Writing a follow-up to my last interesting blog post, A Quiet Panic, is no easy task. It covered a lot of ground, and overall generated a good amount of feedback.
However, I don’t see myself stopping here. It was only an approximate dump of my brain at a point in time. It is by no mean comprehensive, and arguably hard to follow. In any case, it is a pessimistic viewpoint, and I do not feel comfortable leaving it at that.
Last Wednesday, Frederic and I hosted one of our thebootstrap meetings at our place. The usual crew attended, plus Michele but instead of hacking for a few hours, we had a long discussion. A broad one.
The starting point was whether or not to import the “Hackers at Berkeley” initiative here in Lausanne. Michele expressed his intent to give young people (18 and older) the motivation to acquire the tools required to build software.
When asked about my opinion on the subject, I replied that it was a great initiative and that I was all for it, but that nowadays my main concern was not about pure technology, as it seems to be, in practice, only a vessel for young souls to fall into the hands of corporations rather than an instrument of change in the world. Nowadays, my main concern is providing people with the tools required to apply critical thinking to any and all areas of their life.
The discussion then drifted onto more general subjects such as what the driving forces behind world change are, what shortcomings universities have in yielding critical thinkers (and, in the case of EPFL, simple programmers…), and what we could do about it, if we put effort into it.
And at some point came the question: where do you want to be, 10 years from now? This is not only a mindless interrogation that comes up after a few many beers, it is - in my opinion - a very important and healthy reality check. Of course, asking the question is the easy part. When it was my turn to answer, I had, unfortunately, no idea at all.
Trading lies for Weltanschauungs
I’ll try to summarize here a few interesting points from A Quiet Panic that I will build upon in this article. First, the evolution of the Internet in the past 20 years means we have entered in what we’ll call the Information age - where not knowing everything about the world is not caused by a lack of means of communication, but rather by the impossible difficulty to digest the incredible quantity of information at our fingertips, much less to qualify it accurately.
Secondly, I redefined the word “lie” as “any assumption made that limits one’s ability to reason about a subject”. I took for example teaching that no numbers smaller than 0 existed in elementary school. So, with my definition, a lie is no longer “willingly telling something which we know is in direct contradiction with the truth”. The definition I proposed is derived from a subset of a meaning of “lie”, but it is also, in a way, more universal. Because it allows us to analyze our respective upbringings and beliefs and try to figure out if they limit our thinking in any way.
Thirdly, I made the assumption (a lie, by definition) that the way the world works currently is based on regular, regulated, and systematic abuse. I called that a slow, collective suicide. That was perhaps the darkest part of the article, and it is perhaps not the most interesting as well. But hopefully I will come back to that in later publications.
I would like to come back to my redefinition of lie, and trade it for the word ‘Weltanschauung’. An approximate English translation would be ‘comprehensive world view’. However, this translation is rather poor, and the concept itself is better served by a definition. Or rather, several definitions.
According to Humboldt (1767-1835), language is an important part of a specific Weltanschauung. For example, the lack of subtlety of modern English leads to confusion, as demonstrated by the history of the notion of ‘worldview’.
Humboldt argued that language was part of the creative adventure of mankind. Culture, language and linguistic communities developped simultaneously, he argued, and could not do so without one another. In stark contrast to linguistic determinism, which invites us to consider language as a constraint, a framework or a prison house, Humboldt maintained that speech is inherently and implicitly creative. Human beings take their place in speech and continue to modify language and thought by their creative exchanges.
— Wikipedia, Weltanschauung
When considering language a creative endeavor (which I think it is), one can conclude that language does not consist of a pure lie (in the sense defined in AQP). It remains true that the language in which one thinks, writes, and creates, will definitely impact it. Also, it is the language that allows one to reason beyond simple concepts. I can’t think of a single great thinker who only communicated using ideograms! Similarly, the ‘lie’ of Newtonian physics still allow to reason about the movement of solid objects up to a certain point. So, it is creative in itself, and definitely useful.
Hence, one shall not reject lies entirely, by fear of completely abandoning intelligent thought. Rather, one shall consider lies transient, rather than definitive. The critical thinker will be apt to jump swiftly from lie to lie, carefully considering each one and retaining concepts useful to their further research.
