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A synopsis of “The Storm of Progress,” coming in January 2024

Ch. 1: Prologue

The author recalls his attendance as a young reporter at the first international conference on the human environment, held in Stockholm in the summer of 1972. The word used by organizers of the UN-sponsored gathering to describe the problems of global warming, overpopulation, resource depletion, fragile food supplies, and pollution was “urgent.” That was half a century ago. Despite progress made in environmental science, politics, and policy prescriptions “what we now refer to as the global sustainability crisis has grown much more serious by almost every objective measurement.” Pointing to this and to current developments in AI as fruits of technological progress, the author asks, rhetorically, “what kind of ‘progress’ leads to the destruction of humanity’s basic habitat, even its basic identity?” He suggests that answers may be found in the evolution of moral discourse surrounding progress from the Enlightenment era to the present.

Ch. 2: What Science Can Teach

We survey the life and philosophy of Thomas Hobbes as an exemplar of the new, ‘modern’ thinking of the Enlightenment, sometimes called ‘the Age of Reason.’ A contemporary and acquaintance of both Galileo and Descartes, Hobbes shared with these men “a newfound confidence that it was within the grasp of human reason to know everything there is to know about the world and existence—to know, as Galileo put it, what God knows.” Thus was born the modern scientific worldview, which would rapidly replace long-standing Christian theology and the science of Aristotle in the dominant European zeitgeist. Reason, combined with observation and measurement, could provide direct access to truth, bypassing both subjective opinion and received wisdom as transmitted down the ages through folklore or ancient texts. How unfettered scientific curiosity and resultant continuous, often breathtaking, progress in science and technology would come to be seen as indispensable for human survival in a godless, hostile universe governed by chance.

Ch. 3: What Morality Can Teach

A largely unintended consequence of the Enlightenment’s scientific revolution was the eclipse of traditional Greco-Christian moral thought, based as it was in unprovable beliefs in realities like the Divine authorship of the universe and its contents, and the innate goodness of creation. There was an uneasiness among early Enlightenment thinkers about tearing down the architecture of Judeo-Christian morality without providing a workable replacement. This would lead, at first, to a strict separation of ‘natural philosophy” or science from moral philosophy and ethics. Science would deal exclusively with questions that were amenable to the scientific method of measurement and observation; questions concerning value would be left to moral philosophy and religion. But the ancient question: ‘what is good?’ proved difficult, if not impossible, to avoid. The chapter traces ideas about the nature of good from Plato and Christian theology through Baruch Spinoza and other early Enlightenment thinkers to the reasoned, rule-based moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Proof by necessity (if the factual existence of A cannot be explained without the existence of B, then B must also exist, even of not yet discovered) is examined as an ancient idea with current application to the nature and existence of good, by analogy with the recent discovery by quantum physicists of the Higgs Field, an unseeable and unmeasurable fundamental substrate of all existence. An alternative, and ultimately unsatisfying, evolutionary theory of good’s existence is provided by the American philosopher William James. The author proposes critical moral realism (CMR) as a philosophically sound, rationally satisfying approach to contemporary moral thought and ethical inquiry. Using methods of inquiry directly analogous to those of modern science, CMR claims to establish a rational equivalence between moral and scientific ‘fact.’ The key to that equivalency is the realization that both kinds of fact are ultimately reliant on unconfirmable faith in certain precepts about the nature of reality, and on the integrity of both the inquiry process and the inquirer. Both ultimately rely on durable consensus.

Ch. 4: Biology and Good

What is the source of morality? Is good “part of the primordial order of things, folded in like gravity?” The evidence that it is comes as much from modern biology as from the philosophy of thinkers from Aristotle to Augustine and other Christian theologians, to Noam Chomsky and John Rawls. Others, while acknowledging the empirical presence of Good, confine it to human experience, attributing its identification with altruism, to Darwinist processes in social evolution. Almost all agree, however, on the existence of an innate moral impulse or sensibility among humans (and perhaps other sentient creatures) that enables us to identify the concept and to examine it rationally. In studying this phenomenon, the biological sciences seem to mistake the forest for the trees: immaterial thought is often confused with its material (and measurable) precursor or accompaniment. The anthropologist’s notion of “reciprocal altruism”: (you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) is incoherent since altruism means precisely a charitable act undertaken with no thought of quid pro quo. The divine command theory of morality is examined through Plato’s illuminating Euthyphro dilemma: are morally good acts morally good because they have been willed by God, or does God will the acts because they are morally good? Evolutionary biology confronts a similar problem: can any biologically determined behaviour whatsoever be reasonably used to justify a claim of moral or immoral behaviour? The answer is of course not: morality transcends biology.

