Sunday, December 12, 2021

The Paradox at the End of Modernity

Modernity can be defined as a culture of faith in progress: newer can be better, should be better, is better. The engine of progress is science. Science is a process of refining our understanding of the world. We are constantly learning about the world, correcting our misunderstandings and extending the frontiers of our knowledge. Science doesn't go backwards. Tomorrow's science is better than yesterday's science. We can use our constantly improving scientific understanding to improve conditions in the world around us, to cure diseases, increase crop yields, etc.

This vision of progress based on science was elaborated by Francis Bacon in the early 17th Century, at the beginning of the modern era. The road of progress we can see in front of us remains limitless. Colonizing Mars, autonomous robots, the extension of life expectancy to multiple centuries and beyond... what barrier can we not imagine transcending? And if we can imagine it, step by step we can use the scientific method to resolve whatever problems limit our ability to achieve it.

On the other hand, as science refines our understanding of the world, it reveals some very challenging limits. Of course the way science understands limits on one day may be overturned the next day. Perhaps the rudest limit science has discovered is the speed of light. As the vastness of the universe has been revealed to us, so has its remoteness. Will we figure out some clever way to leap across distances of thousands of light years? This might be the most elementary form of the paradox we are caught in. An irresistable force is contending against an immovable object. What will happen?

Back down on earth, of course, the speed of light doesn't seem like anything worth much worry. We have plenty of technical problems with much more immediate impact. The general problem of global resources: climate change, water, biodiversity; this problem is foremost among our challenges. Pandemics such as covid-19 are to some degree a result of humanity running up against planetary limits, but there is also the problem of pathogens evolving to evade our countermeasures. Our problems can get worse more quickly than our pace of finding new solutions.

At this point, it is not too farfetched to observe that our progress in scientific understanding is revealing more about the limits to our technical progress than it is enabling further technical progress... "technical" meaning our ability to improve our world.

Nowadays it is very easy to find literature championing each of the two poles of this paradox. There are books that show how things have always been improving and will continue to improve. There are books that map out the trajectory of the collapse of modern civilization that we are riding along.

Will the irresistable force succeed in dislodging the immovable object, or will it be defeated?

Paradoxes, like the paradox of progress that we are caught in today, are not generally resolved by the victory of one pole over the other. In general some kind of deeper understanding of the apparent contradiction is required. A good starting point is simply acknowledging that we really are facing a paradox. It would be foolish to dismiss either the vitality of scientific progress or the reality of the planetary limits to growth. To develop a new understanding of our situation that can encompass these two aspects, that is the challenge we face.

I found Kurasawa's film Dreams to be a wonderful vision of how we got here and where might might be heading. The final segment is "The Village of the Watermills," where we see a joyful celebration of a funeral. Death is a reality. However over the top the visions of the colonization of Mars might be, the visions of human immortality make those look very tame. We really do need to grow up and learn, not just to accept our limited situation, but to cherish it. A joyful funeral is one way to do this. But how we age, that is another vital dimension. What can it mean, to be healthy and old? To be healthy and dying? Such a vision might provide a model for our modern civilization as it runs up against planetary limits.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

The Need for Growth

I've heard many times people say that our economic system requires growth in order to function. Usually people explain this by saying that the only way that interest can be paid on debt is if the money supply increases. This is not true, though. In a debt-based money system, the sum of money accounts is always zero. People who owe money need to be able to provide goods and services that people who have lent the money will purchase, but as long as that is true, there is exactly enough money floating around to pay any debts that are floating around. Understanding this, we can see that paying interest doesn't require a growing economy. So, is a growing economy actually required at all?

Here's a different notion of how our economic system requires growth to function. Our system requires inflation to encourage people to spend and invest. In a deflationary environment, it's better just to hold onto money - in which case, the economy freezes up completely. Inflation has two different meanings that are of course related. One meaning is an overall increasing level of prices. Another meaning is an increasing money supply. If the supply of dollars goes up, then the value of each dollar goes down, which means prices go up.

Our economic system needs prices to go steadily up in order to encourage people to spend and invest, which is what keeps the economy functioning. Prices will go up as the money supply goes up. The money supply goes up as debt goes up. This is what a growing economy is. I.e., our economy indeed requires growth in order to function.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Digging Down to the Foundations

Lately I'm reading Michael Millerman's book Beginning with Heidegger: Strauss, Rorty, Derrida, Dugin and the Philosophical Constitution of the Political. Dugin is the target of the book, and the main reason I'm reading it. I'm in the middle of the Rorty chapter at the moment. The overall notion seems to be that Dugin is the one who has picked up Heidegger's ball and is running with it. Strauss and Rorty have either misread Heidegger or anyway have refused to pick up his ball, for opposite reasons. Strauss is more fundamentalist than Heidegger, and Rorty is more historicist.