Also, it should be obvious that, even when one would like to reject all lies in bulk, by the time they reach an age of consciousness sophisticated enough to even have that intention, education will have done its damages and it will become impossible to extirpate oneself from the Weltanschauung that was carefully built by the combination of one’s parents, teachers, and social context in general.
Finally, liberating one’s mind from all lies simultaneously is not, in my opinion, desirable. The human mind is a fragile thing, and jumping from prethought certainties to absolute agnosticism seems like a surefire way to reach clinical insanity in record times. Rather than risking that, I would recommend carefully identifying and preparing the terrain.
It is my opinion that there is no such thing as a single ‘thought processor’ that comes up with coherent conclusions. On the contrary, the human brain appears to work as a college of old, grumpy professors, who all have their very different opinion and would keep bickering for hours if bodily needs did not put an end to it. The existence of these conflicts are, however, welcome to the critical thinker. The ability to compare and confront different ideas and ideologies are one of the fundamental activities of critical thinking. When devising questions against an idea (i.e. examining thoroughly, emitting doubts) is no longer an easy task, comparing it with its alternatives is a fruitful way to generate more questions.
Another, more complete definition of Weltanschauung came later, courtesy of Leo Apostel (1925-1995), as the combination of these six elements:
- An explanation of the world (How does the world work?)
- A futorology (Where are we heading?)
- Ethical values (What should we do?)
- A praxeology (How should we attain our goals?)
- An epistemology (What is true and false?)
- An etiology - the study of the origins and influences of a given Weltanschauung
From that list, I’ve been mostly thinking and writing about epistemology and etiology. This list, however, works as a nice TODO list when trying to reason about the world as a whole.
Back to the question of a 10-year life goal, I keep finding that I would really like to encourage people to think. However, before attempting to give lessons, I need to do some more thinking of my own. Of course, I don’t expect the thinking to ever end as long as my heart beats, but I am willing to at least, try to remedy to cultural holes in the subjects of History, Philosophy, and prominent ideologies of the past few centuries.
As a first attempt to confront some of my current interrogations with historical writings of influential thinkers, I have taken interest in the person of Karl Heinrich Marx (1818-1883). Monsieur Ramboz was one of his nicknames, when residing in Paris, so that it was harder for the authorities to track him down.
When mentioning Marx, people often think about Marxism, and its totalitarian derivatives: Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, Maoism, and so on. However, one must remember that Marxist theory is merely an attempt by Marx’s followers to summarize his writings and is thus, bound to be inaccurate. In reality, Marx’s writings are remarkable both in breadth and depth, but like most influential thinkers, his work was used to justify the doings of radical movements.
Because of that, when studying the writings of Marx, I will deliberately ignore the excesses that were derived from it. I will try to limit myself to his original doctrins. Leaving Marx’s prediction of a ‘socialist revolution’ aside for a minute, we can note that he has been called “the first great user of the critical method in social sciences”.
Far from simply discarding capitalism, he spent a great amount of time studying and discussing it.
[…] Marx also sought to understand capitalism, and spent a great deal of time in the reading room of the British Museum studying and reflecting on the works of political economists and on economic data. By 1857 he had accumulated over 800 pages of notes and short essays on capital, landed property, wage labour, the state, foreign trade and the world market; this work did not appear in print until 1941, under the title Grundrisse.
In 1859, Marx published Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, his first serious economic work. In the early 1860s he worked on composing three large volumes, the Theories of Surplus Value, which discussed the theoreticians of political economy, particularly Adam Smith and David Ricardo. This work is often seen as the fourth book of Capital, and constitutes one of the first comprehensive treatises on the history of economic thought.
— Wikipedia, Karl Marx (emphasis mine)
To understand Marx’s Weltanschauung, you have to get to know one of the fundamental lies (in the ‘soft’ sense of the term I defined above - which is, both limiting and useful for understanding) underlying his whole body of work.
