Dirty Spectacles

As I recently admitted, I have in the not too distant past flirted with the excitement of Transhumanist philosophy. It is in many ways a religion of science, which makes it quite appealing: you get the feeling of purpose and destiny normally associated with religion but also the hard-headed rationality of science and technology. Of course, when one looks closer, it is anything but rational; nevertheless it is still surrounded by an aura of respectable logic and no-nonsense practicality, which tempts obsessive reasoners like me.

One of the rhetorical techniques used by the transhumanist crowd, which they share with fans of technological progressivism in general, is to accuse those who yearn for a “simpler” past of misplaced romanticism. Hence we find the following in the Transhumanism FAQ, intended as an answer to those who would like to “turn back the clock”:

The problem with this view is that the pre-industrial age was anything but idyllic. It was a life of poverty, misery, disease, heavy manual toil from dawn to dusk, superstitious fears, and cultural parochialism. [1]

Let us deal with each of these claims in order. First, what is meant by poverty? Notoriously, poverty is relative. The poorest members of modern Western society may well possess material wealth far beyond that of the wealthier end of Western society a few centuries ago; but this does not mean that they are happier with their lot. That wealth is significantly correlated with happiness is a claim that has been debunked time and again. Here is just one example:

“I started trying to understand the roots of happiness. [Shows a slide of a graph plotting personal income and happiness.] This is a typical result that many people have presented and there are many variations on it. But this for instance shows that about 30% of the people surveyed in the United States since 1956 say that their life is very happy. And that hasn’t changed at all whereas the personal income (on a scale that has been held constant to accommodate for inflation) has more than doubled, almost tripled, in that period. But you find essentially the same results, namely that after a certain basic point, which corresponds more or less to just a few thousand dollars above the minimum poverty level, increases in material well-being don’t seem to affect how happy people are.” [2]

So in one sense it is true that earlier societies were poorer than we are today: it is possible to construct absolute measures of material wealth according to which members of Western society are wealthier now than in times past. However, such an absolute measure of wealth is largely irrelevant. Recent research, as well as folk wisdom, shows that a rise in material wealth much beyond the minimum necessary for survival does not entail greater happiness. Even at the individual level, wealth is poorly correlated with happiness [3], but at the societal level it hardly seems relevant at all as long as basic needs are met.

As for misery, on what grounds do they claim that our ancestors were more miserable than we are today? Recent research does not support this claim:

“One problem that’s happening now is that although the rates of happiness are about as flat as the surface of the moon, depression and anxiety are rising. Despite that we’re in a world with so much more material wealth, much safer, better health, and all kinds of pharmaceuticals and treatments for mental illness, we’re still seeing rises in depression and anxiety. Some people might say this is because we have better diagnosis and more people are being found out, but [the data] suggest that we’re seeing it all over the world. In the United States right now there are more suicides than homicides; there’s a rash of suicide in China; and the World Health Organisation predicts that by the year 2020 depression will be the second largest cause of disability-related years lost after ischemic heart disease.

Happiness stays the same as ever. Now the good news here is that if you take surveys from around the world we find that more people are happy than not. [Shows a slide.] And we see that about three quarters of people will say they are at least pretty happy. But this does not follow any of the usual trends. So, for example, these two [charts] show great growth in income but absolutely flat happiness curves. So more money doesn’t seem to be doing anything to increase happiness level. [4]

Yet more evidence that wealth does not entail happiness and good reason to doubt that we are happier today than in the past. There seems no justification for the progressivist claim that pre-industrial life was “miserable”: with no data from the past to go on, the best we can do is to extrapolate from present data, which suggests that pre-industrial people were about as happy as we are today but they suffered from less depression and less anxiety.

However, although our mental health may be worse today than it was then, it cannot be denied that our physical health has improved. Modern Western nutrition may be awful, as the obesity and diabetes epidemics seem to indicate, but that is no reason to condemn modern medicine. In fact, it might be thought something of an achievement that we are so well cared for that blubber and sugar are some of our major worries. The revolution in so-called evidence-based medicine, which is essentially the consistent application of the scientific method to those areas of medical care amenable to such a method, is one of the few 20th century revolutions of which I thoroughly approve.

