Orwell, Dostoevsky, Scientism, and Wonkism.

It is difficult to imagine George Orwell’s 1984 as a novel themed around naive optimism, but, at least one sense, it does reek of Whiggishly optimistic view of the “truth.”  A central theme of the novel is that the world of Oceania is, in fact, built around lies.  Yes, the lies are winning and there is nothing that can be done to resist it, but everything is a lie, which is casually recognized even by members of the inner party, i.e. those who are privy to the “real truth” even they recognize the lies as “the accepted truth” (thus the principle of doublethink).   The boot may be stomping on the human face forever, but the reader, if not Winston, knows that behind the boot is a pack of lies.  That the boot is invincible may be the source of frustration, but the reader can at least take solace in that at least he knows that 2+2 is not 5, even if that may be the enforced truth in the world of 1984.

Half a century before Orwell, Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Notes from Underground, offered this little vignette.

“Once it’s proved to you that, essentially speaking, one little drop of your own fat should be dearer to you than a hundred thousand of your fellow men, and that in this result all so-called virtues and obligations and other ravings and prejudices will finally be resolved, go ahead and accept it, there’s nothing to be done, because two times two is-mathematics. Try objecting to that.”

In Dostoevksy’s dystopia, the reader is denied the comfort of knowing that there is a better world that could have been, if not for the artificial creation of the Party.  Behind the boot is not a pack of lies, but the truth.  In Czarist Russia, the Truth does not set you free.  The Truth stomps on your face, forever, so to speak.  One might say that the protagonist/fictitious “author” of the Notes, and by extension, the readers who recognize as he does that 2×2 = 4 are members of the inner party, already steeped in the principle of doublethink.  2+2 = 5 is already true, so to speak, so the problem is not so much that we should be troubled by the strange people in the “inner party” who subscribe to the obvious untruth, but the crazy proles and heretic outer party members like Winston who insist that what is obviously true, from our perspective, is not.

Whiggish worldview is a distinct pathology of the Anglophone (and perhaps the Western world in general).  They saw the truth and the progress as interchangeable:  find the truth, and you will find progress.  The dystopia of 1984 is that progress via truth is denied by the artifices of the Party dictatorship.  That, once you find the truth, it will always set you free, is something even Orwell, for all his cynicism, could not break free of.  Dostroevsky and the far more mystical Eastern Orthodox-influenced intellectual tradition of Russia he came out of, did not see the truth in the kind of misty eyed optimistic light that characterized Orwell, let alone the most hopeful members of the Western tribes.  Quite frankly, for the tribes not of the Western intellectual tradition, the “truth” of the enlightenment, grounded on empirical materialism, constrained to the physical measurable universe. quite frankly, sucked.  It destroyed the social order and ripped apart social fabric,, all in the name of Invincible and Unconquerable Truth.  This Truth was just as inconquerable as the Party of 1984, with the added despair–there was no hope, even if persistently unrealized, that one might escape the dystopia by discovering the truth–because the dystopia was the truth itself.

Enter the world of Dostoevsky, and you also discover the world of modern day mystics, not in the Czarist Russia, but in middle America–the same group of people who are seemingly rejecting the empirical “reality” of wonks and “scientists,” those who are seemingly irrational, overly given to the “spiritual,” quite racist, and communally minded (incidentally, many of the same  characteristics of the Russian “mystics” of late 19th and early 20th centuries–this intellectual movement gave the universe pacifists like Leo Tolstoy, but also batshit crazy mass murders like Ungern-Sternberg, and somewhere between the two, romantic ultranationalists like Solzhenitsyn.)    Perhaps Tolstoy would not have supported Ungern-Sternberg, and vice versa, but on can imagine the likes of Solzhenitsyn siding with one or the other.  Substitute Sanders for Tolstoy and Trump for Ungern-Sternberg, we have the United States of 2016, with many of the supporters of either taking the role of Solzhenitsyn.

With regards these folks, the reality that we, the putative members of the Inner Party face, fluctuates between 2+2 = 5 and 2×2 =4.  We are obviously convinced that our truth is the truth, and the other guys are as foolish and ridiculous as Winston Smith was to believe otherwise.  But how do we know?  How do we know if our truth is, indeed, the “truth” other than the fact that we are comfortable believing it as the truth and that it must be so–and that the other guys are ridiculous for believing it.

Thomas Kuhn, in his Structures of Scientific Revolutions, did not subscribe to the Whiggish view of “the Truth.”  In his worldview, the knowledge was constrained by technology available, which is always limited.  The theory of how the universe works and the data that sustains it–what we know of the universe–are not the same thing as the truth.  Just an imperfect approximation of it.  (To be fair, Kuhn was not the first to argue this point, but he is one of the most articulate in laying down this view.)  “Science” is necessarily incomplete and imperfect.  It is not the principle around which the society should be built around–even if its lessons might be recruited to improve its workings when possible.  Whether 2+2 = 4 or 5 is, in itself, irrelevant.  The important point is simply that 2+2 =4 as far as we know.  

This raises an interesting question that Orwell never raised–perhaps because he never even thought about it.  If the Party in 1984 insisted that 2+2 = 4, rather than 2+2 = 5 at the pain of torture, would it have been any better?  Perhaps an aspiring Orwell (probably not Orwell himself, who, I suspect, would have started thinking were he asked this question) would retort by saying that, since 2+2 is self-evidently 4, why should anyone try to impose it on the masses through torture?  Surely, people will see it as the truth on their own volition.  But if this were so obviously true, Dostoevsky’s dystopia could not have been written or the millions people who supported crazy socialist ideas of Sanders or the angry populist rhetoric of Trump would not exist either.  Truth is rarely so obvious or self-evident.  And, more important, O’Brien thought 2+2 = 5 is equally self-evident and obvious as the reader thinks 2+2 = 4 is.

Wonks operate on the same premise as “scientism,” which is to say that theories of science and the data that undergird them are necessarily “truth,” sufficiently reliable to build the real world around.  The recognition that all science is, if you will, just a theory–meaning the best guess we have about how the world works, but ultimately, only a “guess” is incompatible with their worldview.  Since most theories are “true” most of the time, as measured by the data, wonks will be generally right, but potentially with significant exceptions.  Wonks may be slightly wrong all the time, or hugely wrong some of the time, or some mixture of both.  Trying to account for how wrong the wonks are may not pay much–because they are so often right and following the wonks and the “formulas” provide simple paths to the good answers most of the time–they are not wrong often enough to worry about their being wrong.

But politics and society operate on a different principle from just winning and losing.  As Riker famously observed, it is waste to try to build a coalition larger than the minimal winning–provided that the losers can be safely assumed out of the picture.  When Sanders was talking about how many millions voiced their demand for a political revolution, his opponents in the Democratic primaries claimed that more millions voted against him–implying, in effect, that the millions who were unhappy with the status quo should simply shut up and disappear.  The same thing will likely repeat itself when Trump loses in November.  But the losers in elections don’t disappear.  In fact, problems arise precisely because they cannot be made to disappear.  There will be many millions of discontented people whose face the jackboot of “Truth” is constantly trampling upon.  Will they simply accept that 2+2 = 5 like Winston did?  I don’t think we have prepared the same sort of MiniLuv as Oceania has, and there are many millions of Winstons, however ridiculous their beliefs might be.

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