Archive for March, 2010

In Defense of Progressivism

One central tenet of contemporary conservatism is traditionalism. Put crudely and generally, traditionalism is just the view that we ought to take our history seriously. More specifically, it is the view that we ought to respect and preserve the ideas, beliefs, and practices of those that came before us: we ought to respect and preserve that which our forefathers lived and died for. I do not find anything obviously objectionable about this view. The problem with traditionalism is not that it promotes history or calls us to preserve and respect the views of past thinkers, but that it often results in a status quo bias.

The status quo bias critique has been applied in various fields of discourse in specific ways. It has a general form however. Generally speaking, a status quo bias is the preference for a tradition just in virtue of it being the norm. Therefore, the general formulation of the status quo bias critique states that it is irrational (or unjustified) to oppose the change of a tradition merely in virtue of it being a change (instead of, say, opposing change because of consequential considerations).

It is my view that a status quo bias will often lead to the view that a particular set of ideas or texts—whether political, religious, or otherwise—are infallible. This works in reverse as well: the acceptance of any idea or text as infallible will often lead to a status quo bias. This will then lead to the opposition of any attempt to change or improve upon such ideas or texts. Any proposal that implies that such ideas ought to be ignored, challenged, changed, or compromised will also be opposed. This opposition will not be grounded in concerns for consequences, justice, practicality, nor in the search for further understanding, but only on the grounds that such ideas and texts, as they were conceived and written in their particular time and place, are infallible (or nearly so) and exhaustive and thus in need of no alteration.

It will come as no surprise that this view is in direct opposition to progressivism. Progressivism states that any modification to a particular idea, text, or practice can only be justified by reference to something beyond tradition, by reference to something beyond the status quo. Progressivism states that to say that something is the case or that something has been the case is not an argument for why something ought to be the case. Progressivism recognizes that traditions themselves often result from reform, that is, from the breaking of previous traditions. Progressivism also does not recognize the existence of eternally infallible ideas or texts because it does not take for granted that the particular ideas, beliefs, rules, and regulations of a particular age and culture will be justifiable or applicable to a later age and culture. In this regard, progressivists are anti-Platonic: they reject the eternal fixation of ideas in favor of a contextual or situational approach.

It was during the late nineteenth century that progressivism became linked with American pragmatism, perhaps the only school of philosophy that is uniquely American. Everything stated above about progressivism is true of pragmatism. In many ways, pragmatism was the application of Darwinian theory to our ideas, beliefs, and practices. It is no accident that pragmatism was birthed but a few decades after the publication of On the Origin of Species. Like Darwinism, pragmatism couched its language in terms of adaptability. It taught that our ideas, beliefs, and practices were only good insofar as they helped us get along in the world, insofar as they were useful, insofar as they helped promote our current goals and interests. As our environment will inevitably change, so will our goals and interests. Therefore, so must our ideas, beliefs, and practices.

This is the problem, says the pragmatist, with overstating our dedication to particular ideas, texts, and practices of the past. This is the problem with infalliblism. This is the problem with traditionalism. History has shown us that the justification of particular philosophical, political, religious, and moral beliefs of the past—while ever serving as a guide for our future—can never guarantee their justification in the future. This may be because the past beliefs were never justified to begin with (e.g. slavery) or because their justification was not universal and is no longer applicable in a different age and culture.

On this view, traditionalism itself becomes justified by reference to progressivism. Why should we study history? Why should we respect, and if necessary preserve, the views of our forefathers? Because doing so will have positive consequences for our future; because it will help us weed out the beliefs and practices that are no longer justifiable; and ultimately because it will further our understanding as to what it means to form a just society.

One reason why so many residents of the United States have become so suspicious of progressivism is because they see it an enemy of constitutionalism. Because progressivism promotes the changing of our beliefs and practices in light of new situations, they think that it may eventually lead to the destruction of the constitution itself. I offer four responses.

(1) We have already modified our constitution in light of various new circumstances. Such amendments are widely considered to be improvements upon the text and are far from undermining the text itself. (2) As such, we already recognize that our constitution is neither infallible nor exhaustive. The constitution was written and ratified by a select group of individuals who drew from the resources of their own minds and the minds of previous thinkers. But just as the ideas of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Rousseau are neither infallible nor exhaustive, neither are the ideas of Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. (3) The American constitution is itself evidence of the country’s progressive origins. It was not by upholding but by breaking with the traditions—traditions that were viewed as unnecessary and unjust—of the Old World that allowed America to breathe. (4) Finally, there may come a time when the constitution will need to be rewritten entirely. But this should not, by itself, be a cause for alarm. All this may mean is that our views on justice, freedom, and so on have evolved to the point where the views of a group of individuals in the eighteenth century are no longer applicable to some future society. We should not be concerned with preserving tradition if it is recognized that such a tradition is immoral, unjust, or irrational.

It is for these reasons that I find progressivism to be, at its core, a wholly American philosophy. It is a great irony of history that traditionalism and nationalism have become so tightly linked in a country whose origin and primary philosophical contribution was and is based on principles that are inherently anti-tradition. If the United States of America is a great nation, it is not because of its adherence to tradition but because of its refusal to identify itself with any one particular tradition. If the United States is a great nation, it is because of its wholesale rejection of the very idea that tradition can be good without qualification.


