“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”
–The Walrus and the Carpenter, by Lewis Carroll
To the dedicated humanist, the discussion to follow may appear similarly disconnected. But we are neither the center of the universe, nor on the periphery of our own. There is much to be gained by stepping outside the humanistic viewpoint, and viewing the show from the outside. Early attempts at broadening the humanistic perspective include Robert H. March’s Physics for Poets, and elective courses on Skinnerian “rat psychology.” This supposedly resulted in “well rounded” individuals, suitable for depiction in Greek statuary. But there is little evidence that all this rounding is organically useful to students of politics and international relations.
So liberal arts remains mired in the past, the refuge and favorite of people who feel weak at math and strong with words. This is why we have, in addition to policies, policy analysis. Perhaps it is also why we think of the divisions of humanity as stemming from cultural differences, rather than the reverse implication: the need for division of humanity causing cultural differences. An interesting example of this is the ancient state of Khazaria, which in the 8th century singularly adopted Judaism as the state religion. It was a cultural distinction made in the service of political autonomy.
Most of the problems of history are confused in this way: the arrow of causation, the direction from cause to effect, is framed by ancient viewpoints, implicitly constrained by revolving around consciousness, conscience, and spirituality. But it’s not necessary to discard those things. After plowing through Henry Stapp’s Mind, Matter, and Quantum Mechanics, you may conclude that the complexity of the brain offers a reservoir of quantum mechanical uncertainty in which free will may securely hide, safe from prying eyes of the deterministic mindset.
So the mechanistic universe may be one more myth, a relic of the debate about whether efficacious consciousness can exist in a deterministic world. You may now indulge without guilt in the advances in complex systems, self organizing automata, and alternative life forms, without putting your humanistic heart at risk. There is much to be gained.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms, it’s an idiomatic expression to say about ideas (and a lot of other things), “Someone imagined it, and the idea took on a life of its own.” Perhaps we owe a debt to the author of this apocryphal expression, which accidentally discovers a reasonable approximation: Ideas can behave as life forms. Of particular interest is the sudden growth of the Islamic State, blazing like a fire tornado, its imminent demise, and the sinking feeling that analyzing the particulars of ISIS leaves something out. As a generality, it will happen again and again in future histories, differing in detail, but running the same general course.
Next: Ideas as life forms.