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« Paul Snowdon on Persons and Animals | Main | Marilyn McCord Adams on Evil »

June 29, 2009


So this fourth revolution, why exactly is it a revolution like the other three?

I can certainly see why Copernicus "revolutionised" our conceptions of "philosophical anthropology": suddenly mankind was not at the centre of the universe, but somewhere on its messy fringes.

I can also see why Darwin can be put in such a category: suddenly men were not sui generis but were in fact rather closer to the animal kingdom than previously thought.

And I can see why Freud probably qualifies too: after him, we cease to see human beings as essentially "transparent" and comprehensible in a straightforward sense, as the unconscious psyche must be taken into account (though the notion of transparency Freud challenged owed more to Christianity - or rather, to Nietzsche's critique of Christianity - than DesCartes).

But this fourth revolution, how does it fit the model? And why Alan Turing? Why not the microchip? Or the birth of the internet? And why has it meant that the way I conceive of myself is fundamentally different to the way my great grandfather conceived of himself?

Why is it that the invention of computing machines has radically changed the way we conceive of ourselves, in line with Copernicus, Darwin and Freud? What is it about the existence of machines that makes us re-evaluate what we are?

I'm afraid no meaningful answer is forthcoming, frankly. After all, if this is a story about the dissemination of vast amounts of information, then the fourth revolution surely happened with the invention of the printing press, thus pre-dating all three previous revolutions. If the rise of "information technology" is supposed to have had an impact due to the levels of information disseminated, then the story cannot be a new one, fundamentally, but an extension - of if you like, an astonishing quickening - of one that's been going on for centuries.

But hang on, if it's been going on for centuries, and pre-dates the other three revolutions, how on earth is this "fourth revolution" possibly conceived of as being anything like the other three? And I still don't know why the invention of electronic computing devices is supposed to have changed the way that I conceive about myself, such that I am radically different from everyone born before the 20th Century in terms of my self-conception.

If the story is not about volumes of information, but about how the existence of electronic computing machines have somehow forced us to re-think what it is to be human...well something actually has to be offered by way of explanation. Simply pointing at the fact there are, post-1940s Britain, ever-more-powerful computing machines, things like the internet and lots and lots of easy-accessed information, doesn't explain why this has anything to do with how we re-conceptualise our humanity.

Let's cut to the chase here. There is no philosophy to be found in this thesis. Yes, I'm trained in an analytic background. But some of my most pleasurable hours have been spend reading Nietzsche and Foucault. The "analytics" have no monopoly on good philosophy. But this stuff is not the radical insight of an alternative school of thinking. It is just, essentially, made-up. There is nothing to it. It's not even sophistry - for at least the sophists bothered to argue. Yes, I think this qualifies for a title I never thought it would be possible to attain: worse than the work of Peter Singer.

However, I notice that Dr Floridi is in the middle of a distinguished career. So I will take note. Over the next five years, expect my D-Phil thesis to hit the world! It will be on the Philosophy of Trees: how the fact there are fewer and fewer tress in the world forces us to reconceptualise what it means to be a creature whose ancient ancestors were rather like modern day monkeys, some of whom live in trees.

In 20 years, I'll be a philosophy professor. Wa-hey! Now I can stop reading all those long, difficult and complicated tracts by Hume, Locke, Plato, Spinoza, Wittgenstein, DesCartes, Nietzsche, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Leibniz, Weber, Williams, Strawson, Foucault, Berkeley and all the rest of the gang. For it turns out one can have a long and distinguished career just by making things up.

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