It would be extremely callous of me, safe in my relatively good health with a doctor just a telephone call away, to claim that improvements in medical care do not matter. Nevertheless, with regard to general happiness, there is a sense in which medical care is analogous to wealth. Disease is one of the accepted risks of life: whereas we would be horrified if a friend or relative were killed by smallpox, we still expect to lose friends to cancer. That is not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to eradicate cancer just as we eradicated smallpox, but only that once cancer was forgotten its eradication would no longer be a source of happiness. Thus although medical care is undoubtedly a good thing (in general — I do not consider the prolongation of old age without accompanying quality of life to be a good thing: “old people’s homes” are an abomination) and hence a cause to prefer living today than in the past, it cannot be used as evidence that pre-industrial life was miserable for people alive then.

And why does Bostrom believe that pre-industrial life consisted of “heavy manual toil from dawn to dusk”? That sounds a lot more like 19th century industrial work than anything pre-industrial workers had to suffer. The working day for a medieval peasant did indeed stretch from dawn to dusk (thus it was approximately eight hours long in winter and sixteen hours long in summer) but it was broken up by many periods of rest. Breakfast, lunch, the afternoon nap and dinner all took place during the so-called “working day”, unlike today when we are lucky to get an hour for lunch. Labourers in the 19th century who campaigned for eight-hour working days were not taking a great step forward for workers’ rights, they were merely trying to undo the damage done during the Industrial Revolution. [5]

In addition, the year was full of holidays: Christmas, Easter and midsummer were all celebrated with long holidays and the calendar was peppered with saint’s days and rest days. There were also week-long “ales” to mark personal occasions such as weddings and deaths. Overall, approximately a third of the year was given over to holidays in medieval England. Even the ancien règime in France guaranteed fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days and thirty-eight holidays. Travellers in Spain reported that holidays took up five months of the year. [6]

Furthermore, a peasant was not required to work on every day that was not an official holiday:

The peasant’s free time extended beyond officially sanctioned holidays. There is considerable evidence of what economists call the backward-bending supply curve of labor — the idea that when wages rise, workers supply less labor. During one period of unusually high wages (the late fourteenth century), many laborers refused to work “by the year or the half year or by any of the usual terms but only by the day.” And they worked only as many days as were necessary to earn their customary income — which in this case amounted to about 120 days a year, for a probable total of only 1,440 hours annually (this estimate assumes a 12-hour day because the days worked were probably during spring, summer and fall). A thirteenth-century estimate finds that whole peasant families did not put in more than 150 days per year on their land. Manorial records from fourteenth-century England indicate an extremely short working year — 175 days — for servile laborers. Later evidence for farmer-miners, a group with control over their worktime, indicates they worked only 180 days a year. [7]

Erik Rauch at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has compiled a list of estimates of the average number of hours worked per year for different periods: [8]

13th century Adult male peasant, UK 1620 hours
14th century Casual labourer, UK 1440 hours
Middle Ages English worker 2309 hours
1400 – 1600 Farmer-miner, adult male, UK 1980 hours
1840 Average worker, UK 3105 – 3588 hours
1850 Average worker, USA 3150 – 3650 hours
1987 Average worker, USA 1949 hours
1988 Manufacturing worker, UK 1856 hours

This demonstrates quite clearly that the only people who had to suffer long days of hard toil were those poor souls who had the misfortune to live through the Industrial Revolution. The claim that pre-industrial workers had a harder life than today’s workers is a lie based on falsely extrapolating early industrial conditions into the past. In fact, the working day wasn’t so bad until the industrialists turned up.

Finally, what should we make of the accusation of “superstitious fears and cultural parochialism”? We could point out that there are still plenty of superstitious fears around today, including many new ones. We could also suggest that a bit more parochialism might not go amiss in contemporary culture. However, it is clear by now that these are not reasoned arguments but merely baseless accusations fueled by ideology.

[1] Bostrom, N. 2003. Transhumanist FAQ (Humanity+) available at http://humanityplus.org/learn/philosophy/faq

[2] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talking in February 2004 at TED in Monterey, California. Available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXIeFJCqsPs. I quote from 03:15 to 04:15.

[3] Quiñones, E. 2006. Link between income and happiness is mainly an illusion (Princeton University). Available at http://www.princeton.edu/main/news/archive/S15/15/09S18/index.xml

[4] Nancy Etcoff talking in February 2004 at TED in Monterey, California. Available on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6W2dsnhC18Q. I quote from 01:44 to 03:05.

