For this year’s World Philosophy Day, we asked eight philosophers how 2020 has changed their minds. With more time for imagination and introspection than ever before, what have these philosophers been thinking and what have they realised?
Their answers throw up some subtle, surprising ideas. From Sabine Hossenfelder watching philosophy of science enter the center-stage to Massimo Pigliucci stoically drinking apperitivos on Zoom, these philosophers give us new ways to think about this unexpected year.
Amidst the medical crisis, Neil Levy found a green upside: if we can follow the science to fight Covid-19, we can do the same for climate change. Meanwhile Hilary Lawson despaired at our inability to read data and Steve Fuller realized that education and democracy don’t mix. Finding an authoritarian streak, Graham Harman wondered if some ‘Asian-style’ freedom would make the partying youth fall into line.
There were also more ponderous lines: On masks, Dermot Moran mused over Emmanuel Levinas’ claim that the human face is the primary ethical demand, turning this idea on its head. And, perhaps the most introspective, John Milbank recognized the web of his identity and planed joyful path, like a bee. From high politics to minute personal experience, these are deeper ways to understand the upheavals in our lives.
I must admit that, contra the prompt for this series of commentaries, the covid 2020 experience has confirmed a number of philosophical and scientific ideas I already had. And spectacularly so.
As a Stoic practitioner, I take to heart the dichotomy of control: some things are up to me, others are not. And a good life results from focusing my attention and efforts on the first category while developing an attitude of equanimity about the second one. For instance: during the pandemic I can no longer do one of my favorite things: invite friends over for dinner, drinks, and conversation. But it is in my power to organize an alternative: zoom aperitivos! Aperitivo is the Italian word for happy hour, and so my wife and I regularly invite some close friends to share food and drinks — online — while engaging in some stimulating conversation. Reflecting on the dichotomy of control has done wonders to reduce my anxiety and frustration.
As a scientist, I have known for a long time that many people — including well educated and intelligent ones — believe weirds things despite all the evidence to the contrary. Sure enough, the pandemic has dramatically confirmed this notion, with fellow human beings endorsing all sorts of conspiracy theories and refusing to acknowledge the reality of the pandemic, or the effectiveness of simple remedies like social distancing, masks, and hand washing. I have also found ample confirmation that it is utterly useless to argue in these situations, as sad as it is, and despite the very real consequences that derive from such attitudes.
If this strange year made me realize one thing, it’s that we rely on philosophy more now than ever. For how would we know whether to trust the predictions of a pandemic model, or a climate model, or any other scientific model, if it wasn’t for the epistemology and philosophy of science? And when it comes to communicating the relevance of these disciplines, I feel that much remains to be done. Too many people still think, erroneously, that a model must make falsifiable predictions to be considered scientific. But this is ostensibly not so. A model can very well be validated with past data, and the model’s ability to do a good job post-dicting the past can then serve as a measure for how seriously to take its forecasts.
Who’d have thought that this lesson in the philosophy of science – once so abstract – would in 2020 become relevant for everyday life? But that’s what has happened. Today, we rely on models which forecast possible futures for different scenarios, depending on whether or not we have another lockdown, depending on whether or not we become carbon neutral by midcentury. These models do not make predictions, they make projections that are contingent on policy decisions. Which is exactly why we need them. Yet scientists, me included, could have done a better job explaining just what makes a model trustworthy, and they should have made more effort quantifying just how trustworthy their models are.
As a critic of realism it is often supposed that I must take a cavalier attitude to data. Instead non-realism requires a forensic examination of the world in order to assess the relative merits of different outlooks and perspectives. My shock is the extent to which public debate assumes perspective precedes evidence. Certainly we cannot avoid perspective, there is no 'god's eye view' from which to view the world, but that doesn't mean we abandon looking at the world to see if a given perspective makes sense.
We inhabit, to a degree I had failed to appreciate until this year befell us, a world where opinions and emotions lead interpretations of the data. Even to the extent that to reference certain forms of data is to be regarded as being in a given tribal camp. Not only does this lead to sheep-like decision making - not usually a good way of making the best decision - it undermines discourse itself.
There is another aspect of this behaviour which has troubled me, which is the implicit and sometimes explicit attachment to authority for its own sake. Once it was priests who were upheld as the authorities, now it is a supposed idea of a monolithic science. We know of course that advertisers have for fifty years fallen back on scientists in white coats to convince us of the dubious value of their products. Now it seems the institutions of media and government are at the same game.In a public forum it seems we are incapable of engaging in a thoughtful assessment of any scientific or evidential claim.
