Friday 3 September 2010

The Paradox Principle (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 2 Autumn 2010

By Red Rachtagáin

What do the cycle of the seasons, population fluctuations, traffic flows in Manhattan and the throw of a set of dice have in common? In recent years, the study of such patterns has increasingly perplexed both mathematicians and philosophers. However, I think that there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that these seemingly disconnected phenomena are all governed by a single underlying law, and that there is a 'hidden controller' which lies at the heart of everything. But first, let me start with a small 'thought experiment'.

Imagine that I am standing alone on a deserted beach, looking out to sea. The Sun is rising, and it is the beginning of a new day.

As I listen to the waves, I am aware of the rhythms of nature around me. The daily cycle follows a clear symmetrical pattern: dawn, day, dusk and night. Dawn and dusk are opposites, as are day and night. These pairs of opposites stand on opposing sides of the cycle.

The seasonal cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter follows this same symmetrical pattern. Spring and autumn are opposites; so, too, are summer and winter. A similar pattern also finds its expression in the phases of the Moon.

It is clear that polarity is a feature which is common to the cycles of nature: the ebb and flow of the tides, the Moon's wax and wane, and nature's growth and inevitable decay. Tomorrow is the summer solstice, the point at which the Sun reaches its zenith. Having crossed over this tipping-point it, too, starts its decline, towards the long, cold winter.

Polarity, I conclude, is nature's hidden controller.

Consider a fox that goes hunting for rabbits. If it is skilful, the fox will catch enough rabbits to sustain itself and its litter. But if a particular breed of fox is too skilful as a predator, the rabbit population will reduce significantly and the foxes will be left with very little to eat. In other words, a predator's effectiveness will increase until it reaches a 'critical point', beyond which this skill becomes a liability. With only a few rabbits left, the foxes start dying out. When most of the foxes have gone, the rabbit population begins to pick up and it continues to grow until the opposite critical point is reached. There are now enough rabbits to sustain a predator, and the diminished fox population once again increases.

We may observe that this pattern follows precisely the same pattern as the cycles of nature. When the population cycle reaches a critical point, the process 'polarises'; that is, having rotated upwards, it then rotates downwards. Once the opposite critical point is reached, it polarises again. (When the rabbit population falls below a certain point, the fox population decreases; once the rabbit population has increased,the fox population revives).

Social systems too have two conflicting and seemingly irreconcilable tendencies. On the one hand, they tend towards chaos. A large part of a social organisation's energy is devoted to overcoming entropy and maintaining structure. Paradoxically, social systems also have a propensity to return to their original order when they are disturbed. Change in a social element is frequently followed by corresponding changes in related elements, which work towards diminishing the original disturbance.

The term given by sociologists to this latter process is social equilibrium. There are many examples of this polar-cycle finding expression in human history. The Counter-Reformation, for example, clearly came about as a response to the Reformation, just as Romanticism finds its origins in the Enlightenment. Two hundred years ago, the philosopher Georg Hegel saw history in terms of such a process. The clearest example he gives is that of the supposed origin of all things: when 'Being' and 'Nothingness' combine, the result is what he calls 'Becoming'. Another less clear example he gives is of the French Revolution. Here the first stage is the revolution, and the second stage is the so-called Reign of Terror. The synthesis of the two is the emergence of the constitutional state. Thus, the same polar process which controls the cycles of nature also has a bearing on the patterns of history.

According to Karl Marx, an economic cycles follow this same model. When an economy contracts, Marx observed, wages also drop and labour becomes increasingly cheap. As the unemployed workers lower their wage demands beneath a certain level, it becomes possible for employers to employ them again and to expand their businesses. This expansion helps the economy to gather strength. Thus recession turns to regeneration, and the economy revives. Marx also observed the polar-cycle controlling boom phases: an economic boom increases workers' wages which reduces profitability. Expansion, like recession, provides its own limits.

But whereas Marx observed a precise pattern underlying the processes of economic recession and regeneration, economics will never be a precise science. The factors which control economic markets include the elaborate and subtle forces of human nature, and there are a great many conflicting influences at play.

Consider the economic state of the UK back in 1988. At this time, indicators such as the levels of inflation and unemployment were looking lacklustre. The Chancellor decided that they needed a boost, so he dropped taxes and interest rates. What he did not know was that a natural resurgence was on its way. The combination of this natural resurgence and the Chancellor's added boost pushed the economy over a critical point, and there followed a sharp downturn in the economy.

This unhappy outcome would not have surprised Adam Smith, the advocate of laissez-faire economics. In Smith's view, the economy is a self-regulating system which maintains equilibrium by means of a series of polarities. This 'hidden hand', as he called it, keeps order in the marketplace.

Smith identified a pattern to the process of demand-and-supply. If a retailer charges too little for their merchandise, they will not be able to meet their overheads. If they charge too much, however, they will be undercut by other suppliers. So they must find what Smith termed the 'fair' value, which lies midway between these polarities. This process is polar-cyclical: once the optimum price has been reached, any further increase in the price of goods will lead to a decrease in profits.

The ability to predict patterns of consumer behaviour is an essential tool in retailing. Most retailers have limited space and they can therefore stock just a few brands of an item, whereas superstores are able to provide a wider selection. Studies have shown, however, that too many options leads to a sort of analysis paralysis. The process is polar-cyclical: whilst consumers prefer to have a variety of different brands to choose from, they find too much choice off-putting.

Polarity may be defined as 'the presence or manifestation of two equal but opposite principles or tendencies'. How does this differ from balance? On a set of weighing scales, the scales counterpoise. Without this opposition there is a complete fusion of contraries, or nothing. Balance brings to mind static equilibrium, and polarity dynamic opposition, but the principle behind them is the same. There can be no balance without both equality and opposition. The simultaneous co-existence of order and chaos is the feature of the world that gave rise to 'Chaos Theory'. It has been well described by the weatherman and mathematician, Edward Lorenz, in his water-wheel example.

