Pool Table v. Lava Lamp

Would you say that the interaction among people, objects and ideas is more like balls on a pool table or the goo inside a lava lamp? I know this seems like an esoteric question. Hang with me though. The answer you give is really important.

In my last post I wrote about pragmatist philosophy. One element of this way of thinking is an emphasis on the interconnected nature of experience. This isn’t to say that “all is one”– the world is certainly made up of lots of different kinds of stuff– but instead, that all is relational, dynamic. People and ideas and objects, as William James says, exist in a state of constant flux. They’re always changing, always influencing each other in new, unpredictable ways. In other words, to James and John Dewey and myself, the world looks like the goo inside a lava lamp– everything in constant motion, effecting change, but at the same time, being changed.

Of course, not everyone is a pragmatist. Some thinkers view people, objects and ideas as separate, self-contained entities. Things exist as they are. Good is good, dog is dog, Bob is Bob. When they come into contact, one thing can affect another, for example, Bob can pet dog, but change isn’t necessarily mutual. There’s a certain consistency to things, which means that given enough time (and computing power) courses can be charted, consequences mapped. In other words, for these thinkers human experience is like a pool table– a world of cause and effect, solid objects and straight lines.

I know this is some heady stuff. It’s not just metaphysical speculation though. For example, consider the case of Paul Ehrlich, author of the 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb. Ehrlich claimed that by the mid-1970s the world was going to run out of food. He wanted to put sterilants in water and cut off India from foreign aid (because the Indians were all going to starve anyway). Ehrlich is a respected figure; his claims were reasonable, based on statistics and historical data.

Of course, nothing Ehrlich predicted came to pass. Food supplies have increased, while almost universally, population growth rates have declined. Where did Ehrlich go wrong? In my opinion, his predictions were off because he failed to see the world as a dynamic system. Humans, unlike numbers in an equation, change in response to their environment. In this case, scientists discovered new agriculture methods. Women stopped having so many children. In short, people, objects and ideas influenced each other and began to interact in new, unpredictable ways. They didn’t just bounce around like balls on a pool table.

The case of the defused population bomb is just one example of the dangers of static, atomistic thinking. Our world is in constant flux. Whether writing poetry or predicting the apocalypse, we should keep this in mind.

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