A word which rattles incessantly in the minds of many, especially now. *Why Trump?*, *Why Brexit?*…*Why a Christmas market in Berlin?*
It’s easy to ask why of of friends, enemies, and groups of which you’d consider political or sociological opponents. It’s also easy to ‘ask’ *why*, with an emotional charge of outrage and fury. In the odd case in which one attempts to answer, for example,
“Well, the middle class were just fed up with politicians…”, or
“Well, Islam *isn’t* really a religion of peace and -”
you’ll almost certainly find that the discussion trails off, focused instead by emotions stemming from a flight or fight response, rather than a genuine place of curiosity and tacit understanding. With the current state of global affairs, I’d invite all of us to calmly take a step back, and have a moment to peacefully ask the same question – not of others – but of ourselves. In a world, particularly one in which the idea of “post-truth” has jumped out of the pages of Orwell into the real world, there’s no better time to truly ask such a question.
We all know the context in which this post was written – simply scroll through your Facebook, Twitter or YouTube feed. Perhaps you already did that, haphazardly taking a break from reading, as I did whilst writing. What I’m really trying to grasp at is a deeper conversation concerning a grasp at meaningful bedrock amidst the sandy discussions around us.
So what can we start with? What in the world could every single human being on this planet unanimously agree upon right now? Does such a concept even exist, when even the very scientific establishments which gifted us the modern world are being brought into question? I’ll hazard two such *axioms*, if you like, which I’m confident everyone can agree upon. From there, not all may agree upon the direction I take, nor my conclusions…however, we should at least (in theory) be able to have a discussion devoid of preconceived bias. So, let us begin.
###Some fundamental axioms
1. I have a phenomenological experience
2. Everyone else has a similar phenomenological experience
Now, what do I mean by *”phenomenological”*? Phenomenology is a branch of philosophy, the word stemming from the Greek “phainómenon” – that which appears, and “logos” – to study. It is simply the study of consciousness from the first person perspective. Regardless of whether we live in a simulation, or how accurate our image of the world is, it is absolutely undoubtedly objectively true that **you**, reading this, are having an *experience* in the most fundamental sense of the word.
Now, I don’t want to get lost in some academic intellectual rabbit-hole of say, the “hard problem of consciousness”, or, the “problem of induction”. My aim is to attempt at establishing a *practical* bedrock of meaning. One which we might possibly infer useful ethical principles from. So rocketing along, lets also agree that such a phenomenological experience (for example, *this* one, right now), is characterized by *at the very least*, simply, thoughts and emotions.
Cool! So can we all agree, joking aside, that everyone in the world feels and thinks? That’s a brilliant start, we’re getting somewhere. Now I’m going to ask the reader, and myself, to do one more thing. This is the tricky part. *Put *yourself* aside for the moment*.
What I mean is, none of this “solipsism” bullshit first year philosophy students like to spout about “I am the only one I can be confident truly exists”, or silly things like that.
Whilst it is true that *you* are presently experiencing *your* life, we must take both of these axioms with equal weight. In fact, the first is rather redundant if you think about it. Now, I don’t want to bash this extremely old message into the ground any further, but I will emphasize that it is important to sit with that thought once in a while.
Done sitting with it? Cool.
Now, assuming your experience is “equal” to my experience, in some abstract measure of importance.
(ie. let’s also implicitly assume then, that human experience is actually important to humans, if that’s not too much to ask.)
Then, may we take the cautious, ambitious step forward, and suggest that it is good thing to optimize this experience? I don’t mean *perfect* it, because that would require us to define what a “perfect” human experience would be, which is not the present aim. However, most would intuitively know what an “ideal” or “optimized” experience is. That is, an experience which minimizes unnecessary pain and suffering, whilst maximizing happiness, joy, leisure, and all the rest of it that good stuff which feels nice and warm inside. All human experiences being equal, we need also do this to the best of our ability *for everyone*, somehow.
Now whoa, am I talking about utilitarianism? I’m striking at a similar idea, however I don’t mean to utterly maximize happiness for absolute everyone, and not to some definitively quantitative scale. It’s not as if we have some universal unit of happiness, and we can say, “the best we can do is give everyone exactly 75 happiness points, no more, no less””. Before utilitarians shout “strawman!” from the depths of Reddit, let me also note that I’m half-joking, and simply noting that I’m not putting forth a specifically “utilitarian” argument, nor specifically rebutting against any. Let’s avoid tge “-ism’s” before we fall into a schism ourselves. Happiness is a nuanced thing, and it holds different meanings for everyone – all I’m saying is that we should strive to help each other achieve it.
But, instead of maximizing a million different subjective definitions of happiness, I think instead we can focus on minimizing undue pain and suffering in the world. The default status-quo of Western society for an individual pretty good on the freedom to pursue happiness, all things considered. However, we all know what *suffering* feels like. We’ve all also heard on the news, in class and from our lefty-activist friends what that feels like overseas. Now this is the part where I start to not enunciate the obvious in a redundantly verbose manner, and suggest a slightly new avenue of approach.
Can you guess what it is? Yep – Science!
In light of the whole “post-truth”, “fake news” and related messiness, let’s remember why we valued truth. Specifically, objective, factual…dare I say it? *scientific, empirical* truth. In the past handful of centuries, it is no accident that the human race has had a drastic increase in the quality of life. We began to strike upon and utilize a systematic process of observing and testing the physical world – with profound results.
I mean of course, the discoveries and advancements by Aristotle, Tesla, Copernicus, Pasteur, Newton and Darwin…just to name a few. These goliaths of human reason and intellect brought forth not just new techniques, methods and ideas…but also real applications and improvements to our quality of life. Einstein’s theory of special and general relativity isn’t just a torture device for physics students – it also makes sure Google Maps doesn’t direct you off a cliff. Pasteur didn’t mess around with beakers on a whim – and you should be thankful for that in how you don’t worry smallpox and enjoy a good fermented drink once in a while.
It is absolutely undeniable that scientific progress is not just correlated with positive improvements in the modern human experience, but indeed *directly results in it*. Yes, you can cite counterexamples such as the atomic bomb, (although funny thing is applications of nuclear technology have now resulted in net lives saved overall), but it is still true that the more scientific breakthroughs we have as a collective human society, the greater our collective quality of life is. Instead of listing uncountable examples here, take a look around right now. I bet every single thing you can point to in a room, or outside even, can be connected to some to the study of science.
Have we reached a plateau of technological progress? Perhaps – that’s a blog for another time. However we must remember that it was the pursuit of *truth*, and a curious exploration of the natural world, which led to our current (frankly absurd) evolutionary advantage. If everything around you which you so value – not just things, but opportunities, and modern ethical values we now hold – were at least in part founded through the pursuit for truth and reason…perhaps we ourselves should hold that particular value itself. It must also be noted, whenever a subject like this is brought up, that those involved in this honest pursuit are always – *always* – willing to change what they hold to be true; if/when more reasonable evidence is discovered. Of course, nothing is invulnerable to such change, some current theories have simply fared better against the tests of time than others.
Perhaps, just as we improved our lives and the world around us, we can improve ourselves by adopting truth and reason into our lives.