Thursday, February 08, 2018

Hope, Panpsychism and Utopia

Two of the principal concerns of German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885 - 1997) were the concepts of hope and utopia. Bloch argued that a future utopia, whilst not a certainty, was a distinct possibility. Integral to this argument was the view there was a dynamic subjectivity  inherent in the natural world.

There are several difficulties in understanding Bloch’s philosophy of nature. Firstly, his major works on this theme,  Avicenna und die aristotelische Linke (1949 - Avicenna and the aristotelian Left) and Das Materialismusproblem, seine Geschichte und Substanz (1972- The Problem of Materialism, Its History and Substance), have not yet been translated into English. Secondly, there are not many secondary commentaries in English on this aspect of Bloch’s philosophy available on the web either (this interview has a good overview of it). Thirdly, he can be a very hard philosopher to read and comprehend. There is definitely an opening for a “Bloch for Dummies’ book out there!

Despite these difficulties, from what I can glean of it, Bloch’s philosophy of nature offers an awesome and inspiring vision. The thoughts below (some of which are a bit rough and in need of refinement) are inspired by Bloch but make no claim to be faithful to any of his concepts.

Where to Begin?

Traditionally, the starting point for philosophical explorations have been questions such as “What can be known?” or “What is true?”.

However, the idea that there is a fundamental foundation or ground which can form the basis for inquiring into these questions has been relentlessly criticised in the last century. One of the core themes of postmodernist thought has been that there is no absolute or privileged foundation for knowledge from which truth or certainty can be sought for, or from which other perspectives can be shown to be deficient.

Given these criticisms, a more modest foundation for philosophy than one which purports to give grounds for the discovery of absolute truth or certainty is called for. The concept of hope provides such a foundation.

Whilst a water-tight definition of what hope actually is may not be easy to construct  (see this article for some of the debates), a good working definition which is adequate for the purposes of this post is that:

           Hope consists of a desire for an outcome and a belief in the outcome’s possibility.

The two elements of hope in this definition address criticisms of philosophy which emphasize the lack of a certain and absolute foundation for knowledge. Firstly, the element of desire signals that a philosophy based on hope will not be one which claims to be totally objective and remote from any human concerns. Secondly, the element of belief in the possibility of an outcome signals that such a philosophy will not be making claims to absolute and certain knowledge.

Another merit of a philosophy which uses hope as a starting point is that it aligns with what I believe most people think philosophy’s major concerns should be - finding meaning in life and principles which can guide one’s actions.

 What Should I hope for?

If hope is the starting point, the next question that arises concerns what it is that should be hoped for.

“Hope for the best” as the saying goes. Its seems obvious that in deciding what to hope for, one should hope for the best outcome possible. However, hoping for the best needs to be tempered by the likelihood of possible outcomes. It is possible that one could win the lottery, but given the likelihood of this happening is small, it would be a waste to focus all one’s hopes in life on this.

Thus, to avoid wasting time on futile hopes, what is hoped for should not only be possible but be a real possibility, have a reasonable chance of actually occurring. Assessment of what is a real possibility involves consideration of available facts, empirical observations and knowledge. This includes findings of science, although because scientific observations can be interpreted in a multiple of different ways this does not necessarily mean adherence to the most popular or orthodox scientific theories.

So, the best use of hope is to hope for the best that is realistically possible. And what is this?

I contend that the best that could be realistically hoped for is Universal Perfection. This could be defined in a number of ways, but a good start I think is complete harmony and absence of discord throughout the universe.

So how could anybody think Universal Perfection is realistically possible? I believe that a case for this could be developed based on the following premises:

1.        Nature (space, matter, energy and consciousness) does not have a static essence and is in a continuous state of development.

2.       Within nature there exists a universal cosmic subject.

3.         The universal cosmic subject has a drive to move beyond itself to something better.

4.        The universal cosmic subject influences the development of nature.

5.       Due to 3 and 4, the universe is  evolving towards a state of perfection.

The above premises do not imply that a state of Universal Perfection will ever be reached (at which time (1) might cease to apply). The Universe may continue to evolve towards perfection without ever reaching this state. Whether this end state is ever reached or not is not relevant here, the important thing being that it is realistically possible that the universe is evolving towards such a state.

Obviously, to justify the above premises is going to take a lot of argument and is way beyond the scope of this blog post. Nevertheless, I do think they can be justified and hope to provide some justification in future. Some foundations for this can be found in these old posts:

     Does Physicalism entail Cosmopsychism
    Thoughts on 'The Ecological Self'
    The Goldilocks Enigma
    A Case for Intelligent Design?
    Panpsychic Marxism?

There are several ways in which a philosophy based on hope for Universal Perfection is internally consistent and self-grounding.

Firstly, If the universe is evolving and has no fixed essence then the traditional starting points for philosophy of what can be known or what is true do not give a firm basis to start, because these things would be in a continual state of flux. Hope is a firmer foundation.

