Are These the “Interesting Times?”

Philosophy is perfectly right in saying that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other clause – that it must be lived forward.

– Soren Kierkegaard

Allegedly the most powerful curse ever uttered is this: “may you live in interesting times; and may you attract the attention of those in power.” Historians identify previous periods in which such “interesting times” can be found, but the present tumult in which we find ourselves also qualifies.

Unlike cousins from other species who depend upon an abundance of instincts to guide their behavior, we humans must rely upon our conscious and unconscious minds for direction in an uncertain and unpredictable world. We have a survival need for energized intelligence; but in a world in which virtually every facet of human action is dominated by political intervention, control, and dictate, the processes of intelligent thought are replaced by coercively-enforced whims and fantasies. Only individuals are capable of thought; groups of people are not. Civilizations are created by individuals; they are destroyed by collectives. When college students circulate petitions condemning the Enlightenment and the search for truth as “racist”; when students demand certain days on which “white” students and faculty are expected to stay off campus; while “white” students are to be prohibited from wearing Mexican ponchos or sombreros; and when college administrators create and enforce “speech codes,” thoughtful minds begin to take notice of the impending dangers.

Our efforts to “live forward” are underlain perhaps, by the most fundamental of questions: how do we know what we know? Each of us possesses a circle of understanding, composed of such elements as our prior experiences, formal education, genetic memory, the opinions of others, and from talking to ourselves. You have your circle of understanding, and I have mine. Many of our social difficulties arise from the fact that the contents of our respective circles are not identical. If we recognize that our individual understanding consists of subjectively-derived opinions, we are less likely to self-righteously insist upon forcibly imposing those opinions upon others. Our opinions may accurately reflect the nature of the universe, but we have no way of determining that from within the boundaries of our accumulated opinions. That our minds are able to efficaciously direct our actions in an external world whose regularities are so frequently mirrored by patterns created by our thoughts, is a tribute to our intellectual capacities.

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A friend once asked whether I considered myself a solipsist, or whether I believe there is a reality beyond the contents of my mind. I answered that I do believe in a reality that is independent of my views, but that the key word Against Method Paul Feyerabend Best Price: $9.82 Buy New $14.99 (as of 08:36 EDT - Details) is “believe.” Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher of science best known for his books Against Method, and Science in a Free Society, described himself as an “epistemological anarchist;” that the search for truth must be midwifed by the principle “anything goes.”

If we live in a universe we believe to have an objective reality independent of our thinking, and yet a reality with which we can function only through subjective processes of thought, how might we acquire a sufficient degree of understanding that allows us to function in ways consistent with that reality? We live in a culture that emphasizes the importance of answers in dealing with our world. From our earliest days in schools on into adulthood, we are given periodic “tests” to certify our skills at giving the “correct” answers to questions. By contrast, my all-time favorite teacher of any subject was law professor Malcolm Sharp who helped me discover that the understanding of any topic depends upon the quality of the questions we bring to the inquiry; a process that depends upon going deeper and deeper into our investigation. Malcolm would likely have appreciated the words of Milton Mayer: “the questions that can be answered aren’t worth asking.”

Our understanding is inherently restrained by an ignorance of what lies beyond the boundaries of what we believe we know. In times of turbulence those boundaries are often shaken, producing questions that do not easily fit into the confines of our prior learning. Such influences can foster either a sense of panic and irrationality, or an awareness of the need to dig deeper into questions that may better inform our understanding; questions that may discomfort us because of our faith in the certitude of what we already know.

The circles of understanding with which we organize our knowledge of the world are undergoing fundamental questioning. When MIT math professor, Edward Lorenz, experimented with the emerging computer technologies to discover whether they could predict weather, he found that weather systems had far too many inconstant and interacting variables to allow for predictable outcomes. Lorenz became the founding father of “chaos theory,” and even coined the phrase “butterfly effect” to describe the basic premise for the study of chaos: the ability to make predictions of complex systems depends upon a “sensitive dependence on initial conditions.”

The linear regularities upon which we believe our world to operate (e.g., if x produces y, and x + 1 produces y + 1), may quickly give way to nonlinear effects (e.g., x + 4 produces not y + 4, but z, consequences that are out of proportion to their marginal input (e.g., the final straw that broke the camel’s back). The illusion that politically-planned economies can produce desired results continues to be shattered by spontaneously-organized systems. The contrasting consequences of the Industrial Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution, provide real-world evidence for Terry Pratchett’s insight into the beneficent nature of chaotic systems: “Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order if being sought. It always defeats order because it is better organized.”

