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Reductionism, Modernity and Nihilism in Western Civilization: Should Aristotle be Resurrected?

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“Cogito, ergo sum” (Descartes)

But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.” (From Pascal’s Pensèes, 346)

There is an unfortunate tendency within our hubristic modern times to reduce and explain a higher reality by a lower one. Philosophically, it goes by the name of Reductionism. For example, the Resurrection of Christ will be explained away scientifically or positivistically by the phenomenon of springtime and its attendant rabbits, flowers, eggs and the general resurrection of nature, thus transforming a spiritual reality into a material one. The cart has been placed before the horse, when the proper approach ought to be that those natural phenomena in springtime point to, or are a symbol, a metaphor, if you will, of a transcendent spiritual reality.

Indeed, great errors as well as great advances have been made during the formative years of the birth of early modern science. Since the 17th century, right after the Renaissance and beginning with Copernicus and Galileo, many significant novelties make their way in the world by indiscriminate criticism of what had gone before. The new is praised without measure, the old is debunked, and the claimed relevance of new discoveries is extended analogously without careful argument into ever more areas. Thus it was in the seventeenth century: this is the heart of Pascal’s complaint against the narrowness of Descartes’ mathematical-geometrical definition of reality.

In one of his last lectures before his death eight years ago titled “The Mind and its Now” Stanley Jake, a leading philosopher of Science had this to say about the mistake of Descartes’ “cogito”: “There can be no active mind without its sensing its existence in the moment called now. The realization of this is the driving force of modern philosophy from Descartes’ cogito on. Without suspecting that the cogito, a personal reflective act, cannot be a starting point of knowledge, he took it for such. He failed to realize that it is not possible to know without knowing something. One tries in vain to cogitate without cogitating about something. And that something has to be a thing before one is cogitating though never in separation from a thing.”

Perhaps no greater mistake was made than in the matter of Aristotle. Early on it was clear that an Aristotelian account of physics or the heavens was no longer adequate. Naturally enough, this led to decreasing study of the Aristotelian texts, and with time to a decreasing sense of how and why Aristotle had framed central questions such as the nature of causation and teleology. We are on the way to a certain insistence in modern science that the proper study of science is the natural order, and not anything “behind” it, God, metaphysics, or finality. That is, we are on the way to a “surface” understanding of what the natural order is.

Since the credibility of his physics had been damaged, an assumption against Aristotle’s thought in general grew in scientific circles. Many thought Aristotle’s ideas about causality were implicated in the inadequacy of his physics. An argument of the present essay is that Aristotle’s thought about causation, especially final causality, articulated issues that will not go away. Though his thought has been largely ignored in recent centuries, and is not the last word, it is of permanent significance and should not have been jettisoned with more problematic aspects of his thinking during the years of the origin of modern science. Here again, the baby was thrown out with the dirty water.

Aristotle’s History of Animals provides a good entrance to his thought. Here he distinguished between simple and composite parts. Simple or homogeneous parts have a uniform nature: flesh is composed of pieces of flesh. Composite or heterogeneous parts do not have a uniform nature: a hand is not made of hands, but of a variety of parts. So it is for the entire animal. The interesting question is how an animal, once formed, is to be viewed. Aristotle’s preference was first to describe the completely formed animal (in today’s terminology, synchronically), and then the historical process by which the animal had been formed (in today’s terminology, ontogenesis or diachronically). This preference articulated his insight that by definition it was only the fully formed animal that expressed everything that the animal could be, that is, that defined the animal. Hence his emphasis on final causality, which looks to the end (telos) of whatever is to be defined.

For most biologists or zoologists today this is backwards. They commonly think of the parts as what is most basic to an animal, and are reluctant to speak at the level of the organism, let alone of an organic form which reveals purpose. To understand is to take apart, not to see the whole. To wit, Eisnstein’s famous statement: our era is characterized by perfections of means and confusion of goals. This is the perspective famously criticized by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Lewis dreamed of “a ‘regenerate science’ of the future that would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself. When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole.” To this regeneration one can add a science that would also remember history and origins. Not for nothing Vico dubbed his philosophy of history a new science.

