Monday, September 11, 2017

Neo-Rationalism: An introduction

Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebels' hidden fort...”
-General Motti, A New Hope

The first philosophy I want to discuss has nothing to do with psionic powers and is, in fact, the closest thing to an actual philosophy that I am likely to discuss.

Psi-Wars, like Star Wars before it and many of the genre-mashing space opera stories that were especially popular during the era in which Star Wars was conceived, suffer from the problem of embracing both the “wonder of advanced science” themes of sci-fi as well as the “mysticism of the ancient past” themes of fantasy. On the one hand, we need science, as we’re writing science-fiction, and how else do we justify the amazing technology of the setting (force screens, hyperdrives, man-portable weaponized particle accelerators powered by impossibly efficient batteries)? On the other hand, if we embrace science in its totality, we leave little room for the spirituality inherent in the mysticism of Star Wars. How can we get both together in the same place?

To make both work, we need to both embrace and reject science. We must explain why the Galaxy of Psi-Wars has been stuck in the same tech level for the literally millennia necessary to give us the huge sweep of history that we want in the setting. We can solve this problem in a variety of ways, but Neo-Rationalism is one of my answers. Scientific progress is not manifest destiny; its paradigm, the culture of skepticism, analytical thinking and bold experimentation, can be lost and replaced with dogmatism and doctrine. This has happened before in history. I would argue, in fact, that we’re constantly under attack by our own impulses to move away from the unintuitive strictures of the scientific method and towards the more intuitive impulses of mysticism and worship of authority.

Neo-Rationalism is, at first glance, a scientific strawman. It represents a preening, condescending and obviously wrong take on science by emphasizing all the worst traits of scientism, the sort of “smug, ivory tower scientist who doesn’t really understand the world” that we see so often in science fiction. The Neo-Rationalist is the irrationally skeptic who refuses to believe the truth of things like True Communion. This makes him a natural enemy for the heroes of the Psi-Wars universe, someone they can defy and defeat, and thus is strongly represented in the “evil” Empire.

But everyone who reads this work does so on a computer and lives in a civilized world shaped by science. Does science really need to be villified? In this sense, Neo-Rationalism represents a tragedy. It shows a galaxy that was once on the path to scientific enlightenment, but lost its way. Science lost its discipline, and thus its power, and in its absence, mysticism has sprung up.

Neo-Rationalism also represents an opportunity to get the galaxy back on the right track.  It holds genuine keys to self-improvement! And unlike the other philosophies here, one needn't be psionic to access it.  It also has access to (experimental, dangerous) TL 12^ prototypes and is perhaps the best place to find the last embers of the fire that once fueled technological progress.  With the right spark, and by cleaning away the gunk that has grown up around it, perhaps the flames of progress could be lit once more.

This creates the core tension of Neo-Rationalism, one paralleled in the Psi-Wars setting, between mysticism and skepticism. The Neo-Rationalist craves answers to difficult questions that science cannot answer, but wants to hold onto the truths of science. It must carefully navigate what science can offer and what it cannot, and at this point in the setting, the movement has failed to do that, but the PCs might succeed where others have failed!

Neo-Rationalism also offers players the chance to play an intellectual who isn’t a space wizard. It rewards deep investment in intellectual skills and offers nigh-super-human, but entirely plausible, displays of genius. It befits characters like Thrawn, Moff Tarkin, especially cunning investigators and deeply thoughtful scavengers. It explicitly allows the sci-fi fan to bring the science back into the space fantasy of Psi-Wars, without disrupting that space fantasy.

The Power of Science and the Danger of Scientism

The Psi-Wars galaxy sports such amazing technology as hyperspace travel, force swords, psionic boosters and holographic communicators. Surely, such a society has a fantastic tradition of science, or had so at one point in its past. One cannot uncover such unintuitive technologies by accident. The galaxy has a plethora of alien species each with their own developments that they can swap and share, increasing the total sum of knowledge, but we still need to explain how they reached the stars in the first place! There must have been some sort of scientific culture at some point.

Science has a powerfully impressive impact upon cultures that begin to follow its rather strict methods. Scientists begin to offer solutions, like medicines, weather predictions, economic success and military defenses that more superstitious methods failed to reliable produce. The power of science is so impressive, the wonder that power invokes inspires sci-fi! The common man, who typically lacks the nuanced knowledge of the scientist find the works of scientist to be arcane and hard to fathom. They may begin to assign them the sort of reverence once held for spiritual, religious or mystical leaders.

Neil Tyson is the Dalai Lama of science.”
-Sulphur Jellybean, Youtube

This can pose a problem. Science works by challenging the status quo and attempting to find proof and then sharing that proof with others. It seeks to understand that which can be proven and nothing else. Science cannot weigh good against evil, or measure the breadth of the soul, or attempt to prove or disprove the existence of cosmic beings that both pervade and transcend the universe. Science is a tool for understanding the physical world, not a system of ethics or metaphysics or theology.

But some people want it to be. They like the effectiveness of science, an effectiveness gained by focusing on its strengths, and want to apply it to matters the scientific method claims no expertise over. They want to turn science into a system of ethics and metaphysics, they want to turn great scientific minds into great political or religious minds. They want the easy answer of pointing to someone and saying “He’s rational, he has a degree, he solved this one problem, he must be good as solving all other problems.”

This creates an entirely different mentality than one that pursues the scientific method, and turns it into scientisim, the cosmetic application of science in unwarranted situations not covered by the scientific method. In this context, only the most credentialed men may lead, and anyone who disagrees only proves himself to be “irrational” by his very objection to being ruled by a technocracy.