Ch. 5: The Birth of the Modern

Enlightenment, Age-of-Reason thinkers understood that much of what they were promoting as material and intellectual progress was out of alignment with the long-standing Christian-humanist worldview and its attendant moral ethos, and it worried them. The found a satisfyingly scientific stand-in in a surprising place, in an embryonic theory of commercial enterprise and economic production, a new social science that would come to be called economics. The contributions of proto-economists like Francis Bacon, René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Bernard Mandeville are examined. A shared understanding of moral good as that which satisfies human needs and desires emerges. It fit well with Reformation notions of the sovereignty of the individual, which made the Protestant church a potential ally of emergent free-market capitalism. The system is codified and institutionalized for the ages by Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations) and the classical economists. It would soon be mathematized and further entrencched by neo-classical theorists.

Ch. 6: Mechanizing Virtue: The Fabulous Free Market

A brief biography of Adam Smith, and a detailed look at his widely-shared dogma that human self-interest is a far more powerful, and useful, motivator of human action than charity or altruism. How the “invisible hand” governing capitalist markets channels self-interest into communal welfare, so long as markets are kept free from state or religious interference. The new Utilitarian philosophy of J.S. Mill and Jeremy Bentham captures the imagination of economists and social scientists and lends academic prestige to popular notions of self-interest as the fundamental motivator of human behaviour. Bentham’s Panopticon and his fascination with surveillance as a discipling force in society provides an ominous foreshadowing of the economics of our own time.

Ch. 7: Darwin, Smith, and Kant: Tackling the Alignment Problem

The alignment problem considered in detail: the manufacturing of a synthetic, materialist, moral framework for modern society. Darwinism and utilitarianism combine to provide a modernising transition to a strictly secular moral worldview in which motivation for human action would be moved from external causes to internal, psychological impulses. Essentially deterministic, the theory invites reduction to mathematical theorems. “Salutary discipline,” social disciplining in a Darwinian environment, is used to account for the otherwise improbable historical fact of societal development, and, incidentally, to justify worldwide imperialism of the age. Economists and other social scientists find a new role in shaping societal institutions to make efficient use of human “passions” as described by early sociobiologists. Salutary discipline is reimagined and repurposed as the “work ethic” of economic theorists, which makes remunerative employment for every individual a moral as well as a social imperative. Labour becomes a commodity; labourers a resource input whose cost (wages) is governed by market dynamics. An aside acknowledges that neither Smith nor Darwin accepted utilitarian definitions of morality: each believed that the foundations of genuine morality lay outside the natural processes studied by scientists. But neither offered an alternative explanation for the nature and existence of good.

Ch. 8: The Alignment Problem Resolved: Economics as a Moral Science

How economic theory is transformed into “natural law,” in conformity with Smith’s theory of economic markets as natural phenomena; natural law as Divinely ordained, and therefore morally sound. Economic markets thus produce not only material wealth, but also moral welfare. Economist Stanley Jevons solidifies the discipline’s scientific status by equating the utilitarian’s “pleasure” or satisfaction of desire with market price of the desired commodity. In his revolutionary “marginal utility” theory the value of a thing is henceforth to be determined by its selling price in a free market: value = price. The essentially religious approach to market theory as demonstrated in the fundamentalist libertarian economics of Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek, and the shift in focus from (abstract) ends to (calculable) instrumental means. Herbert Spencer’s enormously popular philosophy defining Darwinian evolution in humanity as an ineluctable path to perfection, makes the “survival of the fittest” a moral imperative. He and his followers saw liberal economic markets as a powerful accelerator of this weeding-out process now often called “social Darwinism.” The rise of 20th century meritocracy is traced to its origins in Reformation-era Protestant theology, to the supremacy of reason, the triumph of the individual. But meritocracy devolves into a new caste system, breeding resentment among unprivileged ‘losers.’ Research shows the modern market is failing as a generator of happiness via the fulfilment of material desires, especially by its promotion of atomic individualism and the nuclear family. Social media, ostensibly community-generating technologies, amplify anomie for many if not most users: “…it is safe to say that the atomized individual stripped of familial and community support is a much easier target for all kinds of organization and control,” including the market itself, political populism, and on-line tribalism.

Ch. 9: The Cyber-Corporation: A Transformative Technology

The modern business corporation is presented as “the greatest triumph to date for neo-classical economic theory and liberal market capitalism… the most successful and deeply influential experiment in cybernetic machine intelligence undertaken prior to computer science’s development of machine learning and large language AI models.” A brief history of the evolution of the business corporation as an avatar for classical economic theory’s imaginary “rational economic agent.” The term cyber-corporation highlights their identity as largely autonomous hybrid machine/human entities that regulate their own operations through feedback from their environment. A detailing of the legal history of corporations from mid-19th century to present highlights the successful struggle to attain legal status of natural personhood for corporations, and the profound legal/social implications of this achievement. As rational economic agents by design, cyber-corporations represent individual, self-interested shareholders by prioritizing return on investment. Corporate philanthropy is limited (by law) to those expenditures which will eventually serve the shareholders’ best interests—ROI. How corporations surveil and control the behaviour of employees and managers, in the best utilitarian tradition. A parallel is drawn between existential risk involved in unregulated development of general-intelligence AI and the social and environmental damage caused by intelligent, reward-oriented cyber-corporations. How AI managed by cyber-corporations multiplies the risk. “We have, in effect, two distinct communities in the heart of the nation — the corporate and the human — and their values are profoundly in conflict.”

