December 09, 2010

"These seeming anchorages are themselves but floating seaweed"

Attention conservation notice: Yet more ramblings about social thought and science fiction, including a long quotation from a work of philosophy written half a century ago, and some notions I already aired years ago, when writing about Lem and Sterling.

People on the Web are interested in the Singularity: who knew? Further to the question, and especially to Henry Farrell's post (on Patrick Nielsen Hayden's post on my post...), a long passage from Ernest Gellner's Thought and Change (University of Chicago Press, 1965). This comes as Gellner — a committed liberal — is discussing the "undemonstrability of our liberal values".

The ethical models which do happen to be relevant in our time and are applicable, partly at least, it is argued, include the Rail and the "Hypothetical Imperative" (target) type: the view that certain things are good because inevitable, and some others are such because they are means to things whose desirability cannot in practice be doubted (i.e. wealth, health and longevity rather than their opposites).

Their application gives us as corollaries the two crucial and central values of our time — the attainment of affluence and the satisfaction of nationalism. "Affluence" means, in effect, a kind of consummation of industrial production and application of science to life, the adequate and general provision of the means of a life free from poverty and disease; "nationalism" requires, in effect, the attainment of a degree of cultural homogeneity within each political unit, sufficient to give the members of the unit a sense of participation. [CRS: I omit here a footnote in which Gellner refers to a later chapter on his theory of nationalism.]

The two logical paths along which one can reach these two conclusions, which in any case are hardly of staggering originality, are not independent of each other: nor are these two modes of reason very distinct from the general schema of the argument of this book — the attempt to see what conclusions are loosely implicit — nothing, alas, is implicit rigorously — in a lucid estimate of our situation.

These two data or limitations on further argument do not by any means uniquely determine either the final form of industrial society, or the path of its attainment. This is perhaps fortunate: it is gratifying to feel that doors remain open. The difficulties stem perhaps from the fact that they are too open, philosophically. If we look back at the logical devices men have employed to provide anchorages for their values, we see how very unsatisfactory they are: these seeming anchorages are themselves but floating seaweed. The notion of arguing from given desires and satisfactions (as in Utilitarianism), from the true nature of man (as in the diverse variants of the Hidden Prince doctrine, such as Platonism), from a global entelechy, or the notion of harmony, etc., are all pretty useless, generally because they assume something to be fixed which is in fact manipulable. But our needs are not fixed (except for certain minimal ones which are becoming so easy to satisfy as to pose no long-term problem). We have no fixed essence. The supposed anchorage turns out to be as free-floating as the ship itself, and usually attached to it. They provide no fixed point. That which is itself a variable cannot help to fix the value of the others.

This point has been obscured in the past by the fact that, though it was true in theory, it was not so in practice: human needs, the image of man, etc., were not changing very rapidly, still less were they under human control.

This openness, combined with a striking shortage of given premisses for fixing its specific content, gives some of us at any rate a sense of vertigo when contemplating the future of mankind. This vertigo seems to me somehow both justified and salutary. Once it was much in evidence: in a thinker such as H. G. Wells, futuristic fantasies were at the same time exercises in political theory. Today, science fiction is a routinised genre, and political theory is carefully complacent and dull — and certainly not, whatever else might be claimed for it, vertiginous. But whilst it is as well to be free of messianic hopes, it is good to retain some sense of vertigo.

This openness itself provides the clue to one additional, over-riding value — liberty, the preservation of open possibilities, both for individuals and collectively.

There is a lot that could be said about this — the difference between this sort of anti-foundationalism and, say, Rorty's; Gellner's confidence that satisfying minimal human needs is, or soon will be, a solvable problem is something I actually agree with, but oh does it ever sound complacent today; and so for that matter does his first person plural — but I want to focus on the next to last bit, about science fiction. It was pretty plain by, oh, 1848 at the latest that the kind of scientific knowledge we have now, and the technological power that goes with it, radically alters, and even more radically expands, the kind of societies that are possible, lets us live our lives in ways profoundly different from our ancestors. (For instance, we can have affluence and liberty.) How then should we live? becomes a question of real concern, because we have, in fact, the power to change ourselves, and are steadily accruing more of it.

This, I think, is the question at the heart of science fiction at its best. (This meshes with Jo Walton's apt observation that one of the key aesthetic experiences of reading SF is having a new world unfold in one's mind.) Now it is clear that the vast majority of it is rehashing familiar themes and properties, and transparently projecting the social situation of its authors. I like reading that anyway, even when I can see how it would be generated algorithmically (perhaps just by a finite-state machine). Admittedly, I have no taste, but I actually think there is a lot to be said for this sort of entertainment, which has in any case been going on for quite a while now. (As I may have said before, TV Tropes is the Morphology of the Folk-Tale of our time.) But sometimes, SF can break beyond that, to approach the question What should we make of our ourselves? with the imagination, and vertigo, it deserves.

Update, later that afternoon: Coincidentally, Paul McAuley.

Manual trackback: Crooked Timber (making me wonder if I shouldn't also file this under "incestuous amplification"!)

The Great Transformation; Scientifiction and Fantastica

Posted at December 09, 2010 15:34 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth