Sunday, November 11, 2007
Hardware and Software of Thought
I’ve spent a lot of time pondering ideologies. Mostly I think about the tragedies that have stemmed from these systems of thought. There are practical reasons for this preoccupation: I spent time on the post-famine, intra-Korean border during a year-long tour in the Republic of Korea. Getting ready for Kosovo, I visited the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald. I stood on the Zeppelinfeld in Nuremberg and saw where Hitler addressed tens of thousands during the filming of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. I spent time wandering in Eastern Europe, looking at the toxic ruins left behind by communism and talking to those who lived through that age. On a warm spring day I took a tour of a gray office complex in eastern Berlin with a beautiful girl, and we stood in the office where the head of the Stasi wrote out verdicts and warrants for execution before the trials that had yet to take place.
Events and aftermaths witnessed in the Balkans were of a different nature: theological and ethnic rather than ideological. Where ideology must often labor to ignite the fires of hate, religion and race are much closer to primal emotion and do not require the same elaborate mechanisms of propaganda to inspire violence.
Those who know me are aware that I am fascinated with the evolution of human thought. I’ve spent who-knows-how-much of the last 11 years reading about how genes create the neurological wetware of the brain that give rise to the mind and then to culture, and how interactions with the environment shape this process at each stage. I am particularly interested in our paradigms and how these world maps have evolved over the course of our species’ time on this earth.
I see four broad families of worldviews in our history:
• The hunter-gather outlook: Bands, tribes, and animism
• The chiefdoms’ worldview: Hierarchies and polytheism
• Monotheism and the early states: World maps of universal truths that span regions and civilizations.
• Secular paradigms
Within the secular family are three distinct sub-groups of worldviews:
The ideologies that spawned so much horror this last century were creations of Rationalist paradigms. The Terror unleashed after the French revolution of 1789-91 was the first attempt to create a culture and nation-state based on pure reason through the use of force. Its excesses and tragedies foreshadowed the massive brutalities of the 20th century by right- and leftwing schools of thought.
Naturally, there was a backlash against the rise of reason, science, and technology, which took the form of a worldview heavily influenced by Romanticism and its thinkers.
By the time of my childhood, many of this latter paradigm’s premises had reached down into and been reinterpreted by pop culture. The films and books 1970s and 80s featured heroes who were instructed to master arcane fighting systems or mystical techniques by means of intuition. Using the Force, listening to ones heart, or perceiving a beat or breath of the cosmos were supposed to grant access to preternatural powers greater and more humane than the insights offered by cold rationality.
These notions were wrong on several accounts. One of these is that through science and technology, reason gives its users the kind of almost supernatural power over the world that intuition does not deliver. Reason, however, certainly has its dark side. One of the bleaker aspects of this—I feel this most strongly when looking at old ideologies and the underlying assumptions that led to such huge body counts— is that reason and its formalized child,rationality, are new and recent technologies of thought—still in Beta, still bugy, and we are still trying to figure how to best make use of this hardware and software while minimizing their toxic side effects.