June 2016 Archives

What Brexit Means to Me (and You)



The news following the referendum in the UK was largely about financial uncertainty and other economic consequences. A few stories warned of risks for immigrants now living in the UK without any kind of local documentation. All of a sudden they have been thrown into the same situation as undocumented immigrants in the US. The nationalistic walls that have been so artfully lowered by the Europeanization process have started to rise with all the ominous memories of the history of separate, competitive, warring entities.

One thing I have learned from my thinking about the world over the past few decades is that it, including humans, is highly interconnected. It was always interconnected through the workings of its global natural processes. As human activities have now grown to the point they exert a significant impact not only on themselves, but also on the natural processes, interconnectedness is an essential part of the system in which all life exists. To ignore that fact while managing the present and planning for the future is like trying to drive a car in traffic wearing earplugs and a blindfold.

The European Union was conceived by men who understood, at least in part, the importance of creating a form of governance that recognized the interconnectedness of nations. It is, by far, the most successful and effective effort toward this end. Its very core structure requires that its members give up some part of their historical sovereignty and replace it with a form of interconnectedness. Regulations made by the governing body are to be harmonized with national rules and policies. Interesting choice of words, harmonize. It has a sense of holism and integrity. The United Nations doesn’t come close, If anything, it tends to exacerbate the nationalism among its members. It has, at least, provided a forum for discussing the individualistic concerns of its members, but lacks any sense of the interconnected whole.

I find a deep sense of irony in the vote to leave the EU. The arguments to leave were largely to insure a future where British sovereignty would be dominant against a backdrop of connectedness to the rest of Europe. Trying to go it alone in any interconnected system tends to make both the outrider and the system less stable and more subject to unpredictable events. On my reading of the news of the vote, I have a strong feeling that this kind of understanding was missing.

Many pundits predict that this event will encourage other nations to go it alone. The current election campaign in the US mimics, in large part, the arguments for and against Brexit. Trump and the Republicans tend to argue for policies based on US exceptionalism, a position that argues that this country is distinct from all the rest and is not subject to the systemic forces that actually shape history. Clinton and the Democrats argue that we are part of the world’s interconnected system and cannot unilaterally have it our way.

These two sets of claims are essentially the same as the two I see as competing for our future as flourishing or not. The positivist, certain way of seeing the world as something we know all about has run its course because interconnectedness is now the better reality than the reductionist mechanistic models that got us so far away from the murk of the Middle Ages. In a sense, we are the victims of our successes. Using the models of modernity we have designed and built an increasingly interconnected global system with all its wonders of innovation and economic power, but, simultaneously, that system has become rigid and more subject to unplanned departures from the trajectory it had been on for centuries.

We cannot opt out of life on Planet Earth, in spite of those who argue we should start planning to inhabit other celestial bodies. The only way to prolong our stay here is to start to give up our modern model of the world and start to think of it as a highly interconnected complex system. National boundaries are an unnatural part of that system. Natural processes ignore them completely. Human activities now flow routinely across these boundaries. Humans are just another predator species, amidst the rest of life forms. We know that other species cannot flourish when their natural habitats deteriorate or disappear. It is hubris to think we are different and are in control. It is also simply unwise.

We do not have to continue to think the same old way. Other species are often doomed when their worlds begin to change in critical ways. Their inventiveness is severely limited relative to the human species. Without language, they cannot do much more than their genes allow. They do not have concepts and beliefs without which there cannot be intentionality: the human capacity to act in meaningful ways.

When we discover that what we have been doing is turning out badly, humans have two basic options to cope. One is to hold onto our basic beliefs about how the world works and try to patch up the parts that appear to be causing us grief. The primary means for this is to apply some form of technology or technocratic management to isolate the problematic pieces or, otherwise, to fix a part of the machine that we see is sputtering. Brexit is unfortunately a prime example of the first of these approaches.

The second possibility is to give up those deeply embedded beliefs on which our actions are based. To many this will always appear as the more risky because, until the subsequent actions become stable, we cannot predict how the remedies will work. Highly interconnected systems are always complex and, therefore, inherently unpredictable.

