I learned this lesson intellectually some time ago, but it was driven home to me over the last week: philosophers with different paradigms will find no central question, no decisive claim, that will provide an objective ruling in favor of one paradigm or the other.
The lesson was taught most famously by Thomas Kuhn in his Theory of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn focused on the debate between Ptolemaic and Copernican astronomers, and argued that the Copernican revolution in fact was not triggered by any objective observation or test. The Ptolemaic astronomers could account for everything Copernicus could – indeed, with greater accuracy – and once the Copernican system was revved up to match Ptolemy’s, in predictive accuracy, it was every bit as complicated as the Ptolemaic system. (With one exception: Copernicus needed epicycles and eccentrics, he didn’t need equants; still, small shavings from Occam’s razor.) Why then did the revolution occur? According to Kuhn, the young astronomers were excited by the radicalness of Copernicus’s view, the old astronomers died, and the young ones took their jobs. Hardly a rational way of doing science.
It should be no surprise that the same is true in philosophy. My friend and I were arguing about the biomechanics of life, and whether materialism had all the answers, or whether something Aristotelian is needed (an immaterial form). I kept insisting that “livingness” is a matter of complexity: arrange the parts in the right way and it’s alive, nothing immaterial needed. My friend kept insisting that “the right arrangement” is in fact what Aristotle means by “form,” and so it is required, and obviously an “arrangement” is immaterial. I responded that he was turning an adverb into a noun: a “way” into a “thing.” And we kept going round and round, until we were left just giving one another incredulous stares, wondering how any intelligent and informed person could not agree with what each of us was saying.
“Incommensurable” means “no common measure.” And that’s the situation we were in, and the situation the Copernican and Ptolemaic astronomers were in: there was no question that could be formulated, no decisive test proposed, that would clearly say, “This one is right and that one is wrong.” Each paradigm had its own way of answering each question or interpreting each test or observation. So, if someone does switch sides, it’s not for any genuinely compelling argument: it’s a vague matter of “what fits best” given that individual’s experiences, preferences, and values.
Now not every dispute is incommensurable in this way. Once two people share a paradigm, there’s lots of stuff that can be settled through experiments and arguments. And some paradigms might be subject to practical refutation, if not theoretically pure refutation. (Meaning, the theory gets so cumbersome and wonky that it just appears silly to defend it.) But it seems that on many big, very big questions, incommensurability stops us from getting any clear sight of the truth.
I’m going to assume that if some kind of contemporary pantheism is plausible, then it has to have more going for it than merely intellectual or emotional support. What I mean is this. If the only reason you have for being a pantheist is that you can’t think of reality except as a single unified thing (intellectual support), or you can’t help feeling that everything is interconnected (emotional support), or both, then you really haven’t got much of a reason. Reality often confounds our intellect and breaks our heart. (That’s what “reality” means.)
In particular, you need some evidentiary or scientific support for your pantheism, probably coming from the direction of physics. And that does not appear to be implausible, at least at first glance.
For some time, physicists have been saying that a Theory of Everything is just around the corner. The latest candidate is string theory, a theory which claims that all the subatomic particles are teeny bands of “string” vibrating in distinctive ways in the quantum foam. If the theory is right, it would explain why the various mathematical constants in the universe have to be exactly as they are, and why there are only so many kinds of quarks and leptons and so on. It would explain everything. (Interesting TED talk about it here.) There are some possible tests that would help confirm the theory, and they are sure to be among the first conducted at the Large Hadron Collider currently being built at CERN.
OK, suppose that all checks out and string theory is strongly corroborated. Now consider three possible postscripts to the confirmation of string theory. They all share the same beginning, and then continue in different ways:
“String theory has been confirmed, and we can write a single equation capable of explaining (in principle) everything we can experience in the universe. And it is a beautiful equation: it is elegant, harmonious, and simple….”
A. “Furthermore, any physicist who contemplates it experiences an intellectual joy equal to anything the greatest art can produce. Indeed, we have done brain scans of musicians listening to the Jupiter Symphony, artists viewing Van Gogh’s sunflowers, monks in meditation, and physicists contemplating the equation, and it seems that the same sort of neurological state accompanies all four experiences.”
