Monday, 17 September 2018

The Way of Completeness

To mark its approach to 200 000 Pageviews, Pi is pleased to feature a Pi Special by Sifiso Mkhonto of South Africa.  Sifiso helps Pi to celebrate:
Author diversity.  Writers from (inter alia) the UK, USA, Germany, Hungary, Russia, Ukraine, India, China, and South Africa
Original perspectives.  In political philosophy, ethics, the philosophy of religion, metaphysics, literature, science, poetry, art and 'the trenches'
Quality and readability.  Scholarly contributions in an accessible style, expertly edited for quality and consistency

Colour Study Quadrate, by Wassily Kandinsky, 1913
Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
Completeness: some regard it as a state of being, where one flourishes in his or her way of living life the way one deems fit  without any restrictions, exceptions, or qualifications which invalidate one's being. Many people search for its true meaning. Many die without finding out. Some claim to be in this state.
However, can one be complete alone? If freedom is taken as the foundational value, then a society will seek to allow individuals to maximise their life opportunities without hindrance from government, political ideologies, religious beliefs, classism, and all sub-cultures in society.

The danger with this form of completeness: it creates many truths, and we know that what is good for me might not be good for the other. How then do we answer the question: does completeness reduce or increase the harm done to one, and to society at large?

The cultures and sub-cultures of wealth, politics, pleasure, knowledge, morality, science, human rights, worship, and classism are not entirely harmless nor harmful. They are convenient to each person.

Convenience, therefore, is a language spoken and understood in each of these cultures, yet does not lead to completeness. It focuses on our own experience and prospects. We speak in reality the language of convenience – not completeness.

Allow me briefly to expand on a few cultures and sub-cultures of convenience – taking a list of points outlined by socialist clergyman Frederick Lewis Donaldson in Westminster Abbey on March 20, 1925. They are named ‘social sins’.
Wealth without work - it leads to greed, including corruption, crime, social injustice, and colonisation.
Pleasure without conscience – where those actions which are morally required are evaded.
Knowledge without character – knowledge of anything without conscience and good character has often granted societies the ‘dangerous man’.
Commerce without morality – exploits both individual and environment, to the point of social and ecological ruin.
Science without humanity – to deny humanity in the service of science is to destroy the very thing you need to serve. You cannot deny yourself.
Worship without sacrifice – which is the opium of the people wherever it serves to suppress the poor, to hold them in the same position.
Politics without principle – has lost its purpose, having become politics for its own sake, and for the sake of those who use it.
The common element found in such ‘social sins’ is the convenience that leads to the illusion of completeness – in spite of the fact that we are aware of this illusion. In the interests of completeness, therefore, we should keep our mind always open to receive truth.

The logician and theologian Isaac Watts once said: ‘Be ready always to hear what may be objected even against your favourite opinions, and those which have had longest possession of your assent.’ Adding:
‘And if there should be any new and uncontrollable evidence brought against these old or beloved sentiments, do not wink your eyes fast against the light, but part with anything for the sake of truth: remember when you overcome an error, you gain truth; the victory is on your side and the advantages are all your own.’

Monday, 10 September 2018

Detours to Atlantic Avenue

Posted by Cliff Fyman

In which the night-time driver of a Manhattan cab transforms overheard conversations with his passengers into a collection of poems ...

When she first spotted my cab I had been starting to park on a snowy side street
          at 2 a.m. to buy a cup of coffee
and she surprised me opening the door
and said I could still buy that coffee
she’d wait but I said that’s okay
and we mapped a course to Gowanus
then skimmed across a conversation of the world’s religions
and how her parents down south wanted her to remain a Baptist but she wanted
          to explore Buddhism
as the snow fell and how a bad thing sometimes is a detour that helps us escape
          something worse
till we find our way
which was just like this detour
she said through the side streets till we came into the clear at Atlantic Avenue.

Monday, 3 September 2018

PP # 39 The Sideways Glance

'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 Thomas Scarborough

‘Poster promoting the European workers revolution.’ *

Coordinated graphics serve a coordinated initiative. Marching feet resonate intentions towards a better future, in the name of the Proletariat. The large group of the poor, the workers, the people, is determined to proclaim its voice. 