Here debate about the criteria for defining the origins of humanity has centered on consciousness as a sure index of the appearance of man. There are no graves in the animal world, only humans construct them. But graves are an indication that humans have understood that they will die, are conscious of their finiteness. The idea of transcendence has appeared: “It is not necessarily with the use of tools that human existence begins, but rather with metaphysics.” The higher animals can use tools as it has been observed lately, but only man can transcend himself. This was already Pascal’s point in his famous “man is a thinking reed” passage (Pensées, 346): “But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this.”

To anyone who knows anything at all about Giambattista Vico’s The New Science (1725), Pascal’s and the paleontologists’ observations on burial of the dead, are not new. Vico’s views have become the base from which Robert Pogue Harrison has launched a contemporary reflection on burial of the dead, and the relation of the dead to the living. Harrison is essentially in agreement with the paleontologists: humanity “is a way of being mortal and relating to the dead. To be human means above all to bury.” Religion and the idea of a transcendent reality are grounded in the burial of the dead which points to it. Humans have about them a “history-making mortality,” the aboriginal sign of which is the grave marker.

All this is very much in agreement with a line of thought developed by John Lukacs, who has been arguing throughout a series of books that scientific materialism has it completely backwards. It is not matter that produces mind, but human consciousness that shapes everything. It is nonsense to talk about humans as anything but at the center of reality, for it is humans who are conscious and can speak of centers. And humans have no choice as conscious beings other than to be at the center. This is the deep significance of Aristotle’s “anthropomorphism”: his option to privilege human experience epistemically.

In showing the many limitations of Darwinism, Lukacs goes further than some of the paleontologists, arguing for the incoherence of the application of the idea of evolution ever further backwards in time, one result of which has been the claim that humans existed as much as a million years ago. The hidden assumption here is the materialist one that matter preceded human mind, mind only gradually appearing. Lukacs has no patience with this “dribs and drabs” theory, and rejects the very idea of a “pre-historic” man. Humans are defined by the fact that they are historic or conscious beings, beings defined by historicity, conscious beings oriented in time. They have no pre-history, only history.

From such materials Michael Schulz has brilliantly constructed a counter-cultural position. Schulz argues that the very terminology “cosmos” or “universe” makes no sense other than as expressed by a human. It is indeed true that the earth is a minor planet, and that in one sense the universe has no center. But statements such as these are not possible without the man who makes them. In this sense, as the surveyor of reality, man is its center. As Albert Einstein and Henri Poincaré insisted, the only time we have is our time. The very notion of history must be human-centered.

In both Vico’s and Lukac’s provocative formulation, “We did not create the universe. But the universe is our invention” and it has a history and a development and a purpose. The universe’s unity appears to, and in some sense depends on, a conscious perceiver. Berkeley adds to this the notion that without a perceiver there is no existence either. Schulz in some respects goes further than Lukacs the historian. He asserts that “One does not become more objective by attempting to gain a neutral perspective from which to view finitude in abstraction from the human knower, which in any event is epistemologically impossible. If the cosmos can be grasped as cosmos only in man, and if independently from man it does not even exist (at least as cosmos), then the most objective view of the world is given within the horizon of man’s orientation to God . . . . If the ultimate meaning of the essence of the cosmos is dependent upon the reality of man, then the cosmos with man is qualitatively more than it is without him.”

Only by standing in a relation with God can man talk of such things as the unity of the world, of categories such as infinity and finiteness. Perhaps it is time to revive the ancient medieval idea of man as microcosm. That is, there are two further, related, considerations: (1) what the unity of the universe is correlative to is an embodied consciousness—and, as far as we know, man is the thing that fulfills that role; (2) this is not just phenomenological, but ontological. This I take it, was the intuition expressed in the idea of man as microcosm. Schulz develops the question of the early history of humans somewhat differently than does Lukacs. For Schulz, who accepts evolutionary theory, the question is not so much whether we may properly speak of human beings where there is no human consciousness, but the way in which history articulates all that it is to be human. He writes that “Evolution . . . testifies to the anthropocentric character of the cosmos . . . evolutionary development ends up with ever more complex structures. The more the complexity grows, the more we are able to distinguish between an interior and an exterior in a living being, and the more the form of subjectivity takes shape.”

