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We hold onto our superstitions even when we know they are superstitions, but the urge to control our environment is more significant than our urge to follow the truth. I think this urge emerges from the need to be prepared for an unknowable future. In modern times, this need has led to the belief that science will eventually enable us to make reality manageable, a belief that can come at the expense of understandings and practices developed in local communities. This is not only undesirable but also unnecessary. There is no contradiction between abstract knowledge and local practices, but it is the question of how abstract knowledge can be applied in specific contexts. In doing so, we must not forget that reality can never be controlled, as we learn from humour and art.
When I put on my socks, I put on my right sock first and then the left. That’s important to me, because if I don’t do it like this, I’m going to have a bad day. The order of putting on my socks is something I can decide for myself, with the nice result that I feel like I’m in control of the rest of the day.
Now I’ve had really bad days, even after I put on my right sock first. But can you imagine the misery that would have happened to me if I hadn’t? This personal ritual shows that the need for the idea of control is stronger than the control itself. We have develop rituals with which we pretend to control our environment, even when we don’t.
The insatiable need for the idea of control may well stem from the way our brain works: our brain rewards itself when it guesses right, then it thinks it really knows what is real.
Like so many other living organisms, humans constantly anticipate changes in our environment and adjust their actions accordingly. Often these are small actions: for example, if I press a key with my finger, I expect that letter to appear on my screen. Sometimes it concerns bigger decisions and then there is a difference between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom: for example, you choose a job because you think it will make you happy or rich later on.
These expectations are generally established through experiences and impressions. You have learned that a letter appears on the screen when you press a key or you think you have noticed what makes you happy. In fact, you continuously make hypotheses about what is going to happen and adjust your actions accordingly. Hypotheses that are tested simultaneously with these actions.
If happens what you expected, your hypothesis is confirmed. That gives a good feeling: you are on the right track; you seem to understand how reality works. Reality conforms to your wishes, you have it under control. But where the confirmation of a hypothesis feels good, it hurts when it is disproved. In that case, the world is not what it should have been and not doing what you think it should have done.
To gain control over the world around you, you must be able to understand that world. There is a coherent set of understandings to explain everything that happens around you, and the trick is to understand that coherence by connecting causes and effects. Control is about trusting the ‘tricks’ we use to face the future. Two strategies seem to be distinguished in this regard. First of all, there is a conservative strategy in which understandings are embedded in existing practices and rituals, but also in our environment. We know what we see around us and we know the things we do. By excluding novelties as much as possible, you are less likely to be surprised.
But since the Enlightenment, there has also been another way of exercising control, namely by producing scientific knowledge that can be used to manipulate reality. This modern strategy mainly focuses on discovering new things, so that you will not be faced with surprises later. By developing the right knowledge you can dominate nature. If you know, rather than just think you know, how causes and effects are related, you can predict what will happen and then you can manipulate reality so that you can shape the world to your liking. Next, modern technology is the means to effectuate this manipulation. With the tandem of science and technology, we can make the uncontrollable controllable.
This modern strategy is not so much aimed at the instant gratification of the need to have control, but postpones that gratification until we can manipulate everything ‒ so we don’t have to guess anymore and we will be in charge of our universe. In short, it is no longer about fulfilling the need itself, but about the promise that that need will one day be met. The modern control strategy is one of an eternal flight forward.
This strategy breeds control freaks for whom control is a precondition for satisfaction. Controlling the environment is then no longer a means to meet your wishes, but has become an end in itself. We also recognize this ambition on a larger scale. Modern institutions manipulate human behaviour in such a way that it becomes predictable. One of the great academic heroes, Albert Hirschman, argued that the free market is a social context designed to filter the capriciousness of human behaviour. The market is successful in this because ‘passions’ as a motive for trading have been replaced by ‘interests’. After all, it is unwise to invest as your heart dictates, it is better to think about it carefully, because then you increase the chance of profit. In short, the market system gives you ‘incentives’ to pursue your ‘rational self-interest’. If you don’t behave in the ‘rational’ – that is, right – way, a competing party will benefit. In turn, the political system comes up with laws that everyone, including the legislators themselves, must abide by. Those who don’t will be punished. Not only do legislators have to abide by their own laws, there are also checks and balances, and of course democratic elections to exclude arbitrariness as much as possible.
