Andrew Wilson recently wrote a post discussing some of the reviews of Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, which has been provoking much conversation and controversy over the last couple of months. I haven’t yet had the time to read Pinker’s book, so this isn’t going to be a review. Rather, I thought I’d post a few initial thoughts on the more general discussion.
Modern science has effected a remarkable amelioration of many of humanity’s greatest miseries. It has dramatically reduced levels of things such as extreme poverty, disease, hunger, infant and maternal mortality, and its innovations have greatly increased our material prosperity, physical health, the quantity and quality of our food supply, and much about our material standards of living. Whatever complaints we might have about the modern world, few of us would exchange the lives we are currently enjoying for the lives of people living in other ages, especially if that exchange were to be made under the conditions of a Rawlsian veil of ignorance.
The Enlightenment values that we tend to associate with liberalism have also done much to make our society a more humane place in certain respects. We are considerably more sensitized to many injustices than we were in the past. The value that liberalism has given to the individual, when not veering into an unhealthy and socially destructive individualism, has made us much more concerned to ensure that society is formed to the benefit of all its members.
This said, however, much that has been attributed to liberalism belonged to the conservative tradition that preceded it. And the conservative tradition was much less prone to uproot values from their roots, to abstract, and to absolutize them to the detriment of much else. As Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony argue, a neglect of the true conservative tradition has left many confusing it with the considerably different tradition of ‘classical liberalism’.
If the liberal tradition needs to be more closely contrasted with the historic conservative tradition, its debt to Christianity also needs to be acknowledged. Liberal values, while increasingly detached from their historic roots, owe much to the Christian tradition and to the stumbling yet real ethical progress effected by the deep Christianization of the West. We should be cautious of simplistic anti-liberalism for this and other reasons. The liberal tradition has heightened certain moral instincts—moral instincts that are Christian at root—and, if we were simply to jettison the liberal tradition, it might come at the unpleasant cost of a weighty portion of the Christian patrimony we enjoy in our culture.
While, however, modern science and liberalism have done much to relieve our miseries, extend our powers, and address key injustices, these gains have been offset by various losses, many of which pass unrecognized.
Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation: it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to. Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech. Automobiles abstract transportation from exercise, and allow further de-condensation of useful locations (sometimes called sprawl). Markets de-condense production and consumption.
Why is technology so often at odds with the sacred? In other words, why does everyone get so mad about technological change? We humans are irrational and fearful creatures, but I don’t think it’s just that. Technological advances, by their nature, tear the world apart. They carve a piece away from the existing order—de-condensing, abstracting, unbundling—and all the previous dependencies collapse. The world must then heal itself around this rupture, to form a new order and wholeness. To fear disruption is completely reasonable.
The modern world is the product of an incredible degree of de-condensation. However, the effect of this de-condensation is often that of providing far readier, easier, and more effective satisfaction of our immediate material needs and impulses, while detaching the satisfaction of these material needs from the satisfaction of less tangible or immediate needs that are higher on Maslow’s Pyramid. Formerly, for instance, if you wanted to get warm, you may well have had to sit around the fire with others and join in their sharing of stories. Now you can just turn up the thermostat. The latter is a far more convenient way of meeting our need for heat, but it meets that need in a way that allows the centre of community that the fireside used to represent to wither. Leon Kass writes about the meal table:
With the rise of intelligence and especially with its extraordinary development in the upright animal, the hungry soul seeks satisfaction in activities animated also by wonder, ambition, curiosity, and awe. We human beings delight in beauty and order, act and action, sociability and friendship, insight and understanding, song and worship. And, as self-conscious beings, we especially crave self-understanding and knowledge of our place in the larger whole.
All these appetites of the hungry soul can in fact be partly satisfied at the table, provided that we approach it in the proper spirit. The meal taken at table is the cultural form that enables us to respond simultaneously to all the natural features of our world: inner need, natural plenitude, freedom and reason, human community, and the mysterious source of it all. In humanized eating, we can nourish our souls even while we feed our bodies.
