Trust in Technology

Trust in Technology August 15, 2019

At my institution we’re organizing a faculty research group to explore the impact of artificial intelligence from a variety of disciplinary perspectives—Business, Computer Science, Education, Library and Information Science, Philosophy, Psychology, and Theology. I and others will write more about that in future posts.

One of the first things we did was watch and discuss the documentary Do You Trust This Computer?, which is largely an inventory of fears related to AI. By the end of the film, it’s pretty clear—especially after hearing so much from the creator of Westworld—that the expected answer is “No!” From the opening invocation of Frankenstein’s monster (“You are my creator, but I am your master”) to Elon Musk summoning the image of an immortal dictator at the end, the viewer is left mistrusting our artifacts, the corporations that profit from them, the governments that should be regulating them, and even oneself. There are, it seems, no trustworthy agents.

Which isn’t terribly helpful, for it leaves us paralyzed by fear in an ethical and narrative vacuum. In a world being transformed radically by digital and networked technologies, which are reconfiguring our lives and relationships rapidly, in whom and what do we trust?

According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, Americans’ trust in technology companies is declining:

Four years ago, technology companies were widely seen as having a positive impact on the United States. But the share of Americans who hold this view has tumbled 21 percentage points since then, from 71% to 50%.

Negative views of technology companies’ impact on the country have nearly doubled during this period, from 17% to 33%.

Trust in most institutions is declining (with libraries being an interesting exception), but the loss of trust in technology companies outpaces them all.

A case study of violating trust is covered in The Great Hack, a documentary about how Cambridge Analytica used data acquired from Facebook in an attempt to influence voters through psychological manipulation. If you don’t trust this documentary, and are inclined to dismiss it as psychological manipulation through mis- or dis-information, the concerns it raises about data rights should not be ignored. Cambridge Analytica as a corporate entity ended, but Facebook is still with us and the apologies from social media companies continue to come.

Data is the foundation of our society’s future. All the exponential technologies such as AI that are shaping our individual and collective lives depend on data, and much more social, legal, philosophical, and theological attention should be given to the collection, analysis, and use of data. But that’s another topic I’ll return to in future posts.

Google’s Chief Decision Scientist Cassie Kozyrkov recently reminded us that “no technology is free of its creators … all technology is an echo of the wishes of whoever built it.” And, as my colleague Bruce Baker has been articulating in his series on sin, we have good reasons not to trust our wishes entirely. It follows that we shouldn’t fully trust our creations, which inherit our flaws. It may have taken the events of 2016 to reveal to some the nature of our flawed and fragmented world—which technology can exacerbate—but those attentive to history or rooted in moral and faith traditions should be less surprised.

“The Red-Hot Boat Has Turned to Everlasting Ice” (Hotel Murano, Tacoma, Wash., 2019)
“The Red-Hot Boat Has Turned to Everlasting Ice” (Hotel Murano, Tacoma, Wash., 2019)

So far, throughout the history of our species, trust has been an adaptive advantage and we’ve managed to scale it—in our abilities to survive, in dependence on families and groups, and in social and cultural constructions. In the forms of cities and civilizations, we have trusted distributed multi-agent systems for millennia. Trust has always been fallible and provisional, and continuously renegotiated and refined. A hopeful trajectory would expect this evolution of trust to be extended globally, and some religions such as Christianity include this in their eschatologies. This provides some of us with a foundation for faith and hope in the future—including our technological future.

In the present, pragmatically, (re)establishing trust isn’t impossible. “A classic way of gaining trust,” says Luciano Floridi, “can be summarized in three words: transparency, accountability, and empowerment”:

That means transparency so that people can see what you are doing; accountability because you take responsibility for what you are doing; and empowerment because you put people in charge to tell you if something you did was not right or not good.

Information—true information, not misinformation or disinformation—reduces the need for trust. But the transfer of information is a process that requires trust, and our evolutionary history has depended on it. According to Mark Johnson, the moral imagination begins with biological needs related to survival, expands to include social and cultural needs such as care and trust, and then takes on the search for meaning and fulfillment.

For Johnson, religion is unnecessary. Moral development is our evolutionary inheritance and mandate. For people of faith, there is a greater creative mandate. Our creation narratives introduce frameworks of care in which we learn how and whom to trust. The ends of our narratives—especially those informed and transformed by an apocalyptic imagination—further help us cultivate trust for the future in the present.


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  • I think a missing element in this is that humans prefer safety, security, and predictability to the kind of freedom called for in Genesis 1:28. So instead of only focusing on the neat things technology will do for us, I think we need to take into account our desires to be taken care of, to have our needs met so we don’t have to lift a finger. Jacques Ellul nailed it:

        Adam was bold enough to act as a free man before God, disobeying him and transgressing. In so doing he inaugurated human history, which is in truth, the history of freedom. How beautiful all this is! But this fervor, passion, desire, and teaching are all false. It is not true that people want to be free. They want the advantages of independence without the duties or difficulties of freedom.[5] Freedom is hard to live with. It is terrible. It is a venture. It devours and demands. It is a constant battle, for around us there are always traps to rob us of it. But in particular freedom itself allows us no rest. It requires incessant emulation and questioning. It presupposes alert attention, ruling out habit or institution. It demands that I be always fresh, always ready, never hiding behind precedents or past defeats. It brings breaks and conflicts. It yields to no constraint and exercises no constraint. For there is freedom only in permanent self-control and in love of neighbor. (The Subversion of Christianity, 166–67)

    An older version of this shows up as a foil to the “Law of Kings” in Deut 17:14–20: “You may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother.” Why would the Israelites be tempted to set a foreigner over themselves? Well, if they have lost the will and ability to properly rule themselves. Something like this showed up with Jephthah, who was banished from Israel because he was illegitimate, only to be called back to defend Israel because they had nobody internal who could do it.

    The Book of Revelation has 7+1 instances of “one who conquers”; it is difficult to see how a nation of conquerors could be appreciably influenced by Cambridge Analytica’s abilities. But did we object when the 2008 Obama campaign won two top prizes at Cannes Lion ad awards? Not with any appreciable magnitude. We should be most worried about tyranny when we are least able to resist it. And yet it’s the weak who demand tyrants, to overthrow the oppressing wealthy.

