My new Best Thing are the philosophy podcasts over at The Partially Examined Life. Three genial Americans who know more than a few things about philosophy (but come at it from rather different personal places) talk in depth in each episode about different philosophers and their ideas.
Try, for example, this outstanding episode on The Metaphysical Implications on Quantum Physics (a subject dear to our hearts as we ponder our breakfast cereal each morning) and their analysis of how Werner Heisenberg looked at the issues:
What weird stuff about reality does quantum physics imply? Is Heisenberg (of the Uncertainty Principle fame) right that we need to reject “metaphysical realism” based on this very well established scientific framework? The discussion ranges over the uncertainty principle, relativity, wave/particle duality, Pre-Socratic metaphysics, why Kant is wrong about space, and lots of very weird things.
Or if that’s too straightforward, have a go at Nietzsche and Immorality:
We go through Nietzsche’s convoluted and historically improbable stories about about the transition from master to slave morality and the origin of bad conscience. Why does he diss Christianity? Is he an anti-semite? Was he a lazy, arrogant bastard? What does he actually recommend that we do?
The best thing about these podcasts is that they (more or less) assume that the listener knows nothing about the issues and has not read any of the shortish readings for each session. Their conversations are good humoured and generous: there’s a plan but they have lots of amusing diversions from it as they go along.
They have a more or less obvious US left-liberal tone (odd disobliging jabs at ‘conservatives’, ‘rednecks’ and Ayn Rand fans) but overall that is kept under control and they seem to cover issues fairly and with all due nuance appropriate to the format. It was disconcerting that they did not have anything to say about the obviously oppressive if not fascistic ideas in Hegel’s idea of the Collective Will as expressed by and through The State.
That said, it helps if you like ideas and putting your brain through some healthy exercise. If you are scared by words like Ontology, Dualism, Epistemology and so on, this might not be the place for you. And to get the full oeuvre of over 100 podcasts you have to pay a few $$ and become a PEL Citizen. A bargain.
Anyway, you can pass happy hours listening to them pore over different philosophers down the ages (Hobbes, Rousseau, Freud, Hegel and so on) who have tried to work out how ‘society’ emerged from ‘nature’. Was ‘nature’ nasty, brutish and short, or in fact somehow rather good, if not ideal?
What is the philosophical and moral basis for social rules? Are they a priori or a posteriori haha oppressive? Do the benefits of ‘order’ (such as free wifi) necessarily come at the expense of suppressing our deepest instincts and passions?
It’s safe to say that most of the great philosophers who have proclaimed on such questions knew nothing at all about how different societies in fact emerged tens of thousands of years ago. Did what we call society and the rules/norms that go with it all come from the rule of local strongmen (probably men as opposed to women?) as heads of extended families/clans who more or less pragmatically proclaimed who did what and why, and then had the authority or brute force to make things stick? Did society need language, or did language need society?
Why are societies rules binding on us? Do we in effect have to accept the ‘social contract’ as identified decades or centuries ago? Where can I download it? What’s in the small print? If we have no choice but to accept it, why call it a contract? Isn’t that more like … tyranny? Slavery?
As readers here know, there are only two questions when it comes to how we run things:
Who decides who decides?
Down the ages humans have invented only two ways of running things:
Do what I say, or else!
The consent of the governed
In the first case – the dominant model for most of human history – the ruler’s authority and legitimacy come from the simple fact of force. Take Macbeth. Macbeth kills the king and becomes king. Macduff kills Macbeth and becomes king. That’s how Scotland at that point in its history is run.
Kings. Queens. Popes. Tsars. Emperors. Dictators. All of them have ruled because they ruled. Only in very rare cases has the wider populace been given any say in choosing the ruler. For two centuries Poland experimented with a strange system that allowed the massed nobility to elect the king. Thousands of Polish nobles came together to choose the next monarch, a complicated (and often violent) process. Outside powers of course sought to influence the process in their favour. Prussia, Russia and Austria eventually ended this boring jockeying for influence within Poland by simply abolishing Poland, carving up its territory between them.
The American Revolution introduced a completely different idea: Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
As it happens, we have a unique attempt to set up a new society based on First Principles (such as they might be haha) in the form of Asgardia – The Space Nation:
Asgardia is a fully-fledged and independent nation, and a future member of the United Nations – with all the attributes this status entails: a government and embassies, a flag, a national anthem and insignia, and so on.
