Category Archives: Theory

Does Everyone Deserve Freedom?

Aristotle once wrote that there are such things as “natural slaves” (he said that slavery can only be justified with tell me what to donatural slaves, and not those who desire to make their own choices and pursue their own goals), and I have often said that in reality there are few people who want nothing more than to be told what to do (discounting those who prefer being told what to do simply because they have had to grow accustomed to it). And yet I cannot help but think that it depends on how this concept is interpreted.

In theory we could one day realize that complete economic freedom which we seem to be striving towards i.e. freedom from the necessity of human economic productivity, whereby machines would do all of our work. But how would human society respond? Some people would excel in such a world of freedom. They would become happier, more learned, more creative, more physically active, more charitable, and more socially productive. However, it seems quite likely that most would completely flounder.

How many people are socially productive in the spare time? How many people want to be if given the choice? Would Man as a Thinking Creaturea world of academics, sportspeople, artists, writers etc realistically come to pass? Or would we have a world of Hedonists, bent more towards personal short term pleasure than anything else? Combined with the forces of conservativism, which would remind people about how big a cause of depression economic unemployment has been, jobs may continue to exist solely for creative reasons, and the peer pressure for people to get an economic as opposed to social job may in fact stay.

Just as children need rules, do some adults need to be controlled (I’m not talking about criminals here, or the extent to which freedom for one person can restrict the freedom of another so please don’t open this topic in the reply)?aristotle_on_slavery Perhaps you think that we all need to be controlled, and that our efforts to ask for guidance from God(s) are just an example of this. In other words, in a world of economic freedom:

  1. Would all people (as a collective) be happier with freedom?
  2. Would they be happier if all people still had to work, but a reduced number of hours?
  3. Or would they be happier if people could obtain freedom in order to pursue socially productive, but not personally productive, goals?

P.S. To see some other recent blog posts about freedom please see the below:

Does Civilisation Lead to Fragmentation, or Collapse?

If civilisation is that which broadens society, within the framework of a social contract between people, (if you wish to dispute this definition then please see the previous posts: what is civilisation & what is it to be civilised) then what happens when society grows too big/civilised?

You could debate the extent to which civilisation is growing or shrinking (the sick society post seems to suggest that we may in fact be at the beginning of our decline). But if/when it is expanding, then this broadening of society seems doomed to lead towards societal fragmentation.

More InfoAs civilisation has grown, we have built more complex identities & more complicated lives; we have explored far and wide; we have built bigger social networks than ever before; we have settled in more places; we have constructed more buildings, groups and works of art; and we have more commitments on what precious resources we have. How can we keep up with all of these developments?

In short, due you think civilisations come to ends in ‘Big Crunches’, when the gravitational forces that held civilisations together (e.g. ideologies, nationalism, religion etc) begin to crush the spirit of civilisation? Or do you think, like scientists currently think about the universe, that modern societies could continue to expand, until one day that one society has become ten, or twenty or more?

This question is in fact much more difficult than it seems. And you can see this by thinking about fallen civilisations from eras past. The ancient Sumerian civilisation (the civilisation which invented writing, and whose name means ‘land of the civilised kings’) collapsed under the strain of repeated invasions. The Mayan civilisation came to an end palenque-overview_mg_1198as a result of the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, due to war, disease, and a foreign civilisation determined to assert its own supremacy. The Khmer civilisation in modern Cambodia came to an end due largely to environmental changes. Ancient Rome fell as a result of repeated invasions, but over an incredibly long period of internal economic decay. All of these falls are caused by very pragmatic things: food resources, safety, environment and economics.

Are you still following? Good! Because almost all of the above ‘falls’ were in fact the falls of political and economic entities; and not civilisations! That one requires the other could be true, and should be the topic for another day. But that point aside, if civilisations are primarily about societies, then how much do those above examples really help? Was Roman civilisation expanding when it fell? Did it end up splitting into various smaller civilisations, all of which bore the mark of its ideas, art, music, writings and religion? Or was it in fact being pulled towards a ‘big crunch’, by entrenched ideas of aristocracy, hierarchy, militarism and hedonism? Did Mayan civilisation get destroyed by the Spanish? Or did its spread get temporarily halted, only to re-emerge and fragment into various different territories, such that signs of it can be seen today in Guatemala, Mexico and Belize?

Author and historian William R. Everdell once said that the rise and fall of civilizations is

“more a pattern in the mind than a pattern in the world.”

If this is true, and civilisations are carried not by the size of your guns, but rather the potential within the minds of your society, then what is the future for modern civilisations today? Are we headed towards a big crunch? Or are we headed towards accelerated expansion and fragmentation?

