In the West we have strong beliefs about liberty based on the hard work of philosophers like John Locke and Thomas Paine, important work that heralded a new era of ‘free’ enterprise and dynamism theretofore never seen, certainly at the mass level. Things like fairness and equal opportunity found solid intellectual footing as a direct consequence of these efforts and the revolutionary wars they initiated. But of course things move on, knowledge expands, things change, and it is our task to keep up culturally with new information which threatens long established tradition and status quo. The wiser we are when addressing these issues, the better chance we have of midwifing the new as painlessly as possible into the old. To stay with the midwife metaphor; it’s always best not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Crudely speaking we think of ourselves as individual agents acting in the world of things, where our actions and reactions are parts of causal connection chains stretching back into the past and off into the unknown future, like a vast, universal game of snooker. We both initiate and react to events. We are furthermore ‘free’ agents capable of choice, responsible, therefore, for the consequences of our actions once legally recognised as adults, shaping our lives as we see fit, deserving of success or failure depending on the mix of effort, luck and talent we bring to the party. For the ego – to my mind the true architect of this depiction of the human animal – this is as things should be. To stay safe and alive, the ego wants to feel potent in a world it needs to control. It wants to be able to dominate the environment to some degree to ensure its continuing survival, and if things go well, its comfort too. Almost the entire body of economics has this view of humans at its core.
However, one of the unforeseen consequences of this process of environmental control has been an increasingly complex social setup, a process we might characterise as compromise, or the slow, even stealthy, giving up of individual sovereignty to the growing group. The ego, that arch deceiver, has unwittingly deceived itself. Another force has been in operation all along, invisible to the ego, yet partnering it. Some call it “ethical evolution,” others “the expanding circle of reciprocity.” Both descriptions suggest we are being ‘pooled’ into a global society by our efforts to keep self secure. Is this The Invisible Hand at work? Perhaps, but I think not.
Language is for me the example par excellence of the social urges inherent to humanity. Our need to share tasks and deal with adversity together, combined with our intelligence and incredibly complex facial musculature, have created a communication tool so effective I can write this stuff and others can read it. Language has progressed from unknown early forms aiding hunting and other planned activities, to something quite beyond my powers to adequately describe. It gives us our ability to understand reality at a level so far beyond what (as far as we know) other animals can achieve, as to make us almost aliens on Earth. The social aspect of our nature made this possible. The ego played its part of course, with its need for boundaries and divisions and causal connections, but ultimately the truth will out, and language will be its midwife. Our flawed perceptions of reality must yield in time to increasingly accurate understandings of reality as it is.
One of the manifestations, or perhaps a partner to the process which wrested the ego from the tyranny of the bad prince/sovereign and gave birth to liberty (a somewhat adolescent notion), is the hunt for The Building Block, the atom (in the Greek sense) which can be no further divided. Once this little piece of reality has been discovered all explanations can flow from it. A term like “selfish gene” is an example of this. The quest for intrinsic value that so bedevils economics is another. Freud’s Id, Jung’s Self, and so on, are all examples of the egoic need to seek out the component which, once understood, can finally explain those things out of which it is built. To my mind this is a futile quest. In the same way that nothing can have any use or meaning in total isolation, so too can I say there is no such thing as an individual, there is no such thing as a selfish gene, no such thing as intrinsic value. Everything exists and comes into focus in relationships with other things.
To quote Stephen Pinker:
“[W]hen a person's public stance and private motives are both selfless but those motives came about because they once served the interests of his ancestors' genes, we have not uncovered hypocrisy; we have invoked a scientific explanation couched at a different level of analysis. Color depends on properties of colorless molecules; solid objects are made of atoms that are mostly empty space. That does not mean that peacocks are colorless or that Gibraltar is a mirage. Similarly, selfless people designed by selfish genes are not selfish.”
And John Holt (Instead of Education, p114):
“To ask what is fundamental human nature is to ask what a human being would be like without a culture. Such a question is meaningless, and cannot be answered. There is and can be no such thing as a human being without a culture.”
Systems Theory and the newer Information Systems Theory are humanity’s early efforts at understanding reality as dynamically interlinking relationships of a virtual infinity of variables. The implications of this mode of analysis (or synthesis) are profound and upsetting to many. There is no individual. The utility of discovering the ultimate building block is highly limited, not liberating. Humans are malleable; impressionable; embedded in social conventions of language, both of the body and mind; imprisoned by emotional restraints; utterly dependent on the ecosystem; in short tossed about by events beyond our control like so much driftwood. The ego does not like this view, but I think it reflects reality far more accurately than the egoic perception I outlined above. Economics has much to learn from it, indeed is torn asunder by it.
I believe there are such things as creativity and choice, but such a belief is not easily proven. There are simply too many variables to process, to take into consideration, at both the tiny and massive scales, to establish the existence of creativity and choice in Universe. One thing is certain (and inspired this blog entry), we are getting so good at simulating reality, seeing more clearly the processes which define it, and yet are having such a hard time with controlling and understanding money, something has to give. In terms of what we really are and what experience is, the following brings things like Star Trek’s Holodeck a little bit closer, and chips yet another piece from our certain sense of ourselves as autonomous individuals (seen at Naked Capitalism):
“Dzmitry Tsetserukou, an assistant professor at Toyohashi University of Technology in Japan, was the big winner at firstAugmented Human International Conference (AH’10), held recently at the French Alps ski resort of Megeve. His paper on haptic “exointerfaces” forvirtual [sic] reality — co-authored by Katsunari Sato and Susumu Tachi — created quite a stir. It describes a prototype of a remote haptic system called iFeel_IM! (“I Feel Therefore I Am”) that can simulate “several types of heart beat, a realistic hug, the tickling sensation of a butterfly stomach, a tingling feeling along the spine, and warmth.” With sensors, small motors, vibrators, and speakers woven into a series of straps similar to a parachute harness, it reacts to "emotional messages" embedded in written IM text (hence the name iFeel_IM!).” Hplusmagazine
Bring it on.