12.04.2004

The Fear of Chaos

"I also assume that as men and women of liberal education you are not limited to the narrow interests of one particular subject, to the exclusion of all else. I assume that you are especially interested in the development of personality as a whole, the true aim of education. I also assume that you realize that what is requisite is not some more routine, not more desiccated, quasi-scientific methods of educational psychology, not the sawdust of college-pseudogogics and philistine, normal school-training, but more light on the problems of life."
- Boris Sidis

This is from Adam's last post and I have to say I wholeheartedly agree what Sidis is saying here (I'm assuming this is from Boris Sidis). Some of what he said led me to think about some other things relating to theory. I ask that if you read this, please give it as generous a reading as possible.

1.
During my senior year of high school, I almost exclusively applied to liberal arts colleges for this very reason. I believed that while universities prepare you for a career, the liberal arts prepares you for life. While this is certainly arguable, there is a question that nags me after reading Adam's post. Why is it that 100 years after the publication of Sidis' essay, there still remains a significant gap between what we've long sinced understood education should be and what education is today? But more importantly, what does this discrepancy say about the kind of society we live in? What does Sidis' essay imply about who we are as human beings?

Let's start with the Enlightenment. This is the period of history when man discovered the extent to which the human gift of reason could be implemented to understand and control the physical world, spearheaded by the French philosopher, Rene Descartes.

For those of you unfamiliar with Descartes, here's a crash course. Descartes realized one day that many of the things he perceives is deceptive, e.g. a stick in water looks like its bent, etc. What about this apple lying on the table there? How can we be 100% sure that this apple is not some illusion created by a sadistic demon hiding the real world from us? Everything is not what it appears to be, so of what can we be absolutely certain? So, Descartes began doubting everything, trying to excavate the first principle of knowledge. Here's what he came up with:

I doubt. Doubt is a form of thought. Eureka! I think; therefore I am or I exist. (Otherwise referred to as the Cogito)

What many don't know about Descartes was that before he discovered this kernel of absolute certainty, he suffered severe depression and anxiety amidst his struggle to find it. That is, he could not and would not believe that the world was ultimately unknowable and his reaction of the world as uncertain and chaotic was of fear.

Hannah Arendt argues that just as Descartes was afraid of the world as chaos, man feared the chaos of the world and placed upon himself the task to build a world of his own, a world that he could be absolutely certain of, to be free from the anxiety of chaos, using only the tiny chisel of reason. This is an incredibly interesting claim. She essentially is saying that the world we live in, the world of cell-phones, automobiles, computers, Internet, PDAs, social structure, morality, politics, is a world built out of fear. Fear is the reaction to the immanent chaos and uncertainty of nature (presupposing the generally understood Heraclitean insight, catapulted by Nietzsche, that the world is essentially chaos).

Enter the sciences and the rise of technology.

The persistence of reason, man's personal rubber stamp on existence, was a highly succesful project as science was able to help us understand the physical world. We no longer had to be afraid for we had found a way to be certain. Meanwhile technology harnessed that understanding to control and master these natural forces for our specific purposes.

Yay for us! We escaped our state of anxiety and fear, found a weapon against the chaos of nature! And not only that, we learned how to harness nature's power to our uses! Men, give yourself a pat on the back! We did one helluva job. You should be proud of yourselves.

And so with the increasing success of science and technology, man's pride also began to swell immeasurably. And with pride, there was arrogance. And with arrogance, we took things too far. Wayyyy too far.

2.
Descartes had unknowingly produced a kind of egocentrism within the consciousness of modern man. The discovery of "I think; therefore I am" in no way adequately accounts for the other person in human existence. In creating a childish mindset of "I am the center of my universe and everything revolves around me," reason encourages this attitude by making it appear as though I can also control and have power over that which is all around me.

Sidis makes a similar observation about such a mentality: "We are stock-blind to our own barbarities; we do not realize the enormities of our life and consider our age and country as civilized and enlightened. We censure the faults of other societies, but do not notice our own."

Psychology, and Kant before psychology even became a field, explains that the mind has the natural tendency to schematize perceptions and concepts as to make the cognitive process more efficient. Through the repeated use of these mental shortcuts, man gradually begins to mistake reality for the shortcuts, categories, or schemas. Truth is mistaken for a mental shortcut.

Take, for example, taxonomy. Yes, most organisms fit neatly into the categories we've created for them, but there are always exceptions. "But my categories have to be right!" says the arrogant egocentric rational man. What do we do with these exceptions? Do we ignore them? Do we change them? Or do we eradicate them?

3.
Where does education come into play in all this?

Well, Sidis seems to complain that "Our children learn by rote and are guided by routine." But why is this so? Routine is a byproduct of the fact that our society encourages specialization. Specialization has been discovered to maximized productivity, which is always a plus in a capitalist society. Maximizing productivty leads to money. Money leads to power. Power leads to a sense of security and certainty. Certainty keeps us from thinking about the immanent chaos that is our existence.

Interestingly enough, Sidis also points out in his essay, "A Study of the Mob," that "Wherever we find uniforminty of life, there we invariably meet with mobs; where the environment is montonous, there men are trained by their very mode of life to be good subjects for social hypnotization, for mobs. And not only are they thus prepared for hypnotization, they are frequently hypnotized by the monotous environment itself; they require only a hero to obey, to become a mob."

It's a scary thought, but this combination of rational arrogance, misconceiving schema as truth, metaphysical egocentrism, and a montonous environment can have apocalyptic consequences.

The prime consequence: Hitler and the Rise of Nazism

Hitler, "the hero," saw the Final Solution as his grand schema/truth and Jews as the exception.


So in summary:

1. World is chaos. Descartes no like. Descartes afraid.
2. Descartes discovers "I think; therefore I am."
3. The human capacity to reason is used as means to build a world for man and by man so that there is no possibility of uncertainty.
4. The success of reason creates a strong kind of arrogance in man's powers.
5. The Cartesian discovery unknowingly imbeds an egocentrism in the modern consciousness.
6. Capitalism induces a hypnotism increasing the susceptibility of individuals to mob activity.
7. Combine 4, 5, and 6 together with the mistake of equating category with truth, and you produce something as abominable as the Holocaust.

Of course, you don't have to take my word for it. The above is more or less a partial conglomeration of what I've been reading in the tradition of social and political theory. I wouldn't want you to mistake theory for truth either. But if you're interested in this kind of thinking, here's a list of readings relevant to what I've been discussing:

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
---------------, Responsibility and Judgment
---------------, Eichmann in Jerusalem

Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology
Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment
Karl Marx, The German Ideology & On the Jewish Question
Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason
Rene Descartes, Meditations

No comments: