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The Psychology of Totalitarianism Book Summary

The Psychology of Totalitarianism Book Summary – Mattias Desmet

What you will learn from reading The Psychology of Totalitarianism:

– How science has lost it’s original aim and been hijacked by bad actors.

– The problems of deciding upon what to measure and why it matters.

– How a hidden mechanistic ideology governs our lives and what it means for us.

The Psychology of Totalitarianism Book Summary:

Introduction:

Mass formation is, in essence, a kind of group hypnosis that destroys individuals’ ethical self-awareness and robs them of their ability to think critically. This process is insidious in nature; populations fall prey to it unsuspectingly. To put it in the words of Yuval Noah Harari: Most people wouldn’t even notice the shift toward a totalitarian regime. We associate totalitarianism mainly with labor, concentration, and extermination camps, but those are merely the final, bewildering stage of a long process.

 

The Corruption of Science:

Sloppiness, errors, biased conclusions, and even outright fraud had become so prevalent in scientific research that a staggeringly high percentage of research papers-up to 85 percent in some fields reached radically wrong conclusions. And the most fascinating thing of all, from a psychological point of view: Most researchers were utterly convinced they were conducting their research more or less correctly. Somehow, they failed to realise that their research was not bringing them closer to the facts but instead was creating a fictitious new reality.

This, of course, is a serious problem, especially for contemporary societies that place their faith in science as the most reliable way of understanding the world.

The poor quality of scientific research reveals a more fundamental problem: Our scientific worldview has substantial shortcomings, the consequences of which extend far beyond the field of academic research.

These shortcomings are also the origin of a profound collective unease, which, in recent decades, has become increasingly palpable in our society. People’s view of the future is now tainted with pessimism and lack of perspective, more so everyday. Should civilisation not be washed away by rising sea levels, then it certainly will be swept away by refugees. The Grand Narrative of society-the story of the Enlightenment no longer leads to the optimism and positivism.

Much of the population is trapped in almost complete social isolation; we see a remarkable increase in absenteeism due to mental suffering; an unprecedented proliferation in the use of psychotropic drugs; a burnout epidemic that paralyses entire companies and government institutions.

The coronavirus crisis was not unexpected, but rather part of a pattern of escalating and counterproductive societal reactions to sources of fear, including terrorists and global warming. When a new source of fear emerges in society, the prevailing mode of thinking dictates only one response and solution: greater control.

 

The failure of the Grand Narrative:

We have to consider the current fear and psychological discomfort to be a problem in itself, a problem that cannot be reduced to a virus or any other “object of threat.” Our fear originates on a completely different level that of the failure of the Grand Narrative of our society.

This is the narrative of mechanistic science, in which man is reduced to a biological organism. A narrative that ignores the psychological, symbolic, and ethical dimensions of human beings and thereby has a devastating effect at the level of human relationships. Something in this narrative causes man to become isolated from his fellow man, and from nature; something in it causes man to stop resonating with the world around him; something in it turns the human being into an atomised subject. It is precisely this atomised subject that, according to Arendt, is the elementary building block of the totalitarian state.

Totalitarianism is not a historical coincidence. In the final analysis, it is the logical consequence of mechanistic thinking and the delusional belief in the omnipotence of human rationality.

 

PART I SCIENCE AND ITS PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS

CHAPTER 1 Science and Ideology

The emergence of science marked a significant shift in human thinking. Man began to believe that he could use reason to control the world, while remaining unchanged himself. He found the courage to take charge of his destiny, using his intellectual power to understand the world and create a new, rational society.

For too long, man had been silenced in the name of an unseen God, burdened by dogmas lacking any rational foundation. The time had come to dispel the darkness with the light of reason. This was the essence of the Enlightenment, as eloquently stated by the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1784: “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. ‘Dare to think! Have the courage to use your own reason!'”

Enlightenment thinkers not only made significant intellectual achievements, but also adopted a unique humanistic and ethical approach towards the world and its material objects. They had the courage to challenge the prejudices and dogmas of their time, admitting their ignorance and maintaining an open curiosity towards the phenomena of the world.

Their willingness to embrace the unknown gave rise to new knowledge, which they valued above all else, even at the cost of their own freedom or lives.

The unwavering quest for Reason reached its pinnacle by acknowledging and delineating its own limitations. The human intellect humbly recognised that ultimate knowledge resides beyond its boundaries and outside its domain. The crowning accomplishment of science lies in its surrender, its profound realisation that it cannot serve as the sole guiding principle for humanity. At the core, it is not solely human reason that matters, but the individual as a moral and ethical being, existing in relation to others and in connection with the ineffable, which ultimately resonates within their essence.

 

Science becomes Ideology:

At its birth, science was synonymous with open-mindedness, with a way of thinking that banished dogmas and questioned beliefs. As it evolved, however, it also turned itself into ideology, belief, and prejudice.

The captivating branch was the mechanistic-materialistic field, known as the hard sciences. With its simple principles, concrete focus, and practical applications, it fascinated humanity. This branch enabled space exploration, global communication, brain imaging, supersonic travel, and intricate surgeries.

Since the Enlightenment, mechanistic thinking has shaped the Western civilization’s Grand Narrative. It begins with a big bang, leading to the expansion of the universe and the emergence of complex phenomena. Elements form through fusion and explosion, gathering to create stars, planets, and eventually Earth, with its vital water. Amino acids, considered the initial form of life, arise from this water. Guided by natural selection, life evolves from simple to intricate forms, culminating in humankind as the tentative pinnacle. This scientific discourse establishes its own creation myth, reducing human subjectivity to an inconsequential by-product of mechanistic processes.

This change means mans humanity holds no intrinsic significance. His entire being, encompassing desires, emotions, longings, romantic expressions, superficial cravings, joys, sorrows, doubts, choices, anger, irrationality, pleasures, sufferings, profound dislikes, and elevated aesthetic appreciations, can ultimately be distilled down to basic particles governed by mechanical laws. Such is the fundamental belief of mechanistic materialism.

 

The Ideological Transformation:

Science has undergone a metamorphosis, akin to all ideologies.

Initially, it served as a discourse challenging the prevailing majority, only to eventually become the discourse adopted by the majority itself. Throughout this transformation, scientific discourse aligned itself with objectives that contradicted its original intentions. It facilitated manipulation of the masses, provided a means for career advancement (“publish or perish”), endorsed product promotion (“Research shows our soap washes the whitest”), propagated deceit (“I only believe the statistics I faked myself,” Winston Churchill), and disparaged and marginalised others (“Whoever believes in alternative medicine is an irrational fool”).

In fact, it even justified segregation and exclusion, demanding compliance with specific criteria (such as wearing a mask or possessing a scientific ideology-based vaccine passport) to access public spaces. In essence, scientific discourse, like any dominant discourse, has become a favoured instrument for opportunism, falsehoods, deception, manipulation, and the exertion of power.

 

The problem of Scientific Fraud:

Full-blown scientific fraud is relatively uncommon and not the primary concern. The real challenge lies in the prevalence of questionable research practices, which have reached alarming levels. In a systematic survey conducted by Daniele Fanelli in 2009, it was discovered that at least 72 percent of researchers were willing to manipulate their research results to some extent. Additionally, unintentional calculation errors and other mistakes were rampant. Nature aptly described this situation as “a tragedy of errors.”

Consequently, the replicability of scientific findings became a major issue. In simple terms, this means that when multiple researchers attempted to replicate the same experiment, they obtained different results. For instance, replication failed approximately 50 percent of the time in economics research, around 60 percent of the time in cancer research, and a staggering 85 percent of the time in biomedical research. The quality of research was so abysmal that the renowned statistician John Ioannidis boldly published an article titled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” Ironically, even studies assessing the quality of research reached conflicting conclusions, underscoring the profound nature of the problem.

The replication crisis signifies not just a lack of seriousness and meticulousness in research, but more importantly, it exposes a fundamental epistemological crisis—an inherent flaw in the way science is conducted.

 

The Measurement Problem:

Johann Goethe once remarked that measuring a thing is a crude act, particularly when applied to living bodies, as it can only be done imperfectly. Attempting to measure the immeasurable transforms measurement into a form of pseudo-objectivity. Rather than bringing the researcher closer to the research object, the act of measurement actually creates a greater divide. It obscures the true nature of the object behind a screen of numbers.

Our understanding of objectivity is flawed, heavily reliant on the belief that numbers are the preferred approach to facts. Examining scientific fields with low replicability rates reveals the significance of measurability in play. Chemistry and physics, for instance, fared relatively better in this regard. However, the situation is dire in fields like psychology and medicine.

In these domains, researchers grapple with the assessment of highly complex and dynamic phenomena—namely, the physical and psychological functioning of human beings. Such “objects” cannot be adequately measured due to their multidimensional nature. Yet, there are often desperate attempts to force them into quantifiable data.

In both medicine and psychology, measurement typically relies on tests that yield numerical scores. These figures create an illusion of objectivity, but they require some perspective. Studies examining “cross-method agreement” ask a simple yet intriguing question: If different measurement methods are used on the same object, to what extent will the results align? If the methods were accurate, the results should be nearly identical. However, this is often not the case—far from it.

The tests and measuring instruments employed in medicine are, on average, no better than those used in psychology. While metric data may appear to be a sophisticated and objective way of describing the research object, it often provides less insight than a skillfully crafted verbal description. This, in part, contributes to the plethora of errors, carelessness, and biased conclusions that have surfaced in the scientific crisis discussed earlier. When researchers try to force the immeasurable into numerical form, they sense that their work holds little genuine value. As a result, their motivation wanes, and the sense of responsibility to produce accurate work diminishes.

Most strikingly, researchers themselves often fail to recognise the flaws in their methodologies. They tend to mistake their scientific fiction for reality, confusing their numbers with distorted echoes of actual facts. This holds true for a significant portion of the population as well, who blindly place their trust in this scientific ideology, lacking alternative ideological refuge after the decline of religion. Many people consider numbers and graphs presented in mass media by individuals with credentials as de facto realities.

 

CHAPTER 2 Science and Its Practical Applications

Imposing our Will on Nature:

Science not only facilitates the acquisition of knowledge and intellectual progress but also exerts tangible effects on the real world through its practical applications.

In this regard, mechanistic science harbors lofty aspirations. Its aim is to shape the world according to human needs, enhancing comfort, and ultimately eradicating suffering and even death.

Consider the advent of the pendulum clock as an example. Prior to its invention, time measurement relied heavily on natural cycles. However, with the introduction of the pendulum clock, people gained the ability to create artificial cycles of any duration simply by adjusting the length of the pendulum arm. As a result, a day could be precisely divided into 86,400 identical pendulum seconds. Time transitioned from an elusive stream of natural rhythms to a quantifiable process, progressing in uniform mechanical steps.

For countless millennia, humanity had been subject to the world’s whims. Now, for the first time, mankind possessed the power to exert its will upon the environment, fundamentally altering its precarious condition and making life more convenient. Or so it seemed. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that every added convenience comes with a price, including a weakened connection to the natural and social environment.

 

The Transformed Social Sphere: 

Social connections underwent a profound transformation, reaching a state unrecognisable from previous times. The advent of radio and television marked the emergence of mass media, leading to a significant decline in direct human interactions that primarily served social purposes. Traditions such as evening gatherings among neighbours, communal pub gatherings, harvest festivals, rituals, and celebrations gradually gave way to the consumption of media content. This shift seduced us into a certain social lethargy, as the effort required for genuine human interaction was no longer deemed necessary.

Furthermore, public spaces, including the political sphere, increasingly fell under the control of a limited number of voices that conquered our living rooms through the mass media. Consequently, social relationships lost their diversity and originality. The dominance of a select few voices led to a homogenisation of ideas and perspectives, diminishing the richness that comes from a diverse range of social interactions.

 

The changing nature of work:

The mechanisation of the world had a profound impact on the way we find meaning in our work. The advent of mass production made the final outcome of labor less tangible. In the past, people worked to produce objects that directly supported their own bodily existence and that of those around them. They worked to feed themselves, keep their homes warm, and clothe themselves for protection against harsh conditions and societal expectations. However, with the rise of the industrial era, the purpose of work shifted. People now toiled to produce objects for distant individuals, losing the immediate connection to the significance of their labor.

Moreover, the recipients of one’s work became anonymous. The impact of labor on others became invisible and intangible. The disappearance of local, small-scale, and craftsmanship-based production severed the direct link between the producer and the consumer. In most cases, those who produced a material good no longer had contact with the person who would ultimately use it. When a product was delivered, the producer no longer witnessed the recipient’s joy or gratitude. These visible, subtle physical effects were crucial sources of satisfaction and confirmation of meaningful work.

The worker, as the saying goes, became a mere cog in the industrial machine, motivated solely by the prospect of earning wages. Labor transformed from a burdensome yet inherently meaningful existential task into a disembodied utilitarian necessity.

The exponential growth of administrative and economic sectors can be attributed to deeper psychological tendencies within our society. The proliferation of rules, procedures, and bureaucracy often arises from interpersonal mistrust and an inability to tolerate uncertainty and risk. Both the government and the general population increasingly demand meticulous correctness in all endeavors. This results in endless procedural provisions aimed at determining financial and legal liabilities should anything go wrong.

When human relationships are characterized by inherent distrust, life becomes excessively complex, and society expends its energy on creating various “security mechanisms” that, in reality, further fuel mistrust and ultimately lead to psychological exhaustion.

 

How Harmful Drugs Reach the Market:

The testing process for pharmaceutical drugs is indeed extensive, but it is important to acknowledge that the phenomenon of “health” or the reaction to a drug is highly complex and multifaceted. Researchers can only measure and monitor a limited number of specific responses, such as the impact on certain symptoms or physiological indicators like blood pressure or respiration. They are unable to capture and understand the entirety of the individual’s response to the drug.

Moreover, the duration of research studies is typically limited, and the focus is primarily on short-term effects. This means that potential side effects that may emerge later, even across generations, cannot be fully accounted for during the testing phase. An example of this is the thalidomide tragedy, where the harmful effects of the drug were not initially apparent but became evident years later.

Additionally, some side effects may be subtle and not immediately detectable during the testing period. These effects can accumulate over time and have significant consequences, such as a decrease in general immunity.

 

CHAPTER 3 The Artificial Society

The logic and rational explanation of a natural phenomenon, no matter how comprehensive, inevitably involves abstraction. Theoretical models, while valuable in understanding the world, can never fully encapsulate the complexity of the phenomenon they seek to explain. There always remains an unexplained aspect, an essential and living component that defies complete comprehension.

This can be observed in the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” products. When we attempt to reproduce a natural phenomenon through rational analysis, such as genetically engineered plants, lab-printed meat, vaccine-induced immunity, or high-tech sex dolls, the artificial reproduction is never identical to the original. The loss or difference may not always be immediately apparent, sometimes even barely perceptible, yet it is significant on both physical and psychological levels.