Secondly, if the universe is striving towards Universal Perfection then it is reasonable to expect  that the Universe would give rise to beings that hope and strive for Universal Perfection. This may not be a case of logical necessity but more a case of a metaphysics of Universal Perfection harmonising well with the human hope for perfection.

Thirdly, the justification of some arguments for Universal Perfection based on aesthetics and harmony rather than truth or necessity is consistent with the end state of the universe being one of perfect harmony. Evolution towards perfection would likely entail an increase in aesthetic harmony more than an increase in logical certitude.

Finally, the subjective feelings of harmony which may arise in a person contemplating that is it realistically possible that the universe is evolving towards a state of perfection aligns with what one would expect if the universe were evolving towards such a state.  Evolution towards harmonious perfection if consonant with the proliferation and florescence of harmonious feelings.

What should I do?

If it is accepted that Universal Perfection is the best that can realistically be hoped for, then how should one live one’s life? Beyond the daily necessities, what are the overarching principles that could guide one’s journey?

In looking at this, some discussion is in order as to why one should act to fulfill one’s hopes.

Hope itself is usually seen as a justification in itself for action. If I ask someone why they are  searching in the garbage and they reply “I hope to find my lost wallet”, then I would accept that as a valid reason. Thus, acting on one’s hopes is intrinsic to the nature of hope itself.

On an emotional level, it also feels satisfying to act on one’s hopes, to follow one’s dreams.

In terms of the rationality and ethical implications of hope, sometimes it may not be rational or ethical to act on one’s hopes. For example, a drug addict hoping to find his next fix may not be acting in his own or others best interests in taking actions to obtain more of the drug. However, if one is hoping for Universal Perfection then it is rational and ethical to act to facilitate the achievement of this outcome. This is because Universal Perfection is in the best interest of any possible interest there is.

Thus, if one hopes for Universal Perfection and this goal is realistically possible, then it is rational, ethical, emotionally satisfying and intrinsic to the nature of hope itself to act towards the achievement of this goal.

So how does all this cash out in terms of practical, concrete actions?

As far as we know, human beings have the most advanced form of embodied consciousness in the universe (excluding perhaps the consciousness of a universal cosmic subject). If the universe is evolving towards perfection it is reasonable to expect that the most advanced form of consciousness would be at the leading edge or front of this evolution. It is also reasonable to expect that a perfect human society would be a stepping stone towards Universal Perfection. Therefore, it can be concluded that working toward the realisation of Universal Perfection entails striving for Utopia - a free, fair and loving society without unnecessary suffering, toil or want.

The details of what should be done to help achieve this will vary depending on the particular circumstances of each situation. But acting towards achieving utopia, does not justify any forms of extremist fanaticism on the basis that the end justifies the means. This is because Utopia is only a realistic hope, not a guaranteed certainty which could justify any conceivable action. Further, extreme and violent actions may impede the harmonious potentialities which are the very goal of such actions.

Part of ascertaining how one should act involves deciding whether to support or reject particular points of view or theories. In hoping for Utopia, assessment of different claims or theories is based on whether or not they help realise this goal, whether they are progressive or reactionary.

Whether bodies of thought are progressive or reactionary requires detailed analysis in each case. In some cases,  a single belief system may have both progressive and reactionary elements. For example, as Bloch recognised, religious systems can contain both progressive elements which foster and nourish the  utopian longings of humanity, and reactionary elements which encourage otherworldliness and political quietism. Similarly, science has both progressive elements which enhance our knowledge of nature, our ability to work with it and our ability to alleviate suffering, and reactionary elements, which undergird a mechanistic materialism that denies the significance of subjectivity in nature.

In the field of science, supporting progressive theories does not mean that empirical facts can be ignored, distorted or fabricated. There is no excuse for Lysenkoism. However, given that a body of facts can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways, the hope for Utopia does imply an additional parameter for choosing between theories. In striving for Utopia, the utopian potentialities of a theory should be considered alongside other criteria of theory choice such as  simplicity, accuracy, consistency, scope and fruitfulness.


Flung into an uncertain world, the best one can do is strive to realise the best of one’s hopes. Theoretical analysis, speculation and interpretation are essential in determining how to go about this. However, the objective of analysis is not to find some indubitable foundation from which to proceed. Rather, the objective is to find a reasonable basis for actions, the efficacy of which can be assessed by their effects on the progression towards that which is hoped for. The point is not to interpret the world, but to change it.


James Cross said...

I ran into your site from your comment on the Fine-Tuning and Panpsychism.

I certainly admire your thoughts on the realistic possibility of utopia. Not many would seriously speculate on this, particularly at this point in history.

I wondered if you have read Brown (Life Against Death) or Marcuse (Eros and Civilization) on the prospects of utopia and what you thought of them.

Justin said...

Hi James, thanks for your comments. I am not familiar with Brown, but I did read Eros and Civilization many years ago - I found it very dense and am not much into psychoanalysis, but I do recall some inspiring passages. I might did it out again now they you mention it.