    One way to understand all this is that God is constantly pouring into us exactly what we need to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Let’s say that he’s giving us a kind of spiritual energy. Well, what happens if we don’t use that energy for its purpose? Could it build up in toxic ways? One option is Michel Henry’s “… barbarism is an unemployed energy.” (Barbarism, 101) Another is that evil agents (human or otherwise) might be able to take that energy from us—perhaps we evil willingly give it—and use it for nefarious purposes. If this is the case, then pure stability—like every family getting a white picket fence—would be impossible. There’s a lot of money to be made and power to be obtained from people trying to realize impossible states of affairs.

  • Michael Paulus

    I think Ellul misreads motivations in Genesis due his deep distrust of human nature (you can read my critique of Ellul’s reading of Genesis here: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/digitalwisdom/2019/01/the-meaning-of-the-city/). Given his historical context, one is not unsympathetic. But I read Genesis in light of Revelation, which uncovers both the depth of corruption and the greater power of transformation. Ellul seems only half-Reformed: total depravity without irresistible grace.

  • I have heard that The Meaning of the City is one of Ellul’s weakest works; I would not judge everything he has said based on it. But you’re right that Ellul does not see grace as ‘irresistible’, at least outside of salvation itself (I don’t know what he thinks, there):

        Thirdly, we must not bring back authoritarianism by ascribing to the victory of Jesus Christ the value of an opus operatum. An ontological restoration of the world is not brought about by the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ and the redemption thereby effected. A rebellious world does not become objectively obedient in this way. The beauty of a shattered world is not objectively restored. An evil world does not become objectively good. An enslaved world does not become free. There is no objective restitution in the sense that everything that man now does is acceptable to God. The demons and sin are not objectively eliminated.
        Such a theology of glory would be a negation of freedom. What would be the point of doing our own work if everything were already done? The Jews are right: If this is what is expected of the Messiah, then Jesus was not the Messiah. We are not dealing, however, with an opus operatum because, in saving men, Jesus sought to introduce them to the kingdom of freedom, i.e., to enable them to participate authentically in the will of his father, to set them in a situation in which they could exercise true freedom, which presupposes that his work is not yet over. All that he has done is adequate and complete. Everything is finished. Yet the work is not over. A perfect building has not been erected whose doors are closed. The kingdom of heaven is now committed to our freedom. From now on it is this freedom that comes into play. The miracle is not that of control from above. It is the miracle which is mediated by our free hands. We have to remember that if our freedom ceases to operate, if we stop acting and living (we Christians and only Christians) as free men, then necessity and fate will take over again, the world will again become the place of revolt and evil and sin, and there will be nothing else. The power will come back into play. The victory of Jesus Christ is not just a past achievement. It is a victory for our freedom. Hence my lack of freedom renders this victory inoperative today (although it does not negate it). The action of Christ takes effect in daily life through the mediation of our freedom. (The Ethics of Freedom, 15)

    It seems to me that Christians in the West have largely stopped acting and living as free men and women, that they have let ‘necessity’ and ‘fate’ reassert themselves. In such a world, technology will not bring any enhancement to wisdom. It will instead allow us to do more of what we are already doing.

  • Michael Paulus

    Actually, that quote seems to point to the irresistible freedom that comes from God and not from human agency. Where I disagree with Ellul–beyond the Meaning of the City–is the belief that God not only redeems but transforms our technological nature.

  • I’d be happy saying that God launched us into orbit and we are no longer stuck in the gravity well of Earth, but I don’t think that God forces us to actually go anywhere or do anything with the resultant freedom. We can in fact abdicate our responsibility to do Genesis 1:28, just like A&E. I suspect Ellul would be quite happy with that way of putting things. Perhaps the reason that he’s so down on the city is that this abdication seemed almost complete in his time?

    Anyhow, Ellul doesn’t see technique as evil or unredeemable in the works I’ve read. Instead, he sees us as having abdicated responsibility to stay in control of technique; as a result, technique has gotten control of us and submitted us to bondage. The path back is not an easy one and we probably have very little idea of how to do it. (Fortunately, there is James 1:5–8 and the like.) I will have to lodge a disagreement, here:

    For Hugh, technology has a central role in reforming our relationship with God and nature. Technology is part of the human quest for wisdom; it extends our abilities and wisdom; and, when used wisely, it can restore what has been corrupted. Further, since wisdom is ultimately grounded in Christ—God’s book of new creation—technology may be understood as part of the transformation of creation that will reconcile divine, natural, and human creativity. (Forms of Creation)

    To me, this is too much of a positive spin on technology—perhaps understandable for twelfth-century Hugh of St. Victor. I see exceedingly little technology today as “part of the human quest for wisdom”; instead, I see it as largely “part of the human quest for control”. Plenty of writers have spoken of how the quest for control ends up controlling us; I like Romano Guardini’s “While gaining infinite scope for movement man lost his own position in the realm of being.” (The End of the Modern World, 33) Hopefully this blog and the work you’re doing will be part of redeeming technique. Ellul would say this must be done via ‘nonpower’, which I might interpret as giving others power with technology and bureaucracy, rather than centralizing it as those two so often do.

  • Michael Paulus

    But thanks to our technological innovations, the world is a much better place than it was 1,000 years ago or even 100 years ago! Ellul’s critique is helpful in drawing our attention to how technology can constrain us, but we also need discern how technology can participate in new creation.

  • It seems that you were very profoundly impacted by The Meaning of the City; it sounds like I should read it. Do you think it is impossible that we could be on a trajectory like Icarus, flying too close to the sun with wings held together by wax? Suppose a rather bad scenario, where at least a billion humans die from catastrophic global climate change. Would you then be so hopeful about technology sans some major changes in humanity? Or suppose that the discipline of your average citizen in the West continues to decline, such that the government needs to impose more and more discipline from without. Could technology aid that and end up empowering the “soft despotism” about which de Tocqueville warned?

    The question, it seems to me, is how urgently we need non-technological growth in order to wield technology (and bureaucracy) well. There is also the question of religious belief in the most technologically advanced part of the world. What should we think about the drop in belief?

  • Chris Morris

    Do we actually know that the discipline of the average citizen is declining or that religious belief is actually lessening?
    It seems to me that we should be wary of either extreme between ‘Pinkerish’ Enlightenment optimism and the ‘World is going to hell in a handcart’ pessimism.

  • Michael Paulus

    You’re asking great questions! I do think Ellul’s views about technology are most clearly explained in the Meaning of the City. If he amends or changes these elsewhere, I’d love to know.

    There are of course many things wrong with the world, and more bad things are ahead, but I do have hope for the future rooted in the doctrine of new creation.