What are those hats, strangely waved about? At root, a surplus labour that originates in a surplus value is subtracted by the rich, by subtracting the surplus value from those who produce. These marching men represent the possibility of an idea to overcome this alienation.

The idea is noble, except to the nobility, and all who have not truly lived up to the same—the idea of personal and social inclusion which rejects the asocial. Today these marching feet resound in our memory, ideas that could have revolutionised our way of thinking, of interacting, and of well-being.

For many it sounds like a (thankfully) lost cause. While it changed our perspectives, 'built the world in which we live', and brought lasting benefits for workers, it brought, too, destruction and carnage— the blood of the workers, and those who resisted them, symbolised in the red.

Do we understand Marxism after what has become of communism? Are Marx's warnings of individualism and atomism finally lost? Did we lose the dream? Between these historical red drapes and waving hats, the sideways glance of the man in the middle still speaks to us today. 'What do you think?'

* This poster appears on a Chinese website. Though Pi was not able to track down the source, it is typical of early Soviet propaganda, and the banner characteristic of International Workers’ Day.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Utopia: An End, or a Quest?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Detail from the original frontispiece for More’s book Utopia
In his 1516 book Utopia, the English statesman and writer Sir Thomas More summed up his imagined, idealised vision of an island society in this manner:

‘Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich — for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?’

A laconic, even breezy counterpoint to the imperfect and in some cases heavily flawed dystopian societies that actually populated the world — More’s utopia presenting a republic confronting much that was wrong in the 16th century. More’s utopia promulgates the uplifting notion that, despite humankind’s fallibilities, many ills of society have remedies.

Two other writers, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, who wrote Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels respectively, were both authors of popular 18th-century stories that took inspiration from the utopian principles of Thomas More.

The word ‘utopia’, coined by More, is from the Greek, meaning ‘no place’. Yet, it seems likely that More was also punning on a different word, pronounced identically, which applies more aptly to history’s descriptions of utopia — like that captured in Plato’s Republic (of ‘philosopher-kings’ fame), Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun, and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis — that word being ‘eutopia’. The word is also of Greek origin, but signifies ‘good place’.

Some see utopias and eutopias alike as heralding the possibility of reforming present society toward some idealised end point — what Herbert Marcuse, the 20th-century German-American philosopher, referred to as ‘the end of utopia’, when ‘material and intellectual forces capable of achieving the transformation are technically present’.

However, long ago, Aristotle pushed back against the concept of utopia as an unattainable figment — a chimera. Later political theorists have joined the criticism, notably More’s contemporary, the Italian political philosopher and statesman Niccolò Machiavelli. In The Prince, Machiavelli concurs with More’s notions of cynicism and corruption seen in society generally and in politics specifically. As such, Machiavelli believed that the struggle for political supremacy is conflictual, necessarily lacking morality — the ‘effective truth of the thing’ in power politics. ‘Politics have no relation to morals’, he stated bluntly. Machiavelli thus did not brook what he regarded as illusory social orders like utopias.

Nonetheless, utopias are, in their intriguingly ambitious way, philosophical, sociological, and political thought experiments. They promulgate and proclaim norms that by implication reproachfully differ from all current societies. They are both inspirational and aspirational. As H.G. Wells noted in his 1905 novel, A Modern Utopia:

‘Our business here is to be Utopian, to make vivid and credible, if we can, first this facet and then that, of an imaginary whole and happy world’.

In that vein, many thinkers have taken their definitions to the next level, offering concrete prescriptions: deconstructing society’s shortcomings, and fleshing out blueprints for the improved social order envisioned. These blueprints may include multiple dimensions: political, economic, ecological, moral, educational, customs, judicial, familial, values, communal, philosophical, and scientific and technological, among others.

The 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, however, paints a bleak dystopia, even in the highly reformed architecture of utopia:

‘For the laws of nature … of themselves, without the terror of some power, to cause them to be observed, are contrary to our natural passions’.

