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“I know my Calculus: U+Me=Us”

For another class, I’ve been reading Horkheimer and Adorno’s philosophical treatise, Dialectic of Enlightenment. Certainly not my first choice in reading material, and absolutely not the most engrossing or lucid of texts, but I found its critique of the Enlightenment ideal of ‘man’s logical mind triumphant over nature’ to be a useful supplement when considering The Trap.

Without getting too deep into the argument, the basic premise of the book is that the Enlightenment was all about conquering man’s fear of the unknown by attempting to quantify and qualify everything. The goal was for man to become a completely logical being, whose actions and reactions spring out of rational self-interest; as philosopher Baruch Spinoza said, “the endeavor of preserving oneself is the first and only basis of virtue.”

Sound familiar?

Like the creators of The Trap, Horkheimer and Adorno are much better at offering a critique of this mindset than deploying any positive arguments, but one line in particular stood out to me as an “aha!” moment. They write:

“The reduction of thought to a mathematical apparatus condemns the world to be its own measure.”

Very Shakespearean; let’s contemplate.

What they’re saying, in short, is that reducing all of human life—inner- and outer- —to numbers and equations is painfully limiting, and completely rejects the possibility of miracle. And not necessarily ‘miracle’ in a religious sense, though they are gesturing toward the great Unknowns of existence that often becomes staples of religion.

Rather, they are speaking of miracle in terms of surprise, when people do things that defy expectation and rationality and all obvious laws of nature. When men and women run into burning buildings to save a stranger; when people travel into earthquake zones at the risk of life and limb to help rebuild; or, perhaps, when RAND secretaries refuse to turn on each other in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Spinoza argued that miracles are events simply following laws of whose rules we’re unaware, but that’s pretty childish logic. What has fueled thought for centuries is that there are so many intangibles to human nature that to simplify it into a matter of numbers vastly underestimates the species—whether we be animal, machine, or something other.

This sounds rather maudlin indeed, and surprisingly idealistic for someone who considers herself a cynic. But I find it ironic that those who embody the great unknown of genius (which, it should be noted, originated as a term for a person’s guiding spirit or fortune), like John Nash, are the same men and women who treat the human mind as if it can be contained by a set of equations with predictable results. Humans aren’t so easy to pin down, as witnessed by the fact that in The Trap, every single attempt at government has, in one way or another, been a giant fail, and even history’s most brilliant minds have been unable to come up with a proper and lasting solution.

Is this post yet another critique with no solution? Probably. All I can suggest is to take comfort in the little, ridiculous miracles that new media has put at our fingertips, because, if nothing else, YouTube is an archive full of people acting irrationally.

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3 Comments

  1. Leslie 03:53, Jan 25th, 10

    I agree with you here- this is much of the same problem I saw in what the authorities are trying to do with societies (and I have commented on this, as well, in my post). Societies cannot be shaped and reformed based on a strict formula. There must be room in the plan for growth and change with the society it is meant to help.

    Your point about Spinoza and miracles- if I remember correctly, I think he was talking specifically about biblical miracles because he was looking to refute the bible, ie, Moses parting the Red Sea. To him, this was not a miracle, but rather something that humans did not fully understand, which could be explained rationally; he was trying to find a logical explanation for biblical events. Spinoza’s god was essentially nature, and everyone and everything was a part of this “god.” So, just like nature, humans can be very unpredictable. Because of this, a strict formula for shaping a society is bound to fail.

    Also: the title is great- It definitely caught my attention!…unfortunately these governments don’t know their calculus…

  2. nadine 17:22, Jan 25th, 10

    U+Me=Us, I love that! I appreciate that you bring up the “surprise” factor, as I reject to reduce human to predictable machine-like beings. Though I wouldn’t describe this as a “miracle.” Aren’t we talking about creativity, passion, and courage? These are fundamental characteristics of human nature, and not exceptional at all.
    In addition, I don’t believe that being rational means pursuing immediate self-interest. Rather, it describes the capacity of humans to reflect on their actions, thoughts, emotions, and the world in general. From this perspective, being rational is simply based on the use of the mind. I think this was the idea of the enlightenment philosophers. The goal of the movement was to make human beings realize that they can think for themselves, and question the divine order.
    The definition given by Nash & Co is deeply ideological, and reflects a certain world view. As Thomas Hobbes, he believes that a man is man’s wolf. Nevertheless, there exists more positive conceptions of human nature. I deeply believe in mutual cooperation, as in the long term, it is also 100% rational (even in Nash’s definition).

  3. Ryan 01:54, Jan 26th, 10

    Very witty post here. What particularly stuck out for me was how you focused on the mathematical reduction of human beings into this static and predictive nature. I think that you are right on, human beings aren’t that easy to quantify despite scientific research, empirical evidence, market research, and much more. Humans are so much more complex than we think. If I could post a video to this showing my own medical miracle I would.
    I think that’s why the whole psychiatry topic about prescribing these drugs to people that have fallen into these categories based off of symptomatic results is scary. It’s all one giant business these days due to capitalism: politics, economics, arts, etc.
    Oh well, at least we have reality tv shows, TMZ, you tube, and everything else that allows us witnessing humans acting irrational, stupid, and down right weird.