Monday, 15 October 2018

Land Ownership: Real or Perceived?

Mower, by Kazimir Malevich, 1930
Posted by Simon Thomas
It is not very often that moderns make distinctions between what is ‘truly stated’, and a ‘statement of truth’. While many write this off as wordplay, the distinction is important, because it draws the line between knowledge that has its base in truth, and knowledge that has its base in presuppositions. 
I apply this to the land question – a question which has been at issue throughout the world, and is at this historical juncture particularly pressing in my home country South Africa.  That is, I here consider how one may approach the issue philosophically.

An assumption is often made without historical reference – namely that the land simply belongs to ‘the people’.  A second assumption goes with it – namely that those who are currently living on it stole it from them. Now when people make these assertions, what they are stating is ‘truly stated’.

It is truly stated because they truly believe what they hold to be true. It is true because they believe it is true. It is not necessarily true because it has its basis in historical fact – rather, it is what they perceive as fact.

But this is to put it too simply. Our perceptions of reality are multi-varied things. One may say, for example, ‘The cat is brown.’ This is a statement based in a perceived reality. Yes, the cat might appear to be brown, but in reality, it is a tortoiseshell – a mixture of colours that merely make it look that way. One could advance many such examples. 

In the case of the land question, a group of persons, or a person, may lay claim to any piece of real estate merely because they say their claim to it is based in prior ownership. In reality, the issue is somewhat ambiguous – like the cat. In truth, while a person may have rights to the land for a given period of time, this is not synonymous with the whole idea of ownership. Land in itself belongs to no one, but it is often confused by the issue of who has rights to the land.

Consider that ownership is the moral right to categorically control something. More often than not, therefore, it is the person who has put in the work who has the greatest right to land. Therefore while it can be correctly stated that land belongs to the people, that is in fact never the case. Land cannot be owned in perpetuity, since it cannot be owned. It must ‘belong’ to those who work it.

And then only as the benefit of the ones who actually work it. Those who merely want to have the benefit of ownership while letting the land lie fallow should step aside for those who want to work the land for the benefit of others.

Ownership is therefore the moral right to control or manipulate the land, and only own it on the basis that the ones owning it are actually working it. The perceived truth, therefore, that the person who has claimed a deed to the land has the right to it, becomes rather obscure, and the one who puts in the labour becomes the actual owner.

So it can be seen that while a thing may be perceived as true, it might not be true in reality.  And while we perceive that something is true, it might only be true within the framework of our knowledge about it. These philosophical issues need to be sifted one from the other.

Not only that, but we need to work within the framework of our worldview, and in many cases, our spiritual understanding, which for many is that humanity is not merely hurtling headlong into space, but has a predetermined goal that is gradually unfolding.

Monday, 8 October 2018

BOOK REVIEW: I Think, Therefore I Eat

Reviewed by Colin Kirk
‘Felling rain forests to free up land for growing animals and vegetables, pulverized into so called foods, nightmarish..’ PICTURE: Lowland rainforest in Sulawesi's Tangkoko Reserve, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Martin Cohen is well known to generations of budding philosophers for his ‘101’ books. Amongst many other productions Political Philosophy from Plato to Mao stands out for critical analysis presented with lucidity and humor. I Think Therefore I Eat is a worthy successor to these seminal texts.

In an age when most journalism is no more than regurgitation of the PR blurb of commercial and political interests, philosophy regains its rightful place as investigator. This account, not simply of food its production and marketing but of the constituents of the human body that result, is unique and unlikely to be surpassed.

These days experts contribute to the human horror story. It requires philosophy to correct their ever changing sound bites with straightforward examination of the facts. Witty and readable, I Think Therefore I Eat will shock food experts of all kinds but the rest of us will think carefully before we eat. We’ll improve our life styles and extend our life expectancy as a result.

This book is almost impossible to classify. The philosophy is certainly in evidence but unobtrusively, amongst careful description of the grotesque constituents of junk food and their effects on the human body and mind, interspersed with unusual recipes that rush one into the kitchen.

There is structure to this bizarre conglomeration that meanders through the food fashions of the past hundred years with reference back to the eating habits of philosophers over the previous two and a half millennia.

Not all the foodies referred to are generally regarded as philosophers nor are their eating habits necessarily sound, quite the reverse. Hitler exemplifies these peculiarities of some of the thinkers selected. Mein Kampf is a work of philosophy but a diet of macerated boiled vegetables was not a healthy choice, nor were the concomitant medical interventions designed to ease the Fuhrer’s resultant flatulence.

