All this discussion of moral, political, and technological worship leads, albeit somewhat longwindedly, into my main point: all of these forms of idolatry ultimately fall under the encompassing Religion of Inevitable Progress. The creed of the devotees to this apocalyptic religion is that the Kingdom of Heaven (as Huxley refers to it. I prefer sustainable, genuine happiness and peace but it really depends on your personal perspective on the end goal of all of this) is outside of ourselves, and in the future. As I stated in my previous post, people tend to believe that if we can make our political and economic systems more effective and our technology more powerful, we will eventually reach a Utopian society. Heaven on Earth will be achieved through the human effort and ingenuity that has proved so effective in the past as we further our ability to manipulate and control the world around us. However, in our attempts to achieve the best possible future situation for ourselves we often neglect the serious acts of imperialism that we commit against Nature.
Today in America many people like to levy criticism against the empires of the past for their acts of colonial imperialism, but altogether neglect the war that we rage against Nature today, producing increasingly deadly tools that destroy the planet and the natural systems that provide for us. Instead of trying to cooperate with the Tao or the Logos of the world around us “we try to dominate and exploit, we waste the earth’s mineral resources, ruin its soil, ravage its forests, pour filth into its rivers and poisonous fumes into its air” (Huxley, 93). We look on our technological advances with tremendous pride and yet ignore the consequences of these material strides. This comes back to a point made earlier that we seem to have a tremendous hope and faith (“in the teeth of all human experience” (Huxley, 79)) that one can get something for nothing. Modern man no longer has the appropriate reverence for the planet and, as such, finds it perfectly acceptable to act as an overweening conqueror and tyrant. Our hubris has grown to a cosmically unsustainable size and yet we refuse to acknowledge that our nemesis is coming.
As it is said in the Bible (boy, never thought I would ever write/say that), “the tree is known by its fruit; fruit will discover what a tree is, and accordingly judgment may be made” (Matthew 12:33). This judgment need not necessarily come from some sort of divine force, but can merely be the reaction of the natural systems of the planet toward our actions, or, often even more harsh, our own evaluations of ourselves when all the external noise we surround ourselves with dies down. “At least to some extent, the collective conduct of a nation is a test of the religion prevailing within it, a criterion by which we may legitimately judge the doctrinal validity of that religion and its practical efficiency in helping individuals to advance towards the goal of human existence” (Huxley, 242). It is through the boons that technology has provided us, as well as the afflictions that we receive as compensation for these advancements, that we may judge the success of RIP.
However, we face the insurmountable problem that it is impossible to accurately weigh the costs and benefits of our technological advances at the planet’s expense. As Huxley puts it (with some slight modification by me to account for the further increase in the power of our gadgets since Huxley originally wrote this): “Has the ability to travel in 6 hours from New York to Los Angeles given more pleasure to the human race than the dropping of bombs and fire has given pain? There is no known method of computing the amount of felicity or goodness in the world at large” (Huxley, 79). We can never truly judge whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs until we get to the point (as it seems we might soon be) at which it is impossible to ignore our nemesis as it is right in our face destroying the planet.
It is because the reality of this progress can never be truly determined that modern man must take it as an article of religious faith. We can surely posit that we must be happier than our ancestors were, but can never know for sure: “Because technology advances, we fancy that we are making corresponding progress all along the line; because we have considerable power over inanimate nature, we are convinced that we are the self-sufficient masters of our fate and captains of our souls; and because cleverness has given us technology and power, we believe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that we have only to go on being yet cleverer in a more systematic way to achieve social order, international peace, and personal happiness” (Huxley, 142). The more time we need to spend convincing ourselves of such, the greater the possibility that much of our society’s progress towards happiness is no more than a self-induced illusion, a charade reminiscent of the vision Orwell paints in 1984:
“It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grams a week. And only yesterday, he reflected, it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grams a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it” (Orwell, 59)
Obviously this example is a bit extreme and is not meant to suggest any sort of Big Brother-esque conspiracy theory that runs throughout the history of mankind, but is does point to what I find to be a far more fearful scenario: this can all happen without Big Brother. In many cases, self-delusion is often immediately beneficial and desirable for maintaining a semi-contented state of mind, leading us into a self-perpetuating system. There need not be any single person or group of people directing this sort of behavior when the necessary impersonal forces are constantly at work (an idea that I explore in a consideration of the Western will to omniscience). It is a method of control in which the ruled give their consent to be controlled to the controller in the belief that it is in one’s own best interest to do. A totalitarian government is unnecessary, and ultimately ineffective, when the prevailing culture manages to convince people that they are tremendously free when, in actuality, they are psychologically restricted and deluded to the point that an individual’s own interests can seemingly be best served through continual self-delusion. It is a situation in which the ruled will actually love their slavery. This type of system can be created through drugs, various forms of societal segmentation, and advertising/propaganda (an idea I’ll come back to in a later post.)
We cannot possibly know whether or not our technological advances will lead us to a Utopia or a man-made apocalypse, so we take the former to be true as a matter of faith, largely because it is most convenient for us to keep on moving the direction in which we are going. Huxley captures this idea beautifully in noting that, “People always get what they ask for; the only trouble is that they never know, until they get it, what it actually is that they have asked for…If we don’t know it is because we find I more convenient not to know. Original ignorance is the same thing as original sin” (Huxley, 250).