In sum, as Vico points out in New Science, though humans initially may not have appeared with a high degree of consciousness nor much historical sense, they are “not bound up with the things of this world in an absolute way like the animals. Man is . . . a creature of transcendence; this creature is the window through which the cosmos ‘sees’ its origin.

To sum up, a number of ancient thinkers observed that there is a fit between nature and consciousness. This valuable observation did not lead to an anthropocentric view of the world in the modern sense that human consciousness is a pre-condition for knowledge; but the mixed blessing of the modern “turn to the subject” now allows us to see the centrality of human consciousness in organizing the world. It is not that there is no organization without human consciousness, that the universe is not already a universe before we know it, one that we are “fit” to understand, but that human consciousness is apparently the only vehicle by which such organization can be discovered. This makes humans central to the very idea that there is a universe, and themselves a kind of microcosm. Among the forms of organization and pattern they can discover is the “immanent teleology” of heterogeneous beings, already known to Aristotle, but largely disparaged in the years of the birth of modern science, along with serious debasement of the understanding of causation from being a category of analysis to being one of temporal relation.

Though Aristotle is not the last word on any of these issues, and his discoveries have to be expanded to give greater consideration to the place of the relations of things both to each other and to God, the contemporary rediscovery of certain categories of purpose—in particularly in biology—represents a great advance on the mechanistic world we have inherited from the age of Descartes. Purpose is not to be viewed as simply something extrinsic to individual living things, but as also something intrinsic to them, a description of their capacity for self-maintenance as wholes. What is now needed is a synthesis that overcomes the dichotomy “intrinsic/extrinsic” to show that all heterogeneous living beings have not just an intrinsic and extrinsic ordering, but an order that is at once both. This is mirrored in Vico’s concept of Providence which is both transcendent, i.e., beyond space and time, and at the same time immanent within history.

Hence, with his insistence on consciousness and history as intrinsic to man’s humanity and even to the point of it all of the cosmos (its logos), Vico is the first philosopher and humanist to detect the enormity of Descartes’s blunder at the origins of modern philosophy, and to suggest a possible remedy. Three hundred years or so later the Vichian diagnosis of that error remains valid; unfortunately, the prognosis remains to be applied and those who claim that Vico’s new science has nothing to do with history and wish to claim that his science is based either Plato’s forms or Descartes’s abstract mathematical cogito as the origins of all that is new and progressive and modern are not part of the solution but very much part of the problem.

N.B. This article appeared in Ovi magazine on 28 April 2011. It was relevant then, it is even more relevant now.

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

Musings of a journalist – Part 3

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The entire idea of writing this is that as journalists we find ourselves finding and scratching other people’s truths. However, we often escape from our own. The idea of writing this is to come closer to my own truth and to stay connected with it.

Some good things have also happened since January. I believe I fell in love with someone for a while, fell out of love with them recently and am waiting to feel in love with them again. The strongest learning I’ve had about love is that it’s not permanent. It comes and goes in tides and we must persevere to know when the next tide will come. People who expect love to be permanent have either lost themselves in love or are blinded by it, both of which might lead to delusions. I think my style of loving is more like a realist who gives into delusions once in a while but gets back to reality. Might sound sad, but this is the sad reality of long relationships. People can fall out of love and fall in love with the same person at different points of time. Lovers just need to wait for the right timing. And don’t let this fool you – there might be no right timing for lovers, but that doesn’t mean that love does not exist between them. It simply means that the timing was, is and never will be right.

