I’ve gone through a number of different degrees and research projects over the past few years, changing fields and countries in the process. While I can’t really speak of great accomplishments I’ve gathered on this road, I have had the chance to look at things from a few different perspectives, to find some common problems between different disciplines, fields, and lifestyles.
Through these meanderings I’ve found one thing to be constant: the feeling that the systems we are all living under, or which we are subjected to, are not enough. Great problems loom large on the horizon, whether it be climate change, soil degradation, right-wing resurgence, growing inequality or any other of a myriad of systemic ills. It seems strikingly obvious that none of these will simply go away on their own; it also seems unconvincing that some small tweaks, incremental reforms, or changes in leadership will do the trick either.
What has persevered over the years, then, is an understanding, which I feel many share, that we have to move towards something new. Though the old alternatives seem like welcome havens to many, many more are dissatisfied with the limited menu of options presented to us. The world order is driving itself towards destruction, and so the time has come to replace it.
On the one hand, the urgency of this kind of crisis might drive one to revolutionary thinking. On the other, the brashness of such action may seem presumptuous, instead believing that such fundamental change can’t come voluntarily, but must develop organically.
Personally, I’m positioned between these two. I’m not really positioned to join any kind of revolution or rebellion as is, but I also don’t think waiting for an “organic” change makes sense either. Organic changes only seem as such when we look from a distance, collapsing the actual events into some broad-historic continuum. The reality of social change is always messy, and always as filled with individuals very well aware of what they are trying to accomplish, as it is with those who are simply acting out their daily routines.
This blog is a reflection of my attempt to be a part of that change. Social and paradigmatic change must, I believe, include wilful attempts to change the ways we view and interact with the world. That is what I am trying to do here. Throughout the posts in this blog, I will try to understand, dismantle, and replace the philosophical underpinnings of the current humanist-capitalist worldview that dominates global institutions. In other words: this is an attempt to reimagine the basis on which we interact with the world around us, organise ourselves, and, eventually, leave something behind.
Terms, concerns, and other miscellany
In total, this blog is a reflection of my personal philosophy, something that I’ve worked on in the last few years while completing my degrees in fields outside of philosophy. Because of this, a lot of the words I use don’t really match what’s in the literature, and have some small nuances in comparison to their use in everyday life. This page is meant to be a point of reference for anyone confused about the terms I use in the posts on here. These aren’t the “correct” meanings of these words by any means- they’re just how I’ve come to use them. Others in this list aren’t necessarily terms I use, but concepts I’m particularly interested in and mention quite often. The entries here are meant to give context as to why I’m harping on about them elsewhere. At the end of the day, this is just a page hoping to be a guide for disentangling the idiosyncrasies and errors in my writing. As a result, it will be updated as I keep making such mistakes! Hope it helps for now.
I use “motivation” to refer to a more neutral understanding of morality. A lot of moral philosophy is about rules and demands- what we should do, what we shouldn’t do, and how our conscience balances these against each other. Non-moral demands are often seen as separate from this, as a set of “inclinations” that we need to organise, repress, fight against, etc. But to separate certain motivating forces before setting up a philosophy of morality is doing things backwards- we’ve somehow already decided on some things as being moral and others as not, before even defining morality. “Motivation” here serves as the category before this kind of evaluation- from hunger to honour, from lust to friendship, all the internal forces that motivate our actions, whether they are able to act alone or not, I call motivations. The aim is to first understand how these motivations interact, and then build a moral philosophy on top of this meta-ethics, as it’s often called.
COMPONENTS & COMPOSITES
Not too far off the beaten track with this one, but I write a lot about components and composites, or elements and structures sometimes, so worth noting here. Given any thing, be it a concept, an object, a person etc., we can analyse it by either breaking it down to look at what makes it up (components) or ask what the bigger picture is, what greater forces are at play here (composites). These processes are not limited to any sphere of reality. They can, most obviously, be applied to physical objects: I can look at the atomic structure of a piece of wood, or the cabin that it helps make up. But it also applies in more abstract cases: a commitment to fasting can be broken down into a commitment not to eat this food, that food, drink water, smoke, etc.; or it can be viewed as a part of a greater religious or spiritual commitment.
