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Month: August 2013

Introspection # 22: “Intellectual Development During the Information Age”

When we consider the development of Western philosophy, we can generally group major leaps in intellectual thought into a number of eras: the Classical era of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment. It was during these periods of time that revolutionary new ways of thought were introduced and knowledge greatly disseminated throughout society; in turn, it was the thought of these eras that the foundations of our civilization were built upon. Outside of the philosophy of the West, however, thought has also rapidly developed during periods of great intellectualism and discovery and stagnated during periods of economic, societal, or intellectual downturn. It is perhaps natural that this is the case: thought and philosophy ebbs and flows with the changing societal, cultural, religious, and political environments of the time.

Since the Enlightenment, which produced the political philosophies off of which most of the world is now built and operates: – liberty, social equality, and reason to name just a few – there has been a lack of revolutionary forward progress in philosophical thought. The rise of socialism and the resulting new economic and social theories of the 19th century marked a period of brief development, but these theories were isolated from a greater culture of intellectualism and thought that was more apparent during the Enlightenment and Renaissance. Though a number of prominent thinkers and philosophers, many of whom have contributed significantly to the wealth of human knowledge, have lived during the period since those eras, their lives and works have not necessarily produced a new ‘era’ of thought. Simply put, the world continues to build off of the thoughts of a previous era, and is still waiting for another intellectual revolution.

The world of today is a markedly different place than 50 years ago, and is continuing to rapidly change. Humanity has moved into a new era: the information age. The rise of the computer and now the internet has connected humanity in a way that has never before been possible. Literally all of the knowledge of the human race is available to anyone’s fingertips, so long as they have the internet. The implications of this might be enormous: this might be the necessary foundation for the development of a new era of revolutionary thought and intellectual development. In the past, so much thought, culture, and progress was lost to history and thus the future because of various circumstances. Lost thought cannot contribute to the forward progress of humanity. With the computer and its enormous capacity to record and store information, however, this will no longer be a problem. So long as something can be recorded and put onto the internet, it will forever exist and be accessible; no longer can the thought or culture of entire civilizations disappear never to be found again. Also during the past thought was limited to geographic or societal boundaries; the distances in space and culture prevented the dissemination of thought. Now, however, the computer, the internet, and other tools of communication have brought everyone on the globe together.

With the entire human population capable of accessing, considering, and building off of the entirety of human knowledge, enormous developments in thought and philosophy may be coming soon. We are now capable of utilizing the intellectual resources of our species in far greater amounts than we were during the Enlightenment or Renaissance, times during which we still managed to revolutionized thought. The power of technology contributing to this intellectual revolution will also continue to grow; computers are continuously growing more powerful, and in turn they will connect us and assist us in our intellectual pursuits more and more. As long as the internet exists, and barring any major catastrophic, the products of thought in the future will be recorded for the entirety of humanity both in the present and in the future to build off of. The possibilities for growth in thought are almost limitless.

Already we are beginning to witness the intellectual transformation the internet is capable of. The average human is much more informed about the world around them and about the lives of people far removed from them in space and time… knowledge which is the first step in producing new thought. Forums, websites, and other mediums of technology are providing spaces for intellectual thought, discussion, and discourse, akin to the Salons of France and the meeting houses of Renaissance and Enlightenment Italy. We are witnessing how the internet is intimately connecting people across the globe through websites which routinely bring people from distant parts of the world together. This newfound communication may facilitate the most revolutionary and widespread dissemination of knowledge, perspectives, and philosophy ever experienced in our species’ history.

Where intellectual development during the information age may head remains to be seen, but the possibilities are promising… an incredible future awaits.

Introspection # 21: “Different Histories, Different Worlds”

The current state and character of our existence can be explained by our history: the collective choices, events, and happenings of the past have produced the world in which we live. The world which we are familiar with is the product of a singular course of events and a single set of decisions. Almost all aspects of our civilization – our culture, our beliefs, our morals, our laws – have resulted from this course of events. The implications of this are enormous: any change in the past could have transformed our civilization into one which holds radically different beliefs or has been organized in a completely different way. This realization becomes even more profound when the manner in which the past could be so drastically changed becomes apparent: because history is a web of decisions and events building off each other over time, any single different decision or event could have exponentially an increasing impact on the direction of history as time goes on.

