Sunday, 29 November 2020

The Number of Things

Virginia Wilderness by Angelo Franco 2018
by Thomas Scarborough

What is the number of things in this world?

It might seem a trivial question—as to whether there are millions of things, or quintillions, or perhaps an infinite number.

Philosophers haven’t been much concerned. The mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell asked simply, ‘What things are there in the universe?’ while Socrates, in the 5th Century BC, asked ‘How many things are there which I do not want?’

The scientist Richard Colestock summarises the attitude of many today: ‘What are you going to do with this answer once you have it?’

While philosophers have, in various ways, given much thought to things, and sorts of things, the question as to the total number of things in the world has been largely overlooked. It has been of little interest to them how many things there are, outside any given field.

Yet it matters a great deal. There are core problems of philosophy which cannot be solved without deciding it.

Firstly, the total number of things is not fixed. This is due partly to the constant proliferation of 'things', as old scientific disciplines are refined, and new ones emerge. The linguist Geoffrey Leech observed, ‘In a language like English, new concepts are introduced in large numbers day by day and week by week.’ And pass out of the language, we might add.

There is, too, no end to the ‘things’ we can create in our minds: for instance, clouds with noses, or dogs which wag their tails, names which start with a ‘J’, and so on indefinitely. Strange as some things are, they are nonetheless things—and we may even treat them mathematically if we please: ‘Ten head-over-heels in five days is two head-over-heels per day.’

Above all, the number of things in this world is unthinkably large. I stand on a hilltop and look down on a city. I see one-hundred-thousand homes—which is 10^5. An insect flies before my face. It is one of ten quintillion on the planet—or 10^20. I take a breath of fresh air. It contains ten sextillion molecules—or 10^22. In fact, the classes of things alone are unthinkably many.

All such things, I may further relate to other things—across time and space, and sometimes, in startling ways. In fact, the relations between things far exceed the number of things.

We may say, therefore, that the number of things in the world is for all practical purposes infinite. John Locke used the phrase ‘almost infinite’. We might use the word boundless. We are not able to determine their bounds.

What then does it matter?

The number of things, and the number of relations between them, enables us to assess their extent or range—and with that, what powers we have in understanding and controlling our world. This has everything to do with our behaviour.

It applies above all to what we shall call ‘negative ethics’. While positive ethics tells us what we ought to do, negative ethics tells us what we ought not to—in this case, transgress our limits.

Knowing the number of things, we may be guided by a deep sense of humility and inadequacy. We shall avoid tendencies towards total control. Not least, there is the overwhelming number of things in our environment, and their complex relations. They lie far beyond what we can understand or control. When we have understood this, we may approach our environment more kindly.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Poem: The Option of a Natural Civilisation

Central Pacific, by Charles Scarborough
by Chengde Chen 

The problem that technology ultimately destroys civilisation
cannot be solved by technological development itself
It is not any problems in the technological world
but a non-technological problem – a mathematical problem
Technology may be able to satisfy environmentalists –
manipulating the atmosphere to reduce carbon dioxide
Technology may also be able to satisfy ecologists –
bargaining with nature to restore tropical rain-forests
But, no matter how advanced technology becomes
it cannot break free from its own mathematical crisis
just as the greatest force cannot make one equal two!

Mathematics is not about technology, but about logic
The acceleration of technology is an illogical proposition

We cannot change mathematics to suit the proposition
so we have to change ourselves, that is
to apply the brake of reason to stop this irrational process
to cease technological races as we cease the military one
Change the basis of civilisation:
replace technological development with natural existence
Give up the utilitarian system:
substitute the value of harmony for the value of market

Close down the particle accelerators – let nature enjoy nature
Turn science funding into literary prizes – let art enrich life
Let physicists compose music –
hearing something beyond ‘air vibration’
Let chemists write poetry –
dissecting feelings and emotions that are finer than atoms

There will still be flowers of human intelligence
There will still be the pleasure of human creation
But natural existence will not accelerate
just as art is not a function of time

No poet of today can claim overtaking Homer or Goethe
Nor can composers of today surpass Bach or Beethoven
Art is spirit, spirit is proportion
The ancients’ happiness and ours are both happiness
– no greater or smaller
The ancients’ sadness and ours are both sadness
– no heavier or lighter

Stopping the competition of technological progress
and pursuing the harmony of natural existence
is this a madman’s dream or Utopian?
No, mankind had experienced non-technological civilisations
Didn’t the Middle Ages in the mist of theological civilisation
last over a thousand years?
It was somewhat dark, but with staying power
Didn’t China in the cradle of small-farmer civilisation
continue for two thousand years?
It was somewhat idle, but in steady cycles
They might not be the most brilliant chapters of history
but have shown the possibility of other kinds of civilisations

We don’t have to invite God or emperors back
Nor need we return to Taoist Inaction
What we need is to understand that
being civilised does not mean we cannot choose –

between city flourishing and countryside tranquillity
between ‘being rich but tense’ and ‘being basic but easy’
between a costly Moon-landing programme
and the fairy-tale of Goddesses’ Moon Party
or between the scary roar of jets overcoming gravity
and melodious notes from a buffalo boy’s bamboo flute!

If we choose to have a natural civilisation
it is because we follow reason –
the reason of avoiding destruction
the reason of surviving ourselves
the reason of freeing from a dated value system
and the reason of obeying the law of mathematics
Human beings – you unique species blessed with reason –
how can you refuse this final wisdom?

Sunday, 15 November 2020

A Suicidal Bias

by Tessa den Uyl

‘With men came suicide’ could have flown out of Pandora’s box, as well as, ‘I think therefore I suffer’. Even when our agonising states might seem incredibly real—just like the joyful ones—we might be slightly mistaking our perceptions. Once we recognise how we have become enslaved to believe in a cultural heritage, we also comprehend that our life is nourished by a language-shared involvement. Though this language might not hold (at) all what we are. If suicide could be archived as ‘an urgent need that once involved humankind’, we have to start to think in a different way. After all, to kill oneself out of despair, nobody was born.