[5] Rogers, J. E. T. 1949. Six Centuries of Work and Wages (London: Allen and Unwin)

[6] Rodgers, E. 1940. Discussion of Holidays in the Later Middle Ages (New York: Columbia University Press)

[7] Schor, J. B. 1993. The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (New York: Basic Books)

[8] Rauch, E. Preindustrial workers worked fewer hours than today’s. Available at http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/hours_workweek.html

Published in: on October 29, 2009 at 4:49 pm  Comments (3)  


Visible light is just one small part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Electromagnetic waves vary continuously from very high frequency, short wavelength gamma rays to very low frequency, long wavelength radio waves.

The only thing that differentiates visible light from the rest of the spectrum is the fact that it so happens that the human eye is sensitive to that range of electromagnetic waves, from approximately 400 to 790 THz. Other animals, equipped with different sensory apparatus, are sensitive to different parts of the spectrum. For example, bees are sensitive to electromagnetic waves of a higher frequency than those which we can perceive (we call that range “ultraviolet”, since it is just beyond the violet end of the spectrum visible to us) while pit vipers have an organ capable of perceiving lower frequencies of electromagnetic radiation (which we call “infrared”, since it is just beyond the red end of the spectrum visible to us).

Thus there is nothing inherent in visible light that differentiates it from the rest of the electromagnetic spectrum. It is separated from the rest of the spectrum solely because of the way that our sensory apparatus, in this case our eyes, function.

Similarly, that portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that we call visible light is itself, of course, continuous. However, when white light (a mixture of different wavelengths of visible light) is separated into a visible spectrum by means of a refracting crystal or the water droplets that cause a rainbow, we see distinct bands of colour. Again, these discrete bands are not a property of the light itself but rather a feature of the way that our eyes perceive colour.

We can identify an analogous phenomenon in the way that we differentiate between different species of animal. There is nothing inherent in an animal itself that causes it to belong to one species rather than another, but rather we have devised a categorisation of animals for our own purposes into which we place the animals that we encounter. There is nothing in nature itself that corresponds to our concept of species, which is actually a rather vague concept anyway.

If one asks for a definition of species, one is usually told that animals of the same species breed with one another but do not breed with animals of other species. This is a fairly good working definition — good enough that it is still found to be practically useful — but it does not hold up to careful scrutiny.

There is a population of red deer in Richmond Park in London and there is another population of red deer, that resemble them in every respect, in the New Forest. These deer are usually reckoned to be of the same species and yet they never come into contact with one another so they never breed with one another. Are they then different species? Surely not. Presumably it is not the mere fact that one population does not breed with another that differentiates species, but rather that they cannot interbreed, even if they were to come into contact with another.

But then how do we account for the offspring of tigers and lions? A male lion may mate with a female tiger to produce what is called a liger. A female lion may mate with a male tiger to produce what is called a tigon. Unlike mules, ligers and tigons are fertile and can successfully breed. Actually, for that matter, some female mules are fertile too. Lions and tigers (and horses and donkeys) are generally reckoned to be different species, and yet they can successfully interbreed to produce fertile offspring.

So the fact that two different populations do not interbreed in the wild is not enough to make them different species, otherwise the red deer of Richmond Park would be a different species from those of the New Forest. And the fact that two populations can interbreed to produce fertile offspring is not enough to make them the same species, otherwise lions and tigers would be the same species. (Not to mention wolves, coyotes and dogs.)

Perhaps it is not merely the geographical separation of wild lions and tigers that prevents them interbreeding in the wild, as appears to be the case with the deer, so maybe we can save the definition by reference to some notion of natural interbreeding, as opposed to interbreeding in zoos. However, this too becomes hard to define rigorously:

As we look at the herring gull, moving westwards from Great Britain to North America, we see gulls that are recognizably herring gulls, although they are a little different from the British form. We can follow them, as their appearance gradually changes, as far as Siberia. At about this point in the continuum, the gull looks more like the form that in Great Britain is called the lesser black-backed gull. From Siberia, across Russia, to northern Europe, the gull gradually changes to look more and more like the British lesser black-backed gull. Finally, in Europe, the ring is complete; the two geographically extreme forms meet, to form two perfectly good species: the herring and lesser black-backed gull can be both distinguished by their appearance and do not naturally interbreed. [1]

We might attempt to save the idea of species by augmenting the definition in some way. Perhaps we should stipulate that animals of the same species resemble each other closely? This would allow us to continue to claim that lions and tigers are different species, but it might cause some consternation at Crufts. Maybe we should turn to genetic science for an answer? Unfortunately, even there the boundaries between species are quite fuzzy.

