What the Dickens?

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” Such was the view of scientific rationalism in Victorian times, given voice by Mr Gradgrind in Dickens’ Hard Times. Of course it was not a view endorsed by Dickens himself. Dickens, who had a more Romantic (bordering on sentimentalist) view of society, saw the misery such a dismissal of emotion and feeling unleashed on the working poor. But it is a view totally endorsed by the eminent scientist Steven Pinker in his new book Enlightenment Now, a book the Guardian critic, William Davies, describes as “a bold, wonderfully expansive and occasionally irate defence of scientific rationality and liberal humanism, of the sort that took root in Europe between the mid-17th and late 18th century.” I’m on the side of Dickens for this one.

Pinker’s basic argument is that for the vast majority of people in the world life has been getting progressively better. This progress is the result of Enlightenment thinking, the result of scientific rationalism. How do we know this? Because we count – we count the facts, nothing but the facts Mr Gradgrind. So, according to this view, all those people who feel let down by the current economic system, the system that allows the privileged few to get progressively richer whilst the majority at best manage to tread water, at worst start to drown, need to reassess their take on things. They need to stop feeling their hardships, and instead start counting the facts. Ultimately, Pinker informs us, economic inequality “is not itself a dimension of human wellbeing.”

The problem is, of course, that facts are not the clear and obvious entities that they are often made out to be, entities that demand to be received and understood in only one way by anyone using a completely rational thought process. Most facts are derived from raw data (often in the form of statistics) or some other form of evidence (an historic document or DNA sample depending on your area of investigation) which are then interpreted in order to make a meaningful statement. And whilst the various theories used to interpret this date and turn them into facts are usually well tested and reliable (and, in the case of science, to attempts to falsify them), they are never-the-less abstractions from a highly complex and inter-related world. In order to form a workable theory many of the ‘minor’ variables involved are ignored. They have to be. If they were not the theory would become too complex to be used.

But most of us don’t use rigorous, peer-tested theory to interpret data presented to us. We use heuristics, rules of thumb that we have been socialised into using or have formed over the years. One of the great failings of classic economic theory is its belief that economic actors make rational decisions based on perfect knowledge. This has been shown to be false. First, because the world is just too complex for all the facts to be taken into account, and second, because most of the heuristics we use have an emotional rather than a rational basis.

Of even greater importance for politics is the realisation that it tends not to be facts that motivate people to act, to change things. It’s emotions like anger, frustration, a sense or feeling of injustice or unfairness (not an analysis of justice or fairness). One of the targets of Dickens’ critique was the Utilitarian approach to ethics and social reform, an approach that that valued the greatest good for the greatest number decided through some form of calculus. This overly rational approach led to many absurdities and injustices. In Hard Times, Louisa Gradgrind, the eldest child of the Gradgrind family, has been taught to suppress her feelings. As a consequence, she finds it difficult to express herself clearly. But by the end of the novel she has found liberation from the factoid straight-jacket through an appreciation of the value of emotions and the imagination. She reproaches her father for his dry and fact-based approach to the world and convinces him of the error of his ways. Who will so convince Steven Pinker?

 

By-election special: why vote Green?

All I ask is about fifteen minutes of your time. I want to tell you why I think that you should elect Green Party councillors at the two local council by-elections in Bridport this week – or at any other time in any other place if you are reading this after the event and / or do not live in this wonderful and unique town.

Most of us fully accept that caring for our environment is important. We accept the evidence that man-made climate change is not only happening but is a potential threat to the flourishing of human life, and we accept that world plastic pollution is a disaster that has crept up upon when we were not looking. All the main political parties in the UK accept this. All the main political parties have environmental policies that they will talk about as evidence of their commitment to doing something about the dawning environmental threats to our well-being.

But, and this is a very big but, none of the other parties come even close to accepting the essential link between their economic policies and their environmental policies. And until they do, their environmental policies, however well intentioned, are doomed to failure. Our economy forms a complex and dynamic subset of human relations that sit within the wider and even more complex system of human relations we call human society. And both sit within an even more complex system of relations that we call our environment. None of these systems can be understood in isolation – with the possible exception of our natural environment which would still exist even if humanity became extinct (though, of course, there would be no one around to understand it).

Our economic activity has always had, and will continue to have, an effect on the environment in which it is embedded. It’s just up until the onset of the industrial revolution human numbers were relatively small and our technology mostly harmless to our environment. In the year 1500 the world population was approx. 500 million. Today it is approx. 7.5 billion, and is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. And since the year 1500 we have discovered coal, oil, nuclear energy, and have invented plastic.

All the main political parties, with the exception of the Green Party, have economic growth as not only the goal of their economic policy, but as the measure of their success as a government. And because their economic policies are not essentially linked to their environmental policies, because they are not seen as two sides of the same coin, they pursue both in relative isolation. They will approve environmental action if they think it necessary providing it does not threaten economic growth. This is wrong. This is very wrong.

