1984: A POSTMODERN HORROR STORY.

In my undergraduate days I attended a class on Rorty’s (1989) ‘Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’[1]. The class centred on analysing a great text and for one term our class analysed CIS. Typically this class involved students attacking every aspect of CIS for its various incoherencies. Professor Berman (no fan or Rorty) was typically cast in the role of defender of Rorty’s position. By the end of the term most of us still didn’t buy Rorty’s radical pragmatism but we did appreciate that his position was much more subtle and defensible than it seemed at first.

In one really interesting class we discussed chapter 8 of CIS where Rorty analysed George Orwell’s great novel 1984. One of the most terrifying moments in 1984 is the scene where Mr O Brien is torturing Winston. Rorty discussed this scene in detail and considered the question of whether we have any deep human nature within us that could be used to overcome O Brien. Rorty’s sobering conclusion was that we have no deep routed human nature within us that would help Winston to resist O Brien’s attempt to break him down and re-build him in his own image:

I take Orwell’s claim to be that there is no such thing as inner freedom, no such thing as an “autonomous individual”, to be the one made by historicist, including Marxist critics of “Liberal Individualism.” This is that there is nothing deep inside each of us, no common human nature, no built-in human solidarity, to use as a moral reference point. There is nothing to people except what has been socialised into them-their ability to use language, and thereby to exchange beliefs and desires with other people”  (CIS p.177)

“Orwell helps us to see that it just happened that rule in Europe passed into the hands of people who pitied the humiliated and dreamed of human equality, and that it may just happen that the world will wind up being ruled by people who entirely lack those sentiments. Socialization, to repeat, goes all the way down, and who gets to do the socializing is often a matter of who manages to kill who first” (Rorty CIS p. 185)

Rorty discusses how certain people want to discount the second part of 1984 and celebrate the first part e.g. Howe (1984) and Trilling (1984). Such people have some read Orwell as a kind of  realist philosopher defending commonsense truths like 2+2=4, the past exists, moral realism, epistemological foundationalism etc. Rorty offers an entirely different reading of 1984 than people like Howe and Trilling.  His reading can be best understood in the context of his views on the self which he sketches in chapter 3 of CIS.

Philosophers have been debating the nature of the self since as-long as the subject has existed. A lot of the discussion in philosophy has centred on dreams of human exceptionalism, dreams that who we are, what our essential nature is, will show us how we are something more than mere organised matter created by the contingent forces of nature. Thus we have Plato’s argument that our grasp of mathematical properties which we do not experience in the empirical world as evidence that we are creatures who are special because we can apprehend timeless truths beyond the contingent messy experiences in the real world. We have Descartes arguing that we are special because unlike other animals we have immaterial minds with a special metaphysical status because it was the one thing in the universe whose existence cannot be subject to methodic doubt. We have Kant’s claim that the categories of the mind structure our conception of the world, so the mind in a sense partially creates the world, and the human self has a fixed nature not changed by its interactions with the world. In more recent times philosophers, like Husserl, and Nagel, linguists like Chomsky, and neuroscientists like Eccles have tried desperately to find some mark of the mind that makes it special and not subject to contingency.

Attempts to make the human special should not be confused with attempts to study empirical differences between humans and other animals. We can note that humans can do some things; use language, build computers etc that other creatures cannot do, just like other creatures can do things that we cannot do; see in sonar (unaided by technology), fly (unaided by technology) etc. What facts like these show is that humans have found ways to cope with their environment which are different than how other creatures cope with their environment. It doesn’t show us that we are somehow special and the pinnacle of nature.