A prime example of this is the digitalization of human interactions, where real human connections are replaced by digital substitutes. Although these digital interactions may offer convenience and accessibility, they cannot fully replicate the richness and depth of genuine human engagement.

 

The downside to Digital Interactions:

What makes digital interactions so appealing? Why did we willingly embrace text messages over face-to-face conversations long before the onset of the coronavirus crisis? Certainly, the convenience of communicating with distant individuals through digital means plays a significant role. However, there is another psychological factor at play.

Uncertainty is an inherent aspect of the human experience. No other animal is as plagued by doubt or burdened by existential questions, particularly in our interactions with others. How can I be of assistance to the other person? Do they like me? Do they find me attractive? Do I hold any significance in their life? What are their expectations of me?

In a digital conversation, the other person is physically distant yet still within reach. Through this medium, the eternal questions, along with their associated uncertainties and fears, become somewhat less acute. There is a greater sense of control, as one can choose what to reveal and what to conceal. In essence, people tend to feel psychologically safer and more at ease behind the digital barrier, but this comes at the cost of diminished connectedness.

 

Why is mankind so hopelessly seduced by the mechanistic ideology?

It’s partly because we have become under the influence of the following illusion: that one is able to remove the discomforts of existence without having to question oneself at all.

This illusion is particularly evident in modern medicine, where suffering is often attributed to a mechanical defect in the body or an external agent like a pathogenic organism. The focus is on localised causes that can be controlled, managed, and manipulated without delving into the psychological, ethical, or moral complexities of the individual. It is a belief that a pill or a surgical procedure can alleviate our problems without addressing their deeper origins.

While the practical applications of mechanistic science have undoubtedly made life easier in some ways, they have also distanced us from the essence of life itself. Much of this process occurs at a subconscious level, but the increase in acute mental suffering we witness in society serves as a clear indication of the surface-level impact.

Within this context, Hannah Arendt identifies a subtle undercurrent of totalitarianism—an ideology that emerges from an uncritical devotion to science and the misguided belief that a flawless, artificial being and a utopian society can be engineered through scientific knowledge. Arendt warns against the idolisation of science as a magical cure for the inherent difficulties of existence and as a means to fundamentally transform human nature.

 

CHAPTER 4 The (Im)measurable Universe

This chapter delves into the methodology employed by the mechanistic ideology to acquire knowledge. At the core of this ideology lies the belief that the universe operates like a machine, with measurable components. Measurements and calculations serve as the foundation for mechanistic research methods. This epistemological standpoint also influences the ideology’s vision of an ideal society.

In this ideal society, decision-making is entrusted to expert technocrats who rely on objective, numerical data. The recent coronavirus crisis served as a prime example, bringing the pursuit of this utopian ideal tantalisingly close. Therefore, the crisis offers a compelling case study for subjecting our trust in measurements and numbers to critical examination.

 

The New Data Driven Society:

Prior to the recent crisis, societies were predominantly governed by narratives rather than numerical data. These narratives took the form of myths, religious beliefs, and later, political stories. However, the mechanistic ideology challenges the reliance on narratives because they are viewed as inherently irrational and subjective. According to this ideology, stories reveal more about their authors than any objective reality they attempt to represent.

The emergence of the coronavirus crisis presented an unexpected opportunity for the mechanistic ideology. The uncertainty and fear surrounding the virus provided fertile ground for the formation of a society where decisions are driven by numbers instead of narratives. Currently, the focus is on “simple” numerical data such as infection rates, hospitalisations, and deaths. However, in the future, we may witness the use of advanced biometric data that meticulously maps every aspect of human physical function.

Unlike words, numbers provide an objective foundation for transparent and rational decision-making. They offer a means to counteract abuses of power and irrationality, while also minimising human suffering. This vision presents a path towards a rational society of the future, where data, objectivity, and accuracy reign, leading to the reduction of suffering. In this context, the coronavirus crisis could be seen as the pinnacle achievement of humanity, or so the story goes.

 

The downside of numbers:

Numbers possess a distinct psychological power, as they create an almost irresistible perception of objectivity. This illusion is further strengthened when numbers are visually presented through charts or graphs. When individuals encounter numbers, they tend to perceive them as concrete objects or indisputable facts. However, this illusion prevents people from recognising the underlying reality that numbers are inherently relative and ambiguous. They are constructed and shaped by subjective and ideological narratives.

While numbers may initially appear to reflect objective truths, a closer examination reveals that they obediently serve the agendas of various stories. This realisation unveils the inherent subjectivity and malleability of numbers. Despite their outward appearance of factual precision, numbers are intricately intertwined with the stories they are associated with.

 

Analysing The Coronavirus Crisis:

The coronavirus crisis can be seen as a continuation of the earlier crisis in academia, albeit now unfolding openly in the public sphere. The problems that had previously emerged within academia were now on full display in the mass media, captivating the attention of the world. Many people found it hard to believe what they witnessed as scientists at the highest levels contradicted themselves and their peers, made simple calculation errors, and changed their positions hastily.

Numbers played a pivotal role in this unfolding saga. At its core, the coronavirus crisis involved calculating relatively straightforward phenomena such as the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths. However, it became evident that the data being presented were far from objective. The count of infections, for instance, relied heavily on PCR tests, which were not without their issues. These tests aimed to detect the presence of viral RNA sequences in the body. However, these sequences could originate from either an active and contagious virus or from a “dead” virus. Consequently, individuals could still test positive even months after an infection, long after they posed a risk of transmission. This was just one of the many limitations associated with the tests.

Another challenge arose when estimating changes in infection rates based on the rate of positive test results. Public health experts who spoke to the media about infection trends often neglected to account for the total number of tests conducted. Instead, they reported the absolute number of positive tests, failing to provide the context of the positivity ratio. In the summer of 2020, Bernard Rentier, a virologist and former rector of the University of Liège, critically analyzed raw data related to the so-called summer wave (then referred to as the second wave). His analysis revealed that after adjusting for the total number of tests performed, the estimated number of infections was between twenty to seventy times lower than what was being reported in the media.

 

The Subjectivity of Data:

The data concerning hospital admissions during the coronavirus crisis were highly subjective and relative. Any patient who tested positive upon admission, regardless of their symptoms, was categorized as a COVID-19 patient, even if their reason for admission had nothing to do with the virus, such as a broken leg. However, the Scottish government altered their methodology at one point and began considering someone as a coronavirus patient only if they tested positive and were admitted with COVID-19 symptoms. This change resulted in a significant reduction, leaving only 13 percent of the original number of COVID-19 patients.

Similarly, the data surrounding death counts, which is considered one of the most fundamental variables, turned out to be far from unambiguous. Approximately 95 percent of registered COVID-19 deaths were associated with one or more underlying conditions. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only about 6 percent of deaths were attributed solely to COVID-19 without any other underlying conditions. Moreover, the majority of coronavirus victims were elderly, with an average age of eighty-three during the first wave in Belgium, slightly exceeding the average life expectancy. This raises the question of how one determines whether someone died “from” COVID-19. If an elderly person in poor health contracts the virus and subsequently passes away, is it accurate to attribute their death solely to the virus, or did other factors contribute as well?

All of this is to say that the basic numbers in the coronavirus crisis are not objective data; they are constructed on the basis of subjective assumptions and agreements. Depending on how those agreements are made, the numbers can differ by a factor of no less than fifteen or even twenty.

