It’s Not What You Believe. It’s How You Believe It
George Orwell’s novel 1984 has been selling in large numbers to people scared of a lurch toward 2345 authoritarianism in the USA. I recently noted that both that book and Animal Farm were written not as a warning against a particular political ideology but against the implementation of any ideology, however progressive, by people who think themselves too smart to have to test their politics against the emotions, sentiments, and experiences of those they would affect.
In his essay, My Country Right or Left, Orwell referred to such people as:
“so ‘enlightened’ that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions.”
He understood that the morality of a political ideology in practice cannot be determined from its theoretical exposition – but only from the actual experiences of those who would be affected by its real-world application.
To make the point to the people he felt most needed to hear it, Orwell, a self-identified socialist, called out the arrogance of his friends on the Left who experienced themselves as so “enlightened,” to use his word, that they did not need to consider the sentiments – let alone ideas – of those who were to them clearly politically ignorant.
Orwell had a name for this kind of self-righteous certainty – and it wasn’t fascism, capitalism, or communism. It was “orthodoxy,” which he explains in 1984, “means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” It is a state exhibited by people who already know they have the right answers – at least in the areas that matter.
There is no political system so perfect that it will not be deadly when imposed against the will of others by people sure of their own righteousness. Orwell saw that no political theory – even the egalitarian socialism that he believed to be the most moral – can prevent its adherents from being anything other than tyrants if they are committed to it in a way that is immune to the protests and experiences of other people.
In other words, tyranny is not the result of a belief in a bad political theory; it is the result of a bad belief in a political theory – and that is an entirely different thing.
The Epistemology of Political Ideologies
To understand tyranny, then, we need to think a bit less about politics, and a bit more about epistemology.
Epistemology concerns the nature of knowledge, and especially its formation, justification, and scope. Accordingly, the word “epistemic” means “relating to knowledge or the degree of its validation”.
We may be able to identify one ideology as more consistent with freedom than another, but that is just an academic exercise if in practice it is the nature of the commitment to the ideology, rather than the content committed to, that leads to authoritarianism.
As Yogi Berra rather nicely put it:
“In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice; but in practice, there is.”
Can we identify an epistemology of tyranny? Is there a mechanism by which a certain kind of cognitive commitment to a political or moral theory might cause someone willingly to harm others in its pursuit; prevent them from seeing the harm they are doing, or even make invisible to them the data that would demand a revision of their beliefs to better reflect human experience and lead to outcomes more aligned with their stated goals?
Such fundamental questions concern our ability to form knowledge and change their opinions and so both depend on, and reveal, much about human nature. And since human nature doesn’t change, we shouldn’t be too surprised to find that history provides a useful guide in answering them.
Orwell referred sarcastically to the “enlightenment” of people who are rather less enlightened than they believe themselves to be.
At first blush, then, it may appear to be a rather remarkable coincidence that the period of history that perhaps sheds light on what makes commitment to ideology dangerous is the Enlightenment. (But we’ll soon see that it isn’t a coincidence at all.)
Knowledge is Dangerous
In the latter part of the 17th century, René Descartes, Isaac Newton, and myriad other intellectual giants were making a whole new world.
In Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, Newton presented the Laws of Motion, the theory of gravity and even a set of “Rules for Reasoning in Philosophy.” His work explained and predicted an infinity of (although by no means all) phenomena that had theretofore been mysterious. In providing a coherent means of understanding many complex phenomena in terms of a few axioms and principles, he made tractable a huge swathe of the world.
In as much as Newton’s theories substantially described and predicted things that had not been accurately described or predicted before, they were both true and useful – or, at least they were much “truer” than any understanding of the world that had come before it.
Newton was doing physics, but his work clearly implied a certain metaphysics. Newton’s explanations, and therefore the underlying reality, were deterministic – meaning that if you knew the laws that governed things and their state at one instance, then you could predict in principle their motions and states at all times. They rested on common-sense, observable, causation – meaning that a specific cause necessarily leads to a specific effect. They used a common-sense framework of time and space, in which a foot is always a foot and a second is always a second, everywhere and always. In one fell swoop, Newton’s work eliminated the need for any non-physical explanations of a huge number of terrestrial and celestial phenomena.
