Monday, 20 November 2017

Freedom of Speech in the Public Square

Posted by Keith Tidman

Free to read the New York Times forever, in Times Square
What should be the policy of free society toward the public expression of opinion? The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution required few words to make its point:
‘Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.’
It reveals much about the republic, and the philosophical primacy of freedom of speech, that this was the first of the ten constitutional amendments collectively referred to as the Bill of Rights.

As much as we like to convince ourselves, however, that the public square in the United States is always a bastion of unbridled free speech, lamentably sometimes it’s not. Although we (rightly) find solace in our free-speech rights, at times and in every forum we are too eager to restrict someone else’s privilege, particularly where monopolistic and individualistic thinking may collide. Hot-button issues have flared time and again to test forbearance and deny common ground.

And it is not only liberal ideas but also conservative ones that have come under assault in recent years. When it comes to an absence of tolerance of opinion, there’s ample responsibility to share, across the ideological continuum. Our reaction to an opinion often is swayed by whose philosophical ox is being gored rather than by the rigor of argument. The Enlightenment thinker Voltaire purportedly pushed back against this parochial attitude, coining this famous declaration:

‘I don’t agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’
Yet still, the avalanche of majority opinion, and overwrought claims to ‘unique wisdom’, poses a hazard to the fundamental protection of minority and individual points of view — including beliefs that others might find specious, or even disagreeable.

To be clear, these observations about intolerance in the public square are not intended to advance moral relativism or equivalency. There may indeed be, for want of a better term, ‘absolute truths’ that stand above others, even in the everyday affairs of political, academic, and social policymaking. This reality should not fall prey to pressure from the more clamorous claims of free speech: that the loudest, angriest voices are somehow the truest, as if decibel count and snarling expressions mattered to the urgency and legitimacy of one’s ideas.

Thomas Jefferson like-mindedly referred to ‘the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it’. The key is not to fear others’ ideas, as blinkered censorship concedes defeat: that one’s own facts, logic, and ideas are not up to the task of effectively put others’ opinions to the test, without resort to vitriol or violence.

The risk to society of capriciously shutting down the free flow of ideas was powerfully warned against some one hundred fifty years ago by that Father of Liberalism, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill:
‘Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being “pushed to an extreme”, not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.’
Mill’s observation is still germane to today’s society: from the halls of government to university campuses to self-appointed bully pulpits to city streets, and venues in-between.

Indeed, as recently as the summer of 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court underscored Mill’s point, setting a high bar in affirming bedrock constitutional protections of even offensive speech. Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a moderate, wrote:
‘A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. . . . The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.’
It is worth noting that the high court opinion was unanimous: both liberal and conservative justices concurred. The long and short of it is that even the shards of hate speech are protected.

As to this issue of forbearance, the 20th-century philosopher Karl Popper introduced his paradox of tolerance: ‘Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance’. Popper goes on to assert, with some ambiguity,
‘I do not imply . . . that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force’.
The philosopher John Rawls agreed, asserting that a just society must tolerate the intolerant, to avoid itself becoming guilty of intolerance and appearing unjust. However, Rawls evoked reasonable limits ‘when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger’. Precisely where that line would be drawn is unclear — left to Supreme Court justices to dissect and delineate, case by case.

Open-mindedness — honoring ideas of all vintages — is a cornerstone of an enlightened society. It allows for the intellectual challenge of contrarian thinking. Contrarians might at times represent a large cohort of society; at other times they simply remain minority (yet influential) iconoclasts. Either way, the power of contrarians’ nonconformance is in serving as a catalyst for transformational thinking in deciding society’s path leading into the future.

That’s intellectually healthier than the sides of debates getting caught up in their respective bubbles, with tired ideas ricocheting around without discernible purpose or prediction.

Rather than cynicism and finger pointing across the philosophical divide, the unfettered churn of diverse ideas enriches citizens’ minds, informs dialogue, nourishes curiosity, and makes democracy more enlightened and sustainable. In the face of simplistic patriarchal, authoritarian alternatives, free speech releases and channels the flow of ideas. Hyperbole that shuts off the spigot of ideas dampens inventiveness; no one’s ideas are infallible, so no one should have a hand at the ready to close that spigot. As Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, prophetically and plainly pronounced in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 17 November 1737:
‘Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government.’
Adding that ‘... when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins’. Franklin’s point is that the erosion or denial of unfettered speech threatens the foundation of a constitutional, free nation that holds government accountable.

With determination, the unencumbered flow of ideas, leavened by tolerance, can again prevail as the standard of every public square — unshackling discourse, allowing dissent, sowing enlightenment, and delivering a foundational example and legacy of what’s possible by way of public discourse.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Hearts and Minds: The Mystery of Consciousness

By Mary Monro

Despite the best efforts of scientists and philosophers over the centuries, no mechanism has been discovered that indicates how consciousness emerges in the brain. Descartes famously thought the soul resided in the pineal gland - but that was mainly because he couldn't think of any other purpose for it (It actually produces melatonin and guides sleeping patterns). But, 400 years on, perhaps we still need to think again about where consciousness might reside.
In recent years there has been a surge of interest in the gut brain, with its hundred million neurons and its freight of microbes, that influences every aspect of our being including mood and memory. If the gut might now be considered a possible source of consciousness what about other candidates?

After all, “Primary consciousness arises when cognitive processes are accompanied by perceptual, sensory and emotional experience” as Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi put it in their book The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (2014).  Reflective or higher-order consciousness includes self-awareness and anticipation.

There is another intelligent, organising, feeling, planning, responsive, communicating organ inside us – a body-wide-web lining our blood vessels. Vascular endothelium cells (VE for short) line every vessel from the heart to the smallest capillary, reaching into every part of the body. Vascular endothelium is the interface between the blood and the tissues, deciding what goes where through a combination of electrical, kinetic, mechanical and chemical signalling.

Laid out, the VE in a human body would be the size of a rugby pitch yet it weighs only one kilogram. Far from being simply wallpaper, recent research has shown it to be a lead actor in the management of the body, including the brain. It is believed that each of the sixty trillion cells of the VE is unique, each one exquisitely adapted to meet the needs of its immediate environment, whether that is in the deeply oxygen deprived depths of the kidney or the highly oxygenated gas exchange surface of the lung. William Aird, in a scholarly paper in 2007, describes vascular endothelium as 'a powerful organising principle in health and disease'.

The blood-brain barrier (usually abbreviated to BBB) protects the brain from molecules and cells in the blood that might damage neural tissue. The vascular endothelium forms the interface but it was previously thought to be a passive sieve, controlled by neurons. The BBB has now been renamed the ‘neuro-vascular unit’ as it has become clear that neural cells, pericytes (that back the endothelial cells) and the vascular endothelial cells all actively take part in managing this critical barrier. It is not known which of them is in charge.

