The Future

The Future
April 12, 2015 at 8:25pm
Our intellectual history in the West, Jose Ortega y Gasset once noted, has been a long struggle between Heraclitus and Parminides.

To refresh your memory:
Heraclitus said all things are in flux, ever-moving, energetic and active, like fire.

Parminides said all things are One, that movement and change are illusory, and that radical stability is what things arise from.

For the most part, the influence of Parminides has won out up to this point. From Plato, who believed the “real reality” was in the realm of the immaterial Ideas to Aristotle, who believed that things in this world were composed of two parts — the hyle’, or “matter”, which had no form on its own and was unintelligible and the morphos, the form that gave the matter its shape, its meaning, its “purpose” which we could abstract from the matter intellectually thus making it understandable. The real reality was not the changing world around us, but the stability which our minds can grasp that underlies the unstable-seeming world of life — the substancia, substance, that which stands under or beneath appearances… and appearances are changing things.

The Stoics went with Heraclitus, but Stoicism, even though it never entirely died, has been a minority report in philosophy and was more interested, like Socrates and the original Cynics in working out how to live a good, moral life in the face of this changing reality than in working out a detailed metaphysics or ontology.

Modern science went with Parminides as well, whether the origin was in Galileo or Descartes, both of whom saw geometrical stability and measurability as the only sure paths to knowledge, or in the Empiricists who ultimately taught the same, or Kantian Constructivism. In the end, being able to reduce or substitute measuring and quantifying for qualities – which are complex and often unique because they flow and change or because, like courage or justice or mercy, they very often cannot be applied exactly the same way every time — one cannot properly make rules from virtues.

In the 20th c., this dream of stability was revealed to be illusory. The first crisis in theoretical physics that unveiled this was summarized by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in physics: After close examination of phenomena at the quantum level, it was discovered that, for example, you may be able to know how fast a particle is moving or where it is at, but you cannot do both at the same time. It is impossible and no matter how fine the instrumentation becomes, the best the most exacting of the sciences will be able to do is give probable knowledge — not absolute knowledge.

This understanding, that absolute knowledge of any “substance” is impossible — because of the ever-changing nature of reality at every level and our epistemological limitations as humans — has yet to be completely felt or grasped in all sciences or pursuits, much less the true theoretical origins of the scientific theories being employed. This is true in some practitioners of biology, for example.

No, this is not an attack on Darwinianism. Far from it. It is an attack on bad metaphysics and scientists who make pronouncements without grasping the historical origins of their theories. Or their limits.

During the Cold War, we were desperate to understand the Soviet Union and be able to guess how they would react to this or that strategy. The short story — you may look up the long story — is that America turned to the think tank at the Rand Corporation to work out theories to predict Soviet behavior and avoid nuclear destruction. A man called John Nash was there who was a brilliant mathematician… and an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. If you’ve seen the movie “A Beautiful Mind” the more romantic fantasy of the man’s life has been presented for public consumption. In truth, Nash, being actively paranoid, delusional, and generally a son of a bitch, worked out game theories based on a paranoid person’s conception of human beings. Humans, he said, were by nature, selfish and always out for their own interests — dangerously so. Not in some cases, but all cases. He resurrected Hobbes’ theory of radical egoism and the cultural atmosphere was well-prepared for it (e.g. Ayn Rand’s Universal Ethical Egoism was beginning to be accepted by the popular mind through her propagandistic novels and the Social Darwinian notion of American atomistic individualism).

Nash came up with games he played on his co-workers one of which was called “Fuck You, Buddy.” The object of the game was for everyone to screw everyone else over trying to obtain something — a date, for example with the same woman. The theory he worked out from this game was that the equal selfishness of all involved created a sort of equilibrium where everyone was held from the object of desire and the only path to success was to choose something — another woman — rather than the woman no one could get because of the competition. Later, he worked the theory out further into “The Prisoner’s Dilemma” which mathematically “proved” that rather than trust anyone else, the best thing to do was screw over one’s partner and at least get away with something, rather than trust the other person and probably wind up with “the sucker’s reward” — i.e. nothing — because one’s partner, being selfish by nature, will probably screw you over.
For this, Nash eventually won the Nobel Prize in economics. But not after years in an asylum and medication and recovery. Oddly, Nash now believes his theory is wrong, the product of paranoia, and needs to include a full description of human beings — not humans reduced to mathematical formulae and lacking empathy and the capacity to cooperate.

But that’s recent history. In between the 1950s, when Nash’s theory began to be used to strategize against Soviets and be applied to right-wing economics, it leaked out into science and influenced Selfish Gene Theory. Long story short, two men, an English biologist and American mathematician, worked out a theory to explain the underlying stability in the chaos of human behavior. Presto: Our genes are selfish and trying to preserve those most like them and get rid of those less like them — we are machines doing the rational will of the genes whose “mission” is to propagate and survive and eliminate rivals. Thus marriage… and murder and war, etc. The selfish “nature” of human beings lies in our genes protecting and spreading themselves — all we are — literally — are the meat machines that carry the genes and do their hidden will.

