Ep. 21 - Awakening from the Meaning Crisis - Martin Luther and Descartes
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Welcome back to Awakening from the Meaning Crisis. Last time we took a look at the advent of the Scientific Revolution and we looked at the work of Copernicus and how the important advent of a scientific description of reality had with it the consequence that most of our experience, our sensory experience, was questionable as illusory in nature. Galileo also developed that idea of the math as the language of reality, and used that with the new experimental method — a method also born out of the idea that most of our cognition is deceptive and biasing in nature — and he used that to discover inertial motion and that changed the notion of matter into something that exists and resists our will. But that had the effect of killing the universe and making it purposeless in nature. And thus, we become odd islands of meaning and purpose in a vast ocean of meaningless purposeless material motion.
So, all of that of course is going to have an impact on people's self-understanding, the meaning, that they're using to make sense of their existence. And look what's happening here: That Aristotelian idea that the structure of your experience and the structure of reality conform has been radically undermined. And now you are trapped within your own mind, behind veils of illusion, disconnected from the world, and God has become progressively more and more, a matter of will.
So there's an individual that takes all of this up and he does more than just think about this or speak about it or write about it. He's one of those really Titanic individuals who exemplifies the chaos and the anxiety of his time. This is Martin Luther. He's definitely deeply influenced — he's German - he's deeply influenced by the Rhineland Mystics. He's influenced by that growing tradition of the self as radically self negating; inner conflict being at the core of spirituality. He's an Augustinian monk. He's deeply influenced by Augustine's ideas of self depravity and our inability to achieve mystical union with God unaided, and through Augustine Luther of course is deeply immersed in and impressed with Paul's ideas about our inner conflict and how that parallels a conflict within God; between God's love towards us and God's justice driven anger and wrath towards us. And Martin Luther is very terrified of that wrath. He's very terrified of it. And he has taken that notion, through Tauler, of mystical self negation, and it has become radicalised because of the influence of Augustine and Paul and his own inner conflict so that the self negation in Luther's psyche has become self-loathing. He experiences The Self as radically folded it into Itself, obsessed with itself in a completely immorally, self-centred fashion. So the self is this radical, self feeding, self-negating... because, as the self is enfolded and obsessed with itself, it is simultaneously being cut off from God and cut off from reality.
So it is very much a self destructive process! And I really want you to hear that: “Self”-destructive process that he sees as the essence of the Self. So this is Luther's interpretation of the biblical notion of pride and rebellion against God that we are intrinsically self obsessed in this self aggrandising, self destructive fashion. So try to think of moments in your life that will give some substance to what Luther is saying. You have discovered a pattern of behaviour: self destructive. For example, perhaps you keep dating the same kind of person and you keep going back to this and it keeps turning out to be wrong for you - and perhaps also wrong for the other person! So you step back and you've talked to friends and you reflected and you make a deliberate, conscious effort, "Ah, no, I'm not going to date ‘this’ kind of a person anymore. I'm not going to date that type of person. I'm going to date this type of person. And that will change things. I'll break this pattern”, and you go in and you find somebody, they seem to be totally different and you start dating them and then low and below hold against your will — even though it seems to be something that you wilfully brought about — you find yourself caught in the same destructive pattern again! And of course, Freud and Jung and the whole psychodynamic tradition — [which are] very much part of the legacy of Luther, by the way! I'm going to make much of that fact, that we keep repeating, even in our conscious efforts to change our behaviour, we keep repeating these self destructive patterns.
Luthor's interpretation of Paul: A cultural seedbed for narcissism
So although I'm critical of Luther, there's a deep truth here in Luther. There is the touching of the way in which our unconscious processes, our unconscious cognition can be beset with these — we've talked about these — parasitic processes that have a life of their own and can consume us. So Luther is convinced that he cannot do anything to save himself. He takes Augustine's notion that the Neoplatonic mystical ascent is insufficient on its own; it has to be supplemented with the love of God through Christ. He takes that and he radicalises it in a very powerful way because of his own personal wretchedness. He comes to the conclusion that there is nothing he can do, and that leads him to a startling interpretation of Paul. An interpretation that is going to put him at odds with the Catholic church. This is the interpretation that we are saved by faith alone, where faith becomes nothing more than a complete acceptance of God's saving grace.
