Enlightenment 2.0

By Joseph Heath

A lot of people think, not without reason, that the world has gone crazy. Our political system is unable to respond to looming economic and environmental crises that present a clear and present danger to our way of life, and instead of thoughtful planning and responsible leadership we get demagoguery, posturing, and theatre.

It has reached a point where a mass rally headed by a comedian, Jon Stewart, was held in Washington D.C. dubbed the “Rally to Restore Sanity.”

University of Toronto philosophy professor Joseph Heath takes his lead (and his subtitle) from Stewart’s rally, and has an explanation for what he thinks the problem is. In short, being rational is hard, time-consuming work. It’s easier, and indeed more “natural,” for us to get by without thinking too much or planning too far ahead. This is how our old, dawn-of-man minds worked. But as the environment we live in becomes more and more unnatural, reason (the province of our evolutionarily new minds) has become increasingly essential to our survival.

What we need is an Enlightenment 2.0, one less individualistic than the eighteenth-century model and more geared toward social and political forms of rationality. And if we don’t act soon we’ll be faced with the prospect of losing many of the hard-won benefits of our advanced civilization as we slip into a new dark age of “truthiness,” instinct, tribalism, and barbarity.

Heath’s analysis of the challenges we face covers a lot of ground, and is full of food for thought. Within the general framework of his argument a number of current political issues are discussed in illuminating new ways. Particularly good is his description of the cultural evolution and ecology of various memes dubbed “deceptors” that have been designed (often by marketers) to make us stupid. Once introduced into the social bloodstream these deceptors spread like a virus, creating an environment increasingly hostile to human rationality.

There are a few caveats to be registered. In the first place, Heath doesn’t have much to say about the first Enlightenment beyond using it as shorthand for the age of reason. But the political thinkers and philosophes of the period were broader minded than this, and one suspects there is little in the latest findings of today’s social psychologists that would surprise them. The debate between reason and instinct (or the passions) was one that Enlightenment 1.0 fully engaged with, and many of the conclusions they reached weren’t far from Heath’s own.

There is also a tendency to draw a frankly partisan sane-insane line between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican. But while there’s some general validity to the argument that today’s conservatives are the party of intuition, gut feeling, and heart-over-head, Heath recognizes that the obstacles to restoring sanity are far more foundational and systemic than these labels get at.

As a political polemic, Enlightenment 2.0 shares the usual strengths and weaknesses of what has become a popular genre. The diagnosis of the problem is excellent, the prognosis gloomy, and the suggested course of treatment a rather weak fudge.

In Heath’s defense, his whole point is that restoring sanity won’t be easy, and will involve a lot of hard work, counterintuitive thinking, and bucking of prevalent trends. He also understands that for social change to be effective the rule is to go big or go home, and that at best only incremental changes are on the radar.

This is realistic, but it’s very hard to get excited or inspired by conclusions that only suggest “a few tweaks that are not entirely outside the realm of possibility that could lead to a slight increase in the sanity of public discourse in America.”

Meanwhile, the agenda of the Slow Politics Manifesto, with its “firm defense of quiet, rational deliberation” sounds mushy, and Heath’s defense of the Canadian Senate, on the grounds that even if it does nothing but slow the legislative process down that still counts as an “important purpose,” is painful to read.

One of the few classic social psychology experiments Heath doesn’t mention is the one that examined being sane in insane places. And yet if the world is a madhouse now it might have some relevance. Especially the conclusion, which was that it is much easier to get into such places than it is to get out.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 22, 2014.

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