The surf breaking on the sand is composed of a multitude of bubbles. Each bubble takes the three-dimensional form of balance, a sphere, which has the smallest surface area for a given volume: left-hand balances right-hand, top balances base. But such is the tumult of bubbles merging and bursting that the impression given is one of random chaos.

Complex effects such as this arise out of a multitude of conflicting forces, but all elements in the process counterpoise perfectly. Any self-regulating system maintains equilibrium by means of symmetry. Left-hand balances right-hand, and spin is met by counter-spin. Each action is equal but opposite to a preceding action. Even where the overall pattern appears random, every movement, every wave, every current balances.

Nature likes simplicity. But the contradictory structure of balance - the simultaneous coexistence of harmony and opposition - means that it is anything but simplistic.

Our understanding of the universe is based upon two different theories. On the one hand we have Einstein's general relativity theory, which explains to us the large-scale universe of planets and galaxies. On the other hand we have a completely different set of rules, quantum mechanics, which tells us about the small-scale, subatomic universe. Whereas general relativity theory presents us with a rational model of space and time in which things behave harmoniously, the rules that govern quantum mechanics are contradictory.

Which brings me back to watching the waves on the beach. As I stand barefoot there, I can feel the sand beneath my feet. Each of these grains of sand contains a world of paradox. Physicists have discovered that under certain experimental conditions, subatomic matter may be seen either as particle (which is confined to a very small volume) or wave (which is spread out over a large area). Some observers may see matter in particle form, whereas others will see it as a wave. Neither of these descriptions gives a full picture of reality; both need to be taken into account, simultaneously, if we wish to understand the true nature of subatomic matter. Often it is believed by scientists that a paradox is merely someone misinterpreting what they are seeing, but quantum physics demonstrates that paradoxes are a key feature of the world. Reality, at its deepest level, is more paradoxical than science ever thought possible.

A thick, dark cloud forms on the horizon, further emphasising the intensity of the seascape. The contrast between the light and the dark is so acute now that it has taken on a new dimension. It is as if the stage is set for a battle. On one flank stands the Sun, whilst to the north-west there looms the storm cloud.

Clouds are formed by means of a hydrological process. Sea water evaporates and accumulates in the atmosphere. Once a critical point has been reached and sufficient water has gathered in a cloud, the upward movement reverses and it rains. The process of evaporation and precipitation follows a polar-cyclic pattern.

As moisture rises, it collides with ice or sleet which is to be found in the lower portion of the cloud. This process gives rise to an electric charge which creates a storm. Electromagnetic force is controlled by polarity: like charges repel each other, and opposite charges attract. The universe achieves electromagnetic equilibrium, every positive charge being met by a corresponding negative one.

Explosions of thunder are governed by polarity, for they are created by electromagnetic force. All sound travels by means of periodic wave oscillation between opposite poles. Whenever the process reaches an extreme, it polarises. Light is carried on the wings of polarity for it, too, travels by means of the oscillation of its electro-magnetic wave.

Each falling raindrop disperses as it hits the ground. Forces always occur in equal and opposite pairs, the action and the reaction. If one object exerts force on another object, then the latter will polarise this and exert an equal but opposite force on the first. This is known as the law of reciprocal actions, and it is one of the most fundamental laws of physics.

Polarity is central to the laws of physics, controlling everything from the cycles of nature to light waves, storm patterns and electricity. It 'controls' them inasmuch that it guides the patterns of their behaviour.

How far does the influence of polarity extend beyond physics? Let us take a selection of completely disconnected fields - sport, health, safety, human society and the roll of a die - and see what bearing, if any, polarity has on them.

It is generally accepted that regular exercise is good for you, increasing energy levels and improving physical and emotional well-being. If you train beyond your body's natural limits, however, the process will polarise and it will have the opposite effect.

Professional athletes also have another, more subtle, polar-cycle to contend with. Suppose Joe is a basketball player and about to play an important game. He is nervous as he always is before a fixture, but today is different. It is the series final, the biggest match of the season.

Joe's nerves generally help his athletic performance, pumping his body full of adrenaline and heightening his awareness. With just seconds to go before the game ends, one of Joe's team- mates passes him the ball. Joe jumps up at the basket. It's an easy shot, but he fluffs it.

Joe's 'flunk-dunk' is encapsulated in the phenomenon known in sports science as the Yerkes- Dawson law: whereas a limited amount of nervous energy has a positive effect upon an athlete's performance, too much is counter-productive. Psychologists have observed this same polar-cycle conditioning patterns of human behaviour in a wide variety of skill-based tasks.

Picture a modern school playground. The tree has been cut down so no child can climb on it, the grass beneath the swings has been replaced with rubber, and the spikes on the periphery fence have been removed. Playtimes are carefully monitored by CRB-checked adults, and every conceivable risk has been identified and eliminated. This is a super-safe environment.

Or is it? Studies clearly demonstrate that people living in risk-free environments tend to be less careful, because less aware of danger. How will children brought up in this way adapt once they are free of adult supervision? Are we teaching them effective life skills? The answer, of course, is no. A generation is being brought up devoid of personal responsibility. By comparison, when health and safety initiatives were first introduced in the nineteenth century, there was a culture of negligence, cost-cutting and exploitation in the workplace which would be unacceptable by today's standards. In those early pioneering days, health and safety measures were seen in terms of of a balanced model in which both sides were expected to play their part. The polar-cycle underlying this situation is easy to identify. By over-protecting our children, paradoxically, we are putting them at risk.

Of course, it is not just children who adapt their behaviour according to the perceived level of risk. The phenomenon has its own name - the Peltzman effect. Another example is that motorists seem to respond to safety regulation by behaving less safely. For example, it has been observed that compulsory seat belt use has had the effect of increasing the number of road accidents, because motorists tended to drive less cautiously. And if drivers themselves sustained less serious injuries from these accidents due to their wearing seat belts, it seems that the risk was at the same time being transferred from vehicle users to pedestrians and cyclists.