Instead there is an empty headed appeal to authority. As if we are content to accept that the data is beyond us and we must leave it to those who know better who can inform us of their conclusions.All of which is puzzling, since anyone with the least awareness of the scientific world will be aware that there are as many views amongst scientists as there are in the general public.
We should be knee deep in the data.Understanding the alternative explanations that can be given and challenging simplistic stories that encourage human lemmings to flee over the cliff. Sometimes of course diving over a cliff maybe the best option to avoid a truly terrifying alternative.But this year has driven home the need to understand, explore and challenge data to assess whether this is, on balance, the case.
The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk once remarked that if there is any recent person to whom monuments will be built a century from now, it is the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew. His model of “capitalism with Asian values” combined rapid economic expansion with fawning media coverage and draconian punishment for minor transgressions. Although many in the West have long admired Singapore’s level of advanced infrastructure and cosmopolitan culture, the authoritarian framework of that society struck most of us as too repellent to emulate. “Let us have our sloppy freedom,” we thought, “and in the long run we will cope with the challenges of the future better than our overly rigid Asian cousins, with their hyper-organized public life.” As if to confirm this sentiment, we were treated to an alarming parade of New Authoritarians such as Donald Trump in the United States and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Better to live in the wildest bohemia of personal autonomy, it seemed to us, than to risk near-dictatorship.
When the current pandemic began, I assumed public health was a recognized exception to the principle of individual freedom. But every day in this country, I see hundreds of people without masks gathering in large groups, ignoring even the most basic COVID safety precautions despite the horrified pleas of doctors and nurses. The young are often the worst offenders, regardless of political orientation, perhaps assumping that COVID is an old person’s disease. If we look beyond COVID to the longer-term problem of global warming, it is equally difficult to imagine voluntary compliance. The time may have come to retheorize governmental authority as something other than oppressive constraint. Lee Kuan Yew may have his revenge, as we find ourselves needing a limited dose of “freedom with Asian values.”
If there’s one thing the COVID19 pandemic has taught me it’s that what really matters in life is not the things most of us spend our time on. There is no amount of publications, no H index high enough, that will keep tragedy and death from knocking on our door. In truth, there’s no amount of anything that will prevent us from meeting our demise.
There is only how we spend our time until we’re out of it and we’re nothing more than the memories we leave behind. Like many academics, I spent my time before the COVID19 epidemic counting every word I wrote as a bulwark against insecurity, my publications as proof that how I’ve chosen to invest my time is “good” or worthwhile. But weeks of lockdown turned into months of government inaction and I’ve been forced to concede the wisdom of Albert Camus’s injunction in The Myth of Sisyphus that “from the point of view of Sirius, even Goethe is dust.” It’s made me realize that this time stuck at home with my children, as exhausting and frustrating as it is, is a gift. We are healthy. We have a roof over our heads. And enough food in the fridge to keep our bellies full.
Rather than worry about whether I’ll make tenure, or if I’ll get the book I’m writing finished, I’ve found a sort of peace in appreciating that, for now at least, things are not as bad as they could be, and in a world as broken as this one, that’s reason enough to be grateful and set aside the disappointment that is the heir of the ambition to be more.
Since we officially entered the ‘post-truth’ condition in 2016, ‘populism’ has been the preferred philosophical term of art used by commentators keen to identify what has led the public to support Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, and other such shifts in voter opinion worldwide that the commentators find ‘wrong’, not only in some high-minded sense but also in terms of the voters’ own interests. The last four years has provided an opportunity for me to think about what lies behind this clearly pejorative labelling. Fundamentally, there is an inherent tension between politics that is democratic and progressive. I don’t mean to say that this tension cannot be resolved, only that the two ideas are not natural bedfellows.
Of course, the drive toward democracy in the modern era has been largely motivated by progressive politics. But note the word ‘drive’. Rarely have progressives thought that the people are ready right now for self-governance. The whole point of progressivism, after all, is that the people must engage in a journey of self-improvement to realize their full potential. There are more liberal and more socialist versions of this journey, but they all typically focus on the need for the people to be ‘educated’. ‘Education’, admirable as it may be, is about the shaping of attitudes and preferences. The desired end state, put bluntly, is that the educated will think more like the educators -- and then they will be fit for democracy.
What is called ‘populism’ these days arises because education ultimately – and mercifully – ends, and the educated are then left to their own devices. This is the gift of living in a society that thinks of itself as ‘free’. Also consider that more people are formally educated than ever before, and the economy is led by those who produce wealth by encouraging them to share information, opinions and perspectives. Moreover, that internet-based economy operates beyond the control – and perhaps even in the interest -- of the ‘progressive’ educators. This is the crucible in which contemporary populism is forged. It is democratic. It is even a consequence of the progressive agenda. It is just not the consequence that the progressives intend.
