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Emanuel L. Paparella, Ph.D.

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Whatever Happened to the Former Love of Ideas? – Positivism vs. the Humanities in the 21st Century: Brain vs. Mind – one should ask…

When I was still in college in the mid-sixties books and ideas were considered very serious things, something to be passionate about; a sort of higher form of existence residing in the Platonic world of the intelligible. Dialogues and debates on ideas were considered a sine qua non of an education worth its salt. And this was true not only for philosophy majors, such as myself, but also for those liberal arts students  who majored in  history or the arts, or literature. Hermeneutics, or the interpretation of fiction, poetry, history and philosophy was not a mere tool useful for analytical procedures but, more importantly, it testified to one’s moral view of the world. Which is to say, ideas mattered. They mattered a lot. They had power over one’s life. They determined one’s intellectual and spiritual destiny. In some strange way one became the books one read.
Those ideas were found not only in the canon of philosophy from Plato to Heidegger, but in great novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Lawrence, Mann, Kafka, Gide, Camus, Orwell, or the poetry of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Coleridge, Eliot. Philosophy and Literature was in fact understood to underpin all great historical epochs.

This leads to the question: which are the great philosophical ideas that still exert great influence and inspire the current artists? I for one would be hard put to answer the question. Obviously there has been a decline in the appreciation for the grand philosophical and aesthetic credos of the past. It began with the unmooring of metaphysics from philosophy by language philosophers. Then came the Annales’ school of historical thinking (Bloch and Febvre come to mind) which asserted that it was not world-historical individuals who shaped events (as Hegel and Emerson believed), but merely economic, social, geographical factors. They, and only they determined events and the fate of nations and people. This was positivism applied to history. There were more subtle forces at work within history, beyond the wars and revolutions instigated by emperors and generals. They could be extrapolated from the available historical data. This led to deconstruction which elevates the social-semiotic conditions of language over the authors who transformed them into literary art. Enter Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva who insisted that one had to pay attention to what was previously beyond our notice. One did that by phenomenology which looks at what is in front of our noses.

Warhol brought the Campbell soup, or the obvious, to our attention. The banal, the ordinary, the popular became the focus of aesthetic expression. The interest was not so much in art but in the conceit that anything at all could be art. With this went the expulsion of all those ideas that were formerly part of the humanistic canon to create meaning in verbal, plastic and aural mediums. The task now was to unmask Western civilization’s hidden agenda and its doctrinal attitudes and assumptions about art, sex and race as embedded in linguistic and social codes. For those critics, the Enlightenment has generated ideas about the world that were simply naive about their own implications. Enter Barth with his “Death of the Author” and Foucault with his idea that man is nothing but the invention of the Enlightenment, while Paul de Man at Yale university argued that there is no such thing as the human. All this made for some unruly times in the humanities and produced eventually the end of ideas as still alive in mid twentieth century. There are presently no schools of thought in the humanities. One can indeed still study the tenets of the Frankfurt school and the Prague school and study the works of the neo-Marxists (such as Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Lyotard, Marcuse) or the deconstructionist writings of Derrida and de Man but the enthusiasm for ideas and the intellectual energy it generated is gone. It only exists as historical memory. This debunking movement went by the name of post-modern and it was essentially an anti-humanistic stance, even if it arose from within the humanities.

Literature nowadays is often taught without any longer drawing attention to form, imagery, character, metaphor, genre and the relationship between books and society. What has happened is that post-modernism has opened the humanities to the sciences, particularly neuroscience which pretends to explain how we think and express ourselves and affirms that the stuff of consciousness is nothing but a byproduct of the brain’s activity. To understand anything, and indeed everything, all that one needs to do is to map the electrochemical impulses that shoot between our neurons. Reduced to those terms, every academic discipline becomes a neuro-discipline. We are back to phrenology which we thought had been superseded. This includes ethics, aesthetics, theology, literature, you name it. All this leads to the crucial question: if all behavior has an electrochemical component, then in what sense—psychological, legal, moral–is an individual responsible for his actions? If the structures of the brain structures the person, in what sense we can say that there is such a thing as free will? In other words, is a person reducible to his or her physiological components? Is this not sheer reductionism or worse, a literally “mind-less” neuroscience?