Seeing With the Tongue

03/24/2010 5 comments

Ask any neuroscientist or philosopher of the mind what organ it is that we see with. They will tell you that it is not the eyes but the brain. The eyes are the medium through which the information from the external world is transferred to the brain, which then ultimately forms the visual images of our consciousness. The eyes, to be sure, play their own interpretive role, but their role is contingent. The visual areas of the brain, on the other hand, are necessary for seeing. A person who has properly functioning eyes but has a dysfunctional occipital lobe (the visual center of the brain) can be blind. It may be that other areas of the brain can theoretically take up the function of seeing in patients whose visual areas have been damaged and thus no particular area of the brain may be necessary for seeing. But the brain as a functional whole is nonetheless necessary. But the eyes are not. The eyes are but one possible medium for transferring external world information to the brain. Here is one fascinating example of an alternative medium that has remarkable implications for the future:

Seeing with the tongue.

The Phoenix Effect

It turns out that the Phoenix exists. Although it’s not a creature of the air but of the sea.

Turritopsis nutricula Jellyfish
(Photo: Peter Schuchert)

The turritopsis nutricula species of jellyfish may be the only animal in the world to have truly discovered the fountain of youth.

Since it is capable of cycling from a mature adult stage to an immature polyp stage and back again, there may be no natural limit to its life span. Scientists say the hydrozoan jellyfish is the only known animal that can repeatedly turn back the hands of time and revert to its polyp state (its first stage of life).

The key lies in a process called transdifferentiation, where one type of cell is transformed into another type of cell. Some animals can undergo limited transdifferentiation and regenerate organs, such as salamanders, which can regrow limbs. Turritopsi nutricula, on the other hand, can regenerate its entire body over and over again. Researchers are studying the jellyfish to discover how it is able to reverse its aging process.

Because they are able to bypass death, the number of individuals is spiking. They’re now found in oceans around the globe rather than just in their native Caribbean waters.  “We are looking at a worldwide silent invasion,” says Dr. Maria Miglietta of the Smithsonian Tropical Marine Institute.


The Implications of Atheism

A Different Take on the Bodily Pleasures

Many people place a large amount of value on the bodily pleasures and, consequently, believe that their fulfillment is necessary to a good life. I have in mind such pleasures as food and drink and sex. Much of our time is spent thinking about and striving for ways to go about achieving such pleasures. We schedule our lives around our eating habits. We desperately seek after romantic relationships, in large part because of the physical aspects involved. This is all well and good. After all, these are not mere pleasures but requirements for a healthy and happy life. But there is a sense in which I wish this were not so. There is a sense in which these are not pleasures but pains in disguise: pains in need of neutralizing. This view does seem to fit some of our culinary and sexual experiences. The pleasure received from filling one’s stomach does seem to derive from appeasing the pain of an empty one (much like the pleasure received from scratching derives from the appeasement of an itch). These pleasures, in other words, are dependent on antecedent discomfort. Not all pleasures are like this (e.g. watching a film).

Many people will not be bothered by this realization. Some may want to contend that the pleasures of food and sex, however they are derived, are mighty and powerful and our lives are better with them than without them. This may be so, although I do not think it is obvious (our lives seem quite enjoyable when full on food or free of nagging itches). The real pain of such so-called pleasures, however, is that they serve as time-consuming distractions, drawing our attention away from other areas of real importance. One area of importance that I have in mind is the vast amount of projects that people undertake for the betterment of society. A second area of importance, one dearest to my own life, is that of scientific discovery and philosophical reflection. Without such overwhelming bodily desires, we could devote increasing amounts of time and effort to such areas. All too often it happens that in the midst of efficient and productive work or of moments of entertainment, we are interrupted by the unnecessary naggings of our nature. It appears that what may at first seem like a gift from the gods is but an unfortunate side-effect of our biology.

As harsh as this view may seem toward the bodily pleasures, none of it takes away from the enjoyment derived from them. I merely wish to point out that there are conceivable alternatives to the way in which minds such as ours could exist that are, in my view, preferable to the way things turned out. Stated differently, there are logically possible alternatives to the way we could have been that are better geared toward the fulfillment of our (or at least my) higher-order values.

I was pleased to learn that my very sentiments were echoed by Plato (or Socrates) over two thousand years ago in his work, the Phaedo.

For the body is a source of endless trouble to us by reason of the mere requirement of food, and is liable also to diseases which overtake and impede us in the search after true being: it fills us full of loves, and lusts, and fears, and fancies of all kinds, and endless foolery, and in fact, as men say, takes away from us the power of thinking at all. Whence come wars, and fightings, and factions? Whence but from the body and the lusts of the body? Wars are occasioned by the love of money, and money has to be acquired for the sake and in the service of the body; and by reason of all these impediments we have no time to give to philosophy; and, last and worst of all, even if we are at leisure and betake ourselves to some speculation, the body is always breaking in upon us, causing turmoil and confusion in our enquiries, and so amazing us that we are prevented from seeing the truth.