The point is simply that “species” do not exist as categories in any objective sense, any more than the distinct bands of colour in a rainbow exist in the electromagnetic spectrum, but rather they are just a convenient concept that we find practically useful. In the case of the bands of colour we cannot help but perceive rainbows that way (at least, assuming we are using our natural eyes) and in the case of animal species we just find it useful to categorise them that way, even if we do not have a rigorous definition.

This point may be made even clearer by considering the tomato. Is it a fruit or a vegetable? A biologist would say that it is a fruit, since it meets the scientific definition of a fruit rather than a vegetable, but a cook would say that it is a vegetable, since that is how it is commonly used in recipes. Our categorisations depend upon the use to which we put them. Neither the cook nor the biologist is mistaken, though the use of the cook’s definition in biological research or the biologist’s definition in a kitchen may well be mistaken.

Consider sheep. They all look the same to me. But a shepherd, so I am told, can identify each individual member of his flock. The shepherd has learned to categorise his sheep in a different manner from my own. That does not mean that the differentiating features were not there when I looked at the sheep; it is merely that I did not notice them. It is not the shepherd’s or my perceiving that creates those features but it is our perceiving that assigns significance to them.

Similarly, electromagnetic radiation between the frequencies of 400 and 790 THz exists whether or not humans are there to perceive it. However, it acquires a special significance, that of “light”, in the minds of humans that do perceive it.

Just as the shepherd employs categories of greater specificity when perceiving and thinking about his sheep, so other people and, more dramatically, other species might employ categories of lesser specificity. I strongly suspect that very small creatures, such as insects, do not distinguish between sheep and horses when attempting to negotiate a field without being stepped on.

All of the above suggests that at least some things which we generally consider to be ontologically distinct are in fact, like the bands of colour in a rainbow, merely facets of our perception or our modes of cognition. They are patterns in some underlying substrate, such as species in the continuum of the animal kingdom, or distinct colours in the continuous spectrum, rather than individual things whose individuality is inherent in themselves. Their individuality, that which makes them distinct from others, is a feature of our perception or thought.

Consider yourself. You presumably believe, as do most people, that you are the same person now that you were twenty years ago. (Unless you are less than twenty years old, in which case I hope you get the idea anyway.) However, most of the molecules making up your body, probably all of them, are different now from those that made up your body then. Physically, speaking in terms of the matter out of which you are constituted, you are a completely different person now from the person you were then. So what has persisted? How can I refer both to the person then and to the person now as ‘you’ if those two people are completely different materially? What persists is a pattern. Even if your appearance changes, as it probably did over the last twenty years, we can still perceive a continuously existing, if gradually changing, pattern. It is this pattern that is you.

In the St. Lawrence river, between the island of Montréal and the south bank of the river, there is a dangerous stretch of water known as the Lachine Rapids. The rapids consist of a number of dramatic standing waves caused by the shape of the rocky riverbed. As the river swells and subsides, the waves sometimes vary in magnitude but never in shape. Each wave has been given a name and tourists can take a boat out into the rapids to get to know each individual wave intimately. Clearly these waves, although they are named and are considered to persist through time, are not composed of the same water molecules from moment to moment. It is the pattern that the flowing water makes which is named and which is considered to persist. So it is with you: the material of which you are composed is ever changing, but the pattern that we identify as you persists.

It is this pattern which makes you what you are, not the material of which you happen to be composed at any one moment. Richard Dawkins made a similar point in a talk at TED in which he compared a person’s existence to the existence of migrating sand dunes:

Steve Grand, in his book Creation: Life and How to Make It, is positively scathing about our preoccupation with matter itself. We have this tendency to think that only solid, material things are really things at all. Waves of electromagnetic fluctuation in a vacuum seem unreal. The Victorians thought the waves had to be waves in some material medium, the aether. But we find real matter comforting only because we’ve evolved to survive in [a world] where matter is a useful fiction. A whirlpool for Steve Grand is a thing with just as much reality as a rock.

