Doctrine and the Actual

October 31, 2022

The events of World War II were global in scope and are thus hard to generalize into any one neat theory. That being said, at the philosophical level, there is much that can be explored. First, and most obviously, one side called themselves the “Axis”, i.e. a new set of powers around which the world would rotate. Common among the Italian Fascists, German Nazis, and Japanese ultra-nationals was centralizing power around aestheticism and cults, specifically a mixture of parent worship of a Padre Duce or a divinely-chosen leader (a very traditional, if uninspired, tact), and some hallmarks of actual occultism (such as the pseudo-Theosophical beliefs that sprung up).

Here, I suggest a slightly-different definition of what a cult is: a group sharing some set of beliefs which run contrary to observations that can be experienced in objective reality. It is very broad, but I believe general enough to capture the many negative senses of the term—both a “cult of personality” (in denying the necessary fallibilities of any one person and, by extent, the necessity of a society of persons to mutually compensate) and a “religious cult” (in denying necessary aspects of reality itself) share this problem, and, I think it is fair to say, these beliefs are often held specifically as an alternative to reality due to some combination of issues in their interpretations of reality or in difficulties that reality legitimately presents.

Turning back to World War II, it is fair to say that the US did not fall into any gross category of cultism—in accepting “Jüdische Physik”, for example, one could say that we relied on empiricism and what observations of reality yield instead of dogmatic (and racist) beliefs. If the philosophical conflict was between cultism and empiricism, we can draw two important conclusions from the “historical decision” that was rendered: first, that empiricism won because the school of thought ran toward, rather than away from, reality itself. The methods, if incomplete, were not unsound—and, more importantly, it points to what may seem an obvious statement: denying reality is bad, acknowledging it good. We have discovered, perhaps, the criterion by which “history decides”: the degree to which one’s system of thinking aligns with the actual—accounting for all of it, not just the pieces that neatly fit into some toy conceptual scheme. Reality’s secret fitness function revealed: the minimization of idiocy.

The second conclusion is that, contrary to the claims of some, history itself has not concluded. At least here in the US, empiricism soundly won and, nowadays, one can hardly escape the empirical motive. We have economies structured on numbers and their interpretations; credit scores; numbers for calories and vitamin intakes; vast data stores capturing our every action, preference, and performance. Judgments anywhere and everywhere are based on numerical interpretation, all nicely automatable to excise human judgment entirely—first the quantitative kind, and, as we have discovered with giant corporations that are responsible for much of our infrastructure with no way to get in touch with a human if a problem occurs, the qualitative kind.

Knowing how much Vitamin C to ingest in a given day, of course, is useful and important—the numbers have been empirically determined, and there are clear benefits to this quantification. The problem comes from relying too much on these numbers: if we were to simply rely on vitamin pills, we would miss out on critical elements such as macronutrients—clearly, at any given moment in time, there are gaps in any empirical description or conception. And our society, unfortunately, habitually ignores these gaps: various efficiencies are achieved if we just “go by the numbers”—lower cost for food production and logistics, less food prep time needed so that workers can focus on their jobs.

Science yielded important discoveries, but, somewhere along the line, human judgment failed, and now multiple food crises are occurring domestically—we at once have an obesity crisis and a food insecurity crisis, quite a horrific absurdity that should in no way follow from the rigor of scientific empiricism. The problem, I believe, comes from misplaced empiricism—science provided useful data and interpretations, doubtless caveated with all sorts of carefulnesses, and then, at the business layer, this information was taken as a set of constraints informing a business structure experiment to be “empirically” tested in the market. Nuance, and correctness, were lost, and the market agents focused on optimizations—but, if the market is a strict subset of reality, then a market optimization generally runs the risk of targeting a local maximum rather the global maxima of actuality in which the market is embedded.

While necessary, even the briefest survey of the current state of affairs shows the insufficiency of “empiricism” as currently employed. Empirically, climate change is upon us. And, empirically, empiricism itself is so prevalent in our society that even the lay person has some idea of what a “margin of error” is. One could say, then, that history is “deciding” all around us as we speak—and it is hard to interpret the harsh tones mother nature has begun to take as anything other than a most ill opinion of our “empirical” social structure and what it yields.

The market poses quite the conundrum—clearly, it “exists” in that activity of exchange is actually occurring, effects can be measured, and it even has “natural” behaviors such as equilibria being reached without deliberate coordination of agents. It is a member of reality, but it is not so simple as a physical phenomenon—the market is an odd estuary of physical resources and constraints as well as the psychology of entire populations, some members of which have disproportionate influence.