The Fictional Inspiration: The Promise of a Better Man and General Semantics

Such a method would allow mankind to start every generation where the last one left off, and the progress of civilization would follow the exponential law. A copy of this general doctrinal summary should be placed in the hands of every teacher throughout the world, by legislation if need be… Scientists would start with such an institution a new period of human history which would be called the "scientific era."”
- Alfred Korzybski, Time Binding

As I hunted for inspiration for various philosphical movements, I stumbled across “The World of Null-A,” a work A. E. von Vogt, and when I tried to uncover what this “Null-A” he spoke of was, I came across General Semantics, an idea proposed by Alfred Korzybski in the early 20th century. The core of his idea was that all people needed to understand the difference between the labels we apply to things and what those things actually are. He argued that our confusion of semantics created dissonance and led to strife and hardship. He advocated for a regime of introspection until a moment’s hesitation when presented with a new idea became habit, so that one reacted thoughtfully, rather than instinctively. He argued that if one followed his regime strictly, one could become a better man, more thoughtful, more enlightened, less animalistic and more rational.

The early 20th century, still flush with the fruits of scientific advancement, saw science as the solution to everything, and proposed all sort of “rational” ideas like eugenics and atomic science, but I find General Semantics both typical and very interesting. It, typically, offers an escape from the frustrations of the human condition: follow this simple set of instructions, this One Weird Trick, and not only will your problems go away, but everyone’s problems as society becomes a fundamentally better place. I find it unique, though, in that it seems to have inspired quite a following in science fiction. General Semantics inspired the World of Null-A, which in turn inspired the Mentats and Bene Gesserit of Dune, which inspired Star Wars. It also inspired Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Scientology.

The fundamental idea in all of these is that people can be made better through science. People who follow a philosophy can become more rational, more intelligence, more moral. This builds upon the ideals of scientism: If there is a sage you particularly admire, you have only to follow an ideology that makes you like him, and if you can get your society to institute those ideals as law, then surely utopia will follow!

The Historical Inspiration: Platonism and Neo-Platonism

The natural philosopher Heraclitus said that man is naturally irrational. If this is true, as it is true, then everyone who enjoys futile glory should hide his face.”
-Apollonius of Tyana

The greatest of the early philosophers was arguably Plato. He did a great deal to outline the core philosophical problems, and almost all Western philosophy that I’ve personally studied is either a response to him, to one of his critics, or to religious texts. He proved to be a foundation on which antique Western philosophy, in the very least, was built upon.

Plato had an interesting approach to philosophy. He wrote his treatises in a dialogue form, where in the character of Socrates poses questions and the people involved attempt to answer them. In this way, Plato was able to explore the ideas presented, often in the way most people might. The answers presented within the dialogues, at least on my reading, aren’t depicted as definitive. Indeed, it’s often the case that other characters disagree with the character of Socrates and the dialogue ends at an impasse. To me, the intent of Plato’s Dialogues is not to espouse one specific view of the world, one definitive philosophy, but a means by which one uncovers the truth of the world. That is, Plato was more interested in persuading us to ask questions, to explore, and to challenge assumptions. Things like his views on the ultimate political arrangement, or his theory of forms, were merely the result of his methodology, and that his methodology mattered more than the results of his methodology.

This methodology remained the true heritage of Platonists for centuries in the form of academic skepticism, but eventually, centuries later, interest in Plato’s works shifted from methodology to ideology. Concepts like the demiurge, the monad and the theories of forms became central to platonic philosphical discussion and, eventually, theological discussion. Mystics, interested in cloaking their clap-trap in the shroud of authority, began to borrow ideas from Pythagoras and Plato and use them to create a more mystical world-view, arguing that they were uncovering Plato’s “hidden doctrines.” This new movement became more interested in using his works to define God, and then to worship that God, and those who studied Plato tried to divine the secret truths buried within his works. This intermixed with Early Christian and Gnostic thought to reshape how these religions saw their God, and also made considerable impact on early Islamic thought.

Slowly, over time, a philosophy became theological dogma. Plato slowly changed from a figure who advocated critical thinking to a transcendent oracle who had witnessed the true nature of the world and was attempting to relay those mysteries via allegory, as any religious figure would. For the purposes of drawing a parallel with Psi-Wars, we can also say that this coincided with a decline in Greco-Roman civilization and a rise of spiritualism.

What is Neo-Rationalism?

It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, the stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion”
- The Mentat Matra, Dune

At its core, Neo-Rationalism is the fundamental acceptance of the authority of “scientists.” It celebrates a bygone movement of rational scientists, but has become dogmatic about the ideas espoused by those scientists while neglecting the methodology that those scientists of old used. It reads more into the ideas espoused by scientists then the scientists ever intended, or even meant.

They believe that by following this philosophy, they can improve themselves, and society, making themselves the only truly qualified people to lead nations. They believe that their ideology is ultimately and fundamentally correct, and that following any other ideology is “dangerously superstitious,” and that all-right thinking people will inevitably see that this path is the right one. That also means that someone who does not follow this ideology is inherently “irrational” or foolish, and his opinions can be safely disregarded.

Neo-Rationalists want, more than anything, to restore the promise of a future that was derailed by the rise of the "irrational," the superstitious mysticism that has taken a hold of the galaxy.  They want to return to an era when TL 11^ wasn't just "the way things have always been," and where TL 12^ was just around the corner.  They've lost their way, a little, but they're trying to grope their way back by using the greatest minds the Galaxy has ever produced.  They look backwards, to the golden age of the science-that-could-have-been, but they do so in hopes of producing such minds now, who can usher them back into a world of progress.

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