 

Alternative explanations for same phenomena:

For example, the ICUs were clearly overloaded by COVID-19 patients, weren’t they? That’s correct. But the way in which we should interpret that fact is another question. Rather than an indication of COVID-19’s exceptional danger, the overload seems to be the result of two colliding trends over recent decades:

  1. A sharp rise in susceptibility to developing serious symptoms in viral lung diseases in a major part of the population (especially people suffering from obesity and diabetes); and
  2. Systematic reduction in ICU beds. The upward trend in the number of patients at risk and the downward trend in the number of ICU beds inevitably had to cross sooner or later.

So the burden on hospitals can be interpreted as proof of the virus’s extreme threat, but it can equally be interpreted as a symptom of inadequate management (progressive reduction of hospital beds), or as a result of declining health (high obesity and diabetes), or as the result of the coronavirus measures themselves (that is, an influx of anxious people, increase in psychosomatic complaints). Depending on the interpretation, radically divergent policies need to be followed.

 

Could the Remedy have been the problem?

Excess mortality is often considered a key indicator of the severity of COVID-19. By comparing the number of deaths during the pandemic to previous years, one might assume it provides an objective measure. However, even this seemingly objective data is subject to inherent subjectivity and has been overlooked in the analysis.

Excess mortality does not necessarily reflect virus-related deaths alone. It can also be influenced by collateral damage resulting from the mitigation measures themselves, such as reduced immunity, delayed treatment, and the negative impact on mental health leading to suicide, depression, addiction, poverty, and starvation. Additionally, the treatment methods employed may contribute to the overall mortality figures.

For instance, during the lockdowns in 2020, thousands of elderly individuals in Dutch residential care settings suffered from loneliness and neglect, resulting in their untimely deaths. Furthermore, a German study suggested that approximately half of the high mortality in ICUs during the first wave was due to the widespread use of intubation (ventilation), a protocol that was later reconsidered and modified due to its counter productiveness. While it is challenging to ascertain the precise accuracy of these numbers, it prompts us to question what the mortality graphs would look like if adjusted for these factors.

The following might be the most inconvenient truth of the crisis: that we have called the misery that has been so dramatised in the mass media down on ourselves to a large extent; that the remedy itself has become a significant part of the problem.

Another flaw in the numerical approach to the coronavirus crisis is the overlooking of collateral damage caused by the measures implemented. The lack of publicly available data and statistics on the number of victims affected by delayed treatment, suicide, vaccination issues, food insecurity, and economic disruption is striking. Scientific articles and press releases have consistently highlighted these risks since the beginning of the crisis.

It is concerning that society as a whole can disregard the fundamental question in medicine: Are we certain that the cure is not more harmful than the disease itself?

 

Number Selection Matters:

Stories make the numbers, rather than the other way around. That’s what is at issue.

The case of Great Britain’s border measurements serves as a prime example of how measurements are inherently relative and contingent upon the chosen measurement unit. Simpson’s paradox further illustrates that even seemingly straightforward and accurate numbers can lead to divergent interpretations.

The reality is that anyone can cherry-pick numbers that align with their own biases and manipulate their interpretation to support their subjective ideological narratives. The pervasive illusion that numbers inherently represent indisputable facts intensifies individuals’ conviction that their own constructed fiction mirrors reality, amplifying the divide between various perspectives.

But, how is it possible for researchers to fall prey to their subjective prejudices? The explanation can be found, in part, among the following issues:

Every research procedure requires countless choices, for which there are no strictly logical grounds. Which measuring instruments will I use? How will I interpret the measurements? How do I deal with missing data? And so on. From this vast array of possibilities, researchers unconsciously choose options that will ensure the results they deem desirable.

 

Bias Reinforcing Itself:

Subjective biases and numbers tend to reinforce each other: Strong biases lead to the selection of numbers that confirm them, and when numbers confirm biases, the biases become even stronger. This phenomenon can be observed in the context of the coronavirus crisis. A society gripped by fear and unease chooses numbers that validate its fears, which in turn further intensifies the fear.

When individuals believe their subjective perspective represents reality, they may consider their reality superior to others’ perspectives. This mindset can lead to an attempt to impose their fiction on others by any means possible.

The discourse surrounding the coronavirus crisis exhibits traits reminiscent of the discourse that gave rise to totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century. These traits include the excessive use of numbers and statistics while disregarding facts, the blurring of the boundary between fact and fiction, and an ideological belief that justifies deceit and manipulation, eventually crossing ethical boundaries.

 

 

CHAPTER 5 The Desire for a Master

In the preceding chapters, the transformation of science from open-mindedness to dogma and unwavering certainty was examined. It was revealed how the practical applications of science created a sense of isolation between individuals and nature, and how the pursuit of an artificial and controllable universe threatened the very essence of life. Additionally, the belief in the objectivity and measurability of the world led to arbitrary and subjective outcomes. Chapter 5 delves into the destiny of another significant aspiration of science: the liberation of humankind from anxiety, insecurity, and moral constraints.

 

The Anxiety Makers:

Despite the increase in knowledge about the mechanistic aspects of the human body and the substantial expenditure on healthcare, the fear of illness and suffering has remained prevalent.

Recent headlines have made it clear: Teenagers riding mopeds to school is deemed irresponsible, swimming in rivers or ponds during hot weather is discouraged due to bacterial contamination risks, oral sex is associated with the potential for throat cancer, shaking hands is considered dangerous for virus transmission, and even sitting next to a non-smoking smoker can be harmful to one’s health.

Suffering is inherently unpleasant, yet there have been periods in history when people displayed greater resilience towards it.

 

The Rise of Narcissism:

While we often attribute human distinctiveness to superior knowledge and awareness compared to animals, a fundamental disparity lies in our constant torment of lacking knowledge. Humans are plagued by unanswered questions regarding their position in the desires of others. What do others think of me? Do they love me? Am I attractive to them? Do I hold significance in their eyes? What are their expectations and desires from me? These inquiries serve as the focal point of human encounters and, by extension, shape the entirety of human existence.

In recent decades, alongside the surge in fear and insecurity, narcissism has also witnessed a noticeable rise. It has become commonplace to assert that our society increasingly fixates on external ideals, and there is undeniably some truth to this notion. The demand for surgical procedures aimed at attaining a socially prescribed body image is rapidly escalating. The sale of products such as steroids and protein cocktails, used to mold the body into a visual ideal, has experienced spectacular growth. Taking selfies has become an established component of both social and asocial behavior. Homes and gardens are reminiscent of meticulously staged photographs from interior design magazines. Commercials and billboards present stylized representations of cars, haircuts, and clothing. Ultimately, this trend reflects an intensifying obsession with illusory visual “solutions” in an attempt to resolve the irresolvable uncertainties present in human relationships.

Simultaneously, this shift has led to a sharp increase in psychological phenomena associated with an excessive preoccupation with external ideal images. Loneliness, inner emptiness, and a constant feeling of being embroiled in exhausting competition with others (referred to as the “rat race”) have become prevalent experiences.

 

Learning rules:

Alongside narcissism, there exists a second social phenomenon intimately tied to the escalation of fear and insecurity: the remarkable proliferation of rules, often referred to as “regulitis.”

As soon as words acquire meaning, the relationship with others ascends to a higher level. The child becomes fixated on comprehending the words used by others to express their desires. What does it truly mean to be “good”? What actions must be undertaken to be deemed “brave”? In essence, the child seeks to grasp the rules that must be adhered to in order to be loved. At times, this longing for rules takes the form of a relentless demand for clarity. Even when a rule is well-defined, it is deemed insufficiently explicit and necessitates further elaboration. Since words derive meaning through the use of other words, the child begins to question the significance of every possible word.