What those not trained in philosophy or the humanities fail to perceive is that the focus has subtly changed from the meaning and the interpretation of ideas to the means (the MRI and the brain scan) by which they’re produced. Hence the classical questions that have always intrigued us: What is justice? What is the good life? What is morally valid? What is free will,” have taken a back seat to the biases embedded in our neural circuitry.
Many misguided academic humanists believe that there is no better way for the humanities and liberal arts to save themselves from oblivion than to borrow liberally from the sciences. They claim that the more “scientific” the approach to the arts, the more seriously they are regarded. Several universities now have so called neuroscience centers with specialties in humanities hybrids. The message is this: cognition is literally the tissue that connects all sorts of humanistic endeavors.

And yet there are dissenting voices such as that of Thomas Nagel’s controversial book Mind and Cosmos wherein Nagel has the courage to question the neo-Darwinian belief that consciousness, like any aspect of adaptability, is evolutionary in nature. To the contrary, Nagel affirms that it is highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. Rather, he believes in a teleological universe with nature predisposed to give rise to consciousness, given that no mechanistic explanation seems commensurate with the miracle of subjective experience and the ability to reason. Bit his, alas, is the voice crying in the desert.
To be sure, other scientists have hypothesized that human life is inevitable and that biochemistry is wired into the universe. Stuart Kauffman, for one, believes that all molecules must sooner or later catalyze themselves in self-sustaining reactions or “autocatalytic networks,” crossing the boundary between inanimate and animate. But the more common view among academic scientists is that evolution has no direction, no goals, no set outcomes; our preferences and bias are due to our oversized brains. There are precious few professors who today continue to defend objective values. The zeal for ideas is fast declining. What deeply concerned intellectuals two or three decades ago is now considered anachronistic. Where are today’s Paul de Man, Edward Said, Harold Bloom, Hilton Kramer, Isahia Berlin, Susan Sontag, Annah Arendt? Nowhere to be found I am afraid. The liberal arts is no longer where the action is. In 2010 only 7.6 of bachelor’s degrees were in the humanities. The ideas that engage us and seem essential today are primarily scientific.

The passionate issues that galvanized intellectuals thirty or forty years ago seem now far removed from our daily lives. Those ideas engendered by the Enlightenment as regards epistemology, government, aesthetics, alas, no longer engage our best minds, except when we speak of the brain or the meaning of consciousness. We seem to have lost the appetite for locating hidden modalities in art and literature as metaphysics too continues to decline in academic worth and estimation. Will somebody arrive on the scene with the transformative power of a Descartes, Vico, Newton, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Kant, Wittengestein, Kuhn or Derrida? As the song goes “the answer my friend is blowing in the wind.”
 
There seems to be at work in the humanities nowadays a troubling skepticism, almost a desperation of not being on the right track, of not being able to go anywhere. That in turn leads many humanists to rely on the old-fashioned methods of hard data and the empirical certainty of scientific research. Yet the questions of art, beauty, ethics, our innate capacity for wonder at existence, persist. The question “why is there something rather than nothing” still fascinates a few traditional philosophers. Perhaps it lies in our very genes and will never be suppressed. But overall, for the moment we have yielded those philosophical questions to biological and cognitive science and we have thereby achieved a certain amount of peace. Intellectuals no longer indignantly reach for their pens to debunk materialism and positivism, but it is a pseudo-peace, it is the peace of the cemetery and quite desperation. It is a peace which has put too much trust (or faith if you will) in the human brain, and in doing so it may have given up on the idea that only the mind, and not the brain, will some day be able to fathom the human condition.
How do I know that the neo-positivists of the 21st century are on the wrong track and just as misguided as those of the 19th and 20th century? It is actually quite simple: whenever I inquire of a neurosurgeon if he believes that ideas exist and cannot be denied as existing, the answer is always a resounding yes. But whenever I follow-up and ask if he has ever seen ideas floating around some place in the brain when he operates on it, or reflected in his brain scanner, a perplexed look seems to appear and there is usually no answer to the question. At best one gets an ambiguous: “give us some more time and eventually we’ll find them.” My reply to that statement is: good luck!

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 Sustainable State- Book Review

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Chandran Nair’s new book, The Sustainable State, is a response to runaway consumption by a rapidly expanding world populace. He explains how the rise in living standards, especially in the developing world, is soaring an unsustainable demand for everything from meat, to cars, to modern housing and then gives possible solutions.