In a curious coincidence, my wife has been reading The Great Bliss Queen by Anne Klein. She tells me that Klein is discussing a debate within feminism between essentialists and constructivists. It sounds pretty much the same as the debate between Strauss and Rorty - or their followers, anyway. These debates are a bit like the conundrum, "Why not tolerate intolerance?" It's like a dog chasing its own tail.

This brings to mind a simple analogy that I use to illustrate the potential for Buddhist thinking to provide a way to escape the deadend represented by these debates. We're trying to investigate the true reality underlying the diverse appearances that we experience in the world. We start digging down through the shifting sands of the surface, looking for the solid bedrock that holds everything up.

The fundamentalist essentialist vision is that indeed, we can cut through the fog and confusion, and whether we land on the Bible or the U. S. Constitution or Feynman's Lectures on Physics, we will find solid ground. The constructivist historicist vision is that we can dig our way straight through to empty space on the other side. The web of appearances is free floating. It might be a fair amount of work to move the whole mess, but it is quite possible, and perhaps a worthy project. We have that freedom.

The middle way of Buddhism, or of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism at least, is a third alternative. It's not that we find some third sort of thing once we have dug through appearances. The vision is that we can dig and we can keep digging and actually we can just keep on digging endlessly. The investigation of appearances never reaches any kind of point where further investigation isn't possible. Of course we might run out of the resources needed to keep investigating. But we can also relax our desperate search for foundations once we realize that every layer of appearance is supported by yet another layer of appearance. There is no bottom. It's not that the bottom is hollow - that's the constructivist historicist vision. There is no bottom.

What are the practical consequences of this vision, that's hard to say. Mostly it's a matter of avoiding futile and destructive projects. The MAGA crew seems to want to scrape away the shifting sands to return society to whatever solid ground they put their faith in; once they've killed off all the liberals they can start killing each other over transubstantiation versus consubstantiation etc. The progressive crew seem to want to pick up the whole mess and move it to a less strife-filled place; maybe an annual cycle of presentations from the Human Relations department will do a lot, but the inertia of the entire system will assert itself long before we start knocking up against the constancy of the speed of light and the limits it imposes on interstellar colonization.

Buddhist practise seems to be mostly a matter of letting go of grasping. The subtle details come from a deepening perception of how we are grasping. The extremes of eternalism and nihilism are classical mirages at which we grasp. Fundamentalism and constructivism are modern manifestations of these philosophical extremes.

I've become interested in Dugin because he seems to be a major philosophical inspiration behind the right wing movement. Recently I read an observation, that the right wing extreme in the USA is not really philosophically grounded. It's basically a gang of street thugs. There's this character in the movie A Fish Named Wanda, this thug who lies around reading Nietzsche and shooting his pistol. Perhaps this is a good model for someone like Steve Bannon.

Thursday, January 14, 2021


I'm no lawyer, but what we saw happening at the U. S. Capitol building on the 6th sure looked like criminal activity. What should we do about that?

Generally speaking, the justice system is our collective means to respond to crime. We bring criminals to justice. But there are voices, mostly friendly to the criminals, warning us that justice will further division at a time when we especially need unity. Justice, division, unity: these are complicated ideas with many possible meanings.

What is the proper function of justice? Revenge? Punishment? Compensation? A crime has been committed: what should we do about it?

A crime is a breaking of social bonds. The proper function of justice is to heal those bonds. Justice should be social therapy.

Punishment and compensation can work as components of a therapeutic program. No matter what, a path must be provided by which criminals can be reintegrated into society. Justice must exercise discrimination but never promote division. The wisdom of Solomon is indeed required to judge what form justice should best take in any given situation. We mortals are stuck bumbling along the best we can. But if we at least understand what we're trying to accomplish, that ought to improve results.

Unity: to the extent that it opposes diversity, it is a flawed goal. One image of unity is a watertight boundary surrounding perfect uniformity within. This is a kind of death. A vital society is a cohesive society. Cohesion means rich relationships among diverse components. Diversity without cohesion is merely plural unity, just as dead as singular unity. Society is a fabric, a network.

The core work of justice is in repairing and strengthening social relationships.