One great strength of this book is the exposure of the appalling practices of free market exploiters of the environment both around us and inside us. Felling rain forests to free up land for growing animals and vegetables, pulverized into so called foods, contaminated with all manner of chemical contrivances to extract the last fast buck, is nightmarish reading.

These are not scenes in a horror movie from some way-out, backward, banana republic but day by day activities of world brand agricultural, chemical, pharmaceutical, food and drinks manufacturing industries that fuel economic growth for the few and ill health for the many.

Even when there were active Food and Drug Administrations in Western Democracies, well healed lawyers, scientists and medics ensured they had little actual clout against conglomerate industries with turnovers measured in billions of dollars or euros. The quality of expertise applied to such matters is low and the price charged by such experts extremely high. These are business models of the worse kind applied to the basic essentials of life.

Every page of this book contains good advice but it leads to no overall conclusion of the one-size-fits-all variety, with the possible exception of the seal of approval given to real chocolate. Most of what’s sold unfortunately isn’t.

At heart this is a work of philosophy and its conclusion is the usual one. Be yourself, it’s up to you. Examine all facts directly yourself, not the conclusions of characters who claim to be experts. Interpret the facts as best as you can and decide a course of action that suits you.

We all know that we are what we eat but we apply that knowledge as our appetite dictates. However, we now know that our appetites are massively influenced by advertisements, chemicals, manufactured flavors and plasticized finishes that do us no good and a great deal of harm. The golden delicious chips at McDonald’s are a prime example.

Western Democracy, the political model we live in, is designed by and for multibillionaires and their bureaucratic and expert camp- followers, who are paid handsomely to betray us into horrid eating habits as they transfer our money into their pockets.

Fidel Castro, another philosopher not usually thought of as such, was forced, by the collapse of Russian Communism in 1989 and the total American blockade of Cuba that ensued, to cultivate every square meter of land capable of growing food. The city of Havana and every other city, town and village became fruit and vegetable gardens. The Cubans did not starve to death as intended but became more healthy and versatile.

The problem with doing the right thing by growing your own food, should that be your conclusion, is that it requires a great deal of thought and planning. Further, success follows a series of disheartening failures as one learns by experience. For good health, fitness and longevity it’s worth it.

This is not a reference book as such but you’ll refer to it time and again in your pursuit of good eating habits. You’ll more likely find it on the shelf of recipe books in the kitchen than along with Kant and Kierkegaard.

Colin Kirk is the author of Life in Poetry.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Picture Post #38 What Happened Next to the White Rabbit

'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 Paris, captured en passant by Tessa den Uyl
This cozy scene reminiscient of Lewis Carroll's imaginary ‘wonderland’, is in fact, something rather more grim.

No surprise would fall upon us to discover a boar’s head hanging on the wall in a hunter’s lodge. But most often today, to encounter embalmed animals in non-rural houses reminds of gestures of excess that echo as non-virtuous.

This shop window in the centre of Paris offers a sitting room full of real dead animals. Yet perhaps it is not the embalmed animals that particularly draw the attention here, but rather the way that they are displayed with more or less anthropomorphic features.

The White Rabbit, in Lewis Carroll's famous story, Alice in Wonderland, occupies a particular role: he appears at the very beginning of the book, in chapter one, wearing a waistcoat, carrying a pocket watch, and in a great hurry muttering ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’ And Alice encounters him again at a stressful moment in the adventure when she finds herself trapped in his house after growing too large.

Most emblematic of all though, the Rabbit  reappears as a servant of the King and Queen of Hearts in the closing chapters of the book, reading out bizarre verses as ‘evidence' against Alice. In this scene, the stuffed white rabbit, too, seems to have a prosecutorial air, rather as though the animal is a judge surrounded by courtroom flunkeys.

In Alice’s case, the White Rabbit’s case for the prosecution is so convincing that the Queen of Hearts immediately announces ‘Off with her head!’ at which point, mercifully, Alice wakes up. In this real-life shop, too, a similar return to earth is marked by a neatly framed message held by the only fake animal in the shop.  It notifies the observer that all the animals have died naturally in zoos or zoological parks. Potential clients can presumably put their consciences to ease.

Aristotle mentioned that art is a representation of life, of character, of emotion and actions, and in contemporary art, animals in formaldehyde are exhibited in famous museums for world-scaring prizes. So why not admire a similar thing by looking into this shop window? Yet there is a repulsion.

Is it a reduction of the animal - or is it rather the excess - the building up of animals into fine decor for homes? Or is the display less commercial than in itself an artistic exploration? Or is it more a philosophical challenge, something to do with Aristotle’s notion that we seek to discover the universal hidden in a world of the everyday and particular?