B. “Furthermore, any physicist who contemplates it immediately becomes a pantheist. This is because the single equation has an aspect to it that can only be called divine in its simplicity and necessity. The equation is without question a ‘thumbprint’ of a divine creative agency — not necessarily the handiwork of Jehovah, but of something like Spinoza’s one substance or the unity Einstein believed nature to have.”
C. “Furthermore, monks meditating in the temple of Bunchabull are able to intuit the single equation when they meditate upon the divine nature. It seems that the resources of the human soul are in deep unity with the forces animating the physical universe.”
I can’t see anything especially surprising about variant A. Nor would I find variant A any reason to be a pantheist, let alone a theist. It simply means that human brains find a certain range of phenomena super duper cool, even worthy of rapturous poetry. But so what? Monkeys would probably write rapturous poems about the magical mystery of pinwheels if they could.
Variants B and C are both very surprising, but I can’t think of any other sort of variant that would really compel anyone to be a pantheist on the basis of what we discover about the universe. In B, a godlike force needs to be pulled into our understanding of nature; there’s no way to get the physics right without bringing in something divine. In fact, I think Spinoza thought this was true; Einstein, probably not. But while I have assembled the words describing variant B, I can’t really imagine it happening. It sounds a bit like some Far Side cartoon, where the tertagrammaton suddenly pops out of F=ma or something.
In C, we have some real confirmation of the power of meditation, since it can’t be just dumb luck that these monks have hit upon the right equation. They really have a special connection to a special something. Unlike B, C can be distinctly imagined, though it would surprise the hell out of me. Literally. If C happened, I’d be a believer.
Where does that leave us? Barring scenarios B and C, it leaves us with the confession that human beings can find nature’s symmetries and harmonies really, really groovy, and that some human beings are prone to take this grooviness as a divine sign. I can’t see that there is anything more to pantheism than that, whether it’s Spinoza’s or Einstein’s or anyone’s: it’s just a pompous way of saying “I find this so cool I’m calling it ‘God’.”
Lately I have been thinking about Spinoza’s attitude toward God. Many contemporary scholars put Spinoza’s metaphysics in the center of his vision: he thinks there is one substance, and all particular things are expressions of its unchanging essence. That one thing can be called “God,” since it has many of the core features attributed to God: infinite, eternal, unchanging.
But I think that theology, not metaphysics, stood at the center. Spinoza, of course, was raised as a Jew and studied scripture intensively. As a young adult, he came to heretical conclusions, because he could see that the stories and visions of the scriptures just could not be squared either with the theology that has been laid over them or the way we know nature to be. Scriptures obviously exaggerate historical events and anthropomorphize God. So he embarked upon a project to uncover what God really is, and what the appropriate relationship to God is: his metaphysics became his theology.
This is a point commonly remarked upon, but with the recent sale of one of Einstein’s letters I was struck by the affinity between Spinoza’s theology and Einstein’s. Here is an excerpt from a NYT article about the letter (which sold for $404,000!):
Einstein, as he says in his autobiographical notes, lost his religion at the age of 12, concluding that it was all a lie, and he never looked back. But he never lost his religious feeling about the apparent order of the universe or his intuitive connection with its mystery, which he savored. “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its comprehensibility,” he once said.
“If something is in me that can be called religious,” he wrote in another letter, in 1954, “then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as science can reveal it.”
Einstein consistently characterized the idea of a personal God who answers prayers as naive, and life after death as wishful thinking. But his continual references to God — as a metaphor for physical law; in his famous rebuke to quantum mechanics, “God doesn’t play dice”; and in lines like the endlessly repeated, “ Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” — has led some wishful thinkers to try to put him in the camp of some kind of believer or even, not long ago, to paint him as an advocate of intelligent design.
Trying to distinguish between a personal God and a more cosmic force, Einstein described himself as an “agnostic” and “not an atheist,” which he associated with the same intolerance as religious fanatics. “They are creatures who — in their grudge against the traditional ‘opium for the people’ — cannot bear the music of the spheres.”
The same for Spinoza, all over the place. I think he did feel a similar reverence for his One Substance – his excitement over it in part 5 of the Ethics is obvious (as he writes, the mind’s intellectual love of God is an eternal love which cannot be taken away, the mind’s highest joy, and what the scriptures call “glory”). I think he also thought God’s essence needs to be factored into any adequate physics (see my paper, “Spinoza’s Theological Project,” on this page).
