Monday, July 30, 2007

A Second Enlightenment

by Chris Thomson, School of Consciousness

There was a time when my home country, Scotland, punched well above her weight in inventiveness. Many things that we now take for granted had their origin in Scotland. The list is long – television, refrigerator, microwave ovens, tarred roads, pneumatic tyres, golf, the steam engine, radar, modern banking, antisepsis, antibiotics, quinine, the fax machine, logarithms, iron bridges, and many other things. Scotland’s inventiveness is relatively well known.

What is not so well known is that much of the intellectual basis for the modern world was developed in Scotland, during the Scottish Enlightenment (roughly 1740-90). Of the personalities involved, Adam Smith and David Hume are the best known, but there were others who made important contributions, such as Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson and John Millar. It is difficult today to appreciate just how influential Scotland was in those days. Scotland’s intellectual leadership in that era was so powerful that Voltaire was moved to write: “...we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.”

The First Enlightenment gave us modernity, namely the ideas, values and practices that have shaped the modern world. In other words, it gave us the modern economy, modern medicine, modern education, modern science and modern government. Few would deny that, for a long time, modernity made life better and easier for many people. It raised the material living standards of many; it increased life expectancy; it enabled us to address many forms of ill health that had gone unaddressed before; it brought education to the majority; it vastly increased our knowledge of the physical world; it gave us some very useful technology; and, in theory at least, it allowed most adults to participate in the big decisions that affect them.

Modernity – past its sell-by date
However, something has gone very wrong. We have just come through the most murderous, destructive century in human history, with major holocausts on every continent, in which over 150 million were slaughtered in systematic massacres of racial, ethnic, political and religious groups. The present century has not begun well. As the 21st Century gets under way, wars are raging on three continents, inequality within and between nations continues to increase, mental and emotional illnesses are epidemic, social breakdown is becoming the norm, and nature and the planet are more seriously threatened than ever.

While it is true that many of us are materially richer than ever, we are in many important respects poorer than ever. We have more money and things than we ever had, yet how many of us are truly happy? We receive more schooling and training than ever, yet greed and superficiality are the hallmarks of modern culture. We have more technology and scientific knowledge than ever before, but we seem less able than ever to use them wisely. As Martin Luther King said: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power, we have guided missiles and misguided men.” And although we continue to call ourselves “democracies”, many of us feel that this has become a fiction and wonder what the point of voting is when the outcome of elections is determined in a few marginal constituencies and when prime ministers ignore the people’s views on major issues, such as war.

There is a growing sense that modernity, appropriate for its time, has outlived its usefulness and that any benefits it brings are now hugely outweighed by the problems it causes. What we have long assumed to be the main solution to our problems may have become their main cause. The economics, medicine, science, education and politics ushered in by the Enlightenment served us well for a long time, but they are no longer fit for purpose. The time has come to replace modernity with ideas, values and practices that are appropriate to the very different conditions of the 21st Century. The time has come, in other words, for a Second Enlightenment. Whatever else this turns out to be, it will take us beyond modernity and provide us with an economics, a medicine, an education, a science and a politics/governance that are better suited to the conditions of today. For me, a useful starting point in understanding what the Second Enlightenment needs to be is to get to the roots of modernity and to understand why it is causing so many problems.

The Roots of Modernity
Modernity has its roots in the worldview of modern science. At the heart of this worldview are some core beliefs (although many scientists would call these beliefs “facts”):

  • The universe and everything in it, ourselves included, is physical. Science may talk about a universe that consists only of “energy”, but they leave little doubt that they believe this energy to be physical

  • For science, there can be nothing beyond this physical universe

  • The universe has no intrinsic meaning or purpose
Science has become so powerful and influential that all metaphysical, religious and philosophical claims that contradict it tend to be rejected. Yet if, as science insists, the universe began suddenly for no reason (the “Big Bang”) and life on this planet emerged by chance, then the world that science wants us to believe in must be totally meaningless. The fact that this statement, as part of that world, must also be meaningless is little consolation! A life without meaning is a bleak life indeed, which is no doubt why millions of people around the world are desperately seeking for deeper, lasting meaning. There is little doubt in my mind that one of the main features of the modern world is loss of deeper meaning. A lot of people feel that there is little purpose in their lives. This is having far-reaching effects.

