The title of this post came to be long before I had any idea what I was going to write. There is certainly no lack of great and genuinely classic arguments along this line, and I’ve no need or desire to do a rehashed book report on Mill’s On Liberty, or Milton’s Areopagitica. Still, with power canalizing everything it is able into predetermined forms, and the Butthurt Baby in Chief‘s unhinged ravings against the press, against President Obama, even (evidently) thundering at his own staff, saying something about “unpopular” ideas seemed not out of place. The challenge I decided to set before myself was to do so as a Whiteheadian.
My previous post took a number of steps in that direction, including setting up some background on Whitehead’s mature metaphysics. And I’ll not revisit that argument here. Rather, I wish to expand upon it by entertaining some additional Whiteheadian notions, those of the role of error in the growth of meaning, and of the functions of reason in life. Mill talks of the positive value of error in the above referenced book, but his attitude is that such a role is primarily as a whetstone against which reason and truth can sharpen themselves. On the other hand, the trifold functions of reason (Whitehead’s book “singularized” the term to the Function of Reason) open up how the possibilities of meaning in the world creatively expand as we move beyond the shackles of mere existence into the full universe of possibility. That movement – that “creative advance” – involves a kind of “error,” in that what simply “is” must yield to that which only yet “might be.” And that “might be” will, almost invariably, start out by being unpopular. I’ll begin with The Function of Reason, as it is both the easier to explain and the founding (albeit implicit) principle behind Whitehead’s theory of the role of error.
The function of reason begins long before the emergence of even the most basic sorts of neurophysical structures: it begins with the most elementary form(s) of life. The function of reason is:
To Live Well
To Live Better
Taking these in turn: is a prion alive? Is a virus? By the time you reach even the most primitive prokaryotic cell, you certainly have life, and have achieved the first functional end of reason. Because what possible “reason” could exist outside of life? Let us not confuse ourselves about “life” generally conceived, as opposed to the form of life we are familiar with that is based on carbon chemistry. Whitehead is talking about the former, more general idea. If Aristotle’s concept of “god” as the “unmoved mover” is to make any sense at all, then that vision of the deity must, in some sense, be “alive.” Otherwise it is nothing beyond a calculating machine, calculating nothing, and calculating it endlessly.
The next level up, to live well, speaks to a degree of organic structure that no longer just passively acquiesces to its environment, but becomes (to some degree or other) an active participant in that environment. The final stage, to live better, is when that activity begins to take on the characteristics of intelligent control. These levels don’t correspond directly with Aristotle’s hierarchy of life – vegetative, animate, rational – but for the abbreviated purposes of this blog post, they can be viewed as a heuristic analogy.
The constructive role of error in Whitehead’s theory is a rather trickier proposition to convey. A deep exegesis of Whitehead’s thought here would show that it is connected with his theory of propositions, so the preceding sentence is a rather recondite pun. Anyone who wishes to pursue this connection is welcome to explore the forthcoming book of which I am a co-author. Here, as with my previous post, I’m going to play a little fast and loose with the details in the hopes of providing a working, if painfully general, picture.
An “error” is a deviation from the norm, a step that does not fit the pattern. A mud wasp has a fixed waltz it must perform in setting up its nest, planting its stung prey (which has the joyful opportunity of ending its days in paralysis while the wasp’s spawn eat it alive) in said nest, and going about its remaining business. But interrupt that waltz even a little, little bit, and the only thing the wasp can do is start the whole process over again from the beginning. It cannot even walk around a minor obstruction that appears in its path. It cannot innovate. It cannot cope with “error.”
But errors are not merely obstructions or failures. They are also the source of “creative advance” in the universe. That “deviation from the norm” is not merely a “violation,” unless one is intransigently authoritarian in one’s mindset (in which case, “different” and “threat” essentially mean the same thing.) That deviation – that disruption – of the “norm” is precisely the disruption it is because it is new, unexpected, unpredicted: as such, it is creative. Not all creation is good; who would choose to praise the novelties presented by such “original” viruses as HIV or the 1919 Spanish Flu? Still, at least some people might praise the string of genetic and epigenetic errors that led to the existence of human beings as a good thing. A glance at social media of various sorts shows that there are some people who would denounce this string of errors as little more than a contagion, but I notice that none of the people making such histrionic declarations take any steps to purify the world of their presence (an arguably tu quoque criticism.)
We carefully disregard the erroneous character of ideas we like. Abolitionists were denounced for the error of their ways, their failure to recognize that slavery was unambiguously endorsed by the Bible. These self-same persons now tell us that the entire LGBTQ community is to be damned as an abomination before God, even as they eat shellfish, shave their chin whiskers, wear clothes of more than one thread, and happily eat at MacDonald’s on a Sunday. (Evidently, they have the special Bible with all of the secret footnotes where God says, “Ha, ha, ha! I was only kidding when I said those other things!”) More than a few persons of sincere, and well-educated, religious conviction have found the justifications for liberty in the Bible that others would denounce as errors. (It should be recalled that the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s – 1960’s was overwhelmingly religious in nature. Secularists participated, but they did not lead, nor did they provide the philosophical underpinnings of the movement.)
These deviations, disruptions, errors – creative advances – occurred in defiance of the established norms. The author Samuel R. Delany in one of his stories (I forget which one – my wood-pulp collection is in storage) said that the most important members of any society are its artists and criminals, for these are the only people who are in a position to challenge that society’s assumptions. These are the people who err; these are the people who create. (Recall that the people who operated the underground railroad, who smuggled Jews out of Nazi controlled lands, were criminals.)
Creating something new – genuinely new – is always disruptive, and invariably unpopular. It is worth closing on a few obvious, but seldom enough mentioned, points: being new is not the same as being right, and being unpopular is not evidence of being new, of being creative. There is hardly anything more fatuous and tedious then anti-vaccine arguments or climate change denialism. Genuinely new ideas are hard to find, so finding a genuinely “unpopular” idea (that is, one that is not widely entertained by the populous) is a rather trickier proposition than one might initially suppose. But creation occurs on the cusp of the disruptive, of the wrong, of “error.” And that is never a popular place to be.