    Globally, faith isn’t in decline (https://www.patheos.com/blogs/digitalwisdom/2019/06/technology-and-faith/) and there are many people of faith working in tech (see, e.g., this group of which I’m a founding member: https://aiandfaith.org).

  • I think I will have to read The Meaning of the City to fully respond. Ellul wrote it in 1951, three years before his magnum opus on technique, The Technological Society. What I can say is that Ellul thinks technique is very powerful; we can’t just push back a bit against it. He might even say it is the West’s new god. Here’s what he writes in 1974:

    … technology is not a collection of technical goods which may be freely used, but a total ideological and pragmatic system which imposes structures, institutions, and modes of behavior on all members of society. Hence the universal problem of technology cannot be solved merely by some people adopting a different attitude. A second reason is that the question, as I have often shown, is not just one of using a neutral object either well or badly.[11] Technology is not a neutral object or set of objects. It has its own orientation and we are not free to use it for good or evil according to our own choice. (The Ethics of Freedom, 310)

    This sounds like it might be a bit closer to your impression. One way I might think through this is via looking at how much scientific and technological growth is spurred by war. Those who refuse to engage in war may be left behind. Perhaps technology can be thought of similarly: the drive to make things more efficient is a powerful one, and you can even engage in a kind of war. Are there other ways to get a similarly powerful drive toward excellence, but without the negatives that a drive toward efficiency brings?

     
    P.S. I’m glad you are working on faith & tech and that you’re writing this blog! As to the decline in faith I mentioned, it is declining in the West. Given that the West is where technology is most well-developed, and the extent it has been turned toward consumerist ends, I bet there is causation and not just correlation.

  • Chris Morris

    Well, I would (as usual) suggest that your syllogistic argument for declining discipline is overly simplified. Statements such as “the quality of the media has decreased” and defining ‘political participation’ are very debatable to say the least.
    As for ‘declining religious belief’, I’ve seen quite a few articles disputing the Pew analysis – religious belief may be changing rather than decreasing.
    I’m happy that there are some people such as your sociology mentor who are still interested in ‘community empowerment’ as we used to call it when I worked for Strathclyde Regional Council back in the 1990s. I suspect the political reinvigoration of the ‘left-behinds’ and its manipulation by populist politicians has frightened many of those earlier proponents. That’s why I don’t like to see the nuances of human reality being bleached out with over-simplifications.

  • Chris, I’m flummoxed that you think the US is in all that good of a state, given that democratic countries generally get the kinds of candidates they deserve. (Do you disagree?) I’m not saying the sky is falling; we’ve had demagogues before and the fact that our economy is doing decently is going to protect us from a lot of things. But just take a look at all the hue and cry about how a tiny bit of influence by Russia in the 2016 US Presidential Election could have meaningfully swayed the results. What kind of nation are we if a little bit of that, on a platform built by someone who professes to be very Democrat, manages to get a Republican demagogue elected? This is how many mainstream news sources played the issue.

    Now, another way to model the situation is that the masses were never all that disciplined. Research such as Converse 1964 casts into question just how knowledgeable the masses ever were: maybe only a few people ever have anything like a robust political ideology. Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels argue in Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government that what we have just isn’t well-described by the ‘folk democracy’ I learned in middle school government class. But if that’s the case, we have a much deeper problem: the talk on the news and by intellectuals generally does not admit this is the case. How is your average American going to map between the false public narrative and a more accurate model? Well they are doing this, but with conspiracy theories. That doesn’t look like ‘discipline’, to me.

    For any given bit of technology, we can ask what it will plausibly do to society, and create ways of testing those hypotheses. But the less we are willing to face the true lay of the land, the less we will understand what we are doing with technology, and what we could do instead with technology.

  • Chris Morris

    Well, “good” is a relative term of course and I would hesitate to pass judgment on a country of which I’m not a citizen and have never visited but, as you say, you’ve survived previous demagogues and bounced back. As for mainstream news reporting of the Russian interference, I don’t see anything grossly out of the ordinary about the way it’s been handled (funnily enough I was re-watching Citizen Kane, for the Nth time, earlier this week).

    I remember having to read Schumpeter’s 1940s book ‘Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy’ at university. He had a pretty low opinion of the way the ‘masses’ thought about politics because he had the typical modernist view of how human thinking ‘should’ work based on the way scientific analysis worked – by isolating variables and following discrete causal connections – rather than how we actually think which is holistically.
    Certainly, information is essential but information in a holistic system works differently from the way it does in the sort of environment that Schumpeter visualised.
    Our main problem is the question of how to make democracy, which we should remember was invented originally to work in a face-to-face society where citizens gathered in the agora to debate politics personally, work in vast, impersonal societies. Of course, that doesn’t work so we’re in the process of re-inventing democracy. Thus, I think that rather than the citizens being less disciplined, it is actually the system which is changing.
    Yes, the internet is clearly playing a huge part in the way this is happening and I have no idea whether it’s going to work. The best we can do is to try and persuade people that it’s worthwhile to at least sometimes take part in the ongoing conversation.

  • I don’t know if you know the name Charles Taylor, but he’s a philosopher in Quebec who has spent a good deal of his life trying to make multiculturalism work. For his efforts, he’s won four of the million-dollar prizes that try to be a little bit like the Nobel. Anyhow, I had the privilege of talking to him at a conference a few years ago and I asked him a bit of an impudent question: “Is secularism just methodological positivism?” Being wise and having no pride to defend, he answered this way: “Secularism works if you are not suspicious of the Other.” Now, how much suspicion of the Other do you see in the US, today?

    I agree that we need a new way to do democracy. But that new way will have associated discipline which, if people lack it, the new way won’t work. Where do you see such discipline being developed? One has to have enough sufficiently good information and evaluate it well enough; one also has to not be unnecessarily suspicious of those outside of the in-group. Where are these things happening?

  • Chris Morris

    Yes, we’ve discussed Taylor in previous conversations. Whenever you mention your encounter with him I can’t help being reminded of the Mr and Mrs Hendy sketch from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.

    How much suspicion of the Other do I see in the USA at the moment? Well, as I say, I can only see it from this side of the Atlantic and my suspicion is that, from where you are, the UK looks to be engaged in mortal strife over our membership of the EU whereas my experience is that life carries on much as normal with occasional interruptions for politicking of various forms during which ‘Othering’ may occur. We may or may not be about to run off the cliff edge but I doubt that, in ten years time, anyone will be able to conclusively assert that what’s happening has been absolutely good or bad (of course, I may well be completely wrong about that) so I’m guessing that a lot of US citizens are experiencing things similarly.

