08 October 2018

Power over whats and whos

In a famous formulation, Aristotle defines power (δύναμις) to be ἀρχή μεταβολῆς ἐν ἄλλῳ ἠ  ᾗ ἄλλο. (Met. Theta 1, 1046a9f), i.e. "a source governing a change in something else or in the same being insofar as it is regarded as something else". This is the metaphysical formula for productive, efficient power to effect a change from a power source that provides the foundational ontology of movement in all Western thinking, and today globally, in all scientifico-technological thinking. All science, i.e. all ἐπιστήμη, from the Greeks on is will to efficient, effective power over all kinds of movement and change. This will is the theological orientation of modern science's onto-theology, i.e. its metaphysics.

This famous formulation can be given a further twist: ἀρχή μεταβολῆς ἐν τινι ἠ τις ᾗ τι, i.e. "a source governing a change in something or in someone regarded as something" or, to bring out the difference between what and who: "a source governing a change in somewhat or in somewho regarded as somewhat". This variant brings to the fore the essential character of epistemic power as a power over whats, or whos insofar as they are seen as whats. For this reason, modern science, born in the seventeenth century as mathematized physics, retained its essential will to power over whats, or whos as whats, when it developed further into the various social sciences such as political economy, psychology and sociology. To fulfil its essential determination as science, all social science has to emulate physics in striving for knowing power over the movements and changes of people by reducing their genuine whoness to a whatness amenable to the will to effective power. The phenomenological violence of this reduction still goes unnoticed today.

This observation enables a better understanding of Heidegger's statement, "The question concerning who the human being is [...] cannot be adequately asked within the domain of traditional metaphysics, which remains essentially ‘physics’." (Die Frage, wer der Mensch ist [...] läßt sich im Bereich der überlieferten Metaphysik, die wesentlich ‚Physik‘ bleibt, nicht zureichend fragen. Martin Heidegger Einführung in die Metaphysik S. 107)

The singleness of the source of effective power in Aristotle's definition nips in the bud any genuine access to the phenomenality of a plurality of whos in power interplay with one another. Such a power interplay precludes establishing a single source of power over whos, i.e. of social power. Rather, social power can only be adequately conceived as mutually estimative power interplays of various kinds. This hermeneutic as remains in oblivion as long as an alternative ontology of movement and change to the Aristotelean ontology of causally efficient movement, which remains tacitly intact throughout all modern science, is not explicitly dismantled and curbed by philosophical thinking in favour of a phenomenally adequate ontology of specifically social, sociating movement and change that brings with it a radically alternative, historical cast of mind.

All kinds of authoritarian politics currently re-emerging across the globe treat people as things, i.e. as whats, to be manipulated, especially by calculating words, in ruthless power games. Likewise, today increasingly aiding authoritarian governments, the cyberworld is bent on algorithmically controlling all the movements of people through so-called 'artificial intelligence' and so-called 'deep learning' by neural networks fed with huge mountains of data. These data, on which the neural networks train, carry all the prejudices and biases of the empirical world, reducing human beings to statistically significant or insignificant data bit-strings, whereas the artificially intelligent algorithms enable an outsourcing and automation of power over people by dictating what they can and cannot do. 'Misjudgements' on the part of these 'intelligent' algorithms can and do have dire consequences.

However, here it is not so much a matter of pointing to dire consequences of algorithmic control and weighing them against those which are beneficial, convenient, entertaining or whatever. Philosophical thinking's task does not amount to a balancing act between upsides and downsides on some kind of ethical see-saw. Rather, already the terms 'artificial intelligence' and 'deep learning' in connection with the concatenation of countless universal Turing machines constituting the cyberworld indicate that we humans have long since become accustomed to thoughtlessly conceiving ourselves as whats, instead of insistently posing the question as to our whoness.  

Further reading: Social Ontology of Whoness and The Digital Cast of Being.

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