One more messed up thing about me is that there was once a time I had no friends and I wanted friends more than anything else. Now that I have friends, I think it feels like a burden to be responsible for people’s emotions. To build these connections and promises of a lifetime when I might not even be in the same country after 3 months. But does that matter? Some people might not be in this world after 3 months! Some people might be terminal. Should that stop us from connecting with them at a deeper level? Maybe some connections are deeper because we know they are short lived. Maybe some connections are not so deep because we know they ebb and flow like tides, with different intensity of feelings at different points in time. What is a good measure for judging connections? Depth or time? I think both measures fail. One of the mysteries of this world is how to judge the quality of a connection. I am yet to understand how.

Another realization I’ve had these past few months is that without love we are little. But without self respect we are nothing. Without alcohol, I do feel a sense of anxiety every once in a while. Coffee makes up for that. We move from one vice to the next. I also know that coffee is not the best for my health, but I still know it’s better than alcohol. A good sense of creating better addictions is something I’m trying to incorporate in my life.

Since the last few months, I have been afraid of death. And I have learned to overcome it. I’ve learned to live in the present moment. I’ve learned to live by projecting a future I want into this world. I’ve learned to trust myself and rebuild myself. And with this piece of writing. I’ve rebuilt a sense of trust and truth in myself.

In the last six months I was also selected for an apprentice hub where I was mentored for my NGO by Priyanka Jha, Miss International 2004 and Miss India top 5. I also had the privilege of being selected for the Global Governance Initiative and am impressed by my attendance and participation in the fellowship. I wrote a five thousand word thesis about the negative impact of social media as a part of the fellowship. I cannot imagine having written a five thousand word thesis ever before. Now I’ll be starting a course by MIT in May called MIT bootcamp. I’m building my start-up on the side and also working for my NGO – Coral Warriors. I’ve also been interviewed by some publications for my NGO and have been working on expanding the board of directors. I’ve tried to get an internship in consulting but have failed quite strongly till now. I might not have to continue failing if the opportunity arises. That’s the beautiful part about failing – we fail back to back and one day life surprises us. Some more things I really want to do is develop a sense of routine, build my sense of peace, go for treks, feel more connected with myself, not agree with people blindly to ensure a continued relationship with them and get more political like I was before. Perhaps while reflecting on the first six months (almost six months of 2022), I cannot help but reflect on what I want the next six months to look like.

I want them to be filled with a deep sense of purpose and belonging. I want to be humble. I want to feel more connected. I want to feel like I am creating a positive impact, like my life has meaning. I also want to work towards getting a Masters degree. Most of all, I wish to stay connected with my truth through all this. To not forget my past in a fury of this madness. To remember what pain feels like and live everyday with gratitude. Being a believer of manifestation, I want to manifest my goals and dreams for myself, but only those that bring me peace.

This is my truth and I am glad to be sharing it with you.

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Musings of a journalist – Part 2

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The entire idea of writing this is that as journalists we find ourselves finding and scratching other people’s truths. However, we often escape from our own. The idea of writing this is to come closer to my own truth and to stay connected with it.

Since I’m writing this to come to terms with my own reality, it’s also a good idea to reflect on how I feel when people ask me – “How do you manage your time?” or “You are doing so much!” or “Your story is inspiring.” To be honest, people are saying this to me to encourage me and motivate me, but as someone who is used to doubting and second guessing myself, the only impact that words like this have on me in the short term is – IMPOSTER SYNDROME. I remember battling it at university where I felt like a constant imposter amidst people who were doing so much more than me. I know we must not compare ourselves to others but it’s a mistake of the past.

Today, I feel like an imposter where people feel like I am doing a lot and being a lot, when I don’t perceive myself to be doing anything at all! For someone who spends their day feeling like they’ve wasted their time, there’s a cognitive gap in their understanding that they might have actually done something productive. I struggle with feeling productive and feel like a fake version of myself on most days where people can’t see the real me. Most people might see a list of things I’ve done and imagine I’m being my best self when perhaps I’m not. Someone please tell me – What’s a good way to tell someone who pedestalizes me that I don’t deserve to be pedestalized? What’s a polite way to ask them to not look up to my achievements because I have none.

