John Locke (1632 to 1704) described the individual human mind as a “blank slate” (“tabula rasa”) at birth, rather like an unsettled continent. He believed that an individual’s knowledge consisted entirely of information printed on his or her mind by the experiences of his or her lifetime. In Locke’s view, we are all very much like personal computers before networking: the contents of each mind consists only of data entered by life on that unit’s hard drive. No Platonic “soul-knowledge” carried with us at birth. No mysterious perceptions of an “extra-sensory” origin. In this regard he is just picking up where Rene Descartes (1596 to 1650), who said “I think; therefore I am”, left off.
The image of this Cartesian world that comes most freely to my mind is one of a group of bathyspheres, each containing one person, bobbing and swaying gently in the undersea currents, each emitting little lines of bubbles, the absolute silence of the ocean depths allowing no direct communication between submariners, each of whom communicates with the others by peering through the thick glass of the circular window of his or her bathysphere trying to see through the thick glass on each of the other bathyspheres to determine whether anyone inside them is waving or trying to make hand signals or mouthing words. Communication between us is thus in effect a heavily handicapped version of charades.
Frederick Nietzsche (1844 to 1900) said that Descartes’s error was a mistake of grammar. Given an action, a verb, language must have a noun, a subject performing the action. But the existence of thought does not necessarily presuppose a thinker, a single, unified “I” doing the thinking. After all, the wise man continued, we say “Lightning strikes,” but there is no “Lightning” floating around up in the clouds waiting for the moment to “strike.” All that exists is the flash, the discharge of energy in the atmosphere. Thought, Nietzsche suggested, is like lightning.
Sigmund Freud (1856 to 1939) said that he got all of his ideas from two or three remarks of Nietzsche’s. One of his most important ideas was that much thinking comes from sources we would not call “I” (or, to use Descartes’s word “Ego”) but from what Freud called the “Unconscious Mind.”
But what if the sea were not an obstacle to thought but the very medium of its communication? What if the thoughts we hear in our heads were not different from the sounds we hear in our ears? If it is not “I” who thinks, why might it not be “we”? Why do we think that we hear only our own thoughts and not the thoughts of those around us? What if we are all swimming about in a “stream of consciousness”?
Most people today still believe in some version of the Cartesian myth, which would be a comic instance of the folly of our philosophies had it not given rise to a culture of narcissism, bad governance, and moral corruption. I take a personal interest in one particular permutation of a society that has taken Locke‘s idea of the tabula rasa“ seriously.
The custom of imprisoning criminals in order to “correct” the programming etched on the circuit boards of their minds by unfortunate life experiences has given rise to a corrupt, idiotic, inhumane, impractical, and vicious subculture of judicial and security institutions that actually cause crime to increase and lives to be wasted. Jails and prisons breed criminals more successfully even than poverty, failed educational systems, bigotry, and the sadism that defines American culture. (See Bruno.)
In the 18th century, the intellectual movement we call “The Enlightenment” inspired even country gentlemen, like those who owned plantations in the “New World,” to ask whether the individual man wouldn’t be better off if he ignored the traditional thinking that comprised most of his education and instead relied more exclusively on his own experiences, on the facts that he observed, for his understanding of the “real world.” “Experiments,” that is, carefully manipulated and controlled experiences, would replace the authority of wisdom handed down from past generations, and the world would be understood anew.
If a man could see that the ground beneath him consisted of layers of rock laid down over millennia and that the fossils found in each of the different layers showed the progressive development of the current variety of life forms on the planet, shouldn’t he reject the Biblical account of creation and believe instead the record of evolution recorded in the earth itself? If people weren’t born bad or made that way by Satanic forces of Evil, but were pushed into crime by the experiences of poverty, denial of education, and a corrupt social environment, shouldn’t they be housed in Correctional Institutions which could take away their names, separate them from bad company, in effect wipe that slate as clean as it had been at birth, and then re-educate them to live as law-abiding, prosperous, and beneficial members of society? And if the prejudices and lies of religious traditions had caused so much war and suffering through history, wouldn’t that State be best which divorced itself from religion and held purely secular power?
So it was that a great sociological experiment called “The United States” or, more commonly, “America,” began in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The question with which I began this post was answered by this experiment. The achievements realized include the virtual extermination of the few humans already occupying the North American Continent; the destruction or near-destruction of all ecosystems on that continent and even across the globe; the ruthless domination of people everywhere and anywhere in order to take their natural resources and bind them in economic servitude; the military conquest of the whole world by often unimaginably brutal means, such as the use of atomic weapons against civilian populations; and the creation of a nation whose people suffer from depression, anomie, and suicidal fixations. Mass murders become commonplace, as does the fatalistic belief that nothing can be done to prevent them. And the most horrendous murderers occupy the highest offices, wrapped in the trappings of religious piety and ending every public statement with the words “God Save America.”
God save Humanity from America!
And God Save America from itself!