Play it again, Sam

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.

23 thoughts on “Play it again, Sam”

  1. The technorats are panicking. That’s why they are tightening the screws. This reminds me of the desperate attempts of European monarchs trying to suppress liberalism in the first half of the 19th century resulting in the Carlsbad decrees.

    I am still trying to figure out what kind of movement will succeed the technorats. When will it have its “Hambacher Fest”?

  2. Secretface – the Canadian truckers might have been the equivalent of a Hambacher Fest. Even here in technocrat-dystopian Melbourne there was a huge protest of several hundred thousand people in late 2021 which had a similar vibe to the truckers. Are these just random events or signs to the future? It’s very hard to know.

  3. The January 6th Capitol “Attack ” maybe also fits in this category.

    Funnily, a few years ago German conservatives tried to invoke the magic of the Hambacher Fest by meeting at Hambach Castle. The AfD tried something similar by meeting at the Kyffhäuser monument to summon the spirit of Barbarossa to bring Germany back to glory. We will see whether any of these rituals will have an impact on the future.

  4. Secretface – yeah, the “history wars” are a subset of the “culture wars”. We’ve got one side trying to re-write history and the other side trying to re-live it. I’m wondering if things aren’t getting biblical enough that we’ll see some brand new thing manifest out of nowhere.

  5. What’s even more ironic is that whole fields of supposedly rational science are based off enormous leaps of faith and assumptions. Virology is one of the most glaring, tracing it back to the 19th century and Pasteur, and then through frankly bizarre conclusions from very ethically questionable experiments. To say it has flaws is an understatement, it is a very strange field in which certain assumptions about the real world are extrapolated within computers to come up with whole genomes and other identifiers that haven’t actually been proven to exist outside the computer. There are even seriously legitimate questions regarding whether viruses even exist or not.

    Therefore Harris is doing nothing different from asking how many angels are on the head of a pin. It really is just faith.

  6. Skip – agreed. If ever there was a domain of science where we should be prepared to admit of ambiguity and uncertainty, it is virology and viral disease. And that was before they started doing everything with computers and mathematical algorithms. Which is why corona is actually the perfect example of the problem of Technocracy because at every level of study – the virus, the link between virus and disease, the supposed spread of disease – you have complexity and uncertainty.

    Having read a lot on the subject, I would not be surprised if “viruses” are primarily psycho-social phenomena (Fields 1, 2 and 3). Their manifestation in physical form (Field 4) could be the effect and not the cause. Of course, scientific materialism could never entertain that hypothesis.

  7. Yep I didn’t want to go there because it’s too far for lot of people but I see no evidence to think that viruses exist as disease vectors, or in fact exist at all in regards to the usual definitions. From an agricultural perspective my approach to plant and animal health comes back to either a deficiency or excess of something, and dealing with that deals with any ‘viral’ issue. Bacteria and fungi in the soil change from beneficial to detrimental depending on conditions.

    As to what is actually causing contagious disease is a fascinating question that is basically ignored because a virus or ‘bad’ bacteria is always assumed. Once you peel back the layers you see so much of biology and human health science is really just glorified quackery, snake oil salesman that managed to get everyone to believe their hype.

    The fact that supposed rationalists like Harris fall for it hook, line and sinker without any sort of skeptical critique just shows to me that believe exactly what they claim to oppose; superstitions not back by evidence or inquiry.

  8. Skip – yeah, it seems that bacteria and fungi are everywhere all the time and are just waiting for the right conditions to manifest in certain ways. I mean, that’s how a compost heap works. Different combinations of carbon, nitrogen and water allow different kinds of bacteria and fungi to have a big party. Same with the yeasts that make apple cider etc. As for quackery, it’s funny cos you read the old account of pandemics and there’s always the quacks running around in the street selling potions. Nothing much has changed, it seems.

    By the way, I came across this the other day Glad to see there seems to be some kind of organised pushback happening. I assume this is affecting your area too?

