Eclipse of Reason

by Sebastian Benthall

I’m starting to read Max Horkheimer’s Eclipse of Reason. I have had high hopes for it and have not been disappointed.

The distinction Horkheimer draws in the first section, “Means and Ends”, is between subjective reason and objective reason.

Subjective reason is the kind of reasoning that is used to most efficiently achieve ones goals, whatever they are. Writing even as early as 1947, Horkheimer notes that subjective reason has become formalized and reduced to the computation of technical probabilities. He is referring to the formalization of logic in the Anglophone tradition by Russell and Whitehead and its use in early computer science, most likely. (See Imre Lakatos and programming as dialectic for more background on this, as well as resonant material on where this is going)

Objective reason is, within a simple “means/ends” binary, most simply described as the reasoning of ends. I am not very far through the book and Horkheimer is so far unspecific about what this entails in practice but instead articulates it as an idea that has fallen out of use. He associates it with Platonic forms. With logos–a word that becomes especially charged for me around Christmas and whose religious connotations are certainly intertwined with the idea of objectivity. Since it is objective and not bound to a particular subject, the rationality of correct ends is the rationality of the whole world or universe, it’s proper ordering or harmony. Humanity’s understanding of it is not a technical accomplishment so much an achievement of revelation or wisdom achieved–and I think this is Horkheimer’s Hegelian/Marxist twist–dialectically.

Horkheimer in 1947 believes that subjective reason, and specifically its formalization, have undermined objective reason by exposing its mythological origins. While we have countless traditions still based in old ideologies that give us shared values and norms simply out of habit, they have been exposed as superstition. And so while our ability to achieve our goals has been amplified, our ability to have goals with intellectual integrity has hollowed out. This is a crisis.

One reason this is a crisis is because (to paraphrase) the functions once performed by objectivity or authoritarian religion or metaphysics are now taken on by the reifying apparatus of the market. This is a Marxist critique that is apropos today.

It is not hard to see that Horkheimer’s critique of “formalized subjective reason” extends to the wide use of computational statistics or “data science” in the vast ways it is now. Moreover, it’s easy to see how the “Internet of Things” and everything else instrumented–the Facebook user interface, this blog post, everything else–participates in this reifying market apparatus. Every critique of the Internet and the data economy from the past five years has just been a reiteration of Horkheimer, whose warning came loud and clear in the 40’s.

Moreover, the anxieties of the “apocalyptic libertarians” of Sam Franks article, the Less Wrong theorists of friendly and unfriendly Artificial intelligence, are straight out of the old books of the Frankfurt School. Ironically, todays “rationalists” have no awareness of the broader history of rationality. Rather, their version of rationality begins with Von Neummann, and ends with two kinds of rationality, “epistemic rationality”, about determining correct beliefs, and “instrumental rationality”, about correctly reaching ones ends. Both are formal and subjective, in Horkheimer’s analysis; they don’t even have a word for ‘objective reason’, it has so far fallen away from their awareness of what is intellectually possible.

But the consequence is that this same community lives in fear of the unfriendly AI–a superintelligence driven by a “utility function” so inhuman that it creates a dystopia. Unarmed with the tools of Marxist criticism, they are unable to see the present economic system as precisely that inhuman superintelligence, a monster bricolage of formally reasoning market apparati.

For Horkheimer the formalization and automation of reason is part of the problem. Having a computer think for you is very different from actually thinking. The latter is psychologically transformative in ways that the former is not. It is hard for me to tell whether Horkheimer would prefer things to go back the way they were, or if he thinks that we must resign ourselves to a bleak inhuman future, or what.

My own view is that a formalization of objective reason would allow us to achieve its conditions faster. You could say I’m a logos-accelerationist. However, if the way to achieve objective reason is dialectically, then this requires a mathematical formalization of dialectic. That’s shooting the moon.

This is not entirely unlike the goals and position of MIRI in a number of ways except that I think I’ve got some deep intellectual disagreements about their formulation of the problem.