What Rough Beast
… its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(W.B. Yeats, "The Second Coming")
[This is a curiosity piece: the first piece of opinion writing at any length that I ever had published.
I was an undergraduate in the Mathematics Department at University College, London for the three academic years from September 1963 to July 1966. One of my classmates, Peter Nalder, was a member of the college's Humanist Society. He invited me to write something for that Society's magazine, Ethic. This is the piece I wrote.
I am not sure of the date, although it must be somewhere in that 1963-1966 range. Peter Nalder and I both graduated and left University College in the summer of that latter year.
In mid-2023, when there was much talk about Artificial Intelligence in the air, I noted in my monthly diary for April that I had predicted AI+ — Artificial Super-intelligence — more than fifty years previously in the first piece I ever wrote for publication — this piece.
I admitted to mild vexation at not having kept the piece and noted that I had located an index reference to Ethic in the archives of Harvard Divinity School library. I could not find a way to download the actual article online, though, and concluded that "Cambridge, Mass. is too far to go to salve a mild vexation."
A kind reader who lives close to that library did the legwork for me and emailed me the article. Neither the library index entry nor the article is dated, but the article is decorated with a 1967 cartoon from the London Times newspaper, which is anomalous. The magazine cover, also undated, bears the title Ethic 5 and University Humanist (Bulletin 21), whereas I remember the title just as Ethic — another anomaly. It may be a later reprint of Ethic for wider circulation among humanist societies elsewhere.
As to the content of my article … Well, reading it again now, nearly sixty years later, I'm not as embarrassed as I thought I would be; but not many of us are as smart at age 21 as we think we are.
The reference to AI+ is in the penultimate paragraph.]
If there is a least common denominator of all philosophy, it is the injunction "know thyself": if there is a lesson to be learned in twentieth-century materialism, it is that men have never been in closer touch with reality, and never further removed from self-knowledge. The crisis is acute, and the time is now approaching — if it has not already arrived — when the rate of change of our societies will exceed the rate of adaptibility of human culture, and men will be lost in an incomprehensible world. How can we refashion our ethic so that we (or, at least, some of us) escape this fate? I will try to answer this question from the point of view of personal belief.
In the first place it is necessary to demolish the idea of "progress" as it is commonly understood. The notion that mankind has improved himself by proceeding from stone axes to automobiles is based on a false analogy with Darwinian evolution, as can be seen by comparing the following situations.
- Among the eskimos of Siberia there is a rite during which the priest — under the influence of an
hallucinogenic — "travels" to the moon, afterwards reporting his visit to the tribe.
- In America, an unemployed man reads in his morning paper that astronauths have landed on the moon.
Among the primitive (i.e. hunter-gathering or pastoral) populations that still exist, complete integration and identification with the social ethic is universal; the ethic is a complex mesh of ritual, magic and faith sufficient to sustain the individual in all circumstances (except in the encounter with advanced technology). The so-called primitive is equipped with a set of beliefs developed over a million years, a tailor-made rationalisation of the world of reality: and his rationalisation cannot be thought of as inferior to ours, merely because it is antipathetic to change. All of us, primitive and civilised alike, have the same brain-structure, and the only acceptable index of superiority between different world-views is that of success in enabling the individual to cope with his environment. In this respect our present ethic is a failure. Of course, it is easy to eulogise the "noble savage" while conveniently forgetting the harsher realities of his life; I only wish to point out that the primitives are better able to come to terms with their realities than we are with ours. In this connection, a psychiatrist has reported that in the more "backward" tribes of West Africa the incidence of mental disturbance is practically nil.
Nor should I like it to be thought that I am anti-Scientific: I am a mathematician by training, but try to take a more balanced view of science than the hysterical approval now common. Human thought is moulded by patterns of belief inherent in the structure of the mind; patterns of belief which manifest themselves among all human communities in magic, ritual, language, religion and philosophy — in particular, in the Western philosophical method which gave rise to scientific method. The light of reality is, so to speak, filtered through an elaborate series of learnt codes in our minds: it seems to me that Western scientific-philosophical method, which is so adept at manipulating the world of objects, provides a uniquely transparent belief-code. Scientific-logical analysis gives us a world-view that is both coherent ("truth") and open-ended ("progress"), but fails badly to provide any of the other ingredients for a satisfied, organised life in the society it helps to create.
The purpose of an ethic is to render the world meaningful: if too many events seem, to an ordinary man, arbitrary and beyond any kind of rationalisation, he will cut himself off from reality and be lost. It is my contention that the Western scientific-rationalist ethic — whose social aspects are embodied in humanism — is inadequate for this purpose in the social milieux it creates. It is almost a tautology to say that man's basic condition is utter loneliness: to come to terms with this is to be saved, to ignore it is to go mad in a meaningless life — the fate of increasingly more moderns.
"In the nineteenth century the problem was that God was dead; in the twentieth century the problem is that Man is dead." (Erich Fromm.) The problem of the twenty-first century will be the death of science, in the sense of man's achievements through science. Advances in automated labour and information-processing will result in men having nothing much to do but gaze in awe and incomprehension at the works of the superior intelligences we are creating. If we are to survive this period of transition we must effect a synthesis between our inner and outer selves, as the men of prehistory did during the rise of social organisation. Science — particularly the biological sciences — has a part to play in forming this synthesis: so has humanism, since any society which is to survive must embrace the humanists' belief in the fundamental equality of, and respect for, other men.
But these alone will not be enough. Humanism is an attempt to supply a scientific-rationalist frame for social behavior, and its failure simply reflects the inadequacy of rationalism as an ethic today. Humanism — as it stands — is no more capable of dealing with the present human situation than, for example, the Vedic philosophy is capable of dealing with nuclear physics; because Humanism lacks some of the features necessary to the effective functioning of a belief-code appropriate to our circumstances. In short, humanism lacks a metaphysic; and, as Aldous Huxley says, the choice is not "between metaphysic and no metaphysic, it is always between a good metaphysic and a bad metaphysic." Humanism fails because it is not a religion; there is no Word of God, no concise linguistic expression of the code. Only if humanists can succeed in a compromise with religious humanism and perceive that their beliefs are no less mystical than those of the average shaman — only. in fact, if they can realise the absolute intellectual equality of all believers — can they play an effective part in the construction of the new ethic.