On Christmas Eve, 1968, Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders took the first color photograph of earth from space. You’ve seen it. It continues to inspire awe to this day.
As Ted Widmer recently noted in an opinion piece for the New York Times, however, the original objective of NASA engineers was not to re-think Earth but to escape it. In the 50 years since that impromptu picture was snapped, however, the re-thinking has, perhaps, been the institution’s most impactful accomplishment.
In 2016 we elected a president that openly campaigned as a disruptor. And disrupt he has. But in his first two years in office he has created no change quite so profound as our collective self-reflection on who we are and what kind of world we want to live in.
The stock market expanded for a decade. Now it is crashing down. Once dynastic sports teams in every sport have come and gone, and come back again. Nature creates beautiful forested spaces and then burns them down.
I watched the choir singing in the BBC’s live broadcast of A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge and marveled both at the music and the cathedral setting. I used to wonder if such magnificent cathedrals weren’t a waste of time and resources that could have been put to better use helping the common man. It occurred to me as I watched, however, that people need the inspiration of magnificence as much as they need anything else.
It is the season of reflection. And what is reflection but the act of questioning, of taking stock of ourselves and the world around us?
For me it is a reminder of what I refer to as the sine wave theory of life and the universe. What goes up, comes down. What is down, eventually goes up. We live in a world of opposites, each pole of which defines the other. Imagine life without either one.
Would we know warmth if we were never cold? Would we know joy if we never felt pain? Would we know the taste of good food if we never hungered? Would we know the warm embrace of family were there no strife and division?
We can’t live at one pole or the other. Nor would we want to. Both would prove intolerable over time. We must experience both. In the one case to know what we have; in the other to know that a better day is coming.
The sweet spot is harmony. Contentment, as opposed to either exuberance or pain, comes from acknowledging the full spectrum of the sine wave. That means not judging others while appreciating what we have and who we are. It flows from a commitment to resolve, not to fight for the sake of fighting. A commitment, above all else, to bring harmony to the world around us.
I feel refreshed from acknowledging the importance of harmony. Not effervescent, perhaps, but contently peaceful. And ready for the new year to come.
While the origins of the moniker remain uncertain, one popular theory is that Black Friday was coined by the Philadelphia Police Department for the day after Thanksgiving due to the high number of traffic accidents that occurred as shoppers began the Christmas shopping season. (In 1939 Franklin D. Roosevelt increased the length of that season by decree, advancing the date of Thanksgiving by one week in the hope that a longer Christmas retail season would help end the Great Depression.)
I hate shopping. And I don’t much like crowds. Which is why, when my wife asked if I wanted to venture out on this bleakest of days, my emotional floor gave way. My initial response, typical of men, was to suggest that she find a friend to go with. “You’ll enjoy it much more not having me moping around behind you.”
Alas, all were occupied in other ways. And, unfortunately, going it alone was not an option as my wife doesn’t drive and public transportation is an oxymoron where we live. She floated the idea of ordering an Uber but I finally agreed that I would be her Uber. I would drop her off and she would call me when she was finished.
When the day arrived, however, I was feeling more than a little guilty. ‘I am, after all, her husband, and that comes with a certain amount of obligation,’ I thought with resignation. So I agreed to tag along.
It turned out to be a fertile environment for a writer, so I spent most of the day not ogling the merchandise or the prices, but observing. Here are a few of them:
– The US is the largest economy in the world because we have a large middle class (fast disappearing) and 70% of our economic activity is driven by personal consumption. In China, by contrast, roughly 40% is driven by personal consumption and the rest is driven by the kind of investment that ultimately creates jobs.
– We have totally glamorized consumption. Buying the things you need is not the message. The message is to buy until the bank takes your house.
– We have equated things with emotions. ‘Want to be happy? Buy this.’
– Manufacturers and retailers, faced with saturated markets and stagnant growth, have sliced product categories into ever-smaller niches of specialty products that appear “clever”, but absolutely no one needs. (Nowhere is this more apparent than in the “storage” category, which should tell us something right there.)
