Weaponized reductionism

One of the fun parts of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is the way the book forces the reader into a sort of reverse culture shock, understanding the full strangeness of a post-industrial society through the eyes of his cloistered scholars.  He describes familiar things in this world with such care and attention to detail that they become strange again:

“Before leaving town we stopped, or rather slowed down, at a place where we could get food without spending a lot of time.  I remembered this kind of restaurant from my childhood but it was new to the Hundreders.  I couldn’t help seeing it as they did: the ambiguous conversation with the unseen serving-wench, the bags of hot-grease-scented food hurtling in through the window, condiments in packets, attempting to eat while lurching down a highway, volumes of messy litter that seemed to fill all the empty space in the mobe, a smell that outstayed its welcome.”

I’ve been reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations recently, and one of the things that really jumped out at me was the extent to which this Roman emperor deliberately used the same reductionist technique to not to let the pomp and luxury of his office make him proud or put on airs.  He wrote:

“[Cultivate] disgust at what things are made of… marble as hardened dirt, gold and silver as residues, clothes as hair, purple dye as shellfish blood.”

He applies this sort of reductionism throughout his book, and uses it to try to see through the social conventions of his day, and arrive an objective view of what in his life was worth valuing.  Instead of living in a resplendent palace, emperor of the known world, he forced himself to see it as living in an artificial cave, ornamented with bits of shiny stuff dug out of the earth, and instead of lording it over senators he simply saw himself as dealing with other humans who happened to wear hairs dyed in purple shellfish extract.  “Latch onto things and pierce through them, so we see what they truly are.  That’s what we need to do all the time…to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend encrusts them.  Pride is a master of deception.”  Without saying a single tendentious or untrue thing, he manages to transform these luxuries and totems into the mundane and frankly bizarre.

Elsewhere, he performs the exact opposite trick, turning a mundanity into a transcendent purpose:

“What’s left for us to do?  I think it’s this: to do (and not do) what we were designed for.  That’s the goal of all trades, all arts, and what each of them aims at: that the thing they create should do what it was designed to do.  The nurseryman who cares for the vines, the horse trainer, the dog breeder – this is what they aim at…I do what is mine to do; the rest doesn’t disturb me.”

And what was this telos that we were designed for?

“Revere the gods; watch over human beings.  Our lives are short.  The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish acts.”

So he uses reductionism to tear down temptations, while telling grand, non-reductionistic narratives to encourage himself to virtues.  And his book is really powerful in changing perspective because of this selective use of reductionism.

Now, you could imagine the opposite: a situation where people explain away virtue as just old-fashioned twaddle – or worse, nothing more than the deceptions of an entrenched power structure or an emergent property of Darwinian selfishness.  At the same time, they might tell really compelling, teleological stories about the importance of success at short-term things, whether being a business titan, winning a political debate, or dating someone really attractive.  Of course this would be pretty crazy and I don’t know why anyone would do this.

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