A Predilection for Extinction?


There appears to be a lot of concern about extinctions nowadays -everything from spotted owls to indigenous languages pepper the list. Things around us that we took for granted seem to be disappearing before we even get to know or appreciate them. One has to wonder whether this is accompanied by furtive, yet anxious, glances in the mirror each morning.

Extinction. I wonder what it would be like -or can we even imagine it? If we could, then presumably we’re not extinct, of course, but our view of history is necessarily a short one. Oral traditions aside, we can only confidently access information from the onset of written accounts; many extinctions require a longer time-frame to detect… although, perhaps even that is changing as we become more aware of the disappearance of less threatening -less obvious- species. Given our obsessive proclivity for expanding our knowledge, someone somewhere is bound to have studied issues that have simply not occurred to the rest of us.

And yet, it’s one thing to comment on the absence of Neanderthals amongst us and tut-tut about their extinction, but yet another to fail to fully appreciate the profound changes in climate that are gradually occurring. Could the same fate that befell Neanderthals be forecasting our own demise -a refashioning of the Cassandra myth for our self-declared Anthropocene?

It would not be the first time we failed to see our own noses, though, would it? For all our perceived sophistication, we often forget the ragged undergarments of hubris we hide beneath our freshly-laundered clothes.

Religion has long hinted at our ultimate extinction, of course -especially the Christian one with which those of us in the West are most familiar- with its talk of End-of-Days. But, if you think more closely about it, this is predicted to occur at the end of Time; extinction, on the other hand, occurs -as with, say, the dinosaurs- within Time. After all, we are able to talk about it, measure its extent, and determine how long ago it happened.

And yet, for most of us, I suspect, the idea of extinction of our own species is not inextricably linked to our own demise. Yes, each of us will cease to exist at some point, but our children will live on after us -and their children, too. And so on for a long, long time. It is enough to think that since we are here, our children will continue on when we are not. Our species is somehow different than our own progeny…

Darwin, and the subsequent recognition of the evolutionary pressures that favour the more successfully adapted no doubt planted some concerns, but an essay in Aeon by Thomas Moynihan (who completed his PhD at Oxford), set the issue of Extinction in a more historical context for me, however. https://aeon.co/essays/to-imagine-our-own-extinction-is-to-be-able-to-answer-for-it

Moynihan believes that only after the Enlightenment (generally attributed to the philosophical movement between the late 17th to the 19th century) did the idea of human extinction become an issue for consideration. ‘It was the philosopher Immanuel Kant who defined ‘Enlightenment’ itself as humanity’s assumption of self-responsibility. The history of the idea of human extinction is therefore also a history of enlightening. It concerns the modern loss of the ancient conviction that we live in a cosmos inherently imbued with value, and the connected realisation that our human values would not be natural realities independently of our continued championing and guardianship of them.’

But, one may well ask, why was there no serious consideration of human extinction before then? It would appear to be related to what the American historian of ideas, Arthur Lovejoy, has called the Principle of Plenitude that seemed to have been believed in the West since the time of Aristotle right up until the time of Leibniz (who died in 1716): things as they are, could be no other way. It would be meaningless to think of any species (even human) not continuing to exist, because they were meant to exist. Period. I am reminded -as I am meant to be- of Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide and the uncritical espousal of Leibniz’ belief that they were all living in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ -despite proof to the contrary.

I realize that in our current era, this idea seems difficult to accept, but Moynihan goes on to list several historical examples of the persistence of this type of thinking -including those that led ‘Thomas Jefferson to argue, in 1799, in the face of mounting anatomical evidence to the contrary, that specimens such as the newly unearthed Mammuthus or Megalonyx represented species still extant and populous throughout the unexplored regions of the Americas.’

Still, ‘A related issue obstructed thinking on human extinction. This was the conviction that the cosmos itself is imbued with value and justice. This assumption dates back to the roots of Western philosophy… Where ‘being’ is presumed inherently rational, reason cannot itself cease ‘to be’… So, human extinction could become meaningful (and thus a motivating target for enquiry and anticipation) only after value was fully ‘localised’ to the minds of value-mongering creatures.’ Us, in other words.

And, of course, the emerging findings in geology and archeology helped to increase our awareness of the transience of existence. So too, ‘the rise of demography [the statistical analysis of human populations] was a crucial factor in growing receptivity to our existential precariousness because demography cemented humanity’s awareness of itself as a biological species.’

