Thursday, April 12, 2012

Philosophy and Social Engineering

Most of what’s said in public consists of various kinds of lies, including half-truths, spin-doctoring, lies of omission, self-delusions, exaggerations, equivocations, evasions, distortions, white lies, frauds, and other pretenses. Often, a professional or public figure has no beliefs on some issue but only uninformed opinion, and merely pretends to know what she’s talking about to save face or to manipulate an audience. There’s an old distinction, originating in Plato’s dialogues, between the philosopher and the sophist. The philosopher loves knowledge more than opinion, while the sophist makes a business of selling or otherwise persuading with useful works of rhetoric. The sophist doesn’t lie exactly, but merely denies that truth is relevant to business. Regardless of whether Plato’s distinction was biased in favour of Socrates, there’s a very important, similar difference between two present-day characters, which I’ll call those of The Philosopher and of The Social Engineer.

Philosophy, Humility, and Truth

By “philosopher,” I don’t mean an academic necessarily, whose profession is to teach philosophy; I’m speaking rather of philosophy in a psychological sense. Psychologically, some people are preoccupied with the task of creating a perfect map of reality. This sort of philosopher may be intellectually curious or perhaps possessed of a religious faith that promises a convergence of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Alternatively, the philosopher may have a sort of death wish, a suspicion that the ultimate truth will be horrible to know, but that we should annihilate ourselves with that knowledge like moths rushing to the flame.

Whatever her motivation, the philosopher assumes there’s a special relationship between the rational mind and the rest of the world: such a mind can know the facts. Although rational knowing here isn’t the biblical kind of knowing, which is to say a sexual experience between persons, the philosopher assumes that the rational mind does possess a sort of key that unlocks nature’s door or a mirror that reflects the world. Just as convention dictates that men and women have a functionally correct relationship between their sex organs, the philosopher assumes that the rational mind can be properly or improperly related to the external world. Moreover, just as sexist cultures dictate that men are active while women are passive, the philosopher’s metaphor implies that the rational mind is masculine in aggressively seeking to know the world, while the known world passively awaits our attentions (or seduces the scientist with tantalizing clues to solving its mysteries, etc). The key or mirror in question is just the symbol, the word or thought that carries a meaning. Put a set of symbols in the correct order and the key unlocks the door, the mirror captures the light and the Truth shines forth; that is, the sentence or thought agrees with an objective fact.

For centuries, Western and Eastern epistemologists have tried to explain the nature of this relationship between the knowing mind and that which is rationally known. It’s hard to see how the traditional metaphors that glorify rationality are justified in a naturalistic worldview, according to which the rational person is just an especially clever animal, not an immaterial spirit that transcends nature and obtains a transhistorical perspective on the perfect, eternal Truth. As the postmodern hyper-skeptic says, were there no such Truth to be known by natural beings, the philosopher’s myth of a correct relationship between the rational mind and the external world would stand itself as a noble lie: instead of searching for Truth, with no hidden agenda, the philosopher would serve a power structure or play a social game. As is now well-known, though, this postmodern hyper-skepticism does away with itself since it presupposes the fundamental, natural Truth that even rational people are mere power-seeking or playful animals. (See Postmodernism.)

Putting aside the question of whether the search for pure knowledge has a satisfying epistemological explanation, there’s surely at least a distinctive philosophical character, best exemplified by Plato’s Socrates. Unwilling to exchange knowledge for useful fictions, Socrates ruthlessly exposed self-deception in himself and in anyone else. His ultimate goal was to know himself. As is clearest from Eastern traditions, this goal was part of the mystical project of appreciating our divinity as a precondition of freeing ourselves from suffering. In the West, this religious aspect of philosophy has been de-emphasized if not dropped altogether, and so the narrower philosophical point of self-knowledge is to attain virtue as a precondition of knowing the truth--whatever the ultimate nature of that truth. The idea is to purge your mind of the moral failings that are fertile grounds for self-deception. In Buddhist terms, the philosopher destroys her ego, abandoning her selfish impulses that cause her to cling to flattering delusions and to forge an elaborate, wholly erroneous self-conception.

