Seeing the World as a Machine

Since the birth of modern Science, we have looked at the world as an assortment of components that determine the way things are. We have transformed much, from industry, to engineering and scientific discipline itself.

Steven Pinker, a Canadian psychologist, is right when he says that we are better off than we ever have been. We can in survival terms, feed, clothe, and care for more people than we ever have before.

Pinker and the materialist ‘the world is better than it ever has been’ crowd run face first into a problem though: the materialist worldview. The mechanistic worldview if you will, completely writes the human experience out of the
equation.

The human experience is not a gear you can oil up and fit with ease into your model of the machine that is the world.

The mechanistic worldview requires that you step outside of yourself and look objectively. The human experience is a hindrance, not an asset.

How else can you understand what is true, if not by doing this? Becoming aware of this deficiency in the mechanistic worldview does not answer anything. It is not easy to break out of the mechanistic worldview by understanding that it cannot allow the human soul to take part.

Its advantages are also so obvious, no one wants to abandon it completely. Thus we are at an impasse. We must break the mechanistic worldview if we are to escape it as our only way of seeing the world.

In tandem with this realisation, I noticed a gulf between my own thinking and that of people who do not differentiate between thinking mechanistically, and not. It is, in a sense, a form of hindsight. What I couldn’t do was articulate exactly how I had changed, what exactly I was doing differently from most people in a way that others understood. I’ve used terms like “phenomenological worldview” to describe how I see the world, but what exactly does that mean?

The Journey

I am quite accomplished at thinking mechanistically due to involvement in software. But, I had my own issues with the failure to include myself in my view of the world, as many of us do. I decided I wouldn’t live that way. It wasn’t acceptable. I set out on a journey of discovery, although I never thought of it so grand. I was simply looking for an answer as to how to live a little bit better.

Breaking patterns of thinking is necessary when it doesn’t serve you. You need exposure to other modes of thought and perception. Those modes of thinking also need to be relatable. I had the dissatisfaction, now I needed exposure.

I first stumbled onto a breadcrumb of different thinking in Antifragile, by Nassim Taleb. Antifragile mentions the Lindy effect, the idea that if something endures it is more valuable. I possessed a new openness to (old) new ideas because of this.

I received one other important gift from Taleb’s books, real knowledge and authority comes from the human experience. Taleb rails against members of academia and the press for having no practical experience. This criticism of “intellectuals-yet-idiots” argues against the mechanistic worldview.

Far from beng a hindrance to understanding the world, the human experience is essential.

Breaking Out of the Mechanistic

Shortly after I read Antifragile, in the summer of 2017, Jordan Peterson erupted into the public consciousness. Following his Biblical lecture series on YouTube, I engaged with truly non-mechanistic thinking for the first time as an adult.

These videos are generally over two and a half hours long, and the first (Introduction to the Idea of God) is not light viewing. It is a serious intellectual inquiry. Owing to my Taleb foray, though, I gave it a chance.

Peterson justifies his investigation into Genesis in the first video, which posits a question to the mechanistic view. AI researchers sought to create AI that was not a brain in a box. They failed however, to create anything approaching an intelligent machine. These AI lacked a body with which to orient themselves in the world. Without one, they were drowning in information.

The world isn’t a machine. We have learned to manipulate some parts of it like a machine, but the world operates in a complex manner, with outputs affecting various inputs. The amount of information describing it is tremendous.

What should the AI pay attention to? It can’t decide, so we give it more information. This worsens the problem. The maximum amount of information is complete chaos, meaningless noise. While Genesis explains how in one way this essential problem appears. Plato gives an alternative explanation, in his Allegory of the Cave.

Plato’s allegory is a thought exercise that suggests we do not see the world clearly but are instead prisoners in a cave. We only see shadows projected onto a wall, not the world as it really is, and that this is because of our inherent biases. Our human experience warps our perception of the world. If only we could escape, then we might see the world, be truly objective.

The cave wall, the fire casting the shadows, the shadows themselves, they are all part of us, part of our bodies.

They limit our perception so that we may see something, hear something, touch something and know what it is. We have biases that we cannot escape, but those biases have a purpose. Thus, when we look up in the night sky and see meteorites burning up in the atmosphere, we say “Look, a shooting star!” We see the phenomena through our own eyes, and that is where the magic is. Stepping outside of our perspective reveals that it’s a meteorite disintegrating in the atmosphere. It doesn’t change what we see.

To experience the world this way, as phenomena, is not always easy. It does not always lend itself to empirical methods and thinking. Fortunately, we have thousands of years to draw upon. We have people around us, even, who still understand and can help guide us. Having a phenomenological worldview doesn’t seem so bad.

Instead of pretending to be objective, we should try to orient our biases. This is how we function at our best. And, when it’s useful, we can pretend for a moment to step outside of ourselves so that we may think mechanistically and create meaning for ourselves.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Amazingly, the fear of uncertainty leads some to doubt the very existence of the phenomenological. I think a common pitfall is sufficient theoretical understanding of the value of phenomenology, that empirical methods are not best suited to navigating experiential questions, even an openness to uncertainty, yet a reluctance to actually let go of the vessel of science and build on cumulative uncertainty rather than cumulative certainty.

    I find myself interrogating traditions, attempting to reconcile frames which are not merely separated by distance, but make up a duality.

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