All indicators suggest that humans have reached a peak state of rational thinking, able to solve any problem. We have through natural selection and the advance of civilization come to a specific set of truths, which we call axioms because they are verifiable and thus indisputable.
What happened to critical thinking?
Rationality has evolved into a forbidding concept — one without room for nuance or debate. Because of its cold factuality, it seems an iron will, fatalistically imposed upon us. It appears so self-explanatory as not to be worthy of debate. We accept a particular definition without actually taking time to explore what it is or what the consequences are. We unquestioningly accept the proclamations of authority figures and "experts" and to do otherwise invites accusations of heresy. In other words, the modern idea police have instituted a dogma. This time the expectations come not with any spiritual authority but through appeals to expertise, and when necessary ridicule and coercion.
Rationality in its essence and original definition is a state of mind rather than a mode of operating. It is a particular approach to analyzing situations rather than making decisions based on this analysis. It suggests that unbiased inquiry is the best way to understand the world, and that those findings should guide decisions. By its definition rationality does not include any other assumptions; it does suppose that anything (say, the "free market") is innate and thus unworthy of criticism or taboo for questioning. It holds nothing to be definitive. It is a critical worldview and not a complacent one (like much of science today, with its arrogance and its unacknowledged political intrigue and favoritism, both of which combine to produce flawed methodologies for gathering and disseminating information — for the former see thestudy on only a third of studies yielding the same results when reproduced, and for the latter see the study on novel findings being more like to be published than mundane ones that confirm existing understanding.
Rationality, and in turn the modern human mind, has since been corrupted by multiple forces, all of which commandeer the concept of rationality and inject their own assumptions into the definition. The apparent empirical success of these principles, as well as their reductive explanatory power, reinforces their apparent permanence.
We need to consider alternative models of human advancement, based on a bold reimagining of what is rational.
1 — Scientism
In the common understanding an explicitly scientific worldview has replaced one founded on open-ended inquiry. Modern people see science as the best or only way to understand the world, divorced from creative and intuitive pursuits. Science has arrogantly and selfishly claimed the mantle of objectivity. Gone is possibility to discover profound truths through, say, spiritual inquiry. We assume that humans are inherently biased, or subjective (to use a favorite pejorative) and thus their judgment is untrustworthy. We assume that the only way to find facts is through external verification in the natural, physical world. Intuitive understanding is taken out of consideration and all that remains for humans to rely upon is, well everything that is not human (ironic, huh?)
Scientists and their acolytes miss the possibility that the arts and spiritual inquiry can provide truths too.
They miss the many ways in which scientists are biased and science itself is subject to the same dangers of any other pursuit. Even worse, because they have consciously and pridefully commandeered the concept of rationality they suppose themselves superior and take the liberty of shutting down dissidents.
The problem extends beyond mistakes and biases of scientists themselves to the fundamentally limiting purview of the entire endeavor. Other analytical approaches have a place.
We need to explore the scientific endeavor from broader historical and societal perspectives. Attempting to isolate the production and dissemination of scientific knowledge stultifies our ability to contextualize developments, synthesizing them with those of other disciplines, and fetishizes the scientific process as infallible.
2 — Hedonism and consumerism
In the modern technocratic society, which worships technological "innovation" as the purest and grandest expression of human achievement, we view rationality in an instrumental way — for what it can provide and how it shapes actions. In particular, we are interested in consuming things. People enjoy products that make their lives easier and more stimulated. This started when large corporations, through advertising, elevated the individual to the level of a deity and advocated the gratification of every desire, placing hedonic satisfaction as the ultimate aim. This philosophical approach advances even as new products and the behaviors they encourage make people more isolated and empty. The pleasure we feel when we consume conditions us to want more, and when the pleasure fades we look for our next fix. People grow increasingly attached to products and worship their creators as visionaries. Technologists gain monikers like "innovator" because they make new things that provide artificial substitutes for what we truly need, like companionship and fulfillment. New technologies stimulate, even if for a short while and even with deadening consequences. The goal is pleasure at all costs.
Absent is an understanding that there are aims other than economic growth and corporate profit driven by consumer spending. Absent is an appreciation, respectively, for a more meaningful standard of living (which relates only loosely to GDP), income equality and small business, and forms of economic activity that do not involve consumption of products that pollute minds and the planet.
3 — Darwinism
A Darwinian model has behind it an agglomeration of empirical evidence, leaving little room for dispute. This lends it authority and with that the power to override opposing voices. Its simplicity and practicality make it easy for common people to understand; even when they question the human-specific implications they find the survival-of-the-fittest model appealing on the whole.
This is especially true in an aggressively independent Western society that values competition among individuals, evoking the gladiator match.
Creating robots in our image
Our society views competition and selfishness as the primal essence of our existence, without allowing for alternative ways of relating to the world. When we create artificial intelligence what we fear most is not that they will be vapid or annoying, but that they will wipe us out. This plays to our survival instincts and fear of death. It assumes that all conscious life — even humans comfortably removed from the vagaries of hunting and gathering — must be oriented toward self-preservation.
This model probably does not apply to all species all the time. And it certainly does not dictate the kinds of artificial constructs we can create when divorced from the constraints of immutable genetics. It does not allow for the idea, for instance, that a robot could be both perfectly rational (unbiased) and altruistic. Because we program our own selfishness and desire to dominate into our cyborgs, we perpetuate a way of thinking that is not innate in the Universe. Nothing outside of our particular form of life suggests that self-preservation is a universal or physical law. We are limited in how we simulate (or create) consciousness because we tend not to imagine alternate ways of forming individuals and societies. Because most societies through our history have been patriarchal, we assume a particularly unforgiving and masculine model for future forms of life.
