Friday, July 16, 2010

Man made future

When people are thinking about how life will be in future, they are usually thinking of how our life will develop in a technical way. Shall we have houses completely guided by computers where, for instance, our meals are already prepared while we are yet on our way home? Will high speed trains connect the corners of the world? How will the newest telephone look like? Can solar energy solve our present energy problem? And so on. What these let’s call them “technical futurologists” always forget, however, is that our future is not determined by what we technically can and by our technical gadgets. If that were true, the Industrial Revolution would have begun already 2000 years ago. For wasn’t it Heron of Alexandria (10-70 A.D.) who invented the steam engine? No, what our future will be is not in our technical possibilities. Or rather, they are a limiting condition at most. What really makes the future is man him/herself. It is the way man deals with inventions and even more the way men deals with each other. In short: our future will be in our human relations and how we’ll socially manage the new technology. What will count in the first place is how we’ll go along with each other in daily life, whether we’ll continue to defend our personal interests at the expense of others, short-sighted politics, the presence or absence of racism, war and manmade poverty and the way we’ll use our inventions, etc. , so our social inventions. Not what is technically possible will make our future but what we’ll humanly make of it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Personal identity (24)

In The Blue and Brown Books Wittgenstein writes: “Now let us ask ourselves what sort of identity of personality it is we are referring to when we say ‘when anything is seen, it is always I who see’ ” (Blackwell, 1969, p. 63). Here I’ll not follow Wittgenstein’s argumentation but I’ll put the quotation within the frame of the current debate on personal identity.
I am walking with wife in a little town and she says: “Look, storks!” Then I ask her (inspired by Wittgenstein): “Do you see the storks or do your eyes see the storks?” Does it make any difference then whether she points to her eyes or to her chest? In case she points to her eyes does that mean that her eyes see the storks but that she does not see them? And in case she points to her chest, does it mean that my wife herself sees the storks but that her eyes don’t see them? And if we think that our personality is made up of our psychological characteristics like our memory and other mental characteristics, as the adherents of the psychological continuity of personal identity do, is it so then that my wife as a person can see the storks with her eyes closed, in case it is so that she as a person sees the storks? Or are our eyes like a pair of binocles that we need when the storks are so far away that we cannot observe them with the naked eye? How weird to suggest that I am not an integrated whole.
(By the way, why do we point to the chest, when asked who did see the storks, if one of us did? Why do we don’t point to our brain? For, if the adherents of the psychological continuity of personal identity are right, isn’t it so then that the person goes where the brain goes, as we swap our brain with another brain in another body, and wouldn’t it be then obvious to point to our brain?)

Monday, July 05, 2010

Old ideas just fade away

When we think, talk, act we need a frame of reference that gives it a sense. This is one of the insights so clearly formulated by Wittgenstein’s idea of language games. However, these frames are not fixed and unchangeable and we must be glad that this is so. It is true, fixed frames give stability and they make it easier to see the consequences of what we say and do. But on the other hand, this can become problematic when we discover new facts, encounter new experiences or new circumstances. What to do with them, how to deal with them, when they do not fit our frame of interpretation? Then two things are open to us: either to reinterpret the facts etc. or to change the frame. Both choices seem weird, for aren’t facts facts, and aren’t frames actually also a kind of facts? Nevertheless either happens and can have sense. As for changing the facts, we can come to the conclusion that we were wrong and that from a different point of view, things look different: just as we can mistake a marsh tit for a willow tit, or even think, as was done till not so long ago that it is one species. This is the usual thing: Facts are reinterpreted within a frame, sometimes even so that they are forced to fit within that frame of interpretation. Then the facts are distorted. This happens more often than one might think, and often people do not realize it, when they do it.
However, we can change a frame as well. Then we fit it to the facts instead of the facts to the frame. Happily we do not have to do that often, for it can bring much uncertainty leading to much turmoil in our mind if not in society. It is a kind of revolution, a minor one or a big one, but a revolution it is. It was not without reason that Thomas Kuhn, who described the changes of frames in science, called his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

But is it really so that old frames are changed, if there is something basically wrong with them? If Kuhn is to be believed, often it does not happen that way, at least not in science. And I see no reason why what he describes is limited to science. According to Kuhn, it is not so that people change their own frames. New frames and new interpretations are developed, it is true, but they are developed by a new generation of thinkers. Only rarely they are proposed by those few “old thinkers” who have flexible, creative minds. New frames lead always to much opposition, in science as well in society, but gradually the opposition decreases. No, not because of what one might think: that the new ones are better and that those who opposed a new one first, are convinced of its value. That happens, too, but the most important reason that fundamentally new ideas become dominant is simply that the old ones die out, not only in science, as Kuhn pointed out, but in society in general. It is as with the old soldiers in the famous song: Old ideas never die, they just fade away.