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Monday, August 01, 2016

Rorty's Wit


jimf said...

(1 of 5)

Speaking of philosophy, I commented once on this blog:
You know, when I first discovered one on-line concentration of
transhumanism, back in 1997, there wasn't, in that particular text, any
hint of a connection with cryonics, life-prolongation, etc.
There **was** a Stapledonian perspective on the human race likely
being superseded, sooner or later, by something "better" according
to some cosmic perspective. I found this a noble aspiration,
in the same way I find Olaf Stapledon's books noble, if a bit
chilly. The fact that this particular writer put his expectations
on Vingean machine intelligence rather than Stapledonian biological
evolution (engineered or otherwise) did nothing to detract from
my appreciation. (I like the movie _Colossus: The Forbin Project_
just fine, though I don't find the details very plausible these days.)

However, within three or four years this strain of "singularitarianism"
had been subsumed, for all practical purposes, by the Extropians
and the cryonicists, with "saving the world" being equated with
"preventing the six billion people currently alive from dying".

Suddenly what had been a noble, if still science-fictional, discourse
had turned itself into something that seemed to want to take itself
seriously as an R&D outfit for the Hollywood crowd. Shades
of _Sunset Boulevard_! That baleful California influence.
Narcissism ascendant!

I'd come across the "Stapledonian" point of view in Olaf Stapledon's
fiction, of course (_Last and First Men_, _Star Maker_, _Odd John_, _Sirius_),
but I just recently read a non-fiction statement of this philosophical
perspective, in

_An Olaf Stapledon Reader_ (1997)
Robert Crossley, ed.
"Thoughts on the Modern Spirit" (undated, probably 1928;
never published during Stapledon's life)
in Part II, "Essays and Talks"
[this is heavily abridged, by me]

Though the modern spirit knows many moods, two are distinctive of
it: complete disillusion, and zestful but wholly detached admiration
of a world conceived as indifferent to human purposes. Many no
doubt still retain their confidence in man's importance, and in his
prospects here or hereafter, but for good or ill this faith is
not a factor in the characteristically modern spirit. Nor is it
among these optimists that we may find the most active growing-points
of thought to-day. Not that faith itself stands condemned as in
every possible sense false, but only that the faithful, having
never allowed themselves to be drenched and impregnated with disillusion,
cannot understand the spiritual problem of our age. Just because,
or insofar as, their faith is intact, it is also infertile. . .

For the modern kind of religious experience, or if it be preferred
the modern substitute for religious experience, is itself the
unexpected outcome of disillusion. Only by way of despair and a
subsequent detachment can we attain this experience in its
purity, and distinguish it from the mere conviction that the
heavens care for us. Only when we have countenanced the defeat
and even ridicule of the whole enterprise of life upon this planet
can we discover that unique splendour and perfection of existence
which is more admirable even than life's victory. And because
this discovery, coming as it does in the very trough of our
disillusion, cannot be assimilated by a pessimistic view, it
should perplex us. . .

Professor [Alfred North] Whitehead has described the conflict
between materialistic science and romantic literature, which came
to a head in the nineteenth century and resulted in the defeat
of romance. . . [T]he gesture of the poets was doomed to
failure. Expressions of faith or mere longing carried less
weight than the precise demonstrations and brilliantly plausible
guesses of the scientists. The wind is in the direction of
materialism. . .

jimf said...

(2 of 5)

The conflict between science and romance has issued in four distinct
movements of thought. There is in the first place the retreat of
the pure romantic mind into an unassailable but isolated stronghold
of fantasy. Many of our modern romantics seek only to repeat the
achievements of the nineteenth century, continuing to distill mystery
from the past, or from fairyland, or from the recesses of daily life.
Others achieve the same result by playing upon the well-established
religious sentiments. Others again take refuge in extreme subjective
idealism, supposing themselves to have undermined the whole attack
of materialism by declaring that, since all our experience is
mental, mind must be foundational to the universe; and that therefore
man's nature is guaranteed fulfillment. Or the movement of withdrawal
from the conflict and from reality may take yet another form.
The value-experience which is the core of romanticism may be mistaken
for a unique mystical apprehension of the reality behind all
phenomena; and in an age when phenomena are very perplexing and
shocking this yearning for the hidden reality may be so powerful
as to trick the mind with many curious illusions and sophistries.
Thus attention may be turned from the precise but often tragic
forms of Western thought to the confused vision of the East,
whether by way of theosophy or by way of Spengler. . .

