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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Decline of the Nation-State

Having recently visited Scotland, we watched the vote for independence from Great Britain with interest. "No" won quite decisively for lots of reasons. Yet the process was instructive for all of us.

I think it portends or even demonstrates a transforming global political order. One in which power will devolve to cities, within ever expanding yet redefining regional connections, where local self-determination and participation is accessible and exercised in ways that persons, families, and neighborhoods can thrive. But perhaps that is just wishful thinking.

Empires have been a historical certainty. Persian, Chinese, Babylonian, Egyptian, Athenian, Roman. Eastern and Western feudalism led to nation states within empires run by a centralized, hierarchically organized ruler. But empires collapsed with the First World War. Sure, we still have areas of influence which came to a head in the Cold War with groupings of national allies. And the US portrays much of the markings and behaviors of an Empire. But not the way of the French Napoleanic empire ruled from Paris. Or the British or Turkish empire. The resurgence of empires in Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan or even Stalinist Russia was denied. And now the American Empire, even with its almost-monopoly of the means of violence, is dissolving much to the woes of neo-conservatives, neo-liberals, and nostalgic "patriots."

Now are nation-states going the same way?  Economically, transnational corporations exert the most influence by virtual plutocracies that transcend national boundaries. Civil wars cross national boundaries. The Islamic State is an anachronism in trying to establish an Islamic Caliphate as would be a Christian attempt to reestablish the Holy Roman Empire. It is actually a grouping of "liberation" or "terror" (depending on your perspective) movements in the Middle East. And consider the Kurds, the Basques, the Palestinians, the Bosnians, and others throughout the world where peoples are grouping through culture or economics or politics or all and using the misleading language of "two (or more) civilizations" or "war on (or of) terrorism." Even the US Civil War is not over.

I read Francis Fukuyama, a recovering neocon or neoliberal, because he makes me think.  In his "End of History and the Last Man," he poses that history as Hegel understood it (a dialectic) and its conflicts are surpassed in the triumph of liberal, capitalistic democracy. He was wrong, but really it was Hegel and Marx who were wrong and all those who speculate that we are reaching some pinnacle of history and humanity in western liberal post-capitalist democracy. Fukuyama did indicate in his book the rising wave of tribalism that could keep the conflicts of history going.

His book on "Trust" studied the importance of bridging social capital (Putnam's term) in regions both within and among nations in raising the economic standard of living. And then in his "Origins of Political Order," he works out his Political Development Model of State Building, Rule by Law, and Accountable Government. In all these works, he presents the cognitive tools for our move beyond empire and the nation-state into intra and inter regional thinking.

The striving for justice and peace remains an imperative. It is linked, I think, to our fundamental desire for recognition and respect (as Fukuyama draws from Plato) which is achieved in public space, i.e. politics. That politics is being gobbled up by the forces of private enrichment in which plutocrats and their institutions rule. What form will the restoration of public space with justice and peace take now that empires and nation-states are in decline?

I believe that to be the most important question of our era.

Monday, September 22, 2014


The latest SA cover article by Lawrence Krauss "A Beacon from the Big Bang" discusses the discovery of gravitational waves from the inflation of the Universe microseconds after the origin of the universe. This discovery, if confirmed, could launch a new Scientific Revolution that unites quantum and macro physics into the unified "theory of everything" including wild previously undiscovered dimensions in our universe and new, possibly infinite universes distinct from our own.

Wow! Wow! Wow!

Krauss: "From the perspective of understanding the very origins of our universe and the vexing problem of why it exists at all, probing inflation by the observation of gravitational waves has the potential of turning what many consider to be one of the grandest metaphysical speculations of all into hard physics." (p.67)

Now that sentence stimulates in me an inquiry into the meaning of "metaphysics" and the role of philosophy vis-a-vis science.

"Metaphysics" (After Physics), which Aristotle called the chapter that came after his chapter called Physics, became pretty wierd in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Physis is the Greek word for nature and meta can be translated as "after," "above," and "beyond." Metaphysics was considered the special knowledge and technique of spiritualists and occultists like Rosacrucians, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Cabalists, Sufis, Metaphysicians, and even Theologians.

Therefore among rational, secular, and scientific thinkers and skeptics, metaphysics became quite discredited. Philosophers used "ontology" instead of "metaphysics." But that only served to heap discredit on Ontology and Philosophy. I certainly would not want to be accused of being a metaphysician or at all dabbling in metaphysics.