Other researchers have sought to apply the Turing Test to the VE in the brain – the Turing Test being an evaluation of whether an information processing system is capable of intelligent, autonomous thought. Christopher Moore and Rosa Cao, argue that blood is drawn to particular areas of the brain by the VE, in advance of metabolic demand, where it stimulates and modulates neuronal function. So the brain is responder rather than activator. Who is doing the thinking? Is the body-wide-web (including the heart and its assistant the blood) gathering information from the body and the external environment to tell the brain what to do? How does it make decisions? What does this imply for consciousness?

In fact, long ago, Aristotle asserted that the vascular architecture in the embryo functions as a frame or model that shapes the body structure of the growing organism. Recent research bears this out, with the VE instructing and regulating organ differentiation and tissue remodelling, from the embryo to post-natal life.  The VE cells form before there is a heart and it is fluid flow that drives endothelial stem cells to trigger the development of the heart tube, vessels and blood cells. There is no brain, only a neural tube, at this stage.

Recent research has shown that blood vessels can direct the development of nerves or vice versa or they can each develop independently. So, embryologically, there is a case for saying that the VE is a decision making executive.

All this recalls a founding principle of osteopathy – which is that ‘the rule of the artery is supreme’.  This is a poetic, 19th century way of saying that disturbance to blood flow is at the root of disease. In his autobiography, published in 1908, Andrew Still remarks: ‘in the year 1874 I proclaimed that a disturbed artery marked the beginning to an hour and a minute when disease began to sow its seeds of destruction in the human body’.

Now, almost a century and a half on, we find that ‘endothelial activity is crucial to many if not all disease processes’, as K. S. Ramcharan put it in a recent paper entitled ‘The Endotheliome: A New Concept in Vascular Biology’ (published in Thrombosis Research in 2011). All this illustrates the importance of this seemingly humble tissue, upon whose health our mental and physical wellbeing depends. And if this structure acts consciously, then perhaps we should consider the possibility that all living cells act consciously.

*Mary Monro Bsc (Hons) Ost, MSc Paed Ost, FSCCO is an Osteopath, based in Bath, United Kingdom.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Picture Post #30 The Great Debate

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

The first televised U.S. Presidential debate, 1960
This cozy scene is, in fact, a screenshot of the first ever U.S. Presidential debate which was televised, attracting a great audience. (Even at this time, 90% of households in the U.S. had  televisions. Black and white ones, of course.)

Presidential debates are often more about how candidates 'look' on the screen, than on what they say. Even more than newspaper photographs, the television screen distinguishes firmly - and often cruelly - between the telegenic and the rest. And one of the novelties of the 1960 Presidential campaign was the introduction to a newly televised public  of polite, staged exchanges between the nominees.

On the left is John F. Kennedy, 'JFK' and on the right is Richard M. Nixon, 'Tricky Dickie', as he was unkindly later known. The scene is the CBS studios in Chicago and the date is September 26, 1960.

The first thing that is striking about this image is how homely it all is - truly the CBS studio could be, if not someone's front room, certainly the seminar at the local college - and the whole effect is refreshingly amateurish, with the debate moderator's feet poking out from underneath the flap of his desk. Indeed 'Tricky Dicky' looks awkward and uncomfortable, squirming in his seat, while JFK seems much more at home.

It's a homely feature too that everyone is sitting - rather than standing behind lecterns - as this immediately changes the tone of a debate, rendering the human animal less aggressive and more consensual.

The election was very close but likely the TV appearance favored Kennedy who became the nation's youngest President and first Catholic ever elected to the office.

Today's TV studio’s are all about technological sophistication and electronic screens are likely the background. The more spectacular, the better. A lot of distraction. At least here, in this sepia image, the human being is shown as such, no fancy tricks in that regard. But of course, the real tricks are weaved psychologically, then and now. Did, in those days, to see the future president in this setting, make them seem closer to ‘normal’ people in a certain way - or even more exceptional?

Monday, 30 October 2017

Existence and Subsistence: The Power of Concepts

The Weeping Woman. Pablo Picasso 1937.
By Christian Sötemann
Imagine a married couple, Laura and Audrey.  Both have regular work. Then, Laura loses her job, and Audrey’s mother dies.  The couple are now in a double predicament.  On the one hand, they will struggle to pay the rent.  On the other hand, they will have to work through Audrey’s mother’s death.
Now imagine an alternative situation, again involving Laura and Audrey.  Laura and Audrey now both lose their jobs.  This deepens their struggle with the rent.  Yet Audrey’s mother is still alive and well.

We would be somewhat justified in calling both situations ‘existential crises’, since both have to do with human existence.  Yet we might also apply two different terms to Laura and Audrey’s experiences – one being a problem of ‘existence’, the other a problem of ‘subsistence’.  It may not be an exact distinction, but it can point to two different – and at times overlapping – spheres.

In the first example, Audrey and Laura undergo problems of ‘existence’ (Audrey’s mother) as well as problems of ‘subsistence’ (Laura’s job).  In the second example, it can be construed as a problem of how to subsist at all.  Now, we might ask wherein the difference lies, more exactly.

Deepening our Meanings

Subsistence, here, concerns physiological survival, and the provision of basic material needs.  One does not have to subscribe to Marxism to agree with Marx when he pointed out that ‘life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things.’  The psychologist Abraham Maslow has suggested that basic needs such as these precede more complex ones such as appreciation by others or self-actualisation.

One might be tempted to state that their problems of subsistence are about material necessities, to continue their existence on biological and economic levels.  And yet – it would be fruitful to reserve the term ‘existence’ for certain phenomena inextricably interwoven with human life, which go beyond self-conservation and material safety.

‘Existence’ may further be differentiated from ‘being’.  One may discern this in a human death.  When we die, we do not turn into nothingness.  There is always still something there: ashes, or a lifeless body dissolving into dust.  To quote Sartre, there is not less – ‘there is something else.’  However, human life – a unique existence – is lost.

Being turns into different being. Something remains on one level – but on the existential level, a most drastic change occurs when a human being dies. And that is regardless of whether one takes an atheist stance or postulates an immortal soul, since the latter would still indicate an existential transformation.

Philosophers like Heidegger saw a difference here, and even though one can be critical of the ideas which led to this distinction, there is some merit to the idea of reserving the term ‘existence’ for human beings, in that it enables us to contemplate the existential dimension of human life.

In this understanding, ‘existence’ goes beyond the mere ‘being there’ of something, in spite of all changes, and instead points to the existential – to questions of death, one’s take on the meaning of the world, loneliness and freedom and responsibility.  These are the ‘ultimate concerns’ that the existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom has identified.

Differentiating our Meanings

Whatever the case may be, there is something that shows us that the spheres of ‘existence’ and ‘subsistence’ cannot be identical.  Even if one has all that is needed for physiological and economic survival, one is still confronted with the inescapability of death and the task of committing to a meaning of one’s own life, among other things. No material protection can relieve existential issues, once they come under scrutiny.

Granted, with rare exceptions, one has to achieve a certain level of material security to ponder the questions of ‘existence’ at all. The philosopher who ponders the meaning of the world is unlikely to be able to do so without access to food and drinking water and a place for nightly recuperation. Even Diogenes resorted to his tub, after all.  The sphere of existence requires the opportunity to go beyond questions of daily survival.

Thus, if one accepts this distinction between ‘subsistence’ and ‘existence’, one could shine a light on economic struggles and perceived injustice on the one hand, and discuss issues of a human being’s general position in the world from a more contemplative point of view on the other.  By defining ‘subsistence’ and ‘existence’, one may now employ these terms to powerful effect in philosophical debate as well as psychotherapy and psychological counselling.

Monday, 23 October 2017

The Search For True History

 Posted by Thomas Scarborough
We are all familiar, on a personal level, with the problems of history.  In fact we continually revise the small histories which we ourselves create, with words such as ‘I misjudged him,’ ‘If only I had known,’ or ‘I can't remember it for the life of me.’ Our own practice of history, therefore, is contin-ually subject to review and correction.  
Much the same is true of history on a grander scale: revisionist history in the United States, postcolonial history in former colonies, the paradigm shift in Islamic Studies, and so on.  Everywhere, history is being reinterpreted and overturned.  Where then do we find true history?  A brief exploration of the problems of history promises to help us further.

There are various problems in the field of history which are fairly unique to itself.  History is unrepeatable.  We cannot retrieve the facts if we missed them the first time.  History, too, will always represent a loss of information—a reduction of the events themselves.  No written or oral history can truly encompass all that happened in the past.  Even if we should select a small and (seemingly) manageable part of history—say, regional history, period history, or military history—this is not isolated from the whole.  Any history, no matter how big or small, is ultimately an open system, and will always run up against the limits of completeness.

Worse, we find such limits to completeness within our very selves.  As we step back to survey the world as a whole, we observe that the facts in this world are infinite—yet we ourselves are finite.  And not only are the facts infinite, but they criss-cross each other in infinite ways. There is a mismatch, therefore—between the number of facts we find in this world, and the number of facts we can combine in our minds.  It is certainly impossible to combine an infinity of facts in the mind.  Our combination of facts is always incomplete and partial—and full of holes which need to be patched with hopeful, and believing, guesses.

An infinity of facts, then, leads us to another realisation.  While we cannot obtain a complete combination of facts, we do have a kind of completeness—a finite completeness—in every one of us.  We call it our world-view—and it is within such world-views that histories exist as a kind of sub-set, being knitted into their fabric. In short, history is as subjective as we are.  We may not recognise this in our present, but we see it in our past:

Historical perspectives which in the past were highly rated may now be so unfashionable as to raise eyebrows if one merely mentions them: that history serves the purposes of the state, for instance, that it is about great men, or that it has a goal. We also see the past reflect on the present.  In our common life, we have been plagued by massive oversight.  Among other things, we have championed ideologies without foreseeing their ruin, and announced progress without recognising its devastation. In the same way, history may be written with or without crucial considerations, and no one may notice at all.

This should not be misunderstood.  The historical record deals with crucial events: the discovery of new continents, for instance, crimes against humanity, or international treaties.  All are able to teach us.  Facts do exist—and facts should not be fabricated where they do not exist.  Yet wherever we combine facts, we are selective, and in the process de-selective.  The facts, wrote the historian Charles Beard, ‘do not select themselves, or force themselves automatically into any fixed scheme of arrangement in the mind of the historian.’  We need to combine the facts in our minds, by acts of choice, conviction, and interpretation regarding values. 

For all of its problems, history will be written, and history will be read.  The question then remains: on what basis may the truth of our histories be assessed?  Did Caesar cross the Rubicon?  Was Jesus Christ crucified?  Did Marie-Antoinette really tell them to eat cake?  What shall we write about colonialism?  Has racism been on the rise?  That is, when we have done our best to appreciate the ‘facts’, how shall we judge their adequacy as history?

We know it from the movies—and from books.  We say, ‘That didn't ring true,’ or ‘That was far-fetched’—or, on the other hand, ‘That was true to life.’  Similarly we may judge history on its truth claims—namely, whether we think it represents a credible and faithful interpretation of our world, or whether it does not.  That is, history needs to be credible not merely from the point of view of its factual content, but from the point of view of what is credible in itself.  In fact there is no other basis on which we may judge history, unless the facts should definitely show us otherwise.

At first glance, this might seem to be a negative finding—a defeat in our quest for a valid or objective history.  But far rather, it suggests to us positively that every history must be a questioning, a discerning, a reading between the lines, which at its best sets us free from presuppositions.  History cannot properly be taught.  History is intelligent judgement, and truth requires independent, impartial, robust thinking to discern those arrangements of facts which are sound and those which are less than satisfactory, which press in on us every day. 

Monday, 16 October 2017

Do We Speak Different Realities?

By Lina Ufimtseva
I have a vague feeling or concept in my head, yet I simply cannot put it into words—not even to those who are closest to me.  It certainly creates a barrier between me and whomever the message is intended for. 
Now imagine quite the opposite. I speak multiple languages in which I am fluent, and know the phrases which express the subtleties and layers of the meaning of each word.  Yet composing the same thought in different languages yields different meanings.  I feel that I am just as impeded as before.

Here is an example. In Russian we say, ‘We with our friends are going to dinner,’ not ‘My friends and I are going to dinner.’  If a Russian were to use the latter phrasing, the underlying meaning would convey that he or she does not want to associate with the group of friends, and dislikes the group. Saying ‘We with our friends or family or class’ reinforces the idea that you share the same values, and find identity in that group. In this case, therefore, we have an easy translation, but it is just not the same as that which is translated.

Many have attempted to explain the relationship between language and thought. My interest here is the question: do words create meanings, or do meanings create words—or is it both?

If we were to remove various words from a language, and thereby simplify it (think of Doublespeak in the novel 1984), our ability to express thoughts would surely diminish, and thus the breadth of our worldview would perish. Dictators have effectively done this when using language as propaganda to control masses of people. It would make sense to say that yes, language does create thoughts, and words create meanings. If you don’t have the words, you can’t describe it. Here, meaning is created linguistically, from without.

Yet when we come across a word which describes a very specific situation, there is a click, an a-ha! moment that is universal—whether your language includes the word in question or not. For instance, many have experienced what the Scots call ‘tartle’—the panic-like hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't quite remember. Would this not indicate that actually, meaning is created cognitively, from within?

Then again, one word can signify different shades of meaning, even separate concepts. Let’s take the concept of time. Compare how the English in Britain speak about time—how precise and punctual they are about it—and the casualness of South African English. Terms like ‘now’, not to speak of ‘now now’ and ‘just now’, are much more than simply a label for ‘coming another 20, perhaps 25 minutes later’. Such ‘Englishes’ comprise an entirely different mind-set, and thus also, a different worldview to that of the English speaker in Britain or other English-speaking places.

The Germans have a special word: Weltansicht, which refers to ‘the general attitude towards life and reality that an individual or character demonstrates’.  Weltansicht is closely allied with the words which we speak, so that it is difficult to escape their pull. Thought is not objective, and some accidental difference in which language or linguistic dialect you were raised in can indeed shape the way you think and perceive things.   

