Philosophy for the 21st Century

Animals, and by extension humans, have never evolved to deal with abundance. A lion has to hunt for his every meal, and there is no fridge to stockpile the meat in for easy access. With the division of labor and progress in agricultural and farming technology, humans have solved the problem of food scarcity. We now can and do stockpile the food in our cupboards and fridges and our restaurants and cafes. There is an excess of food in the Western world, so much so that supermarkets have to throw bags of food out after every shift because the produce is past its use by date. Because we never had to deal with such a level of abundance before at any time in history, we mismanage it – we eat too much and we grow obese.

This is made worse by the fact that manufacturers are outright exploiting our weakness by stuffing their produce with sugar to make it even more addictive. We now have categories of food that in itself isn’t really food, it’s just snacks that are consumed for pleasure rather than to quench hunger: ice cream, chips, soft drinks, chocolates and so on. Growing overweight and sick is not the natural mechanism of the body for getting us to stop, it’s a symptom of the underlying problem of mismanaging the abundance of food at our disposal. The mechanism itself is not present – it was never needed before – which is why the obesity in the Western world is growing and will keep growing until we learn to manage abundance effectively.

In the same way, there is an abundance of “food” for the mind, which has been brought to us through the newspaper, the TV, and especially the Internet. Where our bodies crave sugar, our mind craves dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that gets released in our brains in various situations, specifically when we expect some sort of reward, and when that reward is received. During the release, we experience pleasure, which is why for example when an article headline promises to reveal something fascinating, we experience a desire to read it. Food manufacturers exploit the desire for sugar by producing addictive junk food, and now various media producers are doing the same with dopamine, creating sensationalist stories and mindless entertainment to keep us watching their channel or reading their articles. Worse, this media is spreading to all sorts of mobile devices so it can get to us at all times of the day.

Once again, there is no natural defense mechanism because we never had to deal with this level of abundance before. Even though we may be in troubled economic times, the Western world is still consumed by excess. Junk food, whether for body or for mind, is not made for the rich, it’s made for the masses (e.g. fast food chains, addictive snacks, yellow press, social media). Excess may have been an issue for the rich of ancient Rome, but now that the class divide is gone and we have created much greater abundance through technological advances it affects the rich and the poor alike.

What’s to be done? Learning to curb excess is the purpose of philosophy in the 21st century – at least until we have managed to do that effectively. I will not present solutions in this post – the topic is too broad – but both types of abundance mentioned above are receiving their due attention, with the latter probably less than necessary, but slowly picking up. For example, on the food front there are plenty of dietary books and fitness plans. On the overconsumption of information and entertainment side there is less – especially in practical advice – but more books and research are coming out every year, and the attention this topic is getting will only keep growing.

Ultimately, diet books and fitness plans are only a part of the solution because the problem lies in changing the way we live, and this comes down to an overreaching philosophy that covers all ground and ties it all together. Why shouldn’t we overeat or over-consume information? It goes deeper than tactical advice on how to attack specific issues – it comes down to what we believe in and what we want our lives to be, it’s about our purpose and our ethics. A philosophical way of life guides life through reason rather than impulse, and that is exactly what is required in order to overcome the problem of abundance. Unless we artificially create scarcity (which is impossible at this point) the body will keep on pushing us to overconsumption, and since it isn’t going to develop a defense mechanism any time soon, that task is for the mind to solve.

May 2012