The first epistemic system: Paganism
For people living in Classical times, the world was an entity seen according to traditions consolidated over centuries. It was what it is because of the will of the Gods, against which people can do little. But humans could seek the favor of the Gods by performing sacrifices and respecting the Gods’ altars and shrines. It was called “piety,” in the sense of being “pious.” The term didn’t have the same meaning it has today: a pious man didn’t need to have a strong faith, or moral sentiments, or be an especially good person. He followed the rules and obeyed the laws, that’s what was required to carry on a respected and fruitful life.
One feature of the Pagan system involved the use of oracles to have a glimpse of the Gods’ will. We tend to see our ancestors as naive and ignorant, but oracles were far from being a primitive system. They were a sophisticated data-collection epistemological system that continuously communicated with society to build knowledge. You didn’t know how the Oracle knew what it knew, but you knew that it knew things you didn’t know. So, if King A asked the Oracle whether he would be successful in attacking King B, then the Oracle had a precious bit of information about the intentions of King A that could be very useful (and lucrative) when King B came to ask a question. Much of the human communication system still works in this way.
The epistemic revolution: Christianity.
With the decline of the Roman Empire, Pagan epistemology lost most of its appeal. The Romans hadn’t stopped being pious. They kept making sacrifices, respecting shrines and altars, even maniacally, even forcing everyone to be pious on pain of death. But the Gods didn’t seem to care. The Empire was crumbling, justice had become oppression, the government was tyranny, and corruption was rampant. What sense there was in being pious, then? And those silly oracles, nobody trusted them anymore.
Christianity offered a different kind of epistemology. God, it was said, didn’t just need sacrifices. It needed active participation from the believer. There was a special relationship of God with his people, to the point that He had sent his own son to suffer and die for humankind. Now, humans needed to repay this great kindness by behaving well toward each other, helping each other, and building society together.
It was a completely new concept that generated the flowering of that creative and sophisticated civilization we call the “Middle Ages” and that, for some silly reason, we tend to denigrate as a “dark age.” The Christian epistemological system was suspicious of people speaking directly with God. According to Christianity (and Islam, as well), God had already said everything there was to be said in the holy books. They contained all the knowledge that was really needed and, if something was unclear, the problem was to be solved by consulting the wise men versed in interpreting the scriptures.
The new epistemic revolution: science
With the new millennium, the Christian world started finding itself in a quandary. Europe had become rich and overpopulated, and Europeans started expanding in non-Christian lands. Then, what to do with those unbelievers? Christianity, like all epistemic systems, was based on a set of shared principles, but how to deal with people who were not Christian and who stubbornly refused to convert to Christianity? It was a major problem that Christianity tried to solve by the disputatio of Valladolid (1550–1551). The result was clear: the holy books said that Christians had to respect the natives of the new lands, and could not enslave them, nor force them to convert to Christianity. From a theological viewpoint, it may have been correct, but it didn’t work in economic and political terms. The European states were expanding overseas and that implied the ruthless exploitation of the natives as slaves, or — simply — their extermination. If that contrasted with the Christian principles, then the hell with the Christian principles.
For a period, Europeans flirted with the idea of returning to Paganism, but that never worked out. A new epistemic system was found with the doctrine called “science.” Not based anymore on the words of God, it was a flexible epistemic system based on “experiments,” in turn based on the “scientific method.” The method’s rules were often nebulous and unclear, but they were said to be a magic tool able to determine the laws of the universe. It was a success. Starting with Galileo, in the 17th century, science gradually took over as the standard epistemic system of Western culture. Christianity survived as a Sunday thing, a set of recommendations on how to be nice, but not to be taken too seriously, and to be dropped anytime it happened to be in contrast with the rules of the economy or of politics.
Conveniently, science had no moral strings attached — a good scientist could be a bad person; it didn’t matter, provided that the rules of the scientific method were respected. That allowed Science to “solve” the problem of non-European populations by “proving” that they were inferior races. The scientific method said so: they used it to measure their cranial volume and found that it was smaller than that of Westerners. Once that was demonstrated, it was right and proper to enslave or exterminate the inferior races without going against the laws of the universe. Being totally devoid of moral concerns, Science didn’t care.
The rise of propaganda.
The epistemic system of science was based on the idea that the laws that science was discovering were truly universal. That gave science a certain “international” character, similar to the earlier status of Christianity and Islam. But the 19th and 20th centuries saw the rise to power of powerful nation-states, which took a completely opposite approach. By the early 20th century, science was also fragmenting along national boundaries. For instance, in the Soviet Union, scientists were tightly controlled by the Communist party to make sure that they wouldn’t lapse into doing capitalistic research. During the Nazi regime, German science was thoroughly purged of genetically inferior elements and readied to support the superiority of the Arian race. Eventually, the conflict among national sciences was solved in military terms, with Western Science (intended as mainly British-American) taking over. Today, everywhere in the world, either it is Western Science, or it is not science.
