For people in cold climes, winter, with its short days and hibernation inducing frigidity, is a season to let one’s pessimistic imagination roam. It may be overly deterministic, but I often wonder whether those who live in climates that do not vary with the seasons, so that they live where it is almost always warm and sunny, or always cold and grim, experience less often over the course of a year the full spectrum of human sentiments and end up being either too utopian for reality to justify, or too dystopian for those lucky enough to be here and have a world to complain about in the first place.
The novel I wrote about last time, A Canticle for Leibowitz, is a winter book because it is such a supremely pessimistic one. It presents a world that reaches a stage of technological maturity only to destroy itself again, and again.
What we would consider progress occurs only in terms of Mankind’s technological not its moral capacity. The novel ends with yet another nuclear holocaust only this time the monks who hope to preserve knowledge set out not for the deserts of earth, but the newly discovered planets around nearby stars -the seeds of a new civilization, but in all likelihood not the beginning of an eternal spring.
It’s a cliche to say that among the biggest problems facing us is that our moral or ethical progress has not kept pace with our technological and scientific progress, but labeling something a cliche doesn’t of necessity mean it isn’t true. Miller, the author of A Canticle for Leibowitz was tapping into a deep historical anxiety that this disjunction between our technological and moral capacity constituted the ultimate danger for us, and defined the problem in a certain, and I believe ultimately very useful way.
Yet, despite Miller’s and others’ anxiety we are still here, so the fear that the chasm between our technological and moral capacity will destroy us remains just that, an anxiety based on a projected future. It is a fear with a long backstory.
All cultures might have hubris myths or warnings about unbridled curiosity, remember Pandora and her jar, or Icarus and his melted wings, but Christianity had turned this warning against pride into the keystone for a whole religious cosmology. That is, in the Christian narrative, especially in the writings of Augustine, death, and with it the need for salvation, comes into the world out of the twin sins of Eve’s pride and curiosity.
It was an ancient anxiety, embedded right in the heart of Christianity, and which burst into consciousness with renewed vigor, during the emergence of modern science, an event that occurred at the same time as Christian revival and balkanization. A kind of contradiction that many thinkers during the early days of the scientific revolution from Isaac Newton, to Francis Bacon, to John Milton to Thomas More found themselves faced with; namely, if the original sin of our first parents was a sin of curiosity, how could a deeply religious age justify its rekindled quest for knowledge?
It is probably hard for most of us to get our minds around just how religious many of the figures during the scientific revolution were given our own mythology regarding the intractable war between science and religion, and the categories into which secular persons, who tend to rely on science, and religious persons, who far too often exhibit an anti-scientific bias, now often fall. Yet, a scientific giant like Newton was in great measure a Christian fundamentalist by today’s standards. One of the most influential publicists for the “new science” was Francis Bacon who saw as the task of science bringing back the state of knowledge found in the “prelapsarian” world, that is, the world before the fall of Adam and Eve.
As I have written about previously, Bacon was one of the first to confront the contradiction between the urge for new (in his view actually old) knowledge and the traditional Christian narrative regarding forbidden knowledge and the sin of pride. His answer was that the millennium was at hand and therefore a moral revival of humanity was taking place that would parallel and buffer the revival of knowledge. Knowledge was to be used for “the improvement of man’s estate”, and his new science was understood as the ultimate tool of Christian charity. In Bacon’s view, such science would only prove ruinous were it used for the sinful purposes of the lust for individual and group aggrandizement and power.
Others were not so optimistic.
Thomas More, for instance, who is credited with creating the modern genre of utopia wasn’t sketching out a blueprint for a perfect world as he was critiquing his own native England, while at the same time suggesting that no perfect world was possible due to Man’s sinfulness, or what his dear friend, Erasmus called “folly”.
Yet, the person who best captured the religious tensions and anxieties present when a largely Christian Europe embarked on its scientific revolution was the blind poet, John Milton. We don’t normally associate Milton with the scientific revolution, but we should. Milton, not only visited the imprisoned Galileo, he made the astronomer and his ideas into recurring themes, presented in a positive light, in his Paradise Lost. Milton also wrote a stunning defense on the freedom of thought, the Areopagitica, which would have made Galileo a free man.
Paradise Lost is, yes, a story in the old Christian vein of warnings against hubris and unbridled curiosity, but it is also a story about power. Namely, how the conclusion that we are “self-begot”, most likely led not to a state of utopian-anarchic godlessness, but the false belief that we ourselves could take the place of God, that is, the discovery of knowledge was tainted not when we, like Adam in Milton’s work, sought answers to our questions regarding the nature of the world, but the minute this knowledge was used as a tool of power against and rule over others.
