The function of systems

In an earlier post, I wrote that something that is broken has lost its sense of wholeness. While this is true at a formal level (formal cause), it leaves out the clearer implication that this machine has ceased to function as we would like it to. Quite naturally, we think that broken things are broken when they stop performing their requisite functions, fulfilling their assigned tasks, or executing our commands perhaps in virtue of having lost their integrity. Here, we might speak of malfunctions as well as dysfunctions. We might also speak of something’s still performing, albeit less efficiently or effectively.

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Calling tool talk into question

On the assumption that the world is broken, one of the concepts that would come in handy (so to speak) would be that of the tool. The tool is an instrument for working on some bit of reality in order to improve it, repair it, or restore it. The tool is to be wielded in such a way that one can do greater work, get greater leverage on reality. Tools begin to come into prominence, it could be hypothesized, once it becomes self-evident that reality is mainly ‘here’ in order to be worked on and, in some stronger cases, bent to our wills. By saying this, I do not mean to imply that humans have not been using and availing ourselves of tools for as long as we have been around; we surely have. I mean instead that there is now greater talk of abstract tools (ideas as tools, concepts as tools, approaches as tools, models as tools, etc.) than ever before. And this new phenomenon has to be accounted for.

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And if the world weren’t broken?

It is often said that the world is broken and thus in need of fixing. I do not think so.

We would not say that something is broken unless we also thought that it had once been intact. Something that is intact has all its pieces together, with each piece connected in the proper fashion to the next. Whatever is unbroken is not just intact; it makes up a whole.

The running thesis is that the world, once a whole, has come apart, resulting in shards, pieces, and fragments strewn about here and there. Thinking this to be so, one first searches for the causes of this fragmentation and second seeks to intervene by restoring the world to a prior state, creating a better state, transforming the whole, or creating something entirely new. (These four responses I wrote about yesterday.)

This can’t be right way to understand things. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein points out that certain concepts are at home within certain language games (or discourses). There is no conceptual trouble with claiming that a bike is broken and in need of fixing nor with insisting that a leaky faucet needs to be fixed. Yet there is conceptual trouble once ‘brokenness’ is ripped out of its discursive home and broadened well beyond the scope of its normal, everyday application with the result that ‘the world’ is said to be broken and thus in need of fixing. I am not sure how that is possible or what it would possibly mean to ‘fix the world.’ It strikes me as a misunderstanding of the character of the world in the first place and as an act of hubris on the part of the agent in the second.

Certainly, however ‘the world’ turns out to be, we would do well to return to the beginning: How is the world a whole?

Slowly, I am making my way around to connecting all of these arguments from the past month concerning the penchant for problem-solving (the world is a problem that needs to be solved), the idea that the world is fallen and in need of saving, the view that human beings are weak and thus yearning to be helped, and the thesis that the mind is prone to sickness and therefore in need of healing. How they are connected I do not know yet.

4 responses to the world’s being broken

Suppose you begin with the thought that the world in its entirety is broken. Then, there are only four possible ways of responding to its brokenness: return it to a prior state before it was broken, bring it to a new state that is better off than the broken state, smash the broken thing and begin again, start something new that will, in time, replace the broken system.

The first view could be called, variously, nostalgia, romanticism, prelapsarianism, antiquarianism, or conservatism. The second view would likely be a form or style of incrementalism. The third view would be anarchist, eschatological, utopian, Maoist, etc. The fourth view would be innovative or entrepreneurial.

The assumption that the world in its entirety is broken seems to me false. I do not think the world is broken, and so I do not believe that it has to be fixed. Were this to be demonstrated, then none of these responses have to follow. Naturally, I will have to give an account to demonstrate why I believe this to be the case, and I would have to further show that action under a different stripe and based on different, better reasons is still very much possible.

‘Could be broken’ and ‘is broken’

In the last couple of posts, I have been examining this argument:

2.) Because the world is broken or out-of-order, it needs to be fixed or restored.

Let me set the stage for the next post about the view that the world (or some large sections of it anyway) is already broken. So far, I have considered the thought that some system could break or is susceptible to breaking. If this is the case, then one would devise a set of common responses. Let me mention the three most prominent responses. One would be to be on the lookout for whatever it is that could break and is within one’s ken. Another would be to troubleshoot, repairing some part that isn’t working with an eye to avoiding the total breakdown of the system. And a third would be to keep upgrading a system to ensure that whatever could most likely break down does not break down or apart. One can observe these strategies being employed in everything from security to engineering to hospital care.

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