Oct 11, 2007

An Obscure Question: Is this an Age of Englightment, or an Enlightning Age? [or, are philosophical meanderings totally boring & impractical?]

Part 1

Yes, I know, most of the visitors to this blog today just said, "I'll be back later," after reading this post's title! it's OK, I still want to talk about ideas and their practical necessity in our world. Certainly, it's a good exercise to ponder ideas, to think in the abstract and connect the imaginary dots. On the other hand, I find that the world of ideas (hence, philosophy) is a very powerful one. Haven't humans done beautiful and horrible acts alike because of ideas? Often, it doesn't matter if an impression or an idea is based on fact or fiction, it gives a reason for action. It justifies, pacifies, soothes, excites, and provides a sense of identity.

The clash between the ancient religion and Christianity was inevitable [photo from the Agora in Athens with a byzantine church in the foreground]

The values we hold are based on ideas too! Culture evolved because of certain concepts about life and the perceived necessary conditions for human survival. God originated as an idea, and religion was the result of what people thought [most people were told and believed as de facto] of the practical application of the divine.

Faith provided a path to salvation and physical immortality. Unfortunately, religious ideas haven't been very compatible with each other and frequently they operated in a zero-sum game, where it was believed that the survival of one meant the death of the other. So, for much of human history religion played an important role in war and the reasons for going to war.

I'm not concerned with the supernatural [not today in this post anyway] but with how a range of philosophical observations help explain and challenge human behavior. Philosophy becomes very real and applicable when an empirical approach is used. You observe, analyze, form conclusions & theories, and revise as necessary. It's a rather scientific approach. I like that. It's a great medium for humans to evolve upon. The challenging part is also very important, because it can provide fresh ideas and methods of improvement. But, I think only enlightened persons who value inquiry and are brave enough to face reality are comfortable with such a challenge.

The good news is that this elite club doesn't have membership fees, nor other requirements except an open, skeptical, deliberate mind--oh, and probably an interest for such exercises of the mind. With all the amenities and the benefits of a modern society, life isn't always easy, time & energy are limited, and our focus can wane into the trivial.

Jeremy Bentham a "philosophical radical" [radical during his time] said that humans have two masters: pleasure and pain, and, therefore, behave accordingly. These two "masters" can be used as a guideline for human interaction and for deciding on the role of government. He said, government should have the purpose of promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Although, there are those who seek pain either for ..satisfaction or as a required means to an end, most people do prefer pleasure. Thus, a logical question would be, what is pleasure?

One of my favorite philosophers, John Stuart Mill, said it should be the individual who decides what constitutes pleasure; the same individual should be free to construct his own path to personal fulfillment. Mill put forth the Harm principle--which is very useful in deciding matters of privacy and public interest. The only acceptable reason for society to control individual behavior is to prevent harm to others. The individual's own good--either moral or physical--is not a sufficient warrant! This, of course, applies to people who are mature adults, not to children or to ..barbarians. In short, there's a personal definition of pleasure! In order to have that, rights of privacy are imperative.

We are who we are because of the environment we grow up in, our own effor
ts to enrich ourselves, accidental circumstances (luck), and availability of time & space to be ourselves. If the conditions of freedom and privacy change, then human character changes. I believe a liberal democracy offers the best possible conditions for the individual to fulfill his own potential. If this country is about property rights, let's not forget that you should own & be in charge of yourself.

But, shouldn't the light of reason prevail? As Immanuel Kant once asked, is this an age of enlightenment or an enlightening age? It's probably the latter. If we are to look around the world today many humans are hell-bent on total annihilation and destruction of reason and anything else that stands between them and their utopias. For a species, we are young and still primitive--although we have taken huge leaps of progress and we do have the greatest potential. If we allow ourselves to evolve that is.