Monday, 24 September 2018

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

For scientists, space is not empty but full of quantum energy
Posted by Keith Tidman

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz introduced this inquiry more than three hundred years ago, saying, ‘The first question that should rightly be asked is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”’ Since then, many philosophers and scientists have likewise pondered this question. Perhaps the most famous restatement of it came in 1929 when the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, placed it at the heart of his book What Is Metaphysics?: ‘Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?’

Of course, many people around the world turn to a god as a sufficient reason (explanation) for the universe’s existence. Aristotle believed, as did his forerunner Heraclitus, that the world was mutable — everything undergoing perpetual change — which he characterised as movement. He argued that there was a sequence of predecessor causes that led back deep into the past, until reaching an unmoved mover, or Prime Mover (God). An eternal, immaterial, unchanging god exists necessarily, Aristotle believed, itself independent of cause and change.

In the 13th century Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Christian friar, advanced this so-called cosmological view of universal beginnings, likewise perceiving God as the First Cause. Leibniz, in fact, was only proposing something similar, with his Contingency Argument, in the 17th century:

‘The sufficient reason [for the existence of the universe] which needs not further reason must be outside of this series of contingent things and is found in a substance which . . . is a necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself. . . .  This final reason for things is called God’ — Leibniz, The Principles of Nature and Grace

However, evoking God as the prime mover or first cause or noncontingent being — arbitrarily, on a priori rather than empirical grounds — does not inescapably make it so. Far from it. The common counterargument maintains that a god correspondingly raises the question that, if a god exists — has a presence — what was its cause? Assuming, that is, that any thing — ‘nothing’ being the sole exception — must have a cause. So we are still left with the question, famously posed by the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, ‘What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?’ To posit the existence of a god does not, as such, get around the ‘hard problem’: why there is a universe at all, not just why our universe is the way it is.

Some go so far as to say that nothingness is unstable, hence again impossible.

Science has not fared much better in this challenge. The British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell ended up merely declaring in 1948, ‘I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all’. A ‘brute fact’, as some have called it. Many scientists have embraced similar sentiments: concluding that ‘something’ was inevitable, and that ‘nothingness’ would be impossible. Some go so far as to say that nothingness is unstable, hence again impossible. But these are difficult positions to support unquestionally, given that, as with many scientific and philosophical predecessors and contemporaries, they do not adequately explain why and how. This was, for example, the outlook of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher who maintained that the universe (with its innumerable initial conditions and subsequent properties) had to exist. Leaping forward to the 20th century, Albert Einstein, himself an admirer of Spinoza’s philosophy, seemed to concur.

Quantum mechanics poses an interesting illustration of the science debate, informing us that empty space is not really empty — not in any absolute sense, anyway. Even what we might consider the most perfect vacuum is actually filled by churning virtual particles — quantum fluctuations — that almost instantaneously flit in and out of existence. Some theoretical physicists have suggested that this so-called ‘quantum vacuum’ is as close to nothingness as we might get. But quantum fluctuations do not equate to nothingness; they are not some modern-day-science equivalent of the non-contingent Prime Mover discussed above. Rather, no matter however flitting and insubstantial, virtual quantum particles are still something.

It is therefore reasonable to inquire into the necessary origins of these quantum fluctuations — an inquiry that requires us to return to an Aristotelian-like chain of causes upon causes, traceable back in time. The notion of a supposed quantum vacuum still doesn’t get us to what might have garnered something from nothing. Hence, the hypothesis that there has always been something — that the quantum vacuum was the universe’s nursery — peels away as an unsupportable claim. Meanwhile, other scientific hypotheses, such as string theory, bid to take the place of Prime Mover. At the heart of the theory is the hypothesis that the fundamental particles of physics are not really ‘points’ as such but rather differently vibrating energy ‘strings’ existing in many more than the familiar dimensions of space-time. Yet these strings, too, do not get us over the hump of something in place of nothing; strings are still ‘something’, whose origins (causes) would beg to be explained.

In addressing these questions, we are not talking about something emerging from nothing, as nothingness by definition would preclude the initial conditions required for the emergence of a universe. Also, ‘nothingness’ is not the mere absence (or opposite) of something; rather, it is possible to regard ‘nothingness’ as theoretically having been just as possible as ‘something’. In light of such modern-day challenges in both science and philosophy, Lugdwig Wittgenstein was at least partially right in saying, early in the 20th century (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, section 6.4 on what he calls ‘the mystical’), that the real mystery was, ‘Not how the world is . . . but that it is’.

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?’

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