I would suggest that language is ultimately not only culture bound. An entire cultural identity exists within it and is perpetuated by it. Even the same language spoken in different parts of the world evokes modified meanings.
Photo credit: Russian Report, with the caption ‘Everyone stands for the entire liturgy’.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Identity Politics: Whose Identity?

By Sifiso Mkhonto
Identity is concerned with the facts of ‘who I am’, or ‘what it is’. Identity politics reveals itself in the tend-ency of a people of a particular religion, race, social background, and so on, to form exclusive political alliances. Yet which ‘people’ are these? Are they ordinary citizens, or active citizens in politics? It is both—and identity politics is at its most dangerous when it does not favour ordinary citizens.
When we bring our identity into politics, we awaken the dragon within: the excessive admiration of oneself. It is bad enough when this happens to the citizen. It is worse when it reaches the top, and infiltrates the state itself—and the acceptance of identity politics at one level may cause it to blur into the next. Another way of putting it is that identity politics is too often the doctrine of prejudices, and in politics, such prejudices control discrimination.

Our identity is what belongs to us. My identity is who I am. This is revealed by what I believe, how I act, and how I think the future should be. This provides the evidence of my identity. In other words, people identify me (largely) on the basis of what they see. Of course, identity changes. In different stages of our lives, both our conscious and sub-conscious being changes. This leads to changes in our identity.

Paradoxically, our obsession with our identity has hijacked our moral strength. One may call it our‘moral consciousness’. Race, religion, gender, and other factors which many people identify with, are the pride of their obsession. Too often, exclusive political alliances too are a form of narcissism, and seem to be its driver. In modern psychoanalytic theory, narcissistic pathologies are related to the fragility of selfhood and impoverished object relations. With this in mind, identity politics is frequently biased, limiting, and based on who is victimised extremely. This, then, is defined and introduced as a new concept.

Many heads-of-states’ (ostensible) power is their identity. Why do powerful leaders suppress the truth of reality in order to remain in power? Because they are not really powerful. Are they fearing the real power, which is the will of the people? Why are they insecure about security? Why do they impart fear into their organisations, comrades, and colleagues? Because they abuse the artificial power—which is the identity—granted to them.

In Europe, identity politics is threatening to tear apart the United Kingdom through its ‘Brexit’ from the cosmopolitan, post-national structures of the European Union, and to rekindle civil war in Spain, where Catalan nationalism splinters not only Spain but Catalonia itself.  North Korea serves as another example—not being a monarchy, but a dictatorship, as a result of its lack of a formalised law of succession and its  militarisation (missile tests included), through its current leader Kim Jong-un.  It has proven that fear is a great servant but a terrible master.  It suffocates a leader’s integrity, confirms the obsession of power, and is the pathway to a narcissistic state.

In my own nation of South Africa, a clear and present danger is that one fights identity politics with identity politics in a racially polarised society, so that the values of a non-racial, non-sexist society (and more) remain lost in the ‘rainbow nation’.

A critical ‘truth’ for a post-truth society is reasoning honestly about identity politics: reason which in itself makes one’s identity irrelevant. The validity of the dialogue will not depend on our identity.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Picture Post #29 Stripping Down the Tailor's Dummy

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

A Shop Window in Florence, Italy, September 2017. Picture credit: Antonio Borrani
We can all wonder what we will do next. What to invent to keep on going while deadlines mark pressure on time schedules. And even when we have no idea what to talk about or to show, surely with something we have to come up. This is a crazy world, more bound to production than quality, and even when we have nothing to tell, we will fill the page, when we have nothing to sell, we fill the shop window. With (non)sense?

The image above shows a ‘flying’ woman in a, perhaps, rather dubious position. Her legs are revealed, which assuredly does exalt her shoes that anew lead up to her legs and higher up to her bottom without underpants. Of-course the woman is a tailor’s dummy, not a real woman. Still, the shoes and her dress are made for real, living woman. In short: what does this puppet represent?

The female figure seems to shape a larger social imagery than we are used to seeing explored for the male. Erotically the female body seems much more consumed for commercial purposes. Imagery is a driving force in many plays, to start with the daily role-play we dress up when we wake.

Something must attract the consumer.

One purse and one shoe exposed for sale, two glass frames containing sand that can be turned around. Like the image of a woman? Or is this a representation of sand dunes? The time? A woman suspended or, perhaps better to say,  a woman pending, in the air.

This, is the fashion to follow.

Monday, 25 September 2017

The Earth is Our Prison

A (Semi-scientific) Theory States that We Come from Another Planet and that the Earth Is Our Prison

Reposted from Pi-Alpha

 A subversive and highly imaginative theory developed by the American Professor of Ecology, Ellis Silver, ponders that human beings seem to have too many misfitting characteristics to be truly a native of Planet Earth. As examples, Silver offers that Man has problems with his back and often suffers from pain because our species descended from a planet with less gravity than on Earth. [The conventional explanation is we pay the price of back pain is the evolutionary one about having opted to wander around on two feet.] However, according to Silver, we also face problems when we are exposed to direct sunlight for a relatively short time because we were not designed to come in so close contact with such a sun.

An additional argument offered by the Professor concerns parturition difficulties and especially those resulting from the fact that the size of the head of a newborn child is disproportionately large. We are the only species on the planet with such high rates of complications and mortality during pregnancy and childbirth, emphasises the scientist. Finally, he notes the fact that humans seem poorly equipped to deal with the natural environment, for example, such basic things as cold or heat.

The theory also considers the paradox that human shows strong dislike for many types of foods that nature provides. Silver says that humans often become ill because, amongst other things, our biological clock is tailored for a day of 25 hours, not the solar day we live under! Silver says that this has been confirmed by certain studies.

So, his conclusion is that, anatomically, modern human is a hybrid resulting from the crossing of the Neanderthals with another kind of humans who came to Earth from 60,000 to 200,000 years ago from a planet in Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to us.

Silver's explanation for our arrival on Earth is that the aliens we once lived with could not stand our indiscipline and aggression and sent us here as a punishment, i.e. we were ‘imprisoned’ here to become… human, and that one day (who knows?) maybe we will be allowed to return to our real celestial home…

The theory is bizarre and requires the suspension of many normal scientific assumptions and principles, but ecologically it has one thing in favour of it: why otherwise would nature have created a species quite as destructive to the rest of the natural world as Man?

Monday, 18 September 2017

Poetry: A Nation in Mourning?

Posted by Chengde Chen *

‘Britain, don’t you want another Diana?’

In Mourning for Future Dianas
Written some years back, but strangely prescient ...

Britain has not only become ugly
Since losing its beauty
But has also become crazy,
Kindling its love for the Princess
To burn the media that created her!
The sword of privacy law legislation
Is being sharpened with the mourning ...
If it does kill the birds of intrusion
Who else will be victimised by the slaying?

