Saturday


religious traditions

When I find myself among conspiracy theorists and pseudo-science aficionados, I probably sound like the most relentless, ruthless, unforgiving positivist that you have ever heard. But, of course, I’m not a positivist at all. When I find myself among those educated in the sciences, I probably sound like the most woolly-headed philosopher imaginable, who seemingly takes every opportunity to needlessly complicate matters that are perfectly clear just as they are. I am caught between defending science among those innocent of science, and defending philosophy among those innocent of philosophy. In other words, I can’t win. And now I’m going to make my hopeless position worse by taking the conflict (rather, the absence of communication) between science and philosophy into the forbidden no-man’s-land of politics.

My particular dilemma is the result of understanding that science is philosophy; that is to say, science as we know it today, is a particular branch of philosophy (something that I began to explain in A Fly in the Ointment). While it may be grudgingly acknowledged that science has philosophical presuppositions, it is step further to see science as a particular philosophy that is rather less comprehensive than the whole of philosophy. Now, it is true that science has become differentiated from the rest of philosophy because of its practical successes, but its practical successes alone are no warrant for separating methodological naturalism, i.e., science, from the rest of philosophy.

Without philosophy we cannot understand science; philosophy provides both the synchronic and the diachronic context of science. The emergence of science within western civilization is the diachronic narrative of philosophy, and the relations of science to other aspects of the world and human experience is the synchronic context of science that can only adequately be addressed by philosophy. The need for a robust engagement between science and philosophy, as is to be found, for example, in the work of Einstein, is a need that grows out of the philosophical context of science.

Previous epochs of civilization — notably, agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization — might point to their own pragmatic implementations of philosophy, no less than the successes of the sciences are heralded today. Enormous monumental building projects that still impress us today, symbols of civilization such as the pyramids, Hagia Sophia, the Taj Mahal, the Daibutsu at Nara, and Borobudur, were possible only through the effort of a philosophically unified civilization, and the monuments themselves are monuments to those civilizations and their philosophical bases.

As an example of a philosophical civilization animated from the power elites at the top down to the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder I have elsewhere quoted Gregory Nazianzus on the Christological controversies in Byzantium:

“Constantinople is full of handicraftsmen and slaves, who are all profound theologians, and preach in their workshops and in the streets. If you want a man to change a piece of silver, he instructs you in which consists the distinction between the Father and the Son; if you ask the price of a loaf of bread, you receive for answer, that the Son is inferior to the Father; and if you ask, whether the bread is ready, the rejoinder is that the genesis of the Son was from nothing.”

Another example might be the reach of stoicism in the Roman empire from the emperor Marcus Aurelius to the slave Epictetus. This philosophical character of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization is not limited to western civilization, its predecessors, and successors, but is a planetary phenomenon.

The civilization of India is perhaps uniquely philosophical in the world. India is a civilization-state, and Indian civilization is a philosophical civilization. In this respect, it is markedly different from western civilization, which has no contemporary single state representative, and in regard to philosophy is more narrow and focused.

This can give us a certain insight into western civilization, which is not a philosophical civilization in the sense that India is, but is a fragment of a philosophical civilization. In so far as science is a particular branch of philosophy, and in so far as western civilization in its present form (industrial-technological civilization) is founded upon science as the source of the STEM cycle, western civilization is a philosophical civilization for the particular philosophy of methodological naturalism. Indeed, the very insistence today that science can do without philosophy is an expression of the philosophical narrowness of western civilization.

Much is to be learned from the comparison of the philosophies and civilizational structures of those independent civilizations that can be traced all the way to their origins in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, during which all agrarian-ecclesiastical civilizations had their earliest origins. But there is a problem here. In reaction against the imperialism of western civilization since that period once called the Age of Discovery, when Columbus, Magellan, Vasco de Gama, Amerigo Vespucci, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, and many others, sailed from Europe and began to survey the world entire, it is now considered in supremely bad taste to compare civilizations. The celebratory model of tolerance is almost universally adopted and every civilization is counted as a special snowflake that has something to contribute to human history.

In my post on The Future Science of Civilizations I noted Carnap’s tripartite distinction among scientific concepts, which Carnap identified as the classificatory, the comparative, and the quantitative. (We note that this typology itself takes a classificatory form, and an entire class of scientific concepts are comparative concepts.) In so far as we understand Carnap’s conceptual schema of measurement as developmental, proceeding in phases so that initial classifications lead to comparisons, and comparisons lead to quantification, all the while gaining in objectivity, Carnap’s schematism of scientific measurement embodies what Edith Wyschogrod called “the quantification of the qualitied world.”

