Blockheads

The root cause of the US failure to grapple with the ongoing health and economic crises unleashed by the coronavirus ultimately stems from the collapse of any notion of a publicly shared reality. To beat the virus everyone would need to believe in its existence and act on that reality. They would need to socially distance, wear a mask, wash their hands, limit interactions with others to small groups and necessity. They would need to eliminate unnecessary travel, and avoid vulnerable members of the population whenever possible.

If most evil arises from ignorance, then what is driving our failed response is a lack of belief because the knowledge of what to do is everywhere. Too many of us distrust the medical experts’ understanding of the disease and the media’s communication of what needs to be done in light of it. America is not alone in this epistemic crisis, it being a shared legacy of the West, but suffers from a particularly acute version of it, one that has made our capacity to respond to the virus much worse than any of our peers. It’s a crisis that like Trump himself has been a long time in coming.

Restoring a shared sense of reality is the clearest way out of the crisis, but the difficulty such a restoration faces is that we’ve known for a long time now that any such notion of the real world is a fabrication. Like Adam and Eve, we find it impossible to return to a state of lost innocence, our intellectual virginity was lost a long time ago. We’ve known since Kant that the “thing in itself” lies just outside our reach, and since Nietzsche that we’re all liars. The lessons of social construction have been deeply embedded in anthropology and sociology, and infuses philosophy through the lucid caterwaul of postmodernism and the workaday plodding of pragmatism.

Even the most whiggish liberal among us understands that the news is a ratings and click-bait game, objectivity a smokescreen- we’re all Chomsky-est now.  All good scientists now know that our theories don’t correspond to some true world “out there”, but are mere models- provisional guides for the blind through an uncertain labyrinth. Even the best of our models of covid-19 and its spread are merely provisional maps of a constantly changing landscape, and because of that full of holes only the future will reveal.

The greater public might not learn of this alienation from Truth via university education, but they experience it viscerally every day through television and the internet. Hard core reality has disappeared behind screens, becoming fungible, editable. Not a mirror held up to the real but a means of distortion, compression, enhancement, and amping. All we have are models now, and whose models you trust depend on a set of prior commitments that seem unshakable even in the face of the catastrophic failure of one’s own assumptions regarding the world.

This reduction of capital T truth to models isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The idea that human beings who are part of and made by the world could somehow through our narrow sieve of cognition create a completely faithful copy of that world was always a species of hubris. In that sense, our closest approximation of the truth might come from the acknowledgement of our own limits- identifying the permanent holes in our maps. Yet the replacement of the truth by models does come with its own unique set of dangers, the first being that only part of a society gets the memo.

In that case you get a group or groups of individuals in a society who have sincerely confused the map with the territory. We might call these people fanatics, or maybe just believers depending on our mood. And they need not necessarily be anti-scientific, but instead confuse what science does with a mistaken belief that it describes reality, rather than its actual task of demarcating uncertainty. Because they never update their beliefs to incorporate new information that conflicts with their priors, given the right circumstance they will repeat the same mistakes over and over again- like Charlie Brown and his football. In honor of Lucy we can call them blockheads, though this should not be seen as an insult. Blockheads are made not born. And it is the supposedly cleverest among us who are responsible for having made so many of them.

Of course, all past societies did this. They organized life around socially constructed fictions. Surprisingly, this ability to live on the basis of imagined worlds has been a great strength of our species rather than a weakness. Part of the reason that it could remain a strength was that such delusions have always been constrained by common sense. This partly biological and partly learned shared understanding of how the world works arises from our inherited or experienced contact with the real world. At a bare minimum our social constructions are anchored to the language we share with whatever larger human group we belong to. We share meanings for commonly experienced things within the world, where what we have inherited constrains the forms any future social constructions can take.

Even the insane don’t normally lose this grounding, but merely adopt a private version of delusions that are usually social and make little sense outside of a collective context. The only people who experience its loss are those suffering from severe forms of dementia where what is lost is not so much beliefs but shared protocols on how to interface with the world, and thanks to the globalization of technology, these protocols used in the human made world are now universal. A person suffering from a manic delusion might wrongly think that there is a monster hiding behind a door, but they will rarely forget how to open one.