The upshot is that the philosopher must be humble to avoid the first level of fraud, which is the level we each instinctively create for ourselves in our minds. Plato said that Socrates knew most of all that he knew nothing. This means that Socrates relentlessly pursued pretenses to knowledge that indicate overbearing pride and underlying ignorance. Socrates had no interest in imposing his viewpoint on others, in overpowering them with tricky rhetoric. Instead--and here the medium is the message--he dialogued with others, cooperating with them in a constructive, shared search for the truth, by asking ever-deepening questions that not only forced his partners to reassess their beliefs, but that humiliated them in the process. Socrates destroyed egos along with delusions. According to Plato, he was executed because his philosophical way of life was socially subversive: as a matter of course, Socrates demolished the religious and political fictions that maintained his society’s dominance hierarchy.

Turning to the current scene, what confronts the Western philosopher when she consumes mass culture is well-symbolized by the Wachowski brothers as the matrix, a sort of phony reality. Politicians, lawyers, CEOs, doctors, academics, public school teachers, salespeople, cashiers, novelists, filmmakers--people in all walks of postmodern life simply lie most of the time. We lie to ourselves and to others. We lack the humility to know ourselves as we truly are, to abandon our fantasies of transcendence. Even the Wachowski brothers sometimes dumb-down the Gnostic vision of their Matrix film trilogy by way of pandering to Christians.

With what are often called good intentions we tell half truths, to spare someone’s feelings, but this pity depends on the liar’s conceit that she’s in a superior position. Indeed, liars may be differently stationed in a social hierarchy, possessing more or less power over others, but no person deserves to condescend to anyone else, because all of our social games are equally foolish. To confirm this, just note how each generation looks back on its ancients as embarrassingly childish by comparison. This isn’t because of any social progress; instead, each generation arrogantly and myopically presumes that it’s the most perfect one, that all foreign cultures are wrongheaded. And each generation becomes the next one’s laughingstock. As Wittgenstein said, any language game looks silly from an outsider’s perspective, because the rules of any game are largely arbitrary.

(Were there an ideal map of normative, as opposed to empirical truth, or a perfect life manual, then indeed cultures could follow or depart from those moral commandments. But this notion of objective normative truth rests on the naturalistic fallacy of mistaking normative for empirical truth. As best as epistemologists can tell, empirical truth is a matter of correspondence between symbols and facts. So take the rule that we shouldn’t steal, for example. To the extent that that rule’s construed as objectively true, it’s no longer normative but is reduced to a mere report of a fact such as that an ancient book proscribes stealing. Prescriptions of moral norms of conduct are neither true nor false in that empirical sense, and should be assessed in other terms such as aesthetic ones.)

In any case, all cultural norms are absurd compared to less complex natural processes, because those norms are relatively freely chosen, which is the extent to which we rational beings do transcend, which is to say, stand alienated from, the rest of nature. True, according to quantum mechanics, even physical laws may be likewise arbitrary and spontaneous, popping into existence along with a cosmos from what physicists call nothing. That would make physical laws inexplicable but not ridiculous, though, since there would be no one to mock for gratuitously creating and then living under them. What I mean is that even were all of nature ultimately as arbitrary and gratuitous as human culture, only the latter could have normative failings: our indulgence in a smorgasbord of cultural delusions reflects our variety of vices for which we’re at least partly responsible. Often, we choose to escape precisely from rationally-obtained knowledge, by distracting ourselves with cultural nonsense.

