by Robin Koerner
May 02, 2017
Beware of Orwell's 'Enlightened Class' - Know
Them by Their Fruit
understood the Technocrat mind:
'enlightened' that they cannot understand
the most ordinary emotions."
is the norm among would-be social engineers who
think it their right or obligation to control
everything and everyone in the environment.
It's Not What
You Believe - It's How You Believe It
George Orwell's novel
1984 has been selling in large
numbers to people scared of a lurch toward authoritarianism in the
I recently noted that
both that book and
Animal Farm were written not as a
warning against a particular political ideology but against the
implementation of any ideology, however progressive, by people who
think themselves too smart to have to test their politics against
the emotions, sentiments, and experiences of those they would
In his essay,
My Country Right or Left,
Orwell referred to such people as,
that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions."
He understood that the
morality of a political ideology in practice cannot be determined
from its theoretical exposition - but only from the actual
experiences of those who would be affected by its real-world
1984 warned not about a political ideology, but rather, commitment
to an ideology.
To make the point to the people he felt most needed to hear it,
Orwell, a self-identified socialist, called out the arrogance of his
friends on the Left who experienced themselves as so "enlightened,"
to use his word, that they did not need to consider the sentiments -
let alone ideas - of those who were to them clearly politically
Orwell had a name for this kind of self-righteous certainty - and it
wasn't fascism, capitalism, or communism.
It was "orthodoxy,"
which he explains in 1984,
"means not thinking -
not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness."
It is a state exhibited
by people who already know they have the right answers - at least in
the areas that matter.
There is no political system so perfect that it will not be deadly
when imposed against the will of others by people sure of their own
Orwell saw that no
political theory - even the egalitarian socialism that he believed
to be the most moral - can prevent its adherents from being anything
other than tyrants if they are committed to it in a way that is
immune to the protests and experiences of other people.
In other words, tyranny is not the result of a belief in a bad
political theory; it is the result of a bad belief in a political
theory - and that is an entirely different thing.
Epistemology of Political Ideologies
To understand tyranny, then, we need to think a bit less
about politics, and a bit more about
epistemology. Epistemology concerns
the nature of knowledge, and especially its formation,
justification, and scope.
Accordingly, the word
knowledge or the degree of its validation".
We may be able to
identify one ideology as more consistent with freedom than another,
but that is just an academic exercise if in practice it is the
nature of the commitment to the ideology, rather than the content
committed to, that leads to authoritarianism.
Newton was doing physics, but his work clearly implied a
As Yogi Berra rather nicely put it,
"In theory, there's
no difference between theory and practice; but in practice,
Can we identify an
epistemology of tyranny?
Is there a mechanism by
which a certain kind of cognitive commitment to a political or moral
theory might cause someone willingly to harm others in its pursuit;
prevent them from seeing the harm they are doing, or even make
invisible to them the data that would demand a revision of their
beliefs to better reflect human experience and lead to outcomes more
aligned with their stated goals?
Such fundamental questions concern our ability to form knowledge and
change our opinions and so both depend on, and reveal, much about
human nature. And since human nature doesn't change, we shouldn't be
too surprised to find that history provides a useful guide in
Orwell referred sarcastically to the "enlightenment" of people who
are rather less enlightened than they believe themselves to be.
At first blush, then, it may appear to be a rather remarkable
coincidence that the period of history that perhaps sheds most light
on what makes commitment to ideology dangerous is the Enlightenment.
(But we'll soon see that
it isn't a coincidence at all.)
In the latter part of the 17th century, René Descartes,
Isaac Newton, and myriad other intellectual giants were
making a whole new world.
published in 1687, Newton presented the Laws of Motion, the theory
of gravity and even a set of "Rules for Reasoning in Philosophy."
His work explained and
predicted an infinity of (although by no means all) phenomena that
had theretofore been mysterious. In providing a coherent means of
understanding many complex phenomena in terms of a few axioms and
principles, he made tractable a huge swathe of the world.
In as much as Newton's theories substantially described and
predicted things that had not been accurately described or predicted
before, they were both true and useful - or, at least they were much
"truer" than any understanding of the world that had come before it.
Newton was doing physics, but his work clearly implied a certain
and therefore the underlying reality, were deterministic - meaning
that if you knew the laws that governed things and their state at
one instance, then you could predict in principle their motions and
states at all times.