By contrast, initiatives in which urban planners and traffic engineers have tried to blur the distinction between the road and its surroundings, building upon an inverse Peltzman effect, can improve safety. Road markings, barriers and signs are removed, and traffic lights are dismantled. The scheme is built, regulation by the state (in the form of safety features installed by urban planners) is reduced, and individual responsibility for avoiding accidents correspondingly increases. The higher the perceived risk of a situation, the more cautious road users are.

Perhaps a small fire breaks out at a night-club. People start by walking briskly towards the exits, moving in an orderly manner. Then the fire intensifies. People move more quickly now, but still in an orderly manner. However, due to their greater speed, the volume of people leaving the club has increased, creating a sense of urgency. As the fire and smoke further intensify, people begin to panic. Some start pushing and hurrying towards the exits. Two things then happen: people trip over one another, and the doorways become congested.

We are already familiar with the pattern which is central to this process. Whereas the number of clubbers vacating the building in any given minute increased as people headed for the exits more quickly, two factors - speed and volume - have passed a critical point, and the process has polarised.

One of the most intriguing examples of polarity in everyday life is to be found in random variables. A random variable is a quantity to which a probability distribution is assigned, such as the possible outcomes of a throw of a die. A theoretical model known as Central Limit Theorem tells us that no matter how chaotic a large set of random variables appear to be, the normal distribution of these variables has a tendency to cluster around a central point of equilibrium. The greater the quantity of random variables, the more evenly counterpoised they are. If we take a cross-section of a large number of throws of a die, for example, the average number of times a particular face falls upwards will approximate the total number of throws divided by the number of faces on the die. Some numbers will fall upwards more often than the average, and some less often, but the normal distribution of numbers will polarise around the centre.

Central Limit Theorem takes us nearer to the paradox which lies at the heart of polarity. Nothing could be more random than the throw of a die, yet it is subject to an underlying order. In a letter to physicist Max Born, Albert Einstein wrote, 'You believe in a God who plays dice (with the universe), and I in complete law and order.' Central Limit Theorem indicates that neither man's position was wholly correct. Order and chaos both need to be taken into account, simultaneously, if we wish to come closer to an understanding of reality.

Few philosophical or scientific theories are entirely new. Early Taoist philosophers observed that all processes, from human activity to the patterns of nature, follow a cyclical polar pattern. They illustrated this by means of the tajitu symbol (below). As the cycle rotates, each side of the polarity increases in volume before reaching a critical point and giving way to its opposite. Taoism finds its origins in eastern central China in the seventh century BCE. The word tao roughly translates as 'the flow of the universe', or the natural law.

Every epoch believes its collective attitude to be superior to that of every age which has gone before, and we in the contemporary West are no exception. We dismiss the philosophical and theological systems of most ancient societies as being simplistic and naïve, but for all our scientific achievements, we do not hold the monopoly on wisdom.

There is no doubt that the polar-cycle is a highly significant process which finds expression in a wide variety of different fields, yet it is a function which we ignore. Polarity is life's hidden controller. The logic behind this is entirely sound. All movement is caused by polarity: as soon as a state of equilibrium is achieved, movement stops. Even where we see random behaviour, there is order beneath the surface. In a stormy sea, every reaction has a preceding action, and each current is met by a countercurrent. Complex effects arise out of a multitude of conflicting forces, but every constituent element in the process balances perfectly.

Address for correspondence:Red Rachtagáin <>

Thursday 2 September 2010

The Philosophy of Saying Sorry (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 2

Notes on the Philosophy of Asking Forgiveness

By Michael Bavidge

Apologies are other-directed in a strong sense. Apologizing is something we do. And what we do is directed at another person. There are other morally important actions, states of mind and feelings which have a relation to other people, but which are not directly interactive. Shame, for example, relates to others. But that does not make it dialogical in the same way as apologies, confessions or guilty pleas. What are the elements of an apology understood in this sense?

The Greek word apologia means a defence or justification, offering defensive arguments, making excuses. Socrates' Apology or Newman's Apologia pro Vita Mea are apologies in this sense. But in modern usage an apology, at least a good apology, requires the suppression of pleas and excuses. The Oxford English Dictionary defines apology as a frank acknowledgement, by way of reparation, of offence given, or an explanation of that offence as not intended, with expression of regret for any offence given or taken. This suits well enough though it implies, but does not quite say, that an apology is offered by a person who has committed an offence to the person offended.

An apology involves acknowledging that a wrong has been done. If you don't believe that any offence has taken place, you have nothing to apologise for. Equally, what people who feel entitled to an apology want, in the first instance, is recognition that they have been harmed. On top of the original injustice, their grievance is that their plight has not even been recognised.

The refusal to acknowledge can take subtle forms. Bishop Williamson who was accused of denying the Holocaust made the following statement:
To all souls that took honest scandal from what I said, before God I apologise...I can truthfully say I regret having made such remarks, and that if I had known beforehand the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise, especially to the church, but also to survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich, I would not have made them. [Guardian, 27/02/09] 
He directs his apology at those who 'took honest scandal'. The implication being that the people who were harassing him did not take 'honest scandal'. The Bishop's apology is not far from Homer Simpson's apology to Marge: Of course, Marge, I wouldn't have done it, if I had known that you would find out. Secondly an apology involves accepting responsibility for the wrong done.

When the leading bankers involved in the collapse of various British banks appeared before the Commons Select Committee, they began by taking it in turn to apologise profoundly for the crisis and the misery it caused their employees, shareholders etc. But it soon emerged that they were expressing regret that things had turned out so badly, rather than apologising. Andy Hornby, Chief Executive of HBOS, said that he thought that he was not personally culpable for the crisis. [Independent on Sunday 15/02/09] This amounts to a withdrawal of his apologetic opening gambit.