In centuries past, the flow of such nonsense was severely limited by the available communications technologies. Today, of course, postmodern folk are victims of a tsunami of lies, submerged in a noosphere of myths and fantasies, because our vices that cause useful misconceptions are now empowered by the internet and those cultural byproducts are spread by a host of dazzling high-tech gadgets. Everyone can publish their own ravings, the present author included. And so the philosophical way of life becomes more anachronistic. In Plato’s day, a philosopher could resist the relative handful of cultural temptations to stroke his ego, pursuing the truth even at the cost of his comfort or sanity. But in the so-called postmodern world, philosophy itself is the laughingstock and humility is a rare commodity. 

Social Engineering and Dehumanization

I want to consider now one such vice that gives rise to an antiphilosophical character, which I’ll call that of The Social Engineer or Technocrat. The vice in question is just commonplace greed, coupled with the resulting corruption from the power gained by means of that motivation. An especially greedy and corrupted person may regard language not as a system of symbols that relates to an external world, but as a tool to accomplish some work. When a technocrat or social engineer speaks, she may not lie so much as transmit what she regards as a meaningless sequence of noises that somehow has the desired effect of influencing her listener. Whereas the philosopher wants a map of reality, the social engineer wants a lever for moving society in some favoured direction. The philosopher asks everyone to humble themselves before the prospect of discovering the ideal relationship between rational minds and the rest of the universe. The social engineer proceeds beyond the call for humility, cynically dehumanizing language users as so many pawns to be pushed around by skillfully-deployed rhetoric.

In short, the philosopher is interested in semantics (the study of the meaning of symbols) while the technocrat thinks only of a pragmatic form of syntax, of underlying rules for using what suckers call symbols as instruments for physically manipulating people. Indeed, the elevation of social engineering above philosophy in postmodern societies is apparent from the memetic sophistry that some philosophical issue is “just semantics.” Pragmatists love to belittle philosophy with this refrain, as though the question of a symbol’s relation to something else were unimportant and all that matters were the effect of language use. Just as engineers use technology to manipulate natural processes, social engineers use language to transform society. While the philosopher’s metaphorical key or map is also a form of technology and knowledge tends to be useful, the philosopher is more a mystic than an instrumentalist, pursuing knowledge as an end in itself. The social engineer is interested in knowledge only for its applications.

The point I want to stress here is that philosophy and social engineering represent opposite ways of thinking. True philosophers in modern societies are as rare as authentic Christians. If you want to know whether someone’s a true philosopher, first confirm that that person prefers to discuss ideas rather than events or people; then check whether she displays signs of ego in those discussions. If she’s more interested in dominating than in collaborating, she lacks the humility that follows from self-knowledge and from the dispelling of the initial, self-imposed delusions.

Much more prevalent is the vacuous but highly potent chatter of technocrats and of the drones who dwell in their matrix. The art of dominating people by mesmerizing them with signals is likely only reinforced in elite institutions like Harvard Business School; such institutions tend to attract or reward those who are already pragmatists with technocratic skills. The technocrat is bound to have at best an atrophied conscience, if not a sociopath’s absence of empathic feelings, since those feelings call to mind other people’s humanity and thus one of our distinguishing features, which is our sophisticated use of symbols. As I say, most professions in postmodern societies reward those with a social engineer’s rather than a philosopher’s mindset, despite the sometimes-heard warning that the problems such societies face call for those with liberal arts training and not for mere systems managers. To be sure, the proliferation of a philosophical mindset looks like a necessary condition of preventing our self-destruction, but this hardly entails that those with institutional power have the wisdom to nurture, say, philosophical humility or a disdain for ego-driven opinion.