The goal of our economic policy should be to meet the needs of all our citizens, whilst keeping within the safe limits of a number of crucial environmental measures – measures that are not negotiable. This should be our goal, not constant economic growth. If the economy grows, then it grows. If it shrinks, it shrinks. That should not be our concern. All we should be concerned about is meeting our needs whilst not making our planet incapable of supporting human life. Only the Green Party will take this approach. All the others will focus on economic growth, an approach that will work against their environmental good will.

Thank you for your time.

Sustainability

Sustainability is a fashionable word in politics. You may think this a good thing, but when the use of a word becomes fashionable its meaning very quickly becomes vague; at best it starts to mean different things to different people, at worst it becomes devoid of meaning altogether. This trend is even more acute for a word like ‘sustainability’. The English philosopher W.B. Gallie used the term essentially contested concept to refer to concepts that have formed through the amalgamation of many ‘smaller’ concepts of which no single user ever agrees on exactly which set applies. In other words, the default position is that everyone uses it in a slightly different way to mean slightly different things. Philosophers have been arguing that ‘sustainability’ is such a word for several years. This does not mean, of course, that we should not seek some clarity.

A good place to start, as ever, is the dictionary. ‘Sustainability’ is the ability to sustain, and phrased in that way the first problem becomes clear – the ability to sustain what? The verb ‘sustain’ is a transitive verb (it requires a direct object) that simply means to maintain or prolong. On a purely abstract level, talking about the ability to maintain or prolong makes some sense, but we can really only have clarity when we know what it is we want to maintain or prolong. The ability to maintain my house is radically different from my ability to maintain a relationship with my daughter or to maintain a note of a certain pitch with my voice. Constantly referring to my commitment to ‘maintainability’ is close to being devoid of meaning – the skills sets required for each example are so radically different. So, when politicians or environmentalists talk about sustainability what is it they are trying to maintain or prolong?

The use of the term ‘sustainability’ entered popular usage following publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987. Here it refers quite specifically to ‘sustainable development’, and whilst sustainability can be used in just about any context it is in this particular context that it is most commonly used. But use of the concept ‘development’ is not without difficulty. My dictionary defines ‘development’ (noun) as “the act or process of growing, progressing or developing” and ‘develop’ (verb) as “to come or bring to a later or more advanced stage; to grow or cause to grow gradually.” Again, clarity regarding the context or the object of development is crucial to any understanding.

There are two particular aspects of the above definitions that are worth examining: the act or process of growing, and that of progressing to a later of more advanced stage. Starting with the latter, when we talk about later or more advanced stages the implication must be that we have some type of blue-print or dynamic model in mind that gives shape, meaning or purpose to the process. This works fine with, for example, notions of child-development. Medicine and psychology have, over the years, charted the ‘normal’ course of development of human children. We can use this to quite accurately predict what will happen to any particular child and assume that there is a problem if it doesn’t. However, this doesn’t work when when applied to human collectives, whether communities, particular societies, or humanity as a whole. Here we have no experience, no evidence at all, that allows us to construct a model of ‘normal’ development.

There are similar problems with the notion of ‘growth’, the most obvious meaning of which is to increase in size. Applied to individual children growth is considered good – provided it is within the boundaries of our model of ‘normal’ development. We expect babies to put on weight (though not too much) and to grow in height. However, such growth is limited. No human child, or any other living being, continues to grow for ever. There are limits – both in terms of age and size or weight gained during the aging process. To go beyond certain limits of weight is to create health problems. So if there are limits to the growth of any particular living being, why should there not be similar limits to the growth of collectives of such beings, or limits to any of their enterprises? Well, there are, as any ecologist will explain. All living collectives are interdependent with other collectives and the environment in which they live. Push any boundary too far and the balance is too greatly disturbed: the result is a feedback reaction which causes the balance to go in the other direction. So in terms of human ‘development’, development cannot mean either constant growth or the progression towards some pre-ordained future state. Neither can be maintained or prolonged. So where does this leave the notion of ‘sustainable development’?

Increasing in size isn’t the only meaning applicable to ‘growth’ – there is also the development of novelty. And this is where systems thinking comes to our aid. All collectives of living beings, from ant colonies to large human cities, form complex, dynamic systems, whose structure can, to a large degree, be understood and described through complexity science. These systems are always embedded within larger systems that form their environment, and form a dynamic balance with the other living systems that share that environment. Together with the Earth, all these systems or collectives form one immensely complex dynamic system: our ecosystem. One of the very few certainties for any individual system within this interdependent whole is that, because of the sheer complexity and dynamics of that whole, their immediate environment will change. If that system does not adapt to these changes, if it doesn’t develop novelty, if it is not creative in its response – it will stagnate and die. This applies to human communities as much as to any troop of wild animal or species of plant.

According to this line of thinking, sustainable development is the ability to develop novelty in response to changes in the environment, to be creative when considering how we do things, or, as Jared Diamond so brilliantly argues in Collapse, to have the “willingness to reconsider core values”. Diamond also argues that in order to survive potential collapse, in other words to maintain or prolong themselves, societies also need long-term planning rather than the short-term planning that seems to dominate politics.

