Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Plan of Man

To Man the Plan of Man

Completion of the Second Thesis of Kant's Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View

By John Taylor; 2006 December 13

If we allow what Hamlet called our "godlike reason" to "fust away in us unused" both our past and future will snuff out. The alternative is to plan. Plans are the proof that we have learned the lesson of history. Plans are history in the future tense.

Al Gore in "An Inconvenient Truth" warns that if we do not act soon to solve the climate crisis we will become like the frog in a pot of lukewarm water that is gradually heated to the boiling point. If it is suddenly thrown into scalding water, its reflexes kick in while the frog is strong. But gradual heat enervates, and as the heat increases it waits beyond a tipping point; after that, it can only float, stupefied, indolent, passive, until finally its strength and life ebb away. Our problem is something similar, we look at the headlines about the climate crisis, and each one seems exaggerated. Nothing happens that we cannot easily survive.

It happened in New Orleans. The residents had had false alarms so often that they did not believe the flood was upon them until it was too late. But for the rest of us, it still seems exaggerated, even when we read the long-term evidence that carbon dioxide is accumulating, as collected by the hard-nosed scientist Roger Revel (his name is easy to remember, just think of Reveille, the bugle blast that wakes soldiers up early in the morning). Greenhouse gasses are accumulating at a rate of seventy billion tons a day, so what? We respond to such news with indolence and passivity. As the dire data mounts up we defend our sanity by denying what threatens it. When somebody like Gore comes along and lays it all out, we then proceed straight from denial to despair.

However, as Gore points out, this is to forget that there is a step in-between, action. Dire as the situation seems there is much to hope for. We know the problem, but we also know the answers to the climate crisis. Thank God, they are clear and straightforward. We just have to lower the planet's thermostat by cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions. All we lack is political will. Gore at this point declares to wild cheering, "Fortunately, in America, political will is a renewable resource." Sure, why not? What better way to describe both democracy and science, as renewables by definition? At their best, science and democracy (and, Baha'is would say, religion too) use consultation and reason to expunge errors non-violently and recycle the best of what one generation learns for the benefit of the next. At our best, we can use science, democracy and faith to escape the cycle of denial and despair and enter a new cycle, one of action.

The parable of the frog in hot water illustrates an important truth about praxis. Knowledge alone is not enough. Even action alone is not enough. William Osler, the great physician, said, "Fullness of knowledge does not always bring confidence; the more one knows the more timidity may grow. (Hence) the Hippocratic dictum: `Experience is fallacious and judgment difficult.'" (Michael Bliss, William Osler, A Life in Medicine, 372) What we need to overcome these shortcomings are all of the renewables, faith, science and democracy, working together in a coordinated way. The way we bring them together is by planning. Planning means that first we understand where we have been (that is, we study history), then we devise a plan of where to go in future. We act on it, and finally we review the plan. We refer back to it and revise it. This is the method of reason, and the first step to learning it is to read history in a cosmopolitan way.

There is no way around it, experience is fallacious, and judgment is difficult. We need a plan designed to overcome our basic limitations. This is why I am moved to return to Kant's cosmopolitan history again and again.

We left off last time at the second thesis, which we noted is convergent with the Baha'i principle of the oneness of humanity. Briefly, this principle of unity of humanity is born in God's Oneness and proceeds to its reflection in creation and in us. Our gift of reason acts like a mirror; we reflect in it His image of Oneness, both individually and collectively. The human being, both in microcosm and macrocosm, is designed to make One of many, as was summed up in ancient times in the Latin motto, E Pluribus Unum.

Unfortunately, the first thing we notice when we look at the life of the individual is that her useful lifespan is just too short to be of much use. We hardly have time to begin to accomplish anything. As Kant puts it,

"... a single man would have to live excessively long in order to learn to make full use of all his natural capacities." (Kant, Cosmopolitan History, 251)

Our natural capacities seem boundless, and reason is infinite, so the only life that would satisfy our potential would be an endless existence. But mortal existence is far from endless. Hobbes had famously said that life in a state of nature is "nasty, brutish and short." Even should progress and enlightenment change us all into angels and philosophers, Kant realized, and even if one day we were to cease to live a nasty and brutish existence, still, life would always remain short. At most we live not much more than 120 years. Today a there is a strong consensus among gerontologists that our entire genome seems designed from the double helix up to live only long enough to reproduce and then not long afterwards to expire. Thus each generation has little time to catch up with what its fathers and mothers knew and turn around and pass the fruits of experience on to its sons and daughters.

Because of life's extreme brevity, science cannot reside in the hands of any one individual. It is and will always be a collective, cooperative heritage, never complete, ever being perfected. Biology does not reside in one biologist, or physics in any physicist. Each body of knowledge is tentative, improved upon a little by many minds and then passed on quickly to the next generation. Therefore education is not an ornament; we must depend upon it for our very survival as a species. As Kant says,

"Reason itself does not work instinctively, but requires trial, practice, and instruction in order gradually to progress from one level of insight to another."

This is the scientific method, patient, selfless dedication by many lovers of knowledge to advance a common cause. Each body of knowledge applies reason systematically to a complete, holistic area of endeavor, as Aristotle points out,

"In all arts and sciences which embrace the whole of any subject, and do not come into being in a fragmentary way, it is the province of a single art or science to consider all that appertains to a single subject." (Politics, IV, 1)

Kant realizes that history is just such a complete study. History is a cosmopolitan whole, and we need to treat it as a science. He was aware that there had never been until then a history of the entire human race. His Cosmopolitan History was his attempt to draw up a first draft, just as his Sketch of Perpetual Peace was his early draft for a world constitution. He had no illusions that the history had been even begun, and even today, to our peril, it is still hardly begun.

"Since Nature has set only a short period for his life, she needs a perhaps unreckonable series of generations, each of which passes its own enlightenment to its successor in order finally to bring the seeds of enlightenment to that degree of development in our race which is completely suitable to Nature's purpose."

History, lots of history, is needed for enlightenment. We may not know it, but we are crying out for such a history. We need it to understand ourselves as a complete human totality. Even the most advanced individual is not enlightened without familiarity with cosmopolitan history, for we must understand our history to plan and order our world.

Of course the only one qualified to commission such a universal history would be a united humanity itself. And like all sciences this cosmopolitan history would have to be written and perfected by many bright historians whose torch is passed on through many generations. Kant continues:

"This point of time must be, at least as an ideal, the goal of man's efforts, for otherwise his natural capacities would have to be counted as for the most part vain and aimless. This would destroy all practical principles, and Nature, whose wisdom must serve as the fundamental principle in judging all her other offspring, would thereby make man alone a contemptible plaything."

To rephrase his convoluted expression, each of us is working against the clock not to be "man alone." If we fail to connect to the unity of man, and then man the plan, life will be truncated, existence robbed of meaning, and having renounced reason we will end up a "contemptible plaything" to forces beyond our control. Our frog will be cooked.

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