A third requirement is that an apology should involve an expression of sorrow. We put great weight on the feelings accompanying apologies because appropriate sorrow is often, but not always, a criterion of the genuineness of an apology. A determination not to repeat the offence is another criterion of the sincerity of an apology. In normal circumstances, I cannot sincerely apologize for being rude to you and then immediately repeat the offence. But could someone who suffers from Tourette Syndrome, or (to take a less clear case) from alcoholism, sincerely apologize for their behaviour knowing perfectly well that they will repeat it? Finally, an apology is offered by way of reparation. The very act of offering an apology is an act of atonement for the wrong done. This is the powerful thing about an apology: just the offering and the acceptance of an apology does the business.

Another way to look at it is to say that apologies can be distinguished from other related but different activities. For example, an apology is not a confession. You can confess your faults to anyone who is prepared to listen, but you can apologize only to the one you have harmed. There is a website called Joeapology. It is an amusing and interesting site, but it is misnamed. It should be called Joeconfession. Its mission statement acknowledges the point: is a site where people can freely and anonymously post their apologies. Think of it as a confessional of sorts (without the religious ties, that is). Are you feeling sorry about something you did? Do you want to get something off your chest? Go on, tell me about it...and remember, it's completely anonymous. Just post your apology, no matter how big or small, and you'll feel so much better. I promise. -Joe Apology [see box below]

There are at least two problems about Joeapology. An apology is a Levinasian moral move ? After the 20th century French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas meaning...  is, it is face to face? And that is an essential part of its effectiveness. The apologiser has to turn up. But what counts as turning up is negotiable. For example, Restorative Justice processes give victims the chance to impress on offenders the real impact of their crime, to get answers to their questions and to receive an apology. Best practice, as envisaged by The Restorative Justice Consortium, allows the possibility that apologies may be offered in a number of ways - directly, via a third party, or for example, by letter, email, or video. Or perhaps via Joeapology.

The second and perhaps fatal problem with Joeapology is that the submissions to the site are intended not to reach the person to whom they are addressed. As Joe says, you can get stuff off your chest and feel so much better. Yet as Thomas De Quincey wrote in his own mea culpa, Confessions of an English Opium Eater:
Nothing, indeed, is more revolting to English feelings, than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars, and tearing away that 'decent drapery', which time, or indulgence to human frailty, may have drawn over them. 
That seems a bit harsh; but there is something self-indulgent about confession: whereas the person who benefits from an apology is at least supposed to be the one who receives it; the person who primarily benefits from a confession is the one who makes it. There is a curious example in Wittgenstein's tortured life of a confession and an apology. In 1937 he wrote a confession which he insisted on reading to a number of his friends. Ray Monk, who does not overlook its comical aspects, devotes five pages in his biography to this drama. centred on an account of Rowland Hutt's embarrassment at having to sit in a Lyons café while opposite him Wittgenstein recites his sins in a clear loud voice.

Yet Monk is sympathetic; he attempts to understand the peculiar nature of a personality tested almost to destruction by a sense of sin, guilt, and the need to confess. And some may think it is to Wittgenstein's credit that in relation to one of his sins, he did not stop at confession. It concerned his severity towards little children when he was a schoolteacher in the 1920s: as part of his penitential exercise, he went back to the village where he had taught and apologised to the individuals involved. Christian theology is a drama of sin and redemption. The drama starts with Original Sin. What we get when God discovers the offence is guilt, shame, regret, excuses and blame, but no apology. If only Adam had said sorry, what a lot of fuss might have been avoided! But there is a good reason why he did not, in fact why he could not. Because it seems that you cannot really apologize to God, even if many people try to. Christian doctrine concerning the reconciliation of God and humankind, accomplished through the life, suffering, and death of Christ is expressed in a complex vocabulary of redemption and atonement. For our part, we are required to be contrite, to confess, to do penance and so on; apology figures hardly at all. Offering an apology Apologies are offered with more or less good grace but there can be considerable pressure to apologize. They can be difficult to make: they involve some degree of embarrassment; we may fear the consequences or dread rejection. Though they must be freely given, they may be wrung from us. But can they be demanded? They certainly are in political life.

At the start of his book, Conspicuous Compassion, Patrick West lists examples of what he considers fatuous political apologies: Tony Blair apologised to the Irish for the potato famine. Australians have said sorry to Aborigines for colonialism, the Pope for the persecution of Galileo, the Fijians for cannibalising a British missionary in1867, we are all contrite about the slave trade.

Nevertheless there are some more compelling instances of political apologies. The prime ministers of Canada and Australia have formally apologized to ethnic groups in their respective countries who were horribly mistreated in the recent past. Even so, West thinks that these political initiatives are 'arrogant and anachronistic'. He argues that one can apologize only for what one did oneself. And that an apology becomes inappropriate if other people did even worse things than the crimes one is apologising for. I would reject both these arguments however.

Rather, it seems to be that alhough political apologies are often suspect, the Canadian and Australian statements are unproblematic examples of apologies made by the right people to the right people. Both prime ministers acknowledge that a wrong had been done and that it was done deliberately by governments and officials as part of a national policy that was widely supported; they express the shame that people now feel about these crimes; they announce a determination not to repeat the offences or anything like them; and they say all these things to the direct and indirect victims of these policies as part of an act of reparation.

March 2007 was the bicentenary of the British parliament's abolition of the slave trade. The then Major of London, Ken Livingstone, said Germany apologised for the Holocaust. We must for the slave trade. This produced an angry response from the website Shiraz Socialis: To apologise for something that you are not personally responsible for, is to insult the intelligence of the person or persons you are 'apologising' to. The passage of time does make apologizing for the slave trade begin to seem inappropriate, but not because we or our political leaders were not personally responsible. It is because there are more effective and convincing ways of addressing the racism and other current injustices in our own society that are, in part, long-term effects of the slave trade.

