I’m well aware that an era of societal collapse and civilization’s decadence is not the best of times for strong assertions of belief and rigorous declarations of faith. Although it is difficult to disentangle what is a contributing cause and what is an unavoidable effect of the sorry state of modern society, the loss of legitimacy of our time’s dominant reason (for those new to this blog: aka desiderative reason, very bad!) contaminates any attempt to build a widely shared “grand narrative”, to articulate a set of guiding principles on how to live that a majority of people can give their assent to.
We are all jaded cynics nowadays, disenchanted empiricists, nihilistic spectators of the “death of God” and participants in the deconstruction mandated by post-modernism, well steeped in critical theory (the right, “alt-“ or vanilla, insists in calling it “cultural Marxism”, but we are not prone at this point to abet by that particular piece of tomfoolery), which means we are highly suspicious of any statement aspiring to be valid for “anybody” at “anytime”. Tools of oppression by the heteropatriarchy! We may cry on hearing them. Unsubtle attempts of the dominant groups to impose their value-system on the poor and the dispossessed. Indeed, the most cursory look at who formulated most of those tenets (we will look at them more closely in a moment) reveals the limited, unrepresentative nature of the group whose dominion they sought to validate: Western propertied white heterosexual men! (only Confucius and Lao Tzi were not Westerners, Diogenes of Sinope had no properties, Plato was not heterosexual, Augustine was -probably- not white and… well, you got me with the last one, to the best of my knowledge all the contributors to the canon I’m about to defend belonged to the male sex of the species, as Jack Lemmon famously said caught in a similar pickle, “nobody is perfect!”).
Which means that, given what we know of how History with a capital H has turned out (World Wars! Genocides of all classes, sizes and stripes, from the Armenians to the Jews to the Tutsis almost in our very own day! Environmental degradation! Totalitarian regimes mass murdering their own subjects! Global warming abetted by giant corporations and governments! Mass famines! Crushing poverty!) we can’t just look at the camera with a straight face and proclaim that there is a solid body of things we humans have learned that may differ a little itsy bitsy bit in the borders, but basically agree (meaning any reasonable person would be OK with something around 80-90% of it) on the fundamentals about how we should live, what we know and can know of “what there really is” (of what constitutes the world), and how we should treat each other.
Or can we?
Of course we can. Not only we can: we must. Because if we shirk our responsibility to state what we believe, to announce what constitutes the foundation of our value system, so other people can know it, eventually discuss it, and be affected by it (be it for embracing part of it, for rejecting it wholesale or for refining it at the borders, in that comparatively minor areas where there can be some well-intentioned difference between reasonable people) we are implicitly accepting the sorry state of affairs I mentioned in my introduction to this post. Recognizing that such value system is just one between many, equally valid, or rather, equally invalid, equally unfounded, equally random and haphazard, an unjustifiable accretion of ideas that we got to have by circumstances we have no control over, like our birth, our environment, or the peculiar position of the stars in the moment of us forming them. Recognizing, thus, that embracing such values, living in accordance to them, is but an aesthetic option, not that different from choosing one outfit rather than another to go to a certain party, and not more amenable to rational justification or to reasoned defense of the choice (as such justification and defense can never go much further than “I just happen to like this particular combination of clothes” or “I just happen to find this set of colors, shapes and textures more pleasing than any other alternative”).
Which, on first sight, doesn’t seem such a bad thing. Very befitting of our super-individualistic (in Durkheimian words, super-anomic) social arrangement. You do your thing as long as nobody is harmed by it, and I do mine. Respect all options, live and let live and all that. Until you look around and start realizing the harm done by such individualism and relativism. Just a quick recap:
· Inability to reach agreements that require sacrifices of a part of the population (even if it’s the part that is enormously better off), and forces us in suboptimal collective states as long as there is not some “Pareto-efficient” way out of them (i.e. one where nobody has to sacrifice anything for the common good, unfortunately we run out of such ways 40 years ago). Examples of such states are economies with ever-increasing degrees of inequality in the advanced West (to the point of the top 10% hoarding all the fruits of productivity increases to the exclusion of a growing percentage of impoverished left-behinds); impossibility to wean ourselves off fossil fuels (see the “yellow vests” revolts in France, or the growing emissions of greenhouse gasses in Germany: everybody is super-environmentally friendly until they have to pay more for their gas, or have to keep their nuclear power plants running); apparently insurmountable difficulties to address the growing demographic imbalances around Europe (African Sub-Saharan population ballooning and European one collapsing) and to accommodate the now incompatible demands of a group that wants to escape abject poverty and ecological collapse with those of another that wants to maintain their current racial and cultural homogeneity…
· Not only are we failing as a collective to steer ourselves in the direction more conductive to our flourishing (which, again, would require us to distribute what we jointly produce more fairly, to take better care of our shared environment and to accommodate each other less confrontationally), we are note even able to conduct our own lives, not having “strong enough” motives for choosing one way of comporting ourselves rather than other, and thus choosing once and again the path of least resistance (those activities that give us more pleasure, without requiring too much sacrifice or effort from us). Unfortunately, choosing the easy path over the hard one once and again ends up painting ourselves in a corner, or boxing us inside a suboptimal version of ourselves. After you have exhausted the enjoyments and pleasures the material world has to offer (and your mileage may vary, but you reach that limit much sooner than you expect when you are young and feel both immortal and invincible) all there is left is to let yourself go entirely and die in a more or less self-destructive way (depending on how attached you have remained to other people whose feelings you may be loath to hurt). Need proof? Check the decrease in life expectancy in one of the most materially wealthier (and spiritually poorer) societies in the world today (you know who I’m talking about).
