Self-Contradiction — Nihilism and Collapse
When I was an undergraduate — and still “wet behind the ears” as they say — I took a course in logic. For the greater part it was dry as dust, and even the instructor seemed less than enthused about it.
One lesson from those times, however, did stick with me. It is called “the ears of the wolf dilemma” and is one of those traps that the mental-rational consciousness can stumble into. (And, in fact, it has stumbled into it and it is called “the end of history”).
The ears of the wolf scenario goes like this:
You are alone in the wilderness and confronted by a starved, ravenous wolf. To save yourself, you grab both of the wolf’s ears firmly with each hand, left and right, immobilising the wolf’s head and jaws. The move is effective in preventing the wolf from sinking his fangs into you but now presents you with a dilemma. If you let go of any one ear, the wolf’s head will be free and you will be devoured. What to do? You are stuck. You are now as trapped as the wolf is. The situation is critical.
The other way of expressing the ears of the wolf dilemma is “damned if you do; damned if you don’t”.
(If you like, substitute “wolf’ with “pitbull”).
There is no logical solution to the dilemma. The parable fascinated me because, like all crisis, it seemed to reveal an inherent weakness and incompleteness of logic and of the mental-rational consciousness itself — the chink in the armour of rationalism; a tale of rationalism’s implicit inability to achieve any ultimate conclusion or closure. Like the old medieval maps that inscribed “Here be monsters” upon all terra incognita, paradox for the mental-rational consciousness was also the “monster” and alien from the unknown.
The solution was to make the monster illegal and a permanent exile from the daylight of reason through “the law of noncontradiction“. Paradox was, in effect, dismissed as irrational (ergo unreal) or as a creature from the darkness and the realm of chaos beyond the light. It was consigned to that terra incognita called “the unconscious”. I have believed ever since that courses in logic should really focus more on the implicit vulnerabilities of logic and reason and what logic excludes as improper or anomalous, rather than on its explicit principles and those things which are proper to logic itself.
But, the “ears of the wolf dilemma” is that trap and the crisis we have made for ourselves in Late Modernity, and from which logic and the mental-rational consciousness cannot redeem us (despite the naive faith that “Science and Technology” will save the day). It is a destructive condition of self-contradiction that goes by the name “nihilism”. It is this dilemma that lies at the root of the contemporary mood of despair, resignation, cynicism, and malaise at our “end of history”.
(In some ways, the belief in the salvific power of Science and Technology mirrors that of the anarcho-primitivists who shout “away with all reason and creativity”, and these extremes reflect the nature of our dilemma).
Only years later did I come to realise why the ears of the wolf dilemma is such a problem for our logic, but that, nonetheless, there is a passage out of the quandary. The wolf of the parable is, in a sense, our own alter-ego — our collective and civilisational “Mr. Hyde” to our logical Dr. Jekyll. Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a parable about self-contradiction. And it does not end happily, for neither Jekyll nor Hyde are able to outrun the self-contradiction. They become mutually annihilate.
The state of self-contradiction is the preface to breakdown and collapse, because it is a condition of fracture; of dis-integration, loss of integrity, dismemberment. “All higher values devalue themselves” is Nietzsche’s succinct definition of nihilism, and it describes the dynamics of self-contradiction. This morning, for example, I was reading a piece in The Guardian about the crisis of democracy in the UK. (It is the same crisis everywhere, in fact). The headline read “Democracy vs the demos” (itself a contradiction), and the subtitle added “The biggest obstacle to engagement is the sense that politicians will say one thing, and then do another.”
The common term for that is “duplicity” or “hypocrisy”. One does not walk one’s talk. It expresses the state of self-contradiction, and it may be conscious and deliberate (in which case it is a con), or it may well be completely unconscious (and for the most part in these times, the latter is much more the case — the symbolism of the “zombie” or the “living dead”). Moreover, it is not unique to the politicians. Quite likely, those who complain about the self-contradictions of the politicians haven’t recognised the same condition in themselves. It belongs to the Zeitgeist.
A system “goes critical” when it enters a state of self-contradiction. I have just finished reading, for example, James Chiles’ book Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology. The book highlights some of the more recent technological disasters on “the machine frontier” (or “the bleeding edge” as we used to call it in my software engineering days). And although Chiles’ himself doesn’t mention “self-contradiction”, it is the lesson I took away from reading about all the horrible and destructive accidents of recent memory. In essence, a complex technical system enters “runaway” when it enters a state of self-contradiction. Here, the “ears of the wolf” dilemma becomes most tragic, for the control room and its operators (the “mind” of the system) facing contradictory information from the system may come to lapse into a state Chiles calls “cognitive lock”. Not quite paralysis, cognitive lock is more akin to what Einstein described as “insanity”: as “doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results each time”.
That kind of “cognitive lock” pretty much describes how the denizens of Late Modernity have approached each of the unfolding crises they have encountered in recent decades. “Cognitive lock” is the unwillingness to let go of ideology or “legacy thinking”, in which the ideology itself enters into contradiction with our real awareness and the testimony of our own intuition.
That state of self-contradiction was also high-lighted in a recent article in The Guardian which examined the problem of “symbolic belief” which, one can say, is equivalent to cognitive lock. The article, by Harry Enten, was entitled “Why Obama is ‘Muslim’: Republicans and symbolic belief“. Here is how the article defines “symbolic belief”,
“Propositions you profess publicly, maybe even sincerely believe, you believe; even while, on another level, there’s some part of you that knows better.”
