Most people seem to enjoy liberalism and its spin offs, but what is it exactly? Where did the idea come from?
- Liberalism, for all its influence, is only a few hundred years old.
- Many great philosophers formulated the ideology, but their arugments often don't make it into popular discourse.
- While classical liberalism endures, modern liberalism dominates current political discussions.
Liberalism: explained<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/hVNgLEvhL5Y" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Liberalism begins with the assumption that people are or should be free and that restrictions on their liberty must be justified. Liberal thinkers debate the proper role of the state and often agree that it is a limited one which would result in very few restrictions beyond those needed to secure the rights of everybody living under its jurisdiction. When this was first proposed, during an era of absolute monarchy and nearly unchecked power of institutions over individuals, it was a radical claim.</p><p>For classical liberals, "liberty" usually means what might be called "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberty-positive-negative/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">negative liberty</a>" today. These liberties are "negative" in the sense that they can be seen as "freedoms from interference." This contrasts with "<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/liberty-positive-negative/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">positive</a>" liberties, which are "freedoms to do" or the capacities to accomplish something. Classical liberalism is very concerned with the right of people to be left alone to live their own lives.</p><p>This means a liberal society will let people decide things like their own religion, their idea of what constitutes a good life, and what organizations they want to be a part of, among other things. Importantly, since cohesion is not applied in these areas of choice, people are free to join a church or civic group when it suits them and leave when it suits them and face no government reprisals for it. Liberal theorists typically advocate for tolerance of others to assure that these freedoms of choice are applied to everyone. </p><p>Classical liberals also tended to argue that the economy, or some version of it, existed before or independently of the state. As a result, they maintain that the right to private property is natural and should be fairly unlimited. For some thinkers, this also ties into ideas of independence from external authority, as a person with enough property to be more or less financially self-sufficient would be able to tend to themselves and select when to engage with institutions that could help them but might infringe on their rights.</p><p>Let's take a closer look at three of the more prominent classical liberal philosophers, what they thought, and why they thought it. </p>
John Locke<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/yDLhVZ-RB3o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> Considered the Father of Liberalism, John Locke wrote<a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke/#TwoTreaGove" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> two treatises on government </a>attacking absolute monarchy and supporting a more limited view of government. While his conception of liberalism is explicitly based on a theology many people would dispute, his reasoning has been applied in secular conditions to great success. </p><p>Like many other thinkers at the time, Locke turned to an idea of what life was like before the existence of governments, known as the state of nature, to make his arguments. For Locke, people in the state of nature were free within the boundaries of "natural law" and generally get along. However, in this condition, there is nobody to turn to if somebody else violates your rights, like if they steal from you, and no neutral arbitrator to turn to if you and somebody else have a dispute. </p><p>Locke argues that these issues eventually drive people to want to create a state to protect people's rights by enforcing natural law and acting as a neutral arbitrator when people have disputes.</p><p>The <a href="https://iep.utm.edu/locke-po/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state</a> he envisions people would create in this situation is a minimal one that focuses almost exclusively on protecting people's natural rights of "life, liberty, and property." It does not try to determine how people live their lives within the confines of natural law. It tolerates various religions and worldviews- since to promote one above all others would go beyond its <a href="https://iep.utm.edu/locke/#SH4c" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">prerogatives</a>. It cannot operate in ways contrary to the rule of law, features a representative legislature with majority rule, the separation of powers, and is founded by people explicitly consenting to be governed this way. </p><p>His defense of private property is <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke-political/index.html#Prop" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">noteworthy</a>. He argues that some variation of the economy exists in the state of nature and that nobody would willingly create a state if it were going to take away their property.</p><p>However, he holds that property can only be held if it will be used before it spoils, was acquired by the labor of the person who owns it, and if after acquiring it there is still enough of the resources it is made of left in the commons for the next person. What limits these principles place on a person going into Sherwood Forest in 1690 to cut down a tree to make lumber with and a person trying to start a business today is still debated.</p>
