Recently in Philosophy Category

If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals... But it feels like a real fight--as if there was something really wild in the universe which we are needed to redeem - Wm. James

Writing up that last post reminded me of another useful consequence of a Pragmatic worldview. The admission that are all of our ideals and institutions are of human origin, and thus mutable, also implies that we can take nothing for granted. I think taking the accomplishments of the New Deal and the 60's for granted is a big part of what allowed our civil society to deteriorate to the level of the current political situation.

After 1968, or 1972 at the latest, the American Left in many ways declared victory and went home, ceding the field to the forces of the radical Right, who were willing and increasingly able to move heaven and Earth in attempt to roll back those gains. They needed to be fought tooth and nail the whole way, but really we only began to see some real fight and commitment return to the Left with the Clinton impeachment, and we didn't have anything like what was called for until very recently.

A lot was accomplished in the era from FDR to LBJ, and American liberals could be justifiably proud of that legacy, but to make good on it they needed to stay in the trenches and fight for it. No social or political ideal or arrangement can endure unless there are many people who continue to actively value and embody it, and who are willing to make a lifelong commitment to defend it. Positive social change, though plenty difficult in its own right, may well be the easy part of the equation in comparison to the long slog of consolidating the change and vigilantly defending it from reactionary forces.

I hope we've learned that lesson in the wake of what happened from Nixon through Dubya, but I wish that our country and our world didn't have to be put through all of this hell in the first place. If a large portion of the people who made up the mass social and political movements of the 60's had committed themselves to the long and messy political process of defending what they just had worked so hard to accomplish, instead of moving to the suburbs to have kids, or taking up disco and cocaine, or becoming high-rolling investment bankers, or whatever the hell they did after they disappeared from the public stage and let the Silent Majority wreck everything they had just built, we wouldn't be in this mess.

And yes, I'm a little bitter. I've got another post brewing about how the 60's and many of the Boomers went wrong. I think a lot of the problems that led to the dissolution of those movements were inherent to their structure, ideology, and culture from the beginning. If things are indeed turning again, I hope we will do better and be wiser and more committed and practical this time around.

Philosophy and Social Hope

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To realise the relative validity of one's convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly is what distinguishes a civilised man from a barbarian. - Joseph Schumpeter

I had meant to write something about Richard Rorty when he died last month, but I wanted to re-read some things and really think about it first, and then other stuff came up, and suddenly weeks had gone by and it was no longer current. Yet another example of why I'm just not quite cut out for the pace of this medium. But, timely or no, it's still worth writing about, so I'll put this out there and see what happens.

It's fitting that when Richard Rorty died, I happened to be reading a book about William James. After all, it was Rorty who turned me on to James, and a host of other thinkers and ideas which ultimately helped to reconcile a lot of contradictions for me. Like him, I was an eager studen of philosophy, who, as time went on, became more and more suspicious of the validity and importance of many of the problems that philosophy concerns itself with. It all comes down to questions of aims: is the purpose of philosophy to attempt to solve a lot of interesting, but abstract and likely insoluble problems, or to figure out what the Good Life is and how to live it? Is philosophy (or knowledge in general) an end in itself, or a tool to help human beings to attain their own ends? He and I both fell firmly in the latter camps on those questions, and, well, that's just not what academic philosophy does for the most part these days.

Rorty's ideas came into my life at a pivotal time for me, in my last year of college. A friend in the political science department (naturally) loaned me her copy of Philosophy and Social Hope. At that time, I was trying to reconcile problems of disillusionment with the realities of both academic science (I had similar problems with it... an inability on the part of practicioners to put the work in a larger context and think ethically and practically about it, an at-times blindly dogmatic belief in something that is a human practice and thus subject to human failings, etc) and philosophy with a growing practical political urgency. Rorty, and the thinkers he led me to (James, Dewey, Kuhn, Davidson, West, etc, all of whom we certainly weren't reading in my undergrad philosophy dept) allowed me to realign all of those competing impulses in a new, flexible framework, and in many ways to get past the disillusionment and move on. Of course, like with him, moving on meant a self-imposed exile of sorts, because it turned out that philosophy and science weren't actually doing what I had thought they were going in. But, I'm very glad I figured that out when I did, instead of halfway into a Ph. D. somewhere.

