Like any worldview (a literal translation of the German bullet-phrase Weltanschauung), modernism colours everything we think – about ourselves, our place in the world, and even that world itself. It forms the foundation of our society, the unnoticed glue binding the submarine of state together.

Events are seen through a glass, rosily. History becomes the story of incremental progress, humanity on the up-and-up. Science – and more recently the free market – is hitched to a rough consensus of the moral good, creating a perpetual progress machine. And, despite the graphic failure of grand projects during the 20th century, faith in that machine remains strong.

Advertisers continue to promise “The x of tomorrow – today!” while politicians demand we “move forward, not backward; upward, not forward; and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom!” Or, in the case of Newt Gingrich, twirling towards the moon…

 

… a project as ridiculous as Mitt Romney winding back the clock.

 

In fact (and forgive the paranoid tangent), Romney’s faux-nostalgia may hint at a seismic shift in the American mindset: the wholesale rejection of tomorrow. For now, this is only a presidential affectation – the steam that rises from a continent of focus groups, literally vapid – but, stroke too long, and we may find the genie refuses to return.

Ah, enough fear and loathing!

How should the modernist be approached? If everything falls apart and the centre never holds, then how to deal with such cheery optimism?

I see two basic strategies – puncture the theory or puncture the facts.

The first approach, post-modern deconstruction of progress, is fun but (as always) unlikely to convince anyone of anything ever. The goal is not to prove that modernism is incorrect as such, but rather to “de-naturalise” it, revealing the social and historical forces beneath.

For instance, the notion of time as linear and directed towards a specific end was not always so widely accepted. It arose at a specific place and for a specific reason, usurping earlier notions of time as a cyclical, endless return.

These debates should never be disregarded as “merely” abstract. Our mental landscape is at stake, impacting practically everything we do, big and small. Reprtedly 20% of Americans believe the second coming of Christ will occur in their lifetime. Sustainable development isn’t exactly a priority here. And negotiating with Iran? Forgeddaboutit!

Much closer to home, even the ring I wear takes a stand. It’s a metaphor cast in stainless steel, a relic from our cyclical past, silently echoing the Ouroboros. My girlfriend’s present is strangely hijacked by the past, tagged with a tiny speck of ancient graffiti; nothing can afford to remain neutral on a moving train.

Ultimately, according to this worldview, accepting time as linear is to echo the cry of early Judaism, with its dimly conceived notions of apocalypse. A clock kept the chosen people in time, marching straight ahead though the desert stretched all around.

... on a horse with no name.

Which is all very good in Cultural Sociology 101, but worthless anywhere else. The modernist doesn’t care for academic witchcraft and the careful alchemy of citation.

Take, for example, John Stuart Mill, dour father of modern liberalism:

The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

Here we have a rather forceful argument that, you know, not everyone likes the same stuff. It shouldn’t be a problem if you like fast cars while I’d enjoy a life of quiet contemplation; the modern state can accommodate everyone.

This is an incredible breakthrough for the somewhat lazy science of politics, but what about our friend the modernist? Legitimsing differences may do wonders for civil society, but what about the future?

And that’s the point: there won’t be the future. It will be mine or yours or theirs or ours or something else entirely, but nothing so anaemic as the future.

While many pursue their own good in small and polite ways – travel, or a particularly good restaurant – other conceptions of the good remain intensely troubling.

From these strange corners, even something as straightforward as healing the sick becomes problematic.  People who inherit a disability can also inherit a rich and truly alternative culture, a culture modern medicine seems set to erase forever. Put simply: is there a future for the deaf?

This is the heart of the matter. There are some profoundly different conceptions of the good, and it isn’t clear that our rough consensus or Mill’s indulgent state will stretch far enough to encompass everyone.

But what does that mean? Must we again de-legitimise difference, literally and metaphorically demand everyone take their medicine?

For the modernist, again, this is unlikely to convince. Of course there are exceptions, outliers on the graph of humanity, but on the whole most people want the same things – health, wealth, love, family.

It’s hard to believe in apocalypse when you’re holding a smart phone. It simply doesn’t feel like there’s a problem.

Which means, to have any hope of swaying the modernist, we must turn away from theory and towards the facts. Evidence, my man!

Around the world, dormant blogs are being blown into Frankenstein half-life.

