Sunday, August 7, 2016

The mechanistic mind needs the balance of intuition, imagination, ambiguity and subjectivity

In his book, The Manufacture of Evil, Lionel Tiger explores the thesis that, with the rise of the industrial age, we introduced a way of conceiving of the universe that depends on human agency to "manufacture" what humans consider to be evil. The power of the machine was merely a transference of the power of the species to dominate the process of taking raw materials and transforming them into something else, cars, washing machines, televisions, a plethora of convenience devices and....by inference, underpinning the metaphysic, the very nature of the universe. Given the basic construct of how human power and agency operated in this new and innovative theatre of the factory, and the many "benefits" of that agency, how could a supernatural agent like God not also operate on the same principle of objectivity and empirical agency in the discerning and displaying of the differences between 'good' and 'evil'? Of course, the premise is replete with arrogance, pride and arguably mountains of evidence of human agency.
So intimate is the relationship between humans and machines, (not incidentally, a clearly masculine notion) and also so dependent are humans on our need for power, that when a machine produces something new, marvelous and shiny, human hubris almost immediately and inevitably believes in its own power to control the most important question of human existence: How to define and live the "good" life.
Tiger posits the natural as his benchmark for comparing "what man makes" with how nature works and finds a significant departure from 'nature' in order to satisfy the human appetite for dominance.
The mechanical universe can be found in millions of garages, backyards and car shows where humans (mostly males) re-build, restore, accessorize, and polish their chosen four-wheel vehicles. Some have airplane hangers full of these monsters (e.g. Jay Leno). Trophies to ego's, and to various skills that continue to offer opportunities for ego-massage, while participating in the restorations and while displaying these trophies at car shows under various banners: antique cars, sports cars, muscle cars, restored cars.....many of these "shows" serving as fund raising events for various charities.
The mechanical universe, by definition, also feeds and is fed by the human appetite to discover "how things work" and then, if they are not working, to "fix them" so that they do.
History records, in stacks of academic works stored in library stacks for the benefit of researchers who seek to unwrap various questions deploying the required empirical evidence that supports/refutes a thesis, the discovery, the first use of, the significance of human accomplishments like the first pen, the first printing press, the first toilet and sewer system, the first motor-powered land vehicle, the first motor-powered ship, the first human flight, the first Morse code, the first telephone, the first radio, the first television.....
It is not accidental or incidental that many of these "products" were originally developed by money dedicated to the production of defense materiel including weapons, intelligence, communication devices, visioning devices, masks to protect against poison gas, orientation devices to establish attack routes, escape routes, locks and surveillance devices....The military needs of a given society, as perceived by the leaders whose degree of paranoia played a role in the speed and the determination of the devices needed to sustain power, to grow empires and to defend against enemies.
In a broader context, these benchmarks also comprise integral parts of the cultures that produced each of them, signifying, for example, the degree of "progress" achieved by the people living where and when each accomplishment was developed. The establishment and the maintenance of power by leaders and governments continued to fund many, if not most, of the developments of technology for centuries.
The evolution of how war is waged is not only a theatre for new manufactured devices; it is also a theme considered by the intellectual community as a conventional method of discerning how humans produced evidence of our evolution in the emergence of our higher ethics, compassion, humaneness, and higher personal morality. A clear example follows the methods of execution of those considered criminals through history. From beheading, to public floggings and hangings, to electric chairs, to chemical poisonings those considered the most venal humans were subject to the current method of elimination, and those methods were considered benchmarks for the evolution of the culture, and thereby the political acceptance of the leaders who wrote and passed the laws on which the public acts were based and carried out.
Transference of our conception of power in manufacturing to how we manufactured "evil" would seem to be a seductive process enabling the even higher conception of human potential as beings growing in the capacity and the will to mercy. If we used more moderate and less viscious methods of punishment, and how we conducted our wars, then, the argument goes, we were individually and collectively moving in a more tolerant, more humane and more ethical and moral direction. The laws to abandon nerve gas, for example, were to illustrate how wars would never sink to such depths of depravity again. (The Assad regime's possession of chemical weapons, for example, evoked a global response forcing the dictator to dispose of at least most of them, if not all. And the threat of Saddam Hussein's potential use of chemical and biological weapons, and possibly even nuclear weapons, lies at the heart of what is now considered the worst foreign policy disaster in the history of the United States, even though the intelligence was so flawed as to be worthless and devoid of evidence.)
There is a kind of clarity in the manufacture of machines, in the clinical execution of wars and in the "leadership" quotient of those so engaged. Reporters can and must report the numbers, the dollar costs, and the benefits (all of them in empirical, measureable terms) as the narrative of the respective dramas.And there is also a kind of clarity and an absence of ambiguity in the hierarchies which operate both the manufacturing organizations and the war/political cultures. Clarity, especially of human 'right and wrong' seems to be a sine qua non on which the history of human civilization depends. And the people who 'fit' into the clarity of such definitions, particularly those enshrined in law, laws of towns and cities, provinces and states, nations and international agencies are considered more ethical and moral than those who resist those laws.