What humankind has passed on for centuries eludes us all in who we are. The fashionable expression that there is just the now (or actually, no time at all) is plausible when we turn to quantum physics, biocentrism and ancient spirituality that envision the whole of reality as one single movement. Though emotionally speaking, to experience this oneness would mean to have burned the whole past within us. To put it briefly: on an emotional and intellectual level, unless one were unable to live a life in which memory has no decisive input on our emotions, thus our thoughts, each of us is intrinsic to ‘the reality’ of society rather than the ‘one Self” of the cosmos. If so, our daily reality is elusive in the face of the cosmos and real towards society.

Where does this leave us?

Society demands a certain attachment to those thoughts that fulfill specific images about life. How many are the thoughts which others think for you and you think others think? This is a forest where not everybody will walk quietly. People think and therefore have opinions, which serves communication. Though once people believe in their thoughts, as if they are the words they pronounce, life seemingly has a great deal to do with the submission to, and the manipulation of, other people’s requests. Not unpredictably, when life means a jar filled with expectations to be fulfilled, that jar is not unbreakable under its own pressure. Like stalkers in a spider’s web where thoughts continue a never-ending communication, most of all within ourselves, should one in this realm trace a self?

When the initial information which is handed one in life is to erect an idea of self with a tiny bag of thoughts as the available tools, to understand the boundaries of where your life starts and the requests of others end, is extremely difficult. Not uncommonly, the encounter with discrepancy in society is of no surprise. Especially when one comprehends that society itself is established in divergence, and each of us is therefore raised in conflict. A communication, which serves its own contraries, can only hand one to struggle as the outcome. And in such societies, to think that problems can end is nothing but a mediocre generalisation. Simultaneously thought-induced reality cannot be denied, it serves to stop in front of a stop sign or to pass the salad. Though if suicide is on one’s schedule, one has to be aware that killing oneself is as justified as not, like everything else, only in the barrel of thought that we have learned to think.

When we profoundly understand that nothing can ever be fixed in how our societies work today, until we continue to think the way we do, (cut everything into pieces as if division is truly possible) we can all comprehend that nobody will ever allow us to become who we are. Though what we are is exactly the same for every other being, which is a part of life and of this universe, in which no being is more or less important. Being foremost bundles of energy, when we make ourselves more important than something else, we have divided ourselves from everything else solely by ideas. We thus prefer thoughts above the energetic form of life itself. Without the latter, thoughts cannot be. Still, we are drilled to believe that thoughts (thus emotions) rule our reality.

Thought is a human social fiction, which is rather significant as a confirmation of our identity and completely insignificant to all else. Not being able to get rid of your-self is the same as trying to maintain that idea of self. In both cases there is a refusal to let go of what one thinks. Whether the package is pleasant or unpleasant, it satisfies the same mechanism. Though the problem is not about who one is, as a form of energy, we never can be a problem. Socially accepted ideas raise the illusion of hope to become what one is not yet or to lose what one thinks one is. If the tadpole announces that it will be an elephant tomorrow, we might have some doubts. Though only when there is hope attached to that exclamation, to fulfill a self in the face of society, language offers the unpleasant thought that hope equals suicide. Either as a tadpole or an elephant, for the tadpole this is the same. It is what it is. It cannot be more, nor less.

Embracing the thinking patterns that are bound to social logic, a state of being can easily switch and eventually become a fixation. Ideas intermingle with emotions and knowledge, social status; an incredible pressure of images bombards people daily. Embarrassment, lack, fulfillment, desire, humankind has made an incredible effort to narrow our perceptions. This makes the structure of the social illusion fragile, and meanwhile we were not raised to doubt its utilisation. Though what has not happened yet may certainly happen. Not in the affirmation of one’s identity, not in the utilisation of language to enhance oneself in front of society. This is the main point, to let go of which seems so implausible.

Once thoughts can be seen as a tool to not identify with, and to exploit one’s feelings continuously, there is some space to acknowledge that our consciousness surpasses all the social learned perceptions we’ve put into that feeling of ‘Me’. And this is the blind spot on which so many of us erect their convictions, on which societies build their bricks. At the same time it is this ‘Me’ which enfolds in everything. If there is a way to a more pleasant state of living for all of us, and everything that immeasurably surrounds us, this can be found in unfolding our illusions. We cannot truly get in or out, as is the case at the metro stop. We’re always in. Until and unless human beings profoundly understand that one for all and all for one is not just bound to three musketeers, suicide will only be one of the bigger outcomes of a dysfunctional humanity.

Talking about suicide is not about whether or not it is justified. The question is really how it got there in the first place, to occupy a person with such a thought. In the face of an immortal cosmos, understanding that we cannot truly set ourselves free, the question of being free is erased from the mind. We are more than what we’ve learned to be and less than what we think we are.

Monday, 9 November 2020

The Certainty of Uncertainty

Posted by Keith Tidman

We favour certainty over uncertainty. That’s understandable. Our subscribing to certainty reassures us that perhaps we do indeed live in a world of absolute truths, and that all we have to do is stay the course in our quest to stitch the pieces of objective reality together.


We imagine the pursuit of truths as comprising a lengthening string of eureka moments, as we put a check mark next to each section in our tapestry of reality. But might that reassurance about absolute truths prove illusory? Might it be, instead, ‘uncertainty’ that wins the tussle?


Uncertainty taunts us. The pursuit of certainty, on the other hand, gets us closer and closer to reality, that is, closer to believing that there’s actually an external world. But absolute reality remains tantalizingly just beyond our finger tips, perhaps forever.


And yet it is uncertainty, not certainty, that incites us to continue conducting the intellectual searches that inform us and our behaviours, even if imperfectly, as we seek a fuller understanding of the world. Even if the reality we think we have glimpsed is one characterised by enough ambiguity to keep surprising and sobering us.


The real danger lies in an overly hasty, blinkered turn to certainty. This trust stems from a cognitive bias — the one that causes us to overvalue our knowledge and aptitudes. Psychologists call it the Dunning-Kruger effect.


What’s that about then? Well, this effect precludes us from spotting the fallacies in what we think we know, and discerning problems with the conclusions, decisions, predictions, and policies growing out of these presumptions. We fail to recognise our limitations in deconstructing and judging the truth of the narratives we have created, limits that additional research and critical scrutiny so often unmask. 


