Filling the Void
Combined, the ideas in the texts The Political: the Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology and An Awareness of What is Missing by Jürgen Habermas suggest the maintenance of peace and stability in postmetaphysical liberal democratic societies requires both a freedom of expression and a way to defer to religious content within political debate. Overall, Habermas articulates the causal relationship between secularized political spheres and societal destabilization, where a lack of connection to faith, spirituality, and religious meaning increases the potential for a culturally disconnected, and thus less cooperative, populace.
In An Awareness, Habermas provides recommendations which aim to establish a position for religion in postmetaphysical societies. He remarks that despite general historical developments in human knowledge and various cultural practices, religious thinking seems to remain a crucial component of human life in secular liberal democracies (Awareness 16). Habermas demonstrates that although postmetaphysical societies have rejected religion as a source of truth, nations and political parties still appeal to religion to gain support from voting citizens (Awareness 19-20). In general, not only does this suggest that religion remains a source of meaning for some, but these meanings are often appealed to within political discourse. Habermas is concerned about the tendency of postmetaphysical societies to reject the significance of this source of meaning, stating it risks enabling a “naive faith in science” to take its place, one which suggests a lurking sense of defeatism (Awareness 18). These situations threaten societal conceptions of morality and justice as the binding-agent necessary for ensuring harmony among communities no longer exists (Awareness 19). This missing link between human societies results in a broad destabilization of the relationship between religious communities (Awareness 20). To remedy this situation, Habermas suggests that the state ought to remain neutral toward religious groups and institutions while also recognizing their significance for citizens and their families (Awareness 21). This imposes a requirement for religious individuals and groups to acknowledge the secular epistemic environments in which they reside, and engage in reflexive scrutiny as a means of situating their ideology within this context (Awareness 21). Simultaneously, secular individuals must remain open to considering the content of religious perspectives, acknowledging and translating these contributions during political discussions (Awareness 22). This cooperation, created from the state’s open engagement with religious content and support for freedom of expression, stabilizes the relationship between various groups within society.
The Political discusses the current destabilization of societies in terms of their relation to human history and our shared cultural heritage. In a period of ancient history known as the Axial Age, politics were tightly coupled with religion such that emperors and rulers were believed to be connected to otherworldly entities and forces, considered divine by those over which they ruled (Political 17). With modernization, developments in human understanding removed the connection between the spiritual and the political, as kings were no longer viewed as incarnates of divine will or law, but just as human as their subjects (Political 18-19). In the following “era of statehood”, communities formed around identities, a topic Habermas discusses by appealing to the works of Carl Schmitt (Political 20). While Schmitt believes this depoliticization occurred during the period of modern history, Habermas argues that instead, it was the early modern period which saw this shift, due to the Reformation movements away from the Catholic Church (Political 20-21). Habermas also wonders whether modern political settings render religious content obsolete or simply alter the way it is used within political discourse (Political 21). Suggesting the latter, Habermas appeals to John Rawls’s public reason to articulate how liberal democracies can come to accept the potential significance of contributions which happen to originate from religious content (Political 23-24). Although this requires cooperation between secular and religious communities to translate various ideas into language suitable for public reason (Political 27), this dialectical process aims to generate a pluralistic society tolerant to the views and ideologies of distinct peoples (Political 28).
On page 17 of An Awareness, Habermas states “the cleavage between secular knowledge and revealed knowledge cannot be bridged”. Can artistic works and other cultural projects serve as a bridge since the creation of artistic works, a process, aims to use scientific knowledge to represent subjective perspectives? Could public policy which secures funding for the arts or other, similar cultural projects further tolerance? If citizens are able to freely engage with representations of the perspectives of unique individuals as expressive, situated subjects, are individuals more likely to empathize with this perspective, thus increasing understanding, acceptance, and tolerance over time? Acknowledging Derrida’s philosophical contributions, we can consider artistic works and similar cultural products as entities with lives of their own. Representing a rich history of human heritage and development, do artistic works serve as a good mediator between individuals and collectives? Habermas focuses on translating language to uncover meaning, however, some knowledge cannot be adequately expressed in words.
The work below demonstrates the artist’s knowledge of colour mixing is required to produce an image which evokes a certain feeling, in addition to his ability to apply colours in such a way where the final product successfully communicates the message or idea as intended by the mind of another person.
