book The Enlightenment: An Interpretation: The Science of Freedom at the height of the Age of Enlightenment there seemed little doubt that in the struggle of man against nature the balance of power was shifting in favour of man. We went on to welcome modernisation with open arms and embrace the maelstrom of change that came with it. We placed scientific knowledge on a pedestal, knowledge to be esteemed above all others.
Most tend to equate science with technology, perhaps as a result of the constant reinforcement of a word association. Technology though, in its essence, precedes and is more fundamental than science. Technology, with origins in the Greek word technologia from techne (craft) and logia (saying), is about tools and techniques used to apply knowledge and achieve some practical result. The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin word, scientia, which means knowledge; thus the phrase scientia potentia est: knowledge is power.
Science and technology then are related, but not the same. The basic difference between science and technology, in the prodigious business thinker Peter Drucker's view, was not in the content but in the focus of the two areas. Science was a branch of philosophy, concerned with understanding. It was misuse and degradation of science to use it according to Plato's famous argument. Its object was to elevate the human mind. Technology, on the other hand, was focused on use. Its object was increase of the human capacity to do.
We’ve used science and technology to do things, like spark the growth of a new world, new forms of society, new ways of living. They produced for us great discoveries, changed our images of the universe (and our place in it), and they brought on the industrialisation of production. Now contemporary Western society is suffused with the products of scientific and technological 'progress', and hence the West has made its powerful presence felt in every corner of this small planet. So we’ve made our way out the dark ages and into modernity, but did the Enlightenment project really enlighten us?
Back in the eighteenth century Kant had said no, but asserted that there were “clear indications that the way is now being opened for men to proceed freely in this direction [toward enlightenment] and that the obstacles to general enlightenment - to their release from their self-imposed immaturity - are gradually diminishing.” The standing obstacles may have been diminishing, but we are creatures handy at constructing new ones. In taking up Kant's call to "Sapere Aude!" (Dare to know!) you could think we would have done a better job with Socrates' suggestion that we heed that precept inscribed in gold letters over the portico of the temple at Delphi - gnothi seauton (know thyself).
Science was meant to be a light that would, as Francis Bacon said, “eventually disclose and bring into sight all that is most hidden and secret in the universe” and it was meant to lead the way in the battle against blind faith. Instead we founded a new religion. The vast majority of scientists believe in the inviolability of progress and they do so with the driven purity of terrorists. Is it enlightened not to question the privileged status of scientific knowledge and associated technologies?
Here is a question we might ask to test our enlightenment: Could it be, as Herbert Marcuse wrote in what some consider to be the most subversive book of the twentieth century, that as a result of technical progress "a comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization"? Has science delivered us into a new kind of slavery rather than the universal liberation promised?
Francis Bacon entertained the idea of the universe as a problem to be solved, examined, meditated upon, rather than as an eternally fixed stage, upon which man walked. It didn’t seem to dissuade him from trying to construct a new eternally fixed stage of sorts though. Way back when there were relatively few readers – yet alone enlightened readers – Bacon wrote the utopian novel The New Atlantis (published would you believe by Dr Rowley). In the Introductory note to Fishburne’s 11th edition of The New Atlantis it says that “no reader acquainted in any degree with the processes and results of modern scientific inquiry can fail to be struck by the numerous approximations made by Bacon's imagination to the actual achievements of modern times”. Bacon had imagined an ideal commonwealth; he’d depicted a society where the best and brightest citizens attended a college called Salomon's House, in which scientific experiments are conducted in Baconian method in order to understand and conquer nature, and to apply the collected knowledge to the betterment of society.
A little over two-hundred years later Aldous Huxley, member of a family that had produced a number of brilliant scientific minds, had set out his fourth novel Point Counter Point. In it his characters decry the dangers of sacrificing humanity for intellectualism, and express concern about the staggering progress of science and technology. The theme from this novel of ideas was carried through to Huxley’s fifth novel, his most famous and his first attempt at a utopian novel – Brave New World.
