To Leonard Erasmus
This is a response to a comment by Leonard Erasmus on Discussion: Fixing Modernity 2:
46:12 “It’s interesting to think how exactly did we get here. Was it just prosperity alone? Was it Christianity plus prosperity? Was it, um, you know the Frankfurt school? Like to what extent did people act into culture to get us here and to what extent did we just flow down the stream of history and end up here.”
Later on you said you have some ideas regarding the question. Would you mind sharing?
OK, I’ll try. In that quote (from me) “here” referred to the state of the modern West, and specifically our current problems.
First of all, modernity was a huge success. The industrial revolution and its consequences have not been a disaster for the human race. Modernity vastly expanded our control over nature and ourselves. Science expanded human knowledge. The industrial revolution gave us prosperity. Modern medicine eliminated the deadly childhood diseases. Birth control gave us control over reproduction. The sexual revolution “liberated” women from their dependence on men. The modern state has reduced interpersonal violence. The emerging global power structure reduced warfare. Other than the sexual revolution, which had mixed effects, those changes gave us more agency.
However, by giving us more agency, modernity made us maladapted to the environment. We didn’t evolve to live in this type of environment. Our emotions are not adapted to it.
We aren’t adapted to having this much power and freedom. We aren’t adapted to making so many choices of action. The new problems of modern civilization are problems of will and choice. The sexual revolution gave women more sexual power. This makes female choice the main obstacle to relationships and children. Women did not have this much sexual agency in the past, and so their emotions didn’t evolve to make such choices. With modern birth control, people need to choose to reproduce. Many don’t, and become biological failures by choice. Our ancestors did not have this type of control over reproduction, and so our emotions didn’t evolve to make such choices. Our brains are adapted to the problems of the past, not the problems of the modern world. This is crucial to understand.
Subjectively/philosophically, the biggest problem for the individual in modernity is finding meaning and purpose in life. Modernity doesn’t engage our emotions in the way that ancestral environments did. This brings philosophical problems into consciousness, even for the ordinary person.
Whether you view it from a biological or philosophical perspective, our individual problems involve will and choice. We have the power to solve them, but we lack the will.
The same is true for our collective problems. We must regulate our population and economy to make our civilization sustainable. If we are going to maintain the current condition of abundance, in which almost all children live to adulthood, then society has to take on the responsibility of regulating the human population and genome. In the past, nature did that job by killing children. We now have the power to do it ourselves, with reproduction control, but we lack the collective will. Likewise, we lack the collective will to solve other big problems, such as our dependence on finite resources. Collectively, we are blindly marching toward our own destruction.
Did Christianity play a role in getting us here? Yes, in that the Christian worldview was the starting point from which the current Western worldview evolved. Humanism emerged from Christianity, and inherited its substructure. The egalitarianism, pathological altruism and virtue-signaling of humanism were inherited from Christianity, at least to some extent.
Christianity isn’t to blame for the problems of modernity, but it isn’t a solution to them either. Like human emotions, Christianity worked in the past, but doesn’t work in the modern environment. The command to be charitable wasn’t a big problem when individuals paid the costs of their virtue-signaling directly, and there was no democracy to convert virtue-signaling into destructive social policies. Today, Christianity promotes pathological altruism. The beneficial parts of Christianity, such as traditional marriage, have been abandoned.
There are no traditional solutions to modern problems. Even if we could restore traditional Christianity and sexual morality, it would not solve modern problems. It would not give individuals the will to reproduce. It would not provide a moral justification for eugenic population control, or for stopping mass immigration. It would not make us shift to a zero-growth economy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. We would still be marching down the road to collapse. We’d just be carrying crosses instead of rainbow flags.
As for the Frankfurt school, I don’t think it was that important, compared to the invisible hand of cultural evolution. New technologies, such as birth control and television, were much more important in shaping the modern world. You can’t change the world just by having an idea and promoting it. The idea has to propagate on its own. Individuals create ideas, but cultural evolution selects them.
Individuals can change the course of history. For example, I believe that Hitler and Stalin affected history as individuals. However, neither Hitler nor Stalin was able to act into history. Their choices had large-scale consequences, but they did not choose the course of history. Acting into history means more than just affecting what happens. It means choosing what happens.
We got here mostly by accident. We drifted down the stream of history. Even though the stream of history is largely determined by our actions, both collective and individual, we do not control it. To get control over history, we need an explicit collective purpose, and then we must act collectively toward it.
The same is true for us as individuals. To choose your life, instead of just living it, you need an explicit purpose of life, and your actions must be governed by that purpose. Most people just float down the stream of life, without an explicit purpose.
For rationality to exist at a certain scale, there must be knowledge and agency at that scale, not just at lower scales. To choose your destiny as an individual, you must expand your awareness and will to the scale of an entire life. To choose our destiny as a civilization, we must expand our collective awareness and will to the scale of a civilization. If we do not, then we will continue to drift down the stream of history, without a purpose.