PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Friday, November 29, 2013

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: The impediment of the past

(I hope I won't have any issues sending out the emails today; apologies
for the E&O of the past!!)

Dear Friends,

The topic for this Sunday is: The impediment of the past.

The idea here is whether past beliefs or social models affect our
progress today. In other words does the past hold back progress?
Anything that we take for granted might impede progress, not only our
grandparents, our religion and our governments. In my short essay I also
identify some philosophy as a cause that might impede progress.

In the meantime Ruel has also prepared an essay for us, but who
unfortunately won't be able to join us on Sunday as he explains:

Hi Lawrence,
I won´t be able to attend Sunday´s meeting as I am involved on the same
day in a fund-raising event for the hurricane victims in the
Philippines. However, I wrote an essay for Sunday´s topic and here´s the
Thank you very much.
Best, Ruel

Finally, there is a meeting later today, Friday 29th, at 7.30pm at the
Centro Segoviano by Professor Guillermo F Fanjul on "Don Juan, Otra
vez....." All are welcome.

See you Sunday,

Best Lawrence

tel: 606081813
PhiloMadrid Meeting
Meet 6:30pm
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
Open Tertulia in English every Thursday from 19:30 to 21h at O'Donnell's
Irish Pub, c/ Barcel├│ 1 (metro Tribunal)

The impediment of the past

Those who invested in the status quo of the past have nothing to gain
from progress. And even more so if their model is successful or has a
modicum of success. This is one of the most relevant observations in the
book by Thomas Khun, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Indeed I would go further and suggest that progress is only attractive
to those who have not invested in the past, or to those with enough
resources to change the rules of any future game. Google's Android
smartphone operating system is a case in point. Before this move Google
played no part in the mobile phone industry at all, hence they could
enter the market and change it. What's more important is that Google
could afford to take the risk. And despite the success of the iPhone and
Steve Job's wonderful and epic presentation, in retrospect this phone
did not, at the time, break any major grounds. Don't forget, the iPhone
brought a collection of applications in the same box that were already
successful (iPod, internet email, web browsing etc.). But the most
serious drawback of all at the time was that the iPhone was useless for
basic needs of business people. Of course, Apple did change the music
industry with their iPod!

Thus the duality of sticking with what already works for us and moving
on to the latest model is just as powerful and significant as past
dualities in philosophy. Progress, in other words, is no more, than a
new strategy to survive by those who would fail in the old model; or new
on the scene.

However, there is also one feature of progress that would make it
rational and reasonable to support and adopt and this is the fact that
our knowledge increases by progression. We are not born with all the
possible knowledge already booted in our system. Moreover, we also have
to do our own learning despite the valiant attempts of some philosophers
in the past to attribute some a priori knowledge to human beings. Thus
given the way we learn it is inevitable that today we have more access
to actionable knowledge than what we had yesterday. Thus, when a company
breaks the mould in an industry it does so because it has access to
knowledge that helps it invent the killer app for the period; the iPod
is an example in point.

But there is something else to knowledge that is directly relevant to
our debate. Knowledge acquisition is a matter of choice in human beings,
but of course, mistakes are determined. And it is this feature that
directly affects the march of progress in our society. It is one thing
to have a model now that works for us and another to refuse to learn and
apply new knowledge that has the promise of maybe improving our lives.
The irony is however, that those who impede our progress are the same
people who are as keen to adopt new technologies as the rest of us; of
course you will always come across some weirdos.

An important issue is, however, the meaning of progress. In other words:
what is the past impeding us from doing what? Oppressive governments are
as much likely to claim that traditions and customs of the past impede
their idea of progress as much as the average person on the average
omnibus. The Bolsheviks were no more progressive than the Tsar; National
Socialism was even worse, much worse, than the policies of the Kaiser.

One of the meanings of progress, according to, is "Steady improvement, as of
a society or civilization" interwoven with ideas of "development" and
"advancement." So how do we measure progress, or ought to measure
progress? The approach to this question has always been to adopt some
sort of utilitarian principle of sharing or giving access to as many
people as possible of the rewards of progress.

But there is a serious flaw in utilitarianism. This doctrine starts with
0/zero beneficiaries and then just adds up additional beneficiaries.
Thus, if tomorrow some investigator was to find a cure to some
aggressive form of cancer and cured one person that, by the utilitarian
definition, would be progress. Mainly because today no one has been
cured with the new drug but tomorrow there will be one person who will
be cured; a 100% improvement rate!! But there is something morally
objectionable to this thinking.

I would argue that it would make more ethical sense to argue that
progress is when 100% of the population benefits from the rewards of
progress and anyone left out would be an identifiable rate of diminished
progress. When a new drug is discovered we would be in a state of 100%
progress (or development) but anyone who needs that drug and has no
access to it would reduce the claim to progress in society. In other
words, instead of adding beneficiaries we subtract the level of progress
with the number of people excluded from the progress.

This would also negate such fallacy arguments, well, in the past no one
had access to any medicine so the fact that the majority have access is
progress. This is an unacceptable form of argument on two counts. The
first is that what happened in the past is not necessarily a valid
yardstick to measure what happens now, and secondly if none, or very few
people, had access to medicine (to give an example) in the past, that's
because there was no medicine available that was useful.

Of course, some would argue that it is impossible for everyone on this
planet to have an iPhone. But this not an objection since an iPhone is
neither progress nor a component of civilization. However, it would be
a failure of progress to deprive people of efficient means of
communications or worse to deprive them of some means of communication
with other human beings especially when these are available. But it is
this very situation that we find today in parts of the world as a result
of oppressive religions or dictatorships masquerading as religious dogma
or equality. The iPhone is a new efficient means to an end and not a
pretty gadget to have, although it might very well be pretty.

It seems that it is not only oppressive religions, dictatorships, and
models that have worked for us in the past, that impede our progress but
also flawed philosophical doctrines. The question we have to answer is
whether there will ever be any progress at all given that we are so
deeply indoctrinated in the flaws of utilitarianism?

Best Lawrence

from Lawrence, SUNDAY PhiloMadrid meeting: The impediment of the past

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