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No You’re Not

It is probably a mistake to elevate those attributes of the homo sapiens nervous system that long for the right answer, the unified field, the elementary particle, or the universal truth. These beliefs are present not only in formalized philosophies, religions and political regimes of the human, but at the heart of the human’s daily activities. Some cerebral constructs—the most immaterial and ephemeral of all the body’s inventions—ossify into cast-iron closed loops of logical thinking that demand to be “the one and only.” A dictator, professor, spiritual leader, parent or co-worker all practice daily meditations or tireless litigations about the reasons why they are right. Almost everything else in the soft assemblies of most organisms works by endless iteration, multiplication, or trial and error. Yet this stray symptom of stubborn self-regard holds sway over the entire organism, causing it to constantly circle a very limited repertoire of behaviors. Observing the fact that there do not seem to be other creatures who sit, with fins and flagellates limp, transfixed in thought about something like dialectic and telos, humans even make the mistake of thinking that this restrictive habit of mind is a gift that sets them above the rest.

Since superiority cannot abide contradiction, the whole assembly also often oscillates between a closed loop—the circulation of flattering and compatible evidence—and a binary fight—the vilification of non-conforming evidence. Fighting is essential to be right. There is no growth or ideation without argument or debate. There is no literature without conflict. Bombastic arguments must naturally ask for successive rather than coexistent thoughts or practices. They must wipe away the incumbent and establish the new and transcendent. The root of the problem—the desire to be right—is treated as the progressive answer to the problem. The new right answer kills the old right answer, and the very habits of mind that help to incite violence are deployed in an impossible attempt to alleviate it. Essentially there is very little difference in spirit or intent between an avant-garde of ideas and an avant-garde of combat formation. Whether taking the form of intellectual sparring or all out war, these are the grisly histories of the “humanities.”

True to the disposition of the closed loop, the argument that is inescapable will, structurally, always be correct. In a recent book about winning arguments, a human named Stanley Fish quotes an exchange from Monty Python’s “The Argument Clinic.” Michael Palin, who has come to the clinic to pay for an argument, says, “Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just the automatic gainsaying of anything the other person says.” John Cleese replies, “It is NOT!” Unwittingly adding to the comedy, Fish uses the exchange to prove that he himself was right all along about the ubiquity of argument. He and so many others, as if perpetually saying “There you are, you see,” will always be human and always be right. And culture continues to congratulate itself on its ability to debate or deploy the logics of reasonable thinking to arrive at proofs that demonstrate the right answer.

Beyond the daily preoccupations of individuals, the loop and the binary are scalable. Whole populations of people and huge territories captivated by some universal belief or totalizing regime of control can move in lock step to demonstrate that they are right. Muscles and fists harden into weapons. Demonstrating all reasonable outcomes of aggression or consumption, statistics, data, or game theory support rationalizing wars and markets. Global infrastructure platforms historically portray themselves as ultimate, transcendent, and redemptive; it was as true for railroads as it is now for digital technologies that treat data as the only information of consequence in a world that is Turing complete. It is not just ISIS teenagers who, gun and sledge hammer in hand, long for their own Caliphate.

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