Having set the stage, Moynihan’s argument is finally ready: ‘And so, given new awareness of the vicissitude of Earth history, of our precarious position within it as a biological species, and of our wider placement within a cosmic backdrop of roaming hazards, we were finally in a position to become receptive to the prospect of human extinction. Yet none of this could truly matter until ‘fact’ was fully separated from ‘value’. Only through full acceptance that the Universe is not itself inherently imbued with value could ‘human extinction’ gain the unique moral stakes that pick it out as a distinctive concept.’

And interestingly, it was Kant who, as he aged, became ‘increasingly preoccupied with the prospect of human extinction…  During an essay on futurology, or what he calls ‘predictive history’, Kant’s projections upon humanity’s perfectibility are interrupted by the plausibility of an ‘epoch of natural revolution which will push aside the human race… Kant himself characteristically defined enlightening as humanity’s undertaking of self-responsibility: and human rationality assumes culpability for itself only to the exact extent that it progressively spells out the stakes involved… This means that predicting increasingly severe threats is part and parcel of our progressive and historical assumption of accountability to ourselves.’

So, I don’t see this recognition of the possibility of human extinction as a necessarily bad thing. The more we consider the prospect of our disappearance, the more we become motivated to do something about it. Or, as Moynihan points out, ‘The story of the discovery of our species’ precariousness is also the story of humanity’s progressive undertaking of responsibility for itself. One is only responsible for oneself to the extent that one understands the risks one faces and is thereby motivated to mitigate against them.’ That’s what the  Enlightenment was all about: humanity’s assumption of self-responsibility.

Maybe there is still hope for us… well, inshallah.
















Sapere audi

Sapere audi – ‘Dare to know’, as the Roman poet Horace wrote. It was later taken up by famous Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, and it seemed like a suitable rallying cry as I negotiated the years that led from youth to, well, Age. Who could argue that ignorance is preferable to knowledge? That understanding something, better facilitates an informed decision about whether to believe or reject? To welcome, or close the door?

Admittedly, knowledge can be a moving target, both in time and perhaps in temperament as well. Whatever ‘knowing’ is that determines the appeal of a particular political philosophy, say, is not immutable, not forever carved in marble like the letters in Trajan’s column. One could start off in one camp, and then wander into another as the years wear thin. Perhaps it is the gradual friction of experience rubbing on hope that effects the change- but however it works, exposure can alter what we believe. If nothing else, it speeds adaptation, and enables us to habituate to things that we might once have shunned. And it is precisely this ability to acclimatize that may prove worrisome.

An essay by the philosopher Daniel Callcut drew this to my attention a while ago: https://aeon.co/ideas/if-anyone-can-see-the-morally-unthinkable-online-what-then

‘There are at least two senses of ‘morally unthinkable’. The first, that of something you have no inkling of is perhaps the purest form of moral innocence. Not only can you not contemplate doing X: you don’t even know what X is. This is the innocence that parents worry their children will lose online… Then there is the worry that if something becomes thinkable in the imaginative sense, then it might eventually become thinkable in the practical sense too… If virtue depends in part on actions being unthinkable, then the internet doubtless has a tendency to make unvirtuous actions all too thinkable… The idea that being a decent person involves controlling the kinds of thoughts you allow yourself to think can easily be met with resistance. If virtue depends on limits to what is thinkable, and a certain free-thought ideal celebrates no limits, then the potential conflict between freethinking and virtue is obvious.’

Of course, one of the several elephants in the room is the pornographic one -the ‘public discussion of the internet’s potential to undermine virtue focuses on the vast amount of easily accessible pornography… Porn, the research suggests, has the tendency to encourage the prevalence of thoughts that shouldn’t be thought: that women enjoy rape, and that No doesn’t really mean No. More generally, it has the tendency to encourage what the British feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey in the 1970s dubbed the ‘male gaze’: men staring at women’s bodies in a way that bypasses concern for a woman’s consent.’ And, not only that, there was the intriguing suggestion that ‘Liberals, worried about potential censorship, can sometimes find themselves defending the implausible position that great art has great benefits but that junk culture never produces any harms.’

As Callcut writes, ‘What we imagine is not inert: what we think about changes the people we are, either quickly or over time – but it still changes us.’ So, ‘If the image you are looking at is disturbing,’ he asks, ‘is it because it is explicit and unfamiliar to you, or is it because it is wrong? When are you looking at a problem, and when is the problem you?’ There is a definite tension ‘between virtues that by their nature restrict thought and imagination and the prevailing spirit of the internet that encourages the idea that everything should be viewable and thinkable.’