Yet here the word is being used by a very credible astrophysicist.

The word implies something beyond, after, and/or above nature. Yet nature is defined as "all there is" and "all that is subject to scientific inquiry." That seems to exclude "Santa Claus," the "Great Pumpkin," "gods," "angels and devils," "ghosts in machines," "sphinxes," "minotaurs," (who knows about "mermaids" and "unicorns") concepts which are clearly above or beyond the natural order and so not useful to this skeptic except as metaphors for something that can be subject to scientific inquiry or fancies of the imagination fueling artistic endeavors. (Including my new favorite Terry Prachett Diskworld books--but more on his "theology" later.)

There it is: imagination. Einstein says imagination is the main driver of science. What imagination is I'll let the evolutionary psychologists and neuroscientists determine. It seems to be the singular, special capacity of human existence linked to consciousness and symbolic behavior. It is our ability to speculate and so try on theories of the origins and workings of nature. It is our ability to project future states and so plan and change the world.

Nature and our knowledge of it are not static but continually transforming. And so there is an after- or beyond-nature which is the Future of nature, continually be-coming partially due to our interaction with it. A becoming for good or for evil as we choose using our insight into nature. Science, art, religion, and good old common sense, all endeavors of the human enterprise, struggle with the origins and ends, the Alpha and the Omega, of and beyond nature including its universes, our world, and our selves. In our imagination, our speculation, and our action, the Alpha and Omega are/is already here and now pushing and pulling us personally and collectively.

And so astrophysicist Krauss can embrace "metaphysical speculation" and attempt to turn it into "hard physics."

Which leads me to consider the role of philosophy in relation to science and other human endeavors. I see it as sort of the before and after of science and other human enterprises.

As I have earlier indicated I distinguish three realms of human enterprise: economy (the realm of life and the desire to survive and thrive), culture (the realm of meaning and the desire to know), and politics (the realm of power and the desire to act/initiate). Incidentally, "love" can be defined in relation to each of these realms and their desires.

Within the cultural realm are many professions and disciplines. Among them are science, art, religion, and philosophy itself. Philosophy is a reflection on these disciplines. It is literary and art criticism. It is interpretation of the sciences and their theories. It is history and explication of religions and their manifestations. It is inquiry into the meaning and role of philosophy and its concepts. In reflecting on the meanings of these disciplines in the past, philosophy is also speculating on the future within the disciplines and among them and in relation to the other two realms of human desire and endeavor, the political and the economic.

Good philosophy does not take the place of or rule over any of these disciplines or human endeavors. It appreciates and spurs them on. It drives us to discover through them the Alpha and Omega of our human existence and its world.  Now that's a metaphysics that I can accept.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Logic Model

In my last post, in an attempt to clarify my thinking on ethics and politics, I laid out 5 propositions and 5 conclusions. In this post I round out my logic model by identifying 5 assumptions for my 5 propositions and their conclusions, 5 principles for action derived from the conclusions, and 5 specific actions that are integral to my ethical and political policy platform.

Why 5 turtles all the way down? Convenience of presentation. Assumptions proven are of course no longer assumptions but are based on other assumptions. And those assumptions can/should be questioned. But gotta start someplace.

Here are assumptions on which my propositions are based:
1. The evolution of the (human) species by natural selection including body and consciousness.
2. Intrinsic worth and transformative ability of every human person. (So what constitutes a human person?)
3. Human ability for theory of mind and empathy. (So what constitutes that and how?)
4. Imagination as the distinguishing and central human capacity. (What and why?)
5. Problem solving through reason and science as the means to progress (How so?)

Now I repeat my propositions and conclusions (with some further explanation):

Here are my foundational propositions:

1. To be human is to engage the world and know reality. (Human existence as progressive knowing and creating.)
2. Engaging the world is knowing reality. (Unity of knowing and acting.)
3. Humans know reality (subjective and objective) through symbols, humanly constructed models and metaphors. (Constructivist philosophy of knowing as opposed to realism and idealism.)
4. The human enterprise of knowing and engaging reality is a social enterprise. (To become a person is to interact with others).
5. Culture, economics, and politics are distinct ways of knowing and engaging the world. (Understand the priority relationships between maintaining life, having meaning, and exercising power.)

