The End of the Modern Age – Allen Wheelis

The Vision of Modern Age.
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There is a parallel between the character of an age and of a man. The character of a man derives from his actions, from those things he does so typically and repeatedly that they become established modes of behavior, having independent authority, in some sense operative even when quiescent-as stealing is active in the character of a thief even when he is not engaged in theft, as kindness is active in the character of a good man even when he is not helping a neighbor. We are what we do. But what we do derives in turn from an image of self, a vision antecedent to action. A child whose parents despise him learns what he is from the way they regard him, and the image so formed is likely to be that of an unworthy person who will be led by that image to anticipate not love but rejection. From such a self-image -which may be unconscious and hence inaccessible to reflection or to instruction-proceed aggressive and retaliatory actions which, becoming in time established modes of behavior, define the character of the man whom the child has become.

The character of an age bears analogy to this individual process. The quality of the Modern Age derives from what we have been doing during the last four. hundred years, and so may be fairly characterized as the age of science and technology. But these scientific and technological things we have been doing derive from our collective self-image. The will that drives man on to great achievement depends on vision. The dream must come first to guide the effort, shape the leap, sustain the courage. In the sixteenth century man created an image of the limitless power of intelligence and found himself, dreamlike, saying, “Without help from God I can know the world”; and by virtue of believing it proceeded, in large measure, to make it true. The vast gain in reliable knowledge, in control of natural forces, is the result, and could not have come about had man continued to see himself as a humble worker in God’s vineyard. By virtue of dreaming himself in charge, master of all that he can survey and understand-not boss of the operation exactly, but no one over him – he has made spectacular gains in knowing and now is drunk on wine. Pride goeth before a fall, and man is reeling and fall may be imminent, but we must grant pride its due: it made possible a great achievement in knowing. Such insight does not issue from modesty .
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The Dream of Mechanism
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The works of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo were quivering fragments, alive with hidden relatedness. In Newton’s hands they came together in solid interlock, revealed a coherent cosmic order governed by law-exact, permitting of no exception, given in the language of mathematics. The vision was not offered by God, but achieved by man. Man fumbled, made mistakes, false starts, but persevered. No one held his hand, no one showed the way, he got there on his own. Man can know the world. The Modem Age spreads its glittering vista, Faust begins his meteoric career.

Since nature is a mechanism, perhaps there is a natural order also for society, a right way for men to live together. Newton’s success in discovering nature’s laws led to the hope that laws of society-from which man had strayed in ignorance and error might also be found, might then provide the basis on which a just society could be built. The Philosophers claimed social facts as legitimate objects of science, confident on Cartesian authority that within the diversity of custom lay certain clear and simple principles which, if they could be discovered and set forth plainly, all men of good sense would recognize. “Even though that which in one region is called virtue,” wrote Voltaire, “is precisely that which in another is called vice, even though most rules regarding good and bad are as variable as the languages one speaks and the clothing one wears; nevertheless it seems to me certain there are natural laws with respect to which human beings in all parts of the world must agree.” 10 “Laws are the necessary relations which derive from the nature of things,” wrote Montesquieu;

and in this sense, all beings have their laws: the divinity has its laws, the material world its laws . . . man has his laws. Those who have said that a blind fatality has produced all the effects that we see in the world have uttered the great absurdity; for what greater absurdity than a blind fatality which has produced intelligent beings. Therefore, there is an original reason; and laws are the relations which are found between it and different beings, and the relations of these beings among themselves.

Montesquieu, and later Locke, proceeded to “discover” and formulate these laws-balance of powers between king, aristocracy, and the people; separation of executive, legislative, and judicial functions -and to them man .began to ascribe some of that same certainty that attached to Newton’s laws. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Jefferson, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. -That to secure these rights Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Adam Smith, anticipating Marx, perceived historical change to issue from motives remote from any concern with the changes they were bringing about. “Human society,” he wrote, “when we contemplate it in a certain abstract and philosophical light, appears like a great, an immense machine whose regular and harmonious movements produce a thousand agreeable effects.” Feudal society, he believed, came to an end because feudal lords exchanged their surplus produce for the luxuries produced by the towns. “A revolution of the greatest importance to the public happiness,” he wrote in The Wealth of Nations, was in this manner brought about by two different orders of people who had not the least intention to serve the public. To gratify the most childish vanity was the sole motive of the great proprietors. The merchants and artificers, much less ridiculous, acted merely from a view to their own interest, and in pursuit of their own peddlar principles of turning a penny wherever a penny was to be got. Neither of them had either knowledge or foresight of that great revolution which the folly of the one, and the industry of the other, was gradually bringing about.

