I'm adding this after I have written the material below. This is a very rambling missive, written in one fell swoop without any real editing. Sorry but it is what is one my mind right now and I need to write to think most of it through. You'll just have to bear with me. When the muse hits me, I just have to go with the flow. I hope that what flows out is sweet fresh water, not raw sewage ;-)
In Dear War Protesters, Arnold Kling provides a personal perspective on his journey from young radical to current hawk (although that is really to harsh a word). What I find interesting is not so much his well chosen words (although I may disagree with some of them). It is the utter flamewar the comments to his article degenerate into. You can start with a nice logical argument and others simply twist it into ones full of almost every logical fallacy possible (i.e. strawman, ad hominem, non sequitur, slippery slope). Few people seem to take any time to present a rigorous argument.
Now I'm only a few years younger than Arnold. I had to register for Vietnam. I was against the war for several reasons. I did not want to die in a surrogate war between superpowers. Well, I for sure did not want to die (I was a senior in High School. I knew what surrogate meant but may not have been able to use it in a sentence;-). Perhaps keeping South Vietnam free would have been a possible outcome but I remember the whole domino theory. That is if we lost Southeast Asia to the Commies, everything would fall their way. It did not exactly happen that way.
What I did believe at the time was that if capitalism was the best economic system and democracy was the best political system, then we would eventually win out. Which we did. I still believe that the best ends for mankind will be some mix of these two philosophies.
Many, if not most, people in America today feel similarly. Where we seem to disagree is about the details, the means to these ends (well, those of us who can still present a logical argument). Where does altruism fall in capitalism? What is the effect of money on the republican form of government we have? How does the majority view protect the minority view? How does the aggregation of power, either financial or political, distort the system, rendering ineffective the normal sets of checks and balances?
The current crisis seems to have further divided us about the means to achieve the same end. Most of us want to see Saddam gone. We want peace in the Middle East. How we achieve this causes the problems. I do not feel that a unilateral demonstration of our hegemony will be the best long-term approach. Others feel that we need to use all the prodigious power we have now to accomplish these important ends while we still have the chance.
There has been a diversity of thought about the best approach, both here and in the rest of the world. Diversity is, as I explain below, a good thing. What is rapidly happening now in much of the world is the total lack of respect for ANYONE who presents the opposite view. There is a lot of anger. Against Bush. Against France. Against the US. Against Muslims. Against Christians. Against anyone who disagrees. Lack of diversity does not engender creative, innovative solutions to difficult problems.
I believe the real enemy is not someone who disagrees with me. It is anyone who tries to hamper the path I feel that civilization is now traveling. Diversity of opinions and viewpoints. Open communication. Speedy transmission of information. Rapid creation of social networks. Adaptive communities. Bottom-up rather than top-down approaches to problem solving. Emergent behaviors. These are tools that will hurry us along the path we are heading. I believe that just as these principles cut across political lines and economic principles, civilization's enemies will be found on both sides of the political spectrum and in different economic strata.
Just as I believed that capitalism would eventually sink communism, I feel that the cultures that embrace this new path and its tools will sink those that do not. Groups that can use information to create knowledge, that can be adaptable and make good decisions, that can alter their path when the circumstances change, will maintain a nimbleness that Industrial Age, or even earlier, approaches can not. The only way to deal with the wave of information is to rapidly find ways to use it to create knowledge. Those that do find such ways will simply out run any group that fails, just as capitalism and democracy out run other approaches.
Totalitarian regimes, fundamentalist governments, ideologues of any persuasion will have diminishing power in the coming years because it is impossible for them to maintain these principles. In truth, I believe that America has the power it has today because it has chosen these principles earlier and to a greater extent than other countries.
But I worry today. It is easy to get diverted from this path, BECAUSE we now hold such a vast amount of power. Going out on our own is dangerous because we are reducing the diversity of opinion, we are shouting down any who present an alternative viewpoint (and by we I mean Americans on both sides of this issue). The tremendous power the US now has should be an incredibly humbling thing, requiring us to go slow in its wielding. History is filled with the wreckage produced by the indiscriminate carnage power provides. Are we any different? Will the American Republic degenerate into a callous empire like Rome did?
I would like to believe we are different, that we would use power wisely. But power on our scale is very corrupting. Power allows us to take the easy way out. Our leaders do not have to listen to any one else, to use information to create useful knowledge, to make good decisions to adapt to any one else's views. Might makes right. Because we can do it, it becomes right. This makes it very likely that we could make a very bad decision and not have anyway to correct it until too late. Who is to stop us?
As a scientist, I know how easy it is to fool yourself, to believe that the data proves what you want it to. The Boeing engineers examining the Columbia mission had all the data they needed to know that they could have very real problems on their hands. An objective observer would have said they needed more data because what they had could not let them make a good decision.
Lack of humility before nature has been the failing of many a scientist. You have to be your own harshest critic, to come up with the telling control experiments in order to try to falsify your own work. A strong ego is important. I do not think you can do good science without it, but you must maintain that humility; that belief that something else, in this case Nature, is bigger than you are. Otherwise you will just end up fooling yourself and making a mistake, perhaps a horribly bad one.
As the biggest kid on the block, we can easily lose this humility, gaining an arrogance that actual hampers our journey down the path. We could fool ourselves into the belief that we are right simply because there is no one to tell us we are wrong. If we do this, I am afraid that not only will America not be the country that leads the way, we may actually hamper others from following it, delaying for some time the eventual triumph.
Yeah, I believe a lot of hooey. I know. But I do not think this is going to lead us to a Utopian world. Human beings will not change that much. But I do think it will provide a new way to deal with the problems that life on this planet presents. Agriculture allowed us to sustain much larger populations than before. It allowed us to pierce the ceiling a hunter-gather way of life imposed on us. When we started running up against the Malthusian problems of population growth outstripping food production, we found new ways to produce food. We developed tools that permitted us to break through the ceiling agriculture placed on us. We are again hitting a ceiling caused by the technologies we developed over the last 200 years. To solve these problems, to break through the ceiling, will require a multidisciplinary approach, a cooperative, adaptive model. Because the problems are not easy to solve. There is no "Best Practice", no process to take us where we need to go.
So, I worry that our leap into Empire will stall out progression towards a society that can solve the problems that humans HAVE to solve in order to survive. I believe that mankind will solve them. I just want it to be in my lifetime, rather than 80 years in the future. The path the US is taking will not prevent the changes from eventually happening. They must happen if we are going to make it, to break through the ceiling into a new world. I am just afraid that our journey may be delayed by our current unilateralism, by our unopposed power. I hope my worries are unfounded.
Well, this may not be too logical and it is much too rambling but it does come close to embodying some of my thoughts. The world is on an irreversible path. We can not go back. We will either progress down this path, finding new modes for solving the problems that surround us, or we will fall off it, perhaps endangering our ability to find the proper solutions. Now, I am an optimist. Science tends to select against pessimists. You have to believe that you CAN understand Nature's mysteries. or you find another line of work.
I think that people in our country, as well as those in others, will find ways to use these tools I mention to harness the power presented by these new modes. They will find ways to route around 'damage' done to them and will get civilization through. It will be a hard battle. The transition through the Industrial Age was pretty horrendous. I hope that this one is much, much shorter but it may be just as deadly. I really pray that it is not. 11:51:42 PM