And this brings us nicely back to the Brundtland report. This defines sustainable development as the ability to meet “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The working definition of sustainable development that I suggest, therefore, would simply prefix this with: “The ability and willingness to reconsider our core values in order to meet…”. Oh, and please note, the Brundtland report says ‘needs’, not ‘wants’!

Sustainable development: The ability and willingness to reconsider our core values in order to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

We need to globalise identity politics

With which collective of people do you most identify? Robert Peston, in his recent book WTF, raises the important question of identity politics. He asks: When questioned, do you describe yourself as English or British? There appears to be a strong correlation between people who describe themselves as English and people who voted Brexit, and between those who describe themselves as British and those who voted to Remain. I’m sure that much could be written and implied about such a correlation, but I shall resist. Instead I want to first share my own personal response to the question, and then make some general comments about the (hopefully) continued evolution of humanity.

When asked a formal question regarding my nationality or country of birth I have always replied “British” or “UK”. Reflecting on this response, however, it occurs to me that this is a likewise formal reply – I have always said it in a formal ‘matter of fact’ way, in a way devoid of any deep emotional attachment, and in a way that has little or no bearing on my political identity. And reflecting further, and no doubt opening myself up to a salvo of rebuke regarding elitism and privilege (none of which can possibly apply to my life), I would say that I actually identify myself as European. The whole structure of my thinking, my world view, has been developed by reading European philosophy, particularly French, German and Greek philosophy. And this philosophy cannot be separated from European literature, history and politics that, in various ways, has both promoted the spread of different philosophical approaches and caused them to go in and out of fashion. No, on reflection I am European – no other political identity comes anywhere close to explaining who I am. But is such an identity actually practical?

I can understand why someone would identify themselves differently, with a far smaller collective – one confined to a much smaller geographic area and one with a far greater degree of homogeneity. We have evolved to strongly favour our in-group – our tribe or community. Instinctively recognising a member of your own group through often subtle differences in physical characteristics and behaviour has had very obvious survival advantages. Through such instincts we have been able to assess the degree of threat from a person not personally known to us without the slow and cumbersome use of reason. During our evolutionary history our fledgling reason, in certain situations, has been too slow in assessing risk to life, and in many situations still is. Such evolutionary traits are surely at the root of human prejudices – our ability to ‘pre-judge’ a person based purely on a few simple characteristics. Instantly recognising a person as a stranger or non-member of our community, and as a result judging them as a threat to that community, has been a positive aid to human survival during our long evolutionary history. But this human trait has long passed it’s sell-by date. Not only does it no longer offer a survival advantage, it actually threatens our survival.

Some people would use the above argument to justify prejudice, and many other human traits, as ‘natural’. The fallacy of such an argument springs from the very nature of evolution itself – that evolution means evolution, that human traits are not fixed but adapt to circumstances. And the circumstances of human life on this planet have changed very drastically from those of our distant ancestors. One of the great problems we face is the relative speed (and acceleration) of social evolution in relation to biological evolution, and the struggle of the latter to keep up. Our current social life (and in this I include our political and economic life) is evolving at a rate quicker than it ever has in the past, largely on the back of technology that connects humanity across the world. Whether we like it or not we are becoming increasingly connected at the global level. Communities and groups of people who were once unknown to each other, and therefore not to be trusted, are now known. And once known, they no longer become such a treat. And of even greater importance, such treats that do exist can now be assessed through reason. But it’s not just that global humanity is becoming known to us – in so many ways global humanity is becoming actually connected to us. It is now next to impossible for any community to be independent. In all aspects, the political, the economic and the environmental for example, human life is becoming connected at the global level – and we desperately need to see, understand and act on this bigger picture.

So I fear that even my identification with Europe is fast approaching its own sell-by date. It may explain where we’ve come from, but it neither offers a route map to where we’re going nor, in evolutionary terms, offers much of a guide as to how humanity (a highly connected and inter-dependent humanity) will survive the many threats to its existence. We need to identify with a global humanity – a global species that needs to learn to respect and understand its relationship with the whole of the ecosystem in which it is embedded. This is a big ask. It is oh so much easier to identify with a relatively small and clearly defined group of similar people. But such an easy and comforting identification will, in all likelihood, prevent us from seeing the bigger picture upon which our long term survival depends.

Brexit and divorce

When philosophers discuss intentionality they use the term somewhat differently from most people. In philosophy it refers to the relationship between a person’s mind and an object. So, for example, when a person loves, wants, or believes, the person that they love, the cake that they want or the story that they believe forms the intentional object, whist the loving, wanting or believing describes their relationship towards that object. For some philosophers this relationship is very problematic, but I’m not one of them. Personally I find it a useful tool to help clarify our thinking regarding the relationship between a single person (mind/brain) and whatever it is in the physical or social world that may have gained their attention. A person (the intentional subject) may claim that they believe in ghosts. Providing that we can be clear as to the intentional object (an agreed understanding of what a ghost is – even as an abstract idea) and the nature of the intentional relationship (belief being the ability of the person’s world view to allow the existence of an object that cannot be detected by the senses), there is little to concern us. We do not have to have evidence of the actual existence of ghosts to understand what the person means.