Habermas, Jürgen. ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’. European Journal of Philosophy, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 1–25.
—. ‘“The Political”: The Rational Meaning of a Questionable Inheritance of Political Theology’. The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere, by Judith Butler et al., Columbia University Press, 2011.
Weisz-Kubínčan, Arnold Peter. Mother with a Child. 1940, https://artvee.com/dl/mother-with-a-child-2/. artvee.com.
It seems we are in the midst of a new world war, except now it aims to lurk in the forms of soft power, coercion, and psychological manipulation. The Cold War essentially hibernated for a few years until Putin became powerful enough to relaunch it online by using Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, targeting major western superpowers like the United States and the United Kingdom. We are witnessing the dismantling of NATO as nations erode from the inside through societal infighting. War games are not mapped out on land and sea but in the minds of groups residing within enemy nations (Meerloo 99). By destabilizing social cohesion within a particular country or region, the fighting becomes self-sustaining and obscured.
Information is key for psychological operations; as sensing living beings, information is what allows us to make good decisions which allow us to achieve our goals and keep living as best as possible. Since information has the capacity to control the behaviours of individuals, power can be generated through the production and control of information. Today, a number of key scientific organizations and individuals are drunk with power as they are in positions to control what should be considered true or false. For the sake of resource management, and likely a dash of plain ol’ human greed, the pragmatic pressures of the world have shaped what was once a methodology into a machine that provides people with purported facts about reality. As a result, we are now battling an epistemic dragon driven by collecting more gold to sit on.
This suggests that the things we believe are extremely valuable to others around the world, in addition to being one of the most valuable things you possess. The information and perspective you can provide to others is valuable, either to the society you belong to or to those interested in seeing your society crumble. The adage about ideas “living rent free in your head” seems appropriate because cultural memes are causally effective; they shape the way you think and act and such, introduces a potential psychological harm. Critical thinking and introspection are important because they are processes which counteract the influence of other people, because by forcing individuals to dig deeper from their subjective point of view, one ends up consolidating and pruning their beliefs.
Collateral damage has shifted from bodies to minds and communities will continue to be torn apart until we develop a system for individuals to combat these external influences. Socrates has shown us that philosophical inquiry tends to irritate people, and the fact that mere scientific scepticism today is being met with ad hominems suggests we are on the right track. Remember, the goal is discourse rather than concrete answers, and an important component involves considering new and conflicting ideas. Be wary of what incentivizes other people but do not judge them for it. Compassion will be the most challenging part of this entire endeavour, but I believe in you.
Meerloo, Joost A. M. The Rape of the Mind: The Psychology of Thought Control, Menticide, and Brainwashing. The World Publishing Company, 1956.
Stafford, Zach M. at extrafabulouscomics.com
I recognize this post will seem a bit tin-foily but I think it’s time we start acknowledging the consequences of a disrupted global supply chain. Perhaps things won’t get as bad as I am predicting but I think the underlying message will be relevant at some point. Ultimately, the standard of living we grew up taking for granted is about to change to some degree.
The majority of foods we consume and enjoy are dependent on global industries which are currently altering production and transportation protocols as demand and supply continue to change. Regardless of whether shortages arise due to nations restricting exports or locusts ravaging farmlands, it seems likely that by midsummer we will lose access to a variety of foods. Today, we see restaurants only offering take-away or delivery options in an attempt to find a balance between remaining open and upholding distancing measures. Grocery stores are either running out of products or limiting which items they order, as I hear shelves tend to be more empty these days. Before long, the service workers who prepare this food are likely to disappear too, as they themselves become sick or simply refuse to continue to put themselves at risk. Facilities where ready-made meals are prepared may also see a shortage of workers, limiting options for those who do not prepare their own food. We will be required to make everything ourselves, and before you call my a whiny millenial, remember that this is just the beginning. Processed foods will be next, including frozen meals, baked goods, canned soups and sauces, cookies, chips, crackers; anything that is not considered an ingredient. Eventually, however, personnel involved with all levels of the supply chain will be impacted in some way, leading to shortages of produce, dairy, and meat. I have been working on this post for a few weeks, and recently the talk of meat shortages has only increased. While we may not see wide-scale shortages until the end of the year, the decline in numbers of human workers is approaching and it will impact access to most foods.