From the time of Milton to the World Wars of the 20th century the balance between a science that had “improved man’s estate” and that which had served as the tool of power leaned largely in the direction of the former, though Romantics like Percy and Mary Shelley gave us warnings.
The idea that science and technology were tools for the improvement of the conditions of living for the mass of mankind rather than instruments in the pursuit of the perennial human vices of greed and ambition was not the case, of course, if one lived in a non-scientifically empowered non-Western civilization and were at the ends of the barrels of Western gun boats, a fact that we in the West need should not forget now that the scientific revolution and its technology for good and ill is now global. In the West itself, however, this other, darker side, of science and technology was largely occulted even in the face of the human devastation of 19th century wars.
The Second World War, and especially, the development of nuclear weapons brought this existential problem back fully into consciousness, and A Canticle for Leibowitz is a near pitch-perfect representative of this thinking, almost the exact opposite of another near contemporary Catholic thinker, Teilhard de Chardin’s view of technology as the means to godhead in his Phenomenon of Man.
There are multiple voices of conscience in A Canticle for Leibowitz all of which convey a similar underlying message, that knowledge usurped by power constitutes the gravest of dangers. There is the ageless, wandering Jew on the search for a messiah that never manifests himself and therefore remains in a fallen world in which he lives a life of eternal exile. There is the Poet who in his farcical way condemns the alliance between the holders of knowledge, both the Memorabilia, and the new and secular collegium, and the new centers of military power.
And then there are the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz itself. Here is a dialogue between the abbot Dom Paulo and the lead scholar of the new collegium, Thon Taddeo, on the later’s closeness with the rising satrap, Hannegan. It is a dialogue which captures the essential message behind A Canticle for Leibowitz.
Let’s be frank with each other, Father. I can’t fight the prince that makes my work possible- no matter what I think of his policies or his politics. I appear to support him, superficially, or at least to overlook him- for the sake of the collegium. If he extends his lands, the collegium may incidentally profit. If the collegium prospers, mankind will profit from our work.
What can I do about it? Hannegan is prince, not I.
But you promise to begin restoring Man’s control over nature. But who will govern the use of that power to control natural forces? Who will use it? To what end? How will you hold him in check. Such decisions can still be made. But if you and your group don’t make them now, others will soon make them for you. (206)
And, of course, the wrong decisions are made and power and knowledge are aligned a choice which unfolds in the book’s final section as another abbot, Dom Zerchi reflects on a world on the eve of another nuclear holocaust:
Listen, are we helpless? Are we doomed to do it again, and again and again? Have we no choice but to play the Phoenix in an unending sequence of rise and fall?
Are we doomed to it, Lord, chained to the pendulum of our own mad clockwork helpless to stop its swing? (245)
The problem, to state it simply, is that we are not creatures that are wholly, innately good, a fact which did not constitute a danger to human civilization or even earthly life until the 20th century. Our quenchless curiosity has driven a progressive expansion of the scale of our powers which has reached the stage where it has the dangers of intersecting with our flaws, and not just our capacity to engage in evil actions, but our foolishness and our greed, to harms billions of persons, or even destroy life on earth. This is the tragic view of the potential dangers of our newly acquired knowledge.
The Christian genealogy of this tragic view provides the theological cosmology behind A Canticle for Leibowitz, yet we shouldn’t be confused into thinking Christianity is the only place where such sober pessimism can be found.
Take Hinduism: Once, when asked what he thought of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Gandhi responded that Gibbon was excellent at compiling “vast masses of facts”, but that the truth he revealed by doing so was nothing compared to the ancient Hindu classic the Mahabharata. According to Pankaj Mishra, Gandhi’s held that:
The truth lay in the Mahabharata‘s portrait of the elemental human forces of greed and hatred: how they disguise themselves as self-righteousness and lead to a destructive war in which there are no victors, only survivors inheriting an immense wasteland.
Buddhism contains similar lessons about how the root of human suffering was to be found in our consciousness (or illusion) of our own separateness when combined with our desire.
Religions, because they in part contain Mankind’s longest reflections on human nature tend to capture this tragic condition of ultimately destructive competition between sentient beings with differing desires and wills, a condition which we may find are not only possessed by our fellow animals, but may be part of our legacy to any sentient machines that are our creations as well. Original sin indeed!