However, what I do have a serious problem with is collective intentionality – the supposed relationship between a group of people and an intentional object. Take the simple claim that “the people of Bridport support their annual hat festival”. Using the structure of intentionality it quickly becomes obvious that a clear meaning becomes difficult to find. First, we have an intentional object, the annual Bridport Hat Festival, for which it is easy to produce a non-contentious definition. Second, we have the intentional subject, the people of Bridport. Now things start to get more complicated. Is it claimed that all the population support the festival, or just some of them? And if the latter, how many? Then we have the intentional relationship, the support. Even if we can clearly define the group of people who form the intentional subject (which I doubt), how do we define what they mean by ‘support’? This could range from simply walking into town to observe the hats being worn and uttering positive comments, all the way to spending months creating the most elaborate hat imaginable and parading it in the streets on the day. Any definition of ‘support’ capable of including the entire range would be close to meaningless. OK, I know what most people’s reaction to such analysis is: in ‘the real world’ there is no problem, and trying to create one either gets you angry or sends you to sleep. And most of the time I agree with you. But there are occasions when the implications of such statements, and their meaning, have very serious consequences – and Brexit is one of them!

Many people compare leaving the EU to a divorce, and even if you are not one of them it’s a useful comparison to make to highlight the huge problems associated with the former. Most divorces have a structure similar to that of intentionality. For each party there is a clear intentional subject (themselves), a clear intentional object (their current partner, soon to be ex-partner), and whilst it’s often not easy to find clarity as to the desired new relationship, it is at least possible. You can choose to avoid each other, have nothing to do with each other if you wish, providing the needs and interests of any children are taken into account. It is at least theoretically possible for each party to be both clear and support the desired post-divorce relationship.

However, no such clarity is possible regarding our future relationship with the EU. Any statement along the lines of “the British people have chosen to leave the EU” is close to meaningless. Whilst it is reasonably straight forward to define the intentional object (the EU as an institution), it is next to impossible to have any degree of clarity regarding either the intentional subject (the British people), or the existing / desired relationship between them. In order to hold a referendum in the first place the very nature of this complex relationship needed simplifying and condensing down to a binary leave / remain question. This simplified people’s thoughts and feelings down to a level of abstract meaningless. The only meaningful statement regarding the wishes, desires or beliefs of the British people is that of those that who voted, at the time of voting 52% voted to leave and 48% voted to remain. It is simply impossible to extrapolate from this what the British people want our long term relationship with our ex-partners to be. The ‘British people’ cannot be regarded as an intentional subject. As a collective they are a vast number of biologically distinct brains whose minds are unique in the details of their loves, wants and beliefs. And within this collective there will be an almost infinite number of variations around a large number of different perspectives.

So where does this leave us? Well, because Brexit is claimed to be about giving control back the British people, and because it is impossible to have clarity as to what the British people want their future relationship with their ex-partners to be, we have to have the opportunity to either approve or reject the relationship negotiated on our behalf by a small group of politicians. A divorce agreement may be negotiated by solicitors, but it has to be either approved by the person on whose behalf the solicitor was working, or else imposed by a civil court. No Brexit agreement will be capable of capturing the wishes of everyone, that is just impossible, but the individual people of the UK must have the opportunity to decide whether the new relationship on offer is close enough to their own individually desired relationship to be acceptable – or not. It took a referendum to get us into this mess, and it will take another to get us out of it. After that…please, no more referendums – ever!

 

 

Happiness

How do we measure, or otherwise assess, the progress or development of a society? The standard measure is through GDP (Gross Domestic Product), the total of all goods and services produced by a country in any given year. Politicians are obsessed with GDP, or, as they will prefer to call it, economic growth. Even politicians from the left (even JC) refer to economic growth as the main measure of the success of their plans and society in general. Why? Many philosophers have argued that all people really seek in life is happiness. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of the English Utilitarian tradition, for example, argued that any action or activity is good when “the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it”, and that our overall aim should be to produce the greatest good (happiness) for the greatest number. So why don’t we focus on achieving happiness rather than economic growth?

Supporters of economic growth will argue that it is only through the accumulation of wealth that levels of misery and deprivation can be eradicated and happiness increased. This is true to the extent that a degree of wealth can certainly alleviate deprivation and supply many of the basic essentials that all humans need. It’s stupid to try telling a person without food or a home, without warm clothing and protection from the weather, that wealth would not increase their happiness. But research has shown that once personal wealth has reached a very modest level (approx. £16,000 per annum) happiness no longer increases. If this is the case, what is the point of striving for constant economic growth? Instead, why not try to work out how we can increase actual happiness? If you further factor in research that indicates a correlation between levels of GDP and inequality (that the richer the country becomes the greater the gap between the rich and the rest), and that a sense of inequality diminishes levels of happiness, such a question seems to make even more sense.

