Let’s start with the enlightenment. After Greece’s Golden Age (Plato, Aristotle), things in Europe dimmed. Centuries of religious and political tyranny followed. The church was the boss, and as for individual freedom, there were plenty of reminders of why Adam and Eve had been expelled from Eden. It was a malfunction in their free will; that is, they tried to use it. Eve said yes to the apple (often said to symbolize knowledge), and Adam said yes to Eve. And off they went, out of paradise and into reality. So, after that, though the Church told us we had free will, people didn’t use it. We may have been in a benighted age, but we weren’t stupid. We knew a trap when we saw one.
In the Middle Ages many Europeans were starving. The first good news in centuries was the importation of the potato from North America in the mid-1500s. So while Europeans ate their potatoes and kept their heads down, they were waiting for something. It turned out to be the Enlightenment. After some brilliant forerunners (Galileo, Copernicus), the Enlightenment really got rolling in the 16th century. Some credit Locke with the founding concept: that human consciousness plus reason could equal liberty and contentment. Humans weren’t just bits of preprogrammed junk; they could think, they could imagine. In short order, individual freedom caught on so well that France and America had successful revolutions.
What will happen to the brain? Well, what happened to the doorman in the age of the electric door?
But of the many philosophical and scientific breakthroughs rushing onto the scene, the key idea was Bacon’s scientific method: a way to prove things true or false. Drowning witches to see if they would drown was about to be a thing of the past.
That the liberation of the human mind and the unleashing of science happened together was no accident. The Industrial Revolution was part of the Enlightenment, and humans basically stayed on that path right to the present day. The electric dishwasher, the car—the whole works came courtesy of the Enlightenment. So did education and the vote for ordinary people, of both sexes. Improved wage. Minimum wage (except perhaps in Ontario). Before you say “All that’s under attack!!” I’ll get to the bad news.
The Enlightenment is over. The official end date will probably be January 1, 2022.
What happened? A “pincer move” is a military term for when an enemy is outflanked on two sides. In our modern world, we can have pincer movements in three or more dimensions. And that’s how I’ll describe it. Several life-changing movements converged and, bingo!, the darkness began to creep back in.
Naturally the internet was a prime mover. It worked in combination with humanity’s old friend the telephone. One of the terrible ironies is that, in the name of human curiosity, curiosity was being decoupled. The minute we had a question, we ordered our cellphone to answer it. We really went at it, too. Pigeons pecking a disc for grain have nothing on us. But while we were congratulating ourselves on how curious we were (look how many questions I’ve asked my cellphone slave this morning!), we were actually turning our brains way down low. In the olden days, people used to search their own brains, and that was how brains got their exercise. Now that the internet is at hand (until the brain implant gets here), it’s so much easier to just bypass the brain. What will happen to the brain? Well, what happened to the doorman in the age of the electric door?
What this quickly led to was a tsunami of hubris. Our ability to instantly look up information caused “delusions of genius.” If finding an answer on the internet wasn’t the same as coming up with the answer yourself, why wasn’t it? It was my finger, my voice. The hubris led to everyone having favourite online sources. It might be the Encyclopedia Britannica, but it also might be an interactive QAnon site or an anti-vaxxer ranting on Twitter. Would you like to get your information from Dr. Joe Vipond, or would you prefer a US doctor who helps his patients find cheap, reliable horse dewormer?
As internet-to-cellphone-to-human-eye/ear transactions took place, millions per minute, the human race became impatient. Laborious explanations of aerosolization or virus mutation turned to yada yada in their heads. They stabbed Delete, and that’s really what humanity has done. It has stabbed Delete on the scientific method.
Some will say Donald Trump is to blame. He certainly would be a solid poster boy for the extinguishment of five centuries of Enlightenment. But Alberta’s own Jason Kenney is no slouch, with his Best Summer Ever! that killed his own citizens.
Trump and Kenney are more like the messenger pigeons of Fate. You remove the little message from Jason’s leg, unwrap it, and it says, “I reject your premise.” Its longer meaning: “I reject all premises and the idea of a premise, especially its proof by the repetition of the tests by which it was proved.” Jason was saying that the scientific method is on its back. Its legs are waggling. It’s probably history.
Fred Stenson’s novels include Who By Fire, The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.