Monday, 20 June 2011

Strange Comforts

The faith is extraordinary.  We are machines.  Machines that kiss, caress and fuck in order that new machines can do the same, because God has made us so...


In a scientific culture what would you expect God to be?  Go on.  Think about it.  I’m here, and I’m thinking too; but not so very hard.  I’ve done it all before, as a few of you know, though I keep on doing it; interminably for some, I acknowledge this, I know.  So tell me, what have you thought.  Not enough time, you say.  Oh come on, I want nothing too profound; just a quick guess will do.  So, what do you think?  In our modern age, in our new world of reason and sound sense, what God would you expect us all to worship?

Created in our own image, of course.  So.  What is that image?

Technology.   This is how most of us engage with science, the creator of our world, which it so dominates.  Indeed it is the way most scientists themselves see reality – only a relative few are at the creative cutting edge; most never go beyond technique.  In science, as in the literary culture, most are clerks, editors, journalists, hacks, and commentators; with a few creating the great masterpieces; and some others the minor works of major importance.

Let us go further. 

Since the Second World War not only has technology become ever more pervasive, but a particular type has come to predominate – electronics.  Then taking off in the 1960s computers began their long ascent, landing into individual households in the 1980s; which they have now colonized, almost completely in some cases.  Think of this world.  Think of our dependence upon it.  What would you expect us to do…

To see the world in their image?   And that some, the fanatics and evangelicals, would worship them.  You explore this a little more, you think more deeply about this now indispensable machine; you consider the hardware and the software, its computing power, and the access to data that it allows.  For now of course we are free, and well-informed, educated like never before – information makes us so; there is so much now available; just about every fact that we need; providing we search hard and long enough. Information.  Infinite and eternal, the internet makes it so…  And what a lovely metaphor: the hardware and the software, the body and its soul.  Easy materials to make a new myth.  How easy it is to find analogues to the old religion; when we believed our survival depended upon forces high up in the heavens; desperate for their beneficence.  And flowing through it all, through this new vision, like coal seams in a mountainside, that one, all conquering idea: data.  A single byte an eternal being, migrating from machine to machine; resurrected each time we Google it.  Each byte the first cause forcing the creation of new, more powerful computing processes.   The computer has to exist data insists upon it. 

Our God is information.  He is omnipresent, alive in every single being.  This is a clever metaphor, and like natural selection, redolent of the times when the theory was first thought and later developed.  A metaphor.  Many do not realise this. Alfred Russel Wallace wrote to Darwin that even intelligent people were taking him literally.  But there was nothing he could do about it: a new theory, creates a new religion, and worshippers by the thousand.  For them the data byte is the deity; the survival of the gene our purpose in life.

Bill Hamilton believed in Charles Darwin.  His life’s work to prove him right; for a doubt remained about his theory, now turned into holy writ: altruism.  He met George Price, a brilliant mathematician.  He thought we had been made by IBM.  They met, made love, and a new baby was born: Richard Dawkins.