The modern world also suffers from loss of wisdom. If science rejects the accumulated wisdom of the ages in favour of its own empirically derived body of knowledge, then, since science is the dominant form of knowledge today, wisdom is effectively devalued. Our modern obsession with having to prove things has marginalised two important aspects of wisdom, namely intuition and common sense. Perhaps we should not be surprised that, with wisdom marginalised in these ways, we have become the most dangerous and destructive form of life on the planet.

Thirdly, the modern world is also characterised by loss of consciousness. By this I do not mean that we are all unconscious, although one might be forgiven for believing this at times. What I mean is that working to become more conscious has become a rarity in modern societies, partly because education in its true sense has largely been replaced by its opposite, schooling, but also because too many people have become overdependent on “experts” for their knowledge and wisdom and are therefore not in the habit of thinking for themselves. I think it is very significant that non-modern (“traditional”) societies place a very high value on the exploration and development of consciousness, while this is still regarded as a “fringe” activity in the so-called developed world.

Finally, I believe that the modernity has led to loss of ecology. The few societies around the world that have retained wisdom and deeper meaning know just how important it is to live in harmony with each other and with the planet. How many of us can put our hands on our hearts and say that we truly live in harmony with each other, let alone the planet? The modern world has made many of us desperate and insecure. It is little wonder that we engage in frenetic activity, such as work, shopping and travelling, when we should be finding ways to live gently and simply, with ourselves and with the world around us.

The Rise of Economism
When we add together loss of meaning, loss of wisdom, loss of consciousness and loss of ecology, there is not much left going for us. This may be one of the reasons that we now live in an era of unprecedented materialism. For many people, acquiring and consuming material things must seem like the only meaningful thing left for them to do. Our economics, our politics, our medicine, our education, our science, our politics and our culture have become steeped in material values and beliefs and the behaviours that flow from these. We are paying a high price for this, as we exploit and damage each other and the world. Meanwhile, it is short step from materialism and loss of wisdom to economism, one of the more recent additions to modernity.

Economism is the tendency to view the world through the lens of economics, to regard a country as an economy rather than as a society, and to believe that economic considerations and values rank higher than other ones. Economism is clearly evident these days and is a strong influence in business and political circles. It is a very narrow way of seeing the world. It prevents us from seeing whether we are making genuine progress. We assume that if there is more money and economic activity (economic growth), things are getting better. In reality, they might be getting worse and our devotion to economic growth and things economic is probably one of the main reasons for this.

The Second Enlightenment
All in all, modernity has given us a lot, but it came at a price. There are now many who believe that the price is now too high and that it is time to bring back meaning, wisdom, consciousness and ecology into our lives and to find ways of going beyond materialism. As we do this, I believe that we shall find that we are simultaneously creating a new kind of economics, a new kind of medicine, a new kind of education, a new kind of science, and a new kind of politics. It is impossible to predict exactly what they will be, but, if they are imbued with meaning, wisdom, consciousness and ecology, they may look something like this…

  • The new economics will be about enhancing people and planet, rather than exploiting them. At the heart of the new economics will be love and wisdom and ecology. This will bring with it new kinds of relationships, new kinds of businesses, and new kinds of institutions

  • The new medicine will be about self-reliance, wisdom and ecology in health and health-care, rather than about dependence on experts and technology. In the new medicine, medical treatment will be the exception rather than the rule, because the main focus will be on staying healthy

  • The new education will be about bringing out the best and uniqueness in each individual, rather than schooling them to believe certain things and to behave in certain ways, which is what usually happens today in our schools, colleges and universities. At the heart of the new education will be the development of wisdom, consciousness, meaning and ecology

  • The new science will be about applying the whole of the human being to the search for knowledge, rather than just the physical part, as at present. Science of the physical will continue to give us much that is useful. However, in the new science, knowledge of the physical will be complemented by knowledge of the spiritual, and that will make a big difference