A question I’ll discuss later: is such a non-anthropomorphic theology tenable today?
What is it to be poor? A first answer might be along the lines of “Not having much money.” But money is just a measurement of wealth or poverty, and not a very meaningful one. Imagine someone who doesn’t have any money or property, but society feeds them and houses them and lets them borrow items for use. Or imagine somebody with mounds and mounds of money on a desert island.
We use money as an index because it usually (but not always) represents some degree of power to get what humans need in order to survive or flourish. But take away the opportunities to spend it, or feed the needs without it, and it loses its relevance to wealth. Being wealthy – or at least, not being poor — means having the power to get what you need in order to live, and being poor means not having that power – for whatever reason. The money may not matter. The people in some parts of India have only a fraction of the wealth found in Brazil or South Africa, but their life expectancy is much higher. Conversely, the life expectancy of African Americans is much lower than that of people in China and India, despite their having a lot more money (even after cost of living adjustments).
But there may be more to poverty than this, too. Somebody with their basic bodily needs met but living in a repressive regime (where they are denied education, political opportunities, or choices over their own personal lives) may be said to be in a kind of poverty. Humans need more than what a zoo animal gets. And when a person is incapable of meeting those needs, the person is poor. Consider this: African American slaves in the pre-Civil War South had incomes equal to or greater than the urban workers in the North, and maybe lived longer. Yet who wouldn’t say that their living conditions were more “impoverished” than that of the urban workers?
This is the idea behind Amartya Sen’s 1999 book, Development as Freedom. The book is based on lectures he gave to the World Bank, an organization that should be keen to know who’s poor and who’s not. Sen says we’re better off forgetting about money and GNP.
All this is meant to suggest that “There are good reasons for seeing poverty as a deprivation of basic capabilities, rather than merely as low income” (p. 20). Deprivation of basic capabilities means deprivation of the powers to get what human beings need, so far as I can see. For more on what human beings need, see the “capabilities approach” developed by Sen and Martha Nussbaum.
Sen suggests we start measuring a population’s development not in terms of GNP, but in terms of five freedoms:
1. Economic opportunities
2. Political freedoms
3. Social opportunities (education, health care)
4. Transparency guarantees (social trust; guarantees against cheating, corruption)
5. Protective security (safety nets to preclude abject poverty, starvation)
To the extent these are present, you have a wealthy (or healthy) society; to the extent they’re not, you have a society in need of some attention.
This implies big changes in foreign and global policies. Economists have looked at things like political freedoms and social opportunities as “icing on the cake,” or features that get established once you’ve raised a nation’s GNP. But, if you listen to Sen, you ought to work first at establishing and securing a nation’s five freedoms, and then you can expect the GNP to rise. Loans should be contingent upon genuine changes in infrastructure.
Another interesting fact Sen mentions: never in history has a working democracy suffered famine. He argues that this is because democracy requires broad information sharing throughout a nation, and famines can be headed off before they get going. When power is concentrated in the hands of a few, they may not know (or care) about starving people, so long as they can effectively smack down any riots. (I’ve read elsewhere that Sen’s “fact” is not strictly true, as there have been some famines in democratic African nations – but still, it’s true that famines are far less likely to occur in democracies.)
I’ve also been reading The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. He also sees poverty as a complex phenomenon with loads of contributing factors, from political to geographical. The bright side is that Sachs thinks extreme poverty can be eradicated within the next 25 years. It’s not a matter of sending out wads of cash, but of helping nations to gain the sorts of freedoms Sen describes and getting them on the first rung of a development ladder: once people can begin to save even a small portion of income, and opportunities are open to them, development will follow.
This situation is sickening. 200k dead, maybe 300k; surely more if no one gets in there soon. A BBC interview today with a UN spokesperson revealed that the UN people cannot even get hold of the Burmese leaders on the telephone — no one picks up! Not even an answering machine. The UN says access is a problem, yet BBC correspondents are wandering around counting corpses, without a single soldier in sight.
