Monday, 31 August 2015

The Power of Man

Posted by Gregory Kyle Klug
      and Thomas Scarborough

What is man?  The answers to this question vary – typically according to the scientific discipline which asks it.  Chemistry, genetics, biology, psychology, history, or religion, all yield different answers as to what man is.  

In fact all of these disciplines are in some way symptomatic of the essence of man, and none should we dare to exclude from our explorations.  And then, too, since the middle of the 20th century, linguistics has joined the inquiry into the nature of 'man' – language being what we call a semiotic code which reveals (in coded form) much about the structure and function of the mind.  With this in mind, the purpose here is to reflect on the importance of a single word in our language in revealing what man is, namely: 'power'.

'Power' has one of the highest word frequencies in English.  According to research of the University of Central Lancashire, 'power' boasts 385 occurrences per million.  This makes it a word which is weightier than love and war and the weather.  It plays a bigger part in our language than dogs and cats, and hours and minutes. Plato, in fact, implied that this is the one word which defines man.  What he (or she) does with power, he wrote, is 'the measure of a man'.

At first sight,  it might seem difficult to discern any coherence in the many variant definitions of power.  In fact sociologists David and Julia Jary present it as a prime example of an 'essentially contested word'.  We speak of the power of an earthquake, one's power of mind, colonial power, a power pitcher, the power of a performance, even the power which one has over one's own self.  How might we derive, from all these many uses of 'power', a unified insight into the nature of 'man'?

Power is a 'transformational capacity', wrote the sociologist Anthony Giddens.  'Despite resistance', wrote the sociologist Max Weber.  In fact, on closer inspection, it is the triumph of power over resistance in all our human activities which would seem most appropriately to define it.  This is a definition, too, which we can universalise: power is 'the ability to overcome significant resistance in a relatively short period of time':
• Physical power: Military power overcomes the resistance of enemy forces. 
• Social power: A popular movement overcomes the resistance of history.
• Intellectual power: A theory resists being known, until the power of mind reveals it. 
• Moral power: We have the power to choose against the resistance of pain, and pleasure.
• Power of imagination: The imagination overcomes the resistance of familiarity.  And
• Sexual power:  All resistance crumbles (need we say more)?
Contrast this with the eighteenth century French philosopher Paul d'Holbach, the first to (scandalously) suggest that the laws of Newton now applied to man: '[Man] is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control.' Yet power, if we are to believe the linguistic evidence, belongs to the very essence of man, in virtually every sphere.  In fact, it is a theme of Biblical proportions.  The opening chapters of Genesis grandly portray not only the power of God, but man's procreative power, physical power, and intellectual power. 

Power is far more than the narrow conception of it which was extolled by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: namely, the 'will to power' which drives us to achieve.  Rather, it is to be found in all the ordinary moments of life.  And this is not who we may yet become, but who we are. 
O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
–William Shakespeare


A single post does not permit a survey of the many aspects and examples of power.  Author Gregory Kyle Klug unfolds further thoughts on the subject at The Philosopher and at What is Power?

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Price of Culture

Is the world's biggest bookshop - killing the book?

The journalist, Sonny Yap, once described the library as ‘perhaps the best antidote to the insidious influence of the suburban shopping mall… a chance to browse in a marketplace of ideas instead of a marketplace of goods and services*’, but even if it was once, these days the antidote is no longer effective. Far from it! Amazon, which is today where the world goes for books, has carefully applied the ruthless Walmart model to every stage of publishing. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, is proud of revolutionising the means of book production and distribution, yet the old mechanisms by which academics did have at least the ’potential’ to spread ideas are also disappearing, replaced by a much more ruthless market in intellectual property.

It happened so fast, we hardly noticed. In 1995, the year Jeff Bezos, then 31, started Amazon, just 16 million people used the Internet. Today, almost one out of every four humans on the planet, are online.

The year before Amazon, that is in 1994, Americans bought 500 million books, worth $19 billion, and seventeen bestsellers each sold more than 1 million copies. Today, Jeff Bezos is himself worth some ludicrous sum in excess of $25 billion. It’s an extraordinary shift of resources – from publishers and authors to hedge funds – and Bezos. But then, unlike Google, which got its start on an academic campus and pays lip service to certain values* as a result, Amazon began its story on Wall Street, where Mr. Bezos worked as an analyst at D. E. Shaw, a quantitative hedge fund that ‘pioneered the use of computers and sophisticated mathematical formulas to exploit anomalous patterns in global financial markets’. It is this background that explains the reasoning behind his idea of an online ‘everything store’ and Amazon’s ruthless attitude towards competitors. According to one of Bezos’ biographers, during negotiations for access to their back catalogues, the small independent publishers were nicknamed the gazelles by Amazon – meaning the food for the lion.

But the bookstore wars are long over, and Amazon won. Rarely do students and academics buy their books from the curated collections that were university bookshops, they buy them on-line where margins are shaved and prices are cheaper. Where once university presses earnestly solicited academics for their research projects, promising readers' reports, copyediting and fastidious proof checking, now even the giant, transnational presses (like Taylor and Francis and Wiley-Blackwell) have had to drastically rethink their assumptions about profits from such books, in the absence of library sales, shrinking university bookshops and a public culture of book browsing for free on the Internet.

The Journal system in particular has run its course – publishers will have to do without its golden eggs. The high prices paid for access to the precious real estate of journals sitting in a thousand library racks cannot for long survive the practical advantages of online open access. Perhaps funding through grants or library consortia will ease the transition, but Journals are heading the same way as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

For the academic presses, the kind of books they can do has changed. The change is one way – from the bookshop ‘trade’ towards reading lists. So the place of the presses and academic authors alike in intellectual and cultural life is shrinking, taken by attractively packaged, gossipy books from trade presses, who ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’.

Actually, I’m not saying the changes are all black and white (that old ways are all good and new ways all bad). I’m just saying that they are profound and ‘out of control’. And that we should be sceptical of talk of new forms of writing, new forms of learning  - market forces normally result in the emergence of a few brands at the expense of choice and diversity. Harry Potter for children, Shades of Gray for adults...