What is the nature of reality?

Quarks-and-Leptons-ChartReference to basic building blocks in nature date back to the 5th, and possibly 6th centuries BC, from Ancient Greece and India. Such thoughts propelled a historic evolution of science and philosophy, to the point where today we are able to divide the atom into protons, neutrons and electrons, and then divide them into quarks, leptons, gauge bosons, photons, gluons and the higgs boson. We can delve even further into these elements with quantum field theory, which treats all particles as excited states of an underlying physical field. But it’s around about at this point when our understanding breaks down.

Our scientific understanding seems constantly to change, as we doggedly root down further and deeper into what we can analyse. Yet in everything we have found, or even thought of, we have always discovered two things: mathematics, and potential.

Galileo: “The book of nature is written in mathematical characters.”

Cartesian doubts come mostly on two levels: horizontal scepticism, whereby we doubt people’s expectations that just because something has happened a hundred or a thousand times, it will necessarily happen again; and vertical scepticism, whereby we doubt inferences and implications. Both doubts are rational, and we could perhaps imagine a reality in which these forms of horizontal and vertical logic don’t serve us very well. Yet in this reality, they do. Indeed Einstein found the numbers to suggest that the universe is expanding in 1916, and yet despite the fact that he thought it to be illogical and dismissed the maths, Edwin Hubble later found clear evidence of the universe’s expansion. Indeed if you look at the history of discovery in science, particularly related to those particles discussed above, you’ll often find that people knew about the particles before they found evidence of their existence. The reason why we can do this is that all of reality seems to obey mathematical rules. 1 + 1 always equals 2, no matter where or when you are. And this also explains why potential seems to lie at the heart of reality, for as I argued in ‘Does Nothing Come from Nothing?’ the existence of zero in addition to, and separate from, nothing, supposes that positives and negatives can spring into existence where before we would have been able to perceive nothing.

Plato argued that numbers are not simply human constructs, but are actually real, whether or not we can actually see them. Max Tegmark went so far as to theorize that the universe itself is made of maths. UniverseMath_m_0131Yet what are numbers? Why do we ‘sentient beings’ come pre-equipped with ‘number sense’, such that even if we don’t know the words for numbers we can instinctively understand what the difference is between encountering two dogs, three dogs and more? Why do we find beauty in mathematics? Take sounds for instance; those we perceive as a threat or warning follow different mathematical rules (if you draw patterns based on the notes) to those in which we find beauty.

Defined linguistically numbers are values used to express quantities, or more fundamentally they are information. But it seems hard to think of information being at the heart of all things, since insofar as everything has an information content or position, even if that position is set at zero, information can easily be thought of as a dimension (in fact even your shadow is an example of your informational content). And current scientific understanding says that dimensions sprang into existence with the Big Bang, which suggests that it is possible for dimensions not to exist (honestly, I’m not sure I can buy that).

What do you think numbers are? Are they the most fundamental aspect of reality? Are they the only reality? Could there be something other than maths? Are numbers simply a construct within our Universe?

What do you think?

21st Century Thought in IR

WW2 VictoryThe effects of World War Two in International Relations are numerous, with only the most obvious below.

  1. The loss of life led to obvious demographic, socio-psychological and economic impacts
  2. Decolonisation after the war led to a re-mapping of the geo-political environment
  3. The international power centre shifted from Europe to the US and USSR
  4. New international bodies emerged e.g. the Bretton Woods Institutions

These effects are well known. Indeed it was the biggest war that humanity has ever experienced, directly involving  over 100 million people, and from more than 30 different countries. So such effects are even expected.

However, one of the most enduring impacts of WW2 has also been one of the least talked about: the entrenchment of political thought. Appeasement is now seen as wrong. There is seen to be no choice other than capitalism or socialism, democracy or dictatorship and liberalism or conservatism; when in reality the number of options that we have is far far larger. And all of these entrenchments seem to based upon two dangerous assumptions: the assumption of knowledge, and the assumption of righteousness i.e. the arrogance of assuming that ‘we’, the subject(s) of contemplation, are always in the right.

It could be argued that we have always held these assumptions, and that they are an implicit part of human nature. And yet not only are they very illiberal and non-cosmopolitan assumptions to hold; it is also a fairly safe thing to say that there have been more conflicts since WW2 than before, year on year. The U. of Michigan’s “Correlates of War” project documents every conflict since 1816, and according to their calculations
there have been a total of 194 actual “wars” between 1945 and 2001, and that does not include the more than 3000 different disputes that occurred in the period. So was it just circumstance that caused these polarisations, divides and tensions? Or was there a fundamental change in the way we think?