They rested on
common-sense, observable, causation - meaning that a specific cause
necessarily leads to a specific effect.
They used a common-sense
framework of time and space, in which a foot is always a foot and a
second is always a second, everywhere and always. In one fell swoop,
Newton's work eliminated the need for any non-physical explanations
of a huge number of terrestrial and celestial phenomena.
It was better than what came before it because whereas, say,
the Church's explanatory entities (God, the
saints, the soul) failed to explain why the world operated as it did
rather than any other way, Newton's explanatory entities (force,
mass etc.) did exactly that. And did so with precision in a manner
that could even be used to steer the world towards specific
Indeed, to many, an explanation that wasn't scientific wasn't even
Some of the critical intellectual groundwork for Newton had been
laid by René Descartes, who not long before, had developed
the mathematical framework that was used by Newton in his
extraordinary endeavor. But more than that, Descartes had pioneered
the skeptical philosophical project, showing the world the nature
and standard of certainty that would have to pertain to any claim
that could even be said to constitute "knowledge" at all.
Between Descartes' having primed the Western world not to believe
things that it didn't actually know, and Newton's appearing to
eliminate the need for non-physical explanations of physical
phenomena, some of the "enlightened ones" started to feel that they
could not just sift fact from non-fact, but could prejudge entire
classes of claims as to whether they need to be taken seriously at
Over the next hundred years, this line of thinking continued.
In 1785, for example,
Coulomb did in the domain of electricity and magnetism what
Newton had done in the domain of mechanics and gravity.
And as science advanced,
so-called former "knowledge" that could not be tested against the
direct experience of physical objects; that invoked non-physical
explanations of anything; that could not be the basis of accurate
predictions of physical phenomena - was seen by some to be no more
than commitments of faith, guesswork, or superstition.
In other words, it wasn't just wrong:
it was of an
altogether lower order - perhaps even derisible - and the people
who advanced it were backward-thinking.
To that part of the
educated classes, every success of science reinforced their
certainty in a clockwork universe, justifying not just disagreement
with, but the dismissal of, any postulates that were not consistent
with the prevailing metaphysics.
Indeed, to many, an explanation that wasn't scientific wasn't even
Of great consequence, a
phenomenon that wasn't amenable to a scientific explanation wasn't
even a real phenomenon, but at best an emergent property of real
(physical) phenomena that could be scientifically explained (such as
particles moving in the brain in reaction to stimuli, according to
To some, this new science made
free will no longer free, and no
longer even will.
To many, it turned cats
into machines, because (with the exception of humans who in a still
largely Christian world could be believed to have souls), everything
was a machine.
Kicking a cat became as
acceptable to those people as slamming a door.
And here's where we start to circle back to Orwell.
"You See Only
what You Know"
The cat-kickers of the 18th and 19th century
could see their cats react in pain; they could hear them squeal, but
now they knew something that caused them no longer to take their
cat's apparent experience into account - because it was now only
that - apparent.
That squeal was just a mechanical response of a machine to a
mechanical stimulus. There was no consciousness; there was just a
really complex machine (a cat's brain) inside another really complex
machine (a cat).
Cruelty to cats became acceptable not because cruelty became
acceptable, but because cats ceased to be cats.
But only for the
"enlightened", of course, who knew their science, and could laugh
condescendingly about their sentimental neighbors who worried about
whether their cats were happy because they'd evidently not read any
Descartes or Newton.
The "enlightened" could cut themselves off emotionally from the harm
they could see themselves causing.
So we begin to see how something that only the most "enlightened"
people know can cause them to cut off emotionally from the harm they
could clearly see themselves causing, if only their theory - in
fact, their knowledge - were not in the way.
And it is all utterly
reasonable because their knowledge is the most certain and most
tested of any the world has produced.
These are the people who are literally the most progressive of their
age. In the 18th and 19th centuries, not only
did they have all the certainty of science:
they had it bolstered
by the imprimatur of a Church that told them that cats, not
being human, don't have souls, so machines are the only possible
things left for them to be.
Understanding that people
are made of matter, which follows deterministic rules, many of the
European intelligentsia understandably deduced that rules must
govern human behavior too, so they started looking for them.