My journey through academic philosophy and science taught me that what I was really interested in was politics, in one guise or another. Rorty, Dewey, and James' Pragmatism became the vital link between the two. What it does is is basically blow up a lot of those problems of philosophy that I thought were pointless:

It is astonishing to see how many philosophical disputes collapse into insignificance the moment you subject them to this simple test of tracing a concrete consequence. There can be no difference anywhere that doesn't make a difference elsewhere - no difference in abstract truth that doesn't express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact  - Wm. James

What does it matter if we are brains in vats or if reality is truly "real?" Would either answer to the question change the way we live in practice? Either way we still have to interact with the reality we encounter, and if it's perceptually the same for a human or a brain in a vat, what possible difference can it make? It may be an interesting exercise, but it's meaningless.

Now, there has always been this current throughout the history of philosophy, away from abstraction and towards the human and the living of life. But it has always been sort of a black sheep faction, and lots of people who fall within this tradition, and who I consider to be important philosophers... the ethicists, eclecticists, humanists, romantics, doubters... thinkers like Aurelius, Montaigne, Emerson, Kierkegaard, Tolstoy, Camus, Berlin, and Niebuhr, are pretty much dismissed by modern academic philosophy as lacking rigor and systematicness. Some of the Pre-Socratics and Hellenistic philosophers seem to get a pass on this, likely because they are Greek and old, and anything Greek and old has to be taken seriously, but they are still largely sidelined in favor the Platonic and Aristotelian dualities that have dominated Western philosophy since the beginning.

Though Hume was in many ways a prescient precursor, Utilitarianism and then Pragmatism were the first really concerted and enduring movements that attempted to get beyond the questions of Plato and Aristotle, to find a way to live without appealing to abstract absolutes or replacing God with some other idea as a surrogate-God. To me Pragmatism is postmodernism without all of the gobbledegook and despair. It is a humble admission of the complexity of our reality, the human origin of values and morals and ideas, and the contingency of truth.

In place of capital-T truth and eternal, nonhuman certainties, it offers hope, social hope embodied in human empathy and solidarity, the democratic process, and the possibility for change and a better future (in this emphasis, it differs from and improves upon Utilitarianism for me.)

In place of the fruitless quest for unity, it offers a celebration of the many, and an attempt to find tools to cope with and thrive among many-ness and complexity. In place of end states, it offers process. It admits that we are on our own in the universe, and that whatever becomes of the human experiment is wholly up to us and what we invent and how we choose. This is both terrifying and liberating. James again:

I find myself willing to take the universe to be really dangerous and adventurous, without therefore backing out and crying 'no play! ... I am willing that there should be real losses and real losers, and no total preservation of all that is. I can believe in the ideal as an ultimate, not as an origin, and as an extract, not the whole. When the cup is poured off, the dregs are left behind for ever, but the possibility of what is poured off is sweet enough to accept.

It is a very American philosophy, in many of the ways that I think America is or was unique and revolutionary and dynamic.

As for Rorty himself, aside from his major role as a gateway to all of those other ideas, I admired him for the unique space he carved out as an American public intellectual in the latter half of the 20th century. He was one of few current intellectual role models I could find who managed to combine the sort of sophisticated and skeptical understanding of truth, ideas, contingency, context, sociocultural phenomena, and so on, that makes the most sense to me philosophically with an old-fashioned and stubborn commitment to progressivism, solidarity, meliorism, democracy, and a solid, moderate, possibly achievable social democratic political vision. He admitted the relative validity of his convictions, and yet stood for them unflinchingly. He was able to be in uncertainty and complexity and yet refuse to be paralyzed or unmanned by it, or to take an easy out to avoid confronting it.

He feels like a rather sad example of a road-not-taken, both in American politics and academics. There aren't many classic old liberal/humanist public intellectuals like him left, and at least from within the academy, I don't see many more on the way. I wish he had won the argument instead of the rejectionist and puritanical Chomsky types politically, and the inwardly focused and disciplinarily narrow types academically, but it was a losing fight from the start, for reasons structural and institutional as much as ideological. I'm very glad and grateful he was still willing to fight it though, and I have great hopes that we on the American left may just be coming back around to his sort of practical, hopeful, incrementalist, and progressive vision of ourselves and our country after all.

As an interesting little side-note to the latest whine-fest about how the intarnets are destroying journalism, this article at Newsweek whingeing about how bloggers aren't willing to give interviewers carte-blanche on their terms sure is a treat. Now, Winer is notorious for being touchy and tough to deal with, and Calacanis is not known as the nicest guy on the web either, but still, they have good reason to be suspicious. Most bloggers who have dealt with the media at all do, because they have in many cases learned from hard experience. Now that they have enough power to have some degree of control of how the media represents them, they're certainly justified in using it.

