Relativism and Democracy

I am struck by this passage from Tocqueville: “I have previously stated that the principle of the sovereignty of the people hovers over the whole political system of the Anglo-Americans. Every page of this book will reflect certain fresh instances of this doctrine. In nations were it exists, every individual takes an equal share in sovereign power and participates equally in the government of the state. Thus he is considered as enlightened, virtuous, strong as any of his fellow men.” Toqueville’s point is that democracy presupposes that each person is as competent and virtuous as any other. But of course this is false: people differ widely in intelligence and virtue. Note that he says “considered” not “really”. So democracy rests on a lie. How, then, to defend democracy? Well, if truth, reason, virtue, etc are not objective qualities that people exemplify to varying degrees, but are rather relative to each person, we have a way out: everyone is as smart and good as anyone else to himself. Then democracy rests on no lie, since everyone really is cognitively and morally equal. Relativism steps in to save democracy from its noble lie. Thus relativism finds a foothold. But relativism is rubbish; so where does that leave democracy?

The Serve

I watch how tennis players serve with great concentration. They all do it pretty much in the same way. And this way is quite different from the way amateur players serve, even quite decent amateur players. Claudio taught me the finer points of serving a few months ago (now, alas, he is back in Germany). High toss, long reach, bring the feet together, use a throwing action, backhand grip, snap the wrist down, plenty of side and top spin. It was incredibly awkward for me at first (backhand grip?!), but I took to practicing it almost every day for several months–not just on the court with a hopper of balls but also in my living room (no ball, just air). Gradually, the pieces came together, with some striking breakthroughs. Now what seemed alien feels natural. I can’t serve any other way. It feels good to hit it just the way the pros do. There’s a moral here–but I think it’s too obvious for me to want to spell it out. Main point is: instead of fearing to serve, now I love to serve. Indeed, I can’t wait to get down to the court and hit some serves.

Enemies of thought

My son Bruno told me yesterday that he’d just been watching a video of me on Youtube. Eventually it became clear what this video was of: a discussion I participated in a few years ago at the Philoctetes Centre in New York about evolution, consciousness, and the meaning of it all. I hadn’t even remembered that it was being filmed, but it’s a mark of our digital times that it has now shown up on the internet to be accessed by my son 3000 miles away. But that’s not the point I’m most interested in making here; because Bruno observed that the scientists present were generally disagreeable and closed-minded (he actually used a much stronger word to describe them). And he’s a scientist himself–a doctor (ENT). This prompted me to ponder who is more deplorable among us: the superstitious zealots who limit their knowledge to what the Bible tells them or the scientists who are unable or unwilling to take any question seriously which has no scientific answer–which includes most of the questions I as a philosopher spend my time on. Specifically, several of those present hated my bringing up the point that we have no good scientific theory of how consciousness evolved in the first place (or how it arises in the brain of every human being at some point or another–and not just human brains). Why are people so incapable of stepping outside the narrow world-view of their specific range of expertise–either the Bible or their particular scientific discipline? Is it fear, narcissism, laziness, bloody-mindedness?