Around the age of three and a half, this obsession with the meaning of words reaches its apex in the renowned “why” phase. During this phase, the child incessantly poses questions beginning with “why.” “Why is this a donkey?” “Because it is braying.” “Why is it braying?” “Because it is angry.” “Why is it angry?” And so on. In this stage, the child perceives the parent as an all-knowing authority, and despite occasionally displaying fierce resistance, the child demands that the parent assume this omniscient position. The child yearns to possess comprehensive knowledge.

Yet, the child’s endeavor to render the rules unambiguous and definitive is destined to fail, for human language can never attain absolute meaning. The more persistently the child interrogates the parents in an attempt to establish unequivocal rules, the more the child inevitably becomes entangled in intricate and contradictory interpretations. This process is particularly evident in children with a compulsive disposition, leading them to experience severe inhibition, entwined in an unending pursuit of mental perfection that becomes increasingly burdensome. As we shall discover later, children eventually free themselves from the relentless demand for rules by accepting that a definitive answer regarding desire does not exist.

The task of adhering to the ever-expanding set of rules proves insurmountable, causing the competent authorities themselves to sink into a state of bewildering confusion.

 

Regulation Mania:

The obsession with regulations, with all its excessive and irrational tendencies, undoubtedly contributes to the psychological challenges of our time. The contradictory and ambiguous nature of numerous rules creates a neurotic Pavlovian effect, stifling the satisfaction, spontaneity, and joy of life. Autonomy and freedom are increasingly diminished as the space for them shrinks.

The suffocating impact of an excess of rules becomes most apparent when it suddenly disappears. For example, when one arrives in a small French village with unpainted white lines on the streets, there are no strict guidelines dictating where to drive or park. Parking is allowed along the road without payment and time limitations. Similarly, at a rural train station, parking meters may be absent, toilets are freely accessible, and platforms remain open at all times. It is akin to the relief felt when the incessant hum of an office air conditioner ceases at six o’clock, offering a moment of blissful tranquility.

Regulation mania, as exemplified by governmental bureaucracy, seeks to rationalise and standardise social interactions by fitting them into predefined templates. In this regard, the ideal bureaucrat resembles a computer: faithfully adhering to the logic of their system without being “distracted” by the individuality of the people they are supposed to assist. Consequently, a bureaucratic system evokes the same frustrations as dealing with a computer: we encounter a mechanical Other that remains indifferent to our unique human qualities.

A computer is not inherently unfair or unjust; it is an Other that imposes an unwavering logic. Whether we have a meeting in five minutes and urgently need to print a report, the computer remains unyielding and unaccommodating (“computer says no”). In this aspect, a computer resembles an idealised totalitarian leader: strictly and ruthlessly enforcing its own logic upon the population.

 

How did the Enlightenment tradition, which aimed for greater freedom and opposed fear and insecurity, paradoxically lead to hyper-strict morality?

The answer becomes clear through the lens of developmental psychology presented above.

The Enlightenment tradition, driven by the ideology of Reason, sought to rationalise and systematise life, relegating symbolism, mysticism, fiction, and poetry to secondary roles. However, it is precisely these forms of discourse that enable us to respond to life’s uncertainties with creativity and individuality, and to find meaningful connections with others.

Of particular significance is the second attempt to “resolve” fear. The more we endeavour to eliminate fear and uncertainty through rationality and rigid rules, the more we encounter failure. As we discussed in this chapter, language itself reveals that there is no ultimate word or definitive resolution to dispel uncertainty. It is at this juncture that humanity turns toward an unexpected path in its pursuit of freedom: the allure of the absolute master—the totalitarian leader—who claims to possess the final word.

The rationalistic approach to life, which sought to address fear and uncertainty, ironically led to an inability to effectively manage these challenges. The rise of narcissism and regulation mania only exacerbated the very issues they aimed to solve, resulting in a psychologically drained society that yearns for an absolute authority. Surprisingly, this quest for a master figure aligns with the prevailing worldview that emerged from the mechanistic ideology—the very ideology responsible for the initial problem. It is this ideology that entices minds with its immense control over matter and seemingly irrefutable evidence supported by numbers and statistics.

 

PART II MASS FORMATION AND TOTALITARIANISM

Mass formation is largely the result of individuals being gripped by a common narrative that unites them in a heroic battle against an object of anxiety.

CHAPTER 6 The Rise of the Masses

The totalitarian state distinguishes itself significantly from other forms of dictatorial governments, not only in its internal structure but also in its progressive nature. Hannah Arendt, in her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” attributes this distinction to a psychological level. While dictatorships primarily rely on instilling fear through physical aggression, leading the population to submit under duress, the totalitarian state emerges through the social-psychological process of mass formation.

Understanding this process is crucial in comprehending the astonishing psychological characteristics observed within a totalitarian society: the individuals’ willingness to sacrifice personal interests for the collective, the extreme intolerance of dissenting voices, the pervasive informant mentality enabling the government to infiltrate private lives, the alarming susceptibility to absurd pseudo-scientific indoctrination and propaganda, the blind adherence to a narrow logic that surpasses ethical boundaries (rendering totalitarianism incompatible with religion), the suppression of diversity and creativity (making totalitarianism an enemy of art and culture), and its inherent self-destructiveness, leading to the eventual demise of totalitarian systems.

Gustave Le Bon, a French sociologist and psychologist known for his influential work on mass formation, argued that in the masses, the “individual soul” is entirely overshadowed by the “group soul.” This uniformity is accompanied by a near-complete loss of rational thinking and critical reflection, even among individuals who, under normal circumstances, exhibit intelligence and the capacity for sound judgment. Moreover, it is marked by a strong inclination to succumb to impulses that, in normal circumstances, would be considered fundamentally unethical.

 

The four conditions for large scale mass formation:

Four conditions are crucial for the emergence of large-scale mass formation in a society, conditions that were present during the rise of Nazism and Stalinism and continue to exist today.

The first condition is the prevailing sense of generalised loneliness, social isolation, and the absence of meaningful social bonds among the population. Arendt emphasised the significance of this condition, stating that the defining characteristic of the mass man is not brutality but rather a profound sense of isolation and a lack of normal social relationships.

This erosion of social connectedness leads to the second condition: a pervasive lack of meaning in life. This condition largely stems from the first one. As inherently social beings, humans find purpose in their relationships with others.

Furthermore, the mechanistic worldview also contributes to the sense of meaninglessness in a more direct manner. Both the universe and the individual trapped within it are seen as mechanical entities devoid of purpose or intention. Interactions among material particles adhere to mechanical laws but lack any inherent meaning. Viewing life through this lens, regardless of its validity, renders existence devoid of significance.

The third condition is the widespread presence of free-floating anxiety and psychological unease within the population. Free-floating anxiety refers to anxiety that is not tied to specific images or objects, unlike fears of thunder, snakes, or war. This form of anxiety is mentally challenging to manage and carries the constant risk of escalating into panic, which is one of the most distressing psychological states experienced by individuals.

This condition has been particularly pronounced in the early decades of the twenty-first century. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that one in five people worldwide has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. These numbers are significant, and it is likely that they underestimate the true extent of the issue.