Formative explorations of gene manipulation, couched in the hopes of preventing disease, have at their heart a desire to make an individual more competitive — more likely to survive and pass on their genes. We prioritize the advancement of the individual, often at the expense of the greater society. When we speak of gene manipulation we do not generally focus on correcting problematic personalities or behaviors, such as sociopathic tendencies and general selfishness. We do not think about improving our society as a whole by introducing altruistic genetic code. Again, the Western researchers who conduct the vast majority of genetic research tend to impose their individualistic worldview on our entire species when they determine which traits to boost or hinder. And wealthy individuals stand to benefit most from gene manipulation, perpetuating existing structural biases and lending those structures a further air of inevitability.
The collaborative alternative
A collaborative attitude, with no concept of selfishness or even the self, allows for societies that are not predatory or in any way competitive. Where scarcity is introduced the group distributes resources equally. No one tries to seize power because individual gainis not even a concept they are possible of comprehending. This may result in a society that does out quickly, because it cannot sacrifice the few for the many or the many for the few, but that does not make it unworthy or lesser. To assume that survival (of the individual or the species) is the ultimate goal is one particular way of understanding the world, and it does not find its roots in rational inquiry. Rationality assumes nothing and does not privilege any social structures we may erect over any other.
It is entirely possible for humans to move beyond the entrapment of their genetics to form more just societies.
4 — Globalization
The modern élite presume that urbanization (which physically forces people and businesses into in increasingly interdependent relationships), global integration (which makes economies interdependent), and Internet use (which facilitates wider if not more thoughtful distribution of ideas and goods) are more privileged ways of life and thus the innate direction of human society. After all, if humans are evolving to continually more advanced states, must not our monumental works (physical ones like skyscrapers and organizational ones like massive communicate networks) reflect how far we have come? This perversion of rationalism supposes that the metropolitan lifestyle, with its expansive outlook, is more satisfying and humane — and that living a rural lifestyle with few modern conveniences and a limited social circle is unhealthy physically and emotionally. China's push to urbanize hundreds of millions of people supposes that their lives will improve when their income and spending increase. The urban lifestyle is
In turn, self-sufficient rural communities with all needs met (but little contribution to GDP), tight-knit communities (but fewer meaningless connections), and more in-person time (but less emotionless texting) areseen as lesser forms of society in need of saving. We apply this last approach to Africa, suggesting the deployment of Internet balloons and drones and free access to Facebook as improving these people's lives when they may not have wanted such technologies in the first place. We see technology as the primary solution to problems when indeed it is the fulfillment of more basic needs like food and shelter. We literally sacrifice human lives, diverting funds from vaccine distribution to broadband penetration.
But increasing global connections result in deadening homogenization.
When people interact globally they pick up ideas and norms from diverse cultures. We used to call foreigners "exotic," but regardless of the term's offensiveness it's not even accurate in a world where different cultures are increasingly blended and less and less distinct. Ironically, when two people acting with good will learn about each other they adopt elements of the other and become more similar and thus more generic. Yet modern Western society increasingly tends to reject multiculturalism in favor of assimilation. This paradoxically discourages diversity at home while emphasizing it internationally by fetishizing foreigners as "others." Ironically, the nationalistic fervor produced by war tends to internally homogenize a society, quelling dissent in the name of patriotism.
The third way — the concept of a salad-like society with common goals and values, yet distinct subcultures — seems to fade even in the historically welcoming U.S. The concept of even mixing has produced ethnic tension in places like Eastern Europe, and religious wars in the Middle East.
We often view the melting-together of culture as inevitable, and views to maintain distinct identity as nostalgic and pointless. We suppose that a modern society must all work in a grey office tower, eat at a chain restaurant, and engage in meaningless relationships with communities of faceless acquaintances.
The Second Enlightenment
The result of these related forces is a mind that is dogmatic (and this time even more unshakable, because we have facts and figures to back it up) and indeed actively irrational. Human thought is increasingly calcifying along predictable and generic lines and we are left without many visionaries.
The purification of rationality would be an outstanding achievement, and the greatest contribution of modern society to our intellectual culture. It would be our Second Enlightenment. To do so would free us from the entirely self-imposed strictures of science worship, consumption worship, competition worship, and globalization worship. It would open our minds to alternate ways of living, less in the ironic and irreverent way of Adbusters and more in the fulfilling and earnest way of great spiritual leaders. The awakening of the public consciousness will change the structures under which we live and the systems by which we organize our lives.
More than anything, it will restore the possibilities present at the Rationality is a blank slate. It allows us to imagine anything, to layer and experiment, to reject ideas without fear and embrace new ones without hesitation.
For several hundred years we have taken for granted certain trends and come to accept them as inevitable. What will follow will be a revolution of thought that reverses course entirely (given the excesses of the current technocratic regime, an empathic rejection may be necessary). After several countries of experimentation with spiritual, self-sustaining, collaborative, local communes, we may have done enough analysis to finally conclude what the proper human life should look like.
Or we will find that rationality was itself an ethereal concept, invented to lend certain ideas legitimacy and defame others. That scientists wield their immense traditional intelligence for selfish aims. To gain power and influence — over people, over ideas
That it never existed, does not, and never will.