European Origins - American Future?
At the age of 23 I escaped from England. I moved to California, perhaps one of the most non-european countries in the West. Despite the initial sense of living on a movie set this move felt to me like I was coming home. I grew up in England in the '70s, truly a miserable decade of high unemployment, high inflation, general misery, people expecting to be bombarded by nuclear weapons or expecting nuclear power stations to explode. People expected everything to go wrong. As an undergraduate I saw students walking around in rather dingy clothes and generally looking unhappy, waiting for everything to go to hell. I asked myself: "What I am doing in this country? This is some horrible jail." So I when I got the opportunity to go to California as a graduate student, I flew there as soon as I could. I have been back in England for only ten days in the last ten years. Perhaps I will visit more often now that economic and social conditions have become more dynamic.
My answer to the question: New Enlightenment: European origins, American future? is, that I do not hope, that it is only an American future. I hope the New Enlightenment will be a global thing (and that it will become more widespread in the USA). But the enthusiasm for the topics I will discuss here do seem largely concentrated in America right now. Especially in California and on the Internet. Part of my hope for spreading these ideas is that they seem to be very powerful on the Internet and not a local phenomenon. For instance on the email list that I frequent we have people from Sweden, Germany, Australia, and all over the world, though certainly it is true that the majority are from California.
In talking about an New Enlightenment I am talking about what you might call hypermodernism. I am a strong opponent of postmodernism. I see it as an intellectual disease, a memetic plague. I am a proponent of hypermodernism, which is not very fashionable, even not in American universities. We can think of hypermodernism as a technologically supercharged descendent of Enlightenment modernism. Some of the European origins of the Enlightenment are found in the ideas of David Hume and John Locke. Locke introduced the empiricist tradition while Hume pushed it to its limits. Empiricists are those who think that we gain knowledge from using our senses, that all ideas must be traced back to the senses. To prevent our reasoning from floating off away from reality we must check our ideas against reality as revealed by the senses and instruments that extend our senses. From its empiricist roots modernism looks with enormous suspicious or outright contempt on mysticism. For my part, I acknowledge that "mysticism" refers to many things, some of which have value. But mysticism understood as a purely subjective, irrational yet authoritative source of knowledge rightly finds no place in modernism or hypermodernism. (That still leaves room for unconscious processing of information, reading of body language, intuition in the form of deep neural activity, and so on.)
The European Origins
People like the Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith introduced ideas which have been extremely influential. Usually he is thought of as the economist who thought of the "invisible hand", an idea that order can arise from the action of individuals in certain environments with no central control. It is not so well known that economic thinking strongly influenced Charles Darwin. In fact the whole idea of evolution was sparked by principles of economics. These ideas are becoming popular again today, ideas we can describe as self-organisation or spontaneous order. This kind of thinking is very important to handling the accelerated, massive change we are encountering as we head into the future. An appreciation of self-organization and spontaneous order forms part of what I call New Enlightenment thinking. These ideas show us how complex orders can arise from the actions of individuals working together in voluntary organisations on the basis on certain minimal rules. Useful orders generally arise from setting up certain conditions (universal, stable property rules for example) then letting people be free to create new structures themselves.
Another vital part of the root of Enlightenment thinking would be Francis Bacon's development of scientific method and its continued refinement. Whereas the postmodernist sees everything as a "text" and all frameworks as equally valid (since one framework may not criticise a different framework), scientific method gives us a way or apprehending reality. Or at least a way of bringing us closer to truth. On the German side of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant was extremely influential. I have mixed feeling about Kant. A lot of his work is simply dreadful and dangerous, undermining human happiness (for instance by divorcing morality from personal well-being). On the other hand he was a strong proponent of the idea of individual rights, of human dignity and human rationality. Kant's thought has inspired both defenders of individualism and realism and defenders of totalitariamism and postmodern relativism.