The Achilles’ heel of certainty is our habitual resort to inductive reasoning. Induction occurs when we conclude from many observations that something is universally true: that the past will predict the future. Or, as the Scottish philosopher, David Hume, put it in the eighteenth century, our inferring ‘that instances of which we have had no experience resemble those of which we have had experience’. 


A much-cited example of such reasoning consists of someone concluding that, because they have only ever observed white swans, all swans are therefore white — shifting from the specific to the general. Indeed, Aristotle uses the white swan as an example of a logically necessary relationship. Yet, someone spotting just one black swan disproves the generalisation. 


Bertrand Russell once set out the issue in this colourful way:


‘Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who usually feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken’.


The person’s theory that all swans are white — or the chicken’s theory that the man will continue to feed it — can be falsified, which sits at the core of the ‘falsification’ principle developed by philosopher of science Karl Popper. The heart of this principle is that in science a hypothesis or theory or proposition must be falsifiable, that is, to possibly being shown wrong. Or, in other words, to be testable through evidence. For Popper, a claim that is untestable is no longer scientific. 


However, a testable hypothesis that is proven through experience to be wrong (falsified) can be revised, or perhaps discarded and replaced by a wholly new proposition or paradigm. This happens in science all the time, of course. But here’s the rub: humanity can’t let uncertainty paralyse progress. As Russell also said: 


‘One ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt. . . . One has in practical life to act upon probabilities’.


So, in practice, whether implicitly or explicitly, we accept uncertainty as a condition in all fields — throughout the humanities, social sciences, formal sciences, and natural sciences — especially if we judge the prevailing uncertainty to be tiny enough to live with. Here’s a concrete example, from science.


In the 1960s, the British theoretical physicist, Peter Higgs, mathematically predicted the existence of a specific subatomic particle. The last missing piece in the Standard Model of particle physics. But no one had yet seen it, so the elusive particle remained a hypothesis. Only several decades later, in 2012, did CERN’s Large Hadron Collider reveal the particle, whose field is claimed to have the effect of giving all other particles their mass. (Earning Higgs, and his colleague Francis Englert, the Nobel prize in physics.)


The CERN scientists’ announcement said that their confirmation bore ‘five-sigma’ certainty. That is, there was only 1 chance in 3.5 million that what was sighted was a fluke, or something other than the then-named Higgs boson. A level of certainty (or of uncertainty, if you will) that physicists could very comfortably live with. Though as Kyle Cranmer, one of the scientists on the team that discovered the particle, appropriately stresses, there remains an element of uncertainty: 


“People want to hear declarative statements, like ‘The probability that there’s a Higgs is 99.9 percent,’ but the real statement has an ‘if’ in there. There’s a conditional. There’s no way to remove the conditional.”


Of course, not in many instances in everyday life do we have to calculate the probability of reality. But we might, through either reasoning or subconscious means, come to conclusions about the likelihood of what we choose to act on as being right, or safely right enough. The stakes of being wrong matter — sometimes a little, other times consequentially. Peter Higgs got it right; Bertrand Russell’s chicken got it wrong.


The takeaway from all this is that we cannot know things with absolute epistemic certainty. Theories are provisional. Scepticism is essential. Even wrong theories kindle progress. The so-called ‘theory of everything’ will remain evasively slippery. Yet, we’re aware we know some things with greater certainty than other things. We use that awareness to advantage, informing theory, understanding, and policy, ranging from the esoteric to the everyday.


Monday, 2 November 2020

Picture Post #59 Proscenium

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Martin Cohen


To me, this image has a theatrical quality, almost a grotesque aspect. Look at the man's hand, on his leg, like a dead thing… the awkward tilt of his head. And how thin and sickly the whole body, in this seedy room with the dirty backdrop. 

Yet, at the time, this was modernity, and sophistication. This image represented new technology: think 'Steve Jobs' and iPhones.

The photo was taken exactly 127 years ago, that man could be my great great grandfather, which is to say not so incredibly a remote relation. Yet something has changed, and a certain innocence has been lost even in our celebration of sophistication.

Oh, and why did I call this post ‘Proscenium’? I came across the term reading about the new, trendy visual presentations. It's a term describing the part of a theatre stage in front of the curtain.  The two figures are thus playing out a very ancient routine - that also points to a very different future.

Monday, 26 October 2020

The Myth of the Global Cow

Posted by Martin Cohen

Data crunchers have started to attack farms on the basis of statistical creations such as ‘The Global Cow’. Of course, there’s no such thing. The sublimation of differences in concepts like the average cow, leaves cows and sheep who are helpfully and quietly grazing grass suddenly accused of inefficiently expropriating vast tranches of valuable land, while farmers keeping animals fed soya in sheds can be reinvented and presented as efficient and ‘climate friendly’. And yet summarised and simplified messages creatively abstracted from the data itself construct a global picture, skewed by preconceived ideas, and designed to influence policy decisions.

    • The idea of ‘the Earth's average temperature’ is also an exercise in mental gymnastics - which parts of the oceans are included - or of the atmosphere? Does it make sense to have hypothetical data points in uninhabited regions? Even NASA and the Met Office cannot agree. 

   • Food policy in particular always seem to consist of sharp, Manichean (good versus evil), divisions even as most things are nuanced and a matter of detail - and degree. Missing from both types of thinking is any acknowledgement that the experts behind the expert consensus are also political and ideological subjects, and the vast majority of respected science (or any research) is produced from a mainstream and shaped by the policy objectives of funders.   

But let’s just take up that idea of a ‘global cow’. Even small farms can be completely different in terms of differing habitats and differing good or really bad practices in one place. Last year I had a series of email exchanges with a Welsh couple in the Brecon Beacons (on the England/ Wales border) about their efforts to graze farm animals ‘sustainably’. The two explained how they have mountain grazing rights on the Brecon beacons and have cattle grazing an ancient hill fort, to preserve the archaeology from the incursion of scrub and to enhance the diversity of the grassland untouched by a plough for millennia, if at all. All their fields are natural pasture kept in a grazing rotation. One of the fields is an iron age enclosure and has never been ploughed in modern times! Yet now the call everywhere is to shun animal farming and rely solely on crops. 