In between we find a history of utopia (or dystopia depending on your view) in which science is central. The widely held view of science is that scientific knowledge is proven knowledge. In the explanation of the world provided by empiricist science all knowledge is based on objectively verified sense experience and this is the way in which science was looked upon by those that set about to transform the world by scientific means.
So, given the pattern of scientists promoting their own social prescriptions, it is no surprise that in the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte, who saw himself as the Pope of Positivism, stated that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge. It was logical he would then advocate using science (as defined by empiricism) to govern human affairs. That’s why he is also known as the “grandfather of sociology” and why he penned the Plan de traveaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société (1822) (Plan of scientific studies necessary for the reorganization of society). It is also why he founded what you’d have to call a vehicle to the utopia he envisioned: the Religion of Humanity, a humanistic, non-theistic religion.
There are two outstanding events in Comte’s early life that help to explain the nature of his thought. The first was his attendance at the École Polytechnique, which he came to see as the model for a future society ordered and sustained by a new elite of scientists and engineers (enter the technocrat). And it was in Paris that Comte met Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de Condorcet – French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist. Condorcet was an optimist on social progress, believing in the ultimate "perfectibility" of humanity.
The second great event in Comte’s life took place in 1817. It was in that year that Comte became the secretary to the French utopian so-called socialist Claude Henri de Saint-Simon and you can’t properly comprehend Comte without making some sense of Saint-Simon. By any careful definition, Saint-Simon cannot be properly labelled a socialist. The idea that he was arises because so many of his follows became socialists at a later stage. He was of an ancient noble lineage, had fought alongside Lafayette and the American revolutionaries. On his return to France he had become a friend of the financiers and speculators who flourished in the Thermidorean Reaction (the revolt in the French Revolution against the excesses of Reign of Terror) and he himself did well under the Directoire. He was just the kind of person who would be detested by fellow Frenchmen who were actual utopian socialists, like François Fourier and François-Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf.
For some time, Saint-Simon appeared to be a typical liberal aristocrat, a man who spoke a language favourable to the emerging liberal and progressive bourgeoisie. Yet Saint-Simon was something consistently more than a liberal, more than a simple-minded defender of laissez-faire capitalism. As his thought became more refined he became more and more concerned with the dangers inherent in uncontrolled individualism. Saint-Simon perceived the ramifications of the new industrialism of his own time and he attempted to place his perceptions into a broad theoretical framework. He idealised productivity, organisation, efficiency, innovation and technological discovery. Sounding familiar?
Yes, Saint-Simon condemned kings, nobles and the clergy as useless and parasitical (common enough a view in his time), but while he incorporated the working classes into his vision of the future, the workers were not to play a dominant or even important position. While manual labour would be honoured and the parasites pushed away from power, what would distinguish the new system were not so much labour but labour’s reorganisation and the application of technology to it. Thus, a meritocratic elite of intelligence and creativity would assume the highest positions of prestige and authority. Arise the technocracy. Saint-Simon was undeniably elitist.
So Comte had soaked up the Saint-Simonian view and unlike those that looked to capitalist growth with a suspicious eye, Saint-Simon had welcomed it. Both men had sought a science of human behaviour, what Saint-Simon had called a physique sociale or social physics and Comte came to call sociology. And it was sociology, Comte claimed, that would give ultimate meaning to all the other sciences - it was the one science which held the others together. Once a science of society had been developed, we’d achieve a synthesis of order and progress, opinions would once again be shared, and society would be stable. Once there was true social knowledge, people would not be as willing to fight over religious or political opinions. We would achieve true freedom.
Problem is that from Comte’s point of view true freedom is a new kind of submission. To Comte and those he influenced true freedom lies in the rational submission to scientific laws. The gradual awareness and understanding of these laws is what Comte meant by the word progress. The task then for a follower of Comte was to provide in effect a new religion and a new faith (with the technocrats as the new clergy). So Comte has a crucial, but insufficiently recognised, place in the formation of modern and post-modern thought. He and his followers set about busily building a “positive science” and a new “positive religion” - a nontheistic, atheistic religion, a religion of man and society.