What distinguishes our own age of belief is how good we’ve become in inventing and spreading imaginary worlds while, at the very same time, the origin of our protocols has drifted away from common sense. The modern scientific revolution began as an effort to clarify, demarcate, and formalize this common sense. In the search for the grounds of our commonly experienced world science ended up taking us farther and farther away from the scale of the world as actually experienced by human beings– confronting us with new scales in both space and time. Invisible entities or hyper-objects that are too large for us to see, time scales too fast for human perception, or too long to be comprehensible when compared with our own limited human lifespan replaced angels and demons, infinity and the abyss.

Yet our belief or disbelief in these invisible entities has no consequence for our use of technologies and interfaces based upon them. Using my computer requires no understanding of what computation actually is, for all I know, it could be tiny Keebler Elves running the show back there. A person traveling to a flat earth convention isn’t flummoxed in the least by the fact that he uses GPS to find his way there.

Blockheads can normally get along just fine in the world precisely because of this persistent gap between belief and performance. Politics in such a world doesn’t normally take the form of Mytilenian debates, with all the existential risks they entail, and are more like loyalties to sports teams- matters of taste where nothing of real consequence is at stake. Like with sports, politics can be tribal and because a change in position is tied to questions of identity they are usually rare. And analogously to someone switching out his favorite team for a new one the job can be taxing and deemed not worth it. Constantly updating one’s priors is hard, and when the civil war is merely a Potemkin conflict, so long as you yourself aren’t a member of its “collateral damage”, is just rare enough to not have revolutionary consequences- at least up until now.

With the coronavirus (and climate change) we’re faced with particularly harsh examples of what it means to live in a society that depends on science for its existence, yet where so few of us need any understanding or experience of this science to thrive. With the coronavirus you have something that is both too small for us to see, and whose effects- until it infects ourselves or a loved one- are too large and diffuse for us to understand. Outside of the normal human scale it becomes just another demon dreamed up by eggheads in lab coats. Whereas every human society in the past was confronted by the mass death of pandemics in their homes or on the streets, our deaths are now hidden away from us in hospitals, whose horror shows, like with our slaughter houses, factories, or prisons we never need to personally see.

You combine the fact that the virus is outside of our normal human scale and hidden from everyday experience with an information ecosystem that is so obviously corrupted, and where much of science itself has been captured by these very forces of corruption, then it’s no wonder why we find ourselves in a situation where a medical crisis has become yet another football in our endless and self-destructive partisan conflict. Indeed, and in the greatest of ironies, once the pandemic became political it thereby could be deemed unreal, just another front in the meaningless war between rival armies of blockheads.      

For the second danger in replacing truth with models is that we start to view all models with cynicism. Ultimately, the cynic comes to see the search for knowledge itself as nothing but a game. In his view what separates the wise man from the fool is that the wise man knows that everybody is playing him. A chaotic good cynic might take this one remaining piece of truth in the world and use it to become a prankster whose sole goal is the exposure of all those whose power arises from their control of these language games. Someone of the chaotic evil bent, on the other hand, might use the truth of untruth as a vehicle for wealth or power for what it gives him is an unprecedented flexibility when it comes to language. The primary skill of both the salesman and the demagogue is knowing how to tell you exactly what you wanted to hear.

This penchant for using the flexibility of language to create fantasy worlds or steer the block headed crowd lies deep in the roots of the American psyche, a country whose first truly novel cultural export was confidence men like P.T. Barnum. Some would merely see it as salesmanship, but there is a fine line between persuasion and deception, a line that is drawn where the persuader’s belief in his own veracity fails.

The constant pulling at our coattails by marketers wouldn’t matter so much had we been able to hive off the important issues of the public sphere from its influence- something which Walter Lippmann urged us to do as far back as the 1950’s. What we’ve proven since then is that it’s impossible to build a system of public communication that is supported by advertising and political propaganda while at the same time dedicated to informing us of the truth in a way we’ll actually believe.

Luckily, in America very few of these cynics leading blockheads have become demagogues, and even fewer of these demagogues have obtained positions of national power. On the white populist side, we’ve had William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and now Donald Trump. The last has managed to smoothly transition from being a huckster cynic to becoming the only demagogue to ever obtain the nation’s highest office. God help us all.