"The interviewer used to be in charge, but that's no longer the case," says media blogger Jeff Jarvis. "I can decide how long the quote is, I can make sure the context is accurate."

All this can be unnerving to someone (like, um, me) who has spent a career conversing with people on the other end of the phone line or lunch table. A live interview allows me not only to follow up quickly but to sense the verbal cues that direct me to more fruitful topics. In e-mail, people talk at you; in conversation I can talk with subjects, and a casual remark can lead to a level of discussion that neither party anticipated from the beginning. I am more likely to learn from someone in a conversation than in an e-mail exchange, which simply does not allow for the serendipity, intensity and give-and-take of real-time interaction.

We in the journalism tribe operate under the belief that when we ask people to talk to us we are not acting out of self-interest but a sense of duty to inform the population. It's an article of our faith that when subjects speak to us, they are engaging in a grand participatory act where everyone benefits. But these lofty views don't impress bloggers like Rosen. "You have to prove [you represent the public]," he says.

Yes, we do. But every time we lose the priceless knowledge from those essential, real-time interviews, our stories are impoverished, to the detriment of our readers: you.

There is a reason that bloggers feel like reporters have to prove that they represent the public and are acting in good faith. And that is primarily that almost all of us, or at least someone we know, have at one point or another naively and in good faith given an interview about blogs or online culture to some traditional media outlet, and upon reading the end-product, found it to be a total misrepresentation of the content of the interview given and the terms under which it was given.

Over and over again, I've seen reporters come into stories about blogging and other geeky lifestyle stuff with a pre-written thesis that they're seemingly determined to cram whatever their interview subjects say into, regardless of whether said thesis stands up to the reality of the people they are supposedly trying to learn about. In just the most recent of many, many examples that I know of, a friend of mine was interviewed about fantasy hockey. The reporter pitched it as sort of an expository/anthropological lifestyle piece, and said he just wanted some info on the appeal and mechanics and what have you of online fantasy sports. The finished piece focused almost entirely on gambling and addiction, which scarcely came up in the interview itself, and it had a real "look at the freaks!" feel to it, further reinforced by the photo (now gone, retrieved from they published with it, which almost seemed calculated to make him look like a pathetic loner or something, which he (and most of us who are thriving in the online world) is decidedly not.

Seeing this kind of thing play out over and over again has made me increasingly suspicious that this happens constantly on much more serious subjects as well. Some of it may be simple ignorance, but ignorance is no excuse for how some of these things come out. More like incompetence that is in effect indistinguishable from malice, if we are going to be generous about motives here.

Isn't the job of a reporter to go out and find the facts, and then write a story, instead of pre-writing a story and then cherry-picking facts to flesh it out? Sure, to even have the idea of a story you may have to have an angle in mind, just like scientists have to have a hypothesis to work from, but when the facts don't bear your hypothesis out, you're supposed to rethink it. If you're not doing that, you're not seeking the truth, you're creating it from whole cloth. Insofar as their mission is to turn out journalists with the tools and mentality needed to seek the truth, journo schools are not doing their job, if the often laughable coverage of any of the subcultures and technological changes that I've been a part of and am semi-expert on is any indication.

Now, there are plenty of ways to begin to earn back that trust. Some reporters, (but not nearly enough of them) are doing a very good job of using the interactivity of the web to turn these things into a public dialogue, which eventually results in them getting it mostly right by the end of the discussion. Another way to do this would be to use these tools to provide much greater transparency to the whole newsmaking process. Frontline, for example, does a very good thing, in that they still make and edit down their show as they always have, but they then post the full interviews and lots of the other background that went into making it to their website, so anyone who wants the extra context can easily get it, and anyone who feels they have been misrepresented by the finished product can point to the original sources by way of defense and correction.

In the absence of the limitations and costs of print, this should be fairly trivial for newspapers to implement. It would increase trust immensely, and it would allow bloggers and others to dig around in the source material and find new angles and connections, and ultimately help the journalists to do their job and uphold their civic obligations. This is just one of many ways in which newspapers are failing to grok the potential of the new mediums and technologies available to them, and in doing so, endangering their own survival and failing the people they claim to work on behalf of.