*The full quote is: 'The library is perhaps the best antidote to the insidious influence of the suburban shopping mall. As responsible citizens, we need to give the young a chance to choose between a video arcade and a reading place, a chance to browse in a marketplace of ideas instead of a marketplace of goods and services.'

Monday, 17 August 2015


Posted by Thomas Scarborough
Apart from Descartes' Deus deceptor – namely, his notion of a God who deceives – most of us would be hard pressed to know whether philosophy has anything to say about untruth at all. Yet in real life, untruth looms large in our daily lives. 
Not only do we encounter foolishness and fallacy in every sphere of life. We find lies, half-truths, bluff, deceit, rationalisation, subterfuge, and weakness of will – to name but some of the many forms of untruth we encounter almost daily. And then, too, we find violence in many forms: physical, emotional, verbal, financial, and sexual. This, we intuitively feel, has much to do with untruth, too.

The way in which we arrange our world – which I have described previously on PI – is through the employment of our reason. The end result is our general conception of the world. And our conception of the world, in turn, is what motivates us emotionally, whenever we find a disjunction between our conceptions of the world and the reality which surrounds us. My life in my imagination may be, for example, a happy family in suburbia – a friendly dog, fresh muffins on the table, and daisy-chains and laughs. Then I look from my kitchen window, to see my little girl with her face down in the grass. Suddenly there is a disjunction, and I spring into action.

But different people will spring into action for different reasons, and this reveals their arrangement of the world – whether this be balanced and broad, or short-sighted, self-interested, or parochial. With this in mind, I shall describe here a three-fold descent into untruth: foolishness and fallacy, lies and deceit, and finally coercion and violence – each of which is closely related to the other.


Some, however, may not want the happy family in suburbia, or the dog, or the muffins on the table. Others will prefer to be loose and wild, or they will prefer paperwork to people, or will set all else before for the career of their choosing. The possibilities are as many as the people. And in the process, some will become wise, and some will become fools. It all depends on the way in which people arrange their world.

This accounts now for what we might call the first step to untruth. Rather than living a 'large' life – a rounded and meaningful life – many people live a self-destructive life, a small-time existence, as fools or bunglers. They may be accomplished, too, or influential, yet in the eyes of many, judged as tragically misdirecting their skills and priorities. This is a kind of untruth which, in itself, tends to matter little to the rest of us. We tend to pity it, laugh at it, or denigrate it, rather than hate it. 'They are living a lie,' we say.

Now let us consider that my own motivations will differ from those of others – and theirs from mine. In fact, my own motivations may threaten to defeat the motivations of others. And since my motivations arise from the way in which I arrange my world, it would seem obvious that others could try to change my arrangement of the world, and so change my motivations to their own liking – if only this should always be possible.

But if the interests of others are important enough to them, and if they cannot change my own motivations through any natural process, it may be possible for them to accomplish this through changing the substance of what I have to work with, in arranging my world. I may feel passionate about the village pond, for instance, while another man wants to build a parking lot there. If he cannot overcome my passion for the pond by legitimately changing my arrangement of the world – the way that I see things – he may tamper with the material I have to work with. He might, for instance, tell me that permission for his parking lot has been granted on high authority, or even forge the signature on a consent form. This differs from mere foolishness or fallacy in that it seeks to manipulate what I know – and this happens all the time. This represents a second step of descent into untruth.

This raises the issue of the importance of having access to information, and the ability to assess all relations truly, to arrive at a satisfactory view of our world. Information should be open to view. Wherever information is falsified or withheld, whether on the personal level of lies, or on the political level of propaganda or ideology, the intention is to change my arrangement of the world. Universally there is an aversion to this, since our very existence depends on a reasonable tracing of relations.

But there are other ways of changing my arrangement of the world. One may change the physical entities I have to work with. Let us return to the man who wishes to create the parking lot. In the dark of night, he might send a small-time crook with a dump truck, to fill in the pond with building rubble, in one dramatic act. Now my arrangement of the world must change, because the world itself has changed. I have no pond left to defend, and no more purpose to opposing the parking lot. The dynamics may of course be far more complex in the real world. It may be easy to see that a pond was filled in on the orders of the man who had a vested interest in the same. It might be less easy to see that running me out of town with false rumours had to do with the pond. And so the world of untruth may become tangled and dark, and as vast as the ocean. This is the third step in the descent into untruth.

We are now in a position to reconcile all manner of untruth and evil. Whether someone seeks to subvert my arrangement of the world conceptually or physically – through lies and deception, or through strength of force, the two are basically one and the same. To tell a lie or to commit a murder, to deceive or to destroy, have the same underlying dynamic: my arrangement of the world must be changed. It is through false arrangements of our world that we have polluters and terrorists, hoaxters and sociopaths – and fools and bunglers.


The way in which we behave has, needless to say, a lot to do with psychology. Abnormal psychology is the branch of psychology which studies unusual patterns of behaviour, emotion, and thought. Historically, the origins of such behaviour have been interpreted in various different ways. Before one even gets to the differences in the detail of approaches to psychology, there are supernatural, biological, and psychological explanations for mental and emotional dysfunction, as well as theories of multiple causality.

I have noted that all motivations, and therefore all behaviours, are generated through the way in which we arrange our world. While there is no doubt that we are physically predisposed towards certain behaviours – perhaps through weariness, infection, or medication – there can be no behaviour at all without the way in which we arrange our world.

The primary means of treating mental disorders, therefore, is to assist people to see how their behaviour might relate to 'the big picture': to understand how they act upon the world, and how the world acts upon them – in their social relationships, their personal relationships, their relationship to their own nature and their own body, their relationship to to ideology and to religion, and in their relationship to present, past, and future. This implies, too, that the best counsellor or psychologist will be in a position to help people see themselves through eyes which see the world in healthy relation – both by opening up the mind of the counselee, and by opening up their own mind, spirit, and being to them. The goal is a healthy, expansive view of the world.