Here, I think it is fair to say that the market is not just a human construct, but a social one at that: nature does not conduct in trade (to say otherwise, I think, is to unduly anthropomorphize reality), and a human does not conduct trade with oneself. It may be something humans naturally do, and it may be a necessary consequence to, as Whitehead put it, the “disjunctive diversity” of higher organisms put in such limiting earthly conditions as we face, but that does not mean it is not a construct.

With physical reality, we endeavor to understand and tame it via empiricism and rationality (the old, well-understood sense of the word, not the new senses that are noisy, noisome distractions in dire times)—measures and reasoning. To relate to physical reality otherwise is to throw away all sorts of tools and useful approaches we have developed: a true absolutist would hardly be recognizable as anything human, perhaps not even as something alive as even the simplest organisms necessarily possess some capacity for reckoning about the exterior (the development and utilization of tools are really just extensions of these reckonings).

If this is true about physical reality, what can that mean for other actual segments—for example, the market? Does it make sense to be an absolutist who rails against mechanisms and reasonings that seek to understand and tame something which is of our own construction? Such a belief in marketism, to me, seems no less foolish—in the first place, one must assume that it can capture all human behaviors and that, on the whole, these behaviors are sensical and lead to good ends; and, more generally, one must also believe that all aspects of reality relevant to society are adequately expressed in the market. As Deleuze wrote in Difference and Repetition:

[T]he economic conditions of a problem determine or give rise to the manner in which it finds a solution within the framework of the real relations of the society. Not that the observer can draw the least optimism from this, for these “solutions” may involve stupidity or cruelty, the horror of war or “the solution of the Jewish problem”. More precisely, the solution is always that which a society deserves or gives rise to as a consequence of the manner in which, given its real relations, it is able to pose the problems set within it and to it by the differential relations it incarnates.


If marketism is to be accepted, then, sure, it is entirely correct to employ empirical methods exclusively from the basis of the market—such a “market orientation”, as Fromm put it, would make scientific and technical endeavors framed not in due reference to reality but to the market. Our various accumulating failures dictate otherwise, however—which leads us to a question: if a living being who totally rejects measures and reasonings necessary to its very survival could not really be said to be alive, what can be said about a society which totally rejects measures and reasonings necessary to the survival of its constituents?



Marketism, I contend, is closely related to the cultisms we saw manifested in the mid-twentieth century—however, the methods for control are subtler, and so is the error. The differences are not so easy to parse out—history may “decide” moment by moment, but its words also seem to rhyme as each stanza ends. There is the worship of “strong men”, but, since organized religion has fallen out of fashion, we now see an air of confusion about it: far from the selfless fealty to the Emperor once demonstrated by kamikaze pilots, orange men cannot help but to be booed by their own rally-goers nowadays—so far from a sun god are they that even their tans are fake.

By contrast, the commonality across all of them is simple: the narrowing of interpretive schemes to strict subsets of reality—a mistake that follows from doctrinal thinking. A common problem to the human race, it seems, is a repetition of a theme: trying to center things around ourselves. Heliocentrism, for example, is an interpretive scheme where the universe revolves around the planet; dictators and autocrats try to have society revolve around an individual or the state; marketists try to have behaviors and events revolve around the market. Doctrine threads through them each, though the buy-in seems to get smaller—indeed, marketism has every appearance of empiricism and rationality as we know them in their relations to reality.

Spray-on tans, I believe, are a perfect representation of the “innovation” that marketism introduced: where old doctrinal systems required a centralized authority (the Church in the case of heliocentrism, the state in some form for the autocrat), we are presented with diverse commercial alternatives instead. Where, in the past, a dictator won power by getting an individual to buy into a subset of one belief system, the scale of our communications systems is now fully abused to get an individual to accept a subset of beliefs from many different systems of thought, thereby distributing falsehoods and weak ways of thinking at a comparatively-atomic level.

Now that our society has a fundamental market orientation, a new strategy was devised: instead of a concentration of order around a single doctrine, there are now many concentrations of order segregated along market verticals. It follows from our perception of “consumers” who are an assemblage of preferred brands and behaviors—an “empirical” representation of a human is a “consumer profile” that each person builds à la carte by selecting from each market segment. With armies of “influencers” and capture of highly-centralized media and advertising systems, one could try to get people to buy into a centralized doctrine, but far subtler would be to imperceptibly nudge the public in ways that their consumer profiles suggest would be most effective.