‘Tis the season to reset long forgotten passwords and silently pledge (or perhaps pray – all that hot coffee downed in sacrifice to the muses) to write more next year. An hour before lunch! A thousand words blindfolded! Jesus, how about just writing?

But wait! This sheepish flock of half-authors needs to start slowly, gently, easing into the new year. Their fingers are soft and anaemic, disturbingly prone to Alt-Tab elsewhere. Yes, something festive about time, perhaps with a funny video.

Of course – that modernism thing!

 

Professor Brian Cox has a remarkable ability to blow the minds of stoners everywhere, just by visiting Peruvian ruins and asking the priests, “Sure man, but what is time?” He’s basically a bong with a PhD, something I’m very glad the BBC is making the most of.

But for liberal arts types, Brian’s tale of nuclear clocks and quantum squiggles that look almost exactly like Sanskrit (“Whoa!”) will never entirely satisfy. We want the meaning of things, the point of contact with human life.

One way to conceptualise time (or, you know, to conceptualise conceptions of time) is the modern.

We can define modernism (not to be confused with a certain art movement…) in some pretty crude ways, but they’re all good enough. At my high school Modern History started with the French Revolution and continued right up to the Vietnam War, after which nothing of interest was thought to have happened. But, really, you could pick any date and argue its significance – the rise of Protestantism, the Black Plague, whatever. It doesn’t matter.

Modernism isn’t a tree; it’s the forest.

The World of Tomorrow!

It’s a worldview, a way of imagining the world and our place in it. And because it’s so all-pervasive it can be difficult to grasp, which is where those crude definitions come in handy. The modernist believes –

i) The world is basically knowable. 

ii) The good is basically knowable. 

Shouting from a distant and wobbly limb here, I’m going to claim that what we call western civilization springs from these two concepts. Each of these ideas, sufficiently leveraged, can move the world. That’s because of the implications embedded within them.

If the world is knowable then information can be gathered, accumulated, one fact built upon another. Modernism makes it possible to, as Isaac Newton wrote, “stand on the shoulders of giants.”

And as knowledge of the world grows, so does control over it. Today, we take our sense of human agency for granted, but the Ancient Greeks, illustrated here by Homer, had a profoundly different take on the issue:

Nothing feebler than a man does the earth raise up, of all the things which breathe and move on the earth, for he believes that he will never suffer evil in the future, as long as the gods give him success and he flourishes in his strength: but when the blessed gods bring sorrows too to pass, even these he bears, against his will, with steadfast spirit, for the thoughts of earthly men are like the day which the father of gods and men brings upon them.

This is the pre-modern worldview, something I hope to hook into during another post. Hubris was once a literally mortal sin, for which the gods handed out brutal punishments. Humanity kept its head down.

But things are different for the modernist. Not only does our knowledge of the world accumulate – and also, therefore, our certainty, control and agency – but so does our knowledge of the good.

If the scientific method could be applied to our political ideas, our social ideals, then a genuinely true conception of the good would be attainable. And not just a conception; thanks to our immense control of the world, a utopia could be physically built!

So that’s where time gets involved. If both the world and the good are basically knowable, then History (with a capital H) must be headed towards… well, something – international communism, worldwide liberal democracies, those kinds of things.

Think of this as an IKEA apocalypse, a sigh heard ’round the world.

Of course, I’m not a modernist, but my girlfriend is. She believes in science and progress, the idea that next year will be better. Me? I’m more of a “shotgun and tinned food” kind of guy.

I think this fucker’s going down… well, one day.

At the start of March, I began my first full time job – data entry for the insurance industry.

Position description:

i) Work alone,

ii) wearing headphones,

iii) without any human contact,

iv) all day.

Sounds great, right? It is! For a borderline hermit such as myself, nothing is better than 8.5 hours of minimal human interaction. Throw in free coffee (is this milk alright?) and I’m the happiest temp in town! But like all temps, I’ve faced a few occupational hazards. For instance, the job makes me think about the end of the world.

Constantly.

So, where do insurance and apocalypse connect? Let’s look at the history.

In London, 1706,  the first modern life insurance company was formed: The Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office. Even way back then, with public literacy rates so poor that advertising had to be pictographic, the boffins in marketing knew how to sell death.

The Amicable Society for a Perpetual Assurance Office.

Now, at last, a gentleman of the early 18th century can find affordable peace of mind for a busy schedule – whether that’s writing for those newfangled “newspapers,” or freezing to death in the Great Frost!

