Going Up or Down?

I am intrigued by the idea that in certain situations, we can no longer tell if we are going up or down. This is what happened, for example, to poor young John Kennedy Jr. as he flew over the ocean at night. He lost the horizon and his orientation. And he could not read the instruments to tell him which way the plane was headed. so he spiraled down and crashed into the sea. We have a similarly hard time in less harrowing circumstances. Like figuring out whether humanity will thrive or … something worse. It turns out that this is not a new concern. Read on!

I have been reading quite a bit about early 19th century England. The reason? So many things were just about to happen. Sure the American colonies were lost, but with the defeat of Napoleon, Britain would rule the waves and become the dominant world power. At the same time, the industrial revolution was kicking into high gear, transforming society faster than ever before.  Scientific exploration and discovery was becoming a professional avocation. Universal education would radically expand the learning capacity of society. And yet, I read that in the early 19th century, there was a deep sense of lost heroism. Old ideals of chivalry were being replaced by bean counting. Faith was losing out to rationality. For many, it was depressing to live at that time.

With so much prosperity on the horizon, this pessimistic mood seems odd now. But folks back then could only see what they were losing, not what was coming. And one thing that had been lost was the old certainty that the social order grounded in religion had provided. We have largely forgotten how religion dominated society before the enlightenment. Absolute faith in God meant faith in God’s institutions, which included both church and the state. We might say now that this was oppressive and it was. We don’t burn people at the stake now for blasphemy. But it was also profoundly comforting to the faithful to know that being a good citizen would entitle you to eternal benefits from God. How is that for certainty?

The enlightenment changed all that. For better or worse, faith in reason supplanted faith in God as the ordering principle for society. And so, reason became, in a sense, a new sort of Godlike force — and mankind was now subservient to it as much as he had been subject before to a system based on religious faith. Enter the bean counters! Bentham et al argued that this was for the good. But what kind of good? It was not so easy to see in early 19th century England (especially with the economy in deep recession caused by war debt). Where would pure reason take man? No one really knew. And the results of the recent French Revolution and its aftermath were not encouraging. So perhaps the pessimistic mood was not so odd after all, given the context. Enter Mary Shelley and her book “Frankenstein”, first published in 1818.

I believe that we still suffer from the same myopia about the future. We still trust in our reason and the rational institutions we created to embody that reason and provide for the public good. We inherited that from the enlightenment and we have not changed it.  And we resist all that is apparently not governed by reason (including terrorists, criminals, delinquents, and so on). And we fight against an unreasonable nature with its famines, floods, earthquakes, pandemics and now climate change. But where is this taking us? It is still hard to tell.

And even as we fight for reason, we are waking up to some disturbing conclusions about ourselves.  We are learning that we are more emotional creatures than rational actors. Hume was right. We are incapable of living up to the ideal that we believe in. Perhaps more troubling, we find out that observing reality changes as we observe it (at least in the quantum world). In other words, we cannot fully detach ourselves for rational speculation about what is around us even if we want to do it. For a society that is reason based, these discoveries are puzzling to say the least.

So are we headed for a neo-enlightenment where we dethrone reason, just as the enlightenment dethroned God? It does seem clear that reason (as it was understood in the 18th century as the panacea for whatever ails us) no longer can “rule the roost”. It is pretty good as an ordering device, but it is not perfect (as God was, by definition). So, reason cannot replace faith in God and God’s institutions as the foundation for “certainty”. And we must live with at least some “uncertainty”. Should we go back to religion for that comfort? Or should we give up on certainty and move on to other values?`Choosing either course would have rather profound consequences.

So God is not dead after all. And God has quite a vigorous hold on the imaginations of many around the world. But will we return to a pre-enlightenment position where societal institutions gain legitimacy solely because they are blessed by God? It is hard to believe, but this war is not over. Still I find it difficult to imagine the God side prevailing. While reason is not perfect, it may be just good enough. But let’s see.

What about door number 2? How about giving up on certainty? To see what this means, we might ask where our craving for certainty arises from? I think that our faith in intuition is as old as we are. When we see a tiger, we don’t pause to calcluate the risk. We act based on our beliefs. But civilization introduced a new way of thinking – Kahneman calls it “slow thinking”. We use slow thinking to analyze things and civilization depended on clever slow thinking to devise ways to provide stability to its adherents. A love for stability meant a need for order and its corresponding value, certainty. Not just in our intuition, but in the models we use to manage our affairs. Why? Providing certain answers to important political questions was convenient (even necessary). So we adopted institutions that promoted certainty over freedom. As we become more civilized over 50 centuries, our love for order and certainty grew as well.

But do we need it? We do need it if a lack of certainty is the enemy. If we need to act before we have a chance to do new slow thinking. But here is the thing. We now know that the universe is not only more complex and strange than we thought, it is more complex and strange than we can imagine (I paraphrase a 19th century scientist).  Our ability to generalize from what we experience has taken us only a tiny distance towards universal understanding. If we give up our craving for what we think we know, there is a huge adventure out there to experience things that are beyond our imaginations. To do that, we have to let go of our — let’s call it primitive — instinct to dominate and control. To be certain that what we believe is correct.

So does this mean that “everything is relative”? That there are no right answers any more? Of course not. Within a given model, the logic of the model delivers answers that are right or wrong. This was true before and it is true in a world where we value certainty less. What we are giving up is the insistence that our models are universal. And instead, we start thinking more about what is beyond the models that we employ each day as protected members of civilization.

As I write this, I am reminded that the adventure story is one of the oldest art forms known. Perhaps it is because the adventure takes us out of our comfort zones and helps us see what is beyond our noses.


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