Sunday, January 4, 2009

TOTALITARIANS OF THE MIND

Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins: two eminent and respected members of the intellectual community of the planet. They represent what is meant here by ‘totalitarians of the mind’. Stephen Hawking pronounced himself close to knowing the mind of God; Richard Dawkins announced that God-talk arises from a delusion. Both of these men are defenders of a particular orthodoxy that wishes to impose certain conceptions of reality and eliminate others. It is worth exploring these ambitions in a little greater detail perhaps to expose their fallacious bases and their potentially damaging consequences. Inevitably we can only hope to make a couple of provocative suggestions.
One depressingly constant feature of human relations throughout the ages has been the desire of a minority of any given group to impose some ‘correct’ manner of thought and action upon all other members of that group. This is related to, though not exactly the same as, the universal urge of humans to exercise power over their fellows by any means. The straightforward oppression practised by primitive tyrannies arose largely from greed and other economic factors; and the means of oppression was generally the simple threat or reality of physical violence. Gradually, populations became more instructed and aware, less biddable and prone to obey; and as the generality of the population began to realise that it had a right to its own opinion, that no particular class had the monopoly on truth, the oppression of the majority by a particular group or individual left the crudely economic sphere for the intellectual and became more closely linked to control of what people were able to think. If you control what a person thinks, you control absolutely. Control of populations by powerful castes, priestly or otherwise, by the imposition of belief-systems has been a feature of human history wherever one looks. It is only in the modern world, however, that the possibility has emerged of establishing an intellectual authority billed as binding upon all rational beings. Efforts in this direction have led to the creation of the most subtle and sophisticated types of mind-control.
For us westerners, with our particular perspective, the most egregious past examples of such mind-control and the associated activities of the thought-police are usually found in the Europe of the Middle Ages, where the power of the Catholic Church was paramount and no alternative manner of thought apart from that explicitly sanctioned by the ecclesiastical authorities was permitted. The consequences of an individual’s disobedience to the Church’s teachings were usually his or her brutal death, by some grisly means. Since most people simply wanted to get on with their lives, most people were at least nominally catholic. With the Renaissance and subsequently the Enlightenment and Reformation, the Church’s authority waned and emphasis was put upon reason, on the nature of the world and of human life within it, and on the individual’s right to decide for him or herself. However, in place of the religious oppression of minds, which was of a fairly naive sort, the political oppression of those same minds became more focused, cynical, determined and began by default to gain the upper hand. As political oppression becomes more difficult, however, those who desire to control their fellows resort to purely the purely cultural means of thought-control.
The twentieth century saw the most impressive flowering of systems of political oppression in the ideologies of the period, notably those of Nazism and Communism. But these, too waned, as they were massively discredited by the abuses to which they gave rise. But in waning, they left the floor to the last and most insidious type of oppression that is still with us and that looks like being with us for a long time: intellectual oppression. Although all the other types of oppression still occur throughout the world and continue to blight people’s lives, it is intellectual oppression that is the real enemy of mankind in the present, for it has taken the place of all other types by this simple ploy: it has managed to convince the mass of mankind that its authority is not based upon an arbitrary fiat derived from some unprovable metaphysics, but on the nature of thought itself. The belief that there is within the nature of human thought about experience of the world an authority that can be discovered, defined and thereby imposed, is the last refuge of those totalitarians of the mind who wish to subject all of humanity to an orthodoxy. Whether such an authority is called ‘reason’, ‘logic’, ‘empiricism’, ‘the scientific method’ or all of these together, the exclusive intellectual dominance of such an ultimate orthodoxy would, in truth, be the end of history, not because it would represent any ultimate verities of human existence, but because it would impose a restrictive carapace upon the human mind that would prevent any further creative advance. We have for the last couple of millennia at least been in search of such an orthodoxy and many scientists are still in search of it. But let us make no mistake: such an orthodoxy would not be rooted in the nature of the mind itself nor in our experience of the world, it would be, along with all the other systems of oppression, a metaphysical means of control. It would be the most insidious kind of mind control. It would be a kind of control designed to inhibit the intrinsic and unpredictable creativity of the world in general and of humans in particular. When one hears half-educated journalists uncritically parroting the pronouncements of this or that fashionable scientist, as though they were revealed truth, one is right to be worried.