The society was founded by William Talbot (also moonlighting as Bishop of Oxford), who faced the peculiar problem of identifying a member’s date of death.  Once you had that, some fairly basic maths could be used to determine their premium, or how much the member had to pay each year. As long as the society charged very slightly more, per year, than the death payouts were likely to be, profits were good.

The problem, of course, was figuring out that date of death. Even today, with invasive blood testing and illegal background checks, it’s impossible for insurance agencies to determine when an individual will die. However, what they can do, and what William Talbot was able to do, is determine the mortality rates for society as a whole.

For instance, in Australia, the life expectancy is 81.4 years. At current rates, a baby born in 2011 will probably see their 81st birthday. And with a large enough sample size, these estimates really can become extremely accurate.  Mathematicians have even determined the precise moment that Zimbabwe lost hope.

So this is the basic business model for insurance: charge very slightly more than the losses you’re likely to incur.

The second layer to that business model, and what really makes it a business, is investing members’ payments. William Talbot was able to take those yearly fees and put them to work – funding foreign mines, weapon smiths, even lottery tickets. So long as the mortality rates are correct, and members pay the right amount, investments return to the company as pure profit.

Welcome to business school.

Insurers skirts closer than anyone to the dangers of collapse. They’re economic morticians, with a price assessment for every car crash, shipwreck, and double homicide. By tapping into growth elsewhere in society, the insurance industry is able to cover these losses – even make a profit – with surprising reliability.

Thus, in terms of eschatology, insurance is nothing less than a bet on society’s continued functioning.

The very presence of these companies can be telling of society as a whole. They are like the indicator species used by environmentalists to measure a region’s health. In Cairns, where I grew up, tree frog populations provide a good indicator of airborne poisons, or the quality of nearby water systems. With a lot of frogs, the future looks bright. Without them?

What happens when the insurance bet loses?

A few years ago, at the height of the GFC, London’s huge insurance companies began posting quarterly losses. When one or two companies luck out, it’s poor management. But when the industry as a whole becomes unprofitable, it’s a warning sign. Of course, things have changed since the GFC days, and insurance is once again a safe bet… err, sort of.

William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer, has an interesting take on the future:

Alvin Toffler warned us about Future Shock, but is this Future Fatigue? For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they’re talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion. People my age are products of the culture of the capital-F Future. The younger you are, the less you are a product of that…

The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely… more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian…

This newfound state of No Future is, in my opinion, a very good thing. It indicates a kind of maturity, an understanding that every future is someone else’s past, every present someone else’s future. Upon arriving in the capital-F Future, we discover it, invariably, to be the lower-case now.

In the past, we thought the beginning of the end had a sound: seven trumpets, the herald of Armageddon.

More likely, the beginning of the end will be mute, a single sentence at the bottom of the news screen: AIG posts seventh quarter of loss, files for bankruptcy.

Sometimes, you want to live in interesting times. Well, parts of you – the light, fluffy parts of your brain, last to evolve on those African plains – want to. These are heady lobes, hemispheres of Kerouac.  They burst with testosterone, cry to be overwhelmed, and beg the world to be interesting.

Sometimes, they crawl with electric ants. They seek the yawning expanse of choice, the bowel tingling sense of awe, found on the tops of buildings. The breeze up here is stronger, colder, more questioning. The ground is distant and strange. It’s a Petri dish. You could drop anything off here – books and stones, or a handful of change. Imagine the impact.

You could drop the shirt off your back, and it wouldn’t fall. It would fill like a sail, churned on invisible currents. Someone might find it up a tree. You could jump, and it wouldn’t be suicide. It would be a sort of innocent curiosity, the last moment of an experimental life.

Then the moment passes. The older parts of your brain, hard and reptilian, have seen it before. They claw up from the depths, muscular, thickened by millennia of survival. Scales in every sense of the word, they know there will always be interesting times. Step back from the edge, and get back to work. There’s plenty of time for surprises, like it or not.

Obviously, I’m not really talking about evolutionary psychology here, much less the marketing industry’s “reptilian brain”. Rather, I’m talking about the sound of screeching tyres. Just for a second, we wait for the thud of steel against a concrete wall. Perhaps a part of us hopes for it. Imagine if?