Richard Dawkins became a disciple of these two and proceeded to popularize the idea and dogmatically fight for it with the missionary zeal of a fundamentalist… which I will assert he is, fully.

For one thing, scientifically, there is a disqualifying element in any theory so pervasive and so absolutely true it can’t be disproven. Any instance of so-called altruistic actions or moral behavior that are not self-centered are explained — explained away, really — by saying it’s the genes’ strategy to preserve themselves and their kin and they recognize, somehow, close kin from distant. The genes control us the way a program controls computer hardware. To have a scientifically acceptable theory, it has to be at least possible that it is wrong and that means being able to imagine an opposite interpretation or example that would disqualify it. This theory explains away every attempt to give a counter-example making it, at the very least, suspicious.

And remembering that it arose from non-biological theories invented by a paranoid’s interpretation of human beings and economic theories that are specious, and from computer science — essentially, to believe this theory one has to replace the living human being with the imaginary model of an inert, unliving computer and reduce us to machinery while ignoring the many, many very un-machine-like qualities we have.

Dawkins, et alii, are attempting to assert they have a science with a grasp on absolute truth, not probable or possible truth — in violation of the Heisenberg Principle. It has been one of the last gasps of the Parmenidan version of reality with the “stable substance” being genes now, not an immortal soul – which these genes may as well be – or Platonic Ideas.

Biology itself, now, has begun to discover that the living being actively chooses which genes to use and which to ignore based on circumstantial needs — it’s not the genes running the show, but the show running the genes. And part of the show is our choices. Even if I were set up to be “selfish” by my genetic inheritance, it does not follow I should be selfish or that I must be selfish. Within the network of determination, I have a zone of freedom, even if it is very narrow. If my genes cause me to feel anger towards you, enough to kill you, I can always disengage, go home, and draw a vicious satire of you which I may share with others… or hide… or throw away. Transform it into humor. You want to talk to some angry, depressed people? Talk with a comedian.

I can take the energy from my genes and shunt them off, use them in any number of ways, or swallow it down and get an ulcer. It is possible. I can take something so strong as the sexual drive and choose to be celibate and direct the energy in other directions — spiritual, artistic, scholarly, scientific, whatever.

Human beings are not automatons, literally or metaphorically. Humans have no “nature,” no stable program, and no predetermined destination. We have history, circumstance, pressing in on us and from within our psyches have structures and our bodies have a biology. But I am not these things, these limitations — I am what I choose to do with these things, or in spite of them, as far as I can be creative and get away with it. I am an agent of change and choice, an energetic being, not a fixed “substance” — I must always be choosing and seeking whom to be or drifting on the social tide of unexamined opinions, shrugging off my responsibility, being “just like everyone.”

The future, if there is to be a meaningful future, will shift to seeing the world more through the lens of Heraclitus than Parmenides. The world is ever-changing, ever in flux. Darwin dimly grasped this in his own way — why else would he need to explain the change in species over time if they, indeed, did not change and are not, at all times, changing? Geology shows us that the Earth is continuously changing, is continuously flowing, if very slowly most of the time except in disasters. History is all about human change and choice and accident while archaeology and other sciences show that humans in the past and in other cultures are as unlike us here, now, in this country, as can be. If you transplanted them here or us there the experience would be so bewildering as to be maddening.

The choices human beings make are creative, unexpectedly, unpredictably so. Some are selfish, others, many others can’t even vaguely be explained by something as impoverished as egoism, whether the egoism be by choice, “nature,” or genes.

Since the 1950s, we have labored under a powerful delusion and applied it to all levels of activity: economic, scientific, military, diplomatic, scholarly, religious — and the roots of the delusion go back thousands of years… to dear, mistaken Parmenides.

That is all I have to say for the moment. Others may comment if they wish.

Richard Van Ingram
12 April 2015

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Storms

Storms. Lightning tearing up the sky, thunder boiling over the night time landscape, wind — change or the warning of more of the same? All difficult to read as any celestial morse code and I’ve no skill at it, just forebodings. In ’68, the people thought they could change this country and its culture while men were sent senselessly by the droves to suffer and die in some foreign jungle over nothing; and the inhabitants suffered and died just as senselessly. And here we are in ’14 in the wake of two idiotic wars that accomplished nothing but a potential civil war in Afghanistan when we leave and some insane terror campaign in Iraq that threatens the borders of three or four other countries with a half-assed “caliphate” of rednecks with heavy machine guns and stolen money to enforce their will.