The couple keep grassfed (Dexter breed, as in  the picture above) cattle and sheep and rare-breed pigs, all raised outdoors and supplemented  by a range of non-soya concentrates, and farm amazingly sustainably. They firmly believe that the sheer complexity of their farm demonstrates that the global environmentalist models about ‘Norm’ cannot possibly map onto reality anywhere on the planet. 

Instead, their farm is a case study in how the new ‘plant-based food’ movement risks upturning delicate relationships between humans and nature but also a more anthropological study in how apparently deeply-entrenched attitudes towards long-established activities and traditions can be rapidly changed by elite groups using sophisticated control of public information.

Monday, 19 October 2020

Is Technology ‘What Makes us Human’?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Technology and human behaviour have historically always been intertwined, defining us as the species we are. Today, technology’s ubiquity means that our lives’ ever-faster turn toward it and its multiplicity of forms have given it stealth-like properties. Increasingly, for many people, technology seems just to happen, and the human agency behind it appears veiled. Yet at the same time, perhaps counterintuitively, what appears to us to happen ‘behind the curtain’ hints that technology is fundamentally rooted in human nature. 

Certainly, there is a delicate affinity between science and technology: the former uncovers how the world happens to be, while the latter helps science to convert those realities into artefacts. As science changes, technologists see opportunities: through invention, design, engineering, and application. This restlessly visionary process is not just incidental, I suggest, but rather is intrinsic to us.


Our species comprises enthusiastic toolmakers. The coupling of science and technology has led to humanity’s rich array of transformative products, from particle accelerators to world-spanning aircraft, to magnetic-resonance imaging devices, to the space-station laboratory and universe-imaging space telescopes. The alliance has brought us gene-editing technologies and bioengineering, robotics driven by artificial intelligence, energy-generating solar panels, and multifunctional ‘smart phones’.


There’s an ‘everywhereness’ of many such devices in the world, reaching into our lives, increasingly creating a one-world community linked by mutual interdependence on many fronts. The role of toolmaker-cum-technologist has become integrated, metaphorically speaking, into our species’ biological motherboard. In this way, technology has becomes the tipping point of globalisation’s irrepressibility.


René Descartes went so far as to profess that science would enable humankind to ‘become the masters and possessors of nature’. An overreach, perhaps — the despoiling of aspects of nature, such as the air, land, and ecosystems at our over-eager hands convinces us of that — but the trend line today points in the direction Descartes declared, just as electric light frees swaths of the world’s population from dependence on daylight.


Technology was supercharged by the science of the Newtonian world, which saw the universe as a machine, and its subsequent vaulting to the world of digits has had obvious magnifying effects. These will next become amplified as the world of machine learning takes center stage. Yet human imagination and creativity have had a powerfully galvanizing influence over the transformation. 


Technology itself is morally impartial, and as such neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy. Despite how ‘clever’ it becomes, for the foreseeable future technology does not yet have agency — or preference of any kind. However, on the horizon, much cleverer, even self-optimising technology might start to exhibit moral partiality. But as to the point about responsibility and accountability, it is how technology is employed, through users, which gives rise to considerations of morality.


A car, for example, is a morally impartial technology. No nefarious intent can be fairly ascribed to either inventor or owner. However, as soon as someone chooses to exercise his agency and drive the car into a crowd with the intent to hurt, he turns the vehicle from its original purpose as an empowering tool for transportation into an empowering weapon of sorts. But no one wags their finger remonstratively at the car.


Technology influences our values and norms, prompting culture to morph — sometimes gradually, other times hurriedly. It’s what defines us, at least in large part, as human beings. At the same time, the incorporation and acceptance of technology is decidedly seductive. Witness the new Digital Revolution. Technology’s sway is hard to discount, and even harder to rebuff, especially once it has established roots deep into culture’s rich subsurface soil. But this sway can also be overstated.


To that last point, despite technology’s ubiquity, it has not entirely pulled the rug from under other values, like those around community, spirituality, integrity, loyalty, respect, leadership, generosity, and accountability, among others. Indeed, technology might be construed as serving as a multiplier of opportunities for development and improvement, empowering individuals, communities, and institutions alike. How the fifteenth-century printing press democratised access to knowledge, became a tool that spurred revolutions, and helped spark the Enlightenment was one instance of this influential effect.

Today, rockets satisfy our impulse to explore space; the anticipated advent of quantum computers promises dramatic advances in machine learning as well as the modeling of natural events and behaviours, unbreakable encryption, and the development of drugs; nanotechnology leads to the creation of revolutionary materials — and all the time the Internet increasingly connects the world in ways once beyond the imagination.


In this manner, there are cascading events that work both ways: human needs and wants drive technology; and technology drives human needs and wants. Technological change thus is a Janus figure with two faces: one looking toward the past, as we figure out what is important and which lessons to apply; and the other looking toward the future, as we innovate. Accordingly, both traditional and new values become expressed, more than just obliquely, by the technology we invent, in a cycle of generation and regeneration.


Despite technology’s occasional fails, few people are really prepared to live unconditionally with nature, strictly on nature’s terms. To do so remains a romanticised vision, worthy of the likes of American idealist Henry David Thoreau. Rather, whether rightly or wrongly, more often we have seen our higher interests to make life yet a bit easier, a bit more palatable. 


Philosopher Martin Heidegger declared, rather dismally, that we are relegated to ‘remain unfree and chained to technology’. But I think his view is an unappreciative, undeservedly dismissive view of technology’s advantages, across domains: agriculture, education, industry, medicine, business, sanitation, transportation, building, entertainment, materials, information, and communication, among others. Domains where considerations like resource sustainability, ethics, and social justice have been key.


For me, in its reach, technology’s pulse has a sociocultural aspect, both shaping and drawing upon social, political, and cultural values. And to get the right balance among those values is a moral, not just a pragmatic, responsibility — one that requires being vigilant in making choices from among alternative priorities and goals. 


In innumerable ways, it is through technology, incubated in science, that civilisation has pushed back against the Hobbesian ‘nastiness and brutishness’ of human existence. That’s the record of history. In meantime, we concede the paradox of complex technology championing a simplified, pleasanter life. And as such, our tool-making impulse toward technological solutions, despite occasional fails, will continue to animate what makes us deeply human.