One important act of maturity--or, in the process of getting there--is acting. Yes, observing and experiencing life can have a maturing effect, but taking the initiative and making choices is vital. A person should be an actor, not just part of a passive audience. That's why the conditions that foster freedom must be maintained, for freedom in this sense is a practical necessity!

We are creatures of convenience. Why not! But, there are a few things worth spending some time & effort on. Right? Convenience and laziness aren't identical. Thinking--critical and deliberate--is one worthwhile activity I reckon. Making decisions and assuming responsibility is hard too. At times we all want to regress to being children so we don't have to deal with life's adversities and demands. This is not a mature approach though. Sadly, too many modern humans are quite happy to remain in perpetual immaturity and let others make the decisions for them; it's much easier that way they reckon.

Those who have a choice, (usually those who live in a liberal democracy), have to answer a couple very important questions: Is it a worthwhile activity to lead an examined life? And, is it important to contribute a little bit to the conditions that foster human enlightenment?

[to be continued]


smithie said...

What kind of exposure to the world of ideas & philosophy do our students get today? Not much. There's a growing trend toward majors that can result in better financial future for the holders of degrees. Interest in the Humanities is declining.

Is the utility of making money going to completely overshaddow the utility of having free-thinkers and skeptics and well-rounded educated people?

One thing that's missing from most higher-ed schools is this exposure to the great minds of the past and present. My goodness, at least we should expose the young adults to such ideas; they may never have the chance to delve into such subjects in the "real" world.

Great post. I found it very refreshing and surprising (for a blog)...

anne said...

Talking about convenience, we want our politics like we want our food at the drive through of Burger King...

anderson said...

I think we discussed this earlier. People do make the most economical choices. Majoring in the humanities probably condemns someone into a life of poverty.

Andros said...

Well, yes, people do look for maximizing their worth, in monetary values. There's nothing wrong with it, except it may blind them to other venues of activities.

I think the question, what is the meaning of life, should be pondered frequently.

I do believe that every person should make their own paths to shaping their own lives as they see fit. Of course, this is not always easily done. And, that's why I'm concerned with access to opportunity of all sorts. Yes, it's a moral thing to have a system that rewards people for their efforts (as Adam Smith argued), but there has to be the conditions for action...

Oh, by the way, people often make the wrong choices, not the most economic ones as you suggest. Culture and personal beliefs interfere with such.

drew said...

Surely ideas are extremely important. I remember watching The Power of Myth on PBS many years ago. Captivating. I don't know if everyone got the message that people make up stories....

Andros said...

yes, and those stories are codified into holy books, and are part of the culture...

obviously many people fail to see the relevance of it... that those myths are relevant to the people who invent them and not to others who invent something else!

Anonymous said...

The point of practicality is well made, though I think more is coming. I do think that all ideas can have a practical application if they make people do things.

Anonymous said...

Interesting approach the pleasure and pain as conditions for human behaviour....

It's true for the most part. People seek pleasure, although you correctly point out that due to a perversion of what human nature is religion often cautions us against "too much" pleasure...

Especially the self-gradifying kind if you know what I mean...

Hume said...

The elite you're talking about is educated for the most part. Don't you see this as an access problem? The cost of higher ed is increasing, so it does make financial sense to get a degree with a good return in the future!

Maybe there are fees after all to join.

Andros said...

Of course there's an access problem. I've been advocating education and healthcare for all members of any civilized & advanced country.

I meant that if you have a skeptical mind (from the Greek, skepticos--thoughtful), are a free-thinker then you can be part of the such elite. And, I believe it's important for a society to have many intellectuals and other creative people. Yes, you need to have a working class to make a successful economy which in turn funds the arts and sciences, but we've seen in the past that lots of wealth doesn't necessarily produce a great civilization.

Open, tolerant societies are necessary for the great advances in all sorts of things. It's no accident that cosmopolitan societies tend to be much more successful than then closed-minded, and isolated ones.

hume said...

I agree. And this great chasm of wealth distribution in this country is obscene in my judgment.

