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.