So only the very, very short-sighted may nonchalantly agree with the rosy diagnostic that everything is fine and dandy in our blissfully value-less societies. Things, really, are rotten and going to hell. Yup, China has lifted 800 million people from the abjectest poverty (yipeee! Good for them!) and that masks a lot of worldwide statistics, but once they finish playing catch-up (same applies for India, Latin America, SW Asia… only Africa so far remains a hopeless basket case which I cannot fathom how it may evolve) they will join us in our accelerating collapse, which translates into a steeper decline for the average person in disposable income, wealth, health, life expectancy and security (so the nations that have just barely joined the global middle class will feel as if the party they worked so hard and so long to join is abruptly winding down immediately after their arrival, just imagine the sort of angry populism that feeling may spawn!) . Which, again, is only meant to strengthen my contention that we need values, we need to proclaim them, we need to publicize them, we need to submit them to careful scrutiny, and we need to proselytize about them, trying to convince other people to adopt them and to live by them.
That proclamation, publicization, scrutinization and proselytizing is what I try to do in my ethics classes (but, alas! Preaching ethics to business school students many times feels like extolling the virtue of chastity in front of testosterone-laden 18 YO male athletes… they sometimes seem to get a fraction of it, but I’m afraid the mix of the environment and the strength of their own impulses end up overpowering most of them), plus, more through example than discourse, in my job and in every interaction with family and friends. Although describing those values in more detail (so the claim that the vast majority of what they consist in is shared by every well-intentioned, rational person, can be validated) may be a worthy use of this blog’s space, this is not what I will attempt in the remainder of this post, as I’ve many times found that previous to the exposition of any coherent system of values, some foundations have to be laid down. The necessary foundations (the precondition that have to be fulfilled before a certain value can be recognized and agreed upon by multiple individuals) that are required are some very basic constituents of the reality we inhabit. If we cannot first agree on the nature of what is really and factually “out there”, there is little chance we may agree on what we have sufficient reasons for doing (or for refraining to do). So bear with me for a moment whilst we review those basic constituents:
· The universe is, without a hint of a doubt, “designed”. Let’s take the most famous metaphor to explain how we can so confidently assert such surprising fact (taken directly from William Paley’s Natural Theology): if we found a watch lying by the road we immediately apprehend that it is very different from the “productions” of the natural world, like a stone or a tree. Its parts (wheels, springs, hands) are intricately connected to each other and, even if we know nothing of its purpose and use (if, that is, we know nothing of time measurement), we can see that a minimal deviation of each of those parts (the misalignment of a wheel or the fracture of a spring, say) would cause the whole to stop functioning entirely. Similarly, it is a well-known fact that the most minute deviation from their currently observed values of each one of the fundamental constants of nature (those that determine the strength and evolution of the forces of nature -gravitational constant, electric charge, weak and strong nuclear force, average life of the different baryons, spin, etc.) would cause a universe not only radically different from our own, but one where complex conscious life could not evolve (the concatenation of conditions to have a first generation of stars explode creating the necessary concentration of heavy elements like carbon, oxygen, iron, calcium, etc. to gravitate around a second generation of stars to create planets at the right distance of them for amino acids -or any similarly complex molecules, amenable to an almost infinite number of recombinations from a basic repeatable pattern would simple not be possible, given any of those minutest of changes in the basic structure of how nature works). That’s the “fine tuning” argument for the universe being designed, and hard as I’ve tried, I haven’t been able to find a cogent argument against it.