Now in a blog-post of this size I obviously cannot go into a detailed assessment of every philosopher from Plato to Nagel and disprove every argument that they have presented. Rorty as a pragmatist emphasises the fact that trying to hold on to descriptions of reality that give humans an essential nature that remains untouched by the contingencies of experiences becomes more and more difficult as we learn more and more about the universe we live in. Our studies in neuroscience, chemistry and bio-physics show that human cognitive and bodily processes are created by interactions of chemical properties, which can be explained as resulting from the basic nature of physical forces and fields operating at a lower level[2]. Our studies of natural history have shown that humans are just another hominid who has evolved from a common ancestor we share with Chimpanzees. We have fossil evidence, to help us study the natural history of our ancestors, as they evolved over the eons; we also have genetic evidence, etc. We use evidence from radioactive dating to determine the age of the fossils that we are studying etc. The evidence is overwhelming that we are animals who have been shaped by our chemical/physical constitution being selected by the environment over millions of years. The upshot of this is that our species was “designed” by its environment over millions of years and our structure is the result of countless accidents; thus no dinosaur extinction and perhaps no evolution of humans or any other creatures with intelligence like ours on this planet. And importantly from Rorty’s point of view is that our knowledge claims are an interconnected web of mutually supporting beliefs. If you want to deny that evolution took place you are not just denying biology but you must deny the physics that we use to date the fossils, you must deny the evidence from plate tectonics, from genetic analysis etc. Because of the interacting nature of our scientific theories rejecting one strand may cause you to reject other strands etc. And if you are driven to deny basic chemistry and physics in order to disprove evolutionary theory then you will be hard pushed to explain anything.

Now two immediate objections arise about what I am saying firstly it could be argued that my explication of Rorty is very misleading. Rorty viewed science as one vocabulary amongst others which we can use to cope with the flux of experience, but I seem to be describing him as a proponent of scientism. To be clear I do not think that Rorty was into scientism. However, I think that Rorty’s emphasis on the holistic nature about our total theory of the world and his pragmatism did commit him to taking science more serious than he did at times. From a pragmatist point of view given the incredible predictive control that science gives us over the world and the interconnected nature of our scientific world picture, taking science seriously is imperative if we want to gain better prediction and control of the world, something that is important for things like medicine, disease prevention etc.

Rorty doesn’t deny that science is a really useful tool and one that should be cultivated and promoted as much as possible. In an interview with Daniel Dennett discussing the nature of science Rorty argued that if science gives us the tools to cure diseases, and build Aeroplanes that is great, but if political philosophers like Locke, and Mill help us create social systems that decrease suffering and war then that is a great thing also. I think that Rorty has a point, philosophers, historians etc have really helped us understand our world and decrease suffering and they sometimes use different tools, e.g. thought-experiments, conceptual analysis, logical arguments etc. So there is room as Rorty argues for different tools, and some tools are better than others depending on the job. That said; integrating scientific methods into disciplines like philosophy, and history is really improving the accuracy of the disciplines, thus we have Bayesian methods used in history, experimental methods used in philosophy etc. More and more disciplines are operating in an opportunistic, pragmatic manner adopting and using tools from disciplines etc. And these different disciplines in their own ways have arrived at the conclusion that humans are biological organisms whose structure has been determined by time and chance.

Another objection that could be made is that humans might have been created by time and chance when viewed from the biological perspective but at the level of physics things are causally determined. Thus the original conditions during the big bang determined that life would unfold as it did and given these exact original conditions life would have unfolded exactly as it did. So the element of chance is removed. An argument like this though is extremely weak. Firstly the notion of causality is not necessarily one that is even used in physics (see Russell 2013, and Ladyman and Ross 2013), so if this approach is to be adopted a theorist who adopts it is going to have to explain what he means by physics causally determining that humans must have evolved in the way that they did. Secondly given discovers in quantum physics there is no reason to think that the universe at the fundamental level of physics is determinate. Here I think that if a theorist wants to make the claim that the universe causally determined that humans must have existed they will need to engage with contemporary physics to make their point seem plausible. Furthermore it should be noted that even if the universe were a determinate system, explaining how the universe itself came into existence and how this process determined that humans must have existed is a hopeless project.