Adam Curtis has created yet another fascinating series on contemporary thought and life, which ends with a British scientist, a disciple of Charles Darwin, wandering around the eastern Congo during its civil war, when millions were dying, looking for monkey excrement to prove his eugenic theories.  Oblivious to the massacres around him he was looking for evidence that AIDS originated in the misdeeds of modern medicine – a vaccine was created in monkeys, which when injected into humans causing the virus to emerge.  This was not a detached investigation; but an obsession, to prove the evil of medical science.  He wanted to discredit this technology in order to abolish it; used, he believed, to keep “inferior” people alive; a pointless and self-defeating practice that was destroying mankind; degrading its genetic stock.  Bill Hamilton was an evangelist who died on a pilgrimage – a freak accident with aspirin led to his early demise.  Like all fanatics he had long left the world behind, failing to notice even the simplest things about it.  For even if his ideas about the origins of AIDS were correct they would not lead to the fall of modern medicine.  For he, and this is true of all fundamentalists, conflated all his obsessions into one big idea – humans by interfering in nature destroy it.  By trying to protect ourselves, he believed, by manufacturing social and technological ameliorative measures, we are destroying the human race.  We must let nature get on with itself.  This is an enormous idea that joins together many smaller ones: a general theory of nature, for example, with a prejudice against one aspect of the modern world – medical technology.  In his enthusiasm he has overlooked the seams that holds this patchwork of ideas together.  By conjoining all these separate concepts and prejudices, and giving them a meaning, he has created a religion out of a theory, and he expects us to believe in him.  And like a true disciple he thinks he only has to tell people the truth and they will see it too.  Let us assume he finds the evidence to prove his theory – though this did not happen –; this would not affect the public’s perception of medicine; a mixture of blind faith and blind scepticism; and the special interests of the medical establishment that feeds upon them.  For these are different ideas and practices, and individuals will react to each in a different way.  Only those that are prepared to take a leap of faith will see them as one big whole; the salvation to all their problems.  Back in London with the piles of monkey shit he would be like the preacher at Oxford Circus, shouting through his megaphone Jesus Saves! to the passing crowds.  A fool they say, a nutter, if they think of him at all.

Diane Fossey was not so sentimental.  Humans are no better than animals; and she spent her time bullying the local population in neighbouring Rwanda; in order to protect her beloved gorillas.  Just like so many others before her, Curtis says, she elevates an idea over the people who actually live in Africa.  Scientific research shades into revelation and a mystical communion with the unknown; we can know the other; even in animal form; Richard Attenborough tells us so.

George Price had two revelations.  He discovered Bill Hamilton’s work on the selfish gene, coming to believe, like him, that we are merely carriers of information bytes; that control us.  That we are gene slaves kept alive to protect Pharaoh deep inside his pyramid.   However, Price’s mysticism couldn’t escape the older God.  After the first revelation he had another: henceforth he lived the life of the Christian Gospels giving all his worldly goods away to the homeless and bereft.  Was he trying to disprove his own theories; did he have a breakdown; was he mad…. he eventually killed himself; rationally and clear headed says his entranced biographer.  A last letter in the possession of Price’s daughter suggests otherwise: he was possessed by the Hound of Hell; the horror of a deterministic world, where there is no free will, is the assumption here.  It was God and Satan who were producing his computer printouts…

Bill Hamilton obsessively looking at crowds, he used to sit in Waterloo station for hours, came to think we are just animals.  Out of this obsession came an insight: we are ruled by the gene; its survival determining all our actions. So altruism, that doubt which has frustrated many a disciple’s faith in that old Victorian, could be explained away: the gene is concerned about the species and does not care about the individual.  Thus sometimes it will sacrifice the single man or woman in order to save its relatives, its best hope of survival; it will kill foreigners to protect the family…  Was George Price resisting this idea by returning to Christian charity?  The speculation is endless, it seems.

We have been here before.  Dropout Boogie showed that at its root monotheistic religion and reason are one – the former are highly rational thought systems that rely on single causes.  St Augustine, believing we were predetermined to suffer from original sin, believed in the old Jehovah; Richard Dawkins, worshipping the new one, calls it the Selfish Gene.  Mr Price, Mr Hamilton and Ms Fossey are each ruled by their own little God, though in Price’s case there were two.  In each the God is the idea inside their heads, which they want to imprint on the entire world.  They can only do this if humans are not allowed to think and have free will; for they must not have the power to resist these simple ideas. 

Martin Luther thought we had no choice but to accept our maker’s intent; no good works would save us.  For John Calvin we should look for signs of our election into the mundane actions of our life; though we could not influence the outcome – God had already decided before we were born.  Others were not so phlegmatic: if they could find the signs, they would be saved; they would have the comfort of foreknowledge.  Christianity, which for centuries had strengthened man’s rational faculties, through both doctrine and its bureaucratic practice, was going off into new directions.  The Protestants full of doubt were elevating it into truth and reinforcing it by ritual – the origins of modern science.

