Monday, 27 June 2011

The Dehumanisation of the Species

The belief that ultimate knowledge will bring ultimate freedom still prevails in the discourse of western intellectuals today. In spite of all the lessons of history since the beginning of the Enlightenment, a faith in the liberating power of science still forms the mythical undercurrent of liberal society. In part, this may be attributed to the innate mechanism of the human mind that filters out any knowledge or perceptions that lead to inertia or negative conclusions. The majority of people are fundamentally blinkered and the dead do not speak, so the human carnival can continue on its rickety path, ignoring the slew of corpses in its wake.

Yet if one examines clinically the course of history since the Industrial revolution there appears very little to be proud of. The evolution of warfare has lead to forms of human brutality previously inconceivable; the 20th century was the most violent in the history of the species; the dropping of the atom bomb was a new low point in ethics and we are now faced with the unavoidable development of genetic warfare, surely the lowest form of activity that can be conceived. Ponder for a moment what the last mentioned item means: in the not too remote future, governments will possess weapons that will be able to alter your DNA and send you spiralling into paralysis and agony. And yet the cries of progress and liberation continue.

To what may we attribute such delusion? Apart from the aforesaid tendency of the human mind to disregard displeasing information, we can also see in the writings of the popularisers of science an unwillingness to confront the famous fact/value distinction. The conclusion that no readily apparent course of action can be easily inferred from complete knowledge seems to be a reality that scientists, for all their talk about being fearless truth-seekers, cannot face. The practitioners of today’s enlightenment are in the grip of the groundless conviction that once we know all, all will be well. Yet they cannot grasp the real fact that the majority of people regard the boundless grasp of science as a threat and a source of deep personal and existential anxiety.

Free will is gradually, but almost imperceptibly being eroded as a concept. Monitor the newspapers and you will see that a frequent headline theme is one conveying the information that a genetic cause has been discovered for every form of human disposition, modality and preference that exists. Scientists are mapping the human machine in every last nuance and detail in what amounts to a renaissance in Cartesianism.

Descartes infamously believed that animals were but machines: they did not possess free will; they had no soul; they were not marked by the grace of God’s imprimatur and therefore they merited no ethical consideration. The only thing in Descartes’s metaphysics that prevented humans from sliding into the same category was a belief in a transcendental, ethically benevolent deity that had bestowed humans with the possibility of choosing between good and evil.

Today, and in spite of every last sophistical turning of Theologians, woolly agnostics and purveyors of religion-as-ritual, the progress of science has discredited the concept of God. As a consequence, there now exists no metaphysical wall that prevents us from falling into the same category as Descartes’s animal machines. The constant revelation of genetic determinism only speeds up this natural reclassification. In warfare the rights of the individual are non-existent. The flouting of the Geneva convention, the use of anonymous drone warfare, unilateral assassinations and the concept of “collateral damage” all constitute proof that the era of the rights-bearing individual is over. We are now viewed as machines, and like all machines we are judged in terms of functionality. And the prevailing discourse of human functionality today is economics.

If you do not contribute to the accumulation of Capital, GDP, GNP, tax revenue and so on, you are considered first and foremost as a problem. The prevalence of economic value as an all-encompassing determinant of human worth can in part be traced back to the triumph of the statistical and calculative mode of thought that made the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution possible. What can be measured is what is real; only what is visible is true. Newtonian mechanics, Cartesian rationalism and the triumph of the mercantile class have over the past four centuries led to the degradation of the individual, the withering of any non-monetary conception of human value and the defilement of the earth to serve the god of “productivity”. Progress or a blind drift into the abyss? Be glad you only have to live once.


  1. Great post Karl. A brief lookout on history, and economics.

    I quote you here:

    "If you do not contribute to the accumulation of Capital, GDP, GNP, tax revenue and so on, you are considered first and foremost as a problem."

    You are even regarded to be so (a problem) -perhaps even primarily) - from the looks of your own family and relatives. It´s horrible.

    And: "Progress or a blind drift into the abyss?"

    I´ll put all my money on the drift!! =)

  2. I think a lot of it has to do with science's "push-button" view of human beings- where the right stimuli pushes the right buttons to make humans do what you want. A lot of it also has to do with the rise of capitalism, the widespread acceptance of Subjective Value Theory, and the integration of politics and economics under the heading of "the economy." Finally, a lot of it also has to do with wanton reductionism.

