Sunday, 28 November 2010

How *not* to be systematic: Orthodox Christianity and Real Science

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Mainstream modern management is characterized by an uncontrolled and uncontrollable totalitarian impulsion to impose system on all instances of social organization concerned with the production and distribution of valued goods.

System is understandable as meaning standard practices leading to predictable outcomes.

Libertarians emphasize the standard practices (impartial process) with outcomes being variable according to the outcome of competition and selection; in contrast political correctness emphasizes the predictability of outcomes with processes being adjusted to achieve a pre-determined end result.

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Modernity cannot even comprehend social affairs running without a system; this is because modernity is secular, atheist, materialist; has no higher human value than happiness and no higher concept of justice than system.

Consequently, modernity cannot conceptualize any possibility others than various combinations of system and chaos.

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But there is a third possibility, and this is to transcend the debate, move the analysis to a higher level.  In particular to move the debate to the religious level.

At the religious level the dichotomy of system and chaos is transcended by the ordering capability of divine guidance and intervention.

Minus a belief in the reality of divine guidance, system is supreme as a principle of order and tends inevitably and unstoppably towards totalitarianism - and the only alternative is chaos.

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For many hundreds of years - there was no 'system' for choosing the Emperor of the Byzantine Roman empire, and this lack of system was deliberate. 

All possible systems to select the Emperor were regarded as merely human creations (hence inevitably partial and corrupt), while the choice of Emperor was supposed to be made by God (the Emperor was God's representative on earth). 

The Byzantine attitude was that the correct choice of new Emperor would emerge with divine guidance, so long as the society was devoutly Christian and sincerely asked for God's guidance.

The idea was that this deliberate lack of system would lead to the 'best' choice - best from a divine perspective, which might mean a 'bad' Emperor for a while, as an instrument of divine punishment for heresy or lack of devotion.

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And for the past two millenia or so, the Christian Orthodox church has had no centralized and formal system of authority; no final court of appeal. 

This could be expressed as a long list of negatives - there is no Pope or senior priest (the nearest being five senior Bishops), no final authority (the nearest being some early Ecumenical Councils), multiple national jurisdictions which are diverse and independent, no clear centrality of doctrine or training for priests or formal criteria for ordination...

These are negatives - but the negatives are (on the whole) deliberate; because in a positive sense, such lack of system leaves more space for the operation of the Holy Spirit by more possible routes and means. 

Naturally, this is only effective (even in theory) when many or most people people are devout and sincere, and especially when some are extremely holy (spiritually advanced).

In particular, Saints - before their death - have authoritative knowledge of higher things (living both on earth and in heaven simultaneously) - although even here the humanity of the Saint and (especially) of those less advanced souls trying to understand the Saint, mean that the Saint is not 'infallible' in a legalistic sense.

(The true Saint will speak the Truth, to the best of his ability in that time and place; but may not be correctly understood.)

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Essentially (as I understand things), the focus of authority in Orthodoxy is located in 'the Church' conceptualized in an ideal fashion, as the collective mind of those who are devout, divinely-ordained and spiritually-advanced (each of whom has limited knowledge, prone to error and may be corruptible). 

But who decides who these people are who are are 'devout and spiritually advanced'?

The answer is (roughly) those who are also devout and spiritually advanced.

And there is Revelation - written evidence and oral transmission of how to understand and interpret it. There is the Bible and the oral transmission of the early Church Fathers, and (perhaps) modern Fathers who are spiritually in sympathy with, perhaps actually in touch with these sources...

In effect, there are multiple loops of loose and slow influence and feedback, through which the Holy Spirit may (via devout souls) shape the Church over the generations.

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From the modern Western perspective all this is perceived merely as lack of system and equated with chaos.

Indeed, from a Roman Catholic perspective, Orthodoxy is often perceived as being anarchic (due to their denial of the Pope's supreme authority) - hence merely chaotic.

Or else Orthodoxy may be perceived as systematic but exhibiting circularity of reasoning of the 'whatever happens is good' variety - by which deficiencies are arbitrarily re-labelled as strengths.

In other words, that the Orthodox choice to use 'tradition' as authority, and to keep traditional mostly undefined, is arbitrary.  