What of that new religion? Based on a 'demonstrable faith', but otherwise homologous with the Catholic form of Christianity it was 'destined' to replace, the religion of Humanity was to be a triple institution. Its full establishment required dogme (a doctrine), regime (a moral rule) and culte (a system of worship), all organised and coordinated through a Positivist Church. Taken as a whole, the Positivist System would provide the scientific-humanist equivalent to what systematic theology had been in the high Middle Ages: it would serve as the intellectually unifying basis of the new industrial order. A new system of education would be needed, one geared to a lifelong process of moral education.
There were prescriptions for every major institution such as the family, the sphere of production, and the broader polity (reduced to the humanly manageable scale of a small republic). Most importantly, these institutions would be ordered and directed and that overarching direction would be provided by a leadership of temporal and spiritual authorities – les patriciens, which was to consist of bankers, industrialists and engineers (in other words the technocrats) to act as temporal authorities comprised as committees, and a new class of spirituals, the scientists-philosophers-teachers-pastors (the Positivist priesthood). Under the Positivist System it would be the elites of bankers, industrialists and engineers who would control the repressive organs of the state.
Does it all sound so strange to you? In practical terms, Comte's religious project was of course judged a complete failure. But was that failure so total? Look around and listen carefully and you can just make a hint of the Comtean Positivist System now. You can hear the echo of it in certain views of the role of family in our free-market world, in talk about work ethics (could we start to hear it in discussion of WorkChoices?), and whenever a politician says “Trust us, we’re the Government” as it sets us on a certain course (without much consultation, of course).
You can hear the echo of it in almost any voice that portrays the image of science as one of certainty and authority. I heard it the other week echoed in ideas shared by another Webdiarist. In discussion of Ralf Dahrendorf’s beliefs about an ugly phenomenon of our violent times we’d tossed around a question about how to create more harmonious relationships among the peoples of the world and the 'diarist offered a view of Eugenics as a way forward. I can’t see Eugenics on the likely path to enlightenment myself, but the other ‘Diarist professed, “In one or two generations we could have heaven on earth, a perpetual love-in.” The idea he shared sounds like it shares a lot in common with an emergent philosophy – Transhumanism, the movement advocating use of new sciences and technologies to increase human physical and cognitive abilities and improve the human condition in unprecedented ways and described by its sympathisers as the "movement that epitomises the most daring, courageous, imaginative, and idealistic aspirations of humanity" and by its critics as the "the world's most dangerous idea".
Aldous Huxley’s brother Julian, a biologist, was a proponent of Eugenics as a method of bettering society. He saw Eugenics as important for removing undesirable variants from the human gene pool as a whole, but he also believed that all peoples were equal, and was an outspoken critic both of the eugenic extremism that arose in the 1930s and of the received wisdom that working classes were eugenically inferior. He was a proponent of Transhumanism and as a Transhumanist believed that humans can and should use technologies to become more than human.
Have you considered the convergence of emerging technologies such as nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science? The Transhumanists have, and they would like to use them as well as hypothetical future technologies such as simulated reality, artificial intelligence, mind uploading (transfer of a human mind to a computer) and cryonics to fundamentally change the nature of human beings. They speculate that human enhancement techniques and other emerging technologies may facilitate a quantum leap, the next significant evolutionary step for the human species by the midpoint of the 21st century. But when you shine a light on their ideas what do you see? Do we want to go where their ideas would lead us?
From the Utopian optimism of the Age of Enlightenment, in which science and technology were upheld as agents of human liberation, through modernity - with its focus on constant change, progress and the realisation of ends, through the pessimism of the postmodern, to the heaven or hell this idea of making a technology-enabled human-transformation into a posthuman condition, science and technology have been central to debating the direction society will take in future, as well as interpretation and judgement of the path it has taken in the past. So perhaps we need to bring on some enlightenment and examine these ideas of those who want to redesign the human condition and decide whether its utopia or dystopia we see on the path ahead of us.