Wednesday, March 4, 2009



You haf too much Ego in your Cosmos  (Kipling: Betran and Bimi)


            Why should we suppose that order that we can grasp emerges out of order that we can also grasp? This is the assumption of scientific inquiry; but is it a reasonable one? Why should we not contemplate what appears to be the case, namely that order that we can grasp emerges out of what for our cognitive powers is chaos. The possibility that what for us is chaos might be a species of order we cannot grasp is perhaps mysterious; but even more mysterious is our supposition that order emerges with logical necessity from an order we understand. Our cognitive powers have evolved within a distinct context and for definite survival purposes. It is therefore not reasonable to suppose that these powers are adapted to all kinds of understanding. As Kipling appreciated, it is the control-freakery of the ego that drives human beings to such assumptions. The ego assumes that knowledge of the order of the universe is not in any way dependent upon it as subject, that it is simply ‘out there’ to be read off by the ego’s supposedly all-comprehending rationality. But the order of the universe inheres neither in the object nor in the subject; it is in both at once, since it is dynamic and ever-changing order; and knowledge is a sub-species of order that arises out of the dynamic interplay of subject and object. Whatever we say order is, it isn’t. It isn’t what we say  it is, because in the saying of what we think it is, we have merely framed a symbol in some language or other of the ordering process; and the order of language is not the order of nature. Order in nature is dynamic, whereas the order of our language is static. The order of nature is a matter of ‘that which is being ordered’ and not some clanking mechanical stability – indistinguishable from stasis – that repeats itself for all time like Nietzsche’s creepy ‘Eternal Return of the Same’. Why we humans should imagine that our rational ego has automatic access to every species of order in nature eludes me.


Determinism is that theory which maintains that since every event is caused, and since every cause has to give rise to the effect to which it is linked, every event just has to happen because of the immutable effect of causal history. This ‘just has to happen’ means that the end of any process is in a sense present in its beginning and merely unrolls like the film coming off the spool in the cinema. You may have an illusion of things happening, unpredictably, but actually every event just had to follow, necessarily, on every other in the way they did, exactly as the conclusion of a deductive argument follows necessarily from the premises. There was no possibility of anything else happening despite the illusion of open-endedness in the events – just like a film. Unlike a film, however, the universe, according to the mechanical-deterministic view can not be re-wound: there is an ‘arrow of time’ always pointing from past to future and mechanism cannot explain why this is so. Mechanism cannot explain why if cause gives rise to effect, effect could not give rise to cause.


Mechanism is the view that if every event is determined by previous events, as effect is determined by a necessary connection between cause and effect, then the whole of the universe runs like a huge clock with each event bringing about the next according to some basic set of rules that we refer to as ‘the laws of nature’. The entire universe is therefore gripped in an iron necessity from which it can not escape. It runs on like a perpetual motion device because the total sum of energy within it is conserved, none is lost, none is gained. Of course, once the universe was conceived as a closed system, the events in it became problematic, because the energy, while being conserved, clearly was ‘used’ in some sense and appeared to be used to wind up systems into more highly ordered, information-rich configurations in order then to let them run down again. It seemed obvious that the tendency of systems as a whole was to lose order and information. The tendency of energy was to ‘run down’ that is to say to be degraded into a less useful form. Thus the laws of thermodynamics seemed to suggest that the universe was not simply a machine, it was a machine that from some initial ‘wound up’ state, was running more slowly all the time, losing heat, losing energy and doomed to grind to a halt when all its energy had finally been degraded to uselessness. This naturally created the mystery of how the universe acquired its energy in the first place and thus the theory of the Big Bang, came on the scene very opportunely. This primeval explosion wound up the universal clock, and from that point on (except for local wind-ups such as life, bought at the cost of universal wind-down) it has been running down. This vision of reality is pretty gloomy, but the scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – and even some that are still active today – took lugubrious pleasure in asserting that such a view of things was completely necessary, it just had to happen that way. The universe would eventually turn into a dark, motionless cinder.