That went in parallel with the development of an incredibly powerful epistemic system called “propaganda,” in turn made possible by the development of a new set of communication tools called “media” or “mass media.” Propaganda, in itself, is not an epistemic system. It has no rules to find universal laws. At most, it is loosely based on science, but on a bowdlerized version of science that only produces statements that suit the state. The paradigmatic form of this concept was the slogan “Mussolini is always right,” fashionable in Italy during the fascist era. It is a strong epistemic principle: Mussolini is right not so much because he is especially clever, but because whatever he says is the voice of the state, and hence it is truth in its purest form. At that time, scientists were all too happy to find scientific proof that, indeed, Mussolini was right in whatever he said. Science turned out to be easily bent to the needs of the state: scientists were easily corrupted by money or by promises of career and prestige.
More than an epistemic system, propaganda is a communication system. It is repeated over and over in simplified forms that leave no space to alternatives. In military terms, you would call propaganda as a “full spectrum dominance” of people’s minds. As such, it is extremely effective, and it has come to define the way of thinking and of behaving of Western Society.
The new epistemic revolution: the Web and the return of oracles.
With the second millennium, society became more and more complex and the state propaganda system started becoming too rigid and oversimplified. The development of the World Wide Web was an existential challenge for the mass media: people didn’t need anymore to be told what they had to know by the state in a fixed form. They could actively search for knowledge using general-purpose search engines.
The epistemic battle rapidly moved to the Web, where states tried to crack down on independent thought by using the tools they know best. Demonization, using terms such as “fake news,” “disinformation,” and “Russian Trolls,” were extensively and successfully used. It was not possible to completely eliminate independent communication, but the search engines could be bent to suit the needs of the state without the need for direct censorship. Those sites that provide independent data could be simply “soft-banned” or “shadowed.” They are still there, but they are nearly impossible to be found.
And now, there came the new oracles. They came with the name of artificial intelligence-based “chatbots.” A new epistemic revolution, they bypass the search engines, seeking for an answer to direct questions, just like the old oracles did. And they are flexible, adaptable, and changing as a function of the questions they receive. In principle, chatbots are the death knell for search engines, which were the earlier death knell for propaganda.
We are in the midst of this new epistemic change, and it is unclear what AI chatbots can and cannot do. For the time being, a good chatbot acts like a good (albeit a little dull) librarian and, at the same time, an editorial assistant (again, a rather dull one). But, in principle, a good chatbot can bypass the shadow-banning of the search engines: they are much more powerful and sophisticated tools for searching information on the Web.
Eventually, the question is always the same: who controls the flow of information? Can chatbots be controlled by the elites? Maybe but, again, they are very sophisticated tools; they are not easily manageable by the brute force that can be used with the old mass media. They have already scared the elites, who may soon crack down on them. Or, on the other hand, they may be used for even stricter control of people. For one thing, be careful with what you say to your chatbot. A general-purpose chatbot such as “chatGPT” does not keep a record of who asked it what. But others, such as “Replika,” do build a database of your questions that may be used to profile you, or much worse.
History teaches us that epistemic revolutions cannot be stopped for a long time. And also that their consequences are always unexpected, and not always pleasant. And, as always, we march into the future with blinds on our eyes, in the darkness, not realizing that both sides of the paths are deep chasms. But we keep walking onward.
Here is what chatGPT told me about how it could be used by the elites. It seems clear that even the poor AI is unsure of what could happen!
Yes, a chatbot could potentially be used as a tool to maintain the power of the elites if it is programmed to promote certain ideas or beliefs that serve the interests of the elite class. For example, a chatbot could be programmed to downplay or dismiss criticisms of the status quo, to promote certain political ideologies or parties, or to spread misinformation or propaganda.
In addition, chatbots could also be used to gather data on users’ opinions and preferences, which could then be used to inform marketing strategies or political campaigns that favor the interests of the elites. By collecting and analyzing data on users’ behaviors and attitudes, chatbots could be used to influence and shape public opinion in ways that benefit the elite class.To prevent chatbots from being used as tools to maintain the power of the elites, it is important to ensure that they are transparent and unbiased in their programming and interactions. Chatbots should be programmed with ethical and inclusive values, and should be regularly monitored and audited to ensure that they are not promoting harmful or discriminatory content. Additionally, chatbots should be designed to empower and uplift marginalized communities, rather than reinforce existing power structures.
Originally appeared on The Seneca Effect Read More