How do we know what we know? Philosophers have pondered this question from time immemorial. Julian Jaynes, in his classic book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, speculates that before the development of modern human consciousness, people believed they were informed by voices in their heads. Today, an alarming number of people are responding to voices on the Internet in similarly uncritical fashion.
As Jesuit scholar John Culkin pointed out in his seminal 1967 Saturday Review article, “A Schoolman’s Guide to Marshall McLuhan,” “We shape our tools and, thereafter, they shape us.” Examining history through this lens, one can identify seven great epochs in mankind’s intellectual and social evolution. Each is characterized by the way a new technology changed not only how we think about the world, but our actual thought processes. These are:
1) Spoken language, which first led to the primacy of mythology;
2) Written language, which bequeathed to us holy books and the world’s great religions;
3) The printing press, which spread literacy to the elites who went on to birth the nation state, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the U.S. Constitution;
4) The telegraph, which transformed pamphlets and broadsheets into modern newspapers, whose agenda-setting influence goaded America to “Remember the Maine” and become an imperialist power;
5) Radio, which placed broadcast propaganda at the service of central planners, progressives, and tyrants;
6) Television, which propelled the rising tide of the counterculture, environmentalism, and globalism; and
7) The Internet, a nascent global memory machine that puts the Library of Alexandria to shame, yet fits in everyone’s pocket.
Reason’s primacy is a fragile thing.
At each transition, the older environment and way of thinking does not disappear. Rather, it adopts an extreme defensive crouch as it attempts to retain power over men’s minds. It is the transition from the Age of Television to the Age of the Internet that concerns us here, as it serves up an often-toxic brew of advocacy and click-bait journalism competing to feed the masses an avalanche of unverifiable information, often immune to factual or logical refutation.
Rational epistemology holds that reason is the chief test and source of knowledge, and that each of us is not just capable of practicing it, but is responsible for doing so. Reason flowered when the Enlightenment overturned the ancient wisdom of holy books, undermining the authority of clerics and the divine right of kings. Wherever reason is widely practiced and healthy skepticism is socially accepted, error becomes self-correcting (rather than self-amplifying, as under a system based on superstition), as new propositions are tested, while old propositions get reexamined as new facts come to light.
So now that the voices have returned to our heads, we are inadequately prepared to defend against them.
Yet, reason’s primacy is a fragile thing. As increasingly potent electronic media confer influence on new voices, formerly-dominant media and governing elites fight a rearguard action to regain their status as ultimate arbiters of knowledge and what matters. Goebbels proved that a lie repeated loudly and frequently in a culture that punished skepticism became accepted as truth. We all know how that turned out.
Revulsion at the carnage of the Second World War crested with the counterculture revolution driven by the first TV generation. By the time the dust settled, its thought leaders had grabbed control of the academy, reshaping it along postmodern lines that included an assault on language that critics dubbed political correctness. This was intentionally designed to constrain what people can think by restraining what they can say. The intention may have been to avert a repeat of the horrors of the 20th century, but the result was to strip much of the educated populace of the mental tools needed to ferret out error.
So now that the voices have returned to our heads, we are inadequately prepared to defend against them. Digitally streamed into every nook and cranny of our ubiquitously connected lives, these voices are filtered by our own self-reinforcing preferences and prejudices, becoming our own in the process. The result is an ongoing series of meme-driven culture wars where the shouting only gets louder on all sides.
So we come back to the question: How do we know what we know?
What causes crime? Is autism linked to vaccines? Should GMOs be banned? Is global warming “settled science”? These are more than factual questions. Responses to them signal identification with an array of ever more finely differentiated identity groups set at each other’s throats. For those who wish to divide and rule, that’s the whole point.
In a cruel irony, this global outbreak of media-induced public schizophrenia has even empowered jihadists bent on taking the world back to the 10th century using the idea-spreading tools of the Internet to challenge a Western Civilization rapidly losing its mojo.
So we come back to the question: How do we know what we know? At the present time, we don’t. And therein lies the problem.