Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Seven Billion Points of View

The main purpose of this blog is to articulate various observations and ideas that I've developed over a period of time. Besides the fact that I enjoy writing, it helps me to clarify for myself whatever it is that I might be thinking about. Then there is the more public aspect, in which others read it: they may or may not think about a particular post, and that post may or may not affect any of their views. I am not attempting to be didactic, though readers may think that I'm opinionated and am trying to convert them to my views. In fact my views are constantly evolving, and I am always interested in finding out something that might improve them. However, it seems that reaching coherent opinions is more important to me than it is to some, which may make me appear more dogmatic than I truly am. The reality is that the majority of people are going about their lives without much interest in whether or not they are operating within a robust conceptual schema.

If anything, there are too many conceptions and worldviews in circulation, and it is easy to see why people retreat into private worlds, because that prevents mental overload. It makes sense to think about life in terms with which one is familiar. This is a conservative approach that permits you, if you are so inclined, to build upon ideas collected over time in the hope of improving understanding. In this I am like most people, except that I constantly question orthodoxy, which, historically has been a luxury. Most of the people who have ever lived did not have the time to think about the relative merits of their belief systems; not being educated in the modern sense, they could not know that there were alternative views to those recognized within their cultures.

There are advantages and disadvantages to being educated. It appears to me that most people these days look narrowly at the advantages in terms of employability and a higher standard of living, and once they've finished their educations they do not concern themselves with the oblique kinds of questions that are of interest to me. This is noticeable in the U.S., which has never had much of an intellectual class and to this day remains broadly anti-intellectual. Americans are relatively well-educated, but they are interested above all in making money. For me the important advantage of an education is that it can provide a perspicacity which one might not otherwise obtain. Without having a variety of ideas to think about and enjoy, one may as well be a chimpanzee.

The disadvantages of education have mainly to do with the fact that educated people tend to become specialists rather than generalists. They know a lot about something and nothing about most things. Up until about the middle of the nineteenth century it was still possible to be a polymath, but now there is simply too much information for any person to absorb. Furthermore, higher education has become linked to business through the growth and funding of research universities. Different academic fields resemble fiefdoms competing for survival, with moneyed interests calling the shots. For example, as Thomas Piketty points out in Capital, the field of economics has drifted away from the other social sciences and would be more useful if it incorporated knowledge from history and sociology. In this case I think corporate pressures have usurped the field by purchasing the so-called experts. Furthermore, ghettoization within academia has created a situation in which there is little unity of knowledge, and there exist conceptual rifts between some academic departments that may never be bridged. Another disadvantage to education is that in large doses it can cause people to lose touch with their instinctive biological roots.

For all its limitations, this blog attempts to create a big picture without depending on the latest ideas from specialized academic disciplines. Based on my explorations, it would in most instances be a thankless task to try thinking about the kinds of things that I like to think about by resorting to an academic approach. Everyone must find a way to make sense of his life, and what academia has to offer typically just complicates the issue. In my experience one soon encounters an infinite regress of ideas that don't collectively increase the clarity or comprehension of what one seeks. In my view, the significant thinkers of any era concern themselves with the big picture, and few do that now. This is why I respect E.O. Wilson and Thomas Piketty: they both at least encourage inter-disciplinary research.

One of my themes on this blog is that no one really seems to be in control of human destiny. It is possible that this will emerge at some point as a recognizable academic discipline or perhaps as a topic within policy discussions, but it hasn't yet as far as I know. From my readings I get a sense that there may yet be another round of prominent big thinkers. For example, even though Thomas Piketty may himself be too narrow a thinker, he has helped precipitate a dialogue that brings into question the long-term viability of capitalism as it is practiced. On a different front, a variety of people are beginning to raise alarms on the potential downside of artificial intelligence.

If, like me, you take evolution seriously as a phenomenon, it is easy to see how the conditions for humans might suddenly take a turn for the better or for the worse with little warning. In this environment I find it concerning that there is hardly any world consensus on major issues such as global warming, capitalism, democracy, religion, artificial intelligence or high population levels. The capitalist model in one form or another seems to be the dominant ideology at present, and nearly everyone is forced to comply with it whether they like it or not. Democracy is a weak tool for dealing with the present situation, and I don't see how anyone in his right mind could expect "the will of the people" to resolve the issues just mentioned. Not only are people throughout the world living according to a variety of conceptual models that have little in common, but even in the West technology has fragmented society in a manner that is comparable to earlier times when people were isolated by physical distances and slow transportation. Now they are isolated by inhabiting virtual realities which allow them to live in the alternate universes of their choice with the help of new technology. Once again I have to say that this is not a guided process. The outcome is unknown, and not many people seem to be thinking about it.

2 comments:

  1. 2 comments. Where you say, "In my experience one soon encounters an infinite regress of ideas that don't collectively increase the clarity or comprehension of what one seeks". I was recently in Atlanta visiting my daughter who goes to Univ there. I was often with her boyfriend, roommate, friends. This is definitely the crowd who benefit from academia as they would not recognize a regression of their own ideas as I noticed they have few well formed ideas and seem to only spout what their parents told them. For better or worse at least they are learning something. Without sounding pretentious they seemed to hang on my words and I assume it is because they seldom encounter a person/adult who talks about more conceptual ideas. Second item you have often mentioned the down falls of capitalism…what would/could be an alternative?

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    1. Even allowing for the fact that every generation changes, the way college-aged people think now seems radically different because of gadgets, the Internet, etc. As I wrote, it was hard for me to relate to Anne's 17-year-old niece, Victoria, last year. But I also have some difficulty with my own son, who is 31, and my nephew, who is 27. Although I'm not that talkative, I sometimes feel as if I came from the Bronze Age and speak in epic poems compared to them. They only know sound bites and never have true conversations among their peers.

      Regarding the death of capitalism, it isn't hard to imagine, but visualizing an orderly transition out of it is. My main thought is that capitalism is a destructive force, and my ideal solution would be to see it phased out when automation, robotics and AI have advanced sufficiently to support civilization with little input from humans. In a best case scenario, paid jobs will become harder and harder to get and governments will increase payments to individuals. In effect, everyone will be living on Social Security for their entire lives. We are already headed in that direction due to efficiency gains and cost-cutting by corporations, and the hard part will be changing how people think about their lives. Capitalism is ingrained in American thinking and its end will be fought here, but in former communist countries and Western Europe the adjustment will be easier. I think the natural pressures are in this direction, but disagreement, wars and special interests could easily disrupt the process, leaving us in a worse state than the present. But I have no problem visualizing doing nothing all day - that's what I already do!

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