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Living The Well Discovered Life

I hope to build on some of the greatest thinkers and philosophers in our Western tradition concerning "living a good life." In particular, Aristotle, Emerson, Thoreau, James, Dewey and C.S. Pierce, the last four American pragmatists.

Unlike Descartes who places mind, res cogitans, in a what has been called the "Cartesian Theater" by Daniel Dennett, where the world of awareness is present to the mind like a disembodied awareness, the pragmatists emphasize our lives as embodied humans living in a culture.

The first question is: Why the pragmatists? I think the start of an answer lies in the post by Giuseppe Longo and myself, "The End of a Physics Worldview: Heraclitus and the Watershed of Life." Longo and I argue that physics occurs in a prestated phase space, first invented by Descartes in his Analytic Geometry and taken over by Newton as fixed background space, later modified but prestated by Einstein and Schrodinger. In physics, solving Newton's, Einstein's or Schrodinger's differential equations by integration yields by deduction, hence "entailment" a unique trajectory for the system, called a geodetic. For physics, born partially of Descartes, the Cartesian Theater disembodied merely knowing mind might suffice.

But Longo and I argue that for the evolution of life there are no entailing laws, the biosphere creates both ever novel and non-prestatable phase spaces for which we cannot, therefore write equations of motion, nor, lacking knowledge of the boundary conditions, integrate the equations of motion we do not have anyway. Then, no laws entail the becoming of the biosphere, or econosphere, or human culture or history. More radical emergence arises that we cannot prestate: say Turing machine to main frame to personal computer to word processing to sharing files to the Web to selling on the Web to Google and Facebook and the Arab Spring.

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But then the pragmatists are right, we live embedded and embodied, being, knowing and doing in our unentailed worlds.

Aristotle ventured that "happiness is the exercise of a skill". Well, it is. But I submit after you have exercised your skill at pitching tents 23,465 times, you are bored!

Emerson has a beautiful view, shared with Thoreau: Live the well considered life. Here is Emerson's lovely "perfectionism." You have a set of virtues or nascent skills. Perfect them in some order to find a fulfilled life. But this view feels static, as if your virtues, like a breakfast room in a European hotel, were all laid out in plain view and you pick sausage, yogurt and cheese. You seem to know your virtues before hand, and seek to perfect them.

But this leaves out three wonderful consequences of Longo and my work: 1) Not only do you not know what will happen, you don't even know what can happen (Turing machine to Arab Spring). Then reason, dream of our Enlightenment, is an insufficient guide to living your life. We need reason, emotion, intuition, sensation, knowledge of our culture and our evolved humanity. 2) Because you do not know what can happen you cannot make normal probability statements about what you cannot know: you don't know the sample space to make probability claims. (So management from the top as if you knew and could optimize is often deeply wrong). 3) Radical emergence occurs all the time, Turing machine to the Web to Google, Facebook and the Arab Spring.

Taken together this suggests something I'm falling in love with: Live the well discovered life. Here you do not know, as you live your life forward, as Kierkegard said, even what new opportunities will open before you affording unexpected virtues you can perfect.

I think we do this. We live, finding our way. We live in face of mystery, to quote Gordon Kaufman, Harvard theologian, not a relative.

More, I think "Living the Well Discovered Life" has a deep suggestion about the world civilization that will probably appear. Do we all speak English and eat hamburgers? Chinese and kung pao chicken? Or do our many civilizations touch one another gently enough to protect the roots of each, yet spawn ever new cultural forms which afford us ever new ways of discovering ever new virtues to perfect in our well discovered lives?

I believe we want something like this, even as we are, as Gordon Brown as PM of the U.K. said, "Reduced to price tags" in our present civilization. Is there poverty we must address? Of course. Unemployment ravages us and requires redress.

Yet, does our current civilization serve our deepest humanity? I think not. Then let's discover what we would wish.