That is, given that the ‘natural condition of mankind’ is to incurably and quarrelsomely seek ever more power, the civilizing effects of laws and of governance are required to channel people’s energies and ambitions, and to constrain as necessary.

Yet legal constraints can reach too far: this kind of utopian theorizing lapses into a formula for authoritarianism. The German professor of literature Artur Blaim has summed up, as forthrightly as anyone, the suppressive nature associated with a political system of this kind as:

            ‘Utopias die, utopianism does not’.

The apprehension, then, is that even in a declared utopia, powerful leaders might coerce reluctant conformists to fit into a single mold. Dangerously patriarchal, given possibly counterfactual evidence of what’s best for most.

Certainly, there have been occurrences — ‘utopian’ cults, cabals, compounds, religions, and even nation states’ political systems — where heavy-handed pressure to step in line has been administered and violence has erupted. In these scenarios, repressive measures — to preserve society’s structural demands — are at the expense of freedom and liberal drives. As Bertrand de Jouvenel, a 20th-century French philosopher, counseled, if somewhat hyperbolically:
‘There is a tyranny in every utopia.’
So, might ‘utopia’ be defined differently than any single idealised end point, where ‘satisfied’ architects of utopia feel comfortable putting their tools down, hinting ‘it’s the end of history’?

Or instead, might utopianism be better characterised as a dynamic process of change — of a perpetual becoming (emergence) — directed in the search of ever-better conditions? The key to utopianism is thus its catalytic allure: the uninterrupted exploration, trying out, and readjustment of modalities and norms.

As the 20th-century German philosopher Ernst Bloch pointed out,

‘Expectation, hope and intention, directed towards the possibility which has not yet arrived, constitute not only a fundamental property of the human consciousness but also … a fundamental determination at the heart of objective reality itself’.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Our Destined Date

Posted by Jeremy Dyer *
Red Sky at Night II by Kimberly Conrad
The rivers run, the leaves do fall
The earth still turns its trick
The oceans and the prairies roar
But we are very sick.

Blasted earth, the toxins run
The blood is poisoned well
We cannot survive the fun
Of our consumer hell.

Garbage, plastic, rusted bike
It all runs to the sea
Killing man and beast alike
That poison's killing me.

When will we wake, alas too late
It's past the point of fixing
There is a destined, horror date
That no-one will be missing.

I have the hope that birds will sing
Kind winds will blow again
Stopping our destructioning
Healing up our pain.

But will we wake and heal the earth
Get rid of all the 'leaders'?
Reduce the greed, respect the hearth
Deal with all the breeders?

The earth will die, I think it's done
We're in the final hour
What's over when the song is sung
Is the funeral bower.

The rivers run, black as hell
They're dying as we speak
The urgent answers that we seek
Won't be on tv this week.
* Jeremy Dyer is an acclaimed Cape Town artist.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Ubuntu's Fifth Wave

'Unity in Diversity' by Oscar Olufisayo Awokunle
Posted by Thomas Scarborough
'Ubuntu' is legendary in Southern Africa.  Its meaning is encapsulated in the idiom, 'Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu'—a person is a person through other people, or 'I am because you are.'  It represents the very reverse of European Enlightenment thinking: 'The individual is prior to the group.'  According to the Luthern minister William Flipping Jr., ubuntu means that 'we are first and foremost social beings.'  This is not to say that ubuntu denies our individuality; rather it incorporates our individuality in the group.
Ubuntu as one describes it, however, and ubuntu as one experiences it, would seem to be two different things.  The concept seems inadequate for describing what it really is.  A personal aside suggests itself here.  I myself, in 2013, 'married into Africa'.  My own identity, in a positive way, was incorporated into that of the clan, so that I was treated with warmth, generosity, and equality—despite being an outsider of sorts.  Apart from this, I discovered an energetic ubuntu which had a very practical interest in the good of all—something which a mere definition seems unable to convey.