Wasn’t it those countless stories and pictures,
Digested with English breakfasts and dinners,
That constructed a ‘Queen’ in people’s hearts
– A ‘close friend’ felt by many many strangers
Who decorated Kensington Palace
With millions of flowers?
Oh, the millions of flowers ...
Are they criminal evidence against the media
Or public awards for its unprecedented success?

Enjoying the honey but condemning the bee
Adoring the river but detesting the rain

This nation is also ‘three times over the limit’
On this side of the Channel
Killing future Dianas to mourn the lost one!

Britain, don’t you want another Diana?
A great mourning may be timeless
But the tears for mourning the past
Won’t dry into logic for mourning the future!

* Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Chaos Theory: And Why It Matters

Posted by Keith Tidman

Computer-generated image demonstrating that the behaviour of dynamical systems is highly sensitive to initial conditions

Future events in a complex, dynamical, nonlinear system are determined by their initial conditions. In such cases, the dependence of events on initial conditions is highly sensitive. That exquisite sensitivity is capable of resulting in dramatically large differences in future outcomes and behaviours, depending on the actual initial conditions and their trajectory over time — how follow-on events nonlinearly cascade and unpredictably branch out along potentially myriad paths. The idea is at the heart of so-called ‘Chaos Theory’.

The effect may show up in a wide range of disciplines, including the natural, environmental, social, medical, and computer sciences (including artificial intelligence), mathematics and modeling, engineering — and philosophy — among others. The implication of sensitivity to initial conditions is that eventual, longer-term outcomes or events are largely unpredictable; however, that is not to say they are random — there’s an important difference. Chaos is not randomness; nor is it disorder*. There is no contradiction or inconsistency between chaos and determinism. Rather, there remains a cause-and-effect — that is, deterministic — relationship between those initial conditions and later events, even after the widening passage of time during which large nonlinear instabilities and disturbances expand exponentially. Effect becomes cause, cause becomes effect, which becomes cause . . . ad infinitum. As Chrysippus, a third-century BC Stoic philosopher, presciently remarked:
‘Everything that happens is followed by something else which depends on it by causal necessity. Likewise, everything that happens is preceded by something with which it is causally connected’.
Accordingly, the dynamical, nonlinear system’s future behaviour is completely determined by its initial conditions, even though the paths of the relationship — which quickly get massively complex via factors such as divergence, repetition, and feedback — may not be traceable. A corollary is that not just the future is unpredictable, but the past — history — also defies complete understanding and reconstruction, given the mind-boggling branching of events occurring over decades, centuries, and millennia. Our lives routinely demonstrate these principles: the long-term effects of initial conditions on complex, dynamical social, economic, ecologic, and pedagogic systems, to cite just a few examples, are likewise subject to chaos and unpredictability.

Chaos theory thus describes the behaviour of systems that are impossible to predict or control. These processes and phenomena have been described by the unique qualities of fractal patterns like the one above — graphically demonstrated, for example, by nerve pathways, sea shells, ferns, crystals, trees, stalagmites, rivers, snow flakes, canyons, lightning, peacocks, clouds, shorelines, and myriad other natural things. Fractal patterns, through their branching and recursive shape (repeated over and over), offer us a graphical, geometric image of chaos. They capture the infinite complexity of not just nature but of complex, nonlinear systems in general — including manmade ones, such as expanding cities and traffic patterns. Even tiny errors in measuring the state of a complex system get mega-amplified, making prediction unreliable, even impossible, in the longer term. In the words of the 20th-century physicist Richard Feynman:
‘Trying to understand the way nature works involves . . . beautiful tightropes of logic on which one has to walk in order not to make a mistake in predicting what will happen’.
The exquisite sensitivity to initial conditions is metaphorically described as the ‘butterfly effect’. The term was made famous by the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz in a 1972 paper in which he questioned whether the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil — an ostensibly miniscule change in initial conditions in space-time — might trigger a tornado in Texas — a massive consequential result stemming from the complexly intervening (unpredictable) sequence of events. As Aristotle foreshadowed, ‘The least initial deviation . . . is multiplied later a thousandfold’.

Lorenz’s work that accidentally led to this understanding and demonstration of chaos theory dated back to the preceding decade. In 1961 (in an era of limited computer power) he was performing a study of weather prediction, employing a computer model for his simulations. In wanting to run his simulation again, he rounded the variables from six to three digits, assuming that such an ever-so-tiny change couldn’t matter to the results — a commonsense expectation at the time. However, to the astonishment of Lorenz, the computer model resulted in weather predictions that radically differed from the first run — all the more so the longer the model ran using the slightly truncated initial conditions. This serendipitous event, though initially garnering little attention among Lorenz's academic peers, eventually ended up setting the stage for chaos theory.

Lorenz’s contributions came to qualify the classical laws of Nature represented by Isaac Newton, whose Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy three hundred-plus years earlier famously laid out a well-ordered, mechanical system — epically reducing the universe to ‘clockwork’ precision and predictability. It provided us, and still does, with a sufficiently workable approximation of the world we live in.

No allowance, in the preceding descriptions, for indeterminacy and unpredictability. That said, an important exception to determinism would require venturing beyond the macroscopic systems of the classical world into the microscopic systems of the quantum mechanical world — where indeterminism (probability) prevails. Today, some people construe the classical string of causes and effects and clockwork-like precision as perhaps pointing to an original cause in the form of some ultimate designer of the universe, or more simply a god — predetermining how the universe’s history is to unfold.

It is not the case, as has been thought too ambitiously by some, that all that humankind needs to do is get cleverer at acquiring deeper understanding, and dismiss any notion of limitations, in order to render everything predictable. Conforming to this reasoning, the 18th century Dutch thinker, Baruch Spinoza, asserted,
‘Nothing in Nature is random. . . . A thing appears random only through the incompleteness of our knowledge’.

*Another example of chaos is brain activity, where a thought and the originating firing of neurons — among the staggering ninety billion neurons, one hundred trillion synapses, and unimaginable alternative pathways — results in the unpredictable, near-infinite sequence of electromechanical transmissions. Such exquisite goings-on may well have implications for consciousness and free will. Since consciousness is the root of self-identity — our own identity, and that of others — it matters that consciousness is simultaneously the product of, and subject to, the nonlinear complexity and unpredictability associated with chaos. The connections are embedded in realism. The saving grace is that cause-and-effect and determinism are, however, still in play in all possible permutations of how individual consciousness and the universe subtly connect.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Picture Post #28 Messages Concealed in Jarring Details

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

        Kung, Bamenda area, republic of Cameroon. 
    Picture credit 2015, Pierpaolo di Carlo

Looking back to the picture, nothing appears strange indeed. Perhaps, more often, we have seen pictures of people carrying loads of fruit, bread or books on their heads. A wallet seems so light and small that maybe this lightness is somehow surprising.

“No! The woman does not pose for the camera. Nothing extraordinary,” a linguist and anthropologist replies. “Common practice. Here, everybody carries things on their head. And, by the way, that is not a booklet - but a wallet.”