Another trouble with demanding an apology, particularly evident in the field of political life, is that the demand easily becomes a way of continuing conflict rather than of resolving it. When opponents demand apologies from politicians they are trying to force them to admit mistakes or wrong-doings as part of an on-going struggle. If politicians apologize they admit to a failure or a weakness that will be used against them later. If, however, the demand for an apology is rejected, that itself becomes a further source of grievance. Another problematic aspect of apologizing concerns who can offer an apology. In the standard case, the apologizer is the person who has committed the offence. But there are exceptions. Parents can apologize on behalf of their children. We may feel obliged to apologize for the bad behaviour of our friends and associates. There are more formal relationships which can be the basis for a sort of power of attorney. Criminals can apologize through their lawyers and, frequently these days, political leaders apologize on behalf of the nations. Nick Smith, in his book I was Wrong, offers an example of what he calls the legal commodification of apologies:

Settlement agreements may now explicitly negotiate the monetary value of an apology, for example offering monetary compensation of $10 million without any form of apology or $7 million with an apology.

Moving from making apologies to receiving them, the response to an apology is acceptance, not forgiveness. Forgiveness and accepting an apology are pretty close, but there are differences. We can forgive someone even if they have not apologised. Christ forgave his executioners. His prayer Forgive them, Father; they know not what they do [Luke 23:34] is a key moment in the Redemption story. Forgiveness and accepting an apology have a different power structure. Forgiveness involves authority; it is a result of largesse. Accepting an apology is part of an exchange between equals; it is motivated by and seeks to reinforce fellow-feeling. Does an apology have to be accepted before it is, as it were, consummated? Can an apology be left on the table? Or has an apology not been made unless it is accepted? Whatever the neatest answer to those questions, apologizing requires collaboration; it involves negotiation. Perhaps an exchange of self-deprecatory smiles is enough if we get in each other's way in the street; but something more structured is needed if there is to be reconciliation between, for example, a criminal and his victim.

Apologies, as well as confessions, strike some robust people as pathetic. Lord 'Johnnie' Fisher's advice keeps recurring: Never contradict. Never explain. Never apologise. This posturing misses the positive power of and need for apologies. Apologies put things right between people. We teach children to apologize partly because we bring them up to take responsibility for their actions, but also because we want them to experience the almost magical capacity of words to put things right. Apologizing has the curious power that Hume found in promising: `tis one of the most mysterious and incomprehensible operations that can possibly be imagin'd, and may even be compar'd to transubstantiation, or holy orders, where a certain form of words, along with a certain intention, changes entirely the nature of an external object, and even of a human nature. [Treatise, Bk.III, Part II, v] The making good is effected by the very speech act. The performance itself is taken as reparation in the sense both of making of amends for the wrong or injury done, and of restoring good relations. Apologies bring important practical benefits to the individuals and to society at large but there are also values internal to the activity itself. Apologies - offered and accepted - involve the mutual recognition of the fragility of moral life, the weakness of individuals and the instability of social harmony. They are an acknowledgement of the hazardous and bruising nature of social life.

The offering and accepting of apologies is a domestic righting of wrongs as opposed to Redemption which is moral, quantative easing by means of which God pumps goodness into the system, unearned, unmerited. Redemption takes the whole moral world and transforms it into a new creation. Apologies repair a localised tear in the fabric of the moral world; they do a more human job.

[box.] A Case Study from Joeapology
I am sorry for having an affair behind my husband's back I wasn't really hiding the relationship from him, only the depth of it, and the sexual aspect. I know now that was an awful thing to do. To my husband: I know you would never forgive me if you knew, and I can't go back and not have the affair. I only wish I had been smarter and never strayed in the first place. I am unbelievably sorry, and feel terribly guilty, but I know if I told you, you would be so mad you might leave me. Then, I think I would kill myself. So, please forgive me for having the affair, and for being too scared of the consequences to be honest with you. I love you. Me. 

About the author: Mike Bavidge is Chair of the Philosophical Society of England

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Review: Climate: the Counter Consensus (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 2

By Martin Cohen

Climate: The Counter Consensus
by Robert Carter
Stacey International, 2010
pb ISBN978-1-906768-29-4, £9.99, 246 pages plusnotes

There are oodles of Global Warming books, for the most part of course warning of dire consequences, but also quite a few now ‘denying’ the oncoming threat from manmade CO2 emissions. Most of them, not to put too fine a point on it, are not worth the hot air that went into producing them. Never mind the official books, the endless IPCC documents and summaries,the research papers and so on. Maybe that's why this new book by Robert Carter, famous to many You-Tube aficionados for his lectures to the Australian Environment Federation on the subject, in which he briskly 'torpedoes' all the key arguments put forward to support the alarmist hypothesises, has in publishing terms itself been less of a torpedo, let alone a bombshell, as a damp squib.
So far! For here is a book that really does deserve the usual publisher phrases such as tour de force, ‘essential reading’ and so on. It should be essential reading not merely for beardy types who study ice-cores but for sociologists, international lawyers and certainly philosophers. For what this book does is provide the perfect case study of reason and argument in practice. Or rather ‘unreason and bad arguments’.

Never judge a book by its cover, they say, and this modest paperback has indeed a very poor cover - some kind of iceberg, I suppose. Perhaps someone thought it conveyed the notion of the planet not having overheated. The title is pointless. And then there's that rather off-putting preface by Tom Stacey (who appears to be the publisher too) which refers to ‘my younger friend David’, (the British Prime Minister, you know). But worst of all (whisper it) there are the graphs. Lots of graphs.
Someone should have told Stacey and Carter about maths. You can't put any maths in a book aimed at amass market. Not even graphs. People won't understand it, and they certainly don’t like it. The only graph that belongs in this book is the famous ‘hockey stick’ one, basis of much of the global warming hysteria, and that just to be laughed at and deconstructed as complete nonsense.