The last six months of my life have been hyper stressful. I got rejected from the IVY League university to which I had applied and life hasn’t been the same since. It’s taken a while for me to accept the fact that I might have made some decisions in the past, which are of course reversible in due course of time, but it will take time. However, on a positive note, I did not see myself here one year ago. I got into a university in the UK which is still over the caliber my grades represent. I have realized one thing about academia. There are no second chances, you need to start from scratch.

In the last six months, I also believe the usage of my social media has increased, thereby causing a decline in my overall wellness. Perhaps, my university roommate has been smart in deleting the app overall but I am aware she lapses every once in a while when she feels the urge to check the internet. But her lapses exist once in six months. And mine from social media would be like twelve hours. I want to be immune to social media and delete the apps eventually. But of course, Instagram is a tool for business and I do believe in my ability to monetize the application, perhaps like others who want to be influencers but have no future in the field. Ouch! But yes, honestly, either put yourself out there and start now or never.

Since January began, I have watched the entire Oscar nominations list, almost, barring five movies I’m going to have to pirate because selections on Netflix suck. Despite accomplishing my almost 52 movies/ series and 52 book goals (26 books by June and 26 more by December), despite being on track, I feel flung off. There is no sense of pleasure in doing it anymore. Why does someone even read 26 books in 6 months? Someone might read one book and derive enough information out of it which someone who reads 26 books might miss out on. I find the reading 52 books goal displeasurable right now. I don’t see the meaning in it except knowing that it creates a good sense of ego. Yay, I’m reading more than most people. Yay, I probably know more than them about this world and how it works. Or yay, I’m not as dumb as I thought three years ago.

Honestly, the first time I read 52 books a year, last year, it was like an achievement. But now it feels just like another addiction to keep my day going. I really need other better hobbies to keep me engaged. Reading is not the only important thing. Lately, I’ve realized we need to apply what we read. And the truth is when we start applying our readings to the real world, there is very little time for reading left. I wonder is this realization why most people stop reading in their twenties? Is this why my father stopped reading in his twenties? I seriously wonder why people who were avid readers and dreamers once have now stopped reading. Did life hit them or did they realize they had to get up from books and start hitting life?

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New Social Compact

Musings of a journalist – Part 1

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The entire idea of writing this is that as journalists we find ourselves finding and scratching other people’s truths. However, we often escape from our own. The idea of writing this is to come closer to my own truth and to stay connected with it.

I’m writing today to be honest with myself about the last six months of my life. As an adult, we often start to build different personalities around different people and lose our real selves in the process. This is a documentation of my truth so I can remember it for myself. In January, I went to the Maldives, came back as a master scuba diver. That was the highlight of my month. If you ask me to look back and think about it, rarely will I be able to remember any specific moment of any month. Rather I remember the feelings and some key moments overall, without remembering a timeline. That is what most of our adult lives might look like. We play them back in highlights.

As a 23 year old, I often feel the guilt of not having a full time job like other traditional people my age. Despite running my own venture, I am often faced with general ups and downs that come with entrepreneurship. People fantasize being your own boss, but it is harder than it seems. On most days, when people look up to me and praise me for having started my own venture, I feel a deep sense of self doubt, more like imposter’s syndrome. Life isn’t as easy as it looks. People might see the ups because it’s easier to share them but they rarely see the downs.

For almost 2 years, I had developed an alcohol addiction of sorts. Drinking a bottle of wine every week was almost normal. I didn’t think twice before doing it but it left me with a deep sense of guilt every time I did. Overcoming that guilt is a huge part of adulthood. And to some extent, I’ve realized I am what they call a ‘sober alcoholic’. I might be sober now, even since the last odd one year perhaps but that doesn’t make me sober. I find my mind drifting towards drinking every now and then and it takes a whole lot of effort to remind myself how privileged I am to have the life I have. It takes a lot to know that I might be surrounded by people who drink but might not want to do it myself. From the person who needed to have a glass of anything bitter when I entered a nightclub, I’m now perfectly comfortable simply being on a glass of water. I’m trying to enjoy life without any dependencies. It’s been hard but I’m incredibly proud of what I have achieved mentally by distancing myself from alcohol over the last eight months. Other people might not know a thing about the battles I’ve fought internally and they might not even be there to applaud me or celebrate it. But I’m glad to have done this for myself alone. It is truly something I have done alone and I am happy to take all the credit for it. My own parents, little do they know about this battle I’ve fought with myself. Little do they know about my journey towards greater self respect.

