Monday, September 24, 2007

Duality of the real and the abstract

The Lyotard reading reminded me of one of my favorite quotations, though the author escapes me. The quotation was "if the human mind were simple enough to understand, we'd be too simple to understand it." It seemed to me that a lot of Lyotard's argument centered around the fact that all of our language systems--science, mathematics, etc--are invariably imperfect, as indicated by the invocation of Godel's incompleteness theorems, and in many respects Lyotard seemed to justify the nihilist observation of scientific inquiry that arose from "the truth requirement of science being turned back against itself" (39). Lyotard seems to lament the fact that the pursuit of knowledge has become more about the production of real power than about the abstract expansion of knowledge or even the production of ethical "law."

I was especially surprised at how quick Lyotard was to claim that, "the greeks of the classical period.. established no close relationship between knowledge and technology." It seemed to me that one had to look no further than the technological stratagem of the Trojan horse, or the highly adapted combat technologies of the Roman empire, if one wishes to be more historically literal, to see a clear demonstration of the long understood link between the pursuit of technological knowledge and the production of real power. It seems to me that the link between knowledge and power has always existed, and moreover I don't seem to feel the same way as Lyotard--namely that the production of this power comes at the cost of a more pure pursuit of ethics or morality. Isaac Asimov's science fiction literature made a case for the relationship between technology and real power as a positive aspect of civilization in his Foundation series by constructing a galactic empire that was both predicated on technological advancement in the extreme, and counterbalanced by an equal emphasis on governance, ethics, and human law. There were two separate governing entities that embodied each one of these characteristics. In his work, Asimov seemed to suggest that without the production of this real power, our elements of ethical philosophy remain just abstract imaginings. If Lyotard decries the practical for its displacement of the abstract, I must say that I believe a balance of the practical and the abstract is the only viable solution. I do not agree that our society is trending towards one of technological pursuit to the exclusion of all else, and I see it as the academy's place to maintain that relationship.

I felt that Lyotard made many provocative observations, but went astray in suggesting that things are different now than they were "back then." Human beings, I have always felt, have remained remarkably constant, and the real difference between now and then is simply the progress we have made with the extra time we've had. I'd like to revisit that initial quotation that led in turn to my writing here. It seems to me that if language and our systems of knowledge seem imperfect, can we be absolutely certain that they contain within them the metapragmatic tools of self analysis? Perhaps our language is simply not one that is designed to describe the whole truth of the universe, but instead built for the practical concerns of building knowledge and asymptotically approaching an all-encompasing understanding and implementation of the abstract in the real.

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