The essence of Asgardia is Peace in Space, and the prevention of Earth’s conflicts being transferred into space.
Asgardia is also unique from a philosophical aspect – to serve entire humanity and each and everyone, regardless of his or her personal welfare and the prosperity of the country where they happened to be born.
Asgardia’s philosophical envelope is to ‘digitalise’ the Noosphere, creating a mirror of humanity in space but without Earthly division into states, religions and nations. In Asgardia we are all just Earthlings!
Let’s not introduce squalid Earthly divisions. That just spoils things. All we need to do is decide everything nicely. Nay fairly!
Who decides? And who decides who decides? Let’s look at the Constitution!
Members of Parliament shall be elected for a term of five years from among Asgardian citizens who have reached the age of 40…
The Supreme Space Council shall consist of its Chairman and members. Members of the Supreme Space Council may be any Asgardian citizens presented by the Chairman and nominated by the Head of Nation, aged between 50 and 80, who have particular achievements in the area of building the Nation,
Asgardia shall be governed by its citizens through referenda.
Yes, but how many referenda are needed to get the right answer? See eg Brexit.
Asgardia’s official languages shall be 12 languages chosen by Asgardian citizens as the most commonly used languages of communication.
The procedure for the selection and replacement of official languages, and the areas and specifics of their use shall be defined by Asgardia’s laws. Asgardia shall guarantee equality of all official languages…
Asgardia shall strive towards a single Asgardian language in the future
Have you any ideas how many interpreters you’ll need?
The tax system and preferential tax terms, including voluntary taxation of the private persons, shall be set by Asgardia’s laws…
Droll! How will those taxpayers paying voluntarily appreciate the idle freeloaders mooching at their expense?
Asgardia is a nation of free spirit, science, internationalism. Every Asgardian can freely practice any religion of Earth in Asgardia…
Hmm. What if one Asgardian has a religion that rules out working on Wednesdays, and refuses to take part in key safety drills on Wednesdays? Or if an Asgardian man refuses to work with women at certain times of the month and/or unless the women are wearing a burqa? Everyone has all possible rights!
Any propaganda of superiority and/or inequality of people is prohibited. Asgardia shall prohibit racist, Nazi, fascist, and other similar ideologies (sic) in their historical and new forms.
The founder of Asgardia is a Russian: communism is coyly omitted. Mr Ashurbeyli wisely gives himself a handy long list of powers as the first Head of Nation.
And so on.
There is no clear ‘philosophical’ way to establish from scratch a just, wise, stable basis for any new society. For any community on even a small scale to work, someone has to rule and set the parameters to try to get things started in a sustainable way.
And once they are started, all sorts of disagreements then can break out over belief, entitlements, rights, privileges, justice and so on. It’s bad enough in the normal family. Why should hundreds of thousands of people from anywhere on Earth with all their language and cultural diversities readily agree on pretty much anything?
How then are disputes settled? By courts? But where do they get their legitimacy from? In Asgardia’s case there is at least a genuine ‘social contract’ of sorts: to get in you have to sign a page saying that you accept the Constitution. But how does the Constitution get changed?
Proposals on amending the Constitution may (sic) be made by the Head of Nation, the Supreme Space Council, or the Parliament.
#Fail! The rules for deciding who decides have to be spelled out right at the outset, to avoid hopeless problems later on.
What percentage of Asgardians need to vote and take part in any referendum to change the core rules? That is hugely important. Can 51% decide (say) to scrap some of the official languages as it’s just too expensive to maintain them? Or might that need a super-majority of (say) 70% of voters voting and 60% of those participating in the vote? How far can a majority ‘oppress’ a minority or demand that it conform? Take short-cuts on freedoms now to help build greater freedoms later?
These are all questions going deep into our instincts. But what ARE those so-called instincts? Aren’t they merely a ‘social construct’, if not a malign creation of the PATRIARCHY?
My conclusion from ploughing through some 20 episodes of PEL podcasts?
Philosophers have grappled with such existential issues for well over 2000 years. And have resolved not a single one of them.
In most cases the very words we use in these discussions (mind, soul choice, causation, identity) are at best clumsy misleading approximations to the complexity of nature at all levels of reality. What do concepts such as Mind/Body Dualism even mean?
Nothing. But it’s oddly interesting to keep gnawing away at them.