Also, I would claim (more controversially) that Friedrich Nietzsche supplies a part of New Enlightenment thinking. Everybody has to be very selective in talking about Nietzsche. He contradicts himself and has diverse strains in his thinking. In this context, I am thinking particularly of his view that humanity is a magnificent beginning, but not the final word, that humans are a bridge between animals and the overman (or posthuman as I would say). Human beings are part of an evolutionary process. Nietzsche spoke about the Übermensch. I always face a danger of misinterpretation in mentioning this to a German audience. Nietzsche's ideas have been often abused, but he was extremely anti-nationalist and pro-Jewish. My interpretation of his Übermensch is, that human beings are not the final condition. We should not be complacent with who we are. We are not the peak of evolution. We should move seek beyond who we are to improve ourselves perpetually. Nietzsche supplies another part of hypermodernism. I am thinking of his championing of continuing criticism, his opposition to intellectual authority. Nietzsche foresaw that he could become a guru to later generations. In Zarathustra he asked: "Why do you not pluck at my wreath?" And this attitude of pancritical rationalism, the idea that intellectual authorities must always be open to challenge, is a part of hypermodernism and something what makes it perhaps different from modernism, which has a more authoritarian idea of intellectual standards.
I could go on for hours about the various thinkers who led to the ideas of the New Enlightenment. I had put together some ideas to create what I call extropian thinking. "Extropian" derives form the word "extropy", which itself comes from the word "entropy". Entropy is an idea from physics (and information theory) based on the second law of thermodynamics. Essentially it is increasing disorder, decay, degeneration within a closed system. It is the loss of available energy. So if you built a huge shell around the earth and blocking off all sunlight, so no form of energy could come through that shield, then the earth would become a closed system and we would find that it would become increasingly difficult to sustain civilization. When we have life, progress and growth, then we have energy coming from outside. If you do have energy entering into the system you can have increasing extropy. Now extropy strictly speaking is not quite the same as the opposite of entropy. Extropy really means increasing order, information, vitality, intelligence and capacity for further growth. Talking about hypermodernism or the New Enlightenment I am talking about ideas of perpetual progress. This is an optimistic view, that things could always be made better. It is this feeling, this zeitgeist, that I feel lacking a lot in most of Europe today, producing the "Big Fatigue".
Timothy Leary once argued that people of enthusiasm, of high energy, of positive new ideas, tended to move west. Over the last centuries we have seen people move from Europe to the east coast of America and then across to California, as well as up from the south. That is perhaps why we can find in California a lot of biotech industries, computer industries, and multimedia industries. Because the computer industry is so important, so pervasive, and because it is growing so rapidly, it sets the pace for everything else.
What is the extropian approach to the world? What does this particular form of hypermodernism proclaim? It includes a lot of different aspects. First of all I want to say that it is not a set of beliefs. It is not an ideology, a fixed set of ideas. Extropian thinking is in many ways very similar to humanist thinking. It opposes dogmas, it continuously tries to revise itself, it is self-critical. It is more a set of attitudes towards life. I can summarise those attitudes in six principles.
The Principles of Extropian Thinking
The first principle is Boundless Improvement. It might just as well be called Boundless Exploration. Those who think along these lines have the belief that the world is full of opportunities, that the universe is open to explore. We can move around the planet, off the planet, we can extend our lives and live longer, we can form new personalities, we can change our identity. Essentially nothing is sacred. We should challenge all our current beliefs. We should not believe that Mother Nature has created us as some kind of sacred beings. We can improve ourselves, our science, our technology.
The second principle is Self-Transformation. This is the idea that it is desirable for us continually to improve ourselves personally, to stretch ourselves ethically, improve our behaviour, to maintain our physical health, to seek to become the person we want to be rather than just lazily being who we are, blaming our parents or the society. It really takes personal responsibility to become the self we see as the most valuable one to become.
The other four principles, which I lack the time to explain here, are Dynamic Optimism, Self-Ownership, Intelligent Technology, and Spontaneous Order.
One vital aspect of the view that we should challenge unaltered nature is the idea that we should be pursuing life extension, that if we personally want to achieve great things in life, if we want to improve things and ourselves, we need a lot of time. Human beings throughout history had no more than three or four decades. You can't do a lot in that time. So extropian thinkers tend to see it as a good idea to extend life. And we find it a little bit crazy that millions of dollars are pumped into research programs for some obscure disease and hardly any money at all is given to researching the fundamental mechanisms of aging. In fact many of the diseases that we suffer are age related. If we could slow down the aging process, we would prevent a lot of cancer, heart disease and other problems. This idea of living for centuries tends to upset many people. Many have convinced themselves that extended life is undesirable. Once certain false assumptions about longer life have been cleared away, I think many of these people might change their minds.