    ‘Discipline’, I think, implies a commitment on the part of both the state and the citizen to make whatever social structure holds work in some fashion. This is never going to be a ‘final’ or ‘perfect’ solution; there’s always got to be a margin of dispute to allow for creative development (I’m trying not to use the word ‘progress’ here) which is sometimes going to be quiescent and sometimes extremely noisy.
    Where are these things happening? I think they’re happening everywhere all the time.

  • Sorry, I hadn’t recorded when I last mentioned Taylor and my question to him, to you. It set me on quite the journey, hacking at the hermeneutics of suspicion. I think he was deeply correct and I’m concerned that few seem to agree with him. As best I can tell, the hermeneutics of suspicion are like a universal acid which eats away at the very core of people’s being. While this is sometimes required, it seems practiced much more than that, these days.

    To the rest of what you say, I’m not nearly so cheerful that enough people with enough power will do enough of the right things. I side with Abraham Lincoln’s analysis:

        In 1838, when [Abraham Lincoln] was only twenty-nine years old, he was invited to address the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield on the topic “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.” In this instance, the young orator read the dangers to perpetuation in the inherent evil of human nature. His argument was that the importance of a nation or the sacredness of a political dogma could not withstand the hunger of men for personal distinction. Now the founders of the Union had won distinction through that very role, and so satisfied themselves. But oncoming men of the same breed would be looking for similar opportunity for distinction, and possibly would not find it in tasks of peaceful construction. It seemed to him quite possible that in the future bold natures would appear who would seek to gain distinction by pulling down what their predecessors had erected. To a man of this nature it matters little whether distinction is won “at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen.”[5] The fact remains that “Distinction will be his paramount object,” and “nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.”[6] In this way Lincoln held personal ambition to be distinctive of human nature, and he was willing to predict it of his fellow citizens, should their political institutions endure “fifty times” as long as they had. (The Ethics of Rhetoric, 87–88)

    I’m not a fan of jeremiads (as best I can see, failures in predicting doom are rarely metabolized in the way that the best science metabolizes error), but I also know that civilizations rise and fall. Is it even possible, today, to talk about the possibility of fall without immediately being characterized as one of those “The sky is falling!” folks? Long-term exposure to the hermeneutics of suspicion might be very damaging to sensible discussions in this realm.

  • Chris Morris

    I think a full response to this requires analysis on several different levels.
    My immediate reaction to Taylor’s reply is that, as an ‘Important Thinker’ in the situation of being presented with a question without an obvious context, his thought process will go something like: “I’m not sure what this person’s asking so I’ll say something obscure that sounds very deep but could actually mean all sorts of things.” (So, this is me being hermeneutical).
    Now, for me to apply the hermeneutics of suspicion, I would need to question why I assume that ‘Important Thinkers’ have a tendency to pomposity brought about by the insecurity of having to live up to their reputation.
    Your journey “hacking at the hermeneutics of suspicion” would be Ricoeur’s ‘reality in front of the text’. I think Ricoeur, in talking about ‘suspicion’ rather than ‘scepticism’, was attempting to set a limit to sceptical analysis in order to open up the possibility of unmasking the true content of the text rather than being left with the endless creation of new meanings in changing contexts.
    If you haven’t already read it, ‘Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion’ by Alison Scott-Baumann might be of interest.

    “Is it even possible, today, to talk about the possibility of fall without immediately being characterized as one of those “The sky is falling!” folks.” No, probably not. But then, I don’t think it ever was which is why I said earlier about wanting to avoid either extreme of ‘Pinkerish’ optimism and the ‘Sky is Falling’ doomwatch.

    “…Lincoln held personal ambition to be distinctive of human nature…” If Lincoln is correct and personal ambition is so destructive, the problem arises of how we ever manage to build any good social structure that works at all.
    Looking at where I live, the Scottish equivalent of the US ‘Rust Belt’, when I first moved here 30 years ago it was extremely homogeneous white working class socialist (homogeneous in the sense that the sectarian division between Catholics and Protestants was ‘built-in’ to the social structure and accepted by all). In the past ten years or so this has been completely turned on its head, initially by the influx of Eastern European migrants and then by refugees from Syria, the Central African Republic and other crises. Personally, I’m proud of the way the vast majority of my fellow humans have both integrated with and been accepting of this process such that, although the town looks very different now and we still have problems with poverty, unemployment and drug addiction, the sky hasn’t fallen, yet.

  • Chris Morris

    My reply to this has been ‘detected as spam’.

  • @michaelpaulus:disqus, would you be willing to moderate in Chris’s comment?

    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/digitalwisdom/2019/08/trust-in-technology/#comment-4594043167

    I know that Patheos introduced its New and Improved™ spam filter, but it doesn’t appear that Chris triggered on any of the words in that list.

  • Chris Morris

    I’ve just noticed that the reply is now visible – thanks.

  • My immediate reaction to Taylor’s reply is that, as an ‘Important Thinker’ in the situation of being presented with a question without an obvious context, his thought process will go something like: “I’m not sure what this person’s asking so I’ll say something obscure that sounds very deep but could actually mean all sorts of things.” (So, this is me being hermeneutical).

    You are applying the hermeneutics of suspicion, right here. What if I told you that in fact, the claim that “Secularism works if you are not suspicious of the Other.” was corroborated that very day by David Laitin’s talk “The ‮milsuM‬ Challenge to French Laïcité”, based on material later published in the book Why ‮milsuM‬ Integration Fails in Christian-Heritage Societies?

    Your journey “hacking at the hermeneutics of suspicion” would be Ricoeur’s ‘reality in front of the text’. I think Ricoeur, in talking about ‘suspicion’ rather than ‘scepticism’, was attempting to set a limit to sceptical analysis in order to open up the possibility of unmasking the true content of the text rather than being left with the endless creation of new meanings in changing contexts.

    To me, it seems to be a question of whether you let the other person speak, or whether you speak for him/her. Allow yourself unlimited suspicion and you can completely eviscerate his/her stated intentions, replacing them with whatever you want. What kind of society comes about when this becomes standard behavior?

    If you haven’t already read it, ‘Ricoeur and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion’ by Alison Scott-Baumann might be of interest.

    Thank you; I have requested it from my library.

    LB: Is it even possible, today, to talk about the possibility of [civilizational] fall without immediately being characterized as one of those “The sky is falling!” folks?