Adjacency of clots of order is one way to achieve this. Get someone interested in some politically-neutral topic like, say, UFOs and the potential for non-terrestrial life, and quickly one may get sucked into an entire “alternate” network by watching a ufologist’s interview on a show whose next guest just so happens to have some “interesting” theories on race, culture, and skull size. After all, you first arrived by not being afraid to “ask questions”, and what possible harm could come from these more intrepid souls “just asking questions”—just like you?

(It’s worth jotting down a side note here which follows from the preceding. If the attack vector is on a per-vertical basis, then the marketplace of ideas, for good or ill, has likewise become similarly segmented: if meaningful public discourse is not conducted outside of the market orientation—indeed, even the forums themselves are highly-commercial endeavors, owned and managed by single, mostly unaccountable individuals—then surely there must be some shaping of and effect upon ideas, the lifeblood of enlightened societies. Thus, a vertical capture—a monopoly or similar market consolidation or distortion—implies a capture of part of the marketplace of ideas itself: many vendors have been reduced down to a single booth. Highly efficient—but what if this market concentration forces everyone to be subjected to an eccentric’s weirdo beliefs? And what if those beliefs are firmly aligned against our government or way of life or democracy itself? Various antitrust measures, then, become not simply a matter of redressing market flaws, but, in fact, matters of national security.)

If everything in our experience and the universe itself can be fully represented in conceptual schemes, then conceptual tools need be as far as one ventures. Can, as some powerful individuals in our society believe, a human be fully numerically represented? If this is accepted, then an absolute game-theoretic interpretation of people may be viewed as necessarily prudent and wise. And, from there, individuals can be seen as “crops” of utiles to be harvested: the old and infirm should be cast aside, perhaps condemned (that is to say: properly, efficiently allocated) to a labor camp until expiration—again, efficiently grown via min-maxing food expenditures against labor output. Most effective, perhaps, would be to recycle the expired generations as biomass inputs into the newer ones, virtually eliminating a cost center entirely. It is all empirically determined—the math is all there for anyone to examine, to be well judged according to their definition of (game-theoretic) rationality.

To me (and, for the love of god, hopefully to others as well), this thinking is so monstrous that one who would even entertain such a line of reasoning should be condemned socially. Too bad one of the social tools the Greeks once developed, exile, no longer applies—now that the public forums are owned by private technocrats, it seems as though only they have this power now.



If occultism is religion minus reality, marketism is empiricism minus reality, and their generality is cultism—a conceptual system which denies some aspect of reality—then a question arises: are any one of these tools sufficient? Religion, in isolation, does not generally provide the necessary tools to alleviate pragmatic, material issues. Empiricism, in isolation, strays too far into utilitarianism and marketism. The edge between using and abusing probabilistic and statistical tools of reasoning is well known to be somewhat razor thin—even academically-trained professionals exhibit interpretive errors—and I fail to see how the same argument cannot be made for any reasoning tool. And yet, these very tools can be operated nonetheless—a most dangerous situation when power is allocated to those who simply know how to flip the “on” switch of some highly-sophisticated machinery, misleading observers into believing that the confidence in their careless brandishing is the mark of an expert.

The question now becomes: if centralized cultism evolved into the decentralized form we are here calling marketism, then what evolution should be undergone by those who seek to move away from all cultisms? Empiricism, at its best, is an action with a superseding goal (in contrast to a doctrine where empiricism is the end in itself): a continuing refinement of understanding of affairs as they actually are. The specificity of empiricism lies in the use of measures, which suggests that there are other specificities that may be employed in the general understanding endeavor. Categories of philosophy other than what Whitehead labels “descriptive philosophy”—closely related to empiricism as doctrine—for example may find replenished standing in such a plurality (as McHenry and others have well argued). And, just as philosophy due to its most powerful nature should be carefully practiced, so too could carefully-practiced mysticism be merrily greeted: after all, the province of speculation is free land to be freely roamed—hardly a reserve for philosophers alone. Indeed, if society suffers from the limits of exclusive empiricism, then some non-empirical methods may be found to have their (non-empirically defined) merit.