So let's, unpack this very carefully because it's become so immeshed in our way of thinking and being. The idea here is that faith is... notice what's happened: All that sense of Participatory Knowing, the sense that we're participating in a process — Remember the Israelite notion that we're participating in our cultural history, we're participating in the creativity of God? — all of that is now gone! It's gone! And your sense of what it's like to be you, your sense of self is completely twisted and illusory. So all the Perspectival Knowing, all the Participatory Knowing is being eradicated. It's being reduced down to the acceptance of a proposition. And an acceptance that cannot in any way be based on evidence or argument, because that would be your mind participating in your salvation. It has to be a radical, pure acceptance. So the self-negation of the Rhineland Mystics has come to fruition in Luther's ideas here.
Now, what does that mean? That means that you have to… you radically, radically have to accept is there's absolutely nothing you can do. And even your affirmation of the propositions of the creeds of Christianity is something that has to be given to you. And what does that mean from God's side of this equation? It means that God's act of saving you is completely arbitrary! There is not[hing]... since there is nothing you do, there is no thought, word or deed that you perform that in any way earns or has any causal effect upon God's behaviour! And I'm not over representing this! Look at the debate between Luther and Erasmus! Erasmus tried to propose what he called “Synergy”: that the human being and God were working together in a participatory fashion for salvation — with God, of course, having the bulk of the work — and Luther rejects that utterly! God’s saving of an individual is completely arbitrary.
So God has become… Remember what we talked about in Ockham? That God's will supersedes his reason? God's reason is now not involved at all! It is just an arbitrary act of will that saves us. And we have to radically accept that arbitrariness. Now think about what that means! And there's a weird… there's an irony here. There's an irony here and it's almost a self referential irony because Luther is trying, and I think he's very sincere, but he's trying to rescue us from the fact that we are obsessed with ourselves in an idolatrous fashion and that that obsession is a source of deep suffering for us. We know that that self obsession cuts us off, separates us! But the irony is, in his endeavours to deal with that, look at what Luther is teaching… What is he putting into our cultural grammar? That we are inherently worthless and that our inner life is one of self-loathing, and the only solution to that is arbitrary unearned regard.
This is the cultural training for narcissism. Narcissism is to be trapped, to be self obsessed, within self-loathing, and that what you want to alleviate [this] is unearned positive regard. Not for any reason, not for anything you've done; completely amoral, unearned, positive regard. That's narcissism! So one of the deep ironies of Luther's revolution is that — and I think this says something about what's going on at the time — one of the deep ironies is [that] he actually lays the grammar for cultural narcissism. We are all being trained to experience ourselves as wretched, self obsessed, and that the only solution is unearned positive regard. And so we can see the spirit of Luther in our obsession with Instagram and our obsession with Snapchat; we constantly want unearned positive regard.
Now there are other consequences of this radical change. Of course — immediate consequences — Luther comes into conflict, he protests against the Roman Catholic church — that's [where] “Protestant” comes from — because the Catholic church has a different doctrine of salvation: That it's one in which the human being still has a participatory role. Because of that, the church also thinks that it's cultural history — think of how this is still an Israelite notion — the church still thinks that its tradition matters for human salvation. That participating in that tradition, the tradition, the cultural history of the church, is also something that is needed. Now, I'm not advocating for Catholicism here over Protestantism. I'm trying to get you to understand what the two sides were standing for.
An argument over the authority over the self: Self's Sovereignty vs God
So Luther is attacking all of that. He's attacking the authority of the church. He's attacking the authority of tradition. So history and tradition and institution don't matter. Why? Because Luther is a child of his time. He is trapped inside his own mind. He advocates that all that really matters, in matters of faith, are what individual conscience (Writes individual conscience on the board). (And please remember what this word means. It means knowing yourself: science, con science, conscience, knowing yourself.) The one thing you know is yourself. And so Luther refuses to recant. He refuses to change his interpretation to be in line with the church. And he valorises individual conscience as the final authority over a person's spiritual life. This lays the foundation… So do you see what's happened here? This withdrawal of meaning into the individual mind, isolated individual mind, is now being appropriated as, "well, that must mean that the mind, the individual conscience, is the final sole authority of what matters"! It's a radical idea. Many other cultures find this [to be] a bizarre idea that we possess in the West.
