Antimystic

I am, if you will, the opposite of a mystic. I feel myself radically broken off from the Universe, and I know the ragged and intricate edges of that break in the same bodily way in which the mystic knows his oneness with the cosmos. Nevertheless (call it political, if you like) that knowledge is denied me and (call it sour grapes if you will) seems, in most of the manifestations that I’ve encountered it, somewhat cheap and tawdry.

– Samuel R. Delany The Situation of American Writing Today, An American Literary History Interview, in About Writing

Economically Free

The existence of a free market does not of course eliminate the need for government. On the contrary, government is essential both as a forum for determining the “rules of the game” and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on. What the market does is to reduce greatly the range of issues that must be decided through political means, and thereby to minimize the extent to which government need participate directly in the game. The characteristic feature of action through political channels is that it tends to require or enforce substantial conformity. The great advantage of the market, on the other hand, is that it permits wide diversity. It is, in political terms, a system of proportional representation. Each man can vote, as it were, for the color of tie he wants and get it; he does not have to see what color-the majority wants and then, if he is in the minority, submit.

It is this feature of the market that we refer to when we say that the market provides economic freedom. But this characteristic also has implications that go far beyond the narrowly economic. Political freedom means the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men. The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority. The preservation of freedom requires the elimination of such concentration of power to the fullest possible extent and the dispersal and distribution of whatever power cannot be eliminated – a system of checks and balances. By removing the organization of economic activity from the control of political authority, the market eliminates this source of coercive power. It enables economic strength to be a check to political power rather than a reinforcement.

— Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom

Caring For Others

It is almost as if human affection is the very basis of our existence. Our life cannot start without affection, and our sustenance, proper growth, and so on all depend on it. In order to achieve a calm mind, the more you have a sense of caring for others, the deeper your satisfaction will be. I think that the very moment you develop a sense of caring, others appear more positive. This is because of your own attitude. On the other hand, if you reject others, they will appear to you in a negative way. Another thing that is quite clear to me is that the moment you think only of yourself, the focus of your whole mind narrows, and because of this narrow focus uncomfortable things can appear huge and bring you fear and discomfort and a sense of feeling overwhelmed by misery. The moment you think of others with a sense of caring, however, your mind widens. Within that wider angle, your own problems appear to be of no significance, and this makes a big difference. If you have a sense of caring for others, you will manifest a kind of inner strength in spite of your own difficult situations and problems. With this strength, your problems will seem less significant and bothersome. By going beyond your own problems and taking care of others, you gain inner strength, self-confidence, courage, and a greater sense of calm. This is a clear example of how one’s way of thinking can really make a difference.

— The Dalai Lama, Training The Mind: Verse 1

Duty And Morality

No doubt this is how we should understand the scriptural passages that command us to love our neighbour and even our enemy. We can’t be commanded to feel love for someone, or to simply prefer that he thrive. There are two sorts of love: practical love that lies in the will and in principles of action, and pathological love that lies in the direction the person’s feelings and tender sympathies take. The latter of these cannot be commanded, but the former can be – and that is a command to do good to others from duty, even when you don’t want to do it or like doing it, and indeed even when you naturally and unconquerably hate doing it.

The second proposition is: An action that is done from duty doesn’t get its moral value from the purpose that’s to be achieved through it but from the maxim that it involves, (giving the reason why the person acts thus).

So the action’s moral value doesn’t depend on whether what is aimed at in it is actually achieved, but solely on the principle of the will from which the action is done, irrespective of anything the faculty of desire may be aiming at. From what I have said it is clear that the purposes we may have in acting, and their effects as drivers of the will towards desired ends, can’t give our actions any unconditional value, any moral value. Well, then, if the action’s moral value isn’t to be found in the will in its relation to its hoped-for effect,
where can it be found? The only possible source for it is the principle on which the will acts – and never mind the ends that may be achieved by the action.

— Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals (translated by Jonathan Bennett)

Living WIth Open Eyes

I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false. Whatever is achieved must be achieved with the full exercise of passion, of vision, of pain, of fear, and of sorrow.

— Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Surprising News

“Look at it this way. News is what a chap who doesn’t care much about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it” (Evelyn Waugh, Scoop, p.66).

“Journalists often end up in jail because of their commitment to reveal important matters that those in power want kept hidden” (Tim Dean, in The Guardian, 14th May 2005).

Two fairly extreme versions of the journalistic calling; the negative and the positive faces of that central and demanding task, which is to surprise the reader or viewer. Because journalism as a profession largely exists to surprise. Something that attracts the attention of a chap who doesn’t care much about anything requires some professional skill in its presentation; more seriously, the liberating surprise of uncovering what too many people want hidden is – potentially – a moment of real moral change and needs some quite substantial resources to make it happen. The personal courage and commitment of certain journalists in the service of such moral change and vision is indisputable; and last week’s award to Frank Gardner of the BBC is testimony to this.

The difference between the positive and the negative is something like this. A journalist may want to pursue surprise because he or she assumes that where most people are starting from is boredom – and so the surprise has to be at some level entertaining. Or they may start from the assumption that the real problem is not boredom but the fact that certain people have decided what’s good for you to know (and are therefore quite happy that you should be alternately bored and entertained); what needs to be challenged is such people’s right to decide for others.

— Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, The Media: Public Interest and Common Good: lecture delivered at Lambeth Palace

Falsificationism Falsified

Now, Newton’s theory of gravitation, Einstein’s relativity theory, quantum mechanics, Marxism, Freudism, are all research programmes, each with a characteristic hard core stubbornly defended, each with its more flexible protective belt and each with its elaborate problem-solving machinery. Each of them, at any stage of its development, has unsolved problems and undigested anomalies. All theories, in this sense, are born refuted and die refuted. But are they equally good? Until now I have been describing what research programmes are like. But how can one distinguish a scientific or progressive programme from a pseudoscientific or degenerating one?

Contrary to Popper, the difference cannot be that some are still unrefuted, while others are already refuted. {When Newton published his Principia, it was common knowledge that it could not properly explain even the motion of the moon; in fact, lunar motion refuted Newton.} Kaufmann, a distinguished physicist, refuted Einstein’s relativity theory in the very year it was published. But all the research programmes I admire have one characteristic in common. They all predict novel facts, facts which had been either undreamt of, or have indeed been contradicted by previous or rival programmes. In 1686, when Newton published his theory of gravitation, there were, for instance, two current theories concerning comets. The more popular one regarded comets as a signal from an angry God warning that He will strike and bring disaster. A little known theory of Kepler’s held that comets were celestial bodies moving along straight lines. Now according to Newtonian theory, some of them moved in hyperbolas or parabolas never to return; others moved in ordinary ellipses. Halley, working in Newton’s programme, calculated on the basis of observing a brief stretch of a comet’s path that it would return in seventy-two year’s time; he calculated to the minute when it would be seen again at a well-defined point of the sky. This was incredible. But seventy-two years later, {when both Newton and Halley were long dead,} Halley’s comet returned exactly as Halley predicted. Similarly, Newtonian scientists predicted the existence and exact motion of small planets which had never been observed before. Or let us take Einstein’s programme. This programme made the stunning prediction that if one measures the distance between two stars in the night and if one measure the distance between them during the day (when they are visible during an eclipse of the sun), the two measurements will be different. Nobody had thought to make such an observation before Einstein’s programme. Thus, in a progressive research programme, theory leads to the discovery of hitherto unknown novel facts.

— Lakatos, Science and Pseudoscience

Unity of Labour

Further, the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. And indeed, this communal interest does not exist merely in the imagination, as the “general interest,” but first of all in reality, as the mutual interdependence of the individuals among whom the labour is divided. And finally, the division of labour offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.

— Karl Marx, The German Ideology. 1845

Moral Absolute

Law is the soil in which alone beauty will grow; beauty is the only stuff in which Truth can be clothed; and you may, if you will, call Imagination the tailor that cuts her garments to fit her, and Fancy his journeyman that puts the pieces of them together, or perhaps at most embroiders their button- holes. Obeying law, the maker works like his creator; not obeying law, he is such a fool as heaps a pile of stones and calls it a church.

In the moral world it is different: there a man may clothe in new forms, and for this employ his imagination freely, but he must invent nothing. He may not, for any purpose, turn its laws upside down. He must not meddle with the relations of live souls. The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world he may invent. It were no offence to suppose a world in which everything repelled instead of attracted the things around it; it would be wicked to write a tale representing a man it called good as always doing bad things, or a man it called bad as always doing good things: the notion itself is absolutely lawless. In physical things a man may invent; in moral things he must obey–and take their laws with him into his invented world as well.

— George MacDonald, The Fantastic Imagination

Reductionist Persuits

“Gentlefolks in general have a very awkward rock ahead in life – the rock ahead of their own idleness. Their lives being, for the most part, passed in looking about them for something to do, it is curious to see – especially when their tastes are of what is called the intellectual sort – how often they drift blindfold into some nasty pursuit. Nine times out of ten they take to torturing something, or to spoiling something – and they firmly believe they are improving their minds, when the plain truth is, they are only making a mess in the house. I have seen them (ladies, I am sorry to say, as well as gentlemen) go out, day after day, for example with empty pill-boxes, and catch newts, and beetles, and spiders, and frogs, and come home and stick pins through the miserable wretches, or cut them up, without a pang of remorse, into little pieces. You see my young master, or my young mistress, poring over one of their spiders’ insides witha magnifying-glass; or you meet oneof their frogs walking downstairs without his head – and when you wonder what this cruel nastiness means, you are told that it means a taste in my young master or my young mistress for natural history. Sometimes, again, you see them occupied for hours together in spoiling a pretty flower with pointed instruments, out of a stupid curiosity to know what the flower is made of. Is its colour any prettier, or its scent any sweeter, when you do know? But there! the poor souls must get through the time, you see – they must get through the time. You dabbled in nasty mud, and made pies, when you were a child; and you dabble in nasty science, and dissect spiders, and spoil flowers, when you grow up. In the one case and in the other, the secret of it is, that you have got nothing to think of in your poor empty head, and nothing to do with your poor idle hands. And so it ends in your spoiling canvas with paints, and making a smell in the house; or in keeping tadpoles in a glass box full of dirty water, and turning everybody’s stomach in the house – or in chipping of bits of stone here, there, and everywhere, and dropping grit into all the victuals in the house; or in staining your fingers in the pursuit of photography, and doing justice without mercy on everybody’s face in the house. It often falls heavy enough, no doubt, on people who are really obliged to get their living, to be forced to work for the clothes that cover them, the roof that shelters them, and the food that keeps them going. But compare the hardest day’s work you ever did with the idleness that splits flowers and pokes its way into spiders’ stomachs, and thak your stars that your head has got something it must think of, and your hands something that they must do.”

— Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone.