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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Inferno and the New Enlightenment

I just finished Dan Brown's Inferno. It was fast, fun, and formulaic. Very predictable in its unpredictability. This is the third book of his that I have read and they seem to all follow the same formula. But why not if it works for him?

It deals, but not very deeply, with what I think are the central ethical issues of today. These are 1) the human alteration of the earth--and so the destruction of the very condition of human existence and 2) the human alteration of the human species through genetic modification (which was what Inferno was about) and through mind-machine interface or alternative intelligence. (I just picked up a new piece of fiction, Memories of Maya, which may signal more of the latter.)

Today these issues are instanced by the assault on the earth by over-carbonization leading to climate change, by over-landuse and thoughtless planning leading to hunger and conflict, by over-population and resourcing leading to stark divisions in wealth and war. They are also instanced by the need to prepare and adapt to the negative results of a changing earth by a transhumanism through genetics and technology.

Ethics and politics that do not deal with these two issues or at least provide the foundation, tools, and context in which to deal with these two issues are severely lacking in relevance. The cultural, economic, and political patterns of human behavior and their trajectory need to be examined in relation to what humanity is doing to the earth and to itself. These include patterns of industry, technology, scientific experimentation, urbanization, mobility, education, social interaction, health care, aging, child bearing, family life, wealth distribution, and so on.

Both of these underlying, overarching, and central (to use all the spatial metaphors) issues arise from our very special human capacity to adapt and to adapt to our environment through constructible, renewable forms, i.e. what philosophers and neuroscientists call the symbolic capacity. I claim that the resolution to these issues comes from that same capacity. And it includes a new spirituality and a new epistemology that will be the basis of a new ethics and politics to guide human personal and collective behavior.  The new epistemology will be a re-understanding of "presence" (or "reality") in human knowing. The new spirituality will be a re-understanding of "transcendence" (or "faith") in human acting.

Happily, both are underway.

My friend Bob Toth with David Korten and the Contemplative Alliance, to which Bob introduced me, are dealing with the spirituality of this ethics and politics. We need to transform our religion from an otherworldly legitimization of this-worldly-destructiveness which measures success as the accumulation of consumptive power, i.e. money. And transform it to a reverence of life and of the condition for life in a living earth. Our transcendence is here and now through our constructive and collective action that goes beyond the beliefs that separate us and drive us to acquire an over abundance of resources, to fear and violate others, to resist thoughtful planning and change, to hold on to an ideology that leads to the destruction of the earth and our human existence. This spirituality is the alternative or, hopefully, the means of renewal of contemporary religions that claim absolute truth and legitimate our destructive behavior. (PS we just saw the Book of Mormon which was indeed the relativizing of religion through art and humor.)

The new epistemology is underway in philosophy in what is now called "non-dualistic constructivism." In the US, CS Peirce, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty represent this stream of thinking. In Europe, it has been pursued by Martin Heideggar, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Alain Badiou (among many others). Bernard Lonergan was my guide when I was studying  re-constructed Thomism as a Jesuit. And recently I came across a treasure in Radical Constructivism at the University of Vienna ( and the writings of Ernst van Glassfeld, Josef Miterer, and many many others. This philosophy is allied with the new science of information and is the alternative to the simplistic and reactionary philosophy of naive realism, of the empirical-idealist split, of "common sense" and "conventional wisdom." (Perhaps science fiction will make these concepts easier for the public.)

The challenge to those of us who are involved in both these movements (which are two sides of the same coin) is to inculcate it in our culture--our new common sense and conventional wisdom (recognizing that these formulations will need to be critiqued and modified as well by our successors). Once again, I suggest that the role of art and humor have key roles to play in that endeavor.

Just as new thought in science and philosophy and as alternative spiritualities from the Reformation expressed in artistic experimentation led to what we now call the Enlightenment, maybe we are on the cusp of a New Enlightenment. The Old Enlightenment radically changed our culture, politics, and economy not without struggle and pain. And it took generations for the ideas of the Enlightenment to be understood and take root. The New one needs to do the same, but hopefully more quickly and with less pain.

Or must we always need to go through the inferno to reach paradise?