Category Archives: Meaninglessness

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish (Or, A Tribute to Cassini)

At 7:55 EST this morning, the Cassini spacecraft sent its final message to Earth before plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere. Reaching speeds over 77,200 miles (144,200 kilometers) per hour, Cassini experienced temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun, causing the spacecraft to char and break apart, its elemental components ultimately diluting in the atmosphere of the gas giant. As NASA poetically put it, Cassini is now a part of the planet it studied.

It sent data back to Earth right up until the end.

It may seem strange that the spacecraft was slated for destruction while previous missions, such as Voyagers 1 and 2 continue, with both probes still heading deeper into space after 40 years of exploration. Yet no such fate was appropriate for Cassini.

Among the most remarkable findings of the Cassini mission came from Saturn’s moons: icy Enceladus was found to have a global ocean and geyser-like jets spewing water vapor. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was discovered to have seas of liquid methane and an ocean of water and ammonia deep below the surface. Both moons provide promising avenues of research for that most thrilling and elusive topic: life itself.

Allowing Cassini to live out the rest of its life naturally, transmitting data well past when it had depleted its fuel reserves, would have put both those moons at risk. Cassini had to devote its final fuel to its own safe disposal.

It seems a strange thing to find the destruction of a spacecraft so moving. Cassini was machine: it felt nothing, desired nothing. It undertook an impressively successful mission and now, nearly 20 years after its launch from Cape Canaveral, it was time for that mission to come to an end.

Yet don’t we all wish to live and die so nobly? To make profound contributions through our efforts and to gracefully exit in a poetic blaze at the appropriate time?

It is beautiful to think of Cassini – a spacecraft I have loved and followed for over a decade – reduced to dust and becoming one with the planet to which it devoted much of its existence; and doing so in service to the remarkable moons with which it was intimately and uniquely acquainted.

If we are to believe Camus, all our fates are absurd; the workman toils everyday at the same tasks. Yet, in itself, this fact need not be tragic.

Truly, there is no meaning in the destruction of a spacecraft which has served well its purpose. Yet it is in these moments – when we find beauty and profoundness in the absurd; when we ascribe nobility to practical acts which mean nothing – these are the moments of consciousness. When we experience wonder generated from the mere act of living. The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.

So thank you, Cassini, for your decades of service. Thank you for the rich array of data you have shared with us, and thank you to the many, many people who made this mission possible. Because of you, I – and the rest of humanity – have seen and learned things we would have never experienced otherwise. There can be no greater gift than that.


Language and Communication

Exactly what does it take for something to be communicated?

This question gained specific prominence during the second world war when cryptographers, such as Claude Shannon, sought to maximally compress information for transmission. To successfully transmit a message, for example, you don’t have to transmit every letter of it. English – as well as other natural languages – have fairly low entropy. Given a partial string of characters, it’s actually relatively easy to guess which character comes nex_.

So, once you get beyond a certain Wittgensteinian fear that one person can never truly understand the perceptions another seeks to communicate – communication is actually relatively easy.

Recent research from Uri Hasson has found that people’s brainwaves actually sync up when one person is listening to another. The listener’s waves first mimic the brainwaves of the speaker, and then the listener’s brainwaves begin to precede those of the speaker – as the listener begins to predict what the speaker will say next.

I find myself particularly interested in the question of inter-language communication. Of course, sharing a language makes communicating easier, and I’d be incline to agree that common language is required for particularly meaningful exchange.

But at the most fundamental level, I don’t think a common language is required for the most basic acts of communicating.

When I was in my early twenties, I found myself babysitting my bilingual niece with a cousin of hers who was my age and who only spoke Hindi.

And let me tell you – we didn’t need words to determine that my niece was trying to pull one over on us every time she insisted that the other adult had given permission for a given activity. No, neither of us wanted her jumping on the bed.

Sharing a language, of course, makes things easier. But it’s also possible to communicate – in Shannon’s terminology – through compressed signals. Through eye rolls, through questioning looks, and through smiles.

The Internet and Modernity

Reading Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked I was struck by their rebuttal of the argument put forth by McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Brashears; an argument which rings throughout the work of Putnam and other scholars: modern individuals are sad, hollow, isolated shells of humanity and modern technologies like the internet is what made this so.

Perhaps I was struck simply because this is an argument I have given so little serious attention. I am way past even considering concerns that video games make you violent, rock n’ roll leads to devil worship, or that the internet has led to the collapse of our civic infrastructure. It is interesting to consider as a factor, perhaps, to scapegoat the internet – to use Rainie and Wellman’s term – strikes me as absurd.

