This book is an invitation to an exploration, an exploration of life. Life has many aspects and can be viewed in many ways, but the exploration I propose will be of the philosophical type. Biology, known as the science of life (that is what the term says), studies how life originated, how it is constituted, how it evolves, how organisms function, how they relate to each other and much more. Philosophy, on the other hand, takes life for granted and wonders how we, humans, can deal with what we experience as our life, how we relate to each other and our environment, how we function as communities, even how we evolve and what we may consider our future. All questions that have to do with the position of humans in life, their relation to life, to the world and to nature in general.
We humans are definitely peculiar participants in the realm of life, and life as a phenomenon in nature. As biological organisms, we are endowed with a most intricate organ, our brain, which we perceive as the seat of our mind. We call that experience ‘consciousness’. This consciousness makes our exploration of life possible, just as it makes biology and any other type of science possible as well. As a species, we are able to study life as a phenomenon, including how our lives are constituted and develop, but we can also view our lives as what we call ‘ourselves’. To explore our position as humans in the big system of nature is what I am inviting my readers to do with me. The territory we shall have to cover will undoubtedly be rugged and perhaps unaccessible, and we have only our minds to hold onto. It makes one think of the vertical rock climber who has to attach the rope he needs to pull himself up.
To marvel at life and the place humans have in it, is of course as old as philosophy. What makes the present day situation different are the enormous advances science and technology have made in the 20th century, and in particular biology with the discovery of how our brains are consti- tuted and how they function. I shall argue, agreeing in this with many philosophers, that philosophy is a science in itself, because it uses scientific methods, namely the development of theory and the verification of the pro- posed contentions by experimentation. As a result, philosophy is dependent on other sciences and vice versa. This dependence will be central to our exploration. Since science has changed so much, philosophy has to as well. We are on new territory here.
This is why I wrote this book. As a scientist and engineer who has been interested my whole life in philosophical issues, I have been confronted with the many and fundamental changes in scientific thinking that occurred in the 20th century. Many of them are spectacular, but not all of them are directly relevant to philosophy. In the first chapters of this book I shall account for those that I consider indeed very relevant to our quest, and thereby lay the basis for our exploration. They are: new fundaments for logic due to G ̈odel; ‘chaos’ as a pervasive phenomenon in all non-linear dy- namical systems; the related ‘emergent behavior’ that makes creativity in many new directions possible; and ‘evolution’ and the emergence of ‘intelli- gence’ as its present main driving force. All the terms used so far shall need careful definitions. This will be an important part of their exploration.
The new insights in logic, in the wake of G ̈odel’s incompleteness theory, now a central tenet of logic, will force a relativistic approach on us. This will be perhaps the most contentious part of our endeavor. Relativism has been decried as either a major philosophical mistake or the basis for licen- tiousness and lack of ethics. However, the brand of relativism that I shall follow does not allow for such things, quite on the contrary. I have called it ‘systemic relativism’. There shall be no relativism within a carefully de- fined system of thought, but the precise definitions, premisses and methods of that system, what we shall call its context, will always remain subject to criticism, say from ‘outside’. This process of criticizing a given system nec- essarily requires the definition and development of a new system of thought outside the original, with its own premisses and methods. Following that insight, we shall need to reconsider such age old notions like ‘semantics’ (or the meaning of utterances), ‘truth’, ‘freedom’ and ‘epistemology’ (or the theory of knowledge), none of which will have an ‘intrinsic’ or abso- lute meaning. We shall have to clarify these notions in the new context of systemic relativism, devoting several chapters to them.
However, the main issue this book aims at, is the development of ethics in the context of systemic relativism. We shall discover that the incidence of chaos and emergent behavior makes unfettered creativity possible, only limited by controlling power structures, which are mostly emergent as well, that is, largely unpredictable. Although ‘survival of the fittest’ (within a specific environmental context) is the natural biological controlling prin- ciple, the evolution of life has gradually developed intelligence as another, very successful, steering principle. Ethics will be seen as an intelligent layer that supervises the quality of the systems humans and their societies try to develop, much like design engineers do, who use the knowledge of their art and the goals of their designs to implement their quality ambitions. Ethics so becomes an evolutionary driving force in its own right, defining novel teleologies based on intelligent quality assessments. These may be well conceived or not, but without ethics, any new development would lack direction, but, as there is no absolute ‘good’ in systemic relativism, there is no absolute ethics either. All actual ethics will hence need control on its quality as well. Such an escalating process of evaluations necessarily makes all ethics evolutionary. How this works out is an important part of our treatment of ethics.
Our exploration then ends with a critical analysis of the common notions ‘principles’ and ‘religion’, and a comparison of the likeness or differences with some other systems of thought. Given the wealth of topics to be considered and their intricacies, our exploration will only be a beginning, and an invitation for ever deepening further forays. But this is not any different than any other scientific exploration. The more we get to know, the more questions emerge, or, as the old Chinese poet-philosopher puts it,
From wonder into wonder existence opens.