A Vision with Unorthodox Foundations
For the past few years I’ve been afflicted with what perhaps cannot be called with any other name than a sort of visceral philosophical pregnancy. I talk about affliction because it is as much a curse as it is a blessing. Whenever I’ve tried to give birth to it, the complexity of it all boggles my cognitive powers of synthesis, and it scatters into hundreds of fragments across different fields and mediums. It is as if something wants to be born and it is testing the mother to see if it can handle the birth. Perhaps I’ll fail but I hope my attempts will attract the right surrogate.
A part of me is afraid of expressing it, for it is incomplete, unpolished, probably riddled with unknown contradictions and in opposition to social reality as we know it.
But when was a child born fully grown and able? Does it not come into this world frail and weak in need of care and protection? Would it not perish, as well as cause and incur harm were it to stay too long in the womb?
The reason I moved into the Monastery of One, was not to cut myself off from society and do philosophy in isolation but, like some animals, take shelter in a safe place where I could give birth in peace. The love of wisdom, philosophy done right, is a transformative activity that creates fecundity in one’s soul, and when you transform for a world that is not yet born the only solution is to give birth to it yourself.
This then, is a child of the soul, born from the love of wisdom and compassion for sentient beings. It has many parents, some thousands of years old, some still living – I’m deeply indebted to them all.
Just like a child, it flourishes when it is loved not only for what it is but for what it could be and needs its share of freedom in the world if it is to grow.
What then, is this child? It is an ideal that wants to realize itself by being put into practice. A world-view yearning to be born in the world, instantiating itself in different forms, from technologies to communities and beyond. But its forms do not exhaust it, for they are merely expressions of something evolving. It is a vision becoming manifest.
So as I attempt to describe the vision or put it into practice, its expressions and initiatives, its vehicles so to speak, will tend to change, out of conceptual evolution and empirical experimentation that are bound to demonstrate weaknesses and limitations that necessitate revisions. This constitutes one of the difficulties in describing the vision, for being dynamic and alive rather than a set of static foregone conclusions, sometimes results in radical transformations of its content.
A perhaps unorthodox foundation
If the vision I’m referring to can be said to have a foundation, that would be philosophy, in the spirit of the ancient Greeks, and the awareness of human ignorance and fallibility. It would not be a realization about a set of universal positive knowledge claims that are indubitable or evidently preferable but rather the result of the humbling conclusion that there don’t seem to be any nor are our chances of finding some favorable. The only truth is aporia; the only way, the way of ignorance1.
For even when we do come up with some good questions and answers, reality has a way of making a mockery of our attempts, by either changing or proving to be more complex, demonstrating our questions to be short-sighted and our answers of limited use. This seems to be the case for all areas of knowledge from science and medicine to law and philosophy. Even the same truths, principles, techniques and laws followed at different times by the same man or society can switch from bane to boon without warning for unforeseen reasons.
Could we build on such an unorthodox foundation as the awareness of human ignorance and fallibility? And if we could, how would such a building look like? What forms of life would it be able to host?
The irony of this question rests in that it somehow implies that others have found a way of not building on such a seemingly shaky foundation. I believe they haven’t, and perhaps there’s a lot to be said in favor of a building whose engineers were acutely aware of the fact that they were building on sand all along rather than bedrock.
At this point I’ll be introducing a notion that secures the intellectual honesty behind this endeavor: the crossroad of judgment.
A crossroad of judgment is any point where a decision can take place. Whether our will is free or determined, provided such a dilemma is not a pseudo-problem to begin with, does not affect our ability to recognize when a decision can take place. We still recognize a coin toss irrespective of whether its outcome is determined or not.
Existence is overflowing with crossroads of judgment. We do not always know which way to go. There isn’t only one path, one right, another wrong, even though some positions are more justified than others.
This worldview, at the crossroad of judgment with respect to choosing a foundation, opted for philosophy and the awareness of ignorance and fallibility.
