A Warped Prism

There exists a certain real pathos inherent in the NSA's PRISM program -- and not only because of its attempt to undermine American principles.

PRISM, along with its doubtlessly enormous support structure, is based on a worldview that no longer exists among serious intellects, one that hasn't existed for more than a century, for the simple reason that it fails to reflect anything in the actual universe. This is a conceptual error that guarantees the failure of the program no matter what use it is put to. The formal name of that worldview is the Cartesian-Newtonian mechanistic universe. 

The mechanistic worldview - also known as "determinism" -- held sway over the educated West for nearly three centuries. Rene Descartes constructed a self-consistent materialist philosophical system based on the single irrefutable premise of self-conscious awareness. Isaac Newton formulated a set of laws that appeared to govern all forms of motion from the molecular to the cosmic. Together, these concepts implied that, with enough knowledge, everything occurring in the universe on all levels could be understood in detail, without possibility of error. Mechanistic determinism was a worldview of absolute certainty, quite a comfort to a culture that was slowly abandoning the reality of transcendental religion.

The mechanist doctrine produced all sorts of offshoots over the centuries, including progressivism, socialism, natural selection, and even, indirectly, things like romanticism. The process was straightforward: simply examine the system that you want to define-- society, biological evolution -- on the assumption that it's a mechanism, like a clock, the most commonplace metaphor, and you were in business. (Romanticism was, of course, a reaction against this.) 

Determinism was going strong as the 20th century dawned. All the evidence appeared to be in its favor; the opposition was limited to religious figures and others too ignorant to matter. There were only a few noticeable contradictions, and those trivial -- the behavior of black-body radiation, for instance. Most scientists were convinced that they were within range of the final answers -- the ultimate explanations that would give them effectively complete knowledge of the world as it existed, along with the ability to predict its course without possibility of error.

It was amid this atmosphere that Bertrand Russell sat down to work out the complete logical basis for mathematics. Previously, mathematics was understood only with the help of "axioms," basic statements taken as true without benefit of proof. Russell set out to provide the proof and do away with the axioms.

After several years of work with Alfred North Whitehead, he published the Principia Mathematica, which he considered the ultimate work of mathematical logic. Immediately a number of mathematicians noted logical gaps, which Russell set out to repair. Then in 1931 the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel published "Über formal unentscheidbare Sätze der "Principia Mathematica" und verwandter Systeme" (On Formally Undecidable Propositions of "Principia Mathematica" and Related Systems), a proof demonstrating, without possibility of contradiction, that a logical system cannot be proven using its own principles. There is no such thing as a self-consistent logical system; axioms will always be required. Russell had no answer to this incompleteness theorem. 

Yet another pillar in the façade of mechanistic determinism had begun to fall with the work of Max Planck, who in 1900 postulated that those oddities in black-body radiation arose because the radiation was emitted not steadily but in discreet packets, which he called "quanta." This caused little excitement until five years later an obscure patent clerk named Einstein demonstrated that quanta -- subatomic particles of various types; in this case, photons -- were responsible for the photoelectric effect (that's right - Einstein is behind that supermarket door trick.)

For years, quantum theory was overshadowed by another paper produced by Einstein at the same time. But as physicists got their teeth into it, they began coming up with extraordinary findings that demanded overall explanation: quanta could be in two places at once, could act as both waves and particles, and could be in contact with similar entities all the way across the entire universe. A number of physicists offered explanations. One answer came from Werner Heisenberg, who stated that while it was possible to determine a particle's location or speed, it was impossible to do both at once. Observing the particle introduces energy, which, if you're determining location, changes its speed, and if you are tracking its speed, changes its location. This is a fundamental aspect of the universe that cannot be overcome by better equipment or closer observation. Through various complications it can be used to explain -- though that's no longer a good word - much of the oddity of the quantum universe. 

Quantum mechanics encompassing the Heisenberg principle soon came to dominate 20th-century physics. Not everyone was happy with it, among them Einstein himself, who insisted that "God does not play dice with the world." (One classical physicist was so overwrought he shot himself.)

Together, Gödelian incompleteness and Heisenberg's uncertainty demolished the mechanistic worldview. Absolute certainty is impossible in our universe as it is constructed and any attempt to obtain it is a delusion. 

