The Inward Compulsion to Stand

In [commitment] a person asserts his rational independence by obeying the dictates of his own conscience, that is, of obligations laid down for himself by himself. Luther defined the situation by declaring, ‘Here I stand and cannot otherwise.’ These words could have been uttered by a Galileo, a Harvey or an Elliotson, and they are equally implied in the stand made by any pioneer of art, thought, action or faith. Any devotion entails an act of self-compulsion’…

…The freedom of the subjective person to do as he pleases is overruled by the freedom of the responsible person to do as he must.

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp. 308, 309

It is not merely objective, detached reasoning that produces beliefs or convictions. The point is that it is inward compulsion, not external pressure, that causes people to take stands.

 

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Subverting Technological Imperatives (Technopoly)

…Technology creates its own imperatives and, at the same time, creates a wide-ranging social system to reinforce its imperatives.

-Neil Postman, Technopoly, p. 105

Michael Polanyi makes a similar point in Personal Knowlege:

All technology is equivalent to a conditional command, for it is not possible to define a technology without acknowledging, at least at second hand, the advantages which technical operations might reasonably pursue…A technology must…declare itself in favour of a definite set of advantages, and tell people what to do in order to secure them (p. 176).

When Postman and Polanyi come together, I listen intently.

We need to be asking ourselves what our technologies are asking of us. By ‘asking of us,’ I mean what are they compelling us to do and what are they asking us to give up? The next logical question is, What are the benefits of obedience? In summary, then, every device is telling me to do something, asking me to give up something, and offering me something in return for obedience.

If we want to subvert the imperatives of technology, if we want to throw off its sovereignty, a good starting point may be to ask what we will gain if we disobey, and if that disobedience may lead to better results than simply yielding to what is offered to us. Another starting point, and a distinctly Christian one, is to ask how we can submit technological imperatives, or technological sovereignty, to the imperatives and sovereignty of God. That is, rather than being a tool of our tools, can we use those tools to follow a different sovereign. Can we see them as His tools?

One sure way of knowing who’s sovereignty we are under, and whose commands we are obeying, is whether our use of those tools look just the same as someone who has no love for Jesus Christ. Do you surf the internet the same as the godless? Do you text the same? Do you take the same kinds of pictures? Do you post the same status updates and photos?

This is all stream-of-consciousness. I have not worked out a definite position here. I only want to provoke thought. But the main point I think I want to make as I post about technology (and Technopoly) is that my idea is that we must be aiming at a loving subversion against the spirit of the age. Subversion is not necessarily rebellion. But it always asks questions and it always proposes possible alternatives.

Selfism in Technology and Religion (Personal Knowledge)

Only as we become divided from the world, can we achieve a personhood capable of committing itself consciously to beliefs concerning the world…

We may see two people facing each other on either side of a picture, or alternatively, a vase standing in the middle of the picture. The eye may be able to switch at will from one way of seeing such a picture to the other, but cannot keep its interpretation suspended between the two. The only way to avoid being committed in either way, is to close one’s eyes. This corresponds to the conclusion reached before in my critique of doubt; to avoid believing one must stop thinking.

-Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, pp. 313, 314

I’ll write more on this below, but I want to be absolutely clear that nothing, zero, zilch of what I write here has anything to do with the modern condition which is called ‘autism.’ I am using the words of Michael Polanyi relating to the context in which he used them; his words, and this post, have very little bearing on any specific psychological condition. I have replaced ‘autism’ with ‘selfism’ wherever possible (out of sensitivity), though I think that actually hinders the point I am trying to make. With that said, let’s go:

The above quotes come from a section on ‘commitment.’ Polanyi is at pains to emphasize that science cannot exist apart from the personal commitment of the scientist. The scientist is not a computer; he is committed to looking at his subject from some vantage point whether he admits it or not.

Interestingly, Polanyi uses the word ‘autism’ here to describe an infant-like way of looking at the world that cannot deduce where its own part ends and its surroundings begin. He used the term ‘autism’ without reference to our modern notion of it as a disorder. The idea is that in the earliest parts of life, an infant is not able to distinguish itself from its environment. This is ‘autism’ – literally, ‘selfism.’ Everything becomes a part of my world, and I become a part of everything, without being able to make the distinction between myself and everything.

