Tuesday, January 29, 2013

the internet as god

[Pragmatism] implied a doctrine...which [Charles] Pierce was concerned to refute.  This was nominalism--the belief that since concepts are generalizations about things that, taken individually, are singular and unreproducible, they do not refer to anything real.  Nominalism is the doctrine that reality is just one unique thing after another, and that general truths about those things are simply conventions of language, simply names.  Pierce balked at this conclusion...We think in generalizations:  that is what inferences are--general truths drawn from the observation of particular events.  Therefore, [Pierce concluded] there must be things in the universe to which our generalizations correspond.
The nominalist's mistake, Pierce argued, is the definition of belief as individual belief.  Of course the beliefs of individuals are flawed; no individual mind is capable of an accurate and objective knowledge of reality.  But the aggregate beliefs of many individual minds is another matter...
Nominalism, [Pierce] believed, was a philosophy in aid of selfishness.  This was not simply because nominalism denies knowledge its social character; it was because by acknowledging the reality only of individuals, nominalism denies the social altogether...
[The] conviction at the bottom of all of Pierce's thought...was that knowledge cannot depend on the inferences of single individuals.  For individuals die:  "the number of probable inferences, which a man draws in his whole life, is a finite one, and he cannot be absolutely certain that the mean result will accord with the probabilities at all"...Reasoning "inexorably requires that our interests shall not be limited.  They must not stop at our own fate, but must embrace the whole community...He who would not sacrifice his own soul to save the whole world, is, as it seems to me, illogical in all his inferences, collectively.  Logic is rooted in the social principle."
 --from The Metaphysical Club:  A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand

If it's true that all learning is social--and it is in the sense that "to learn" means to acquire or gain some new knowledge or skill; if we mean something else we need a different word--then learning is something we can only do in culture, in society.  Learning has to be taught, and it makes no difference if we're talking about a human teacher, an accidental teacher, or a physical natural event as the vehicle of what's taught.

I'm reminded of one of my favorite geek ideas, that once everyone on the planet becomes connected to the internet or some web, then the web itself becomes god.  As at least one blogger has suggested, this posits an optimistic rather than dystopian future:  that the divine is what we have to look forward to (as a communal rather than individual end) rather than a golden past with a Fall.

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