Prior learning has convinced us that chaos is a destructive force that needs to be brought under control by modern versions of “philosopher kings.” Fears of an unplanned and unregulated world help to drive the frenzy for political intervention into every facet of human action. The thought that nature – including human nature – might order itself through unseen regularities is dismissed as “anarchy,” while extending and further empowering the coercive arm of the state is hailed as “socially responsible” behavior.

Recent experiences with destructive hurricanes in Texas and Florida are challenging our traditional thinking, helping to provide a comparative analysis of spontaneous and consciously designed responses to complexity. A volunteer group in Texas that helped rescue victim of the storm had, as its motto, “chaos is where we thrive.” In the meantime, a television news channel described an Army general as “a man who knows how to conquer chaos.” If complex systems produce unpredictable outcomes – a lesson learned from Edward Lorenz’ experiment – the response intelligent minds should make to such conditions is to understand the nature of, and to work within, such complicated environments. To speak of “conquering” chaos is as pointless and destructive – as well as arrogant – as presuming to conquer human nature. Science in a Free Society Paul Feyerabend Best Price: $12.04 Buy New $14.71 (as of 02:00 EDT - Details)

Other events remind us of a consequence of behavior that we are too often unwilling to acknowledge or absorb: entropy. Defined as energy that is unavailable for productive work, entropy derives from the fact that our actions are not always efficient, and produce outcomes that do not always internalize costs. The digestive process produces metabolic wastes to be disposed of by our bodies, although such wastes may provide energy (negative entropy) that can be used productively by other systems (e.g., fertilizer for plants). Wastes can also be found in the byproducts of the manufacturing processes that produce “industrial wastes,” (e.g., the fluoride generated by the production of aluminum).

Whether such wastes are to be internalized by the actor, or imposed upon others, raises an issue that implicates the private property principle. The “pollution” problem arises from actors dumping their entropic byproducts onto the property of others, whether directly onto their lands, or indirectly through the atmosphere, lakes and rivers, or underground water tables from which their water is obtained. It is the nature of all political systems to generate entropy. The coercive powers of the state are employed by those privileged to exercise such power so as to benefit at the expense of those upon whom the costs are imposed. Whether we are considering wars, governmental regulation, zoning, eminent domain, taxation, the government construction of a sports stadium, or other political acts, most of us are forced to pay for transfers of wealth or control of what we own in order to benefit special interests. Costs legally forced upon people generate resentment, a form of energy that often finds expression in destructive reactions or such political turmoil as is currently being experienced. Unresolved entropy has a way of feeding on its own energies to produce even more disruptive effects.

Among the major entropic costs produced by government action in America, there are three whose effects have never been fully worked out in the culture. These are [1] the devastation of American Indian cultures; [2] African-American slavery; and [3] the Civil War. That such unabsorbed costs are not peculiar to American politics is reflected in ongoing conflicts between Turkish and Armenian cultures, Hindu and Muslin conflicts, unresolved Israeli and Palestinian differences, and the aftermath of the Christian Crusades that continue centuries after the Medieval period in which they were undertaken. Our language confesses to the depths of our unresolved divisiveness. Consistent with plantation thinking, a “white” woman can give birth to a “black” baby, but a “black” woman cannot give birth to a “white” child. In my undergraduate college days, I knew a “Negro” who was also an “albino”: in our modern racially restricted asylum, would this man be consigned to the “White Supremacy” or “Black Lives Matter” ward?

Is it possible to work unresolved entropy out of a system through peaceful means? Such ends would be possible only by asking relevant and refined questions. Sadly, the formal efforts to do so have only added more conflict to the problem. One such “solution” is the proposal for “reparations” to be paid to the purported descendants of slaves. With legally-enforced slavery having ended a century and a half ago, the benefits of such reparations would go to individuals who were never slaves themselves. Likewise, the burden of making such payments would fall on men and women who neither owned slaves, nor had ancestors who owned slaves. The ancestors may even have been passionate abolitionists who helped to liberate slaves. For them, such recompense would have no causal connection to practices premised on some persons having the legally-protected right to own another person. My paternal grandfather and his three brothers fought in the Union Army during the Civil War, with my grandfather the only one of the four to survive. Would I – along with my children and grandchildren – be exempt from making such reparations? And might we have claims for reparations for the deaths of my great-uncles as well as the many cousins of which we were deprived by their not having been born? The effect of a reparations program could only fuel resentment among those forced to pay damages to non-victims, resulting from the actions of some nineteenth-century wrongdoers. Having no philosophically principled premises from which to reason, the advocates of such schemes can only resort to name-calling (“racist,” “hate-monger,” “slavery defender”) with which to condemn the critics of such a proposal. A Libertarian Critique... Butler Shaffer Buy New $5.50 (as of 05:48 EDT - Details)