Here is Robert Kaplan’s op-ed piece making the case for armed intervention. Relevant quote:
Because oceans are vast and even warships travel comparatively slowly, one should not underestimate the advantage that fate has once again handed us. For example, a carrier strike group, or even a smaller Marine-dominated expeditionary strike group headed by an amphibious ship, could get close to shore and ferry troops and supplies to the most devastated areas on land.
The magic of this is that an enormous amount of assistance can be provided while maintaining a small footprint on shore, greatly reducing the chances of a clash with the Burmese armed forces while nevertheless dealing a hard political blow to the junta. Concomitantly, drops can be made from directly overhead by the Air Force without the need to militarily occupy any Burmese airports.
In other words, this is militarily doable.”
My heck, even the French are up for this one. Or if international will is lacking, send in Blackwater, as penance for their Iraqi bloodbath.
Last fall I was teaching a big class surveying the humanities. At some point we came to the topic of democracy, and I wanted to express the idea that democracy can be something more than merely the notion of “majority rules.”
“How many of you listen to jazz?” I asked. Two or three hands went up, and I was dismayed. It’s the greatest American contribution to culture, I said. And what’s more, I told them, if you don’t listen to jazz, you don’t understand democracy.
Jazz, of course, is all about improvisation. But you have to listen carefully to how it works. It’s not just a line-up-and-play competition, where each musician has an empty slot to play whatever the hell they want while everyone else waits for their turn. When someone plays a solo, the other musicians listen carefully, and sometimes throw in a little something to support the soloist’s theme, or give them something further to work with. And when the next soloist plays, he or she needs to respond in some way to the previous solo, so that it is really a dialogue and not just a showcase of talent.
Real jazz is about building a community through dialogue. Everyone works so that individuals can discover what it is they want to say, and then say it. It doesn’t always work, but when it does the whole ends up being more than the sum of the parts. The group achieves more than the individuals would have if they had stayed in separate studios and just emailed in their parts.
Okay, think of that in terms of community dialogue and politics. Real democracy isn’t just about individuals saying what they please while the rest of us are forced to merely tolerate it. We are supposed to be actively interested and engaged with others’ voices, making sure that individuals get our background support for them having their say (even – and especially – if we disagree with them). It is an active collaboration, not a passive endurance. And when it works, the whole ends up being better than anything a single individual could have devised.
Sorry to go back to Philosophy 2.0 again, but this is what the ethos of the wiki is supposed to be about. Concerned individuals want the best product from their efforts. So a Wikipedia article ends up not being just a list of assorted and conflicting comments, but an integrated work reflecting various opinions. I know, it doesn’t always work, and sometimes I yearn for just the voice of a single expert who can put the whole thing into a coherent perspective. Similarly, sometimes I yearn for a benevolent dictatorship. But when it does work, you end up with something like what got old Hegel all excited – reason coming to know itself through the efforts of community.
Okay, back to jazz. Jazz reflects the noblest aspects of the great American experiment. At its heart is the confidence that a broad populace can work together to produce something strong and just and good. That’s only the intent, of course, and often not the actuality. But what an intent! If you listen to Coltrane, and think Jefferson, you will emerge a true blue patriot.
It is no accident that jazz emerged just as a group of people were transitioning themselves from slavery to democracy. Now they could make their voices heard, and they had some stories to tell. Democracy meant a lot to African Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, and anyone who takes democracy for granted would do well to listen to their music.
But time marches on. Jazz is pretty much dead today. Ken Burns’ series on it, like his series on baseball and the civil war, just confirms that it is something that belongs in a museum. So what does today’s music tell us about the ideas we are engaged with? My sense is that most of the cutting-edge music of today (to the small extent I know it) reflects fast-paced commercial development. Each group is trying to find the new sound, or sometimes the new gimmick, that will capture the market. The music isn’t driven by a group trying to find their voices; it’s about a group trying to find an audience. And, true to Web 2.0, the group wants to engage the audience, and gain their input and cooperation. It is music born of the energy of a dynamic marketplace, where democracy (in my blown-up sense) isn’t as important as marketshare.
I’m not whining. Like I said, time marches on. Music is the sound of the politico-economic engines of a society, and when that society changes, its sound does too.