Which is exactly what this book does. And not just the hockey stick, but all the spurious arguments about manmade CO2. How it has turned the oceans acidic, how unless we keep to our Kyoto promises the global temperature will rise by a tiny fraction of one degree, how the forests will die, or how all the ice in the world will melt. All such scare stories are skewered precisely and patiently-, one by one. Everything is covered in this superb account. Even that vainglorious target of the U.K. government of a cut in CO2 emissions by 20% by 2020. On the government's own account this corresponds (if it were achieved, which of course it won’t be) to a reduction in the supposed 'global temperature' of just 0.0004 degrees centigrade. How much will it cost? That is more sure. One hundred billion UK pounds. It’s mad!

A fairy tale world of bad science, cynical and corrupt politicks - and gullible or plain stupid journalists. (No wonder as Stacey does say, in his introduction, that the British Prime Minister has as his ‘environmental advisor’ one Zac Goldsmith, son of the late Jimmy, a conservative tycoon.) Not that the academic ‘experts’ come out much better, although Carter tries valiantly to defend his colleagues, pointing out that for instance ‘only’ about 70 of them have input into the key IPCC documents, the Policy Maker Summaries, even as the documents are trumpeted as the views of tens of thousands of experts. But it is worse than that.

These summaries are supposed to well, summarise the chapters. Of course they don't. They are written by an unabashed and unashamed group of political appointees, such as junior Energy ministers. In 1995 the definitely non-expert authors of the Summary for the Second Assessment Report declared that:
“the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate.”
As Carter says, this statement being the opposite of the conclusion drawn in the original ‘science-based’ chapter - something had to go. Scientific report or political claim. And we all know which one it was. A single activist scientist, Ben Santer, was allowed to rewrite parts of the key chapter, Detection of Climate Change and Attribution of Causes, to make it agree with the message that had been crafted in the related ‘Summary for Policy Makers’.

The IPCC and Western governments have together already spent around $100 billion to come up with their error-strewn reports. Carter has had only his own wits, his considerable experience, and access to the internet. But it is his book that has the more authority. Not convinced? Well, let's now let’s trot through some of the many priceless gems in this book.

First of all, Carter clarifies the term Climate Change,which has become increasingly meaningless. As sceptics tire of repeating,they do not deny that the climate changes, it always has and always will. It is, rather, the ‘alarmists’ who imagine that climate is stable, and controllable. But when we read about climate change in UN reports today, we read about something which has been ‘redefined’ to mean what the UN authors want, despite the confusion involved in abusing a phrase with a previously established publicly agreed sense. (Philosophers use that trick all the time... )

Climate Change then means a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods. So says the United Nations agreement made back in 1994 known as the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Note how the definition weaves and swerves to make apolitical point - this is why, as Carter acknowledges, Climate Change is as much a philosophical issue as it is, say, a physical sciences issue. ‘In FCC diplo-speak, then’, writes Carter, ‘“climate change” doesn't mean climate change, but rather “human-caused by atmospheric alteration climate change”. Humpty Dumpty comes to mind.’

Although the major economies had all signed up to the Framework Convention on Climate Change back in 1994, 2005 was the year, according to Carter, in which the term Climate Change suddenly took off in media reports. This redefinition, he says, which allowed ‘weather and climate change of all kinds to be beaten up as matters of concern’, did not happen by accident but was the outcome of a now infamous “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change” meeting in Exeter, at one of the research centres of the UK's Meteorological Office. Also invited were several large Green NGOs. The outcome of the meeting was a fanciful target of restricting ‘global warming’ to two degrees centigrade, the mechanism for this magnificent piece of climate control being primarily the reduction in the use of fossil fuels.

Or take another pillar of Global Warming policy - that current temperatures are somehow exceptionally high. Yet evidence from ice cores and other techniques shows temperatures in Antarctica for the three interglacial periods that precede the Holocene (the present climatic period, stretching since the last Ice Age) were up to 5 degrees centigrade warmer! Temperatures two to three degrees warmer were characteristic of much of the planet during the Pliocene period too. But these are geological timescales, covering millions of years. The newspapers and the IPCC seem only interested in the last few decades - and the famous spike in the ‘Hockey Stick’ following the 1990s.
‘... enthusiastic, pencil wielding journalists often ask me: “Well Dr Carter, is global warming happening then?” Despite its apparent innocence, there is no simple or unambiguous answer to this question, for it is equivalent to asking “How long is a piece of climate string?” In a little cited paper that is now almost ten years old, but the message of which is timeless, American geologists Davis and Bohling, who showed that the only possible answer to the reporter's question, of a stye that is never welcome to the press, is “it depends”. Let me explain. 
Inspection [of ice cores from Greenland] shows that warming has taken place since 17000 years ago and also since 100 years ago. Over intermediate time periods, however, cooling has occurred since 10 000 and 2000 years ago, temperature stasis [stability] characterises the last 700 years and (globally form meteorological records) a slight cooling the last ten years. Considering these facts, is the temperature in Greenland warming or cooling?’
Carter points out that not only are the ten year long periods far too short to cover any statistical significance, but so too are hundred year ones. Yet, he sighs, Australia's former Climate minster, Penny Wong, was happy to follow ‘ well-trodden path’ when she wrote recently that ‘Globally, 14 of the 15 warmest years on record occurred between 1995 and 2009’. Add to which, as Ms Wong did, that a Bureau of Meteorology report had determined that ‘2009 was the second hottest year in Australia on record and ended up our hottest decade’. It’s no wonder with announcements like that the people are well, alarmed. Or at least baffled. But Carter helps us through the mist of figures.
‘Variations on these statements have been endlessly repeated by climate alarmists around the world. As mantras for sloganeering they are deadly effective - and they draw their power from the deliberate misuse of the phrase ‘on record’, which in context means the trivially short instrumental instrumental record of meteorological records.When a climate record of adequate length is examined - i.e. one at least tens of thousands of years in length - and multi-decadal cycling are taken into account too, it becomes obvious that it is predictable rather than surprising that warm years are clustered around the end of the 20th century.’
Why so? But this warming represents the continued recovery of the planet for the Little Ice Age, that finished in the mid-19th century. But ‘like its Medieval Warm Period predecessor, this peak will be followed by cooling, which may indeed have already started’.