While you may be able to survive a year without a decent burrito, these effects are not short-term as the entire world is in the midst of readjusting. You may have heard the stories of vegetables rotting in the fields or milk being dumped, but what you may not realize is these were ingredients for future foods too. The downstream effects will be a reduction in selection, and by selection I’m not talking about brands but categorical options. The only milk you may have access to is homogenized milk and cream; no skim, no 2%, and certainly no 1%. If you’re lactose intolerant, you may only be able to buy soy beverage given the recent nature of the American agricultural economy. Unilever or Kraft may have to cut production of certain items given these shortages, and suddenly we are in the midst of a type of food shortage in a time where emotional eating is at its height.
When you no longer have access to the things you love, the things that comfort you, what will you do? There are other forms of escapism and sugar comes in many forms, but we take variety for granted. We have become dependent on satisfying our appetites to some degree, regardless of whether it’s through alcohol, sugar, fat, or caffeine. We cope by consuming these substances and take pleasure in their effects, but there may also be other associations with these foods which contributes to societal well-being. Families and mealtimes go hand-in-hand all over the world, and it is difficult to determine how changes to supply chains will impact social relations.
Another option for coping is through various forms of media, as it entertains us and distracts our minds from the horror of reality. The problem arises from the tight coupling of food and visual media, irrespective of advertising. Since food is a cultural activity enabled by peak globalism, and a source of human happiness, we may suffer if this shared experience has been diminished to some degree. This may become especially apparent if images of our favourite foods are continuously popping up in our attempts to distract ourselves. Currently, social media posts include pictures of homemade creations or recommended recipes, and scrolling through staged photos may enrage us if we can’t have what we are seeing. It will remind us of a time when we had it all but didn’t even know it.
Until then, we will begin to value normalcy as type of currency, where our motivations aim to meet a luxurious set of basic needs. First-world lifestyles are built on options and variety in the things we consume, from Netflix shows to vegetarian alternatives. Notions of scarcity in a postmodern society seem ironic because it implies a reduction in standard of living, not necessarily a threat to survival. As we take our current way of life for granted, the more we put ourselves at cognitive and emotional risk. We have to acknowledge our personal dependency on this consumeristic environment we grew up assuming was normal. This has produced a level of entitlement which is about to be threatened or at least thrust into the spotlight, and perhaps leading to a reduction in emotional well-being. Some are frustrated by the actions of those who believe their freedoms are being restricted, and those protesting lock down orders inspire others to demand things “return to normal.” I don’t see it happening. Will this lead to societal unrest, especially as unemployment numbers grow? Of course it’s difficult to determine how society will adjust to this new normal, but I don’t like the way things are going today. Throw a change of available coping mechanisms into the mix and ask yourself, how are we going to handle this adjustment to a new normal? Maybe we won’t feel it until this time next year, but I believe our collective emotional well-being is about to deteriorate, for a number of reasons.
The Waiting Game
Today is March 15, 2020 and this is just the beginning for North America. Luckily, I was given the green light to remain at home before the university moved online but I still don’t know whether I am carrying the virus or not, just like every other student. Even if symptoms don’t emerge in the next week, it is difficult to believe that I won’t become sick one day. While chances are low for my cohort, I’m not going to assume I am safe. At least now my worries are justified; two weeks ago I felt like I was losing my mind. To some degree I still feel this way, but the widespread lock-downs in Europe suggest M and I were on the right track this whole time. We wish we were wrong though.
I feel like I have a lot to say about this but the words won’t come. At this point, only music can describe how I’m feeling. Sorry, I don’t have a piece list yet, but I will sooner or later. Right now, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else but the virus and its impact. The struggle arises from attempts to cling to the old reality, the one where I was going to graduate in June or July, where I was going to see my grandparents again. The new reality, however, is very uncertain.
But you didn’t come here to hear about my feelings, I’m sure you’re here for my naive philosophical perspectives. Well, I’m going to give you all I got, and I think the only effective approach right now is through critical thinking and inquiry. Get ready, this is going to be a fucking bumpy ride.