Above all, for behaviours to change, one requires a fundamental decision – an 'abandonment' – a conversion, as it were – to abandon, if need be, all the ways in which I have ever arranged my world, even if it should cost me everything. And always, truth requires independent thinking and robustness, to discern those arrangements which are false, which press in on us every day.
The solution ... means the setting forth of all the typical patterns or modes of arrangement into which mental processes fall.
 – Madison Bentley

Reason and Contradiction

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
What is reason? Like an axe in our hands, we use it, we don't contemplate it. However, each of us has likely made observations such as these: It seems to define us as human beings. We know that we use it to make sense of things. And we know that we (puzzlingly) apply it to a variety of seemingly disconnected fields: science, ethics, and art, among others. 
Perhaps most importantly, a primary characteristic of reason is that is a conscious activity. Reason is deliberate, focused, and aware. Let us begin then with this simple fact: reason is a conscious activity. Now add to this a core observation which we made in my earlier post Consciousness and Attention: that wherever we find a contradiction, our consciousness is awakened. Our attention kicks in. Combine these two facts now, and we see that reason, because it is a conscious activity, is likely to have something to do with contradiction.

Imagine a pendulum, swinging, swinging, swinging. So little contradiction does this present us with that, rather than producing consciousness, we use it to induce hypnosis. But let the pendulum suddenly drop, and we quickly jump forward to examine what has happened to it. The pendulum has contradicted our expectations. In fact the same happens all the time, in many different ways. A shadow passes over my table in a restaurant. I feel a sudden pain under my foot. Or there is a strange taste in my coffee. These all contradict what I expect – and immediately I want to know: What is it? Why? Where did this come from?

Instinctively, we think of reason as a constructive enterprise. We use it to build houses, design computers, plan conferences, or construct theories. Yet when we examine it more closely, it seems that all such activities are in some way rooted in some kind of contradiction – or perhaps rather, in setting contradictions aside:

We build a house because we don't have a roof over our heads. We design a computer because we lack the power of thought. We call a conference because we need to connect. Or we construct a new theory because the old one is dead. Jean van Heijenoort, the historian of mathematical logic, wrote, “The ordinary notion of consistency involves that of contradiction, which again involves negation.” To put it simply, reason is the innate sense of contradiction. Call it our sixth sense.

This is not a new idea. The philosopher Bernard Bosanquet suggested that reason kicks in where we have two competing explanations for the same thing in our minds. In fact no less a luminary than Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of the Enlightenment, considered that reason is the power of synthesizing into unity (from disunity, we presume) the concepts which are provided by the intellect. By way of example, the astronomer Galileo Galilei reconciled the sub-lunar and the supra-lunar worlds. The physicist James Maxwell united electricity and magnetism. And the greatest of all (theoretical) physicists, Albert Einstein, melded space and time.

Many would object. The truth is in our first guess, they would say: namely, that reason is a constructive enterprise. In fact reason, they remind us, builds magnificent edifices, both abstract and real. And yet, even the things which we construct may be viewed as reverse processes, launched from needs and contradictions.

Take the simple example of a house. A house is needed. Therefore a roof is needed – and walls and foundations. We know then (for example) that we cannot purchase roofs as roofs. Yet this contradicts our need – for a roof. The best we can do is timbers and tiles. But tiles must be secured. Now we need nails. And so on. In fact the best of minds know how best to anticipate all contradiction. Thus through the application of reason, we solve a great complex of needs, and paradoxically claim that we have “constructed” something.

In fact the entire scientific enterprise, considered the philosopher Karl Popper, is an exercise in falsification. While our reason may reveal that a theory is wrong, it will never prove that it is right. We know today what the ancients did not know: that a theory which cannot be falsified is a theory which lies beyond reason. It is moonshine.

Let us think more broadly. Wherever contradiction melts away, there we find that the holistic qualities of life emerge, which we so greatly value and desire: among them love, beauty, and grace. But apply our reason to them, and they disappear. In fact, even the scientific quest is described as a search for beauty. We are able to appreciate the “beauty” of simple equations because they are about reduction and reconciliation – just as we desire any kind of simplicity, simplification, even simplistic-ness. “You can recognize truth,” wrote the Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, “by its beauty and simplicity.”

What then is reason? We may now summarise it like this: reason “flags” contradictions. Wherever we find a contradiction – or perhaps rather, wherever there arises a contradiction for me (sight, smell, touch, and all), reason pays attention. In this way, reason helps us to create a world without contradiction – a conceptual arrangement of the world which is “one”.

Let us stay with this idea for a moment, since it further helps us resolve the age old conflict between reason and passion.

Long has it been debated whether reason is our most basic driving force, or passion. It is reason, wrote the philosopher John Locke. It is passion, countered the philosopher David Hume. Which, then, is it to be? We know from recent empirical advances that it is our conceptual arrangement of the world which feeds our visceral (“gut”) feelings. That is, when our view of the world is juxtaposed with the world itself – specifically, where we encounter novelty, discrepancy, or interruption – this leads to motivation. In fact even a dog, when faced with food which it does not expect to see in its bowl, is visibly affected.

Given that this is so, the function of reason is to modify our conceptual arrangement of the world. Our conception of the world, in turn, produces passion, when we bring it up against the world. Therefore, both reason and passion are both master and slave: although reason does not directly control our passions, we may trace our passions back to reason. This, in other words, unites thought and action. Simply put: reason in, passion out.

“Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.”
–Albert Camus.

The Meaning of Life

Cueva de las Manos, Argentina
Posted by Thomas Scarborough
What's it all about? The question suggests that there is an 'aboutness' to the meaning of life. Life is about something or for something – and where it is not, it lacks meaning. 
For many, a lack of meaning is no slight problem. Some experience it as a living death, while others would rather die than surrender their meaning. At the same, there has been a curious retreat of meaning in our day. It now lies beyond the interest of many – if not beyond the interest of dictionaries of philosophy (we shall consider this in a moment). Historically, however, meaning has been an important question for philosophy.