Indeed, said Vivien Stern, a research fellow at the prison studies center in London, the American incarceration rate has made the United States “a rogue state, a country that has made a decision not to follow what is a normal Western approach.”
NYT article here.
Over on usuphilosophy.com (another blog I manage), an interesting discussion came up over whether blogs are useful for philosophical discussions. One contributor doesn’t think so, for the following line of reasoning (in my words, not his):
A philosophical discussion requires (1) a large overlap of agreement, (2) a focus on a particular unresolved question, with that agreement in the background, and (3) time and patience to hear out the arguments and respond intelligently. But blogs usually fail at all three. People from all perspectives often dive in, challenging the background assumptions, softening the focus, and responding quickly with their first thoughts. Hence, though “blogologues” might be good at stirring up initial interest, they really are no substitute for a genuine philosophical dialogue.
I think there is something to this. (And, first off, let’s set aside how funny it might seem to be discussing this very topic in a blog. Just raising an issue does not count as genuine philosophical discussion of it.) Blogs really don’t have the weight or value of more carefully prepared essays or lectures, combined with carefully prepared rebuttals or replies.
But I think of blogologues as coming to take the place of a venue that is fast disappearing: intellectual discussions once found in bars, coffee houses, or (a long time ago) salons or (even longer) agoras. I’m not putting a lot of weight on “intellectual”; basically, I just mean anything more than the weather, sports, celebrities, or events in personal lives. It’s pretty hard nowadays to get into a discussion of the nature of democracy, or whether art has a social responsibility, or if humans ever really know anything, etc. I find that if I do manage to introduce such a question, the discussion quickly veers to where we can find good sales on shoes or some other damn thing.
Blogs can at least provide a venue for people who want some level of discussion of interesting things. Granted, the discussions are often aimless and free of any resolution. Hell, that’s okay; that’s more or less what I expect from a conversation in a bar. The talking just stirs up the head, and might free up an idea or two that is worth pursuing, for a bit. And it is entertaining.
A couple of sites I’ve visited sometimes resemble the worst part of bar conversations. Know-nothing know-it-alls hang out and piss on everybody. Goofs try to derail what was beginning to get interesting. Drunks get nasty. But, really, all of that is a price to pay when strangers strike up a conversation in a public place. We all have to just put up with it.
So there’s nothing wrong with blogologuing, so long as no one treats it as a substitute for more constructive philosophical dialogue, or for reading/writing works of philosophy. I need to heed my own advice here!
The Economist has an interesting essay here about the future of American “exceptionalism” (the way America takes its global role as special). The discussion is prompted by a book: Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation, edited by Peter Schuck and James Q. Wilson. The question is whether America will move past Bush’s own brand of exceptionalism (stupid, swaggering, and belligerent) and toward something more welcome — or whether it will just fold in on itself and build them walls even higher.
“American exceptionalism has been increasing ever since the rise of the modern conservative movement from the late 1960s onwards. The current Bush administration, with its commitment to conservative values at home and assertiveness abroad, is the most exceptional administration in recent years. But the book raises a new question: is a new cycle, dominated by a rejection of conservatism and a convergence with West European norms, about to dawn?”
Good lord, let’s hope.
What is life like when all effective law enforcement breaks down? Hobbes had an answer: life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And all empirical evidence suggests he was right. When the police go on holiday, the nasties come out to play.
Hobbes then set himself the task of explaining why it is that life isn’t so nasty in the civilized state. He said it’s because there is One Big Bully to rule us all – the State – and calculated self interest tells us we’re better off obeying and cooperating than either battling the Bully or reverting back to the dog-eat-dog state of nature. Self interest is the key.
The Hobbesian view of human nature is pervasive. Political scientists employ it when trying to ground the obligations of political citizenship, and behavioral scientists use it to try to explain a wide range of human behavior. Asking “Why is it rational for humans to do that?” is automatically understood by everyone to mean “What’s in it for them?”
What are we then to say about the wiki phenomenon? On Wikipedia there are over a hundred thousand contributors, and over five thousand editors, who have all volunteered to create history’s largest encyclopedia, with ten million articles in over two hundred languages. It gets used at least twenty thousand times each second. And the users/editors are vigilant; an MIT study found that “an obscenity randomly inserted on Wikipedia is removed in an average of 1.7 minutes” (Tapscott & Williams, Wikinomics, p. 75).