Diving had a huge role to play in my decision to quit drinking. I knew I was in a privileged position to be able to dive. How many people can experience the wonders of the ocean? The universe chose me and I could not let it down.

In January, I also found myself more involved in ISKCON, the Krishna consciousness movement. I have a weird relationship with God, on some days I believe in the universe more than anything else, on other days I struggle even to believe in myself. I don’t know what’s morally right and wrong even now. I’m trying to access it situationally but I’ve realized that coming back to the shelter of my parents house has perhaps disconnected me with the realities of the real world. Perhaps morals are not situational when we are in a privileged position. Perhaps the lines between right and wrong feel stronger than ever before because we find it even more difficult to empathize with what’s morally wrong. Perhaps people who are privileged might not need to engage in morally wrong activities and they might be able to dissociate with them more frequently. Is moral correctness a mere product of privilege? I am sometimes forced to wonder. Many friends I have at ISKCON have often told me about their thoughts on moral correctness however I find myself unable to relate to them since their morals are briefly defined. Do I really belong with them? On some days, I then remember that the Bhagavad Gita’s protagonist Arjuna fought a war endorsed by none other than Lord Krishna himself. Perhaps we might not understand the ways of the world and defining morals objectively is a modern debatable creation.

Joining the ISKCON temple did connect me with people who I am afraid to disagree with. I have a normally argumentative and disagreeable personality fueled by strong opinions on gender, international politics, global affairs, literatures, the sufi movement and breaking news. As someone who frequented arguments at university on politics and to some extent now chooses to associate with people based on their political leanings, the apolitical yet spiritual environment at ISKCON baffles me. I had read in some of my favorite books that we must not argue over politics with friends. Some even wiser books suggested that we must be aware and cautious about our friends’ political leanings because they might act on them. Perhaps thought is a dangerous thing too. Most people I have interacted with at ISKCON are largely apolitical, which some might argue is again a product of privilege. In a situation where onion prices don’t matter and we do form the Hindu majority of this country, or are anything but muslim, it is rather convinient to be apolitical. The calm aura of people I have met at ISKCON is largely baffling to me. The absence of political discourse, often a source of major conversation addiction between me and some of my closest friends, makes me feel comfortable yet strangely out of place. I sense that I’m beginning to inhabit spaces which I had long outgrown. Or am I just going back to my comfort zone which I was kicked out of in a liberal university atmosphere like Ashoka? I believe the monk at ISKCON would gladly agree that liberal institutions might have a long lasting negative impact on our minds. Nothing else explains why I feel out of place despite being comfortable and feeling a strange sense of trust, one which political arguments were never good at creating. I have built some great friends I trust at ISKCON and I am grateful to the universe for that.

Honestly, ever since I have joined ISKCON, I feel increasingly lost. I’m not sure if the feeling exists because I am more lost now than before or because I’m only beginning to accept my own sense of being lost which was present in me all along. I’m not sure which it is.

At university, I found myself connected with a certain loneliness I felt within and I was still able to operate, from a space of lacking. It did not immobilize me. Living in my parents home has given me a renewed sense of hope which scares me. The world is a hopeful place than what my parents house makes it seem. This false sheltered hope has really not prepared me for the real world – and this, my dear reader is what scares me the most. This might sound messed up but perhaps I am so used to being out of my comfort zone that it’s normal for me to not be comfortable. When I do find myself in my comfort zone, I am finally beginning to dread it. My comfort zone makes me uncomfortable and I think it’s because social media has convinced me that real learning happens outside the comfort zone. Is it just another cliche saying we might find painted on New York ghetto walls? Get outside your comfort zone, huh?

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