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New Social Compact

Vico and the Nexus between Science, Truth and Beauty

Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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In 650 BC Thales asked “what is the primal substance that makes up all matter?” Since then, we have been searching for oneness. We now call it the search for the unified theory of matter. This search which is as old as philosophy has a value system, or a belief system if you will, buttressing it, independent of the acknowledgment of scientists.

The belief system is this: there is an overarching structure behind all that is and our minds are so constituted that we can figure out what such a structure is; in fact our minds mirror such a structure. Therefore, this search is partly a search for self-knowledge. Back to the ancient Socratic maxim: know thyself. I dare say that without such a belief system no scientific enterprise would have originated in ancient Greece.

In 1961 Thomas Khun reminded us moderns of this unique ancient wisdom with his famous book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which was originally printed as an article in the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science. Basically, in this book Kuhn argues that science does not progress via a linear accumulation of new knowledge, as Aristotle averred, but undergoes periodic revolutions which he dubs “paradigm shifts.”

The ancient Stoics, as they contemplated nature and the cosmos in general begin to notice a strange order and beauty within the perceived complexity of the natural world, an expression of mathematical symmetry and perfection. They considered this rational order truth in its purest form, the hidden code of Nature as it were, the very blueprint of creation. They called it natural law. There were two assumptions behind this belief: that order does not come out accidentally and by pure chance out of chaos; if one finds an orderly mechanism it is illogical not to assume a maker or a master mind (what they called “nous”) behind it.

In more modern terms it would be equivalent to finding a working watch in the street and assuming that all those little wheels came together by pure chance. The other assumption, as already mentioned, was that humans can decipher this order, deconstruct it so to speak, through the diligent application of reason and intuition. And so the poet John Keats could declare in the 19th century that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

Within modernity this friendly relation between truth and beauty has become a belief system in itself, the very life force of science. Some go as far as declaring that science has taken the place of religion. They can say that only in so far as science too helps us transcend our all too human and finite boundaries by lifting us into a transcendent higher level of existence.

That is not too dissimilar from the dream of a Plato all the way to Einstein: to play god by searching for immortal Truth (with a capital t) via reason. In fact, Reason itself (with a capial r) has become a god for many of these philosophers, even when they continue paying lip service to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am thinking here of a Leo Strauss whom some of his own disciples consider a hidden atheist approving of religion as a sort of opium for the people, to keep them docile at the service of the elites who teach philosophy in universities. The textbook which Barry University has approved to teach problems of philosophy was written by an atheist. That is quite intriguing in itself.

Symmetry principles in the natural sciences, from mere tools are transformed by these fanatics of Reason into a dogma of sort. For example, the hidden code of Nature is represented nowadays by the so-called “theory of everything.” The best candidate of this theory is superstring theory, a theoretical construction that shifts the basic atomistic paradigm — that matter is made of small building blocks — to a new one whereby vibrating strings in nine spatial dimensions can represent what we measure as particles at lower energies and in 3d. This theory has never been proven, it is just a theory or a belief system of some scientists which is denied by others.

In a democracy one is free to choose one’s belief system but after some twenty five years of attempts to prove the theory empirically, we are still clueless on how to construct a viable superstring model that reproduces our universe. Presently there is a near-infinite number of possible formulations producing many different cosmoses. It does not help much to call these a multiverse. The ineluctable fact is that we don’t know even how to write down the equations for string theory to search for plausible solutions. The question naturally arises: is there a single theory behind the myriad phenomena of Nature? Or are we adopting a misguided way to look at creation?

To answer that question we need to look at a more humble and realistic paradigm and it is the one suggested by Giambattista Vico in his New Science (1725). In this opus, the most important of his works re-published and edited in 1744 before his death, he proposes that the only certitudes we can have as creatures created by God together with the Cosmos are those of things and institutions that we ourselves have made, such as language, history, political, religious and economic institutions, and the variety of artifacts created since pre-historic times and comprising human culture.

In short, what Vico is proposing is this, we did not create nature and therefore the hope of understanding it 100% via science is a delusion riding on an illusion. Vico is not debunking science here; he is just saying that it is much more scientific and certain to explore what Man has made; we can do this because other men like us have made these artifacts with the same human mind, albeit the mind of primitive man is quite different from that of rational modern man. Here the problem becomes one of recapturing one’s origins at the price of ending up in what Vico calls “the barbarism of the intellect,” a sort of rationality and logic closed within itself and eating its own tail. The other side of this coin is this: God has created the cosmos and therefore only He/She can fully understand it.

