Creating the ideal society?

I have finally got round to reading Rutger Bregman’s Utopia For Realists. Apart from a lack of emphasis on our climate and ecological emergency (he refers to it, but not in any detail) the book reads like my ideal political manifesto. In it Bregman calls a complete change in our socio-economic model through the development of a replacement for GDP as a ‘measure’ of our national economic efficiency, the introduction of a universal basic income, and a significant reduction in the number of hours we spend in paid work each week. One of the main benefits of such a manifesto (apart from a massive reduction in the seriously harmful inequality that plagues our society) would the unleashing of human creativity.

Whilst directing this creativity into the arts (music, dance, fine art, poetry etc) would have a massively beneficial effect on human society, developing human creativity in general may well be they key to the long term survival of human life on this planet. All life on this planet is organised into complex systems nested within larger complex systems, with the planetary eco-system forming the largest. Each of these systems is at its healthiest when it is at a point that is often referred to as being ‘on the edge of chaos’, a state when the system can also be said to be at its most creative. To understand why I first need to explain what I mean by a complex system.

Complex systems are any collective of living units that are held together by a high degree of connectivity between the units – a connectivity formed through the flow of energy and / or information. So the individual bodies of humans and animals (indeed, all living things) themselves are complex systems, as are the communities they live in. A key feature of such systems is the emergence of novelty. These phenomena, like language, culture and the rule of law, cannot be explained through a reductive analysis – they are not simply the product of the correct arrangement of certain pre-existing ‘bits’; they are much more than the sum or their parts. This emergence of novelty is vital for their long term survival. It allows for the adaptation to changes in the system’s environment. But emergence of novelty is highly dependent the strength of the energy / information that connects the individual units.

In terms of human societies, lets call this connectivity ‘social norms’. Our norms, our bits of social connectivity, can be of different strengths, but they are vital. Without them there is simply no system, no structure. There is chaos. However, these norms can also be too strong. As I have said, all systems are nested within larger systems upon which they are dependent (for example for food to eat, water to drink and air to breathe), systems which are subject to constant change and uncertainty. If our norms are too rigid our societies are unable adapt to changes in our environment, but if they are too week they can easily fall into chaos . In the language of complex systems, the ideal balance is termed ‘the edge of chaos’. This is the point where the norms are sufficiently strong to maintain a high degree of cohesion, but sufficiently open to modification as to allow adaptation to a changing environment. And the one certainly in life (apart from death and taxes) is that our environment will change. It is a highly dynamic, complex system itself. A system can be said to be at its most creative when at the edge of chaos.

Because of this complexity, there cannot be a definitive way to organise society. There is no ideal system. Any system will allow certain social phenomena to emerge whilst repressing others. And whilst it will be impossible to know, in advance, what phenomena will emerge, it is totally impossible to know what is being prevented from emerging. What we need is not a definitive system, an ideal structure, but a system that is on the edge of chaos. Perhaps most importantly we need a system of government that can both adapt to a highly complex and uncertain environment, whilst accepting not just that they have not got all the answers, but that there are no definitive answers. We need a new system of government, one that is vastly more creative than the one we have at the moment.

Some system of proportional representation would be a large step in the right direction. We need politicians from different perspectives (perspectives that truly represent the views of the population as a whole) to sit around a table, to listen to the different perspectives, to accept there are no definitive solutions to our problems, and (above all) to be creative in their decisions. Our current, highly adversarial system is the antithesis of the creative consensus we need. Another step forward might be the introduction of citizens’ assemblies. And all this will be made easier to achieve is we start moving in the direction advocated by Bregman. The introduction of a universal basic income and a reduction in the working week will allow time for people to properly engage in government and decision making, and will allow us to become both more creative and less rigid.

COVID-19 and our mental health

There is no correct response to the COVID-19 crisis. Any and all actions we adopt will have a mix of good, bad and uncertain consequences. Take the need to ‘lockdown’ our social and economic life for example. The government is being heavily criticised (probably quite correctly) for failing to apply this lockdown early enough. Countries that did adopt this measure hard and fast appear to have suffered a much reduced death rate. So, on the surface at least, such a response would appear to have been a good thing, and I have no wish (for the time being) to question or interrogate this aspect of it. However, there are obvious downsides to it. Perhaps the most obvious is the financial hit that many workers and small businesses are taking. Whilst this particular hit is being mitigated by the government’s socialist measures (oh the irony) there is another for which, so far, I see no response at all. The nation’s mental health.

Last Saturday (16th May, 2020) The Guardian reported that “People with no history of mental illness are developing serious psychological problems for the first time as a result of the lockdown”. The most obvious causes for this, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, are “growing stresses over isolation, job insecurity, relationship breakdown and bereavement.” Now arguably the government could have reduced the number of people suffering bereavement by introducing the lockdown sooner, and they have, to some degree at least, off set the potential number of job losses. But what could they possibly do to reduce the effects of social isolation? After all, that’s the actual point of lockdown. By restricting our contact with others we restrict the ability for the virus to spread through the community. It’s a bit of a ‘catch 22’ situation.

