philosophy


From my perspective, Carl Sagan has literally brought a revolution in the way people see and understand the world. Although it could be argued that his view on our society is in many ways self-evident, it is the beautiful way in which he can articulate and express this view that is really outstanding and touches not only the mind, but also the “soul” of those who are willing to listen to him. It is highly likely that his perspective on humanity and our place in the universe will leave an important mark on our history, even if this claim may sound farfetched today.

My main argument in this regard is the fact that, in his attempt to popularize science, Sagan has struggled to give meaning to human existence in a way which inspires us to do greater things, things which far surpass our focus on everyday personal achievements. In this way, his view on our place in the universe can give meaning to our lives in a way similar to religion.

I will leave you to him now:

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Not much needs to be said about the demographic evolution of the developed countries. Basically, in order to have a stable population that maintains itself over time, fertility rates (the number of children each woman has in average throughout her lifetime) need to be slightly above 2 (applicable only for the developed countries). For values below 2, the population is contracting over time, eventually disappearing altogether. For values above 2, the population is expanding, putting pressure on the environment. Right now, these fertility rates are around 1.25- 1.5 (source) in most developed countries.

These fertility rates are not country specific, but rather group specific. For instance in the US, the white population has a fertility rate of 1.8, while the black population has a fertility rate of 2.0 and the Hispanic population a fertility rate of 2.4. (source) In other words, the low fertility rates are a characteristic of White populations (and also Asian).

Taking the case of the US into consideration, this means that over time, the white population will eventually mix and disappear into other groups; groups that will become the dominant ones within society.

But this is only half of the story, another interesting evolution is that immigrants tend to make a lot of kids (above 3), when they arrive  in a developed country. However, their offspring tend to make significantly less kids. By the time these immigrants reach the third generation, they usually have fertility rates well below 2.5. Also, in the past decades, other less developed countries had witnessed sharp declines in their fertility rates, most likely due to much better means for contraception (source).

So what is happening?

Simple, people now have access to efficient means of birth control and they do just that, control the number of kids they want to have, the moment they want to have them and with whom they want to have them.

The problem?

The problem is that until now, nature sort of tricked us until into having kids. We loved each other, had sex, and as a wanted or unwanted consequence, sometimes this led to pregnancy and eventually childbirth. This is not a very happy situation for many people, since having kids requires responsibility and financial sacrifices: one must give up on a part of himself/herself for the benefit of his/hers children. Today many people don’t feel ready for this until they feel they achieved financial stability. In previous times, without birth control, the entire institution of marriage emerged. Its purpose was to regulate the way people of opposite sex enter into relationships so that unwanted pregnancies are avoided and children have some guarantee that someone will take care of them.

Our modern society allows us to decide very much on the whole child-making issue, we are no longer at the hands of nature or stigmatised if we have kids outside marriage, we can pretty much do what we want. Unfortunately, in a highly individualistic society, where the most cherished achievement is individual self-realisation, the result is predicable: kids fall on the second place.

Why a problem?

This is a problem because the above behaviour leads to extinction.

Let’s take the case of Japan with fertility rates of 1.39. Assuming all kids survive into adulthood (which never happens), then the population of Japan of 127.8 million will be reduced to 20 million in about 400 years and to 3 million in 800 years from now. To some this sounds like a lot, but in real, historical terms, this is a very short time, for instance the Roman Empire lasted for about 500 years.

If our behaviour leads to our own extinction, then one must conclude that current social values and behaviours (especially in the developed countries) are at odds with some fundamental biological characteristics of human nature and for that matter, of any other living organism. This is a matter of further debate and research, but it is without doubt an issue that requires further investigation.

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P.S. A friend of mine once told me that he doesn’t care much about kids, because what he really wants to do, is to become a great writer and have his books read by many people. I asked him: “If you are not interested in kids, then who will be left to read your books after you are dead?”

Evelyn Waugh wrote in his book ‘Robbery Under Law’ in 1938 just before WWII:

‘Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilised man to keep going at all. There are criminal ideas and a criminal class in every nation and the first action of every revolution, figuratively and literally, is to open the prisons. Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come from merely habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on.’

In stark contrast to the “civilisation” of the developed world, there are some places in Central Africa where people, living in stricken poverty, kill each other with untold savagery, where rape is common and cannibalism is still on the menu. Our tendency here, in the so called “West”, is to sweep these things away, feeling compassionate about the people living in those conditions, but at the same time distancing ourselves from them. We tend to think… we are not like them. But five hundred years ago, us, the same peoples of Europe who are now the pinnacle of social evolution, developed some of the most horrifying means of torture, regularly conducted public executions, and developed means of human exploitation which formed the basis of an entire economic system. To some this has the sound of a bad dream, but it was all very real.

Going back in time a few more millennia, we can find that the same people of Europe used to kill each other with fascinating savagery, conducted human sacrifices and partook in cannibalism.

Thus, the difference between Central Africa and our “Civilised” World is not space, but time.

The greatest danger right now is it to think that our savagery has been defeated and it will never re-emerge again. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the past few centuries we’ve managed to cage our savagery in the basement of our mind, under hard locks and steel doors. But, without vigilance, without a constant reminder of how we got to our present state, the danger of spiralling back into anarchy is very real. Paradoxically, it is our thirst for more and more freedom that weakens our self-imposed chains.