In other words, the mind exists in a state of self-contradiction, sectoralised into a radical dualism in which the ego-consciousness thinks and acts in ways directly contrary to the intuitive self that “knows better” but whose truth is suppressed by the ego-consciousness. That also pretty much describes what Chiles’ discovered as “cognitive lock” being a significant factor in technological disasters or “runaways”. The “facts” and the “truth” no longer correspond, in effect. And I will take this opportunity to once again point out that “the facts of the matter” and “the truth that sets free” do not necessarily correspond, although it’s always good when they do harmonise. Never confuse “the facts” and “truth” therefore. Ideally, the facts are always faithful emissaries of the truth. But when they are not faithful representatives and emissaries, critical and catastrophic “runaways” like those described by Chiles can, and do, occur.
Bear in mind, therefore: all supposedly infallible technological systems bear the stamp of their origins in the systematic logic of the mental-rational consciousness itself. They first exist as systematic ideas in the rational imagination before they are articulated as objects. These systems, consequently, will also bear the imprint of, and mirror in effect, any deficiency in the mental-rational consciousness structure itself. And as we have noted in the case of the “ears of the wolf dilemma”, the mental-rational consciousness structure has deficiencies — deficiencies that were precisely noted in Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which is something that bears on Nietzsche’s remark also that “the will to a system is a lack of integrity”.
Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem states, simply put, that no system can ever be complete or perfect. It will always rely on factors extraneous to the system itself — factors which constitute its “metaphysics”, as it were. Even when these “hidden” or “metaphysical” factors (like unconscious assumptions) are incorporated into the system and made explicit within the system, the new system will still rely on other “unknown” factors extraneous to the system. This is equally true of the mental-rational consciousness itself.
It’s “turtles all the way down”, like the weirdness of fractal geometry. But what it basically means, too, is that a “theory of everything” is impossible based on the premisses of, and in exclusive terms of, the mental-rational consciousness structure itself.
(Buddhism, it should be pointed out, has a principle called “Ultimate Truth” that seems to defy Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. But this “Ultimate Truth” is realisable only to the extent that the activity of mental-rational consciousness, the cogito or ego-nature, is suspended, stilled, or stopped. Many scientists are beginning to engage with Buddhism as a practical way of surmounting the limits that the mental-rational consciousness imposes on perception, and the implications of Gödel’s Theorem. All future scientific activity will potentially be transformed by this engagement).
In the most general terms applicable to our era (now in the throes of crisis and disintegration), I would say that the most fundamental self-contradiction — one headed towards the “runaway” condition described by Chiles — is this:
The rational pursuit of self-interest has become indistinguishable from the irrational pursuit of self-destruction.
It is incontestable when one scrutinises the evidence. It is the very thing that Erich Kahler describes as “the breakdown of the human form” in The Tower and the Abyss. Yet the received logic cannot fathom how a thesis and its antithesis can become one and the same — a nihilistic, self-negating and self-devouring system. The “law” of noncontradiction simply excludes that as a possibility. This is equally part of the problem Chiles discovered, too, in his investigation of calamitous technological accidents. Logic simply ignored the self-contradictory condition as “impossible” — until the impossible happened.
There’s a kind of blind and persistent narcissism involved in the issue of “cognitive lock”. Reality doesn’t necessarily conform to our laws of logic and belief. There’s a kind of hubristic attitude that we can compel reality to obey our legislation for it. The “impossible” that happens is just reality’s way of saying: “the law is an ass”. And particularly, the law of noncontradiction and the excluded middle.
I would say that our present situation in Late Modernity (or post-modernity) and at “the end of history” is one of radical self-contradiction, one that will result in breakdown and even collapse of the Era. This is our “ears of the wolf dilemma”.
My professor of logic did mention one “out” from the dilemma. That was to perform a mental manoeuvre. Holding firm to the wolf’s ears, perform a “somersault” over the back of the wolf and then run like hell, and hopefully the unexpected element of surprise would give you time to clear the wolf’s jaws until you reached safety.
That “exit” from the dilemma seemed preposterous at the time. Only years later — upon reading Carlos Castaneda in fact — did I realise that this “somersault into the unknown” was in fact my logic professor’s affirmation of faith as a real power beyond rationality. To hurl oneself into the unknown is otherwise called “leap of faith”. We don’t solve such problems as the ears of the wolf dilemma. We simply have to try to outrun them with the confidence we will survive the attempt. “Faith” is the power that gives us that cubic centimeter of chance that we can outlive the “impossible” and outrun the limitations of our beliefs and the deficiencies of our own logic. Like facts and truth, belief and faith are different matters, and can, in fact, become contraries just as image and reality can become contradictory.
Post-script: I’ve only scratched the surface of what I perceive as the state of self-contradiction of the mind of Late Modernity. But, as I end this post, I thought of the issue of the “machine frontier” again, and of the hubris of the mental-rational consciousness which believes it has even overcome and gained immunity from the problem of hubris, and subsequent Nemesis, itself.
Biotechnology and bio-engineering are really the attempt to transform living organisms into machines. Conversely, in the areas of “artificial intelligence”, the attempt is made to turn machines into living organisms. This double-movement does represent self-contradiction, but one which may resolve itself in the cyborg as synthesis of Machine and Nature — I’m not sure at this point.
In a true radical (ie, “root”) self-contradiction, such a “synthesis” is never reached. There is no continuity. The system breaks down and collapses in self-negation. The “cyborg”, on the other hand, represents (if only in symbolic terms alone), the apparent reconciliation of a contradiction between the machine and nature, between the artificial and the natural. Since synthesis is the conclusion of a “peace” reached between antagonistic contraries (thesis and anti-thesis) the cyborg, as symbolic form, is the apparent conclusion of a “peace” between the contradictions of the mechanical/technical and the natural. In my opinion, this is delusion, and if it is a synthesis, it is a forced and destructive one.