In other words, is it better not to know something? Is Sapere audi anachronistic, inappropriate -dangerous, even?

I find myself drawn back in time to something that happened to me when I was around 13 or 14 years of age. There was no internet, in those days, of course, and word of mouth, or naughty whispers with subtle nudges were sometimes how we learned about adult things.

A somewhat duplicitous friend had lent me a book to read: The Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers, I think it was called. His parents had given it to him when they’d found his stash of overly-suggestive magazines hidden in a closet. I wasn’t sure what to make of the loan, but at that tender age, and in those pre-social media days, there was much about life that remained mysterious and hidden from me. I hadn’t yet given much thought to girls; it was still an innocent time.

I remember being embarrassed even handling the book -especially since it didn’t look as if it had even been opened. My first instinct was to hide it somewhere my mother wouldn’t find it. Obviously the closet hadn’t worked for my friend, so, since it was summer, I decided to put it at the bottom of my sock drawer where I kept the ones I only used in winter. She’d never need to burrow down that deeply.

But, oddly enough, a few days later, I discovered the book had acquired a folded piece of paper in the ‘How babies are made’, section. ‘Read this,’ the note said in my mother’s unmistakeable cursive.

The next morning at breakfast I could hardly look up from my plate, but to her credit, she acted as if it was just another summer’s day: the radio on the shelf was playing some music softly in the background, and my father was buried behind his newspaper.

But the discovery triggered an embarrassing walk with my father who had obviously been delegated by my mother to deliver the Talk, as my friends termed it in those days. And although it turned out well, I couldn’t help but think I had crossed a line in my life. And judging by the gravity with which he approached it, I had just been initiated into a hitherto forbidden club.

In this case, fortunately, the not-yet imagined realm was discussed sensitively and, with many blushes on both our faces, placed in a realistic context -and with what I would later realize was a sensible perspective…

Despite my age, and after all these years, I continue to be naïve about many things I suspect, and yet I still feel there is a need to defend the ‘Dare to know,’ exhortation. Virtue does not depend on actions never considered, nor on a drought of as-yet-unimagined things; decency does not simply require controlling what you allow yourself to think, any more than pulling the covers over your head at night protected you from the bogeyman in the room when you were a child.

Virtue -morality- isn’t the absence of temptation; there is, and probably will continue to be, an allure to what we do not know -to what is kept hidden from us. There will always be a struggle, I imagine, and the more you know about it -and about the world- the more you enable yourself to understand context. I still wonder what type of adulthood I might have wandered into had my mother not found that book and realized there was an opportunity.

Sapere audi, I almost wish she had written instead, in that note to her already nerdy child -I think I would have loved the Latin.

Love, which alters when it alteration finds

I’m not certain I understand why, but I am being led to believe that Love can be described mathematically using Bayesian Probability Theory… Okay, as a start, I have no idea what subscribing to Bayesian probability theory might entail, except maybe a club membership, and a considerably manipulated personal profile to attract some interest. But, ever alert to new (or any) social possibilities, I decided to read the essay by Suki Finn, a postdoctoral research fellow in philosophy at the University of Southampton in the UK writing in Aeon: https://aeon.co/ideas/beyond-reason-the-mathematical-equation-for-unconditional-love

It starts with the not unreasonable premise that there are two basic types of love: conditional, and unconditional. Then, she dips her toes into some background to convince me that Thomas Bayes’ probability theorem is flexible enough to improve my social life.

‘Degrees of belief are called credences. These credences can be given numerical values between 0 and 1 (where 1 is being completely certain), to demonstrate how strong that degree of belief is. Importantly, these values are not forever fixed, and can change when given reason to do so… But how do you rationally alter your credence, and figure out how strong it should be, given the information that you have? Cue Bayesian probability theory to calculate conditional credences. A credence is conditional upon information when it is evaluated with regard to that information, such that the strength of the belief is sensitive to that information and is updated on the basis of it… But what if my credence is completely irresponsive to such evidence? … This is what it is like to have credence 1, in other words, a belief of certainty, which could not be any stronger and cannot be updated. It cannot be updated in either direction – it cannot get stronger because it is already at maximum strength, and it cannot get weaker on the basis of evidence because it was not built on the basis of evidence in the first place.’ Uhmm… easy, right? And these are the rational changes to credence. ‘When your strength of feeling is sensitive to information about how things are, a philosopher would call it rational, as it develops in accordance with that information. Such is loving for a reason: with more reason comes more love, and when the reason goes, the love goes. This type of conditional love is an analogy to rational credences between 0 and 1 (not including the extremes), which change on the basis of evidence.’