Another idea interesting to extropians is transferring human consciousness from our biological brain to another medium. In the extreme form, as it is described by the robotics researcher Hans Moravec, this process is called uploading. It means the same as when you transfer information from your computer to another computer. Perhaps we could in principle map your brain activity and recreate it in an inorganic device, or transfer that functioning from your brain to your mind's new home. My own view is that a more gradual transition will happen. Already there are researchers working on artificial neurons. The leading researcher in this field told me that perhaps in twenty years we could replace parts of damaged brain tissue and replace lost functions of the brain. From there it seems not much a step to increasing memory capacity and adding processing power to the brain. In the long run the brain becomes vestigial like our tail bones. Most of our thinking will be done on a different platform and a lot faster.
Another strong component of component of extropian thinking is an economic and political application of the idea of self-organisation or spontaneous order. In the States the political view that takes this idea seriously in the economic sphere is known as libertarianism. Libertarians are those who are neither right wing nor left wing, who believe that the free market, properly set up, is the only way to organise human affairs, that it is based on the principles of evolution and spontaneous order. What we need to do is to set very clear and universal property rules then let people free to organise themselves.
A strong aspect of New Enlightenment thinking is scepticism, not cynicism. Cynicism is probably a cause of postmodernism, a view that ideas are rather pointless, that all is warped by corrupt motives, that there is no really point to improve things, because somebody will abuse the changes. So people of extropian orientation tend to be sceptics, not cynics, and optimists at the same time. To some people that seems to be a contradiction, but I coined a phrase which tries to explain why that is not. Rather than talking about optimism I want to talk about dynamic optimism. A dynamic optimist is not someone who sits back and believes that all things will work out fine regardless of their effort. It is someone who says that the universe is open to intelligence, to possibility, to the application of our own capabilities. We just have to make things better, applying our will and intelligence.
Hypermodernism instaed of Postmodernism
Since postmodernism has come up in this conference I want to contrast it with extropian thinking or hypermodernism, because I do think that postmodernism is a very dangerous intellectual virus. It seems to be very dominant in European thinking. Part of the problem is that is a very broad set of ideas. I am picking on what I see as the dislikable parts of postmodernism but I do not mean to suggest that everything ever labelled "postmodernism" is dreadful.
A very common thread in postmodern thinking is a rebellion against objective reality, an assertion that there is no reality. This is the New Age idea that we all have our own realities and that these are irreconcilable. In hypermodernism there is the idea that there is an objective reality out there, that it is discoverable and comprehensible, but it is not easy to find it. There are intellectual standards that can help us improve our understanding of objective reality. However it is vital to realize that we don't have direct access to it. We cannot take our sense data as something given, as self-evident. Sensory input always comes interpreted by theories, explicit or unconscious. I don't think that prevents us from knowing the world as it is, but we have to be aware of our theories which are imposed by the structure of our brains. In having standards it is crucially important that they are revisable standards. We need to have standards to have progress but they must always be open to criticism. This idea is the core of pancritical rationalism, the consistent form of rationalism that holds even the tenets of rationalism open to question.
In a lot of philosophy until very recently we suffered the legacy of René Descartes. He believed in standards but of the wrong kind. Descartes looked for an absolute intellectual authority. For him that was the clear light of reason. It turned out that this was something what was guaranteed by God, and as all the critical discussions showed that did not work as a standard. But his idea that you should have an absolute standard has persisted throughout the centuries. Many empiricists have looked at forms of reason that they thought could be absolute or they have tried to find some kind of very basic self-evident sense datum that guarantees that we see things accurately. We have that path to bring only failure. Hypermodernism must see its standards as revisable standards. We keep objective reality, because we are seeking to find the real world. So there can be real intellectual progress, but we are never sure that our standards are absolutely final and correct. The postmodernist tends to be cynical, the hypermodernist is sceptical.
In many postmodernists I see an anti-individualism that generally results of a distrust of individual reason. If reason is helpless then we have to go with the collective view, the consensus. Hypermodernists tend to be much more individualist, favouring of individual judgement and personal responsibility.
Postmodernists tend to be very suspicious of technology. Some are actively opposed to technology in general. Others may not so be against it, but they are very suspicious of many applications of it. Very characteristic of the circles I hang out in especially on the Internet is an extreme enthusiasm for technology. We love it! We love the latest gadgets. We love the DNA chips. We love the idea of prosthetics brains.
