Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Two Misleading Intellectual Habits

Two misleading and persistent intellectual habits dominate thinking and much of politics:

  1. The myth of the isolated mind and 
  2. The legacy of the theological divide.


1. The myth of the isolated mind is the belief that human minds are purely private, locked within our skulls. Merlin Donald, neuro-paleontologist, demonstrates the flimsiness of the idea in his remarkable book, A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness. (Here's a review.) He makes it clear that no human beings can develop their human cognitive potential in the absence of culture. Cognition and culture are mutually dependent. Their dependence raises some questions about ethical responsibility, personal freedom, freedom of speech and of other areas in which people are ineluctably interdependent actors whose sense of meaning and justice has changed throughout history and varied across cultures.

2. The theological divide separates heaven and earth. Here is how it looked before Nietzsche:
  • Heaven | Earth
  • Form | Matter
  • Spirit | Nature
  • Mind | Body
  • Male ♂| Female ♀
  • Order | Chaos
  • Reason | Emotion
  • Light | Dark
  • Logos | Eros
  • Transcendent | Immanent
  • Active | Passive
  • Eternal | Temporal (finite, changeable)
  • Divine intellect | Randomness (unpredictability)
Here's how it looks now from the "secular" point of view: 
  • Heaven | Earth
  • Form | Matter
  • Spirit | Nature
  • Mind | Body
  • Male ♂| Female ♀
  • Order | Chaos
  • Reason | Emotion
  • Light | Dark
  • Logos | Eros
  • Transcendent | Immanent
  • Active | Passive
  • Eternal | Temporal (finite, changeable)
  • Laws of (mechanical) Nature | Randomness (unpredictability)
Much of the ontological edifice of theology remains intact. It's basically a decapitated theology. 

But as thinkers such as Stuart Kauffman and Manuel DeLanda convincingly show (they each have many lectures, interviews and short talks on line if you're interested), there is now an approach that makes matter dynamic rather than a passive receptacle of form or logos or laws of nature and that reinstates the ontological status of virtual or potential. It looks more like this:
  • Evolving Cosmos
  • Self-organizing Matter
  • Dynamic Nature
  • Sentient, encultured Body
  • Knowledge that reason cannot work without emotion
  • Virtual and real complement each other
  • Chaos and complexity theories
  • Intrinsic unpredictability in evolutionary biology
These ideas need fleshing out more (and more research) but if you have any leads, let me know.




Tuesday, June 19, 2018

WTF is happening? Why is there a Trump?

If you look back over history at periods where there is huge social upheaval, you can see it is usually correlated with technological change. Technological changes cause social changes because they alter the way that people need to interact with each other to get and distribute what we need to live and make our livelihoods. This changes the power relationships in society. It looks like this:

Technological change leads to
>>>  Changes in ways people need to produce and distribute stuff lead to
>>>  Changes in social power relationships lead to
>>>  Changes in what is acceptable to believe is "natural" or "just" in social arrangements.

It's been happening since prehistory.

Here are a couple of relatively recent examples:

  1. The power of Rome and the priestly class was undercut by the invention of the printing press.
  2. "Women's liberation" occurred when new household technology and the invention of the pill freed them up from domestic work and allowed them more of an involvement in the public sphere. 


Unfortunately, there is usually some kind of backlash from the rulers that are being displaced by the changes:

  1. The Inquisition
  2. Patriarchal backlash in the form of religious or demagogic pronouncements or regressive legislation.


After some horrific and largely unnecessary suffering - witch burnings, stonings, wars, civil wars, for example - things generally fall into place the for better (or worse).

But note that the upheaval is not caused individual leaders of change movements (e.g., Luther) but by social conditions that created the possibility of their messages becoming considered "acceptable" to believe, rather than heretical, offensive or nonsensical. I believe this happens when rigid insistence on outdated status quo explanations leads to toxic social state.

OK, so if that's clear, we begin to understand where we're at now. MASSIVE technological change: Factory automation, instant global communication, high speed transportation, increasingly viable green technologies. In other words, a global economy that threatens to thoroughly disenfranchise an even greater underclass of people who will be without work in what remains a wage-based economy. Erosion of social supports to reduce taxes - where the benefits accrue to the already very well off - continues to shrink the middle class and exacerbate income gaps.

So what are today's "heretics" shouting by way of a response to these changes and what has been the backlash to them? What is becoming acceptable to believe and how is it being resisted?

The heretics are shouting "environmental sustainability", "flatter organizations", "universal income / equity", "cultural diversity" while emphasizing the importance of developing responsiveness (rather than aggressiveness) for resilience.

The backlash is shouting "jobs before the environment", "hierarchy is natural", "no freeloaders",  "your culture threatens rather than enhances my culture", while gunning for aggressive  individualism.

So there we have the rise to prominence of people like Trump who hear and capitalize (very literally) on the backlash. The voices of the backlash come from the plutocracy, and from the lower-middle class who fear loss of social position if those they consider below them (women, minorities) are on the rise. (e.g., "Spencer and other alt-right leaders see Donald Trump’s rise as the first step towards a whites-only state. "Our lived experience is being a young, white person in 21st century America, [and] seeing your identity be demeaned,” Spencer said. “I’ve lived in this multicultural mess for years and I’m trying to get out of it." - The Atlantic, "Rebranding White Nationalism"  italics added)

A backlash to the Trump backlash is not to be wished for or acted out. A Petersonian backlash to the backlash to the backlash will get interpreted as a backlash - and it certainly looks like one. A less polemical, less hyperbolic, more gentle and reasonable, dialogical approach is what we need to move forward.