The American philosopher Avital Ronell believes that increased moralistic interventions abroad do stem from such assumptions.

The other is so in excess of anything you can understand or grasp or reduce, this in itself creates an ethical relatedness… A relation without relation, because you can’t presume to know or grasp the other. The minute you think you know the other, you are ready to kill them! You think oh! They are doing this or this.. they’re the axis of evil…let’s drop some bombs!. But, if you don’t know, don’t understand this alterity, it’s so other that you can’t violate it with your sense of understanding; then you have to let it live.”

According to Derrida we cannot be moral if we think that we are in fact moral. In other words, if you’re arrogant enough to think that you’re fulfilling what Peter Singer would call your moral obligations to help others, then you’re not questioning yourself enough, and not pushing yourself enough. Thus we could push the argument of Avital Ronell still further (since she cited Derrida’s above argument when saying the above), to suggest that the increase of military interventions in international relations marks a decline in international morality.

Personally, I wouldn’t buy the notion that we are becoming less moral. After all, we don’t need to know someone else to kill them; indeed being able to kill someone when you do have such knowledge seems even more immoral to many people. We can kill instead based on an educated guess. In fact humans act on guesswork all the time. What Ronell is really saying is a values statement that when we know the risks are large, and yet the probabilities of reaching our desired outcome are unknown, we should be risk averse. Just because liberal interventionists are less risk averse, or choose to weigh the unknown probability of success against the unknown probability that more will die if intervention is not carried out, it does not make them less moral than non-interventionists. And indeed the opposite argument could also be made.

Assume NothingThe more pertinent question therefore, is whether these assumptions of knowledge and righteousness are more present, and/or having a greater impact on international affairs today or not. After all, modern examples seem very easy to find. It is why the logic behind why Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ seems so compelling. It is the reason why despite the fact that the world is becoming increasingly globalised and cosmopolitan, we see signs of the ‘other’ everywhere. It is the logic behind liberal interventionism, the interventions in the Middle East, Zionist militarism, and even the calls from those inside the affected countries e.g. Syria, for outside help.

Whatever its source, they are dangerous assumptions to hold if we let them dominate twenty-first century thought. The extent to which this is true can be seen in the handling of Russia’s Crimean intervention. The calls are not for Russia to come to the negotiation table, delay the annexation of Crimea, or organise a new referendum conducted under UN supervision. These options are seen as weak, and a form of appeasement, which, despite the fact that Hitler is dead, would only create a new Hitler. So instead, the calls on Russia are for them to simply back down, reject their long cultural history of expansionism and pan-Slavism, and see them adopt the culture and tactics of the United States – the single country which it would most humiliate Russia, and particularly Putin, to be seen emulating. Keynes wrote a pamphlet in 1919, arguing how the world’s tough approach to Germany would cause trouble. And of course he was right. Are we learning the wrong lesson(s) from history?

Do you believe that the assumptions of knowledge and righteousness dominate 21st century diplomatic thought more than they did prior to WW2? What has changed that led us here? And where will it lead us in the future?

To what extent is innovation collective?

Let’s not re-create the wheel they say, as if the wheel were one individual innovation, thought by a single great thinker from our ancestry: the genius cave man!

Genius cavemanMost of human history in fact seems to have been analysed this way (with a focus on great individuals) until relatively recently. Take the study of leadership as an example. Its first spot in the limelight as a subject of its own was with the Great Man theories of the 1840s. Subsequently, the subject’s theories have shifted through traits theories, behavioural theories, contingency based theories, charismatic based theories, and now only recently to more collective forms of leadership which, for example, take the followers into account as well.

None of these theories were ‘stupid’, and in fact despite the reduced popularity of the great man theories in the field of leadership, they have permeated a great deal of our culture. Think about the big events that you learnt in school history lessons; there were probably a few significant individuals at the heart of each study. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Alexander the Great, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar; the list goes on and on. Indeed we seem obsessed with individuals across all subjects. Think about English, and Shakespeare probably pops into mind. Music; Beethoven and Mozart. Science; Galileo, Newton and Einstein. Maths; Pythagoras. Etc. It makes sense for us to link significant ideas with their proponents. And so you can see how the Great Man theories of the 1840s became popular. However the growing force of pragmatism is forcing these emphases into the history books as well. For what use is it to memorise a list of great names? Just as in leadership, so too in other studies, we are becoming much less interested in who did what years ago, and much more in how we can do those things ourselves.