  • The new politics will be about the return of power to people and communities, rather than having power concentrated in the hands of politicians and the few. At the heart of the new politics are two ideas - the idea that most power stays at the local level, where it belongs, and the idea that everyone has something useful to say and contribute
None of this is to suggest that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are many aspects of modernity worth retaining. For example, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with market economics. What is wrong is the set of values and goals that have come to inform it. And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with modern medicine. What is wrong is its belief that it can effectively address the whole spectrum of health problems, when in practice it is good at addressing only parts of the spectrum, such as mechanical repair, emergency intervention and infectious diseases. It is the same for modern education, modern science and modern government. Each has useful aspects that are worth preserving, but each is causing at least as many problems as it purports to solve. It is worth adding that the problems caused by modernity are exacerbated by politicians who, with few exceptions, are wedded to modernising, which is modernity in the form of government policies. The problems caused by modernity, such as climate change, stress and social disintegration, will just get worse so long as modernity remains the prevailing way of seeing and doing things. We will be able to solve the big problems of our time only when we replace modernity with a set of ideas and practices that are kinder to us and to the planet.

None of the above will be easy. People will not willingly give up the habits of a lifetime, and many in power will resist tooth and nail. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, engaging in the kinds of changes I have suggested here will be the most difficult thing we ever do. Transformation may seem attractive in theory. In practice, it is usually messy and painful.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Towards a Post-Human World?

by Michael Akerib, InnovaX

Post-humanity has been defined as a future society in which at least part of those living have capabilities substantially higher than those of the present variety of Homo sapiens, to the extent that they can no longer really be called humans. The capabilities can be physical, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual.

A post-human state can be reached by several means such as by medical treatment, through the use of biotechnology or by a symbiotic link to machines. Thus post-humanity will have been reached either by an augmentation of present capabilities or by a total redesign of the genetic basis.

The technologies used for enhancement could include a variety of anti-aging treatments, memory enhancing techniques relying mostly on synthetic or natural compounds possessing pharmacological properties and vastly increased knowledge through linking to information management tools.

The belief that these changes would create post-humans, and thus a post-human society, is that our evolution is not yet complete and that we can mold it with the use of technology. Adepts of a post-human society, trans-humanists, believe that the will of humans is determinant in deciding which direction the species should take, rather than allowing nature to decide on our future evolution.

Thus, if we decide that aging and death are diseases, and the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry seem to have decided that, we should eradicate them. This is obviously altering the course of nature, but supporters of the post-human idea make the point that one of the characteristics of humans is that they have always modified nature to their advantage – at least on a short system. The definite victory over certain diseases is an example put forward. Further, not everything that is natural is good for humanity.

Since trans-humanism insists on individual freedom, it recognizes the right of everyone to accept or refuse to become a post-human thus, incidentally, allowing for humans and post-humans to co-habit on the planet.

Writing about post-humanity is a little bit like writing about an extra-terrestrial society and we must make a distinction between speculation on future directions of science and science fiction. The main difference is that speculative science is a projetion into the future of possible developments of existing knoweldge and technology.

We can use our imagination but little else as we do not know what would be the feelings of a post-human or of a normal human being living in an essentially post-human society. For instance, what would it be like to live in a society in which all knowledge is immediately accessible just by thinking about an issue – a sort of implanted Wikepedia which would transmit to the mind information about any topic that the ‘person’ (would it still be a person?) would like to have access to. Super-powerful computers would be able to think, not just store and retrieve information. Minds of post-humans would be connected through an immense and efficient network. Similarities have been suggested with beehives or other animal colonies, the difference being that the behavior of the animals is driven by instinct and chemical signals rather than by a shared intelligence and knowledge.

In a post-human society, life would take place in cyberspace and one can speculate that either cyberspace will continue, as today, to exist in parallel with real space, or that it will replace it entirely. It will be a comfortable place to live in compared with the harsh realities of an increasingly hostile environment, or at lest one perceived as such.

In cyberspace post-humans will be able to choose the informational and knowledge niche they want to live in while having the possibility of moving from one space to another as they wish. Presumably they will also be able to select the gender in which they want to live unless, sexuality having become obsolete, post-humans will not be required to make such changes since they will be living in a post-biological world.