Monday, 12 October 2020

REVIEW: The Leader's Bookshelf (2020)

By Thomas Scarborough

BOOK REVIEW: The Leader’s Bookshelf: 25 Great Books and Their Readers

Martin Cohen. Rowman & Littlefield, $32 (288p) ISBN 978-1-53813-576-1

The Philosopher by Marlina Vera 2018
It was Martin Cohen's sideways look at philosophy which propelled him into the limelight with Routledge's 101 Philosophy Problems (1999). In his latest book, the author would seem to recall his offbeat roots—like a band returning to its original sound.

There is an obsession in business and management circles today with leadership theory (I myself hold two Master's degrees in leadership!) and the books which propound it. There are hundreds of them, if not thousands, many of them fresh off the press. Mostly, they adhere to the ‘transformational’ model—which typically advises vision, character, and influence, and a few things besides. Such books are generally written by people who claim to have tried the formula and succeeded (many have not).

Yet, rather than read books by leaders, why not read the books the leaders read? What were their own sources of inspiration? It would seem to make eminent sense. What's more, for the doubters, Martin Cohen meticulously traces how exactly the leaders' reading is connected with their leadership: thought leaders, political leaders, corporate leaders, and leaders of many kinds. While this is not an entirely new idea,* it is still fresh, and reveals approaches to leadership which are in some way the same—only different—to those of the ‘transformational’ leadership genre.

Martin Cohen selects twenty-five ‘great books’ (by Plato, George Orwell, Herman Melville, Alex Haley, and so on) and twenty-one people who read them (Harry Kroto, Jacob Riis, Rachel Carson, Malcom X and so on), mixing them all into ten chapters.  With a potpourri like this, one is hardly going to find a systematic leadership theory. A review in Publisher’s Weekly calls the book a ‘fun yet haphazard survey’. Yet there is ‘method in the madness’. One finds it in the chapter titles. The ten chapters of the book represent an orderly progression of concepts. It seems worth listing the chapter titles here:

Meet the Wild Things (which is to say, tame the wild things of life)

Roll the Dice (which is to say, just give it a go, and see)

Save the Planet—One Page at a Time! (give a care for the wider world)

Search for Life’s Purpose

See the World in the Wider Social Context

Be Ready to Reinvent Yourself

Set Your Thinking Free

Make a Huge Profit—and Then Share It

Recognise the Power of Symbols

Follow Your Personal Legend

In each of these chapters, Martin Cohen describes the books, and describes the people who read them, then ties the two together—and like the best of biographers and historians, drops a sprinkle-sugar of fascinating facts and anecdotes into his text: for instance, John D. Rockefeller’s (miserly) penny in the Sunday School plate, a lost and lonely young Barack Obama’s attachment to a children’s book, or Richard Branson’s zany experiments with chance.

Is there any leadership theory we can glean from the book? In spite of its free-wheeling style, there surely is. All these leaders found a guiding thought which resonated with them, and they stuck to it; they often had a vision for a wider world, and its many subtleties and interconnections; they found, too, the ‘vision, character, and influence’ of the leadership books—yet so very differently. Theirs was vision which was not bound to material outcomes, character which did not always match cultural norms, and influence which seemed an after-effect rather than a carefully nurtured goal in itself.

In an important sense, one needs to note that this book is not a standard work of research—and yet it is thoughtful, balanced, and broad. It represents personal insight and wisdom, from a well informed philosopher. This is what Cohen brings to the book. In fact, the more serious leadership theory often is little more than unsupported conjecture, where the conjectural nature of it is well disguised.

There is something of an Easter egg for philosophers at the very end of the book—tucked away in the afterword. Cohen says that time and again, in the reading of successful people, ‘philosophers and philosophical works pop up as aspirational or influential texts more often than any others’. At the end of the day, it is philosophers who rule the world—by proxy as it were. And yet, what do the philosophers themselves read? In the case of Ludwig Wittgenstein anyway (one of the thought leaders described in this book) it turns out that it was a work of literary imagination, indeed humour: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne (1759). This is one of the many surprising literary connections made by Cohen's book.

* A popular book of its kind, also The Leader's Bookshelf (without subtitle), surveys the reading of high-ranking military officers of the US Navy. Published by the Naval Institute Press (2017).

Monday, 5 October 2020

Picture Post 58: The Underpass

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl

What is graffiti? Urban art, identity statements, politics, distraction, public empowerment, vandalism, property, religion, claiming ownership—graffiti embraces them all. Not always do we know its meanings, though habitually we recognise it when we see it.

Aesthetically speaking, graffiti might not be attractive—though this does not explain why often it is at one and the same time accepted and abolished. Obviously graffiti tends to move against the mainstream, though its form it is somehow of the same language—eradicated in that contradiction which suits the social order.

This makes graffiti a scribble in a world where its echo is instantaneously consumed. On the other hand, it is a manifestation and a message, noticed by the unconventional way it is proposed.

Yet the incompatible is never as discordant as it might initially appear. Graffiti exposes the innate ambivalence of our societies and legal systems, by being an illegal form of expression while also being sold for high prices in mainstream museums. While some graffitists obtain copyright on their work, others are prosecuted for vandalism.

Similar to the man depicted in the picture above who, exceptionally, has become a legend and a symbol for a generation and beyond, it might well be that the influence of graffiti will have clearer definition in the future, to become what it is not yet.

Whatever the case, it seems bound to tell us more about ourselves than we initially imagined some swiftly drawn assumptions of its meaning could provoke.

Monday, 28 September 2020

Hell: A Thought Experiment

by Thomas Scarborough

Going Down with the Cash by Peter Gourfain 1998
Various religions have concepts of hell. However, nowhere is the doctrine clung to so tightly or debated so vigorously as in the Christian faith.

Yet it is, too, a philosophical subject, which has been treated philosophically in recent years by the universities of Oxford, Stanford, Alaska, and Tennessee—among various others. With this in mind, this short post presents a thought experiment—and a fundamentally philosophical one at that.