I think this idea of autism, as self-ism, divorced from its psychological-specific meaning, is helpful on a couple of fronts. First, it is helpful for thinking about technology. If we cannot divide ourselves from our technology, we will never have a true knowledge of it. It is easy for us to see our phones, tablets, laptops, etc. as extensions of ourselves rather than as distinct from us. The same is the case for specific applications of those technologies: my Twitter is indistinguishable from me, my Facebook profile is actually me in some sense.

The PBS Frontline documentary Digital Nation points to evidence that children (and adults in some cases) can hardly distinguish virtual reality from real reality. You make a virtual video of a kid swimming with Killer Whales at SeaWorld, and show it to the child, they’ll think they actually did it. My daughter has a Sesame Street book we had made in which she is one of the characters. And so, at one point, reading this book made her think she actually took a trip to Sesame Street. They, and she, could not distinguish themselves from the technology. Virtual reality has become blurred reality, or no reality at all. That’s my applying of Polanyi’s principle of autism to technology. Until you can step back and think about things as distinct from you, you will never have any type of depth in understanding about them (or you).

This also applies along religious lines. A while back I had a moment with our children’s Sunday School class. We were talking about the Apostles’ Creed and I began by having them repeat, ‘There is a God and I am not Him.’ I told them that was the first thing they must get straight. I tell my own children the same regularly. So long as we cannot distinguish ourselves from God we will never be able to understand anything of God. The problem is that we are all, by nature, idolators that are prone to make ourselves into gods. Once we’ve made that fatal jump, we will never be able to know the true God.

Many of the great objections against Christianity are derived from precisely this point. The Atheist says, ‘I cannot believe in a God who would send people to hell.’ In reality, this person cannot distinguish himself from God; and since he would never send anyone to hell personally (even though that’s probably a lie), then God must not be God. That is, in Polanyi’s sense, spiritual autism (self-ism).

The great irony here for the Christian is that we are called to be ‘selfless’ and Polanyi demands that we be able to distinguish ourselves from our surroundings and willfully commit to whatever it is we believe in. It is only by recognizing the self, in contrast to other things, that we can actually fight against self-ism. This corresponds to John Calvin’s structuring of the Institutes concerning the knowledge of self and the knowledge of the Creator. He says that we cannot know God without knowing ourselves and that we cannot know ourselves without knowing God. Polanyi’s idea makes perfect sense of this: by knowledge we mean being able to distinguish one from another: I am me; I am not God; God is God; God is not me. If you want to become selfless, you must figure out who you are in distinction from everything else.

The mind that blurs the lines between itself and other things, whether it be technology or God, is infantile. The adult mind always begins by making distinctions. If it is not making distinctions, it has stopped thinking.

Worldly Orthodoxy (Personal Knowledge)

Polanyi on cultural systems:

Moreover, such sharing [of values] constitutes an orthodoxy upholding certain intellectual and artistic standards, and an undertaking to engage in the pursuits guided by them which amounts in effect to a recognition of cultural obligations…

…The framework of cultural and ritual fellowship reveals primordially the four coefficients of societal organization which jointly compose all specific systems of fixed social relations…the first is the sharing of convictions, the second the sharing of a fellowship. The third coefficient is co-operation; the fourth the exercise of authority or coercion.

-Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 212

Polanyi points out that each culture has its own orthodoxy. It starts with doctrine, which leads to fellowship and cooperation, and anoints bishops to expose and excommunicate the heretics. It is not the church alone that attempts to hold up a standard of orthodoxy. And, when it comes to the world, the most fearful aspect of this system is that it has no greater authority over it than man. It begins with man and ends with man judging man.

People are sometimes fond of saying that they don’t believe in “organized religion.” The fact of the matter is that everyone is a part of organized religion whether they know it or not. The media and schools set the doctrine. Movie theaters, political rallies, social media, etc are after some sort of koinonia. And Hollywood stars, celebrities, and politicians can actually be little popes pronouncing their cultural anathemas. Behold the modern orthodoxy. Let us hope we are weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Personal Knowledge: Submitting to Authority and Tradition

To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 53

What follows are some random thoughts that may make zero sense to anyone other than myself.

The Apostle Paul put it this way: ‘Imitate me, as I imitate Christ’ (1 Cor. 11:1); and this way: ‘What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you’ (Phil 4:9). The author of the epistle to the Hebrews put it this way: ‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith’ (13:7).  Discipleship is still relevant, and it is relevant for every area in which you seek knowledge.

