lundi 17 février 2014

Europe as Machine

Machine as the European Ideal

The architect Le Corbusier wrote that a house is a machine of living. He also wanted to do away with spontaneously arisen cities and highways replacing them with man-made modern, functional and «geometrical» ones. More less at the same time the Estonian linguist Johannes Aavik wrote that language is a machine of communication, and must be re-engineered and remodelled according to the needs of modern communication. The language of the past that evolved at slow pace in village communities was not fit for our times. Now we know better than our ancestors how a language should look like.

Both these men were children of their times. The beginning of the twentieth century gave birth to Italian and Russian futurism with similar ideas, similar cult of technology, of machines and similar rejection of the past they considered to have been irrational and dark. But they were also children of their culture, of the Western civilization. Formal rules that can be written down and scrupulously observed are an integral part of this civilization. The tendency of formalisation is present in this culture from its beginnings. We can see its emergence already in Pythagorean vision of the cosmos (and music) as a mathematical construct, in the formalisation of logic by Aristotle, in the development of astrology, and later, of the formalistic catholic theology, but also of musical theory, of harmony and point counter point. We can also mention the ideas of Raimundus Lullus as well as Leibniz about the possibility to find a machine or a calculus permitting us to find out all truthful expressions, i.e. to find the hidden mathematical foundations, the real mathematical essence of everything. The West took over and integrated some Near Eastern legalistic and ideas that led to the rise of Roman law and the ideas of the rule of law. In the West, law is often considered to be an absolute, rule of law is an ideal of the West. Nowadays this rule of law and rule of rules and regulations has reached an apotheosis in the EU. The EU is designed to become a machine, a well-programmed computer, running flawlessly. This is the ideal, and in the name of this ideal both common sense and humanism are sometimes put aside.

The problem with such machinery is that they never work flawlessly, nature is most probably not a calculus, and all formulae, equations and theories describing it are necessarily limited and uncomplete. This is most probably a corollary of the famous Gödel theorem of incompleteness. In practice, the impossibility of regulating all human activity with laws and rules, the impossibility of a complete rule of law leads to increasing problems and crises as we see now in Europe. These crises cannot probably be overcome by more rules and regulations, more formal steps. They need a critical reevaluation of the hidden philosophical foundations of our policies, of our ideals.

I think that what we need is a reappraisal of our belief in formalism, a step away from legalism that has shaped our societies and our thinking for centuries, if not thousands of years. We can perhaps find some inspiration from one cradle of our civilization, from the Near East, namely from Judaism. Judaism is very legalistic, the rabbis have worked out a tremendous system of rules with their interpretations. But despite the importance of rules, there is a metarule rending nul and void nearly all the rules, stopping the halakhic machinery. It is the rule that saving a life, a living soul is more important than observing any rule. There are some exceptions, namely one is not permitted to save one's life by denying God's existence or worshipping false gods. But the fact is that there is something more important than laws and rules, and this something is human life.

There is perhaps also something to learn from the Chinese social system where the rule of law was not so important than in the West. Traditionally, here the law was mostly criminal law and the courts dealt with thieves, robbers and murderers, not for example with financial disputes between businessmen or other people. These were handled by families or professional organizations, guilds. Thus there were fewer laws and codices in traditional China than in Europe. Still, the Chinese society was relatively much more stable than the western ones, what is proven by the continuity of its culture and tradition. Confucius was a contemporary of Plato. We don't know much about Plato's family or descendants nor abpout the genealogy of other major figures of the antique. In China, the direct descendants of Confucius are still there, as well as the manor, the tomb and even the chariot of the philosopher.

You cannot build a machine from fuzzy, fluffy and fluid components. Details, wheels, levers,
switches of a machine must be made of solid metal. When we want to see things social, moral or spiritual functioning as machines, they too must have solid components. The components of our European machinery are made of words and concepts. What in practice is nearly the same as things called essences. Essence is what makes a rose a rose, a human being a human being, happiness happiness, etc. A deeply ingrained European belief is that everything has an essence, and the way to find out essences of things is to try to define them. Thus, the European machine is being constructed, and this construction is a permanent process, of well-defined words, concepts. This is true of science, of philosophy, but also of jurisprudence and morals. Laws are written with words, and to apply them we must find out the differences e.g. between manslaughter and murder, theft and robbery. This is also happening in politics: we are talking about democracy, human rights, freedom and corruption as something clearly definable. And being accustomed to such concepts we take for granted that such things, such essences as democracy, freedom, egality, rights, etc. exist as clear-cut, definable entities. They resemble measuring sticks, rules with clear centimetre or inche lines drawn on them. And we use these rules to measure and evaluate things, lifeless and living, ourselves and other people. We tend to believe that we are able to measure their rights and wrongs, to find out whether they are fit to function as components of our economical, moral or spiritual machine. The basic European religion, its first and foremost belief is the belief in words, concepts and essences. This is a belief shared by nearly all Western systems of thought, liberals and conservatives, religious fundamentalists and communists, revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. Thus it is perhaps important to keep in mind that this belief is not shared at least by one Chinese school way of looking at things, namely Taoism. The Taoists believe that most important thoughts cannot be put into words. Who knows, doesn't speak, who speaks, doesn't know as has said Laozi. And they have found many common points with Buddhists who deny the existence of any essences.

The Western tendency of formalization has already created a situation where legislative acts must be processed with special computer programmes, creating an ordered database of normative acts, otherwise even a person reasonably competent in law is lost. This computerized processing, comparing, editing juridical texts can be compared to processing of medical information. Computerization has here led to computerized diagnostics. Sometimes a computer can here achieve better results than a qualified doctor. Could in future juridical procedures be computerized too, e.g. will computers take over litigations and pass judgments and sentences? This possibility is, of course, a reductio ad absurdum of the logic of development in the Western societies, and probably will never become a reality. But the fact is that the formalization of nearly everything, be it evaluation of science, arts, personalities, etc, has reached an astonishing and troubling level. I think that we need a return to humanism, to human understanding, to human language that is very often non-formalistic, «non-Aristotelian». And we need an authority who can change legislation, override legal acts and court judgments. How such an authority could be established and what should guarantee that this authority cannot abuse its supreme powers? I don't know. Perhaps we can learn something from the history, be it the history of various monarchies, be it in Europe, Asia, Africa or America. I think that here too, the Chinese example could be worth studying.

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