– The people buying the most were aspirational buyers; people still in the process of achieving the American dream. Most of those were immigrants.
None of this is particularly encouraging. What happens when we close the borders, we are all satiated, we run out of money and storage space, or we realize that we have been victims of a giant advertising con?
People did seem to be enjoying themselves, but so does a bar full of alcoholics.
I recently read a wonderful novel by Duke philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg in which one of the characters expounds on the theory of natural selection and its impact on evolution.
In essence the character notes that most scholars incorrectly assume that natural selection is an accumulatively positive process resulting in the evolution of ever-superior species (e.g. modern man versus Homo erectus). Natural selection, in other words, only promotes evolution in a positive direction, creating ever more sophisticated life forms.
That, however, is not really what the law of natural selection suggests. It merely suggests that organisms are impacted by constant, random mutation and that those mutations that promote the continuation of the species are the ones that get carried forward in the evolutionary process.
Why do those attributes that promote survival, however, have to be “good”? Something wiped out the dinosaurs. Was it, by definition, a positive development? If a mutant virus were to obliterate humankind, would it automatically represent a step forward in the evolutionary continuum?
The implications are enormous. The idea that evolution doesn’t have to proceed along a positive continuum suggests a far more random explanation for our current existence than many of us take for granted. What if the current order doesn’t exist because it is “better” than the old order, but is simply lethal to the old order?
The whole thought is a bit depressing. Why bother to be good? Why worry about our behavior and our governance and the ways in which we contribute to the world around us if goodness doesn’t matter in the end.
But it does. For a couple of reasons.
As Socrates logically proved more than two thousand years ago, a virtuous life will always be the happiest life. Even if it may not mean anything in the grand scheme of things, a life of virtuous abandonment won’t make us happier today.
Perhaps more importantly, randomness is an equal opportunity force. It exists independent of good or bad. The random result, by definition, can be either one.
In the book I referred to, the character in question used it to argue that the Nazi horror would inevitably come to an end, just as the dinosaurs and the great European plagues did. They might win in the short term but they won’t win in the long term. Their luck will eventually turn. Their “win” will ultimately lose.
To me, this interpretation of natural selection merely reinforces the universal law of sine. The sine wave is the undulating line that defines almost all aspects of reality, most notably all light and sound. Graphically it is the circumference of a circle over time.
A simpler version of the law is one that I use when I’m having a bad day or at the dentist: This, too, shall pass.
Nothing lasts forever because life is more random than that. But don’t let that depress you. Random is neutral. There are pleasant surprises, too. And isn’t hope just a better way to live anyway?
I recently re-read Plato’s Republic (380 BCE), which uses elenctic (i.e. Socratic) questioning to explore human happiness and the specific virtue of justice. Socrates believed: “curing people of the hubris of thinking they know when they do not…makes them happier and more virtuous than anything else.”
Socrates and his friends pursue this journey by defining the ideal city – Kallipolis, the idea being that truth is often easier to discern on a large scale (i.e. a city) that can then be applied on a smaller scale (i.e. the individual).
The debate focuses on the four virtues of an ideal city—wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. And results in the conclusion that the human soul is made up of three parts—the appetitive, spirited, and rational—and that virtue is ultimately proven to be the source of happiness that exists when the three are in balance and harmony.
What struck me most about this elenchus, however, are the implications for science, although the concept of science wouldn’t be discovered for another two thousand years or so.
Science, as I’ve written before, is a methodology for understanding those things that can be isolated and measured in a controlled environment. And while science is “objective”, it is prone to error because of both an inability to distinguish between casual and causal correlation and the discovery of new causal factors.
Philosophy, on the other hand, deals with that which can’t be measured or isolated. What is virtue? We can apply reason to philosophical questions, but not science.