Other misguided efforts to dispose of the unresolved conflicts of slavery and the Civil War are seen in prohibitions of displaying the Confederate flag, as well as the destruction of statues of Confederate politicians and army generals. The argument is premised on remnants of the Civil War being reminders of slavery; that disposing of such symbols might serve to diminish – if not extinguish – the unabsorbed energies. Proposals have not yet been made to dig up Confederate cemeteries and obliterate the remains of Southern soldiers; nor have suggestions been made that statues of Abraham Lincoln also be torn down, given that, as a pre-Civil War lawyer in Illinois, he represented a Kentucky slave owner desirous of reclaiming a runaway slave and her children. When one hears that Benjamin Franklin, private property, and cotton are condemned as “racist,” or that statues of Christopher Columbus have been vandalized or defaced in various cities across America, it is evident that there are those who do not choose to bear the burden of intelligent thinking.

The expectation that political systems can resolve entropy-laden hostilities that help to define modern society, ignores the fact that the existence of these institutions depends upon social conflicts they promise to control or terminate. The state – whose motto might well be “let’s you and him fight” – would have no purpose without such conflict-fostering behavior. The function of politicians, government agencies, the established media, and members of academia, is to help create and reinforce group identities; to substitute collective power over individual liberty. Such transformations will then be employed on behalf of contrived social conflicts that the established order will use as a rationale for its coercively based interventions into human affairs.

When Randolph Bourne wrote that “war is the health of the state,” his words went far beyond military battlefields. The war system expresses itself in every agency of government. From legislative chambers – be they city, county, state, or federal – to judicial and executive offices; the state establishes rules that benefit some at the expense of others. This is accomplished not by contract, a voluntary, peaceful means by which property owners create rules and other expectations binding themselves alone; but by coercively-enforced fiat. Those who wish to benefit from political rule-making, find themselves pulled into the divisiveness of group identities. The established order has little interest in addressing the grievance or aspirations of the individual unless that person can submit his or her claim in a form consistent with the collective interests of a group that has amassed sufficient political clout.

Intellectuals have had an uneven record in the history of mankind. On the one hand, they have produced wonderful works of art, music, philosophy, poetry, and literature; scientific discoveries and religious inquiries; inventions; architecture and engineering; and other creations that have contributed to both the material and spiritual well-being of humanity. On the other hand, intelligent minds have created political systems, religious dogmas, military weaponry, and other expressions of the divisive thinking that underlies wars, economic conflicts, tyrannical practices, and other manifestations of the continuing political wars against peace and liberty. The clearest example of the unevenness of intellectual pursuits may be found in, perhaps, the greatest mind in history, Leonardo da Vinci: inventor, artist, scientist, writer, and mathematician, he was also the designer of weapons for the state.

In his book, Ideas Have Consequences, Richard Weaver reminds us of the abstract nature of words and ideas. Words have consequences, which may be either creative and liberating, or destructive of life, it being the task of intelligent minds to understand the differences. It has been the failure of most schools to help students learn to make such distinctions that stands atop the list of their failures. We live in a time when words have little principled substance to them, and tend to be employed more as bumper-sticker or t-shirt political slogans, than as ideas to engage intelligent minds. The Wizards of Ozymand... Best Price: $83.35 Buy New $87.76 (as of 02:00 EDT - Details)

For decades, if not centuries, most of us have surrendered our inquiries to the institutionalized “keepers of questions,” be they schools, the mainstream media, organized religions, or academia. In addition to providing us with the questions it is appropriate for us to ask, we are also supplied with answers we are expected to internalize and verbalize. One of the major functions of such formal authorities is to create and enforce the group identities that will bring us into herd-oriented divisions. Having abandoned our individual sense of being in favor of a collective identity, we accept direction for our thinking and conduct from those we acknowledge as our collective authorities.

As in Medieval times, heresies and blasphemies are now characterized as “hate speech,” or “insensitivity to the feelings of others.” Small children who, in the Medieval ages, were punished for their failure to understand the intricacies of transubstantiation, are now punished for ignoring the sanctity of transgenderism!