While the Christian faith rests on revelation, and its central teachings are known through revelation, there are various interpretations of revelation. In the case of hell, a good many. The most basic variations concerning hell—if they are not major views, then notable ones—are these:

The literal or orthodox view, that hell is a place of eternal conscious torment

The metaphorical view, that hell's torments are symbolic, yet real in some way

The ‘circles of hell’: the view that there are degrees of eternal torment, suited to the crimes

A ‘temporary torment’: the view that hell is not eternal, but finite in time

Annihiliationism and conditionalism, which hold that the wicked—or unbelieving—do not live after death

The universalist view, which holds that there is no hell, but all are saved

In reality, these views have many subtleties—even many designations—and it needs to be borne in mind that this brief survey is far too simple. Yet it gives an idea.

With regard to the more literal views on hell, the most basic problem from a human point of view—apart from the question of the existence of hell itself—is that we find it difficult to imagine eternal torment. We revolt against the idea. Also, we find it difficult to reconcile it with a loving God—in spite of Scripture's copious emphasis on the dangers of hell.

On the other hand, many feel it would be a travesty of justice not to have a hell. Many, too, have felt the fear of hell—call it a supernatural fear. This has been particularly prominent at times of spiritual revival.

The theological response to people’s qualms, most generally, is that we do not need to understand hell, or the God who prepared it for some. Ultimately it is about the sovereignty of God, and the revelation of Scripture. Yet have we fully explored the concepts, or driven deep enough with alternatives? A thought experiment may make this clear.

What is hell? Apart from representing some form of torment, there are at least two features which are central to the literal view: it is said to separate people from God, and it offers no hope. There is no exit. Those who are consigned to hell cannot view from afar the perfect person and purpose of God, and perhaps thereby have some small comfort. Nor can they strengthen themselves with the thought that this, too, shall pass.

With this rudimentary overview, then, our thought experiment is this:

If I should find myself in hell—whether I had thought I knew anything about it in my lifetime or not—would anything in my experience of hell contradict its eternity? Even if, that is, hell were not eternal?

Perhaps we may call this a phenomenalist view of hell. Those condemned to hell would experience it is an eternal torment—a place without God, and without hope—which, after all, is by very definition what hell is, at least to those of a more literal persuasion.

In short, would the sense-experience of those in hell be in any way distinguishable from a literal view of hell? Similarly, could Scriptural descriptions of hell as eternal—with banishment from God's presence, and the absence of hope—reveal to us which of the two is true? On the surface of it, no.

On the surface of it, this might promise to solve some critical theological and philosophical problems. One could reconcile the literal view with various other views, because eternity is something which is experienced. There need not be, then, metaphysical truths at stake. One could see complete justice done, while both believing and not believing, as it were, that hell is eternal. And one could ultimately reconcile the unmitigated torments of hell with God’s love.

However, before we congratulate ourselves on having solved the mysteries of hell, there are some further things we need, philosophically, to consider:

Would this not give us the deus deceptor of Descartes—a God who deceives us into believing that the torments of hell are eternal?

How should we distinguish the experience of hell and hell itself, and consider that the one is better than the other? What can be worse than eternal torment?

Would our thought experiment not open the possibility that heaven is not eternal, in the objective sense?

Further, this would surely reflect on views other than a literal one. If the essence of hell lies in the experience of it, then even if we should allow a ‘temporary torment’—namely, the belief that hell is not eternal but finite in time—would we not through this introduce hope to hell? Surely any torment can be borne bravely where there is hope—not to speak of the hope of Paradise! Yet if the ‘circles of hell’ is correct—namely, that there are degrees of torment, but no hope of an exit—is there any judgement without hope which can be a bearable one?

What then might our thought experiment teach us?

It separates objective and subjective views of eternity—which may not have been done before. Yet this seems to offer us little to ameliorate the sufferings of hell. Further, a phenomenalist view of hell might worsen the terrors of the age-old view of the ‘circles of hell’, and—too much, it might be said—improve the situation of those in a ‘temporary torment.

All in all, there is perhaps little to suggest that one may reduce the concept of hell, no matter which view of hell we espouse—given, that is, that we admit its existence at all. Happily, for those who believe, there would seem to be little to suggest that one may reduce the concept of heaven either.

Monday, 21 September 2020

‘What Are We?’ “Self-reflective Consciousness, Cooperation, and the Agents of Our Future Evolution”

Cueva de las Manos, Río Pinturas

Posted by John Hands 

‘What are we?’ This is arguably the fundamental philosophical question. Indeed, ‘What are we?’ along with ‘Where do we come from?’ and ‘Why do we exist?’ are questions that humans have been asking for at least 25,000 years. During all of this time we have sought answers from the supernatural. About 3,000 years ago, however, we began to seek answers through philosophical reasoning and insight. Then, around 150 years ago, we began to seek answers through science: through systematic, preferably measurable, observation or experiment. 

As a science graduate and former tutor in physics for Britain's ‘Open University*’, I wanted to find out what answers science currently gives. But I couldn’t find any book that did so. There are two reasons for this.

  • First, the exponential increase in empirical data generated by rapid developments in technology had resulted in the branching of science into increasingly narrow, specialized fields. I wanted to step back from the focus of one leaf on one branch and see what the whole evolutionary tree shows us. 
  • Second, most science books advocate a particular theory, and often present it as fact. But scientific explanations change as new data is obtained and new thinking develops. 

And so I decided to write ‘the book that hadn’t been written’: an impartial evaluation of the current theories that explain how we evolved, not just from the first life on Earth, but where that came from, right back to the primordial matter and energy at the beginning of the universe of which we ultimately consist. I called it COSMOSAPIENS Human Evolution from the Origin of the Universe* and in the event it took more than 10 years to research and write. What’s more, the conclusions I reached surprised me. I had assumed that the Big Bang was well-established science. But the more I investigated the more I discovered that the Big Bang Theory had been contradicted by observational evidence stretching back 60 years. Cosmologists had continually changed this theory as more sophisticated observations and experiments produced ever more contradictions with the theory.

The latest theory is called the Concordance Model. It might more accurately be described as ‘The Inflationary-before-or-after-the-Hot Big Bang-unknown-27% Dark Matter-unknown-68% Dark Energy model’. Its central axiom, that the universe inflated at a trillion trillion trillion times the speed of light in a trillion trillion trillionth of a second is untestable. Hence it is not scientific.