More on Why Vonnegut Mattered

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Amanda of Pandagon's Vonnegut tribute post reminded me of another reason why he, and the literature of WWII in general, was very important.

what I find interesting about Slaughterhouse Five is that it's an angry protest against the historical revisionism that casts WWII as the "good" war.

This is vital, especially in light of what happened in the 90's with the ridiculously over the top mythologization of the Greatest Generation. It confused me a lot at the time, because all of the literature and history of WWII I had read up to then was nothing like that. And most of it wasn't written by professional intellectuals or mythmakers, but by people like Vonnegut and Heller who were working or middle class, and actually fought and saw what it was really like.

None of them seemed to have any illusions that WWII was anything but a senseless bloodbath and a tragedy for humanity in general. Nobody "won" that war. The very fact that it happened to begin with, and that humanity got to a point where things like London, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Rape of Nanking, and the Holocaust could occur was such an immeasurable tragedy and loss that no amount of heroism and courage could begin to overcome it. Pynchon, who was too young to actually fight in WWII, but who definitely understood it in the same way as Heller and Vonnegut, put it this way:

Yet the continuity, flesh to kindred metals, home to hedgeless sea, has persisted. It is not death that separates these incarnations, but paper: paper specialties, paper routines. The War, the Empire, will expedite such barriers between our lives. The War needs to divide this way, and to subdivide, though its propaganda will always stress unity, alliance, pulling together. The War does not appear to want a folk-consciousness, not even of the sort the Germans have engineered, ein Volk ein Fuhrer - it wants a machine of many separate parts, not oneness, but a complexity... Yet who can presume to say what the War wants, so vast and aloof is it... so absentee. Perhaps the War isn't even an awareness- not a life at all, really. There may only be some cruel, accidental resemblance to life.

He saw the war as some sort of inhuman, irresistable force; machines and systems that we had unconsciously or inadvertently created had broken out of our control. From the literature that came out of it, to the countless grandparents who were not at all eager to even talk about what they had seen and done, let alone cast themselves as heroes, it's clear that many of the people who participated in it and saw the real price on all sides seem to have seen it similarly, and taken the same sorts of lessons from it that Vonnegut and the others who wrote the literature of the war did.

Failing to grasp those lessons is a lot of what got us into the mess that we're currently in. I think the 90's revisionism about WWII was really pernicious, in that it put forth this ideal of a great crusading struggle against evil, with America at its head. That was attractive to lots of people looking for meaning in post-post-everything life. They wanted to be part of a Great Unambiguous Struggle like their parents and grandparents were, to be swaggering heroes like their mythical forebears.

That's a significant piece of how we got from a limited fight against a bunch of dudes in caves in Afghanistan to a full blown Holy War. The only reason people can think it's plausible that Islamic Fundamentalism is an existential threat to our way of life is that they're looking at it through the lens of WWII. They wanted a Nazi Germany of their own to overcome, and, since no such thing existed, it had to be invented. Vonnegut and most of the voices of his generation knew that you should never wish for something like that. After all, they saw what that really meant, and what the true cost was.

This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be. - KV

So it Goes

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And I say to Sam now: 'Sam-here's the book.'

It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.

And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like Poo-tee-weet?

I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.

I have also told them not to work for companies which make massacre machinery, and to express contempt for people who think we need machinery like that.

Kurt Vonnegut died today at 84. I've found his work very uneven, but at his best he was the closest we had to a modern heir to Mark Twain. I fear he might have been one of America's last great humanists. America has badly needed, and largely lacked voices like his in the past 10-15 years. It's too bad we didn't have him at the height of his powers to (cheerfully, and without much hope) struggle against the rampant bad faith and profound lack of imagination we've suffered from as a culture and a polity. He will be missed.

On Uncertainty

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To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can still do for those who study it. - Bertrand Russell

I've been thinking a lot lately about uncertainty. The past century, and more pointedly, our current world climate, is absolutely shot-through with it. It is the ideological elephant in the room... everyone is taking drastic measures to cope with it, all the while doing everything they can to avoid facing up to the thing itself. To me, Heisenberg's discovery may well be the most important, as well as the least assimilated idea of the last one hundred years. Philosophy has barely addressed it, and, more practically, we still haven't learned to deal with the realities that it opens up. I fear that until we do, we'll never be able to truly move on and live stably and peacably in the chaotic world we have created. In an uncertain time, we must embrace uncertainty on some level or consign ourselves to chaos and failure. So, what does Heisenberg mean, and why is it important? The gist, in scientific terms, is this:

The more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known.