Before we continue, make a promise to yourself right now: you will be honest with yourself to yourself. The only thing that might get you through this is your mindset. Granted, I am not a real philosopher, nor a therapist, nor a doctor, nor a leader. Take everything I say with a grain of salt, but I would like to offer some recommendations for others. Do not run from your mind. Listen to your thoughts, write them down, and counter them when appropriate. Find creative ways to keep yourself sane that does not involve television, internet, or Netflix. If you continue to lie to yourself, you put your life at risk.
The US is headed toward mass upheaval and violence. I don’t know about Canada, but I am becoming increasingly worried. They’re not acting because a) it’s technically too late and b) when it wasn’t, it didn’t seem appropriate. The minute this thing hit Iran the world should have halted all air travel, but isn’t that just the most hilarious wishful thinking. We are too entrenched in our economic system to do the right thing, and many have and will continue to suffer. You will be one of them unless you wake up right now and start identifying your priorities and the steps you ought to be taking to protect them.
In case you are still sceptical, let’s start brainstorming all the ways we are in existential trouble:
- Potentially 14 days of asymptomatic transmission
- Doesn’t play nicely with preexisting conditions
- American healthcare systems + the overall health of the population
- Just-in-time manufacturing, shipping, and selling
- Dependency on other nations for producing materials or consumer goods, especially medicines
- Cheap Saudi oil is undercutting Western outputs; Alberta is screwed
- Russian soft power = disinformation
- China’s influence in the UN Security Council and therefore the WHO
This is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Feel free to email me if you have a particularly hot take you’d like to add, and I will be sure to credit you.
Please be aware: the longer you wait to face this thing, the harder the slap on the face will be. Please also be aware that just because you’re ready to die, other’s aren’t ready for you to die. If you decide to give up, you’ll simply outsource the pain onto others. Never underestimate the impact you’ve made in someone’s life.
Dr. Vervaeke, I might never get the chance to mail you that card I wanted to. In case you ever read this, I want to thank you for your wisdom. In class years ago, you said the philosophy department at the University of Guelph was “going through a renaissance” and if you had never said that, I might not have ended up here. You introduced me to Diogenes and shed so much light on my theory of consciousness. Thank you, I hope we meet again. Your perspectives have made a huge difference for me and countless others I’m sure. Come to think of it, I could write acknowledgements for all my professors actually. If I get sick, I probably will.
Over the next couple of weeks, more people will be complaining about a lack of transparency, but turn the question back toward yourself. What are you failing to be transparent about? Why? Can you remedy it or will it cause the house of cards to fall? If this is the case, how many cards have you been stacking, and for how long? You can avoid these questions for now, but are you sure they won’t resurface when your body is incapacitated and your mind is free to roam?
I should be working on a rough draft of a paper right now but I can’t. I’m waiting for the bottom to fall out, for the riots to start, for the news of a dead family member. I know I’m early, this won’t be happening until April, so it will be a long and painful wait. I want to let go of our old reality so my mind can be congruent with the current, but when so many people are in denial it is difficult to do so. Additionally, this transition is slower than the speed of a thought, and like a tsunami, we’ll see it approaching long before the consequences impact our lives.
So how are we to deal with this anxiety? Breathing exercises aren’t enough, stashes of toilet paper can only quell your feelings to a certain degree, and optimism is like credit card debt. I stand and stare out the window at the river beneath me, wishing time would flow as fast as the current so I can be in a new place where things make more sense. That future, though, is going to be a nightmare, so as much as epistemic comfort is desired, it will come at a cost. The realization that those in power could have done more, that their money could have gone farther, that wrong decisions were made. Anxiety will harden into depression, depression will blister into rage, and rage will sublimate into regret. Be careful of your thoughts and behaviours over the next coming weeks, they will have a profound impact on your life and the lives of others.
Email me if you want to talk. A person I love dearly once said “the only thing we really have at the end of the day are other people” and we are about to lose a lot of them.
