THOUGHT: The World has recently descended into a fragile state. ‘The World’ here means the human world, the procedures, institutions, methods, customs, civilities etc. which allow seven billion of us to “get along together”, after a fashion, on this planet.
There are also seven existential crises facing us, that is, crises so bad that they could each wipe out the human race.
Why? What has gone wrong?
To find out, we need to pour far more of our total mental effort into reasoning. We have, in many ways, sleep-walked into these existential crises. There has been far too much blind, insufficiently pre-considered action during the last fifty turbulent years: too much hasty pragmatism. There have been many cries of Carpe Diem! This sounded like a pleasant idea, because it shut out darkening clouds of despair and bewilderment about our own nature and our relationship to the physical world. But mass Carpediemism has led us finally into a pretty dangerous place.
Now we are entering 2020, a unique year, because it carries a message in its name: the implicit message is: Wake up, start looking at reality with 20-20 vision, start reasoning with an intensity, range and power commensurate with the crises!
SOURCE The author, Christopher Ormell, is an older philosopher of mathematics who, as an undergraduate, met and shook hands with Alan Turing (1952). In the 1970s he re-discovered Charles Peirce’s amazing insight (from the 1890s but lost) that mathematics is the ‘Science of hypotheses’. He discovered the first non-trigonometric formula for the nth prime number in 1966 (in the Maths Gazette). More recently he has spent nearly three decades tying to crack the enigma around Fermat’s lost elementary proof that an + bn can never be an nth power (n>2). In 1993 he co-founded (with Eric Blaire) the P E R Group (Philosophy for Educational Renewal): this group celebrated its 25th anniversary last December.
KERNEL of HOPE To identify the vital Kernel of Hope from which any new dawn must emerge, it is first necessary to identify why hope has wilted in recent years. Many leading voices and decision makers have been operating since 1989 on the optimistic glow generated by the collapse of communism in the USSR. But although this seemed, at first, to offer the discipline of the market as a genuine “discipline of last resort”, it has latterly shown signs of cracks and wear. Greed —of a kind which was taboo during the era of Belief— has gradually raised its ugly head. The Crash of 2008 followed. Austerity and Populism have followed that.
What is becoming clear is that the roots of the seven existential crises are much deeper than mere market depression. The roots of the crisis go right back to the 1920s when the philosopher Martin Heidegger declared “The End of the Enlightenment Project”. What does this mean? Why did he issue such an apocalyptic warning? Heidegger had spotted two utterly indefensible opinions which had been admitted into the “The Accepted Wisdom”. The first hoved from 1901 when mathematics hit a roadblock: Bertrand Russell discovered a contradiction in set theory, the basis on which mathematics was supposed to rest. That was the bad news. The worse news was that no explanation of the contradiction was ever (has ever) been found and subsequently accepted by professional opinion. In the 1920s it was decided to fudge the issue by simply banning the kind of sets which caused the trouble. This was not any kind of “enlightenment”. It flew in the face of reason and said in effect that the mathematicians had given up.
The second utterly indefensible position was Einstein’s notion that time is a kind of space. This surfaced in 1905. If time is a kind of space the future is already there, and any idea that we are free to make genuine choices flies out of the window. If so our concepts of courage, creativity, veracity, love, honour, reform, responsibility… are mere illusions. We are not free to act in the striking, dramatic, essential ways these concepts connote. This is not any kind of “enlightenment”. This is more like the start of a Dark Age, which is what it turned out to be.
So Heidegger was right. The Enlightenment had been closed down, in effect, when these benighted notions were accepted into the “Accepted Wisdom”. Closing down the Enlightenment meant closing down reason, because the ‘light’ we are talking about is the light of reason.
The KERNEL of HOPE is that solutions to both these oppressive notions have been found. The present author first published his solution to the contradiction in a paper in Mind in 1958. It was referred-to by Karl Popper also in Mind in 1959: otherwise it was totally ignored. It introduced the idea of dynamic contradiction, a new kind of contradiction, which operated over time. A later publication elaborating the idea of dynamic contradiction Some Varieties of Superparadox was published in 1993. It was posted online by an Austrian group in 2003.
The solution to the straitjacket of space-time is a thought experiment first published by the present author in a monograph After Descartes (2000). In order to put physics on a sound epistemological basis it is necessary to ask: What are the ultimate constituents of matter? Some say “We can never know” thus ducking the challenge. Actually this specification ‘the ultimate constituents of matter’ ought to be soluble, if we believe in the reasoning power of science. People who say “We can never know” have stopped believing in the reasoning power of science. That is their choice, and they are entitled to it. But it is not enlightenment, and it is not good enough to stop believing in the reasoning power of science, when seven existential crises are hanging over us. The modern world —which incubated these crises— is built on science: and it is much too late to try to go back to an earlier, more ignorant, uncomfortable age.
So we need to work hard to turn these Kernels of Hope into reality. This is the Agenda for the current blog. The author will up-date it every month, hopefully, throughout the 20-20 vision year.