It was better than what came before it because whereas, say, the Church’s explanatory entities (God, the saints, the soul) failed to explain why the world operated as it did rather than any other way, Newton’s explanatory entities (force, mass etc.) did exactly that. And did so with precision in a manner that could even be used to steer the world towards specific outcomes.
Some of the critical intellectual groundwork for Newton had been laid by René Descartes, who not long before, had developed the mathematical framework that was used by Newton in his extraordinary endeavor. But more than that, Descartes had pioneered the skeptical philosophical project, showing the world the nature and standard of certainty that would have to pertain to any claim that could even be said to constitute “knowledge” at all.
Between Descartes’ having primed the Western world not to believe things that it didn’t actually know, and Newton’s appearing to eliminate the need for non-physical explanations of physical phenomena, some of the “enlightened ones” started to feel that they could not just sift fact from non-fact, but could prejudge entire classes of claims as to whether they need to be taken seriously at all.
Over the next hundred years, this line of thinking continued. In 1785, for example, Coulomb did in the domain of electricity and magnetism what Newton had done in the domain of mechanics and gravity. And as science advanced, so-called former “knowledge” that could not be tested against the direct experience of physical objects; that invoked non-physical explanations of anything; that could not be the basis of accurate predictions of physical phenomena – was seen by some to be no more than commitments of faith, guesswork, or superstition.
In other words, it wasn’t just wrong: it was of an altogether lower order – perhaps even derisible – and the people who advanced them were backward-thinking.
To that part of the educated classes, every success of science reinforced their certainty in a clockwork universe, justifying not just disagreement with, but the dismissal of, any postulates that were not consistent with the prevailing metaphysics.
Indeed, to many, an explanation that wasn’t scientific wasn’t even an explanation. Of great consequence, a phenomenon that wasn’t amenable to a scientific explanation wasn’t even a real phenomenon, but at best an emergent property of real (physical) phenomena that could be scientifically explained (such as particles moving in the brain in reaction to stimuli, according to deterministic laws).
To some, this new science made free will no longer free, and no longer even will. To many, it turned cats into machines, because (with the exception of humans who in a still largely Christian world could be believed to have souls), everything was a machine. Kicking a cat became as acceptable to those people as slamming a door.
And here’s where we start to circle back to Orwell.
“You See Only What You Know”
The cat-kickers of the 18th and 19th century could see their cats react in pain; they could hear them squeal, but now they knew something that caused them no longer to take their cat’s apparent experience into account — because it was now only that —apparent.
That squeal was just a mechanical response of a machine to a mechanical stimulus. There was no consciousness; there was just a really complex machine (a cat’s brain) inside another really complex machine (a cat).
Cruelty to cats became acceptable not because cruelty became acceptable, but because cats ceased to be cats. But only for the “enlightened”, of course, who knew their science, and could laugh condescendingly about their sentimental neighbors who worried about whether their cats were happy because they’d evidently not read any Descartes or Newton.
So we begin to see how something that only the most “enlightened” people know can cause them to cut off emotionally from the harm they can clearly see themselves causing, if only their theory – in fact, their knowledge – were not in the way. And it is all utterly reasonable because their knowledge is the most certain and most tested of any the world has produced.
These are the people who are literally the most progressive of their age. In the18th and 19th centuries, not only did they have all the certainty of science: they had it bolstered by the imprimatur of a Church that told them that cats, not being human, don’t have souls, so machines are the only possible things left for them to be.
Understanding that people are made of matter, which follows deterministic rules, many of the European intelligentsia understandably deduced that rules must govern human behavior too, so they started looking for them.
It was understood that it was necessary to look at the world to find the laws that govern it, but once they were found, many non-scientists forgot about the need to keep testing them against actual phenomena as they started to exploit those laws to produce desired outcomes.
By the beginning of 18th century, we were doing that with steam engines with amazing results. Could it be that we could do it with political systems too, especially if the increasingly discredited Church was wrong about the soul, and a human being is just a more complex machine than a steam engine, but a machine nonetheless? It certainly appeared to many enlightened thinkers that society followed statistical laws that could obviously be exploited by social engineering for our benefit, just as the physical laws were exploited by mechanical engineering to produce the steam engine and all the good it had done for us.