Why Science Needs Philosophy
My peers within the department often joke about life after university, considering the whole world seems to scoff at those interested in pursuing arts and humanities (A&H) degrees. This opinion piece by Laplace, however, is an important reminder of the value of our discipline, regardless of how much money we end up making in the future. As institutional funding is reallocated to support students pursuing more profitable degrees like computer science and engineering, A&H departments are likely to suffer, unable to hire new faculty and limiting course selection for example. Unless philosophers can market their skills to assist with projects from a variety of sectors, I don’t see how society will continue to support our endeavours, perspectives and concerns. Although notions of “anti-elitism” seem to continue to grow in the United States, perhaps Canada will challenge my pessimistic attitudes on this subject and find innovative ways to support their A&H graduates, but we will see. This suggests philosophers may need to do their own advocacy demonstrating the financial value of creativity and scepticism, especially within business, science, and technology. Consider this entry as my early attempts at convincing you, dear reader, that philosophy is much more than writing about central figures such as Kant, Aristotle, or Frege.
Although Laplane discusses many important points throughout, the end of the article is quite interesting as it suggests ways to foster the relationship between science and philosophy. Now, I’m not quite sure who said this to me, but they presented the idea that philosophy and science are able to discuss the same topic in different ways. While science may prefer ‘what’ questions, philosophy tends to ask ‘why’ and perhaps even ‘how’ concepts, principles, or processes emerge. Though this generalization may oversimplify the relationship between the two, I merely wanted to point out their approximate differences. Laplane herself states “…we see philosophy and science as located on a continuum.” (3950) which suggests both an overlap and a distinction in the questions each discipline asks. It is important to remember the common ground, in addition to the diversity in perspectives, between science and philosophy as we consider new ways to unite these two fields of inquiry.
While I agree with all six recommendations on page 3951, the fourth and fifth stood out to me as the most important especially when it comes to developing this program in the future. The marriage of science and philosophy can only be as good as its thinkers, where education serves a central role for this relationship to be harmonious and fruitful. From primary school to post secondary, it will become increasingly important to teach both arts and sciences of various types to foster the integration of the two. I say ‘arts’ rather than ‘philosophy’ because developing a love for the arts may inspire individuals in ways philosophy is unable. Artistic expression, regardless of medium, allows one to improve their sense of self, and when combined with educational goals, is likely to facilitate personal and professional growth more effectively than either alone. Whether it is sculpting, poetry, or dance, artistic expression provides mechanisms for new approaches within the sciences as one remains in touch with their creative side. Although it might be difficult to understand how theatre may inspire work in civil engineering, the human brain is quite powerful in its abilities to “fill in the blanks” and synthesize concepts, if the opportunity arises. Most exciting of all is how access to information via the internet and online relationships can further assist individuals in their efforts.
Returning to philosophy though, Laplane makes an important point about why philosophical inquiry is so appropriate for science. On page 3950 after the excerpt mentioned above, she states:
“Philosophy and science share the tools of logic, conceptual analysis, and rigorous argumentation. Yet philosophers can operate these tools with degrees of thoroughness, freedom, and theoretical abstraction that practicing researchers often cannot afford in their daily activities.”
It is exactly this freedom which inspired me to move away from studying psychology to studying philosophy of mind. Of course, too much of a good thing can lead one astray, which is why empirical evidence and the methodologies which produce it must never be overlooked by philosophers. The ability to defer to experts is a powerful bidirectional tool which carries so much potential for the future, and maybe one day those interested in A&H subjects will find their niche within capitalistic economies.
Laplane, Lucie, et al. “Opinion: Why science needs philosophy.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116.10 (2019): 3948-3952.
Democratic Privacy Reform
If you aren’t familiar with the issues surrounding personal data collection by corporate tech giants and online privacy, I recommend you flip through Amnesty International’s publication Surveillance Giants: How the Business Model of Google and Facebook Threatens Human Rights. I would also suggest reading A Contextual Approach to Privacy Online by Helen Nissenbaum if you are interested in further discussions on the future of data collection. Actually, even if you are familiar with these issues, read them anyway because they are very interesting and you may learn something new.