It is this latter type of intellectual control that I wish to flag up and warn against here. Religious oppression still exists in odd corners of the globe, where religious authorities retain something of the fundamentalism and ferocity that animated the European Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. Political oppression is widespread and everywhere where it is practised, it inevitably bears a dismal family resemblance to the oppression of the Stalinists or the Nazis, because those systems expressed something essential about the will to power. But intellectual oppression is by far the most subtle expression of this will and represents the most effective sort of oppression to date. And though it may go hand in hand with religious or political oppression, it exercises an increasingly powerful influence of its own without the paraphernalia of state oppression, prisons, courts, police and so on. Moreover, there are very few voices raised against its power because it has succeeded in presenting itself as central to our culture and as both disinterested and wholly beneficial to humanity; whereas it is neither of these latter. The will to power is never disinterested.
Intellectual oppression tries to impose by force of argument alone what it feels other people must believe. Rational argument is a wonderful thing. Science is one of our best accomplishments. But there is a fine line between framing a convincing argument on the basis of evidence and logic, on the one hand, and blinding with science, fostering pseudo-certainty, on the other; and this line is all too often overstepped. It is a fundamental tenet of those involved, consciously or unconsciously, in intellectual oppression that there is only one truth, that it is a truth for everyone, and that all must be forced, by argument rather than physical coercion, to believe it. It is this belief in the one monolithic truth for all, discoverable by the right method, that has historically motivated all kinds of oppression and that is why purely intellectual oppression is the most insidious and the most compelling of the lot. Intellectual oppression works with the normal tools of the inquiring mind, but subtly distorts them into a method for pushing a particular vision of the world, one vision and only that vision. Intellectual oppressors are the true totalitarians, for they are the last and most determined totalitarians of the mind. Their strength often derives from an unshakeable conviction that they are in the right and their wish to impose their conception of reality on others, to the exclusion of all other possible visions, is seen by them as a service to mankind. They are, of course as deluded as all other totalitarians, but in the majority of cases they are unaware that their conception of truth is a delusion.
The totalitarians of the mind are children of the Enlightenment, and as such their motivation is perhaps benign, at least initially. In the course of the development of their ideas, however, certain minds begin to adopt an ideological cast and begin to be convinced that there is only one truth on a particular subject and that this truth has to be imposed on humanity by what they call ‘proof’. But why should anyone ever have lighted on a complex of ideas such as this: a) that there is one truth about the universe, b) that such a single truth is accessible to human minds, c) that one individual mind can be in possession of at least of some aspect of that truth and d) that this possession is obtained by a privileged type of demonstration called ‘proof’? Part of the answer is found in the marriage between Greek rationalism and Judeao-Christian monotheism that was effected by the European Enlightenment: purely formal proofs of logic and maths were seen as the ‘gold standard’ of knowledge; and God was thought to be the repository of all such ultimate knowledge. The second part of the answer, however, is to be found in the psychological element inherent in all sorts of oppression: human egoism. The human ego is a powerful structure, ferociously devoted to the exercise of power at all costs. And in this respect, intellectual oppression is intimately related to political and religious oppression. All three types of oppression have a common denominator: it is the narcissistic, self-adoring god-almightiness of the ego, linked emotionally to a particular conception of truth.
Throughout the history of monotheism, of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic kinds, the deity has been conceived as a gigantic ego, an ego in possession of the ultimate truth about the universe, its nature and its destiny. When belief in the deity began to wane as a consequence of the European Enlightenment, these features of his supposed nature were adopted by the human intellect and pronounced to be its birthright. For post-Enlightenment thinkers, man became God. The belief arose in philosophical and scientific circles that the human mind had within it all the authority that was formerly attributed to the divine being and could therefore acquire all the knowledge that had previously been seen as the property of God. It goes without saying that not only was the ego-God of monotheism an infantile misapprehension, expressive of a particular phase of human consciousness, but that the belief in the right of the human intellect to such a God’s supposed knowledge was as well. Nevertheless, this essential belief in some one TRUTH about the universe, accessible to a certain ‘correct’ method of the human intellect, continues to obsess members of philosophical and scientific communities in the west. The thesis here is simply this: however benign and ‘humanistic’ such beliefs are deemed to be, by those who hold them, they must inevitably tend towards oppression.