And so of course there's a lot of discussion nowadays about individual responsibility, individual authority. We have, as Adorno talks about it, we have a “Cult of Authenticity”, that being true to yourself — and this is Lutheran; being ‘true to yourself’ — is the ultimate authority by which you should judge and evaluate your life. Now notice what has happened: The connection to reality, ‘being true to reality’, has been superseded by being true to yourself. And that is also emerging with a cultural grammar that is training us in narcissism. Now because of this, Luther… Luther was a monk! And yet he comes to the conclusion that the monasteries should be shut down! Why would he come to that conclusion? Well, the West, for a long time, had these paired institutions. You had a knowledge institution (writes knowledge on the board) that has already emerged and is being developed in the middle ages, and this of course is the University (writes university below knowledge). Where we're supposed to get a ‘universal’ education, to come to understand as much of reality, the universe, as you can. And that was paired to a place where you have to go through transformation in order to acquire wisdom (writes wisdom on the board to the right of knowledge), and this is the monastery (writes monastery below wisdom, paired with university).
The rise of politics and the State
And so this is the idea here: that here (indicates Wisdom & monastery) you're seeking that self-transcendence; this is the legacy of the axial revolution. This (indicates Knowledge & wisdom) of course is a response to the emergence of, first, Aristotelian science and then the new science with people like Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo… And the two are supposed to represent an important synthesis of how human beings are to make sense of themselves and to find a meaningful life. But this institution (wisdom) places a huge premium on self-transcendence, as we've seen (writes “self transcendence” on the board between Wisdom and Monastery) and for Luther, this (circles “self transcendence) is the grand delusion. The idea that human beings are capable of self-transcendence is something he thinks is the greatest lie that our self tells us. He sees that as the greatest instance of the sin of pride. See if you lose the Perspectival, Participatory sense of faith, if faith just becomes assertion, born out of radical acceptance, then the idea of this being even possible to you disappears. And so what happens is that these institutions are being shut down (puts a big X through Wisdom and Monastery). Now that means the university now needs something else (indicates the now absence of Wisdom) in order to take this knowledge and give it existential, transformative relevance to individual live. The university has to be attached to something else that transforms people's lives, gives structure and purpose to their existence. And of course we know what that's going to be. That's going to be the State (writes State to the left of University, taking the place of Monastery). And knowledge is not going to be linked so much to wisdom. It's going to be linked to politics (writes politics to the left of Knowledge).
And of course that is going to be supported by the new science; people like Bacon famously arguing that "knowledge is power", the for-runner of the work of Michel Foucault and others. So we get the loss of all the psycho-technologies of wisdom; of cultural communities that are committed to providing guidance and support to people who want to cultivate wisdom; of a historical tradition that can relate to us the patterns of success and failures and give us practices that we can use to test out and try for transformation… All of that is being lost. So you know where to go for information. You know where to go for knowledge. But now, today, you do not know where to go for wisdom. We have Sapiential Obsolescence (writes this on the board) of our knowledge and we have knowledge being inextricably bound to the machinery of the State and to politics (circles Knowledge & University and Politics & State) such that it is becoming increasingly difficult right now for us as a culture to distinguish politics from knowledge; from the wilful assertion of things that we must simply accept because of an arbitrary will wielding power. So the Protestant Reformation is Titanic! It is really inappropriate, if you're trying to understand the advent of the Meaning Crisis, to only look at the Scientific Revolution. You must look at the scientific revolution and the Protestant Reformation together. There are conjoined.
Now, there are other important aspects of the Protestant Reformation that come to the fore. Because of his attack on tradition and institution, Luther advocates what he calls the “Priesthood of all Believers”. There is nothing in between, there is no mediator between you and God (writes Individual Conscience on the board and God above it). There is no church. There's no priest. There's nothing here (indicates the space between the two). There is just a direct personal relationship (draws a double ended arrow between the two). Again, this idea of your own personal spirituality has its root here. Now, because of this Luther argues that, for the Priesthood of all Believers, everybody has an equal spiritual authority because, of course, learning processes of growth and self-transformation (indicates the crossed out Wisdom and Monastery on the board), those are no longer important criteria. All that matters is the degree to which God has saved someone.
