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Friday, February 2, 2018

Paradigm Shifts–The Nature Of Cultural Change And The Inevitable Evolution Towards A Post-Human World

Ever since Thomas Kuhn popularized it with his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the notion of a “paradigm shift” has led to fascinating arguments about whether this or that break with previous scientific understanding counted as one. But that a “paradigm shift”—like the “shift” from Sir Isaac Newton’s cosmology to Albert Einstein’s, or the shift from the miasma theory of disease to the germ theory of disease—is a rupture in continuity is not in much dispute. A “paradigm shift” signals a dramatic, sudden, and unexpected break in human understanding—and thus something of a new beginning (George Weigel, First Things)

The question is whether American society has undergone a paradigm shift, whether or not the fundamental characteristics which have defined America since its inception - freedom, liberty, equality, enterprise, faith, optimism, and opportunity -   are still the most telling; and no matter how it may change, such change can only be superficial   If the principles of 1776 still apply,  then the temporal shifts in political attitudes, morality, the distribution of labor and capital, and the way society is organized and individuals perceived are only small adjustments – rearrangements of the furniture but leaving infrastructure and superstructure untouched.  If these principles are simply moorings in rising waters, then a move away from sexual polarity towards a gender spectrum is indeed fundamental and structural.  More than likely it is combination of the two and that the dramatic paradigm shift towards a post-human society is a result of both tradition and modern dynamism.

Importantly, all these socio-technological phenomena are happening at the same time.  Never before in history have such fundamentally altering changes happened individually let alone all at once.  What makes American culture so radically different from any before it is that while fundamental principles may still underlie cultural change, these principles have become so pronounced if not exaggerated, that they permit and assure an elemental and irrevocable reordering of life.

Technology has no life of its own but is enabled.  While there is room for scientific genius and inspired insight, none of the major discoveries of the past 500 years could have happened without some cultural shift.  Something was happening in Europe to have encouraged the revolutionary ideas of Copernicus and the equally radical political ideas of Machiavelli – at the same time. Both in their own way reconfigured the way one looked at the world.  Machiavelli’s amorality challenged the existing social order of kings, religion, and enterprise.  There was no such thing as chivalry, family honor, divine right, or social justice.  Human nature – aggressive, territorial, self-serving, self-protective, and ultimately ambitious – was behind all political and social events.  Idealism was folly.

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Copernicus was not the first to postulate that the earth revolved around the sun and others, operating in the same early Renaissance cultural environment which enabled creative thought, had the temerity to think outside the Church, but never developed or publicized their ideas. 

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While Einstein’s genius is universally respected, to say that the concept of relativity itself was new is false. Emrys Westacott has written about the history of social and moral relativism from its early origins in Ancient Greece:

Many scholars see the first reappearance of a relativistic outlook in the writings of Montaigne, which, not coincidentally, came on the heels of the publication of Sextus’ writings in the 1560s.  In “On Custom,” Montaigne compiles his own list of radically diverse mores to be found in different societies, and asserts that “the laws of conscience which we say are born of Nature are born of custom.” (Montaigne)…

In the centuries following, further trends in modern philosophy helped prepare the way for moral relativism by chipping away at people’s faith in the objectivity of ethics.  In the 17th century, Hobbes argued for a social contract view of morality that sees moral rules, like laws, as something human beings agree upon in order to make social living possible. An implication of this view is that moral tenets are not right or wrong according to whether they correspond to some transcendent blueprint; rather, they should be appraised pragmatically according to how well they serve their purpose.

Hume, like Montaigne, was heavily influenced by ancient skepticism, and this colors his view of morality.  His argument, that prescriptions saying how we should act cannot be logically derived from factual claims about the way things are, raised doubts about the possibility of proving the correctness of any particular moral point of view.  So, too, did his insistence that morality is based ultimately on feelings rather than on reason…

Image result for images montaigne

Perhaps most importantly Westacott writes of the influence of relativism on scientific inquiry.