If we take the division of classificatory, comparative, and quantitative concepts not in a developmental sense but as different approaches to a scientific grasp of the world, then each conceptual method of measurement may yield unique information about the world. In either case, whether we take these scientific concepts of measurement in developmental terms or take each in isolation, comparative concepts have a crucial role to play: either they are a stage in the development of a fully quantitative science, or they yield unique information about the world.

We cannot fully or adequately conceptualize civilization without developing comparative concepts of civilization to the greatest extent possible, but the development and exploration of this conceptual space is severely constrained by the contemporary political proscription upon the comparison of civilizations. In this way, the study of civilization today is unnecessarily yet unavoidably political. In order to frankly and bluntly discuss comparative conceptions of civilization, we are forced to seek artful euphemisms to speak evasively. This is unfortunate for the development of a science of civilization, but it is not insuperable, and the appropriate degree of abstraction and formalization in a fully developed theoretical context may be sufficient to violate this taboo in spirit while leaving the letter of the proscription intact.

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The legendary meeting of Confucius and Lao Tzu, each representing very different philosophical traditions of China.

The legendary meeting of Confucius and Lao Tzu, each representing very different philosophical traditions of China.

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Friday


Fourth in a Series on Existential Risk

I traveled to Palermo specifically to see this great fresco of the Triumph of Death.

I traveled to Palermo specifically to see this great fresco of the Triumph of Death.

“The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenceless against tigers than they are today, when we have become defenceless against ourselves.” Arnold Toynbee, “Man and Hunger” (Speech to the World Food Congress, 04 January 1963, quoted on the Anthropocene Blog)


Readers, I trust, will be aware of existential risks (as well as global catastrophic risks) since I’ve recently written several recent posts on this topic, including Research Questions on Existential Risk, Six Theses on Existential Risk, Existential Risk Reminder, Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk, Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty, and Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty. The idea of the “Death Event” is likely to be much less familiar, so I will try to sketch out the idea itself and its relationship to existential risk.

Edith Wyschogrod

Edith Wyschogrod

The idea of the “death event” is due to philosopher Edith Wyschogrod, and given exposition in her book Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death. Wyschogrod took the title of her book from an aphorism of Wittgenstein’s from 1930: “I once said, perhaps rightly: The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.”

spirit in ashes

In defining the scope of the “death event” Wyschogrod wrote:

“I shall define the scope of the event to include three characteristic expressions: recent wars which deploy weapons in the interest of maximum destruction of persons, annihilation of persons, through techniques designed for this purpose (for example, famine, scorched earth, deportation), after the aims of war have been achieved or without reference to war, and the creation of death-worlds, a new and unique form of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life simulating imagined conditions of death, conferring upon their inhabitants the status of the living dead.”

Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 15.

Wyschogrod’s conception of the “death world,” also given exposition in the text, is introduced in conscious contradistinction to the late Husserlian conception of the “Lifeworld” (Lebenswelt). (Cf. Chapter 1, Kingdoms of Death) I cannot do justice to Wyschogrod’s excellent book in a few quotes, so I will simply encourage the reader to look up the book for himself, but I will give a couple more quotes to locate the “death event” in relation to the larger picture of our civilization. Wyschogrod sees a relation between the “death event” and the peculiar character of industrial-technological civilization:

“The procedures and instruments of death which depend upon the quantification of the qualitied world are innovations deriving from technological society and, to that extent, extend its point of view.”

Op. cit., p. 25

And again,

“…the world of the camps is both distinct from and tied to technological society, so too the nuclear void is embedded in the matrix of technological society but not related to it in simple cause and effect fashion.”

Op. cit., p. 29

Perhaps at some future time I will consider Wyschogrod’s “death event” thesis in relation to what I have called Agriculture and the Macabre, which is the particular relationship between agricultural civilization and death, but whether or not the reader agrees with me or not (or with Wyschogrod, for that matter) I will acknowledge without hesitation that the character of the macabre in agricultural civilization is very different from the place of the death event and the death world in industrial-technological civilization.

Wyschogrod focuses on death camps and industrialized warfare, but of course what shocked the world more than anything were the nuclear bombs that ended the war. A considerable bibliography could be devoted to the books exclusively devoted to the anguished reflection that followed the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of them written by and about the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and made the bomb possible. Many of the most eminent philosophers of the time immediately began to think about the consequences — both contemporaneously and for the longer term human future — of human beings being in possession of nuclear weapons.

Bertrand Russell wrote two books on the possibility of nuclear war, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959) and Has Man a Future? (1961) Recently in Bertrand Russell as Futurist I discussed Russell’s views on the need for world government in order to prevent the annihilation of human life due to nuclear weapons — a view shared by Albert Einstein.