  9. Thinking about the technocracy it extends further too into a deep cultural belief in the power of tech and human brilliance in regards to solutions for things like pandemics. Those who are opposed to these solutions are often guilty of falling into the same trap just from the other direction. A good example from agriculture is round up ready GMO crops. Both the supporters and detractors toe the line that these were invented by scientists playing God, which is inspiring or terrifying depending on your point of view. The truth is however that round up ready crops were found in nature, basically a farmer called Monsanto up and told them their product wasn’t working on a particular weed. Monsanto then came out and took samples from this weed and were able to patent the insertion of this mutation. So basically all they did was hijack something from nature and claim it as their own. They aren’t really that special at all.

    I think the same thing might have happened with these MRNA vaccines. Both the supporters and detractors took the companies at face value that they could do what they said they can do. Again, inspiring or horrifying depending on your preferences. But evidence is now emerging that they don’t contain much of anything that they claim to, and are mostly full of toxic junk. Researching the history of the tech too it’s never really worked, and seems to be a complete dead end, and is based off similar flawed assumptions as the rest of virology. Still bad for your health to get one, but the whole fear of GMO humans might turn out to be thankfully incorrect.

    This all relates to the transmission lines and renewables topic. I’m less certain now that many of them will even get built because of blowing costs and the fact it won’t work at all. They will probably try, but there are already wind farms in Qld that are rusting away because no one is using them properly. The pushback is getting louder and louder too, with farmers protesting in Melbourne this week.

  10. Simon – in my youth I used to know a healer whose perspective on viruses was that our fear programs them to cause havoc, & that resonated w/ me so I’ve gone through life thinking of viruses as agents that enter the body when it needs a good clean-out.

    Which probably sounds really unscientific. 🙂 But my physio told me today about this fascinating experiment to do w/ pain undergone by dental patients. Some participants apparently got placebos & some got pain control. And the patients who got the placebos felt more pain. But here’s the thing: in reality, none of the patients got placebos, only pain control. But the dentists were told which patients supposedly got placebos. Any thoughts?

  11. Skip – I think the difference between the round up story and the mRNA story is that round up was actually shown to work first and then implemented later while mRNA seems like it was born as a theory should “should work” and put into practice without any empirical evidence that it actually did work. The second type of story is very common nowadays and we are pissing an enormous amount of wealth up against the wall chasing unicorns like that. The first kind of story is very common in the history of science. It’s amazing how many things were discovered purely by accident or even mistakes made while somebody was trying to do something else. That’s my main concern with these lunatics mucking around in labs. They might fall ass-backwards into something very dangerous.

    Shane – that sounds right. Now if viral disease is a personal “clean out”, then a pandemic is a collective “clean out”. It seems very coincidental that corona comes right after Brexit and Trump while the Spanish flu comes right after WW1. In both cases, what is really going on is a fundamental shift in the broader culture.

    That’s an interesting story about the dentists. I assume the patients were all told they had received pain killers in which case the only variable is how the dentist treats them because the dentist thinks some got pain killers and some got the placebo. Could the dentist sub-communicate “pain” to the patient? Seems plausible to me since I’m quite sure we sub-communicate a “vibe” to each other, although we mostly don’t know we are doing it.

  12. Simon – collective clean-out: nicely spotted!

    Yes, all the patients assumed they’d received painkillers (otherwise, imagine the terror in case you’d got a placebo?). The dentists were the focus of the experiment, & their sub-communication was implied in the result. Which to me says they conveyed a vibe to the patients based on their beliefs/assumptions (& no doubt, too, past patients’ reactions to pain). So it seems reasonable to me that how individuals experience viruses has way more to do w/ vibes than ‘the science’ suggests.

  13. Shane – makes sense. The subjective experience of illness is not something we talk about because it is actually very hard to describe. One of the things I learned during corona, since everybody was suddenly talking about flu symptoms, was that fever dreams only affect about 10% of the population. I always get fever dreams and had assumed everybody else did. I wonder how many other symptoms of illness are rare and we don’t ever hear about them.