The conviction that the universe was a collection of little things, each of which interacted according to a few mechanical rules with the others, thus ‘causing’ all the phenomena in the world, and the rigour of the mathematical models used to impose this view on the universe, suggested an iron inevitability about the whole process and this crushing dogma was used with great enthusiasm to defeat any person or group of persons who dared to suggest that the universe had quite different properties. Any view of things that did not see reality as a collection of bits and bobs flying around and losing their pep in the process was frowned upon and pooh-poohed with majestic scorn. The models would be wheeled out, the mathematics polished off and the poor metaphysician or spirit-seer would be treated to a demonstration of the impossibility, in terms of the machine, of his or her vision.  ‘You can’t prove your metaphysics’ these majestic authorities would intone, quite forgetting that proof is anyway impossible outside of purely formal systems. Since the only entities in the universe were allegedly particles of matter, and since the only principle of their activity was cause and effect, the only possibility for such a universal machine was to run on until it wore itself out and settled into frozen immobility. Gods, spirits, minds, and all mindlike things such as intentions, plans, wishes, purposes, were mere illusions, mere phantoms generated by the heat of the machine. Anyone who took seriously such supposed entities was a child or a simple-minded romantic. The mind itself that dreamed up these things was, of course, material and merely a tiny cog in the machine and would perish along with everything else. So all the metaphysical dreams entertained by the human family from time immemorial were merely so many insubstantial clouds, worse than mere fantasy, they were mere nothing.


Now it doesn’t take much time to understand that this vision begs many questions. We’ll leave on one side the difficult question of what caused the Big Bang, why we have the particular laws of nature and initial conditions of the universe we do have, or why the universe should be at all comprehensible by us (themselves notoriously difficult issues for the mechanist). Let’s look at one logical question and one physical question.


If one is a sceptic about gods and minds and other non-material, ‘metaphysical’ entities, then one quickly sees that such scepticism applies equally well to the just as metaphysical notion of ‘cause’ which is the linchpin of the entire mechanistic ideology. Demolish the notion of cause, show it to exist only in the mind of its creators, and you have demolished the universal machine, because you demolish the possibility of using the notion of ‘cause’ in deductive argument. And this is exactly what happened in eighteenth century philosophy. The great Empiricist sceptic David Hume, though atheistic and anti-metaphysical in the extreme, and otherwise rather enthusiastic about universal mechanism, realised nevertheless to his consternation that the concept of a cause on which mechanism relied was itself a metaphysical idea and that therefore the ideology was not as ‘necessary’ or ‘proven’ as its defenders claimed, but at best a theory based upon ingrained but convenient habits of mind. He reasoned that though we see great regularity in nature and repeatedly see certain events preceding other events and certain events following other events, as though the first events necessarily give rise to the second and as though the second could not have come about if it had not been for the first, we are nevertheless not able to assert that the first events ‘cause’ the second, because the correlation is one of habit on our part and we are unable by empirical means to spot any ‘cause’ – that is to say necessary connection – when we look for it. We cannot say, as we wish to, that causes have to give rise to effects, because we have no guarantee of this other than our expectation, i.e. our habits of mind. There is no reason why the whole system should not change overnight and surprise us. So mechanism is based on an unproven metaphysical belief in causality and on the use made of that metaphysical belief in deductive arguments as if it were logically necessary. The ‘necessity’ of causal determinism comes from the logical necessity of the deductions and not from the world. But the deductive arguments conceal the total lack of necessity in the connection between cause and effect by presenting the connection as a logical one. Once again, a theory arose from the confusion of the properties of our discourse with those of the world.


But by the twentieth century, this purely philosophical and logical argument against the principle of universal necessary causation, had been supplemented by discoveries in physics that suggested that at the finest-grained level of matter, our idea of a cause, as being one event that necessarily gives rise to another, no longer applied. It seemed that at the level of sub-atomic particles, certain events such as particle decay, could not be seen in the traditional causal way. They seemed to be events that had no cause, or at least no cause that we could understand, even in principle. This suggested in turn that at the sub-atomic level, since all matter was composed of sub-atomic particles, the principle of causality did not necessarily apply at that level. This in turn suggested (as did Hume’s idea) that the principle of causality was only a feature of our view of the world and not of the world itself. With this, the whole edifice of mechanism began to totter.


