The Madness of Modernity

Over at Thought Experiments, Nige makes some interesting observations in Ethical Voyeurism and Selective Squeamishness about how susceptible we have become to being manipulated by video imagery–citing the gratuitous voyeuristic images that come out of disaster tele-journalism and the way footage of late abortions , and the proscribing thereof, have been used in the debate over late abortions, finishing with a reflection on how the opinions of scientists become accepted with an authority that it is not clear is merited or healthy.

And this squeamishness can have serious effects, as in the case of late abortions. Television is happy to show the most graphically grisly surgical operations, but there is a de facto blanket ban on late abortion footage, which therefore remains the preserve of the ‘pro-life’ organisations, who have, of course, plenty of it. The result is that the debate on late abortions takes place in a climate of ignorance – most of those taking part have never seen (and probably have no clear idea of) the ‘procedure’ they are discussing. Those who do know the reality are, it seems, refusing to carry on – i.e. the three-quarters of NHS doctors who won’t perform late abortions. Brown has come out clearly against cutting the time limit on abortions – and, with a touching faith in the the words of interested scientists, has presented a vote to permit embryonic stem cell research and hybridisation as, quite simply, a vote for curing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cancer. This looks to me like a fine combination of ignorance and mendacious manipulation.

I pointed out in a comment that after Hume (‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions’) we are indeed driven by sentiment using our intelligence to essentially rationalise our choices.  (And this seems to be the way we make political choices: choosing the candidate for sentimental reasons and then explaining it by reference to their policies—see Matt Yglesias’s explanation of an Achen and Bartels paper, It Feels Like We’re Thinking: The Rationalizing Voter and Electoral Democracy).  The part that gets me is the way we think we are rational but really extremely sentimental—we truly are a mystery onto ourselves, and I think this is the most alarming kind of irrationality.  (See also previous post on how the people most utterly convinced of their unassailable superiority in the rationality department may be the most irrational.)  I also remarked on how much we have blind faith in anyone wearing a white coat, every bit as much as the priests of yore.

And on queue a fellow commentator upbraids me for my heresy remarking on what difficulty we are having dragging the Islamic world out of the middle ages into the cold, clear light of modernity, the clear suggestion being that this is source of the modern ills we see in the Middle East.

This I think is perhaps a little rich, though by no means an unusual sentiment.  As far as I can see the tampering of the industrial world in the societies unfortunate to be living on top of our oil may be causing some of the problems, and note that our modern military-industrial power, our true claim to enlightened rational civilisation is entirely constructed on this oil (and, of course, a great deal of ingenuity in science and engineering).  Any how from the European carve up of the Ottoman Empire with the first British invasion of Iraq in 1914 there has been incessant corruption and meddling in the region by the Western powers with the populace being repressed brutally by the industrial nation’s client governments.  In this situation the Mosque is the best place to organise and the religion soon comes under pressure to get co-opted in the cause of restoring justice, and of course corrupted variants start to appear.

Nevertheless I can’t see the irrationality as restricted to these benighted countries.  I suspect that irrationality has never changed all that much, but what you can say for sure is that modernity is certain of its own rationality (while also being certain that people are irredeemably a seething mass of neuroses).

It seems to me that our modern intellectual landscape littered with metaphysical assumptions that are being heavily pushed by science. Try to engage an intellectual in a thoughtful discussion and a very uncomfortable feeling will rapidly descend. People don’t want to go monkeying around with that stuff thank you very much, and would much rather just accept what the modern priests are telling them (e.g., that we are composed of atoms that have emerged from a primordial soup, ultimately from a cosmic bug bang).

We would do well to bear in mind that village witch doctors, etc., get their power by mastering something, and with this power they start asserting their authority in areas that they are not at all competent in. It is not too difficult to see the same happening today.

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