The pursuit of happiness, however, is not without its own problems. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the Paradox of Hedonism, a phenomenon first noted by Henry Sidgwick, the last of the great nineteenth century English Utilitarians. He argued that if you seek pleasure or happiness for the sole purpose of achieving it yourself, you will fail. Instead, you must pursue other goals that will bring you your desired happiness as a side-effect. Or, in the slightly more poetic words of Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

So where does this leave our pursuit of happiness? Well, first of all, it seems obvious that of all the things in life to be desired, happiness comes out on top. We may desire many things, but only because we believe that they will make us happy. Think of anything that you desire, and then imagine possessing it but not being happy. The overall importance of happiness has been noted by philosophers at least since ancient Greece. Epicurus, for example wrote that we “pursue the things that make for happiness, seeing that when happiness is present, we have everything; but when it is absent, we do everything to possess it.” But perhaps the paradox comes about because we don’t truly understand what happiness is. We certainly understand it differently from the ancients. Epicurus understood happiness in the negative – not what it was, but what it wasn’t; for him happiness was calmness of the soul, freedom from disturbance, the avoidance of pain and fear. Such an understanding certainly explains why a degree of wealth can produce happiness (in as far as it relieves pain and fear), but the continued pursuit of wealth only allows pain and fear to return.

The other ancient philosopher who placed happiness at the centre of his thinking was Aristotle. He argued that everything we do in life we do to achieve a certain end, a certain good, but when we examine these ends or goods we quickly discover that we seek them in order to achieve some further end or good. If we follow this line of reasoning through we discover that the greatest good, that which is at the end of the line of successive means and ends, is what he called eudaimonia. This is often translated as ‘happiness’, but, because what Aristotle had in mind did not have the subjective connotations we attach to the word, a better translation is ‘flourishing’. Eudiamonia is the sense of a life going well, and, for Aristotle, a life going well was always assessed within the context of the polis, the city state.

Eudaimonia was achieved through the development of certain character traits. The important thing about these character traits, traits like courage, is that they need to be developed over time, they need to be worked at, and that they form what he called a ‘golden mean’ – a balance between excess and deficiency. Using the example of courage, if developed in excess a person becomes rash, but if underdeveloped that person displays cowardice. The important point to take on board is that there is not a definitive state of courage against which all others can be compared. It’s a process of trial and error, and different situations require different displays of courage. But with practice and reflection a person can develop the ability to display the appropriate degree of courage for any particular situation. The more a person develops a whole range of character traits, the more his or her life can be said to be flourishing.

If transposed to modern society I would interpret eudaimonia to mean the development of range of character traits (not necessarily the ones Aristotle promoted) that give us the ability to respond appropriately and effectively to any social situation, to make good decisions, and to be a good citizen. If we can do this I not only believe that ‘flourishing’ would be a good description of the lives we are leading, but I suspect that we may become happy as well. May be, that by trying to be good citizens, that by concentrating on developing those character traits that allow our societies and communities to flourish, we would allow the butterfly of happiness to settle upon us.

Let’s talk about…death

Why, you are no doubt asking, is this guy writing about death? And why would I want to read about it? After all, it’s hardly the most engaging or inspiring of subjects. But that’s my point. Why don’t we talk about it? Back in the eighteenth century both Daniel Defoe and Benjamin Franklin thought that there were only two certainties in life, death and taxes. Fast forward to the twenty first century, and, if all the leaked papers are to be believed, we are down to just the certainty of death. So accepting that this will happen to each and everyone of us, without exception, why don’t we openly discuss what it means to us?

I have pondered this question many times, but it’s current incarnation is the result of two nearly back-to-back, yet completely unrelated occurrences. First was a conversation in the pub last Thursday evening. For no apparent reason two of us ended up discussing how inevitably, once you reach a certain age, you become very aware that you have already lived far more days than await you, and that you have already consumed most of your life experiences. So, what to do with the days that remain? A popular option at this point is to compile a ‘bucket list’. But isn’t this just an excuse for some middle-class indulgences? And apart from the obvious waste of resources just so that we can have the satisfaction of having had certain experiences before our ability to experience them ends, there’s also the obvious point that we can’t take these experiences with us. Experiences are only of value if we still able to consciously recall them! So, rather than focusing on activities that distract us from our finitude, would this not be a good time to take stock of what we have so far taken from, and contributed to, society, and, more importantly, what we have done for future generations? The problem with such reflection, of course, is that it would probably bring our own inevitable death too far into focus. I suspect that we are too fearful of such self honesty. But why? What have we to fear?