This is not a necessary decision. It’s entirely possible to choose otherwise. It’s even possible to develop a different theoretical structure with the same foundation. However, it isn’t arbitrary either. Choosing to develop on such a foundation rather than another has multiple benefits on many fronts, which I will try to demonstrate in due course. In the course of developing on it, you’ll inevitably catch me making a number of decisions on additional crossroads of judgment, both ethical and intellectual. I won’t always be conscious of them, nor always make the best ones, but I’ll always try to give the best reasons I can find for them. However, I’m human; ignorant and prone to error. Thus, constructive feedback is always welcome.
Four branches growing from the love of wisdom and the awareness of our ignorance and fallibility
1. The first attempts at restoring the Parthenon resulted in mistakes that were difficult for subsequent generations of architects to correct. In light of this, the Acropolis Restoration Service instituted what they called the principle of reversibility which states that any intervention ought to be conducted in such a way that it is possible, if necessary, to return the monument to the state before the intervention occurred2. Analogously, given our ignorance and fallibility, a sense of modesty and parity requires we be careful when making decisions at judgment crossroads that may hinder others from making different ones that may eventually turn out to be wiser. The richer the ecosystem of possible decisions and resultant ways of life, the higher the probability that all individuals will eventually find or create the circumstances under which they flourish.
2. While we can be less certain as to which consequences are harmful or beneficial in advance, we can be more certain in knowing that when we incur harm as a consequence of beliefs and actions that we do not hold, wouldn’t choose, approve or have committed, we yearn for justice. Given that some of the greatest atrocities have been committed by utopian idealists who didn’t mind sacrificing others in pursuit of their own ideals, it might make for a less bloody and unjust future if we adhere to a simple principle:
No one should suffer harm from the consequences of beliefs they do not hold and actions they did not commit nor consent to.
In short, fallibility is impossible to avoid, but whose fallibility we decide to endure should be our choice and inherent right.
3. There are some things that are good, not because they are chosen by most people, or the best people, or “our” people etc. but because they are the preconditions for making any choice at all. Life and freedom belong to this category. Even committing suicide presupposes you’ll be alive and in some capacity free to perform the act. Life and freedom are so fundamental that they are even necessary when judging they are not worth having. For having that special characteristic I will call them meta-goods.
However, life and freedom have preconditions of their own. In the absence of health, both life and freedom are either short-lived or incapacitated, so unless that is your wish, it becomes imperative to act in a way that fosters health. The precondition of health takes us beyond ourselves, for our health is intimately connected to how we all act towards each other and nature. To remain healthy presupposes knowledge of ourselves and how our activities affect one another and the environment we live in.
With respect to the preconditions of freedom, we ought to recall that to be able to do what you want, not only presupposes that you know what that is, but implies you can do it. None of which is always the case. To know what you want presupposes self-knowledge. To do what you want presupposes know-how. To adequately pursue both, requires liberty3. So knowledge and the methods that one acquires it, whether those of art, philosophy or science, as well as whatever structure or lack thereof ensures liberty, end up being presuppositions for both life and freedom, and thus integral to the meta-goods themselves. But there is one last thing that is a precondition for freedom we have overlooked. To be able to do what you want, you not only need to know what that is and be able to do it, you also have to want it. Without desire, will, a kind of life force that acts on or against the world, any talk of freedom, liberty or life makes little sense, if any. So that too is an integral part of the meta-good of freedom and thus requires our respect and nurturance.
4. Our ignorance and fallibility, though endemic to the human condition, admits of degrees based on the kind of life we choose to live. A life of study and experimentation may alleviate it in certain aspects of life and provide us with abilities we otherwise wouldn’t enjoy. However, given reality is extremely complex and ever-changing, it is unwise to assume that a few years of study, especially given the infinitesimal duration of an individual’s life, is sufficient to procure a life that would hold our ignorance and fallibility in satisfactory abeyance. It is therefore advisable to design a life where learning can take place throughout one’s life, and life is amenable to the requirements and results of that learning.
Here I’m alluding to the excellent essay by Wendell Berry, found in his collection of essays with the same name: The Way of Ignorance.