Sunday, 17 January 2021

A Syntocracy

by Thomas Scarborough

Leonardo da Vinci wrote, ‘Realise that everything connects to everything else.’ In recent decades, this has become increasingly important. We have come to see, in fact, that it is vital to humanity’s survival. With this in mind, the chief end of political systems ought to be the healthy inter-relatedness of all things.

Democracy is often said to be the best available political system. It is, to put it too simply, a system of government by the whole (eligible) population. Even in non-democratic states, governments typically give some approval to the idea.

In terms of the healthy inter-relatedness of all things, democracy goes some way to guaranteeing this. In a democracy, one elects those persons to democratic office who are broadly representative of the people—so that, when they assemble, they may (ideally) bring all of society into healthy relation.

We need democracy as a political system, therefore, not merely for the sake of popular sovereignty, or political accountability, or individual rights, or a host of other things which populate descriptions of democracy. We need it first because, properly conceived, democracy is important to the healthy arrangement of society, and the world. If a political system fails to achieve this, then we are all imperilled.

However, when we think on democracy in these terms, it has, at the same time, some serious shortcomings.

While democracy rightly guarantees a broad participation in the national debate, it does not deliberately prioritise broad and healthy relations in society: for instance, between rich and poor, the built and natural environments, or the present and the future. One sees major imbalances in such areas the world over, and these are potentially disastrous to all.

Democracy as a political system has in many places failed to create an egalitarian society, preserve the whole over the parts, prevent environmental crisis, or create social cohesion. All these things, and more, speak of defective arrangements of our world, where the healthy inter-relatedness of all things ought to be the without-which-not. As humanity’s influence on the planet grows, we are no longer able to absorb such mistakes.

Not only this. In a democratic state, people are often prioritised over the healthy inter-relatedness of all things—and so democracy, too, is prone to the weaknesses one typically associates with people: populism, personal loyalties, polarisation, fleeting fears, vested interests, prejudices, and short-sighted thinking, among other things. For good or for bad, democracy is a people-focused enterprise.

Which then is it to be? Is supreme power vested in the people, or is it, so to speak, vested in relations between things?

The goal of democracy must be, not democracy as an end in itself, but the healthy arrangement of society, and the world. While democracy means ‘power to the people’, such power must be vested not merely in the people, but in the arrangement of society. Further, the law code which a democracy produces, which is the complete system of laws, needs to be developed to prioritise the inter-relatedness of all things.

While such an idea has much in common with with democracy, it differs in principle from the democracy that we know. For the sake of a name, we shall call this form of government a ‘syntocracy’—from the Greek and Latin syn, ‘together with’, and the Greek krites, ‘power’—a form of government in which all things are brought together in balanced relation, through the people.

Syntocracy rests, therefore, on relations which are balanced and broad. This simple principle shifts the emphasis of democracy as we now know it, and potentially transforms our political life.

Image credit: VA Network for Democracy and Environmental Rights.

Monday, 11 January 2021

Can We Escape the Thucydides Trap?

The Peloponnesian War fought between Athens and Sparta,
leading to the latter's ultimate victory

Posted by Keith Tidman

The ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, chronicled for posterity the 5th-century BCE Peloponnesian War as a 27-year conflict due in large measure to the ‘rise of Athens’ and the fear this instilled in the ruling power of Sparta locked in rivalry for preeminence in the region.


Sparta had become wary and threatened by Athens acting ever more assertively. Athens, meanwhile, resented the alleged wrongs it saw as inflicted upon it. Theirs had been a tense coexistence with overlapping spheres of influence, each perceiving the other as an obstacle to its ambitions. The Athenians asserted that a new world order should reflect what they regarded as a shifting balance of power. After war broke out between the two Greek city-states, Sparta went on to eventual victory with the surrender of Athens, though both powers felt war’s destructive sting.


But does competitiveness between so-called rising and ruling powers inevitably lead to war? The idea that it does is known in international-relations theory as the ‘Thucydides trap’, a term coined by scholar Graham Allison, in his book Destined for War. One aim of Thucydides was to inform peers and future generations of the dangers posed by such strategic rivalry.


With that in mind, what does this professed Thucydides trap portend for us today, some 2,400 years later? It would certainly be worrying if the realpolitik opposition between the United States, as the globe’s ostensible ruling power, and China, as the ostensible rising power, was a modern-day case in point, with the United States our Sparta and China our Athens? The theory would suggest that the competitive posturing, influence peddling, and power projection — economic, political, and military — by the two wary nations might eventually result in the folly of a calamitous war.