What Vico is also implying is this: that the world is not perfect in a rational, mathematical sense. Yes, we find symmetries out there, and they are useful. But we should have the humility to see Nature for what it is and not for what we want it to be. Fifty years of particle physics have proven quite disappointing in as much as they have time and again crushed the symmetries that we hoped for. It ought to have also proven that we are not gods or demigods confabulating with the gods of Mount Olympus.

What Vico is also saying is this: science is a construction of the human mind, very useful and successful but nevertheless a limited construction. What we really have are mere models that approximate what we measure with more or less efficiency and proven by experiments and empirical evidence; but we cannot conduct experiments ad infinitum. What we know depends on what we measure, and what we measure is limited by our instruments, we can never be certain of what’s hiding in the shadows of our ignorance.

Vico is not here speaking of gods, fairies, and spirits; after all his opus is titled a “science,” not a fable, but it is a novel kind of science. What he is insisting upon is that the cosmos if full of unexpected effects; that we humans can’t know all there is to know and therefore we can’t ever know if our theory is final or not. There are indeed, paradigm shifts and scientific laws can be superseded by new discoveries. That is to say, we are not gods. That knowledge, if accepted, would be very liberating for assorted philosophical absolutists who have substituted positivism, or the ideology of science to what went by the name of religious faith.

P.S. This article first appeared in Ovi magazine on April 11, 2010.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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New Social Compact

The daily reality of working poverty

MD Staff

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Louisette Fanjamalala, has worked hard all her life, yet, like millions of working poor around the globe, she barely makes enough to survive.

Fanjamalala, from Madagascar, lives with four teenage children – two of her own and two orphans she has adopted. Their home is a cramped one-room house in the Antananarivo suburb of Soavina. Her husband left years ago.

For years, she worked in textile factories, getting only short term contracts and earning as little as 70 000 ariary (about US$20) a month in some cases, and, at best cases 300 000 ariary (about US$90). That was barely enough to feed her family. Now, things are even worse.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to be hired because I am considered as too old. It is a shame because I am qualified, I work as fast as and even better than younger workers. However, nowadays, human resources departments usually turn down my request without even giving me an appointment,” she sighed.

Because she was also a victim of violence at work, Fanjamalala recently received support from an ILO programme which provided her with new skills and a sewing machine. She now makes some money by doing sewing work at home for people in her neighbourhood. She also makes clothes and curtains that she sells at the local market. However, getting food on the family table remains a constant challenge.

“Fanjamalala’s story is unfortunately very common in Madagascar and in many developing countries,” said Christian Ntsay, Director of the ILO Office in Antananarivo. “You only need to walk in the streets here and talk to people to realize that the findings of the World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018  (WESO) on vulnerable employment and working poverty translate into a reality faced by millions of people,” he said.

“Ninety-three per cent of Malagasy workers like Louisette Fanjamalala have no other choice than working in the informal economy to survive,” Ntsay added.

1.4 billion workers in vulnerable employment

“Working poverty continues to fall but – again – just like for vulnerable employment , progress is stalling,” explained Stefan Kühn, lead author of the ILO World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018.

”Vulnerable employment affects three out of four workers in developing countries. Almost 1.4 billion workers are estimated to be in vulnerable employment in 2017. Every year, an additional 17 million are expected to join them.”

In 2017, extreme working poverty remained widespread, with more than 300 million workers in emerging and developing countries having a per capita household income or consumption of less than US$1.90 per day.

Overall, progress in reducing working poverty is too slow to keep pace with the growing labour force in developing countries, where the number of people in extreme working poverty is expected to exceed 114 million in 2018, or 40 per cent of all employed people.

“Emerging countries achieved significant progress in reducing extreme working poverty. It should continue to fall, translating into a reduction in the number of extreme working poor by 10 million per year in 2018 and 2019. However, moderate working poverty, in which workers live on an income of between US$1.90 and US$3.10 per day, remains widespread, affecting 430 million workers in emerging and developing countries in 2017,” said Kühn.

“The findings of the WESO Trends 2018 report is a reminder that more efforts need to be done to reduce inequalities and to ensure better living and working conditions for people like Louisette Fanjamalala and the 1.4 billion workers facing a similar situation throughout the world,” he concluded.