The seemingly intractable problem we now face is that we have a man leading the country who doesn’t believe in reality and who has amassed a following of cynics and blockheads large enough to make an effective response to a very real pandemic impossible. In all likelihood the pandemic will move much faster than us finding an escape route from our epistemic jam, but we should try chart a path towards an exit in any case- otherwise we’ll keep repeating the same mistakes until reality has its final say and at last does us in.

The fact is that we’re returning to a world where substituting the creation of fantasy worlds for the discovery of necessarily tentative truths will likely become increasingly less tenable. It’s often been said that it was Huxley’s Brave New World rather than Orwell’s 1984 that got the late 20th century right because Huxley put his finger on the fact that the society being built was all about escapism. What critics of Orwell miss is that the societies he imagined were based on an entirely fake war because war itself had become impossible.

It was the absence of war which made the complete replacement of the search for reality with the construction of fantasy possible because the existential stakes of war require those who wage it to see the world in front of them as truthfully as possible, while at the same time acknowledging the limits of their own perception, along with the necessity of making decisions even when information is less than complete. And while 21st century warfare may in large part concern itself with getting inside the enemies’ OODA Loop, and leveraging misinformation both assume that there is an actual reality whose perception can be disrupted or hid.

The US may or may not be headed towards a new cold war style conflict with China, but in any case, the American exceptionalism that is our refusal to accept reality cannot be sustained. Our wealth and geographic isolation have saved us from facing the full consequences of our numerous mistakes going all the way back to at least the Vietnam War. What we face now is not so much an escalating competition with other societies as it is an intensifying struggle with Nature itself. What we desperately need to learn is that the world outside of us follows an agenda all its own, oblivious to our fantasy worlds and regardless of how skilled we are at building them.

 

A Reformation of Truth and Trust

ouroboros

“Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland. You can have the Pirate Ride or the Lincoln Simulacrum or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – you can have all of them, but none is true.”

Philip K. Dick  

“The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

Groucho Marx

When Vladislav Surkov invented the post-internet politics of  infowar back in the first decade of the 21st century he was openly drawing on Western postmodernism whose philosophers had been the first to articulate the nature of our “post-truth” age.  Surkov was especially influenced by the philosophy of Jean Baudrillard who in works such as Simulacra and Simulation had tried to put his finger on exactly what the West had lost when its belief in Truth- like God and morality before it-  first fell from the horizon, and then became inarticulable, only to finally become altogether untenable.

Yet Baudrillard’s ideas regarding the merely symbolic nature of the real, and the non-existence of the truth didn’t just appear like a rabbit out of a hat. They were the dividend of a centuries long process by which our notions regarding the true and the real had been lost under the relentless inquisition of both philosophy and science, and emerged as blowback from the catastrophic barbarity of scientism during the 20th century.

To start, some quick and dirty history: We had known since Plato how far our idea of the real likely diverged from the real itself with the tasks of philosophy being to uncover this hidden truth from its occlusion by human biology and historical prejudice. And yet philosophers never quite managed to pin down what this supposedly real world behind the world of appearances actually consisted of, though the pythagorean progenitors of Plato, along with the genius himself,  believed we caught our clearest glimpse of it when exploring truths related to numbers. Or, as it read over the entrance to the Academy: “Let no-one ignorant of geometry enter here”

Yet Plato, it should be remembered, wasn’t just motivated to discover a basis for the truth as a philosophical quest, but also as part of a political project that would form the basis for a non-democratic order. Athenian democracy which had proven fickle and a failure at war, and which, above all, had executed Plato’s teacher and friend Socrates could be proven unsustainable if the majority could be shown to be incapable of discovering, understanding, and living in conformity with the true and the good.

When well over a millennia after Plato a new science, based on mathematics and tested through observation, emerged in the modern era it was widely known how fragile a philosophical foundation such a project rested upon given what was either the loss an earlier prisca sapientia (ancient wisdom) based upon numbers (a loss that would have precluded the establishment of real science in the medieval period) or, and for the inventors of the new science the more troubling prospect, that such a foundation had proved impossible to establish in the first place.