As with everything, we can pause and take some time for something. Imagine we would walk around with our wallet on our head. Could that happen?

Observing the picture, we might perceive a contrast between the modern, urban icon of the portfolio, and the rural, timeless idea of an African woman standing in front of her habitat. Why? When did we stop carrying things on our head? This picture seems to shape questions of comparison.

Does this picture tell more about us, than about her?

As with many otherwise trivial occurrences, something very ordinary conceals a door to a closet, and when we open that door we find a chaos of things that, before, we tended not to imagine. Nothing is strange, though there is no such strangeness as to believe that.

A practical note on the picture:

Kung is a small village of about 600 people, perched on a steep hill in the Lower Fungom region, northwest Cameroon. Like any other village in the area, Kung has its own chief and its own language - a true language that should not be confused with a dialect. The language has no written form, and is endangered, although one of the community's central motivations is to safeguard its speech, so that the population can continue to communicate with their ancestors who have passed away.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Leadership in (Philosophical) Crisis

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Leadership today is in acute crisis. According to psychologist Harry Levinson in the Harvard Business Review, the signs of trouble began around 1980 in the USA. This coincides with the rise of a theory of leadership called transformational leadership, which is trusted and applied by countless leaders. Does the problem lie in the theory?
Bloomsbury columnist Max Nisen, in Business Insider, describes leadership burnout today as a ‘huge problem’. 96% of senior leaders feel ‘somewhat burned out’, while a third describe the problem as ‘extreme’. Psychologist Kevin Fleming writes: ‘The numbers are absolutely staggering.’ The problem has been exported, too – at least, there has been a lag before it has reached other shores.

There are costs and collateral damage to match. According to Forbes, businesses in the USA lose nearly $40 billion every year through absenteeism among professionals, executives, and managers – far in excess of any other occupations. Mental stress and fatigue affect not only the leader, but the company.

Several years ago, I submitted a proposal to a major seminary, to investigate the problem in a 150-page postgraduate thesis.

The damage to leaders was approximately known. It was known, too, that most put their trust in transformational leadership theory. But statistics which might reflect on the causes of the trouble were virtually non-existent. There were not so much as credible definitions of transformational leadership – and without definitions there is nowhere to begin. Existing definitions seemed more like slogans for the movement.

I chose to use a semantic critique – and this proved to be a powerful tool. I applied it to about five-thousand pages of leadership texts. My first task, then, was to identify the core concepts of the texts. From these, I isolated and developed a fresh definition of transformational leadership (which may go by various names, including connective leadership, servant leadership, and ternary leadership).

Then I listed ‘oppositions’ of the core concepts. Oppositions are something like ‘opposites’. They help us, among other things, to find subtexts. Did the authors' writing cohere, or did their texts reveal subtexts – namely, oppositions which subverted what they said?

It might seem an absurd idea – to look for evidence that authors contradict their own selves. However, it proved to be very fruitful. I was later awarded a distinction for the research, which was a testimony to the power of the method.

Out of five or six core concepts of transformational leadership theory, ‘influence’ is arguably the highest on the list. Leadership consultant John Maxwell epitomises this with the mantra: ‘Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.’ This is too simplistic, yet it captures the core of it. Other concepts are subsidiary to influence, among them character, persuasiveness, and strategy.

The core question was whether there were ‘oppositions’ which showed that influence was rejected, defeated, weakened, and so on. Indeed there were. To sustain one’s leadership influence, one needed (quote) ‘more than sacrifice and suffering’, ‘courage of the highest order’, and a ‘Herculean effort’, among other things. Hercules, needless to say, was a demigod. There were ‘countless discouraged leaders’, and ‘low expectation and hope’. One author wrote, ‘Lord have mercy!’

The leadership authors seemed to have a perverse drive to tell the truth, even if it was only in a single line. Those single lines torpedoed whole chapters of text. The subtext, although one finds it only in snippets, reveals that all told, the core concepts do not work. Every transformational leadership text, without exception, fundamentally subverted itself.

On the surface of it ‘influence’, with its attendant concepts, would seem to be a felicitous approach to leadership. In reality it is not. It can only seem felicitous as long as one admires it in isolation. Oppositions of resistance, discouragement, acquiescence, failure, and many more, lie in wait at every corner, and slowly destroy the leader.

This is not a small finding. One is dealing with the dominant theory of leadership in the West.

But the purpose here is not merely to summarise a situation. It is to drive deeper, philosophically. The very fact that there are oppositions in the leadership texts gives the problem away. We are not thinking holistically today. We are thinking one-sidedly, or dichotomously. We have developed a one-sided leadership metaphysic, while a powerful subtext has been largely expunged from the texts.

It surely has to do with the times. We have been trained to think in partial ways. We no longer think expansively. In physics, wrote the philosophers Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen, we investigate processes ‘by progressively screening things out.’ While one might justifiably think this way in physics, we now find it all over. It reaches all our concepts, including leadership. We are in bondage to dichotomies today, writes psychologist Ellyn Kaschak, in Psychology Today.

Some put the troubles of leadership down to work load, inadequate coping skills, a lack of preventative mechanisms, an increasing rate of change, and so on. Under my own leadership, in an assignment, a Canadian intern Peter Nighswander put it like this: symptomatic treatment of leadership burnout is not without use, yet it seems that we need to be ‘questioning the system that is producing these results ’.

The alternative to a one-sided or dichotomous view is obviously a holistic one. Many proposed solutions point to the need, not merely for holism, but for deeply holistic thinking.

The scattered solutions, when one surveys them together today, are both broad and complementary. Proposals for a more participative leadership promise to reconcile the leader with the led. Proposals for more adequate recuperation promise to reconcile the leader-as-leader with the leader-as-person. Calculations of total losses to business promise to reconcile the fate of the company with the fate of its leaders. A reduction of stresses external to the workplace promise to heal not only the leader but society.

All such proposals may be characterised as the introduction of a more holistic thinking. This is the philosophy of it. We need to develop a holistic picture, then apply it. We cannot afford any more to lean on one-sided or dichotomous concepts based on a misplaced trust in the text.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Re-Drawing the Lines of Democracy

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
‘As a child, you tend to look on the lines drawn as the inevitable nature of things; for a long time, I did. But along somewhere in boyhood, I came to see that lines once drawn might have been drawn otherwise,’ said Haywood Burns, a leader of the civil rights movement in the USA. We think that the lines drawn of democracy are inescapable.  But are they?
Democracy is not only a system of government of the people, by the people for the people, typically through elected representatives. It is the privilege of freedom, and this is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. In many countries around the world, democracy was gained through the efforts of those who passionately fought and died for it.

Today we find that democracy is not seen with the same eye as it was during the dark days when many did not have the privilege of enjoying it.  The government of the people, by the people, for the people – the power of the people – is undermined and threatened today, above all, by those with artificial power.  This is how:
People are prioritised over issues.  Democracy is a good mechanism for arranging a society for its good, because elected representatives come from the grass roots.  Yet paradoxically, it gets bogged down in the weaknesses encouraged by the personalities involved.  In the words of philosophy writer Thomas Scarborough, it is compromised by personal loyalties, fleeting fears, populism, short-sightedness, and vested interests, among other things.

