Last week a video of Sam Harris went viral online. In the clip, Harris makes the claim that, with a deadly enough virus and a safe enough vaccine, nobody should be allowed to refuse and that it would be justifiable to have police forcibly injecting people against their will. It’s quite clear from the events of the last three-and-a-half years that many people share Harris’ view that such a course of action would be morally permissible.
Harris’ moral view and the understanding of the world that underpins it are really articles of faith. The faith in question is what we might call Technocracy. In this post, I want to do a quick overview of what the Technocracy is, where it fails and how those failures are now reaching a fever pitch in politics and culture.
As long-term readers would know, I’ve recently been making extensive use of the esoteric – exoteric dichotomy as a map of understanding the world. Here, I’d like to use a map which is based on the same underlying ideas but which is more fitting for the purpose. It’s the one that E.F. Schumacher describes in A Guide for the Perplexed, a book which I heartily recommend to all.
Per Schumacher, we define four fields of knowledge:
Field 1: what happens “inside” me
Field 2: what I can know about what happens “inside” other people
Field 3: how the world perceives me
Field 4: what I and others can know about the outer world
The two fields we’ll be paying the most attention to are 1 and 4.
Field 1 includes all our personal experiences, our hang-ups, our biases, our life history, our education, our spiritual experiences and beliefs etc.
Field 4 is what we broadly call “science”. Within Field 4 there are two main branches: descriptive knowledge and instrumental knowledge.
Descriptive knowledge takes complex phenomena and tries to simplify it down to just the essential patterns. Over the last few years, I’ve referenced many great thinkers in the descriptive knowledge domain including the historians Spengler and Toynbee, Jung in psychology, Gebser in phenomenology, Guenon in theology etc. My book on the Devouring Mother also fits into the descriptive knowledge category.
Instrumental knowledge is what we normally think of when we think of the “hard sciences”. The gold standard for instrumental knowledge is to produce simple logical statements: If-A, then-B.
We prove the truth of theories in the instrumental domain by verifying for ourselves that if we take the same set of steps, we get the same outcome. This might involve very long chains of reasoning, calculation and empirical testing.
What differentiates instrumental knowledge from descriptive knowledge is that the former is testable and the latter is not. Descriptive knowledge invariably deals with subject matter that is not quantifiable in the way instrumental knowledge requires.
Schumacher points out that explanations in the descriptive knowledge domain usually fall into those which attribute a meaning or intelligence behind surface phenomena and those which posit only chance or necessity. In comparative history, Spengler falls into the latter category since he saw only necessity behind historical events. Toynbee, on the other hand, found meaning in history.
The phenomena themselves cannot tell us whether they are meaningful, random or inevitable. Our choice of interpretation is, therefore, an act of faith and belongs to Field 1.
For this reason, some exponents of instrumental knowledge look down their noses at the descriptive. Some, such as Karl Popper, deny the validity of descriptive knowledge altogether. For Popper, only what is testable and falsifiable counts.
There is, however, a sub-domain of instrumental knowledge which also suffers from a testability problem. The systems thinkers of the 20th century differentiated between simple systems where the number of variables can be reduced to allow calculation and testing to be carried out and complex systems where the number of variables cannot be reduced. Simple systems are those which are theoretically reducible to an If-A, then-B format. Complex systems are those which are theoretically not reducible.
(Note: it is arguable that the Descriptive domain is really about complex systems but we’ll skip over that for now).
We can summarise these considerations in the following diagram:-
We have already pointed out that the interpretations in the descriptive domain are matters of faith and therefore relate back to the Field 1. But, in a way, so are the formulas of the Instrumental – Simple domain. If-A, then-B might be valid. But so might If-C, then-B. There are always multiple ways to get to the outcome. Which option “wins” is often a matter of convention.
A great deal of “hard science” amounts to conventional agreements to fix the meanings of symbols. This makes perfect sense because it prevents endless arguing over semantics. But it’s very easy to forget that these are just man-made conventions. They point back to Fields 1 and 2. Conventions are social agreements made for convenience, not laws handed down from God.
What this boils down to is that Field 4, which deals with the outer world, points back to Field 1, which is about the human inner world. Field 1 chooses an interpretation for descriptive fields of knowledge, Field 1 determines the ontology that is conventionally defined in the Instrumental – Simple domain, and the observation of complex systems in the Instrumental – Complex domain are inextricably tied to Field 1. One way or another, it all points back to us.
This is the meaning of know thyself. Without knowing the ways in which you are interpreting the world, without knowing that you are interpreting the world in the first place, you project interpretations thinking they are “in the world” when they don’t really exist there at all. Where do they exist? In your own mind and the collective mind of our species and the culture to which we belong.
(Of course, there is no “where”. These are spatial metaphors for what is ultimately non-spatial. It is mental or spiritual).
Acknowledging these truths does not invalidate knowledge. But it does involve accepting that there is an inherent subjective element in any interpretation. We might as well call this subjective element faith.