Sounds simple, right? The implications are rather earth-shattering though. A little context: at the end of the 19th century, a strongly materialist, mechanistic worldview was beginning to come to the fore. Darwin had shown that, with little doubt, the laws of nature applied to us just as inexorably as they do to everything else. It was thought that the end of physics, and by extension the end of uncertainty, was within sight, and that the laws of the universe, soon to be fully known, would eventually allow us to predict the future, given enough information about the present.

This is a lot of what the 19th century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, were on about. Russia was in a bit of a unique situation, as it had traditionally been a feudal, spiritual, mystical sort of society, which had had the enlightenment and all of its implications suddenly thrust upon it by Czar Peter the Great. Even 150 years later, thoughtful people were still struggling to assimilate the contrasting worldviews, and to a Russian outlook shaped by this context, determinism was much more disturbing than it was to the average European intellectual at that time. Dostoevsky was horrified by rational self interest and the "Crystal Palace" of positivist thought because he (rightly) saw that if this worldview were totally true, it meant cutting out a large part of what makes us human; the loss of imagination, of spirituality, and ultimately, of freedom.

Tolstoy was more well-versed in western science, and in his younger years was a materialistic atheist. Later, he found it lacking, went through a nervous breakdown of sorts, and founded his own prophetic variant of Christianity. The great Russians were seekers, humanists in a grander sense of the word, in that they thought human imagination, belief, spirituality, and freedom in some way transcend cold reason and scientific certainty.

Of course, this wasn't merely a Russian phenomenon, though the Russians made the terms most clear in their work. European Romanticism in general, and the American variant, Transcendentalism, were also rebellions of the spirit and imagination against the rigor and limitations that science seemed to personify. Whitman's "When I heard a Learn'd Astronomer" is a representative example of what I'm getting at, and Thoreau's whole ouvre is the more practical, philosophical side of the same coin.

Looking back, late Victorian-era determinism was a very hubristic outlook, but at the time it all seemed fairly reasonable. Nothing much new was on the horizon, and existing theory worked for almost every practical situation that the physicists had encountered. This general belief in the inevitability of determinism and the approaching end of physics continued for quite awhile, but chinks started to gradually show up in its armor.

New, strange discoveries started to pop up, such as the Curies' work with radioactivity, and Roentgen's discovery of X-rays in the 1890's. Albert Einstein struck the first truly major blow, with general relativity. However, this was still compatible with an ordered, deterministic universe, it was simply a more subtle and complicated way of looking at it, which was easy enough to eventually assimilate with the old Newtonian views of motion (though not so easy to assimilate philosophically, a predicament which arguably helped in the rise of relativist postmodernism in the stead of the one-way, natural-law-centric path of logical positivism.) However, it was Heisenberg and his fellow discoverers of quantumn mechanics who would truly throw physics (and who should have also thrown philosophy) into disarray.

Basically, Heisenberg's discovery removed the spectre of determinism from the scene once and for all. Free will was vouchsafed forever, by a strange quirk in the measurability of subatomic particles. Since we could never know both the momentum and the position of a particle at the same time, the best we could do was a probability-based guess at where the particle might be at the next measurement. Thus, we would never be able to get all the information required to absolutely predict the future of complex systems (such as consciousness or history) and remove the human conception of free will from the equation of choice.

Paradoxically, uncertainty had saved human freedom, and perhaps human spirituality, once and for all. We could never know absolutely, and thus there would always be a chance for novelty, variation, imagination. This should have been occasion for rejoicing. Nature had provided a way out, a way to reconcile Romanticism with Positivism, art with science, reason with emotion, human-centric conceptions of the universe with observable reality, and without giving up either one entirely.

However, it didn't quite work out that way, and I'm not exactly sure why. There was definitely something deeply disturbing to both camps about there being a fundamental randomness or ineffability at the heart of reality. This is an old idea, and, instructively, things shook out in a similar fashion the last time it came up.

Way back in Hellenistic Greece, Epicurus (picking up where Democritus left off) postulated a universe made up of atoms falling through a void, with life, action, and choice made possible by a randomness inherent in some of the atoms, which he called "The Swerve." This conception eventually lost out to the Platonic and Aristotelian visions, which roughly approximate the later idealist Romantics and realist Positivists.

