Sunday, October 23, 2016

Politics & Philosophy

- Going to the museum?
- Where's the museum?
- On the corner. 
- No. I haven't been there yet.
- Where are you from?
- Greece.
- Tell me something. Why didn't you Greeks try to get rid of your prime minister when he ignored the results of the referendum and betrayed you and democracy?
- What should we have done? Make a revolution?
- Why not?
- Violence. And whoever we got next in office would be the same.
- Is that what Greeks believe? They weren't surprised by the prime minister's betrayal?
- I wasn't.
- How did you know? Had he done anything, said anything, that was a giveaway that he didn't really believe in making life better for the people who elected him?
- No. Just that all politicians are puppets on strings held by the true powers.
- There have been exceptions. There are some now in Greece.
- But not with real power. And if they got it, nothing better could be expected of them. Power corrupts. It's human nature to be self-interested.
- Not fundamentally. You're waiting for someone?
- No. I need this coffee before I go to work.
- What work do you do?
- Biology.
- At UCLA?
- Yes.
- Ok, I'll stand here at the table and talk until you tell me to go away. If the world is ever to be saved from politicians it is by people talking to each other.
- Will that help? People everywhere are taught to be obedient. The world will never change.
- Assuming it's human nature to be mostly self-interested and there is no alternative to political decisions made by a class of leaders with interests separate from the people they lead. But both assumptions are false: political arrangements don't have to remain as they are, and that because human nature is not fundamentally selfish.
- What is human nature? We're not very different from animals.
- We're distinguished from other animals by our greater ability to arrange our ideas so that they refer to each other, develop each other hierarchically. We do that in language and technology. Animals can do it in thought and behavior, but lack hierarchical language, haven't the ability it gives of communicating and concentrating on alternative models of what is preferable to do in what situations, what tools to make, when to change habits. This distinction in itself wouldn't be very much, but we are also the only species that is evil: empowered by our hierarchical ability we alone put language to use making models that undermine our cooperative nature.
- And what is evil?
- Knowing what is good as an individual but doing bad for rewards from acting in a group. A political representative of a radical socialist party deciding to defy the mandate he was elected to pursue for the benefits of being among the ruling class.
- We don't have to be selfish, but then, evil is human nature? You're serious?
- Evil is what most distinguishes our species. But it is not our unchanging nature, rather it is a liability or weakness, a susceptibility of our nature to be overpowered in our inborn tendency to cooperate, and to lose its ability to remake itself, to use creatively its ability to build model upon model.
- If we are evil what hope is there?
- If we get things right we can use our power of language to remake ourselves and our technology to keep at a distance our susceptibility to evil.
- How?
- Shouldn't something that creates also be able to save? 
- Maybe. Not always.
- The philosophy that began in your country gave us what good politics we have. I think philosophy is the only thing that can save us.
- You shouldn't idealize the ancient Athenian democracy. It didn't work well.
- The new better ways beginning were mixed with the old bad ways, and the bad ways won out, just as they do in our times.
- Einstein said, "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
- He was talking about the kind of ideas that make a world for us and leave us there in it. Evil ideas. Ideas that justify social relations and define human nature in relation to them. Nothing real in our relation to the world is fixed like that. Sometimes we choose to act, sometimes we rest. Sometimes the world betrays us and we have no choice, we have to act. Sometimes when we act we have a choice which way to go, sometimes we don't. The world we live in is of alternative selves acting, or not, in alternative worlds. Looking at a world permanently described by a single model, seeing a fixed conception of human nature in relation to fixed social relations, is the outcome of "evil", of an individual giving up seeking knowledge out of personal experience for the sake of the rewards of group conformity. It is not accurate to our experience. Do you understand?
- Yes. But philosophizing you aren't going to change the world. People don't have time to think anymore.
- Ideas of only a few people, many in your country, made our world. Why should it take more than a few to save it?
- I couldn't say. I've got to go to work.

Further Reading:
Spectacle & God
It's All Good
Against Leaders
The Technology Of Good