What is meaning? There are many kinds of meaning: existential meaning, psychological meaning, linguistic meaning, semiotic meaning, and various meanings besides. There is, too, a classic book on the subject: The Meaning of Meaning, by the linguist Charles Ogden and literary critic Ivor Richards.

Linguistic meaning may give us a clue as to the meaning of all meaning. The linguist Gilbert Harman notes that, in the theory of language, one finds three broad approaches to meaning: the place which an expression has in one's language, the thought which is being communicated, and that which the expression is used for. In terms of the meaning of life, this may be re-stated as follows: it is about finding my place in the universe, my ability to bring my own self to full expression, and the achievement of my goals and purpose. All are aspects of one and the same.

In short, I experience meaning when I know and feel my place in the big, wide context – or perhaps one should say, in the context of everything. Aristotle considered, 'Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life – the whole aim and end of human existence.' We may note his emphasis on 'the whole ...' The meaning of life (whether it should agree with Aristotle or not) is not partial. Rather it encompasses everything. Meaning may thus be described as a sense of completion – even if that completion is not here, not now, but in one's mind's eye.


But one needs to ask: what is 'completion'? What is 'the whole' of it? It has been the tragic tale of countless people, that they held a meaning which was later exposed as being only partial – in fact, was found to hold no real meaning at all. They found their meaning in a cause which was later destroyed, in a relationship which later ended, even in things which later proved to be vacuous or ruinous.

Some suggest that there is no real problem in this. The fleeting meanings of the moment are all that we need. We should not think on it all too hard. This may seem to have its appeal, but for two reasons. We sense that meaning is not something which should ever be lost. Meaning should be timeless, absolute – not becoming a victim to the vagaries of life. If it anything less than this, it cannot be the meaning and purpose of life. But more than this, by embracing meanings which are partial or fleeting, we may enslave others to our own meanings (more of which in a moment).

Meaning may be found in many things. I may find meaning in my lover, my family, my ambition, my culture. I may find that economics has a focal role in my meaning, or social evolution, science, or politics. In short, my private world will have meaning within the systems I create. And if I imagine that this universe, in the words of Lama Govinda, is 'an inseparable net of endless, mutually conditioned relations', then I may understand my own system of meaning as a 'regions of relations' in the infinite expanse. But now there is a problem. As soon as I step outside of my own personal 'region of relations', my meaning tends to evaporate. There is no meaning outside the system. All is well, for example, while I measure my meaning by our income – yet as soon as I step outside my monetary model and ask what life is about beyond its confines, I find no answer – until, that is, a new and bigger answer be found.

It is a fundamental feature of meaning that it always requires something more – something which lies outside of our given system of meaning. Every closed system can be imagined to be larger. Adam Toren gives us a timely reminder about meaning: 'It is bigger than this!' With this in mind, we may call the quest for meaning an infinite progression (rather than an infinite regression). It must be more, and more, and more. As therefore the horizons of our systems of meaning expand, we come to realise that, ultimately, meaning must be unbounded. Meaning is found in the infinite expanse, without the constructions which confine it and reduce it. Ultimate meaning only reveals itself to us where systems of meaning are destroyed. Meaning is found, in an important sense, only when the quest for meaning is abandoned – or perhaps one should say, fulfilled.

Meaning, we have said, may be found within a given system. But notice now something more basic than this: namely that systems, whatever they may be, must be constructed through reason. This must mean that meaning lies beyond reason. That is, if the universe should ultimately be logical, there is no meaning. And if there should be no meaning, then the universe is ultimately logical. It is impossible to reason or to calculate the meaning of life. In fact we know well that, wherever we apply reason to purpose, it dissolves all purposes. We find it to be self-defeating and self-opposing. 'Ultimate and complete truth,' writes Kitty Ferguson, 'is beyond proof or meaningful argument, perhaps because at that level there is no point of view outside it from which to judge, no standards external to it by which it can be tested, none not defined and set by itself.' We cannot know the purpose of life without letting it go.

Perhaps, from the religious point of view, this is the purpose of life: to let it go. To relinquish our human systems of reason and of law. And, if God himself should be understood to lie beyond all systems, it may be that only the glory of God would represent the purpose which lies beyond all other purposes.


Presumably this is why the 'larger' meanings of our world have such an allure: they incorporate our smaller meanings which do not answer our search for something 'more'. They are systems which lie outside the confines of our own muddling purposes. This is why a Napoleon, a Hitler, or a Stalin can exist. They offer a meaning which is larger than the petty meanings of the populace. Destiny, culture, or ideology are schemes of meaning so large that one can barely imagine anything larger – which is, one can barely imagine something which might lie outside of them or beyond them. Not even famine or war or genocide may defeat such systems – so large may they become for a populace. And this presents us with a sobering thought on the 'more' of meaning. If our meaning is not to be found in the whole of the infinite expanse of relations, beyond all systems of meaning, our meaning may well lead to disaster.

However, other dangers lie in a loss of context – other dangers in smaller meanings. Above all, the problem of a loss of meaning is not only one's own, but it reduces the meaning of others. If one's own system of meaning constrains the possibilities for meaning, it will constrain the life of others. One can only view others in terms of the regions of relations which one has traced oneself – which means that everything must be subject to our own personal worlds of meaning. If a woman becomes a student of sociology, she may well comment at a cocktail party, 'Oh, but sociology expains all that.' If a businessman owns a nature reserve – and remains a businessman at heart – then the nature reserve will be run as a business. If an economist becomes a president – and remains an economist at heart – then the nation will be treated as an economy. One president, trained in economics, notoriously stated that untimely deaths in his country were bad for the economy. The earth quakes, wrote King Solomon, when a slave becomes king, presumably because the slave sees the world in terms of the master-slave relationship, and cannot see its meaning beyond such terms.