All the understandings we use to graps reality are formed within a community. You learn them from the people around you, you read or hear about them in a language you know. The community you belong to provides you with the understandings that enable you to have command over the world around you. In addition, the modern compulsion to control can often lead to the erosion of existing understandings. This explains many social conflicts in which people who mainly rely on the understandings they already know are opposed to people who mainly trust the understandings that are based on scientific knowledge. It is the story of the ‘somewheres’ versus the ‘anywheres’: respectively the higher educated groups of people who move in global economic and social networks and the lower educated groups of people who are attached to the recognisability of their environment. It is a difference between understandings based on a concrete environment and meanings based on an abstract context.
This distinction shows why some groups have difficulty with developments such as immigration or radical measures that are motivated by abstract knowledge (think climate or corona policy). This effort manifests itself in distrust of old institutions and new rules. It is counterproductive to combat this mistrust by pouring out more information about these groups – often the Pavlovian response from policymakers and experts. After all, it is the precisely abstract nature of that information that is the problem.
We have to overcome the opposition between abstract and concrete understandings. After all, in daily life we usually follow a mix of both strategies, nobody is completely an ‘any’- or a ‘somewhere’. In addition, we need theoretical knowledge to understand reality. The climate problem and the corona pandemic are real problems for all people, in whatever local environment they may be. Another point follows from the fact that communities are neither isolated nor homogeneous. The world is also understood in different ways within a community. So there are always conflicting systems of meaning. Moreover, the conservative strategy is not inherently racist or backward. Actually, I think that the majority of people who rely mainly on concretely formed understandings are caring and open-minded. It does seem to be the case that excluding this strategy is a breeding ground for undesirable excesses. Some ‘somewheres’ will cling even more tightly to what they know and will fight even more fiercely against everything they don’t know. It does not become a conflict between different ways of satisfying the need to exert control, it becomes a conflict between what is good and what is bad.
The main point is that the modern and conservative strategies are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Where things go wrong, attempts are made to completely institutionalise social reality so that social behaviour becomes manageable. As I wrote above, institutions such as the market, politics and the law streamline our behaviour, they make it predictable by assuming general rules and regularities. However, this is ethically undesirable. It seems to me little more than a basic human right that individuals should be able to exercise control over the understandings they use to shape their lives. After all, if you deprive them of that opportunity, you hurt them, perhaps not in a physical sense, but certainly mentally.
Not that the right to control means that concretely formed understandings automatically take precedence. Neither abstractly formed understandings nor concretely formed meanings are more valuable or truer than the other. The point is that the use of theoretical knowledge always has consequences that are local and direct – abstractly formed understandings are ultimately applied in concrete situations.
The right to have a say is not about the right to control, but about the vulnerability people experience when the meanings they use to understand their lives are eroded. If a local context is seen exclusively as a manifestation of general contexts or if a local context is moulded into a general context, people lose their say and this must and can be countered by an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of both strategies.
It is tempting to view the modern and conservative management strategy as a contradiction between modern hubris and reactionary superstition, but ultimately these are both ways to disclose an intrinsically unknowable and uncontrollable future. Both are destined to fail.
It is interesting to look at Popper’s falsification theory from that point of view. This theory leads to a paradox: science is the vehicle that should lead to complete control, so that we never have to doubt our predictions again; but science doesn’t confirm expectations, it falsifies hypotheses. In short, with science we mostly seem to hurt ourselves.
Another striking phenomenon is that the tools that have been developed to make the world manageable also turn out to be unpredictable themselves. First, we can think of technology, the pre-eminent means of manipulating the world around us. However, the use of technology is by no means predictable and leads to new uncertainties. As Ulrich Beck stated, technology can counteract risks, but it also leads to risks itself, which we have to wait and see if they can ever be made manageable. The same applies to an institution such as the market. This makes the behaviour of individuals more predictable, but at systemic level there are numerous processes that can only be explained in retrospect. So we move from crisis to crisis.
Even when we know more and can do more than ever, we must continue to assume the unexpected. Not only will the nature around us continue to surprise us, but also the things we make and the words we speak add something new to the world, without us knowing what this will mean.
One of the best ways to face the unexpected is humour. When we laugh about something, it is often because our expectations are played with. A joke makes it clear that the assumed correctness of the understandings they use is not necessary at all. Humour shows us that we don’t have to be afraid of things we can’t predict. Art is also very helpful: good art confronts you with your own presuppositions and forces you to rethink them. Humour and art are areas in which the need for control is put to the test in a somewhat painless way. I think that the lessons of humour and art should be more widely used, that we should laugh more often about our failures and that we should force ourselves to adjust our expectations more often. So that the uncontrollable becomes a lot more manageable.
Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The human condition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Beck, Ulrich. 1992. Risk society. Towards a new modernity. London: Sage Publications.
Hirschman, A.O. 1977. The Passion and the Interests. Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph. Princeton: Princeton University Press.