Immanuel Kant<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/nltgkGs5G_s" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A German philosopher, Kant is widely considered one of the most influential thinkers of all time. He worked in every area of philosophy there was to work in, <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-social-political/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">political philosophy</a> among them.</p><p>Kant based his liberalism on the idea of freedom from other people's choices and universal rationality. He maintains that all people have a fundamental dignity as rational and moral beings. This both obligates us to act accordingly and to respect the dignity of others. From this starting point, he argues that the state should exist to assure that individuals enjoy <em data-redactor-tag="em">"Freedom, insofar as it can coexist with the freedom of every other in accordance with a universal law."</em></p><p>This freedom is limited by what is consistent with reason but is wide-ranging; a large number of liberties are required for a rational, autonomous person to be able to utilize those capacities. These liberties include the freedom of speech, religion, and the right to pursue happiness in any way a person wants to, so long as it is consistent with everybody else being able to do the <a href="https://iep.utm.edu/kantview/#H6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">same</a>. Anything less than this conflicts with a person's moral autonomy and borders on treating them as a child. </p><p>He further argues that no state should make a law that "<em data-redactor-tag="em">a whole people could not possibly give its consent to.</em>" That means things like laws granting privileges to one group of people and not others would be prohibited, as no rational group would sign a contract giving them the short end of the stick. It allows for other things, such as a generally applied tax of debatable value, as a rational person could consent to such a thing if the arguments for it were sound.</p><p>While he thought that an elected representative government was the best option for providing these protections, but didn't rule out other models. He also strongly asserted the necessity of constitutional governance.</p><p>While most interpretations of Kant maintain that his idea of freedom is "negative," there is some ambiguity in his writings which led some <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VoJps1803I" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commentators<strong data-redactor-tag="strong"></strong></a> to suggest he is open to ideas of positive liberty as well. Given his reliance on and admiration for some of <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/rousseau-philosophy-explained" target="_self">Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideas, </a>this idea is not absurd, though it is difficult to prove. </p>
Adam Smith<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KL-SDoEO9VU" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> While better known as an economist, Adam Smith was also a <a href="https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/smith-moral-political/#SmiPol" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">philosopher</a> who considered the problems of society as a whole. Between how important his economics are to classical liberalism and the nuanced approach of his political philosophy, Smith remains an essential figure in the liberal tradition.</p><p>Unlike some of the other thinkers we're looking at, Smith thought it was a legitimate goal of government to help the poor and promoting the virtue of society. He went so far as to say:</p><p>"...[the] civil magistrate is entrusted with the power <em>not only of … restraining injustice, but of promoting the prosperity of the commonwealth</em>, by establishing good discipline, and by discouraging every sort of vice and impropriety; he may prescribe rules, therefore, which not only prohibit mutual injuries among fellow-citizens, but command mutual good offices to a certain degree."</p><p>However, this isn't a call for a moralizing government. It is a call for the government to do less than it was at the time. </p><p>As he thought with economics, Smith thought society would work best when people were generally left alone to handle things themselves. He argues that people can only develop virtue on their own; if they are only doing it because the government is telling them to do so, they aren't actually virtuous. Additionally, he didn't think that politicians would be very good at promoting virtue or prosperity, suggesting that they can handle issues like defense and criminal justice while leaving other tasks to individuals with better knowledge of the conditions on the ground than far off bureaucrats. </p><p>His <a href="https://iep.utm.edu/smith/#H3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economics</a>, based on the idea that markets often provide the best possible outcomes when left alone, became the basis for the classical liberal stance on capitalism. While he wasn't quite as opposed to government intervention as many people <a href="https://iep.utm.edu/smith/#SH3c" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">think</a>, his arguments in favor of fewer restrictions on business meshed well with other liberal ideas on property and freedom. </p><p>This overall approach is important in how it differs from our two other thinkers. While Locke and Kant both appeal to natural rights or individual autonomy to support their ideas on liberty, Smith leans on arguments showing how a society that values liberty will be a better place to live in than one that does not, in addition to it being morally defensible.</p><p>While few people will want to base their freedom on the idea that it is expedient, the appeal to tangible benefits has proven to be one of the more convincing arguments for liberty. </p>
These ideas seem a bit different from how we run things today; why is that?<p> Many philosophers, arguably starting with John Stuart Mill, continued to work within the liberal tradition but considered the new problems of industrial society, market failures, and what happens when there is no longer a "nature" to take resources from like there was in 1690. Their work, combined with critiques of liberalism from other ideologies, notably socialism and conservatism, led to an evolution of liberal philosophy into the modern version we see today. </p><p>Despite some elements of liberal thought dating back to ancient times, the political philosophy of classical liberalism, which changed the world by elevating the rights of man and continues to influence our thinking even as we move past it, is surprisingly young. It achieved a lot in its few hundred years of existence, and its arguments for liberty, equality, democracy, and the right to get on with our lives and business continue to resonate today.</p><p> While most people may not be classical liberals anymore, taking time to consider the philosophy is an exercise that we can all benefit from.</p>
How long should one wait until an idea like string theory, seductive as it may be, is deemed unrealistic?