What is the difference between projection in a psychological sense and faith? Only one thing: you are aware of faith but unaware of projection. Projection is an unconscious process. Faith implies consciousness (perhaps even super-consciousness). We are always sliding back from faith into projection; from consciousness to unconsciousness.
So, what does all this have to do with Sam Harris and his desire to forcibly inject people with vaccines?
What Harris was implying was that there could be a pandemic which belonged to the Instrumental – Simple domain. He proposed a simple If-A, then-B format for dealing with such a pandemic. If deadly-virus-killing-lots-of-people, then-administer-safe-and-effective-vaccine. Problem solved.
The irony of Harris’ statement, an irony which he is apparently completely unaware of, is that he did nothing more than restate the propaganda we were force-fed during the height of the corona madness. We were told this was a super deadly virus and that a flawless vaccine existed which would solve the problem. Of course, none of that was true.
Given Harris is apparently ultra-concerned with the problem of misinformation, you’d think figuring out why the official corona story was so far removed from reality would be top of his list of problems to work through. Instead, his main concern seems to be how to regulate the internet so that people with political views he disagrees with are shut down. In this respect, he is representative of the class of people running western societies nowadays; the “elites”.
Our “elites” are the Technocracy. They all share the faith of the Technocracy. We can now be specific about what that faith means: all problems can and should be reduced to the Instrumental – Simple domain of knowledge.
The belief that pandemics can and should be handled within the Instrumental – Simple paradigm is, therefore, an article of faith for people like Harris. That’s why the failure of the corona response is of no concern to him. What is of concern is to silence the people pointing out the failure because they are challenging the faith.
The truth is that pandemics belong to the Instrumental – Complex domain. There is very good reason to suspect they will always be too complex to simplify down. But the faith of Technocracy assumes that, even if we have failed so far, in the future we will be able to simplify pandemics down to an If-A, then-B format. Once you understand that it is a faith, the attitude of people like Harris makes sense.
Of course, in a pandemic such as Harris describes, where people would be dropping dead in the street, trying to respond in a scientific fashion would be near impossible because there would be widespread panic. One of the surreal elements of corona was that people calmly lined-up right next to total strangers to be tested and later vaccinated. That would never happen in a real pandemic. Police would be too busy trying to keep basic law and order to be able to forcibly vaccinate citizens.
Still, none of the logistical or pragmatic issues matter much because what we are dealing with is faith. If it doesn’t work once, then we just have to keep trying until it does work.
The trouble is that the Technocrats have been trying and failing to deal with the Instrumental – Complex domain for more than a century now. Anybody looking for a catalogue of the errors of the Technocracy should check out James C. Scott’s great book Seeing like a State.
The evidence (and the theory) suggests that the systems thinkers were right. Some domains cannot be simplified. This does not mean we can’t deal with Complex domains, just that we must use different methods. The error of the Technocrats is to continue to apply methods that belong to the Instrumental – Simple domain to the Complex domains where those methods do not work.
Technocracy has been dominant in the post-war years because the Instrumental – Simple paradigm does work. It works beautifully in simple domains. But all the low-hanging fruit was picked decades ago. The Technocrats then moved on to complex domains and are racking up failure after failure. Corona is the biggest one so far but there are others in the pipeline. The problems caused by the faith of Technocracy are becoming too big to ignore. That is the background of our current ideological crisis.
Of course, the Technocrats are not going to go down without a fight. Here in Australia, and I believe a number of other countries, so-called “misinformation” bills are working their way through parliament. These give governments the right to ban anything on the internet that goes against the official narrative.
Imagine a world where the Technocracy holds all the positions of power, has access to enormous financial resources, controls the mainstream media narrative, and can get almost universal consensus from aligned politicians. Then imagine that the same Technocrats are worried that some anonymous nobody on the internet might post some “misinformation”. This is not the behaviour of people who have confidence in their position. The more the faith of Technocracy fails, the more its adherents double down. Hence, the increasingly cult-like behaviour we are seeing.
When we flip the arrows on our diagram, we see that it is really Field 1 which determines our understanding of Field 4.
We are always projecting onto the world. When we do it consciously, it is called faith. What happens when an article of faith fails to produce results? We can accept that failure and try to get to the root cause. Or we can deny it and push it down into the unconscious. When we do that, faith turns into projection.
The faith of the Technocrats is that all problems can be reduced to the Instrumental – Simple domain. That faith is failing on multiple fronts right now. It is these failures which are causing great anxiety amongst the “elites”. That’s what was behind the corona debacle. It’s what’s behind the misinformation bills, the censorship, the bullying and demoralisation that comes down from pretty much all public offices in the West at the moment. Our “elites” are projecting their own failures onto the public.
The Sam Harrises of the world are almost certainly never going to admit failure. They are true believers. Like all true believers they will continue to say that we just need one more try to get it right. Eventually, however, the cost of keeping the faith is going to be too high to pay.