Monthly Archives: March 2014

Do We Need a New Economic System?

The well-respected, UC-Berkeley economist Brad DeLong contributed to the NY Times “Room for Debate” series today on the topic “Was Marx Right.”1 DeLong wonders if Marx was correct that

A more sinister view was articulated by the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.3 He argued that if machines do all the work in the future, as they inevitably will, then we can: a) let the machines make all the decisions; or b) maintain human control over the machines.

If we choose “a” then we are at the mercy of our machines. It is not that we would give them control or that they would take control, rather, we might become so dependent on them that we would have to accept their commands. If we choose “b” then control would be in the hands of an elite, and the masses would be unnecessary. In that case the tiny elite: 1) would exterminate the masses; 2) reduce their birthrate so they slowly became extinct; or 3) become benevolent shepherds to the masses. The first two scenarios entail our extinction, but even the third option is bad. In this last scenario the elite would see to it that all physical and psychological needs of the masses are met, while at the same time engineering the masses to sublimate their drive for power. In this case the masses might be happy, but they would not be free.

The computer scientist Marshall Brain has also thought about these issues. Almost fifteen years ago he said that robotic technology was beginning to replace workers at an unprecedented rate. In order to address these changes, he argued that we need a new economic system where individuals would not have to exchange labor for food. Brain doesn’t want to replace capitalism altogether, but he does want to modify it significantly. And he thinks its in everyone’s interest—including the super wealthy—to do so. For more on his prescient and insightful ideas you can read his online articles: “Robotic Nation,” “Robots in 2015,” and “Robotic Freedom,” at: http://marshallbrain.com/

I think Brain is right; we need to change how wealth is distributed including a serious discussion of a minimum income. This would create, not only a more just society, but one where so much wasted human potential could be actualized. In such a world self-interest and morality would coincide, and we would all be the beneficiaries.

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1. http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2014/03/30/was-marx-right
2. For the broader implications of Marx’s thinking see Terry Eagleton’s: Why Marx Was Right
3. A summary of his argument by Bill Joy can be found here: http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html

We Are Connected to the Past and Future

THE PAST

We are connected with the distant past and the faraway future. The atoms in our body, all cooked inside ancient stars, link us back to the beginnings of time; our evolutionary history imprints our minds, behaviors and beliefs; and culture, an outgrowth of our chemistry and biology, is itself a creation of the past. The past is embedded within, and surrounds us as a shell. Every existent thing, from stars to genes to culture, is the result of something that happened in the past.

THE FUTURE

But culture allows us to escape from and transcend the past. Science, art, music, religion, and all the elements of culture introduce novelty; the arrival of culture transforms. Like a child who progressively constructs new numbers—negative, irrational, and imaginary—we too abstract from the given and leap beyond, fashioning the unconventional in the process. Through our imagination and creativity, along with our care and concern, we connect with the future; we create the future now; we live in the future now. And if anything in this whole world matters, it is this. We carry the past and the future inside us; we are the past and future. And surely there is something profound in this.

THE INNER LIGHT

One finds a moving tribute to these idea in the Star Trek The Next Generation episode: “The Inner Light.”  In it a probe scans the ship and an energy beam renders Captain Picard unconscious. He wakes to find himself living on the planet Kataan with a loving family and friends who tell him he is Kamin, an iron weaver recovering from a feverish sickness. Picard talks of his memories on the Enterprise, but his wife Eline and their close friend Batai try to convince Picard that his memories were only dreams. Slowly he acclimates himself into their society. Picard begins living out his life as Kamin in the village of Ressik, starting a family with Eline, and learning to play his beloved flute.

As the years pass, he begins to notice that the planet is suffering a worldwide drought owing to increased radiation from the planet’s sun. He sends reports to the planet’s leaders, who seem to ignore his concerns. Ultimately Kamin confronts a government official who admits that the government already knows this but wish to keep it a secret to avoid panic. The official points out to Kamin that they do not possess the technology needed to evacuate even a small colony’s worth of people before their planet is rendered uninhabitable.

