When democracy fails

There is this idea that humanity has evolved to its highest possible level of existence; that the structures in our cultures are as good as they can be; that our understanding of how the world works is complete. It does not take much to poke holes in such an idea if you think about it carefully. But sometimes people don’t think about things carefully, they just take things for granted. And then they are very surprised when other people hold different ideas or when things don’t work the way they thought.

Often people say that there are no holy cows; that nothing is above scrutiny. But when you interrogate them, you find that there are concepts and idea that they cling to. Often the current way of thinking about things is a holy cow to such people. It is a contradiction that exists in the current way of thinking held by many people of which they are not even aware. It is like when people say that one should not believe things without scientific evidence and then they cling tenaciously to ideas that they believe without any scientific evidence. Or where they criticize people for not following the scientific method in their convictions and then go ahead and violate the tenements of the scientific method in their own conduct.

Humanity has come a long way and there is much that happened during their long history that one can study and learn from. It does not matter whether it is general history, the history of science, or art, or any other aspect of our cultures. We see that there has been many different ways in which people viewed the world and different ways in which they thought about the world and how it works.

I want to believe that there has been a general progression in this understanding, but I do not believe that our current understanding is the ultimate and that (assuming we survive beyond our current challenges) there is not improvement possible. In fact, I can already think of some improvements that are possible. Moreover, I do not believe that all previously held convictions are necessarily inferior to our current way of thinking.

One thing that can be improved is the way we view previous ways of thinking. There is a general tendency to criticize other world views, especially those from the past. It reveals a general arrogance and also ignorance, because such a tendency is blind to the fact that our currently held way of thinking may not be the ultimate. What universal criteria that are independent of any world view can be used to assess world views?

To expand this idea further, one can ask whether it would have been good if people during the bronze age would have had our current world view. Perhaps you would argue that it would not have been possible, because it would have required some knowledge that we have today, which they did not have then. What about some concepts that did not need the knowledge we have today, like a political system, for example democracy?

Raphael, The School of Athens

It is interesting to consider that democracy is a very old idea, having been introduced in ancient Greece. Still, monarchy remained the dominant political system for most of the time since then. For a while Roman was a republic and then it became an empire. If this idea of democracy, which is tacitly held as a such a holy cow today, is really so wonderful, how do we explain the fact that it only became fairly dominant quite recently?

What it reveals is that the journey by which humanity achieved a certain idea is as important as the idea itself. In other words, if we believe that some political system is great, then it doesn’t help to enforce this idea on a group of people unless they have taken the same journey to reach this idea. There are enough examples in the world today where people that have not gone through the necessary journey are introduced to an idea that work so well in other groups, where it does not work in this group.

So, my suggestion is that we should not only consider the current status quo, but also the arduous process by which the current status quo has been achieved. Thinking that we can save people from the arduous journey by gifting them directly with the “final” result, we may discover that we have gifted them with an abomination that introduces an unnatural situation leading to much strive and anguish. Instead, we should allow people to evolve along the natural path and stop judging this path as if you have some superior vision that supposedly knows better.

Humanity vs the human

The world is in the grip of a pandemic. In many ways, it tests the systems that have come into existence through the cultural development of humanity. To some extent, it may even be testing its survivability.

If humanity were still in the process of biological evolution, the outcome of the test would simply be determined by the survival-of-the-fittest criterium. But humanity has moved beyond mere biological evolution. It has developed culture.

Culture provides a mechanism that can circumvent the threats posed by the environment, even when humans are not the “fittest.” A culture can adapt much faster than the genome. The pandemic is testing the fitness of culture as a mechanism for survival.

The world consists of many different cultures. Each culture provides various systems, including those responsible for government, finance, education, health and so forth. All these systems must work together to provide the protection for the people of these cultures during times such as these.

We live in a time where the cultures of the world have started to merge. The information obtained through research and the technologies that are developed are shared among all the cultures. The benefit of cooperation is obvious. For any single culture to survive, it is necessary that all of humanity survives.

While the picture of the world in terms of cultures may give a positive view of humanity’s prospects, it does not reveal the negative side. For this picture to prevail, these cultures need to be healthy. Here lies the problem.

A culture transcends the mechanism of biological evolution in that it cares for the individual members of the culture. The golden rule “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” forms the foundation for civilization. It allows people to live and work together to enable the development of culture and to achieve the great works that are associated with it.

At some point, it was decided that the golden rule is not enough. Individuals need more protection. So people introduced the notion of “human rights” and even call them “fundamental.” The idea makes sense, but begs the question of a culture that is at least moderately civilized. Within the context of the golden rule the concept of human rights can work.

But the world contains many communities where the cultural development is either lacking or has decayed to the point where the golden rule is not part of culture. In such situations, human rights provides a platform from which a community can be terrorized. The individual is elevated above the community. The result is a general breakdown of culture and a return to the survival of the fittest scenario.

Examples of this breakdown becomes prevalent. People oppose the attempts of governments to contain the spread of the virus. In some cases, these situations become violent. It threatens the culture’s ability to protect.

Human rights have a place in culture, but it must be placed in balance with the protection of the community. The individual human is not more important than all of humanity. How this balance should work and be implemented is not clear to me at the moment. But I’m sure the thinkers of our time can come up with some ingenious ideas.

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What is your aim?

The endless debate about where fundamental physics should be going, proceeds unabated. As can be expected, this soul searching exercise includes many discussions of a philosophical nature. The ideas of Popper and Kuhn are reassessed for the gazillionth time. Where is all this leading us?

The one thing I often identify in these discussions is the narrow-minded view people have of the diversity of humanity. Philosophers and physicists alike, come up with all sorts of ways to describe what science is supposed to be and what methodologies are supposed to be followed. However, they miss the fact that none of these “extremely good ideas” have any reasonable probability to be successful in the long run.

Why am I so pessimistic? Because humanity has the ability to corrupt almost anything that you can come up with. Those structures and systems that exist in our cultures that actual do work are not the result of some “bright individuals” that decided on some sunny day to suck some good ideas out of their thumbs. No, these structures have evolved into the forms that they have today over a long time. They work because they have been tested over generations by people trying to corrupt them with the devious ideas. (It reminds me that cultural anthropology is, according to me, one of the most underrated fields of study. The scientific knowledge of how cultures evolve would help many governments to make better decisions.)

The scientific method is one such cultural system that has evolved over many centuries. The remarkable scientific and technological knowledge that we posses today stand as clear evidence of the robustness of this method. There is not much, if anything, to be improved in this system.

However, we do need to understand that one cannot obtain all possible knowledge with the scientific method. It does have limitations, but these limitations are not failing of the method that can be improved on. These limitations lie in the nature of knowledge itself. The simple fact is that there are things that we cannot know with any scientific certainty.

What is your reward?

So, the current problem in fundamental science is not something that can be overcome by “improving” the scientific method. The problem lies elsewhere. According to my understanding, this problem has one of two possible reasons, which I have discussed previously. It is either because people have lost their true curiosity in favor of vanity. Or it is because our knowledge is running into a wall that cannot be penetrated by the scientific method.

While the latter has no solution, the former may be overcome if people realize that a return to curiosity instead of vanity as the driving force behind scientific research may help to adjust their focus to achieve progress. Short term extravagant research results do not always provide the path to more knowledge. It is mainly designed to increase some individual’s impact with the aim to obtain fame and glory. The road to true knowledge may sometimes lead through mundane avenues that seem boring to the general public. Only the truly passionate researcher with no interest in fame and glory would follow that avenue. However, it may perhaps be what is needed to make the breakthrough that would advance fundamental physics.

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