Post-humans could access an enormous wealth of knowledge; attain new realms of pleasure, live eternally without the threat of degenerative diseases. Eventually some post-humans might get rid of their bodily limitations altogether and become pure intellects. It has even been suggested that at an advanced stage, post-humans may decide to dispose of their bodies and transform themselves into information patterns. This translates into a denial of individuality and presupposes an equal mental power between the various members of the post-human grid. Groupthink would be pervasive and some form of censorship may well be implemented. Spoken language would have become obsolete. Possibly the same would happen to misunderstandings.

One can wonder if post-humans would ever be able to enjoy the pleasures of being alone with themselves …. In a world in which the network has replaced real space, it is most unlikely to allow solitary pleasures.

In an era of fears of pervasive insecurity and terrorist threats, the existence of such a network appears an invitation for destructive interference.

The concept of post-humanity arose from a 1993 seminal paper by Vernor Vinge in which he exposed his theory of singularity. A singularity is the point near a black hole after which it is impossible to predict the fate of an object reaching it.

In the same way, Vinge hypothesized that technological development will accelerate and reach such a speed that most probably by 2030 the technologies available will create a change as radical as that which took place when man evolved. The main reason for singularity to occur, always according to Vinge, would be a phenomenal step forward in human-computer integration, leading to an exponentially increased intelligence.

Issues of control also arise. Who would control the information? A centralized power system, or could anyone input data with or without a moderator? Would such a society move us away from the societal structure we have lived in until now and make us behave more like a colony of ants or bees or will we maintain our ability to think critically?

Presumably accession to post-humanism would be restricted to a chosen few and we would have a society in which humans and post-humans would live side by side. We might even have a scale of post-humanism with some individuals having chosen a larger number of post-human traits than others. The ultimate hybrid might be a totally abstract entity.

The ability for such diverse individuals to live peacefully together has been put into question and doubts have been cast on the ability to construct a legal system that would refrain from discrimination and violence. While examples of successful territorial sharing by very diverse individuals abound, so do contrary examples of discrimination and even genocide. Will post-humans resort to violence to occupy virtual space somewhat in the same manner that their ancestors fought to occupy physical space?

Certainly the concept of the family, at least as we have known it until now, including in the context of recomposed families, would be obsolete.

One would imagine that, at least initially, discrimination would come from the traditional humans against the post-humans. It is to be feared, however, that gradually post-humans would exploit others and perhaps even exterminate them.

Homo sapiens is the only species with no close relatives as no other human species has survived. Even our closest relatives, monkeys, are on the verge of becoming extinct.

Humans seem essentially driven by a single concept – destroying anything they may view as competition. Technology has assited them in reaching this objective. Will the ultimate success ironically be technology’s that will absorb humanity’s mind and consciousness in an apocalypse radically different from the one that the religions of the Book have been preaching? For them, indeed, death and resurrection and a Final Judgement are central to theology with death being the beginning of a new, richer, life.

Is post-humanity a dream threatening to transform itself into a nightmare or is it truly the final achievement of a humanity that was told it had fallen out of favor by an original sin?

Frank Tipler hypothesized that as the universe will come to its end, computational capacity will accelerate exponentially faster than time. He called that scenario the Omega Point. Is post-humanity the Omega Point of our species?

Humans have long imagined utopian societies, but these have often transformed themselves into inhuman hells. What of the heterotopia of post-humanity – is it a dream, the ultimate step of the evolution process or the final destruction of society as we know it?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Comment on the "Global Peace Index"

by Leif Thomas Olsen, Associate Professor, Rushmore University

Global Peace Index
The Economist Intelligence Unit, in conjunction with an international team of academics and peace experts, has compiled an innovative new Global Peace Index (GPI), which ranks 121 nations according to their relative peacefulness. ...

Leif Thomas Olsen: Reading about an important and probably very serious attempt to establish a Global Peace Index, the article itself sends a strong signal indeed regarding the difficulty in doing this. This signal (divided into two paragraphs as if to divert attention from the link between the two sentences), reads as follows - when put together:

"This project has approached the task on two fronts— the first aim is to produce a scoring model and global peace index that ranks 120 nations by their relative states of peace using 24 indicators. (...) As with all indexes of this type, there are issues of bias and arbitrariness in the factors that are chosen to assess peacefulness and, even more seriously, in assigning weights to the different indicators (measured on a comparable and meaningful scale) to produce a single synthetic measure."

