Wednesday, August 28, 2002
DYSTOPIA IN ONE EASY STEP
Dystopian novels and films have provided us with some of the most disturbing possible futures for our world in science fiction. The vision of a negative utopia, in which utopian social engineering results not in a paradise free of suffering but rather a straitjacket for the human spirit, is a powerful counterpoint to the “every day in every way we’re getting better and better” naivete often found in the genre. Whether in the form of the communistic iron fist of crushing oppression in 1984, or the “therapeutic society” velvet glove of smiling repression in Brave New World, or the computer-managed human anthills of THX 1138, This Perfect Day, and Logan’s Run, dystopias provide a disquieting but healthy reminder that the march of progress is not necessarily headed to a brighter tomorrow.
For me, the most important question to ask about a dystopia -- and the one rarely addressed in these works -- is, “What led to this?” After all, a warning about how the future may go wrong is little help unless it also reveals the cause. Few of these works have much to say about this. Some may reveal the goal of the dystopia’s creators (e.g. the alleviation of suffering as in Brave New World) but not the real why of it, the why of utopian goals and means going so horribly wrong.
Even though these authors do not directly address the question, the dystopian concept itself points out the path to an answer. The why cannot simply be a matter of the wrong type of social engineering being used, or the right type being wrongly applied. If nothing else, the dystopia is the rebuttal to the utopian thinking that if we can just find the perfect system, every problem will be solved. So if the cause does not lie entirely in a given system or "ism" we must instead continue our search at the level of the individual (no matter how alien that may seem to the modern mindset). After all, any system is not something that magically falls out of the sky and imposes itself on a society, but rather is ultimately the end result of decisions and actions of individuals. Even if their role is merely one of unwitting support, every individual involved contributes to the system.
When we look at the level of individuals, we find the most important trait that opens the door to dystopia is this:
The lack of humility regarding human knowledge and reasoning and ability, a proud reaching beyond our actual grasp, is what makes all of these dystopias an open possibility. This “dystopian arrogance” manifests itself in several ways:
Managerial Hubris. The first facet of dystopian arrogance is managerial hubris, specifically the certainty that one can have enough knowledge of and control over every important aspect of a society that a functional utopia is possible in the first place. Given the mind-boggling complexity of a technological society, this is a truly audacious view. As Friedrich Hayek shows in his classic anti-socialist treatise The Road to Serfdom, in economics it is ultimately impossible to know enough about a national economy to plan and control it effectively, and attempting to do so results in disaster. If this is true just for an economy, how much truer must it be in attempts to control a society in its entirety? Any utopia that is dependent on this type of maximal oversight to succeed will be warped into a dystopia when it inevitably proves to be an unattainable ability.
Temporal Arrogance. Closely linked to intellectual hubris is temporal arrogance, the view that only the present offers anything useful, and that wisdom and insight did not exist in the world until we were born. Edmund Burke describes those with this arrogance well in Reflections on the Revolution in France: “With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things, [merely] because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of the building run up in haste; because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery [i.e. progress].” The dangers in this attitude are twofold. First, it ignores any lessons that history might have to offer regarding a utopian project. Past experience is the best critique of any plan, and by dismissing out of hand whatever the past may be able to teach us, any social engineering scheme will be needlessly naive. Second, it leads to a carelessness in planning for mistakes and unforeseen obstacles. Temporal arrogance assumes that because something is being done now, in the “enlightened” age, it is certain to succeed. Such nonchalance means that, if the utopia can even get off the ground to begin with, it may become something quite different when it encounters the unexpected.
Spiritual Reductionism. Along with these is an arrogant confidence that the human spirit is simple enough that it can find spiritual fulfillment in some quantifiable and formulaic set of things, and that one knows what this set is. In all of the previously mentioned dystopias, human happiness is assumed to be dependent merely on the fulfillment of material needs, or inspiration by a short list of simplistic values. These societies ignore the fact that the human spirit is far broader than these stiflingly small resources, and ultimately involves a mysterious something that resists easy definition. The arrogance lies in assuming that everyone can be shoehorned into limited “one size fits all” sources of spiritual nourishment, and a disregard of the need for individuals to search for, explore, and affirm these sources on their own. The end result is the main theme of dystopian fiction: a wholesale degradation of society into a thoroughly inhuman, animal- or machine-like state combined with a choking agony for the few who can see the truth around them.
So in the end, it appears that utopia falls victim to the weakness of all worldly endeavors: our flawed and fallen human nature. The best hope for making a better world thus lies where it always has: Not in any ambitious scheme or clever system, but instead the long, slow, uncertain road of personal transformation by each and every individual, and with societies free enough for individuals to travel it. Along the way there will be much that is messy and inefficient, and perhaps the world will not be as kind as can be imagined, but what is best in us will be allowed to flourish rather than be clipped and managed into stunted sterility. To quote Edmund Burke again, “It is better to cherish virtue and humanity, by leaving much to free will, even with some loss to the object[ives you may have], than to attempt to make men mere machines and instruments of a political benevolence.”
Tuesday, August 20, 2002
BURKE ON THE REVOLUTIONARY MINDSET
More from Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France:
Something they must destroy, or they seem to themselves to exist for no purpose. One set is for destroying the civil power through the ecclesiastical; another, for demolishing the ecclesiastic through the civil. They are aware that the worst consequences might happen to the public in accomplishing this double ruin of church and state; but they are so heated with their theories, that they give more than hints, that this ruin, with all the mischiefs that must lead to it and attend it, and which to themselves appear quite certain, would not be unacceptable to them, or very remote from their wishes. A man amongst them of great authority, and certainly of great talents, speaking of a supposed alliance between church and state says, “perhaps we must wait for the fall of the civil powers before this most unnatural alliance be broken. Calamitous no doubt will that time be. But what convulsion in the political world ought to be a subject of lamentation, if it be attended with so desirable an effect?” You see with what a steady eye these gentlemen are prepared to view the greatest calamities which can befall their country....
