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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

Joker &the Pathology of Violence

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image: Warner Bros

JOKER, director Todd Phillips and renowned actor Joaquin Phoenix’s new take on an infamous comic book villain, will hit the big screen this weekend.  It has garnered prestigious awards (such as the Golden Lion), laudatory critic reviews & is expected to attract hordes of eager moviegoers.  However, JOKER has also inspired ominous think-pieces from publications such as The Atlantic and Vox.  Additionally, the US military and the NYPD have expressed concern that the film could inspire violence.

These detractors of JOKER are arguing that the film glorifies “incel violence” and is thus likely to inspire acts as incel violence.  This logic has been used ad nauseam to condemn everything from comic books, to video games, to martial arts, to Marilyn Manson to hip-hop.  No credible study has proven that art that portrays violence causes real-world violence.  Some people may point out that extreme outliers, like white-supremacist music, could cause violence.  However, it would be more logical to argue the opposite: people who compose and listen to white-supremacist music were already enmeshed in a violent ideology.  Likewise, genocidal propaganda tends not to focus on explicitly glorifying violence for violence’s sake, but in portraying groups of people as sub-human (Tutsis being compared to roaches, Jews being portrayed as greedy and treasonous, etc.).  It’s thus a process of long, gradated inculcation.  As Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels realized, there’s no reverse-Ludovico Technique that can magically turn people into killing machines by quickly showing them a two-hour film.

Now, it is true that a few violent criminals have cited works of art as inspiration for their actions.  This is statistically inevitable, but insignificant.  There are bound to be a few outliers who have bizarre interpretations on art, just as there are a few people who have been inspired to commit acts of terrorism based on personal interpretations of religion or politics.  It’s no more logical to suggest that we ban violent video games or art because of mass shootings than to suggest we ban Buddhism because of Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack on the Tokyo subway, or that we should ban Irish patriotism because of the IRA.  Furthermore, some violent lunatics have been inspired by works of art, such as John Lennon’s killer citing Catcher in the Rye, that aren’t even violent in nature.  Clearly, the people who commit mass killings are incredibly unhinged individuals who are in a violent frame of mind, regardless of what media they consume.  Likewise, 99.99% of people who play FPS games or who watch slasher flicks aren’t going to go on a shooting rampage or create a torture dungeon in their basement.

To return things to JOKER itself, the film in no way “glorifies” violence.  For starters, half of the violence is inflicted on the main character (the “incel hero”); there are two scenes where The Joker gets jumped mercilessly and a third scene where he gets sucker-punched in the face.  The violent acts that The Joker himself commits are portrayed in a very gruesome manner (in one scene with The Joker and a neighbor of his, the violence isn’t even shown, but is merely implied).  When The Joker bashes someone’s head in or shoots someone point-blank, there are no crass jokes, inspirational music or voiceovers quoting The Art of War. The plotline doesn’t imply any justification for the killings.  When someone gets killed in the film, audience-goers don’t hoot and holler like they would in a screening of a zombie film or a Nazi-revenge flick like Inglorious Basterds.  Rather, there is an awkward pall of silence in the theater at the nihilistic spectacle.

JOKER makes it very clear that the title character’s violence is motivated by nothing but his utter insanity.  The Joker descends into a killing machine after being released from an asylum and after he stops taking seven different psych meds (which weren’t helping him much, anyway).  When being interviewed, he admits that he isn’t compelled by any ideology whatsoever.  Rather, The Joker literally views the act of killing as a joke. 

