Dream of the Machine

SUBHEAD: A universe made totally transparent to the human mind and totally subservient to the human will.

By John Michael Greer on 1 July 2015 for Archdruid Report -

Image above: Cover illustration by Ralph McQuarrie for book "Robot Dreams" by Isaac Asimov. From (http://hermiene.net/books/author/377).

As I type these words, it looks as though the wheels are coming off the global economy. Greece and Puerto Rico have both suspended payments on their debts, and China’s stock market, which spent the last year in a classic speculative bubble, is now in the middle of a classic speculative bust.

Those of my readers who’ve read John Kenneth Galbraith’s lively history The Great Crash 1929 already know all about the Chinese situation, including the outcome—and since vast amounts of money from all over the world went into Chinese stocks, and most of that money is in the process of turning into twinkle dust, the impact of the crash will inevitably proliferate through the global economy.

So, in all probability, will the Greek and Puerto Rican defaults.

In today’s bizarre financial world, the kind of bad debts that used to send investors backing away in a hurry attract speculators in droves, and so it turns out that some big New York hedge funds are in trouble as a result of the Greek default, and some of the same firms that got into trouble with mortgage-backed securities in the recent housing bubble are in the same kind of trouble over Puerto Rico’s unpayable debts.

How far will the contagion spread? It’s anybody’s guess.

Oh, and on another front, nearly half a million acres of Alaska burned up in a single day last week—yes, the fires are still going—while ice sheets in Greenland are collapsing so frequently and forcefully that the resulting earthquakes are rattling seismographs thousands of miles away. These and other signals of a biosphere in crisis make good reminders of the fact that the current economic mess isn’t happening in a vacuum.

As Ugo Bardi pointed out in a thoughtful blog post, finance is the flotsam on the surface of the ocean of real exchanges of real goods and services, and the current drumbeat of financial crises are symptomatic of the real crisis—the arrival of the limits to growth that so many people have been discussing, and so many more have been trying to ignore, for the last half century or so.

A great many people in the doomward end of the blogosphere are talking about what’s going on in the global economy and what’s likely to blow up next. Around the time the next round of financial explosions start shaking the world’s windows, a great many of those same people will likely be talking about what to do about it all. I don’t plan on joining them in that discussion.

As blog posts here have pointed out more than once, time has to be considered when getting ready for a crisis. The industrial world would have had to start backpedaling away from the abyss decades ago in order to forestall the crisis we’re now in, and the same principle applies to individuals. The slogan “collapse now and avoid the rush!” loses most of its point, after all, when the rush is already under way.

Any of my readers who are still pinning their hopes on survival ecovillages and rural doomsteads they haven’t gotten around to buying or building yet, in other words, are very likely out of luck. They, like the rest of us, will be meeting this where they are, with what they have right now.

This is ironic, in that ideas that might have been worth adopting three or four years ago are just starting to get traction now. I’m thinking here particularly of a recent article on how to use permaculture to prepare for a difficult future, which describes the difficult future in terms that will be highly familiar to readers of this blog. More broadly, there’s a remarkable amount of common ground between that article and the themes of my book Green Wizardry.

The awkward fact remains that when the global banking industry shows every sign of freezing up the way it did in 2008, putting credit for land purchases out of reach of most people for years to come, the article’s advice may have come rather too late.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that my readers ought to crawl under their beds and wait for death. What we’re facing, after all, isn’t the end of the world—though it may feel like that for those who are too deeply invested, in any sense of that last word you care to use, in the existing order of industrial society.

As Visigothic mommas used to remind their impatient sons, Rome wasn’t sacked in a day. The crisis ahead of us marks the end of what I’ve called abundance industrialism and the transition to scarcity industrialism, as well as the end of America’s global hegemony and the emergence of a new international order whose main beneficiary hasn’t been settled yet.

Those paired transformations will most likely unfold across several decades of economic chaos, political turmoil, environmental disasters, and widespread warfare.

 Plenty of people got through the equivalent cataclysms of the first half of the twentieth century with their skins intact, even if the crisis caught them unawares, and no doubt plenty of people will get through the mess that’s approaching us in much the same condition.

Thus I don’t have any additional practical advice, beyond what I’ve already covered in my books and blog posts, to offer my readers just now. Those who’ve already collapsed and gotten ahead of the rush can break out the popcorn and watch what promises to be a truly colorful show.

 Those who didn’t—well, you might as well get some popcorn going and try to enjoy the show anyway. If you come out the other side of it all, schoolchildren who aren’t even born yet may eventually come around to ask you awed questions about what happened when the markets crashed in ‘15.

In the meantime, while the popcorn is popping and the sidewalks of Wall Street await their traditional tithe of plummeting stockbrokers, I’d like to return to the theme of last week’s post and talk about the way that the myth of the machine—if you prefer, the widespread mental habit of thinking about the world in mechanistic terms—pervades and cripples the modern mind.