    CM: No, probably not. But then, I don’t think it ever was which is why I said earlier about wanting to avoid either extreme of ‘Pinkerish’ optimism and the ‘Sky is Falling’ doomwatch.

    I don’t understand why this restriction on what can be said/discussed is rational or wise. It amounts to the claim that we could not possibly be in radical error, does it not? That seems like the kind of self-confidence that Christians are regularly excoriated for possessing.

    If Lincoln is correct and personal ambition is so destructive, the problem arises of how we ever manage to build any good social structure that works at all.

    Lincoln did not say that personal ambition is solely destructive. He said that it can be satisfied by constructing or destroying. I suggest re-reading the excerpt. If you want to see how destructive personal ambition can be, I suggest a review of the history of the Roman Empire.

    Personally, I’m proud of the way the vast majority of my fellow humans have both integrated with and been accepting of this process such that, although the town looks very different now and we still have problems with poverty, unemployment and drug addiction, the sky hasn’t fallen, yet.

    First, I would say I’m glad things are going that well, but I might want to check with all the various stakeholders to see if they agree with your assessment. Second, perhaps I should ask a different question, actually a pair of questions: (i) Just when should one start considering the possibility of civilizational collapse? (ii) When is too late to consider the possibility of civilizational collapse? Societies, after all, do not turn on a dime.

     
    N.B. I had to write ‮milsuM‬ to get ‘‮milsuM‬’ without tripping the spam filter.

  • Chris Morris

    Your response raises so many interesting points it’ll be difficult to fully engage with every one.

    “You’re applying the hermeneutics of suspicion, right here.” I think that, technically, that’s perhaps not correct (because I need to have an interpretation before I can subject that interpretation to some form of analysis) but, of course, the whole point of hermeneutics is that it’s a relativist enterprise so ‘technically correct’ would itself be open to a range of interpretation. My reading of Ricoeur is that he was constantly looking for ways to characterise relativism in a modest or reasonable form in a way that would prevent it from entirely losing touch with analytic philosophy. Consequently, I (and presumably Ricoeur) would agree with you that ‘total scepticism’ would eviscerate any other views. What sort of society comes from this? One where no one communicates with anyone else, so not anything that would count as ‘society’ at all.

    If you tell me that Taylor’s aphorism was corroborated that day I would not be surprised in the least; similarly, if someone claims that “democracy works when everyone agrees on how society should be organised” I wouldn’t expect to ever see any evidence disproving it but I would wonder why they’re saying it. Laitin et al seem to be doing good work in looking at where that ‘othering’ comes from and what can be done about it.

    “I don’t understand why this restriction on what can be said/discussed is rational or wise.” I don’t understand why you see it as a restriction. I don’t see anyone stopping people from saying that the sky is falling but it’s not unreasonable to ask anyone saying that for some evidential analysis to differentiate their claim from all the historical claims of social collapse. In what way does it amount to a “claim that we could not possibly be in radical error”?

    “Lincoln did not say that personal ambition is solely destructive.” No, nor did I. I agree with him that it’s a source of both creativity and destructiveness but I was rather questioning your ‘siding with Lincoln’s analysis’ in saying “I’m not nearly so cheerful that enough people with enough power will do enough of the right things.” If it was merely a matter of an unconstrained minority of ‘people with power’ (presumably the sort of people whose personal ambition is strong enough for them to attain positions of power that Lincoln is talking about) then there seems very little reason for any social structure to develop the sort of continuity that allows us to recognise it as a social structure. Clearly, we do have such structures (which derive from different historical periods and change at different speeds and in different ways) so the situation may be more complicated than that. This thought led me to offer my home town as an example.

    “…I might want to check with all the various stakeholders to see if they agree with your assessment.” 🙂 I’m shocked that you don’t trust my word on this… An amusing aside here: as a bit of a social experiment a couple of years ago I posted a comment on Robert Spencer’s Jihadwatch blogsite mildly rebuking a commenter for the usual ‘Britain is finished’ rhetoric that they so love there, adding more or less what I said above about integration here as evidence and was told unquestionably this was a lie because no such integration was possible.

    Your two questions are very good:
    (i) We should always be considering the possibility of both the collapse of our society and our civilisation. In a way, I suppose, we are always doing that through ‘politics’ and ‘education’.
    (ii) Presumably, when the ecology of the planet has changed so radically that human life can no longer exist.

  • My response got a bit too fisky (but not frisky), so I’m going to try a more holistic one. It is an undeniable fact that civilizations have fallen, time and again, throughout written history. It is also an undeniable fact that there is much failure to learn from false jeremiads, as I indicated when I said “failures in predicting doom are rarely metabolized in the way that the best science metabolizes error”. So, what would it take to talk about the possibility of civilizational fall—even if the actual fall is 100–200 years out—without being described as “the ‘Sky is Falling’ doomwatch” and without e.g. you thinking it is appropriate to end a comment with “the sky hasn’t fallen, yet”? I’ve brought up two causal factors relevant to civilizational stability, which I will revisit, below.

    (1) Hermeneutics of suspicion. When I said “Allow yourself unlimited suspicion”, I was trying to refer to what is actually happening on the ground, today. Largely, I think said “unlimited” is happening between groups, with the Laitin et al study being a helpful example. You could also see how the Right and Left in America are increasingly demonizing each other. You can see from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals “Pick the ‮tegrat‬, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” that this may well have been an intentional strategy. Additional material can be found in Herbert Marcuse’s Repressive Tolerance, where disliked views are to be denied legitimacy. America seems to be living in the world that Alinsky’s and Marcuse’s tactics produce. The result is not the total disintegration of society, but instead identity politics, where groups become more distinct from each other and view each other more negatively. I suspect the individuality of individuals in those groups will become shallower over time, for reasons I can go in to. Anyhow, it seems to me that a civilization cannot remain stable if the hermeneutics of suspicion are allowed to proceed too far. Or, we’ll regress to an earlier form of social organization, where tribalism was more at home.