U.S. president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jinping discussed the Thucydides trap during their summit meeting in Seattle in 2015, toward the end of the Obama presidency. Xi had proposed a ‘new form of great power relations’, though that left tension in place over, for example, Asian spheres of influence. Indeed, just a few years earlier, Xi had ambitiously announced his ‘China Dream’, including ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’.

Yet, Xi’s statement in 2015 went on to discredit the Thucydides trap, cautiously saying, ‘There is no such thing. . . . But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves’. Two days later, Obama reciprocally concurred, delicately adding, ‘The United States welcomes the rise of China . . . [as] a responsible player in global affairs’. The two nations’ otherwise ideological evangelism was prudently quieted in a moment of diplomacy.


Despite Obama’s and Xi’s carefully chosen words, other wars from history’s annals are indeed thought to support the idea that rising and ruling powers often resort to conflict. The Thucydides trap exposed in more-recent history than the ancient world. As one case in point, France’s dominion in Europe came face to face with the rising House of Hapsburg, with the 1519 election of King Charles of Spain as the Holy Roman emperor. To preserve its influence over Western Europe, France rallied allies to challenge Hapsburg hegemony, leading to 40 years of off-and-on conflict. The outcome was a century of Hapsburg preeminence.


Another historical example occurred in 1648. It was in this year that the Peace of Westphalia granted the Dutch Republic its independence, the country having developed as Europe’s leading trading power, with dominance of the seas while chalking up colonial possessions. The Dutch Republic’s rise led to enmity with England, with its holdings in North America and trade in the East Indies. The republic wracked up a number of naval victories during the years-long Anglo-Dutch war, ultimately resulting in the republic’s supremacy.


Heres one other instance. During the late 19th century, France, under Napoleon III, became a controlling land power, dominating Western Europe. Otto von Bismarck of Prussia, however, was emboldened by his rapidly expanding economy and a grand mission to unite Germany, with the aim to dislodge France. Bismarck saw war as necessary to bring about that unification, whereas Napoleon saw war as a means to check Prussia. Their one-year war led to realisation of Bismarck’s vision.


In each case, the hegemon was challenged. Though, of course, for each example from history’s archives, the aspirations, causes, and intentions, such as a strategy to displace a competitor, were unique. The defining question is, how enlightening are these equivalences in the context of today’s international-relations theory, particularly in U.S.-China relations?


Some historians and political scientists, besides Allison, have affirmed that per the Thucydides trap and contemporary international relations, there’s a correspondence with 21st-century China as the Athens-like rising power and the United States as the Sparta-like ruling power. The matter circles back to potential triggers, such as if Taiwan were to declare independence with the United States’ backing. Or if China were to block the South China Sea, preventing the free passage of the world’s commercial and naval vessels. Or if a full-on hot war were to break out on the Korean peninsula. 


All that is to say, the United States and China count on accurately assessing where the other draws its red lines in safeguarding core national and international interests, not to mention their jingoistic pride. And each country must assess where and how to project influence and power, whether militarily, economically, diplomatically, politically, or in other ways.


But the equivalences with 21st-century United States and China — geostrategic challenges and opportunities, international order, deepening and irreversible globalisation, myriad interdependences, robust trade, potentially existential nature of war’s massively lethal technologies today, and preferred resort to negotiation and diplomacy — don’t seem to hold up. The stakes for the two countries, and for the world, are exponentially more consequential today. The equivalence to the ancient city-states of Sparta and Athens especially stretches credulity.


Yet, despite the United States’ and China’s careful circling of the other, underlying the wariness and abstract diplomacy-speak by their presidents was acknowledgment of the countries’ global power supremacy and the risks in their possibly geostrategically stepping out in front at the expense of the other. However it may have been couched, the Thucydides trap remained not too far from the room during Sino-American negotiations to tamp down flash points, where bilateralism may be hard to untangle.


The ancient strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu (5th century BCE) still inspires Chinese grand planning, informing contemporary issues directly tied to the Thucydides trap. There are many instances of Sun Tzu’s advice that shape Chinese philosophy on global affairs. Among the advice are these two laconic, yet telling, aphorisms from his The Art of War: ‘The greatest victory is that which requires no battle’. And ‘Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak’. Geostrategic predispositions to keep in mind as the two nations compete and seek advantage.  