Karl Jaspers

Karl Jaspers

In 1958 Karl Jaspers published Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen, later translated into English as The Future of Mankind. What all of these works have in common is struggling with what Jaspers called “the new fact.” Of this new fact Jaspers wrote:

“The atom bomb of today is a fact novel in essence, for it leads mankind to the brink of self-destruction.”

Karl Jaspers, The Future of Mankind, Chap. I, p. 1

And…

“the atom bomb is today the greatest of all menaces to the future of mankind… The possible reality which we must henceforth reckon with — and reckon with, at the increasing pace of developments, in the near future — is no longer a fictitious end of the world. It is no world’s end at all, but the extinction of life on the surface of the planet.”

Op. cit., p. 4

The fact that fear of nuclear Armageddon was felt viscerally as an all-too-real possibility for our world points to the fact that this was not merely the appearance of a new idea in human history — new ideas appear every day — but a fundamental shift in feeling. When the awful reality of the Second World War, which saw man-made mass death on an unprecedented scale, received its finale in the form of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we had acquired a new object for our instinctual fear of annihilation.

The larger meaning of the “death event” — testified not only in Edith Wyschogrod’s explicit formulation, but also in the work of Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, and a hundred others — is that of formal, reflexive consciousness of anthropogenic existential risk. We not only know that we are vulnerable to existential risk, we also know that we know. It is this formal, reflexive self-consciousness of existential risk that is the differentia between human history before the “death event” and human history after the “death event.” The “death event” was a crystallizing event, a particular moment in history that was a watershed for human suffering that placed that suffering in the naturalistic context.

Earlier catastrophes in human experience did not have this character — or, if they did have this character for a few individuals who realized the larger meaning of events, this formal, reflexive consciousness of human vulnerability did not achieve general recognition. Partly this was a consequence of the non-naturalistic and teleological assumptions that were integral with the outlook of earlier epochs of human civilization, before science made a naturalistic conception of the world entire conceivable. If one believes that a supernatural force will intervene to continue to maintain human beings in existence, there is no reason to be concerned with the possibility of human extinction.

The eschatological conception of history is predicated upon the efficacy of supernatural agents.

The eschatological conception of history is predicated upon the efficacy of supernatural agents.

Prior to industrial-technological civilization (made possible by the scientific revolution, which is particularly relevant in this context), the “end of the world” could only be understood in eschatological terms because eschatologies derived from theological cosmogonies were the only “big picture” accounts of the cosmos that had been formulated and which had achieved any degree of currency. (There have always been non-theological philosophical cosmogonies, but these have remained marginal throughout human history.)

Until science provided an alternative, the only big picture conceptions of the world were traditional cosmogonies, to which the least imaginative among us still recur.

Until science provided an alternative, the only big picture conceptions of the world were traditional cosmogonies, to which the least imaginative among us still recur.

The situation in regard to “big picture” conceptions of the world is closely parallel to that of biology prior to Darwin’s theory of natural selection: there were no strictly biological theories of biology prior to Darwin, only theological theories that were employed to “explain” biological facts. With no alternative to a theological account of biology, it is to be expected that this sole point of view was the universal point of reference, just as where there is no alternative to the theological account of history, this theological account is the sole point of reference in history.

Charles Darwin, in formulating a thorough-going scientific biology, gave the world its first non-theological formulation of biology.

Charles Darwin, in formulating a thorough-going scientific biology, gave the world its first non-theological formulation of biology.

In regard to traditional eschatologies, it would be just as apposite to point out that a supernatural agent might intervene to bring about the end of civilization or the extinction of all human beings (in contradistinction to supernatural interventions intended to be to our benefit), regardless of all human efforts made to preserve themselves and their civilization in existence. The point here is that once we recognize the efficacy of supernatural agents in human history, human agency in shaping the human future cannot be assumed, and in fact the idea of “destiny” (especially in the form of predestination) may come to prevail over conceptions of the future that allow a greater scope to human agency. This is why, in my post The Naturalistic Conception of History, I defined naturalism as “non-human non-agency,” i.e., the absence of supernatural agency.

Four conceptions of history, political, eschatology, cataclysmic, and naturalistic.

Four conceptions of history, political, eschatology, cataclysmic, and naturalistic.

To formulate this from the opposite point of view, we could say that it was only the essentially naturalistic assumptions of our own time, assumptions built into the structure of industrial-technological civilization (because it is dependent upon science, and science cannot systematically expand in the way that science has expanded in recent history without the working philosophical presupposition of methodological naturalism), that made it possible for human beings to understand that no deus ex machina was going to emerge at the end of the human drama to save us in spite of our failure to secure our own future.