The basic principle is that the engine for social evolution is economic activity (which explains why Marx dedicated so much time studying it.) According to Marx, we can distinguish six distinct stages a society goes through:
- Cooperative tribal societies
- Slave Society (progression from a tribal system to city-states)
- Feudalism (aristocrats are the ruling class, merchants evolve into capitalists)
- Capitalism (capitalists are the ruling class, who create and employ the proletariat)
- Socialism (dictatorship of the bourgeoisie is replaced with the dictatorship of the proletariat)
- Communism (a classless and stateless society)
Karl Marx made many interesting observations about capitalism: again, he wasn’t only negative in his discussions, but also recognized that capitalism was (and apparently, still is) one of the most revolutionary stages, in terms of technical progress and development.
Capitalism, spirituality, and means of control
On the negative side, Marx denounced many perverse effects of capitalism, among which Alienation is the most striking to me:
Alienation denotes the estrangement of people from their humanity (German: Gattungswesen, “species-essence”, “species-being”), which is a systematic result of capitalism. Under capitalism, the fruits of production belong to the employers, who expropriate the surplus created by others, and so generate alienated labourers. Alienation objectively describes the worker’s situation in capitalism — his or her self-awareness of this condition is not prerequisite.
— Wikipedia, Marxism
For Marx, the possibility that one may give up ownership of one’s own labour—one’s capacity to transform the world—is tantamount to being alienated from one’s own nature; it is a spiritual loss.
— Wikipedia, Karl Marx
Marx (and Engels) go on to describe “ideologies” as means of control a class has over another class. Lower classes tend to consider ideologies timeless and universal, whereas upon studying the bigger picture, one finds that ideologies were easily traded one for the other, depending on the interests of the ruling class. Marx goes even further, in what may be one of his most well-known quotes about religion:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.
— Karl Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
A few steps back
We have only grazed the surface of the work of Marx - and the excerpts I have selected and summarized probably have their inaccuracies and biases as well. But let’s nevertheless try and have a few reflections of our own on what I just quoted above.
First, the point that was just made about ideologies (of which religions are just instances, in Marx’s thought system) introduces an interesting addition to my redefinition of lies. When covering the ‘weave of lies’ everyone had to deal with when trying to think for himself or herself, I assumed that most of the lies were transmitted ‘accidentally’, because of cultural context and sincere beliefs from the part of parents, teachers, etc.
However, it seems likely that ideologies are in fact used as weapons from one class to the other (I am reluctant to use Marx’s nomenclature here, as dividing the world into classes is just one way to analyze it, but let’s bear with it for a moment.) in order to keep lower classes in control.
I find this very interesting. But I want to add a thought of my own to this: I think that technological progress has deprecated ideologies as a primary mean of controlling lower classes, leaving place to comfort. Come to think of it, up to a certain point of technological advances, it was simply not possible to provide the proletariat with comfort: the nature of their labour (farming, mining, etc.) was intrinsincally uncomfortable. It had direct impact on their health and lifestyles, required long hours to operate, etc.
However, particularly in the Western world, we have seen well after Marx’s death, the realization of the Theory of progression:
Economies tend to follow a developmental progression that takes them from a heavy reliance on agriculture and mining, toward the development of manufacturing (e.g. automobiles, textiles, shipbuilding, steel) and finally toward a more service-based structure. The first economy to follow this path in the modern world was the United Kingdom. The speed at which other economies have made the transition to service-based (or “post-industrial”) economies has increased over time.
— Wikipedia, Tertiary sector of the economy
Interestingly, one can remark that the Theory of progression leads to a world crisis. Indeed, when all economies evolve into service-based economies, who will take care of the primary (exploitation) and secondary (industrial) sectors? Even more interestingly, this might explain why western countries are not too eager to see less developed countries evolve out of the primary and secondary sectors. But I digress.
My point is, following the Theory of progress, western economies have evolved from tough, manual labor, to a service-based economy with mostly 9-to-5 desk jobs. In that new context, powerful ideologies are no longer necessary to keep the working class in ranks. In fact, the rise of secularism has in no way disturbed the distinction between the ruling class and the working class.
Contrarily to Marx’s expectations, syndicates have managed to obtain salary raises, along with several important improvements to workers’ conditions. With the development of technology, it is no longer necessary to impose such appalling working conditions to accumulate wealth.
All this brings me back to one of my earliest conclusions about the lack of any significant changes: comfort is the deadly enemy of both critical thought and revolutionary action, much more than ideologies.