The intellectuals who presume to be the keepers of our questions and answers – and thus the custodians of our minds – too often overlook the limitations inherent in language. Because each of us, alone, is in control of our energies, human action is inherently individualistic. Institutions have no existence, apart from the individuals who devote their energies to them. Political systems cannot control our behavior: if they could, they would not have to resort to threats to obtain our obedience. Threats only increase the costs, to us, of being disobedient and directing our own course of action; producing entropic outcomes for those who do not freely choose such practices. Ideas can produce unintended consequences that contribute to the conflicts and destructiveness in our world. Directing resources to a problem in a futile effort to resolve it, only adds to the accumulated entropy. Ideas do have consequences, as does the failure to engage in clear, focused thinking. Thomas Pynchon reminds us that “if they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers,” a likelihood intensified by the increased complexity of variables at work.

Samuel Johnson observed that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Just as the failure to have a focused mind while driving on a freeway can produce immediate and dangerous consequences, increasing numbers of intelligent minds are becoming aware that there are significant costs associated with thinking and acting in politically divisive ways. There is a madness in continuing to play games whose only purpose is to gain control of the machinery of the state in order to obtain what one is unable to get through voluntary means: the power to use legally-protected violence against others. Such institutionalized lunacy is tearing civilized society apart by creating, for individuals, a dystopian world produced by the thinking of one of the principal architects of the state, Thomas Hobbes. Contrary to his visions, it has been the existence of the state, not its absence, that has made the lives of humans “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Is the turbulence of our “interesting times” a playing out of a cursed future, or an opportunity for transformations in our thinking that will enrich our lives, both materially and spiritually? Drawing upon a mix of such variables as my understanding of human history, Joseph Schumpeter’s insights into the processes of “destructive creation,” as well as the hubris associated with trying to predict outcomes of complex systems, I tend to the view that the future of our culture will likely be found in the interplay between the old and the new. The turbulence in our modern world may consist, in part, in the death-rattle noises of an institutionally-established order in its terminal state; while, at the same time, the life-affirming cries of a newborn proclaiming to the world its individual uniqueness and claim of immunity to coercion. An awareness of how the Middle Ages morphed into the Renaissance – processes that were fostered by Gutenberg’s technological contribution to the decentralized expansion of information, provides further optimism for a future in which technological inventions will continue to enhance the liberating powers of information. I share the insight offered by Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who responded to the turmoil of his time in this way: “This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.”

Mainstream media and academia – long the outlets for the propagation of established thinking – have become frequent contributors to the rapidly expanding awareness of men and women to the destructive nature of political systems. The powers found in the photograph of the naked Vietnamese girl running and screaming after a napalm attack; or the video of Wang Wei-Lin facing down a row of faceless tanks in Tiananmen Square; or the live television coverage of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, attest to the spiritual dimensions taking place in our regimented world. So, too, have Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Ed Snowden, and the Wikileaks organization, provided what the institutional interests have long feared: a widespread public awareness of the lies and destructive consequences of their political machinations.

The anti-intellectual environments created by some colleges and universities that provide “safe rooms” with hot chocolate and psychological counselors in order to provide sanctuaries in which flocks of students can hide from the pain and suffering of having to think and make distinctions regarding discomforting ideas are undergoing a few challenges. The University of Chicago (my law school alma mater) issued a report acknowledging that the “University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” The report added: “It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves.” Also, fifteen faculty members from Ivy League universities – one of whom was a law school classmate of mine – published an open letter critical of the dangers of “groupthink.”  As if thinking may become thinkable again. Prof. Sharp would have been pleased!

As encouraging as these instances are, there was one that has had a profound effect on me, one which, like the aforementioned visual images is forever seared into my soul. I had been watching news coverage of the aftermath of Texas and Florida hurricanes, as well as the “ego boundary” fights and riots taking place in various cities and on college campuses. “White Supremacist” and “Black Lives Matter” contingents were engaged in their street-corner warfare, or in toppling or protecting Confederate statues; but seemingly were not involved in efforts to rescue flood victims. Individual “blacks” and individual “whites” were seen cooperating to save one another. A television news report from Houston showed a white man carrying a black baby to safety. This simple act carried a subliminal message that may prove subversive to the conflict-driven established order by helping us rescue our individuality from the mutually destructive clutches of collective assumptions: this child’s life matters!