Another version of this argument could be that while physics may not have causally determined that humans had to exist there are fundamental constraints on what type of organism evolution could have built. Thus, for example Fodor and Pylyshyn (2015) note that some features of our perceptual abilities are determined by principles of optics and aren’t plausibly explained by natural selection. Furthermore Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini (2013) have presented evidence of constraints (mathematical and biophysical laws) on the type of structures that evolution can build. But none of this shows that humans must have been built by evolution, a cursory glance at our planet and fossil record shows that diversity is the rule. Humans it seems to have been created as a result of time and chance as Rorty correctly notes.

But Rorty makes a further, much more controversial claim; that humans are all nurture and linguistic through and through. Rorty has argued that there is nothing more to humans than what has been socialised into them, that there is no human nature which goes beyond our linguistic socialisation. This position on the face of it seems to be the exact position that Steven Pinker was warning against in his ‘The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature’ (2002). In that book Pinker provided a battery of empirical evidence which shows that IQ is largely hereditary, identical twins showing similar patterns of behaviour despite being brought up in different environments. Other theorists like Bloom, Spelke and Carey have provided some reasonably compelling evidence that people have innate concepts of objects, agents and causation. A lot of the evidence on innate architecture is controversial and subject to current empirical debate. But there is little doubt that humans have social instincts, and innate competencies that make it possible for them to learn from their environment. Without this much architecture, (and much more) any social learning would be impossible. It is frankly impossible to take Rorty’s claim that humans are socialisation all the way down at face value. It is impossible for a creature to learn from their environments without implementing some kind of learning programme to parse the data. No model of knowledge acquisition is possible without postulating some kind of innate architecture. As Chomsky correctly notes a dog or a telephone is exposed to as much linguistic data as a child is. We need something to explain how children learn to speak and dogs and telephones do not. Innate architecture is necessary in this kind of explanation, not necessarily an innate domain specific language faculty but at least some ability to parse linguistic data from its environment that other creatures cannot. On pain of radical incoherence Rorty cannot deny this truism. In interpreting him I will adopt Davidson’s principle of charity, the more absurd a theory you attribute to a thinker the less likely it is you have interpreted him correctly. Rorty has long admired the work of Daniel Dennett claiming that Dennett did for consciousness what Wittgenstein did for language, and Ryle did for mind by naturalising it. Dennett of course made ample use of innate architecture in explaining the structure of our minds, but despite arguing that we need this architecture to help us learn a language once we learned a language this radically changes the type of creatures we are. I will assume that Rorty means something similar that once we acquire a language and are socialised into a culture who we are is radically determined by the social environment we are socialised in. I am not sure if I am correct to interpret Rorty in this way but it seems almost inconceivable that he could really think we are blank slates.

But even this modified version of Rorty’s claim is radically at odds with Pinker’s view of the mind. Interestingly Pinker also discussed Orwell in his ‘The Blank Slate’. Pinker noted that the vision propounded by O Brien was almost identical to the view of the world proposed by postmodernists, and by a lot of totalitarian regimes like some Marxists societies. Since Pinker and Rorty both discuss the dialogue in detail I will paste a section of it here:

“O’Brien silenced him by a movement of his hand. ‘We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull. You will learn by degrees, Winston. There is nothing that we could not do. Invisibility, levitation—anything. I could float off this floor like a soap bubble if I wish to. I do not wish to, because the Party does not wish it. You must get rid of those nineteenth-century ideas about the laws of Nature. We make the laws of Nature.”

“But the world itself is only a speck of dust. And man is tiny—helpless! How long has he been in existence? For millions of years the earth was uninhabited.’ ‘Nonsense. The earth is as old as we are, no older. How could it be older? Nothing exists except through human consciousness.”