Ch. 10: The Tragedy of the Commons

The examination of the cyber-corporation continues. Garrett Hardin’s seminal essay of the same name raises the alarm in a widely publicized, if inaccurate, parable about the looming environmental crisis in the 1970s. Hardin is profiled; his essay’s popularity among newly-minted environmentalists is attributed to its apparent refutation of free market capitalism ideology and the notion of communal welfare tied to individual self-interest through Smith’s invisible hand. “The inherent logic of the commons,” he said, “remorselessly generates tragedy;” the shared natural environment is just such a commons. While human behaviour in historical perspective tends to refute Hardin’s thesis, corporate behaviour reinforces it. An exploration of corporate social responsibility as mere financial prudence. Corporate lawyer Jamie Gamble as witness for the prosecution: “corporations are legally obligated to act like sociopaths.”

Ch. 11: Are We Good? The Mystery of Morality Within Us

A return to the book’s basic theme: are we (morally) good, or are we fundamentally and incorrigibly self-interested creatures? The evidence on both sides is examined in detail: observed egoism is mainly behaviour imposed not by Darwinist instinct but by survival conditions in modern capitalist society. Research supports the existence of an innate moral impulse within humans, and perhaps other animals. Which raises the difficult question, if there is an innate impulse to do good, to be for the other, as philosophers from Plato to Kant and modern scientific researchers, insist, what is good? What is the foundation of the impulse? Kant’s categorical imperative, John Rawls and Noam Chomsky’s “innate moral grammar” examined. Modern physics and its paradoxes suggest that ultimate realities like the existence of good may be simultaneously unprovable and undeniable.

Ch. 12: Pursuing Post-Human Perfection

Examining the “hard” and “soft” technologies that typify late-stage market capitalism and help define progress. “To date, the goals championed by these era-defining developments have been humanistic in that they involved a claim to improving the human condition. But there is an argument to be made that, historically, their effect has been, at least in part, the opposite. What emerges … can only be called a dehumanizing trend… a long struggle to re-shape human behaviour to conform with the demands of our technologies.” AI as the most recent, and perhaps ultimate stage in this process. New industrial processes, beginning with the 19th century industrial revolution, created a need for new approaches to efficient management of labour as a resource input. It’s seen as a problem for engineers. “Taylorism,” “Fordism” and “industrial relations” approaches lead to “social capitalism” and automation in the workplace, all intended to rationalize human productivity. The need to expand consumption to match improvements in production leads to the creation of consumer culture fueled by scientific/psychological approaches to advertising as an “instrument of social manipulation.” Wartime advances in computer engineering lead to information theory and to a parallel conception of humans as machine-like cybernetic systems. … “cybernetics was supplying the past pieces for the four-hundred-year-old theoretical model of a rational, mechanistic, deterministic world.” The role of humanity in the new global “surveillance economy” fuelled by on-line data trails.

Ch. 13: The End Game

The post-war search for artificial intelligence, based on Thomas Hobbes’ 16th c. dictum “reasoning is but reckoning.” The Turing test proposes that there is no qualitative difference between human thought and a convincing machine-imitation. Chat GPT does exactly that. A critique of that position, based on the embodiment of human intelligence in David Bohm and Michael Polanyi’s ideas of the “deep structure” of human thought as a social phenomenon, and the idea of “tacit knowledge.” Post-humanism argues that “once evolution has created human intelligence through natural selection … it is only a matter of time before that intelligence creates smart technology, which creates super-intelligence within super-computers, and teaches itself how to learn independently.” The next step is for super-intelligence to supplant, and control, humanity. A critique of the “inevitable” evolutionary process examines the nature of both intelligence and consciousness. A probable future for artificial general intelligence (AGI).  A recapitulation: the argument for the reality of good (critical moral realism) and the validity of moral inquiry; the modern corporate sources of technological change. “The challenge is to bridge the gap between modernity’s version of progress and a more humane definition in a way that does not stifle positive technical development and its beneficial products, while at the same time defending core human moral aspirations in their application.”

Epilogue

A discussion of the differences, and similarities, between scientific knowledge and religious faith. In both cases, even the most disciplined observers and inquirers must “meet the universe halfway;” they must accept the existence of certain unprovable premises (realities) which will determine the legitimate methodologies of inquiry. Ideally, they will accept that all human inquiry is, given the limits to human reason and intellect, imperfect, and that our most solid certainties amount to, in the end, strong consensus over time. “The great defect of science as it came to be practiced in the twilight of religious authority in Europe is its refusal to accept that the knowledge it provides is incomplete, and for that reason potentially endangering.” Modern critical moral realism (CMR) provides way to incorporate issues of value and meaning into coherent factual inquiry. The best of both science and religious inquiry recognizes that human knowledge is (can only be) provisional, and that it is critically important to maintain open dialogue and discussion between our two most reliable methods of inquiry into truth.

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