Why Europe is tired
Now I want to address from this superoptimistic view the question why Europe is tired. There are a number of causes. From my philosophical background I tend to look at ideas as driving forces even behind economic phenomena. One idea of Nietzsche, his explanation of Christian slave morality, may be one of the causes of the European fatigue. One thing I dislike a lot about America is the strength of religious belief. The extent of fundamentalism in America is far greater than in Europe. This is one thing I miss about Europe. Fortunately most of the time with my friends hanging out on the Internet I don't bump into that very much. I am always surprised when I go out. One day I wanted to get my hair cut, and the lady doing my hair was a fundamentalist Christian. She asked what I did, and we started talking. I had to be very careful in choosing what to say since she was using the scissors very near my neck! Yet, despite the strength of Christianity in the USA, it seems to be Europe that has swallowed whole the idea that material success means spiritual impoverishment.
One of the big causes of the sense of fatigue is the legacy of statism. The Europeans have grown used to the state doing too much. It was once the case that people thought maybe the government could help people a little bit and provide some sort of guidance. Now it seems that people demand help from the government as a right, that it is a human right to be given things at the expense of other people and that each individual group also should have special rights guaranteed by the state. Every group now wants its own special rights and that leads to much conflict and disharmony. The legacy of the welfare state's heavy regulation is, as you are suffering now in Germany, high unemployment and slow economic growth. Heavy regulation tends to make it also very difficult for high-tech industries to get going and get up to speed. This is one reason that California has benefited so much from the computer revolution, because this is a very unregulated industry. Of course people have to find something to fear, so they fear that Microsoft will dominate their live. But so far the relative lack of regulation has led to explosive growth and extreme innovation.
Most Europeans, many Americans too, would prefer security and guaranteed income to the healthy chaos of the free market, which destroys industries and builds new ones, asks people to be more dynamic and to retrain. To mix two ideas together, I think if we have the possibility to live a lot longer we cannot have the same career throughout our lifetime. Do you really want to be stuck doing same thing for the next 300 or 400 years? We need to get used of the idea that our career is a flexible thing. We have to be willing to relearn, to change what we do. There is a lot of resistance to this idea. That resistance is a large part of fatigue. It is the idea that we have to stick with what we have, and all which is disturbing that is a bad thing and must be stopped. Instead of this we have to learn to ride the waves of future shock and to learn to love the future shock. The welfare state, the desire for security and the disappointment with economic growth with the rise of new industries have contributed a lot to European fatigue. This is certainly not only an European phenomena, you can see it in many parts of the United States. In California it is perhaps at its minimum. As America enters its seventh year of continuous growth, fatigue continues to drop and optimistic rise.
There are two other factors I want to briefly mention. One is the lack of frontiers. People of high energy, of creativity, those who are unhappy with the status quo tend to move and they have tended to move west. There are two new frontiers: One is a move upward into the space. Space is becoming rather unfashionable. However I believe that there are new technologies that will in the next 20 years greatly decrease the cost of space travel. Many millions of people will be living in space not too late in the 21st century. The other frontier is already here. It is cyberspace. That gives me hope that hypermodernism will not just be an American or Californian phenomenon. The Internet doesn't know any national boundaries. My most optimistic hope is that awareness of the new possibilities will spread through the Internet as they seem to be doing and give people the idea that they can move forward.
The final factor that may have reduced excitement in Europe is a relative lack of immigration by the energetic and optimistic. The population of America would be slowly falling if there were no immigration. We have large amounts of immigration which to nationalists in America is a horrible thing. To me it is a wonderful thing. The people who come to America are not people who are looking for the welfare they can get. They tend to be high energy people, creative people, not those looking to be lazy. I don't think there is so much immigration of that kind into Europe. The fear of emigration to America from Europe had a name when I grew up in England. They called "the Brain Drain."
So these are some of the factors which could explain some of the malaise of Europe. My hope is that the Internet will spread some of the excitement that I feel and other people feel about the future and its possibilities. I cannot see a reason why it cannot spread also throughout Europe. The future will shake up all our assumptions, all our certainties. The future will be much too exciting for us to approach it with fatigue.
[Edited transcript from talk.]
Max More email@example.com
Author: The Augmented Animal (Forthcoming: HardWired, 1998)
President, Extropy Institute, Editor, Extropy
EXTRO 3 CONFERENCE on the future (Max More)