Few people, and Bill and George, as described by Curtis, are very good examples, can live long with doubt.  Not many people are truly agnostic.  This is especially so with intellectuals, particularly artists and certain kinds of scientists; neighbours and close relatives, although they usually won’t admit it.  Unable to live with doubt they replace truth with certainty.  For Hamilton Darwin had to be right.   Darwin was not just a thinker of the first rank, and like all such thinkers full of stellar insights and mistakes and confusions, the latter inevitable when discovering new territories.  No, Charles Darwin is truth itself.  Like many academics, especially of the second and third order, who tend to be highly rational, but creatively rather poor, and wonderful manipulators of technique, Hamilton is missing something – the irrational element in life.  He lacks a sympathy for the mysteries of the world; and thus does not have those revelatory insights which mark out the greatest thought.  Too ruled by reason he thinks it rules the world. 

Isn’t it extraordinary when you hear these characters talk about the gene?  For them it is more rational than we are; calculating the odds on survival that are far outside the ken of our simple understanding; it knows more about geo-politics than we do – it knows for example that in a war the opposing army will kill all our relatives, but they might survive if we sacrifice ourselves to defend them.  All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace shows just the opposite: war generates war; the death of a soldier doesn’t save his family; it almost guarantees their annihilation; if the conditions for conquest and bloodlust are right.  No one knows the consequences of their actions; so much is unknown and unpredictable.  The gene is an exception.  It knows.  No wonder so many put their faith in it.  The human mind is projected onto nature, and in the process is removed from man himself, who returned to an animal, is at the whim of this super intelligence.  The gene is all knowing, wise and omnipotent - for the fanatics who truly believe.  Those good pupils who have never left the schoolroom; beholden to their kindly masters who always knew what was right; they told you so, and you copied it down, religiously.

In the 17th century modern science emerged, and with it the idea of the world as a vast mechanical device – it was like a clock that God created; winding it up he then left it to run by itself.  This was the Cartesian worldview, and it was based on a rational conception of the universe: reason could explain everything.  Reality had to be rational and predictable like our reasoning process itself.  The world was reason, and it followed, naturally, that it had to be a machine.  This conception didn’t last long.  It was soon under pressure from Newton, who showed the world was outside our understanding: we could glimpse fragments, like sailing ships on the horizon, but most of it was unknown; perhaps unknowable.  With the rise of Newtonianism Descartes’ worldview, and its associated metaphors, began to collapse: too much could not be explained; so much relied on forces that appeared occult and mysterious; although he was not replaced completely: thus the French Enlightenment, with its sustained attack on the Cartesians in the 18th century.i  Gradually, over the following two centuries, this mechanical ideology was replaced by a quite different one with metaphors radically opposed to that of the clock and automaton.  We associate this worldview with Romanticism, but they reach their apogee in Darwin: it is the idea that man is nature, and life is organic growth, evolving over long stretches of time.  This view created its own metaphors, and inspired vast social movements; justifying the expansions of European imperialism; that climaxed on the bloodlands of Eastern Europe, in the mid 1940s.  Sometime after the war a new view of the world came to dominate.  It followed the marriage of Descartes and Darwin, and was the son they bore: the idea that the world is a natural machine.  This is what Curtis’ documentary is about.