The microwave meal eaten in front of the television or computer screen may be highly convenient and even tasty, but it represents an impoverishment of our practice of eating.
Values of efficiency, comfort, and convenience and the intense de-condensation that corresponds to them can leave our deeper human hungers forgotten: our desire for meaning, purpose, belonging, stewardship, etc. It can leave us without the mundane and quotidian practices and habits that knit our lives into deeper meaningful realities. The human need for meaningful existence isn’t really satisfied by modernity’s progress, although it has alleviated the immense burden of suffering that humanity has borne (and, in some respects, by obscuring any horizon of meaning, it has also relieved the agony of felt ‘meaningless’ existence). The ennui and spiritual emptiness that afflict modern society are debilitating in their own ways. We should beware of romanticizing past ages on this front, however: suffering, poverty, and oppression often bring out the ugliest dimensions of human nature and what ‘meaning’ people recognized was frequently one that was indifferent or callous to their existence and well-being, or otherwise one from which they were in many senses excluded. Although we may struggle to find true meaning in them—not really recognizing much beyond them to which they are ordered—we are able to value individual lives in ways that our ancestors generally couldn’t afford to.
One of the results of de-condensation is that, in the modern world, things such as Christian faith and the family increasingly function as supplements to a highly de-condensed reality, whereas formerly they were among the chief integrating forces for its entire structure. The main reason why the family has become so weak and marginalized, for instance, is because we no longer need to depend upon it for our basic needs and social functions.
The increased detachment of the satisfaction of our higher psychological and spiritual needs from the satisfaction of our more basic appetites can results in a situation where the satisfaction of the former becomes less accessible, as the disciplines that enable us to attain them are no longer pressed upon us by necessity. When we no longer require marriage for meeting our more basic needs, for instance, it is much easier to divorce and the disciplines by which we could work things out or grow in relationship aren’t taken up as they ought to be. Innumerable marriages have been characterized by unrelenting misery and abuse, from which divorce and a social, economic, and technological situation where it is possible to live independently offer an escape for many. We now have the ‘luxury’ of being able to be much more foolishly romantic or to be wanton pursuers of sexual gratification. However, when we are freer to escape or minimize both the consequences of our foolishness and the challenges of difficult situations, we no longer need to grow in virtue in the ways we once did. Furthermore, when it becomes much easier to follow and satisfy our basic appetites, without significant suffering in the longer term as a consequence, not only does the development of truly virtuous character cease to have the same imperative, but we risk becoming sybaritic persons whose spiritual horizon is greatly contracted.
Another aspect of modernity is the radical abstraction and rationalization of all reality, something I’ve discussed at considerable length in this post. Modernity detaches us from the particularity of the material and relational order and leaves us increasingly unmindful of value beyond commensuration or exchange. It subjects an ever-increasing amount of reality to an order of rational control and measurement. Yet the value of particularity, which is disclosed by love, when neglected, leaves us all spiritually impoverished. A world that encourages extreme fungibility and the habits and ways of life that correspond to it will gradually stifle love and steadily diminish its objects.
The logic of modernity, which is by its nature almost impossible to resist, is one that overwhelms all particular values with ‘universal’ ones, all particular cultures with the universal one. It acts as a sort of universal acid, eating away at all particularities and steadily creating situations that are hostile to any culture apart from its own anti-culture. Although Scott Alexander is right about a great deal in this post, it is not the case that ‘universal culture’ is unqualifiedly better at satisfying us than all particular cultures; rather, he is nearer to the truth when he discusses the fact that ‘universal culture’ is high-entropy, thrives in socially atomized, traditionless, and multicultural situations, and is readily scalable, transplantable, and replicable. And universal culture tends to accelerate the conditions of its success, making society more atomized, pluralistic, multicultural, and alienated. The logic of modernity and of capitalism is one in which the costs of social ‘defection’ are rapidly diminished, with considerable gains accruing to many who do so. The result is a fraying or unravelling of the fabric of society.
