Wednesday, 29 April 2015

What Hobbes knew about human society

A few weeks ago, this column talked about the world’s two largest monotheisms and their intimate connection to what makes us human. We can now talk about Hobbes and the maintenance of the human status quo.

Since the terrible events of 2001, explanations of this new conflict with Islam – and what to do about it – often centres on the dynamics of belief in god. That belief is always discussed as if it were alien to the secularity of the West, even while the West retains the trappings of religion.

Our narrative describes how Western society escaped from under the glass ceiling of transcendentalism to create the Enlightenment. And how today this hard-fought freedom from gods is under attack once again by the forces of religion. But the split is not that simple.

The frightening thing about Islam for secular society is that it reminds us of the past supernatural tendencies this enlightened civilisation weaned itself of and how we could effortlessly slip back into similar Bronze Age belief structures.

We are at once fascinated and terrified of Islam because of how incoherently the West explains itself. Human systems are never threatened by the truth, they are only threatened by more effective lies. And the central lie is the existence of an omnipotent entity outside of our minds. Let me explain.

All belief structures share the same key reality: they are made up by humans and humans are not subject to progress. The further away secularism pulled from such “primitive” human instincts as belief in a higher authority, the more secularists realised the truth of the existence of that ultimate authority. The system only needed tweaking.

Thomas Hobbes knew this and created the Leviathan. It was a social contract binding together citizens under legitimate government. His most important insight, however, was the recognition that for humans to cooperate they must be told their instinct to believe in an objective authority is correct, or at least not wrong. And, crucially, what words they could use to describe it.

Hobbes understood that for human society to survive an evolution, it only requires its nomenclature to be altered. So after Hobbes, god became government; tithe became taxes; charity, aid; worship, entertainment; and “god’s will” eventually transmogrified into consumer protection.

Take the last transition. The concept of consumer protection lays bare our secular belief in an omnipotent entity. Not, perhaps, the loving god of Islam or Christianity, but a benevolent god nonetheless. A person’s judgement of risk is based on the fact that they believe in god; this is even more the case if that person thinks they don’t believe in god. It’s easy to notice this entity if you know its three characteristics: it is omnipotent, it opposes the existing (dis)order and its sole job is to protect us not from the world but from our bad decisions.

The problem is that it isn’t a well-created god. The story requires work to believe. This god is whatever the individual considers as a higher authority: the government, the Reserve Bank, laws, regulations, etc. These new structures are built to assuage existential despair and reinforce a human’s need to see patterns in noise.

We live in a society that values free choice and personal responsibility, but we are told it is safe to value these things because people expect a certain amount of absence of choice and freedom from responsibility. We operate under the assumption we would not be allowed to make truly dangerous choices.

Therefore we accept products, for example, must be safe enough for the question of personal responsibility to be pondered. How do we know it’s safe? Because some omnipotent entity allowed the product to exist. And we can trust this entity because sometimes it tries to ban defective products. This is how all of us think.

That is the West’s problem and it is impossible to solve. The belief that some omnipotent entity would not permit bad products is a window into how similar we are to those who can be honest and accept they are religious. All of the metaphors of the West imply this omnipotent entity, from “free market” to “inalienable rights” to “peace in our time”.

A commonly heard phrase during political or financial crises is that until the politicians “get their act together”, the Reserve Bank needs new strategies. Observe how easy it becomes for people to go over the government to a higher authority. Observe how easy it is to find some other omnipotent entity to save us from ourselves.

The business world can surely recall how every time a product unexpectedly makes it through the filter of safety regulations and becomes controversial, the reflex action by the public is to angrily blame the victim of the defective product and protect the corporation. This is our defence mechanism, built to save us from seeing the reality. The collective public rage isn’t because the system caught the after-market danger, it’s because the defective product is unwanted evidence the system isn’t omnipotent. And there’s nothing worse than an unreliable god, hence the rage.

Almost every child is taught by well-meaning parents to be highly suspicious of individuals in authority, yet concurrently to be reflexively obedient to the symbols of authority as long as an individual can’t be seen attached to the symbol. This tendency occupies us from childhood.

Some people call this the nanny state, but a better understanding is that we cannot escape from a desire for the watchful eye. As with Islam and Christianity, a secular society desires to pretend that the question “who can fix this” is more important than thinking about “I helped cause this”. At least the two great monotheisms reconciled this inescapable reality with a pre-packaged, plug-and-play concept of the world. Our crisis is not political, it is psychological and nothing will change until that is addressed.

What frightens us about Islam is how their narrative is so much simpler to adopt than the incoherent Western story of self. We know we’re being tricked by our collective refusal to call our omnipotent entity for what it is, but few understand the conman is actually ourselves.

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