And then, of course, we come to our senses. We don’t want anyone to die. We feel guilty, checking that nobody noticed. (This could be the child’s fear of sympathetic magic. How loud is a thought?)

Nietzsche typically describes the dichotomy in Ancient Greek terms, as a relationship between the Apollonian and the Dionysian impulses. The Apollonian impulse is for order and regularity. It is the hope that our capacities are up to the challenge of reality. The Dionysian impulse is for disorder and change. It is the hope that reality is up to the challenge of our capacities.

Most of the time, for most of us, the Apollonian impulse dominates. It must, because society depends on it. The Apollonian impulse puts food in the cupboard. It stops us laughing at funerals, just to see what happens. But sometimes the grip slips, and carnival time begins. In these hours, Sufis twirl while Jimi Hendrix tokes. Wars start, some guy burns his last bridge at work, and lovers ride each other to the moon.

We wake up the next day, hungry for real food, and try to find our feet. Everything is different now. We smashed this, fucked that up, and regret being so damned earnest. But the Apollonian impulse is strong, and it has seen worse. It takes the world as it is, and begins to digest. It may take hours or days, weeks or years, but the whole world is swallowed in time. The new reality is then normal, acceptable, and downright habitable.  Now we can get on with living.

Crazy

 

Collectively, it seems we can adapt to almost anything. The Cold War once seemed natural. Polio came and went, and electricity blew our minds so hard it must have hurt – but only for a while. Then we forgot. People are banality machines. We take the magic of the internet, the downright terror of a world without a plan, and shrug. Normalcy is what you make it.

Given all this, is apocalypse even possible?

Can the sense of awe really last forever? This is the wish for a reality comprehensively, profoundly, beyond our ken. It’s a yearning found in all major religions, a necessarily confused groping for mysticism, for paradox, for eschatology and the end of normal.

Perhaps more pointedly, it is the wish for a world that simply cannot continue to deteriorate. It is the wish that, were your lover to leave, or the last fish in the oceans to die, life would not just go on. That would be the line, the end of the world. We could not continue after this – surely?

But we can continue. With the first fires at Fukushima breaking out, and the ghost of Chernobyl stirring, it seemed life in Australia would be changed forever. I went to a party that night, checking for updates every hour or so. The next morning, I woke up and turned on the news. Japan was packed with journalists, strewn about the country like wet debris. Graphics departments must have worked triple time, doing up reactor blue prints that didn’t look exactly the same as the other broadcasters’.

A week later, it isn’t even front page news. The Japanese military water bombs its own nuclear reactors, steaming and sizzling for god knows how long, and an Emperor tries to pull his nation together. But it doesn’t matter – this is just the new normal. We have collectively moved on, in part thanks to a titanic ability to get on in the world, no matter how fucked up that world may be.

Speaking of which, heard the latest from Tripoli?

 

I didn’t want to write this post until the Middle East had settled down, but I can’t wait forever.

In Libya, people are shot at funerals. I can’t imagine that, but I can’t imagine a lot of things: grenades in the street, calls to prayer, the internet switched off. Somehow, in the last few weeks, the Middle East has found its voice. It’s the roar of self immolation. Wikipedia says 10,000 are injured, from Iran to the Western Sahara, but the exact number will never be known.

I think in metaphors.

Colonel Gaddafi is going down swinging. He’s a sick man on a death bed throne, snorting crushed bones and burnt bridges.  He’s coughing up graves. The Italians think it’s a thousand dead, but who knows? This isn’t Egypt. This might be old Africa, some contagion flown in on the backs of mercenaries, or the soldiers from Chad. It’s a pest, a hungry tick, this terrible violence for fuck-knows-what.

Maybe that’s a little strong. An African contagion – really? It all sounds a little racist. But, come on, wouldn’t it make a kind of sense? Here we are, rich folk in another world, steeped in the tremendous wealth of Enlightenment politics, zipping through election after election. And the system works. We’ve got justice, democracy, a sensible police force kept in check by people who know their rights (implied or otherwise).

While elsewhere, in the land of a million little mud huts, bullets punctuate the desert heat. Rule of law plays second fiddle to rule by law, and the consequences are obvious. Big men take the throne and hold on for decades. Billions of dollars are siphoned from local economies, sent to Paris, Madrid, or some terrible little boutique in New York called Irony. The big men send their children to Oxford, where they are carefully schooled in the art of double-think.

