02 November 2007

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Is humanity doomed to repeat its mistakes?

Dear friends,

Don't forget that tomorrow we are meeting at around 10am – 10.15am in
Nuevos Minsterios station to catch the 10.39am train to Escorial. For
those who plan to arrive late we'll be at the front end of the train.

This Sunday we are discussing a rather complex, but very relevant
issues: Is humanity doomed to repeat its mistakes? Some of us might
certainly feel that certain events today are mistakes which have already
been done in the past.

Take care and see you Saturday and Sunday,




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Is humanity doomed to repeat its mistakes?

How should we understand the idea of humanity repeating its mistakes?
And what do we mean by humanity? Who are we talking about?

Are we talking about humans as a collective, maybe identified as a
generation? Are we talking about individuals, for example, you and me?

And of course there is always the question: what mistakes are we
concerned with? It is evident that not all mistakes are repeated, and if
they are they are not repeated ad infinitum. Furthermore, the learning
process involves repeating some mistakes over and over again. But not
repeating the same mistakes, does not exclude that in reality we do
learn from repeating mistakes. There is nothing incongruous about this
idea; learning a new language sometimes involves this process.

I want to consider this topic by considering two issues: 1) who or what
should we understand by humanity? 2) what are the epistemological and
empirical conditions that will lead to humanity repeating its mistakes?

Concepts such as humanity, generations, society, and peoples give us the
impression that these are somehow independent ontological entities.
Ontological in the sense that they exist independent of us, and can be
show to exist through reason and a priori argument. Not necessarily
objective in the sense that my PC is an objective entity, but certainly
objective in the sense that it exists and what is required is to have faith.

How we get this idea of objectivity is central to our discussion, what
matters is that we have it. I would, however, speculate, that we get
this idea from our brain needing to extrapolate patterns from data and
information (sense perception) and giving them a name or a tag for
future use. Maybe a tag in the same way that photos on the internet are
tagged to make them easier to find. Thus 'humanity' would be a mental
extrapolation of all the beings that belong to the same group as.
Actually, what I think is happening is that we have experience of the
group of people around us and then extrapolate mentally that experience
to include those people we do not have experience of. (I am sure that
someone has already put forward this idea in a more intelligent way, I
just don't have the time to research it.) thus the idea of humanity is
an extrapolation from another extrapolation, our immediate group of
people we know (society).

Furthermore, today we reinforce this idea of ontological extrapolation
by being exposed to scientific thinking which depends on statistical
analysis and sample sets. Consider this quote from a document from the
United Nations Population Division: "Roughly one fifth of the world
population currently lives in the more developed regions…….."
(http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/charting/3.pdf) Who or
what is this population these documents refer to? In reality concepts
such as humanity and population are epistemological extrapolation which
our brain needs to function in our day-to-day affairs. Actually, that
one "fifth of the population" means Lawrence, John, Jane, Maria, Juan,
Sophie and the rest of us who live in said regions.

In the empirical world we live in, there are only individuals. We can
already see Plato's theory of forms playing a part here. Our concept
'humanity' is a very flawed representation of what is real: individuals.
This is not to say that these ideas are not useful, but rather that we
should proceed with caution when we use them in a philosophical context.
Thus we may speak of humanity as a functional linguistic tool, but in
reality we are talking about individuals with real blood and real bodies.

Of course, by suggesting that there are only individuals I am not
suggesting that we dealing with selfish and egotistic beings. Some might
reach this conclusions; individualism does not exclude obligations and
duties towards others. Nor am I suggesting that talk of humanity and
society is irrelevant. What I am suggesting is that, if humanity it to
repeat its mistakes what this means is that individuals repeat their
mistakes or repeat mistakes. Maybe their own mistakes or mistakes that
have already been made by others.

Hence, what are the epistemological and empirical conditions that would
lead humanity to repeat the same mistakes? By humanity I now mean
individuals, but we still need to qualify this. Since we also understand
by humanity the group of people that lives in this planet we can mean
mistakes made by certain individuals but the effects are felt by the
group rather than the individual.

There are many classes and types of mistakes, however, I will only limit
myself to three types of mistakes. 1) honest mistakes, 2) mistakes that
couldn't have been avoided by the individual, but are, nevertheless,
avoidable, 3) mistakes that the individual should have known better, and
ought to have known better. I am, for example, excluding mistakes such
as faulty sense perception, or straight forward deception. Although not
all deceptions are the same; I think we have an obligation to be careful
with people whom we know to be unreliable and liable to deceive others.

Whether we like it or not, epistemology cannot survive on its own in the
ether of metaphysics; it has to be an integral part of the molecules and
atoms of the material world. How this is done is not really relevant
now. What matters, though, are three things: 1) our knowledge leads us
to hold certain beliefs; and that what we think is knowledge is in fact
false information which leads us to have false belief. 2) our beliefs
motivate us into action. 3) an act (including inaction) becomes a
mistake after the act has been done.

Our state of knowledge at a given moment determines our honestly held
beliefs. For example, for many centuries people did not realise that
using lead for cooking utensils and water piping, amongst many uses, was
rather toxic (lead poisoning also known as also known as saturnism,
plumbism or painter's colic: Wikipedia). But actions live in the
physical world and have effects in the same physical world. This is the
link between the subjectivity of epistemology and the objectivity of our
actions. We also know that in the physical world causal actions tend to
lead to a chain reaction which we may or may not be able to control.
Thus mistakes are really linguistic or epistemological classifications
of actions that have evolved contrary to our intentions. In our case,
the individual acted in such a way that harmed others, or at the very
least, the effects of their actions and their intention did not coincide.