The fourth condition, in turn, arises from the preceding three: a pervasive presence of free-floating frustration and aggression. The connection between social isolation and irritability is both logical and empirically supported. Individuals affected by loneliness, a lack of meaning, and indeterminate anxiety often experience heightened irritability, frustration, and aggression, seeking outlets for these emotions. The stark increase in racist and threatening language on social media in recent years (tripling between 2015 and 2020) serves as a striking example. What fuels mass formation is not merely the frustration and aggression that find expression, but the latent potential for unexpressed aggression within the population, seeking an object on which to discharge.

 

How does mass formation work?

The conditions mentioned earlier create a fertile ground for mass formation, which is triggered by a suggestive narrative in the public sphere. When the circumstances described above are present, and a compelling story is disseminated through mass media, indicating a target of anxiety (e.g., the aristocracy in Stalinism, Jews in Nazism, or anti-vaxxers during the coronavirus crisis), along with a proposed strategy to address that anxiety, there is a real possibility that the prevailing anxiety will converge onto that specific target. Consequently, there is broad social support for implementing the suggested strategy to control the identified source of anxiety.

This process yields psychological benefits. Firstly, the previously diffuse and nebulous anxiety that permeated society becomes associated with a distinct cause and can be mentally managed through the proposed strategy outlined in the narrative. Secondly, the struggle against “the enemy” allows the fragmented society to regain a sense of unity, purpose, and basic meaning. Consequently, the fight against the object of anxiety becomes a mission imbued with pathos and collective heroism (e.g., the Belgian government’s “team of 11 million” rallying against the coronavirus). Thirdly, during this fight, any pent-up frustration and aggression find an outlet, particularly towards those who reject the narrative and resist the mass formation. This release and gratification provide immense satisfaction to the masses, which they are reluctant to relinquish easily.

 

Solidarity and Ritual:

In most significant mass formations, the primary appeal for individuals to join is the sense of solidarity with the collective. Those who choose not to participate are often criticised for their perceived lack of solidarity and civic responsibility. Consequently, the absurd aspects of a narrative hold little significance for the masses, as their belief in the story stems not from its factual accuracy but from its ability to forge new social bonds.

The strategy proposed to address the object of anxiety effectively fulfills the role of a ritual. Ritualistic behaviours serve the purpose of fostering group cohesion. They are symbolic actions that seek to align the individual with the collective, emphasising their subordination to the group’s interests and objectives.

 

The Media and Mass formation:

Ultimately, the participation of individuals in mass formation is rarely driven by rational considerations. The endorsement of a strategy by experts with prestigious titles, often showcased on national television, creates an illusion of widespread acceptance. Many people find this sufficient evidence of the measures’ validity, reasoning that “the experts must know what they’re doing” or “they wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true.” In essence, the appeal to popularity and authority, known as logical fallacies since ancient times, is enough to sway most individuals to accept the narrative. It becomes apparent that the motivation to conform to the story lies more in the formation of a group and the associated social pressure than in the accuracy of the story itself.

Drawing a parallel with hypnosis, both hypnosis and mass formation involve the use of suggestive statements or stories delivered through a persuasive voice, which narrow the focus of attention to a limited aspect of reality.

In this psychological process of mass formation, it appears that mass media, almost instinctively, perpetuates the formation by selectively presenting graphics and information that support the narrative, further reinforcing the established story.

 

Radical intolerance:

An additional crucial characteristic of mass formation is the emergence of radical intolerance towards dissenting opinions and a strong inclination towards authoritarianism.

From the perspective of the masses, those who express opposing views are perceived as 1) antisocial and lacking solidarity because they refuse to partake in the collective solidarity fostered by the mass formation; 2) unsupported, as critical arguments are disregarded within the limited sphere of attention of the masses; 3) highly aversive because they pose a threat to the intoxication and force the masses to confront the negative circumstances that preceded the mass formation, such as a lack of social bonds, meaning, and the presence of indefinite fear and unease; 4) exceedingly frustrating because they jeopardize the outlet for latent aggression.

This radical intolerance ingrains a conviction among the masses that they possess superior ethical and moral intentions, while perceiving everything and everyone who resists them as reprehensible. Those who do not participate are branded as traitors to the collective. Consequently, informants become commonplace, with the population itself functioning as a key informant network resembling a secret police force.

 

CHAPTER 7 The Leaders of the Masses

Ideological ideas:

In the context of mass formation, the person disseminating the story is often ensnared by the narrative as well. In fact, their field of attention tends to be even narrower than that of the masses. This is primarily because the leader typically possesses a fervent belief in the ideological foundation underlying the narrative (rather than the narrative itself) that exercises control over the masses.

Unlike a “conventional” criminal who derives intrinsic pleasure from transgressing societal norms, in this case, totalitarian criminality resides more in the uncritical and thoughtless adherence to a system of totalitarian social rules, even when such a system becomes markedly inhumane and surpasses all ethical boundaries. This aligns with Hannah Arendt’s renowned notion that totalitarianism reveals the banality of evil: it involves not monstrous individuals, but rather ordinary people who adhere to a morbid and dehumanising way of thinking or “logic.”

Despite being under the grip of hypnosis and blindness, it is not accurate to claim that the totalitarian leader wholeheartedly believes everything they convey to the population. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite. The leader’s unwavering belief lies in the ideology they seek to impose, rather than the discourse they employ to promote it. Their fanaticism toward the ideology is so strong that they consider limitless manipulation, lies, and deception justified in order to realise it. According to their conviction, humanity (or a portion thereof) is on the path to attaining the best possible world, and thus, anything becomes permissible.

The essence of totalitarianism does not stem from utilitarian or selfish motives. Money and power are merely intermediate objectives. The ultimate aim is the actualisation of an ideological fabrication, and the totalitarian leader is willing to blindly sacrifice their own interests to achieve this goal. This aligns with Le Bon’s assertion that the leaders of the masses themselves fall under the sway of hypnosis, particularly through their unwavering belief in the ideology they fervently embrace.

 

Imposing the ideology:

The insatiable drive of totalitarianism to impose a rigid logic on society is evident in its obsession with symbols. These symbols serve various purposes, sometimes as distinguishing features for the privileged elite, such as uniforms, medals, and badges, and at other times as stigmatising marks for the “objectified enemies” of the regime, which are forcibly engraved onto their flesh if deemed necessary (as seen in Auschwitz with the tattooed numbers, or the distinct signs assigned to different groups in the gulags). Through its system of signs, totalitarianism seeks to imprint its own logic onto reality, striving to permanently bind it to the real world. Notably, the assignment of signs and stigmas often marks the initial step in the process of destruction.

Totalitarianism represents the ultimate endeavor to eradicate uncertainty by retreating into a (pseudo)scientific certainty and merciless logic, attempting to reduce symbols to mere signs, and seeking to annihilate any form of cultural diversity. It ruthlessly eliminates such diversity through various means. The systematic and industrialised transportation, exploitation, and extermination of specific population groups in labor and extermination camps serve as harrowing historical examples etched deeply into our collective memory.

The logic of a totalitarian system is in a constant state of flux and typically becomes increasingly absurd. The raison d’être of such a system lies, in part, in channeling anxiety, which necessitates the perpetual identification of new objects of fear and apprehension.

In recent decades, we have witnessed the emergence of numerous sources of anxiety in our society, appearing at an accelerating pace and leading to a growing encroachment on civil liberties. Whether it be terrorism, climate change, or the coronavirus, these objects of anxiety drive the constant demand for new actions and perpetuate an endless cycle of threats (as exemplified by the proliferation of coronavirus variants, necessitating the introduction of new measures during the ongoing crisis).