Plots, massacres, assassinations, seem to some people a trivial price for obtaining a revolution. Cheap, bloodless reformation, a guiltless liberty, appear flat and vapid to their taste. There must be a great change of scene; there must be a magnificent stage effect; there must be a grand spectacle to rouse the imagination, grown torpid with the lazy enjoyment of sixty years’ security and the still unanimating repose of public prosperity....
INTERNET ATHEIST'S DEBATE PLAYBOOK REVEALED!
Very funny satire on atheist antics in Internet debates, though a little too uncomfortably true if, like myself, you once played by it.
Be proud, fellow atheist, that "intellectual quality" has been preemptively defined as a medal you are allowed to pin on yourself, just for accepting our doctrine!
Monday, August 19, 2002
POLITICAL HUMOR BREAK
So, which pathology, er, I mean, political persuasion are you?
Wednesday, August 14, 2002
ROBOT EVOLVES LAST 1% OF FLIGHT!
Yet another misleading reference to evolution appears on Yahoo Science News today: Swedish researchers have built a robot that was able to teach itself how to fly. The report opens with:
A robot has taught itself the principles of flying -- learning in just three hours what evolution took millions of years to achieve, according to research by Swedish scientists published on Wednesday.
Sounds impressive, huh? Millions of years of development compressed into a few hours? Well, not quite. The robot was essentially a fully functional robotic bird that was directed to try different flapping techniques until it achieved the maximum amount of lift. In other words, it was like an entirely normal bird -- possessing every physical characteristic necessary for flight -- that had to learn how to fly. The robot really only "evolved" the very last step in flight after being given the vast majority of the necessary pieces. This is something radically different from evolving flight from scratch, which is what the report equates it with.
This sort of evolutionary hyperbole may seem like harmless artistic license, but the reason it bothers me is that it only serves to muddy the waters on the subject of evolution. It promotes misunderstanding of what true evolution is and how it works in nature, reinforces the esteem given to evolutionary ideologues such as Richard Dawkins, and contributes to the increasingly prevalent fuzzy-headed view of computers and robots being another form of "life". But knowing what it takes to secure research funding, I guess I can't blame the scientists for inflating the significance of their work a bit!
Monday, August 12, 2002
THE ANTI-NARNIA IN THE BLOGOSPHERE
There's been a sudden blogospheric eruption of concern over Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials children's book series, a well done but startlingly preachy anti-Christian work that's been branded the "Anti-Narnia" since it has the feel of an atheist doing C. S. Lewis. Several blogs have noted, quite rightly, that Christian parents are overly concerned about children's books such as Harry Potter that present a trivial possibility of problems while giving little attention to Pullman's blatant polemic. The best collection of links on these books can be seen over at Amphibious Goat's blog, including a hilariously biased treatment of them in The Guardian (a UK paper that sometimes makes the New York Times look positively objective!).
Two things strike me about these books: One is how Pullman is another instance of an author who is intelligent, imaginative, and insightful, yet cannot see beyond a shockingly naive and simplistic caricature of Christianity. (Science-fiction writer Sheri Tepper is another example that comes to mind.) Wisdom never is a certain companion to talent, and open-mindedness is not necessarily had by the self-professed open-minded, but it is still hard to believe that anyone with simply a little curiosity would be oblivious to the depth of Christianity even if they do not believe in it. The second thing is how the books remind me of G. K. Chesterton's comments in Orthodoxy on those who criticize Christianity for being "anti-life":
I was much moved by the eloquent attack on Christianity as a thing of inhuman gloom; for I thought (and still think) sincere pessimism the unpardonable sin.... But the extraordinary thing is this. They did prove to me in Chapter I. (to my complete satisfaction)that Christianity was too pessimistic; and then, in Chapter II., they began to prove to me that it was a great deal too optimistic. One accusation against Christianity was that it prevented men, by morbid tears and terrors, from seeking joy and liberty in the bosom of Nature. But another accusation was that it comforted men with a fictitious providence, and put them in a pink-and-white nursery.... One rationalist had hardly done calling Christianity a nightmare before another began to call it a fool's paradise. This puzzled me; the charges seemed inconsistent. Christianity could not at once be the black mask on a white world, and also the white mask on a black world.... I rolled on my tongue with a terrible joy, as did all young men of that time, the taunts which Swinburne hurled at the dreariness of the creed-- "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilaean, the world has grow gray with Thy breath." But when I read the same poet's accounts of paganism (as in "Atalanta"), I gathered that the world was, if possible, more gray before the Galilean breathed on it than afterwards. The poet maintained, indeed, in the abstract, that life itself was pitch dark. And yet, somehow, Christianity had darkened it.... I thought there must be something wrong. And it did for one wild moment cross my mind that, perhaps, those might not be the very best judges of the relation of religion to happiness who, by their own account, had neither one nor the other.
Link to this entry
Sunday, August 11, 2002
BURKE ON WEALTH REDISTRIBUTION
As you can see, I've been away from the blog for awhile, but plan to be posting more pieces soon. Some will probably be inspired by Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France which I am currently reading. I kept seeing references to this book -- a contemporary Englishman's analysis of the French Revolution -- over and over again in political writings and decided it was finally time to read it. Anyway, to start things off, here's an insightful quote from the book regarding the outcome of any wealth redistribution scheme:
In this diffusion each man's portion is less than what, in the eagerness of his desires, he may flatter himself to obtain by dissipating the accumulations of others. The plunder of the few would indeed give but a share inconceivably small in the distribution to the many. But the many are not capable of making this calculation; and those who lead them to rapine never intend this distribution.