Too bad in its original form it has been essentially discarded, as good ol’ Bill Paley applied it to the biological form of humans (thus for him, it was not the whole universe, but just the human body, which had been obviously designed by the superior intelligence of a designer), and his book happened to be printed just a few years before On the Origin of Species, by a certain Charles Darwin, which proposed an alternative explanation for how the apparently intentionally directed wondrous adaptation of man (or any other species of animal or plant, for what it’s worth) could be so admirably suited to its environment. That explanation was, of course, the theory of natural evolution through the survival of the fittest (or the most attractive to the opposite sex, in sexually reproducing species), which materialist philosophers extol mainly because it allows them to discard the need of an “intelligent designer” that a designed organism would otherwise call for. So the whole “argument from design” got a really bad rap, and has since then been seen with suspicion (if so inclined you can read the whole The Blind Watchmaker by the somewhat repetitious Richard Dawkins as a relentless and quite joyless exploration of such line of argument, although I would advise against it).
But of course, what applies to individual organism (or to whole species) and brilliantly explains their adaptation to an individual, concrete environment, is far from being applicable tout court to the whole of what there is. Not that some astute cosmologists have not tried, and indeed an “evolutionary theory of the cosmos” has been postulated, in which whole universes are being born (in the singularity conditions within black holes, maybe) in quick succession, with quantum fluctuation allowing for slight variations in the values of the fundamental constants. Some of those universes die almost instantly, others prosper for a little longer although they are uniformly dull and uninteresting, and others, finally are stable and varied enough for complex biological entities to evolve within them (and then, of course, it stops being surprising that we find ourselves in of those blessed by the right set of conditions for us to appear in it).
However, you cannot apply the same epistemic weight (call it "measure of epistemic success") to the theory of natural evolution and to the theory of multiple universes (necessarily of mind boggling number and variation). For the first one we have countless proofs and traces and confirmations (and we can even see it happening in real time in the evolution of short lived organisms, from lab mice to bacteria). For the second one we have nothing, and it is doubtful we could ever have something as tenuous as a vague indication, let alone conclusive proof. If there are all those universes with different constants, they are beyond our event horizon, there is no way we can reach them or have “real” information about their existence (involving the exchange of some force or matter).
But frankly, every time I tell someone “on the strength of the evidence, the most parsimonious, more efficient, more plausible working hypothesis is that the universe has been designed” I see their resistence coming from something that goes like “ooooh, I see you coming from a thousand miles! A designed universe requires a designer! The designer has to be a big guy with a long beard that condones the burning of heretics and the subordination of women! And I don’t want such a big guy to exist! I just don’t want there is a God! Hence, the universe cannot be designed! Hence almost infinite universes of whom there is nay a trace!”. I grant that from the first premise (designed universe) the second necessarily follows (there is a designer). But all the rest is not just unwarranted, but just a lot of baloney. Furthermore, you should realize that what you want or do not want there to be is of no importance for what there really is. We will get in a moment to what the acceptance of the design of reality entails (not a big bearded guy, for sure), I’ll just reiterate that for anybody with a basic understanding of language (that is, for anybody who understand what “being designed” means, and yes, that meaning surely also includes somebody with intention doing the design) there simply is no (honest) discussion that the universe is, as a matter of fact, designed. By something. Let’s call that something (the one that has done the design) “a mind”, and let’s concede that such mind has to be external to the universe itself.
· There are conscious beings in the universe, starting with us, humans, which exhibit that consciousness to a highest degree, but following with a plethora of other living things, some of which seem to be also conscious (we don’t need to concern ourselves now with just how similar or how different those other types of consciousness can be from our own). That is, there are “minds” within the universe. If we want to be fully rigorous, we can only have absolute certainty of one mind (namely, ours), and the extent to which we can be sure of the existence of other minds is a pretty thorny issue that has exercised (unsuccessfully) intelligences more brilliant than mine. For the purposes of this post I’ll let it be at the point where I ask my patient readers to take it on faith that there are indeed other minds mostly like his own, which, as a minimal introspection will show, are capable of forming intentions, having desires, notice impressions, recall past events, harbor feelings, formulate sentences, invent stories, imagine alternative states of affairs, consider hypothetical consequences of actions and whatnot.
So far, and regardless of what some neuroscientists enamored of not-too-subtle splotches of color purporting to represent how our brain works (aka fMRI, EEGs and the like) would like you to believe, the interaction between those minds and the material reality to which they are tethered is pretty mysterious. We know that minds require a very, very complex biological structure, called brains, and made by a grey gooey weighing around five pounds and sitting inside our skull, to be self-conscious. If the brain is damaged, or dissolves after death, as far as we know the brain stops being able to manifest itself. Not being able to measure its influence in the material world any more (regardless of legend, lore, and a sometimes flourishing psychic industry), we assume it is no more, although a massive number of traditions maintain it just goes to some other place. If we are honest with ourselves, we have no credible evidence whatsoever of such persistence, and for all practical purposes (regarding this material universe we are familiar with) the disappearance of the brain is necessarily and inexorably accompanied by the disappearance of the mind it supported (or, as naturalist would prefer to say, unwittingly drawing on a scholastic term, of the mind it “embodied”).