There is also another aspect of mistakes that is relevant for us. I want
to distinguish between mistakes post-act and acts that we believe are
going to be mistakes. That an act might be a mistake in the future has a
probability value, a post-act mistake has a truth value. It is therefore
not easy to establish whether an act will be a mistake or not. This
might be interpreted to mean that in reality we are unable to establish
what will happen in the future and therefore there is nothing immoral or
unethical involved in repeating mistakes. But because something is
probable it does not mean that it is not going to happen. What this
means is that given certain condition we expect certain things to happen
and we should therefore act in such a way that will take into account
both possible outcome: in street language always prepare a Plan B.

What is an honest mistake? Is it an action that an individual couldn't
foresee, or is it an inability to anticipate the way the world will
evolve? Let's take two natural disasters. The devastation of New Orleans
by Katrina and the Tsunami that hit parts of SE Asia in 2004. Needless
to say that many mistakes were done by the relevant authorities and
those in charge, the question is which of these mistakes can be
tentatively be described as honest mistakes. Consider what the editors
of Scientific American wrote in the November 2005 issue:

"Hindsight is very often 20-20, but sometimes foresight is, too. Mark
Fischetti's article "Drowning New Orleans" in the October 2001
Scientific American all too accurately depicted the devastation that an
inevitable strong hurricane would bring to that city, as have articles
in many other publications since that time. Those predictions sprang
from years of published scientific analyses. Any official who claims to
have been surprised by the tragic events that unfolded in New Orleans
after Katrina simply wasn't paying attention." Preparing for the Worst,
By The Editors:


Although the 2004 Tsunami took people by surprise, we can safely assume
that all things being equal, those in charge might have made an honest
mistake by not preparing for such an event. According to the Wikipedia
the Pacific region has been equipped with a warning system for a long
time since Tsunamis are more common there. The warning system that has
been installed in SE Asia is of course an attempt to prevent the second
type of mistake; the individual could not do anything about the mistake,
but is was avoidable.

This leaves us with mistakes that should have been avoided and ought to
have been avoided. This suggests that these mistakes have more to do
with intention rather than knowledge. We might be tempted to deduce that
if intention is involved then surely morality and ethical issues are
involved. Aren't the editors of SA suggesting that by not "paying
attention" those officials in charge in New Orleans were morally
responsible, at least for part of the disaster if not all the disaster?

And doesn't our question point at a moral interpretation by using the
words "to repeat its mistakes"? except that we have to explain the word
"doomed" before we can consider the moral issue. Unfortunately, the word
"doomed" is more of an emotional word rather than a philosophical term.
Should we understand doomed to mean determined? I personally do not read
full determinism in this word. At best there might be a soft determinism
implied in this word, in the sense that our physical make up determines
what we can do. We do not have wings so we cannot fly.

I would read doomed to mean failure in the character of humanity or
rather the individual. There is something about us that leads us to make
the same mistakes. In our discussion and my limitations on the meaning
of humanity I would interpret doomed to mean a sort of character flaw in
those who have authority or power to influence other human beings.

Is this character flaw compatible with the idea of intention I mentioned
earlier? How can we recognise a determined state of affairs and yet
still hold people accountable? Holding people accountable after the fact
might not do much to solve the effects of mistakes. I wonder how many
people in New Orleans feel good knowing that some officials made
mistakes, we found them morally accountable and judged them to me
morally wrong. I doubt if there are many who happy with just this

Knowing that officials did not live up to acceptable moral standards is
not as interesting or as important as know what the editors meant by
"not paying attention." I will endeavour not only to interpret the words
of the editor but also to identify the precise character flaw that leads
to humanity repeating its mistakes. For want of a better name I would
call this as: the does-not-apply-to-designer character flaw (DNAD). Let
me explain.

How many times have you been on a bus or a train or a plane and had to
use one of the features on these modes of transport and said to
yourself: if I had to design this feature I wouldn't design it like
that? Or in the street, a wrongly placed zebra crossing? For what it is
worth, I have a theory and an explanation for these things. The people
who design these things or responsible for these things do not have to
use these features. The designer of the handrails on the bus probably
travels by car to work; the designer of the economy seats on a plane
probably travels business class and the street designer surely takes a
taxi anyway.

The same is true for those members of humanity who keep making the same
mistakes. Those who are responsible for certain social policies which
turn out to be mistakes are not necessarily affected by those mistakes.
The officials in New Orleans probably lived in safe areas, anyway. The
same can be said about many historical and present characters who have
or are repeating mistakes: I'll leave it to you to find examples.
However, some of these people lack so much foresight that the could not
even imagine that their actions might bring about their demise, (Hitler,
Napoleon, Sadam Hussein.....)

Could it be that we are doomed because those that make the mistakes do
not see that what they are doing could very well be a mistake that they
will be equally affected as everyone else? Because they believe that
their policies do not apply to the designer, i.e. themselves. The
question we then have to ask is this:

If those in control of humanity do not have a shareholding or a
stake-holding in the enterprise of their intentions, what business do
they have being at the helm of their actions?

Take care


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Is humanity doomed
to repeat its mistakes?

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