The most obvious example of a social engineer is the politician. There’s hardly even any hyperbole in speculating that neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama spoke truthfully in any of their public statements while serving as President of the United States. What I’m proposing, though, isn’t that politicians lie, since lying requires both misdirection and a belief held to be true: the liar simply pretends to believe X whereas she actually believes Y. No, my point is that politicians and other professionals exhibit a deeper form of antiphilosophy, which is the pragmatist’s preoccupation with work rather than with knowledge. The pragmatist wants to get jobs done and that requires physical work: tools must be used to effect the desired change. So when a politician spins, skillfully diverting a question at a press conference to recite a predigested list of talking points, we disparage the extravagance of her vices when we label her a mere liar. Lying is for petty malefactors; world-corrupting evil is perpetrated by those who disdain the sphere of semantic interpretation in its totality, who view people as machines and thus who think or speak never to humbly uncover and live by the truth but solely to manipulate, to physically impact others and so dominate them. Karl Rove, who boasted to the author Ron Suskind that the neoconservatives are Nietzschean overlords who create a series of worldviews solely to enslave the masses in the “reality-based community,” revealed something of this technocratic mindset. (See Suskind’s 2004 NY Times article.)

Thus, listening to political figures as though they have any regard for knowledge or respect for their people’s intelligence is foolish. Instead of fact-checking them, we should study the impact of their cliché-ridden signals on masses of antiphilosophical minds. Treating a political speech as fiction, too, misses the mark, since fiction, like lying, works only when the listener or speaker, respectively, appreciates the difference between reality and a counterfactual world. In their public roles, politicians as well as pundits, lobbyists, lawyers, consumers, and increasingly doctors, college professors, and many others are better compared to automatons, mechanically managing flows of information along with people as so many quantifiable units of a social system.  

Indeed, I’d go as far as to speculate that with this descent into postmodern technocracy, we have a prerequisite for what the transhumanist calls our more complete merging with technology. Before the posthuman can rise from our ashes, combining biological functions and artificial conventions more fully even than social animals like us, we must learn to think like machines so that we won’t resist living more closely with them. That is, our minds must be reduced to computer programs, and so we must forgo our dalliance with semantics, with our interests in meaning and truth; instead, we must compute, calculate, and scheme or implement the calculations of others as partisan functionaries. We must dehumanize ourselves to become the scaffolding for the evolution of posthumans.

This raises the question of whether social engineering is just another arbitrary and thus foolish cultural game or a natural process of our extinction. I won’t attempt here to settle this question, except to say that the answer depends on whether people choose to think like social engineers or whether the relevant vices naturally drive them to do so. If the former, the technocrat’s fear of semantics will one day appear as quaint, naïve, and transparently wrongheaded as any other cultural expression, from the benefit of a foreign vantage point. If the latter, a natural process may be afoot, one which isn’t ridiculous so much as eerie.

A Dialogue

To clarify my distinction between the two modes of thought, here’s how I imagine a dialogue proceeding between the two characters.

Philosopher (speaking to a politician): I’ve noticed that when you speak to journalists, you seem to read from an invisible script and seldom actually answer the question put to you. Have you calculated that your personal beliefs are unpopular and so you’d rather not risk fallout with the public for airing those beliefs?

Technocratic Politician: My personal beliefs are private and irrelevant to my ability to carry out my political duties.

P: Irrelevant? Who is it then who makes your political decisions? Do your inner convictions have no bearing on how you face your challenges while in office? That seems dubious, but I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise.

T: A leader who’s responsible for the welfare of millions of people can’t afford the luxury of coming to settled opinions after much private reflection. That’s the dubious business of philosophers with too much leisure time. I’m a busy man with no time to waste on frivolous speculations.

P: So first your personal views are irrelevant and now you say you don’t even have any such views? But surely you do have political principles and you’re just reluctant to expose them for fear of being picked apart by the pundits and your political opponents.

T: No, if you must know, principles and philosophical beliefs are for followers, not for leaders. Leaders devise these memes and myths for public consumption to maintain a social order, but the leaders themselves are too busy and savvy to pay much attention to those tricks of the trade. You have no idea how much work I have to accomplish. Like I said: not enough leisure time.

P: But weren’t you photographed last week playing golf? And didn’t you go on vacation last month?

T: Those were working breaks from my superhuman schedule of meetings and briefings! You have no idea the stress I’m under.

P: More stress than a person can bear, I imagine.

T: Indeed.