We once thought that Atlas carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; now we know that we are the ones who carry the world on our shoulders.

We once thought that Atlas carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; now we know that we are the ones who carry the world on our shoulders.

Once human beings realized with fearful clarity that they possessed the power to annihilate civilization and possibly also all human life, it is only a small step from this consciousness of human vulnerability to come to a similar consciousness of human vulnerability whether or not the existential threat is anthropogenic or non-anthropogenic. A sufficient number of ill-advised and irreversible choices (choices that result in action or inaction, as the case may be) could mean the extinction of human beings, or the reduction of human activity to a level of insignificance. That is what we now know to be the case, and it shifts a heavy burden of responsibility onto human beings for their own future — a burden that had once been carried on the shoulders of gods.

It is only in the past few decades of contemporary science that we have begun to look at the long antiquity of man with the thought of our existential vulnerability in mind, retrospectively placing our fingers at the nodal points of our past, for there have been many times when we might have all been extirpated before any of the many thresholds of development that have brought us to our present state at which we can adequately conceptualize our existential risk came about.

In this way, existential risk mitigation efforts not only provide a kind of clarity in conceptualizing the human future, especially in so far as we abide by the moral imperatives imposed by existential risk, but also by giving us a novel perspective on the human past.

One of the guiding principles of contemporary thought on existential risk is to focus on those risks that human beings have no record of surviving. In order to make good on this principle, we need to understand what existential risks human beings have survived in the past, and to this end we must acquire a better knowledge of human evolution in a cosmological context, which is, in a sense, the particular concern of astrobiology.

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Grand Strategy and Existential Risk: A Series:

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

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The Kantian Continuum

19 September 2012

Wednesday


Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) is the central figure in modern philosophy. He synthesized early modern rationalism and empiricism, set the terms for much of nineteenth and twentieth century philosophy, and continues to exercise a significant influence today in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, political philosophy, aesthetics, and other fields. (from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The Kantian Continuum of Means and Ends in Personhood

While Kant’s second critique, the Critique of Practical Reason, gives a systematic account of his moral philosophy, not surprisingly it is Kant’s shorter work of 1785, his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, that has been the more widely read and influential. In this little book Kant has this to say about our relation to other persons:

“Now I say: man and generally any rational being exists as an end in himself, not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will, but in all his actions, whether they concern himself or other rational beings, must be always regarded at the same time as an end.”

And…

“For all rational beings come under the law that each of them must treat itself and all others never merely as means, but in every case at the same time as ends in themselves.”

Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, 1785

I have cited this passage previously (in Being Valued by the Other) and noted that while we cannot avoid using other persons as means to an end in the ordinary business of life, the crucial sense of this passage is that even when we are forced to deal with other persons as a means, that they must also also be considered as ends in themselves. This is simply a philosophical formulation of the intuitive idea that all persons are due respect and dignity regardless of their condition, and if we must routinely use others as a means to obtaining our contingent ends, we also have a moral responsibility to acknowledge at the same time that these others are ends in themselves, so that our contingent business with them must be conducted with respect and dignity.

When I was thinking about this passage from Kant this morning I thought of it in relation to Edith Wyschogrod’s conception of sainthood in her book Saints and Postmodernism:

“I shall, however, define the saint — the subject of hagiographic narrative — as one whose adult life in its entirety is devoted to the alleviation of sorrow (the psychological suffering) and pain (the physical suffering) that afflicts other persons without distinction of rank or group or, alternatively, that afflicts sentient beings, whatever the cost to the saint in pain or sorrow.”

Edith Wyschogrod, Saints and Postmodernism: Revisioning Moral Philosophy, p. 34

In brief, the saint is that individual who has devoted his or her life to the other. The Kantian formulation of his would be that the saint always regards the other as an end in himself, to the exclusion of the use of the other as a means to an end.

It seems to me that, whether or not we are skeptical of sainthood, and whether or not we accept Wyschogrod’s definition of the saint, we must at least recognize the theoretical possibility of acting purely on the other’s personhood as an end in itself. As soon as we recognize this ideal possibility recognizing others as ends in themselves, we immediately see the all-too-real possibility of the anti-saint who acts purely on the other’s personhood as a means to an end (and which end is entirely independent of the other’s personhood).

