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Enlightenment Era Has Ended

March 1st, 2019 by dk

Newspapers are terrific for keeping us up on the details of life. Who died and how? What happened and why? Where should we look and when can we stop? Journalism does less well on the largest issues which surround us, because they lack a vantage point. We tend to focus on each tree in turn, overlooking the forest. This is a column about not one forest, but two.

René Descartes died 369 year ago this Monday, so now is a good time to bid farewell to the intellectual movement he helped to start. The systems of thought and imagination formed by Descartes, Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and others is reaching its conclusion. It’s yielding to a new epoch of human history, not yet named. We’re leaving one forest and entering another.

Scholars don’t agree exactly when The Enlightenment began. The year of Descartes’ death is roughly in the middle: 1650. Anything as all-encompassing as the patterns and habits of human thought deserves at least one round number. As this new epoch gets underway, we should retrace some of our steps.

The Enlightenment declared optimism. The world was brave and new, without a hint of irony. In 1650, the first coffeehouse opened in Oxford. Harvard received its charter. New inventions like the microscope (1590) and the telescope (1608) were changing how humans literally saw the world. Machines aided men to become more precise and more productive.

The observable world yielded to the measurable world. You had a good run, René.

Deep fake videos, autonomous vehicles, and the next generation of artificial intelligence are poised to upset everything we think we know. The impossible is once again becoming possible, but this time without humans at the center and in control. Quantum computing soon will open the door to the multiverse, where infinite possibilities are revealed and realized. Schrodinger’s cat is both alive and dead. Truth is not truth.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us confused. We feel befuddled because language only approximates experience. We’ve forgotten that we’re using certain metaphors as placeholders to express ineffable beliefs or aspirations. Befuddlement isn’t a literal feeling. There’s nothing artificial about a computer’s intelligence. Truth itself is an unattainable ideal, a metaphor. We use it to navigate our social and psychic worlds. No sailor ever slept on the North Star.

The world today may look brave and new for computer networks, but less so for us. The trees have become a forest and we have to find our way out.

Exiting the forest will not be not as hard as you would think. You only have to forget everything you thought you knew. We’re no longer the smartest, shrewdest, speediest machines. We’re not machines at all. We never were. We’re fabulists. We make stuff up, so that what doesn’t exist can exist. We create. We’re storytellers.

What’s the new story about ourselves and our world that will organize the next 300 years? Curiosity is our contribution to the systems that feed us. The question to be asked is this: What does the world need from the only (yet known) beings able to ask questions?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.

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