We tell stories in our public media, as well as in our dramatic theatre productions of those braving the boundaries of unjust laws, challenging the establishments who enforce unjust laws and unjust application of those laws, and those who wage public campaigns that expose the uncertainty, the ambiguity and the downsides of the reductionistic definitions of those laws.
And history is driven, in part, by the conflict and the collision of these two forces: the evil manufactured by establishments in order to attain, sustain, maintain and enhance order and civil society and the rare, and courageous if often considered radical and intemperate objectionists, the activists and the poets and prophets, like Lionel Tiger, whose academic discipline (anthropology in his case) and whose world view and whose faith orientations encourage and even require books such as the title mentioned above.
It is the collision and the conflict between the mechanical, mechanistic, objective, empirical definition and boundaries of the human imagination, and the human ethical imperatives integral to the subjective, the emotional/intuitive, the natural and the much more messy metaphysic of ambiguity, including the ambiguity of what is right and wrong that lies at the heart of many of the contemporary writings and conversations in our media, in our political discourse, and in our classrooms.
And, to the degree that both subjective and objective are aligned in relatively equally proportions, or are disproportionately out of balance that humans struggle to discern their own ethical and moral authenticity and validity. The commission of what is considered an act of deception by the rigorous extraction of statements out of context and out of proportion to the intent of the original writer or speaker seems to be a tide on which many political "surfers" are riding, for the sheer thrill of the ride.
Excitement, entertainment, especially of the extreme and instant-gratification kind (primarily driven by the profit demands of large communication companies....these are not the stuff of even a discussion of what is moral, ethical or supportive of the greater public good.
Issues of ethics and morality, both on the organizational/policy level and on the personal/private decision-making level cannot and must not be reduced to a kind of formulaic construct that can be communicated in a 140-character tweet, except for the most obvious and the most elementary decisions: killing, raping, robbing...the acts, once established as committed under motivations discerned as malignant merit a conventional interpretation as evil, depending on the ethical standard of the process of the investigation, the assessment of the evidence and the formal prosecution of the arguments for the state and the accused. And there are a plethora of manners, processes, actions and motivations of those empowered to act on behalf of the state that merit close scrutiny to establish and maintain the ethical standard of fair justice to which the state must be held.
However, the fine legal applications of the society's standards of 'good and evil' are hardly the only, or even the most important in the generation of the binding force of any culture. The engagement of humans with other humans depends on a mutual commitment to attitudes, behaviours including even facial responses that are open to and welcoming of authentic responses in both fact checks and in attitudinal approaches. Those known to us, through the experience of years of collaboration, if they are to remain respected in our circle, we expect to treat us in ways that would pass the "smell test" of moderate descriptions of civility: decency, openness, willingness to discuss and debate differences, and a commitment to work to resolve differences. These qualities, however, defy rigid constructs of definitions that can be applied in all circumstances. Indeed, without the openness to ambiguities and uncertainties, without a large dollop of uncertainty and modesty, and an accompanying openness to re-consider, to reflect and to re-enter the discussion of most of the issues facing individuals, in private cases, and organizations/political, corporate, academic in the broader ethical issues facing the wider culture.
Arguments, in the public media, dependent on micro-management of syllables and emphases and turns of phrase without the balance of the macro-perceptions, including the application of the oldest moral imperative in the books: "treat others in the way you would be treated", a filter that can serve to restrain much of the exaggerated psychological and emotional adrenalin that comprises too much of public discussion.
Ambiguity and uncertainty, so embedded in any analysis of all interpretations of reality, subjectivity and objectivity also mandatory in any balanced interpretation of reality...these larger inclusions exclude so many from the broad range of public issues, debates and discussions.
And without a universal commitment to inclusion of a more ambiguous and uncertain and reflective view of and expression of the world in which we live, there can and will be little if any meeting of minds, compromises in the design and delivery of public policy and legislation and in the significant reduction in the sale and deployment of those new instruments of war, the video games filled with virtual, if bloodless, violence, all of which demand the same rigor that we dedicate to the history of world wars, and bloody conflicts.
Yesterday, August 6, the world celebrated the dropping of the first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, an act of infamy deeply bloodied and paradoxically honoured by some political leaders, seventy-one years after the event itself. The pounding of the waves of the mechanical objective perception of the universe onto the shores of the heart, the soul, the intuition and the imagination of another conception of the universe persistently eroding the shores of those touchstones, the existence of which prevents the complete drowning of the universe under the mechanistic wave.
And so long as this scribe breathes, this space will explore the collision of these forces, and give voice to the subjective, so under threat are its imperatives, and so ridiculed are its tenets, especially by those needing complete control, a need never to be realized, fortunately.

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