The introduction of democracy & the Church vs the State
Now we've talked about some of the negative consequences of that, but a positive consequence for that is that Luther argues for a complete form of democracy within the church. Everything should be decided democratically because there should not be any significant authority or hierarchical structure because Luther is rejecting all of that. This of course is why the Catholic church is so resisting to him, why they are so inimical to him. They just want this idea eradicated because it undermines the very structure and existence of the institution of the Catholic church.
Now, Luther doesn't propose political democracy, he only proposes democracy within the church. But nevertheless that is going to give people, in their day to day lives, experience with democratic processes; democratic decision making. In fact, in the areas that they consider most important about their lives, they're going to be acting democratically. Now Luther thinks that there shouldn't be democracy in the World outside of the church and when the peasants revolt in Germany, because they're being influenced by this idea of the importance of the individual, conscience and authority, Luther does not side with the peasants! He sides with the princes! He sides with established authority. He has a two worlds doctrine: There's a doctrine within the church and that's a world that is — remember how God is divided? — that's the world of God's love, and that's where we act democratically. But outside the church we don't know who is saved and who's not saved — We'll come back to that point — and because of that that's the world under God's wrath and that's the world that has to be kept in check by political authority, wielding the sword of power.
Secularism in culture & the advent of corporate capitalism
Again, that's a dark aspect of Luther! But it also brings with it the beginning of the idea of the separation of Church and State; a radical new idea! Luther, of course, is proposing it because he's proposing that within the church, under God's love, people should be treated one way and outside of the church, which is under God's wrath, there should be a different way in which people are treated and politically operate. And the State should not interfere with the Church. So we get the beginnings of separation of church and state, which we take for granted, but this is going to further drive the secularisation of the culture. It's going to further drive the secularisation of the culture because, more and more, people are experiencing the sacred as something private, separate, secluded unto itself; separate from the State and Politics and of course also [from] Science and the University (indicates both on the board, respectively).
Now that not knowing who's saved, of course also brings with it terrific problems! This was made into a classic argument, which has come under some criticism, but I think the core insight is still of value by Max Weber. The problem with Luther's model is [that] there's nothing you can do to know that you're saved because there is nothing you can do to bring… you have no causal role! Which means there's no causal evidence. There's no evidence. How do you know if you're saved, because God chooses people arbitrarily? So this provokes terrific anxiety! There's tremendous anxiety about whether or not you're saved! You have your own in[dividual]… see… and Luther gives you… There's this dramatic tension in Luther. He gives you this double bind: He tells you that what you ultimately have to rely on is your individual conscience (in one hand), but he tells you that inner world is one of overwhelming self deception (in the other hand) (indicates the juxtaposition between both hands).
And so what do you do with this anxiety? Well, you can't do anything officially, but what you can do is you can work hard to make your life good! Because if you're succeeding in the world, especially socioeconomic success, that surely is a sign that God has chosen you, that God loves you. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to develop what becomes [known as] The Protestant Work Ethic, because my only way of knowing is this unofficial way, this relatively unconscious way of knowing that I'm saved is if I'm succeeding well! So I'm going to work hard to succeed, and I'm not going to use my wealth in any way to promote myself. I'm not going to do any, what would later be called conspicuous consumption, because that would be a sign of pride. So I work hard and in order to avoid pride, I'm going to push that money, the wealth I acquire, back into my business. I'm going to get the Protestant Work Ethic and this is going to align so well with the emerging corporations that we talked about, the emerging ascendancy of the commercial class, and we get the advent of capitalism. As Weber's book famously puts it, “The Protestant [Work] Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”.
And you see, this worry is a real worry! And look what you watch happen, and what's amazing is how Luther was surprised by this, for a man who is in many ways, brilliant! - He translated the Bible into German by the way! He makes the Bible readable for everybody because of the Priesthood of all Believers. And he's a brilliant translator. Many people consider him as one of the foundational figures of modern German. - He doesn’t… He honestly thought that everybody would read the Bible the same way he did. So he thought we'd gotten rid of the Pope, but [that] there would be a unifying thing that would hold Christianity together, which is the idea of the Bible. So the Bible becomes very Holy and many people have said that what Protestants have is a paper Pope; the Bible takes the role for them that the Pope does for the Catholic world. And of course we're facing struggles, right now, in our culture because we don't quite know what to do with this terrible and awesome book: The Bible.
