Archives for category: Politics

https://mobile.nytimes.com/2017/04/18/books/review/knowledge-illusion-steven-sloman-philip-fernbach.html

Cognitive scientists now provide additional information supporting the postmodern view of man not being a rational agent. Humans are ignorant by necessity and ‘stupid’ in that most decisions are not rationally arrived at. However, language and thought is exquisitely logical, but the problem is that ontology and epistemology have overwhelmed our inputs. We have the potential of being logical and rational, but we don’t have the time to do a thorough analysis in every case, even in most cases. Individual persons are also the only information processors. So, we must rely on each other (and on technology in the future) but there is a very high premium on each one of us being as rational and knowledgeable as possible in our narrow field – a veritable and vast web of knowledge is the engine of our culture and civilization.

Yesterday, 1/20/1917, Donald John Trump succeeded Barack Hussein Obama in a patriotic ceremony the tone of which struck me as diametrically opposed to the one of 8 years ago. The Capitol was wrapped in huge flags, Lee Greenwood brought the house down, and tears to the eyes of many; the inaugural speech was unabashedly jingoistic. In 2009 it was more of a celebration: history was being made, opening the doors for a new era of hope, tolerance and conviviality. The reality on the ground now is obviously not what was anticipated then. Something went wrong. Polls show that we have never been more divided, the vast majority of us thinking that the country is going in the wrong direction.

Mistrust and intolerance have shockingly multiplied. I do not recall rioting in the streets of Washington on inauguration day, ever. Hillary Clinton diagnosed the problem as being due to large swaths of irredeemable deplorables lurking in dark corners of civil society. These mostly uneducated white men, she said, were vehicles of hate and bigotry that need to be eliminated through better controls and regulation. There would be a federal solution for that! Trump effectively railed about stupid, self-serving, corrupt politicians and the crooked news media.

Reality does not comport with these hyper-simplistic formulations:

  1. Some/many of us tend to think that we have a complete understanding of culture and that everyone could do this. Wrong! All human beings have a very restricted and unique perspective that is determined largely by their personal, family and social history. Culture also has very many diverse critical components that most of us do not know about, much less understand: education, society, money, economics, health, science, work, law, art, religion etc., etc.
  2. Very important, many aspects of culture itself are riddled with unrecognized confusions and misconceptions.
  3. We tend to think that we understand our own minds. We assume that we are clear, in our own minds, about our understandings,  personal needs, desires and intentions. We think we know what we like and dislike, or the limits of what we will do or not. No doubt some of us are more in touch with ourselves than others, but none of us understand much about the emotions and prejudices that drive us from moment to moment. Almost daily, new scientific information is reported that indicates that consciousness is produced by exquisite systems that monitor events throughout the body, events that we are completely unaware of. There is also wide variation in the structure of our bodies, so I am really a black box unto myself.
  4. We also assume that we have a good understanding of what goes on in the minds of others – “most people are generally like me”. Wrong! The behavior of large swaths of irredeemable deplorables should permanently put this self delusion to rest. Our understandings, values, attitudes and assumptions vary greatly. There is, in fact, a dynamic interplay between our bodies, culture and mind, rendering who we are as individuals completely unpredictable.
  5. The sources of public information appear to be unable to provide impartial, accurate and comprehensive reports. There is much personal bias injected and the various power centers appear to resort to censorship and propaganda. Leakers, whistleblowers, Russian hackers and others have exposed deficiencies and vulnerabilities.

We live in the oldest democracy and many would argue that we have been the most successful. But the world is changing rapidly and we must adapt. As society becomes more complex, the interdependence of individuals is heightened. Our success or failure would depend on the efforts of each individual, trying to be the best that they can be, no matter what the area of their engagement. [Of course, how such a more perfect union would be structured is the million dollar question.]

Many are aghast at the evil acts suddenly erupting all over the world – most of it in the name of jihad. Not a few are actually inspired by the mayhem and join the fight. The new world order is outrageously brutal; things had seemed so reliably predictable during the cold war. Popular pundits blame George W Bush or Barack H Obama.

Of course, in the old days we were not inundated 24/7 with continuous news streams covering all the wars and ethnic cleansings of the moment in faraway places: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Czechoslovakia, Uganda, South Africa etc. Total killed in such conflicts in the 20th century ~100 million. The average person was more oblivious in the good old days.

The scary thought is that things may actually have improved over the centuries. We don’t really know what life was like in distant times but this paragraph from a review in the WSJ of a book by Robert Harris on the life of Cicero suggests that evil has always been a prominent part of our social fabric:

“Nonetheless, Mr. Harris captures the senselessness of triumviral intrigue magnificently, not relenting as the players meet their gruesome ends. Crassus was slain at Carrhae in 53 B.C., Pompey on an Egyptian beachhead in 48 B.C., following his defeat at Pharsalus. Both were posthumously decapitated. Cato, having unsuccessfully attempted to take his life, tore the stitches from his wound, pulled out his intestines and bled himself to death at Utica in 46 B.C. Caesar was savagely murdered on the senate floor in 44 B.C. Cicero was proscribed by Octavian and Antony in 43 B.C., losing his hands and head soon after. Antony killed himself in 30 B.C., one year after the Battle of Actium.”

The religious myth that the devil has corrupted our pure souls, or some such, is wrong. Evil resides within each one of us, placed there during the process of creation. It is up to each one of us to find ways to control it. Society and culture tries to promote the good and discourage the bad but things can spin out of control so easily. Science, religion, philosophy and politics all have their roles to play.

Will there be an end to the personal crimes committed by sociopaths, murderers, rapists, thieves and the like? Probably not, but it does seem reasonable to tackle the phenomenon of social movements intent on killing, raping and pillaging. But is there a cure for the waves of mass cruelty and suffering that wash over humanity? The mystery answer has been blowing in the wind for a very long time.

Humankind should of course strive for improvement of our world, if only we could figure out what the problem is more precisely. Commitments to various communities (religious, philosophical, political, ethnic, national, ideological – even tribal or criminal gangs) have been the more obvious strategies for success, but they have actually been the very source of the mayhem  when a mob mentality supervenes. Philosophers tend to be peaceful by default, if for no other reason than they spend their time arguing with each other. Too often, however, fear of the other leads to a fight or flight confrontation.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the solution to this universal problem may reside in a fuller recognition of the important role of the individual. Communities should be organized so as to foster involvement by more individuals to understand and solve problems, and then to act for the common good. This may be the true source of progress. Morality is an emergent quality of a super-complex system of individuals acting independently in their immediate interests as they see fit. All that would be needed is a sufficient number of ‘virtuous’ people who are willing to make the effort – what exactly that means is for them to decide. It does suggest that we be a little more skeptical about the pronouncements of others who claim to know what we should accept as reality.