    (2) “the hunger of men for personal distinction”. I don’t quite know what you meant by “unconstrained minority of ‘people with power'”, but I can introduce you to social instability Albert O. Hirschman describes in The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph. Hirschman studies early reasons given in favor of capitalism and a major reason is that it will reign in the nobles, who otherwise cause all sorts of havoc with their pursuit of glory. Here’s an excerpt:

        The overwhelming insistence on looking at man “as he really is” has a simple explanation. A feeling arose in the Renaissance and became firm conviction during the seventeenth century that moralizing philosophy and religious precept could no longer be trusted with restraining the destructive passions of men. New ways had to be found and the search for them began quite logically with a detailed and candid dissection of human nature. (The Passions and the Interests, 14–15)

    I believe one could also see the destruction plausibly describable by Lincoln’s words in the history of Rome, where the awful emperors could be truly abysmal. It remains to be seen just what you mean by that term “unconstrained”; there are many kinds of constraint and they can strengthen and weaken. America’s Founding Fathers believed that a strong ‘civil religion’ was important for democracy to possibly work; perhaps a better word now would be ‘civic virtue’. I can also dig into Charles Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries, where he talked of how the pre-theoretic understandings of Americans permitted a kind of democracy (I’m being slightly loose with that term) which did not exist with sufficient intensity among the majority of French during the time of the French Revolution. Not just any nation can adopt democracy; we saw multiple failures during the Arab Spring. But this also means the foundation required for democracy can erode in extant democracies. I think a good example of such erosion can be found at WP: Wolfgang Schäuble § Criticism : Relations with Greece.

    What especially concerns me is that I see few people who think that (1) or (2) are problems much more severe than we currently know how to deal with—if they’re much of a problem at all! So I’ll revisit both points:

    (1′) Some of my friends are beginning to feel that something is deeply wrong, with tensions with parents and stories of families being shredded by politics. (see e.g. the 2019-08-07 HuffPo article It Might Be Time To Cut My Right-Wing, Trump-Loving In-Laws Out Of My Kids’ Lives) The less the family is a source of stability, the more individuals will necessarily find that stability somewhere else. There is a line of criticism which says that social engineers have long wanted citizens to draw most of their stability from the state (because the family is notorious at resisting social engineering), and this shows up in actuality all the way back in Plato’s Republic. Do we actually know whether it will be a good idea to further disempower the family? (You could, of course, question whether the family is in fact being disempowered, which would require a possibly exhausting look into the statistics. I groan at thinking how all sources of such statistics might be each deeply ideologically slanted.) Note that parents and children have often thought rather differently; the years of experience will generate that, and now we have time moving faster and faster so that there is a larger … hermeneutical gap between them.

    (2′) From my talking and reading, the dogma from both sides of the political aisle seems to be that human ambition just isn’t all that bad—unless it’s on the other side. But even there, much talk has it that we’ve approximately conquered the dangerous ambition Lincoln talked about. A nice example of this is Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay The end of history? (7500 ‘citations’), where he talks of a time when heroes just won’t be needed anymore:

        The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. (“The end of history?”)

    As far as I can tell, this was seriously believed by a large number of people! And as far as I can tell, such believe will lead not to a WALL-E kind of world, but a world where more and more humans are domesticated, and thus unable to fight back against all sorts of domination and oppression that come from “the hunger of men for personal distinction”. Furthermore, unbridled optimism about what humans are capable of seemed to be one of the reasons we failed to avert World War I and perhaps World War II as well.

    Now, are we taking seriously the possibility of collapse of society/​civilization in our politics or education? I don’t see anywhere where it is being handled particularly responsibly. For example, is there anything like a serious push to educate children in primary and secondary school about how advertising works and how political power works? (Note that the Obama campaign won two of the top advertising awards in 2008.) If the answer is “no”, then how are we truly teaching people think for themselves, vs. fall prey to advertisement and propaganda? It’s really, really hard to think for yourself on issues like this—you see that I am forced to depend on quite a few people to say anything remotely comprehensive. So unless that thinking hard is taught, rewarded, and corrected for error, won’t we default to something easier?

     
    P.S. The New and Improved™ spam filter Patheos introduced was plausibly introduced purely to enhance advertising income. Quality of discussion was not a consideration, as words such as ‘‮milsuM‬’
    and ‘‮sizaN‬’ and ‘‮tegrat‬’ are included. I’m writing those via the following trick, which Disqus has yet to decode: ‮diputs‬. I wrote some PowerShell scripts to see whether I used any prohibited words, as this blog doesn’t generally remove items from the spam queue. All in all, there hasn’t been much outcry against this draconian action. What do you make of that?

  • Chris Morris

    First of all, can I ask, how on earth do you manage to write a reply such as that so quickly? I feel a sense of awe and amazement!

    It is indeed an undeniable fact that civilisations come and go although I think it’s rare for any to completely disappear without leaving some intellectual legacy (perhaps the Minoan would be an example of this). For example, even though the Greek and Roman culture appears to have almost been lost after the 5th century, thanks largely to the monasteries and the Arabs, it still exists as an element of modern Western civilisation. As for our inability to learn from false jeremiads, I’m not sure what it is that we’re supposed to learn from them other than that some people have a tendency to see any change in their circumstances as a universal doom.

    I’m afraid my “the sky hasn’t fallen yet” was a flippant reference to the old joke about the man who threw himself off the Empire State Building – as he fell past the 20th floor he commented “so far, so good.” I keep getting caught out in these blogs by the American inability to hear the irony in British voices.

    “I was trying to refer to what is actually happening on the ground, today.” I feel a substantial part of the problem with this paragraph is due to an expectation of more cohesiveness than ‘normal’ society actually provides or needs for it to maintain itself. My view would be that we all exist in a range of sub-cultures, including various forms of ‘family’, which may or may not overlap to some extent and that most of the time these sub-cultures are quite loosely held together to form our society. On this view, it’s quite possible for two sub-cultures to be increasingly demonising each other without mortally wounding society as a whole. When we had the independence referendum here in 2014 the demonisation between the two sides was just as intense as anything I see happening in the USA at the moment and, despite the 84% turn-out, the result hasn’t particularly resolved the issue but Scottish society carries on working pretty much as it has for a long time. The stability of society is always going to be the balancing act that I’ve talked about before and I’m sure part of that balancing act is that we all have different tolerances for how stable we need to feel our society is.

    “I don’t quite know what you meant by ‘unconstrained’…” Well, OK, perhaps ‘relatively unconstrained’ would be better but I was actually trying to make the point that really there is no such thing as ‘unconstrained’ so that a simple causal analysis of the role of personal ambition in social instability would be unlikely to be provide a substantial explanation. So, yes I would be quite happy to agree with your “many kinds of constraint”, the importance of ‘civic virtue’ and much of what Hirschmann was saying. People did, indeed, take Fukuyama’s view seriously at the time but I think even he has recognised that reality has proved him wrong.