The fragmentation of Protestantism; driving industry
What shocked Luther, and shouldn't shock us, is that Protestantism quickly fragments, because when you give people no authority other than their own individual conscience, when you separate them from any claims upon them of tradition, any claims upon them of history or institution, any claims upon them of knowledge, the idea that they will all agree [is] actually a ridiculous idea. And so what happens and continues to happen to this very day is the huge and ongoing and accelerating fragmentation of Protestantism into denomination after denomination after denomination. And you get what has been called, in other quarters but can be applied here, “The Narcissism of Small Difference”: You have to find that piece of evidence that shows that you are unique, that shows that out of all of the damned masses, God has elected you! Your uniqueness, your specialness, your unearned unique specialness has to be guaranteed! And the more I'm like these other people, the more that comes into question. So not only am I driven by my own radicalized subjectivity in my interpretation, I'm also hungry for a spark of specialness for me, that will show that I am saved. And so the narcissism and the fragmentation of Protestantism walk, MARCH, in lockstep together, mutually accelerating.
Hard working children of secularisation
So notice what's happened, take a look: you're getting... god is withdrawing! God's withdrawing!! By the time of Luther, God has become very much this arbitrary will in a world that is nothing but a battle of wills. Think about how, not that long after Luther, you have Shakespeare. Luther is the great writer of German. Shakespeare is the great writer of English. And notice how, [for] somebody who is plumbing the depths of the human psyche - Shakespeare - in a way that of course has struck most of us as perennially profound, how absent God is from that world of Shakespeare. There [are] supernaturals there! There are the witches in Macbeth. There are ghosts in Hamlet, but God is not ever present. And the supernatural is absurd and arbitrary and largely an Agent of chaos and a destiny that thwarts people in their endeavours. It's telling how much God has withdrawn into being an arbitrary, absurd, supernatural Agency that largely thwarts and undermines human activities.
So the Protestant Reformation is fundamental to our grammar of how we understand ourselves. And the problem is, even though we are, many of us, are children of the secularisation that is accelerated by the Protestant Reformation, we still carry that grammar around in our head: We have to work hard. We have to work very hard. And if you don't work hard, there's somewhere [where] it's going to be revealed how worthless we are, and that we hunger for that unearned positive regard! We need to find that mark of our uniqueness that shows that we are chosen from the damned and that we will not disappear into nothingness and meaninglessness, but instead we will be adored for simply who we are.
All of these factors: the scientific revolution, the advent of the beginnings of capitalism, especially corporate capitalism and the Protestant Reformation, are all mutually reinforcing each other. They're giving people tremendous anxiety! The scientific revolution is basically cutting you off from the world. And the Protestant Reformation is basically orphaning you from the mother church and tradition and history. LOOK: you have to bear it all! (Points at “Individual conscience” on it’s own on the board)! Your individual can[science]… You! Alone! By yourself!!! You have to bear it all. While simultaneously being told you don't have the resources or the capacity within you to do it. You're a nothing, that has to bear it all. You’re cut off from the world. You cut off from reality behind illusion. There's a restless battle of wills. You’re cut off from wisdom institutions with Sapiential obsolescence. So this is a time of a lot of existential dread. You see the very thoughtful response of people like Pascal, who's now experiencing the cosmos, not as a cosmos! Remember what cosmos means? ‘A beautiful order that we can participate in, and that will afford our self-transcendence’. NO! Pascal - who's a mathematical genius. He ‘gets’ the new math - he looks out at the cosmos and he says, “those infinite spaces terrify me!”. The Cosmos is now cold and terrifying. It's vastness is inhuman and crippling of the human spirit.
[There is] an individual who arises [at the] same time and [who] wants to address this anxiety. And we'll talk about the comparison between Pascal and this person. This person is Rene Descartes. Descartes wants to take this grammar of the scientific revolution about math as the mark of reality, and he wants to use it to come up with on his own, like a good Protestant — although he's Catholic! — but on his own, from his own individual conscience, he wants to come up on his own! Forget the history. Forget the tradition. This is Descartes! [He's going to] use the new math to come up with a solution to this emerging meaning crisis.
