Imagine “It’s Getting Better All the Time”

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
August 29th, 2014


He and his colleagues were making movies of the mind as it worked! They’d come up with objective proof that the mind was not some abstract equivalent of the soul free-floating in the inner ether, it was organic. An astonishingly complex network of neurotransmitters within the brain. Different sectors of the brain lit up when someone was asked to look at an object or listen to a piece of music… Dreams had been filmed, even thoughts had been captured and photographed …The visions of the prophets, the songs of the poets, even Einstein’s sublime equation, all were born of miniscule charges crackling through the cranial soup …“And we have the whole spectrum of emotions to deal with,” Walt went on. “Poets have been trying to tell us what they are and why we feel them for centuries. They’ve had their shot, three thousand years of it. Now it’s our turn, science’s turn. By sometime early in the next century we might be able to define love with precision. Diagram it.”

— Philip Caputo, in the novel, Equation for Evil

The paradigm that sees human affairs — and even cosmic processes — as a war between good and evil has deep roots, originating with the first agricultural civilizations. It was then that the concept of evil arose, mirroring the growing oppositional relationship to nature implicit in the taming of the wild.

The war of good versus evil was never anything but a lie. The concept of evil is perhaps the greatest servant of evil. “Is there such a thing as evil?” I was once asked. “Before you asked, the answer was no. After you asked, the answer is yes.” 

We embark on a journey of Separation in all its forms, we reach its extreme, and we come back to Union at a higher level of complexity, enriched by our journey. 

For all of us, the time is coming for that [separated] part of ourselves to bow out [the part seeing evil in other people], so that we can step into service, into trust, and, collectively, into the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible.

— Charles Eisenstein, Synchronicity, Myth, and New World Order

How could humanity improve?

I continue with my topic begun a month ago, on the subjects of human nature and progress in history. I have taken my stand: I do not believe humans are in a march of progress to perfect ourselves over time. I have cited authors with both divergent and harmonious views.

Now I ask the question, just suppose we could make progress, how would it be done?

Religions have often taken on the task of shepherding human behaviour so as to channel it into patterns deemed acceptable, appropriate, and beneficial to society by sanctioning some behaviours with the blessing of supernatural beings. As my epitaph above notes, “prophets and poets” have not altered humans over 3,000 years, and some would argue that their time has passed and it is the turn of our sciences to take on the duty of making humans better.

John Lennon’s song “Imagine” is an anthem to the poets’ dream that humans can change their minds just by wanting to. All we have to do, according to this view, is decide we want to end war, greed and a host of other evils, and we begin to make it happen. That is a view of human agency I simply do not believe to be true.

Materialist science of the Western tradition, with its methods of experiment and observation, with its self-evident success at generating technologies of immense power, might alter us where teachers, priests and philosophers have failed.

I cited John N. Gray last column, for his view that there is some “fixity in human nature” and that it is against the evidence of history that we make progress. Yet Gray accepts that there is an accumulation of knowledge in our sciences and that is a type of progress; by adding fact to fact, more is known each decade, and more material effects can be produced from scientific applications to technology, medicine, human biology and so forth.

Could science indeed improve humanity and take it out of the “fixity” of its nature? I think it could. I think the course of study in human consciousness by neuroscientists, with their tools of chemistry, biology, electronics and microscopically-small nano-machinery, can make humans different. Better? Aye, there’s the rub.

Maybe we would not be exactly human after the changes engineered by science, as I said last column: “I do not rule out some genetic alteration of our being such that we cannot be violent to one another, and thus we may eradicate war. But then I am not sure the same word, human, should be applied to that being of the future.”

When we are like gods, who will choose the fate of humans?

I can easily foresee miraculous advances in our sciences such that a new, improved human brain and body is possible. Science fiction authors have had great fun with this idea.*

Suppose we can improve memory, and intelligence, and suppress fear and anxiety, and increase feelings of general benevolence toward other humans, all with chemicals and surgical changes to our brains? Perhaps even genetic modification and nanotechnology will be part of the solution to the problem of defective humanity.

The procedures are vastly expensive, consuming mammoth resources in order to make possible the hospitals and research laboratories, plus payment for the doctors, chemists, technicians, and so on, who staff the institutions where the work is done. Who will receive the benefits?

Who gets the benefits now of the very best in medical care and technological breakthroughs? The top few per cent of society, of course. Why would the future be any different?

The material of the mysterious

An argument can be made that humans have a material basis for their conscience. That is to say, there is a part of the brain’s grey matter, a dedicated sector of neurons, which deal with questions of right and wrong. Destroy that, and a person has no moral sense, is in effect a sociopath or psychopath.

A wonderful example from history might stand as an experiment for the truth of this proposition. In 1848, an American railway worker by the name of Phineas Gage had an accident with machinery that resulted in a piece of metal piercing through his head, yet leaving him able to get up and walk and talk within minutes. But something had changed in Gage. He had been a man who never swore, was cheerful, dutiful, a good worker and a friend of many. After the accident he was profane, lazy, bad-tempered, alcoholic, and soon lost all his friends.

What happened to the former Gage? Did the accident take away a part of the brain absolutely essential for a person to have a “conscience”? That has been some people’s conclusion.

The implication for mind, brain, and consciousness studies is intriguing. Ignore the brain’s chemistry or nutrition, the mind’s life-experience or education, a person can be altered at once by loss of a piece of matter. The addition of other pieces of matter, or of nano-mechanisms inside the brain, planted by surgery, can produce similar enormous effects: this seems self-evident.

The Lords of Mind

I return to the issue of who will be responsible for the decisions guiding the transformation of the human species by the application of neuro-scientific discoveries to pharmaceutical, surgical and biological manipulation of our brains.