Gustav Le Bon, in the Psychology of Revolutions, explaining the roots of the terror at the end of the 18th century in France wrote the following:
The [French] Revolution was above all a permanent struggle between theorists who were imbued with a new ideal, and the economic, social and political laws, which ruled mankind, and which they do not understand…
The political orthodoxies that arose from the end of the 18th century – benign and logical in their exposition, but terrifying in their application – could only be imposed with such relentless horror and death because of the confident commitment of people to a “theory” that “explained” a certain set of effects as following from certain causes – even as the effects were proving them wrong, if only they’d been open to them.
But they weren’t open to them, because they experienced their own certainty in their theories, not as a psychological state, which is all it was, but as the accuracy of the theory in which they were certain, which is an entirely different thing.
That kind of religious commitment to theory – and commitment can be religious even when the theory is anything but — doesn’t matter much if you’re working with steam engines, but it matters a lot if you’re working with guillotines.
I imprison you so that we may all have liberté. I kill you so that we may all have égalité.
You’d get it if only you were enlightened enough to understand the theory that makes sense of it all.
And a century after the French Revolution, the deaths of tens of millions of Russians would be similarly caused and justified using a philosophy that purported to be deterministic and rational and manifesting of all the characteristics that make a theory – like Newton’s laws of motion – a good theory.
In both cases, the evil didn’t result from the fact that the theory was incorrect per se. It resulted from the fact that its adherents weren’t doing science – recognizing that their current, best model of the world was a step to a better one that is taken by revising it to accommodate the world’s reaction to its application – but something called scientism, wherein the current, best model becomes a fixed doctrine and the best of all possible models.
In other words, it was the epistemology rather than the political content that was the problem.
All theories are incorrect because none – not even the best theories we have – are complete, and they are all conceived in very finite human minds. But some, like quantum mechanics, for example, are really, really good. They get to be good by being tested time and time again against data from the real world by people whose motivation is to find information that will show up all the ways it is wrong or incomplete, rather than information that reinforces their current understanding.
And motivation is everything, because it determines not just what you will be found, but even what can be seen.
The Epistemology of Tyranny
Science and scientism are superficially similar but epistemic opposites.
A true scientist remains doxastically open. That means that she works always on the assumption that her theory is a) false or incomplete and b) will therefore change.
The daily task of science is to identify the ways in which our current understanding is lacking. In so doing, science’s understanding of the world becomes less false.
Scientism, in contrast, is doxastically closed. That means that it identifies our best theory but then behaves as if it is a) absolute truth and b) will therefore not change.
Scientism, unlike science, has no need for data. It is deadly because it always uses the current paradigm to explain away potentially problematic observations. (E.g. the cat’s squeal isn’t telling me it’s in pain; it’s confirming that machines, including cats, have predictable responses to physical stimuli.)
Orwell’s “unthinking orthodoxy” is “political scientism.” That’s the epistemology of tyranny.
In my earlier article, I wrote about the authoritarianism of some of the “Social Justice Warrior” Left today, who would give moral privilege to groups they identity as victim groups in the name of eliminating privilege; who would eliminate the free speech of people with whom they disagree in the name of giving everyone an equal voice; who equate speech with violence to justify violence against those who speak.
Bizarre as those paradoxes clearly are, their advocates are not automatically dangerous if they are open to revising their moral or political theory in the light of falsifying data or contradictions in the theory’s application.
What makes it all dangerous is that it is allied with an a priori belief about competing views and political opponents that eliminate the possibility that any experiences or perspectives could provide data that could challenge the theory.
If potentially contradictory data can be rejected a priori on account of being explained away as the result of “fascist”, “racist”, “sexist” attitudes, for example, then the theory is inoculated against the human data against which all political theories must be tested.
Our social justice warrior friends thus become like those engaged in scientism two centuries ago. But instead of rejecting as “backward” phenomena or interpretations of phenomena that do not exhibit the required meta-characteristics of determinism, materialism, etc., they reject as “backward” phenomena or interpretations of phenomena that do not exhibit the exhibit the meta-characteristics of victimhood or privilege.
It’s not just the preserve of the Left. This kind of epistemic “inoculation” happens all over the political spectrum.
The successful defense of truth against the closed epistemology of scientism, and the successful defense of human happiness against the closed epistemology of political scientism, depend on knowing something crucial about it: scientism never feels backward or even extreme: it necessarily looks and feels modern and progressive.