Rainie and Wellman argue that this “fixation on the internet” ignores “nearly a century of research showing that technological changes before the internet – planes, trains, telephones, telegraphs, and cars – neither destroyed relations and communities nor left them alone as remnants locked up in rural and urban villages.”

In defense of the internet, they point to the fact that “when asked, few people say that they, themselves, are living lives of lonely desperation.” And thus they find it wearisome  that “even with these realizations, some people – and commentators – believe that they are the exceptions and that the masses around them are lonely, isolated, and fearful.”

“There is,” they assure us, “no reason to panic.”

Perhaps what is most striking about this debate – internet: friend or foe? – is that the problem isn’t really one of the modern moment; it is more properly a problem of modernity; an era that stretches back as far as one might dare to extend the concepts of modern thought or sensibilities.

In 1854 – which is, if I’m not mistaken, before the widespread popularity of the internet – Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Thoreau went to the woods because he wished to live deliberately; because he yearned to escape the crushing speed and pressures of modern life. 1854 modern life that is. As he famously opens Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…

A contemporary Thoreau might say the same about turning of Facebook or sticking with a flip phone; it’s a challenge of modernity not a problem of technology.

1942 Albert Camus wrote of the absurd tragedy of Sisyphus, that Greek hero who was condemned to “ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight.” Camus, too, points to the challenge of modernity: “The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”

From this perspective, the internet and other technologies have given us increased distraction; increased refuge from the crushing reality of the emptiness that is life.  Which is not to say without these technologies our burden would be relieved; no, we would simply find other ways of burying the truth, of hiding from the void.

The problem, then – if, indeed, there is a problem at all – cannot be laid at the feed of the internet or of specific online platforms. The challenge is much deeper and much more mundane. It is not a challenge of how we live in an ever connected world, it is a fundamental challenge of modern life: how do we live an average, daily life knowing everything that we deeply know?

How, in the words of modern youth, do we even?

Optimism and Futility

People often tell me that they find my writing optimistic. Indeed, this is a primary reason people frequently give me for why they enjoy my writing. It’s just so optimistic. Well, not saccharine-sweet, over-the-top optimistic, but optimistic nonetheless.

I find this hilarious.

I wouldn’t self-identify as an optimist, and those who know me are likely to be familiar with my habit of giving a big teenage eye roll to concepts like ‘hope’ while periodically ranting about why hope is not required. But perhaps I’m an optimist despite myself.

Or perhaps I simply spend too much time reading Camus, who famously argues that we must find joy and meaning in futile and hopeless labor. Indeed, we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

We live in dark times. Every day the news seems to get worse, and our social challenges run so deep and come from so many directions that it seems nearly impossible that we could even begin to tackle them at all.

But that is no reason not to try.

And this, I suppose, is why I get labeled an optimist. Given the choice between action and paralyzed grief, I’d choose action every time. It’s really the only choice there is.

I’d like to think that the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice; that if we work hard enough and fight forcefully enough we can indeed leave this world a little better than we found it.

But the truth is, none of that matters. It hardly matters if all this amounts to is hopeless and futile labor because that is all there is – inaction isn’t a viable option.

All that is left is to return to our rock, to keep on pushing even when we know that there is no point. We keep on fighting for justice – ceaselessly, tirelessly working towards that vision; straining with all our might – because to do otherwise is untenable. As Camus writes, the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.

Indeed, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Hope and Utopia

There is a common sentiment that hope is required for social action. We must hold on to hope. We must not give in to despair.

Perhaps it is simply the contrarian in me, but I cannot help but sigh when hearing these exhortations. We must hold on to hope? Why?

On the surface, I suppose it seem like a perfectly reasonably thing to say. So reasonable, in fact, that people often don’t take the time to justify the claim. We must hold on to hope as surely as we must see that the sky is blue – it is just the way things are.

This only makes me question harder.

In The Task of Utopia, Erin McKenna defends the value of utopian visions, repeating several times throughout the book, “utopian visions are visions of hope.” By which she means that they “challenge us to explore a range of possible human conditions.”

Hope is required, then, because only hope can inspire us to imagine that things might be different and only hope can motivate us to work towards those visions.

Importantly, McKenna advocates against static, end-state models of utopia, in which “hope” essentially becomes shorthand for “hope that a (near) perfect future is possible and achievable.”