Finally, the flight of 'meaning' today, from our social and philosophical debate – even from the dictionaries of philosophy – lies in the fragmentation of our society. As we have developed a complex social diversity, we have lost touch both with our world as a whole, and with one another's worlds. More and more, we have needed to focus on smaller meanings – and we have assumed that these are the only meanings which exist. Then, all too often, with the dissolution of smaller meanings, we grasp at them to hold them – and if they should, for me, represent a total system which I cannot see beyond, I may choose any means to keep it: anti-social behaviour, fraud, theft, murder, even delusion. If I see a situation to be meaningless, I have four possible futures: to find a larger meaning for myself, to make my situation meaningful through coercion or oppression, to rationalise my circumstances as being meaningful – or to resign.

The system is a self-contained whole within which everything is made meaningful.  – Graham Ward


Posted by Thomas Scarborough
In ancient times there was a saying, best known in Latin: mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy body is a healthy mind. It is attributed in slightly different form to the Greek philosopher Thales around 600 BC. 
With this in mind, there has long been a basic agreement that education is not merely about a healthy mind, but a healthy body. That is, it has long been seen, in some sense, as a rounded or holistic enterprise. Therefore school curricula will typically include both academic subjects and sports, and in many cases practical subjects and educational excursions. They will embrace, too, social norms and discipline, which in a sense serve as an 'untaught' moral education.

With this in mind, Pope Francis notes that the fragmentation of knowledge proves helpful for concrete applications, yet it often leads to a loss of appreciation for the whole, for the relationships between things, and for the broader horizon. This makes it hard to find adequate ways of solving the more complex problems of today’s world. In this regard, education has an obvious role to play, in equipping us for these times.

Education is a large field, and it takes place in many different contexts, at various stages of life. Yet for all this, it is not difficult to discern a fundamental philosophical approach to education. The first notable philosopher in the field was Plato. For him, education was ultimately about social and individual balance. This included, in his day, commerce and trade, military preparedness, and politics. In fact it was Plato's general outlook which later shaped the education of the medieval universities of Europe, which taught the seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic (the trivium), and arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy (the quadrivium). Typically, advanced students then went on to study philosophy and theology.

In spite of the intervening centuries, it is interesting to note some basic similarities between medieval education and our education today. In the medieval education system, the trivium and quadrivium divided our knowledge into seven largely separate compartments. Today, beginning in (pre) primary school, our education continues to be divided into separate subjects, largely self-contained, and about the same in number. While the subjects themselves have changed, they have changed in content, not in number – where the content is similar throughout most of the world. By way of example, few English speaking adults today will not have studied English, science, mathematics, history, geography, and biology – at least for a period of time.

Due to the size and momentum of this educational approach most broadly surveyed, it seems unlikely that there will be any sweeping changes in the near future. At the same time, however, there is reason for fundamental critique.


The greatest function of education is to teach the inter-relatedness of all things. In fact our world suggests far wider connections than we ordinarily appreciate. Yet where metaphysics was all but mandatory in previous generations (and the philosophies of various subjects, which are broader than the subjects themselves), it is a mark of our times that philosophy has, by and large, been dropped from the school curriculum. Metaphysics, above all, helps us to appreciate connections between thought, emotion, and action, between the intellectual, moral, and physical, the between the visual, auditory, and kinetic – in fact, the connections in every sphere of life. While in our age, the inter-relatedness of our world has grown in importance, yet the subject which studies it has been sidelined. 'Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor,' begins the old nursery rhyme. To which Alan Milne added, 'Or what about a cowboy, policeman, jailer, engine driver, or a pirate chief? Or what about a ploughman or a keeper at the zoo? Or what about a circus man who lets the people through?' There is more to our world than the familiar categories of the past.

With regard in particular to fact (knowing) and value (action), it is patently clear that our educational systems are strong on fact today – yet they are weak on value. In the area of fact, most of us are well grounded: whether in physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, history, or geography, to list but a few important examples. However, in the area of value, which represents a vast field area of our daily existence and experience, school curricula are largely empty, and ethics and morals are taught only implicitly: through the daily order of the school system, or by means of covert values. Ethics will seldom be found as a prescribed subject in schools, let alone its crucial sub-fields – among them public ethics, military ethics, business ethics, and medical ethics.

We may cast this again in terms of the many connections in our world. On the one hand, we discover connections in the world around us – for instance, between the sun and the rain, supply and demand, or quarks and leptons. On the other hand, we discover that the people around us have each created their own connections inside their own minds – which represent billions of possible conceptual arrangements of the world. In the case of connections in the world around us, the requirement upon us is for our mind to range broadly through the world, to relate our world broadly and truly. In the case of the connections inside people's minds, the requirement upon us is to seek to understand their semiotic codes, by which they each articulate their own worlds: through utterances, gestures, or postures, to name but a few possibilities. That is, apart from knowledge, we need to teach how to achieve rapport with people, in every aspect.

Another, major way in which our notion of a balanced education is impoverished is in the compartmentalisation of subjects – which is, their relative isolation from one another. Philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin considers, 'Our compartmentalised, piecemeal, disjointed learning is deeply, drastically inadequate.' It is one thing to offer an assortment of subjects – quite another to relate these subjects to one another. By and large, today, we fail to consider how one subject has a bearing on another – not merely in regard to our standard stock of subjects, but in regard to their various aspects: the relationship of science to outcomes for instance, or of poverty to politics, or of business science to ecology. It is only as we relate educational subjects one to one another in an expansive way that we develop a truly balanced education. Not only this, but we now have adequate empirical evidence that an interdisciplinary education, rather than an assortment of subjects, has much to do with creativity and genius.

This requirement for an inter-relatedness of our education may address the complaint of various alternative models of education, namely that there should be more problem solving and critical thinking in education today – apart from the impartation of knowledge. In relating different educational fields one to the other – in fact, in relating all things in the broadest possible way – we are engaging in problem solving rather than mere learning. Further in this regard, if we understand the purpose of our reason as the 'flagging' of contradictions, as I have argued elsewhere on PI, then effective reasoning has a lot more to do with problem-solving than it does with the construction of subjects in our minds. With this in mind, it is crucial that the limits of knowledge and action should be taught. Wisdom is to know both that which one knows and that which one does not know, both that which one can do and that which one can not do, both that which one ought to be and that which one ought not to be – and with this, the limits of one's insight, power, and stamina.


Through many generations, education has become both more structured and more variegated. It has also become compulsory for the majority of children today, where once it was the privilege of only a few. In practice this means that children today, at any level of education, have experienced a common introduction to education, and the need for adaptation to individual students would seem to become smaller.

At the same time, the many proposals for revision to the educational mainstream have by and large included a focus on individualised attention: home schooling, indigenous education, progressive education, or any of a large number of models besides. In this regard, it is important to make connections with that point in time and space where find ourselves now – each one individually, with their own needs and limitations. However we accomplish it, in education we can do no better than to acknowledge our subjective reality, and to start from there.

It is a truism to say that education may be used for ideological or propagandistic purposes. History is littered with examples of ideologically charged education and (often) the tragic results of the same. Ideology and propaganda represent the limitation of our ability to survey the full scope of connections in our world – by governments, media conglomerates, or corporations – to encompass only narrow or partial points of view. But an opening up of the entire scope of relations is what withers ideology and propaganda.

What this means is that, rather than there being subjects which we imagine to be off limits due to their inherent ideological nature, such as politics, ethics, or religion, it is rather our approach to these subjects which holds the danger – or the blessing. Whatever the case, these subjects are critical to our education as citizens, and any curbs on them may be far more dangerous than the teaching of them in an age where political sophistication and ethical bearings are urgently required.
The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks. – Albert Einstein

Special Investigation: Gene Therapy and the Origins of Life

The process of natural selection and survival of the fittest lies at the surface of the great molecular chronicle of gene therapy. This investigation argues  the approach will play a great use in near future- as long as  attention is paid to the very spirit of its conceptualisation.

A Special Pi Investigation into the Biochemical Mechanisms involved in Origins and the Evolution of Life - centred on the role of Gene Shuffling.

by Muneeb Faiq and PI editors
Is gene therapy - or gene shuffling as we might alternatively call it -  a product of human genius or a traditional method employed by evolution for last 3.2 billion years in order to give rise to all forms of life that the planet earth has seen? 

Indisputably, this is a very important question which has escaped attention from theoretical biologists for almost four decades (since gene therapy was conceptualised) and there seems to be almost no literature available on it. Instead, there is a general tendency to think that gene therapy is a very recent phenomenon innovated by human mind to achieve desired functioning of a gene and consequently an organism.

That notion is correct in its own right but when you look at it with a little scrutiny, you have to be drawn to the conclusion that gene therapy has been the modus operandi of the process of evolution for billions of years and it is the process of gene therapy (or gene manipulation for that matter) that has brought about the variety and complexity of life that we witness today.

This philosophical investigation will oppose the self-evident notion that the best survives (which begs the question of what the 'best' means) by emphasising that it is the shuffling, the complexity, of gene manipulations that is the real engine of evolution.

Gene therapy lies at the crux of evolutionary mechanisms and how the manipulation of DNA (the genetic material, DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, and I find it is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms) has helped gene therapy to achieve the target of producing millions of different species of plants and animals. But before discussing this further, it is imperative to define the terms first so that it becomes easy to understand the arguments put forth in this investigation. Here is how we go, starting with what I call the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology.

Monday, 10 August 2015

A Liberation Economics

Image courtesy of liberation blog
Posted by Thomas Scarborough 
We no longer live in a state of nature. Over the course of centuries, our vocations have become more specialised, and more distanced from our roots.
Our workplaces now at a distance, our knowledge contained in isolated pools, our tools manufactured by others, our potential curbed by managers, and our recovery-time limited by numbers on a wall – among other things – the question is pressing as to how we should best accommodate vast changes as we move through time and through history.

We tend to underestimate the hapless way in which we have managed the change, and the burdens we have brought upon ourselves. Consider the word 'employment' – derived from the Latin implicare, to enfold. We may thus be seen to be enfolded by employers: surrounded, enveloped, even engulfed. The consequences need no introduction: traffic jams, night shifts, equipment malfunctions, red tape, even surrendering our children to strangers. Fatigue, oppressive environments, unrealistic targets, and demands beyond our ability to cope. Nor are we free to be excused: to the point, sometimes, of exhaustion, depression, road rage, divorce, even suicide.

It is the selling of oneself and being sold, judged Karl Marx. In fact long has the debate raged as to whether we merely are marketable goods. However, while there is little doubt that this is so in the case of slavery and forced labour, in the best of situations we may be confused. If we are commodities, we are surely cherished commodities: valued colleagues, graciously accommodated, and thoughtfully motivated. Yet even so, in view of the heavy burdens which most of us bear, it seems hard to deny that we are in fact held – in many respects, at least – in bondage.

But things have been changing. The tide has been turning. Since the advent of modern economic theory, a simplistic view of employment has given way to a far more holistic view – and on this basis I shall, in a moment, suggest a way forward.

Economic theory, in its infancy, assumed that the goal of economics was growth of income per head. While there was growth indeed, there was, too, deepening poverty, social disintegration, and environmental destruction, worldwide. The sums did not translate into general well-being. This led then to much revision – welfare economics being the result. The welfare of individuals now moved to centre stage – where 'welfare' is defined as our being provided with adequate goods and services.

Yet we know that we need more than that. We need freedom, happiness, entertainment, rest, and so much more. The welfare model was (and is) inadequate. With this in mind, a more holistic successor emerged, although this is not yet widely applied. Called the Capability Approach, this blended economic theory aims to maximise workers' capability. That is, economics ought to assist us in becoming rounded human beings in a healthy society.

Let me now combine these thoughts. We see the tendency towards greater holism in economics. Put this together now with the bondages we have described. What is suggested is liberation from these bondages, in a holistic environment – above all, as affects our working lives. Yet how may this be done? Having created the monster, are we able to escape it?