It was understood that it was necessary to look at the world to find
the laws that govern it, but once they were found, many
non-scientists forgot about the need to keep testing them against
actual phenomena as they started to exploit those laws to produce
By the beginning of the 18th century, we were doing that
with steam engines with amazing results.
Could it be that we could
do it with political systems too, especially if
the increasingly discredited Church was wrong about the
soul, and a human being is just a more complex machine than a steam
engine, but a machine nonetheless?
It certainly appeared to
many enlightened thinkers that society followed statistical laws
that could obviously be exploited by social engineering for our
benefit, just as the physical laws were exploited by mechanical
engineering to produce the steam engine and all the good it had done
Gustav Le Bon, in the Psychology of Revolutions,
explaining the roots of the terror at the end of the 18th
century in France wrote the following:
Revolution was above all a permanent struggle between theorists
who were imbued with a new ideal, and the economic, social and
political laws, which ruled mankind, and which they do not
The political orthodoxies that arose from the end of the 18th
century - benign and logical in their exposition, but terrifying in
their application - could only be imposed with such relentless
horror and death because of the confident commitment of people to a
"theory" that "explained" a certain set of effects as following from
certain causes - even as the effects were proving them wrong, if
only they'd been open to them.
But they weren't open to them, because they experienced their own
certainty in their theories, not as a psychological state, which is
all it was, but as the accuracy of the theory in which they were
certain, which is an entirely different thing.
That kind of religious commitment to theory - and commitment can be
religious even when the theory is anything but - doesn't matter much
if you're working with steam engines, but it matters a lot if you're
working with guillotines.
I imprison you so that we may all have liberté. I kill you so
that we may all have égalité.
You'd get it if only you were enlightened enough to
understand the theory that makes sense of it all.
And a century after the French Revolution, the deaths of tens of
millions of Russians would be similarly caused and justified using a
philosophy that purported to be deterministic and rational and
manifesting of all the characteristics that make a theory - like
Newton's laws of motion - a good theory.
In both cases, the evil didn't result from the fact that the theory
was incorrect per se.
It resulted from the fact
that its adherents weren't doing science - recognizing that their
current, best model of the world was a step to a better one that is
taken by revising it to accommodate the world's reaction to its
application - but something called scientism, wherein the current,
best model becomes a fixed doctrine and the best of all possible
In other words, it was the epistemology rather than the political
content that was the problem.
All theories are incorrect because none - not even the best theories
we have - are complete, and they are all conceived in very finite
human minds. But some, like
quantum mechanics, for example, are
really, really good.
They get to be good by
being tested time and time again against data from the real world by
people whose motivation is to find information that will show up all
the ways they are wrong or incomplete, rather than information that
reinforces their current understanding.
And motivation is everything, because it determines not just what
will be found, but even what can be seen.
Epistemology of Tyranny
Science and scientism are superficially similar but epistemic
opposites. A true scientist remains
That means that she works
always on the assumption that her theory is,
The daily task of science
is to identify the ways in which our current understanding is
lacking. In so doing, science's understanding of the world becomes
Scientism, in contrast, is doxastically closed. That means that it
identifies our best theory but then behaves as if it is,
science, has no need for data. It is deadly because it always uses
the current paradigm to explain away potentially problematic
observations. (E.g. the cat's squeal isn't telling me it's in pain;
it's confirming that machines, including cats, have predictable
responses to physical stimuli.)
Orwell's "unthinking orthodoxy" is "political scientism."
In my earlier article, I wrote about the authoritarianism of some of
the "Social Justice Warrior" Left today, who would give moral
privilege to groups they identity as victim groups in the name of
eliminating privilege; who would eliminate the free speech of people
with whom they disagree in the name of giving everyone an equal
voice; who equate speech with violence to justify violence against
those who speak.
Bizarre as those paradoxes clearly are, their advocates are not
automatically dangerous if they are open to revising their moral or
political theory in the light of falsifying data or contradictions
in the theory's application.
What makes it all dangerous is that it is allied with an a priori
belief about competing views and political opponents that eliminate
the possibility that any experiences or perspectives could provide
data that could challenge the theory.
If potentially contradictory data can be rejected a priori on
account of being explained away as the result of "fascist",
"racist", "sexist" attitudes, for example, then the theory is
inoculated against the human data against which all political
theories must be tested.