Everything about our world is the product of the past. Western civilization and thought, for example, has its roots in the thought of the Classical era: Roman and Greek law, culture, and philosophy. The current geopolitical environment, in which the United States of America is the world’s superpower existing in a system organized by international institutions such as the UN, is the result of the Cold War, which in turn is the result of the Second World War, which in turn is a product of the First World War. So much that makes up our world, such as our current technology (such as the atomic bomb and the internet), our cultural perceptions (such as our reverence of capitalism and individualism and our regard for the Enlightenment-era ideas of liberty and freedom), and our country’s position in the world is the result of these past happenings. Yet what if the past had been different? Where would our world be now?

On August 2nd, 216 BC, the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, who was ravaging Roman territory in Italy during the Second Punic War, stood proudly at the plain of Cannae in Southeast Italy. He had just utterly defeated the opposing Roman army in something which was no ordinary victory: the Romans suffered over 40,000 casualties, losing their entire armed forces and much of its leadership structure. The road to Rome was open and if Hannibal chose to follow it the city would very likely fall, along with it the Roman civilization. He did not seize the opportunity, however, and instead the Romans bounced back, defeated him, and later burnt Carthage and the Carthaginian civilization to the ground. History progressed as it did, and we now live in a civilization built using the Roman civilization as its fundamental foundation. But what would have happened had Hannibal captured and burnt Rome? What if Rome never developed? What if we lived in a civilization where instead of Rome as a foundation it was Carthage? Absolutely everything about us would be completely and totally different, and only because one man decided to follow through with a victory instead of hesitating.

While serving as a young corporal in the trenches of World War 1, Adolf Hitler was almost shot or blown up a number of times. He could easily have been one of the countless casualties in the mass slaughter of trench warfare. Yet he did not die during his wartime experience, and went on to become the dictator who plunged the world into another, even more destructive war. What would have happened to our world had Hitler been killed during his time in the trenches? What if a single bullet, aimed at him and missing him in our history, had moved its flight by only so much and changed the entire course of human history in the 20th century? Again, everything that shaped our present culture and society since the war, such as the experience of the Cold War and the ideological struggle against communism and the technology, ideologies, and events it produced, would be entirely and completely different.

It is apparent that even minor changes, random events, and small decisions in the past can have major impacts on history and, in turn, our world. What are the implications of this, then? One major realization from this understanding is that our own choices, the events happening in our lifetime, and the state of our own world will have profound impacts on the future of human society. As time goes on and future decisions are built upon past decisions, the impact of the first choice setting that course grows more and more powerful. We do not yet know the long-term importance of the events happening in our world right now, nor do we know how our own decisions might impact our life, our society, and our species’ history. Yet, as we have seen, in many ways they truly and profoundly do. Every time we make a decision we impact the far future of humanity in enormously profound ways. Though they might seem incredibly insignificant at times, our present choices and direction are absolutely world-changing.

There is also a philosophical ramification of this recognition: if everything that we hold as true and self-evident, such as our beliefs, values, and worldviews, are shaped by the events of the past, then are they really ‘true and self-evident’? We only believe what we believe because those beliefs grew, developed, and persisted in our timeline of events. Yet an infinite other possible ideas, beliefs, and values might have been produced by any other combination of events, choices, and happenings. Our beliefs are only ours by virtue of the fact that the events and choices that produced them are the ones that actually happened, instead of any other possible choices that could as easily and equally been made. There is thus no inherently ‘true’ philosophy or belief, only those that exist because of the way the world developed. Though we can and should hold our beliefs and philosophies as correct, it is only because they are the ones that exist in our version of history. We can never say things such as ‘I would never support slavery’ or ‘Racism is an inherently terrible thing’, because we could just as easily have lived in, been shaped by, and thus believed in the ideas of a society which, because of a different course of history, was fiercely racist or in which slavery persisted. It does not mean these things are right, but it also means that they are not by their nature wrong. This is a troublesome and scary thought, but it is also really powerful, and draws into question everything we believe.