P: Does that mean that someone with your workload can’t afford to be a person while working?

T: I’m not sure what you mean. Of course I’m still a person.

P: Are you sure? Can’t a person shut down her faculties? When we watch TV, we vegetate and relax our higher cognitive processes. When we fight, adrenalin floods our system and overcomes our fear and our sensitivity to pain, while a soldier may choose to set aside his conscience and follow immoral orders. When making tough decisions on the job, an employee may have to follow a script, like an actor, playing a role as a functionary to get ahead in the rat race. Moreover, sociopaths are born without consciences, while others may inherently lack other cognitive faculties. All of this is possible because of the modular nature of the human mind. So are you sure you haven’t dehumanized yourself?

T: I leave it to your ilk to waste time speculating on the essence of human nature. I’m much too busy.

P: Well, if you’re so busy, you must be highly skilled to perform your Herculean labours. I wonder what particular skill you employ when you choose never to give a straight answer to a journalist’s question.

T: Journalists thrive on sensationalism and on trapping politicians with gotcha questions. They say they’re after news, but news reporting is only incidental to their primary concern which is to maximize their ratings. A press conference is a business transaction in which the public figure has the upper hand. I’m not interested in boosting the ratings of some bottom feeding news agency for the masses’ transitory infotainment. Instead, I use the media to broadcast my canned messages to help shape public opinion and get me reelected. The whole thing’s practically automated, by this point. I rarely even listen to journalists in my interviews. I merely scan their nonsense for key words which are associated with my talking points, and when I hear the former I regurgitate the latter-- always with a smile on my face, to keep the mood upbeat.

P: You’ve never, then, sat down and had an actual conversation for the public record while in office, one human to another.

T: Certainly not. Politics isn’t war, it’s business, and businessmen don’t chitchat. Even my private conversations with fellow members of state are all about strategy, saber rattling, and other kinds of posturing. I send signals to position myself in a Machiavellian power struggle and I calculate how to exploit circumstances to my benefit.

P: It seems like a computer could do the bulk of your work and a lot faster and more efficiently too.

T: Technically, perhaps, but practically no, since in a democracy, at least, people have to feel comfortable with their political representatives and they’d never vote for a cold-hearted, nihilistic machine. That’s why I always smile in public.

P: But you don’t actually have any fellow-feeling for your constituents; your smiles are fake and you don’t behave as a fully-functional person while in office. So you might as well be an automaton, a robot that looks like a human with a supercomputer for a brain.

T: As soon as they build one of those, you let me know and I’ll find another line of work. But what’s with this interrogation, anyway? What do you think you’re proving?

P: I’m trying to understand why I could never be myself with someone like you while you’re at work. Normally, I constructively criticize and exchange ideas, cooperating with fellow knowledge-lovers to discover the truth of some matter. But your way of thinking is entirely opposed to that philosophical practice. You’re really an antiphilosopher, a machine dedicated solely to the ignoble purpose of your self-enrichment. You don’t question the ugly, parasitic values implicit in your political “business.” I just didn’t appreciate that corruption can take the form of such dehumanization.

T: Look at you, the high and mighty philosopher, flinging your value judgments my way like they mean a damn, like anybody cares! I thought you’ve been paying attention to the scientists who’ve discovered all the truth we can handle. You’re after knowledge for its own sake, you say. What do you think knowledge is? Do you suppose that when you indulge in your lofty meditations, your brain states reach out and grasp immaterial structures of logic, like the philosopher Frege pontificated? That even though you’re just an animal with a highly complex brain, you understand the real world by positioning your mental symbols in some configuration that agrees somehow with the facts? There’s no such agreement. Our thoughts store information obtained by our sense organs and they cause us to move about the world in a more or less useful fashion. You’re a machine and thus a businessman too, a social engineer like any animal negotiating a natural life; you’re just a much less successful one who’s jealous of his superior. Now if you don’t mind, I’ve got to get back to work. 

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