Our social justice warrior friends thus become like those engaged in
scientism two centuries ago.
But instead of rejecting
as "backward" phenomena or interpretations of phenomena that do not
exhibit the required meta-characteristics of determinism,
materialism, etc., they reject as "backward" phenomena or
interpretations of phenomena that do not exhibit the
meta-characteristics of victimhood or privilege.
It's not just the preserve of the Left. This kind of epistemic
"inoculation" happens all over the political spectrum.
The successful defense of truth against the closed epistemology of
scientism, and the successful defense of human happiness against the
closed epistemology of political scientism, depend on knowing
something crucial about it: scientism never feels backward or even
extreme: it necessarily looks and feels modern and progressive.
Those with scientistic attitudes usually experience themselves as
just asserting common sense.
After all, they are doing
no more or less than believing in the claims of science, which have
been tested at every turn, have produced tangible improvements all
around us, and have generated more provable knowledge than any other
method of human enquiry.
Indeed, no educated person post-enlightenment can doubt the advance
of science or, therefore, that deterministic and mechanistic
explanations have succeeded where religious ones, for example, have
Since these scientistic non-scientists experienced themselves,
rightly, as believing in nothing more than the most certain and
proved human knowledge, if you disagree with them, you aren't just
wrong (which would be allowable), you are intellectually backward.
If you believe in spirit,
whatever that might be, in a mechanistic universe, you aren't just
factually mistaken, you are rejecting human progress; you are
believing in something that isn't just not the case but isn't even
worthy of consideration.
It is a position that is so enticingly and dangerously reasonable.
After all, it is obvious that cause and effect exists. How can there
be any knowledge without it? Every known truth depends on it.
You may experience yourself as conscious, the scientistic
non-scientist believes, but there is obviously an objective reality
that doesn't depend on what you think about it.
You may have different experiences from me and interpret them
differently from me, but if your interpretation of the world
violates that belief, then I don't even have to take it seriously.
In fact, I don't even have to take you seriously. You are not just
wrong; you are intellectually beyond the pale; you are one of the
dangerous ones. You are the one, with your strange pseudo-religious
ideas, who probably has to be stopped by people like me who know
In the French Revolution, they stopped you with blades. In the
Russian Revolution, they stopped you with guns and gulags. And it
was all perfectly in line with the theory - with the theory that the
most intellectually and morally enlightened had formulated and were
Here is Robespierre's justification of the terror of the
We must smother the
internal and external enemies of the Republic or perish with it;
now in this situation, the first maxim of your policy ought to
be to lead the people by reason and the people's enemies by
If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue,
the springs of popular government in revolution are at once
virtue and terror:
which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is
Terror is nothing
other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore
an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as
it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy
applied to our country's most urgent needs.
It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic
Does your government,
therefore, resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in
the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the
henchmen of tyranny are armed.
Let the despot govern
by terror his brutalized subjects; he is right, as a despot.
Subdue by terror the enemies of liberty, and you will be right,
as founders of the Republic.
The government of the
revolution is liberty's despotism against tyranny.
In other words, it may
seem that the fact that a small group of people is guillotining
thousands is a piece of data against our theory of
fraternité, liberté, and égalité -
but that's just because you are not smart enough or good enough or
committed enough to understand it.
until you see that your data can't possibly be the data...
It may seem that the fact that a small group of people are starving
others and putting them in concentration camps is a piece of data
against our theory of each those according to his ability to each
according to his need, and the empowerment of the proletariat - but
that is because you are not smart enough or good enough or committed
enough to understand it.
Read Marx until
you see that your facts can't possibly be the facts.
Orwell's "War is peace" and "Freedom is slavery" aren't fiction.
They are history...
At the beginning of the 1920s, as in the decades that preceded it,
some people believed in God and some didn't; some believed in
a human soul and some believed only in human machines, albeit very
sophisticated ones; some believed in cats, and some believed in just
But everyone knew, obviously, that whatever else is true, inanimate
physical matter follows deterministic laws; that the physical
universe is all cause and effect, and that there is an objective
reality out there that carries on just the same regardless of
whether little old me cares to look at it.
I mean, the scientists,
the scientism-ists and the unengaged could at least count on that
Wrong. All wrong...
