It is fascinating how our minds work. They make connections between seemingly unrelated pieces of information and turn them into original, interesting insights. Afterwards, it can be impossible to explain where you got that great idea from! That`s how creativity works and that is where the roots of our deepest knowledge are hidden. So, sometimes we need to shift focus. Especially after spending a long time on one thing. Here is my most recent example.
Last weekend I was struggling with my final philosophy essay for the current course (it`s done!). The topic was difficult – we were asked to say whether philosophical anarchism is a defensible position. What`s philosophical anarchism? To put it shortly, it’s a position one can take when thinking about our political obligations, especially those linked with our having to obey the law. If you think that there are reasons why you should still obey the state even when you do not risk being caught and when your illegal action would cause no harm to anyone, then you are not a philosophical anarchist.
The principal claim made by philosophical anarchists is that we have no moral obligation to accept the state authority. Why? Besides those two arguments I mentioned above, they see no universal justification for political obligations. From this, it follows that we have no political obligations.
This was a puzzle for me. The more I thought about it, the more I could relate to the philosophical anarchist view (and it scared me). I am generally a person who would still feel bad crossing a well-lit empty street in the middle of nowhere on a red light even though nobody is around and I am certain that I would not get caught. So, if there is some nagging feeling left in me, then there must be something more to our political obligations that the philosophical anarchists claim. But what?
Here the first shift of focus comes in. As you maybe have read, I am a fan of big history. It is history about everything – from the big bang to our discovery of gravitational waves. One key mental instrument they use in big history is the shifting of scales. When we look at the development of our universe we operate on the scale of billions and millions of years. When we look at the rise of human civilizations we go much deeper and shrink the scale down to several thousand and then just hundreds of years. This approach allows to notice how more complex systems tend to obtain emergent properties. These are such properties that can no longer be explained by reducing them down to their smaller constituent parts. A famous example is life itself. Life appears when a certain complexity level with just the right mixture of everything required is achieved. Sure, it consists of various chemicals and those have atoms and so on. But we cannot explain the phenomenon of life by explaining the phenomenon of an atom.
So, if we abstract that idea, then we get something like this – when some required conditions are met and a system reaches a certain complexity level there might emerge new kinds of properties that have not been there before. This brought my first shifted focus insight – could that be the case also with our political obligations? Might they be seen as some sort of emergent property of a large and complex society?
The second shift of focus came from a book on cosmology. More accurately – on the hidden 95% of our universe. According to scientific estimates, everything that is visible all around us (matter, light etc.) represents only roughly 5% of all there is… the rest is what the scientists call the dark matter and dark energy. It sounds like something from the Star Wars, I know. Yet, experts are very much serious about it. They are thinking about and looking for these ‘dark horses’ of our universe. The name ‘dark’ does not refer to the colour, by the way. It is more like a metaphor about our level of knowledge about these things. They are still obscure to us, we cannot find them but we keep looking. Why? Because various indirect evidence suggests that there must be something more than what we can see that influences the processes we observe.
So, once again, if we abstract that idea, then we get something like this – the absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. This brought my second shifted focus insight – why do the philosophical anarchists make a connection between the claim that there is no single universal principle that would justify our political obligations (‘absence of evidence’) and the conclusion that we, therefore, do not have such obligations at all (‘evidence of absence’)? Viewed in this light, the connection looks pretty weak to me. Perhaps it is more complex than just one general theory could describe. And if so, maybe we need a richer, more nuanced, inclusive approach that corresponds to the topic`s level of complexity.
Leaving the question of philosophical anarchists, political obligations and the solution to it all now to one side, I just hope my example helped illustrate how good it is to sometimes shift focus. Our minds keep working even when we think of something else entirely. And who knows which piece of apparently unrelated information will bring your next great insight? Therefore, stay focused but also – shift it from time to time.