Instead, McKenna articulates her hopeful vision as a process:

If one can get beyond trying to achieve final perfect end-states and accept that there are instead multiple possible futures-in-process, one has taken the first step in understanding the responsibility each of us has to the future in deciding how to live our lives now.

In this way, “hope” is a sort of future-awareness. It is not a feeling or an emotion per se, but minimally hope is a sense that there will be a future self which our present self has some power over shaping.

I generally take the term “hope” to be somewhat more optimistically inclined, but even under this broad definition, I still find myself skeptical of hope as a necessity.

Consider the character of Jean Tarrou from Albert Camus’ The Plague. After the city of Oran is quarantined following a deadly outbreak of plague, Tarrou organizes volunteers to help the sick and try to fight off the plague.

One could argue that he had hope in the manner described above – perhaps he imagined a future in which the city was no longer wracked by disease; perhaps he imagined his actions could play a role in creating that future. Such a future-vision combined with a sense of agency could be described as hope.

But it is exactly this story which motivates me to be skeptical of hope as a required element of social change.

The situation in Oran is desperate. There is every reason to think that all the city’s inhabitants will eventually succumb to the plague. Perhaps Tarrou’s efforts may stave off some deaths for a time, but in the middle of the novel it is reasonable to believe that Tarrou’s efforts will make no real difference. Either way, the outcome will be the same.

Many of Oran’s inhabitants seem to feel this way. In the face of almost certain death, people celebrate wildly at night, finally free of the taboos and inhibitions which had previously kept them more orderly. They had lost a vision of the future in which their actions played a part. They had lost hope.

Yet there is no reason to think that Tarrou felt any differently. Faced with almost certain death, accepting of the knowledge that his actions would make no difference, Tarrou still works to fight the plague.

He has no hope, it is simply what you do.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, another piece by Camus, he snarkily comments of Sisyphus’ labor that “the gods had thought that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

But life is futile and hopeless labor. This is, in fact, the essence of being alive. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus writes.

Hope is not required.

I am heavily persuaded by McKenna’s process-model of utopia, but find hope to be a somewhat superfluous element. Her vision requires the imagination to conceive of possible futures, and it takes the agency to act in seeking those possible futures, but it does not require hope that those futures are achievable nor hope that one’s efforts will have impact.

In fact, I imagine the process-model as thriving better without hope. This vision finds that the future is and always will be imperfect. Perfection is neither desirable nor achievable. Abandoning hope means accepting the future as flawed, accepting ourselves as flawed. Most of us will probably have no impact, and most of us will never witness the futures we dream of. But that lack of hope is not a reason not to act – indeed, in abandoning such hope, our actions and our choices are all that we have left.



Nothing-ing Something

It seems reasonably accepted that a person can like something or dislike something, but is it possible in a most sincere, fundamental way, to nothing something?

To explore this question, we first must understand what it would mean to nothing something – assuming such an action were possible.

At it’s core, nothing-ing something is an active response – just as it requires at least some level of attention to like or dislike something. You can’t nothing something purely by virtue of being unaware of it; you have to observe, process, and actively elect to respond with nothingness.

Perhaps this seems like the worst kind of egoism – to declare your position nothing is to claim yourself free from bias and partiality.

But I would be inclined to take a different view – nothing-ing is rather an expression of humility. It is the act of observing, of accepting an external object as a thing which exists in the world, and of recognizing one’s own inability to sit in judgement of that thing.

In Camus’ An Absurd Reasoning, he ties the state of nothing-ing to the absurd – that distinctive existential Nirvana:

In certain situations, replying “nothing” when asked what one is thinking about may be pretense in a man. Those who are loved are well aware of this. But if that reply is sincere, if it symbolizes that odd state of the soul in which the void becomes eloquent, in which the chain of daily gestures is broken, in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will connect it again, then it is as the first sign of absurdity.

Thus the act of nothing-ing, if genuinely achieved, is a critical step towards embracing the absurd. Camus goes on to clarify what he means by the absurd:

I said that the world is absurd, but I was too hasty. This world in itself is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart. The absurd depends as much on man as on the world. For the moment is it all that links them together…This is all I can discern clearly in this measureless universe where my adventure takes place.

Existentialist enlightenment, then, comes from recognizing one’s own wild longing for clarity  in an unreasonable universe – and reconciling the two by nothing-ing; by being comfortable with that absurd reality.

But perhaps it is not possible to nothing.

The Tao Te Ching argues:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

Being and non-being create each other.
Difficult and easy support each other.
Long and short define each other.
High and low depend on each other.
Before and after follow each other.

Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn’t possess,
acts but doesn’t expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever.

This chapter seems to imply that nothing-ing may be a valuable route to avoid the ugly and bad – with the worthy sacrifice of the beautiful and good. Yet the seeming contradictions leave one wondering if such a state – even if desirable – is truly attainable.

Learn to act without doing anything, and the ability to nothing is yours.

While the philosophy of Lao Tzu in many ways seems similar to Camus, the above passage perhaps stands in contrast from the latter’s words in The Myth of SisyphusThere is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.

Rather than avoiding differentiating between good and bad, Camus would have us embrace them both.

I’m not sure, however, the extent to which these ideas conflict. Embracing the absurd means accepting the good and the bad, accepting that – despite our longing otherwise – the world is not reasonable.

Lao Tzu only argues for the necessity of these opposites; that appreciating beauty is the creating of ugly, and we should therefore not be too quick to judge which opposite is good and which opposite bad.

But his words could easily be interpreted as in line with the later thinking of Camus. Perhaps nothing-ing is not the act of responding without bias, indeed it is not a neutral action at all. It is rather the act of appreciating things as they are; beautiful or ugly, good or bad. It is all of it meaningless, all of it absurd.

There is nothing left but – nothing.

Reasoning and Absurdity

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates describes the human soul as consisting of three parts, which he describes through allegory: “two horses and a charioteer.” Furthermore, “one of the horses was good and the other bad.”

More precisely, one horse “is a lover of honour and modesty and temperance, and the follower of true glory,” while the other, a “crooked lumbering animal,” is “the mate of insolence and pride, shag-eared and deaf, hardly yielding to whip and spur.”

This tripartite image captures an understanding the soul which has continued to permeate Western thought. The good horse is man’s noble spirit (thymos), the other his wild appetites (epithymia). The charioteer, tasked with the difficult task balancing the instincts of these two beasts, has the most crucial role: this is man’s reason (logos) itself.

In this struggle, “if the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail, then they pass their life here in happiness and harmony – masters of themselves and orderly.”

Aristotle seems to invoke a similar argument when he comments in Nicomachean Ethics, “as sight is in the body, so is reason in the soul.”

Reason, it seems, is fundamental to who we are as human people – and, perhaps more importantly, is essential to what it means to be a good person.

As with many things, though, this Greek ideal is complicated by the realities of modernity.

This classical Greek understanding goes beyond finding the act of reasoning to be good. Reason is not merely a process through which unique people may come to unique conclusions, rather it is the tool through which we may ultimately uncover Truth. Singular, universal, Truth.

This is problematic in a pluralistic world.

While there may be some moral stances on which all reasonable people could agree, asserting the existence of Truth – whether or not you claim to have discovered that Truth – amounts to the harsh assertion that some people are right and some people are wrong; that some religions are right and some religions are wrong; that some cultures are right and some cultures are wrong.

Such a position is untenable.

Thus, perhaps, we are plunged into despair. Holding diversity of thought and belief in high esteem means abandoning any pursuit of Truth and relinquishing the reins of reason. There is not one Truth that can be discovered through the scholarly art of reason; rather reason is little more than a mantle to drape around whichever views fit our fancy.

This is the challenge that Nietzsche refers to in On the Genealogy of Morals when he quotes the secret motto of the Order of Assassins: Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

The destruction of Truth, the dispersion of reason – while so very valuable in our pluralist, modern times – muddies the question of what is right and what is wrong. Where do cultural differences end and moral imperatives begin? How do you balance one person’s religious freedom with another’s personal freedom?

Nietzsche sees this an inescapable cycle, arguing that “all great things bring about their own demise through an act of self-sublimation.”

Thus reason must ultimately destroy itself – as reason will reveal that there is no Truth.

“What meaning does our being have, if it were not that that will to truth has become conscious of itself as a problem in us?” Nietzsche writes. “Without a doubt, from now on, morality will be destroyed by the will to truth’s becoming-conscious-of-itself: that great drama in a hundred acts reserved for Europe in the next two centuries, the most terrible, most questionable drama but perhaps also the one most rich in hope…”

“Rich in hope” is not the expression most people would use for this terrible drama. If nothing is true, everything is permitted. Only anarchy and nihilism can follow.

I myself am more drawn to Camus’ take on things. With his dry, French wit he sees the conflict but dismisses it as conflict. Yes, the world is absurd, he reasons. That’s not license to do as you will.

You are free, perhaps, to be a terrible person, but that doesn’t mean you ought to let yourself follow that path. You still need to steer your horses.

