Work in Progress: Utopian Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares
Friday 03 December 2021
Last week I discussed some of the problems with my model of civilization. My concerns to date have been mostly theoretical. That is to say, I am interested in understanding civilization, but understanding as an end in itself is something that only interests a small minority of individuals. I was asked a question last week that made me re-think some of my approach from a practical perspective.
In several posts I have discussed what I call the tightly-coupled STEM cycle, in which science drives technological innovation, which is engineered into industrial products, which then in turn become scientific instruments that drive science ahead. Prior to the industrial revolution these causal connections were to be found, but the cycle could take centuries or even millennia to play out. The industrial revolution tightened the STEM cycle to the point that it could play out over months or years, and this accelerated the STEM cycle and its impact on social institutions.
In this context I am mostly talking about physical technologies, but there are also social technologies that are presumably related to social science as physical technologies are related to physical science. I don’t claim that any of this so far is original, and indeed much of this is a commonplace, though usually stated in somewhat different terms. And we can push this commonplace a bit further and observe it has also been a commonplace that, within western civilization at least, ideas come out of philosophy and are eventually transformed into sciences. However, philosophy usually hasn’t been drawn into the STEM cycle, but constitutes a kind of outlier. That may be changing, or it may change eventually, as philosophers make greater use of contemporary science and scientists become a little more secure and a little less flinty about philosophers criticizing the activities of scientists.
Of course, we all know that the social sciences are problematic, and there are many philosophers who have argued that the social sciences aren’t really sciences at all (a friend of mine would observe that they lack “predictive validity”). If the social sciences are simply in a nascent state, they might yet grow into proper sciences and then be related to a body of social technologies based upon social science. On the other hand, if the very idea of a social science is fallacious and cannot even someday evolve into a proper science, then there will never be any social technologies that are based on social science, and which would allow for the engineering of societies analogous to the engineering of the material world on the basis of scientific knowledge.
Another way to express this latter thought would be to take the position of Isaiah Berlin (and many other besides, but I think Berlin expresses it best) that the social sciences (Berlin says history, but we can expand his argument to the social sciences) have a method that is distinct from that of the natural sciences, so that we are doing something different in the social sciences vis-à-vis society as compared to what we are doing with the natural sciences vis-à-vis nature.
Despite being five hundred years into the scientific revolution, we do not yet have an answer to the question of the nature of the social sciences (if they are sciences) and therefore the other problems that turn upon the scientificity of the social sciences cannot yet be answered. Therefore, the idea of social technologies cannot yet be answered, at least in full. I say “at least in full,” because I also have used the term “social technology” to refer to things like languages and writing and institutions and political constitutions, all of which are social practices that we use as we use tools. In these instances that I have cited, the social technologies in question do not directly supervene upon knowledge produced by the social sciences, but we could argue that they are (or were) produced and then shaped by the folk equivalent of the social sciences, so something like folk anthropology and folk sociology and folk political science lie at the foundation of folk technologies of social organization.
These are all interesting questions, but the question that I have focused on in the past week is whether a science of civilization (or, if you prefer, a body of scientific knowledge about civilization) could be the basis of a social technology of civilization. That is to say, would a science of civilization have practical applications to the problems of civilization? If a science of civilization had no implications whatsoever for the practical problems of civilization, would we have any reason to call it a science? And if a science of civilization does in fact have practical implications for the practice of civilization, what are they, or what would they be?
Thus I come to this question: Can there be a technology of civilization? That is to say, can our theoretical understanding of civilization ever approximate a body of knowledge sufficient for the creation of a (social) technology that supervenes on that knowledge, as physical technologies supervene on knowledge of physics?
Part of the technology of social institutions would be the ability to plan and implement social institutions. I have often observed that human beings haven’t yet been able to plan at the largest scales of activity, but that doesn’t mean that this will always be the case. However, it does mean that, when this eventually happens, if it does happen, it will be unprecedented. I have also often observed that Utopian dreams are transformed into Dystopian nightmares as soon as an attempt is made to put the Utopia into practice. For any attempt at large-scale social engineering, there is an initial high hurdle of bringing off something unprecedented: a planned social initiative that does not veer off into a dystopian dead end. Utopian projects of a planned future since the Enlightenment have all come to a bad end. What this means is that, with the Enlightenment, human beings for the first time conceived the possibility of taking responsibility for the human future, but we haven’t yet been able to make it work. Continuing to aspire to do so is a credit to us.