· We, humans, can understand the “deep” structure of the world (identify the astounding regularities we call “laws of nature”, and which enable us to predict how things will be in the future in an amazing number of realms, with an amazing degree of precision). To put it another way, our “minds” cannot just identify patterns, and then patterns within those patterns in a seemingly unbounded recursivity, but can quantify those patterns, abstract them from the precise conditions we have so far observed and generalize them to other equivalent ones (to other places, or other times, be they in the future or in the past). And, in what may well be the most surprising aspect of this ability of ours, we have devised a whole method to test those regularities, recreating the precise combination of observed conditions and intended variation to ascertain if the model of how reality works does indeed correspond reliably with reality itself.
There is some legitimate discussion about how much of the structure of reality we really understand, and about the possibility of some day understanding all of it, and how such understanding would look like (what a “Grand Unified Theory” would be), but what few people deny is that we are indeed making progress, every passing century allows us to model and predict and tinker with new areas, in a sense confirming that the understanding we have gained so far is for real, is the reflection of a deeper alignment between our knowledge (a mental aspect) and what is “really out there”. I mention this because in the “social sciences” (an oxymoron, as I’m about to explain) since the beginning of the last century there has been this notion about the supposedly shaky status of the “natural sciences” (or even “hard sciences”), which has taken a number of forms (scientific paradigm theory, social constructivism, epistemic skepticism, Edimburgh School strong program) and basically maintains that the apparent success of physics, chemistry (a branch of physics), engineering and the like is just a mirage, born out of the power that technicians exert over how natural science is taught. So the progress of the sciences is not a reflection of our minds somehow getting closer to “truth” (a very tricky concept), or of us refining our understanding of how “the external world” really works (as there is no external world, or if there is, as Kant would have it, there is no way for us to know anything about it). It is just a matter of wily teachers duping their gullible pupils in some methodologies that conscientiously erase every alternative approach that came before, and brainwashes them in appreciating only the “newest” way of doing things. “Newest”, of course, is uncritically equated with “better”, or “truer”, but in reality it is not, everything is a social construct, hiding power relationships (thus the professor is more powerful than the pupil, the physicists are more powerful than the literary critic, and all of them are more powerful than the secretary that, through the practice of transcendental meditation, understands the true nature of reality better than any of them).
May be. May be, as Richard Rorty put it, geology is not really a science about rocks and mountains because there are no such things as “rocks and mountains” (there are only mental representations, and words that try to describe them whilst being very imperfect means of conveying meaning from one mind to the next). I can’t be sure of certain things like what would Rick Rorty think of this post (and of the kind of things that social sciences deal with in general). But I’m pretty sure of what the temperature of a nuclear power plant core will be a certain amount of time after scramming if the primary pumps do not keep recirculating the coolant. I’m pretty sure of the amount of weight a bridge can support before collapsing, or the amount of radiation at a certain point of the spent fuel pool given the level of burning such fuel has sustained. Even for non-deterministic events I can calculate with astounding precision the probability of finding certain electron (with a very finely measured energy level) in certain region of the space. And I know when a new theory to explain the behavior of the core of the NPP, of the bridge and of the electron is “better” or “truer” (when it gives me more precise predictions, applicable to a wider range of cases). So I’ll leave the discussion of the “real” existence of the core, the bridge and the electron to people trained in disciplines that obviously have not prepared them to distinguish in a similar way between good and bad theories, between those that describe nature more truly or less truly (maybe the objects their theories deal with are not amenable to such clear cut distinctions, I won't go into that here). I’ll just tell my readers bluntly that, in the realm of inanimate matter (that not involving minds, isn’t that curious?) we can confidently assert with Hegel that “all the real is rational, and all the rational is real”. We can assert, with an extraordinary level of certainty, that there is a material world independent from us and, what is more surprising, that our minds can, to a (so far) ever increasing degree understand that material world, construct inside them “mental models” that reflect such reality with ever increasing accuracy and elegance and perspicuity.
So, to recap, there are three extremely important things that, before forming our beliefs, we should consider, namely:
1. The universe has been designed by a mind outside it
2. There are other minds (other, that is, than our own) inside it
3. Those minds can understand how the universe works (which can alternatively be stated as: "there is a homothecy between the mind that designed the universe and the minds that inhabit it")
Given how long it has taken me to argue for those three simple truths, I’ll leave the consequences we should extract from them (and maybe some further strengthening of the argument by considering the most common objections) to my next post.