3. Where Does Philosophy Come Into It ?
Philosophy enters the picture because at its heart the nutrition debate is about ETHICS, what it is to eat well, to live well, and ethical questions belong firmly within the domain of philosophical discussion.
For the most part, the current debate over diet and nutrition is conducted in scientific terms. It is important, however, to understand correctly why this is so. It is NOT because the question of what we should be eating is about science, or one that science can or will settle. Science is simply the terrain of battle, the field on which the conflict between different ethical conceptions are fighting it out. Science plays this role because it is the preferred terrain of our opponents, the nutrition establishment, as their appeal to authority rests on the claim to be ‘evidence-based’, on established scientific truths. On closer examination however, it turns out that these are fraudulent claims, that genuine science does not support their position at all. This creates a contradiction, one which means that a successful challenge to the mainstream’s ‘science’ will bring the whole house of cards crashing down. This is why the scientific argument is so important.
Once the structure collapses, however, what then ? Our task is not simply to tear down, but to build up, to lay a new foundation on which to decide what it is to live well, and how we should eat within that conception. This is where philosophy steps in, for we are now in the realm of ethics, and the ethical realm is a philosophical one.
what is philosophy ?
What is philosophy ? It is an examination of that which is in question, philosophy is both the act of placing in question, and an attempt to arrive at an answer, no matter how provisional. Ethics belongs within the realm of philosophical questioning because the question of ethics – ‘how are we to live ?’ – is ALWAYS in question, it is always OPEN, there is NEVER a definitive answer that can put an end to the discussion.
Our tradition of philosophy, the Western, began in the colonies of Ancient Greece, on Asia Minor. It is no accident that its origin lay here, because colonial settlements always represent a new start within an existing culture, an opportunity to throw out what is not wanted, and to retain what is. The early colonies of the British Empire were no different, and led to the American Revolution in one case, in others like Australia and New Zealand to new nations with a more egalitarian set of social values. Among the Ancients, philosophy returned to its motherland of Athens at that point in Greek civilisation when it was already past its prime and had started to question itself, the foundations of its culture, its religion. This was the essence of Socrates’ contribution, his statement, ‘the only thing I know is that I know nothing’.
Philosophy steps to the fore during the period of a civilisation’s decline, when it begins to doubt itself, when its very foundations are thrown into question. Historically, this places it in conflict with religion, the dominant belief system of a culture. In Modern times, our religion is SCIENCE, which goes hand in hand with the project of TECHNOLOGY. The promise of Modern science and technology is LIBERATION, from the constraints of nature and society, from any idea that there exists a natural or a social order to which we belong, and that we are well advised to conform to. Instead, the goal is to escape any limitations such an order might place on us, either through political emancipation or technical devices. This is why EQUALITY and FREEDOM are the guiding slogans of our era and have been since the French Revolution, still the defining moment of our time, alongside Hiroshima and perhaps the bombing of Dresden.
Philosophers have long since grasped the essence of Modernity. Nietzsche captured it in the phrase, ‘the devaluation of all values’, and Heidegger as ‘the confrontation with global technology’. Our age is one that is both nihilistic and totalitarian at the same time, two sides of the one coin, liberation and barbarism hand in hand together. Our freedom is the source of our enslavement, the void in our souls filled by addictive pleasures, from fast food to Netflix, opioids to spectator sport.
Science - centre stage, but stifled
In its purest form, science is the noble pursuit of truth for its own sake. All the greatest scientists were amateurs, individuals with the talent and opportunity to explore the unknown, isolated and insulated from the realities of life, its struggles and demands. In our period, however, science has been placed centre stage, at the core of our social identity, tied at the hip to the technological drive for total control over every aspect of our environment, to remove anything that might be considered harmful or negative in some way, any source of discomfort or inconvenience, and substitute it with infinite varieties of pleasure. This shift has been the death of science in its pure form, and has led to absolute stagnation or regression in all but a handful of disciplines. Scientific inquiry has been effectively stifled by institutional, ideological, political, commercial, and personal considerations, and can progress at all only when this coincides with these other interests.
It has also been rendered arbitrary, subject to the whims of history, accidents of fate, its course randomly decided by force of personality. This is as true in the nutrition field as anywhere else, Ancel Keys is not the exception, he is the NORM. All the giants of Modern science turn out to be frauds, cheats, this was true of Pasteur, who confessed on his deathbed, or Einstein, who plagiarised his assistant’s work, or… take your pick. The ‘truth’ always took second place with any of these key figures, just as it does with pharmaceutical trials, or epidemiological studies, because FAR MORE IMPORTANT things are at stake, starting with reputations and careers, leading right up to the fate of nations or global corporations.
Genuine science does still exist, but it is being carried out exclusively by mavericks, outsiders, on the fringes, or often from a different field altogether and so able to fly under the radar for a while or create some institutional space to do interesting work. In some cases they are defectors from orthodoxy, well enough established to get away with their heresy, or not to care if they don’t, but these are few and far between.
This is the supreme irony of our time, that the elevation of science into a religion, as the dominant belief system of our social order, has meant the death of scientific inquiry, or at least its relegation to the margins. In the larger scheme of things, however, this does not really matter, for the real test is the one posed by ethics – it is the question, ‘are we living well, is this a good life ?’. Some people still believe we are, the current order has its supporters, but their numbers are falling, everywhere we see doubt and mistrust, cynicism and despair. This is why our period is usually referred to as ‘post-modern’ rather than Modern, this civilisation is past its peak, we have entered a period of decay and decline. This too is reflected in the popular mood, in a general sense of foreboding, that we cannot continue as we are, not for long, as well as in the apocalyptic visions portrayed through countless movies and TV series, in the sometimes hysterical activism around environmental issues, in the rise of death cults such as veganism, in the collapsing fertility rate across the Western world.
It is in this context that philosophy has its role to play, in challenging the dominant religion of the time, science, and the nihilistic project it has given birth to, global technology. The task for philosophers is to raise the question of ethics and place it at the centre of the debate, whether over nutrition or anything else, for this is what is at stake in the discussion. All the major positions in the arguments over diet and food (see here), whether inside or outside the mainstream, represent ETHICAL standpoints, they reflect VALUE systems, and should be evaluated on those grounds, as an answer to the question, ‘how are we to live, what is our conception of the good life ?’.
Philosophy cannot provide a definitive answer to this question, that is not its function. For that we require something else, TRADITION, which I will take up next time, in the final part of this series.
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