Still with me…? I mean with Suki, because I’m not in any way with her…  Okay then, ‘Alternatively, unconditional love is love that will not change according to any information, as it was not built on the basis of information in the first place. This is love without reason… This type of love has an untouchable and irrational mind of its own. As with credence 1, it can change only irrationally – it does not abide by any Bayesian law and so cannot be updated… You fall in and out of unconditional love at the mercy of love itself… This is loving in spite of everything, rather than loving because of something, and so appears unaltered by reason… But this does not make the love stable. It is simply out of your control, and can literally go away for no reason!’

It seems to me that the author is saying that conditional love is probably more predictable, or maybe controllable than unconditional love, because it is not subject to random (uncaused) fluctuations. It’s not as liable to be indiscriminately, or inadvertently snatched away. Nice. But have I learned any non-obfuscatory take-home lessons? Is it readily transferrable to any situations other than amongst rhetoricians? Could I use it in the car on the way home, in other words?

Sometimes the grandest ideas fall short of the mark in actual combat… sorry, relationships. How, in practice, and when you’re just getting to know somebody, can you possibly profess conditional love? And why would you? It sounds like a sort of one-time stand thing. It is of course, but normal rules of courtship require hyperbole. Metaphors -as in: ‘My love is as constant as the northern star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks. They are all fire and every one doth shine, but there’s but one in all doth hold her place.’ As long as she doesn’t know you’ve cribbed the lot from Shakespeare’s Caesar, and you don’t mess up the words, everybody wins.

People are attracted to metaphors -they conjure up sincerity without linking it to unconditionality. Without requiring the intrusion of credences into an otherwise emotionally friable situation. It seems to me there’s nothing but trouble in store for anyone who decides to numerically assign emotional attachment parameters on the way home from a lovely dinner in an expensive restaurant.

Anyway, Thomas Bayes was a Presbyterian minister, and heaven only knows what that entails in terms of the slideabilty of relationships. I mean, their Regulative principle of worship (according to Wikipedia, at least) ‘specifies that (in worship), what is not commanded is forbidden.’ I’m therefore not entirely convinced that he would approve of the commandeering of his theorems in the somewhat tottery realm of Love, whether or not it is entwined with the idea of worship.

Of course, on the other hand, I suspect he would no doubt denounce any effort to charm with untruths, or at least equivocatory declarations. I certainly admire Suki Finn’s attempt to clarify intrinsically opaque emotions, but I’m afraid it will not do. And to revert back to Philosophy -her specialty- for a moment, there are just too many perils for any practical attempt at a Kantian Categorical Imperative application here, either.

It seems to me that I blundered into a more satisfactory solution to the declaration of Love: metaphor. It does not require any numerical assignations that might confuse or even spoil the moment; it does not even require positioning the feeling along a Bell curve for comparison with other loves you might have had. Nope, at the party -after you muster up the courage to ask her to dance- you merely say: ‘When you do dance, I wish you a wave o’ th’ sea, that you might ever do nothing but that’, or in the car on the way home, you just have to come up with something like, ‘O, how this spring of love resembleth the uncertain glory of an April day which now shows all the beauty of the sun…’ and let it go at that.




To wear an undeserved dignity


Lately, I’ve been worried about dignity -not my own, you understand, although I’m sure that could use a little work. I’m more concerned that what I assumed was an inherent quality possessed -if not always demonstrated- by us all, may not be as innate as I thought. An essay in the online publication Aeon, by Remy Debes, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis entitled Dignity is Delicate, helped me to understand some of its issues: https://aeon.co/essays/human-dignity-is-an-ideal-with-remarkably-shallow-roots?

The word itself is derived from the Latin dignus, meaning ‘worthy’, but as with most words, it can be used in different ways, each with slightly different meanings. ‘Dignity has three broad meanings. There is an historically old sense of poise or gravitas that we still associate with refined manners, and expect of those with high social rank… Much more common is the family of meanings associated with self-esteem and integrity, which is what we tend to mean when we talk of a person’s own ‘sense of dignity’… Third, there is the more abstract but no less widespread meaning of human dignity as an inherent or unearned worth or status, which all human beings share equally.’

