Daily Archives: June 12, 2014

Thomas Piketty & Neil deGrasse Tyson

Paul Rosenberg wrote an interesting piece in the June 8, 2014 edition of Salon entitled: “Rise of the myth busters: Why Piketty and Tyson are the icons America needs.” Rosenberg explains that the sudden popularity of the two men is rooted in: a)an empirical hunger; b) a desire to think big; and c) a thirst for meaning.

The disdain of the empirical has risen in America in the 21st century, exemplified especially by the denial of basic scientific truths. There is currently a shocking scientific illiteracy among both layperson and public officials. In contrast, both Piketty and Tyson exemplify the empirical approach—truth is based on sense experience, observation, data, evidence, and the scientific method.

Thinking based on reasons and evidence lets us think big, and both thinkers strike a chord in us because they cast a long gaze. For example they imagine–as we all can–a world without gross inequality and environmental and climate degradation “rather than just resigning ourselves to drift whichever way the torrents of wealthy elite power may take us.”

Both also tap into our need for meaning:

In Piketty’s case, this comes from his insight that capitalism does not just naturally evolve to a state of broader general prosperity, as many optimistically came to believe in the early post-World War II era … but rather that political choices are necessary to shape the rules to make broad prosperity possible. This means that we have collective agency in shaping our shared future — a message that resonates historically with Tom Paine’s declaration that “we have the power to begin the world anew.”

In Tyson’s case, the big-picture story is that science itself can give meaning to our lives, because the hunger to know is built into who we are … Tyson put the big-picture story like this: Yes, the universe had a beginning. Yes, the universe continues to evolve. And yes, every one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the big bang and to the thermonuclear furnace within high-mass stars. We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it. We are born from it. One might even say we have been empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.

Rosenberg believes that Tyson’s message has “almost quasi-religious” implications, which is why the strike fear into economic and religious conservatives. Both are open to a new future; both are anti-dogmatic and empirically based. As Rosenberg says: “The exploration of novelty is a recurrent theme linking liberalism and science to one another, just as the veneration of tradition is a recurrent theme linking conservatism and religion.” Yet now old traditions cannot solve our complex problems. We need new ideas and the wherewithal to follow through on them.

Most importantly both threaten to replace the old models by giving meaning to our lives in new ways. In the past the conservative, religious view held an advantage over the liberal, scientific world view—its mythical narratives gave life meaning. But science can give meaning to our lives if we understand our place in the universe as wise stewards of cosmic consciousness. As Tyson puts it:

If we are, after all, “empowered by the universe to figure itself out,” then taking care of ourselves on our home planet should not be that hard of a task. If only we own up to our ignorance, we’ll be quite well equipped to figure out how to do it. For me,” Tyson said, “I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday, and along the way, lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

Commentary – I have written extensively on these topics and I’m in general agreement with Rosenberg’s sentiments. Marx was probably the most important original economic visionary who envisioned a world where people’s labor could express or elaborate their being. (It is also worth noting that  Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek , and Milton Friedman and other so called conservative economists have been distorted beyond all recognition by the plutocrats and their minions–none of them advocated for the specifics of the economic system that dominates our globe.) As for scientific cosmology giving meaning to life, these issues have been explored deeply by Julian Huxley, E.O. Wilson, and others.

What Rosenberg’s piece specifically captures, I think, and the zeitgeist that Piketty and Tyson have tapped into, is a hunger among good and relatively educated people for a better world. A civilized world without, for example, arsenals of weapons in individual hands, public executions, punitive criminal justice systems, environmental and climate degradation, religious fanaticism, scientific illiteracy, unremitting  poverty, and lack of health care just to name a few.

As for economics, the gross inequalities of wealth, opportunity, and privilege would be shocking to a moral inter-planetary visitor or any other marginally moral person. There is nothing inevitable about this current situation. It was created by human action and can be remedied by human action. In fact a more equal distribution of wealth is probably in everyone’s interest, including the plutocrats. Do the wealthy really live well when they spend most of their time earning, protecting, and worrying about their money? When they spend vast sums to ensure they maintain their positions? When they wonder when the Bastille will be stormed again or the Reign of Terror revisited? I doubt it.

As for cosmology, must we really find meaning in the simple unscientific myths of our ancestors? Can we not instead look at this cosmos of which we are a part and see that the universe is becoming conscious of itself through us? Can we not become more conscious, aware, informed, and moral? Must we be so scientifically illiterate? Why? What are we afraid of? That life has no meaning in a cosmos revealed by modern science? I think that is the main reason.

But believing some ancient myth doesn’t give life meaning—because while silly stories may be comforting, they aren’t true. So let’s turn our back on these ancient traditions and embrace the work of making life meaningful, of following the truth wherever it leads, of exploring ourselves and our world. If we discard the ancient myths, accept the truths we have recently discovered, and continually explore that which we don’t yet understand—then we will grow up. Let us do so before its too late.