Let us try a bold thought experiment – and turn current economic theories on their head. Supposing that we ought not to work, but to be set free from work – to follow a vocation – where 'vocation' is derived from the Latin vocare, to call. We are called, not driven. Supposing then that, in keeping with this, employees are rewarded with the purpose of releasing them from employment, into their vocations. The same has been practised for centuries by religious movements, which through a stipend set their clergy free from secular pursuits.

The goal of society, then, would be to remove impediments to its citizens' callings. Any number of impediments may (again) be named: traffic jams, red tape, unrealistic targets, as well as many further burdens which lie beyond the workplace. And for a moment thinking more broadly: it is not hard to see that the liberation of the individual may further release an entire population: from gridlock, bureaucracy, or disorganisation, to name but a few examples.

'Freedom' is the watchword – in this case freedom to work Yet unlike other economic theories, such as the Capability Approach, where freedom tends to be seen as extraneous to one's work, freedom in this case is central. Call it a Liberation Economics. The worker is no longer enfolded by an employer. And the individual's ability to serve a vocation to their full potential should permit – even encourage – service outside the confines of a particular working relationship, company, or state – to work for the benefit of the world.

Notice, too, a radical implication. In the workplace, and its environment, not only do we fight for something now. We fight against it. This gives such a Liberation Economics a revolutionary edge – if not a religious edge, with the suggestion of sin, and justice.

Finally, (post) modern economic theories are no longer self-adjusting, as the political economist Adam Smith once envisaged: namely, leave people to themselves, and the rest will follow. Holistic economic theories require the support of the society of which we all are a part.

The Capability Approach, as an example, presupposes constitutional guarantees, human rights legislation, and development policy, among other things. It need hardly be said that a Liberation Economics, here described, is in one sense idealistic. It will only survive in an economic environment which sustains it. In a selfish, competitive environment, it will die. Its principles would need to be protected by legislation which is written into the very groundwork of society.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Picture Post No. 3 The Holiday Photo: moments caught in amber...

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

Posted by Ben Hendriks and Tessa den Uyl

On the beach, Majorca, 1961
These are our mothers, before they became our mothers.

The strange thing is, that these two holidaymakers - our mothers  - seem to stay in the background of the Pepsi bottles they hold up and yet it is the decade that Pepsi launches its publicity: ‘Come alive, you’re in the Pepsi generation!’ Our mothers seem to have also provided, unconsciously, the perfect advertisement.

But we, their children, remember, when we saw this picture at a younger age how we were stuck by their joy rather then the Pepsi bottles. Maybe it was because it was taken before the stock value of  Pepsi would rise relentlessly, or maybe it was because we saw two familiar figures outside of their ordinary circumstances and we were intrigued at discovering them in a way which was somehow unknown, and evoked a sense of freedom to us... but certainly not that freedom Pepsi intended with its slogans. 


Was our reaction due to nostalgia for a decade we had not seen? Was it due to the two bottles being held up that symbolise a friendship? Or merely that it is our mothers captured in the moment? Or was it due to the composition of the photo that, with the two men in the background and the two trees at the outer left compose good diagonals with the smiling girls (behind their sunglasses, that un-identify them) plus the two bottles in the foreground, that makes the picture simply 'work'? Is this picture about our mothers  - or something else?

The past that is repeated and recognisable doesn’t need linguistic understanding nor cultural knowledge. This photo reflects commodity, but the suggested ideology wasn’t consciously present as it would be if we were to take the same picture today. We can understand this one though as a good stand-in for what it doesn’t represent. Might we then say that a photo can be a testimony to the history it has experienced? Then how reliable is our own perception?

Monday, 27 July 2015

We Need Animal Cognition, Not Neuroscience

Posted by Matthew Blakeway
A generation ago, it was thought that neuroscience held the promise of solving many philosophical problems. Looking back now over those lost decades, we are able to see that it failed to solve a single one, and arguably created a new one or two.
The purpose of this post is to introduce a single idea, painted with a large brush: As we see our hopes for answers from neuroscience fading, animal cognition may hold the promise of the future. 

Neuroscience, it was thought, would tell us many things: what a mind is, whether humans have freewill, or where in the brain we find these things. It would explain consciousness, morality, evil, or why humans tend to believe in prime-moving inter-galactic omnipotent fairies. While there are still philosophers who hold out hope for answers from neuroscience, the failure of progress is striking. An illustration reveals the way in which the arguments typically fail: in his book Freewill, cognitive neuroscientist Sam Harris argued that brain scans revealed a neural blip the moment before a subject was conscious of choosing to act. This, he considered, demonstrated that freewill is a myth, for the reason that the brain acts before we know it. Yet the argument is too easily neutralised. What was the blip? It may just as well have been one part of the brain going, 'OK, Freewill, this is one for your department.'

There are, on the contrary, significant problems that neuroscience has created. For example, its tendency to believe that the mind is nothing but the brain may open it up to a classic problem of logical systems, identified by the mathematical logician Kurt Gödel. Does Gödel's incompleteness theorem imply that the brain is unable to understand itself, so that neuroscience can have no achievable end-goal? Probably! The computer analogy of the brain is an old one, yet it is still useful. We have been inching towards a neuroscientific view that a brain is a biological computing device. Assuming that this is so, the study of the brain may reveal little about how the software works. In moving towards the view that a human mind has no animal spirits or ethereal magic in it, the consequence for neuroscience is that it is ever less in a position to solve philosophical problems – much as we would not have a hope of proving the Church-Turing thesis, or demonstrating why π is an irrational number, by shifting to a study of computer chips.

It may be more helpful for philosophers to turn to animal cognition as their primary input. This field is producing remarkable new finds, and philosophy would do well to absorb their implications. One of its most conspicuous aspects is the study of pro-social behaviour in animals – in contrast with what zoologist Robert Hinde calls 'human aggression in all its deviousness and complexity'. As a case in point, researchers demonstrated that a rat will help another rat in difficulty without needing a reward – if only humans could be relied upon to so act. While the 18th century philosophical view of humankind might be expressed (adopt a tone of pompous bloviation): 'It is the moral sense that separates men from the wild beasts which live in brutal ignorance,' humans do some pretty nasty things. My suggestion is that humans, while they, too, have inherited 'moral emotions', can out-think their own emotions and can manipulate their behaviour tactically. We need to turn the old view of humankind on its head. We don’t need to explain how we are biologically programmed. We need to understand the anomalies.