The problem is that humans, at their very core, are social beings. As I’ve said on so many occasions, we are not the individuals depicted by classical economic theory. We are not self-contained rational beings who choose to come together to achieve certain ends. Whilst physically / biologically we are individual entities, psychologically and socially we are inter-subjective and highly interdependent. Basically we are, and only can be, who we are because of our relations with others. Our subjectivity is not something we are born with. Whilst certain predispositions are present at birth (though genetically selected through the accumulated intersubjectivity of previous generations) how they develop is highly dependent on social circumstances and relationships. It seems obvious to me that suddenly reducing these social relationships to those permitted by the lockdown may well trigger traumatic responses in many people.

The other side of this relative social isolation, of course, is that those relationships that remain, those involving the others who you are living with during the period of lockdown, come under the spotlight light of intensive scrutiny. Or, to put it another way, these remaining relationships expand to fill the social vacuum. This can place an obvious strain on many of them. By expanding in this way not only are these remaining relationships stretched to possible breaking point, but the counter balance of outside relationships have been removed. Conversely, of course, the testing of these relationships in this way may show them to be very strong and resilient. I feel very thankful that my personal experience of the lockdown has been very positive in this respect.

Another aspect that concerns me is the development of possible anxiety about returning ‘to normal’. Here I’m thinking about the possible psychological responses of returning to social situations that we have quickly become accustomed to thinking of as dangerous. For example, there has been a lot of discussion this week about the gradual reopening of schools. Now, quite correctly in my view, teachers and their unions have been raising concerns about their safety – about their exposure to infection from the children they are teaching. Even if children are as resilient to infection as some people claim, they can still be carriers of the virus, and it will surely be very difficult for teachers to wear full PPE and / or adopt strict social distancing. So how will teachers feel about returning to school? What levels of anxiety will they experience? What will be the long term effects of low, but constant, levels of anxiety? And conversely, what will be the long term effects on children being taught under such clinical conditions?

I have no answers to these questions. I am not a psychologist, and in the end we may prove to be far more psychologically robust than I think. I really do hope that this is the case. But we should also be prepared for a psychological after shock. As the popular mantra goes: we should hope for best but prepare for the worst. This not only means having the necessary professional support available for those of us who may need it, it means being prepared to talk openly about our mental health in the same way as we are about our physical health. And it means being as empathetic as we can to the concerns and worries of others.

The lockdown and the ‘is-ought problem’

Over the course of the last week I have been reminded of a problem articulated by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Known as the ‘is-ought problem’ it simply points out that we cannot derive ‘an ought’ from ‘an is’; that we cannot, with any justification at least, first make a positive statement about an actual state of affairs (a description of what is the case) and then, from it, make a normative statement (a prescription of what should be the case). Two things have fed my thinking here: the various reports that I’ve heard and read about concerning outbreaks of anger directed at people who appear to be flouting the rules of the lockdown, and the book that I’m currently reading – Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer.

I wrote a few weeks ago about people protesting at others who appeared to be ignoring the lockdown rules by entering public spaces like parks and sunbathing. Even though no actual harm was being done by the sunbathers (provided they kept two or more meters away from anyone that they were not living with) others were angered by the thought that they were outdoors unnecessarily. There have been innumerable other examples, ranging from having parties, travelling to second homes, or simply not respecting the request to keep 2 meters away from people you are not living with. I’m not (at the moment) attempting any ethical evaluation of these examples. I simply want to point to a very much reported example of a trait of human behaviour that is not necessarily logical. Yes, it seems rational to argue that having a party could very easily help spread the virus, but it seems much more a problem to apply the same argument to sunbathing in a park whilst keeping at least 2 meters distance from others.

In the above book, Boyer draws on both anthropology and evolutionary psychology to describe how human behaviour is the result of a large number of universally evolved ‘inference systems’ that are given shape by particular cultural influences. These systems he describes as “specialised explanation-devices…each of which is adapted to particular kinds of events, and automatically suggests explanations for these events”, though, to be honest, ‘explanations’ isn’t necessarily the best word as some of the outcomes of these devices are emotions like fear or disgust. With regards to our evolution as a social animals, a large number of these systems have evolved to maintain group social cohesion and cooperation, necessary traits for group survival. One system in particular reacts to the perceived detection of another group member flouting the rules of the group by producing a feeling of anger. In evolutionary terms, such a reaction helps reduce behavioural deviance and therefore helps maintain social cohesion. My point in saying all this is that feelings of anger directed towards social others who are ‘breaking the rules’ are quite natural and to be expected. But does their being ‘natural’ make them desirable?

Human social evolution is running at a faster rate than our biological evolution. Adaptive behaviour that was effective ten thousand years ago may be less so now. For example, despite what classical economics says about our ‘rational self-interest’, we have evolved to be cooperative. Cooperating with other group members was essential to group survival. But this ‘ingroup’ cooperation did not necessarily extend to ‘inter-group’ cooperation (though sometimes it did). However, as groups of hunter gatherers have settled and merged, as our social groups have become progressively larger and more complex, we have gradually extended the boundaries of our ‘ingroups’. The desire to cooperate with group members is a naturally evolved adaptive trait. However, if things had remained this way modern social life would not be possible. Instead, contemporary cultural influences, influences derived from the experienced rationale that so much more can be achieved (and so much suffering alleviated) when we cooperate enmasse, have added an ought to this trait. The ‘ought’ has not been derived from the trait (the ‘is’), but has been added to it from a different direction.