Groups are prioritised over consensus.  In spite of democracy, many leaders fail to encourage compromise, as a means to obtain group consensus and government which serves the weak and the strong in a fair way.  Mahatma Gandhi wrote, ‘I understand democracy as something that gives the weak the same chance as the strong’.  But elections are mostly fictitious, wrote revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and ‘managed by rich landowners and professional politicians’.

Bureaucracy is prioritised over democracy.  We perceive that democracy provides every citizen with the right to decide what the general matters of concern are.  Yet, through the years, democracy has been overtaken by bureaucracy – now the driver of democracy in many states.  People have no difficulty with this illusion, while true democracy is lost.

Appearance is prioritised over content.  We argue that those who endorse the principles of democracy represent democracy, as opposed to those who do not.  To some extent, this distinction may be true.  But all too often, both sides are in bondage to class rule.  One side makes this rule overt, while the other is able to disguise it.  Yet little really separates the two.
How then do we judge that democracy is fair and not fictitious?  In answering this question, we should consider two things:
If we seclude democracy from the rule of law, we are preparing for calamity, and

If we fail to respect the fact that nations are diverse, we lose the essence of democracy, which is the power of people.

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Modern Stoic

Oil on canvas by Robert Burridge
Posted by Lina Ufimtseva
The ancient Stoics famously consoled themselves by accepting the inevitable. Through this, their purpose was to endure and to govern their negative emotions. Today, this has led to the misconception that being stoical means to be devoid of all emotion. Rather, it is to be devoid of passions, in the old sense of the word—distress, lament, lust, even excessive delight (including, for example, malice or ostentation).
Here is the crux of the matter: how then does one control excessive passions or negative emotions? This further leads us to the question: what do negative emotions result from? Usually they result from a disparity between desire and outcome. Simply put, when we cannot control what happens around us, we are nettled, riled. All people inherently have a God-complex. We want to plan and control our lives as we see fit.


We exercise control over our negative emotions when we reduce the disparity between desire and outcome, consciously reducing the desire to govern the things we have no control over. Thus we increase our happiness and satisfaction. I visit the airport. My flight is delayed. A friend of opposite persuasion to that of the Stoic—call him the ‘impulsive’ person—gets agitated because he desires to be on time. I, as a stoical person, realise that this is outside the realm of my control. The Stoic therefore might say, ‘The flight is only delayed by two hours. It's not as though it is cancelled.’

Following this logic—namely, that Stoicism reduces the disparity between desire and outcome—being stoical can make one a more buoyant person than the non-Stoic. An impulsive person might react to unwanted surprises with grumpiness, or drama, which can exhaust the patience of others. A stoical person, on the other hand, turns the lack of external control into the abundance of internal control. This may include such reactions as humour, or a quick wit. The Stoic need not be confined to dispassionate or boring responses.

The wisdom is learning to gauge when something is out of one’s control or not. For instance, my friend and I at the airport could have gone to the information desk, and asked if there was another flight with two empty seats—which often happens at airports. This would be an example of practicing Stoic virtues.


Paradoxically, Stocism in itself may lead to positive feelings. Consider the after-effects of destructive passions: drinking too much, or burning the house down. Naturally, this would leave one with destructive feelings in the morning, or may hamper relationships around one (people don't like people who burn a house down).

I may enjoy the illusion of power that destructive behaviour momentarily brings about, yet at the end of the day, it robs me of joy and liveliness. It is generally not sustainable to burn houses down, or to drink excessively, without harming one's own esteem. Stoic virtues therefore aim to increase and sustain satisfaction.

Courage is another virtue of the Stoic. To laugh in the face of a nuisance (such as a delayed flight) or in the face of danger, takes courage. Such courage generally raises one's self-esteem, as long as it is done in humility. With the raising of one's self-esteem, one becomes happier, and loses the need or desire for impulsive behaviour. So the Stoicism which might seem emotionless or boring can actually be a deep sense of satisfaction.


Now this leads us to the inner experience of the Stoic, and begs the question what it means to be such a person. Is one boring by being perceived as being boring, or is it important to be perceived by others in a certain way? Which is more true? My own perception of myself, or other people's perception of me? Which is more objective?

What one person perceives as a boring reaction (say, not reacting at all) might be perceived as cool and level-headed, even inspiring, by another. A friend seems to touch the quintessence of it: ‘There is a certain beauty and elusive joy that comes from embracing the absurdity of the things that lie outside of one's control.’

'A bad feeling is a commotion of the mind repugnant to reason, 
and against nature.' —Zeno of Citium.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Picture Post #27 An Icon on the ‘Verge’ of American History

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen 

A native American family taking a ride in a car. The picture was 
apparently taken in 1916 in the American Pacific Northwest

There's a piquant quality about the image. For the photographer and the publisher of the time, were the passengers meant to be ridiculous? A mocking look at native peoples in the White Man's world? Yet even if so they surely do not know that. For the passengers of that day, they are very modern, very grand.

The picture shows that realities fuse together in ramifications of accidental experiences. Notably, the image contains the awareness that symbols deeply embedded in societies take on different senses given different motivations and perspectives.

We now know how Native Americans, in general, fared with modernity: the car is a symbol of their fate and oppression. An image such as this accumulates meaning by virtue of some of its intrinsic symbolic values, which are nonetheless unusual in the face of deep-rooted events – events that allow a symbol to become an icon. 

There cannot be anything strange to see a Native American family driving around in an automobile. Yet this occasion, strange indeed might be the Indians pictured in the limousine. The first possibility shades into a reality where everything becomes like a dream and realisation is always immediate, no matter how many complex things are combined. The second bears the idea that realisation will always be something postponed to the future, and that in this process elements reappear as odd, as clashing symbols.  

The difference in the language is subtle. This is the delicacy on which an icon can be raised.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Identity: From Theseus's Paradox to the Singularity

Posted by Keith Tidman

A "replica" of an ancient Greek merchant ship based on the remains of a ship that wrecked about 2,500 years ago.  With acknowledgements to Donald Hart Keith.
As the legend goes, Theseus was an imposing Greek hero, who consolidated power and became the mythical king of Athens. Along the way, he awed everyone by leading victorious military campaigns. The Athenians honoured Theseus by displaying his ship in the Athenian harbour. As the decades rolled by, parts of the ship rotted. To preserve the memorial, each time a plank decayed, the Athenians replaced it with a new plank of the same kind of wood. First one plank, then several, then many, then all.

As parts of the ship were replaced, at what point was it no longer the ‘ship of Theseus’? Or did the ship retain its unique (undiminished) identity the entire time, no matter how many planks were replaced? Do the answers to those two questions change if the old planks, which had been warehoused rather than disposed of, were later reassembled into the ship? Which, then, is the legendary ‘ship of Theseus’, deserving of reverence — the ship whose planks had been replaced over the years, or the ship reassembled from the stored rotten planks, or neither? The Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch elaborated on the paradox in the first century in 'Life of Theseus'.

