Lately I have been encountering many different expressions of just how different our world today is from anything we have faced in the past. For a review of the geopolitical situation, see Tom Barnett’s short lecture here; for an update on genomics, look here; and for the classic “Shift Happens” presentation, look here. The upshot for me: there is a job that needs to be done, and philosophers may be in a good spot to do it. With this frenetic pace of change, we need to work at putting the change into some kind of perspective, offering both a general overview of it along with some suggestions about what rule sets we’ll need to sustain ourselves and (with any luck) carve out some meaningful lives. It may be a matter of linking up classical thought with modern situations, or a matter of radically rethinking old philosophical presuppositions.
I’ve just started to think along these lines. Here are three observations. (They are vague and programmatic, but I hope somewhat sensible.)
1. We belong to various groups, from local face-to-face encounters to web connections, from economic or political dependencies to epistemic or ideological dependencies. With each group there may be different rule sets, different kinds of obligation. There may be ‘one ring to rule them all’ — but there may not.
2. Physiological evolution cannot hope to keep pace with technological, social, or cultural evolutions. Our rule sets must also be ‘bridge principles’ to carry us through frenetic and unpredictable change until we reach new stability (if we ever reach a new stability; the bridge may well offer our only stability!). Think of Moses and the wandering Jews: they needed a rule set to guide them in a very different world. Our circumstance requires a different analogy, something like hurtling down the Vegas strip, trying to keep it all together.
3. Psychology, biology, anthropology, and philosophy can help us to identify core species needs (food, water, shelter, community, love family, challenge, opposition?). These are the bridge-building constraints. But at the same time we need some general vision of where we want to go – it must be a bridge to somewhere. Presumably we want something like higher baselines – “livable poverty,” economic and political safeguards, basic liberties for all, greater sympathy for others: ultimately, utopia, though a politically decentralized one.