“But the rocks are full of the bones of extinct animals— mammoths and mastodons and enormous reptiles which lived here long before man was ever heard of.’ ‘Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing. After man, if he could come to an end, there would be nothing. Outside man there is nothing

“But the whole universe is outside us. Look at the stars! Some of them are a million light-years away. They are out of our reach forever.’ ‘What are the stars?’ said O’Brien indifferently. ‘They are bits of fire a few kilometres away. We could reach them if we wanted to. Or we could blot them out. The earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.’ Winston made another convulsive movement. This time he did not say anything. O’Brien continued as though answering a spoken objection: ‘For certain purposes, of course, that is not true. When we navigate the ocean, or when we predict an eclipse, we often find it convenient to assume that the earth goes round the sun and that the stars are millions upon millions of kilometres away. But what of it? Do you suppose it is beyond us to produce a dual system of astronomy? The stars can be near or distant, according as we need them. Do you suppose our mathematicians are unequal to that? Have you forgotten doublethink?’ Winston shrank back upon the bed. Whatever he said, the swift answer crushed him like a bludgeon. And yet he knew, he KNEW, that he was in the right. The belief that nothing exists outside your own mind—surely there must be some way of demonstrating that it was false? Had it not been exposed long ago as a fallacy? There was even a name for it, which he had forgotten. A faint smile twitched the corners of O’Brien’s mouth as he looked down at him. ‘I told you, Winston,’ he said, ‘that metaphysics is not your strong point. The word you are trying to think of is solipsism. But you are mistaken. This is not solipsism. Collective solipsism, if you like. But that is a different thing: in fact, the opposite thing.” All this is a digression,’ he added in a different tone. ‘The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not power over things, but over men.’ He paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: ‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’ Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said. ‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but MORE merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy—everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman. No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend.

‘We control life, Winston, at all its levels. You are imagining that there is something called human nature which will be outraged by what we do and will turn against us. But we create human nature. Men are infinitely malleable. Or perhaps you have returned to your old idea that the proletarians or the slaves will arise and overthrow us. Put it out of your mind. They are helpless, like the animals. Humanity is the Party. The others are outside—irrelevant.” (George Orwell 1984)

I have quoted this large section because it demonstrates a terrible possibility that human society could permanently and become a horrible dystopia ran by psychopaths and thugs. Pinker warns of this possibility and that without a notion of objective truth we are powerless to respond to such people like O Brien. Pinker of course wildly misses the point of the novel, even if we do have a notion of objective truth independent of culture this gives us no defence against O Brien. O Brien openly admits that for practical science we need to think 2+2=4, respect the law of non-contradiction etc. He just has developed a gross intellectual justification for the torture of people who disagree with the party’s world view. Rorty is surely correct when he notes of Orwell:

 “He convinced us that there was a perfectly good chance that the same developments which had made human equality technically possible might make endless slavery possible. He did so by convincing us that there was nothing in the nature of truth, or man, or history was going block that scenario, anymore than it was going to underwrite the scenario which liberals had been using between the wars. He convinced us that all the intellectual and poetic gifts which had made Greek philosophy, modern science, and Romantic poetry possible might someday find employment in the Ministry of Truth.” (CIS p. 176)

 In 1984 it is technology and science that is used to gain the thugs control, and the public intellectuals who justify the behaviour of those in control. Pinker’s idea that postmodern philosophy can be used to justify a cruel regime shouldn’t obscure the fact that it is objective science and technology that was used to put the thugs in place in the first place.

Pinker in his recent book ‘The Better Angel’s of Our Nature’ argued that science, and philosophy have helped us radically reduce the amount of violence in the world over the two hundred thousand years. Pinker argues for a Hobbes type view of human nature (but unlike Hobbes he correctly notes that humans are an inherently social species). Pinker put together an impressive amount of data to show that since the enlightenment violence has gone down radically. So he would argue that he has an empirical justification for thinking that enlightenment values make it less likely that people like O Brien will get in control. The strength of this argument though lies in the strength of his data. On this issue anthropologists like Cathryn Townsend, and Helga Vierich have shown that Pinker’s data doesn’t stand up to critical scrutiny. But that is a subject for another blog. I will stop here.

[1] Henceforth ‘Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’ will be referred to as CIS.

[2] Here because of time constraints I have to abstract from such niceties as functionalism, levels of explanation: things like real patterns etc. but I have discussed these issues in detail in other blogs.

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