The origins of modern thought come from many sources; often opposed and contradictory; though all were breaking away from the old scholasticism.  John Locke, one of its earliest and greatest thinkers, by codifying the new science, undermined the old theology and the ideas of the Cartesians, providing the foundation of a new conception of reality, based not on reason but on the senses; the first stage in the naturalisation of man.  He was a revolution within a revolution; a Robespierre to Descartes’ Mirabeau, packing off his foe’s innate ideas in a tumbril.  His great insight, which many will always find hard to accept, is that knowledge is irremediably separated from reality.  It is a human creation that we lay over the world to enable us to understand it.ii The deeper the knowledge, and the more accurately it is tested, the more certain we can be that our creation is close to the real thing.  Knowledge is an attempt to understand the world, it is not the world itself.  This makes our quest for understanding infinitely difficult.  For in part we have to transcend the limitations of own minds; we have to get rid, for example, of our common sense notions of matter and cosmology; as well as submitting our daily experiences to wider analysis – in history, sociology and the other humanities.  Knowledge is not impossible.  But is often far harder than we think to acquire it: theories have to created and tested vigorously against the empirical evidence; true understanding has to replace mere opinion; the most common way we interpret the world.  Over centuries the hard sciences have mastered techniques to overcome our limitations; and by concentrating on a limited number of areas of intellectual inquiry have made phenomenal progress, far beyond what Locke thought possible.  They have achieved a depth no other subject has achieved so consistently; though the price is high – much of human life is excluded from its purview; it is just too complicated for it to analyse.   David Hume, close to the beginnings of modern thought, and still one of its most acute critics, was concerned with explaining the mind, but was perplexed by its mysteries, and came to believe that some questions were outside the ability of humankind to answer; perhaps even to conceptualise.iii  We have to accept our ignorance, working in the areas where we can make progress, he thought.  And we have to be humble, submitting our arrogant theories to the arbitration of the common fact; accepting its often harsh verdicts.  Though even then, when we attain knowledge that is well tested and apparently proven, and immeasurably deepens our understanding, it is still only knowledge – an intricate and well-crafted net that we throw over the ever shifting sea below us.  Locke, when he surfaced with his insight, had a clutch of related ideas in his hand.  One showed how much of knowledge is to do with measurement and design: we tidy up nature, by giving it a precision it often doesn’t have: no tree is identical, though we call them by the same names: Oak, Beech, the Lebanon Cedar and the rest of the human forest.  We create our own human world and we match it to the natural order, continuously striving to reduce the gap that exists between them.  In four hundred years, in many fields in the hard sciences, that gap has been reduced to microscopic levels, to a point where there can be no reasonable doubt about the efficacy of the theory.  No reasonable doubt because our minds are part of nature, and you would expect them to mirror the world that creates them.  But that an unreasonable doubt remains is inevitable – knowledge is not reality.  A map of York is not York, a robot a man or woman.

What Curtis shows, in all three episodes of this series, is that less sophisticated thinkers simply do not have Locke’s insight.  They think their theories are reality.  And reality is a machine.  That the world man has created with the new science, our technological present, is the real and only one.  They have created a myth out of contemporary life.  This is the source of the new religion of Bill Hamilton and Richard Dawkins.  As of old the detailed but limited evidence of one field is projected onto the whole of reality; which it then purports to elucidate.  It is as if General Motors could be explained only by the workings of its accounts department.  This leads to the strain, as the specialist goes beyond the evidence, projecting their own study area onto others, where it doesn’t apply; or at least in its own detailed and very precise way.  And something odd happens as the specialist invades other territories.  His own specialism becomes the purpose of the universe.  One’s whole life is spent investigating a tiny area of the cosmos; an obsession that becomes one’s central purpose in life.  It gives you meaning.  Then one day you are invited to speak about wider concerns, that life outside the laboratory windows, of which you hardly know anything at all.iv  However, you do not leave the lab behind, while you are introduced as an eminent scientist, speaking on matters of national importance just because of that eminence.  Naturally you describe the world from your professional point of view, little considering how inappropriate that may be.  You do not realise that you are speaking about different levels, and often different kinds, of knowledge; you are ignorant of other fields, and do not recognise that over time you career and your subject have become fused, so that your specialism is your purpose in life.  You do not realise you are transferring it onto the rest of the universe…

This, it seems to me, is Adam Curtis’ territory, that borderland between the hard knowledge of real expertise and the myths it engenders in society.  He is interested in that moment where knowledge, leaving the badly patrolled borders of its subject area, is transformed into myth, and becomes received opinion, structuring the way most of us perceive the world at any given time.  It is a process where the pure sciences are turned into religions; and when ideas in one field are used to justify the actions in the world of commerce and politics.  The latter greedy for metaphysical validation; the proof that they must be right.