Paul Krugman just made the point that you can't have a truly democratic society when there's some kind of fair distribution of the wealth and resources of a country.

Hume said...

Correction: I meant, there can't be democracy without an more equitable distribution of wealth. [I omitted the negative]

Anonymous said...


Roll over Jefferson and roll
Now Madison within
Your graves--it takes no Gallup poll
To know that men have been
Defrauded of democracy,
Fraud purchased by hypocrisy,
Hooray, hooray bureaucracy,
To hell with you and me!

None stands like Patrick Henry stood
For liberty or death
Defending to the death right good
Words carried by the breath,
Breath even of one´s enemy
without there be a penalty--
Hooray, hooray for speech that´s free
Now lost to you and me.

Roll over Washington and roll
Now Adams and the rest:
The parchment hollowed of its soul
Becomes a cheaper jest
Than empty psychotherapy
With words sweet and cornsyrupy--
Hooray, hooray the satrapy
Installed o´er you and me.

--i.m. small

Anonymous said...

Culture is important because it provides cohesion and, why not, some kind of normalcy. Often people are happy with the prevailing culture. Are they not?

Andros said...

Of course, and I'm not dismissing the importance of culture. But, I think enlightned people can always improve their culture. After all, people do change so culture should too. I understand the need for normalcy and peace & order in a society, yet, today we know that under this guise many people have been suppressed, kept as chattel, or killed to preserve cultural purity.

drew said...

I'm trying to figure out the meaning of the pictures you have in this post.
The first one, I think it's the old civilization (and religion) being supplanted by the newer.

The other two are people having fun, which is good. Any other meaning?

Andros said...

The first pix is from Athens, and it presents the dichotomy between one set of world view (more humane in my own estimate) and another.

I shot the second in Liberty State park a couple years ago during the 4th of July a couple years ago. The band is Lowry (off beat rock).

The third is from Pier 17, South Street Seaport last summer.

Yes, it'a about people having fun, being themselves, doing what they like... with a personal definition of pleasure!

Anonymous said...

Aha! You didn't specify which world view (religion?) is more humanistic....

Andros said...

The one that doesn't condemn pleasure and has a wine god who like the rest of them bunch often is naked!

doctor said...

There is an urban legend that because of Muhlenberg, German didn't become the second official language of the United States. At the heart of this legend is a vote in the United States House of Representatives from 1794, where a group of German immigrants asked for the translation of some laws into German. This petition was rejected by a 42-41 vote and Muhlenberg was later quoted as having said "the faster the Germans become Americans, the better it will be".

Τα ίδια λένε και για την ελληνική γλώσσα, ότι για μία ψήφο δεν καθιερώθηκε ως επίσημη σε κάποια ...ψηφοφορία της Μασαχουσέτης.
Είναι legend, suburban myth.

Do you know anything about it?

There is a controversy about this here (comments 55-65): https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=27768437&postID=3518354675676140172

Συγνώμη για την άσχετη δημοσίευση dear Andros!

Andros said...

Ha! This is a good one. Did you know that there is no official language in the US? There have been attempts to make English the official language, but nothing so far. Recently, during the debate about immigration--in a very flawed legislation bill that got nowhere--there was another attempt at this.

Oh, com'on, Greek the official (2nd?)language of the US?!! Probably the legend/myth originated from one of those non-biding resolutions cities, states and even Congress pass... So, for one day everybody is Greek, Irish, and that the Ottomans were genocidal...

Guys, in practice Spanish (a slight variation of the spoken Spanish of Spain) is the second language in the US. Latinos recently surpassed blacks in numbers. Asians are numerous here too, but they don't speak the same language.

PS>As a matter of utility, many localities (even states) publish official instructions (election, health notices, etc) in 2 languages (usually Spanish, or in Chinese in ..Chinatown, NY) to better inform the public. What do you say to this? Should it be done????!!!!