There will, accordingly, continue to be positioning for supremacy in Sino-American relations. The stakes are high, the siren’s song irresistible. The United States and China will thus take each other’s measure for the foreseeable future. Each conditioned to eye the other as a determined rival, and each deciding how to deftly thrust and parry. This will entail a strenuous push-pull situation, predictably to include testing whether power incumbency can ever be safely challenged.


However, despite competitiveness and even spikes in chariness between the United States and China, I propose that’s a normal, eminently manageable, and very different dynamic than the irresistible trajectory toward war that Thucydides predicts. Shifts in power balance will occur, as issues of entitlement, clout, hubris, embrace of righteousness, differently aligned interests, the puffery of self-exceptionalism, and real and imagined threats play out.


War, though, is not the inevitable consequence. The ‘trap’ need not snap shut upon us.


Monday, 4 January 2021

Picture Post #60 The Teapot

'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

The magic teapot… Or is it an Aladdin’s lamp? 

The shape so familiar, but here given a different quality… 

The photographer is Jindřich Brok, a Czech photographer born 20 January 1912 and who died in 1995. He’s not very well-known, or indeed successful. So for more than that, you have to go to the Czech Republic itself where one website confirms he was the son of salesman in Kutná Hora, where he began photographing in 1929. After the death of his father, he took over the business, which he expanded to include a photo department and studied a particular kind of photography - the photography of glass. And then came the Nazi occupation, during which time he was interned in the Terezín concentration camp. 

Perhaps that is why there is a bleak aspect to these images, almost spectral, or ghostly?

Sunday, 27 December 2020

Things and Nothing

 by Thomas Scarborough

As this year draws to a close, we soar beyond the turbulent things which have so exercised philosophical hearts and minds, to consider for a moment one of the very abstract and timeless questions of philosophy: ‘things’ and their opposites.

There are, in this world, ‘things’. Or so we suppose. These are also called objects, entities, items, existents, or beings—terms which, by and large, all mean the same thing. The philosopher William Rowe wrote that a ‘thing’ is any item whose existence is acknowledged by a system of ontology, whether that item be particular, universal, abstract, or concrete. The whole universe, even, may be called a ‘thing’. So far so good.

But what is the opposite of a thing? Or what is its contrast, or complement? Nothing, perhaps. But how could there be ‘nothing’? That would seem to be supreme philosophical nonsense. Or suppose that there is a thing which failed to exist? It never came into being. What should we say about that?

Somebody observed that all of our philosophical concepts may be grouped in pairs. Where we find ‘altruism’, we find ‘egoism’; where we find ‘theism’, ‘atheism’; where we find ‘realism’, ‘anti-realism’—and so on, from A to Z. Some do the same with ‘things’. Where there are things, we find nothing. The philosophers Bradley Rettler and Andrew Bailey comment,

‘It’s not clear whether anyone sincerely endorses the thesis that there is nothing, However, it has been defended several times over.’

One could contend that ‘things’ are things in space and time, while nothings are not—like numbers, for instance, or society, or force. Or one could say that things exist, but properties do not. Say, a house exists, but its karma does not. In that case, a great many things ‘do not exist’. Or one could say, as the existentialists do, that one may experience Nothing. But existentialists are afraid of Nothing, jokes the philosopher Simon Blackburn, where there is nothing to be afraid of.

There is one obvious way that we can try to solve the problem, and many have taken this course: namely, first define a ‘thing’. If what chiefly defines a ‘thing’ is that it is, then of course, its opposite must be a thing which is not—perhaps rather, nothing. But is that properly the way to define a thing?

I shall here accept the view, for the sake of argument, that all the things we call things are things: things which exist in space and time (objects), things which happen (events), and things which exist in the mind (concepts). Now suppose that, in order to create all of these things, we need to differentiate them from what the philosopher and psychologist William James called the ‘undifferentiated stream of experience’.

Things have contours. They have definition. But the opposite of things do not. When things lose their contours, they slip back into the undifferentiated stream. Another way of putting it is that, if nothing is not related to the rest of reality—not a word, not a motion, not an entity, not an event—then we artificially separate things when we call them ‘things’. Artificially, because we strip away from them their completeness.

To create a 'nut', we throw away the fruit, and the tree, and the soil, and the air, and the universe. If we included all these things which are essential to the nut's existence, we could never isolate a nut as a thing. Therefore it is simply 'an edible kernel', or something of the sort.  We strip away the interconnections or interdependencies, to create something which is self-contained.  

The philosopher of science Alan Chalmers describes our reality like this:

‘Many kinds of processes are at work in the world around us, and they are all superimposed on, and interact with, each other ...’

