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Enlightenment 3.0

Two books I've been reading over the past couple of weeks -- The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History, by Robert Conquest and How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World: a Short History of Modern Delusions, by Francis Wheen -- explore a similar theme, which might be summed up by the question: "Whatever became of the Enlightenment?" Both authors argue that western civilization has taken a (substantial) turn away from the vision of a world ruled by reason that emerged among the great thinkers of the 18th century.

There is an interesting overlap between the examples of delusional thinking that they each offer: the undying urge among some of the intelligentsia to act as apologists for Stalin, the triumph of deconstructionism (along with the stifling politically correct philosophy that dominates academia), and the unwillingness on the part of some to see the dangers inherent in Islamic extremism, or to recognize the inherent incompatibility of its major tenets with the core values of the West. Even more interesting are the areas where the two authors diverge. Wheen, with the broad view of a journalist looking to include any and everything that might relate, takes on a huge range of topics: self-help books, UFOs, the British tendency towards excessive sentimentality as displayed after the death of Princess Diana, and -- interestingly -- Reaganomics, which he maintains was and is the "voodoo" that the elder President Bush made it out to be while himself still a candidate for the top office in 1980, before joining the Reagan team. Conquest, on the other hand, with the austerity and precision of a great historian, narrows the discussion to a few key concepts -- although they are enormous concepts, things like "democracy" and "progress" -- the definitions of which, he argues, all too often owe much to discredited models of how the world works / might be made to work, e.g., Marxism.

The source of the divergence between the two authors may be attributable to their respective professional orientations, as suggested above, or it could be that they occupy roughly congruent political positions to the right and left of center, with Conquest on the right and Wheen on the left. Or it could be something a little deeper than that, going to the heart of what each of them means when he talks about "the Enlightenment."

In an early passage, Wheen discusses how Immanuel Kant played an important role in bringing together the two major strands of Enlightenment thinking:

In The Critique of Pure Reason...Kant had sought to reconcile the two dominant schools of modernist philosophy -- the British empiricist approach of Bacon, Locke, and Hume (who held that knowledge was the product of experience and experiment, and thus subject to amendment), and the continental rationalism exemplified by Descartes and Spinoza, which maintained that certainty could be achieved by inferential reasoning from first principles. What these traditions had in common was far more important than what divided them, and by incorporating elements from both he was able to demolish the pretensions of religion to superior knowledge or understanding. [Emphasis added.]

Contrast that thought with the following by Conquest, taken from a chapter titled, appropriately enough, "Choose Your Enlightenment:"

We are often told to look back at the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. But there were two different Enlightenments -- the British and the Continental (the latter at first often muddleheadely generalizing from what it thought to be the lessons of the former: the initial period of the French Revolution has been described as an unsuccessful attempt to become England.) The British Enlightenment was concerned with the rule of law and particular political liberties, the Continental with intoxicating generalizations. British principles did not arise out of nothing or from abstract philosophy. They emerged gradually (and with interruptions) from the Middle Ages. (Habeas corpus, which evolved over centuries, is still not practiced on the Continent.)

Conquest's dichotomy is pretty persuasive. It would certainly go a long way towards explaining how a single movement, "the" Enlightenment, could give birth both to capitalism and socialism, along with numerous other contradictory schools of thought. The "intoxicating generalizations" to which he refers include ideas such as the People and the State, neither of which were emphasized in the earlier, British incarnation of the Enlightenment.

Even by Wheen's affirmative description of the European version of the Enlightenment (which I should point out that Conquest does not dismiss wholesale; he explains that, for example, the US Constitution represents an amalgam of British and Continental Enlightenment thinking) it's easy to see why the earlier British version would ultimately provide -- if you'll pardon the business speak -- a more reliable product. Viewing knowledge as the infinitely changeable result of experience and experiment gives us science and technology in their modern incarnations. Viewing knowledge as that which is inferentially reasoned from first principles is certain to give a vastly inaccurate picture of the world -- unless, of course, one has stumbled upon exactly the right set of "first principles" and one proceeds to reason flawlessly, which I think we can all agree the 18th-century thinkers didn't have and didn't do, respectively. Even in that nearly impossible case, it's unclear to me where new knowledge would come from. Reasoning from first principles is ultimately a closed system.

So Wheen concludes that modern delusions are the result of walking away from the Enlightenment altogether, while Conquest maintains that it is only the British version of the Enlightenment that has been abandoned. Many of the most delusional, he argues, are devoted followers of that later version -- we'll call it Enlightenment 2.0. Wheen says we've stopped using Enlightenment thinking; Conquest says that we have upgraded to an inferior version. Both authors would probably take a low view of, say, the general reaction by Western media to the Danish cartoon controversy. Wheen would state the problem as the irrational being given precedence over the rational; Conquest would point out that a well-developed principle of law -- free speech -- has been given the back seat to some ill-defined generalities, "sensitivity" being the chief one.

In dealing with our current social and political crises, the arguments of both authors, different as they may be, lead to similar conclusions drawn from similar principles. Where Conquest may have the edge is in dealing not with the world situation that we currently face, but with the one that is emerging. In the words of Ray Kurzweil:

We're entering an age of acceleration. The models underlying society at every level, which are largely based on a linear model of change, are going to have to be redefined. Because of the explosive power of exponential growth, the 21st century will be equivalent to 20,000 years of progress at today's rate of progress; organizations have to be able to redefine themselves at a faster and faster pace.