Nair reminds me of economist Ha-Joon Chang in both his premise and the evidence he uses to defend it.  Both scholars are highly critical of the current economic ecosystem and the multinational corporations that run it.  Nair points out that the major industries of today are what’s causing the unprecedented environmental crises that we’re experiencing today.  Not only are corporations polluting the environment and depleting natural resources, but are also covering it up and blocking possible legislative antidotes.

Thus, Nair endorses Ha-Joon Chang’s solution: East Asian-style state regulation of the economy.  Since corporations will never voluntarily do anything that will hurt their profits, a strong federal government must force them to do so through laws that have the planet’s future in mind.  The book points out that the manufacturing and sales costs of consumer products don’t reflect their full cost.  For instance, a roll of toilet paper cost the forest it came from a tree; deforestation has existentially high long-term costs to Earth’s inhabitants.  Anything produced for or shipped to market cost the world through energy consumption, if nothing else.  Thus, Nair supports making producers pay for the full cost of their merchandise through programs such as cap-and-trade and reforestation taxes.

The book gives several examples of (generally East Asian) countries and cities trying to regulate their way to higher sustainability, with varying degrees of success.  For instance, China has arguably become the world leader in terms of environmental initiatives through tough laws governing pollution and a long-term environmental strategy.  In China’s Youyu County, they went from having under 1% of land forested in 1949 to over half today.  Singapore has largely staved off the kind of affordable-housing crisis seen in major cities and city-states by instituting a comprehensive public housing system.  Jakarta, on the other hand, has struggled in their efforts to reduce their crippling traffic congestion.  For instance, when they created 3-person minimum carpool lanes, car owners simply hired pairs of people to meet the requirement.  When Jakarta changed to an odd-even license-number congestion scheme, people simply bought extra license plates.

This book fits in nicely in the post-Trump, post-Brexit era in its skepticism of Western democracy.  Example after example is given of Western government ineptitude towards environmental management, from oil lobbyists’ consistent ability to kill or water down regulations, to general short sidedness.  India’s democracy is also criticized for its failure to clean up the Ganges, among other things.  Nair has a lot of praise for single-party governments in China, Vietnam and Singapore in their recent environmental policy records.

He stresses that he isn’t anti-democratic per se, but rather, he can’t ignore the trends.  Most Western democracies are currently neutered by partisan deadlock, lobbyist money and a myopic obsession with the short term, due to the nature of the election cycle.  Single-party states, by definition, have no partisan deadlock, aren’t reliant upon lobbyist money for re-election and can implement policies that may piss off their constituents in the short term, but are critical for the future.  The recommendation is thus given that democracies stick up to corporate interests and institute long-term policies that will meaningfully address the environmental issues of the future.

The Sustainable State is sobering in its assessment of our current state of resource depletion and global warming, but also cautiously optimistic in its faith that government, when acting in good faith, can curb the excesses of industry and regenerate the planet.  There are diagnoses for specific problems, such as the wildfire haze that emanates from Borneo every year and for pollution.  The main omission of the book is in regards to the water crisis.  Nair mentions high-efficiency circular farming and water pollution, but otherwise largely ignores the disturbingly low supply of water for drinking and farming.  This deficit has already sparked conflicts in countries such as Syria and will only snowball as the population continues to explode.  Desert countries and landlocked countries will eventually succumb civil war over access to water, creating a refugee crisis that the world has never seen, if radical and affordable solutions aren’t found for supplying water for consumption and irrigation.

Chandran Nair gives plenty of real-life examples of good policies that are mitigating issues and explains why they are successful.  Oftentimes, the solution lies in the checkbook.  Governments can spend money on decades-long programs, corporations can pay through sustainability taxes and individuals can pay through gas taxes and car ownership caps.  In democratic and nondemocratic nations alike, we the people must push our leaders to do more, for the future of the human species.

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In Northern Nigeria, Online Skills Help Youth, Women Tap New Opportunities

MD Staff

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A mother holds her baby during the Click-On Kaduna Workshop held recently in Northern Nigeria. Photo: World Bank

Rashidat Sani lost her job when she was pregnant with her child.  Now a nursing mother, she has been unable to find flexible employment that would allow her to take care of her baby and earn a living.

That was before Sani attended the Click-On-Kaduna digital skills workshop earlier this year, which helped her become an “e-lancer;” a self-employed contractor who can work various online jobs.

“This workshop has been perfect for me,” said Sani. “I can stay home and take care of my baby while working on my computer. I can’t thank the organizers enough.”