Still not convinced to throw out your low energy light bulbs? But let’s look at some of the figures for the days most evil pollutant: carbon dioxide. Now the atmosphere is known to contain about 780 gigatonnes of carbon (whatever a gigatonnes is, but it does not matter, it is proportions that we are interested in here) and it is thought that about 90 Gt is exchanged each year with the oceans along with another 120 Gt with plants. It's a cycle, you see, a dynamic system - the carbon cycle that life on the planet depends on. A side-effect of nuclear bomb bests has shown that the half-life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is less than ten years. But that's not all, the oceans today have about 40 000 Gt of carbon dissolved in them,and the Earth itself contains an estimated 70 000 000 Gt in the carbonate rocks (chalk, for example) laid down over the aeons). ‘Carbon is constantly exchanged between these and other reservoirs, among which the small modern atmospheric reservoir is carbon starved compared with earlier geological history.’

Mankind’s contribution thus remains disappearingly small compared to the vast mechanisms of the planet. One estimate, accepted by the IPCC themselves, is that the human production of carbon dioxide is about 7.2 Gt a year. This amount is so modest that it is lost in the natural cycle - which recall is about 200 Gt a year. That of course doesn't stop alarmist claims, for example, that human CO2 has changed the acidity of the earths oceans, as put forward in many colourful magazine articles about the plight of the disappearing coral reefs and so on.

Given this context - how can CO2 be imagined to be a threat to the planet? The explanation is that the IPCC predicts a tiny change will have an effect multiplied many times over, via linked changes in such things as water vapour and cloud formation. It is factors like this that the computer programmers, who are ultimately the ‘authorities’ behind its dire warnings, have written into their programs.

If CO2 levels increase slightly, the programs say, clouds will form at certain specific heights and times to trap more of the solar heat. It’s never done it in the past, but it will this time. This in turn will cause more clouds, melt the ice caps, kill the forests, and hey presto- runaway greenhouse warming. Yet these are not facts, but human guesses, only made more impressive by being conveyed via large computers. It is all a fiction, a badly constructed myth. (Joseph Weizenbaum warned us about what would happen if we allowed ourselves to fall for the aura of computer technology.)

Carter points out that even though the 20th century did witness an overall increase in both temperature and carbon dioxide (sorry, Carter's graphs again! Although we might add that even this increase depends entirely on the choice of start and end points for the temperature rise...) the two curves are very different and ‘include the conspicuous mismatch that carbon dioxide records its highest rate of increase between 1940 and 1975, at precisely the time that global temperatures decreased for three decades.
‘We will all be rooned, they say, as will the polar bears and armadillos, by melting ice rising sea-level, more or more intense storms, more or more intense droughts, more or more intense floods,more or less precipitation, more or less atmospheric aerosols, more mosquito bites, more deaths from heat stroke or even - as I read in an apparentlystraight-faced newspaper report a little while back - the collapse of our sewage systems from additional and excessive rainfall runoff. British engineer John Brignell has assembled a mighty list of guffaws of 690 of these rhetorical sillinesses. The list - which starts with acne, progresses through circumcision in decline, haggis threatened, polar bears deaf, seals mating more, short-nosed dogs endangered, and finishes with yellow fever - is beyond parody.’
The Counter Consensus consists of about half physical science, and about half social science. And if that aspect seems ‘less important’, in many ways this is the more entertaining and equally the more shocking part. It is astonishing to see how governments have used censorship (epitomised by the semi-secret meeting of the BBC governors with climate alarmists which ensured that thereon only their side of the matter would be discussed) to Orwellian packs for schoolchildren asking them to do things like note ‘Climate Crimes’ committed by their parents.

Of course, researchers and academics challenging the ‘climate consensus’ are punished, through loss of funding, or loss of posts. The Climategate emails scandal reveals how a small group of climate activist puppeteers, calling themselves ‘the team’ emailed around the world to pull strings and promote or consign to oblivion views and individuals they either approved or disapproved of. That many national science academies started producing ‘unanimous’ statements of support for an implausible scientific theory has more to do with this covert network than any shared point of view. For rational judgement is not indeed the rock upon which scientific consensus is built. Thomas Kuhn with his paradigm shifts, please take note.

Carter reminds us of this sinister statement from sociologists at the Institute for Public Policy Research in London, for example:
‘The task of climate change agencies is not to persuade by rational argument - Instead, we need to work in a more shrewd and contemporary way, using subtle techniques of engagement - The 'facts' need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not bespoken. ÷ Ultimately, positive climate behaviours need to be approached in the same way as marketeers approach acts of buying and consuming - it amounts to treating climate-friendly activity as a brand that can be sold.’
Carter’s book is a much needed antidote to their foolish and dangerous scheme. As he puts it, the climate change scare is the:
‘... greatest self-organised scientific and political conspiracy that the world has ever seen, made worse by the fact that many of the people taken in by it had only the best of intentions, but lacked the science education to see through the scam.’
Carter concludes by pointing at the true costs of the conspiracy- to the 1,500,000,000 underprivileged people of the world, without clean water, adequate sanitation, basic education and basic health. ‘For lifting the poor out of their poverty, and helping them to generate wealth for themselves, is the only sure way to protect Earth's future environment.’

