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Progress versus Getting it Right
A short note on the nature of life: all of what goes on in the human mind is pure creation, construction, words and symbols and designs used to describe something that exists outside of our minds. That doesn't mean that it isn't an objectively-functioning world out there; try putting your hand in a moving blender and you'll see the world is very consistent in its actions. However, this world is sometimes maintained by some very spacy ideas, like chaos theory or cosmic idealism, and may not even be "real" in any sense of physical matter existing. However, insofar as events go on in it, it is "real" and you are subject to the forces of its reality.
Being able to understand both the unreality of life, and its mundane but effective physicality, is the essence of what is required to be a realist. Realists do not trouble themselves by trying to explain away reality with bad science or bad religion. They look at the world, take good as well as bad, and adapt. This is their ultimate game and goal and it makes sense, if one is a complex organism who cares about function, to take this course of action.
Fools, on the other hand, either deny significance beyond the material, or assert the existence of some fantasy world that is either more important than reality or "describes" reality in some way that is assumed to be important. They confuse our evaluation of the world (mind) with its actuality (body), and thus we call them dualists, a term that in itself is dual: dualists believe in a world beyond this one, and most commonly construct it along the lines of mind/body separation. Those of us who are realists are unitivists: we believe the physical world, our minds, and any significance or values abstracted from those are part of a contiguous, rational system (although not rational in a linear sense).
Because I am a late-night psychopath reader who likes a good story more than the pretentious crap that passes for literature of late (two exceptions: Tom Wolfe and William Gibson), I found myself digging into "Jurassic Park" by Michael Crichton. Yes, yes, I know, it's garbage - but only on the surface. Crichton's goal, since the wildly successful "Andromeda Strain" that kept him from having to practice medicine, has been to wrap a small amount of adventure around a discussion of scientific implications. Unlike most scientists, with the possible exception of Carl Sagan, Crichton directs his critical eye not toward the technology itself but toward its meaning via its effect on the world and our lives.
As such, he's both a brutal cynic, and a breathtaking concept writer, in that he grasps exactly what is scaring us at any given time and explains it in such a way that those of average or higher IQ can perceive its strengths and dangers. He's good at not becoming a hysterical liberal, but hasn't yet lapsed into the complacent "as long as the stock market's still up" attitude of most American/English-style "conservatives." What's great about this book is that he takes issue with modern society's explosion of technology, and points out that no one considers the consequences.
Ian Malcolm, a (homosexual) British mathematician, is the voice of the author in this work; not only do quotes from him introduce each chapter, but his lengthy monologues summarize one of the two major topic areas of this book. The first, obviously, is genetic engineering - bringing an ancient form back to life. It is counterbalanced by a study of chaos theory, in which Crichton attempts to explain how natural systems work. The result shows hard science in the grips of forces its unleashers cannot understand, namely the tendencies of systems to achieve and lose balance, and this metaphor forms the basis of Crichton's lesson to modern science.
He uses harsh words for recent epochs. Most technical people and scientists are "thintelligent," Malcolm says, meaning that they can function well in a high-intensity narrow bandwidth of thought, but are lost to practical implications or systemic thinking. Crichton uses the words linear thinking several times, and lambasts the west for adopting this form of thought, although he does not trace it to its Jewish-Christian roots (Crichton grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in NYC, but seems to be a gentile). He illustrates this crisis several times through the behavior of his characters, who are always just saying "Well, now our technology is working again" when some dinosaur comes crashing through the wall and eats a coworker.
It's a form of subtle comedy usually found in horror movies. Crichton makes his points, however, and since this writing is not here to review the book, let us move on to the next point: Crichton also makes a classic error of the type made by scientists and not philosophers, and it's nearly unforgivable. He posits that linear science is "obsolete," and we need to move on, much as we moved on from medieval times. In this, he reveals his ignorance by adhering to the progressive fallacy.