Sani is one of more than 900 young people who attended the three-day workshop designed to help young Northern Nigerians tap into the digital job market. With support from the Rockefeller Foundation, the workshop was created by the Kaduna State government and the World Bank to increase job opportunities for the country’s youth—which currently makes up more than half its population—and decrease youth unemployment which has risen to 33%.

“There are nine million people in Kaduna State, 75% of whom are below 35,” said Muhammad Sani Abdullahi, Commissioner of Budget and Planning for Kaduna State. “There are also roughly 70,000 government jobs in the state and this cannot meet up with the job deficit.”

The hands-on workshop aimed to give unemployed and underemployed youth, women, and disadvantaged groups some of the tools needed to compete in the online job market. Sessions included practical trainings on how to set up an online profile, build a personal brand, negotiate a fair compensation, and land a first job. The workshop also provided opportunities for participants—nearly half of them women—to interact with e-lancing platforms like Upwork, a key partner of Click-On Kaduna, as well as several local platforms such as Efiko, Asuqu, MotionWares, or Jolancer.

In the last decade, digital technology has disrupted the global economy and fostered the creation of countless new markets, products, platforms, and services. Among the innovations, there has been a rise of online freelancing platforms which have enabled disadvantaged people across skills, gender and income levels to overcome physical and socio-economic barriers to earn an income through the Internet.

In Nigeria, unemployment rates have increased from 11.92 to 15.99 million in 2017, with the youth reported to be the most affected. This is further aggravated in Northern Nigeria due to its fragility and where the educational and economic infrastructures remain inadequate.

Kaduna State, located in the northern part of the country, faces these challenges. Plagued by years of endemic violence, government leaders recognize the importance of creating jobs for its young people, and the immense opportunities the digital economy offers.

Boutheina Guermazi, World Bank Director for Digital Development, said the global digital economy has given rise to a massive new market facilitated by digital platforms that are accessible to anyone who has access to the Internet.

“It is helping to promote inclusion by creating economic opportunities for youth in fragile states by equipping them with the skills needed to improve their social welfare regardless of their gender and income levels” she said. “These new income-generating opportunities need to be leveraged to create and connect people with jobs, especially women in the North who often do not have equal access to markets and jobs.”

Building on the success of the workshop, the Bank and Upwork rec+ently launched a pilot program that aims to kickstart the online careers of about 150 job seekers, expose them to more and better jobs, and contribute to Click-On-Kaduna’s sustainability and long-term impact.

Each of the selected participants will be given five tasks created under the Upwork pilot program. Once successfully completed, they will be paid for their work and rated, increasing their competitiveness for jobs on the platform. Participants will also be provided with further opportunities for mentoring and capacity building from Upwork while receiving payment for their work.

“I did not even have any idea of Upwork in the first place if it had not been for Click-On Kaduna,” said Nehemiah John, who participated in the workshop and the pilot program. “Aside from [participating in] the pilot project I am about to round a [new] contract with a client on Upwork. He requested a t-shirt design which I have done, and he liked it.”

The outcomes of the pilot program will continue to be monitored by Upwork and the Bank team, with the goal of increasing the number of people able to access online jobs and increase their incomes.

World Bank

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New Social Compact

Wedlocks in Kashmir’s landscape

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Marriage is a sacred institution in the human societies. Down the passing phases of time, the human beings have tied knots of man and woman in pairs to continue the order of the universe. God created human being in pairs and created humans out of those predecessors. This is even today the order of the nature and will remain so forever.

Marriage is a social and legal contract where man and woman are tied in a holy knot under the auspices of religious principles of Nikkah,as in Islam to carry forward the legacy of humans and human beings. Marriage is a pious knot that brings a man and a woman together forever to created an edifice of support for one another in times of need pain happiness, good and bad, nothing and something etc and is equated with one half of the Muslims faith. Marriage holds a vibrant symbolic significance in that people still want to marry and revere the institution. Overall it is said that the institution of marriage gives peace and order to the life of the man and Islam is in fact testimony to that bizarre fact.

Marriages form a major component of our Kashmiri culture which have come a long way since times immemorial. Marriages in Kashmir have undergone a fundamental transformation. In simpler terms, the age of marriage has risen. During the past times, the marriages in Kashmir were performed in an atmosphere of extravaganza where a lot of food and dishes were wasted and those nostalgic memories are perhaps etched to one and all if one recalls the memoirs of the past life. However today a civic and moral sense has prevailed among the masses where lavishness is slowly and steadily losing grip in our society and austerity is taking the substitution there of. Even the persons who accompany the groom towards the bride’s house have been reduced to few.The guests are also nowadays restricted in our society.It is a good gesture and a positive step towards development of society in Kashmir.