Such observations promise a rich new vein for philosophy, and it deserves our attentions. By way of illustration, now that we know that rats are compassionate, we may ask why so many bankers and politicians aren’t. Supposing that an economist should persuade bankers and politicians that everybody will become richer if they act in their own self-interest (as has been the case, starting with political philosopher Adam Smith) – then tactically, bankers and politicians may out-think their pro-social inclinations – to the detriment of the poor, and on an alarming scale at that. In this example alone, animal cognition suggests fresh explorations of morality, freewill, and belief, while the answers to the same may explain no less than why it is that our choices polarise all of humanity today.

Study notes:

Ben-Ami Bartal, I., Decety, J., & Mason, P. “Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats”. Science. 334, 2011. pp 1427-1430.
Hamilton, W. D. “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour”. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1964, 7 (1): 1–16. 

Monday, 20 July 2015

Poetry: The Making of Terror

A  poem by Chengde Chen

Terrible as terrorism is, should we be so terrified, just as terrorists want?

It’s much less frequent than road accidents that kill hundreds every day; nor scarier than psychopaths’ random attacks that are as unpredictable.
There’re greater chances of being killed by a common cold or diarrhoea.

It is the media that 'turns' a homemade bomb into a nuclear explosion.
It is the government that 'legalises' the fear of it by changing the laws.
It is the trembling public psyche that completes the process of terror –
a religion of fear, jointly founded by enemies in the name of war!

The Americans should invite their 32nd President (Roosevelt) back,
as he understood that 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself'.
Or they might consult successful or unsuccessful actors on Broadway,
who know only too well that a play can’t run long without audience

Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Art of War? Obama's Machiavellian Foreign Policy

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” 
- Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1513)

Is Obama a foreign policy genius - a modern day Machiavelli - or an inept ingénue

Consider some recent and some ongoing cases.

1. During the US presidential election campaign, Barack Obama mocked his opponent, Mitt Romney for saying that Russia was a threat  - opting instead to forgive Russia past transgressions, press the restart button and have 'business as usual' relations. China, he asserted, was the real threat, even as Chinese money kept the US economy afloat.

Yet, as has widely been pointed out, the Russian military interventions in Ukraine, which have led to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and to the entrenchment of separatist enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, directly challenge the post-Cold War consensus. Eastern Ukraine follows on other more tentative land-grabs, and in turn will be followed by greater prizes - Estonia, Lithuania… And if incursions there show the NATO lion cannot roar, why not further?

2. In Syria, faced with a choice between supporting the moderate rebels, and leaving the extremists to take over, he opted for the latter policy - with the result that the Assad government recovered lost ground and ISIS became a regional force. Originally, U.S. intelligence saw the terror group as a U.S. strategic asset. Now though, as David Kilcullen, the US military strategist said to have saved Iraq through the 'surge' has put it:
'Western countries have a clear interest in destroying ISIS, but counter-insurgency should not even be under discussion. This is a straight-up conventional fight against a state-like entity, and the goal should be to utterly annihilate ISIS as a state.' 
Just unfortunate then that ISIS has now become a force that would require a greater military effort than that of the original Iraq war. Your move, Professor!

3. But it is in Ukraine that his judgements seem most dangerous. Obama has apparently decided that there is no strategic significance to allowing Russia to annex parts of the former Soviet Union. Of course, the morality of this do not concern him - a man who says in one of his books that he learned his his ethics from the backs of cereal packets. In pursuit of this policy there have been so substantial sanctions, although there is a possibility that the US was involved in the Saudi policy of lowering the world price of oil - which has hurt the Russians. Under Obama there has been no access to arms and training, leaving the hopelessly amateurish and poorly equipped Ukrainian conscripts to be slaughtered in their thousands by the separatists backed by Russian special forces and the very best equipment that the Russians have.

4. In Egypt, Obama sided with the Egyptian military against the democracy movement, in due course helping to usher in a new and if anything even more vicious regime than that run by the US's client Hosni Mubarak.

5. As for the Palestine-Israel conflict, Obama has managed to present the US as both powerless and inept - threatening responses and laying down red lines which he never has any intention of following through on. The Israeli Prime Minster is encouraged to treat him with contempt.

6. And then, earlier this month, his international trade agenda was left in tatters after even the Democratic minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, voted against his plans to for a new bill, going directly against Obama less than three hours after the president begged his party’s caucus to support it.

7. Not to foget the War in Europe, entirely! The economic policies one between Greece and the Eurozone, that is.  Here, Obama weighed in on the side of Greece, ordering the rest of Europe to forgive its trangressions and, well, bend the Eurozone rules a little. Such advice might have been deeeply probematic for the Eurozone if followed - it certainly helped reduce the liklihood of the Greek's seeking a compromise. Result - this week - boom!

The fact is, Obama sees himself as a true Machiavellian Prince, one who presents one face to the world while acting in a quite different way in secret. He sees himself as enhancing US geopolitical and structural power; strengthening the American identity (hence the oft-repeated determination to stop the torture programme and release the extra-judicial prisoners such as those held at Guantanamo,  policies he has no intention of genuinely carrying out) and the search for domestic political consolidation.

According to former US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski:
'He’s not a softy. But he’s a person who tries to think through these events so you can draw some long-term conclusions.'
The longterm consequence of policy in the Middle East seems likely to be polarisation - between a US-backed series of kleptocracies and ultra-Islamists. In Europe, it is likely to be a 'hot war' between the Western Europeans and the Russians. In general, Obama seems to be sowing the seeds of global chaos - but a chaos in which perhaps for some it can be imagined that Continental United States will be immune. If that is indeed his aim, it is certainly a piece of cynicism worthy of the Italian master himself.

Further, or is it backwards? reading here

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