These two alternates are similar to the basic tenets of the two poles of political philosophy in democracies: liberalism and conservatism. Conservatism is a belief that what has worked in the past is better than anything new. This way of thinking ignores the reality of an ever-changing world. Unlike a machine which tends to maintain itself as it grow larger, the complex world is subject to all sorts of systemic changes that produce deviations in behavior from the previous norms. Without commenting on the specific claim of the conservative right, the foundation on which it is built cannot support the superstructure of today’s highly interconnected complex world.

Liberalism, conversely, is more pragmatic at its core. It understands that truths do change as the world changes. The heart of the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill was freedom of expression as a necessary context for the discovery of truths in a changing world. At its roots, liberalism is a form of social learning. Unfortunately, liberalism has lost much of its pragmatic character, but still admits of a need to keep adapting as circumstances change as they inevitably do. John Dewey, the great American philosophy, saw clearly the importance of a liberal, pragmatic framework in any kind of effective democracy.

I have always seen myself in the liberal camp politically, but without much reflection as to why. Now, as I have begun to acknowledge the complexity of the world as its basic nature, my choice has become clear. To dream of flourishing is to accept complexity. One cannot have the former without the latter and its wonderful property of emergence: the ability to create something out of nothing. I believe that such thinking is impossible among conservatives, given the very underpinnings of their political philosophy. They cannot deal with complexity. While it is possible to accept complexity and think pragmatically as a liberal, I do wish that more of its leaders would express this, and more sharply delineate the critical differences with conservatism that have been buried in public conversations here in the US and also in the debates that preceded the Brexit vote.

At moments like this, the words of a very plaintive tune often rush into my consciousness. It is Where Have All the Flowers Gone, by Pete Seeger. One verse will do.

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Emergence or How To Be Something Without Having an Essence



This blog post is inspired, in part, by a comment directed at my opening plenary at a recent event. The commenter challenged my claim that I escape the essentialism of human nature in my claims about care as the existential ground of human behavior. My answer is largely that the nature or essence of something is located inside or possessed by the object. Care is related to emergence. Emergent properties differ by existing only outside the body as the name suggests. They are there only by virtue of the word of some observer of the object.

Modern society, since the early Enlightenment, has been shaped by an essentialist definition of human nature, describing it as some feature or set of features that make us what we are. This seems quite reasonable since we define most anything else by the way it works. A table is a table because it serves as a platform on which we can set things. Martin Heidegger disagrees:

All metaphysics including its opponent, positivism, speaks the language of Plato. The basic word of its thinking, that is, of his presentation of the Being of beings, is eidos, idea: the outward appearance in which beings as such show themselves. Outward appearance, however, is a manner of presence. No outward appearance without light — Plato already knew this. But there is no light and no brightness without the opening. Even darkness needs it. How else could we happen into darkness and wander through it? (from On Time and Being)

I am more interested in creating flourishing than in the meaning of human nature, but I can’t get there without first taking a detour into the world of philosophy. Why? Because the absence of flourishing is, in part, the result of holding a faulty conception of what human beings are (an ontological question). Alternatively, because the state of the world depends on what we do, not what we are, we should ask the ethical question, “What does it mean to be a human being?”, or the closely related question, “What are human beings for?”1

The latter question sounds strange. Humans are a natural object, like rocks or giraffes or raindrops. We would not ask what giraffes are for unless we believed in some designing creator, who might have had some purpose in mind. Without such a transcendent designer/creator, natural objects, that is, those that appeared along the evolutionary lifetime of the cosmos due only to natural processes are purposeless. They simply exist as something distinct in the cosmos. Their distinction arises out of their differences in material extent and structure, as expressed by their properties. We would never ask what is the purpose or meaning of a rock, unless we were writing a poem or otherwise attaching some human-derived property, like hammering, to it. Natural objects can serve as metaphors, taking some of their properties and ascribing them to something else.