Of all the responses that last week’s post fielded, those I found most amusing, and also most revealing, were those that insisted that of course the universe is a machine, so is everything and everybody in it, and that’s that.

That’s amusing because most of the authors of these comments made it very clear that they embraced the sort of scientific-materialist atheism that rejects any suggestion that the universe has a creator or a purpose.

A machine, though, is by definition a purposive artifact—that is, it’s made by someone to do something. If the universe is a machine, then, it has a creator and a purpose, and if it doesn’t have a creator and a purpose, logically speaking, it can’t be a machine.

That sort of unintentional comedy inevitably pops up whenever people don’t think through the implications of their favorite metaphors. Still, chase that habit further along its giddy path and you’ll find a deeper absurdity at work. When people say “the universe is a machine,” unless they mean that statement as a poetic simile, they’re engaging in a very dubious sort of logic.

As Alfred Korzybski pointed out a good many years ago, pretty much any time you say “this is that,” unless you implicitly or explicitly qualify what you mean in very careful terms, you’ve just babbled nonsense.

The difficulty lies in that seemingly innocuous word “is.” What Korzybski called the “is of identity”—the use of the word “is” to represent "=", the sign of equality—makes sense only in a very narrow range of uses.

You can use the “is of identity” with good results in categorical definitions; when I commented above that a machine is a purposive artifact, that’s what I was doing.

Here is a concept, “machine;” here are two other concepts, “purposive” and “artifact;” the concept “machine” logically includes the concepts “purposive” and “artifact,” so anything that can be described by the words “a machine” can also be described as “purposive” and “an artifact.” That’s how categorical definitions work.

Let’s consider a second example, though: “a machine is a purple dinosaur.” That utterance uses the same structure as the one we’ve just considered. I hope I don’t have to prove to my readers, though, that the concept “machine” doesn’t include the concepts “purple” and “dinosaur” in any but the most whimsical of senses.

There are plenty of things that can be described by the label “machine,” in other words, that can’t be described by the labels “purple” or “dinosaur.” The fact that some machines—say, electronic Barney dolls—can in fact be described as purple dinosaurs doesn’t make the definition any less silly; it simply means that the statement “no machine is a purple dinosaur” can’t be justified either.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the statement “the universe is a machine.” As pointed out earlier, the concept “machine” implies the concepts “purposive” and “artifact,” so if the universe is a machine, somebody made it to carry out some purpose.

Those of my readers who happen to belong to Christianity, Islam, or another religion that envisions the universe as the creation of one or more deities—not all religions make this claim, by the way—will find this conclusion wholly unproblematic.

My atheist readers will disagree, of course, and their reaction is the one I want to discuss here. (Notice how “is” functions in the sentence just uttered: “the reaction of the atheists” equals “the reaction I want to discuss.” This is one of the few other uses of “is” that doesn’t tend to generate nonsense.)

In my experience, at least, atheists faced with the argument about the meaning of the word “machine” I’ve presented here pretty reliably respond with something like “It’s not a machine in that sense.”

That response takes us straight to the heart of the logical problems with the “is of identity.” In what sense is the universe a machine?

Pursue the argument far enough, and unless the atheist storms off in a huff—which admittedly tends to happen more often than not—what you’ll get what amounts to “the universe and a machine share certain characteristics in common.”

Go further still—and at this point the atheist will almost certainly storm off in a huff—and you’ll discover that the characteristics that the universe is supposed to share with a machine are all things we can’t actually prove one way or another about the universe, such as whether it has a creator or a purpose.

The statement “the universe is a machine,” in other words, doesn’t do what it appears to do. It appears to state a categorical identity; it actually states an unsupported generalization in absolute terms. It takes a mental model abstracted from one corner of human experience and applies it to something unrelated.

In this case, for polemic reasons, it does so in a predictably one-sided way: deductions approved by the person making the statement (“the universe is a machine, therefore it lacks life and consciousness”) are acceptable, while deductions the person making the statement doesn’t like (“the universe is a machine, therefore it was made by someone for some purpose”) get the dismissive response noted above.

This sort of doublethink appears all through the landscape of contemporary non-conversation and non-debate, to be sure, but the problems with the “is of identity” don’t stop with its polemic abuse.

Any time you say “this is that,” and mean something other than “this has some features in common with that,” you’ve just fallen into one of the core booby-traps hardwired into the structure of human thought.

Human beings think in categories. That’s what made ancient Greek logic, which takes categories as its basic element, so massive a revolution in the history of human thinking: by watching the way that one category includes or excludes another, which is what the Greek logicians did, you can squelch a very large fraction of human stupidities before they get a foothold.

What Alfred Korzybski pointed out, in effect, is that there’s a metalogic that the ancient Greeks didn’t get to, and logical theorists since their time haven’t really tackled either: the extremely murky relationship between the categories we think with and the things we experience, which don’t come with category labels spray-painted on them.