Mass formation feeds on anxiety and aggression; without the fear and the prospect of venting this aggression, the mass dynamics grind to a halt. The leaders realise that, if this happens, the masses will wake up and become aware of the damage they have suffered, whereupon they will turn against the leaders in a lethal fashion. Consequently, the leaders have no choice but to keep identifying new objects of anxiety and introducing new measures to destroy such objects.

 

The search for paradise:

There are many reasons to assume that totalitarianism starts from megalomaniac albeit “good” intentions. It aspires to no less than a total transformation of society into an ideological ideal (for example, the racially pure society of Nazism or the rule of the proletariat under Stalinism). However the creation of the paradise typically ends in an inferno.

However the real masters of the  predicament are not the leaders of totalitarian systems but the stories and their underlying ideology; these ideologies take possession of everyone and belong to no one; everyone plays a part, nobody knows the full script.

 

CHAPTER 8 Conspiracy and Ideology

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? – ALEXANDRE SOLZHENITSYN

The question of whether the leaders of the masses are conspirators and whether mass formation and totalitarianism are orchestrated by a secretive few is a valid inquiry.

Throughout history, there have been instances where leaders of the masses have been perceived as conspirators. As the influence and power of the masses grew during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, conspiracy theories emerged as attempts to understand complex social dynamics and mass formations. These theories aimed to provide explanations for the intricate forces operating within society.

 

Conspiracy Theories:

In present times, the term “conspiracy theory” is often used loosely, even in cases where theories do not involve any mention of a conspiracy. Therefore, it is important to establish conceptual clarity and define the term accurately. According to Wikipedia, a conspiracy refers to “a secret plan or agreement between persons for an unlawful or harmful purpose, while keeping their agreement secret from the public or from other people affected by it.”

This definition highlights three essential characteristics that must be present for an activity to be categorised as a conspiracy: 1) There must be a conscious, intentional, and planned effort. 2) This effort must be hidden or kept secret. 3) The endeavour must be aimed at causing harm, indicating a malicious intent toward individuals involved.

 

Should we consider mass formation the result of a conspiracy?

The perception of a conspiracy in mass formation is not solely attributed to the coordinated actions and behaviours of the crowd. It is also influenced by the threatening nature of the crowd’s intentions, as it seeks to assert control and impose its will upon society. Throughout history, this desire for control has been evident, but it may have become more apparent as crowds have gained a more enduring presence and exerted a continuous influence on society.

For individuals who are not caught up in mass formation, the phenomenon initially appears bewildering and absurd. They feel a sense of threat from its dominant and controlling appearance, as well as its intolerance towards those who do not participate.

In such a state, these perplexed observers often develop a strong yearning for a simplified framework that allows them to comprehend the complexity of the situation. They seek a way to mentally manage the anxiety and intense emotions that arise. Interpreting mass formation in terms of a conspiracy fulfills this need by reducing the overwhelming complexity of the phenomenon into a more manageable and comprehensible frame of reference.

 

The allure of Conspiracy:

A simpler frame of reference offered by conspiracy thinking allows individuals to mentally manage their anxiety by linking it to a single object, typically a group of intentionally deceitful individuals perceived as the “elite.” This externalisation of blame enables the redirection of frustration and anger towards this singular object.

The inclination towards fanatical conspiracy thinking reveals the innate human tendency to seek someone to hold responsible in the face of adversity, serving as a target for aggression. This inclination aligns with a broader psychological rule: the greater the anger people experience, the more they perceive intentional malice.

Similar to mass formation, conspiracy theorising instills a sense of enthusiasm in individuals. The association of anxiety, anger, and discontent with simplified mental images transforms a strongly negative state into a seemingly positive one. Everything becomes explainable through a straightforward frame of reference, imbuing the world with logic and providing a target for frustration and anger. This absolves individuals of responsibility and alleviates the need for self-reflection.

Conspiracy logic often veers off course, gradually descending into the realm of the absurd, even among highly intelligent and rational individuals. Fundamental distrust underlies the assumption that anything endorsed by the mainstream must inherently be incorrect. For example, if the mainstream narrative supports the idea of a round Earth, conspiracy thinking may assert it to be flat. Additionally, conspiracy thinking tends to dehumanise specific groups, occasionally resorting to literal dehumanisation by portraying the elite as reptiles or aliens.

 

Grand plans and rationality:

Throughout history, humans have succumbed to various temptations such as the illusion of rational understanding and control, resistance to critical self-questioning, and the pursuit of short-term convenience. Initially seen as dangerous within religious discourse, these temptations later became embedded in the dominant narrative, serving as their own justification with the rise of mechanistic thinking.

This is perhaps the most direct and concrete illustration of Hannah Arendt’s thesis that ultimately totalitarianism is the symptom of a naive belief in the omnipotence of human rationality. Therefore, the antidote to totalitarianism lies in an attitude to life that is not blinded by a rational understanding of superficial manifestations of life and that seeks to be connected with the principles and figures that are hidden beneath those manifestations.

Leaders and followers alike were enthralled by the seemingly boundless possibilities offered by the human mind. The evolution towards a highly controlled technological society, characterized by pervasive surveillance, appears inevitable as long as the human mind remains trapped in this logic and is unconsciously influenced by these attractors. It is this ideology that reshaped society, established new institutions, and identified new figures of authority.

In line with this ideology, institutions were formed to devise plans for the future structure of society and its response to crises. For example, publications like Klaus Schwab’s “COVID-19: The Great Reset” outline such endeavors. For many people, these events and publications serve as definitive evidence that current social developments are orchestrated and the result of a conspiracy.

However, when we consider the definition of a conspiracy—a secret, planned, intentional, and malicious scheme—we immediately observe two things. Firstly, these plans are hardly a secret as they are openly accessible on the internet. Secondly, it is questionable whether these plans dictate the discourse and actions of experts through targeted instructions. The communication of experts is often riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies, retractions, corrections, clumsy wording, and transparent errors.

The discourse among experts lacks consistency, except for one overarching trend: the continuous push towards a society increasingly controlled by technology and biomedicine, aligning with the ideals of the mechanistic ideology. Consequently, we observe similar issues in the coronavirus crisis as those exposed by the replication crisis in academic research. Both scenarios reveal a complex web of errors, carelessness, and biased conclusions, where researchers unconsciously affirm their ideological principles.

 

How Ideology Spreads:

Remarkably precise and regular patterns can emerge when individuals independently adhere to the same simple behavioural rules driven by shared attractors. It is the ideology, rather than a secretive elite, that wields ultimate influence.

Instances that demonstrate how an ideology takes hold of society are not evidence of a grand conspiracy, but rather reflections of this phenomenon. Consider major reorganisations within large companies and government institutions, where similar processes occur. Those in positions of authority who seek to restructure an organisation will naturally make adjustments to align with their goals, and they will strategically place individuals who share their vision in key positions. Through formal and informal means, they will shape minds and prepare them for the restructuring process. Those intimately involved in such endeavour’s are unlikely to perceive them as conspiracies. In fact, we can observe similar behavior in biological organisms, as they attempt to shape their environment to suit their needs.

Paradoxically, fanatical conspiracy thinking exacerbates the issue by overshadowing more nuanced analyses and subjecting them to stigmatisation. They are unfairly grouped together and dismissed. Thus, conspiracy thinking can either stem from mass formation and serve as an interpretation of it or contribute to the emergence of mass formation itself.

If any unseen force operates in the background, it is not necessarily secret societies, but rather ideologies. There is a guiding and organising entity, but it primarily consists of a prevailing mindset—an ideology—rather than a coordinated and planned conspiracy of elites managing the world. As Charles Eisenstein eloquently put it, “Events are indeed orchestrated in the direction of more and more control, but the orchestrating power is itself a zeitgeist, an ideology… a myth, not a conspiracy.”