Yet recently, religion has been joined by secular psychology that is reviving Freudian pessimism though on a much more empirically sound basis. Contemporary psychology, the most well known of which is the work of Daniel Kahneman, has revealed the extent to which human beings are riddled with cognitive and moral faults which stand in the way of rational assessment and moral decisions- truths about which the world religions have long been aware.
The question becomes, then, what, if anything, can we do about this? Yet, right out of the gate we might stumble on the assumption behind the claim that our technological knowledge has advanced while our moral nature has remained intractably the same. That assumption is claim that the Enlightenment project of reforming human nature has failed.
For the moment I am only interested in two diametrically opposed responses to this perceived failure. The first wants to return to the pre-Enlightenment past, to a world built around the assumptions of Mankind’s sinfulness and free of the optimistic assumptions regarding democracy, equality and pluralism while the second thinks we should use the tools of the type of progress that clearly is working- our scientific and technological progress- to reach in and change human nature so that it better conforms to where we would like Mankind to be in the moral sense.
A thinker like, Glenn W. Olsen, the author of The Turn to Transcendence: The Role of Religion in the Twenty-first Century, is a very erudite and sophisticated version, not exactly of fundamentalism, but a recent reactionary move against modernity. His conclusion is the the Enlightenment project of reforming Mankind into rational and moral creatures has largely failed, so it might be best to revive at least some of the features of the pre-Enlightenment social-religious order that were built on less optimistic assumptions regarding Mankind’s animal nature, but more optimistic ones about our ultimate spiritual transcendence of those conditions which occur largely in the world to come.
Like the much less erudite fellow travelers of Olsen that go by the nom de guerre of neo-reactionaries, Olsen thinks this need to revive pre-Enlightenment forms of orientation to the world will require abandoning our faith in democracy, equality, and pluralism.
A totally opposite view, though equally pessimistic in its assumptions regarding human nature, is that of those who propose using the tools of modern science, especially modern neuroscience and neuropharmacology, to cure human beings of their cognitive and moral flaws. Firmly in this camp is someone like the bio-ethicist, Julian Savulescu who argues that using these tools might be our only clear escape route from a future filled with terrorism and war.
Both of these perspectives have been countered by Steven Pinker in his monumental The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker’s is the example par excellence for the argument that the Enlightenment wasn’t a failure at all- but actually worked. People today are much less violent and more tolerant than at any time in the past. Rather than seeing our world as one that has suffered moral decay at worst, and the failure of progressive assumptions regarding human nature at best, Pinker presents a world where we are in every sense morally more advanced than our ancestors who had no compunction in torturing people on The Wheel or enslaving millions of individuals. So much for the nostalgia of neo-reactionaries.
And Pinker’s argument seems to undermine the logic behind the push for moral enhancement as well, for if current “technologies” such as universal education are working, in that violence has been in almost precipitous decline, why the need to push something far more radical and intrusive?
Here I’ll add my own two-cents, for I can indeed see an argument for cognitive and moral enhancement as a humane alternative to our barbaric policy of mass incarceration where many of the people we currently lock up and conceal in order to hide from ourselves our own particular variety of barbarism are there because of deficits of cognition and self-control. Unlike Savulescu, however, I do not see this as an answer to our concerns with security whether in the form of state-vs-state war or a catastrophic version of terrorism. Were we so powerfully that we could universally implement such moral enhancements and ensure that they were not used instead to tie individuals even closer together in groups that stood in rivalry against other groups then we would not have these security concerns in the first place.
Our problem is not that the Enlightenment has failed but that it has succeeded in creating educated publics who now live in an economic and political system from which they feel increasingly alienated. These are problems of structure and power that do not easily lend themselves to any sort of technological fix, but ones that require political solutions and change. Yet, even if we could solve these problems other more deeply rooted and existential dangers might remain.
The real danger to us, as it has always been, is less a matter of individual against individual than tribe against tribe, nation against nation, group against group. Reason does not solve the problem here, because reason is baked into the very nature of our conflict, as each group, whether corporation, religious sect, or country pursues its own rational good whose consequence is often to the detriment of other groups.
The danger becomes even more acute when we realize that as artificial intelligence increases in capability many of our decisions will be handed over to machines, who, with all rationality, and no sense of a moral universe that demands something different, continue the war of all against all that has been our lot since the rebellion of “Lucifer’s angels in heaven”.
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