  3. I partially agree with this. While there are indeed limits to our free will*, I think humans have more capacity to engage in certain specifically defined actions than other animals do (we can "think outside the box" much more readily than other animals, overrule our impulses more, think ahead more thoroughly, anticipate, plan more elaborate scenarios, etc.).

    So I don't think we're completely lacking in free will; it's that our scope for it remains far from unlimited.

    *ADD, tourettes, aspergers, impulse control, etc. being the most extreme examples. The hypothetical perfectly normal or above average person will have them too),

  4. Shadow: Don't worry, my friend, the question about progress or the abyss was strictly rhetorical:-)

    francois: Correct. Everything is synthesised under the economic functionalism model. I figure the death of religion also has a major part to play in explaining this phenomenon. I'll have to write more about this.

    filrabat: Hopefully the ability to reason one's way to antinatalism will prove the ultimate triumph of humanity's free will!

  5. It'll be interesting to watch incredulity turn to hostility if and when antinatalism ever manages to gain a toehold in general public discourse, precisely because of the utility factor you've pointed out. I wonder if AN's will someday occupy the same position as 'those greedy Jews' in those inevitable pocketbook discussions.

  6. Jim: Ironically, I suspect the position of ANs may be more like the early Christians. Tacitus records that they were hated by the Romans because of their supposed "hatred of human life". And we all know how that one played out...

  7. Karl I agree completely. And that contributes immensely to the suffering. AN by default should be against capitalism and all of that industrial shit. Not that it would change anything about the nature of life or suffering, but I think AN should definitely be more for something like the Venus Project which aims to reduce suffering through removal of capitalism and money (and work).

    1. All those things like The Venus Project are way too optimistic for me. Utopian projects that talk about redesigning humanity and moving in a new direction blah blah blah. And they're always careful to glide over the question of who whould actually be in charge and what would happen to those who don't wish to sign up. And no doubt, like every other political system, they're fundamentally pro-life, pro-family, pro-kids. It's all about 'glorious humanity' and keeping the show on the road. Personally, I'd rather the whole thing just faded gently out.

    2. Same Karl. The reason I mentioned Venus Project is strictly due the question of "suffering". If it removed all that shit, suffering would be reduced... but yeah, its indeed optimistic bullshit if you look at it that way. Oh well, let's fade out then!

    3. Consciousness is the basic source of suffering, and for me at least, all those utopian projects unquestioningly buy into the 'life is good at all times' ontology. It presupposes that suffering is somehow incidental, the contingent result of contingent factors, which, if tweaked and readjusted, will disappear. Even if in some fantasy world that happened, then the problem of boredom would emerge, and all the usual human mayhem would follow in an attempt to distract people. And so it would be full circle.

      Let me just make my own position clear: it's all the big theoretical, finding-a-magic-formula stuff that does my head in; I'm all for helping people in a local, real, tangible way: give money to beggars, help the old lady across the road, volunteer in soup kitchens etc. And, of course, above all don't have kids!

    4. Oh I absolutely agree! But, again, me mentioning the venus project was in a sense an attempt to help people in a real, tangible way which capitalism and all its atrocities simply CANNOT do. Suffering is an ontological issue indeed, but I am just of an opinion that capitalism can't help anyone and we need something else ASAP to help people until all consciousness vanishes once and for all (the perfect solution).

      Call it "palliative care" if you will - before consciousness dies out for good, let's make it MORE bearable for others to live with it... unless of course they kill themselves before that which, again, is the ultimate solution (after not being born) and one I have no arguments against at all.

    5. Well, it's good to know that I'm more pessimistic than you:-)

      I have zero political hope. All attempts to replace Capitalism have failed absolutely, it being the naturally distorted, grotesque and unjust expression of the naturally distorted, grotesque and unjust human consciousness. To change the economic system, you'd need to change consciousness en masse, which I don't see happening. As EO Wilson said of Communism 'Nice idea, wrong species'.

  8. I was merely expressing an utopian ideal... as a necessity which you agreed with if not for the fact that human nature is just shit.

    We'll still have to see who is more pessimistic :)

    I have zero political hope or nature either... I would just like for less suffering to exist in the world before it all goes back to non-existence... but I guess that's a utopia too..