Ideology, Totalizing Discourses, and Authenticity

Ideology, Totalizing Discourses, and Authenticity

Last month's column on the threat to the dominance of the scientific and technological discourses posed by inappropriate assertion of authority by scientists and technologists was, not surprisingly, somewhat controversial (particularly among scientists and technologists). But it raises a fundamental question that heretofore has not been important operationally: where should one seek grounding in a world where even the scientific discourse is losing at least some of its privileged status?

This question must be considered in terms of our historically new and unique context. In particular, the anthropogenic world is different in at least two fundamental ways from previous periods. First, it is much more complex in at least three ways. It is statically more complex, in that it has many more pieces (interests groups, for example), and it is dynamically more complex, in that these groups form more complex linkages and networks that evolve along more complicated (and interconnected) paths. Additionally, it is more complex in that emergent behaviors at much higher levels of the system are of increasing importance to human systems, and are more difficult to understand because they incorporate more and increasingly integrated human/natural/built subsystems. Thus, for example, in the 1970's we used to worry about whether new ice ages would happen to us, whereas now we negotiate about how we intend to manage global climate change -- which turns out to be far more complicated than we initially thought. The change from passive concern ("what will happen to us?") to active involvement ("what will we do about our impacts on the climate system?"), while still tentative, marks a fundamental change in the way humans understand and manage their relationship to earth systems. That which used to be exogenous to the human experience is increasingly understood as part of it.

On top of this, the world is expressing multiculturalism in a way that we haven't had to deal with in centuries. Until recently, the power of Eurocentric Enlightenment culture, and the stability induced by the Cold War, meant that a technically multicultural world was, in fact, reasonably homogeneous in global values. That stability is breaking down in many ways, resulting in a reality that can no longer be understood through just one worldview, but, rather, can only be captured if a number of mutually exclusive, but equally valid, worldviews are employed. This state should not be surprising, in that the Enlightenment and especially its postmodernist progeny have undermined attempts to ground absolute truth on reason -- a process that nightmare science is now abetting. But the challenge of internalizing a multiculturalism that rejects the absolutes of specific religious and belief traditions is proving a bridge too far for many, and as even a cursory glance at news headlines demonstrates, conflict, not agreement on foundational truths, is the immediate result.

Under conditions of systems and ontological complexity which push people beyond their adaptive capacity, retreat to fundamentalism -- religious, environmental, scientific, philosophical, ideological -- is a common response. Unfortunately, such responses are profoundly dysfunctional for several reasons. First, any fundamentalism is necessarily a simplification of reality, and times of rapid change are precisely when one cannot oversimplify reality, for one cannot know what elements of the chaotic real world can safely be ignored, and which are critical. Second, fundamentalisms are composed of elements and structures that reflect past verities, not the future, and thus embed assumptions and implications that are necessarily increasingly anachronistic in a period of rapid change. Third, fundamentalism creates an "ends justify the means" mentality; almost by definition the power of the Idea trumps the messy, contingent real world. And fourth, fundamentalism discourages information transfer and dialog, and is thus profoundly anti-democratic and anti-rational. It also inhibits the possibility of evolution, an information intensive process. It is not that fundamentalism or ideologies are necessarily “bad,” although they have certainly spilled their share of blood in the past century. But it is very clear that they are especially maladaptive in periods of rapid and fundamental change.

If, then, the major adaptive mechanism to dauntingly rapid change, fundamentalism of various kinds, is dysfunctional, what is one to rely on? The answer to this is twofold, and will be taken up in subsequent columns. For the individual, a difficult authenticity must be demanded; for the systems response, we must first accept the complexity of the world we have created, and our fairly pervasive ignorance of it, and learn to construct systems which remain stable even as contingent meanings and belief systems shift beneath us.

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Brad Allenby is professor of civil and environmental engineering at Arizona State University, a fellow at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business, and previously was AT&T's vice president of environment, health, and safety.