However, it may also be that this move is more logical and truthful than simply pragmatic. Einstein, for instance, wrote the general and special laws of relativity. But could he have done this without the help of Max Telmud (a student who introduced him to several difficult topics), his teachers at Zurich university, the authors of those books that he read (and he read a lot), and indeed the entire advancement of science up until that point in history?! I could have extended this list, but hopefully you get the point. To give an other example; shortly into this century a broadsheet newspaper concluded that Marx was the most significant political thinker of all times. Whether or not you agree with this, it would be impossible to deny that a significant amount of what he said, was widely known and talked about when he was writing. Neither did Marx even try to deny it. For instance he started his academic career as a Hegelian, and this is where his concept of alienation came from. When he later wrote more about alienation he said not that he was adding to Hegel’s work, but rather that he was taking it, and “turning it on its head”.

When we come to innovation, many ideas seem to be echoed in nature. And so it is easy to infer that prior to the invention of the wheel someone might have seen a log rolling down a hill. Perhaps this log injured or killed several people, and started a lot of gossip. It’s quite possible that events such as this could have been talked about for generations before one creative individual, or perhaps team of individuals, decided to ‘take’ (not make) this idea, and use it for something else. How else can one realistically suppose that the wheel’s invention came about? Inventors/creators don’t just sit around and invent/create out of nothing. They learn from others all the time, amalgamate different ideas heard in different places, and build upon what other people have said.

invention of the wheelAlthough we don’t know exactly who created the wheel or when, we have in fact made numerous educated guesses. For instance the earliest wheels found come from Sumer, (around 3500BC – this empire was formed along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in the Middle East) the empire which is also credited with the invention of writing. And the process of their invention is believed to have been a six stage progression, from placing rollers beneath heavy objects, to placing sledge like runners beneath them, through various combinations of the two led eventually to what we now call the wheel.

If the Sumerian invention of the wheel is correct, then this invention was indeed a huge one, over a huge period of time. But my contention is that all creativity is collective and social. After all, if you put someone in a room at birth, and kept them alive, but with no form of social interaction; do you really think that that person would ever invent anything new?

To what extent do you agree? Is innovation always collective? Or is it sometimes, or even more than sometimes, individual?

Is Materialism the main intellectual opponent of religion?

Almost every religion has an anti-materialistic message.

imagesCAXOHYAEIn Christianity: When the rich man came to Jesus asking what he could do to improve his chances of getting into heaven, Jesus told him to give up all his wealth. The rich man walked away, and Jesus told the growing crowd that it was harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

In Sikhism: When Guru Nanak met Duni Chand, and was invited to his mansion, Duni Chand proudly displayed his wealth to the Guru. But later he told the Guru that he was unhappy, and wished to be the richest man in the city. The Guru replied by giving Duni Chand a needle, and asking him to return it to the Guru in the next life. At first Duni Chand took this seriously, but when he told his wife she laughed. “Are you mad?” she asked. “How can a needle go to the next world?” It was only then that Duni Chand realised the folly of his ways, and rejected materialism.

But if materialism really is the main intellectual opponent of religion, then why is agnosticism and atheism growing in popularity? The picture below shows the proportion of atheists and agnostics around the world today – an image that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago.

Stephen Barr, professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware, argues that quantum science makes believing in God easier, because it provides a strong argument against materialism. Incidentally, if you’re thinking about materialism only as money, this is the definition used by Barr: “an atheistic philosophy that says that all of reality is reducible to matter and its interactions.” As I’ve argued in previous posts, quantum mechanics makes a strong counter-argument. In fact the quantum sciences accord much more strongly with the Aristotelian view of reality than modern materialism, since they recognise the importance of potential as opposed to the more materialistic view of things which are already determined. So where a materialist would say that if you had complete knowledge of the universe then you would know exactly what was going to happen and when, a quantum mechanic would say that such knowledge would only afford you foresight into what the probabilities were. Furthermore, the mathematics which describes all physical processes (the Schrodinger equation) does not accurately describe the fluctuations in probability that actually occur in reality. And on top of that, knowledge of events themselves can actually change what occurs (watch ‘What the Bleep do we know?’ if you doubt me:

Barr questions whether if the human mind can transcend matter and its laws, a more powerful mind might not exist, which transcends the physical universe altogether. In other words he pits materialism against God, as His main intellectual rival, and infers that God might be fighting back with quantum science. But after all, religion has grown during a very materialistic phase in our history. So is materialism really the main intellectual rival of religion? Will growing knowledge about quantum science see people returning to religion once more?

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