In an interview to India today T.V. few years back, i reteriated and favoured the stance of the government regarding ban on lavish marriages in Kashmir and guest control.

However the major problem that besets our marriages in Kashmir is the night long overuse of loudspeakers and subsequent firecrackers at the time of bharat reception. Suppose a person is suffering from disease and is ill, a student has examinations next day, a pregnant woman is expecting a child and the neighbours marriage causes the trouble. It becomes a major sin and music is prohibited in islam as wrong(haram).This ultimately causes trouble to one and sundry. Above the social plane lies the plank of moral conduit. We need to totally stop the use of loudspeakers during mehandirats. Although women can sing in pairs through get together.

Today, when our valley is under the grip of political violence and chaos and uncertainity has become order of the day, people need to show a religious and responsible civic sense and say goodbye to lavish marriages, particularly the menace of dowry in Kashmir.When parents of affluent give huge gifts and dowry to their daughters on their marriages,it causes roadblocks for the poor and disadvantaged sections of the societies and hinders their marriage prospectus..After all, it is the questions of our sisters. A parent who raises a girl child and marries him to a different person knows the pains of departure. Girls need to be respected and cared. They are not the property of their in-laws. There must be regard for the sacrifice of the women’s parents and the bride itself.

According to a famous Hadith, Prophet Muhammad SAW says that a marriage is performed on the basis of four factors. Some marry for the prestige of the caste some marry for the financial prospectus, some marry for the beauty of the girl and others marry for the character of the girl.Our beloved Prophet Muhammad SAW says that we need to focus and keep the last factor that is character of the girl in consideration for the to be married man.

In contravention, in our valley the parents are wary of the future of their daughters and want and wish to marry their daughters to the government employees. How many parents ask about the past, character, morality of the man.Be he a morally bankrupt but he should be a government employee. How sad and pathetic? Besides, the daughters are pushed towards late marriages on account of getting education and other factors.It is good to have education,but age factor matters. Parents should rather focus on the humbleness, compassion, character of the to-be grooms. Delaying marriage until personal and professional goals are achieved is a illogical response of our society.

Today,our society has degraded enormously. Our youth are under the grip of a moral disaster and soaked in immoral acts. The problem of late marriages has already aggravated and compounded the problem. The late marriages have given rise to various social problems and ills. Parents should marry off their wards once they become adults and attain maturity. God is responsible for their future. This will prevent our society from moral ills and our society will metamorphosize into a moral hub of social order. Unfortunately, we lack marriage planning  and counseling centers in Kashmir. Besides, there is no problem if parents ask about the choice of their wards. Compatibility is a vital factor and golden rule in marriage.

The money which we spent on the lavish marriages can be exploited for the overall good and development of our society.The poor can be helped via this mode. This will make our society a just and humane and also please our creator Allah SWT.

Post-marriage step is a crucial phase in the life of a man. According to John D Gray, men are like rubber bands and women have a wavy nature. The married men and women ought to understand each other and have a regard for each other and their families. Patience is the essence of life. Differences can arise, but it is the role of the married persons to annihilate the crisis that makes inroads almost in everybody’s life day-in and day-out and display a calm attitude thereof.

Kashmir history is witness to the fact that in some cases ,the demand of dowry ruins the marital bond during post-marriage time.In some cases, the daughters have committed suicide or have been dragged towards the same under the circumstances. There should be a total ban on the use of dowry in Kashmir. Government should rope in a permanent ordinance to ban lavish marriages and dowry in Kashmir. I was stunned when recently in a facebook post,it came to light that thousands of girls are unmarried in Kashmir. What causes that and who is to be blamed? Let’s ponder over it….One day we have to answerable before Allah SWT about our worldly deeds as this life is too short.

The parents which raise a child in the hope of pillar of support tomorrow need to be respected and regarded by the daughter-in-laws. The in-laws become the parents of the women after marriage and they need to treat them equally in that perspective and kind regard. This creates a healthy atmosphere in the lives of couples during post-married life and turns as boost in arm to solidify their strength of oneness forever. Marriage is more than being together. It is a responsibility in vogue, vis-a-vis the creator and created. We can’t turn a blind eye to this raw fact. This is all about the conjugal commitments.

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