Descartes is a genius! And what he does is he invented a new psycho-technology. One of the most powerful psycho-technologies! A psycho-technology that has been so internalised into our culture and our cognition that it is almost transparent to us. We do not realise it is the lens by which we see and understand the world. Descartes liked to sleep in! It probably led to his death because when he had to go to Sweden, they didn't let him sleep in and he had to go out into the cold air, and that's probably what led to his death. So he'd like to sleep in. So one day he's laying in bed and it was the fashion at the time, the architectural fashion, for there to be tiling on the floor and tiling on the walls. There's a fly flying around the room. Now for most of us, that's where we… that's it! That's all we get: fly in a room! BUT Descartes noted that if he counts the number of tiles along These three axes, he can come up with three numbers that will plot wherever the fly is in the room. Descartes invents, Cartesian Graphing (writes Cartesian Graphing on a cleaned board), the system we use today, the X, Y Z system. He takes the new algebra — the new way in which Galileo had been using math — and he pushes it even further: He invents graphing!
Algebraic equations: Capturing reality in cartesian graphics
And what psycho-technology — because that's what it is (points at an X, Y, Z, Cartesian Graph drawn on the board). This is a standardised strategy, learned from your society. A socialised, standardised strategy for information processing — what psycho-technology more means ‘Science’ to you than a graph? When I can make a graph, I'm doing science! When I can think graphically, I'm thinking scientifically! This is one of the most powerful and pervasive psycho-technologies, and he invents it. And this brings with it a powerful idea, because he invents analytic geometry: Any geometrical shape can be converted into an algebraic equation. Equations Capture reality (writes Equations on the board) because — remember what Galileo has done, “math doesn't have to share the same ‘gestalt’ as what it's representing” — that has now been taken to its fulfilment in Descartes. Equations are not in any way (writes f=ma on the board) like what they represent. But nevertheless, Following up on Copernicus and Galileo, they are what cuts through illusion and into reality.
Now this is a radical idea! Because of graphing and analytic geometry we get this idea that we can grasp the world with equations. So you think that this (writes e=mc2 on the board) captures something deep about the world — E equals MC squared — and you should, because when you really understand this, you can take a paperclip worth of matter and you can smash a city to the ground, men and women like gods. That's intoxicating! The power that it puts at our fingertips. It seems to provide overwhelming evidence that this way of thinking puts us deeply in touch with the fibre and fabric of reality. We are fundamentally in contact, but it's not a contact of experience. It's not the Aristotelian conformity. It's not participatory. It is purely propositional. It is purely abstract. It is purely symbolic.
Now that's going to bring with it a radical idea. Descartes thinks, “you know what? This is how I can understand the Meaning Crisis! All this anxiety…” — he didn't of course call it the Meaning Crisis, that's anachronistic on my part, but I'm putting words into his mouth so that we can talk to him across space and time! — There's all this anxiety, there's all this sense of disconnection.
So Descartes understands the Meaning Crisis as a lack of a search for certainty (writes “Meaning Crisis => Lack of search for Certainty” on the board). “Conformity” in the Aristotelian, the Neoplatonic sense; Participatory, Perspectival Conformity has been replaced by Propositional Certainty. And of course the thing about math for Descartes is it gives you certainty. That's why math cuts through all the illusions. That's why it allows us access to such power (circles e=mc2).
Hobbes: Cognition is computation?
So Descartes thinks the answer to the crisis is to change, [to] transform our minds, not in any kind of spiritual transformation, but to transform our minds into machines of certainty; minds that will only work mathematically and logically in terms of equations. The way to get certainty is to turn myself into a machine that represents the world through abstract symbolic propositions, and then manipulate those propositions in a purely logical, mathematical function. So what Descartes is proposing is that the way to address the anxiety of the age is for each one of us to adopt a method that will turn us into computers. That's what a “computer” is. “Computer” is originally a word applied to people, by the way! In the 1930s or forties, you could have a job as a computer. That was your job. You were to be given the task of taking equations and processing them in a logical mathematical fashion.
So reasoning is being reduced to computation - we’ll talk about what that might mean in a minute. The idea is if we can make our minds into purely computational machines, then we will achieve certainty. Certainty in our beliefs will give us what Descartes thinks we need in order to alleviate the anxiety that we're suffering. And of course we do that! On one hand we have the cultural grammar of Luther and the narcissism and the radical self doubt; and on the other hand, we have the Cartesian grammar, we seek certainty, we won't believe anything until it's certain. And of course we vacillate between, “I must accept it without any evidence or reason” -Luther, [and] “I can only accept it if it's absolutely certain and beyond question” -Descartes!