It seems inevitable now to concede that mechanism, as an ideology, is dead and gone. And along with it go all the gleefully gloomy doctrines of soullessness, meaninglessness and brute materiality. Mechanism has been despatched by irrefutable logic: no-one has ever been able to solve Hume’s problem. And it has been despatched by the most rigorous of sciences – physics – and by the Uncertainty Principle. So it looks easy enough to abandon. The strange thing is that the whole mechanistic-materialistic-deterministic model is proving a very robust and resistant set of beliefs. It is a tough old meme. People are wedded to it as though their lives depended upon it. Perhaps they do. It is still the prevailing ideology in the minds of most scientists (perhaps with the exception of physicists) and it is particularly deep-rooted in the biological sciences. It is also pretty prominent in philosophy. The question is, why are people so keen on a view of the world that has now become untenable? The answer to this question requires a little imaginative peek into the past at the development of the ego and the thing-ideology. We have already described briefly in an earlier post how this ideology develops in early childhood according to a tendency of our brains and is then reinforced by socialisation and language. It would appear that the mechanistic model is also required emotionally by the ego for its own protection. That is why it finds it so difficult to give it up.


When hominids developed into human beings, the world was still a very tough place for the newcomer on the planet. Two sets of abilities guaranteed our survival: our ability to identify and classify separate things and parts of things was one; our deep and intricate sense of self and its correspondingly powerful instinct for self-preservation was the other.


The first of these abilities allowed us to know our environment in ever-increasing detail, to separate the nice from the nasty, the useful from the worthless, the helpful from the harmful, the beneficial from the dangerous. We decomposed everything we encountered to parts, and rather than simply running from those things that threatened and approaching those things that promised sustenance, we learned to hone and refine our notions of what was good for us and what was bad by careful observation and discrimination. Thus we were able to bring into our purview ever more aspects of our environment as we identified the nice and nasty bits and learned to manipulate both to our ends. The practice of discrimination and analysis became second nature to us and guaranteed that our burgeoning intelligence, linked, to our growing linguistic skill, began to snowball into a highly detailed and compendious acquaintance with our environment. Discriminations piled on discriminations and as we collected these, we needed words to designate them. This business of decomposing the phenomena of our world and giving the pieces names became one of our principal activities and the motor of our further evolution. With the names came the conviction that each name designated and defined (and thus controlled) a separate and circumscribed thing. Of course it did nothing of the sort, but it is easy to see, as the power of words over our minds grew greater, how the belief arose.


The growing facility with tool-making perhaps, the growing repertoire of named items in our acquaintance with our environment, the growing power of our abstractions, went along with an imaginative ability to picture that environment as mere possibility or futurity. We developed the capacity of imaginative representation, anticipation and postulation and linked this to the symbolic representation of our language. The two together allowed midworld, the world of symbolic representations and imaginative anticipations, to balloon inside our heads. We acquired what felt like an inner theatre of planning, speculation, imaginative ruse, outwitting and with this we were able to assess, understand and run intelligent rings around the instinct-impelled opposition, and even around the less gifted hominids with whom we shared the environment.  This sense of self and this ability for discriminatory control turned Cro-Magnon, our ancestor into a hunter-gather-warrior of formidable power. The instinct for self-preservation grew in power as the language-equipped self grew in complexity; and with this empowerment came a taste for more power and more control. Thus the ego burst upon the scene and its abilities gave rise to the exponential development of culture and ultimately to the development of mechanistic science.


These sets of abilities were our greatest capital and they enabled all the cultural and technological developments that have propelled man over the past ten thousand years from earth-bound enslavement to the environment to mastery of the material world and possible colonisation of the cosmos. But we must ask ourselves the question whether abilities suited to the lifestyle of a hunter-gatherer are really the right basis for an omniscient grasp and control of the cosmos. Do we have any good reason to suppose these abilities are intrinsically any more world-encompassing than the cognitive apparatus of a snail? They are certainly more capacious than those of a snail; but that does not mean they are all-embracing. Many aspects of our nature are turning out to be unsuitable to the creatures we have now become. Take the production of adrenaline. We now have our fight and flight reflexes excited to fever-pitch by our daily lives in circumstances where they are of no conceivable use. The result is that we have bodies that are pumped up by stress to do either one of these things and minds that tell us to sit still. This false fit between our intellect and the homeostatic mechanisms of the body produces a variety of illnesses, not least of which is clinical depression.


