A Post-Liberal Future (part 1)

In previous posts I said that since the beginning of the modern era we have been living through the age of Humanism, with Liberalism being its most prevalent form in the Western World. I also proposed a new form of Liberalism based on far greater devolution of power, in order to better tackle the problems in society today. However, what if advances in technology in the 21st Century undermine the premise of Humanism itself? If that happens, we could see a change in political philosophy on a scale not seen since Humanism replaced Absolutism during the centuries of the late medieval and early modern periods. This is the idea put forward in Yuval Noah Harari’s book ‘Homo Deus’, and it is the idea I would like to explore in the next two posts.

Power to the People

Humanism rests on the belief that our own thoughts and feelings are the highest source of meaning and authority, matched only by the thoughts and feelings of another human being. This authority comes from the belief that humans are able to make ethical judgements by listening to their inner selves. Before Humanism, the highest source of authority was God (or the gods), and only God knew right from wrong. Rather than ruling directly over human beings, God invested absolute power in certain individuals who ruled in his name, such as Kings, Emperors and Popes. In political terms, the Humanist revolution represented the transfer of sovereign power from the ruler to the people. This applies in the Totalitarian as well as Communist and Liberal versions of Humanism. This is why Totalitarian leaders require propaganda: it matters what the people think. A medieval king in contrast had no need to concern himself with what the people thought, because to challenge the king was to challenge God Himself. In the modern age, human beings are now considered capable of making ethical decisions about right and wrong for themselves by consulting their own inner feelings, without going to a Priest or consulting a holy book. For example, if two people want to marry, they no longer need to consider whether a divine third party will be happy with the match. They need only consider whether it feels right.

This raises an interesting question that underpins modern society: why are human beings considered the highest source of authority? Why are we superior to any other creature in the animal kingdom? Most early humanists derived a Christian justification for this superior role. In the Bible God, made humankind in His image and made us stewards of the kingdom of earth. Others who do not believe in God might justify our authority based on our superior intelligence. However, it is far from clear that intelligence correlates well to good ethical decision making. Many animals, if they were able to communicate with us, might argue that our stewardship of the earth has not been entirely successful.

Yuval Noah Harari refers to Humanism as a religion because it is a belief system that enables ethical judgements to be made. He argues that any successful religion must provide relevant answers to the technological problems of the day. Christian or Islamic religion (which underpinned Absolutism) had little to say about the ethical challenges of a modern state, such as those associated with the Industrial Revolution, and so withered away as a political force. How many of the great new ideas or discoveries of the 20th century are attributable to Christianity or Islam? The question is, will Humanism remain relevant in the age of the Infotech and Biotech revolutions that are already underway?

‘A Time Bomb in the Lab’

Humanism requires the belief that we have free will, otherwise that inner voice is not really ours. However, modern science is in the process of demonstrating that we do not have free will. Humans do not appear to have a soul. Our ‘mind’ consists of genes, hormones and neurons, and it follows the same physical and chemical laws that govern the rest of reality. Our thoughts and actions are caused by electrochemical brain processes. These processes themselves either have their own physical or chemical causes or are entirely random, but we are not in control of them, so are not free to think or do whatever we want. Our behavioural characteristics are also influenced by our genes, but we cannot control our genes; they are handed down to us from our ancestors. Acting according to our desires does not make us free, because we are not free to determine our desires. This is not just speculation. Brain scanners have been used to predict people’s desires and decisions before they are aware of them. There is also the frightening prospect of being able to control other people’s desires. Experiments have been done on rats with implanted electrodes who are given the desire to carry out certain tasks by remote control. Experiments have also been done on humans to suppress certain areas of the brain, for example those linked to the feeling of depression.

Humanism, and Liberalism in particular, also requires the belief that we have a single and indivisible self. In order to make a decision we must search our feelings to find the single authentic voice of our inner self. This voice in each person is the ultimate source of authority in the world. In reality, we now know that our minds consist not of one voice but of many, and they all have different ideas. We should think of the mind as a large committee rather than a single entity. Further, we know that different parts of the brain control different things, such as voice, logical reasoning, spatial awareness, as well as the left and right sides of the body. There is no single part of the brain in overall control. The phrase ‘the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing’ has some basis in truth. We also have both an ‘experiencing self’ which is our moment-to-moment consciousness, and a ‘narrating self’ which is responsible for retrieving memories and making decisions. Unfortunately, the two do not talk to each other very well. The narrating self only remembers the peaks and ends of experiences, and ignores most of what the experiencing self has to say. Therefore, a bad experience that lasted a long time but ended well is remembered more favourably than a much briefer bad experience without the positive ending. These deficiencies can prevent us from acting in our own self-interest.

Humans have a great capacity for clinging to existing ideas even when new discoveries disprove them. However, these discoveries will not stay in the lab, but will have real consequences for how we manage society. If we have neither free will or a single inner voice, why should human experiences and feelings be the ultimate source of authority and meaning?

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