Espoused by Hegel, lambasted by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and anyone else with a brain, the progressive fallacy is that idea that we are always growing toward a "new" higher state of humankind. You can hear echoes of this in the dumbshits who, if anything is proposed, state they don't want an existing path but want something "new." It's also found extensively in media and commerce, which benefits quite a bit from the automatic assumption that of two things, the newer one is better. In a book excoriating linear science, how about some words for how stupid linear history is?
If one reads widely enough, and deeply enough, it becomes clear that history is linear only insofar as our measurement of time is (whether time "really is" linear or not is for another debate - we perceive it as linear; end of story). According to traditionalists and ancient sources, "history" is a process much like the lives of individuals, by which civilizations are born, grow old and fat, and finally decay into sordid collapse. Crichton alludes to a scientific version of this philosophy when he notes that fluctuations in cotton prices over the last century mirror their vicissitudes during the course of an average day. Why doesn't he again turn his mirror to history?
The answer is that like most of us moderns, he's well-educated in linear thinking in ways even he, not a dumb man by any stretch, cannot recognize. He's like Hegel: a well-intentioned innocent who needed to be more warlike and cruel in his thinking, slicing away the ideas that mostly made sense and replacing them with ideas that always did. The progressive view of history is with us always, whether in television commercials or political speeches. It's a convenient way of assuming that no one else has seen what we have, and that we're "unique" in this time - all of which seems to me to be a way of staving off death.
Even if our technology never occurred on earth before, and our societies have encountered configurations that did not previously exist, when looked at from a higher-level design analysis, nothing that is happening now has not happened in the past - and the consequences of our now are just as obvious as they were for past societies. It's another way of saying that, while the scenery might change, the play doesn't - the emotions and motivations of the actors are as real in one time as in another. Thus what ancient Greeks observed is still observable and relevant today, as are observations that are much older.
What Crichton bemoans - our tendency to see the world only through the eyes of science, and thus how we can change raw materials into some kind of product - has its roots in many things. How to explain that? Quite simply: it's a lower level of thinking than the enlightened thinking required to see what must be done. When one gets over the linear model of history, and sees past the "progressive" view, it becomes clear that there are no "new" thoughts, only thoughts in new contexts with varying degrees of correct and incorrect adaptation to our situation. This is realism, and only in realism do we find an escape from the twin barriers of materialism and dualistic idealism.
I could wax on with more philosophical terms, but you can look them up - I recommend the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Philosophy and an Oxford English Dictionary, for starters (if not, there's SEP). At some point even talking too much on any topic makes it wanking, as one either is able to see the truth of the situation, or casting around blindly - more of something (experience, wisdom, intelligence, time) is needed. Part of what Crichton's saying that is also being said in this article is simply that life is real, and when we make decisions, we should place the airy logic secondary to a practical view of life as something in which we live.
Crichton points out that we cannot destroy life on earth, which is a way of saying that, no matter how much humanity screws up, life will come back, although it will not be as developed as as great as what we have now; it's a backhanded slam at humanity's recklessness. In saying this, he communicates something important: we should make the right decisions for our own benefit, as right now, we're in a self-destructive tailspin of bad values. Having now experienced enough of life, both sane (good) and insane (destructive), I can say that I prefer sane because destructive values always lead to devolution and thus more boring existences.
Further, if Crichton ever transcends his linear view of history, he'll come upon a great truth of our world: to live as a Romantic is the only way to live, and if one is a Romantic, one does not hunger for "new" things, but for what is eternally true. One does not need the "progressive" view of history in order to realize that a well-fought battle, a lifelong love, a feast of friends, etc. is an eternally good - sane, adaptive, evolutionary, logical - thing. We rail against "good" and "evil" because they remove judgment from practicality into some weird abstraction, and from that we get a progressive view of history, moving from ancient evil to modern good. I wish the dinosaurs would tear that one down and throw it into the fires, as humanity would be healthier if in its absence it instead focused on reality.
July 17, 2005