 

Are there any solutions?

The problem at hand cannot be resolved solely through the violent removal of an evil elite. The core issue of totalitarianism lies within the immense dynamics of the masses. Therefore, eliminating totalitarian leaders would yield little result, as they can be easily replaced without destabilising the system.

An alternative strategic approach to breaking the grip of mass formation could be considered: substituting one object of anxiety with another. Mass formation arises when formless and unanchored anxiety attaches itself to a specific object. This bond can be broken if a different object capable of instilling even greater anxiety is presented.

Additionally, another option is to challenge the mechanistic worldview and propose a more comprehensive and dynamic perspective.

 

PART III Living BEYOND THE MECHANISTIC WORLDVIEW

CHAPTER 9 The Dead versus the Living Universe

Re-discovering life’s principles:

In a purely mechanistic worldview, grounding ethical principles becomes exceedingly challenging, if not impossible. The question arises: why should a human being in a mechanistic universe feel compelled to adhere to ethical rules and principles in their relationships with others?

From a purely survival-oriented perspective, the focus shifts towards being the fittest in the struggle for existence. In this context, ethics and principles may appear as hindrances rather than virtues. Enlightenment thinking, in particular, emphasised the pursuit of efficient strategies for navigating this struggle based on “objective knowledge” of the world, rather than adherence to commandments, prohibitions, or moral principles.

It is perhaps one of humanity’s greatest tasks to unveil the timeless principles that underlie life, amid the complexities of existence. The more we attune ourselves to these principles, the deeper our understanding of the essence of life becomes, and the more we sense our connection with the majestic, ordering principle that resonates throughout the universe.

 

Chaos Theory:

Chaos theory, considered the third major scientific revolution of the twentieth century, challenges the mechanistic worldview of science. It suggests that phenomena previously seen as lifeless and predictable actually possess elements of life and consciousness. For example, noise on telephone lines was discovered to be self-organising and purposeful, revealing a deeper level of complexity. These findings point to a more interconnected and dynamic understanding of the world, beyond traditional reductionist approaches.

 

Looking Deeper at Causation:

Chaos theory introduces a revolutionary perspective by acknowledging the presence of a final and formal cause in nature. This concept draws from Aristotle’s theory of causality, which recognises four types of causes: material, efficient, formal, and final. Using the analogy of creating a statue, Aristotle explains these causes.

The material cause of the statue is the matter from which it is made (without such matter, no statue).

The efficient cause is the movements of the sculptor, who uses chisel and hammer to transform the stone into a statue.

The formal cause is the idea or form of the statue as it has taken form in the mind of the sculptor and determines how he will direct his movements.

The final cause is the intention to make a statue (for example, because someone has ordered a statue from the sculptor).

In a mechanistic worldview, only the material and efficient causes are typically considered active. The universe is seen as a collection of material particles set in motion, with subsequent events unfolding from this initial movement. However, within this perspective, the existence of predetermined “forms” or “ideas” that influence the unfolding of the material process is not presumed, particularly regarding the development of specific organisms.

Chaos theory challenges this limited perspective by recognising that there is a final cause—a purpose or intention—in nature, which influences the complex unfolding of events. It expands our understanding of causation and highlights the significance of formal causes and the underlying order within seemingly chaotic systems.

 

CHAPTER 10 Matter and Spirit

The mechanistic worldview assumes a hierarchical structure in the sciences, where physics is seen as the fundamental level, and all other disciplines follow from it. However, this perspective has become obsolete in light of scientific advancements. Quantum mechanics, for instance, challenges the notion that consciousness can be fully explained through material knowledge. It reveals that even elementary particles are influenced by consciousness, as observed in experiments.

The mechanistic worldview relies on the idea of material particles as objective data from which everything else can be deduced. However, quantum mechanics demonstrates a different reality. The closer we examine matter, the more the act of observation itself affects our perception, making it more subjective. This aligns with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and suggests that matter, once considered the solid foundation of mechanistic materialism, is essentially a subjective phenomenon. The true nature of matter remains unknown.

 

CHAPTER 11 Science and Truth:

Totalitarianism is rooted in the belief that human intellect can be the guiding force in shaping society. It seeks to establish an artificial utopia led by technocrats or experts who, relying on their technical knowledge, strive for a flawlessly functioning societal machine. In this vision, individuals are subordinated to the collective, reduced to mere cogs within the societal mechanism.

Technocratic thinking operates on two fronts. It entices people with the promise of a positive vision, offering an artificial paradise that supposedly liberates us from adversity and suffering. Simultaneously, it asserts itself through anxiety, presenting itself as a necessary means to solve problems. This process has accelerated with the emergence of various “objects of anxiety” in recent times, such as terrorism, climate change, and the coronavirus.

Totalitarianism and technocracy present themselves as embodiments of rationality and science. The technocratic ideal promises happiness and good health for the population, or at least the greatest likelihood of achieving them. Through subcutaneous sensors, every biochemical change can be monitored and reported. Immediate examination and appropriate treatment can be provided to anyone displaying signs of illness. However, in order to achieve this efficiently, everything must be perpetually exposed to the artificial light of surveillance and governmental control.

 

It’s time to accept uncertainty:

As a society, we can choose to avoid anxiety and deny our uncertainty, or we can confront our narcissistic fears and embrace the unknown.

The first option leads us down a path of seeking solutions in an even more (pseudo)scientific ideology, false rationality, illusory certainty, and excessive technological control. This ultimately results in heightened anxiety, depression, and social isolation. In response, we become even more desperate in our futile attempts to control the uncontrollable.

On the other hand, choosing the second path entails societal defiance of anxiety and an acknowledgment that uncertainty is inherent to the human condition. It is through uncertainty that creativity, individuality, and human connection emerge. By embracing uncertainty, society becomes a space where interconnectedness and individual differences thrive, rather than succumbing to totalitarian systems that erode individual liberty, extinguish diversity, and impose a monotonous state identity.

 

The rise of Rhetoric:

Foucault presents an intriguing differentiation between rhetoric and truth. Rhetoric involves attempting to evoke ideas and beliefs in others that the speaker themselves may not genuinely hold. On the other hand, speaking the truth entails sincerely conveying an idea or experience that resides within the speaker, aiming to resonate with the Other and evoke a shared understanding.

In recent centuries, and particularly in recent decades, rhetoric has increasingly pervaded the public sphere. We have grown accustomed to encountering such rhetoric from politicians, knowing that their election promises are often left unfulfilled. Over time, the general public has come to accept this reality: a politician’s discourse during elections serves primarily to persuade, rather than accurately reflect their future actions. Similarly, the realm of advertising follows a similar pattern. It is widely recognized that advertisements do not provide an entirely truthful representation of the products being promoted; only a fool would believe otherwise.

 

Behind the fig leaf:

The rationality and humanism of the Enlightenment are in many ways a masquerade and a fig leaf. Strip man of this masquerade and you look into the eyes of irrationality; look behind the fig leaf of rationality and you will find the ancient human vices.

By clinging to a rational worldview, we are blinded to our own irrational thinking, allowing it to grow unchecked and assume grotesque forms.

However, those who acknowledge the limitations of their intellect tend to become less arrogant and more compassionate, embracing the diversity of others. When the clamor of intellect subsides, they can hear the whispers of life telling its own unique stories. They recognise their own right to have a story, too.