In light of this promising idea coupled with catastrophic failure, social engineering has taken a Machiavellian turn. Any large-scale social engineering project can bifurcate into two possibilities. One possibility is that of a truly unprecedented advent of an engineered Utopia (i.e., any planned social project aiming at the betterment of society), the other is to cloak the social initiative in the guise of past mythology in order to make it palatable to the wider population. In this latter case, the achievement wouldn’t be as truly unprecedented, because it would involve using the forms and the symbols that human beings have become accustomed to employ for what Tillich called “ultimate concerns,” but re-purposing these forms and symbols so that they serve the engineered social initiative as the newly installed ultimate concern. This second option is a fun idea that suggests a lot of fictional scenarios, but ultimately it is less interesting than the first option, that of an unprecedented implementation of large-scale social engineering. However, I would argue (or could argue, but will not attempt to argue here) that most social engineering to date has, knowingly or unknowingly, pursued the first option.
Given my model of civilization, the ultimate feat of social engineering would be to engineer, i.e., to create, a civilization — if not de novo, at least to create a civilization out of existing elements that have not yet, on the own, coalesced into a civilization. And, again, according to my model, this would mean the formulation of a central project of a civilization — its conception, formulation, and installation as the central project of a civilization. This would be a very high bar to pass, and I don’t assume that this would be the first problem that a science, and then a technology, of civilization would tackle. You would start small at first, with institutions far smaller than the whole, and then work your way up to sciences and technologies of civilizations entire.
From this perspective, from my perspective, the Enlightenment is one of the pivotal events in the history of civilization, which is why I discuss it so often. From the origins of human civilization, up the Enlightenment — taken generously being a period of up to ten thousand years — all civilizations have had religions as their central projects. There are possible exceptions — China since Confucius could be said to have a central project that is an ethical philosophy rather than a religion, with traditional Chinese mythology relegated to being something like etiological myths, although with the prevalence of ancestor worship in China, Confucianism has a religious component with the veneration of Confucius himself — but, on the whole, central projects have been religious. With the Enlightenment, human beings first glimpsed the possibility of formulating our own secular central project and building a civilization around this. The attempts to put this into practice to date have not been very successful, but we have the idea, and whether any of the Enlightenment experiments of the past quarter millennium can be regarded as “proof of concept” of this seductive idea is a matter of debate.
Sometimes when I am talking about these ideas I simply use “religion” in an abstract sense to cover anything that functions like a religion as the glue that holds together a society. Thus I can cite a passage from William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience thus:
“…the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals. All that the facts require is that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step.”
As I read this passage, it could just as well be about central projects as about religions. Any viable central project also would involve the idea that there exists a larger power than is friendly to human beings and our ideals, and this power should be larger than and other than ourselves. However, to this observation of James I would add this: while the religion/central project needs to be larger than and other than humanity, it must not be too much larger or too different. This is presumably what James means when he adds the qualification, “…in a fashion continuous with him…”
Lovecraftian cosmic horror is filled with beings and situations so much greater than, and so different from human beings, that they fill us with horror rather than awe, though perhaps it is a form of awe, which might feel terrifying or it might feel comforting, depending upon the object of awe. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror does not encourage us to take the next step into the universe, but rather cautions us that to do so may drive us mad, like the characters in Lovecraft’s stories. In Lovecraft, any trust we have in the universe is that we can trust it will be beyond human comprehension, and probably on balance that means it is, at least, indifferent to human beings at best, or possibly even malevolent.
It seems, then, that we need of kind “limitation of size” in our objects of awe, or perhaps this is a qualitative rather than a quantitative relationship. I don’t know. I’m going to have to think more about this.