  14. “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.”

    There’s a major issue here which occurs in medical and psychological research: in many cases, because we have more restrictions on research ethics, there are plenty of classic experiments which cannot be replicated. This has a host of implications, but one which is very challenging is that it means that if conditions change, we have no way of knowing this has happened, and I see sound reasons to think that human nature, both biological and psychological, is not constant, but changes over both space and time.

    So even though in theory it is testable, in practice, it is a very different game.

  15. Anonymous – exactly. Another way to differentiate between simple and complex is between dead and alive. Biology, psychology, sociology etc are all dealing with systems that are alive and, therefore, in a constant state of becoming and adaptation. So, with something like medications, even if they “work” now, there’s no guarantee they will continue to work as organisms will simply evolve around them.

  16. Hi Simon,

    I got the impression that the bloke was more trying to justify the response taken, than propose a future response, although here I’m uncertain with that belief. It’s genuinely possible that we can’t afford economically, the sort of response the bloke in the video was talking about.

    And yes, I agree, I have no doubts that this is why the systems thinkers are roundly shouted down.

    Anyway, I spotted an extreme and very awful example of the use of the ‘expert’ argument: British nurse Lucy Letby found guilty of murdering seven babies. There was a quote from the article which is: In another case, when one of the victim’s mothers walked in on her attacking her twin babies, Letby said to her: “Trust me, I’m a nurse.”



  17. Chris – i think he was using it as an example of a debate where there is no uncertainty or ambiguity. In other words, a “simple” context. The trouble is that in the real world things are rarely simple and you always have to act under conditions of uncertainty. Oh, man, that nurse story seems like a good metaphor for the world we live in these days.

  18. Simon – fever dreams? Do yours ever lead to creative output? Jeff Vandermeer’s novel Annihilation came to him in a bronchitis fever dream & he wrote the first draft in five weeks. Both its sequels (inspired by a healthy contract) suck in comparison.

    I’ve been intrigued lately by how many pharmaceutical drugs can cause side effects (supposedly for a minority) identical to the problems they’re designed to treat. Because allopathy, if you credit the root meaning of the word, refers to medical treatment that produces the opposite effect of the symptoms.

  19. Shane – nah, never had any bright ideas during fever dreams, although I can imagine how it could happen. Last time I was very pleased that I was able to shut down the fever dream using a focused meditation exercise I learned once. I was happy about that because I find fever dreams very annoying since they last as long as the fever, usually about 3 days!

    I randomly came across a medicine advertisement once that was on US television (I think I must have been watching a clip taken from a US tv show). The medicine was apparently supposed to treat anxiety but the list of side effects they mentioned at the end of the ad included depression and suicide! Goodbye anxiety, hello suicidal depression 😛

  20. Re: fever dreams

    Apparently, Hong Xiuquan was inspired to start the Taiping Rebellion in part by a fever dream. That one resulted in 20-70 million dead bodies, depending on whom you ask. Ooops.

    As for Sam Harris: super scary virus, super safe vaccine, people still refusing to take it, can forcibly inject. Suuuuure… And if there were little enough gravity and babies had big enough wings, it would be totally acceptable to throw them off the tops of tall buildings. Ahem. I guess that guy is what they call a “high IQ moron.”

  21. Irena – maybe somebody had a fever dream once about how to create world peace but the 90% of people who don’t get fever dreams didn’t believe it 😛

    As for Harris, it’s ironic that he is a famous atheist since he is now projecting his faith where it does not belong. Instead of asking why “God” has forsaken us, he’s busy looking for reasons to crucify people.

  22. Monty Python 2070: No one expects the Technocratic Inquisition!

    The cruel irony of projection, that they become exactly that which they so vehemently claim to have progressed beyond…

  23. A – “nobody is to stone anybody until the microchip in your wrist tells you to” 😛

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