At the core of these questions about a mythical ship is the matter of ‘identity’. Such as how to define ‘an object’; whether an object is limited to the sum of people’s experience of it; whether an object can in some manner stay the same, regardless of the (macro or micro) changes it undergoes; whether the same rules regarding identity apply to all objects, or if there are exceptions; whether gradual and emergent, rather than immediate, change makes a difference in identity; and so forth.

The seventeenth-century English poilitical philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, weighed in on the conundrum, asking, ‘Which of the two existing ships is numerically one and the same ship as Theseus’s original ship?’ He went on to offer this take on the matter:
‘If some part of the first material has been removed or another part has been added, that ship will be another being, or another body. For, there cannot be a body “the same in number” whose parts are not all the same, because all a body’s parts, taken collectively, are the same as the whole.’
The discussion is not, of course, confined to Theseus’s ship. All physical objects are subject to change over time: suns (stars), trees, houses, cats, rugs, hammers, engines, DNA, the Andromeda galaxy, monuments, icebergs, oceans. As do differently categorised entities, such as societies, institutions, and organizations. And people’s bodies, which change with age of course — but more particularly, whose cells get replaced, in their entirety, roughly every seven years throughout one’s life. Yet, we observe that amidst such change — even radical or wholesale change — the names of things typically don’t change; we don’t start calling them something else. (Hobbes is still Hobbes seven years later, despite cellular replacement.)

The examples abound, as do the issues of identity. It was what led the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus to famously question whether, in light of continuous change, one can ‘step into the same river twice’—answering that it’s ‘not the same river and he’s not the same man’. And it’s what led Hobbes, in the case of the human body, to conveniently switch from the ‘same parts’ principle he had applied to Theseus’s ship, saying regarding people, ‘because of the unbroken nature of the flux by which matter decays and is replaced, he is always the same man’. (Or woman. Or child.) By extension of this principle, objects like the sun, though changing — emitting energy through nuclear fusion and undergoing cycles — have what might be called a core ‘persistence’, even as aspects of their form change.
‘If the same substance which thinks be changed,
it can be the same person, or remaining
the same, it can be a different person? — John Locke
But people, especially, are self-evidently more than just bodies. They’re also identified by their minds — knowledge, memories, creative instincts, intentions, wants, likes and dislikes, sense of self, sense of others, sense of time, dreams, curiosity, perceptions, imagination, spirituality, hopes, acquisitiveness, relationships, values, and all the rest. This aspect to ‘personal identity’, which John Locke encapsulates under the label ‘consciousness’ (self) and which undergoes continuous change, underpins the identity of a person, even over time — what has been referred to as ‘diachronic’ personal identity. In contrast, the body and mind, at any single moment in time, has been referred to as ‘synchronic’ personal identity. We remain aware of both states — continuous change and single moments — in turns (that is, the mind rapidly switching back and forth, analogous to what happens while supposedly 'multitasking'), depending on the circumstance.

The philosophical context surrounding personal identity — what’s essential and sufficient for personhood and identity — relates to today’s several variants of the so-called ‘singularity’, spurring modern-day paradoxes and thought experiments. For example, the intervention of humans to spur biological evolution — through neuroscience and artificial intelligence — beyond current physical and cognitive limitations is one way to express the ‘singularity’. One might choose to replace organs and other parts of the body — the way the planks of Theseus’s ship were replaced — with non-biological components and to install brain enhancements that make heightened intelligence (even what’s been dubbed ultraintelligence) possible. This unfolding may be continuous, undergoing a so-called phase transition.

The futurologist, Ray Kurzweil, has observed, ‘We're going to become increasingly non-biological’ — attaining a tipping point ‘where the non-biological part dominates and the biological part is not important any more’. The process entails the (re)engineering of descendants, where each milestone of change stretches the natural features of human biology. It’s where the identity conundrum is revisited, with an affirmative nod to the belief that mind and body lend themselves to major enhancement. Since such a process would occur gradually and continuously, rather than just in one fell swoop (momentary), it would fall under the rubric of ‘diachronic’ change. There’s persistence, according to which personhood — the same person — remains despite the incremental change.

In that same manner, some blend of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, heuristics, the biological sciences, and transformative, leading-edge technology, with influences from disciplines like philosophy and the social sciences, may allow a future generation to ‘upload the mind’ — scanning and mapping the mind’s salient features — from a person to another substrate. That other substrate may be biological or a many-orders-of-magnitude-more-powerful (such as quantum) computer. The uploaded mind — ‘whole-brain emulation’ — may preserve, indistinguishably, the consciousness and personal identity of the person from whom the mind came. ‘Captured’, in this term’s most benign sense, from the activities of the brain’s tens of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses.

‘Even in a different body, you’d still be you
if you had the same beliefs, the same worldview,
and the same memories.’ — Daniel Dennett
If the process can happen once, it can happen multiple times, for the same person. In that case, reflecting back on Theseus’s ship and notions of personal identity, which intuitively is the real person? Just the original? Just the first upload? The original and the first upload? The original and all the uploads? None of the uploads? How would ‘obsolescence’ fit in, or not fit in? The terms ‘person’ and ‘identity’ will certainly need to be revised, beyond the definitions already raised by philosophers through history, to reflect the new realities presented to us by rapid invention and reinvention.

Concomitantly, many issues will bubble to the surface regarding social, ethical, regulatory, legal, spiritual, and other considerations in a world of emulated (duplicated) personhood. Such as: what might be the new ethical universe that society must make sense of, and what may be the (ever-shifting) constraints; whether the original person and emulated person could claim equal rights; whether any one person (the original or emulation) could choose to die at some point; what changes society might confront, such as inequities in opportunity and shifting centers of power; what institutions might be necessary to settle the questions and manage the process in order to minimise disruption; and so forth, all the while venturing increasingly into a curiously untested zone.

The possibilities are thorny, as well as hard to anticipate in their entirety; many broad contours are apparent, with specificity to emerge at its own pace. The possibilities will become increasingly apparent as new capabilities arise (building on one another) and as society is therefore obliged, by the press of circumstances, to weigh the what and how-to — as well as the ‘ought’, of course. That qualified level of predictive certainty is not unexpected, after all: given sluggish change in the Medieval Period, our twelfth-century forebears, for example, had no problem anticipating what thirteenth-century life might offer. At that time in history, social change was more in line with the slow, plank-by-plank changes to Theseus’s ship. Today, the new dynamic of what one might call precocious change — combined with increasingly successful, productive, leveraged alliances among the various disciplines — makes gazing into the twenty-second century an unprecedentedly challenging briar patch.

New paradoxes surrounding humanity in the context of change, and thus of identity (who and what I am and will become), must certainly arise. At the very least, amidst startling, transformative self-reinvention, the question of what is the bedrock of personal identity will be paramount.