There are said to have been three distinct waves of ubuntu—or four, if one inserts the first on this list.
The original 'village ubuntu'—the spirit of 'one for all, and all for one', which existed since ancient time, and included hospitality to the stranger.
The ubuntu, first described around the middle of the 19th century, which referred to African personhood and dignity in the face of dehumanisation by colonists.
The ascendency of ubuntu as a political concept in the late 20th century, promising to restore the personhood and dignity of citizens following apartheid.
The theological turn of ubuntu, which originated with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu—anchored in Christian teachings of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Yet if it is true that ubuntu understands that 'we are first and foremost social beings,' then we would seem, lately, to have travelled in the opposite direction.  We have witnessed increasing individualism in Africa—often heartless and often harmful to the group.  We see it in many ways: self-enrichment, wilful damage to local and national infrastructure, environmental destruction, and so on.  Ubuntu seems to have been fairly powerless in the face of such challenges.

The weakness of ubuntu is to me epitomised by a crisis which the BBC billed as a world first—the water shortage in Cape Town, which would have seen the world's first major city running dry on 'Day Zero'.  One of Pi's own contributors, Sifiso Mkhonto, on the news service News24, highlighted the need for ubuntu.  Yet ubuntu seemed in short supply.  Instead, the city mayor wrote a dramatic letter with the opening lines, 'Day Zero is now likely.  60% of Capetonians won’t save water, we must now force them.'

Ubuntu is an idea which was born in ancient time—in another world, we might say, far removed from us now.  More recent concepts of ubuntu were born in the optimism of social and political change, and seem ill fitted to the 'reality' which has set in today.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes ubuntu like this: 'When you do well, it spreads out.'  The trouble is, it both does and doesn't.  In the case of Cape Town's water crisis, ubuntu did not spread out to save the city. The city responded to a point, yet it was saved by rain.

We have not yet lifted up ubuntu to the level where Archbishop Tutu's 'doing well' is not just about me and you transmitting the warmth and goodness which a society absorbs, but about a society which can be so organised that it really works for all.  We need a 'fifth wave' of ubuntu, which goes beyond village ubuntu, beyond political ubuntu, and ingrains ubuntu in the fabric of society, as it were.  The advent of true democracy was a positive development for Southern Africa—yet once obtained, the healthful organisation of society is the primary goal.

Religions have known this for millennia.  They have a large foundation of unconditional 'bottom line injunctions'.  Societies, in a similar way, need a comprehensive set of core values which are sacrosanct—a kind of 'super-law' which not only favours ubuntu, but secures it and upholds it with the necessary mechanisms.  That is, an ubuntu of the body politic, embraced as the ideal, embedded in law, and effectively applied.  When that happens, ubuntu may be complete.

Monday, 6 August 2018

To Be is to Inherit

'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

Picture credit: Harry Rutter

Words, by repeating their connotation, their application seems to follow rather rigid schemes, hence we might even think that, after all, words work. Authority depends on making words effective. Don’t move! Stop! Words that are not only verbal but follow a series of physical gestures as well, that we should understand, not question.

Now let us enter this door in the picture above. After all, there is written welcome. If there would be a person behind that door we would be told we are not allowed to be there. “Have you not read there is written No Entry?” Well no, we focused on the welcome, and would a welcome not be open to all?

This is not how it works, and we do understand this. Even when the combination of more words clearly carries along a form of incongruous meanings, most often the no rejects the yes.   

Being human is to be ambivalent by nature. We cannot avoid contradictions within our own selves, a plural reading of meaning, of relations. But somehow we have learned that property is connected to prohibition. Exclusion is our logic. Hence this is why, in our language, a welcome can be offered to some but not to all?

Monday, 30 July 2018

The Anthropic Principle: Was the Universe Made for Us?

Diagram on the dimensionality of spacetime, by Max Tegmark
Posted by Keith Tidman
‘It is clear that the Earth does not move, and that it does not lie elsewhere than at the center [of the universe]’ 
— Aristotle (4th century BCE)

Almost two millennia after Aristotle, in the 16th century, Nicolas Copernicus dared to differ from the revered ‘father of Western philosophy’. Copernicus rattled the world by arguing that the Earth is not at the center of the universe — in a move that to many at the time seemed to knock humankind off its pedestal, and reduce it from exceptionalism to mediocrity. The so-called ‘Copernican principle’ survived, of course, along with the profound disturbance it had evoked for the theologically minded.