If this is true, then it stands to reason that any ‘thing’ which we cut out from this whole is not wholly itself. 'Nothing' is therefore that which gives birth to things. It is that which exists before we create the contours which create things. In his translation of Lao Tzu, Sam Hamill writes, ‘There was some undifferentiated something here, before heaven and earth.’

The opposite of things, therefore, is a world which is without them—because they have not emerged from it. Nothing was the plastic rattle, before the infant apprehended it. Nothing was the theory, before the scientist formulated it. Nothing was the environment, before it emerged in our minds and hearts. Nothing is all those things which could be, but are not, or are yet to come, because they have no contours.

Monday, 21 December 2020

Resist or Die

An implicit celebration of nihilism turns into

satire or pop culture. The seriousness of it all is minimised.

Posted by Jeremy Dyer

We have all become more aware of how fragile we actually are (mind, body, and spirit), and are all hanging on to the reality that we once knew, though it is slowly dissolving. But the future marches inexorably upon us, clouds of toxic mind-dust choking all hope. Right now we face an unprecedented assault upon body, mind, and spirit, akin only to a World War or widespread plague.

In normal times, society had the bedrock of religion, and a fatalistic stoicism; death was part and parcel of life: people died, but the living moved on. Society ticked along all by itself, and we just went with the flow in a reasonably predictable world. There was the assumption of law and order that did not require our active engagement. There was an education ladder and a job at the end, if you put in the effort. Predictable.

Initially we were confident that this Corona-tsunami would pass. However, as it has stubbornly persisted, a future desert of human and economic devastation is steadily coalescing. According to the UN World Food Programme’s David Beasley, more than a quarter-billion people are now “marching toward the brink of starvation”, in large measure due to the Coronavirus. 400 million full-time jobs have already been lost.

Additionally it is becoming glaringly apparent that “leaders” and “scientists” alike are actually confused and unsure what to do. Like us, they are in fact flying by the seat of their pants. In one of the world's largest cities, New York, wrote Dan Adler of Vanity Fair, “frenzied confusion [is] about par for the course.” It has become obvious that the powers that be are not looking after our interests in the broader macro-economic or philosophic sense ...

The whole machine of civilisation is choking and stuttering, 
and a group of vultures are profiteering off its suffering.

In South Africa, where I write, “Rona” has glaringly exposed our elected officials for the worthless thieves that they actually were all long. The Auditor-General, Tsakani Maluleke, turned up “frightening findings,” and law enforcement agencies are investigating more than R10.5 billion (£500 million, or $700 million) in potentially corrupt Coronavirus spending across South Africa.

“What you know you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life, that there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.” (Morpheus, The Matrix, 1999).

The whole machine of civilisation is choking and stuttering, and a group of vultures are profiteering off its suffering. Bolts and cogs are daily falling off the interlocking wheels of our finely-meshed consumer society. Doomscrolling news on our smartphones only intensifies our existential angst.

Is it any surprise people feel the claws of despair in their inner being? No wonder existential anxiety is at an all-time high the pain of being alive; the pain of accepting that our own fate is horrifyingly, completely up to us. The philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote that it all evokes nausea.

Society offers very little hope, though some rage against this “invisible other” by destroying all symbols of authority and civilisation. But the spectre of a wasteland is not an encouraging future.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

(Yeats, The Second Coming, 1919).

In our 21st Century consumer society, we have become accustomed to problems being solved. We have become thin-skinned, forgotten the reality of war, and cannot accept that misfortune is “just life”. We demandingly insist that things get resolved, be it a skin cancer, refuse removal, or a luke-warm latte.

We find cognitive dissonance (stress, conflict) intolerable. So we act out, protest, insist on pills to solve what is essentially a personal, existential issue. We want pharmacy to numb our philosophy. Or money to numb our fear of poverty. Usually both. We feel the pressure of slowly being reduced to animals. Our noble ideals of ourselves as spiritual, caring and helping others, being steadily crushed by the predatory motivation of “every man for himself”.

The future appears “bleak,” as the trendy expression goes, but it is also a bleakness we have created in our own minds. Despair prompts apocalyptic solutions: get solar, prep your bunker and grow your own food; yield all responsibility to a totalitarian state; retreat into a personal haze of addiction and denial; kill yourself.

Realistically though, this is not the end of the world, but just another catastrophe, and a relatively mild one by historical standards. We should most determinedly resist despair.

What else remains but hard, personal moral choices?