Let us take the example of science and try to abstract some simple guidelines for the avoidance of such an eventuality. Science is still practised with the avowed aim of framing a ‘theory of everything’ that will represent the final achievement of the human intellect. It is to be presumed that when such a definitive theory is worked out, only the spadework of filling in the detail will remain, the theoretical framework having been established for all time. Such a ‘theory of everything’ would be framed in a logical language that would be at one and the same time complete (i.e. containing no unknown principles) and internally self-consistent. If it did not have these two features, it would not be definitive. Now it is a matter of proof (thanks to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem) that no such logical language is possible. Thus any attempt to hail the achievement of such a ‘theory of everything’ with loud cries of triumph and national celebrations, would be a sham. It would be a statement of belief and not a proof. It would be no more than a very big binary number and as such light years away from the perpetual miracle we call ‘reality’. Nevertheless, certain minds would announce that everyone has to believe it. Thus, this principle should be observed by all who wish to preserve their intellectual freedom and independence: when any supposed intellectual authority, philosophical, scientific or otherwise, claims to have arrived at a definitive truth about life the universe or anything else, it must be rejected right away. It must be rejected because it will be no more than the attempt to substitute a rigid model of reality for reality itself. It will be an attempt to elevate the model, the toy universe, if you like, to the status of the only reality possible. Such a plan, if it succeeded, would be the ultimate oppression.
Let us be quite clear: there can be no definitive truth about the universe available to humans because all the models that the human intellect develops as means to understanding the universe say more about the limits of the human sensory-cognitive apparatus than they do about reality itself. Truth is always provisional. Reality is the uncracked riddle and our intellect allows us to discover only a little corner of it so that we may then progress to a higher level. When the ego announces that it possesses some final truth it should be slapped down decisively because it clearly has the exercise of power as its first priority. All orthodoxy is a work of the ego, aping the supposed omniscience of the monotheistic God and determined to oppress its fellows thereby. If we give space and credence to any supposed intellectual authority that claims ultimate validity, be it philosophy, science, religion or whatever, we open the door to our own oppressor. If he sidles in with the false urbanity of a Richard Dawkins or a Stephen Hawking, beware; because his wheedling declarations only thinly conceal an angry, resentful and punitive despot of the mind who will not hesitate to abuse the power conferred upon him – in short, an ego. If we are to defeat totalitarians of the mind once and for all, we have to realise that truth, far from being monolithic and definitive, a possession for all time, is always no more than a ladder which – as in Wittgenstein’s famous image – must be thrown away as soon as it has been climbed. The models that we work out to enable us to understand reality are, along with every other reality in the universe, changing and evanescent phenomena of a changing reality, that just has to be lived. To want to freeze this process of change in some supposed final ‘truth’ is to want to oppress one’s fellows and nothing more. Any intention or desire to arrive at some ‘final truth’ about the world is as despotic a striving as all other ‘final solutions’ and must be resisted.
Let us set up a mythical oppressor of the mind and in allusion to our two prophets of final truths call him ‘Hawkins’. If Hawkins wishes to convince us that he is on the way to discovering a final truth we will know that he wishes only to deprive us of our true birthright which is our creative connection with Creation, in short, our open-ended creativity. Any supposed final truth, however illuminating as a discovery, will be a temporary aid to understanding and to wish to declare it ‘final’ is to wish to halt the process of time and to erect an idolatrous monument to the self-adoring god-almightiness of the ego.
Some may believe that to equate respected scientists with totalitarians is to make an overstated and hysterical case. But this needs to be said: as soon as truth is regarded as something that can be established by humans for all time by means of correct observance of a particular procedure, despotism is not far away. The moment a scientist believes in the availability of final truth on any subject, he or she becomes a totalitarian.

2 comments:

jd said...

So the truth about truth is that its unknowable? You state that there can be no definitive truth known to man about the universe due to his cranial myopia. Does not your BELIEF that this is so make you an advocate of intellectual totalitarianism?

webfogey said...

Difficult to grasp the logic of this one.
As far as I know, I have never claimed that every truth is unknowable, only that final theoretical truth is. It is as contingently true as anything can be that I am writing this; but there is nothing theoretical or final in this; and it will shortly be false. The same goes, it seems to me, for any so-called scientific truth that claims to be definitive.
What makes a totalitarian is a person's belief that his or her understanding of an alleged truth sanctions its imposition on others, be it by intellectual force(i.e. by a particlar procedure yielding so-called 'proof') or by physical force.