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A remarkable word of warning

Peter Thiel’s Oxford Union address warns of darkness ahead

Peter Thiel Wikimedia Commons

A remarkable word of warning
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Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and Palantir and the first outside investor in Facebook, has been on a sort of intellectual speaking tour to talk about deeply theological themes such as the Antichrist and the Apocalypse in relation to scientific and technological progress. Actually, it is the lack of progress that is Thiel’s concern, and he brought that concern to the world’s oldest and most prestigious debating society, The Oxford Union, as the inaugural speaker of the Union’s bicentennial year.

Thiel’s speech was a full-throated defense of classical liberalism within the context of Christian apocalypticism, delivered in a style not unlike that of medieval theological discourses, offering rebuttals and counter-rebuttals to various theses about human freedom. One wonders if a large Oxford audience has heard anything like this since the days of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

The argument starts with the political correctness debates of university life in the ’90s and the controversies at Stanford University about Western civilization, both the course and the historical reality the course purports to study. When Jesse Jackson chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go,” it was unclear whether this was only a call to end the course or a call to end the civilization it studies.

The eclipse of Shakespeare by revolutionary literature such as I, Rigoberta Menchu, demonstrates a crisis within the humanities and a crisis of classical liberalism. The rebuttal to that was that the humanities don’t matter. What matters, we are told, is science. The achievements of the Manhattan Project and similar government-led triumphs were seen as leaving behind the old world of humanities and debates over whether to read or cancel dead white European males. Science makes the seemingly vibrant debates of literature pale into comparative insignificance. Scientism is the rebuttal to classical liberalism.

But is there is a rebuttal to this rebuttal? Science isn’t really progressing as it was in the past. The Manhattan Project is long gone. Scientific debate is suppressed, and topics such as Darwinism and climate science are off limits. Apart from the world of bits, technological progress has been stagnant. The technology of moving atoms is so stagnant that the word “tech” is now typically used to refer to information technology.

Any system that demands enough power to fulfill the promise of peace and safety is far more of a threat than anything it promises to protect you from.

The tech sector is computers, not fusion, not hypersonic air travel because computers are the only tech with much of anything happening. According to Thiel, government suppression makes real progress impossible. The corrupt grantmaking system and academic politics churn out endless (often unverifiable) journal articles but no flying cars or cold fusion.

But maybe that’s a feature, not a bug. Our industrial economy is destroying the earth, says Greta Thunberg. Artificial intelligence will rise up and kill or enslave us all. Even the techno-utopian quasi-religious Singularity University now talks about the human race planning a death-with-dignity approach to the inevitable triumph of the machines. Thiel quotes Nick Bostrom of Oxford University who argues for an aggressively policed global governance system. This system will mercifully suppress the diversity of human motivations and proliferation of knowledge and opinions and align all our goals, staving off the modern versions of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Technological apocalypse is the rebuttal to scientism.

At this point, Thiel invokes “the New Testament” and “the quasi-mythological” warning about the Antichrist, who in Thessalonians rises to power on the people’s desire for “peace and safety.” But that peace and safety come at an enormous cost.

And that crushing of human freedom under Antichrist is the rebuttal to planned stagnation. It, not the risks of technological progress, is the true existential threat to humanity. Thiel argues that excess fear of apocalypse in the form of global warming, nuclear disaster, or pandemic leads us to Antichrist. We need to fear Antichrist more and apocalypse less.

That is the case for classical liberty, a system of open debate and unpoliced thought. Any system that demands enough power to fulfill the promise of peace and safety is far more of a threat than anything it promises to protect you from.

Thiel opened the speech with the question, “What is the antonym of diversity?” Answer: “University.” That is the challenge of our age, whether institutions such as universities will carry on as zombie-like enforcers of ideological justifications for stagnation or whether they will rediscover their role as vibrant centers for debate, the purpose for which the Oxford Union was created. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Thiel and his ideas, his speech at Oxford is a timely contribution to the world of ideas.

Jerry Bowyer

Jerry Bowyer is the chief economist of Vident Financial, editor of Townhall Finance, editor of the business channel of The Christian Post, host of Meeting of Minds with Jerry Bowyer podcast, president of Bowyer Research, and author of The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics. He is also resident economist with Kingdom Advisors, serves on the Editorial Board of Salem Communications, and is senior fellow in financial economics at the Center for Cultural Leadership. Jerry lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, Susan, and the youngest three of his seven children.

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