This insight has not yet been fully absorbed by the culture at large. Many philosophers fail to grasp it. (Martin Heidegger was one of the few, though in a very idiosyncratic fashion.) Apart from figures such as Michel Foucalt, who took it as an excuse to destroy themselves by whatever means to came to hand, it has failed to filter into popular culture. People still speak as if the "search for truth" is a possibility in this fallen world, of absolute certainty as if it's a commonplace. That our thinking must be based in large part on faith may be hard to take, but it is undeniable fact.

At the same time, a lot of things remain based on determinism, as if time and thought had halted in the last years of the 19th century. Progressive politics, environmentalism, much of economics -- and, it seems, the NSA's program for detecting terrorism. 

The premise behind PRISM is purely mechanistic -- the more data you collect from various sources, the more information you will have, and the more absolute your knowledge will be. Once you have complete information, you have complete knowledge and control -- the U.S. will be surrounded by a wall of information through which no terrorist can penetrate.

This sounds impressive and irrefutable. I have heard the NSA system compared to a bomber with a huge payload that can continue dropping bombs until the very last enemy is killed. 

So why are Gödel and Heisenberg laughing in Valhalla?

Because it doesn't work. It doesn't work because, as we have seen, the universe does not operate that way.

More information does not necessarily increase accuracy. There is a question of contradictions, of errors, of disinformation. A point is soon reached where more and more time is spent on checking and verification. The analysts of PRISM would very soon find themselves in the position of the Thomas Pynchon character who attempts to write the ultimate book on European politics. He begins the first chapter, "First, Prime Minister MacDonald could die," working out every possible ramification of MacDonald's death across Europe. But by that time, the prime minister has died and he has to throw away the chapter and start all over again.

Human beings are not elementary particles -- they are, as far as we have been able to determine, the most complex entities in the universe. Among their other qualities is the fact that they are "kettles that can watch themselves come to a boil," in the words of Isaiah Berlin. They can change their behavior. A terrorist who hears that the NSA is tracking cell phones and emails can stop using cell phones and emails. Further than that, a smart Jihadi could confuse the system by sending bogus messages, utilizing "trigger words" at random or in false patterns, and setting up a plethora of bogus networks and operations. This is the key to asymmetric warfare -- utilizing an enemy's strengths to defeat him. Tactics like this have comprised the heart of espionage and psychological warfare for millennia. If you think they aren't being used now, waste no more time reading further -- a job awaits you at the NSA.

There's also the problem of self-imposed filters, which we know exist in the NSA as they do in the TSA, Homeland Defense, Justice, and every other branch of government. Namely, that we're not supposed to look at Muslims, Arabs, or Middle Easterners in search of terrorists. It's a trap - don't fall for it. Instead, closely watch evangelicals, Catholics, Tea Party members, and the like - and don't forget the nuns.  This explains how the Tsarnaevs and Nidal Hassan, independent quanta of evil, slipped through the ultimate information system totally undetected.

So the PRISM program is ultimately worth little, the billions spent on it as wasted as if the Manhattan Project had been intent of building a bomb using phlogiston. (The NSA's claims that unnamed programs have "thwarted" terrorist attempts in "twenty nations" are without detail and apparently don't refer to PRISM.) But could there be another purpose? Could it be used, as many fear, as a "Big Brother" system -- a means of domestic control? The answer to that is also no, because the same factors come into play there as well. While the PRISM system could be used to harass dissidents and wreck lives, it would in the end fail as a tool of oppression. 

PRISM is much like the other elements of Barack Obama's great progressive crusade -- ObamaCare, quantitative easing, green economics -- elaborate and expensive systems apt to cause a lot of misery and waste while accomplishing nothing. Liberals like to boast that they are the rational party. But it's an obsolete rationality based on discredited principles, as if they were all walking around wearing celluloid collars or hoop skirts. True rational thinking has led us to the conclusion that the universe is a lot more complicated and surprising than the mechanistic thinkers ever dreamed. (A wise anti-terror planner would consider chaos theory, a system of thought that encompasses uncertainty and incompleteness.)

The world is not a mechanism, it is a jeu d'esprit, a complex joke, or a work of art, and perhaps all of these and more. Those who ignore its actual nature will pay the price.

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