Modern scientists often attempt to eliminate all questions of philosophy through the blanket explanation of natural selection and its role in evolution. And while I fully accept the existence and importance of evolution, it is, nonetheless, a weak explanation of the most profound philosophical questions. It may suffice if you are pre-convinced it will, but it doesn’t stand up to the scrutiny of reason.
In the Republic, it is assumed by some participants in the debate, that injustice and a lack of virtue are the natural state. Some in the group go so far as to argue that the pursuit of injustice is the surest path to happiness. Wealth, power, licentiousness, etc., they argue, are all natural instincts and inclinations. Pleasure is happiness.
Socrates, however, ultimately proves that virtue is, in itself, good, and the key to human happiness. And, importantly, that the key to virtue is not discipline, either forced or voluntary, but education.
What does it all mean? To my way of thinking, science is the natural state. It’s easy. It’s comforting. It appears rational, objective, and not open to debate.
And yet the biggest philosophical questions never go away. The questions that Socrates and Plato sought to answer are the same questions we ask yet today. Our science would be unrecognizable to them. Our philosophy would look quite familiar.
Does it really make sense to abandon that which is timeless in favor of that which changes constantly? Which provides the better compass by which to plot our development and measure our humanity?
Democracy is not the existence of voting rights any more than humanity is a skeleton wrapped in skin and filled with organs. Democracy is an aspirational concept that requires healthy public discourse, deliberation, critical thinking, a desire to listen and learn, and a commitment to each other.
Each of these things exists along a continuum, leaving a great deal of latitude for differences of opinion and attitude. The true outliers, however, tend to get isolated by the bell curve that defines any neutral labeling of data points involving judgment and personal opinion.
We have lost any semblance of democracy in America. Going to the polls in November won’t change that. The players may change. The colors on the uniforms may change. Even the dynamics may change. Democracy, however, will remain, if not dead, fatally wounded.
We live under the yoke of authoritarianism. And I’m not just referring to President Trump. He is, indeed, an authoritarian. Technically, he is a tyrant. He leads through intimidation, incivility, inhumanity, and brute force. He would have been much happier, I believe, if he had been born long before the Renaissance, when war was constant, the powerful did what they wanted, and people unlike you were just property to be owned and abused.
Those who nod their heads in agreement with that sentiment, however, are largely hypocrites. They, too, are authoritarians. They simply self-identify in terms that are politically correct and less pejorative. Activist, for example, is a noble-sounding label but is often just an authoritarian that is out of power.
When the US Senate votes strictly along party lines, with two exceptions, whether or not to confirm any candidate, liberal or conservative, for the US Supreme Court, democracy is nowhere in sight. It is statistically impossible for that to have happened were healthy public discourse, critical thinking and deliberation, a commitment to listening and learning, and a commitment to each other, anywhere in sight. In a true democracy, the idea that no senator would have reached a conclusion different from his or her colleague on the same side of the aisle would be absurd.
The US Senate is interested in only one thing—power. And power at any price is the practical definition of authoritarianism. Red and blue are merely the uniforms of alliances created in the real life version of the winner-take-all political edition of the Hunger Games.
So what went wrong?
Many famous philosophers and critical thinkers, were they still alive, would tell us that this is the inevitable outcome of democracy. No democracy throughout history has survived for long enough to be more than a blip on the timeline of civilization. None. They all eventually implode.
If we look at the issue through a scientifically evolutionary lens we might blame nature. Power improves the chances of the survival of our genes. While I fully accept the explanation, however, I have always found that to be a rather fatalistic and depressing explanation for the way things are.
I believe the root cause of our descent has been the slow death of critical thinking. It is, after all, the reason that listening, deliberation, and learning rise to the level of importance. And it is the engine that drives a commitment to healthy public discourse and concern for each other.
The cult of victimization has contributed to the demise of critical thinking. In referring to victimization, however, I am not just referring to the usual list of suspects. Trump’s base defines its identity as much by victimization as do the purveyors of identity politics.
The problem with victimization is not that it is invalid but that it is strictly reactive. It’s an ideology, however justified, of compensation, institutional and regulatory correction, and an unhealthy and often powerless sense of entitlement.
Real democracy, on the other hand, is pro-active. That is its strength. It doesn’t mean that ‘I pull myself up by my boot straps.’ But it does mean that ‘We move ourselves forward collectively and pro-actively.’
I am a strong advocate of education and, in particular, the liberal arts. I am inclined to believe, therefore, that it is the abandonment of the liberal arts in our educational institutions that is at the heart of our abandonment of critical thinking.
Contrary to popular misconception, science does not promote critical thinking. Science is neither a body of knowledge or a path to enhancing humanity. It is a methodology for interpreting reality. And it has several fundamental flaws. One is that it requires the isolation of variables that may not be easily isolated. It also requires the existence of technology to accurately measure those variables. And, most importantly, all scientific discoveries must be interpreted in context.
Which is exactly why many scientific discoveries turn out to be wrong, or at least incomplete. And why, as we have been reminded recently, peer review often serves to simply reinforce and perpetuate existing scientific biases.
When Newton and others first crossed the threshold of science, science was just another facet of philosophy. The word philosophy literally encompassed science. Science provided the hard data that could be discovered and objectively measured and observed; philosophy provided the context. One without the other is essentially incomplete.
The emerging academic fields of gender and racial studies, while historically and socially important, do not make up for the decline in the liberal arts. As courses they are informative and expand our thinking. As fields of study, however, they do not prepare students for the world they will enter upon graduation for the simple reason that they are designed to correct past wrongs, not to prevent future wrongs through critical thinking.
However you felt about the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, and however you felt about the treatment of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, no one should celebrate the confirmation process we just witnessed. The only winner is authoritarianism, and it is a heartless and ruthless despot.
November, unfortunately, won’t change that. More likely than not, whichever party gains control of Congress, we will just march further down the path of authoritarianism. And we all know where that path leads—to the destruction of our democracy, leaving the grand experiment on the trash heap of those democracies that came before us.
To my subscribers: I began this blog to give my readers reason to think outside of the virulent world of politics and current events. And I limited myself to 500 words per post in deference to the importance of your time.
Neither of those objectives has changed. But I am, by virtue of this post, temporarily excepting both of those parameters. And the reasons are simple. Like many others I became completely absorbed by the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. And I feel a bit cheated that I will never get that time back.
To be clear, I was and remain neutral about Judge Kavanaugh’s judicial qualifications to serve on the court. Time will tell. The process itself, however, was alarming. Whatever your political stripes, this was the most glaring trail marker yet that we are on the path to authoritarianism and the death of democracy.
If you agree, help me to spread the word by sharing this post with your own network. My voice, admittedly, is weak. Without your help these sentiments will die in the abyss of indistinct chatter that is the internet.
In the near future I hope to create a separate section of this website for commentary like this, reserving the blog section for its original purpose. I am a staff of one, however, and not a particularly tech-savvy one at that, so it may take some time.
In the meantime, thank you for permitting this exception and accommodating my need to speak out.
I often write about the Law of Unintended Consequence. It’s a corollary of my belief that everything in life and the universe is part of a duality. For every left there is a right. For every front there is a back. For every pro there is a con.
One of the most impactful unintended consequences impacting all of us today is the skyrocketing cost of pharmaceutical drugs. If you haven’t been to the pharmacy of late, be prepared for sticker shock, particularly if you don’t have drug coverage provided by an employer.
The duality? Advertising.
The first broadcast commercial in the US for a prescription drug, a drug called Rufen, ran in 1983. Within 48 hours, however, the government instructed the company to take it down. And the battle over direct to consumer (DTC) pharmaceutical advertising began.
It’s a battle that the pharmaceutical companies have clearly won. If you’ve watched any broadcast television recently, the pharmaceutical companies are flooding the airwaves with advertising that consumers, in fact, cannot act upon. What they can do, however, is to try and convince their doctor to write them a prescription.
Ironically, the American Medical Association is adamantly against DTC advertising for pharmaceuticals. And, in fact, the United States is one of only two countries in the world that allows it.
It’s easy to see why. These drugs require a prescription because the average consumer is not informed enough to evaluate benefits and risks.
There are more drug company lobbyists in Washington, however, than any other kind. And they have found strong allies from the big media companies and the agencies that create the ads. There’s big money involved.
As a result, there was a 65% increase in such advertising between 2012 and 2016, according to one industry source. Within that, TV ad spending by the pharmaceutical companies more than doubled.
The FDA began allowing DTC advertising only 20 years ago. But the FDA isn’t the real problem. The courts have gradually given corporations complete personhood status, allowing them to enjoy all of the rights and privileges of individual citizens save the right to actually vote. (Citizens United, however, gave them the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections.)
It was Virginia Pharmacy, however, decided in 1975, that explicitly overturned centuries of precedent to give corporations the full protection of the free speech clause of the First Amendment. DTC advertising has increased ever since, employing ever more boastful—and undocumented—claims. In 2016, they spent more than six billion dollars.
So, if you’re wondering why the cost of your medications keeps going up, DTC advertising is a primary cause. Somebody has to pay for all that advertising. And since corporations do not grow money on trees, that somebody is you.
Do corporations really deserve all of the rights of American citizens, including free speech? Only if individual citizens had the financial resources of corporations. Otherwise the duality is asymmetric and the unintended consequences will be borne by the citizens. As they are.
As my oldest daughter is but a year away from entering college, I have spent a fair amount of my inquisitive energy on the topic of late. And, frankly, I’m concerned.
The liberal arts are disappearing. If you don’t want to study the STEM subjects (i.e. science, technology, engineering, mathematics), or gender, or the history of under represented minorities, your choices are not abundant.
The history of our humanity is not being rewritten; it is being obliterated. To even acknowledge Jefferson, Milton, Moliere, Mozart, Plato, and Tolstoy, is, it seems, to endorse the negative side of humanity as now perceived. The duality of humanity, however, is what defines us. For every left there is a right; for every front there is a back. If we fail to acknowledge the duality it doesn’t go away. It is merely obscured. And that is the most dangerous condition of all.
I believe that we cannot train great scientists without exposing them to philosophy and literature. Science is not a body of knowledge. It is a methodology for interpreting reality. And that reality exists in context. It is all inter-connected in ways that we are only beginning to understand, which is why so many scientific “discoveries” are ultimately proven wrong.
Science deals with that which we can measure. The liberal arts deal with the context. One cannot be understood without the other.
Science, in effect, deals with what we can currently know. The liberal arts examine that which we do not or cannot. How can we know that the color we see is blue if we do not appreciate the full continuum of what might be called blue?
I also wonder what is the value of science if it does not serve to further our humanity? Does it really make sense to build robots that do not honor it? Isn’t that simply the first step to the de-humanization of who we are? And what benefit will that provide? Fulfillment? Purpose? Unlikely.
Identity politics and learning may provide some sense of connection, an important ingredient of personal fulfillment and purpose. It does not, however, fulfill our potential.
True diversity lies in the diversity of thought and worldview. If we do not arrive at our identity on our own terms, can we truly call it our personal identity? “I am me,” is the ultimate identity. My race, gender, sexual identity, etc., is important in terms of highlighting structural forms of discrimination. None of those attributes, however, defines the person I am, or, more importantly, the person I am capable of being.
I reject Chaucer’s worldview. I do not reject his humanity. I want my daughters to read Plato and to get inside the head of Jane Austen. Only then can they have a framework by which to calibrate what lies in their heads.
Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is ignorance. It is the duality of knowledge. Without it, however, knowledge can truly not exist. At that point we are not living; we are just getting by.