Both articles offer interesting suggestions for governments and corporations to ensure online privacy is protected, and it is clear top-down approaches are necessary for upholding human rights. Substantial effort will be required for full corporate compliance however, as both law and computer systems need updating to better respect user data. While these measures ensure ethical responsibilities are directed to the appropriate parties, a complementary bottom-up approach may be required as well. There is great potential for change if citizens were to engage with this issue and help one another better understand the importance of privacy. A democratic strategy for protecting online human rights is possible, but it seems quite demanding considering this work is ideally performed voluntarily. Additionally, I fear putting this approach into practice is an uphill epistemic battle; many individuals aren’t overly bothered by surveillance. Since the issue is complex and technological, it is difficult to understand resulting in little concern due to the lack of perceived threat. Thus, there will always be a market for the Internet of Things. Moreover, advertising revenue provides little incentive for corporations to respect user data, unless a vocal group of protesters is able to substantially threaten their public image. Enacting regulatory laws may be effective for addressing human rights issues but the conflict between governments and companies is likely to continue under the status quo. Consumers who enjoy these platforms and products face a moral dilemma: is this acceptable if society and democracy is negatively impacted? Can ethical considerations regarding economic externalities help answer this question? If not, are there other analogous ethical theories which may be appropriate for questions regarding the responsibilities of citizens? If activists and ethicists are interested in organizing information and materials for empowering voters and consumers, these challenges will need practical and digestible answers.
Amnesty International. Surveillance Giants: How the Business Model of Google and Facebook Threatens Human Rights. Research article, amnesty.org/en/documents/pol30/1404/2019/en/, 2019.
Nissenbaum, Helen. “A contextual approach to privacy online.” Daedalus 140.4 (2011): 32-48.
Epistemic Responsibility Today
Section 6 of Miller and Record’s Justified Belief in a Digital Age provides suggestions for responsible belief formation given the role and influence algorithms possess in today’s society. The notions they present, however, are vague and appear to be shortsighted. They suggest “subjects can use existing competencies for gaining information from traditional media such as newspapers to supplement internet-filtered information and therefore at least partly satisfy the responsibility to determine whether it is biased or incomplete” (130), except the nature of ‘traditional media’ (TM) has shifted. Since the widespread adoption of social media platforms and online news streaming, TM has seen an increase in competition as small and independent news websites are also shared between users. Importantly, expectations for endless novel content has pressured TM to keep up by increasingly producing editorials, commentary, and speculation. Pundits receive as much airtime as journalists due to the nature of consumer demand, subsequently influencing belief formation. The notion of political bias in TM is also a large concern, where journalistic integrity and credibility ranges drastically between companies. Additionally, TM is more likely to be subsumed under an umbrella corporation with an agenda of its own, whether political, financial, or religious. Deference to TM has always been associated with epistemic risks, and reasons to be sceptical of stories and information are growing as technology modifies our consumption habits.
Further down on page 130, it is recommended one explore outside their personalized feed by investigating others’ posting history: “Instead he can casually visit their Facebook profiles and see whether they have posted an interesting story that the automatically generated news feed missed.”. While this does improve chances of being exposed to diverse content, it is most effective when one reads the feeds of contrasting personalities. Close friends and family members may hold similar attitudes, values, or perspectives which do not adequately challenge one’s suspicions or beliefs. Opposing views, however, may not be justified or well-formed, and ‘opposing’ is open for interpretation. On page 131 the authors state: “… suggests, internet sites, such as political blogs, may refer their readers to alternative views, for example, by linking to opposing sites, out of a commitment to pluralism.” If this program were to be followed, it would suggest religious individuals with dogmatic beliefs are epistemically irresponsible. This may be an unexciting verdict to a philosopher, but it is difficult to determine whether this normative approach to belief formation is suitable for all humans.
Epistemic justification is complicated in the digital age, and it is unclear how much research is required to fulfill one’s epistemic responsibilities. If one stumbles across a scientific claim, it seems reasonable that one ought to determine whether the news headline matches the outcome of the study. Considering the replication crisis has further complicated this process, how much scientific scrutiny is required at this point? If a reader has an understanding of scientific methodology and access to the article, is it irresponsible if one does not examine the methods section? As ideal as epistemic responsibility seems, it might be unattainable due to the nature of the internet and human emotion. Our ability to access such a wealth of knowledge, even when curtailed by algorithms, generates an infinite regress of duties and uncertainty, a fact unlikely to sit well with the average voter.
Miller, Boaz, and Isaac Record. “Justified belief in a digital age: On the epistemic implications of secret Internet technologies.” Episteme 10.2 (2013): 117-134.