In response to this foundational anxiety Descartes tried to ground mathematical truth within consciousness itself, the one thing whose reality he found impossible to dismiss. The problem here being that the “real” world, the one outside of our models, had now become trapped behind our eyeballs and was thus perhaps even less graspable than before. It took Kant in the 18th century to more or less prove that the ground of truth, mathematical or otherwise, which philosophers had long sought after was ultimately unreachable due to the limitations of the human mind. And yet, Kant still retained the faith that the real was actually there.

Nietzsche amplified Kant’s received recognition that the truth was unknowable into an explosion and concluded that what we called the truth was a mere weapon of power.  Much of 20th century philosophy- the linguistic turn begun by Wittgenstein, the critique of the media articulated by the Frankfurt School – has been footnotes to Nietzsche s conclusion that the will to truth is inseparable from the will to power. This then is the historical perch from which Baudrillard writes in Simulacra and Simulation where he lays out his own lament on the death of truth.

The stages Baudrillard lays out for the image through which we communicate the truth run this way with us believing that the image:

is the reflection of a profound reality;

masks and denatures a profound reality;

masks the absence of a profound reality;

has no relation to any reality whatsoever;

is its own pure simulacrum.

Our loss of faith in the religious truth revealed by the image parallels our the similar loss of the truth by philosophy and although Baudrillard doesn’t really delve deeply into the historical content of his meaning, I don’t think it’s all that difficult to draw such connections.

Images at first are believed to ways to connect with or echoes of a profound, transcendent world beyond our own. What perhaps the caves paintings of Lascaux were to those who made them and what Christian iconography was up until the Reformation, and especially in the Orthodox tradition.

Protestant iconoclasts broke violently with Catholic iconography at the very least because they saw it as a form of idolatry whose very purpose was to occlude the truth as it was given in the Bible. Atheists materialists saw in icons an attempt to plug the gaping holes which any attempt to actually believe the stories presented in the Bible or any other religious text required. They saw in idealist philosophy a childish attempt to escape the atheistic implications of the new science.

Perhaps it was a mistake to not see the entire thing as a fraud meant to keep the majority of human beings oppressed and confused. Or maybe all of our projections are merely a reflection of our own collective madness. Even insanity, however, is predicated on there being a reality one has deviated from. But if there is no reality, if all that exists are our representations of this non- existent thing we call reality, then all we are left with are our own images and models.

There is an economic and technological aspect to this loss as well. Technology, first in the form of industrial production, but now even more so as media and digital representation, has increased our capacities to make copies of things (simulacra) or such copies in motion (simulations). It is as our simulations have become ever more detailed and “lifelike “that they have managed to supplant what we once considered the truly real. Above all there has been the move towards financialization, the process by which all the world is being transformed into capital and code.  

At this point you many feel a little dizzy (I am a little dizzy), so to sum up, at our current historical juncture- the juncture which Baudrillard is addressing- Western culture (or at least a large and the most educated portion of it) has lost its belief both in some capital “T” truth lying behind our representations and models, along with our faith in any transcendent world where such truth might be grounded beyond our own, which might have to be accepted merely on faith. We’re thus left without the comforts of either realism or religion, and it’s into this vacuum that the flood of commodified and infinitely replicable simulations and simulacra will pour.

For Baudrillard this proliferation has resulted in the reign of the hyperreal, where our representations have swamped and often appear more authentic than reality itself. Given he was writing in 1981 we have moved far more deeply into the realm of the hyperreal than Baudrillard could have foreseen. Today a naturalists and author such Diane Ackerman can be seriously concerned that experiencing nature through the lens of the hyperreal- via video and virtual reality- is leading to the atrophy of our capacity to experience nature as the creatures who evolved within it which we undoubtedly are. In a similar vein astronomer and author Pippa Goldschmidt can lament how astronomers need never view the sky with their own eyes.

Far more worrisome is what has been alluded to by the novelists William Gibson; namely, that this kind narrowing of the distinction between the virtual worlds and persons and ones that actually exist can end up turning real flesh-and-blood human beings into mere playthings of our imagination. The fact that so much of this election cycle’s political speech has been the product of bots adds yet another level of hyperreal vertigo.