Those with scientistic attitudes usually experience themselves as just asserting common sense. After all, they are doing no more or less than believing in the claims of science, which have been tested at every turn, have produced tangible improvements all around us, and have generated more provable knowledge than any other method of human enquiry.
Indeed, no educated person post-enlightenment can doubt the advance of science or, therefore, that deterministic and mechanistic explanations have succeeded where religious ones, for example, have failed.
Since these scientistic non-scientists experienced themselves, rightly, as believing in nothing more than the most certain and proved human knowledge, if you disagree with them, you aren’t just wrong (which would be allowable), you are intellectually backward. If you believe in spirit, whatever that might be, in a mechanistic universe, you aren’t just factually mistaken, you are rejecting human progress; you are believing in something that isn’t just not the case but isn’t even worthy of consideration.
It is a position that is so enticingly and dangerously reasonable. After all, it is obvious that cause and effect exists. How can there be any knowledge without it? Every known truth depends on it.
You may experience yourself as conscious, the scientistic non-scientist believes, but there is obviously an objective reality that doesn’t depend on what you think about it.
You may have different experiences from me and interpret them differently from me, but if your interpretation of the world violates that belief, then I don’t even have to take it seriously.
In fact, I don’t even have to take you seriously. You are not just wrong; you are intellectually beyond the pale; you are one of the dangerous ones. You are the one, with your strange pseudo-religious ideas, who probably has to be stopped by people like me who know better.
In the French Revolution, they stopped you with blades. In the Russian Revolution, they stopped you with guns and gulags. And it was all perfectly in line with the theory – with the theory that the most intellectually and morally enlightened had formulated and were applying.
Here is Robespierre’s justification of the terror of the terror of the French Revolution:
We must smother the internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it; now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to be to lead the people by reason and the people’s enemies by terror.
If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.
It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government, therefore, resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed. Let the despot govern by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot. Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is liberty’s despotism against tyranny.
In other words, it may seem that the fact that a small group of people is guillotining thousands is a piece of data against our theory of fraternité, liberté, and égalité – but that’s just because you are not smart enough or good enough or committed enough to understand it. Read Robespierre until you see that your data can’t possibly be the data.
It may seem that the fact that a small group of people are starving others and putting them in concentration camps is a piece of data against our theory of each those according to his ability to each according to his need, and the empowerment of the proletariat – but that is because you are not smart enough or good enough or committed enough to understand it. Read Marx until you see that your facts can’t possibly be the facts.
Orwell’s “War is peace” and “Freedom is slavery” aren’t fiction. They are history.
The “Knowing” Changes Everything
At the beginning of the 1920s, as in the decades that preceded it, some people believed in God and some didn’t; some believed in a human soul and some believed only in human machines, albeit very sophisticated ones; some believed in cats, and some believed in just feline machines.
But everyone knew, obviously, that whatever else is true, inanimate physical matter follows deterministic laws; that the physical universe is all cause and effect, and that there is an objective reality out there that carries on just the same regardless of whether little old me cares to look at it. I mean, the scientists, the scientism-ists and the unengaged could at least count on that certainty, right?
Wrong. All wrong.
In 1925, quantum mechanics happened, and even Einstein, who not only was one of its pioneers, but had also single-handedly overturned Newton’s common-sense notion of fixed time and space just a few years before, wasn’t sufficiently doxastically open to accept its implications. Faced with the end of determinism, effect without cause, and a physical world that unfolds in a way determined by conscious observation, he had a rare moment of scientism when he insisted, “God does not play dice with the universe”.
But, of course, God very much does play dice, and the metaphysics that was built on Newton has been turned on its head.
In so many ways, Newtonian metaphysics look to science today like the opposite of the truth, even though Newton’s theories are no less accurate than they were when he wrote Principia. It’s just that we now understand that they are approximate descriptions of non-deterministic phenomena on large scales. In other words, they describe reality, but not its fundamental nature.
That’s really important. We’ve not thrown out all of our past scientific knowledge: it’s still as accurate as it was – but in making a slight addition to that body of knowledge, the fundamental reality that it altogether implies – has been utterly transformed.
Scientism, including the political kind, is always wrong and always dangerous because