Locke accepted doubt, and he accepted the Socinianism of his day: the world ran along well-regulated lines, which our task was to understand.  He saw that the mind interacts with the world, and cannot escape it.  But how hard this is to accept!  Especially for the intellectual, who lives in a mental paradise, a Garden of Eden free from the contamination of the inconvenient facts outside his mind.  That messy life on the street and in the countryside, that so spoils the logical purity, the conceptual beauty, of a theory so comfortably ensconced inside one’s own head.  Get rid of them!  And they do; often in odd ways.

Truth is mostly outside the mind; it is a country we cannot visit.  How we long to do so…  until we imagine we are there.  The old schoolmen looked up into the sky and believed they saw heaven.  The new evangelicals look in a different direction, and discover a different Elysium: Richard Attenborough frolicking with gorillas in Rwanda thinks he has discovered man’s closest relation.  We are all animals and our salvation is in our senses - kissing, cuddling and fucking is all we do; and we want it so, so desperately; especially those who find these impulses difficult to deal with.  The old theologians believed the body was a corruption of man.  Only the spirit counted.  Today we worship the body, reducing the mind to it; assuming it doesn’t exist as an independent entity.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  People proficient in what they do are often dismissive of it.  It is too natural, too part of they habitual activity, to be taken seriously.  Intellectuals are no different.  Living in a word of thought and ideas it should be no mystery that they downplay the mind, to a degree where they don’t even see it as such.  This makes it easy to say we are all animals; just another kind of gorilla or orang-utan.v  Or mainframes and feedback loops if you are George Price or Jay Wright Forrester.  Those new natural machines – in the second part of the series Curtis shows how nature came to be understood as a self-balancing eco-system, an idea initially based on electrical circuitry, and later developed out of self-regulating man-made systems.

The mind is so natural you don’t even think about it.  But there is also something else.  Immersed in your specialist field it has become the only world that exists; the temptation is strong to reduce everything to it.  Invited to speak, your invite based on the reputation in your subject area, you stand at the podium pontificating on West-East relations, and the survival of the species.  You explain it all with reference to your field, and the ideas you have garnered from it.  Why else have they asked you there?  How difficult it is to say that my ideas are extremely limited, that there are other more important ways to understand the world; such as politics and social history.  No!  This not what they want to hear!  In any case you left that world long ago.  So ignoring the tension between one’s own specialism and all the others, the world of knowledge and reality, you sail off in limitless abstraction, certain your theories will have universal validity; a well-oiled machine without the grit of human peculiarity.

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace ends with the carnage of Congo’s civil war.  A murderous conflict wrapped up in noble ideals but really about the capture of rare minerals, to enable the manufacture of Sony Play Stations and mobile phones.  People sacrificed for machines, which in turn are an excuse for greed and immense profits, in the boardrooms back in America, Tokyo and London.  These are human actions, says Curtis, made by particular human decisions, they are not predetermined game, over which we have no control. Although we have come to believe the opposite: because the world is so complicated; where even our best intentions, like the setting up of refugee camps in the Congo to protest the Hutus, leads to mass murder – in this case the Tutsis invading the camps, where agents of the genocide were hiding out. To believe we are machines, merely powerlessness units in some mechanical ecosystem, is comforting, it takes our troubles away.  No longer do we have to think.  We inhabit the comfort of animals.

[i] See footnotes xi and xx of Dropout Boogie for more discussion.
[ii] Though when considering this question simply and concretely it becomes obvious: the map of Europe is an analogue of Europe, and no one would confuse the two.
[iii] Though the latter I think is Chomsky’s nuanced improvement.  For how difficult is science see Hugh Pennington’s discussion of the new strain of E Coli in the LRB.
[iv] In a programme on religion Richard Dawkins exemplified this position almost to perfection when he quickly dismissed the political causes on the Israeli-Palestine dispute, reducing it all to religious conflict; a view that no serious scholar or commentator holds.
[v] Attenborough doesn’t go that far – in this film he talks of us making an imaginative leap to empathise with them.

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