- How far should we defend an idea in the face of contrarian evidence?
- Who decides when it's time to abandon an idea and deem it wrong?
- Science carries within it its seeds from ancient Greece, including certain prejudices of how reality should or shouldn't be.
Plato used the allegory of the cave to explain that what humans see and experience is not the true reality.
Credit: Gothika via Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0<p>When scientists and mathematicians use the term <em>Platonic worldview</em>, that's what they mean in general: The unbound capacity of reason to unlock the secrets of creation, one by one. Einstein, for one, was a believer, preaching the fundamental reasonableness of nature; no weird unexplainable stuff, like a god that plays dice—his tongue-in-cheek critique of the belief that the unpredictability of the quantum world was truly fundamental to nature and not just a shortcoming of our current understanding. Despite his strong belief in such underlying order, Einstein recognized the imperfection of human knowledge: "What I see of Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility." (Quoted by Dukas and Hoffmann in <em>Albert Einstein, The Human Side: Glimpses from His Archives</em> (1979), 39.)</p> <p>Einstein embodies the tension between these two clashing worldviews, a tension that is still very much with us today: On the one hand, the Platonic ideology that the fundamental stuff of reality is logical and understandable to the human mind, and, on the other, the acknowledgment that our reasoning has limitations, that our tools have limitations and thus that to reach some sort of final or complete understanding of the material world is nothing but an impossible, <a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01K2JTGIA?tag=bigthink00-20&linkCode=ogi&th=1&psc=1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">semi-religious dream</a>.</p>
What happens when simulation theory becomes more than a fascinating thought experiment?
- Simulation theory proposes that our world is likely a simulation created by beings with super-powerful computers.
- In "A Glitch in the Matrix," filmmaker Rodney Ascher explores the philosophy behind simulation theory, and interviews a handful of people who believe the world is a simulation.
- "A Glitch in the Matrix" premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is now available to stream online.
Rodney Ascher / "A Glitch in the Matrix"<p><strong>Throughout 2020, many people seemed to talk about the world being a simulation, especially on Twitter. What do you make of that?</strong></p><p>I see that just as sort of evidence of how deep the idea [of simulation theory] is penetrating our culture. You know, I'm addicted to Twitter, and everyday something strange happens in the news, and people make some jokes about, "This simulation is misfiring," or, "What am I doing in the dumbest possible timeline?"</p><p>I enjoy those conversations. But two things about them: On the one hand, they're using simulation theory as a way to let off steam, right? "Well, this world is so absurd, perhaps that's an explanation for it," or, "Maybe at the end of the day it doesn't matter that much because this isn't the real world."</p><p>But also, when you talk about the strange or horrifying, or bizarre unlikely things that happen as evidence [for the simulation], then that begs the question, well what is the simulation for, and why would these things happen? They could be an error or glitch in the matrix. [...] Or those strange things that happen might be the whole point [of the simulation].</p><p><strong>How do you view the connections between religious ideas and simulation theory?</strong><br></p><p>I kind of went in [to making the film] thinking that this was, in large part, going to be a discussion of the science. And people very quickly went to, you know, religious and sort of ethical places.</p><p>I think that connection made itself clearest when I talked to Erik Davis, who wrote a book called "<a href="https://books.google.com/books/about/TechGnosis.html?id=lh_XAAAAMAAJ&source=kp_book_description" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Techgnosis</a>", which is specifically about the convergence of religion and technology. He wanted to make it clear that, from his point of view, simulation theory was sort of a 21st-century spin on earlier ideas, some of them quite ancient.</p><p>To say that [religion and simulation theory] are exactly the same thing is sort of pushing it. [...] You could say that if simulation theory is correct, and that we are genuinely in some sort of digitally created world, that earlier traditions wouldn't have had the vocabulary for that.</p><p>So, they would have talked about it in terms of magic. But by the same token, if those are two alternative, if similar, explanations for how the world works, I think one of the interesting things that it does is that either one suggests something different about the creator itself.</p><p>In a religious tradition, the creator is this omnipotent, supernatural being. But in simulation theory, it could be a fifth-grader who just happens to have access to an incredibly powerful computer [laughs].</p>