In this and many other ways, modernity functions as a system that highly rewards defection from traditional ways of life, but which establishes its own decision context from which escape is nigh impossible. Hence both the sense that liberalism and modernity are inevitable and that they have failed us. Modernity is Moloch, an ascendant force of technique and system, and the constraining decision contexts it creates, against which we have diminishing powers of coordination. Moloch is why, as humanity develops ever-growing technological powers, we feel ever more at the mercy of those powers and the inevitability of their determining the destiny of their creators. It is the cancerous growth of a certain set of functions to overwhelm the whole organism of society.
Here it is important to notice that advocates of modernity and the Enlightenment seldom comment on the dark and terrifying new gods that we have called forth and the horrors that they threaten. In some ways, the powers of modernity are like terrorists. Some people dismiss the threat of terrorism, pointing out that more people die from falling off ladders ever year than die from terrorism. However, your ladder is unlikely to be conspiring to set off a dirty bomb in your nation’s capital.
The threat of falling off ladders is a threat of known proportions, with fairly measurable costs. The threat of terrorism is not. It could conceivably cost millions of lives, or just a small handful of them. It also has the effect of raising levels of fear, distrust, antagonism, and alienation in society, realities upon which it is difficult to put a price. When we are told that the threat of terrorism is just a natural cost of living in a modern multicultural city, it isn’t easy to ascertain just what a cost is being exacted of us.
Modernity is similar. Its costs are mostly intangible, its horrors relatively uncommon and unpredictable, and much of what it demands of us is merely a tolerance for certain higher risks or externalized or postponed costs. However, it is imperative that such things are properly assessed when we consider modernity’s merits. We may talk about the unprecedented low levels of infant mortality that we enjoy, yet we should discuss the legalization and normalization of the practice of abortion alongside this. We may talk about the remarkable degree of choice each individual has today, but we should also discuss the crushing loneliness, social alienation, and spiritual emptiness that afflicts many in the modern world. What price can we put on these things?
And we need to take the risks seriously. It is easy to deem modernity a straightforward success in our current situation. However, at Chernobyl, Europe came within a whisker of being rendered uninhabitable for 500,000 years. How would we have assessed modernity if it had? Or what if we hadn’t avoided serious nuclear conflict during the Cold War? The relative peace between world powers enjoyed over the past couple of generations has been bought at the cost of the real risk of the nuclear annihilation of civilization and the devastation of our world.
We are irrevocably destroying our planet by our reliance upon fossil fuels and our practice of extreme consumption, the costs of which won’t be fully apparent for generations to come. We have sacrificed countless traditions, places, communities, and ways of life to the imperative of choice and growth and will never recover most of them. We have rendered ourselves a rootless, forgetful, and present-oriented people, for whom the value of both the past and the future are neglected.
Many of the ugliest costs of our ways of life are externalized, building up in such things as a gyre of marine debris twice the size of the nation of France, in the accumulating death toll of abortion, being seen in the rapid collapse of an ecosystem as vast and beautiful as the Great Barrier Reef, in the great extinction event that modernity has represented for the animal kingdom, or in the broken bodies and oppressed lives that lie at the end of our supply chains, beyond the horizon of our moral awareness. Others won’t become fully known for generations. Will human labour be rendered obsolete by AI and automation? Will the human dignity of begotten-ness be sacrificed for the powers promised by a transhumanist refashioning of our natures? Will we or the technology that we have created wipe ourselves out, or change us into something alien or less than human? The dystopian visions of our time suggest that many doubt we will escape the terrifying risks we are courting.
For all of these and other reasons, the success of modernity is exceedingly difficult to assess. There have been remarkable gains, but we aren’t even close to understanding or estimating the significance of its immense costs.