In a desert plane in Tanzania, in the shadow of the volcano Ol Doinyo Lengai, there’s a dune made of volcanic ash. The beautiful thing is that it moves bodily. It’s what’s technically known as a barkahn and the entire dune walks across the desert in a westerly direction at a speed of about seventeen metres per year. It retains its crescent shape and moves in the direction of the horns. What happens is that the wind blows the sand up the shallow slope on the other side then as each sand grain reaches the top of the ridge it cascades down on the inside of the crescent. And so the whole horn-shaped dune moves. Steve Grand points out that you and I are ourselves more like a wave than a permanent thing. [2]

This “preoccupation with matter itself”, about which Steve Grand is apparently so scathing, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Aristotle, nearly two and a half millennia ago, taught that the material cause of a thing — the matter out of which the thing is composed — is but one part of the explanation of the thing. Among the three other types of explanation that he listed, Aristotle included the formal cause, which is a concept very similar to what I have described above as a pattern. [3]

It is the formal cause that makes a thing the kind of thing that it is. It is the essence of a thing, in conformity with which the matter out of which the thing is composed is arranged.

For example, you are not the matter out of which you are composed: you cannot be, else you would not exist from one moment to the next for the matter out of which you are composed is constantly changing. Your essence, that which makes you you rather than someone or something else, is the form that the matter takes.

However, despite the fact that it is form that defines a thing, we still have a tendency to think that forms are not real in the same sense that matter is real. As Dawkins put it, we don’t think that patterns are “really things at all”. We think that a pattern requires a material medium and is therefore dependent on matter for its existence. A pattern is a certain arrangement of matter, so surely matter is real while a pattern is just a way of talking about a certain bit of matter. [4]

This can perhaps be most succinctly illustrated by asking whether or not the pattern would exist if there were no-one to recognise it. In what sense would animals be categorised into species if there were no biologists to categorise them? In what sense would visible light be significant if there were no eyes sensitive to that range of electromagnetic radiation?

The existence of patterns appears to depend on the existence of somebody that recognises them. On the other hand, patterns are in fact the primary objects of our perception. Although formless matter is a coherent concept that we can consider and reason about, we can never actually perceive matter except as the constituent of a form. For example, one cannot perceive wood in an abstract, formless sense: it must always be the wood of which a table is made, or the wood of a tree, or the constituent wood of a plank, etc.

This sort of consideration should be enough to make us think twice about leaping to naïve conclusions. Many great thinkers, Aristotle among them, concluded that in fact form is more basic than matter. Where I, above, wrote that “surely matter is real while a pattern is just a way of talking about a certain bit of matter”, others might reply that the very fact that I have made reference to a “certain bit of matter” belies my claim that matter can be real without a form: formless matter may be a coherent concept in itself but it is not something of which the human intellect can actually conceive.

We are thus left with something of a conundrum. Forms, or patterns, do not appear to exist in any objective sense in the physical world. But fluid and arbitrary though the patterns we use may be, we cannot help but use them. We do not merely use forms frequently, we always use them: we cannot perceive or conceive of matter except as the constituent of some form. Thus, at least in our thought and perceptions, form is at least as primal as matter.

The conundrum is this: if form is a basic element in our thought, but there are no forms inherent in the physical world, in what sense, and where, do forms exist?

The obvious answer, at least to someone schooled in modern science and philosophy, is that forms are an artifact of the manner in which our brains process information. They exist only in the sense that our brains are capable of consistently recognising them. They are communicable — that is to say, we can talk about them and others will understand what we are talking about — only because those with whom we communicate have similar brains capable of recognising the same forms.

Thus the form of a dog, i.e. the pattern to which certain bits of matter conform which we call dogs, is a property that matter may possess. More specifically, it is the property of being able to be consistently recognised as a dog by human observers who have been taught to recognise dogs. Of course, dogs possess this property whether or not anyone is actually there to do the observing. The situation is analogous to that of the sheep described above: the shepherd and I are both looking at the same sheep but where I see a flock of clones he sees individuals; we are both looking at the same sheep but he has learned to assign significance to aspects of their appearance that I have not. Similarly, dogs possess the property of ‘dogness’ whether or not anyone is around to notice it. However, it is the human observer who decides what ‘dogness’ actually is.