Rodney Ascher / "A Glitch in the Matrix"<p><strong>How did your views on simulation theory change since you started working on this documentary?</strong></p><p>I think what's changed my mind the most in the course of working on the film is how powerful it is as a metaphor for understanding the here-and-now world, without necessarily having to believe in [simulation theory] literally.</p><p><a href="https://medium.com/form-and-resonance/are-we-living-in-a-simulation-52ddf27c04cd" target="_blank">Emily Pothast</a> brought up the idea of <a href="https://ethics.org.au/ethics-explainer-platos-cave/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Plato's cave</a> as sort of an early thought experiment that is kind of resonant of simulation theory. And she expands upon it, talking about how, in 21st-century America, the shadows that we're seeing of the real world are much more vivid. You know, the media diets that we all absorb, that are all reflections of the real world.</p><p>But the danger that the ones you're seeing aren't accurate—whether that's just signal loss from mistakes made by journalists working in good faith, or whether it's intentional distortion by somebody with an agenda—that leads to a really provocative idea about the artificial world, the simulated world, that each of us create, and then live in, based on our upbringing, our biases, and our media diet. That makes me stop and pause from time to time.</p><p><strong><span></span>Do you see any connections between mental illness, or an inability to empathize with others, and some peoples' obsession with simulation theory?</strong></p><p>It can certainly lead to strange, obsessive thinking. [Laughs] For some reason, I feel like I have to defend [people who believe in simulation theory], or qualify it. But you can get into the same sort of non-adaptive behavior obsessing on, you know, the Beatles or the Bible, or anything. [Charles] Manson was all obsessed on "The White Album." He didn't need simulation theory to send him down some very dark paths.</p>
Credit: K_e_n via AdobeStock<p><strong>Why do you think people are attracted to simulation theory?</strong></p><p>You might be attracted to it because your peer group is attracted to it, or people that you admire are attracted to it, which lends it credibility. But also like, just the way you and I are talking about it now, it's a juicy topic that extends in a thousand different ways.</p><p>And despite the cautionary tales that come up in the film, I've had a huge amount of fascinating social conversations with people because of my interest in simulation theory, and I imagine it's true about a lot of people who spend a lot of time thinking about it. I don't know if they all think about it alone, right? Or if it's something that they enjoy talking about with other people.</p><p><strong>If technology became sufficiently advanced, would you create a simulated world?</strong></p><p>It'd be very tempting, especially if I could add the power of flight or something like that [laughs]. I think the biggest reason not to, and I just saw this on a comment on Twitter yesterday, and I don't know if it had occurred to me, but what might stop me is all the responsibility I'd feel to all the people within it, right? If this were an accurate simulation of planet Earth, the amounts of suffering that occurs there for all the creatures and what they went through, that might be what stops me from doing it.</p><p><strong>If you discovered you were living in a simulation, would it change the way you behave in the world?</strong></p><p>I think I would need more information about what the nature of the purpose of the simulation is. If I found out that I was the only person in a very elaborate virtual-reality game, and I had forgotten who I really was, well then I would act very differently then I would if I learned this is an accurate simulation of 21st-century America as conceived by aliens or people in the far future, in which case I think things would stay more or less the same — you know, my closest personal relationships, and my responsibility to my family and friends.</p><p>Just that we're in a simulation isn't enough. If all we know is that it's a simulation, kind of the weirdness is that that word "simulation" starts to mean less. Because whatever qualities the real world has and ours doesn't is inconceivable to us. This is still as real as real gets.</p>
And if they could, would they care, asks philosopher John Gray in his new book.
- In "Feline Philosophy," philosopher John Gray argues that self-awareness isn't the epitome of evolution—and it leads to suffering.
- Gray investigates Pascal, Spinoza, and Lao Tzu to understand why humans are so uncomfortable with themselves.
- Whether or not humans aspire to become like cats, Gray says nature teaches us the lessons felines inherently know.