Nor does The Joker gain any tangible reward for his violence; he gets fired from his job, arrested, hit by an ambulance and committed to an asylum as a direct result of his actions. Joaquin Phoenix’s character gets a thrill from the media coverage that his killings elicit (and a standing ovation from fellow thugs in the film’s penultimate scene), but that not’s a real reward, but rather a feeling that many real-life killers in fact get when they are portrayed in the news.  For instance, the as-yet unidentified Zodiac Killer literally played games with Bay Area news outlets, sending them letters that boasted about his kills, contained cryptic puzzles and threatened to blow up a school bus if he didn’t receive even more media attention.  Many other serial killers who were apprehended were found to have hoarded newspaper clippings that documented their crimes.  Similarly, coverage of a mass shooting often inspires “copycat mass shootings”.  The takeaway from this is that the media should be careful about inadvertently turning stories about mass shootings and terror attacks into personal biographies of the killer.  When covering these kinds of attacks, some news outlets, like The Young Turks and The David Pakman Show, deliberately choose to blur the killers’ faces and avoid naming them, so as not to give the killers the attention that they wanted to garner and to avoid inspiring other violently-deranged individuals who crave attention.

The fact that JOKER doesn’t merely portray the villain as an Evil-Incarnate caricature doesn’t mean that it is therefore glorifying violence.  The audience is meant to sympathize with The Joker when he get jumped without warning or when he talks about the crippling depression that he has felt for literally his entire life.  There are scenes showing The Joker comforting his mother and entertaining sick children.  The mere fact that The Joker is portrayed as a full human being, good traits and bad traits, doesn’t mean the film is justifying how he releases his violent rage.  No human is evil 100% of the time: there is no villain who tortures hamsters 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  It is only by studying the causes of violent criminals’ various motivations that we can ever hope to ebb the tide of violence.  Most violent criminals have suffered from childhood abuse, childhood poverty, a missing parental figure, bullying and/or mental illness (The Joker had to deal with all five of these traumas).  By empathizing with these plights, we can create programs (drug treatment programs, stamping out bullying in school, removing children from abusive households, etc.) that can reduce violent crime.

It’s not comfortable to acknowledge that history’s most evil people had humanity or that societal norms (like persecuting people, tolerating child abuse or underfunding mental illness and addiction treatment programs) can fuel violence.  It’s evident that Todd Phillips, through his direction and screenplay, and Joaquin Phoenix, through his tortured portrayal of The Joker, meant to give us a glimpse into the mind of a demented killer, not so we can sympathize with the protagonist’s brutal violence, but so we can sympathize with the myriad factors that drove the protagonist to criminal insanity.  The nearly uniform media portrayals of mentally-ill individuals as Pure Evil only serves to misinform the public and to scare those suffering from mental disorders from seeking help.  Hopefully, the discussions being generated by JOKER will encourage people to learn more about complex diseases like schizophrenia and to be more proactive in reaching out to loved ones who are displaying signs of mental anguish.

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New Social Compact

Women outnumber men in higher education but gender stereotyped subject choices persist

MD Staff

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Education is essential to achieving gender equality. From the earliest schooling to the highest levels of post-graduate study, education influences the opportunities that can shape people’s lives.

This is why education and training of women is one of the 12 critical areas of concern in the Beijing Platform for Action, while target 4.5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for the elimination of gender disparities in education by 2030.

In the UNECE region girls tend to outperform boys in terms of learning outcomes in schools, and women outnumber men in tertiary education (university level and beyond) in almost all countries of the region.

Women remain in the minority, however, as students of stereotypically “masculine” subjects such as ICT and engineering, although in recent years they have begun slowly gaining ground.

Tertiary level graduates

In 39 out of the 47 UNECE countries with data, more than 55 per cent of tertiary graduates are women. Iceland has the highest share, with 66 per cent women.  Seven countries are close to gender parity, with the share of women ranging from 48 to 55 per cent, and only in Uzbekistan are women in a clear minority, with 38 per cent of tertiary graduates.

After decades of increase in women’s participation in higher education, women substantially outnumbered men among tertiary level graduates in most countries by 2012. Since then, women’s share has declined in 32 out of the 47 countries with data. Whilst in Azerbaijan and Turkey fewer than half of tertiary graduates were women in 2012, more women have entered tertiary education in these countries since and the 2017 data already show gender parity there. 