    I should have made my answers to your two questions a bit clearer. I didn’t mean that the discussion of social collapse takes place within politics, rather that politics is the act of articulating the debate about how to keep society from collapsing, no matter how well or poorly it is conducted. Similarly with education which has a major part to play in how we are socialised as individuals, again no matter how well or poorly it is implemented.

  • I’m a fast typist and I’ve thought through (and discussed!) these things enough that I can write them out fairly quickly. Perhaps it also helps that I feel a sense of intense urgency to work through these things because precious few other people seem to be doing any kind of systematic analysis which is accessible to the kinds of people I regularly talk to on Disqus. (Before it was the Something Awful forums, and before that it was the Apolyton off-topic forum.) Sorry I didn’t get the joke by the way; it was just a little too close to your “the ‘Sky is Falling’ doomwatch” response.

    You could easily be right that we simply don’t need all that much social cohesion, that it is ok for citizens to demonize each other as a part of daily existence. But how do we know whether you’re right or not? For example, could other countries tamp down such Otherizing (or turn it external to the country) and thereby out-compete us? A common form of civilizational collapse is being out-competed. Now if the mechanism of out-competing is to redirect the Otherizing to an external ‮tegrat‬ (see: Cold War), could this perhaps end very badly?

    There are of course costs to demonizing the Other which don’t have to do with civilizational collapse. For example, it chews up neural energy which could be used otherwise. It precludes cooperation which could be fruitful. It encloses us in smaller worlds than we could otherwise inhabit. We might blame the Other too much, both scapegoating the Other and failing to admit the full depth of our own pathology in the problem. Probably there are other costs I haven’t listed.

    As to “the hunger of men for personal distinction”, I don’t see how you just aren’t very concerned about it. That is, you seem to think it’ll automatically take care of itself, when the 20th century was a series of that not at all taking care of itself. But perhaps you are thinking solely in terms of civilizational collapse? If so, I wonder whether the fact that we are willing to empower people like Donald Trump and Xi Jinping indicates a willingness for many individuals to hand over their agency instead of exercise it themselves. That seems like it could be a bad trend; do you disagree?

    You say that many have realized that Fukuyama was wrong even though they had previously seriously considered it; do you think they have realized the depth of their error? When I read Fukuyama’s essay “The end of history?”, I can’t help but see an atrocious model of (i) human nature; (ii) social nature. It just seems all sorts of wrong, wrong, wrong. Humans are not like that & societies are not like that! Am I just silly to see such deep error? If not, then how many who took it seriously have repented of that deep error—recognizing how they made it and what has to change so they won’t make it again?

    Finally, I am not convinced that current education in the West nor current politics in the West is dealing responsibility with enough of the requirements to keep the West dominant in the world. (I mean ‘dominant’ neutrally, as just the most powerful. Power can be used well and it can be used poorly; my suspicion is that for all its flaws, it is better that the West won than the USSR and associated.) Do you disagree—do you think that current politics & education is doing a pretty good ‮boj‬ when it comes to these matters?

  • Chris Morris

    I can empathise with your sense of urgency as 40 years ago I felt the same but I think it’s a basic ‘fact of life’ that this feeling is gradually replaced to some extent either by complacency or by an acknowledgement that human reality is something which it is not altogether possible to express in the atomistic causal terms of the physical sciences so that, as we postmoderns are fond of saying (*irony alert*), there is no privileged position from which to know, objectively, if it’s possible to answer your question of “…how do we know you’re right or not?”

    This is why I think irony is so important and why my joke was not just “too close” to ‘the sky is falling’ but is actually identical with it. What comes with age (well, actually I’m extrapolating here from the fact that it’s taken me so many years to understand this, perhaps other people can recognise it at an earlier age) is the fundamental absurdity of human reality, that we in some fashion differentiate ourselves from the doom hanging over us.
    I remember in 1962 seeing John Kennedy saying that the “nuclear Sword of Damocles” had been averted after the Cuban missile crisis. It’s an interesting metaphor because, of course, the point of Cicero’s tale is that the sword is an integral part of Lincoln’s ‘personal distinction’, the necessity for us as individuals to distinguish ourselves from ‘Humanity’ that makes humanity what it is. Thus, the doom that we see hanging over our heads is actually us but we, as individuals, can only recognise it by seeing it as something other than us; as disembodied ‘historical events’ contingently happening alongside our lives or embodied in other members of humanity and, as such, we wonder how we can have any effect on the situation. This is both funny (like watching a dog chasing it’s tail) and tragic – literally ‘irony’.

    1962 also saw the battle for the leadership of the Labour Party between Harold Wilson and George Brown here that first made me aware of something called ‘politics’ which fascinated me at the time and has continued to interest me so that I’ve spent 57 years now learning about it, arguing about and voting whenever I can in the hope of making some difference. However, this engagement with everyday events is now tempered by an understanding that we may have Trump, Xi, Putin, Kim and Johnson abusing power at the moment but we’ve also had …Daniel Malan, Cecil Rhodes, Bismarck, Oliver Cromwell, the Borgias… (fill in as many blanks as you like) and we will have other similar people in future.

    “I don’t see how you just aren’t very concerned about it.” In a way because I don’t see ‘it’ as an ‘it’ but, rather, as the propensity to act in certain ways under different conditions. Personally, I approve of the idea of the Open Society that Popper and his pupil, Soros, have developed but we all work within our limitations (do I feel guilty that I’ve failed to generate billions of dollars from the stock market or developing computer software so that I can put my ideas in to action? No, not really) so, at the moment, that means talking to people on these blogs hoping that I can persuade them to see beyond the dichotomies with which they struggle in the search for a solution.

    As for education and the West as a dominant culture, well, that’s several books worth of argument just to scratch the surface. My only experience of life other than the capitalist liberal democracy which I was born in to was in East Germany and Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 80s. Fascinating though that was for someone interested in politics, I am absolutely certain that I wouldn’t want to live in that culture but I met many people who were comfortable and ‘at home’ there. Do I think that the West ‘won’ the Cold War? No. I think Marx and the Communist system were just as much products of the Enlightenment as Liberal Democracy so I’ve always seen the collapse of the Soviet Union as part of the general working out of the problems inherent in enlightenment-based cultures in the same way as, for example, we’re now witnessing the collapse of the strong party-based political system in Britain.
    Education is always a matter of who is doing the teaching as much as the system or curriculum. My wife has just retired after teaching maths for 38 years in a Catholic state school and I know she’s made a huge difference to the lives of the Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Confucian and non-religious pupils who passed through the school despite the imposition of what’s known as ‘The Curriculum for Excellence’ by the nationalist government here. My daughter currently teaches debating, public speaking, and critical thinking skills in the posh Edinburgh schools where they take that sort of thing very, very seriously and for the past couple of years has taught at the English Speaking Union’s international summer school where she’s developed the debating skills of Japanese and Palestinian schoolchildren so there are good things going on no matter what it looks like from outside.