This is the message I get from much of Camus’ work: the world is absurd, life is meaningless, and with that freedom some will permit themselves to fulfill the worst of human nature. But we also have a choice to be good. And without any reasoning, without any truth to justify it, that’s the choice we ought to make.

In The Stranger, Meursault is rightfully punished while others’ every-day callousness goes shamefully unchecked. In The Plague, our heroes – faced with the absurd, seemingly certain result of death, continually choose to fight for life. In The Fall, our unnamed, damned narrator wistfully declares, “But let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!

The absurd is no reason to stop fighting for what’s right.

And yet, in much of his writing Camus is indirect with his moral claims; perhaps he finds little ground to judge the morality of others.

So I was struck this morning by the unwavering moral claims Camus’ makes in his 1946 speech “The Human Crisis:”

Yes, there is a human crisis because in today’s world, we can contemplate the death or the torture of a human being with a feeling of indifference, friendly concern, scientific interest, or simple passivity. Yes, there is a human crisis, since putting a person to death can be regarded with something other the horror and scandal it ought to provoke. Since human suffering is accepted as a somewhat boring obligation, on a par with getting supplies or having to stand in line for an ounce of butter.

There is a human crisis, because in a world where nothing is true, we foolishly assume that everything is permitted. We reason away our responsibilities, occasionally decrying perpetrators only to accept bystanders neutral. It’s not our responsibility, it is not our concern.

But Nietzsche is wrong; there is no death of morality and there is no death of truth. We may not always know what’s best, but Camus’ feels it in his bones: we still have an imperative to do what is right.

Bar Fight with Socrates

So, I have a running list of miscellaneous “post ideas.” Topics I’m thinking about but not ready to write on yet or things the come up over the weekend or a vacation.

I consult the list periodically to see if I’m moved to tackle a subject I may have neglected. And when I checked the list earlier this week, I saw I’d previously suggested a rather intriguing topic:

Bar Fight with Socrates, I’d written.

I’m not quite sure what I meant when I wrote that, though I hope someday I’m inspired to write a post far better than this one on the topic.

All I can imagine is that I was thinking – if I had a drink with Socrates, we’d probably get into a fight.

And not a proper dialectic debate with a little heat of intensity. I imagine a full our bar brawl.

Perhaps this image particularly struck me today because I just finished Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations – a work which I would desperately like to see turned into a one act play in which the protagonist gets increasing inebriated during his philosophical soliloquy.

Seriously. Wittgenstein writes like a drunk man talking to himself.  Which I mean, of course, as a complement.

What I want to teach is: to pass from unobvious nonsense to obvious nonsense.

A lot of Wittgenstein sounds like madness, but there’s a certain Zen meaning in his words. It reminds me of that old koan:

Before you study Zen, a mountain is a mountain
When you study Zen, a mountain is no longer a mountain
When you master Zen, a mountain is a mountain again

Wittgenstein is at home in the uncertainty. He tries to reason it all out using thoughtful, well crafted arguments. He tries to get at the root of language and meaning through examples and thought experiments. But even in doing so, he cleverly shows the folly of such an approach:

To say “This combination of words has no sense” excludes it from the sphere of language, and thereby bounds the domain of language. But when one draws a boundary, it may be for various kinds of reason. If I surround an area with a fence or a line or otherwise, the purpose may be to prevent someone from getting in or out; but it may also be part of a game and the players are supposed, say, to jump over the boundary; or it may show where the property of one person ends and that of another begins; and so on. So if I draw a boundary-line, that is not yet to say what I am drawing it for.

Compare all this to rigid Socrates, who always seemed to me to proudly use his skill in dialectic to belittle those around him. I have no doubt I’d lose to him in a debate, but I’m not sure I would consider it a fair fight.

Dialectic is a remarkable skill, no doubt, but is it wisdom?

I prefer the approach of Wittgenstein, who reflects:

But if someone says, “How am I to know what he means – I see only his signs?”, then I say, “How is he to know what he means, he too has only his signs?”

So Much Depends Upon

In 1938 William Carlos Williams published the now-famous poem The Red Wheelbarrow:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

In high school classrooms across the country, students are analyzing the poem, wondering just what depends on that wheelbarrow, thinking about man’s reliance on nature or, perhaps, man’s dominance of nature. Thinking about a circle of life, a circle of dependence or, perhaps, a cycle of interdependence.

so much depends

I love that line.