It is pointless to hide my pessimistic view of the world, a view that took shape in time and it’s very hard to shake away – too many compromises, too many mistakes, too many unfulfilled dreams, too much reality.
Normally I should give up on everything and throw myself off a bridge, but despite all this, I keep soldiering on, sustained not by the hope of success, but by the feeling of responsibility; responsibility for the world that made me. I am part of the world I live in (all of it, from family to galaxies); I am made by it, shaped by it – and in a larger sense – a manifestation of it. I exist because “it” deems that I should exist and thus, in turn I work for it – in a loose sense I could say I feel responsible for making a “better world”. From another perspective, I could argue that if the purpose of my life is meaningless then my existence must be pointless, but if that was true then I wouldn’t exist – since nothing exists by chance, it’s all caused by something (see theoretical physics).  Thus, if I am here then there’s must be a point to all this, unless of course the universe is one big joke, which may very well be.
Thus, I keep rolling on thinking that one day, the world that made me will require me to give something back, here’s to  “hoping an inch of good is worth a pound of years” (Ray Bradbury).

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I cannot help to think that something is terribly wrong with our world. I cannot pin-point it, I cannot say for certain what it is, but it is there, like a splinter in my mind which gives no rest.

I know for certain that this feeling is not something which is specific to myself, but it is something shared by many people.

The difference is that for each us it manifests in a different way. We feel something is wrong and we try to blame it on something, like the stupidity of others, or the government, or the capitalist system, or inequality, or whatever else you can think of… but never ourselves.

Remarkably, all these issues we try to blame are social in nature, and far-reaching, indicating some sort of social connection between ourselves, our problems and our social world. Yet this is somewhat puzzling in a world where each of us thinks in a highly individualistic fashion. Basically, what happens to others shouldn’t affect us. Problem is, this works both ways, if we don’t care about others, then so will others not care about us.

My impression is that somehow we have lost ourselves along the way to modernity, we no longer identify with anything and we try to fill in that void with all sort of issues which, in our view are of concern for everyone. Basically we want to do something that matters and it is noticeable. We search for these issues which are social in nature because we want to be part of something larger, something that gives meaning to what we do. I am fairly certain that while this will patch up our need for social importance and consequently for identity (since our identity is constructed in relation to others) , it will not solve it. We are still making a mess of our planet, we are still trying to live on the back of others without even realising it, and we are stuck with the same social and political issues for decades. We may solve one or two minor problems with our social activism but the big issues are still there, pressing on us, while the average less-social-minded individual dreams of getting a well-paid job and a fancy car. Unfortunately, the more we dream of these material things, the less common they will become since they will not solve our real problems and not make our world better, in fact they lead to the opposite result.

Part of this problem is also because for many years the need for social identification and meaning was filled by religion, but with religion adapting or disappearing in our modern society, now there is a void that needs to be filled with something.

While I cannot give a clear argument for why our modern society has somehow stripped us of ourselves, (in short) my impression is that our modern way of life is at odds with what we are supposed to do; with our fundamental thoughts, feelings or instincts. Maybe the world we create is not compatible with the world we are made to live in. Sometimes, what we think is better, is not necessarily what is better. Maybe this is the splinter that we feel but cannot understand. In in the end, it’s easier to bury our heads in small things that give short-term pleasure, just like a chubby girl eating chocolate when she is upset because her friends told her she is fat, instead of facing the harsh reality.

Time will tell if what we do today is right or wrong. As evolution will continue to shape us both physically and socially, the social systems and personal philosophies that are inefficient will die out. If our world fails, there will be others to take its place. My only concern is that we could have achieved so much and yet we achieved so little.

The funny bit is that, we are not even certain any more who this “we” I just mentioned is. Our problems may run deeper than anyone can imagine.

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There is a long lasting debate in philosophy which reverberates throughout social sciences and can be found at the root at many on-going theoretical debates. I am referring here to the idea that we can never truly know the world as it is.

The problem goes like this: Everything we know or we think we know is known through our sense. However, what we sense is not exactly something real, it is rather a set of electrical signals that travel through our brain based more or less on some external stimuli. Therefore what we believe we see, hear or feel is not necessary what exists in reality, it is rather what our brain makes of it. Thus, what we believe is reality is in fact what we imagine it to be. As a result, we never truly know “reality” and we cannot perceive the world with a 100% objectivity.

This creates a back-door in the way we conceive the world and ourselves through which it can be argued that in fact we do not know anything and the world is the illusion of the mind, a lucid dream. The only thing that remains certain in all this line of argument is “I think, therefore I am!”. This is because, in order for me to question things, I have to exist in the first place. The very fact that I can question my-self proves that something exists, that I exist (have no idea about the rest). I may not exist in the way I see myself, I may be a computer program, I may be an illusion, I may be a ghost, but regardless of this “I am” because I think of these things.

So what’s the point of all this? The point is exactly asking this question! In truth it does not really matter how or what we think of the world, because in the end we still have to do the same things in order to exist. One can try to challenge them, but may  very well end up losing the only  certainty that is known to him or her – the certainty of his/hers existence.