Which brings me to the second occurrence. The following morning, purely by chance, I happened to catch a programme on Radio Four on the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus. Some years ago I did quite a bit of work around his work, thoughts which came flooding back to me as I listened. Epicurus was famous for his materialism and support for ancient atomism. He didn’t go as far as to deny the existence of God / gods (that would have been far too dangerous in a very superstitious Athens) but he did argue that they took no interest in human affairs – so were not to feared. Coupled with this, he also argued that death was not to be feared. He did not believe in any afterlife, and therefore he did not believe in any punishment or retribution for any behaviour deemed wrong by non-existent or non-interested gods. Life was purely a material phenomenon. Therefore, death “is nothing to us, since while we exist, death is not present, and whenever death is present, we do not exist.” He adds: “The wise man neither rejects life nor fears no living.”

If, as Epicurus argues, because we cannot actually experience death it makes no sense to fear it, what is there to fear? Well one obvious reply is a painful death – a situation in which the process of dying is long and painful. Another is the fear of incurring an injury or contracting a slow degenerative disease which so erodes our quality of life that, whilst any physical pain is numbed, our emotional or intellectual pain at not being able to do any of the things which make life worth living is overwhelming. And, arguably, if these emotional or psychological pains were numbed with pharmaceuticals in the same manner as we expect physical pain to be, in what sense (other than a purely basic biological one) could we say that life still existed? There are no definitive answers to these questions, but my point is that we tend to shy away from discussing them. It may be that discussing the issues involved together with our associated thoughts and feelings with friends and loved ones, that bringing our private anxieties and nightmares out of the shadows, would, in itself, reduce any associated fear.

Another fear arises from our attachment to others. We quite naturally feel grief at the loss of someone who was significant to our life. A significant other person is a main character in our own life narrative, and their loss affects the meaning and worldview that this narrative gives us. Likewise, again quite naturally, we are no doubt are aware of the sense of loss that our own passing will have on the personal narratives of those we hold dear. But again, if we were more open about our thoughts and attitudes towards death, if we not only tried to rationalise our fear of death but our fear of talking about it, perhaps we would develop better emotional health, and that as a result we would be better able to recover from the loss of loved ones. Our background health affects our ability to heal and recover from emotional trauma as well as physical trauma.

If we were able to talk more freely and openly about the inevitability of our own death perhaps, as we reach that point in our life where we suddenly realise that we are about to grow-out of middle age, we would be better able to reflect on what we have achieved and what we will leave behind. If we do this on our own we tend to focus on personal achievements and material inheritances, but if we were able to reflect in a more open and inclusive atmosphere perhaps be would be better able to review what we have achieved collectively, and perhaps, far more importantly, what sort of world we have left for future generations to inherit.

Politics on the edge of chaos

The times they are a changing! Following the vote to leave the European Union, whether we like it or not, life in the UK will change. Even if, by some miracle, we do not end up leaving the EU, British political and economic life will never be the same. Whilst many ‘brexiteers’ dream that these changes will be the dawn of a golden age and a cure for all our ills, many others feel that we are sleep walking into chaos. I would probably situate myself in the latter category – but (potentially at least) in a positive way. I don’t think a little chaos will do us too much harm. It could even do us some long term good!

Critics of the current government, quite correctly in my view, point to the lack of a basic plan as to not only how they should respond to the vote to leave, but to what leaving actually means. The government itself appears chaotic, with one crisis following another; their negotiations with the EU regarding our terms of leaving reflecting this chaos. At the heart of all this is the fear of uncertainty. People from other EU countries living and working in the UK obviously fear the uncertainties regarding their status, whilst business leaders point to their need for certainty on a number of key economic issues. However, if we take a lesson from complexity science we should be re-assured that too much certainty is as unhealthy for us as too little certainty, that too much order is as bad as chaos, a total lack of order; that systems are at their healthiest, and at their most creative, when they are on the edge of chaos.

Complex systems are systems that have a very large number of highly connected parts. Whilst these parts are usually only connected to each other at the local level, to their immediate neighbours, by relatively simple ‘rules’, because of the overall richness of these connections, and due to features such as feed-back loops, the flows of energy or information through the system produce phenomena that cannot be reduced to their parts. Any living cell or organism is an example of such a system, as are individual plants or animals, as are any colony of plants or animals. Nature presents us with sets of such systems nested within larger, more complex (greater number of parts and degree of connectivity) systems, which in turn are nested in even more complex systems – and so on and so forth. None on these systems are closed: there are flows of energy not only within each system, but through them – flows that connect them together. And most importantly, the greater the complexity, the greater the degree of uncertainty.

OK, end of science lesson. If you want to know more contact me and I’ll recommend some excellent books on the subject. The point I’m getting to is this. Any system you look at is nested within a larger system that forms its immediate environment – an environment that is constantly changing due of the complexity of its environment. In order to survive, any system needs to be capable of adapting to changes in its environment – changes that it has no control over. If a system has too much order, if the ‘rules’ that hold it together are too rigid, it becomes incapable of responding to these environmental changes and eventually stagnates. On the other hand, if the system is chaotic, if there is too little order, too few ‘rules’, then any change in its environment forces it to simply break-up. A system is at its healthiest when it has sufficient order to keep its parts connected when change occurs, but not so much order that these connections are prevented from adapting to the changes. Such a system is often described as being ‘on the edge of chaos’. This is the point when it is also at its most creative.

