What should we make of this world?

What should we make of this world?

Panu Raatikainen

Philosophical ideals include truth, wisdom and the good society. But how are these values being realised in Finland right now? We asked Panu Raatikainen, an adjunct professor of theoretical philosophy and a university lecturer at the University of Tampere.

Brexit, criticism of immigration, racism and the Minister of Finance’s glib “sorry about that” answer: in recent months and years, the events and social climate of Finland and elsewhere have made many people wonder what on earth is going on and where exactly we are heading.

We sought answers from philosophy, which as a discipline focuses on the nature of values, the good society and being human. Fortunately, we had Panu to offer us some answers.

Appreciating knowledge and science
I do not know if the world has ever been ideal from the point of view of appreciating knowledge, but right now it feels as though we are going backwards, even here in Finland. Although we Finns have perhaps been somewhat old-fashioned, knowledge and education have always been valued in our society. Now they are despised: conducting research is labelled as tinkering with unimportant trivialities and it is claimed that science is ideologically tinted.
However, science is the best social mechanism we have for producing knowledge. None of us possesses the truth, but when we join together to criticise and correct mistakes, we are at least slowly getting closer to the truth.

Devaluing truth is related to the current culture of insolence. It is very bizarre, but it suddenly seems permitted to lie in public and be proud of it. Of course, people have always known that politicians lie, but there is still something new in how blatant and frequent the politician’s lies have become.

This is a global problem. Brexit is a European example of what despising knowledge and truth may lead to. The politicians promoting Brexit blurted out whatever they wanted and the tabloids also had a large role in the process. Politics was conducted using feelings, not facts.

Another example is the popularity of Donald Trump in the presidential elections of the United States. There seems to be a widespread trend in politics that you gain power when you brazenly colour your message. Even when you are caught out lying, it seems to be enough to just deny that you ever lied and to repeat your message.

However, the truth is not just an academic luxury. Our efforts to change the world for the better are based on many beliefs about reality and its interconnections. If beliefs are not even approximately true, efforts to make the world a better place are doomed. For example, if I tried to eliminate unemployment by sacrificing chickens to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, unemployment would probably not disappear. Factual information is needed for reforms that actually work.

The world keeps getting more complex. This places greater demands on democracy to ensure that cheap populism does not increase at the expense of facts. Free, high-quality communications and education for all are the vital ingredients of a working democracy. There is no hope for democracy if communications are unreliable and of an inferior standard. Such a scenario would just pave the way for social changes that are based on lies, as the case of Brexit shows.

The Nordic democratic system is good, but there are some worrisome signs here, too. For example, the media is partly to blame for its crisis of credibility and the rise of false media. If the mainstream media had done a better and less biased job, there would be less demand for alternative media. Luckily, this trend is being countered by in-depth, high-quality journalism.

Finns have never had such a hostile attitude to education and research before, so it is difficult to compare the current situation to anything in our history. We used to have very strong consensus that education is the key to our country’s success, and from that perspective the current values are barbaric.

The cutbacks in education are harsh and unevenly distributed. In the worst case scenario, the consequences will be paralysing.

An educated population is a precondition for a good society. Sufficient general knowledge and critical media skills prevent the rise of authoritarian populist forces that trample on human rights. In addition, education and research are essential prerequisites for the innovations that will renew our export industries, without which Finland has no chance of surviving in the cut throat global market. With these cutbacks, Finland is sawing off the branch it is sitting on.

The rise of racism is very alarming. Talking about “criticising immigration” is only a euphemism and an attempt to make racism more presentable, and people should not get caught up in this rhetoric unawares. Finland has a strict immigration policy and being granted asylum here is difficult, but such facts do not count in racist talk.

However, I can see light at the end of the tunnel. There is apparently no mass racist movement in Finland. Instead, we have seen the high point of such movements and the racist groups are currently disintegrating through in-fighting into smaller factions. In this sense, I am more optimistic than I was a year ago, for example.

Finland is not a very likely target for a terrorist attack. Attacking Finland would not guarantee the same global media visibility as a strike in London, New York or another metropolis.

So far, the only form of terrorism evident in Finland is terrorism against immigrants. I find it strange that the arson attempts on refugee reception centres are not officially described as terrorism.

Moreover, terrorism should be looked at with a longer time perspective than one or two years. If you only look back just a year or two, it seems that there has been a constant flow of terrorist attacks. But if you look at a longer period of time, such as ten or twenty years, you see that sometimes there were several attacks in a short period of time and then everything was quiet for years. The number of attacks fluctuates.

Donald Trump
Trump’s success in the United States is something that we should be worried about. It is nerve-wracking to think that the world’s only superpower is close to electing an individual who does not care about human rights and wants to drop nuclear bombs on countries he does not like very much. Of course, some of Trump’s talk is sheer rhetoric, but sometimes it is hard to distinguish which part that is.

The reasons for Trump’s popularity may be hard to understand from the Nordic perspective, as we live in countries with well-educated populations and do not have similar class divisions as the United States and the United Kingdom. In these countries, a large part of the working class is doomed to ignorance. An equal society and good education are a vaccination that would work against such phenomena as Trump’s popularity.

Populists talk about bubbles. They claim that the proponents of certain ideas, academics and people living in larger cities live inside their own bubbles. However, talking about bubbles is similar to talking about fairy tale characters. Such talk grossly underestimates how well Finns are connected via various networks. Art directors living in the centre of Helsinki are not such a large or significant group that they should be constantly talked about. The majority of academic city-dwellers have come from provinces such as Savo, Pohjanmaa and Lapland, and most of them personally know workers and unemployed people.

Social media outrage
Social media outrage is fed by scandalous headlines, which produce false images. On the other hand, social media outrage may be the only weapon ordinary people have if the authorities are doing things wrong. People must have the right to get angry. Nevertheless, in order to bring about real social change, they should be angry about relevant things.

Text: Hanna Hyvärinen
Pictures: Jonne Renvall

Panu Raatikainen

University lecturer of theoretical philosophy at the University of Tampere, adjunct professor at the University of Tampere and the University of Helsinki
Raatikainen has researched, among other things, truth theories and the incompleteness and undecidability theorems of logic. He is interested in semantic externalism, research ethics, the explanation-understanding and the individualism-holism debates in the philosophy of the social sciences, the objectivity of mathematical truths and the history and development of analytic philosophy.
His ongoing research focuses on the problematics of mental causation and free will and the philosophical theory of meaning.
He writes a blog about social and political events and columns for the newspaper Kansan Uutiset.