From these propositions come conclusions on which to construct an ethics and politics:

1. Obligation (the "should") arises from the dynamic, progressive character of human existence (the "is").
2. Good and evil, i.e what should be affirmed or denied, is accessible to human nature and reason.
3. The illusion of the absolute, the negation of the other, the separation of being, knowing, and acting, and the confusion of modes of knowing and acting are obstacles to human existence and are the source of evil in the world.
4. Human transcendence does not rest on supernatural transcendents. (Ethics and politics are not dependent on supernatural entities and transcend human groupings, cultures, nations.)
5. Within humans personally and collectively are the guiding principles to deal with the specific issues of life, meaning, and action which confront us today. (Conscience or moral consciousness arises naturally from human interaction in the world).

From these conclusions, I fashion some principles for action:

1. Challenge all assumptions, propositions, beliefs, and principles. (No absolutes.)
2. Keep faith beyond beliefs. (Maintain the difference between human existence and its expressions.)
3. Build publics and connect them. (Support voluntary association that hold all institutions accountable and promote justice.)
4. Create a just social order. (Maintain the tension and priorities between cultural, economic, and political institutions. Refine the processes and structures of society to promote the worth of all beings).
5. Integrate oneself with oneself, others, and the earth. (Understand and hold the tensions of existence to achieve maximum integrity.)

Finally, I promote specific actions for my time and place:

1. organize and act for economic equity (overcome poverty, expand the middle class, limit wealth and its influence).
2. organize and act for renewal of the planet (response to climate change, environmental preservation, new urbanism)
3. organize and act for inclusion and tolerance in diversity (against racism, classism, sexism, etc)
4. organize and act for scientific and technological progress (and against technologies of destruction)
5. organize and act for maximum political participation (local and regional power, nonviolence, voter rights).

And on this is based my manifesto whose preliminary formulation can be found here.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Return to the Mission

I am sitting at my blog site after settling in body to our new settings while still a bit unsettled in soul. Yes, we've moved to a "retirement community" accepting our aging with our growing infirmities and like Diana and Tom in the BBC sitcom "Waiting for God."

Unsettledness is not unusual for me. I have often raised it to a virtue.

But now I want to get back to my mission: considering the future of the universe--or at least the world and the species--thinking about ethics and politics. Why not? Seems to be a worthy enterprise while I wait for God(ot).

I've had lots of discussions about my writings on The New Transformation. I am continuously trying to clarify what I mean, the distinctions that I consider crucial, the expressions I have made and their limits. And so thought goes on and I continue to learn in the process. I do not claim the truth of my positions. Indeed I want them to be challenged--but first understood.

Poor me! I am so often misunderstood.

In my unworthy desire to be loved, respected, and understood, I will attempt to summarize and clarify the main points I am making. I know they are controversial and many will not agree to them, including you. I repeat that I want you to disagree--but first understand what I am trying to say.

Here are my foundational propositions:

1. To be human is to engage the world and know reality.
2. Engaging the world is knowing reality.
3. Humans know reality (subjective and objective) through symbols, humanly constructed models and metaphors.
4. Culture, economics, and politics are distinct (not separate) ways of knowing and engaging the world.
5. The human enterprise of knowing and engaging reality is a social enterprise.

From these propositions come others on which to construct an ethics and politics:

6. Obligation (the "should") arises from the dynamic character of human existence (the "is").
7. Good and evil, i.e what should be affirmed or denied, is accessible to human nature and reason.
8. The illusion of the absolute, the negation of the other, the separation of being, knowing, and acting, and the confusion of modes of knowing and acting are obstacles to human existence and are the source of evil in the world.
9. Human transcendence does not rest on supernatural transcendents.
10. Within humans personally and collectively are the guiding principles to deal with the specific issues of life, meaning, and action which confront us today.

Now if reading those over, you understand what I am saying we can have a great conversation. But my expression is so influenced by my history, my values, my social status, my desires that I cannot expect anyone who has not read the same books, chosen the same life-style, had the same heroes, been brought up by the same ancestors to speak my exact same language. Yet our languages have evolved together with many of the same values and experiences; and we can actually take on each other's perspectives and appreciate each other's values through our ability for communication, for empathy, and for entering into each other's world.

So my hope and intent is that, as I elaborate each of these propositions and discuss them with you, we will reach the understanding of each other where we can hold a meaningful discussion, learn together, and perhaps settle on a course of thinking and acting ethically and politically.