A jet liner with innocent people from several countries was lost today to a surface to air missile in the Ukraine in its civil war. Thunder and lightning and wind over a field of debris and dead, burnt bodies, vocations and destinies caught mid-act and ended with the punctuation mark of mindless hatred,

In ’68, unarmed people marched, they took billy clubs in a police riot in Mayor Daley’s Czechcago, were gagged by National Guard teargas, threatened with bayonets and live ammunition and jeeps with mobile barbed wire fencing. Blood of innocent Americans was spilled for practicing nothing more than the right to protest peacefully. That was what passed for optimism in the 1960s: that goodness and right motives would overcome bit by bit the old order of corruption and death.

It did not.

And too many hippies and Yippies sold out, in the end, became the Me generation of the bump and grind disco ’70s, then the Reaganite capitalist-egoists of the ’80s and beyond who salved their bad consciences with the belief they could fix the machinery of the system from within by manipulating it in their favor; a little Jesus didn’t hurt to grease the wheels. Jerry Rubin took that route, much to the dismay of Abbie Hoffman who never sold out, never gave up the resistance until it wore on his bipolar depression and he killed himself with a bottle of pills and liquor in ’88. He heard the storm coming and saw no way to survive it or change the outcome, too much damage done, too much lost to the laissez-faire take-the-money-and-run sweepstakes of the New Amerika, the shining sewer plant of propaganda on a hill.

Jerry Rubin got killed when a bus accidently hit him as he crossed a street. His millions didn’t pad the impact. C’est la vie. Lightning strikes us all before it’s done.

In ’01, after the World Trade Center Towers came down, most of Amerika finished auctioning off its collective soul to the meanest bidders. People who marched in ’68 lined up like Good Germans for The Homeland and agreed to suspend the Bill of Rights, or overlook its extra-legal destruction, Hunter S, Thompson couldn’t reconcile himself to it and blew his brains out a couple of years later. I’ve watched off on the sidelines as people I admired gave their allegiance to beliefs and immoral practices that make Dick Nixon look as harmless as a cute waitress at IHOP. I’ve heard the storm coming for some time, and tonight as this one broke hard over San Antonio, the wind full of the voices of my dead heroes and the protests of better people from a more hopeful, naive moment, I realized my ears, born in the ’60s but informed by all those intervening years, pick up something wicked not so far in the distance now.

It’s just a matter of time and the storm will be on us all, full force, merciless. And no one is going to go out to rail at it… there is no profit in protest.

2014 Richard Van Ingram

Censored by Facebook, 23 April 2015

Richard Van Ingram 2013
The Summer of Love, Richard Van Ingram 2013
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I CAST ASPERSIONS ON YOUR ASPARAGUS.

‘Cause what the world needs now, is another folk singer

like I need a hole in my head.

Cracker, “Teen Angst”

… and what the world needs now is another goddamn blog, right?

I’m not writing to the world.  I’m writing to you.  I’m writing to myself.  I’m just writing and sending out waves into the mystical aether.

Mostly, I’m sitting here picking up signals through the wire that storms are coming, increasing in intensity; the future is more unreadable than usual except for one thing — bad things are just over the horizon.

The Gypsy told my fortune.

She said that nothin’ showed.

Neil Young, “Like an Inca”

In the face of such, what use is human knowledge and wisdom?  And yet we can’t live without meaning and truth — not just any quality of interpretation of who we are and where we are at and whom we should choose to be will do.  Not at all.

No, not at all.

Or are we to choose to go the way of the Neanderthal, except, this time, voluntarily?  With Apple products dripping off us like a duchess’ jewelry in a worse, but more aesthetically pleasing age?  Happily skip off to Armageddon to the tune of whatever the hit pop single is at the moment, a spliff stuck in our smile, waving maracas in the air like Carmen Miranda?

Why are you asking me these damned questions?  Do you think I have answers of any worth — or, since I’m talking to myself, am I under the delusion I know Important Things?

My dears, my darlings, I don’t know anything with absolute certitude, not in the sense of knowing the Big Picture.  But Socrates, at his trial admitted to having “a human sort of wisdom,” not that of a God, and I do have … maybe not wisdom, but a path away from opinion and closer to wisdom and truth.  I know the general direction one must walk if one is to live in an ever-shifting world, most of which is beyond my control, where the best I can ever hope to do is influence my immediate surroundings.  Not control, but influence.

Me, I can, and must, exert a level of discipline over.  I, truly, must choose to become someone, not just anyone, but myself – my true self… and I must search for whom I must become.  If I am to have any meaning, do meaningful things, and not slip into the current of being anonymous, thoughtless, pliable… a half-living agent of The Nothingness.

And that’s all I have to say today.  Here’s a piece of my art to cleanse your palate:

Richard Van Ingram 2014
Richard Van Ingram 2014

 

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