What’s in it for these people? Tapscott and Williams suggest it is partly the geeky thrill of working on a task, and partly self-interest – since somebody might notice the fine work a wiki-person is doing and, I don’t know, throw them a party or something. The self-interest motivation sounds like a reach to me. I think it must be 99% geeky thrill. It’s fun to be part of an unimaginably massive epistemological project – Wikipedia is just Hegel’s Encyclopedia in the flesh, so to speak (topic for a future post) – and to see your work made available to millions. You could call this self-interest, but only in the sense that whatever we do on purpose is something we’d like to see done. More informatively, wiki work is motivated by a desire to see a project flourish. It’s done for the same reason kids work together on a really cool sand castle. It’s fun to build. Call this the wiki motivation.
To what extent is the wiki motivation a component of human nature? My bet is that it is as much a component as the self-interest motivation. Long, long before the computer, people were building, creating, and making just for the sake of doing it. People have always liked creating stuff – along with all the other well-known projects like eating and sex and getting power. And this is true even when the creating doesn’t do anything more for the creator than it does for the “free-riders” who get to make use of it.
The wiki and the self-interest motivations apply at different junctures, though: when survival is at stake, count on self-interest to call the loudest (but with interesting exceptions, note well). Once survival is secured, then the wiki motivation speaks up (though self-interest continues to growl). But if this is true, then that means political science and behavioral sciences need to start complicating their models of human nature. Economics, in particular, needs to start making models which incorporate the wiki motivation. (Tapscott & Williams stop just short of this; they try to sell “wikinomics” as a strategy any modern, self-interested person should take up.)
Indeed, the biggest innovations of the late 20th century – the internet, followed then by the web – are stellar examples of wiki motivation. Their inventors could have acted in a much more self-interested way, to put it mildly. And the creators of all the stuff web work requires (XML, SOAP, FTP, etc) mostly made what they did just for the sake of making a cool thing work. The whole thing makes no sense whatsoever, from a self-interested standpoint. Yet they did what they did, and here we are. The whole open source movement is what happens when you let the wiki motivation go unbridled, and it is without question the lynch-pin holding the entire IT world together.
So Hobbes didn’t have all the answers. He accurately described how nasty life can get when threatened, but couldn’t account for why life gets as civilized as it does when safety is secured. The nobility of human civilization consists in a transition from “what’s in it for me?” to “Whoa, isn’t that cool?”
Thanks for all the comments in the “Philosophy 2.0” post — they are really helping to give form to the sludge in my mind!
I think the credibility problem (raised in the comments) has less to do with the label “philosophy” and more to do with “academic” or “professional.” Generally, when I tell folks I am a philosopher, they are excited and interested and want to talk. But the last thing they want to hear about is anything connected in any way with most of what goes on at professional philosophy conferences – it is too technical, too abstract, and (let’s be honest) the practical consequences are nil. They want to talk about knowledge, value, truth, religion, etc., in ways that connect with their own lives, or their views of the world. That seems like a reasonable expectation!
This is in fact what I was trying to get at with “Philosophy 2.0″ — philosophy that is more interactive with more people, and with the issues of general public interest. (I hope I needn’t add that I’m not talking about dumbed-down discussions, or discussions about silly pop culture crap; I’m talking about discussions that engage the philosophical interests of educated people who aren’t professional philosophers.) I have focused on the “local change” issues since, from what I see, it seems like that’s where the intellectual action is nowadays. The best and brightest are trying to wrap their minds around the consequences and possibilities of local change, and I think philosophers have something valuable to contribute. But I also think there should be more intelligent public discussion of more traditional philosophical issues as well.
My confusion was to think that the 1.0/2.0 distinction was content-based (traditional vs. new issues). It isn’t. It has to do with interactivity, stupid me!
So here’s how I should have made the 1.0/2.0 distinction. Philosophy 1.0 is professional, academic philosophy as it is currently being practiced (for the most part). It is largely unengaged with the concerns and interests of intelligent, reflective people who aren’t professional philosophers. Philosophy 2.0 is the attempt to join the public discussion of issues the concern intelligent, reflective people. It needs to be informed by new developments in economics, technology, science, etc., and respond with the questions, methods, and insights from its own disciplinary perspective.
