Tuesday 1 June 2010

Worrying thoughts about specialization and growth

Could it be that the differentiation of Church and State, the development of universities (secular in their essence, even when staffed by religious), the process of specialization itself – that all these are actually first steps on an _inevitable_ path to where we are now (i.e. on the verge of a self-inflicted - almost self-willed - collapse of 'the West')?

Universities can be seen as by now vastly inflated institutions, not just parasitic but actively destructive in many ways. On the other hand Universities used to perform some functions which were essential to those aspects of modernity which we most admire: philosophy in the medieval university, classics in the next period, science (Wissenschaft) in the 19th century German universities and so on.

But, in retrospect, all these golden ages of scholarship and research were more like brief transitional periods en route to something much worse.

For instance, the flowering of science (as a specialized, largely autonomous, social system) for the couple of centuries up until the mid twentieth century was a period of constant institutional change until science became - as now - *essentially* a branch of the state bureaucracy.

It seems that useful/ efficient specialization (including separation from State and Religion) leads to over specialization (or micro-specialization) which is increasingly less efficient, then less effective - and all this seems to lead back to re-absorption of science into the State (or into Religion, in principle).

For instance the London Royal Society became more and more autonomous in its conduct until maybe the mid-twentieth century, then became progressively reabsorbed back into the State until now the Royal Society gets about ¾ of its funding directly from the UK parliament, and the organization functions like a department of the UK civil administration.

If we go back and back to find the point at which this *apparently* unstoppable yet self-undermining process began in the West - I think it may lead to the difference between (say) medieval Orthodox Byzantium and Catholic Western Europe.

To scholasticism, perhaps? That was when the divergence became first apparent - when an academic, pre-scientific discipline (i.e. philosophy) became increasing autonomous from Religion (in the West the Religious hierarchy already was separate from the State hierarchy - although sometimes the two cooperated closely. In the East, Church and State formed an intermingled, single hierarchy).

Indeed, my impression is that Thomistic scholasticism may itself be self-undermining – and that this can perhaps be seen in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and even of some specific scholastic scholars – for example Jacques Maritain or Thomas Merton? (They began as traditionalists and ended as modernizers.)

It seems that institutions can grasp the essence of Thomism, and yet the process of understanding does not at all prevent – indeed it perhaps encourages – the continuation of the process until it has destroyed the system itself. As Peter Abelard found, once the process of sceptical analysis has begun, there is not clear point at which it can be seen necessary to stop – and the only point when it is known for sure that things have gone too-far is when the system which supported the process has fallen to pieces and by then it is too late.

Something similar may apply to science. The process of science creates a social system which first really reinvents itself due to real discoveries, then later makes pseudo- discoveries in order really to reinvent itself, then finally makes pseudo-discoveries in order to pseudo-reinvent itself. At which point the full circles has been turned, and all that remains is to drop the pretence.

Of course, differentiation of society led initially to greater strength, based (probably) on frequent breakthroughs in science and technology which drove increased economic productivity and military capability. But as differentiation proceeded to micro- and destructive levels, the real breakthroughs dried up and were replaced with hype and spin, then later pure lies. Real economic growth was replaced with inflation and borrowing. Progress was replaced with propaganda.

We have already observed the whole story in the atheist and supposedly science-worshipping Soviet Union – which in Russia is maybe now returning to the more stable and robust pattern of Eastern Christian (Byzantine) theocracy - and the pattern is merely being repeated in the capitalist and democratic West.

(With the difference that the secular West will probably - in the medium term - return after the collapse of modernity to segmentary, chaotic tribalism, rather than large-scale cohesive theocracy.)

In sum, perhaps the process of social differentiation is unstoppable hence inevitably self-destroying? The increasing rate of science and technological breakthroughs from (say) 1700 to 1900 looked like progress in the conduct of human affairs until it wasn’t. The faster social system growth and differentiation proceeds, the faster it destroys itself.

Rapid growth and differentiation is therefore, in fact, intrinsically parasitic – whether or not we can actually detect the parasitism. At any rate, that's what it looks like to me.