American Progress, by John Gast, circa 1872. Source: Wikipedia.

Many of my articles in this blog have a common theme: they attempt to throw doubt on aspects of our worldview that we normally take for granted. There is thus a way in which these articles can be taken as negative: Instead of offering new explanations, they seem to solely undermine existing explanations. If they are correct, a reader may throw his arms up and say “right, you’ve got a point there; but then, how do we make progress?” Somehow, we expect progress to be made only when new explanations are offered.

But new explanations can only emerge if we are able to put our old explanations in perspective and look upon them from ‘outside the system,’ as Douglas Hofstadter likes to put it. In this context, a big part of making progress is the dismantling of notions and beliefs that prevent us from seeing alternative, and more promising, paths forward. When our paradigms become rusty, they work as barriers to progress; they lock us into repetitive and exhausted patterns of thought. Like horses with blinds, we become unable to contemplate the landscape and become single-minded. This is where, I believe, throwing paradigmatic assumptions into doubt does contribute to progress. We need to be critical of our stories while being immersed in these stories; a very difficult thing to do. The human creature has an innate tendency to hold on to stories that have proven useful in the past, and then to extrapolate these stories way beyond the point where it is empirically justifiable. Keeping this tendency under control requires active and critical effort, and doesn’t come on its own. The belief that our current epistemology is entirely justified by empirical observations is one of the most pervasive fables of our time, as I discussed in an earlier article.

So keeping our culture’s current stories in perspective by pointing out the ways in which we do not know them to be true is, in my view, a legitimate and constructive thing to do. In my books, I do attempt to offer new explanations and models because I know our minds cannot tolerate the vacuum left when old stories are dismantled; after all, we live in a world of myths, as Carl Jung so correctly pointed out. But I do not offer these explanations as the final truths, or even as ‘theories;’ I offer them just as, hopefully, intriguing and well-articulated hypotheses; as food-for-thought, if you will.

In talking about ‘progress’ we need to ask ourselves what one means when one speaks of it. The notion of progress, as we normally understand it in Western culture, is historically a positivist one. According to it, progress is about developing technology, infrastructure, and social order; in other words, objective things in the world ‘out there.’ But that seems to be but one of many possible translations of what progress means to us intuitively. Indeed, if you think about it carefully enough, you may find that, at the end of the day, we human beings truly progress if, and only if, we somehow feel better during the course of our lives. Feeling better is the goal; the rest are just means to an end. This way, we progress if the total amount of a certain subjective ‘substance’ we accumulate in our lives – a substance sometimes called ‘happiness,’ other times ‘well-being,’ and even ‘inner peace’ – increases. Any other definition of progress is indirect: Why do we want better technology? To feel better. Why do we want better urban infrastructure? To feel better. Why do we want more stable, fair, and well-functioning societies? To feel better. And anything that makes us feel worse ought not to be called progress.

The problem here is this: We have no objective way to measure the elusive substance of happiness. Therefore, we tend to translate it into something we can measure, like how fast our computers are, how quickly we can get to work, or how high our bank balance is. But the translation, as many of us discover once we've passed 35 years of age or so, is often wrong. Today we live longer lives than ever before in the known history of our civilization; but are we happier than our ancestors? We have access to technologies beyond the imagination of aboriginal cultures around the world; but are we less anxious than they are? We consume hundreds (if not thousands) of times more resources than a poor villager in Bangladesh; but do we have more inner peace?

If the stories we tell ourselves in our culture are at the basis of our anxiety and hopelessness, but they are true, then we have no alternative but to manage the situation as best as we can. If nature is truly meaningless, our existence an accident of probabilities, consciousness merely a side-effect of the synchronized dance of atoms, and the future decided solely by the heartless throw of the quantum dice, then let us face it and put aside some money for the analyst’s bills. But are we sure these stories are really true? No, we’re not. These are the fatalistic extrapolations of people who are so immersed in the paradigm that they are unable to pay broad enough attention to what is happening all around in science and also outside of science: in the real world of human experience – the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know. These inductive inferences have not been demonstrated on the basis of empirical observations; they are justified merely by a subjective set of abstract values and beliefs.

If progress means, ultimately, to find our way to true inner peace and well-being, showing the fatalistic artifacts and extrapolations of our current paradigm for what they are surely has its place in our progress as a culture. One of the most pervasive maladies of our times is the illusion of knowledge; the strong inner belief that we’ve figured it all out and it’s all pretty much meaningless. We don’t know that.

1 comment:

  1. I fail to see how idealism really changes the meaninglessness of reality though