The problem arises because these cosmological theories are mathematical models. They are simplified solutions of Einstein’s field equations of general relativity applied to the universe. They are based on assumptions that the latest observations show to be invalid. That’s one surprising conclusion I found. 

Another surprise came when I examined the orthodox theory for the last 65 years in the UK and the USA of how and why life on Earth evolved into so many different species. It is known as NeoDarwinism, and was popularised by Richard Dawkins in his bestselling book, The Selfish Gene, where it says that biological evolution is caused by genes selfishly competing with each other to survive and replicate.

NeoDarwinism is based on the fallacy of ascribing intention to an acid, deoxyribonucleic acid, of which genes are composed. Dawkins admits that this language is sloppy and says he could express it in scientific terms. But I’ve read the book twice and he never does manage to do this. Moreover, the theory is contradicted by substantial behavioural, genetic, and genomic evidence. When confronted by such, instead of modifying the theory to take account of the evidence, as a scientist should do, Dawkins lamely says “genes must have misfired”. 

The fact is, he couldn’t modify the theory because the evidence shows that Darwinian competition causes not the evolution of species but the destruction of species. It is cooperation, not competition, that has caused the evolution of successively more complex species.

Today, most biologists assert that we differ only in degree from other animals. I think that this too is wrong. What marked our emergence as a distinct species some 25,000 years ago wasn’t the size or shape of our skulls, or that we walked upright, or that we lacked bodily hair, or the genes we possess. These are differences in degree from other animals. What made us unique was reflective consciousness.

Consciousness is a characteristic of a living thing as distinct from an inanimate thing like a rock. It is possessed in rudimentary form by the simplest species like bacteria. In the evolutionary lineage leading to humans, consciousness increased with increasing neural complexity and centration in the brain until, with humans, it became conscious of itself. We are the only species that not only knows but also knows that it knows. We reflect on ourselves and our place in the cosmos. We ask questions like: What are we? Where did we come from? Why do we exist? 

This self-reflective consciousness has transformed existing abilities and generated new ones. It has transformed comprehension, learning, invention, and communication, which all other animals have in varying degrees. It has generated new abilities, like imagination, insight, abstraction, written language, belief, and morality that no other animal has. Its possession marks a difference in kind, not merely degree, from other animals, just as there is a difference in kind between inanimate matter, like a rock, and living things, like bacteria and animals. 

Moreover, Homo sapiens is the only known species that is still evolving. Our evolution is not morphological—physical characteristics—or genetic, but noetic, meaning ‘relating to mental activity’. It is an evolution of the mind, and has been occurring in three overlapping phases: primeval, philosophical, and scientific. 

Primeval thinking was dominated by the foreknowledge of death and the need to survive. Accordingly, imagination gave rise to superstition, which is a belief that usually arises from a lack of understanding of natural phenomena or fear of the unknown. 

It is evidenced by legends and myths, the beliefs in animism, totemism, and ancestor worship of hunter-gatherers, to polytheism in city-states in which the pantheon of gods reflected the social hierarchy of their societies, and finally to a monotheism in which other gods were demoted to angels or subsumed into one God, reflecting the absolute power of king or emperor. 

The instinct for competition and aggression, which had been ingrained over millions of years of prehuman ancestry, remained a powerful characteristic of humans, interacting with, and dominating, reflective consciousness. 

The second phase of reflective consciousness, philosophical thinking, emerged roughly 1500 to 500 BCE. It was characterised by humans going beyond superstition to use reasoning and insight, often after disciplined meditation, to answer questions. In all cultures it produced the ethical view that we should treat all others, including our enemies, as ourselves. This ran counter to the predominant instinct of aggression and competition. 

The third phase, scientific thinking, gradually emerged from natural philosophy around 1600 CE. It branched into the physical sciences, the life sciences, and medical sciences. 

Physics, the fundamental science, then started to converge, rapidly so over the last 65 years, towards a single theory that describes all the interactions between all forms of matter. According to this view, all physical phenomena are lower energy manifestations of a single energy at the beginning of the universe. This is similar in very many respects to the insight of philosophers of all cultures that there is an underlying energy in the cosmos that gives rise to all matter and energy. 

During this period, reflective consciousness has produced an increasing convergence of humankind. The development of technology has led to globalisation, both physically and electronically, in trade, science, education, politics (United Nations), and altruistic activities such as UNICEF and Médecins Sans Frontières. It has also produced a ‘complexification’ of human societies, a reduction in aggression, an increase in cooperation, and the ability to determine humankind’s future. 

This whole process of human evolution has been accelerating. Primeval thinking emerges roughly 25,000 years ago, philosophical thinking emerges about 3,000 years ago, scientific thinking emerges some 400 years ago, while convergent thinking begins barely 65 years ago. 

I think that when we examine the evidence of our evolution from primordial matter and energy at the beginning of the universe, we see a consistent pattern. This shows that we humans are the unfinished product of an accelerating cosmic evolutionary process characterised by cooperation, increasing complexity and convergence, and that – uniquely as far we know – we are the self-reflective agents of our future evolution. 


*For further details and reviews of John’s new book, see 

Editor's note. The UK’s ‘Open University’ differs from other universities through its the policy of open admissions and its emphasis on distance and online learning programs.

Monday, 14 September 2020

Poetry: The Non-linear Mathematics of History

Posted by Chengde Chen *

Things are so obvious, why can’t we see them?
We are still obsessed with developing technology
as if we wished to hasten our extinction
This is because history is deceptive
We have no understanding of the mathematics of history
hence are immersed in a linear perception of ‘progress’:
history has proved that man controls technology
so technology must do more good than harm
This has been our experience of thousands of years
thus our unshakable faith and confidence

We, of course, need to rely on history
which seems to be the only thing we have
Yet, history is not a piece of repeatable music
but more of non-linear mathematics
Some histories may be mirrors of futures
while some futures have no reflection of history at all

It is hard to establish such a non-linear understanding
as it’s so different from our intuition
Thanks to the difficulty, as a famous tale relates
Dahir, an Indian wise-man of 3000 years ago
almost made the King bankrupt his Kingdom!