Social systems are complex systems – possibly the most complex systems we can image. Their parts are individual human beings connected to each other by sets of habits, norms and laws. If these sets of connections are too rigid, too prescribed, there is little or no room for innovation. There is no social action outside of what is permitted. Such a social system would be fairly described as totalitarian. All such systems are doomed to fail at some point – they simply do not possess the ability to respond to perturbations in their environment. And one of the few certainties in life (other than death and taxes) is that the environment will change at some point – sometimes radically.

The hippy or anarchist dream of total freedom is equally doomed to failure. Any social system held together with very few or very weak norms and laws may be idyllic whilst its environment is benign, but if and when a sudden change in that environment creates a severe perturbation to the system it will simply break up. But such perturbations should not be feared. In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that they should be welcomed with open arms. They are not only a way of testing both the robustness and the flexibility of any social system, but also its potential for creative adaptation. But to be truly creative we may need to go to the very edge. Much needs changing in society, but history has shown that revolutions do not work; they end in either chaos or totalitarianism. Healthy and creative change takes place at the edge chaos.

Back To The Future

A report in today’s online edition of the Guardian (03.11.17) warns that “Hundreds of millions of urban dwellers around the world face their cities being inundated by rising seawaters if latest UN warnings that the world is on course for 3C of global warming come true.” Before you read on, please stop and attempt to imagine just how many people that is. Hundreds of millions!

This estimate is based on three degrees of warming melting sufficient ice for sea levels to rise up to two metres. A rise of ‘only’ fifty centimetres would submerge 10% of Bangladesh. A two metre rise would result in many major cities across the world, including Miami and Shanghai, being submerged. Where are all the residents of these now underwater cities going to move to? If we think that we have global immigration problems now, what will it be like when this almost unimaginable number of people start to look for places of relative safety to move their families to? Or, more pertinently, why are we not taking this threat far more seriously and being far more proactive in taking preventative action – now? Part of the problem are the time scales involved. According to the UN scientists, we are on course to hit three degrees of warming by the end of the century – and we are just not very good at dealing with such a temporal distance.

During the course of their evolutionary history, humans have never had to deal with such long range predictions. Consequently, as Antony Giddens points out in his The Politics of Climate Change, “People find it hard to give the same level of reality to the future as they do to the present”. This is a phenomenon that social psychologists term ‘future discounting’. It means that a small reward or risk possibly impacting on our lives tomorrow is of far greater significance than a larger reward or risk that is likely have an impact next year, and that next year’s potential reward or risk is of far greater consequence than any that might have an impact in ten or twenty years time. The future seems to gradually fade away into ever increasing obscurity, loosing both focus and reality. So, how can we bring the future into some degree of focus?

It is at this point that I have a problem. I face a paradox in my thinking. According to one fork of my dilemma, I am forced to accept that life is inherently uncertain. All life, and social life in particular, is highly interdependent, highly complex and very dynamic. Following complexity science, this means that, because of the sheer scale of connectivity and the number of feedback loops involved, novel features and phenomena should be expected but accurate predictions should not. In fact, the only certainty is that we should expect unexpected. In terms of the accuracy in predicting the future you only need look at the claims that have been made by ‘futurist’ television programmes (like Tomorrow’s World), together with those contained in science fiction films and novels, to realise just how difficult (if not down right impossible) it is. Whilst on the other hand, how many of the technologies that have really changed our lives (like the internet and mobile phones / computers) were actually predicted?

But according to the other fork of my dilemma, I just can’t avoid the belief that ignoring the views of 97% of climate scientists, whose claims are based on solid empirical evidence, and whose predictions are often expressed in terms of probability rather than certainty, is not just poor risk management, but is unethical in the extreme. One area of ethics that is insufficiently discussed is our responsibility to future generations. Surely we have a moral obligation to our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, and all the generations that follow? An obligation to have not allowed huge areas of habitable space and food growing land to be consumed by the oceans? An obligation to have not allowed mean global temperatures to have risen to such an extent that the amount of land with a climate capable of supporting human life has been reduced to a tiny percentage of the Earth’s surface? No, ignoring these predictions is unethical in the extreme. But how do we overcome our predisposition to future discounting? How do make the predictions for ninety year’s time feel real and relevant?

One way forward would be to return the past, to ancient Athens and the ethics and politics of Aristotle. In his ethics, Aristotle argued that when we act we do so to achieve some end that we consider to be good, and that when we examine these various ends we quickly discover that they are not just ends in themselves, but means to some further end, some greater good. This process can be continued until we arrive at the greatest good. This good he named eudaimonia, a term that has often been translated as happiness, but is more accurately translated as flourishing. Likewise, in his politics he argued states are partnerships formed with the aim of achieving some good, and that “the partnerships that [are] most authoritative of all…aim at the most authoritative good of all.” Collective eudaimonia.