Years pass and Kamin grows old, outliving his wife. Kamin and his daughter Meribor continue their study of the drought. They find that it is not temporary; extinction of all life on the planet is inevitable. One day, while playing with his grandson, Kamin is summoned by his adult children to watch the launch of a rocket, which everyone seems to know about except him. Here are the final moments of the episode:

The past lives in the present, which creates the future, which represents our hopes.

Thinking and Walking

Thought a bit more about nostalgia today on my morning walk. (I blogged about it recently here.)

Perhaps I enjoy nostalgia because of having, as best I remember, an idyllic childhood—wonderful parents who had a middle class income, a healthy mind and body, a good education, a physically safe environment, and all in the midst of a bustling economy with wealth distributed relatively fairly (much more so than it is now) and a polity still somewhat united in the aftermath of WWII. Had I not been born with that genome in that environment, I may be less nostalgic. I wish that everyone had a good past to look back toward, and an infinitely good future to look forward to.

It is not surprising that such ideas took hold while walking, which provides the opportunity for, and is conducive to, uninterrupted, reflective thinking. Many have extolled the virtues of walking: Lao Tzu, Aristotle, Rousseau, Dickens, Freud, Piaget, and former US Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman.1 2 And the physical and psychological benefits of walking make it even more appealing. I encourage everyone to walk if possible and if you cannot, then move your body in whatever way you can.

And if for some reason you cannot move, then move your mind and explore its space. There you can travel as far as your imagination and sense of wonder allow; seeing sights and thinking thoughts that the able bodied may miss.

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1. http://blog.ted.com/2013/04/29/walking-meetings-5-surprising-thinkers-who-swore-by-them/
2. http://www.laweekly.com/2008-10-30/art-books/walk-on-the-mild-side/

Review of Terry Eagleton’s, “The Meaning of Life”

The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction

Terence Francis Eagleton (1943 – ) is a British literary theorist widely regarded as Britain’s most influential living literary critic. He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster. Formerly he was Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford (1992–2001) and John Edward Taylor Professor of English Literature at the University of Manchester until 2008. His 2007 book, The Meaning of Life, begins with this perceptive comment:

If you were to ask what provides some meaning in life nowadays for a great many people, especially men, you could do worse than reply ‘football.’ Not many of them perhaps would be willing to admit as much; but sport stands in for all those noble causes—religious faith, national sovereignty, personal honor, ethnic identity—for which, over the centuries, people have been prepared to go to their deaths. It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people.[i]

Eagleton continues by probing much deeper. He answers the question of the meaning of life without appealing to either gods or subjective meaning but to certain objective values in the natural world. He notes the false dichotomy of arguing that either there are gods that give meaning or life is meaningless:

The cosmos may not have been consciously designed, and is almost certainly not struggling to say something, but it is not just chaotic, either. On the contrary, its underlying laws reveal a beauty, symmetry, and economy that are capable of moving scientists to tears. The idea that the world is either given meaning by God, or is utterly random and absurd, is a false antithesis.[ii]

But he rejects the claims of postmodernists and constructivists who say the meaning of life is subjective—that life means whatever we say it means. “Meaning, to be sure, is something people do; but they do it in dialogue with a determinate world whose laws they did not invent, and if their meanings are to be valid, they must respect this world’s grain and texture.”[iii]

When it comes time for Eagleton to answer his question he turns to the idea of happiness as the end and purpose of human life. “The meaning of life is not a solution to a problem, but a matter of living in a certain way. It is not metaphysical, but ethical.”[iv]But how should we act in order to achieve meaning and happiness? The key is to disconnect happiness from selfishness and ally it with a love of humanity—agapeistic love is the central notion of a meaningful life. When we support each other in this manner we find the key to our own fulfillment: “For love means creating for another the space in which he might flourish, at the same time as he does this for you. The fulfillment of each becomes the ground for the fulfillment of the other. When we realize our nature in this way, we are at our best.”[v]

