Meditate Against the Machine

I have been interested in philosophy and psychology ever since I didn’t study them at university. Recently, I’ve been delving more deeply into moral philosophy, which straddles both disciplines. I reread “After Virtue” by Alasdair Macintyre, a book which greatly impressed me when I first read it over twenty years ago, and was more convinced than ever that his diagnosis of the crisis in morality is right: we took a wrong turn in the Enlightenment when we tried to base morals on a purely rationalist foundation.

Before the Enlightenment, morality was all about virtue, and the key philosopher was Aristotle. But with the advent of Immanuel Kant with his Categorical Imperative and Jeremy Bentham with his Utilitarianism, morality became more a question of rational deliberation than about the development of good character.

The two main modern schools of moral thought are deontology (Kantian ethics of obligation) and consequentialism (utilitarian calculations of utility). Although they differ in their approaches and conclusions, they are both more interested in hypothetical moral problems than in moral qualities. They try to answer the question, “what should one do in such and such a situation?”, by applying a rule or a calculus of maximum benefit and minimum harm. The focus is on the action and its consequences, not on the agent.

Moral thinking has shifted from Aristotelian “character ethics” to “quandary ethics”. It doesn’t matter who is in the quandary. All that matters is that the right course of action is carried out. And the right course of action is ultimately the result of a rational process. So, on this basis, it is conceivable that in the future it would be perfectly possible to invent an app that could calculate the best course of action in any given situation.

I find the reduction of the classical virtues, regardless of the specific list, to a single rational principle a bit disturbing. What was this move in the service of? Efficiency? Logic? Science? I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that Bentham was probably on the autism spectrum and that Kant might have been as well.

That got me thinking about the logical positivists, who dominated philosophy in the first half of the twentieth century and the behaviourists, who dominated psychology. Were they on the autism spectrum as well? They certainly had a ridiculously narrow and mechanistic view of humanity.

Coupled with the rise and rise of science and technology in the last two hundred years, and the meteoric rise of computer scientists in defining the culture (many of whom are definitely on the spectrum), I couldn’t help wondering if there was a worrying trend in our conception of ourselves and in the direction of our self actualisation as a species.

If we think of ourselves as rational machines, might we not become rational machines? A rational machine has a mind and a body, and an odd admixture of mind and body it calls “feelings”. And that’s basically it. Rational machines make decisions and moral choices according to rational considerations, though usually with a little tug-of-war between “head” and “heart”. But they soon starts to look uncannily like philosophical zombies or robots, once “head” and “heart” are reduced to clever algorithms.

The traditional human being has more psychological options than the modern one. It can think and it can feel, but it can do other things too. It can “believe”, not in an intellectual sense, which is just an act of reason, but as a completely distinct psychological category. “Belief” in this sense is not an act of reason but a leap of faith (or a “leap into faith” as Kierkegaard put it). It is no accident, therefore, that the advent of high modernity was accompanied by the “death of God” and the psychological atrophying and neglect of our capacity for belief.

The same is true of “awareness” or “mindfulness” (which has fortunately been revived in recent decades through its importation from the East), and our capacity for “will-power” and “flow”, which is the ability to enter a state of absorption or trance.

The modern human being has sacrificed these capacities and abilities on the altar of science and technology and has been fooled by modern philosophers and psychologists into thinking that they don’t really exist and that human beings should forget about them and aspire instead to be as close to rational machines as possible.

We have sold our souls and our wills, as well as our minds and hearts. We have forgotten the light of the soul, the strength of the will, and the powers of the mind and heart. We have forgotten the virtues: the virtues of the soul, personified in the king archetype, the virtues of the will, embodied in the warrior archetype, the virtues of the mind exemplified by the philosopher archetype and the virtues of the heart, represented by the monk archetype. We have exchanged virtue ethics for rational ethics, and Virtue itself for Reason.

Nor is there room for the mystic archetype or the shaman archetype in the modern conception of the rational human being. “Belief” and “trance” (or “flow”) are anachronistic and archaic qualities that have no place in a world of rational machines. There is no room for God or Spirit in this world.

So it seems that we have come to a fork in the road of history. We can accept our fate and be absorbed into the monistic rational information system of Dataism, and sacrifice the rest of our humanity to the gods of science and technology. Or we can rediscover and reaffirm our waning humanity and meditate against the machine.