As human nature and social institutions were thus incorporated in the great clock, intentions became less important. The prudent investor “is led as though by an invisible hand to promote an end which is no part of his intention.” “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker,” Smith argues, “that we expect our dinner, but from their regard of their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity, but to their self love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantage.” Since the social machine proceeds thus inexorably and inscrutably upon its own beneficent course, human intentions were freed of moral restraint, and cupidity could indulge itself with a sense of self-righteousness, assuming that the long-range effect would be social advantage.
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And as it is better for the investigation that the “object” not know he is being studied, so certainly it is better for the subsequent reshaping that he not know he is being altered. For so perverse is man that he will likely react with resistance to the awareness that he is being controlled, even though he be assured it is for his own good.

In the late nineteenth century, on the furthermost reach of the wave, mechanism laid claim to the soul itself. The interior life accessible to introspection is a mechanistic function of the next level down, the level of unconscious drive, defense, and conflict; and soon, it may be assumed, these unconscious phenomena may themselves similarly be reduced to neurophysiology. Freud diagrammed the psychic apparatus, postulated those forces however hidden which would be required to make it tick, and developed a method which presumed to demonstrate the wheels upon wheels which had been inferred. Analysts sat behind couches, listened to free associations, explained to patients the causalities which had shaped them, and expected them then to be different from that which they had just proven to them they could not help being, untroubled by this or by that other, even more curious, matter that they too, the analysts, must be automata and could no more help construing the patient’s life in the particular way they had arrived at than could the patient in accepting it or resisting it, and that indeed what might sound like a meaningful dialogue must be rather the synchronous but unrelated ticking of two clocks in the clock shop.

There were tremors to stir us. Becquerel found that atoms break down to energy, Einstein was reshaping Newton’s machine into something more plastic and mysterious, but we were so long asleep that mechanism had become our reality, life itself our dream.

The Man Who Looked Into the Future.

Once upon a time there was a man who yearned toward the future. With clear vulnerable eyes he looked over present pain to misty goodness ahead. The present was a cruel and capricious wind, scraps of paper swirling around his legs, packed grimy snow at the street corner, cinder in the eye, the pretty girl clicking by on spike heels with no glance for him, furnished room, failure, facelessness. The future was a pretty girl looking up with adoration, lips parting, flesh melting in a sacrament of passion; was great discoveries to the benefit of mankind, and incidentally to his own security and fame; was acts of honor, heroism and sacrifice which
would imprint upon flux and happenstance a seal of meaning. The present was contingency and death; the future was necessity and eternal life. The present was a desert across which, by ceaseless toil, he struggled toward the garden of the future.

He became a mathematician, got a job at IBM, sat at a desk, covered long rolls of paper with figures, could calculate with lightning speed. The digits were the present, their laws were the future; he struggled into the future of laws, replaced temporal digits with eternal symbols. He had great gift. From his pen flowed Greek letters, curved lines, pyramids, pictographs, curious marks; flowed with incredible speed from brain to pen, covering the paper with the score of strange wonderful music. He was relieved of tasks, given an office of his own, allowed to think at will and do nothing else; and from the strange music of his brain flowed great discoveries in quantum theory and statistics, from which IBM developed new polling methods of extraordinary accuracy. “You have given us,” the President said, conferring upon him the Gold Medal of Merit, “the gift of prophecy.” He looked up from his equations at the quivering jowls of the President, glanced around at the board of directors who were politely applauding, and saw that his gift was being efficiently translated into money.