The extremes of the as-an-end-only relation to others and the as-a-means-only relation to others defines a continuum of possibilities, along which continuum the ordinary business of life can be located as it approximates one extreme or the other, or balances the two and inhabits the middle portion of the continuum. Thus what I am here calling the Kantian continuum is that continuum of gradations between relating to others purely as as ends in themselves through relating to others purely as means to an end. Between these two extremes are circumstances when we mostly treat others as ends but also a little as means, when we treat others equally as ends and means, and when we primarily treat others as means to an end and only as an afterthought also treat them as ends in themselves.

Think of the situations and circumstances that one routinely encounters in the course of the ordinary business of life, as, for example, when one enters an establishment that still has living human clerks (as opposed to automated check out terminals) and you conduct a mundane exchange of money for goods, and perhaps acknowledge the clerk with a nod or a few scraps of conversation. This is a relationship that is primarily instrumental, and only as an afterthought do we knowledge the personhood of the other. While the purely instrumental approach to life probably belongs to pathology and is gratifyingly rare, the sort of transaction I have described is quite common in industrial-technological civilization.

At the other end of the scale, short of ideal sainthood but still at the altruistic end of the spectrum, our relationships with friends and family are primarily person-centered relationships that are very much constituted by the meaning and value that these others have for us as persons. It is only as an afterthought that we ask them to do something for us, and the doing of the task is usually accomplished in a way the the personhood of all involved is fully engaged. In fact, in so far as we ask something of those who love us, they may well enjoy serving us or be eager to provide for our needs, and vice versa if we are being asked to provide for those that we love.

One of the central concepts of Kant’s ethics is that of the “kingdom of ends.” Kant characterizes the kingdom of ends in this way:

“By a kingdom I understand the union of different rational beings in a system by common laws. Now since it is by laws that ends are determined as regards their universal validity, hence, if we abstract from the personal differences of rational beings and likewise from all the content of their private ends, we shall be able to conceive all ends combined in a systematic whole (including both rational beings as ends in themselves, and also the special ends which each may propose to himself), that is to say, we can conceive a kingdom of ends, which on the preceding principles is possible.”

Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Thomas Kingsmill Abbott, 1785

It seems to me that Kant’s kingdom of ends comprises the whole of the Kantian continuum with the exception of the extreme end point of using persons exclusively as means and not at the same time as an end in themselves. Clearly, it is using others that is excluded in Kantian ethics. While I suspect that most will follow Kant in this, the implicit sanctioning of personhood as an afterthought, near the as-a-means-only end of the Kantian continuum, contains in embryo much of that which has made life in industrial-technological civilization so dehumanizing and depersonalizing.

I am not here trying to censure Kant, or to find him responsible for the failings of modern society — there are a great many philosophers who have vigorously taken up the critique of Kantian ethics, and ably so — but I only wish to illustration how the Enlightenment universalism of Kant so easily passes over into its other. The very off-handedness of a recognition of one’s personhood as an afterthought is itself something less than full personhood — and, often, we feel it, but at the same time we understand it, so it does not often injure us.

It is difficult to point a finger at any individual as particularly responsible for the affronts to human dignity that assail us every day in industrial-technological civilization, since it is all-too-easy to understand how things became the way that they are now, and how difficult it would be to change them.

If, when engaged in some trivial transaction of contemporary life, one were to attempt to engage with the other first as a person, one’s actions would probably immediately elicit suspicion. Some few have the gift of engaging in a genuine way with others, even for a brief period of time, but it is not found all that often.

The bureaucratization of society that so marks industrial-technological civilization incorporates a pro forma recognition of the personhood of the other, in deference to our moral intuitions of the respect and dignity due to all persons, but it is precisely the pro forma character of the recognition that drains it of human meaning. Many have commented on the formalism of Kant’s ethics, and in the passage I quoted above Kant says we must, “abstract from the personal differences of rational beings,” yet it is the personal touch that most often breaks through as a recognition of personhood in otherwise anonymous transactions.

How many times in life does it happen that we are engaged in the formal courtesies required of us by society when someone accidentally goes “off script” and all present laugh at the deviation and suddenly there is a more relaxed feeling and people feel freer to be themselves and to express themselves? This, too, is a mutual recognition of personhood — of the concrete and fallible dimension of personhood that makes us human — and it is perhaps this kind of recognition of personhood that is most valued informally because it doesn’t come across as odd or strained like some ham-handed attempts to engage others.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Pascal:

“When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man. Whereas those who have good taste, and who seeing a book expect to find a man, are quite surprised to find an author. Plus poetice quam humane locutus es.”

There is not only a natural style in literature, but also a natural style in personal comportment, and when we encounter this natural style in manners we are astonished and delighted, for we expected to find a type, a cipher, an official, a bureaucrat, and instead we find a man. We also find ourselves, and feel a little freer to be human in the presence of such an other.

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