In the end then happiness and love coincide. “If happiness is seen in the Aristotelian terms as the free flourishing of our faculties, and if love is the kind of reciprocity that allows this to happen, there is no final conflict between them.”[vi]Interestingly, true reciprocity is only possible among equals, so societies with great inequality are ultimately in nobody’s self-interest. Eagleton’s final metaphor compares the good and meaningful life to a jazz ensemble. The musicians improvise and do their own thing, but they also are inspired and cooperate with the other members to form a greater whole. The meaning of life consists of individuals collectively engaged in finding happiness through love and concern for each other. It turns out for Eagleton, as for Aristotle, that individual and collective well-being, happiness, and meaning are closely related.


[i] Terence Francis Eagleton, The Meaning of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 45.

[ii] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 76-77.

[iii] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 124.

[iv] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 164.

[v] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 168.

[vi] Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 168.

Review of Julian Baggini’s, “What’s It All About?”

Julian Baggini (1968 – ) is a British philosopher, author of several books about philosophy written for a general audience, and co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He was awarded his PhD in 1996 from University College London. His book, What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, conducts a secular and non-hubristic inquiry into the question of the meaning of life. Secular because we cannot know if religion is true, and not hubristic since it does not claim there is some secret answer to the question. Were there such an answer we would probably have discovered it by now. Baggini begins by looking at some of the proposed answers.

Can living life forward give life meaning? Instead of looking into the past why not look to some future goal, like avenging your brother’s death? The problem with this answer is that we can always ask of this future, or any future, why bring it about? And that question leads to the quest for some final end. In short any why/because series can be extended infinitely into either the past or future and never definitively and finally puts an end to our questions. Other problems with looking to the future include: 1) we might die before we reach our goal; 2) even if we are immortal this does not solve our problem since meaning would always be in our future; and 3) if we do reach our goal, then what?

The main problem with a future-oriented life is that it locates meaning in a specific moment in time. This raises an obvious question: shouldn’t we expect some meaning from the present too? It seems then that meaning involves something enduring, something about which no further why questions need be asked, and this something must in some sense exist now. In other words the key to meaning must be found in something that is an end in itself.

Baggini now turns to the notion that gods or an afterlife give life meaning. While believing in a god is no answer to the question of the meaning of life, we could stop worrying and accept that the gods provide meaning. However, this is to give up the search. In this case you don’t know the meaning of life, you just stop asking the question. As for an afterlife, is there such a thing? The evidence suggests there is no afterlife and even if there were what would be the meaning of it? The more important question is whether life can be meaningful without this assumption.

To fully answer our question we need to find a way that life can be meaningful that is not derived from the gods, or the past or the future, but from within. Baggini proceeds to investigate six ways (helping others, serving humanity, being happy, becoming successful, enjoying each day, and freeing your mind) that might provide life with meaning. His concludes that all of them may be part of a good or meaningful life, but they are not all of it. They do not guarantee that our lives are meaningful because, of any of them, we can still ask: is such a life meaningful?

What all this means is that we are threatened with meaninglessness. According to Baggini our choices are to accept that: 1) life is meaningless; 2) the question is meaningless; or 3) meaning is impossible to discover. Regarding 1—while life is not meaningful in an objective sense, it can still be subjectively meaningful. Regarding 2—while life is not the kind of thing that can bear meaning, it cannot bear meaning anymore than sound can bear color, it can have meaning for the person living it. Regarding 3—although we cannot know the meaning of life with certainty, we can still find our lives meaningful by living them. One might say that such a life is not sufficiently examined and thus not worth living, but that is mere intellectual snobbery. Unexamined lives can be worth living if the people living them find them worthwhile. So a life can be subjectively meaningful despite the lack of any objective meaning.