He started his own company, made more discoveries, improved his methods, could predict national elections within a tenth of one percent, foretold business recessions, depressions, fluctuations in the price of gold. One evening toward the end of a long market slump he was able to predict that the Dow Jones average would jump fifteen points the next day, forty-five more by the end of the week, and this certainly was good news for the country at large, but the fact that he knew it first, it occurred to him, could be even better news for him personally. He borrowed fifty thousand dollars, bought Xerox on margin.

People trusted him. So successful he became that his own predictions became factors to reckon with in his total calculations. If he found that Industrials would jump ten points, then that prediction itself would cause another rise of four-to a total of fourteen. His equations became more complicated, began to correct themselves: any particular equation, arrived at by him, became a quantity of force altering the aggregates of forces being equated. So his calculations became self-conscious, the strange music of his pen began to listen to its own melody, to make corrections in its own intensity, even at times to change its theme. Many political candidates, in fact, would decide, months in advance of announcing their candidacy, not to run, conceding defeat in some phantom election of the future which had in a sense already occurred and therefore would never take place.

The President of the United States called often, came to depend upon him. “What will it do to my popularity if I veto the fair housing bill?” “What will be the effect over a period of three months on the number of registered Democrats in Dutchess County if I step up the bombing fifteen percent?” “Dear friend,” “the President said one day with tears in his eyes, “I really couldn’t do without you. You’re my right arm.” “Think nothing of it,” said the mathematician, and upped his fee another hundred thousand dollars. He developed the largest polling service in the world with offices in every county in the United States and every country of the world.

As he became more famous and more wealthy he noticed a curious trend in his life: the more he could see into the future the more he lived in the present. Formerly he had filled the present with drudgery, located all pleasure in the future. Now it was turning the other way around. All right, he thought, I’ll try it, will go all the way. The first half of my life was given to the future, the rest I’ll give to the present, will make no commitment to anyone or anything. He stopped working, didn’t have to, his organization could run itself. Leases on his patents brought in floods of money. He sighed happily, resigned himself to a life of pleasure-girls, gambling, auto racing, gourmet food.

Gradually having fun became a strain, he had to work at it, and the time came finally when he could no longer conceal this from himself. “I can’t bear doing just what I want to do,” he said, “I’ll go crazy.” But he was crazy anyway, he knew, because what better thing could he do than what he wanted to do? This is a problem, he said, and got out his slide rule and pencil and paper. “Let a represent any value. Then perhaps it may be said that a cannot exist alone, but only in relation to b, c, d. . . . Everything, that is, has to be validated by something else, and a present for which no future vouches is worthless.”

This hypothesis he found unpleasant, even sinister, for it would push him right back where he came from, toward a commitment to the future. He struggled against it. “I don’t want to live that way,” he said. “I’ve had it, it’s no good, it’s a waiting, a fast, and I want to feast, now, now, now!” So he tried even harder. The eating of delicate delicious food, he thought, surely that must be a value in itself, something that can stand against any nihilism. He tried, became a habitue of the great restaurants of the world, but found that the eating of food wants to serve the morrow, that when the morrow it serves contains nothing more than eating, that food itself becomes dust. In the Tour d’Argent he pondered this matter, looked out unseeing over Notre Dame, brooded on the crystalline evening, pulled his eyebrows, while before him appeared, successively, Croustades aux Truffes, Vol au Vent aux Quenelles de Brochet, Poitrine de Veau Farcie, Endives au Gratin-each served with great flourish, allowed to grow cold, sorrowfully removed. When finally the Souffle au Chocolat Flambe collapsed untouched the kitchen door splintered and the chef, as if fired from a cannon, hurled himself upon the reluctant diner, threw all the dishes on the floor, smashed the table, and had to be hospitalized. In the Four Seasons he looked out over a smoky red Manhattan sunset, did not notice the Pintade au Genievre nor realize that the man in black tie who had sat down beside him and was weeping in a napkin was the Maitre d’.