Here is a green plant with a woody stem. Is it a tree or a shrub? That depends on exactly where you draw the line between those two categories, and as any botanist can tell you, that’s neither an easy nor an obvious thing.

As long as you remember that categories exist within the human mind as convenient handles for us to think with, you can navigate around the difficulties, but when you slip into thinking that the categories are more real than the things they describe, you’re in deep, deep trouble.

It’s not at all surprising that human thought should have such problems built into it. If, as I do, you accept the Darwinian thesis that human beings evolved out of prehuman primates by the normal workings of the laws of evolution, it follows logically that our nervous systems and cognitive structures didn’t evolve for the purpose of understanding the truth about the cosmos; they evolved to assist us in getting food, attracting mates, fending off predators, and a range of similar, intellectually undemanding tasks.

If, as many of my theist readers do, you believe that human beings were created by a deity, the yawning chasm between creator and created, between an infinite and a finite intelligence, stands in the way of any claim that human beings can know the unvarnished truth about the cosmos.

Neither viewpoint supports the claim that a category created by the human mind is anything but a convenience that helps our very modest mental powers grapple with an ultimately incomprehensible cosmos.

Any time human beings try to make sense of the universe or any part of it, in turn, they have to choose from among the available categories in an attempt to make the object of inquiry fit the capacities of their minds.

That’s what the founders of the scientific revolution did in the seventeenth century, by taking the category of “machine” and applying it to the universe to see how well it would fit. That was a perfectly rational choice from within their cultural and intellectual standpoint.

The founders of the scientific revolution were Christians to a man, and some of them (for example, Isaac Newton) were devout even by the standards of the time; the idea that the universe had been made by someone for some purpose, after all, wasn’t problematic in the least to people who took it as given that the universe was made by God for the purpose of human salvation.

It was also a useful choice in practical terms, because it allowed certain features of the universe—specifically, the behavior of masses in motion—to be accounted for and modeled with a clarity that previous categories hadn’t managed to achieve.

The fact that one narrowly defined aspect of the universe seems to behave like a machine, though, does not prove that the universe is a machine, any more than the fact that one machine happens to look like a purple dinosaur proves that all machines are purple dinosaurs.

The success of mechanistic models in explaining the behavior of masses in motion proved that mechanical metaphors are good at fitting some of the observed phenomena of physics into a shape that’s simple enough for human cognition to grasp, and that’s all it proved. To go from that modest fact to the claim that the universe and everything in it are machines involves an intellectual leap of pretty spectacular scale.

Part of the reason that leap was taken in the seventeenth century was the religious frame of scientific inquiry at that time, as already mentioned, but there was another factor, too.

It’s a curious fact that mechanistic models of the universe appeared in western European cultures, and become wildly popular there, well before the machines did. In the early seventeenth century, machines played a very modest role in the life of most Europeans; most tasks were done using hand tools powered by human and animal muscle, the way they had been done since the dawn of the agricultural revolution eight millennia or so before.

The most complex devices available at the time were pendulum clocks, printing presses, handlooms, and the like—you know, the sort of thing that people these days use instead of machines when they want to get away from technology.

For reasons that historians of ideas are still trying to puzzle out, though, western European thinkers during these same years were obsessed with machines, and with mechanical explanations for the universe.

Those latter ranged from the plausible to the frankly preposterous—RenĂ© Descartes, for example, proposed a theory of gravity in which little corkscrew-shaped particles went zooming up from the earth to screw themselves into pieces of matter and yank them down.

Until Isaac Newton, furthermore, theories of nature based on mechanical models didn’t actually explain that much, and until the cascade of inventive adaptations of steam power that ended with James Watt’s epochal steam engine nearly a century after Newton, the idea that machines could elbow aside craftspeople using hand tools and animals pulling carts was an unproven hypothesis.

Yet a great many people in western Europe believed in the power of the machine as devoutly as their ancestors had believed in the power of the bones of the local saints.

A habit of thought very widespread in today’s culture assumes that technological change happens first and the world of ideas changes in response to it. The facts simply won’t support that claim, though.

As the history of mechanistic ideas in science shows clearly, the ideas come first and the technologies follow—and there’s good reason why this should be so. Technologies don’t invent themselves, after all.

Somebody has to put in the work to invent them, and then other people have to invest the resources to take them out of the laboratory and give them a role in everyday life.

The decisions that drive invention and investment, in turn, are powerfully shaped by cultural forces, and these in turn are by no means as rational as the people influenced by them generally like to think.

People in western Europe and a few of its colonies dreamed of machines, and then created them.

They dreamed of a universe reduced to the status of a machine, a universe made totally transparent to the human mind and totally subservient to the human will, and then set out to create it.

That latter attempt hasn’t worked out so well, for a variety of reasons, and the rising tide of disasters sketched out in the first part of this week’s post unfold in large part from the failure of that misbegotten dream.

In the next few posts, I want to talk about why that failure was inevitable, and where we might go from here.


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