On the scientific side, the reason for tumult and denial was fairly obvious, best exemplified in Einstein's famous "God does not play dice" quip. An ordered and predictable universe was the bedrock principle upon which all research rested. For the Romantic or spiritual side, it was probably more diffuse... perhaps for some just a failure to understand the significance and implications of the discovery, for others an aesthetic distaste for a "flawed," imperfect reality (hearkening back to the desire for perfect Platonic ideals), for the more spiritually minded, some thorny clashes with accepted dogma (though to me, quantum uncertainty is one of those things in science that is so weird that it almost makes the idea of God, or at least some sort of distributed universal guiding intelligence, sound plausible, because this somehow happening on its own, and also just coincidentally turning out to be a backdoor for the preservation of our ideas of free will and inquiring intelligence, is just plain wacky.)

After the old generation of Newtonians had died off, science managed to assimilate uncertainty into its worldview rather readily, if not very completely (the main problem in physics to this day is the attempt to find a reconciliation between quantumn mechanics and Newtonian/relativistic mechanics.) Taking off from Popper and Kuhn, science studies even managed to produce a new worldview in which science wasn't an infallible religion, but rather just another way of looking at the world, subject to the same sort of limitations of the rest of our constructs, albeit one which is quite useful for many of our purposes. However, philosophy and literature seemingly failed here. At any rate, nobody I've read has ever really managed to philosophically address both relativity and uncertainty, in terms of knowledge, ideas, choice, and existence, in a satisfying way.

Camus and Kierkegaard came close to what I'm getting at, but ultimately backed off. They both posited the absurd as man's reaction to uncertainty. Kierkegaard looked at the leap of faith, the embracing of God despite the lack of proof, as the absurd man's reaction to an uncertain world. Camus went a step farther, abandoning God and embracing the absurd in of itself, in the form of the struggle to know and create, regardless of its ultimate futility in terms of ever being able to attain absolute certainty or permanence. Neither went so far as to question the very desire for certainty that they were trying to deal with.

Pragmatism and other forms of postmodern thought, with greater or lesser degrees of success, embraced relativism and attacked the problem by using it in attempt to eliminate the idea of certainty altogether, an approach I embrace, though with reservations.

I don't think any of them really attack it from the angle I prefer though, in which uncertainty serves to empower human beings to write their own narratives. This is sort of a synthesis of Existential and Pragmatic/Postmodernist thought, and does show up somewhat, though obliquely, in the postmodern fiction of Eco, Nabokov, and Borges. I don't think we should abandon the idea of certainty altogether, but we should treat it as exactly that, as one way at looking at things, as an ideal, human-imposed benchmark from which we can measure the deviation of reality, much as scientists already use ideal systems as a tool in order to better understand more chaotic real ones.

The key is to acknowledge uncertainty, to even praise it as a necessary prerequisite for a good human life. Without uncertainty, there would be very little in the way of possibility, wonder, or discovery, and of course, no freedom, no choice, no autonomy. The search for knowledge and understanding consumes us, and we tell ourselves that we want it to end with complete certainty, but have we really thought that desire through? What would we do if there was nothing more to strive for, nothing more to learn... if there were no more suprises?

I think despair and gradual mass suicide would be the more likely outcome in that case, as opposed to the usual claptrap about perpetual contented bliss. Human beings don't deal very well with stasis and contentment in large doses. We need to struggle, to grope blindly in the dark, to be thrilled and awed once in awhile. We may be rational animals, but I don't think we're by any means wholly rational, or that we should ever want to be. Uncertainty, both in terms of physics and philosophy, guarantees that we will never have to face such a difficult ultimate choice, to have to choose between the human heart and the human mind. And because of that, the associated slings and arrows are ultimately worth it.

Russell was right. If philosophy and literature have taught me anything, it's the ability to be comfortable with, and at times to even revel in uncertainty. This is of course much easier when it comes to abstract matters, but enough of the temperament carries over to everyday life that I am willing to accept more risks and unknowns than most in trade for the possibilities these realities open up. As a global society, I feel strongly that we need to take a similar approach, both in terms of our ideas and beliefs, and in terms of our more concrete social and political realities.

We may not have certainty about many of the big questions, but life would be infinitely less rich if we did. The joy is in the search, even if the ultimate and complete solution is actually foreordained by the subatomic structure of the universe to be elusive. This is the first, and perhaps the only, lesson of philosophy.

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