Re-Imagining Society: Are We Trapped By Old Ideas? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture In the economy is what is possible real?
NPR logo Re-Imagining Society: Are We Trapped By Old Ideas?

Re-Imagining Society: Are We Trapped By Old Ideas?

We always live in a world we partially construct for ourselves by a ring of ideas.  This holds true for the society that shapes us and that we shape.  In this blog I want to sketch familiar ideas that frame us, and will critique them in later blogs.

We can begin 4,900 years ago with Abraham, breaking the idols in his father’s idol shop, and his putative role in inventing monotheism.  With that shift from polytheism, the ancient Jews culled 100,000 years of beliefs in multiple gods to be appeased, with their conflicting egos - think of the Greek gods and their strife - into a single Creator Agent God and that God’s Creativity acting in the ongoing becoming of the universe: “In the Beginning was the Word...”, Genesis, our current religious Abrahamic creation myth among three billion of us on this planet.

The ancient Jews lived stubbornly with Yahweh, debating the interpretations of His Laws, and sought to live righteously with those commandments. They were a people deeply of history, namely, their own as the Chosen People with their God, who would also love their non-Jewish neighbors.

The Greeks were universalists, seeking universal laws. Think of Archimedes running through the streets: Eureka!, as he understood floatation.  The Greek universalist culture was deeply at odds with the particularist Hebraic culture rooted in historicism.

Skip to glorious Newton.  In three laws of motion and a universal law of gravitation, the invention of the differential and integral calculus, he gives us, in a stunning integration, a Greek-spawned view of the world, classical physics. In this view, still workable in many settings, given the initial and boundary conditions of a system of particles, or billiard balls, the future evolution of those particles is entirely determined and knowable by integration, hence deduction as Aristotle would want, of the differential equations given initial and boundary conditions.

Skip to Laplace and his Demon: Such an intelligence, if knowing the positions and momenta of all particles in the universe, could know from Newton’s laws, the entire future and past of the universe.

So with Newton, we arrive at both reductionism, seen first clearly in Laplace and in our Dreams of a Final Theory, as Steven Weinberg wrote not long ago, and we become frozen with the conflict between the Creator Agent God and that God’s Creativity acting forever in the open becoming of the universe, for that God is a free willed one on the one hand, and classical physics on the other.  If we are to be modern in that 17th Century world of Newton and thereafter, the tension between religion and science is enormous. We are left with either Deism, or a God of the Gaps retreat of religion.

This gives rise to the foundations of both our secular society, our loss of spirituality as we cleave to science as telling us what the world really is, and the rise of capitalism with the invention of banking and the Industrial Revolution unleashed by physics then chemistry.

The birth of secular society is also the child of our beloved Enlightenment, unleashed by about fourteen thinkers whose aims were to shut down the irrational and antiscientific bounds of the clerics, and unleash the power of reason and science to tell us what the world really is, and, via reason, to make forever progress is mastering nature for our benefit, and build a perfect society.  With the Enlightenment, the sacred wanes into the dwindling gaps of the God of the Gaps.

In this vein, Locke was a close friend of Newton and from Locke we get, in the United States, and now around the world, a unique political philosophy: Our Constitution with its three branches of government, Exectutive, Legislative, Judicial, in a hoped for constant tension of counterbalancing forces which - Newton like - would sustain an ongoing equilibrium of power.

But notice something deep: The Hebraic idea of life in living history is not part of our Constitution.  We do not have a “theory of history,” even with Hegel and Marx trying, and Kant, before them, seeking laws of history.  Lacking a theory of history, we do, however, have in our Constitution, derived also from British Common Law, the concept of the gradual, hopefully wise, evolution of our laws as history unfolds.

So here is a new conflict: On the one hand, classical physics says the becoming of the universe is either a becoming that is deterministic, Newton and Laplace, or there is no becoming at all in Einstein’s four dimensional spacetime, only geometric world lines.

On the other hand, we grope with the sense that we do live in a world of open becoming: As I have noted before, the invention and wide sale of the main frame computer enabled the invention and wide sale of the personal compute,r which in turn enabled the invention and wide sale of word processing, which enabled the storing of computer files, whose wide use enabled the storage and sharing of files, which enabled the invention and wide use of the Web, which enabled selling things on the web, which enabled content on the web, which enabled Google.

This is a constant becoming in what I call the Adjacent Possible of the econosphere.  The Adjacent Possible is like a forever expanding house, where passing via a particular door from a room to another room, opens new doors in the Adjacent Possible which we explore in, for example, the explosion of goods and services in our economy in the past 50,000 years, rising from perhaps 1,000 goods to billions. The economists have no theory for this explosion, which has created our technological present beyond stating that research brings new inventions. I will hold that this is a strongly impoverished understanding of the unfolding of economic history, in which the current Actual opens new possible opportunities in the Adjacent Possible, both for human life and for the biosphere's historical evolution.

One deep question is the ontological status of this Adjacent Possible of the economy. Is it a wisp of our imagination?  When the young entrepreneur presents his business case to the venture capitalist, are the possibilities and countervailing risks he presents that may convince the VP to invest, mere “imaginings?” Or, I will very tentatively suggest, perhaps this Adjacent Possible is ontologically real, so reality consists of the Actual and the Possible, as Aristotle suspected and Alfred North Whitehead believed.  This will, I think, lead us to the mysteries of quantum mechanics as part of stepping beyond our familiar framework.

But the first, firmer step beyond the grip of these framing ideas will be to examine whether we can have sufficient natural laws for the evolution of the biosphere, econosphere, and history. I will claim that we cannot have such sufficient natural laws, with, I believe, widespread consequences for our views of ourselves, thus our full humanity and the society we may want to enable that humanity.