I am perhaps just as worried about the reign of the hyperreal resulting in a widespread incapacity to engage with the real world.  For Baudrillard as well the reign of the hyperreal results in what he calls the “implosion” of our social and political capacities. Politics becomes a game of symbolic impact rather than the pursuit of actual goals. It’s not a far step from here that every event that occurs dissolves into some sort of conspiracy or as Baudrillard puts it:

Is any given bombing in Italy the work of leftist extremists, or extreme-right provocation, or a centrist mise-en-scène to dis-credit all extreme terrorists and to shore up its own failing power, or again, is it a police-inspired scenario and a form of blackmail to public security? All of this is simultaneously true, and the search for proof, indeed the objectivity of the facts does not put an end to this vertigo of interpretation.

And:

The facts no longer have a specific trajectory, they are born at the intersection of models, a single fact can be engendered by all the models at once.

If one of the primary reasons for speaking is so that we can come to consensus regarding the true and the good, the basis upon which Aristotle defined humanity as zoon politikon, then the reason for such communication disappears once the true and the good are no longer believed to exist. Language is then all about the issuing of commands, or, because in losing our belief in the truth and transcendence we’ve also lost any notion of authority that might be based upon them. If we want someone to do something our only options are coercion through violence- real and threatened- or seduction, which in a societal context means advertising. Writing in the late 1970’s Baudrillard could witness whole cities- Las Vegas- disappear under billboards of neon, a potent symbol of what was happening to society itself:

Today what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising. All original cultural forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten.

Since Baudrillard wrote Simulacra and Simulation the situation has become incredibly worse. A pessimistic read of the current reproducibility problem in science, where seemingly evermore experiments are reported as breakthroughs only to never be replicated again, is that it arises in part from a lack of belief that the task of a scientist (or scholar) is to discover the truth, rather than pursue publication itself or attempt to bolster the bottom line of one’s client.

Science and scholarship has become sucked up in the optimization game where the goal is no longer to patiently build out structures of knowledge generations, but to make the biggest splash in the immediate present-science as advertising. None of that is nearly as bad as the deliberate manufacturing of ignorance, which can be done in the name of “gathering more evidence” as much as deliberate lying. Such agnotology was mastered by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries and seems to be a deeply ingrained political tactic of Donald Trump.

One might be forgiven for thinking Baudrillard would have gotten along with Silicon Valley types. After all, it’s among coders that the belief seems to be rife that we are already living in a simulation. The very same kind of world made out of 1’s and 0’s Stephen Wolfram think we’re on the verge of creating, which he calls “a box of a trillion souls”.  Yet Baudrillard supposedly hated when people compared his ideas to the movie The Matrix, the problem for him being those who thought we are living in a simulation, weren’t being radical enough. For Baudrillard there is no base level- just a snake made of code eating its own tail .

Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation in 1981 and we’ve fall much, much further down the rabbit hole since. On the political level- Ronald Reagan may have been an actor but he had also been the governor of the country’s richest and most populous state- California. Trump, by contrast, is a mere media construction, either that or something eerily similar to the tyrannical character Plato claimed democracies always create. Partly it was the sheer lack of trust that the media was telling the truth about his inadequacies that helped get Trump elected, but almost all institutions appear to be crumbling under this loss of public trust. ISIS. the most successful terrorist organization of our generation has been as much a media production company as anything else.

Every year advertising becomes more and more intimate with our bodies and our senses are quietly subsumed by those whose interests advertising serves, just as the fakes we create- our images and automatons- become ever more confusable with the real.

Where Baudrillard goes wrong, I think, is in believing that there wouldn’t be constant rebellions against this state of floating in thin air. What this means is that although elites and the educated may have lost their belief that truth and goodness could ever be satisfactorily defined most human beings were going to continue to sort themselves along these lines, and the new forms of media were going to vastly increase their capacity to do so free from any guidance or input by elites.

Yet a society composed of such warring collectives lacking some notion of the common good or means of permanently settling disputes isn’t sustainable either, which is why we’ll need to somehow recreate the kinds of buffers and editorial features of the older communications landscape without replicating its elite capture and control. The kinds of answers to the problem of post-truth whereby the internet giants are asked to police what is true or false or contract this role to some other organization is not a democratic solution to our problem.

The metaphysical claim that the truth outside of our social constructions does not exist has been adopted without understanding that we can not live absent these social constructions in the first place. We need a wholesale reformation of the institutions of truth in order to restore the trust without which any society will not long survive. It’s a tall order, happy New Year.