You might sort out two different kinds of important change. The first kind is the sort of change that happens all the time – perennial change. You are born. You grow. You get sick. You get better. Empires rise. Empires fall. Friends come. Friends go. These are the sorts of changes, along with a few thousand others, that characterize human life. Philosophy, in its oldest sense, responds to and explores perennial change. Originally, in ancient times, it was meant as a kind of therapy for dealing with life’s perennial changes.
But then there are the changes that are more specific to our times – local change. Carbon emissions are changing the climate. Worldwide information transfer is immediate. New forms of life and artificial intelligence are being created. Economic and political events around the world are sensitively dependent on one another. Many different kinds of intellectuals are thinking about these local changes, but so far philosophy has largely ignored them and has stuck to the more perennial changes.
Perennial changes are important, of course; being able to navigate through them is what it is to be wise. But philosophy, I believe, also has to start responding to local change, since the local changes we are experiencing have deep and significant consequences. Indeed, our local changes might well change our perennial changes. We need to think about the future of “empires,” and whether nation states will have anything to do with that. We need to think about new life forms, and the ways biotechnology will challenge our understanding of “human being.” Same goes for artificial intelligence – we need to think about moral obligations we will have to the conscious beings we will manufacture. As world cultures meld together into politico-economic units, we need to think about the kinds of new obligations we will have to one another. And throughout all these local changes, new pressures will be brought to bear upon our perennial existential questions: Who am I? What is my life about? What is important?
I call these new challenges for philosophy “Philosophy 2.0.” Of course, the “2.0” bit is a reference to Web 2.0, which is what the web became when it started getting truly interactive. Web 1.0 was basically like television with a million channels: click, watch, click, watch, click, etc. But now, in Web 2.0, you can put your own stuff on the web, or take stuff off and mix it up in your own way and throw it back out there, or use applications and programs that are on the web instead of loaded onto your own computer. It is a profound change in the way we are entertaining ourselves; a transition from a “read only” culture to a “read/write culture.” That’s another local change that may have perennial consequences.
Philosophy 2.0 is about getting interactive with local change. Philosophy 1.0, as we might call it, is occupied with perennial change, and it needs to keep chugging along, for as long as human beings are around. But its “product” is about to get tweaked by Philosophy 2.0. Our philosophical thought about local change will impact our thought about perennial change. This is a genuinely new situation for philosophy, since we do not have a luxury we have had in the past: time. Normally, philosophers can wait until the dust has settled before looking back and making sense of where we have been. But we are going to have to get used to looking through the dust, and making the best guesses we can, since ain’t nothing gonna settle anytime soon. We need direction and big-picture planning like never before, and it is the obligation of philosophers to join into that debate. Besides, philosophers have unique knowledge and skills to contribute. They are most in touch with the big pictures of the past (from Plato to Heidegger), and so are in the best position to assess how the big picture is changing. They are used to thinking in terms of systems, and local change is all about systematic change (whether economic, environmental, or technological). And they are more sensitive than most to all the complexities of moral, epistemological, and social issues.
Part of philosophy’s romantic attraction to me has been its inherent Luddism. Philosophy professors don’t need overheads or PowerPoint or WebCT or any other gizmo; they only need a piece of chalk and an empty afternoon. But this image has to change. Philosophers need to be up on the details of local change, and need to start thinking through them and responding to them. That might not affect the pensive ambience of the philosophy classroom, but it will affect the lesson plans. Many people have been working hard to distill the results of local change to the generally educated public; philosophers need to make use of those efforts and get acquainted with the local world. Things need to get messy. We can not afford cleaving only to the relatively stable regions of perennial change.
What philosophers will bring to the table is a deep familiarity with perennial changes, and keen insight as to how local changes will change them and possibly be informed by them. This is a dimension that is now either being neglected, or carried out by those who don’t really know what they are saying. We need Philosophy 2.0 now more than ever.