Monday, 14 December 2020

Persuasion v. Manipulation in the Pandemic

Posted by Keith Tidman

Persuasion and manipulation to steer public behaviour are more than just special cases of each other. Manipulation, in particular, risks short-circuiting rational deliberation and free agency. So, where is the line drawn between these two ways of appealing to the public to act in a certain way, to ‘adopt the right behaviour’, especially during the current coronavirus pandemic? And where does the ‘common good’ fit into choices?


Consider two related aspects of the current pandemic: mask-wearing and being vaccinated. Based on research, such as that reported on in Nature (‘Face masks: what the data say’, Oct. 2020), mask-wearing is shown to diminish the spread of virus-loaded airborne particles to others, as well as to diminish one’s own exposure to others’ exhaled viruses. 

Many governments, scientists, medical professionals, and public-policy specialists argue that people therefore ought to wear masks, to help mitigate the contagion. A manifestly utilitarian policy position, but one rooted in controversy nonetheless. In the following, I explain why.


In some locales, mask-wearing is mandated and backed by sanctions; in other cases, officials seek willing compliance, in the spirit of communitarianism. Implicit in all this is the ethics-based notion of the ‘common good’. That we owe fellow citizens something, in a sense of community-mindedness. And of course, many philosophers have discussed this ‘common good’; indeed, the subject has proven a major thread through Western political and ethical philosophy, dating to ancient thinkers like Plato and Aristotle.

In The Republic, Plato records Socrates as saying that the greatest social good is the ‘cohesion and unity’ that stems from shared feelings of pleasure and pain that result when all members of a society are glad or sorry for the same successes and failures. And Aristotle argues in The Politics, for example, that the concept of community represented by the city-state of his time was ‘established for the sake of some good’, which overarches all other goods.

Two thousand years later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau asserted that citizens’ voluntary, collective commitment — that is, the ‘general will’ or common good of the community — was superior to each person’s ‘private will’. And prominent among recent thinkers to have explored the ‘common good’ is the political philosopher John Rawls, who has defined the common good as ‘certain general conditions that are . . . equally to everyone’s advantage’ (Theory of Justice, 1971).


In line with seeking the ‘common good’, many people conclude that being urged to wear a mask falls under the heading of civic-minded persuasion that’s commonsensical. Other people see an overly heavy hand in such measures, which they argue deprives individuals of the right — constitutional, civil, or otherwise — to freely make decisions and take action, or choose not to act. Free agency itself also being a common good, an intrinsic good. For some concerned citizens, compelled mask-wearing smacks of a dictate, falling under the heading of manipulation. Seen, by them, as the loss of agency and autonomous choice.


The readying of coronavirus vaccines, including early rollout, has led to its own controversies around choice. Health officials advising the public to roll up their sleeves for the vaccine has run into its own buzzsaw from some quarters. Pragmatic concerns persist: how fast the vaccines were developed and tested, their longer-term efficacy and safety, prioritisation of recipients, assessment of risk across diverse demographics and communities, cloudy public-messaging narratives, cracks in the supply chain, and the perceived politicising of regulatory oversight.

As a result of these concerns, nontrivial numbers of people remain leery, distrusting authority and harbouring qualms. As recent Pew, Gallup, and other polling on these matters unsurprisingly shows, some people might assiduously refuse ever to be vaccinated, or at least resist until greater clarity is shed on what they view as confusing noise or until early results roll in that might reassure. The trend lines will be watched.


All the while, officials point to vaccines as key to reaching a high enough level of population immunity to reduce the virus’s threat. Resulting in less contagion and fewer deaths, while allowing besieged economies to reopen with the business, social, and health benefits that entails. For all sorts of reasons — cultural, political, personal — some citizens see officials’ urgings regarding vaccinations as benign, well-intentioned persuasion, while others see it as guileful manipulation. One might consider where the Rawlsian common good fits in, and how the concept sways local, national, and international policy decision-making bearing on vaccine uptake.


People are surely entitled to persuade, even intensely. Perhaps on the basis of ethics or social norms or simple honesty: matters of integrity. But they may not be entitled to resort to deception or coercion, even to correct purportedly ‘wrongful’ decisions and behaviours. The worry being that whereas persuasion innocuously induces human behaviour broadly for the common good, coercive manipulation invalidates consent, corrupting the baseline morality of the very process itself. To that point, corrupt means taint ends.