Five centuries later, in the early 1970s, an American astrophysicist called Brandon Carter came up with a different model — the ‘anthropic principle’ — that has kept philosophers and scientists debating its significance cosmologically and metaphysically. With some irony, Carter proposed the principle at a symposium to mark Copernicus’s 500th birthday. The anthropic principle points to what has been referred to as the ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe: a list of cosmological qualities (physical constants) whose extraordinarily precise values were essential to making intelligent life possible.

Yet, as Thomas Nagel, the contemporary American philosopher, suggested, even the physical constants known to be required for our universe and an intelligent carbon-based life form need to be properly understood, especially in context of the larger-scaled universe:
‘One doesn’t show that something doesn’t require explanation by pointing out that it is a condition of one’s existence.’
The anthropic principle — its adherence to simplicity, consistency, and elegance notwithstanding — did not of course place Earth back at the center of the universe. As Carter put it, ‘Although our situation is not necessarily central, it is inevitably privileged’. To widen the preceding idea, let’s pose two questions: Did the anthropic principle reestablish humankind’s special place? Was the universe made for us?

First, some definitions. There are several variants of the anthropic principle, as well as differences among definitions, with Carter originally proposing two: the ‘weak anthropic principle’ and the ‘strong anthropic principle’. Of the weak anthropic principle, Carter says:
‘… our location in the universe [he was referring to the age of the universe at which humankind entered the world stage, as well as to location within space] is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers.’
Of the strong anthropic principle, he explained,
‘The universe (and hence the fundamental parameters on which it depends) must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage’.
Although Carter is credited with coining the term ‘anthropic principle’, others had turned to the subject earlier than him. One in particular among them was the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who presented a model of the world intriguingly similar to the weak anthropic principle. He argued that the world’s existence depended on numerous variables, like temperature and atmosphere, remaining within a very narrow range — presaging Carter’s fuller explanation. Here’s a snapshot of Schopenhauer’s thinking on the matter:
‘If any one of the actually appearing perturbations of [the planets’ course], instead of being gradually balanced by others, continued to increase, the world would soon reach its end’.
That said, some philosophers and scientists have criticized the weak variant as a logical tautology; however, that has not stopped others from discounting the criticism and favoring the weak variant. At the same time, the strong variant is considered problematic in its own way, as it’s difficult to substantiate this variant either philosophically or scientifically. It may be neither provable nor disprovable. However, at their core, both variants (weak and strong) say that our universe is wired to permit an intelligent observer — whether carbon-based or of a different substrate — to appear.

So, what kinds of physical constants — also referred to as ‘cosmic coincidences’ or ‘initial conditions’ — does the anthropic principle point to as ‘fine-tuned’ for a universe like ours, and an intelligent species like ours, to exist? There are many; however, let’s first take just one, to demonstrate significance. If the force of gravitation were slightly weaker, then following the Big Bang matter would have been distributed too fast for galaxies to form. If gravitation were slightly stronger — with the universe expanding even one millionth slower — then the universe would have expanded to its maximum and collapsed in a big crunch before intelligent life would have entered the scene.

Other examples of constants balanced on a razor’s edge have applied to the universe as a whole, to our galaxy, to our solar system, and to our planet. Examples of fine-tuning include the amount of dark matter and dark energy (minimally understood at this time) relative to all the observable lumpy things like galaxies; the ratio of matter and antimatter; mass density and space-energy density; speed of light; galaxy size and shape; our distance from the Milky Way’s center; the sun’s mass and metal content; atmospheric transparency . . . and so forth. These are measured, not just modeled, phenomena.

The theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson poignantly pondered these and the many other ‘coincidences’ and ‘initial conditions’, hinting at an omnipresent cosmic consciousness:
‘As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it is almost as if the universe must in some sense have known we were coming.’
Perhaps as interestingly, humankind is indeed embedded in the universe, able to contemplate itself as an intelligent species; reveal the features and evolution of the universe in which humankind resides as an observer; and ponder our species’ place and purpose in the universe, including our alternative futures.