In his new book, “The Post-American World,” Mr. Zakaria writes that America remains a politico-military superpower, but “in every other dimension — industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural — the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance.” With the rise of China, India and other emerging markets, with economic growth sweeping much of the planet, and the world becoming increasingly decentralized and interconnected, he contends, “we are moving into a post-American world, one defined and directed from many places and by many people.
Read the NYT review of Zakaria’s book. But this seems to me to ignore things the US has that others lack (and envy): the US’s mix of cultures and its passionate individualism, plus a politico-economic structure that allows for rapid individual promotion. Others are really good at taking US innovations and making them better, faster, more efficient; but not at making the (major) innovations (like the computer, the web, etc.). A couple of possibilities: other places might begin to replicate the US’s innovation engine, or that engine might simply get overwhelmed, and the post-American world will get stagnant and decidedly less liberal. Eyes on Chindia, as usual.
I was banging along with my thoughts about the new global changes (I really need a new term for this; “the coming revolutions”? … “new world order” (barf)? … “Philosophy 2.0”? That I like!), and I asked myself, “Self, what role will religion play throughout these massive changes?” And Self answered, “Religion will play the same role as nation states. It’s just that the associative bond is creedal instead of geographical.”
What did Self mean? Well, nation states nowadays need to choose between connectivity and insularity. If they choose to connect with other states, economically and politically and epistemologically, then they will reap the deep rewards of cooperation. But their cultures will also be infiltrated by outside ideas, from Pepsi to disco to women’s rights. They will have to learn how to tolerate outside influences and tolerate differences in opinions among their citizenry. In the end, learning such toleration is a good thing for everyone.
On the other hand, if nation states choose insularity, they will in all likelihood degenerate to the point that the rest of us have to invade and co-opt them, either because we need their resources, or they’re getting violent, or we can’t stand by and watch what they’re doing to their own citizens.
Same for religion. Some religions, or sects within religions, are open to outside ideas and influences. The Protestant tradition I was raised in was always asking how to read the Gospel in the light of our experience gained through science, literature, politics, or other religions. It wasn’t a matter of cleverly combining some literalist reading of, say, Genesis with Darwin; rather, it was a matter of taking seriously what we learn through our secular studies and using that as a way of opening up new insight into our own religion. So it was very open to connection with all sorts of new ideas and lines of thought.
The religions which typically grab the headlines, though, are closed. They stubbornly insist on their own traditions and visions and resort to warfare talk whenever threatened by an idea that challenges their own accepted dogmas (beating their plowshares back into swords). They are the Irans of the ideological community. Indeed, the creationist fanatics in Texas are commonly referred to as the Texas Taliban. Many of these people homeschool their children because they don’t want them to come into contact with “corrupting” ideas – thus shoving them into an educational burka of sorts. Their mindset is, “We’ve got the truth! Now don’t disturb us with any new ideas, or we might lose track of it!” It’s exactly the same mindset as insular nation states.
This is not just an analogy, of course. The two phenomena are connected. Most insular nation states use some dogmatic and conservative religion to maintain their powerbase, which typically involves denying a large segment of the population any opportunity to earn money or get involved in politics. And many insular religions would love nothing more than to set up a compound or restricted community to as to geographically isolate themselves from the outside world.
My secular humanist dream is that insular religious states will become simply impossible as ideas and economic opportunities spread – especially as they spread to women. Tom Barnett, in Blueprint for the Future, convincingly makes the connection between the oppression of women and the back-asswardness of nation states. The general rule is true: if women are educated and given the same political and economic opportunities as men, you’ve got a developed nation on your hands. (And, no, I will not accept any garbage that sounds like “In my religion, women have a very special status – just one that is different from that of men.” That ultimately is code for “We keep ‘em barefoot and pregnant.”)
If knowledge and commerce get shared, insular religion goes out (inshallah). But if a religion is interested in exploring new ideas, and furthering itself by co-opting new ideas, then it really can play a role, and a welcome one. Because in addition to arguing over whether this strategy or that one is the best, we need to also be arguing over the goals we are trying to achieve. Arguing over goal-setting means arguing over big pictures, and that is exactly where open religions – and not closed ones! – need to be speaking loud and clear. Religion can orient efforts and strategies, if their believers are at the same time listening and learning as well from the world outside their own creeds. The same goes for traditional cultures. And for each and every one of us.