I daresay that the gap between what is actually possible with the current state of human technology, and what is actually realised by human political systems has grown exponentially since the middle ages. This is not to say that average living standards have not improved, but relative to what is possible(and necessary) our current approaches to socioeconomic development leave much to be desired.
I believe much of this failure has to do with humanity’s collective unwillingness to learn from painful historical errors and for concreteness in this article I shall focus on anti-semitism.
Anti-semitism in Europe and Soviet Russia:
To the extent that we may trust the accuracy of European historical records there is a particularly consistent record of anti-semitism. This record reached its climax during the second world war, which left many scars and painful lessons. But, I sometimes wonder whether we learned anything substantial.
The question was forced upon me recently when I learned that the Soviets, who considered themselves morally superior to Nazis, decided that there were too many Jews in Lev Landau’s department of theoretical physics. Every physicist under Landau was indeed a Jew with the exception of a half-Jewish Russian. However, these were all Russian Jews that spoke Russian, considered themselves Russian, and that worked in the service of the Soviet Union . Like the Dreyfus affair, it showed that no matter what you did to integrate into European society, some idiots in power would find a reason to persecute you just because you were Jewish.
Many Europeans have hidden behind religious pretexts that Christianity blamed Jews for everything, and so it is just as well that Christianity’s grip on Europe has weakened. Other Europeans have decided that the Germans and Austrians are to blame for almost everything. The explanation changes but the scapegoating mechanism doesn’t.
If anything, the historical record of Jewish persecution in Europe reflects complex truths about human nature which we would be able to understand better if we were collectively willing to probe their anthropological dimensions. Unfortunately, history shows that the majority of humans would much rather live under a Hitler or Stalin than confront the shady animal spirits alive within each individual, which in aggregate has the potential to unleash demonic forces.
The role of religion in Europe:
Historically, the function of constraining these potentially destructive forces has been left to Christianity. For this reason, I think that a careful analysis of the Bible and other religious texts may lead us to profound truths concerning human anthropology. It would be a premature response to categorically dismiss the backbone of two thousand years of Western Civilisation.
René Girard, a French anthropologist, famously traced his own path through the Bible . But, I believe it is the duty of every European that is capable of thinking for themselves to trace their own path. My own analysis is that Christianity is simultaneously a system for organising society from the birth of an individual to their death by means of ceremonies and rituals, an approximate answer to the most challenging problems in metaphysics, and a value system that satisfies important anthropological constraints.
However, I doubt that it is possible to understand religion without reflecting upon the legitimate problems in metaphysics that give rise to it. I believe such reflections must arise from a combination of intuition and experience since spirituality is something that can’t be fully intellectualised as it escapes the analytical process. As Kant argued,
Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.-Kant
I’d like to add that a moral system that emphasises fear would be justified if human civilisation was fragile, which I think it is. But, I believe this fear must be tempered by education and meditation as emphasised by oriental philosophy. The particular philosophy I have in mind is the Zen tradition of the Japanese Samurai, which has had a profound influence on the social structure of modern Japan.
I’d like to close by commenting on a couple systematic errors made by intellectuals and technologists which must be addressed in order for us to make much progress.
There is a systematic error made by the upper-classes and intellectual elite that any human society may have many faults but these lie mainly in the masses. The fault lies not with themselves as it were, but elsewhere. It goes without saying that this is nothing more than a sanity-preserving myth, and this type of counter-productive reasoning is at the root of the scapegoating process.
The second systematic error, related to the first, was carefully articulated by Demis Hassabis . This is the widespread belief among technologists that in order to solve the grand challenges facing humanity we will either need an exponential improvement in human nature or an exponential improvement in technology. However, I have serious doubts that any particular technology(including advanced AI) will be able to save us from ourselves without a significant reformation of the human mind.
- Michael Shifman. Under The Spell Of Landau: When Theoretical Physics Was Shaping Destinies. World Scientific. 2013.
- René Girard. Le Bouc émissaire. 1986.
- Tom Whipple. Demis Hassabis interview: the brains behind DeepMind on the future of artificial intelligence. 2018.