Now both of these of course are pathological. The first is pathological because if you completely remove people's agency, and how they come to their beliefs, then you radically undermine any meaning in life they might possess. The other one, the pursuit of certainty, and there are individuals who seem to speak as if mathematical science will still give us certainty - that's an illusion! Part of what we discover after Descartes, and Descartes [himself] was also surprised in that people ended up disagreeing with him, is that science doesn't and can't provide certainty. These two equations I put up on the board. This is from Einstein (e=mc2). This is from Newton (f=ma). What Einstein showed is things that Newton thought were certain — absolute space and time — these kinds of formula actually don't possess the certainty that Newton thought they did.
We'll talk a little bit later about why we can't, except in very limited contexts, there are deep, deep reasons why we can't pursue certainty. And therefore we can't seek certainty as the solution to the loss of connection; connection to our Self, connection to the world, connection to other minds. Now, why does Descartes’… — it’s again, this radical irony! It's very similar to Luther! — Why does Descartes' attempt to address this burgeoning loss of connections? Why does it actually result in exactly the opposite: an increased sense of disconnectedness? Well part of it, of course, is the failure of the project of certainty. You can understand the 18th and the 19th, and especially the 20th centuries as scientific, historical and philosophical undermining of the idea that we can achieve certainty. Of course, one of the great principles of modern physics is the Uncertainty Principle.
But let's go back. So Descartes proposes that we should do this, but there's an individual at his time who's a contemporary of Descartes, who makes it explicit and radical and then challenges Descartes with that radical derivation. Hobbes says, “all of this, what this means is that cognition is computation”. Hob says that! He uses an older word, he says Rathio-Sonation [?Ratiocination]). What we would now say is cognition. By [ratiocination] I mean computation: cognition is computation. Now there's a lot of people who were going to disagree with this model of computation; there's a lot of discussion right now! Brian Cantwell Smith, a colleague of mine at the university of Toronto, does a lot of important work on the metaphysics and computation. I am not trying to state that this is the absolute truth about computation; that of course would be ironic, given what I just said about certainty! All I am arguing is historically this has been the interpretation of what computation was for people like Descartes and Hobbes. That's all we need for this argument.
AI and the death of the soul
But Hobbes says cognition is computation, and then here's the radical idea he proposes: He takes a new idea, current at the time! - Remember the idea that matter is a substance? Remember the old Aristotelian ideas “matter is pure potential”? But with Galileo matter is a reality in the sense of a substance - it resists (demonstrates by pressing down heavily on the desk), and it's good that it resists because I need something that resists my will in order to help me with my biases. So matter is inert, it's resistant, it's really there. I push on it. Notice that, again, all that's left of conformity is ‘resistance of will’. Hobbes says, “matter is real! Well, what if I built a material machine, that did computation? If cognition is just computation and I can build a machine that does computation…” — and some of the first automatic machines are being built at this time; calculating machines — “…If I can make a material machine that does computation, I will have made cognition. I will have made a mind!”. Right there, at the heart of the scientific revolution, Hobbes is proposing Artificial Intelligence (Writes Artificial Intelligence on the board at the head of the progress of detail from Hobbes: Hobbes => cognition is computation => Matter => material machine that did computation? => Artificial Intelligence).
Notice how artificial intelligence [-] is a child of the advent of the meaning crisis and the scientific revolution. It's not a modern idea! Artificial intelligence goes back to this time! What is Hobbes doing with this? Think… I said Galileo kills the universe and Copernicus kills the reality of our sense experience. But Hobbes is doing something way more personal because up till now you've been isolated inside your own mind, but at least still there (gestures to his head); I still have something special, unique, something spiritual! Hobbes kills the soul.
There’s no soul because of artificial intelligence! If I can build a machine, a purely material machine that is capable of computation, then I will have made a mind and I didn't have to involve any ‘soul stuff’, any ‘spirit stuff’ in making it!
And that's radical! We'll take a look at how Descartes responds to that, and how deep that response is woven into our culture and the Meaning Crisis, and how we move between AI and Descartes even today. Thank you very much for your time and attention.
Episode 21 notes
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