  • Whoops, you responded to the duplicate comment I deleted; this is the other one.

    … as we postmoderns are fond of saying (*irony alert*), there is no privileged position from which to know, objectively, if it’s possible to answer your question of “…how do we know you’re right or not?”

    One can be right or not on one’s own terms. And they won’t be just your terms; most of your terms will be relatively unaltered in comparison to your parents, the community you grew up in, etc. This is actually how scientific paradigms work as well, so postmodernism is in a sense very late to the game, describing by philosophy what was already pervasive across society. I would add that just like scientific understanding can go through revolutions, through paradigm shifts, so can personal understanding. Alasdair MacIntyre treats this quite nicely in his 1977 essay Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science. Hamlet, for example, faces an epistemological crisis. Literature, as usual, leads us centuries beforehand.

    What comes with age (well, actually I’m extrapolating here from the fact that it’s taken me so many years to understand this, perhaps other people can recognise it at an earlier age) is the fundamental absurdity of human reality, that we in some fashion differentiate ourselves from the doom hanging over us.

    I have interacted some with proponents of this or something similar:

    In philosophy, “the Absurd” refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any in a purposeless, meaningless or chaotic and irrational universe.[citation needed] The universe and the human mind do not each separately cause the Absurd, but rather, the Absurd arises by the contradictory nature of the two existing simultaneously. (WP: Absurdism)

    But this talk of ‘fundamental absurdity’ sounds like the results of the shattering of a ‘global order’, leaving one with remnants like the remnants one sees in A Canticle for Leibowitz, which MacIntyre riffs on in After Virtue. The argument which finally convinced me from being an ID advocate to buying into evolution was that evolution provides a global order for so much evidence, and its proponents weren’t just going to abandon that global order unless a better one was provided—even if they were convinced that the current global order was wrong. But when it comes to values and aesthetics, the global order previously provided by Christianity seems to have shattered. And so you have caring humans and an uncaring universe.

    What if absurdism is wrong? How would we know? In some sense, I have been exploring these questions for over twenty years. This shattering of global order isn’t a first-time occurrence; W. B. Yeats describes it in The Second Coming: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. If you want to understand a shattering, you have to at least understand what previously held the unity together. Superior understanding can be had by having a sense of a superior global order which could have replaced it. I think I’m making some progress on both these fronts. A danger is that the more “wrong” people see the world as being, the more many might be willing to act in tune with that wrongness. Perhaps the wound/​disease will get worse until we are willing to stop the damaging activity, take our medicine, and switch to a better diet.

    A key in all this is to note that different social classes will react to disintegration in different ways. Those who have much to lose will generally want to keep the disintegrating order in-tact as long as possible. Those with little or nothing to lose have incentives to speed the disintegration.

    Thus, the doom that we see hanging over our heads is actually us but we, as individuals, can only recognise it by seeing it as something other than us …

    That’s very interesting; it reminds me of the lore behind the fantastic game Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri was that the alien “neural fungus” destroyed itself every time it was about to reach consciousness/​sentience. I also just listened to Rick Roderick’s YT lecture on Kierkegaard and he plays with the question of whether we even have selves anymore—via e.g. the question of whether we even have the wherewithal to commit suicide. Finally, I’ve been engaged in theological explorations of whether the serpent taught A&E the art of suspicion and condemnation, which are needed for self-destruction and other-destruction.

    However, this engagement with everyday events is now tempered by an understanding that we may have Trump, Xi, Putin, Kim and Johnson abusing power at the moment but we’ve also had …Daniel Malan, Cecil Rhodes, Bismarck, Oliver Cromwell, the Borgias… (fill in as many blanks as you like) and we will have other similar people in future.

    You remind me of a “Fed Challenge” I took part of as a high schooler, where a team of us traveled to the closest Federal Reserve Bank to advise them on what to do with the Fed Funds Rate. We got the question of what to do if there is a housing bubble and we struggled a bit, taking the question seriously. We were later told that we got all the questions “right” except for that one—we were supposed to dismiss it with the “fact” that real estate irons itself out in due time. This was in 2003. I maintain that if we do not know what makes for the difference between civilizational rebound and civilizational collapse, we simply do not know what the dangers are.

    … so, at the moment, that means talking to people on these blogs hoping that I can persuade them to see beyond the dichotomies with which they struggle in the search for a solution.

    I’m afraid I still don’t understand this talk of “the dichotomies”; I do tend to think in terms of ideal types, and I do try to keep the option open for the answer being “(E) Other”. Those who would think in terms of the mechanical philosophy (e.g. atomism) are working with an impoverished model of entailment/​causation. I have spent much time questioning whether this restricted set of mathematical patterns suffices to describe the world before us.

    The best way I know to connect to “dichotomous thinking” is that which is based on self-righteousness, whereby there is Us and there is Them, and the problem is always more Them than Us. One can of course generate all sorts of intellectual framework which reduces to self-righteousness. Christianity challenges us on this front in [at least] two ways: (i) the bigger problem sometimes likes with Us, not Them; (ii) when the problems is Them, self-sacrifice, bearing their burdens, and turning the other cheek need to be dominant strategies.

    As for education and the West as a dominant culture, well, that’s several books worth of argument just to scratch the surface. … so there are good things going on no matter what it looks like from outside.

    I have never debated whether “there are good things going on”. Another part of Yeats’ poem is this: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The question is whether the good things are good enough, powerful enough, to prevent/​stem that “blood-dimmed tide”. It is my judgment that the powers that be have found ways to corral the “do-gooders”, so that they can truly do good, while society and the world overall are bent in directions you and I would not like. I’m not talking some James Bond-esque plot; all you really have to do is accumulate the kind of laws which increased segregation between blacks and whites in America, post-1968. (See Think Progress 2015-08-13 American Schools Are More Segregated Now Than They Were In 1968, And The Supreme Court Doesn’t Care.) Compound interest is a powerful thing.