So it is entirely appropriate to question our decomposing, discriminating intellect and our massively self-protective ego. Since it appears that our devotion to mechanistic views of the world is completely misguided, we should look carefully at our devotion to them and make determined efforts to outgrow them. The reason for this is that they impose a carapace upon our minds that threatens to imprison us both internally and externally. This feeling of imprisonment is wholly unnecessary, but it nevertheless produces real effects upon our minds that are in their inner core revolted by the repetitive sameness to which mechanism condemns us. Mechanistic views of the cosmos and of ourselves have outlived their usefulness and should be demoted to the level of mere heuristic conventions. Their dominance of our lives is in danger of congealing every aspect of our existence into sterile dogmatism and totalitarian control. All we need to break the bewitchment of our minds by mechanistic models is to see that they arise from instinctive predispositions of the sensory-cognitive apparatus and can, along with many other prejudices imposed upon us by our brains, be elucidated and laid aside.


The decomposing zeal that leads us to take everything to pieces to see how it works and to use its parts for our purposes is the instinctual basis of the thing-ideology. The thing-ideology and its philosophical counterpart, reductionism, simply push the logic of the decomposing and discriminating tendency to its ultimate end. What those who defend such methods fail to understand, however, is that they represent more a handicap of the human intellect than a road to some final truth. To a creature intent on analysis of every item in its environment, it seems natural to chop everything up into smaller and smaller bits until the ultimate bits (the ultimate ‘things’) have been arrived at. So that is what we did, when we acquired the ability to look deep into the structure of matter. The trouble with this procedure was that we were so intent on doing what we do best and so enthusiastic about the results in terms of prediction and technology, that we convinced ourselves that our method was identical with the inner nature of the universe. We began to draw all sorts of inferences from the thing-ideology, inferences to which we had no right in fact. We began to say things like this: ‘If the universe is composed only of things and if they fly around according to mechanical laws, then there is simply no room for anything else. There is therefore no room for gods, angels, demons, spooks, spirits, souls, minds, selves or any of the other intangibles.’ Thus we got rid of God, who had after all been bothering us as a competitor a bit too much for a bit too long. We got rid of the spirits and demons that terrified us at night.


The trouble is that by the same logic, we got rid of ourselves. We got rid of our minds. Or at least those who defended the ideology of a mindless, soulless universe (the inevitable correlate of the thing-ideology) got rid of the minds of others while secretly believing in and privileging their own. A kind of deep intellectual dishonesty arose which led very intelligent people to indulge in all sorts of mental gymnastics and distortions in order to deny the existence of the mind. For example, a fatuous psychological theory called ‘behaviourism’ arose which studiously avoided using any words such as ‘mind’, ‘feeling’, ‘thought’, ‘intention’, ‘purpose’ or the like that might suggest belief in any other dimension to human beings than the physical. The behaviourists used only their ‘politically correct’ language of conditioning and that of observable behaviour. It massively begged the question of observation, the question of who or what was doing the observing, whether an account could be given of observation in terms of observed behaviour and the like. The whole thing was an idiotic exercise in denying what was obvious to unprejudiced people, namely that the mind existed, had its own level of description, its own dimensionality, and could not be reduced to anything else. But behaviourism was not alone in this; many of the social sciences indulged in the same kind of dogmatic avoidance, equivalent to averting the eyes from the huge elephant in the room.


