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Symmetry and its symbolic values:

Purity, perfection, eternity, beauty

In classical Greek culture symmetry was a top benchmark. It symbolized purity, perfection, eternity, and beauty. These abstract references were probably imported from Egypt (or from the East) by the ancient Greeks. From there they spread to the West influencing our ways of thinking including ethics, arts, science, and technology. Whilst visiting the Museum of Art and History in Thessaloniki, my guide said: “Unless you understand symmetry, you will not understand Greek art and philosophy, nor Greek science, including astronomy”.

Symmetry, the ultimate reference, has resulted in idealized moral values regarding care for oneself, one’s happiness, and personal virtues: perfection, purity; Christianity even promised us eternal life. Symmetry gave rise to numerous deterministic moral theories as well: Epicurus, Plato, Spinoza, Kant.

Unlike the hard sciences which confirm their theories through experimentation, classical moral theories are difficult to verify and therefore less credible. In fact, they are usually based on traditions, beliefs, and various degrees of speculation. Furthermore, their quest for overly absolute values resulted in unsustainable and tyrannical political-religious constraints over the centuries.

Focusing on Man as the “measure of all things”, ancient ethics blamed mankind and deemed it responsible for all evil. A liberation movement emerged with the advent of “freedom of conscience”, postulated by Luther around 1520, and this form of thinking further solidified its status with the French Revolution and the Declaration of Human Rights in 1789. It was then spread across the globe in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Freedom of Conscience has undoubtedly set free the energies of entrepreneurs and freethinkers; it may even have contributed to the rise of capitalism (Max Weber), but it also presents some serious disadvantages:

  • It is highly subjective and favours individualism at the expense of the “common good” (focusing on Man, it ignores the environment and considers it as just a habitat in the service of Man).
  • It is not appropriate for institutions, as they have no conscience; however, institutions play a leading role in society. The individuals in charge of these institutions who wish to promote their ethical values are not free to do so because they owe their loyalty and faithfulness to their employer. Institutions always have good excuses for ignoring legitimate criticism: superior reasoning, State secrets, budget considerations, etc.
  • Lastly, this freedom – which lacks any formal limits – has paved the way to excess.

We therefore need a new form of ethics for institutions in order to provide a counterbalance to the Freedom of Conscience of the individual players, some of whom have an incorrigible need to accumulate and think only of their own interests. It should be pointed out that in our current economic system individuals are often threatened, humiliated, and harassed. We must accept that they are primarily defending their interests or the interests of their family or relatives since the competition is so tough. One can reform institutions, but not Humans. This system of ethics should thus be based on more “objective” values. By directing institutional actions towards the common good with more fairness and justice it would regain the trust of the people who have been outraged by abuses in the past. So far, institutions have all too often favoured the private interests of a minority by reinforcing the natural and selfish inclinations of the individual. A rebalancing is necessary.

An ethical system has no value unless it is shared. In the context of globalization, we need a “universal” ethical system. Religious ethics are local and differ from one place to another. Reliable ethics, shared by many (like the metric system) would allow for a more harmonious process of globalization. The inflation of ethical systems has created a Tower of Babel and a great confusion of values. Having too many ethical systems kills Ethics!

In the scientific disciplines, references to perfect symmetry have been successful, as evidence by the discoveries of Albert Einstein who started from the notion of symmetry to construct the theory of general relativity. However they lead us to perceive the world as an abstract construction, totally determined and non evolutionary. From symmetry point of view, the world is like a perfect image. This referential system contradicts the discoveries of Charles Darwin and the quantum mechanics and does not enable us to see the film of the real changing world, of life and its evolution. Lets have a look at what “broken symmetry” has in store for us.