[D]isillusion is the third of the four movements of thought
which we have to record in our sequel to Professor Whitehead's
study of the mental climate. . . Not only have we in these latter
days doubted the existence of anything worthy to be called God,
not only have we despaired of man's capacity to achieve his ends
in an unfriendly universe, but also we have tasted complete cynicism
with regard to these ends themselves. . . The virtues and the
heaven of an earlier generation are now scribbled over with
jibes; yet we have little to put in their place. . . [T]he
modern young. . . can find nothing better to do than evade all
serious activities and seek conventional pleasures, suppressing
a yawn. . . But it is will known that a life of undirected
"pleasure" leads nowhere but to nightmare, such as Mr. Noel Coward
has epitomised in his sketch, "Dance Little Lady."

Few would deny that disillusion, sometimes rising to disgust and
horror, is the dominant mood of our age. When the plain man has
time to look up from his work he sees a world of disorder; society
strained and rocking; authority concerned chiefly to keep its seat;
nations devising slaughter while they chatter of peace; churches
seemingly bankrupt of divinity, and forced desperately to speculate
in pew-filling attractions; prophets on all sides trading in
questionable doctrines; the live and intricate thought of our time
soaring further and further beyond the comprehension of the
unspecialised, and shedding abroad only vague and dismal rumours
or man's insecurity, futility, and insincerity. Such is the
panorama that confronts any unprejudiced and intelligent
observer. . .

jimf said...

(3 of 5)

No wonder the plain man turns from a prospect so dreary, and
concentrates on his private problems. . . He can only hope that
the bedrock of society will outlast his day, and even support
his children. But his great-grandchildren? He shrugs his
shoulders. They are beyond his ken. If ever they occur at all,
of what kind will they be, and on what treadmill will they
find themselves sweating? Will they remember him? Will his
own children remember him only to condemn him for thoughtlessly
procreating them in this squirrel-cage adrift in space? . . .

Nothing but loyalty to some admired thing greater than oneself
can render a life of drudgery tolerable; and today the old objects
of loyalty are losing their power. The God whom our fathers
served is now revealed to many as a tiresome old gentleman
vacillating between brutality and sentimentality. . .

Here lies the root of all modern disillusion. Having lost faith
in everything that might be called God, we turned our admiration
to man, and now man also is found to have feet of clay. We see
him as essentially a self-deceiver, a brute, pretending but never
really striving to be an angel. His will we are told by psychologists
is at heart animal craving, though more cunning and less downright.
Even his most generous impulses are said to draw their strength
merely from the dynamics of the brute body, or at best from the
itch of the brute mind. His love is mere greed; and his loyalty
a response to no objective excellence but to the demands of his
own tortuous nature. His intelligence, which was once thought
capable of dispassionate knowledge of the thing that really is,
is now said to be blinkered in the service of instincts.
This view of human nature, which was so vigorously advertised
by the psycho-analysts, is accepted by most psychologists. . .

Modern literature of disillusion is of two kinds. . . There is
the literature which springs from disillusion solely. . .

But there is another and more noteworthy literature of disillusion,
whose motive is neither mere disgust nor mere protest against
insincerity or prettiness. It is indeed concerned with disillusion,
with all the defeat, pain, futility and insincerity of modern life;
but it is concerned with them not merely to vomit them up but
to incorporate them in an organised and splendid texture. . .

The novels and poems of Thomas Hardy were once thought to be merely
disillusioned. . . [S]uch tortured characters as Tess and Jude
were thought once to signify nothing but futility; but surely
the novels in which they are set are misread if they are regarded
as protracted whimperings. More truly they are hymns of praise,
spontaneous acts of adoration directed upon the world itself. . .
disinterested salutation of the objective world for its own sake,
quite apart from its friendliness or unfriendliness to man. . .
a spirit of admiration, even of worship, which is no less remarkable
for having been perhaps unintelligible to Hardy himself.

Tennyson, harassed by the problems of his day, could but cling to
the faith that somehow in the end the universe would fulfill
our demands of it; but Hardy accepted the universe as it appeared
to him to be, and was rewarded almost in spite of himself by
a vision more splendid than Tennyson's. . .

jimf said...

