Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Piece of Work Is a Man?

Middlebrow bumper sticker in California: IF YOU CAN DREAM IT, YOU CAN DO IT. Yeah, sure. Unless the thing you're dreaming is impossible. Then, chances are, you can't do it. But try to enjoy life anyway.

— George Carlin

Leigh Phillips:

And the turn away from modernity and enlightenment has also been coincident with the neoliberal variant of capitalism. Could it be that an unrecognized casualty of neoliberalism has been the forward-looking optimism of both the Left and Right? That neoliberalism and the global defeat of workers’ movements have resulted in a decadent bourgeoisie more interested in looting short-term profits than investing in new technology, research, and exploration?

And if this is true, then retracing our steps back to the fork in the road where we went astray will require a fresh embrace of the logical, the rational, the empiricist, the positivist, the materialist. We might try to remember that once upon a time, it was as incumbent upon leftists to battle superstition and unreason as it was to battle the bosses and bankers. We must be careful to avoid naïve championing of scientism, of course, or worse still, a blimpish, New Atheist–style Enlightenment-mongering that barely hides its apology for empire.

But why must Dawkins-esque bullying and Romulan anti-rationalism be the only choices? We might instead take inspiration from Spock, Surak, and Spinoza, and of course Rodenberry, Nimoy, and the rest of the egalitarian, ambitious, humanist, reason-loving dreamers that gave us Star Trek, and rejoin their battle so that instead of the current innovation-phobic, Earth-bound stasis, humankind might again advance outward to our final frontier.

Indeed, "if this is true". Rather than being a trifling afterthought, this is in fact the impasse preventing us from proceeding with the plan for an intergalactic socialist utopia. Is it true? Which is the cart and which is the horse here? Did neoliberalism unfairly brainwash and demoralize the masses, or was some form of reinvigorated market worship very likely to come about following the widespread disillusionment with socialist utopianism? Have people cynically embraced greed and selfishness, or have they rationally decided that it is, in fact, logically and empirically justified to focus our attention and efforts on tinkering with "the way things are" rather than attempting to enforce "the way we want them to be"?

But then again, can any human institution truly be said to represent some objective, preexisting nature of things? Isn't human nature at least partially a creative act? Aren't some parts of our nature flexible enough to adapt, whether through circumstance or design? Given the right conditions, could we perhaps create a new type of human shorn of barbaric impulses? If so, though, given past experiments, is it rational to trust those who claim to have mapped out the plan and empower them to act on their vision, or will the required gods-eye omniscience forever be out of our reach? In the case of something as completely unprecedented as relocating human civilization to outer space, what would even count as a reasonable plan? What economic and political standards can we even use for guidance?

And so it comes down to a leap of faith in one way or another. Personally, I see no reason to believe that human nature would be any more transformed for the better by reaching the stars than it was by reaching the other side of the Atlantic ocean. Wherever we go, there we are. There's no escape, even in space, from the inevitable incommensurability of values. Indeed, even here, we see the same old seeds of politicized conflict sprouting in this visionary soil of interstellar brotherhood: Enlightenment, logic and rationality mean seeing things my way. Disagreeing with me marks you as a reactionary. I wonder where that stance will lead us?