But orgasm, he thought, now there’s a thing in itself, the supreme value, perhaps the only one that can stand alone, needing no validation. He polled the model agencies, gathered together the most beautiful girls in the world. It didn’t work. He became frantic, tried two at a time, then a whole roomful, but it failed. Orgasm, he found, is a jewel which, the more it glitters, the more it cries out for a setting of love, lacking which the sparkle is lost and the jewel falls unnoticed to the floor. But love lays claim to the future, commits the present to the securing of that future.

So the present turned to dust. Very well, he thought, I’ll go back to my old ways, will tie myself to the future. The present will acquire value relative to future goods. But the future now seemed dismal, boring, without good. He scratched frantically, but all he could find in the future was more of the present-wars, depressions, labor disputes, revolutions, counterrevolutions, hurricanes, airplane crashes, people being born, people dying. As for the market-it would continue to fluctuate. The more clearly the future could be seen, the more evident that it could validate nothing.

He had painted himself into a comer. Sensuality, referring to nothing beyond the senses, had become boredom. On gourmet meals he had become not fat, but quite thin. And though he still bedded girls on occasion it was with a hidden elegiac asceticism, as if looking for God. Through temples of pleasure he wandered, untempted, out into the desert to draw faces in the sand.

The vision is lost. Even if the world were a machine, if Bohr, Heisenberg, and Born were mistaken, and if quantum events could be reduced to predictable occurrence by formula-even then the causal view is lost. Mathematics itself precludes that final crystalline clarity for which mathematics has for centuries been the symbol. For if the cosmos were a machine, everything within that cosmos-shoes and ships, cabbages and countesses and worms, the mind of man and every last thought and theory and feeling of man-would be part of that machine. Therefore we who think about these matters and speculate on the possibly machine-like nature of the universe would be in the position of one cog on one wheel attempting to figure out whether the whole apparatus is or is not a machine. Coders theory, as well as quite common commonsense, indicates that this is not possible; that though the cog might formulate the problem it could not, within the machine, answer it; that since, in this case, the machine is the entire cosmos, there is not, even in principle, a way to stand outside it; that, therefore, the question cannot be answered nor the problem ever solved; and that, consequently, the supposition is idle and meaningless, like a man before a mirror asking the man he sees what the man in the mirror is asking.

Pursuit of the Diminishing Object
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Already in the nineteenth century it had been found that field phenomena cannot be reduced to mechanics. But by then the wheels and gears were inside our heads. “I am never content,” writes Lord Kelvin as late as 1884, “until I have constructed a mechanical model of the object 1 am studying. If I succeed in making one, I understand; otherwise I do not. Hence I cannot grasp the electromagnetic theory of light. I wish to understand light as fully as possible, without introducing things that I understand still less.”

At the same time the humanities, straining desperately to be sciences and always lagging, were entering their most mechanistic phase. Biology with Darwin, sociology with Marx, psychology with Freud, all saw the hidden machine, all strove to reduce variety of experience to unity of principle, apparent newness to hidden recurrence, the unforeseeable to the inevitable, appearance to reality. “The chaotic universe of change,” Barzun writes, referring to Darwin and to Marx,

was made rational by the ordinary fact of struggle; the anarchy of social existence was organized around class hatred. . . . The beholder began with a matter of fact and could reach symbolism and true knowledge with only an effort of application and memory. Physical struggle led to survival, physical labor to value . . . and at the end of each system yielded the most exalted objects of contemplation; the adaptation of living form; a perfect state. . . .

In mechanism, writes Whitehead, “the world had got hold of a general idea which it could neither live with nor live without.” “The misfortune,” Barzun writes, “was that when mechanism began to be questioned, for scientific reasons, the general public had become persuaded of its absolute truth; it could think in no other terms and it felt that all other views were simply ‘prescientific.’ ” Experimental physics cannot deal with the arsonist, has nothing to say about the contingency or inevitability of his behavior. The philosophy of mechanism assumes inevitability, and would wish to give force to this assumption by proving mechanism at the microscopic level. But what gets established when the cosmos is observed with very high magnification is indeterminacy and graininess. “When a slender beam of light is passed through a system of slits,” writes Bridgman,

the pattern ordinarily seen is . . . light and dark bands with smooth gradations from light to dark. But if the intensity of light is made very low, the smooth pattern breaks down into a pattern of individual spots, which mark the arrival of individual photons of light and the excitation of individual grains of the photographic emulsion. The place and time of occurrence of any individual spot in this pattern are at present absolutely unpredictable.

