The Relentless Rationalist will twist humanity for a so-called greater good, even if it means forcing human faces under a boot and stamping on them forever. Totalitarianism is the only conclusion: hell for the human, paradise for the prophets-turned-gods…
“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” —O’Brien to Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984
The Modern Age is crawling with prophets proclaiming the dawn of a new-and-improved humanity. Forgetting that the imperfect cannot create the perfect, today’s prophets fail to look down upon their own feet of clay. Waving their secret knowledge before us, wooing skeptics with the wonders of modernity, many of these scientific seers are today’s Tricksters.
In a previously published essay, I sketched out what I see as the primary philosophical pillar behind such prophets: the belief in Relentless Rationalism, or the inerrant Truth of a severe scientific understanding of the human condition and its place within the universe.
A Truly Orwellian Regime
Whether in the near-now or the far-off future, if the Relentless Rationalists ever fully held the reigns of power in a government, they would manipulate humanity, bending human dignity to the will of their Rationalism: destroying the human race in the quest to dominate the universe. Under the banner of improving the human condition, they will reduce it to monotony—an infinite number of boots will rain down on beauty, love, spontaneity, and individuality. Here Edmund Burke’s words might be applied to the Relentless Rationalists:
To them, the will, the wish, the want, the liberty, the toil, the blood of individuals is nothing. Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The state is all in all. Everything is preferred to the production of force; afterwards, everything is trusted to the use of it. […] The state has dominion and conquest for its sole objects; dominion over minds […], over bodies by arms.[i]
Russel Kirk cited this same passage in The Conservative Mind, noting that Burke penned these words to fight the notion of “an ‘elite’ recruited out of conformity to party fanaticism and enthusiastic adherence to a venomous intellectual credo”[ii]—perhaps a fitting description for the champions of Relentless Rationalism.
One of the dangers of Relentless Rationalism is that it breaks existence down into its basic components, thereafter claiming these parts are all there is to the whole. Since all that exists is mere matter in temporary motion, the Relentless Rationalist strips away the value inherent in things, transforming all that is into the brutish state of what could be. Everything is subject to replicability and perfectibility: people, places, emotions (though these may well be removed—they are irrational, after all). All that was once felt only in the rich realities within our skulls—everything subjective—can be dissected, manufactured, remade for former humans, now a new mass of clay miniatures.
The human face is obliterated, the features of its form bludgeoned, broken down into the atoms of which it was made, bleached of all natural and human coloring. Its inimitable visage is now an unrecognizable mass of mushy matter, a grey glob of clay with which the Relentless Rationalist may play god. Humanity is stamped out of existence. Earth is a now is a field of clay miniatures—though they retain their own motives and sentience pulsing beneath a supposedly grey surface—to be redesigned, reorganized, repainted, replaced, even, by better figurines, all to fit within certain “ideas of what ought to be.” The Relentless Rationalist becomes the premier planner, programmer, the “Monarch of all Man, All That Is, and All That Shall Ever Be”—the not-here of the future is chained to the always-here totality of the present.
Reforming the Human Condition: A Speculative Case Study
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven, the protagonist George Orr (whose name is certainly a nod to George Orwell) has the ability to alter reality with his dreams. Orr is fearful, and rightfully so, of his power unconsciously to manipulate reality, and so he habitually turns to drugs to prevent himself from dreaming. Orr later starts seeing a psychiatrist, William Haber, who, upon realizing that Orr truly can graft his dreamt realities onto the world, attempts to use Orr’s ability as a tool for change. With Orr’s dreams as his tool, Haber comes to see himself as the herald of an improved humanity, one in which the pressing, persistent problems of our time have been dreamt out of existence.
Speaking of Haber later in the novel, Orr laments that “he tries to use me to make things come out right, but he won’t admit it; he lies because he won’t look straight, he’s not interested in what’s true, in what is, he can’t see anything except his mind—his ideas of what ought to be.”[iii] From the heights of his towering intellect, Haber is incapable of hearing Orr’s cries of complaint. Sage though Orr’s lamentations are, the thought of Orr’s boundless power enslaves Haber to a will for Utopia and blinds him to the tectonic blunders he makes in trying to enjoin reality to his will.
When Haber’s motives, after having stimulated Orr into dreaming up an alien invasion and unifying humanity in greyness of skin, are questioned by Orr, Haber reacts in a predictably Relentless Rationalistic way: “I’m pro-life, George […] We’re on the brink of discovering and controlling, for the good of all mankind, a whole new force, an entire new field of antientropic energy, of the life-force, of the will to act, to do, to change!”[iv] Speaking of a newly acquired, dreamt-up societal practice of arresting and “euthanizing” those with cancer, Haber continues, “This society is tough-minded, and getting tougher yearly: the future will justify it […] We simply have no room for the incurables, the gene-damaged who degrade the species; we have no time for wasted, useless suffering.”[v] Haber, like today’s prophets of Relentless Rationalism, seeks to reform humanity, to create from human clay a Reformed Man.
