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Author Archives: agmichaels

“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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