This problem alone makes this a very difficult task - especially if one aspires to be 'global'. However, when looking to the members of the research team who made the choices of indicators and weights, one cannot but get surprised.

Three come from - or are at least based in - Australia, all of whom carry typical western names. Three are Europeans, or at least based in Europe (Spain, Holland and Sweden), all of whom also carry typical western names. Two more participants also carry typical western names, one coming from (and/or based in) Canada, the other with an un-stated origin/domicile. Only one has a non-western name - Associate Professor Mohammed Abu-Nimer. He however represents the School of International Service, American University, Washington DC, USA - hardly a place where you would find a critic of the western way of presenting itself as 'the cradle of all good'.

The article does acknowledge that the indicators and weights "have been made following close and extensive consultation with an international panel of experts." However, who were on this panel is not disclosed, indicating they also typically represent the same type of societies as do the researchers themselves.

Why were not any Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Russian and/or South African professors invited to join the research team? Why were no researchers / co-authors involved who at least may have questioned the very assumptions the group used as research-premises? Are there no suitable academics to invite from the countries ranked low on the list - or was the team really surprised to find that Iraq and Sudan came at the very bottom?

This Index is an echo of the good ol' West and the Rest-approach. It is sad - but not at all surprising for a project sponsored by the Economist. Look at the two very different Happiness Indexes presented last year. One put all western nations at the top, with the relatively speaking fairly racist Denmark as number 1. The second one put all western nations from mid-rank to the very bottom, with the US ranked on par with several former East European dictatorships and a number of African countries in the Sahara-belt.One never stops getting surprised at how narrow the western mind is - not when it comes to measuring things (for which it seems well equipped), but when it comes to 'include'. The ghost of 'deduction' haunts a world that needs 'induction'. The Global Peace Index seems to be yet another example of this.

Friday, July 20, 2007

EFMN correspondents’ day 2007: Foresight and Europe

This year’s European Foresight Monitoring Network (EFMN) correspondents’ day takes place in Brussels on the 24th -25th September. The network comprises European policy professionals, foresight experts and practitioners as well as analysts of science, technology and innovation related issues. For details see the new EFMN website.

The aim of the EFMN correspondent’s day is to infuse the so far largely virtual EFMN community with real life. The event itself strikes a good balance between presentations of interesting foresight content and the opportunity to network with like minded professionals. We have invited a number of interesting speakers on the topic of ‘Europe and Foresight’ covering the whole range from policy-makers, corporate foresight as well as policy foresight practitioners. For details download the
detailed outline of the event.

The event is primarily targeted towards the EFMN correspondents. But as the EFMN is always interested to grow the network of correspondents the event is open to anyone interested as long as capacity is available. Attendance is furthermore free of charge. The event takes place at the Brussels University Foundation from the 24th – 25th September 2007. It starts at 12:00 on the 24th and ends the following day the 25th September at 14:00. For details of the event download the
correspondents’ day invitation and detailed outline of the event. You can register until the 10th of August 2007 by sending an email to

Highlights of event
· Key note speaker, Dr Karlheinz Steinmüller on corporate foresight (Z-Punkt consulting)
· Featured correspondents’: Presentations by Per Dannemand (Risoe, Denmark) on cross national foresights based on the example of the Nordic Hydrogen Energy 2030 exercise & Jon Parke on recent experiences of foresight output in policy making processes in the UK (DIUS, UK)
· Results of EFMN Mapping exercise 2007 partly reporting on comparing issues and innovations in FP7 to recent foresight exercises (Michael Keenan, PREST, UK)
· Results of EFMN Issue analysis 2007 on emerging issues in the knowledge economy and society (Sylvie Rijkers-Defrasne, VDI, Germany)
· Presentation by a representative of DG Research on the future of foresight in Europe
· Opinion poll on most interesting, most pressing future issue feeding into next year’s EFMN issue analysis
· Informal dinner in the evening of the 24th September and networking opportunities with other future / foresight professionals