With the remarkable progress of science in the 19th and 20th centuries, the fact-value distinction became entrenched in mainstream philosophy and social science.  Science came to be seen as offering value-neutral descriptions of an independently existing reality; moral claims, by contrast, came to be viewed by many as mere expressions of emotional attitudes.  This view of morality suggests that all moral outlooks are on the same logical plane, with none capable of being proved correct or superior to all the rest…These philosophical ideas prepared the ground for moral relativism mainly by raising doubts about the possibility of demonstrating that any particular moral code is objectively correct.  But anthropological research in the 19th and 20th centuries also encouraged relativism.  Indeed, many of its leading contemporary champions from Franz Boas to Clifford Gertz have been anthropologists…

In a culture where not only have traditional values eroded but also the universal respect for anything traditional, it is not surprising that without the moral underpinnings of the past, anything goes.  If prospective parents could choose from a catalogue of registered DNA – Michael Jordan’s athletic ability, Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty, the genius of Watson and Crick, or the talent of Shostakovich – then why wouldn’t they? Why wouldn’t they opt for a designer baby to exactly suit their fantasies? 

Why should anyone be content with the hand life has dealt them and not opt for the personalized, ideal world of virtual reality.  When mind and computer are finally linked, reality will have no more meaning.  if there is no distinction between virtual and ‘real’ worlds, why would anyone choose the latter? Why not dine with Louis XIV in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles or make love to an Indian princess?

The two technological advances – virtual reality (artificial intelligence) and the manipulation of the human genome – will permanently alter human character, personality, and society.  We will be unrecognizably different from all who have lived before us.

The point is that this radical paradigm shift could never have happened without the conditioning, enabling factors of culture; and in the case of America, these factors have always been there but are now expressed in more significant ways.  Our individualism, enterprise, dismissal of history in favor of opportunity, and our willingness to always grant corporate, commercial interests their sailing lanes, we are the enabling factors for eventual revolutionary technological change and ultimate paradigm shifts. We willingly give up our cookies to marketers and corporate interests because we like the personalization that they guarantee.  We barely stop to question this exaggerated mediation of normal enterprise.  We have no moral qualms about genetic modification because it can eliminate disease and psychological pathologies so why should we have any compunctions about an improvement in ability, disposition, and temperament?  Why not tinker a bit with our DNA to produce a child to our specifications?

Given both the gender revolution and genetic engineering, sexual assignment will be a matter of choice; and with it will go the suspicion of and hostility towards sexual difference.  Rogers Brubaker author of Trans, a book about rethinking racial and gender categories said the following:

The sex vs. gender distinction allows us to distinguish the inner-gender identity from the outward sexed bodied. There’s no analogous way of separating out the inner from the outer in the domain of race. The inner-gender identity can be understood as an essence that only the person concerned can know, and can be independent of the sexed body. We just can’t think about race in that way. It is incomprehensible if I tell you that I simply feel black (Interview with Emma Green, The Atlantic 10.2.16)

Forget for a moment the academic-speak of the text.   The author is on to something, although he is unaware of it.   Genetic engineering  will change forever the way we think of race, gender, beauty, or intelligence.  No longer will we be subjected to the luck of the draw, dealt genes from long-dead ancestors, look like Gainsborough portraits in the library - the Stanton chin, the Smythe nose, or the Fairfax ‘infirmity’- and wondered where exactly we came from.

Once choice becomes the rule, obsession with difference – differently-abled, alternatively-gendered, or racially distinct – will disappear.  In any case such concerns are only a temporal phenomenon borne out of need for individuality and identity in era of intense competition and unequal distribution of resources.  No one really cares what race a person is, with whom he sleeps, or what is his national origin.  Race, gender, and ethnicity have no inherent value but are only temporary markers – insignificant in and of themselves, but important signifiers in an increasingly confusing world.

In a world of genetic choice, if you want to be black, you can be black.  If you want to be gay, be gay.

America’s paradigm shift is no different than any other, but no doubt more revolutionary.  It is the perfect complex of social, cultural, historical, and technological factors, all complementing and facilitating every other.  It is perfect.

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