Yet this Reformed Man can only ever be a phantom, a nonesuch of the living world, an impossible aspiration to perfectibility. As Orr cries out to Haber, “You’re doing something that can’t be done.” Haber, however, will not be stopped, and plans to eliminate Orr by replicating his dream state, after which, he says, “There will be none of this tension between your will to nihilism and my will to progress, your Nirvana wishes and my conscious, careful planning for the good of all.”[vi] Haber, horrifyingly, will be unsupervised in his dreaming—he will become the Monarch of All Man. I will not spoil for you the novel’s resolution, but I will try to tease out of it some relevant lessons.
The Now and the Not-Here
Haber’s research institution, one he created for himself through Orr’s dreams, is called HURAD, or Human Utility: Research and Development. Tellingly, the first part of this title—Human Utility—rings of many modern, forward-thinking institutions, and so perfectly captures the aim of Relentless Rationalism: to optimize humanity. Tragically, though, humanity’s self-optimization is only possible through self-immolation. As the ancient tenants of what we know to be true of the human condition are knocked away by a wrecking ball and the fallen stone is reprocessed into biomechatronic enhancements, Relentless Rationalists will proclaim victory from atop the rubble. Believers in this cruel creed will proclaim Freedom! Opportunity! Most of all, the will speak of liberation from the human condition.
Herein we may find a sad irony in Relentless Rationalism’s rejection of the religious impulse, for while it proclaims liberation from the mysteries and flaws of the human condition, it is so clearly beholden to myth. Peoples of the world once thought that Prometheus pulled clay from the ground, molding mankind in the grips of a Titan, animating our casts of clay with a stolen fire. Disastrously, Relentless Rationalists see themselves as modern Prometheans, who, just as those “modern masters” in Shelly’s Frankenstein, take hold of the human form, pulling it apart as they preach of performing miracles.
Today, Silicon Valley’s tech Titans, Transhumanists, and some rogue professors and journalists see themselves as the Prometheans of modernity—those scientific seers, novel prophets—a semi-divine intellectual elite cruising toward the realization of their “intellectual credo”; that is, the transfiguration of the Anthropocene into the Technopocene. They call us toward Haber’s Reformed Man, the creation of a beau ideal, the perfect mannequin of man’s own making. In their forecasted future, Earth becomes a board for play with clay-made miniatures. Creators though they are, today’s Relentless Rationalists have not a clue as to where humanity’s creative fire comes from, nor why it exists in the first place, and, alarmingly, seem unaware of how quickly and chaotically that fire spreads, or of how much it hurts to be burned.
Rushing toward the totality of their anti-human philosophy, the Relentless Rationalist will promise to hoist humanity “out of the realm of mere slavish imitation of nature” and “into the much more interesting world of human invention.”[vii] To enter this future is to disregard the Kantian observation, as Relentless Rationalism does, that out of the timber so crooked as that from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be built. And that timber is so wickedly crooked. The human horrors of the twentieth century, those scars on the human face inflicted by the very creations of the human imagination, speak truth to Kant’s observation. Nevertheless, the Relentless Rationalist knows of this timber and seeks to cut it out of the human constitution with today’s gadgetry. Removal is not enough, though, for it will always be impossible to quell entropy; control, then, is the ultimate answer. Like Huxley’s Controllers, stoically stating “Stability […] stability. No civilization without social stability,”[viii] the Relentless Rationalist will twist humanity, like Haber, for a so-called greater good. Stability before all, even if it means forcing human faces under a boot and stamping on them forever. To return to Burke, “Everything is preferred to the production of force; afterwards, everything is trusted to the use of it.” Totalitarianism is the only conclusion for Relentless Rationalists, but in it there remains room for the rest of us: hell for the human, paradise for the prophets-turned-gods.
Centuries into such a future the unbelievers, the George Orrs, will most likely either be thrown to the void, their atoms repurposed for a planner’s project, or left to lamentation, those who remember the Human Era uttering muffled cries to themselves, “How ugly post-mankind is! O brave new world…” Like John the Savage in Brave New World, they will reject society’s comforts for a want of poetry, real danger, freedom, goodness, and sin—they will claim “the right to be unhappy,”[ix] the right, once again, to be fully human.
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[iv] Ibid., 139.
[v] Ibid., 141.
[vi] Ibid., 149.
[viii] Huxley, Brave New World, 42.
[ix] Ibid., 240.