This latter aspect, which Debes calls the ‘moralized connotation’ ‘is the kind of worth everyone has, and has equally, just because we are persons.’ As Immanuel Kant wrote, in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals in 1785: ‘ whatever is above all price, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.’ He also argued that we have a duty to treat other humans ‘always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’ -with respect, in other words. Unfortunately, ‘the Groundwork wasn’t professionally translated until 1836. And even that translation wasn’t easily available until a revised edition appeared in 1869.’

So, in terms of its moral and ethical aspects, the concept of dignity is a recent one. ‘[U]ntil at least 1850, the English term ‘dignity’ had no currency as meaning anything like the ‘unearned worth or status of humans’, and very little such currency well into the 1900s. When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) used the terminology of human dignity to justify itself, this turned out to be a conceptual watershed.’

What am I missing here? As Debes illustrates in his essay, ‘the idea of human dignity is beset by hypocrisy. After all, our Western ethos evolved from, and with, the most violent oppression. For 200 years, we’ve breathed in the heady aspirations of liberty and justice for all, but somehow breathed out genocide, slavery, eugenics, colonisation, segregation, mass incarceration, racism, sexism, classism and, in short, blood, rape, misery and murder.’ So what is going on? Debes thinks ‘The primary way we have dealt with this shock and the hypocrisy it marks has been to tell ourselves a story – a story of progress… the story’s common hook is the way it moves the ‘real’ hypocrisy into the past: ‘Our forebears made a terrible mistake trumpeting ideas such as equality and human dignity, while simultaneously practising slavery, keeping the vote from women, and so on. But today we recognise this hypocrisy, and, though it might not be extinct, we are worlds away from the errors of the past.’

Of course, a still different way of explaining our abysmal lack of dignity is to suggest, not that we are getting better, but that we are getting worse -that there was a time when it was not so, and we need try going back to that ‘better time’.

Uhmm, they can’t both be correct. Perhaps, like me, you have noticed the presence of gerunds (verbs functioning as nouns with –ing endings), or implied gerunds, in the description: from the Latin gerundum –‘that which is to be carried on’. In other words, that which is not yet completed, or is in the process of happening, and hopefully will be so in the indefinite future.  As Debes writes, ‘facing up to the hypocrisy in our Western ethos requires resisting the temptation to scapegoat both the past and the present. We must not divorce ourselves from the fact that the present is possible only because of our past, the one we helped to create. Likewise, the existential question isn’t, are we really who we say we are? The question is, have we ever been?’

But why is everything so viscid? Humans have always been seen as valuable -the concept evolving through time. ‘The chorus in Sophocles’ Antigone, for example, praises man as the most ‘wondrous’ thing on Earth, a prodigy cutting through the natural world the way a sailor cuts through the ‘perilous’, ‘surging seas’ that threaten to engulf him.’ The word ‘dignity’ was not used, but it seems to me he was on the right track, although perhaps not in the sense that mankind’s value was incommensurable and couldn’t be exchanged for other kinds of worth as Kant had concluded.

Or how about Aristotle: ‘Dignity does not consist in possessing honours, but in deserving them’

Even Shakespeare’s Hector says to Troilus about whether Helen of Troy is worth going to war for: Value dwells not in a particular will; it holds his estimate and dignity as well wherein ‘tis precious of itself as in the prizer. In other words, value -dignity- isn’t subjective, it’s intrinsic.

So what has kept us from believing in that ‘inherent or unearned worth or status, which all human beings share equally’? Admittedly we are children of our era, and very few of us can escape from the Weltanschauung of our time, let alone the political and social ethos in which we find ourselves embedded. There is much that conspires to homogenize and temper our views, I suspect.

Maybe it was as simple as a fear of the unknown, and fear of disruption, that kept the lid on the pot -better the devil we know than the devil we don’t. Moral dignity –ethical dignity- did not accord with the status quo: keeping slaves, or a class system that offered wealth and status to the powerful; women were trapped in a never-ending cycle of pregnancies and children, and so were themselves essentially biologically enslaved… A clock will not work unless all of the parts are in their proper places.

So many levels: civilization -well, at least culture– has always been a matryoshka doll –‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, as Winston Churchill so famously said about Russia. But maybe, concealed inside the innermost layer, the sanctum sanctorum of the inner doll, a flower lives, not a minotaur.

We can only hope.