Influence and persuasion do not themselves rise to the moral censure of coercive or deceptive manipulation. The word ‘manipulation’, which took on pejorative baggage in the eighteen hundreds, has special usages. Often unscrupulous in purpose, such as to gain unjust advantage. Meantime, persuasion may allow for abridged assumptions, facts, and intentions, to align with community expectations and with hoped-for behavioural outcomes to uphold the common good. A calculation that considers the veracity, sufficiency, and integrity of narratives designed to influence public choices, informed by the behavioural science behind effective public health communications. A subtler way, perhaps, to look at the two-dimensional axes of persuasion versus manipulation.


The seed bedding of these issues is that people live in social relationships, not as fragmented, isolated, socially disinterested individuals. They live in the completeness of what it means to be citizens. They live within relationships that define the Rawlsian common good. A concept that helps us parse persuasion and manipulation in the framework of inducing societal behaviour: like the real-world cases of mask-wearing and vaccinations, as the global community counterattacks this lethal pandemic.


Monday, 7 December 2020

Book review: Divine Wisdom in the Art of Aphorism

Miniature from Vani Gospels
Miniature from Vani Gospels

The Prelude of Divine Wisdom in the Art of Aphorism 
By Zura Shiolashvili 
ISBN 978-0-9565175-2-4

This slim volume, under the title of The Prelude of Divine Wisdom in the Art of Aphorism. represents a revised third edition of Zura Shiolashvili’s long and earnest study of Nietzsche and the art of aphorism. I reviewed an earlier version, ten years ago (how time flies!) and this is a much broader and deeper work. 

That earlier edition was a little too strident in its attack on Nietzsche, but here is a more nuanced view, that I think throws more light on the strange conflict in Nietzsche’s writing between contempt and dismissal of Christianity and yet a kind of grudging respect and admiration. 

‘I regard Christianity as the most disastrous lie of seduction there has ever been, as the great unholy lie. I draw its after-growth and tendrils of ideal out from under all other disguises, I resist all half and three-quarter positions towards it - there must be war against it’, wrote Nietzsche in Notebook 10, written in 1887. Over a century later, Shiolashvili, by contrast, is very much writing as a believer, indeed a preacher, as one who starts from the perspective of one seeking to defend Christian truth from the ‘withered aphorisms’ of the ‘most eloquent Antichrist of the nineteenth century’. 

In his earlier writing, The Art of Aphorism and Nietzsche's Blind Passion, Shiolashvili found in Nietzsche’s prescription a kind of absurdity - for how can a roe deer resist the jaws of a wolf, if its fate is to be weak in its beauty? For the existing world is inseparable from sorrow and beauty. This, he says, is a pessimistic reality innate to the logic of the natural world… 

Because, if soo, ‘by Nietzsche’s psychological metamorphosis and will to power, a roe deer should turn itself into a wolf to become strong and save its life, denying its tenderness and beauty’. 

In such ways, through advocating his ‘barbaric ethic’, Nietzsche ‘did not want to see everything that is weak is not ugly, and everything that is strong is not lovely’. Nietzsche’s spirituality, Shiolashvili prefaces this edition by saying, ‘starts with his carnal self and ends with psychological delusion’. In fact, for the German nihilist, he adds, depravity represents ‘not psychological degradation but rather the truth of the free spirit’. 

In this slim but elegantly illustrated volume is a mix of prose analysis and commentary on Nietzsche that draws on sources such as Cambridge University Press’ invaluable (for Nietzsche scholars) Writings of the Late Notebooks, as well as elements of Freud and Jung, and philosophers such as Schopenhauer, Hegel, Kant and Hume - the first and last committed atheists. 

Shiolashvili’s claim is Nietzsche reduces thought itself to the ‘will to power’, a notion Nietzsche appropriated from Schopenhauer, who saw the life force as manifesting itself identically in humans, in animals and in rocks. The result is that: ‘Nietzsche's philosophical psychology states the absolute priority of animal desire over the sublime value of mind’. 

In consequence, just as Nietzsche openly promised, the ‘highest becomes the lowest’. It is in resistance to this that Shiolashvili offers his aphorisms, no less than 327 of them in this book! The first is: ‘It is pure thought that beautifies a human being’, while the last is ‘Roses plucked from heaven never wither’.

The aphorisms do, in a curious way, help to clarify and highlight the Nietzschean idea under examination - the search for meaning in a universe with no meaning, other than that pursuit of power. Aphorism 17, for example: ‘You stand on the peak, the bottom of the precipice moves your soul even there - this is the emptiness’. 

By choosing, in this way, to write with an unconventional blend of literary aphorisms, textual quotation and complex, multilayered analysis, Shiolashvili, an unabashed critic of Nietzsche, is also one of his followers.

Monday, 30 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.

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