If we know what a giraffe is, but not what it is for or what does it mean to be a giraffe, does the same restriction apply to human beings? Our existence as a distinct species, like giraffes, is a result of the evolutionary process, but very late in that process. If we accept the answer for the giraffe, then it must be true for human beings as well. We exist as a distinct species only by the randomness of a set of meaningless natural processes. Giraffes and other forms of life differ from other inanimate natural objects in one critical extent, they exist with a purpose, to exist in the world in such a manner to reproduce themselves as individual organismic entities and as species.

How can this be if we accept the purposelessness of the natural world? The answer comes in the idea of emergence. Emergence is the process by which order appears, spontaneously, in otherwise chaotic systems, that is, systems that do not exhibit spatial or temporal regularities. The cosmos itself is best explained by the Big Bang theory as emergent, the result of some not ordered process that, as if by magic, created order. We see emergent processes all the time. Every time we make ice, we have created order, solidity, in what was another ordered form, liquid water, which results when a chaotic form, water vapor, condenses as the temperature is lowered.

Life, itself, is such an emergent phenomenon. From a mixture of chemicals in a medium, life came forth, or emerged, in the form of primordial organisms. The chemicals had been interacting before, but without the emergence of order. As time passed, the chemicals interacted in such a way that a structure was formed with the capability to reproduce itself. Maturana and Varela call this process, autopoiesis. Living organisms are the only natural entities that possess this characteristic. It is possible to conceive of mechanical systems that can be designed to reproduce themselves, but it would incorrect to label them as living. Living organisms, not only act autopoietically to maintain their organization during their lifetime, but also maintain the species by some form of reproduction.

If one were to observe the behavior of any living species, it would appear to have a purpose, that is, it would consist of actions to maintain itself, to remain viable. Maturana and Varela make an important point, noting that autopoiesis always maintains the organism’s organization while its structure changes to reflect interactions with its external world The emergent purposefulness of life is the primary ontological feature of life. It is sufficient to describe all life forms, including human beings, as living organisms. Another way to say this is that the primary feature of all life forms is viability, but that is all we can say about them, even about human beings. Early natural philosophers missed this important point and attributed other natures to humans (and other material objects). So far so good, but how does this step get us to accepting “care” as the basis for human existence?

Heidegger went further observing that human viability reflects the world in which one was embedded or, as he wrote, into which one was thrown. Biological structural coupling is accompanied by a cultural coupling as well, expressed through meaningful actions. Humans care for the world by acting in ways reflecting their understanding of the meaning of the situations they found themselves in. He defined care in terms of a wide range of actions, writing that caring is “having to do with something, producing, attending to something and looking after it, giving up something and letting it go, undertaking, accomplishing, evincing, interrogating, considering, discussing, determining, and so forth.” Meaning is not to be found as an essence, but in the way we interact with objects or, in, Heidegger’s way, care for or with them. The critical part of this argument is that human Being is a complex phenomenon, which process permits emergence.

As a postscript, this kind of connection between meaning and action is central to early pragmatism. What we know in the form of beliefs is the result of our interactions with the world, as in this extract from the works of C. S. Pierce, the founder of this philosophical strain.

Every piece of knowing depends, not simply causally, but logically, on what one has previously learnt, since all knowledge rests on the assumption that certain methods of classification and systemization, which have been learnt in connection with other earlier situations, can be applied, in a particular way, to a particular situation. Once admitted, the grave error of Descartes and of all later Cartesians becomes plain: it is the assumption that we cannot learn until we know…Rather, we must always build on what we already know. It is impossible in principle to pinpoint the moment when the learning process begins, but so what.

One simply cannot get to understand what humans are for without the frame of complexity and its associated phenomenon, emergence. And once having got there, it is impossible to go further without the kind of understanding that pragmatic inquiry produces. The problems that the questioner at the conference and virtually all other attendees have with accepting this model of human Being is their uncritical use of positivism, as in the first quote.

You can find my talk I mention above by following this link.

  1. This discussion has been strongly influenced by Loyal Rue’s book Nature is Enough, and by the book, The Tree of Knowledge, by Maturana and Varela