Are we who we are, only because of the way the world developed? Had any small change in a decision or choice or event changed our history, could we believe things diametrically opposed to what we believe now? Yes, and the implications of what that means about who we are and what we believe are enormous.

Introspection # 20: “Embracing Death to Embrace Life”

Perhaps more so than anything else, death is a common experience shared by all mankind, and indeed connects us intimately to life on Earth as a whole. Death, the cessation of the living experience, is one of most important events in any living creature’s life: it is a termination, the end. As such, human society has long been fascinated and fearful of death. It is not surprising that humans, the only animal capable of consciously understanding that it is alive, and thus recognizing the incredible value of that life, should be troubled by the prospect of life ending. It is all we have ever known. Yet as we become more acutely aware of how the world around us works, death becomes much less of an ultimate end. Indeed, death appears more like a new beginning. In light of this, understanding and accepting our own death helps us give value to our life and value to our passing. Embracing death helps us to embrace life.

Death is perhaps the only certainty in life. Regardless of whom they are or what they do, every person and every animal alive today will eventually die. Having death is integral to living life. It provides the living experience with a conclusion, and is a necessary consequence of natural physical decay. As such, death is integral to the living experience. Without death, a life is incomplete. It has failed to experience what every other creature ever has come to discover. Fearing death, then, means fearing what could be our most important experience. It undermines the living experience. By attempting to postpone what is ultimately inevitable, one is undermining the opportunity to experience life to the fullest. Death will eventually come, no matter how much effort is put into avoiding or postponing it, and fearing it will only limit the ability to have a fulfilling life until it does.

The nature of death can also aid us in appreciating the reality of our own life. Death is everywhere, and is something shared by all living creatures. Though the specifics of how and when something died is specific to it, the fact that it has undergone death, that it has ended life, is shared in common with all other deaths. All humans will die; together we are all the same in that regard. It is thus how we live our life that stands us apart from one another and makes us unique. By recognizing that death will come to us like it has all before us, we can better appreciate what we have uniquely and singularly accomplished in our own life, the things which have not come to others before us. Accepting how similar we are when it comes to death allows us to recognize how different and special we are in life. It provides a value to the living experience. At the same time, by accepting our own ultimate demise and the fact that we share it with every other human, we become more closely connected to the life around us. Together we live, and together we die. It is a powerful connection, which unites all life on Earth and reveals our common heritage.

Still, the idea of death can be frightening to the human mind, which is incapable of perceiving and comprehending what experience may, or may not, lay beyond the end of life. Accordingly, human societies have come up with all sorts of ideas of the afterlife, of the continuation of the experience of living after the body has died. As this is all we have ever known, this is what we assumed followed death. I myself cannot accept the idea of the afterlife, because the evidence for it does not exist. If anything, our growing understanding of the nature of consciousness as a manifestation of physical and mechanical processes in the brain would undermine such a belief. Still, regardless of whether an afterlife is real or not, death is not as ultimate an end as we fear. Our understanding of the world has vastly improved over time, and with it our understanding of how we live, die, and what we are made of. We know now that we are born constructed out of atoms that have existed since the beginning of time. We recycle nutrients and materials which are in turn recycled through our environment and our universe. We ourselves are recycled material, made from stuff created in the furnace of a star. Though our death ends our conscious experience of life, it does not end this continuous flowing movement of material and energy. Everything that made us up, everything which powered our experience of life, will reenter the natural world and, perhaps, be reassembled into a future form of life. In a way, our death presents a new beginning, a new opportunity for life to arise, just as how we arose from material that likely once made up life before us. This is immortality, a way our presence is in death forever continued.

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