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.
German-American philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich (1886-1965), defined sin as any behavior that does not give our lives meaning and purpose. Former journalist, best-selling author, and ordained Presbyterian minister, Chris Hodges, refers to this definition as “estrangement.”
I think this is an excellent way to think about the topic because it covers the specifics of religious sin and transcends it. And in that sense it is a unifier in a world that is in desperate need of some unity.
And what makes a life meaningful and purposeful? Connection to the world around us and service to others. It is the message of everyone from Jesus to Maslow.
Virtually every one of the Ten Commandments can easily be interpreted by this standard. Every offending behavior stands as a barrier to connection and service.
The first five all relate to authenticity, consistency, sincerity, and humility. All are critical to connecting with the people around us in a meaningful way. People who lack these qualities will never know true connection.
The second five, the “you shall not’s”, all relate to service to others. Murder, adultery, stealing, and coveting are all a form of disservice to others.
The beauty of this definition is that it transcends the prohibitions, and provides a template for pro-actively not sinning. It states the prescribed behaviors not in the negative, but in the positive.
That gives people of faith and secularists of every political stripe a common lens through which to define appropriate behavior. While people of faith tend to define sin in absolute terms, and secularists tend to define sin in relative terms, this definition takes a more holistic view, avoiding the potential conflict. It’s not more flexible per se, but it is more multi-faceted without compromising the facet you choose to identify with.
Moral standards, and the cultural norms they lead to, currently divide the nation. And since proper behavior is central to the identity of each of us, it is easy to understand why.
The divide, however, is largely built around language. Sin has become absolute in each perspective and that, in turn, has created an all-or-nothing nomenclature regarding how we think of each other. If you are a conservative, then you must be a racist, a misogynist, or whatever. If you support gay marriage, then you must be a liberal.
The estrangement definition, however, avoids the trap. In the current vernacular all beliefs are individualized. That fits with a society and a culture that has become increasingly me-centric. The estrangement definition, on the other hand, is more collective in perspective. It focuses on how we relate to society. It re-balances our collective/individual perspective and thus brings both more unity and more civility to our discourse.
In essence, it allows us ‘to agree to disagree’ without having to make judgments about each other’s value as a person. And wouldn’t that be a much more productive way to carry on our public discourse? It is, in fact, what we have lost and must find.
From all appearances, just about every Missourian, and many from well beyond, attended the final round of the PGA golf championship this past weekend. From what I saw on television, however, I have no better idea of what someone from Missouri looks like. All I saw were smart phones.
That’s the new norm, of course. Anyone with a front row seat to history is not watching it; they’re filming it. They’re literally living their life through their phone.
The most obvious question is, why? Are they really going to watch Tiger’s drive on the third hole years from now?
I suspect people are just documenting their presence. They might show the video to colleagues at the office or send it out to close friends. Fair enough. But what does that suggest? Desperation, perhaps? If it’s personal validation we need, our mere attendance at a sporting event is pretty artificial.
I sense that we’re all feeling more than a little disconnected from the world at the moment. I wonder, however, if smart phone technology is helping or hurting. Can you really connect to the world through your phone? I don’t think so. It’s a thing.
And what are the long-term implications? Smart phone cameras have gotten much better, but they aren’t human eyes. And it’s not just a question of resolution.
Scientists are just beginning to understand the human brain and the senses that feed it. But the old truism, you can’t know what you don’t know, still applies. We still don’t know how emotions are formed or where contentment comes from. We have only theories about how we develop a meaningful sense of connection to the world around us. Is it really smart to put a permanent smart phone between us and the reality around us until we do?
I’ve done it, mind you. I went through a phase when my daughters were quite young when I filmed them constantly. And then I created clever little movies on my Macintosh.
Whenever I suggest we watch one, however, they have no interest. They’re on their phones checking out the latest Instagram posts. (They tell me that Facebook is so passé.)
I’m actively trying to unwire now. I consciously leave my smart phone at home quite frequently. And somehow, I must say, I actually feel more connected. Since I can’t check messages while standing in the checkout line, I actually observe.
And what I’ve observed most, to be honest, are people living through their smart phones. Everyone is texting, talking, checking their social media accounts, and, yes, snapping pictures. It’s all a bit bizarre once you sit back and truly observe it.
But each to his own. I do know, however, that if I ever get the chance to watch Tiger hit a golf ball in person, I won’t be taking any video. I want to be in the moment. I want to observe all of the reality—pixels and beyond. I want to be there, not filming there.
I believe in the sine wave theory of the universe. What goes up ultimately goes down, and vice versa. It’s darkest just before the dawn and all that.
The sine wave, however, which defines all light and sound, is really just a circle in motion. Rotate a pencil around a fixed axis, move it forward, and you will draw a sine wave. (Look it up on YouTube.)
So you might say that it is really the circle that is at the heart of the universe and life. And I think that’s right.
Why is the earth round? (It’s spherical, but the distortions can be easily explained.) The scientists will tell you that gravity is the reason. When the earth was formed, and still hot and pliable, a circle was the most efficient geometry to accommodate the laws of gravity.
But there is no universal law of gravity. Galileo, Newton, and Einstein have all had a hand in explaining how gravity works. Einstein, for example, gave us the notion of general relativity, explaining that gravity is not a force but a curvature in the space-time continuum.
It has since been shown, however, that general relativity is incompatible with quantum mechanics. “Damn, another scientific explanation bites the dust.”
So, in the end, no one has come up with a unifying mathematical model of gravity. Where did it come from? Why does it exist? Why is the earth round?
It is, perhaps, comforting to believe that scientists will ultimately figure it all out. But I am no longer convinced that is true. And I am even less convinced that it matters.
One of the legacies of the Enlightenment, which gave us science and reason, is the notion that there is an explanation for everything. And the attraction of that is that an explanation inevitably leads to “progress.”
But does progress inevitably lead to greater happiness or personal fulfillment? The historical record does not make a very compelling case, to say the least.
What if we didn’t ask quite so many questions? What if we just accepted things as they are?
I’ve actually started to do this when I go on walks in the woods. I clear my mind. I mentally banish questions like “What kind of bird is that?” or “Why do you suppose that tree grew that way?” I just observe. I let the symmetry and the beauty just wash over me. And, yes, it makes me happy.
It’s a powerful way to live and I strongly recommend you try it. I guarantee your stress levels will go down when you ultimately accept that you don’t have to understand everything. (Perhaps understanding is a process of knowing less, not more.)
But don’t forget that circle. The circle, however it’s formed, is the geometric symbol for balance. And that, in the end, is the key to finding happiness and contentment in life. Kind of like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket on a cold winter day.