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However, this criticism of 'arbitrary circularity' applies to all human systems without exception when they are evaluated using materialistic, non-transcendent criteria; and the more highly systematic the human system, the more arbitrary.

At the highest moral level of secular modern organization - political correctness - there is the 'arbitrary' decision to regard abstract systems of principled human allocation as the highest authority. 

And in secular right wing (libertarian) socio-politics (the less powerful, less moral and more hedonic form of partial-PC) there is an equally arbitrary decision to regard the outcomes of markets as the highest authority, or the outcome of scientific processes, or the outcome of democratic procedures.

And within religions, the Orthodox point to the primacy (and 'infallibility') of the Papacy as an artificial (and - the Orthodox would claim - arbitrary) mechanism for terminating dissent and increasing the temporal (not spiritual) power of the church. 

The institution of Papal infallibility is seen as system which many be advantageous in the short term, but which renders the Church more humanly corruptible and less susceptible (i.e. susceptible by fewer channels) to the influence of the Holy Spirit.

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Science provides a further example. I believe that real science can only survive in a society which acknowledges the reality of the transcendent; because otherwise arbitrary system (specifically peer review) will displace real science on the basis that it is reducing chaos.

So modern mainstream careerist professional scientists all regard the science of the past as chaotic; and see the application of formal systems of peer review to science (to all evaluations: education and training, appointments and promotions, grants and publication, prizes and prestige) as evidence of scientific progress (increase of order, reduction of chaos) - when in fact this is merely the imposition of arbitrary system: the imposition of scientific totalitarianism.

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Yet, real science in the past was not more-chaotic, it was instead orientated towards a transcendental understanding of science as Truth.

Science in the past therefore had this spiritual aspect, which is closely analogous to the operation of Orthodox Christianity (albeit at a lower and more partial level).

In real science of the past, scientists could, and did, have a court of appeal above and beyond formal procedure - a level of authority and validity above the formal processes of peer review. 

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In other words, real science had a transcendent level above peer review against which peer review could be evaluated, which regards peer review as merely a means to an end and equally capable of harm as benefit.

Indeed systems such as peer review are intrinsically harmful when regarded as valid in their own right, because they impose upon the transcendent, eventually make invisible (hence impossible) the transcendent. 

Transcendent scientific Truth was that which the most honest, devout and idealistic scientists pursued directly and unsystematically, with feedback not being abstract, formal and explicit but mainly coming from other honest, devout and idealistic scientists in a process that was circular only at a materialist and worldly level - but which was constantly and sincerely being referenced to a higher and transcendental level.

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My take-home point is that there is a coherent alternative other than chaos to the current Western trend for ever-increasing bureaucratization and abstract systematization of human society, an alternative to the ever-increasing subordination of humanity to abstract procedures and allocations.

But that alternative involves moving the debate to a higher and religious level, and regarding systems in terms of serving divine rather than human purposes.

So long as we stick at the level of secular materialism, the trend will be towards the extinction of human agency: the trend will be towards totalitarian political correctness.

Totalitarianism versus chaos; a totalitarianism of arbitrary systems or a chaos versus the arbitrary lack of such systems: these are the only coherent alternatives for a secular materialist society, and secular materialist societies will always be moving toward the one or the other because no other alternatives make any sense.

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Addendum

The nature of totalitarian secular political correctness is encapsulated in the words of that great prophet of modernity: Saruman, in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, when he says:-

"We can bide our time (...) keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order, all things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak and idle friends."  

For Saruman, lined-up against Ignorance, Anarchy and Chaos there is only Knowledge, Rule and Order: the alternatives are therefore primitive disorder or a unified, consistent, totalitarian system. 

He therefore envisages a system of imposed behavior which (arbitrarily) has Saruman at the summit - who happens to be immortal - but which in principle might equally be headed-up by Sauron, or Gandalf (who are 'angels/ demons'), or even Elrond or Galadriel (immortal humans - i.e. elves) as its ultimate authority. 

But for Saruman's (ultimately triumphant) rival Gandalf, by contrast, the totalitarian systemization of 'Knowledge, Rule, Order' must be subordinated to divine purpose (which necessarily includes the free will of autonomous individuals) and divine providence (the operation of which is merely impaired by wholesale and arbitrary systemization). 

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