But this banishment of the mind from the world was deeply unsettling for human beings who are notoriously attached to their minds, since these are inseparable from the famous sense of self that proved such an advantage in the struggle for survival. They are also inseparable from the ego. The self felt under attack from itself. The rational ego simply exempted itself (somewhat irrationally) from the arguments, protecting itself by refusing to attribute to itself any properties at all. The method of analysis and decomposition in terms of physical things and the mechanical models left no room for the mind and the self thus became detached from the world it observed. This was fine for a while, particularly if you had at the back of your mind all the cultural paraphernalia of centuries to anchor your soul. But as people thought more and more about the thing-ideology, and the machine-ideology they realised that these made them alienated. They no longer understood themselves. There seemed no place for them in the universe. They seemed anomalous. They seemed not to fit. Thus they began to feel profoundly unsettled. Here they were with all these inner states and yet they didn’t believe they could exist. In the past, the gods had guaranteed some sense to these inner states. Now they just seemed to be a useless burden, passions without any possible object. This was the reason why the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called man a ‘useless passion’. It seemed to us that we were simply absurd creatures, equipped with minds that demanded sense or meaning in a mechanical universe devoid of both. And naturally we were very unsettled by this. Once you polarise your nature into machine and inexplicable ‘ghost’ inhabiting it, it is easy to pronounce the ghost as having no place in the machine. We never thought, throughout this period, to imagine that though there could clearly be no ghost in the machine, there remained the possibility that there was no machine either.


At the same time, as all this mind-abolishing stuff, the thing-ideology with its concentration on reducing everything to atoms made the human being him- and herself feel like an atom, a circumscribed chunk of something, eternally cut off and separate from every other chunk. The self began to view itself as an object and a fragment. But in these circumstances, since everything else in the world was a mere object, including other people, the self increasingly acquired the tendency to favour itself and to treat every other entity in its experience as a thing. The fear now was not only of disappearing in a world of objects, but also of being constantly under attack from every other object. In a world of objects, the self is unique. Now one does not have necessarily to believe that one is the only self in the world, but certain minds began to be so overwhelmed by this object-universe, so overwhelmed by the crushing sense of smallness, inadequacy and powerless, so convinced that the method of describing things in machine language was the only approach to reality, that the thing-ideology became linked in the minds of many men of science with the urge to gain, first, complete intellectual control over the universe of objects in order, secondly, to achieve one day complete physical control over it.


This almost psychotic vision was of course the desire to be god. Having abolished God and any possibility of God, the unhoused man, the rootless, disconnected, alienated man had to protect himself somehow. The only protection that seemed left was that of absolute control. Thus the science of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries became closely associated with the ideal of absolute and absolutely certain and complete knowledge of the physical world, seen as a collection of objects. The scientific ego was to enthrone itself over this mechanical world of objects and manipulate it according to its desires, just like the ‘omniscient daemon’ that the Comte de Laplace fantasised about.


Unfortunately the dominance of this general complex of discordant and essentially nonsensical beliefs began to take its toll. The scientific ego found certainty slipping out of its grasp with the developments in physics, but the damage had been done in terms of popular culture and popular conceptions of the world. The thing-ideology and the atomisation of the self, the fragmentation of the world and of life in the world, the objectification, the ‘thingification’ of the human being and the resulting egoism – all these things began to be deeply woven into the warp and woof of our civilisation. The scientific ego remained, outside of physics, the snatcher after godhood that it had become. The ego became the only authority in the universe. Scientific materialism and decisions based upon it became the only possible human reasons for action. Disastrous policies were pushed through, disastrous inventions allowed to proliferate, disastrous ideological variations of the thing-ideology (e.g. Soviet Communism) were allowed to take control. The result now is a corroded planet, an alienated population, a directionless politics, a majority living in misery, an egoistic intellectual authority and a complete lack of any ability to treat human beings as human beings rather than economic units to be manipulated and used in the service of some gigantic mechanical addition to the universal machine.


This lamentable state of affairs is the direct result of the doctrines of determinism and mechanism. It is the result of raising what is a mere method of approach to the environment to the level of absolute ontological truth about the entire universe. The dogma of materialistic mechanism having become the exclusive approach to reality became a prison for our minds. How we could have been so stupid as to make this blunder is a matter that makes the jaw drop with amazement. When one reflects that it is the human ego that is driving the whole system, then things become a little more comprehensible. But they do not become any more forgivable. One rather suspects that it is too late to make any changes to the thing-ideology and the deterministic-materialistic-mechanistic world view that goes with it and produces all the abuses of the modern world. It is too deeply rooted and we have deprived ourselves of any alternative.


But an attempt must be made nonetheless in the interests of those ethical and spiritual concerns that are the very essence of our humanity. 

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