So we return to the question of which is more basic, form or matter. Which, logically speaking, comes first? For example, consider a dog. There are various things we could say about the dog, such as that it is black, it is large, it has a tendency to drool, and so on. But these are all so-called ‘accidental characteristics’ of the dog: we can analyse the sentence “The dog is black” such that there is a subject – “The dog” – and a predicate that we apply to that subject  – “is black”. Thus there is a sense in which “the dog” is a more basic element of thought than “the black dog”. Another way to think about this might be to consider painting the dog white: now his accidental characteristic of being black is no longer true but he is still the same dog.

But what is it that makes the dog a dog? Is it the matter out of which he is constituted? Is it his property of ‘dogness’, according to which he is recognised as a dog by people who have learned to recognise dogs? Or is it some combination of the two?

Just as we broke down “the black dog” into the subject “dog” and predicate “black”, and so decided that “dog” is a more basic element than “black dog”, we might try to do the same with respect to matter and form. “Dog” could be interpreted as “matter in the form of a dog”: therefore just as “black” is a predicate of “dog”, so we might say that form is a predicate of matter. This would suggest that matter is more basic than form. In fact, this is exactly the same line of thought, although expressed slightly differently, as the one that I expressed earlier as “a pattern is a certain arrangement of matter”.

However, there is a problem with this analysis. As soon as we remove the predicate “in the form of a dog”, we are no longer talking about a dog. We could fill a bucket with all the atoms and molecules necessary to constitute a dog but we wouldn’t have a dog: we’d just have a bucket of organic gloop. Not unless that matter were arranged into the form of a dog would we have a dog. Thus although there is a sense in which form is predicated of matter, it does not follow that matter is the most basic element of thought when we wish to consider actual things. Matter alone cannot be a thing: it requires a form.

Furthermore, we know that the matter out of which a dog is composed is constantly changing; so the matter cannot be part of what it is to be a dog. It seems that there is nothing special, significant or distinct about any particular clump of matter unless it constitutes a form — i.e. unless it possesses the property of conforming to a certain pattern that observers recognise as a particular sort of thing.

So if we are to accord reality to things – if we are to accept the rather common sense proposition that things exist – then what we are really saying is that forms exist. If you and I exist, then it is because we are forms.

[1] Ridley, M. 1985. The Problems of Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press) p. 5 quoted in  Dennett, D. 1995. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (New York: Simon & Schuster) p. 45

[2] The talk can be viewed on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1APOxsp1VFw); I quote from 08:54 to 10:28

[3] This only seems like a novel idea to Dawkins because he is ignorant of any philosophy before the modern era. Modern philosophy can be distinguished from the philosophy of the medievals by its revolutionary rejection of Aristotle’s formal and final causes.

[4] Regarding electromagnetic waves, Dawkins said, “The Victorians thought the waves had to be waves in some material medium, the aether.” We now know that this is not true. There is no aether: electromagnetic waves propagate through vacuum. Dawkins seems to be implying that our intuition that a wave must have a material medium is not that reliable.

However, I think the apparent failure of our intuition is actually the result of a confusion of terminology. Dawkins has been talking about matter in the vague, everyday sense of “solid, material things”. But as soon as we begin to consider electromagnetic radiation we need to clarify our meaning. If by matter we mean that which physically exists, then electromagnetic radiation is matter. If we wish to signify something else by the term matter, we need to define precisely what we mean. Whatever we choose, we will necessarily now be talking in the mathematical language of modern physics and not in the everyday language of our intuitions. Of course, this is part of Dawkins’ point: our intuitions are evolved heuristic approximations that only really work in the everyday world of human experience. But the fact that electromagnetic radiation propagates through vacuum tells us nothing interesting about the ontology of waves or patterns.

Published in: on October 20, 2009 at 4:14 pm  Comments (11)  


In the past, I have suffered from a psychological disorder that can best be described as neophilia. I have been enthralled by the idea of a revolution in thought: a brand new philosophy to blaze forth and sweep away the inadequacies and misconceptions of our old, encrusted mental landscape. I dreamt of technological wonders, life extension, cybernetics, space exploration, colonisation and transhumanism.