In my mind, comfort (composed, in part, of consumerism) is the most effective exploitation tool ever devised. Much more, for example, than a police state.
Orwell’s novel, 1984, seems to continuously wake individuals up to the idea that some societal changes are happening, and that they are not necessary headed in the right direction. In general, it gets people worrying, and it’s now used regularly to discuss various law projects, or methods used by governments, both Western and Eastern.
However, it is my belief that, even though one should remain alert and fight against the invasions against privacy that governments seem to be fond of, the emergence of a police state is not the worse we have to fear.
In a way, the worst has already happened. The worst is not the lack of freedom of expression, it’s not censorship or repression in anyway, it’s not the emprisonment of dissidents, it’s not a totalitarian regime. When all these afflictions happen, it has the opposite effect on people: rather than erasing all signs of rebellion, it pushes everyone to think for themselves and rise up for what is just and desirable.
On the contrary, in the Western world, we have been able to witness a process of pacification of the population, leading to an intellectual and social paralysis, and accompanied with a global depression, easily demonstrated by the increasingly nihilist cultural developments.
Leaving freedom of speech but neutering critical thinking is such a cruel thing to do to human beings. Places of free expression such as Reddit and 4chan are typical recipients for the confusion and despair of the young generation. We can see a consistent oscillation between entertainment - jokes, games, music, films, porn, and expression of ill-being (bullying, obscenity, violence, suicidal thoughts).
On the subject of praxeology
Praxeology asks the question “how do we attain our goals?”. If we start from the observation that one important problem is that most people are not thinking (at all), then our goal could be to get them to think. However, there is little incentive for them to do so. So, how do we get people to think?
Waking up this generation is going to be hard. In comparison, brewing a rebellion among miners is achieved relatively easily - by simply pointing out their conditions of life, and comparing them with those of the ruling class.
However, pointing out those differences now is more difficult - in appearance, the working class has access to most of what the ruling class has. The working class has cars, internet, coffee and alcohol. It has washing machines, bikes, balconies and healthcare. One could almost confuse those classes if they forgot about the defining characteristic of the bourgeoisie: to own the means of production. Actually, in modern economies, “owning the means of productions” is less significant than it was in 1850, but the intention remains the same: the bourgeoisie owns the conduits by which value is exchanged.
Not only is making the distinction between the working class and the bourgeoisie harder in 2012 than it was in the 1800s, it is also harder to emphasize the negative aspects of the current system. It is not uncommon to encounter employees who think, in all sincerity, that the current system is satisfactory. That they have no interest in being involved in running the world, or even a small part of it, and neither do they have the interest or patience to even try to understand how it works.
Marx did most of his work because he wanted to have an impact on the world. And he wanted to have an impact on the world because he was unhappy with how things were going. But what can you do when the majority is relatively satisfied with how things are going?
Capitalism as a hindrance to technological progress
One of the reasons I am unhappy with how the world is going, as a technologist, is because I believe technology (note: not the state of research, but the amount of discoveries we use in production around the world) has reached a state where it would be harmless for capitalism to encourage it more.
Marx recognized capitalism as an engine of technological progress, but that was in the 1850s. My belief is that technology has evolved to the point where it stroke just the right balance between a) improving productivity, b) providing comfort to the working class c) retaining the need for a working class.
My intuition is that if technological progresses were completely free of corporate interference, the progress of Earth’s inhabitants as a race would be phenomenal. We would find efficient ways to harness all our discoveries and eliminate the need for human exploitation.
But my intuition also tells me that this is not going to happen in a lifetime. When looking at the different stages Marx draws over the course of history (Tribal / Primitive, City-state / Slavery, Empire / Feudal, Countries / Capitalism), at least those that actually happened, there is always human exploitation - always an upper class and a lower class, no matter what they are called. It seems that it is part of human nature to exploit one another, even when there is technically no need to do so to appropriately benefit from natural resources or to survive - better, live - together as human beings.
Is capitalism the final stage of human civilization? No. Is communism (or socialism) the next logical step? Probably not. It is my belief that if Marx had lived through to see the two World Wars and the incredible apathy of the modern world, he would have recognized the idealism of “The Communist Manifesto” as naive and, honestly, Rousseau-esque. It’s a shame his followers didn’t apply the critical method themselves.