The metaphysical implications of the anthropic principle are many. One points to agency and design by a supreme being. Some philosophers, like St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) and later William Paley (18th century), have argued this case. However, some critics of this explanation have called it a ‘God of the gaps’ fallacy — pointing out what’s not yet explained and filling the holes in our knowledge with a supernatural being.

Alternatively, there is the hypothetical multiverse model. Here, there are a multitude of universes each assumed to have its own unique initial conditions and physical laws. And even though not all universes within this model may be amenable to the evolution of advanced intelligent life, it’s assumed that a universe like ours had to be included among the infinite number. Which at least begins to speak to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger's question, ‘Why are there beings at all, instead of nothing?’

Monday, 23 July 2018

Seizing Control of Depression

The Man at the Tiller 1892 | Theo van Rysselbergh
Posted by Simon Thomas
We know the symptoms of depression well. We read of them everywhere: sleeplessness, weight loss, reckless behaviour—and so on. Yet we tend to miss the fact that the foremost of these symptoms is deeply philosophical. 
The philosopher Tim Ruggerio defines depression, above all, as ‘the healthy suspicion that there may not be an aim or point to existence’. This broadly agrees with a symptom which stands at the top of many lists of symptoms: ‘Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. A bleak outlook.’

Of course, depression does not exist purely on a philosophical plane. It is deeply felt. The symptoms one reads about do not begin to describe the darkness one feels in the throes of a depressive episode. It may be hard to see a way out when, frayed and tattered, one’s feelings start spiralling—and it seems no amount of positive talk can help.

Yet even then, there is one steady pole at the centre. My feelings belong to me. Only I can do something about them. This, too, is deeply philosophical. It is too easy to doubt or despair about something, without recognising that one is despairing over oneself. One needs to own it—and such ownership, in turn, forms the basis for a rational way forward.

The philosopher-theologian Paul Tillich wrote, ‘The acceptance of despair is in itself faith and on the boundary line of the courage to be ... The act of accepting meaninglessness in itself is a meaningful act.’ Here, then, is how this simple philosophical insight helps us further:
When we recognise that we are dealing with a philosophical struggle, our orientation to the problem may change. The acceptance of depression as my own, far from acceptance in the sense of surrender, becomes the source of the resolve to face the real issue. It is about the search for an all-embracing meaning of life.

When I see that depression is a philosophical problem, it stands to reason that I shall engage in activities which strengthen me philosophically—which enhance the mind and focus on the good.  Conversely, I shall as far as possible remove myself from the company of those who engage in negativity.

When I understand that it is too easy to doubt or despair about something, without recognising that I am despairing over myself, I know to set aside some of those thoughts and activities which are merely avoidant, which serve to continue a once-removed despair.

Knowing that the solution is philosophical, it stands to reason that it does not merely take a day off to apply it. It is a long-term process, and there are no quick fixes. One develops realistic expectations. Similarly, one does not let down one’s guard. Depression is a bit like the devil in Christian belief. It does not take time off. It is not the time for peace until one walks free.

The ownership of depression represents an acceptance of one's own weakness. Socrates was an avid proponent of the dictum ‘Know thyself.’ To know one's weakness in times of distress is of great help, because if one knows what causes one to fall, one can take steps to stop the downward spiral of one’s mindset.

Philosophy in all its fullness includes the spiritual and artistic aspects of our personality. Therefore it is valuable to have an appreciation for the spiritual and aesthetic inclinations of the human ‘soul’, and to exercise and expand on them.
Of course, prevention is always better than cure. ‘Guard your heart, for out of it comes the issues of life,’ wrote the wise King Solomon. Watch your life and be careful what and who you allow in your heart. We are always under the influence of something or someone, at some stage of our life. It is sensible to guard what one allows oneself to be influenced by.

This is not intended to diminish the help that medication gives, or wise counsel. Yet philosophy plays a central role in depression, and may present a definitive anchor for the soul, which enables us to find the way back to a place of reason and not to spiral into despair.

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