Source: ILO

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New Social Compact

The Worst Horror Story – Rape

Aditi Aryal

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Photo by Zach Guinta on Unsplash

Rape in all its horrendous forms is a marred and an abhorrent trace of patriarchy and misogyny. The direct victims are majorly women, but the fact that men can be –and often are– victims cannot be discounted. Devising its roots in power-play and control, today it carries a heavier weight as a statutory offence with set penalties. Despite these penalties and a massive international attention taking forms of media outrage, studies, monetary and legal aid, awareness programs, and safe shelters, rapes of women – young and old are alarmingly high in South Asia by offenders of varying age groups.

In Nepal, as reported by a national daily, 78 rape cases have on average been reported every month over a course of five years, many of the offenders being septuagenarians and octogenarians. The Indian National Crime Bureau Report (NCBR, 2016) claimed 338,954 reports were made between 2015 and 2016 as crimes against women out of which 38,947 were rapes. It also reported an increase of 82% in the incidents of rape of children. Likewise, in Pakistan, Human Rights Watch asserts of at least one rape every two hours and one gang-rape every eight. In Bangladesh, 13,003 rape cases were reported between 2001-2017 out of which 85 were rapes by law enforcement agents such as police, jail agents, and the army. These data are only the tip of the iceberg as many cases are unreported by the victim, withdrawn upon coercion, or refused to be registered as a legit case by the authority

The Dynamics

The causes of rape are far too many, and differs from case to case. The reasons that surface commonly are sexual frustration in men, poverty, mind-sets and attitudes that reflect machismo, a sense of entitlement, unawareness, and acceptance. In 2012, a report by UNICEF published that 57% men and 53% women in India thought marital rape as not rape, and a sizeable number believed that beating of wives by their husbands was not violence. In India and Bangladesh, the legislations on what constitutes a crime declares it as not rape if the person is married to the victim and if she is over 15 years of age, excepting judicial separation.

We need to remind ourselves that in the South Asian countries, men often grow up being told and shown that they are superior to women who then grow old with a sense of entitlement as they deem it fit for a woman to be available on their demand. When these men are unable to earn for the family due to unemployment or otherwise, their frustration takes the form of rape to demonstrate their ‘masculinity’ and maintain superiority over the women.

Now, this mentality also works in reverse, where a woman is told be to weaker than men and should protect herself from them if she does not wish to get raped. In most South Asian families, females have lesser liberty of movement and choices as compared to their male counterparts. This obviously arises from expected gender behavior that good women should be meek, submissive, and obedient but is also centered around the fact that the families do not want their females to be raped.

This objective of giving women the security inside the family homes is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, rapes and molestation within the family very often exist. In January 2018, a baby girl of eight months was raped in Delhi, India by a relative in her house. Little girls of varying ages have been raped right next to a family member by another family member or neighbors in several instances in Nepal and they could do nothing, not even file a complaint because this façade of a domestic protection does not concern a female’s bodily security but societal reputation.

The Aftermath

Once a person is subjected to rape, the victim becomes unchaste and impure and is thought to bring dishonour to the family. The terminology in Pakistan is kari, referring to someone who has lost virginity outside marriage and an honour killing, karokari, is subjected by the village council. The victims often commit suicide or are killed by their own families for tainting the honour. In 2002, Mukhtaran Bibi challenged this status quo by not committing suicide after a gang rape that was ordered on her by a village council but filed a case against all her rapists. Initially, they were sentenced to death but in 2005, five of them were acquitted due to lack of evidence. In 2011, the sixth offender got acquitted too. In 2017 in Multan, Pakistan, a jirgah (village council) ordered revenge rape on the sister of an offender. In all these years, nothing has changed and even today revenge rape is still being ordered on innocent girls for no fault of their own as punishment.

The victims in other countries face social stigma and have to live in fear because once someone falls victim to rape, they are prone to more rapes because the value of a person is reduced from that of a human to a commodity that is free for public use. In Haryana, India, a girl was gang-raped twice by the same set of men who were out on bail after raping her the first time six years ago. A take-home message is that the onus lies on a woman to protect herself from men who are always lurking in hunt of a prey to rape, yet again asserting that the victim befalls such fate on themselves due to their actions, or in Pakistan actions of their family members.

Rapes are justified for godforsaken reasons and victims told they were ‘asking for it’ by travelling alone at ungodly hours, dressing provocatively, being friends with men, or indulging in so called notorious activities like smoking, drinking, and partying. The way these protectionist measures are advised always revolves around victim but never around the offenders, due to the notion that men have an insatiable sexual appetite and if women portray themselves to be ‘easy’, they are raped. Ranjit Sinha, head of Indian Central Bureau of Investigation once commented that if women couldn’t prevent rapes, they should enjoy it.