In these terms our political partnerships are about working together to achieve the flourishing of human life. This is the greatest good, and the final end of any number of personal means and ends relationships. If we could develop a common conception of what flourishing would entail for the whole of human life on Earth we would have a Common Good that would provide the end point and goal of all our individual stories. It would unite these stories into a common narrative and make the future seem a very real concept, one that has both a rational and emotional dimension and establishes an ethical commitment to future generations.

Socialism and a Natural Contract

For many years I regarded myself as a socialist – and part of me still does. I only joined the Green Party in 2010 because, having read their election manifesto, I realised that they were more socialist in their outlook than Labour had been for many years. So, now that Corbyn is leading Labour and socialism is no longer a dirty word, an obvious question to ask is: Why do I not re-join Labour? The short answer is that during my time in the Green Party my eyes have been opened to a vitally important aspect of politics that Labour at best pays lip service to, and often ignores. It’s a dimension of politics that has been largely ignored over the centuries, and certainly one that has not fed into the theoretical base of either socialism in general or the Labour Party in particular. This dimension, following the French philosopher Michel Serres, I call the need to develop a ‘natural contract’. Without it the long term survival of homo sapien is at risk.

Serres’ basic argument is that throughout our history we have focussed, almost exclusively, on our relations with each other, and, in so doing, have largely ignored our relations with nature – to the serious detriment of the natural environment upon which we are all totally dependent. There are obvious exceptions to this gross generalisation, but in terms of the most influential theorists and centres of power, this is undoubtedly true. Our historical focus has been on establishing a social contract, not just formally by way of some social contract theory by the likes of Rousseau, Hobbes or Rawls, but by default in our struggles for political power, control of resources, and alleviating the social injustices and hardships that have dominated these histories. Traditional conservatism, for example, argues for the maintenance of ‘traditional’ social relations and institutions, whilst modern ‘conservatism’ has totally embraced the economic relations of neo-liberalism as a means of problem solving. Liberalism argues the case for the liberty of the individual to pursue a life of their own choosing, whilst socialism focuses on the need for social solidarity and co-operation. In general, none of these approaches comments on our relationship with our natural environment. If they do it is purely as a resource to be used, as a licence for us to “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

If we are to survive on this planet, Serres argues, we now need to develop a natural contract to sit alongside our social contract – a ‘contract’ that makes explicit our relationships with our planet and non-human life as well as with each other, with our ecosystem as well as with our social system.  However, I have come to realise that we need to go beyond this, that we don’t so much need a natural contract to sit alongside our social contract as a social contract to be embedded within it, in the same way that our social systems are embedded within our ecosystem. Within the socialist tradition there has been some acknowledgment of this. Marx, for example, noted in his Economico-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 that “Nature is man’s inorganic body…Man lives by nature. This means that nature is his body, with which he must constantly remain in step if he is not to die.” However, this understanding was either lost or ignored by later Marxist theorists, and has certainly been ignored by modern day social democratic parties. Up until the election of Corbyn the British Labour Party had progressively fallen under the spell of free-market economics, and since then only seems to refer to ‘environmental issues’ because it’s polite to do so. There is absolutely no indication that the current Labour Party recognise the need for such a contract.

A natural contract of the type I’m calling for needs to be developed around an understanding of complexity science, around an understanding of how dynamic and complex systems (as all human social systems are) are embedded within larger dynamic and complex systems, and how all these systems are part of a highly complex and inter-dependent eco-system. In effect this means that any social contract we adopt needs to be symbiotic in its relationship with our ecosystem, not (as it currently is) parasitic. Having adopted such a natural contract, a contract that is non-negotiable in as much as its terms are revealed by science, all changes to our social contract, all policy decisions, will need to consider: their likely effect on the ecosystem; their likely effect on other global communities; and their likely effect on future generations. And all these considerations need to be calculated in terms of probability, not certainty. A fundamental feature of complexity science, one that politicians are grossly negligent in ignoring, is that all complex systems (all natural systems, including human social systems) are inherently uncertain. There is, and cannot be, certainty regarding any decision – we can only act on probability.

The political adoption of such a contract means much more than having environmental policies and accepting that climate change is an issue we need to consider. It requires that all policies start from an understanding of the embeddedness of the particular social system within the ecosystem, and that the outcomes of any decision are assessed in the same manner. In terms of socialist policy, this means that mitigating the worst effects of climate change and environmental degradation is more important than protecting jobs in manufacturing industries (especially if those industries use non-renewable resources to generate power, are energy intensive, or produce nuclear weapons). It also means: adopting a completely new economic model (such as Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics); taking the concept of subsidiarity seriously by aiming to decentralise power and the economy (and therefore allow communities to tailor strategies to their own locality) rather than increasing the power of the state; and increasing the involvement of all citizens in the decision making process by ensuring that all levels of government are as inclusive of the plurality of perspectives as possible through the adoption of some version of proportional representation.