If we accept Sartre’s dictum that “existence precedes essence”, then any conceptual scheme comes secondary to actual existence—perhaps all cultisms, then, are stood upon a belief of the reverse. We may then perhaps call actualism to be the opposite of cultism: the general practice of the understanding of reality as it actually is—a key element of which is its ubiquity and inherent interdependency, which is to say that it is impossible to derive generalizations from limited, selective examination.

One final caveat should be named—and, should this point be missed, then this entire essay should be considered to be wholly misunderstood. Just as with empiricism, actualism too should be practiced as an action rather than as a doctrine. Empiricism is inarguably an entirely reasonable and useful mental tool, and yet its dogmatic usage breeds inertia: that is to say, an atrophied, inactive mind. Merely following procedure—including and especially procedural interpretation—is not mental activity, at least not of a higher order. Here, precisely, is where many philosophical and mystical practitioners fail. Actualism should be practiced, but it should not be a practice.

This itself suggests a general problem affecting humans: the doctrinal hardening of actions, what may perhaps be labeled sclerotic mentation. And, from there, a general question: is there a way to teach flexibility, its opposite?

To borrow from Socrates’ conversation with Meno, is there knowledge behind flexibility which may be conveyed or is it, by contrast, a true opinion without the “tying down” of ideas into knowledge? ”[K]nowledge is prized higher than correct opinion” precisely because the tying action is such that opinions or ideas then “remain in place”, and yet, according to Socrates, ”[c]orrect opinion is  . . . neither inferior to knowledge nor less useful in directing actions, nor is the man who has it less so than he who has knowledge” (quite the check to the doctrinal empiricist who, in the most power-hungry cases, excludes those with correct opinions simply because said ideas were expressed with an insufficient backing of analytical rigor, of most particular concern to our time and place as Socrates himself appealed especially to “statesmen” to illustrate the value of those possessing true opinions).

Begging for indulgence, let us say that flexibility is a form of wisdom, even a virtue. If we accept this, then, according to Socrates, it “does not come by nature”, it is “neither teachable nor knowledge”, and, indeed, it “comes to those who possess it as a gift from the gods which is not accompanied by understanding”.

In matters of the heart and spirit, empirical methods—and any conceptual scheme—fall short if for no other reason than some correct opinions cannot be exhaustively, linguistically transmitted from one agent to another. Ideology and indoctrination are the closest we can get—and if avoiding doctrinal thought is virtuous, then at least this specific wisdom cannot be virtuously inhered in others by known methods. Were this otherwise, the world would be in a better place since, just as the scientific revolution builds knowledge one brick atop another, surely we would have seen a likewise accumulation in global goodwill.

Can an empirical method be devised to measure flexibility? Maybe—but what of all other virtues, all other wisdoms? Are there general interpretive procedures that can be rigorously defined? Again, we run into a problem of flexibility—in being rigorously defined, do we fall into a sclerotic mentation? We get closer, perhaps, to the backing of the stance “I’ll know it when I see it”.

If, as Socrates argues, virtue cannot be taught, then how could an “AGI” system come to possess it? Even if we were to run numerous simulations to engender virtue or wisdom, what would be the parameters for the fitness function? Can they even be well defined? Presuming such a system is in the first place sentient, its very experience and modality of existence is alien to us—we struggle with the mind-body problem, struggle with selecting leaders who truly possess any sort of wisdom, cannot even reliably impart virtues to others of our own species, so how do we tackle the problem of systematizing wisdom itself to feed into a system of our own making? There may be some who believe that wisdom can be “socially inculcated”, but is it not true that wisdom, in being uncommon and intransmissible, originates from somewhere other than the stew of human interactions, and in many cases may be an independent reaction to various states of affairs of society itself?

On the other hand, if such a system cannot possess virtue or wisdom, is it fair to consider it sentient in the first place? Surely the capacity for virtue is an important quality in a person—in some societies, for example, a person judged to be truly virtueless is often put to the death after conviction for some heinous crime.

Is it a good idea to develop a virtueless agency? I think not—others, on the other hand, actively endeavor to achieve “AGI” without due concern for these matters (perhaps here we have stumbled upon a proxy measure for the question of whether a person or leader possesses any wisdom). Should they continue their avenues of exploration unaltered, they, to me, posit a thesis: Socrates’ “statesmen”, and the virtues they may possess, are outmoded (all but explicitly said by some of the experimenters).

And, in their place? Virtual agencies, virtueless daemons. The devil, as they say, is in the details—the very thing a cultist’s mind struggles with.