World Philosophy Day is an opportunity to reflect on our current condition and how we can move our thinking forward to know ourselves better. I had originally thought that Emmanuel Levinas’ claim for the priority of the human face as an ethical demand was somewhat exaggerated. The face seemed to be too large and loose a metaphor to capture our deepest ethical concerns. I worried that we have ethical obligations to those we never meet and whose faces we never see. The emphasis on the priority of the face-to-face confrontation seemed too local and restrictive to really be the basis for a global and universal ethics. We don’t and cannot experience everyone important to us in a face-to-face relation.
But the presence of the face (and of the masked visage) has become so central to our lives since the appearance of COVID that I have been forced to rethink the importance of the face-to-face relation. The other who confronts me calls my very being into question. I am no longer ruler of my own domain. The presence of the other’s face places a demand on me to recognize him or her and cede to the other the priority I would otherwise reserve for myself. It is vitally important that we are open to the face of the other person. We have a vital need in our domestic, social and political lives to have face to face relations. But it never occurred to me that the promotion of health safety in the pandemic would require the wearing of face masks on the presence of others. This to me is a further sign of respect and concern for the other. The argument against wearing masks (supposedly, compulsory face covering is a violation of personal freedom) is precisely the kind of ego-centric, self-centered approach that is challenged and repudiated by the Levinasian ethics of the priority of the face of the other. Therefore, I believe the ethics of the face-to-face is precisely the ethics of care for the other that demands that we protect others to whom we turn our face. Precisely by wearing masks we protect the other and recognize the demand of the other for our care.
The world in late 2020 looks very different to how it looked at the same time last year. In important ways, of course, the changes have been for the worse. Even assuming an effective vaccine is widely available in coming months, progress on poverty alleviation in the global South has been significantly set back, and developed nations face steep rises in unemployment and a deep recession. The climate crisis has been relegated to the background for the moment, but it will force itself to our attention soon enough, through flood, fire and drought.
I began the year deeply pessimistic about both politics and human rationality, in the face of our continuing failure to seriously address the climate crisis. But the response of some countries to the pandemic provides me with grounds for very tentative optimism. The conservative governments of Australia and the United Kingdom were until recently focused on reducing deficits. But they jettisoned economic pieties in response to the pandemic. They recognized the need for massive deficits and acted accordingly. They also recognized the need for a response that was driven by science, at least initially.
This almost instantaneous realignment of policy commitments offer us hope for a response to the climate crisis commensurate with its seriousness. They taught us that the ideological obstacles are less fixed than they appear. Apparently deep commitments can melt away, given the right signals from leaders. Their response points to a need to rethink the philosophical and psychological case against rationality. Human beings are social animals, and we look to one another to see what to think and how to respond, and we’re rational to do so: others are often better placed to make these judgments than we are. With the right leaders and the right levers, we can move the world.
Being left more on my own over the past year has had an existential effect: I have become more aware of the sheer force of habit but also of how quickly new habits can form themselves. I have grown so used to confinement that I sometimes feel have lost the taste or courage for travel. The life of contemplation and imagination starts to open itself to inward view. Self-sufficiency becomes unexpectedly delectable, isolation something to savour for its own austere tang.
I have started to feel more consolidated within myself. I have also been confronted with my own mystery. One discovers in isolation that one’s secure identity is bound up with the web of connections which one makes habitually: seeing the usual people, making the regular journeys. Without that web, we start to become lone spiders, spinning unnervingly on our own unhinged axis. Where do I really belong?
On the one hand I feel more content and readily satisfied. On the other, I feel a little unhinged. Less dispersed in many directions but also less affirmed and recognised by familiar people and sights.
The synthesis is a new resolve. In future neither to be an over-entangled arachnid nor to be an isolated hermit crab, in my own shell. I do not have the spiritual resources for the latter: hermits are not really cut-off because constantly hold themselves before God. I will aspire to be a more like a bee: sipping nectar from favoured sources and conveying its pollen accidentally to favoured destinies.
In lockdown one becomes more aware of the life-threads that have really mattered. So many of these have been snapped and replaced with frayed links that do not really matter. Startlingly, in isolation I have frequently called to mind several significant things and people who had hitherto dropped out of sight. My sense of my real affinities has sharpened. I am now determined to see the importance of older, long-standing connections, even those now lost and irretrievable.
We are finite creatures. Paradoxically, we are more open to the infinite through distinct paths than through the confusion of unending choice. Most are suited neither to random tourism nor to monastic isolation. The middle way is constant pilgrimage along old paths that we have not yet travelled to the end.
Join the conversation