(4 of 5)

The attitude of disinterested admiration is, I suppose, an element
in classicism. Certainly it derives in part from the Stoics;
and again in part from the more objectivistic and classical moods
of Christianity. But today it is less easily learned through
classical study or devotional exercise than through such non-human
interests as mathematics and physical science. Mr. Bertrand Russell
has well expressed the fervour which may illuminate such
activities. . . [I]t does not necessarily involve a pessimistic
view, though perhaps only through tragedy can it be attained to-day. . .
[I]t is an interest, not in man for his own sake, but in the world
within which man is a striving member. Consequently, it regards
man neither with hopeful assertiveness nor with submissiveness or
heroic resignation.

Yet, though it is in this sense a mood of complete detachment from
all striving and strivers, emphatically it is no mere apathy,
nor does it consent to inactivity. . .

We give ear, so to speak, not merely to the theme of human striving,
or life's evolution, but to that celestial music in which our planet's
whole story is a passing melody serving an end beyond itself. . .
[I]n it we do seem in some sense to glimpse a supreme form in
which man is contributory, not final. . .

There are times in the lives of most men when they wake from the
game of private living, and even from the more enthralling intricacy
of public service, to see themselves and the whole race of men
as dust in a far mightier sport. Some, perhaps, are wholly exempt
from such moments; while others, when the blue or grey sky of
their world is ripped away like a tent, bury their heads. But some,
even while they resent and fear the star's sudden intrusion, are
stung into strange clarity of mind. Even while they see their
comforts and defences scattered, and their most admired ends snuffed
into irrelevance, even while perhaps they are dissolved in fright,
they are thrust into a new and splendid view of things; so that
if they were not all the while paralysed with terror they could
shout in the zest of amazed admiration. Unlike hares, they crouch
before the serpent of eternity not in horror merely, but in ecstasy.
After cursing the universe for its seeming mental deficiency,
suddenly they recognise that the gods are playing a game very
different from man's game, and playing it brilliantly.

Not that they merely swing from pessimism to optimism about their
private fortune or their nation's welfare of the future of man;
for it must be insisted that this unique enlightenment may occur in
the very agony of private defeat or public calamity, even in the
terror of death, even in pain, even while they watch the sufferings
of their beloveds, or the downfall of their society. Not that
their agony is diminished or evaded, but rather that its very
intensity wakens them to an aspect hitherto ignored. . .
[T]hey see the very same world that they saw before, but they
unexpectedly exult in it. They judge it to be, in some sense
which cannot yet be defined, intrinsically excellent or "worthwhile". . .

Indeed, so well schooled are they in detachment from all that they
take most seriously, that their reaction even to the inhuman
excellence of the cosmos is not incompatible with laughter.
In mere disillusion we laugh at the hollowness of fallen idols;
and our laughter is bitter. But in this other mood, so well have
we learned the virtue of our laughter, that humour is surprisingly
infused throughout our admiration. Without bitterness, and
with no need for shame, we can deride the thing we most adore.

jimf said...

(5 of 5)

Sometimes in this mood man is regarded as a mere irrelevance;
but in a shrewder vision we seem to see that man, sensitive dust
that he is, has also his part to play, though not the part he
thought. For even the dust is in the picture. When the bright
vision is past, and we try to think out its significance, it seems
indeed that the office of the human mind must be to strive
toward ever clearer percipience, and to master and enrich its
own imperfect nature always for the end which our fathers called
worship; so that we, tiny and ineffectual players in the gods'
game, may at least enter intelligently into the spirit of the
game, and admire it not merely so far as it favours the ends of
man, but for its own character. But we must not claim that man's
discerning admiration and participation is necessary to the
full achievement of the cosmos; for man's part after all may
finally be tragic, and he may never fulfill his supreme office
of worship. . .

Dale Carrico said...

I too love sfnal sensawunda, and I have enjoyed many of the works recommended by transhumanoids (whatever their reasons), Vinge, Egan, Sterling, Aristoi, and so on, but I gotta say the futurological still seems to me mostly stunted and sad and sociopathic, reactionary in its poltics, paranoid in its moralism, stale, pale, male, an exercise in crappy consumer goods marketing and stormtrooper rationalization, and never more so than in the futurological reductio ad absurdum that are the various sects of the robot cult, transhuman, extropian, singularitarian, techno-immortalist, cyber-totalist, evopsycho, greenwashing geoengineering, nano-cornucopiast, and on and on.