Subject choices of women and men

The subjects studied at tertiary level by women and men can reflect stereotypes of “masculine” and “feminine” subject areas. Some subjects may be preferred by potential employers and may affect occupational segregation once graduates enter the labour market. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Engineering, Manufacturing and Construction (EMC) are two broad groups of subjects where male students have historically predominated.

Women remain a minority among ICT students in the UNECE region, with percentages ranging from 11 in Belgium to 33 in Greece. The four countries with the largest share of women among ICT students are all in the Balkan region. Among students of EMC, the share of women is somewhat higher, but still falls far short of parity, ranging from 14 per cent in Georgia to 44 per cent in North Macedonia.

In both of these subject groups, the recent trend shows small gains for women in some countries but reductions in others. Overall, progress towards gender equality in these two typically male-dominated subject areas is uneven and slow.

UNECE Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting

Progress in achieving gender equality in education will be one of the areas in focus at the upcoming Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting for the UNECE region, with a particular emphasis on how women and girls can enter currently male-dominated fields.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of 1995 (Beijing Platform for Action) is the most ambitious road map for the empowerment of women and girls everywhere. In 2020, it will be 25 years since the Beijing Platform for Action outlined how to overcome the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. 

The Beijing+25 Regional Review Meeting (29-30 October 2019) will take stock of where the UNECE region stands on keeping the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. Bringing together government representatives and key stakeholders from the UNECE region, the meeting will tackle a number of obstacles that keep girls and women from realizing their full potential. UNECE is joining forces with the UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia to deliver a two-day multi-stakeholder meeting to exchange concrete policies to accelerate the realization of gender equality. The outcomes of the meeting will feed into the global review of the Beijing Platform for Action taking place at the sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020.

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New Social Compact

Call for Action from Leaders and Business on Violence against Women

Newsroom

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Spiralling levels of violence against women in Africa require immediate action from governments and businesses, including tangible measures to create safe spaces, experts from across the continent told the World Economic Forum on Africa today.

Protesters in South Africa have taken to the streets and social media to demand action, following the rape and murder of a Cape Town university student who was attacked in a post office. Uyinene Mrwetyana was just the latest of many victims of brutal assaults in a region where approximately 45% of women and girls over 14 years have experienced physical or sexual violence.

“I’m dumbfounded by the idea that we can continue with business as usual,” said Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso, Director of African Monitor, who urged technology companies to take a lead in delivering solutions. “It would take a click of a finger for a tech company to say we are going to deploy a software that can assist us with an emergency response system for poor women in South Africa free of charge.”

The potential for technology to help in the fightback highlights the need for businesses to think creatively, given that cyberbullying can also contribute to discrimination in the first place. Mniki-Mangaliso said the wider business community should also step up to the plate by backing a gender-based fund to address the deep-rooted problems behind the rising tide of physical and sexual assaults.

Hafsat Abiola-Costello, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Women in Africa Initiative, said Africa could learn from China, where decisive action was taken to ban harmful practices like foot binding and polygamy. African governments, by contrast, too often fail to enforce bans on polygamy or genital mutilation, thereby reinforcing a culture of discrimination against women that becomes embedded from childhood.

The failure to protect women is not just a moral issue; it also comes with a high economic cost. “Who drives African communities? It’s our women. Our women can drive Africa’s development, if given the chance, if protected, if their rights are respected,” Abiola-Costello said. “Africa missed the first industrial revolution, we missed the second, we missed the third. If we don’t address this issue, we will miss the fourth.”

Obiageli Katryn Ezekwesili, who spearheaded the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Nigeria and is a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy, said calls for women to help drive African development will simply ring hollow if violence is not addressed. “The world lacks the moral pedestal to stand on to ask girls to aspire if we cannot have the back of those who are vulnerable,” she said.

With 16,000 deaths due violence against in women every year in South Africa alone, Akudo Anyanwu, Associate Dean at Johns Hopkins University, said: “Our presidents and the leaders in government need to come out and take a position. We need to have our leaders come out and call crimes a crime.”

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