Artificial Intelligence and Society: Philosophy of Fallibility
Part 7: Collapse of the Grand Narrative

Faculty Fellow, RIETI

As I explained above, the experience of totalitarianism dealt a devastating blow to the worship of reason in the 19th century as represented by the Hegelian philosophy. History proved that reason does not make linear progress. Totalitarianism may have been an extraordinary aberration in an extraordinary era, but it seems that the sense of a loss of trust in reason continued to spread throughout the 20th century.

This sense was aptly expressed by Jean-François Lyotard's "collapse of the grand narrative" concept. Lyotard asserted that the modern era was one in which people believed in the "grand narrative," while the post-modern era is one in which the grand narrative collapsed (Lyotard, Postmodern Condition).

In this context, the grand narrative means the progressive view of history, which maintains that unlimited development of science (human reason) will resolve all problems in due course. The collapse of the grand narrative refers to the doubt about the progressive view of history, a doubt which has been growing in recent years. More specifically, this is the suspicion that however much science and technology may develop, problems faced by human beings may not be resolved. Scientific research is predicated on the Rationalism (or human centrism), which holds that as human reason can ultimately understand the universe, making scientific progress means continuing to exercise reason toward achieving the ultimate understanding. Human centrism includes the belief that the progress of reason can resolve various social, political and economic problems faced by human society.

However, recently, in the field of basic sciences, no remarkable progress has been observed for a long time. The scientific and technological progress are not solving the various problems of human society, including inequality, poverty and war. Rather, the development of science and technology has created environmental problems, such as global warming and pollution due to chemical substances and microplastics, confronting us with the new policy challenge of whether either human society or the natural environment are sustainable. As those problems deepen, it is unclear whether human society can resolve them through the exercise of reason.

In short, the collapse of the grand narrative means that in the modern society, the belief in the omnipotence of human reason has crumbled. Under the worldview based on human centrism, given that nothing is superior to human reason and that reason has its limitations, there is nothing that can go beyond those limitations to save humanity.

What that implies in the field of political philosophy is that it has become difficult to uphold theories that relate individuals' life goals (virtue) to the goals of the whole society (reason, God, etc.), as with Hegelian historical philosophy. Under the Hegelian philosophy, history is the process of the world spirit (reason) achieving self-fulfillment, with individuals' selfish actions (virtue for individuals) unwittingly contribute to the progress of reason. The life goals of individuals gain social significance as they are justified by history. However, what became clear in the 20th century was that reason may have its limitations.

If the belief in the progress of reason crumbles in modern society where the worship of reason prevails, it becomes unclear what the goals for the whole society are, making it difficult to characterize individuals' actions as socially significant. The state of being unable to relate virtue for individuals to the whole society forces modern people to experience the sense of being abandoned that Arendt mentioned. That was how the "forgotten people," whose support Donald J. Trump appealed to in his presidential election campaign in 2016, emerged. Since around 2016, the U.S. and European societies have witnessed growing waves of populism that reject liberal political thought and a free and global market economy underpinned by that thought, as epitomized by the rise of nationalist political forces in continental Europe, the United Kingdom’s referendum decision to leave the EU, and the arrival of the Trump administration in the United States. Underlying those phenomena is the fact that “abandoned” and “forgotten” people, who have been left behind by global competition and the advance of information technology (IT) and who have nothing to belong to, have become a huge force on the stage of domestic politics in developed countries and are rejecting the status quo of the world.

One point that should be kept in mind is that those people may not necessarily be as obviously socially vulnerable as the poor are. While the poor and other socially vulnerable people are "minority" groups, there is a significant possibility that the majority of people in modern society may have a sense of being abandoned.

The collapse of the grand narrative brought about by the "limitations of reason" has caused many modern people to feel "abandoned." However, the arrival of artificial intelligence could become the key to overcoming this situation of a philosophical dead end. That is the matter to be discussed in the next chapter.

May 17, 2022

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