Emergence is all about things coming together to create something new. Put simply, it is the process by which multiple different things, which will thus become components, combine to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the kind of concept that comes with a certain level of intellectual commitment. If you’re a true reductionist, you would believe that all information is stored in components, and the deeper into details you dig the more information you find. Seeing the world this way would not allow emergence as a concept- we could, in that case, only speak of combination. Emergence says that there is something- properties, information, value, whatever- that combined things have, which their components do not. Pattern is a big part of this- how things combine is important, and part of the information is stored there. Scale is another- and that is our next term.
Scale is a concept that is linked to emergence, but deals more with perspective and information. Why do we call certain things “components” and others “composites“? How do we make such a decision? I am a part of a social circle, but also am made up of cells and organs- am I a component or a composite? Scale introduces levels here- not solid steps but possible gradations. When we think in terms of scale, we have to first identify where we begin, and thus what is going to be divided or combined. If we start at the scale of analysis that is me as an individual, the atoms that make me up are my components, and the society that I am in is my composite. If we start from my workplace, I am indelibly a component, and the economy at large is the composite. Any scale is malleable, and it doesn’t need to have one set of components and one set of composites. But identifying the scale you start with is what helps us keep our story straight.
Functionalism, in my opinion, gets some pretty unfair treatment. At its simplest, functionalism is a way of understanding things by looking at the functions they perform- that is, how they feed into the currents and structures around them, and create feedback loops. A function here is simply how a thing interacts with others consistently to sustain its existence. In many cases, though, functionalism is taught as an inherently conservative lens of analysis. It’s said that functionalism justifies any process or position that already exists by explaining how it benefits those around it, and how it is a necessary part of the system overall. In reality, that’s just adding moral evaluation to functionalism- a function need not be good or beneficial, and it doesn’t have to be built on interactions with something good or beneficial. The trains going to concentration camps in Nazi Germany had very clear functions- but no one in their right mind could say those functions were necessary, beneficial, or good. Functionalism, taken in its more neutral interpretation, is in fact a means of composite analysis: trying to see how a thing ties into webs of interactions around it, and defining it further through its role as a component.
Perhaps this is the physics nerd in me, but I believe that one of the most important concepts to be reimagined in the last few decades is that of probability, and that this will be the key to unlocking a new understanding of the physical world around us. Physics in the last couple of centuries has tended to rest on the assumption that underlying our calculations, hypotheses and best guesses, is a definite reality that could, in the ideal situation, be described by physical/mathematical tools. This often couples itself with determinism, though not necessarily so. Probability, in that case, is merely the admission of error- confessing that we are not yet able to get the right answer, we use probability to show we are guessing. Newer interpretations, however, place probability at the basis of reality- not only in terms of randomness (that deals with how things change or progress) but also in terms of states (what and how things actually are in any given moment). My weak claim is that insofar as we all agree we currently do not have the full picture, we can use probability as the basis of our analysis regardless of our philosophical stance. My stronger claim is that this is because probability is the actual description of reality- how this can be the case is a topic of some of the posts that are and will be posted here.
THE CARTESIAN TRICK
This is a method I just used in the above heading, and though I’m sure there’s a better name for it, I do like this name. The Cartesian trick comes as a modification of a method used by Descartes and his Meditations on First Philosophy. In that book, Descartes attempts to find an unassailable basis for truth by accepting as untrue anything that he was capable of doubting. In other words- if it isn’t a sure thing, don’t trust it. The issue I take with this is that it privileges the negative far too much. In denying the truth of assumptions that are open to doubt, we’re implicitly forced to accept their negative. The “trick” I’ve developed (not to say this is unique to me) is to instead take both the assumption and its negative as true and untrue, and then ask what we can say regardless. Put in simpler terms: if we can’t bring judgment on either side of a question, then what can we say nonetheless? This often draws attention to the assumptions underlying the question and the options given, which once clarified and worked through help us better understand the conundrum that led us there. For example: imagine yourself out on a hike, and you run into a group of fellow hikers, who tell you not to go down the path they just came from. When you ask why, half of them say they spotted a bear, while the other half say that it was a mountain lion. The Cartesian Trick here is simple: whatever option you accept to be true, you can be confident in the fact that you should not go down that path!