1st April, 2020

Pieter Bruegel the Elder / Public domain

Advanced civilisations that care about discovering truth formalise its pursuit in disciplines such as logic, dialectic and rhetoric. Major Greek, Roman and mediaeval philosophers and orators took such arts extremely seriously. One sign of the degeneration of a culture is its loss of the ability to make arguments cogently. Such formal codifications can and did decline into rigidity at times but they were always necessary.

As an example of this, in ethical matters Aristotle, as well as many major cultures, advised the finding of the Golden Mean between two extremes. This necessitates the human mental sophistication of holding three things in one’s mind at once – the two extremes to be avoided and the midway Golden Mean. For example, in a politically and economically sensible argument about Capitalism and materialism the Marxist excess might be an utter rejection of capitalism. The opposite excess might be predatory capitalism, abject materialism and complete abandonment to Mammon. Sanity lies in between these two poles. Current times provide another example. Globalist, technocratic media outlets are presenting the handling of the Corona virus crisis in a binary manner. You are either pro-science, pro-experts and pro-'facts' or you are anti these things. The fact that a sensible position which is in favour of the experts who deal with the hard science of epidemiology but dubious about the ability of social and political 'science' 'experts' to predict or 'capture' in data how free humans behave might lie in between is regally dismissed.

The modern world has forgotten how to argue in such a nuanced way. It tends to present every argument as an impoverished opposition between two extremes. Depending on your politics this means that if you show signs of being chary about one extreme the world immediately jumps to the conclusion that you are entirely sold on the opposite extreme and you are condemned accordingly. Everything is reduced to crass binary oppositions. Why should this be?

Since the time of the enlightenment, through HG Wells and the Logical Positivists, there has been a scientific wet dream that all experience can be understood and controlled through a mathematical approach. The incarnation of this in our day is the big data approach which excites the technocrats to such a high degree (the same technocrats who routinely fail to diagnose political outcomes). This approach depends on machines, machine learning and computers and all of these processes use binary digital in order to process reality. In the scientific wet dream this is thought to be superior to the human approach. The problem is it reduces humans capable of, for example, the golden mean approach and of accessing all the calibrations along the spectrum, to a binary one where the only choice available is a one or a nought. Human sophistication is excluded in the belief that it is beneficially superseded. The illusion of control is created, effectively, by the elimination of complexity and nuance.

All of this derives from the awarding of a new status to technology in the hierarchies involved in human affairs. One could characterise pre-Enlightenment times in terms of the relation between certain contexts. The first all-encompassing context was that of the divine creator (please note, I am not arguing for literal creationism here). In relation to him, located in created biology, geography and nature in general, was his creature, man, a self-aware animal. Such cosmic geography gave humans a sense of their place in the chain of being and a sense that the universe was not anthropocentric.

Once Nietzsche regretfully announced the death of God and the abolition of the encompassing divine context man and his science decided that he could assume the role of creator. Flattering himself that his technology could rival the creative powers of the God of nature man set about creating a technological universe based on binary data by being mediated through which all experience would be improved. The virtual world it created was no longer limited by the old finitudes of biology and geography to which we were once subject (and which, incidentally, we once enjoyed).

That this vision is a hubristic one akin to Nimrod’s building of the tower of Babel is evident in what this approach has done to debate. What was supposed to improve and sophisticate it has, ironically, gone a long way to diminishing and impoverishing public discourse. To see this one only has to mention, on social media, that one has mildly conservative predilections, to be branded at the fascist extreme by those with the ubiquitous sub-Marxist mindset who think that, if you are not wholeheartedly with them, or express the slightest doubts about their articles of faith, you can only be a fascist. There are only binary extremes and all nuance has been abolished by a technology incapable of encompassing it. A lesser but prevalent example of this is the inescapable feedback expressed in crass numerical terms demanded from us on our every consumer experience (even press-button smiley faces in doctors’ waiting rooms that ask us to sum up our complex interaction with a skilled professional human by pressing one of two buttons) that exclude human observation of any helpful kind. The irony is that we have created our own nemesis by abandoning our humble (but nevertheless elevated) place in the chain of being and replacing human personality with dry and sterile mathematics in search of advancement. The equation Nature = Maths, especially when we are dealing with human nature, does not add up, nor does our headlong rush to abandon ourselves inside the guts of a processor. The logic gates and algorithms approach reduces life to the crassness of scientism and logical positivism.

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