The same applies to our feelings of anger at people who we infer are breaking the rules. We have a naturally occurring inference system that produces these feelings. This is how we feel. It’s quite natural to feel this way. But that doesn’t mean that that is how we ought to feel. Or rather, as we will be unlikely to be able to just turn off such feelings, we can allow a little rational reflection to modify any expression of anger. We can ask ourselves whether the behaviour that upsets us is really that bad? We can try to extend our feelings of empathy to those who are the source of our anger and ask ourselves how do they feel? Basically, we could stop being so instantaneously ‘judgemental’ and start trying to see the bigger picture. Ultimately, whilst the ‘is’ will be derived from the prevailing factual conditions of what is actually taking place, the ‘ought’ will be derived from our collective desired outcome – an outcome that requires more imagination and thought than the ‘is’ can supply.

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Last weekend the Independent newspaper reported on recent research that revealed “Almost half of the British population believe that the coronavirus is a ‘man-made creation’” and that “8 per cent of people think that 5G technology is spreading the virus”. Whenever I hear of such reports, or become aware of certain ‘conspiracy theory’ campaigns, I become haunted by the question: What leads people to believe in these and other conspiracy theories? From my perspective it’s certainly not any actual evidence. In fact, such theories fall foul of the same ‘evidence’ problem as many religions – you can’t prove that something doesn’t exist. My concern here isn’t so much the fact that people believe strange stuff on the basis of little or no evidence; it’s that some believers are further motivated to adopt dangerous or anti-social behaviour – there have, for example, been several incidents of telecommunication masts being subject to arson attacks.

A recent meeting of my Town Council’s Environment & Social Wellbeing Committee, which I chair, received a presentation from a group of very sincere local campaigners who believe that 5G technology is not only unsafe, but that our government is lying about its safety. They go as far as to say (in the leaflet they handed out) that “there is no defence in law for complicity to commit genocide”. Their implication being that that is the government’s intention. It was the very dubious wording of this leaflet that prompted me to do a little research into this technology. For example, it included the sign “Danger Non-ionizing radiation”. Now I am no scientist, but I was fairly sure from my fire service days that the main dangers of ‘radiation’ came from ionizing radiation, from x-rays and gamma rays. My memory hadn’t failed me. Non-ionizing radiation includes ordinary radio waves, visible light, as well as the millimetre wave (microwave) radiation used by 5G. In and of itself, non-ionizing radiation is not a danger. If it were, there would be no life on this planet.

This isn’t to deny that microwave energy, applied at a high enough level, can cause harm to biological tissue. However, the evidence suggests that this new technology will expose us to nowhere near such dangerous levels of microwave energy. As reported in The Guardian (on 12th March), the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP), a German based scientific body, have found overwhelming evidence that 5G technology is safe and that exposure from base stations reaches about 1% of the maximum level of millimetre-wave non-ionizing radiation. So, my question remains: Why, despite evidence to the contrary, do people still believe in these conspiracies?

I haven’t (yet) got a convincing answer to this question, but I suspect that the answer may be found in two different directions, not the irrationality of the conspiracy theorists themselves. The first relates to our intuitive need to read agency into social phenomenon. We have not only evolved the ability to interpret social interactions from the perspectives of others, an intuitive ‘theory of mind’, but have a strong propensity to over interpret social situations; to ascribe meaning and purpose to events that, for a variety of reasons, are without such agency. We all do this. In evolutionary terms it is safer to over interpret than under interpret. But why, for some of us, does this intuitive and non-voluntary trait become so out of control?

A second direction concerns our attitude to governments in general and politicians in particular. Another piece of research I came upon recently (sorry, I can’t remember the source) suggested that in this country Brexit supporters and people who distrust the political system are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than others. And in a similar vein, Futurism magazine (29th April) quotes what they call a ‘Trumpian conspiracy theorist’ as saying “the scariest thing about this pandemic is not the virus itself, it’s seeing Americans so easily bow down and give up their blood bought freedom to corrupt politicians who promise their safety.”

Now it’s obvious that not everyone who distrusts the political system and wants it either replaced with a radically different one or just eradicated altogether is open to the adoption of conspiracy theories, so there must be a lot more to it than this. Does our intuitive ability to over detect agency in social phenomenon contribute or interact with extreme distrust of the political system? And if so, how? It’s too easy (and probably quite unfair) to suggest that those people who do start believing in conspiracies are cognitively impaired. So, what is the answer? How can this phenomenon be explained? If anyone can point me in the direction of some relevant research I would be very grateful. Alternatively, if anyone wants to share their own ideas on conspiracy theories I would love to hear them.