I imagine The Red Wheelbarrow as one man’s poem. A farmer, perhaps, thinking about the tools and nature that sustain his life. One man’s poem for one moment in time.

But we each might have our own poems.

so much depends

a young

stomping in the

Or perhaps…

so much depends

a long red

stretching through rain

Any moment can be miraculous. Perhaps every moment is miraculous.

Without any one moment, without one simple moment, the world is a different place. Shifted slightly. Not quite the same. Every moment matters.

so much depends

In Favor of Fatalism

You know, fatalism gets kind of a bum rap. As if a crushing sense of the deep futility of life is the worst thing that could happen in the world.

Yesterday, my colleague Peter Levine rightly expressed concern at the fatalism inspired by Paul Krugman, Cass Sunstein, and others when it comes to transforming our civil society. In a letter to the New York Review of Books, Levine joined Harry Boyte and Albert Dzur in writing:

Sunstein, like Habermas and many others, sees major institutions as largely fixed and unchangeable, not subject to democratizing change. This assumption generates fatalism, which has shrunk our imaginations about decision-making, politics, and democracy itself.

While I’d be inclined to agree that we shouldn’t consider institutions as fixed and unchangeable, I’m not convinced that an unmovable task should signal the end of the work. As I’ve written before, even if the cause is hopeless, sometimes it is still worth fighting for.

But perhaps more importantly, believing in the people’s ability to generate change doesn’t dissolve the possibility of fatalism.

Imagining institutions as malleable and subject to the will of the people, for example, doesn’t imply that change will always be good.

For his part, James C. Scott argues that “so many well-intended schemes to improve the human condition have gone so tragically awry.”

Scott warned of an authoritarian state that is “willing and able to use the full weight of its coercive power to bring these high-modernist designs into being.”

But this warning could be easily extended to the general will of the people. Perhaps the technocratic approach of a few experts imposing their vision is a project doomed to fail – but that doesn’t mean that the will of the people is destined to succeed.

For after all, what is the “will of the people”?

As Walter Lippmann has noted, there is no such thing. There is merely the illusion of society as a body, with a mind, a soul and a purpose, not as a collection of men, women and children whose minds, souls and purposes are variously related.”

And surely, people can be wrong.

Even if we were to overcome the challenges of factions, overcome the disparate opinions and experiences that shape us, even if we united diverse peoples in collaboration and dialogue, worked collectively to solve our problems – even then we would be prone to imperfection.

This, then, is the real fatalistic danger – What if people can change institutions, but the institutions they build will always be fundamentally flawed?

It’s like when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” seemed like a good idea. At the time it seemed progressive, welcoming even. It was a positive change, yet still deeply flawed.

But again, this fatalism doesn’t have to lead to paralysis.

In many ways, the intrinsically imperfect institution is the backbone of Roberto Unger’s thesis. Far from running short on ideas for change, Unger takes ideas to extremes.

He has no patience for what he calls “reformist tinkering,” preferring instead radical change, “smashing contexts.”

In Unger’s view it is exactly that reformist tinkering which leads to fatalism. “Only proposals that are hardly worth fighting for – reformist tinkering – seem practicable,” he writes.

Unmoved by these modest, mediocre plans, people feel resigned to accept the status quo, rather than thinking more radically about what might change.

But Unger confronts this fatalism in a surprising way: seemingly accepting the inevitability of failed human ventures, Unger recommends creating a whole branch of the government tasked with reforming and radicalizing any institution which has become too static.

He envisions a world where institutions are constantly being torn down and rebuilt to repair the mistakes of the past and meet the needs of the day.

What could go wrong? You can almost hear Scott say in response.

In defending his originalist view of the Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argues that interpreting the Constitution based off today’s morals “only works if you assume societies only get better. That they never rot.”

Justice Scalia may not be my model of justice, but he does have a point.

It would be almost foolish to assume we’ll never be imperfect. Unger goes too far.

But where does that leave us? In a world of broken institutions where change is a herculean task and where that change may not be the ideal solution we might hope for, it’s easy to how fatalism might be inspired.

But I still find myself thinking – fatalism isn’t so bad.

Regardless of the changes, regardless of the outcomes, as individual citizens we’re still left with three fundamental choices: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

Why choose to exercise voice?

Because really…what the hell else is there?

Perhaps it’s better that we go into it knowing that change is hard; accepting that human capacity to create perfect systems is limited.

We must constantly challenge ourselves and our works. Are we pushing for change hard enough? Are we expecting too much of our solutions?

After all It’s not a static world we’re fighting for, but one we can continually co-create together.