Originally published at Patheos
“The truly insane man is the perfectly rational man.” So says G.K. Chesterton. This saying is very counter intuitive today. The perfectly rational man is the ideal scientist, the man who knows reality in precise quantitative terms, the best kind of knowledge we have.
Such scientific knowledge promises the secret of immortality. If we can understand the fundamentals of our physical existence, we can shape our existence in whatever way we wish. The rational man is the messiah of our scientific age.
So, why did Chesterton warn us about the rational man? The problem is that rationality only deals with the known knowns and the known unknowns.
Rationality does not deal with the unknown unknowns. The perfectly rational man is a closed book, one who has perfectly circumscribed reality within his mind. This has a double effect, which are mutually reinforcing. First, the perfect rationality closes him off to the unknown unknowns. Second, since the rational man knows all physical means, he focuses with a laser like precision on the path of the ultimate human end: physical immortality.
To rephrase, the rational man is like the treasure hunter who has found the map to the sunken Spanish galleon, and amasses all his fortune to recover the chests of doubloons buried deep within the ship’s rotting hulk. Nothing can dissuade him from his course. That is the tenor of our modern scientific age. We now know we are physical, we now understand matter to its most fundamental components, and we now can manipulate the fundamental components in any way we wish. All that remains is to remake ourselves as immortal beings.
Our treasure hunter will stop at nothing to get his treasure. He will sacrifice fortune and livelihood, ship and crew, perhaps even his own health (but not life), to acquire the gold at the bottom of the ocean.
Because once the gold is acquired, it will be worth all sacrifice. The same with immortality. Whatever sacrifices we must make to achieve human immortality, history will condone our actions. History is written by the victors, after all, which are whomever becomes immortal first.
Of course this sounds silly and myopic, but that is precisely the danger of the perfectly rational man. The clarity of the scientific vision is its great danger. Science today is ultimately a modern form of the original alchemy. Alchemy is fundamentally a means of capturing for oneself ultimate value in some form: money, wisdom, power, or life. Today, with the materialistic view that everything of value has a material basis, and that all material things are within the grasp of science and technology, this is exactly the condition for alchemy. And, once we can achieve something of ultimate value, all other values are secondary and discardable.
This has left us in the dangerous position today where we have many powerful technologies that can fundamentally reshape our world. Be they artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, or social engineering, the problem is the reigning worldview gives those with the power a blank check to do whatever they wish to push humanity to the next step of evolution.
The problem is, the reigning worldview may just be flat out wrong. There is no good reason to believe it is correct. The fundamentals of consciousness, thought, free will, experience, an intricately complex world, through which all scientific knowledge come, have no scientific explanation. Yet, there is no authoritative voice questioning what we call “science,” which is really a new religion. We have priests in lab coats that can transubstantiate matter to give us the elixir of immortality. No one likes to tolerate the dissenting voices from the new religion. These voices hold back our gift.
Yet if we take a step back and look at the past couple centuries, the era of progress has been anything but progressive. Instead we have hundreds of millions murdered, many more lives ruined, and humanity held in thrall to a vision that denies the reality of its rotten fruit. And yet our leaders continue pandering to the spirit of the age, in the hopes that next time we’ll get it right. But it is precisely this unwavering commitment to the course that makes it ever more likely there will not be a next time. The double effect of perfect focus and ignoring of all distractions means G.K. Chesterton’s rational man is cooly driving our civilization right into the abyss.