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.