It strikes me as a very immature mindset, akin to that of a rebellious teenager. I remember proudly telling my parents that I was an anarchist, only to be told that my grandmother once told her parents that she was a communist. It appears that we both grew out of it. I look back on the political views of my teenaged self with a mixture of embarrassment and knowing self-indulgence. Many people seem to go through similar periods of teenaged rebellion, although it manifests in different ways for different people, but I would like to think that most people grow up eventually. [1]

Of course, many people never do grow out of it. On those few occasions that I encounter what is now called the “mass media”, I find ample evidence that modern society is governed almost entirely by men and women with the mental age of teenagers (and fairly obnoxious ones at that.) It is a great shame and, I am sure, a cause of much misery, but it no longer surprises me.

Although long immune to such conceits in the world of politics, it was not that long ago that I last found myself caught up in the excitement of some futurist philosophy. Transhumanism is exciting: it is positive, optimistic, groundbreaking, thrilling and new. But if one takes a step back and attempts a sober assessment, one quickly sees the similarity between youthful exuberance for political revolution and the “positive optimism” of futurists. Both are symptomatic of arrested development, both are the application of a teenaged mind to an adult problem.

I find myself thinking along similar lines when I consider technological development. There is a part of me — a geeky part of me that spent too much of its youth playing with computers — that admires technological development for its own sake. There is something bewitching about new gadgets, spacecraft, artificial intelligence and robotics. But ultimately it is nothing more than immature boys with new toys, perhaps doing more harm than good.

I recently completed a two month journey around the western half of North America. I travelled the whole distance, many thousands of miles, by car. I saw some fantastic and awe inspiring sights. All the way, I was struck by how lucky I was to be able to see all these phenomenal and humbling scenes and how I owed it all to the invention of the motor car. There is no way I could have had the wonderful experience of the last two months without a car. And yet, as I travelled along tarmac roads cut into thousand-year-old redwood forests, along tunnels blasted through mountains, down roads cutting across otherwise pristine desert, I grew to loathe cars and what they have done to our world.

Every new technology, no doubt invented with the best of intentions, seems to have its detrimental effects. I am sure plenty of people would disagree with my contention that cars do more harm than good but few people can seriously think the world is a better place with atomic weaponry in it. How about mobile telephones? They are now, my friends tell me, indispensable. Yet we all seemed to manage without them a few years ago. How much of our modern technology, the wonders of which neophiles are so keen to extol, actually improves the human lot? How much exists only thanks to an immature and unreflective passion for novelty?

Medicine is perhaps the best example of technological development that genuinely does improve lives. But even there the effects are not solely beneficial: pneumonia used to be known as the “old man’s friend” and with good reason. I am sure that almost all technological inventions are benevolently intended but I find it hard to discover a single recent invention that is unquestionably beneficial.

I have often thought that the world would be a better place if gunpowder had never been invented. Now I find myself thinking that most inventions — especially those that have come to characterise modern civilisation, such as the revolutionary changes in transport and communication — do more harm than good. In almost every case, it seems that technological innovation is justified solely by the fact that the new technology will allow us to do something that we currently desire to do but cannot. What better epitomises teenage rebellion than the selfish and unthinking attempt to satisfy desire at any cost?

During the Second World War, Tolkien wrote to his son who was then training with the Royal Air Force:

I wonder how you are getting on with your flying since you first went solo — the last news we had of this. I especially noted your observations on the skimming martins. That touches to the heart of things, doesn’t it? There is the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare. Unlike art which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind, it attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World; and that cannot really be done with any real satisfaction. Labour-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labour. And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to new and horrible evil. So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber. It is not an advance in wisdom! This terrible truth, glimpsed long ago by Sam Butler, sticks out so plainly and is so horrifyingly exhibited in our time, with its even worse menace for the future, that it seems almost a world wide mental disease that only a tiny minority perceive it. Even if people have ever heard the legends (which is getting rarer) they have no inkling of their portent. How could a maker of motorbikes name his product Ixion cycles! Ixion, who was bound for ever in hell on a perpetually rotating wheel!

— J.R.R. Tolkien to Christopher Tolkien, 7th of July 1944. Excerpt from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (London: 2006) pp. 87-88

[1] But I must admit, when I consider the modern state, I might as well be an anarchist still.

Published in: on October 19, 2009 at 5:33 am  Leave a Comment