John Gray: Cats, Humans and the Good Life<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f867f099313c71c325aeb006a2aaee4a"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/er_TwUbvpmI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Cats, like humans and all other animals, do have goals: food, sex, shelter. Certainly not existential distress. Gray notes that the technological fervor dreamed up by transhumanists in their quest for disembodied consciousness is nothing more than a Theosophical fever dream. We haven't really traveled as far forward as our self-appointed credit pretends. </p><p>Humans are not designed to understand the complexities of the universe, nor even of our own biology. Even the notion of morality, as often marketed by religious traditions, is a farce, since people are only really "expressing their emotions." The only recourse we have for discussing emotions—physiological changes that disrupt homeostasis and warrant explanation—is language, and language is a powerful but limited mechanism for discussing reality. </p><p>And what is reality again? </p><p>She turns onto her back to expose her belly to the sunlight. </p><p>Metacognition, often championed as the great divine upgrade elevating humans above the pack (instead of, say, opposable thumbs, group fitness, or an incomprehensible ability to inflict violence), is actually the "chief obstacles to a good life," as Taoists phrase it. </p><p>Gray leans heavily on a number of thinkers—Aristotle, Hume—but the minds of Pascal and Spinoza prove most feline. Pascal knew sitting silently in a room is harrowing—pre-smartphone! We need diversions, he knew, endless entertainment and amusements to distract a mind as uncomfortably matched to its environment as our own. </p><p>Spinoza is the most Taoist of Western thinkers. Gray finds solidarity between Lao Tzu and ol' Benedict in the latter's notion of <em>conatus</em>, "the tendency of living things to preserve and enhance their activity in the world." Sadly, our enhancements cost the weight of the world. Despite what we believe, other animals don't aim to become more human-like, nor did evolution finalize its process with us. Other species have little problem becoming what they are. That's a uniquely human deficiency. </p><p>Humans, Gray writes, find actual fulfillment by applying a "Spinozist-Taoist ethic." We <em>can</em> actually be happy by being ourselves. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"A good life is not shaped by their feelings. Their feelings are shaped by how well they have realized their nature." </p>
Photo: ViRusian / Adobe Stock<p>In the end, we become like cats thanks to an indifferent world. Only humans invent stories that reflect reality not whatsoever. Our brains chronically fill in knowledge gaps; those gaps often offer incorrect assessments. Existence is conditional to our environment regardless of how we try to manipulate it in our favor. You can only exploit nature for so long before she grows bored or angered by our tinkering—but there we go assigning human traits to a process that will never play by our rules. </p><p>This the cat knows—by not knowing, or caring, at all. </p><p>Despite the persistent myth, cats do display affection; they can learn to love their human roommates. Do our three cats climb into bed with my wife and me every night out of comfort or simply to keep warm? Irrelevant. Humans are conditional animals too. At least cats don't confuse pragmatism with emotion. They're content with what comes. We are not.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If cats could understand the human search for meaning they would purr with delight at its absurdity. Life as the cat they happen to be is meaning enough for them. Humans, on the other hand, cannot help looking for meaning beyond their lives." </p><p>Gray offers a prescription for our duress. His ten feline commandments are ultimately for us; cats would use the pages for litter if given the opportunity. Consider the following three cliff notes for the anxious animals that we are. The irony: to achieve them you need to stop trying to achieve them—another paradox cats have no issue embodying. </p><ul><li>Do not become attached to your suffering, and avoid those who do.</li><li>Forget about pursuing happiness, and you may find it.</li><li>Beware anyone who offers to make you happy.</li></ul><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
Technology of the future is shaped by the questions we ask and the ethical decisions we make today.
- Robots (from the Czech word for laborer) began appearing in science fiction in the early 1900s as metaphors for real world ideas and issues surrounding class struggles, labor, and intelligence. Author Ken MacLeod says that the idea that robots would one day rebel was baked into the narrative from the start. As technologies have advanced, so too have our fears.
- "Science fiction can help us to look at the social consequences, to understand the technologies that are beginning to change our lives," says MacLeod. He argues that while robots in science fiction are a reflection of humanity, they have little to do with our actual machines and are "very little help at all in understanding what the real problems and the real opportunities actually are."
- AI has made the threat of "autonomous killer robots" much more of a possibility today than when Asimov wrote his three laws, but it's the decisions we make now that will determine the future. "None of these developments are inevitable," says MacLeod. "They're all the consequences of human actions, and we can always step back and say, 'Do we really want to do this?'"