Monday, October 28, 2013

Scott Adams' enlightenment

There are few human ventures that failed quite like the Enlightenment failed. This should be self-evident but apparently isn't. Thus we have a sort of neo-Enlightenment going in our time right now featuring such figures as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Scott Adams.

Before going on, a bit of necessary background. One fascinating thing about Enlightenment thinking is that it is just rife with mythology. You've almost certainly been exposed to some of these. The myth that the Medieval world believed that the world was flat, for example.

One of the most important bits of the Enlightenment mythology, probably the central belief of the Enlightenment faith, is that before the Enlightenment human beings imagined that they were the centre of the universe. The belief goes that people used to imagine that they lived in a cozy little universe that had been designed by God just for them. As comforting as this belief may have been, the story continues, it stood in the way of science. Then brave scientists willing to discard this warm and comforting illusion came along. By seeing the universe as a collection of impersonal events, these scientists brought about a revolution in human life that made everything better for everyone.

The claimed gains aren't just scientific but also moral. Freed from superstition, the Enlightenment also claimed that human beings were able to approach moral issues in a calm, rational way and work out rules that were better suited to our real needs and wants. This is where the self-evident failure aspect ought to come in.

Anyway, Scott Adams has trotted the Enlightenment mythology out in a piece called "Does God Have a Personality?" Go read the whole thing if you are so inclined.


The thing I hope you noticed is that Adams spends more time proving that you don't have a personality than he does on God's. He wants you to believe that everything you think of as distinctively you—your strengths, weaknesses, your hard-won achievements, your most troubling failures—is really just a series of mistakes.
The problem with the idea that God has a human-like personality is that human personalities are nothing but weaknesses and defects that we romanticize. For example, I might be kind to others because I want them to be nice to me, or perhaps I simply feel guilty when I'm not nice. God wouldn't have feelings of guilt and he wouldn't need a strategy just to be loved. He would have everything he needed all the time. Logically, God couldn't have a personality in the sense that humans do because our personalities are expressions of our defects and our DNA and our neediness.

For example, if you're ambitious, that's a romantic way of saying you're afraid of failure, or you're greedy, or you want to impress someone. God would not need any of that. Pick any human personality trait and it is either trivial or it is based on some sort of human limitation.

Even your sense of humor is based on a brain limitation. As a professional humorist, I make my living by writing thoughts that the normal human brain can't process without a hiccup that triggers a laugh response. God wouldn't have a sense of humor because he always knows how the joke ends, and no idea gives him a hiccup when processing a thought.

You can pick any personality trait and find the human defect that is behind it. Are you a highly social person? It probably means you have a fear of being alone, or you're so needy that you have to have the approval of others to feel right. 
I could go on but I won't. I leave you with this: Notice how Adams starts off trying to diminish God from having being to being merely a collection of physical laws but ends up diminishing human life. Does anything about that strike you as morally improving? The challenge for Enlightenment morality is usually described as being a matter of figuring out how we can be good without God. But that only brushes the surface. The real problem is not figuring out whether we can be good but figuring out why we would bother even trying.

PS: Notice how narcissistic Adams understanding of humour is? He understands it as being the thing that makes you laugh at his jokes.


  1. There's a completely different and even more ridiculous "Dark Enlightenment" going on in the alternative right. It combines all the worst arrogance of such thinking with a great deal of dishonesty about traditional living, nationalism, and gender roles.

    1. Interesting. The term "Dark Enlightenment" is new to me. I did a little Googling around and found some adherents and I'm inclined to agree with your assessment. With one caveat, as is always the case with people who style themselves as Enlightenment thinkers, it's hard to tell whether they are really being dishonest or just naive.

  2. It's also an understanding of humor proper to a person whose style of humor is just punchline after punchline. Hiccup is not a bad metaphor.