A new year offers an opportunity to reflect on the significant events of the previous year.
This week, we do something special. We take a look back at the past year, though the lens of Philosophy. We call the episode -- The Examined Year: 2011. But this is not your typical year in review show -- not by a long shot. We take our inspiration, from Socrates who said that the unexamined life is not worth living. For us, that implies that that the unexamined year is not worth living through. Fortunately for us all, though, 2011 was a year well worth living through and well worth examining. It was best of times and the worst of times -- a year in equal parts inspiring and troubling.
Let's begin with some of the ways in which the year was troubling. There was continued stagnation of the American economy; the ever-increasing concentration of the wealth in the hands of the few; the near collapse of the Euro and of the dream of a united and harmonious Europe. If you’re the pessimistic sort, 2011 was enough to make you despair for the future of the combination of capitalism and democracy, that emerged so triumphant out of the chaos of the 20th century. Paul Krugman, whom I happen to respect as much as I do any man alive, thinks the current situation has all the hallmarks of a world-wide depression. Unemployment in both America and Europe is disastrously high. Our leaders and institutions are increasingly discredited. And democratic values are under siege throughout the industrialized world. That’s scary stuff.
But the year wasn’t all darkness, fortunately. There were developments that inspired hope -- like the demise of dictators and the first stirrings of democracy in Africa and the Middle East. And don’t forget the world of science. It offered up a breath-taking range of potential discoveries: earth-like planets orbiting within the habitable zones of distant stars; neutrinos apparently capable of traveling faster than the speed of light; and -- toward the end of the year -- tantalizing glimpses of the Higgs boson.
Speaking of the Higgs stuff, I have to admit that on first encounter, it kind of floored me and puzzled my philosophical imagination. The Higgs boson is supposed to help explain why fundamental particles have mass at all. But it first struck me that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to wonder whether that’s something that really need explaining. Isn't it sort of like explaining why circles are round? They are round by definition. And things that are true by definition, don't need explaining. Similarly, one might think that mass is an intrinsic property of matter so that matter has mass by definition and from the very beginning of its existence. And just as it's no mystery why circles are round, so it's no mystery why matter has mass.
But not so fast. We're missing a crucial point here. I’m no particle physicist, but I think you can look at it this way. Physics tells us that some particles lack mass -- photons, for example. And it used to be thought, I gather, that neutrinos also lack mass. It turns out, though, that do have mass -- just a very, very, teeny tiny little bit of it. Anyway, because massless particles are, well, massless, they zip around at maximum speed, barely interacting with anything. (maximum speed assuming, that is, that faster than light neutrinos aren't real but a measurement error). But now we've set up a real question. Why aren’t the only sorts of particles in the universe the massless ones? Why does the universe contain massive particles at all. That's a real question, not a psuedo question or a confused question.
The answer, very roughly, has to do with the so-called Higgs mechanism of which the Higgs Boson is a product. Without the Higgs mechanism to endow some fundamental particles with mass (through interaction with the all pervasive Higgs Field) the universe would contain nothing but a swarm of mass-less energy waves. In such a universe, atoms and atomic nuclei could never form. And so nothing like human beings, or the earth we live on, could possibly exist. (Of course, that raises the question of why there is a Higgs Field. And that's a bit longer story than I can tell here. But it has to do with symmetry breaking sometime shortly after the big bang, as the universe cooled down.)
Anyway, the role of the Higgs Boson in endowing fundamental particles with mass is, I think, where the amusing name ‘god particle’ may have come from. But I can't vouch for that. Personally, I find it pretty mind-blowing stuff. And I think it’s really, really cool that physicists are on the verge of explaining, in effect, where mass comes from. I see the question as something like Heidegger’s question – why is there something rather than nothing – which positivists once rejected as a nonsensical psuedo question. Don’t know about that. But I know that the question why does the universe contain matter at all rather than just massless particles is a really cool and deep one. That the human mind could actually put to itself such a question and then actually answer it is a testament to how cool a thing a human mind really is.
Something else I find absolutely mind-blowing was very much on the philosophical radar this year. And that’s idea that there could be objective moral truths. Frankly, I have to admit that I’ve never personally been able to make much philosophical sense of how there could be such things. Indeed, I’m writing a book, one aim of which is to consign that idea to a dustbin reserved for highly and permanently tempting, but deeply mistaken philosophical errors. Of course, not everybody agrees with me on that score. Indeed, one of the great divides in philosophy is that which separates those who believe in objective morality and those who doubt the possibility of such a thing.
But the past year witnessed the publication of a much anticipated book by a very influential philosopher that purports to establish that there really could be such a thing as objective morality after all. The philosopher is Derek Parfit and the book is On What Matters. One reviewer called it the best book on the topic of ethics in the last 100 years. That’s pretty high praise.
Though philosophers appear to be all over the map when it comes to morality -- just witness my own view that there is no such thing as objective morality -- Parfit argues that there are far fewer differences among the leading moral theories than meets the eye. He thinks that when we understand the best alternative moral theories correctly, they turn out to agree much more than they disagree. And if that’s right, there’s at least the beginnings of an argument that there are, after all, objective moral truths. Because one of the marks of objective existence is that even if you approach a thing from different starting points, you’ll ultimately converge to the same destination.
I hope you agree that from politics, to science, to philosophy itself, it’s certainly been a rich and interesting year. There are all sorts of things for us to talk about. Listen in and join in the fun by continuing the conversation on this blog. This episode is sort of an experiment. So we’d love to have your feedback on how it went.