So when some peasant in Bahrain gets his teeth kicked in for the last time, grabs a sickle and vows to take the king down a notch, don’t we have the right to be nervous? That’s certainly the impression I’ve gotten. CNN interviewed the head of the Egyptian opposition, and every second question was about their treaty with Israel. Would it remain? Where did the army stand on this? Wasn’t the Muslim Brotherhood on the streets as well, chanting and slavering over a hot IED?

He said the Muslim Brotherhood had been trying for 80 years to take Egypt, and that wasn’t about to change. That’s a good answer, but it didn’t stop CNN asking the same thing again and again. We have a Pavlovian response to angry Muslims on the march.

We fear.

When I asked a history student what he thought of it all, he was worried about terrorists coming to power. It seems they can’t handle democracy like we can; if they had a voice, they’d only call us to prayer. Maybe the big men had really done everyone a favour, draped in their self appointed war medals. They kept a lid on their people, even if (tut) the methods grated our liberal sensibilities.

 

Counter Terrorists Win

 

James Howard Kunstler, peaknik prophet, examplifies this fear…

For a month, Egypt has been a magic mirror for America to behold its own wonderfulness, like a diorama of “Freedom and Democracy” out of a Kentucky creationist museum. In this, our hour of national narcissism, we imagine a replay of Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Yorktown – with a falafel on top…

Why shouldn’t it be another Bunker Hill? Isn’t the whole world headed to democracy? Barack Obama, presumably a big fan of freedom and all that, supported the brutal Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak – right up until the writing was literally on the walls of Cairo. It’s a strange, bipolar attitude to the basic idea of democracy.

Perhaps the Ancient Greek theory of the Kyklos was right. According to this, society naturally rotates through a series of political systems. The Kyklos revolves (via revolution – a related term) from democracy to aristocracy, then to monarchy, and finally back to democracy. It whirs on, kicking up bloody sparks, for eternity.

There’s a lot of interesting things going on here – questions about linear versus circular conceptions of time – that I won’t go into at the moment.

Rather, I want people to make a decision. If you believe democracy is the final word in history, the long, sweet ellipsis at the end of the world, then you cannot be afraid of the Middle East. People everywhere are basically people. They want somewhere to sleep and someone to sleep with. If they have kids, they want them to be happy. If they have parents, they want them to be proud. They’ll make the right decisions.

If, on the other hand, you believe in the Kyklos, you can have a more cynical response to the Middle East. You believe democracy is neither always benevolent nor endlessly permanent. These are countries stitched together by Europeans from the other side of the world,  with religious and political violence tearing at their seams. Simply, things are complicated. What you cannot do is contain this cynicism. Wherever you live, no matter how peaceful, the Kyklos rumbles on. Revolution is always coming – even here, even now.

What nobody can do is have it both ways. We cannot simply proclaim democracy, although the single greatest form of government ever conceived, should never be extended to the unwashed foreign masses. This is double-think, lazy-think, no-think. Or are we really too afraid? Do we really need these tinpot dictators, armed to the ivory teeth, beating the chaos back? Then we should own up: democracy is a failure. We should stop congratulating ourselves, and get down to the dirty business of realpolitik.

A few weeks back, Amy and I won movie tickets.

We dressed up and headed out, detouring to 7/11 for chocolate milk and a frozen coke. The machine wasn’t working there, so we went across the road to Night Owl, where we had better luck. At Tribal Theatre, we grabbed our tickets and followed a crowd to Cinema Two.

It’s a “quirky” place, which is code for faux-operatic trappings: red curtains and papier mache columns. It’s also BYO. I slurped my chocolate milk, acutely aware of everyone else’s beer and wine. Damn, even Amy’s frozen coke was more hardcore.

I sat with the crowd, watching a blank screen. Cinema Two certainly seemed a small room. Wasn’t there a bunch of people outside?

Some thoughts began to percolate. When we came in, there had been an odd sign on the door. A short line of alternatives had shuffled out, perhaps off to an angry meeting at town hall. Nobody actually said this was the right room; we just followed the others. A guy from Tribal Theatre made an announcement.

“Umm, if you’re here for the screening of The Room, it’s in Cinema One.”

The crowd laughed, all abuzz with caffeine and alcohol. We formed an orderly line, and headed back to the lobby. I took the chance to check out the odd signs on the door.

