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On Domed Cities and Doomed Dreams

On Domed Cities and Doomed Dreams

Recently I’ve been reading the writings of the American philosopher William James. You won’t  see much discussion of his work among philosophers nowadays, and that’s not just because he happened to be white and male.  He had the bad luck to reach maturity as Western philosophy was in its death throes, and he added to that misfortune by having a mind clear and honest enough that he drew certain necessary conclusions from the intellectual struggles of his day.

He hasn’t yet been forgiven for those conclusions. There are reasons for that—understandable reasons, though not good ones.  The conclusions, and the reasons they’ve been ignored, have lost none of their relevance since his time.  Quite the contrary, the harsh conditions tightening their grip on our industrial civilization just now can’t really be understood without listening to what James and others like him were trying to say, and what those who denounced him were trying even harder not to hear. Thus we’re going to have to talk a little about the history of philosophy.

Yes, I know perfectly well that most people think of that subject, on the rare occasions that they think of it at all, as the dullest sort of useless academic trivia. They’re wrong, but there’s a lesson in the mistake. The next time Neil deGrasse Tyson throws one of his public hissy fits insisting that philosophy is just plain wrongety-wrong-wrong-wrong, I hope none of my readers are so slow on the uptake as to think this shows that philosophy doesn’t matter…

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The Taste of Another’s Thoughts

The Taste of Another’s Thoughts

We’ve taken a somewhat rambling route in our discussion of how each of us can haul ourselves up out of the swamp of abstractions in which modern industrial society is sinking fast, and find our way to the solid ground of things that actually matter. I know some of my readers have been baffled or irritated by the vagaries of that route, but that can’t be helped. Our sense of where to look for straightforward solutions is exactly what’s led us into this swamp; raised in an era of abstraction, we instinctively try to solve problems caused by too much abstraction by piling on more abstraction, or swapping out one set of abstractions for their opposites.

As Einstein pointed out, you can’t solve a problem by using more of the thinking that created it. What’s more, the solutions to really intransigent problems usually have to be found by asking questions about the most basic assumptions that undergird the thinking that created them. One of Einstein’s odder contemporaries, the irrepressible Charles Fort, put it this way: “It is by thinking things that schoolboys know better than to think that discoveries are made.”

For most of two thousand years, to cite a useful example, astronomers across the western half of Eurasia had tried to make sense of the motions of the planets under the assumption that the sun, moon, and planets moved in circles. The result, as observations piled up, was a vast creaking mechanism of epicycles, eccentrics, and equants—geometrical gimmicks intended to force circles into copying the simple and elegant motions of the heavens. It took a mystical astrologer named Johannes Kepler, who’d brooded over Renaissance sacred geometry for decades, to see through the clutter, realize that the planets moved in ellipses rather than circles, and send the whole lumbering mass of fudge factors into history’s compost heap.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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