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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