One day, the chess-loving King challenged Dahir
by asking him to play the final phase of a losing battle
As it seemed impossible for anyone to turn the table
the King promised Dahir smugly:
‘If you can win, I’ll meet you a request of any kind!’
Dahir, with his superior intelligence, did win
but he only made a very small request:
‘I would like to have some grain
placed on the chessboard in the following way:
one for the first square
two for the second square
four for the third square
and so on and so forth
so that each square is twice that of the previous one
until all sixty four squares of the chessboard are placed’

What an insignificant request, the King thought
and approved it immediately
He ordered his soldiers to bring in a sack of grain
and to place them in the way requested
When one sack was finished, another was served
Then another, and another…
until they exhausted all the grain in the Kingdom
it was still far from completing the 64 squares
The grains required are such astronomical quantity that
even the amount of grain in today’s world
does not come near it (over 1000 billion tonnes)!
It was the modest figures of the early counting
as well as the linear intuition about ‘history’
that made the King miscalculate the matter completely
He is still in debt to Dahir to this day!

Technological progress is the kind of exponential curve
but it is even more deceptive
It had crawled very slowly for very long in ancient times
but rose quicker and quicker in recent centuries
People, however, have considered the change linearly
assuming the rate of growth the same as the past
Hence a common-sense conviction:
we have always progressed through technology
so through it we can always progress into the future
technology has always become more and more advanced
so with it we can always be more and more powerful

Oh, the linear thinking of progress!
History is not optics
nor is the future a mirror image of the past

In the past man was a small member of the club of nature
while today, we have changed the weather, raised oceans
and created new species, as well as new forms of energy
If we cannot see such a world of difference
we are as miscalculating as the old King was!

We cannot, however, afford to miscalculate
as we would have no time even to be surprised
The surface value of history is its usefulness
The deeper value of history is to prove itself useless

The history in which we controlled technology
was only history, no matter how brilliant it was
The future may mean a ruthless breaking away from it!

Editor's note. The amount required is 2 raised to the power of 64 minus one. Wikipedia offers that the total number of grains is eighteen quintillion, four hundred and forty-six quadrillion seven hundred and forty-four trillion seventy-three billion seven hundred and nine million five hundred and fifty-one thousand six hundred and fifteen (18,446,744,073,709,551,615) and that this is “about 2,000 times annual world production”. 
* Chengde Chen is the author of the philosophical poems collection: Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London. He can be contacted on

Monday, 7 September 2020

‘Mary’s Room’: A Thought Experiment

Posted by Keith Tidman
Can we fully understand the world through thought and language—or do we only really understand it through experience? And if only through experience, can we truly communicate with one another on every level? These were some of the questions which lay behind a famous thought experiment of 1982:
A brilliant neurophysiologist, Mary, knows all there is to know about her academic specialty, the science of vision: the physics, biology, chemistry, physiology, and neuroscience. Also how we see colour.

There’s a catch, however: Mary has lived her entire life in a totally black-and-white room, watching a black-and-white screen, and reading black-and-white books. An entirely monochromatic existence. Then, unexpectedly, her screen reveals a bright-red tomato.

What was it like for Mary to experience colour for the first time? Or as the Australian philosopher Frank Jackson asked, who originated this thought experiment, ‘Will [Mary] learn anything or not?’ *

Jackson’s original takeaway from his scenario was that Mary’s first-time experience of red amounted to new knowledge—despite her comprehensive scientific knowledge in the field of colour vision. Jackson believed at the time that colour perception cannot entirely be understood without a person visually experiencing colour.

However, not everyone agreed. Some proposed that Mary’s knowledge, in the absence of first-hand experience, was at best only ever going to be partial, never complete. Indeed, renowned philosopher Thomas Nagel, of ‘what is it like to be a bat’ fame, was in the camp of those who argue that some information can only be understood subjectively.

Yet, Mary's complete acquaintance with the science of vision might well be all there is to understanding the formation of knowledge about colour perception. Philosopher and neurobiologist Owen Flanagan was on-board, concluding that seeing red is a physical occurrence. As he put it, 'Mary knows everything about colour vision that can be expressed in the vocabularies of a complete physics, chemistry, and neuroscience.

Mary would not have learned anything new, then, when the bright-red tomato popped up on her screen. Through the completeness of her knowledge of the science of colour vision, she already fully knew what her exposure to the red tomato would entail by way of sensations. No qualities of the experience were unknowable. The key is in how the brain gives rise to subjective knowledge and experience.

The matter boils down to whether there are nonphysical, qualitative sensations—like colour, taste, smell, feeling, and emotion—that require experience in order for us to become fully familiar with them. Are there limits to our comprehension of something we don’t actually experience? If so, Mary did learn something new by seeing red for the first time.

A few years after Frank Jackson first presented the ‘Mary’s room’ thought experiment, he changed his mind. After considering opposing viewpoints, he came to believe that there was nothing apart from redness’s physical description, of which Mary was fully aware. This time, he concluded that first-hand experiences, too, are scientifically objective, fully measurable events in the brain and thus knowable by someone with Mary’s comprehension and expertise.

This switching of his original position was prompted, in part, by American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett. Dennett asserted that if Mary indeed knew ‘absolutely everything about colour’, as Jackson’s thought experiment presumes, by definition her all-encompassing knowledge would include the science behind people’s ability to comprehend the actual sensation of colour.

To these points, Mary’s factual expertise in the science of colour experience—and the experience’s equivalence and measurability in the brain—appears sufficient to conclude she already knew what red would look like. The experience of red was part of her comprehension of human cognitive functions. Not just with regard to colour, but also to the full array of human mental states: for instance, pain, sweetness, coldness, exhilaration, tedium—ad infinitum.

As Jackson ultimately concluded, the gist is that, given the special particulars of the thought experiment—Mary acquired ‘all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like red and blue’—Mary did not acquire new information upon first seeing the red tomato. She didn’t learn anything. Her awareness of redness was already complete.

* Frank Jackson, 'Epiphenomenal Qualia', Philosophical Quarterly, 32, April 1982.

Recent Comments