In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, victims of rape are subjected to a two-finger test to determine their sexual activeness. This procedure exists despite so many pleas from within these countries and outside to get rid of it on the bases that it is flawed on so many levels as it renders women who chose to be sexually active out of consent as lecherous and dirty who have already been touched by a man. This violation of a victim’s body is backed by the government in the form of a random stranger determining of their worth. This is of course scientifically inaccurate, and extremely irrelevant in case of rape.

Equally exasperating is the fact that women should remain pious and dedicated to only choosing to be sexually active with their legally married husbands but when their husbands rape them, it is not recognised by the legislation. O. P. Chautala, an ex minister in India, once stated that girls should be married as they turn 16 so that sexual needs of women are met and they will not go elsewhere and rapes will reduce. However, even statutory age of marriage is above 16 in India, and marriage is not a way to end rape. Rather, such a statement renders women as cattle whose ownership belongs to the husband.

These instances prove time and again that the role of a woman is always reduced to pleasing her husband in bed without considerations.  In fact, marriage is a holy sacrament that can undo rape – perhaps why victims are married off to their rapists in South Asia who then continue to rape them for the rest of their lives.

Most importantly, the police and other protectors of law find ways to make money out of instances of rape. Like, in January 2018 in Kathmandu, Nepal, a woman of 22 years withdrew her report of rape after few days and it was later revealed that the police were involved facilitating monetary settlements between the accused and the complainant with a personal gain. In Bharatpur, Nepal in February 2018, police coerced a woman to withdraw her rape complaint. So many more cases have surfaced in the southern plains of Nepal where the police have been involved as middlemen.

Hindrance to Justice

The reasons behind rape are men-centric but they have been ingrained in the societies as acceptable by both men and women. Reporting of rape has been increasing in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan but the cases are not dealt with caution. The victims face injustice and have to go through denigrating treatment by the police and health officers, questioning their character and morality.

The portrayal of a victim in the media is a stereotypical one, a non-provocative, harmless, and morally upright person with no past sexual history. Any victim deviating from this stereotype probably brought it on themselves. Further, the media has been reporting on sensitive issues like rape without sensitivity like revealing the victim’s name which is illegal or slut-shaming the victims.

Lastly, even death penalties are not enough to deter people from committing rapes. In Pakistan and India, rape can be punished with death but the crime is still on the rise. After the 2012 Nirbhaya case in Delhi, India, a strong plea was made to change the judicial system and a fast-track hearing was introduced for rape because national outrage by the citizens was not deemed enough to bring a change. In Nepal, the fast-track court is in practice too, but the problem arises in procuring evidence which is substantial in these cases.

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Without firm action on gender equality, women’s empowerment, world may miss development targets

MD Staff

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

“This is an urgent signal for action, and the report recommends the directions to follow,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women, said on the launch of the new report, Turning promises into action: Gender Equality in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Speaking to reporters at UN Headquarters in New York, she said: “As a world, we committed through the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] to leave no one behind,” but the report reveals many areas where progress remains slow to achieve the Goals by 2030.

Even where progress is made, it may not reach the women and girls who need it most and the ones that are being left furthest behind,” explained Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka.

Turning promises into action makes in-depth case studies in the Colombia, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Africa, United States and Uruguay, looking at what is necessary to achieve the 2030 Agenda.

Focusing on unpaid care work and ending violence against women, the comprehensive report examines all 17 SDGs and how deeply intertwined the different dimensions of well-being and deprivation are in impacting the lives of women and girls.

As one example, it points out that a girl born into poverty and forced into early marriage is more likely to drop out of school, give birth at an early age, suffer childbirth complications and experience violence – a scenario that encompasses all the SDGs.

Moreover, new data in 89 countries reveals that there are 4.4 million more women than men living on less than $1.90 a day – much of which is explained by the disproportionate burden of unpaid care work women face, especially during their reproductive years.

Looking beyond national averages, glaring gaps are uncovered between women and girls who, even within the same country, are living in worlds apart because of income status, race, ethnicity or location.

While the report addresses how to tackle existing structural inequalities and what is needed to move from promises to action, progress remains slow.

“It’s a problem in all countries, developed, developing, north, south, east west,” Shahrashoub Razavi, UN Women’s Chief of Research and Data, told UN News.

“We have a long way to go to achieve gender equality universally,” she added, calling it “a problem that stymies the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

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