We already know who directs the drug companies’ research: market forces. Where there is a demand for a drug and consumers who will pay, there will be profits to be made. Governments regulate the industry to some degree, and colleges of physicians and their codes of ethics, have some influence.

One can imagine other forces stimulating research, other than what the buying public desires for its needs and wants. For example, the demand for changes that make a soldier fearless, instantly obedient to commands, and physically faster and stronger than a normal human, is a demand that comes from somewhere other than the market of consumer.

Manipulating people to be less aggressive in civil society might be the aim of some passionate moralists who want humanity to be better. Humans who are more compassionate to others and to all living things, who are more conscientious about the environment or social justice, might be next on the agenda of how to build a better human species…

Is it ethical to suppress a person’s natural fear? Who decrees how much intelligence we ought to possess, or memory, or artistic ability, that might be made possible by science? Is it right to make soldiers who are fearless and obey commands implanted in their psyches?

Again, who will make the decisions? The same people who rule us now. Human nature will become subject to artificial changes, but the humans who are in charge are the same old model. Who has ruled us within democratic, capitalist social order? There has been a ruling class, as there has usually been in earlier historical societies.

The experiment of a prosperous, free, leisured, mass middle class in the West

We in Canada and the rich nations of the OECD have been privileged to be part of an experiment in human transformation without any single person in control of the experiment. I mean of course the experiment of the last 200 years, roughly since industrial capitalism began in England. This economic and political system meant that hitherto-impossible levels of material affluence have been spread across the majority of West Europe and North America.

For all of recorded human history, there have been aristocracies who lived the best lives, and a host of people who lived with much-less opportunity, but the experiment in a new kind of economy change the historic paradigm of a very few rulers and a mass of subjects.

There is still a ruling class over us, within democratic capitalism. The masters of capitalism are not you and I, consumers and workers. Our system is predicated on a growth paradigm for the men who take obscene profits. Growth means we have to keep consuming, and new things to make us buy have to be constantly brought to market. That is the basis of our rulers’ power.

The rulers have created appetites among us for the things they wish to sell us. Marketing, advertizing, fashion, celebrity, are all necessary parts of our system, to make it function in the endless-growth paradigm. All of those are artificial. All are a manipulation of human consciousness. But we do not have an aristocracy over us, which used to be the norm.

We who are middle class, having no aristocratic basis for our social status and wealth, are the result of the experiment. What we have done with our leisure, good health, useable wealth and opportunity is a fair reflection of what the human species is capable of, within the limits of its natural endowments of benevolence, conscience, desire and intelligence.

I cannot write the next lines without making some judgment of just what the consequences of our experiment in freedom and wealth have produced. The material facts are much easier to set forth than the assessment of their “worthiness” or “goodness” – the fact of good health, wealth, and long life is easy to state, the way in which humanity has made use of its good fortune is not at all easy to weigh in any balance.

The West has seen an amazing flowering of culture and education for mass numbers of its population. Near-universal literacy, democratic government, the near-elimination in rich countries of dire poverty, and the incredible advances in medicine and the care of our health, cannot be judged as anything but great benefits to humanity.

You know what I will say next. “But.”

At the end of the 200-year experiment in middle class freedom and plenty, the world does not correspond to the image of progressive change. What good has come from capitalism and science has had a dark side, the unintended consequence of our blessings.

Freedom and technology

The freedom we have had from driving personal automobiles is a real freedom – I have loved my cars for good reason, as they seemed to me to liberate me from many limitations and opened vistas of opportunity I have enjoyed immensely. And we all know the dark side of automobile emissions, to say nothing about the economic effect of the car industry and its ugly offspring of blighted cities and freeways scarring the land. Wars fought for petroleum sources are, quite rightly, called an effect of our love affair with the car.

The culture of this postmodern age is hard to judge. It seems to me our digital technologies now occupying so much time and attention are not beneficial for human consciousness nor for human freedom, but that is an opinion many do not share. The love of technology is with us now as strongly as in the 1950’s, when we were just beginning our slavery to the automobile.

No one has written more eloquently about our story of progress than Charles Eisenstein, and I refer readers to his works for more detail on why the world, as we have built it, must be transformed utterly. My point in this description of the 200-year experiment with material wealth, health, and leisure is only this: to change humans with the new neuroscience techniques available is not going to solve all our problems. A new improved human, a homo sapiens melior, will produce a social and physical world with problems as yet unforeseen.

Conclusions: if we cannot be perfect, can we be better?

Eisenstein is certain we are on the very threshold of transition to a better time, as readers can see from the epigraph to this column. Other people have begun to speak the language of a great transformation at hand. Online sites such as The Tipping Point and Global Coherence Initiative are dedicated to bringing “the quantum leap in human consciousness. “

Anyone who knows the history of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century in Western Europe and America can find the same language of fabulous hope, optimism, and confidence in progress written two centuries ago. True Believers in the religion of human perfectibility have been around a very long time.

For myself, I am content to draw my horizons in very close to myself, to think more about the few people I can actually touch and see and speak to face to face, when I consider how to make a better world.

Politics has not entirely left my consciousness, and I am seeking election in the near future. I think very globally about politics, but I will always measure my true progress not in political success, not in the effect of a policy or the way taxes are spent, but in my personal relations.

“And in the end, the good you make, is equal to the good you take into yourself” …to paraphrase the Beatles on Abbey Road.

*Two authors I recommend very highly for visions of a plausible future:

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World. The classic vision of a utopia of drugs, free love, eugenics, and social planning. Old but unsurpassed.

Richard Morgan, Market Forces, and Thirteen. Two novels written much more recently.

Charles Jeanes is a Nelson-based writer. The previous edition of Arc Of The Cognizant can be found here.

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