The Zeitgeist Movement

My god, The Zeitgeist Movement! In my little Brisbane! By some twist of fate, some quirk of inadequate public signage, we had just barely missed a genuine encounter with Zeitgeist!

Swept away to Cinema One, I mentally filed the near-encounter under “cult,” like the time some Raelians gave a screening at the library. Then I watched The Room. It was incredible.

But what had I missed? I knew that Zeitgeist was an independent conspiracy-doco, claiming 9/11 was (a) an inside job, (b) a hoax, or (c) in some way incredibly important and meaningful. But what did that have to do with anything? Contesting the truth is all well and good, but there’s no need to build a “movement.” We already have Wikipedia for that sort of cutting edge research.

It turns out, of course, that The Zeitgeist Movement has moved on a little from 9/11.

In terms of the films, three have been released so far – Zeitgeist: The Movie, Zeitgeist: Addendum, and Zeitgeist: Moving Forward. It was the third film, Moving Forward, that Amy and I had barely missed the final Brisbane screening of. And it was the second film, Addendum, that added the Venus Project to Zeitgeist’s heady mix of religion, conspiracy, and DIY editing.

The Venus Project is the promotional arm of yet another upcoming utopia. Its founder, Jacque Fresco, is an “industrial designer, social engineer, lecturer, and author.” Predictably for this sort of thing, Jacque is a technology guy. He designs, builds, and likes machines. To the future!

Okay, maybe I’m being a little harsh on The Zeitgeist Movement. Let’s take a look under the hood, at the philosophical ideas keeping the whole thing running.

Firstly, there’s an explicit difference between the content of the films and the actual goals of The Zeitgeist Movement. Some of the themes and ideas have been dropped, though they probably still serve as an implicit shared worldview.

For example, the first film details at great length the Jesus myth hypothesis, arguing that Jesus as a historical person never existed. The Zeitgeist Movement, however, has a less confrontational view on spirituality.

Secondly, The Zeitgeist Movement is thoroughly modern, as opposed to post-modern. Scientific truths really are True. By the accumulation of knowledge, by observing the way things work, we will develop better and better systems of life. Crucially, science is seen as providing both descriptive and prescriptive answers.

Thirdly, The Zeitgeist Movement is anti-capitalism and pro-environment. To the movement, technology and the natural world need not be antagonistic. It’s only the profit motive that sets technology against the environment, by promoting over-production. Thus, to be pro-environment one needs to be anti-capitalist.

So what’s going  on here? What do they want?

Basically, to replace our current profit motivated economy with a “resource based economy.” The marketplace will be removed as a decision making body, replaced with the scientific method. That’s right, with science the brain and technology the body, we can create a system that makes and carries out objectively true decisions about how the world should be run.

This is hopeful nonsense, and we’ve known why for centuries.

If you’re studying any kind of science, at whatever level, in whatever field, you need to understand the limits of empirical truth. That is, you need to understand the is-ought problem. To illustrate, here’s David Hume…

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.

This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

Through the quaint language, we can see a serious problem for The Zeitgeist Movement.

No “ought” can be directly produced from an “is.”

You’ve got jury duty, in a court of the future. There’s been a murder, and we know everything there is to know about it. We know where each atom was during each second of the night in question. We know the thoughts of the murderer, the last sight of the murdered. We know the social and economic consequences of murder on society, as well as the impacts of execution and incarceration.

But what ought to be done? The science can be perfect, absurdly all knowing. But these facts, this list of what is, is necessarily and profoundly disconnected from what ought to be. Should we throw murderers in jail, or parades in their honour?

Science alone does not make decisions. To get decisions from science, we need to feed in some foundational axioms. For example, if we think pain is bad, and pleasure good, science will almost certainly decide that murder is a bad thing. The point is, we needed to start from something, and science is necessarily unrelated to this original decision.

All talk of society, of ethics, of decision making based solely on the scientific method is deliberately deceptive or accidentally ignorant.

The Zeitgeist Movementarians are chasing a paradox already established by David Hume. But they’re not alone. The argument is constantly raised that science alone, empirical knowledge alone, can resolve any kind of ethical or social problem. Science can help us make decisions, but it cannot inform the parameters of those decisions.

Is freedom good? Is pain bad? How should the world be?

Welcome to Kierkegaard’s world.