Monthly Archives: March 2014

Do We Need a New Economic System?

Thinking about the future of economic systems got me to wondering about the sinister view 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 ideas 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 accept 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.

Summary of Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

A Harvard study followed 268 undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 for 75 years, regularly collecting data on various aspects of their lives. The findings were reported in this recent book by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant.

Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

Here are five lessons from the study pertaining to a happy and meaningful life. First, the most important ingredient for meaning and happiness is loving relationships. Even individuals with successful careers and good physical health were not fulfilled without loving relationships. Second, money and power are small parts of a fulfilling life; they correlate poorly with happiness. Those most proud of their achievements are those most content in their work, not the ones who make the most money. Third, we can become happier in life as we proceed through it, despite how we started our lives. Fourth, connection with others and work is essential for joy; and this seems to be increasingly true as one ages. Finally, coping well with challenges makes you happier. The key is to replace narcissism with mature coping mechanisms like concerns for others and productive work.

Noteworthy is that these findings overlap almost perfectly with what Victor Frankl’s discovered about the meaningful life in his classic: Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl says we find meaning through: 1) personal relationships, 2) productive work, and 3) by nobly enduring suffering. The only difference is that Frankl doesn’t talk specifically about money, although no doubt he would agree that it is of secondary concern. Also noteworthy is how the findings of Vaillant and Frankl agree with modern happiness research. Here are just a few of the excellent books whose social science research supports these basic findings.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience