“Touching God”, Numbers and “Common Sense”

“…I live in an old Arab city where there are not many phones. I need a phone to contact the people I am to interview and who happen to be the bourgeois modernized elite who will be choked if I drop in on them as we traditionally do. I went to the public phone which is not an automatic one. I gave my list of numbers to the operator who happens to have known me since ages. He wanted to know why I want to call all these people. I explained briefly that I was doing a sort of sociological survey. He wanted more details. I told him that it will take us about an hour, and that by then the Post office will have to close. he took it as an insult and told me to wait until he called me. I did. He called me to say that the numbers were either busy or not answering, and that in any case I should not try to monopolize a public phone by calling so many people. I told him I was sorry. I was so worried about the time, and that I was ready to tell him what I was doing. I did. He wanted to know how 10 or 20 people, very special and particular, be representative of hundreds and thousands who only have some things in common with them. So I proceeded to explain ‘la theorie de probabilite’ . He then disagreed and rejected the theory as being junk….”(From Slater’s EarthWalk)

The student went on to explain that it was the operator’s right to accept it or reject it, as that was the course of all theories. The operator became angry and felt insulted, and the phone was not available to the student for several days.

As you will see from the student’s reaction to the operator, the response was to “deaden” the operator’s opinion by simply saying the theory was based on a collection of opinions, and one person could accept it or reject it, which made little difference in the statistical value of the opinion.
The student went on to write:

“The famous ‘anesthesie’ which bothered me so much in Cambridge is in fact what allows you to be efficient there, and its absence leaves you completely immersed in an environment you can’t control because you are so emotionally involved and at such a passionate level”.

Marshall McLuhan, in “Understanding Media”, points out that all technologies are extensions of the body, and have the effect of anesthesia. That is, they tend to locally “deaden” the area they extend. In order for the student above to carry out his experiment in sociology, he had to forget his own communal place, and focus on the statistical, collective framework of opinions in regard to his questions. The act of numbering, if you notice, begins with the word “numb”.

As McLuhan points out:

“Just as writing is an extension and separation of our most neutral and objective sense, the sense of sight, number is an extension and separation of our most intimate and interrelating activity, our sense of touch”.

If you look at the student’s example above, you see that it was the very interrelatedness sense of communal “touch” that was interrupted by the student’s request of the operator. Unlike today, the operator served as communal “insulator” as well as “connector” of those in the community, and served as a reference point for all related connections in an emotional sense as well as a purely geographical sense. The sense of “touch” was expanded or focused by the operator, who contacted all necessary persons. The operator was the “search engine” but able to add the “personal touch”.

McLuhan writes:

“Today, when we have extended all parts of our bodies and senses by technology, we are haunted by the need for an outer consensus of technology and experience that would raise our communal lives to the level of a worldwide consensus…What we have today, instead of a social consciousness electrically ordered, however, is a private subconsciousness or individual ‘point of view’ rigorously imposed by older mechanical technology. This is a perfectly natural result of culture lag, or conflict, in a world suspended between two technologies”.

If the effect of technology is to “deaden” or “anesthetize” our bodies, it is only logical, in the next step, to seek an overarching “meaning” in the same form as the structure we have imposed by extension of our technologies. That is, we have the tendency to seek the meaning for our existence outside of ourselves, or what Hoffer refers to in TheTrue Believer as “renunciation of self”.

Because the alphabet has extended a capacity for extended organization of sight, and number has “numbed” us to the sense of communal “touch”, we will tend to organize societies structurally around those very technologies which by-pass our normal physical senses. “God” becomes a generalized construct of those technologies, representing ideas and concepts.

McLuhan further points out:

“The most primitive tribes of Australia and Africa, like the Eskimos of today(1964), have not yet reached finger-counting, nor do they have numbers in series. Instead, they have a binary system of independent numbers for one and two, with compound numbers up to six. After six, they perceive only ‘heap’…”

What is most important is that this “numbing” or “number” effect on touch creates a response to the visual use of sight. We organize visual space around the “homogenizing” effect of “numbing” number,and as McLuhan writes:

“…the invention of Euclidean space is itself a direct result of the action of the phonetic alphabet on the human senses. The ‘infinity of functional processes’…is also the extension of our central nervous system in electric technologies”.

McLuhan further points out:

“…rationality or consciousness is itself a ratio or proportion of the sensuous components of experience, and is not something added to such sense experience.”

All experience in Western culture, therefore, is “rationally” placed in compartments of relative significance. What we in the West recognize as “consciousness” is the “numbing” numerical ordering of all experience into classification that often ignores the necessity of individual communication and feedback.

Eric Hoffer spotted this “universal” context in which the West order civilization, but couldn’t identify it. From The True Believer:

“There is a certain uniformity in all types of dedication, of faith, of pursuit of power, of unity and of self-sacrifice. There are vast differences in the contents of holy causes and doctrines, but a certain uniformity in the factors which make them effective. he who, like Pascal, finds precise reasons for the effectiveness of Christian doctrine has also found the reasons for the effectiveness of Communist, Nazi, and nationalist doctrine. However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing.”

This takes us back to Slater’s statement on consistency in my earlier essay. The disease of Western Narcissism is spread via the mechanism of consistency, or seeking the same patterns in all forms of experience and combining those into “meaningful” patterns that are consistent with other patterns. Number and alphabetic symbol become the substitute for direct experience.

But as Godel has demonstrated, the most formalized system of number and symbol combination will lead to an infinity of undecidable propositions, We can’t actually escape our “selves” in the search for meaning.