I actually think that Polanyi’s principle is implied in the 5th Commandment: ‘Honor your father and mother that your days may be long in the land which the LORD your God is giving to you’ (Ex. 20:12). If we are to thrive, we must not buck off authority, culture, and tradition. Chaos does not lead to progress. Progress comes as we advance by building upon the foundation that has already been given to us. This is why the early Reformers were intent to build upon the Church Fathers rather than start from scratch.

The danger here is that authority might become dictatorial authority. But the pre-Catholic Chesterton, who was a Protestant when he wrote Orthodoxy, got it right initially: tradition is the democracy, not dictatorship, of the dead. We give a vote those who come before us, valuing their opinion as much as our own. They are a foundation, but not the Cornerstone. And the application of this principle goes far beyond brute theological matters. It applies to virtually any form of education or enculturation.

Scientifically Branded Wrapping

The public, taught by the sociologist to distrust its traditional morality, is grateful to receive it back from him in a scientifically branded wrapping.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 234

Polanyi was all over the idea that modern Science (with a capital S, not the kind he loved and practiced) had essentially become a popular religion. Put the stamp of science on it and it becomes like the law of the Medes and Persians.

The Moral Force of Immorality

The propagandistic appeal of Marxism is the most interesting case of (what might be called) the moral force of immorality. For it is the most precisely formulated system having such a paradoxical appeal, and this self-contradiction actually seems to supply the main impulse of the Marxian movement.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 227

Sound familiar? Polanyi wrote that over half a century ago. Marxism may be no longer the most interesting case of the moral force of immorality; it’s certainly not the most contemporary. He was fighting the battle of his day, and we have our own battles to fight.

It’s a great phrase that is worth remembering.

Purpose before Suitability

The suitability of an object to serve as a hammer is an observable property, but it can be observed only within the framework defined by the performance it is supposed to serve.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 175

You have to figure out what something is for before you can figure out if it is good or bad, right or wrong. That’s part of our problem in ethics: if we claim that we do not know what man is for, then we do not have to judge him morally; or if we make false purposes for him, then we can judge him according to those false purposes. This is why question 1 of the Westminster Catechism is as important today as it has ever been. The big question for every action of a human is, Is this action suitable for the purpose for which this human was made?

Important Conversations About Nothing

Both visual and musical compositions are appreciated for the beauty of a set of complex relations embodied in them. And as in pure mathematics, so also in the abstract arts, these interesting relationships are discovered, or created, within structures composed of utterances denoting no tangible object. Among the abstract arts music stands out…In profundity and scope it may compare with pure mathematics. Moreover, both of these testify to the same paradox: namely that man can hold important discourse about nothing.

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 193

So, it turns out Seinfeld had a philosophical justification after all; but, more importantly, so does math and music. When I want to mess with the teenagers I know, I’ll ask them to tell me what a number is. Do numbers really exist? Can you really show me one? It’s a question that has humbled me in my mathematical studies, and it should humble us all. Mathematics (as well as instrumental music) seeks to incarnate intangible reality; so does Christianity.

Technological Imperatives: Do This and Live

All technology is equivalent to a conditional command, for it is not possible to define a technology without acknowledging, at least at second hand, the advantages which technical operations might reasonably pursue…A technology must…declare itself in favour of a definite set of advantages, and tell people what to do in order to secure them.

– Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 176

All technology is, well, technical; as such it demands technique. It offers promises and delivers implicit imperatives. In our cultural and historical setting, the issue becomes this: since technology offers promises that can only be received through obedience (i.e. push the lever and out comes the food pellet, or use this and become cool and popular), the question becomes, Who is the master in this scenario? Are we using technological tools, are they using us, or is someone using us through them?

Do not think for a moment that silicon valley, or Hollywood, or Washington D.C. is blind to this. The problem is that we are often blind to it ourselves. Take care that while you give your iPhone commands that it is not actually commanding you. If it is saying ‘Do this and live,’ then be certain it cannot deliver on its promises. When Google says ‘Do this and find resources on so and so subject,’ that is entirely reasonable, and even wonderful. When it says it will help you live forever, it has gone into a whole other realm.

For some food for thought on this issue, watch PBS Frontline‘s The Persuaders and Generation Like. And while you’re at it, see if you can see the implicit call to idolatry, as a case in point, of this commercial: