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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

And Miles to Go

In my "retirement," I have been gathering the results of all my explorations in philosophy, theology, science, and art to suggest an ethics for the 21st Century. This is more than a theoretical or academic enterprise for me, but relates to my past and present work in urban ministry and social justice. It is a way of reflecting on what I am doing and why. It is a way to keep learning. And going.

And I see I have a long, long way to go.

Recently I sent out to a few friends for comments the first section of my work called "The Philosopher's Stone: Ethics and Philosophy." It is to be followed by three more sections on Ethics and Science, Ethics and Religion, and Ethics and Politics. But from the first comments I gratefully received, I see the need to rewrite extensively.

My friend is very intelligent, a post graduate university teacher, a lawyer, and writes on theological matters. He said he was "totally confused" by what I sent. Now confusion doesn't bother me because it is often the prelude to insight. And to some extent I intended and acknowledged the confusion hoping it would entice the reader to the next sections. But as he described his confusion, I realized that he wasn't at all getting what I wanted to get at.  And if he didn't get it, maybe nobody would. And they would never move on to the next sections. Three alarms sounded in what he commented.

First, he did not accept one of the main reasons for my new inquiry into ethics, namely, the accelerating movement to a transhuman future. Considering this "pure science fiction,"he clearly was not following the experimentation and results that I was following in thousands of laboratories dealing with body and mind enhancement, artificial intelligence, body-machine interface, much less brain scanning and uploading. For me this is the greatest challenge for a 21st century ethics closely linked to the changing of the human condition of the earth and its resources.  How can we define human nature as it has evolved such that we can collectively choose the nature that we want to be and the environment that will sustain/advance us? But if you belittle or deny transhuman and environmental mutation, you definitely remove the urgency that moves me.

Second, his comment about "pure science fiction" tells me that he does not understand science and philosophy the way I do. In my understanding of scientific method, all knowledge begins with fiction. As Brian Greene says in a recent article: "Before the elusive Higgs boson could be discovered--a smashing success--it had to be imagined." Imagination, making and combining images, is the human way of acting--and this leads to the third alarm. But the alarm here is that I assumed too much--that people were reading and thinking about what I was reading and thinking about. I thought I was writing for the general public. But there is no general public.

Third, and this is my most crucial concern, he labeled my assertions concerning the symbolic mode of human behavior in its co-adaptation with the environment as "complete nonsense." He asks how his breakfast eating that morning had anything to do with symbols or metaphors. Well I could definitely show how his breakfast eating was ripe with symbols including the eggs, cereal, table, spoon, calories, vitamins A, B, and D, H20, cholesterol, etc. But I don't think he would understand. But the problem isn't with him, but with me. I was again presuming too much. And I was not communicating the symbolic character of human behavior that did not seem as "complete nonsense."And not getting the symbolic character of human existence means that my ethic would make no sense at all.

The ethic that I am advancing is one of "continuing transcendence" in which the product of each successful experiment in science, art, religion, politics, ordinary language, or whatever is subject to further inquiry. It's kind like "permanent revolution" in Jefferson, not Trotsky sense. It means continual problem solving and making in the human quest for the infinite--a quest that emerges in the dynamic structure of symbolic behavior. It also means the mission to continually integrate symbolic act and existence by holding tension in the present with past and future, inner and outer, individual and society, real and ideal, body and spirit, the expressed and the expressing, figure and ground, etc.

Now that last paragraph will take a lot more unpacking for some, I admit. But if one is a "literalist" or "objectivist" or "fundamentalist" and does not accept the symbolic or analogical or metaphoric character of human behavior, I have no chance of making my point. Moreover, I lose the very basis of my ethic and its reason for being, namely to confront the fallacies of literalism, absolutism, objectivism, and fundamentalism.

So I need to reach the literal or univocal mind. But I am not sure how. My sense is that we are on the cusp or maybe beginning stages of a new "Enlightenment." The old Enlightment took maybe 500 years to take hold with its humanism, science, liberal economics, republican politics, naturalism and probably half the world is still resisting. The new Enlightenment is emerging with its transhumanism, new science in which quantum physics, neuroscience, and cybernetics are dominant, global economics, transnational politics, and post naturalism. I think that the new Enlightenment embraces the culture of "non-dualistic constructivism" in its philosophy, science, art, religion, and politics. This is the path that the Pragmatists took (Peirce, Dewey (Reconstruction in Philosophy), and Rorty (Philosophy and the Mirror of Reality), the Phenomenologists took (Husserl, Merleau-Ponty), and the Constructivists (Piaget, Glasersfeld, Mitterer) in opposition to "realism." And I think that an ethics and politics for the 21st century have to be developed in accords.


When the Austrian philosopher Josef Mitterer handed out his dissertation Sprache und Wirklichkeit. Eine erkenntnistheoretische Abhandlung [Language and Reality: An Epistemological Treatise] to some colleagues for feedback in the late 1970s, the reactions varied between incomprehension, friendly rejection and a straight “he must be joking.” Disappointed by some rather hostile receptions (some even called it a “danger to academic philosophy”) he turned his back on academia. Mitterer followed the suggestion of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who wrote in Vermischte Bemerkungen, “The greeting among philosophers should be ‘Take your time’,” and did not publish the book version of his dissertation until 1992, under the title Das Jenseits der Philosophie. Wider das dualistische Erkenntnisprinzip [The Beyond of Philosophy: Against the Dualistic Principle of Cognition]. In 100 theses he developed a non-dualizing epistemology, which forgoes the categorical distinction between language and reality beyond language. This book was to become the first in a series of three. The second volume, Die Flucht aus der Beliebigkeit [The Escape from Arbitrariness], published in 2001, is a critical assessment of the traditional goal of philosophy, i.e., truth. The last volume, Die Richtung des Denkens [The Direction of Thinking] is in preparation and will deal with a critique of the object-orientation of epistemological thought.

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