Baggini’s admits “This kind of rationalistic-humanistic approach leaves many unsatisfied.”[i] A fundamental objection to such an approach is that it separates morality from meaning. Can human values really be enough to ground value? In response Baggini says: 1) we might say that certain people have meaningful but immoral lives; or 2) we could say that subjective meaning is a necessary but not sufficient condition for meaningful life—the life must also be moral. As to the charge that this second response is ad hoc, Baggini reminds the reader that life is meaningful only if it is worth living. And this is to recognize that all humans have an equal claim to a good life and to make someone’s life go worse is a moral wrong. Baggini also reminds readers that simply because life has to have value in itself and for the person living it “does not … mean that the only person able to judge the value is the person living the life…”[ii] Individuals may be mistaken about the value of their lives; just because they think they have meaningful lives does not make them so.

Another objection to a humanistic account of meaning says that we should accept and be attuned to the mystery in life and that the rationalistic humanistic account does not do this. Baggini responds that this is merely a plea from those who like mystery. He has not said that there are no gods or that people cannot get meaning from them; he just does not think there are good reasons to believe in the transcendent and he finds his meaning elsewhere. Furthermore, there is plenty of mystery about how to actually have meaningful lives; discovering what is meaningful to us is quite mysterious. Baggini thinks that attunement to the mystery that we are alive at all is a reason to be thankful. In fact this is a more noble kind of mystery than believing in the mystery of a god or afterlife, which Baggini thinks are motivated by fear that without gods we would have to take responsibility for our lives.

The tragedy and fragility of life suggests that love, a topic on which philosophers are notoriously silent, is the answer to the problem of human existence. The desire to do good things is motivated not by reason but by love. What then of love and happiness? They are connected, Baggini asserts, but love is not the same as happiness. Love persists thru unhappiness and its object is the beloved. Love shows the value we place in authenticity since we want to be loved for who we are. Love provides insight into true success, the kind that makes life meaningful. Love requires us to seize the day; otherwise we might let it pass us by. Love shows that we can have meaningful lives without philosophy, without a careful examination of our lives.

Philosophy is not good at examining love or the non-rational components of human life which reveals the limits of philosophical insight. In the end love is not motivated by reason. The rational-humanistic approach is not misguided however; rather, it shows the limits of our ability to understand life. And it also shows loves’ limits, mortality and fragility. “Sadly, it is not true that all you need is love. Love, like life, is valuable, but fragile and subject to no guarantees. It is fraught with risk and disappointment, as well as being the source of great elation and joy.”[iii] In the end the humanist accepts that morality, mystery, meaning, and love exist without transcendental support. This is a sign of one’s ability to confront and accept the limits of life. “The transcendentalist’s desire for something more is understandable, but the humanist’s refusal to succumb is, I believe, a sign of her ability to confront and accept the limits of human understanding and , ultimately, human existence.”[iv]

Baggini concludes his deflationary account of meaning by saying that the meaning of life is available to all, not only to the guardians who claim a monopoly on it. His view thus challenges the power of those who would control us, and gives us the responsibility of determining meaning for ourselves. But knowing about the meaning of life does not provide a recipe for living it. It is hard to live meaningfully, it is an ongoing project, and one is never finished with the task. Baggini concedes that his is not the last word on the subject, that we need more than philosophers to work our problem out, and that no book is ever the final word on the subject. Also people are different so we cannot offer an instruction manual for all—only suggest a framework within which persons might live meaningfully.

In the end the meaning of life is not that mysterious, it is something within our grasp, and we can live meaningfully. Hope rather than despair is called for, since there are many ways to live meaningful lives. We can recognize all the good and bad things in life and still see that there are lots of ways to live meaningful lives. “We can see the value of happiness … We can learn to appreciate the pleasures of life … We can see the value of success … We can see the value of seizing the day … We can appreciate the value in helping others lead meaningful lives … And finally, we can recognize the value of love, as perhaps the most powerful motivator to do anything at all.”[v]

 


[i] Julian Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 174.

[ii] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 177-78.

[iii] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 184.

[iv] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 184.

[v] Baggini, What’s It All About: Philosophy & The Meaning of Life, 188.