The original Enlightenment preceded (or coincided with the beginning of) the Industrial Revolution. As we approach an era of change that is likely to be more fundamentally transformative than the Industrial Revolution, and to occur at a much more rapid pace, we need at our disposal a philosophical/legal/intellectual arsenal of unprecedented scope and corrective qualities. Wheen's generalized call for a return to the Enlightenment won't do. Conquest's more specific call to a return to the principles of the British Enlightenment is more to the point, but still not enough.

As both authors point out, reason must be returned to its prior status (if it ever, in fact, had that status) as the primary driver in the public sphere. Reason and the rule of law must have supremacy over that which "feels right." As Conquest clarifies, reason must be employed in the service of that which has been learned via experience and observation, not lofty generalizations that cannot be argued with. Add to that requirement the need for accelerating speed and endless adaptability.

Both authors would agree that the Industrial and post-Industrial world provided unprecedented opportunities to indulge delusional thinking. An entire industry devoted to the promotion of New Age thinking is one example of the fruit of such opportunities; the century just ended, with its seemingly endless string of depravations and atrocities committed in the name of nationalism, Fascism, and Marxism is quite another.

In an era of de-industrialization, wherein individuals begin to take on the powers that once belonged to corporations or even to states, the potential for both profound silliness and unspeakable horrors will only grow. Of course, the remedies to many problems will also be found in this new distribution of power, as well as good ends that we would have difficulty even now imagining. Much will depend on whether these new powers are used in the service of reason, or the service of comforting delusions. In this era of accelerating change, we need Enlightenment 3.0 and we need it now.


We need to learn critical thinking and logic on the one hand, and we need to be open to some things that are "both and" instead of "either or." Otherwise we're in bondage to silly half-truths in pop culture and politics, and crappy fundamentalism in religion. I'm currently very restless--almost obsessed--with breaking free of dogma. These books seem like important resources.

Have you read Atlas Shrugged? It's a must. Rand put her finger directly on the problem: the parasites of collectivism.

In a strange nexus, it's all the same: anti-reason, anti-logic, anti-freedom, anti-life. It's about control and distribution, equality, and dependence rather than freedom, production, quality, and independence. All such delusions are necessary to float collectivism--to maintain feelings above reason.

In the next century there will be great potential for collectivism to harness if its delusions are not countered and disarmed. The creep of "need" threatens to swallow us all in a mutually dependent liability that cannot allow freedom.

It's remarkable, to me, to see someone refer to Rand after this article.

I had just been pondering the idea that "reasonoing from first principles is a closed system," and concluding that that is bloody nonsense.

I know someone here who might seriously benefit from reading Rand's "Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology" and thinking hard about what she has to say.

Ironically, Ann Rand strikes me as part of the breed of parasites she decries. She wrote decent books and in that would be considered a producer. But her cult of personality and her dealings with those close to her strike me as very parasitic in nature. Perhaps that part gave her insight into this problem. But it also appears to have blinded her in other ways.

Second, I no longer believe in the existence of non-trivial self-evident propositions. There's always an underlying set of axioms and a semantics system that needs to be included. Too many schools of thought suffer from the delusion that their founding principles are "self-evident".

In Rand's case, I have serious questions about why she needed to redefine things such as "good/evil" and come up with dubious (ie, packaged with heavy negative or positive connotations that shouldn't IMHO be present in philosophy) terms like "anti-life". Why did she believe such a shuffling of the semantics was necessary? It taints her work.

Ultimately, I think objectivism and related philosophies will have to distance themselves from Rand (and perhaps have done so?). The problem is that Rand suffers from the symptoms of the age. The messenger is flawed and somewhat irrational. That means that we need to seperate the message from the messenger.

All of this giddy criticism of Rand seems rather beside the point. Think back to the US founding fathers and the checks and balances placed in the US Constitution. The recognition that individuals are flawed and self-serving--corrupt--is written all through the document, in its carefulness to balance power.

That same care is most important for the design of any future political system, whether inspired by Rand or inspired by Plato. Inspiration is simply a motivational force--not a detailed blueprint. Laying on lashes to Rand may serve to sublimate unhealthy emotions for some, but it rather misses the point.

Yeah, Karl, quit being so dang giddy all the time. Personally, I'm off to sublimate a few more unhealthy emotions.

That same care is most important for the design of any future political system, whether inspired by Rand or inspired by Plato. Inspiration is simply a motivational force--not a detailed blueprint. Laying on lashes to Rand may serve to sublimate unhealthy emotions for some, but it rather misses the point.

Well, I am puzzled to see that my valid criticism of Rand is considered "sublimation" of "unhealthy emotions". If Rand is just used as inspiration, fine. I don't see particular problems with using an irrational source as inspiration for rational actions or theories. However, I see a significant group who seem to rely on her for more than that. See D. Vision's comment for an example.

I don't think it's helpful to character an opposing point of view as "anti-reason, anti-logic, anti-freedom, anti-life". That connotation pidgeon-holing comes directly from Rand and shouldn't be one of the things that inspires a rational being.

Having said that, she is a remarkable author of her age, but in my humble opinion, Objectivism (and related philosophies) needs newer, more rational inspiration to put her arguments in context.

Hmm, the British Enlightenment will be better equipped to address the challenges of the Singularity -- have you read Jim Bennett's book The Anglosphere Challenge? It makes that argument at length. Also check out Albion's Seedlings, the group blog to which Jim contributes.

Hi Phil, more comments at my blog, specifically here.

Goedel put Descartes into the dust bin of history. Surprising so few have heard of him.

What we have left is muddling through with rationality as a guide.

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