In 1925, quantum mechanics happened, and even Einstein, who
not only was one of its pioneers, but had also single-handedly
overturned Newton's common-sense notion of fixed time and space just
a few years before, wasn't sufficiently doxastically open to accept
Faced with the end of
determinism, effect without cause, and a physical world that unfolds
in a way determined by conscious observation, he had a rare moment
of scientism when he insisted,
"God does not
play dice with the universe."
But, of course, God
very much does play dice, and the metaphysics that was built on
Newton has been turned on its head.
Scientism is wrong and dangerous because the one unknown thing is
likely to change everything you know.
In so many ways, Newtonian metaphysics looks to science today like
the opposite of the truth, even though Newton's theories are no less
accurate than they were when he wrote Principia. It's just that we
now understand that they are approximate descriptions of
non-deterministic phenomena on large scales.
In other words, they
describe reality, but not its fundamental nature.
That's really important. We've not thrown out all of our past
it's still as
accurate as it was - but in making a slight addition to that
body of knowledge, the fundamental reality that it altogether
implies - has been utterly transformed.
Scientism, including the
political kind, is always wrong and always dangerous because the one
thing that you do not know is likely to change everything you do
Scientism is science stripped of its epistemological core, which is
the knowledge that we don't know.
Those who practice it
think they are "being scientific" because they accept scientific
knowledge. But they are being anything but scientific because they
are committed to those claims in an altogether wrong way - as
knowledge that is both certain and static.
They turn a theory, which by definition, must always be tested
against data that are sought to refute it, into an orthodoxy, which
prevents the data that could refute it from even being perceived.
This is the nature of Orwell's orthodoxy that
1984 was written to warn
Science is the honest examination of physical objects and their
relationships to understand our world and improve our experience in
it, and scientism is its dogmatic bastardization that causes us to
hold fast to wrong conclusions while,
"knowing" that we
being unable to
perceive evidence to the contrary
Political science is the
honest examination of people and their relationships to understand
our society and improve our experience in it, and political
scientism is its dogmatic bastardization that causes us to hold fast
to wrong behaviors while,
"knowing" that we
are doing good
being unable to
act on evidence to the contrary
Regardless of your
scientific theory, scientism destroys human knowledge and makes you
stupid. Regardless of your political ideology, political scientism
destroys human life and makes you dangerous.
in Your Head
Want to know if you could become a tyrant?
Don't look at your political beliefs:
Look at your
certainty about them. Look at whether you are more interested in
how to apply your theory or in gathering the data you'd need to
improve it once it's applied.
Look at whether you
are more concerned about the good that you'd do because of what
you know, or the harm that you could do because of what you
don't yet know.
Most of all, consider
whether those who are trying to tell you that the world you want
to live in scares them are presenting you with the data you need
to falsify and therefore improve your political theory (like all
good scientists), or whether you see disregard their objections
as obviously mistaken because, well… you know… the Bible, or
Victims, or the non-aggression principle (depending on your
Spend less time trying to show others why you're right and more
time showing yourself why you're wrong.
If you really want to
live in a world without tyranny, spend less time trying to show
others why you are right and more time trying to show yourself why
you are wrong.
That's not just rhetorical. It's necessary.
Most political arguments that focus on ideological content rather
than commitment to it, end with each party's being yet more certain
about their own rightness and why the other's views need to be
So rather than merely opposing your opponent's position, which will
generally elicit a defense of it, and therefore strengthened
commitment to it, practice showing her just how undogmatically you
are committed to your own position, how open you are to experiences
that may challenge it - especially hers.
That doesn't mean that you have to stop advocating living
passionately according to your beliefs any more than scientists have
to stop teaching and building computers because, one day, quantum
mechanics will be superseded, too.
Salesmen know that you have to give some to get some.
If you want someone
to share a personal story with you, share one with them.
If you want someone
to open their mind to your views and experiences, then open your
mind to theirs.
The preservation of
liberty is more about the way we hold our beliefs than the beliefs
that we hold. Tyranny is less a political failure than it is an
So don't just open your mind to win arguments for liberty - although
that is a critical reason to do so. Do it also because if you don't,
you may start believing you're one of the enlightened ones.
And then you'll be surprised at just how aggressive the peace and
how oppressive the liberty you'll be willing to accept...