It is not, however, necessary, he adds, that this unpredictable event have only microscopic consequences, for “it would be possible so to couple a disintegrating speck of some radioactive compound to an atomic bomb as to blow up a city at an absolutely unpredictable time.” Likewise, we would add, the arrival of that photon at one point rather than another within the nucleus of one brain cell might achieve an equal extension of effect, perhaps sufficient to make the difference between the arsonist’s hurling of the bomb or his dropping it in the gutter.

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Who are we to claim objectivity? We are the interested judge, we hold stock in this corporation. And have we not, moreover, known it all along? Has not our seeming unawareness been designed to retain for us, if challenged, the right to claim inadvertence? Now indeed we are challenged and the inadvertence is not credible. We had hoped, if we just kept quiet, that it would go away, that no one would notice. We have come a long way on false credentials; now our time of arrogance is coming to an end. We are not entitled to grace in getting out, to peace with honor; we’re being driven and had better hurry. Unless we acknowledge our compromised position and disqualify ourselves as judge we shall be hauled down from the bench and beaten to our knees with weapons of our own presumption.

We have lost the division between subject and object, are left with a field of knowing in which object partakes of subject. From hovering helicopter we shoot the fleeing polar bear and, while he is stunned, tag him; and, finding him again next year, we “know” something about the migration of polar bears. But the bear we know has had the encounter, has suffered the poisoned dart, and so may have roamed a different floe, drifted in different currents. Whatever we know of anything has come to be known, not only by our perceptions and our measurements, but also by our questions which derive from what we are and what we believe-things which change with time. Another type of being with different preconceptions addressing itself to the same phenomenon would arrive at different knowledge.

The knower, likewise, is changed by the known. We may never forget that polar bear, the terror and hate on his face, the frantic scampering to escape the clatter of the helicopter, the wash of the blades, the merciless trajectory of the dart; and the memory may change us, may lead us one day years later to befriend a wounded raccoon, to take him home, not knowing he has rabies, where he bites the thumb of a gifted pianist, our wife’s cousin, who had stopped in for tea.

The world to us is a woman in our arms; we may know her but will change her, and in being known she changes us. So we hold the world and are held by it, struggle together, are bound together inalienable, and so sail through a void forever. We should not boast of conquest-modesty better becomes our achievements in knowing-mindful that she whom we held yesterday may surprise us today with qualities born of the embrace. She’s not of iron, but mutable as are we; and we may, if careless, destroy in her what most we love.
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Relativity of Knowledge
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In the evening the other members of the expedition returned without Vavilov. He was taken so fast his things were left in one of the cars. But late at night three men in civilian clothes came to fetch them. One of the members of the expedition started sorting out the bags piled up in the corner of the room, looking for V avilov ‘s. When it was located it was found to contain a big sheaf of spelt, a half-wild local type of wheat. . . . It was later discovered to be a new species. Thus, on his last day of service to his country. . . Vavilov made his last. . . discovery

He was tried, sentenced to death, died in prison of starvation. Efforts to locate his grave have failed. The book in which the Russian geneticist Medvedev recounts these events was denied publication; when it was nevertheless published in America, Medvedev was suddenly committed to an insane asylum.

“We should like to have good rulers,” writes Karl Popper,

but historical experience shows us that we are not likely to get them. This is why it is of such importance to design institutions which will prevent even bad rulers from causing too much damage. . . . There are only two kinds of governmental institutions, those which provide for a change of the government without bloodshed, and those which do not. Marxists have been taught to think in terms not of institutions but of classes. Classes, however, never rule, any more than nations. The rulers are always certain persons. And, whatever class they may once have belonged to, once they are rulers they belong to the ruling class.
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