Saturday 1 May 2010

Review: Animalkind (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 1 Spring 2010


By Martin Cohen

Animalkind: What we owe to animals, by Jean Kazez, Wiley-Blackwell 2010 ISBN 978-1-4051-9938-4 226 pages
Jean Kazez has written a great little book here, but it is full of bad arguments. (To borrow a phrase from Walter 'Waldo Gazza' Runciman.) It starts promisingly enough. Kazez has a superb, easy style, and is in full command of the material, at least in terms of the facts. She sweeps up the existing literature on animal exploitation, from UN reports to Peter Singer's polemic against meat-eating, such as Animal Liberation and that disguised as an educational text, Practical Ethics, along with issues like biodiversity, cultural aesthetics, and the neurobiology of animal brains. She misses out on my own excellent survey of much the same terrain - 101 Ethical Dilemmas (Routledge 2002 and 2007) but never mind. Suffice to say she has clearly read a lot on the topic - and she is a natural communicator (just as Singer, in his rather acerbic way, is).

Singer offers no particular arguments, merely a machine-gun utilitarianism, that tolerates no dissent. For SInger, and most animal rights exponents, animal suffering, is no different in 'quality' from the kind we experience, and hence on a utilitarian calculus, usually outweighs the supposed needs of humans. Babies and the mentally handicapped have a status somewhere below poodles in his universe.

Kazez, by contrast plods obediently, like a donkey perhaps one might say, through as many possible positions on animal rights as she can think of before coming up with Ö a limp kind of utilitarianism. Is vivisection wrong? Not if it helps save human lives. Is meat eating wrong? Not when it is necessary for human well-being. Was it okay to kill thousands of monkeys to develop the Polio vaccine? Most certainly. Will it be okay if I swat this mosquito that is annoying me? Ah.. now that, probably not, and if it must be done, then it should be done 'respectfully'. Above all, we return to the question, is it okay if I eat meat? Yes, if it is important to you and you don't care about the consequences on the world's rainforests/or about climate change.

Actually that's one of the book's 'bad arguments'. Kazez says that meat-eating involves deforestation, which it does, and that deforestation causes 'climate change' which it also must, at least locally. But climate is much more complicated than that. In much of the temperate zones, meat can be pastured without any such concerns, and indeed chopping forests there is said to have a cooling effect on the regions. And in the tropics when rainforest is being cleared, much of it is cleared for soya beans - the diet of choice of course for vegetarian authors.

Kazez however, does not even aspire to persuade the world to stop eating meat, instead opting for the 'low hanging' fruit by arguing for 'pain reduction', quoting approvingly the efforts of Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation, to redesign slaughter houses to reduce the anxiety of the animals being slaughtered there. I'm sure this is a good idea, but then, who exactly opposes it?

But, of course, it should surprise no one who has ever discussed meat eating 'at the table' as it were, perhaps over Christmas Turkey, that there are plenty of such people, primed and raring to go with a lot of bad arguments to raise in relation to the topic. Take Professor Peter Carruthers', who is quoted here:

Much time and money is presently spent on alleviating the pains of brutes, which ought properly to be directed towards human beings , and many now are campaigning to reduce the efficiency of modern farming methods because of the pain to the animals involved. If the arguments presented here have been sound, such arguments are not only morally insupportable but morally objectionable.
Kazez notes that Carruthers' book has a "charming dedication to his child whose 'animal days are almost done'", and in this simple way she surely wins that argument. If we object to children feeling pain, we should object to animals suffering it too.

Another debate which Kazez airs and in my view emerges triumphant, is the issue of whether animals are really just machines driven by automated responses (instinct) or rational 'problem-solving' animals, like wot we're supposed to be. But just as I'm about to be convinced, along comes a lousy argument. Kazez offers the variety of designs of birds' nests, and beaver dams as evidence that animals really are thinking about what they are doing.

Yet trees grow in a variety of ways too - a branch this way on this one, or a root this way on that one, always for a good reason (to get more light, or to grip more firmly the ground). Trees, it seems likely are not 'thinking', but merely following simple chemical promptings. The range of results produced by such promptings does not mean that there is a higher level of decision making required, and I suspect beavers could likewise be following mere instinct when they adapt their dams to the water flows.

Many defenders of animal rights, such as Singer, accuse humans of speciesism, that is judging animals prejudicially because they belong to the 'wrong species', but another curious twist in the tale here, is that Kazez thinks the problem is anthropomorphism - respecting animals that are like us more than animals that are very different - like birds.
"If we're biased in placing ourselves on a higher rung than other animals it's a bias we can't avoid... but there's a related bias that we can and should void. That's the bias that say there's something special about other animals the more they are genetically and evolutionarily close to us."

There, in a bold sweep, Kazez undoes most of the 'consciousness-raising' efforts of animal welfare groups, on behalf of apes, monkeys and so on, not to mention all our fellow mammals, in favour of a more egalitarian concern for insects, birds, fish and yes, poor old laboratory mice. "The sheer fact that a mouse is a conscious entity, unlike a wind-up, toy mouse, is impressive", she thinks. I like mice too, but to rise their rights up to those of bonobos or chimpanzees seems to be a step backwards.

The book has a strong and welcome personal flavour, enhanced by many interesting anecdotes and asides. One such is that Montezuma had a huge zoo that needed 300 people to run it, feeding, for example the birds in the bird collection 500 turkeys a day. And he had colour coded animals too - putting all the white plants and animals and trees together in one collection. The spookiest thing about that, was the collection included some white (albino) people - men, women and children.

Was it right to do that? As Bentham might say, did the albino's suffer? As Singer might ask, how much pleasure did their presence give the spectators? These are the sorts of questions that animal rights discussions tend to raise. Kazez instead attempts to shift the debate by appealing to something she terms as a sense of the 'respect' owed to all life. Respect, that is, in the manner that indigenous people offer prayers to the Gods before hunts. She prefers this approach to the efforts of philosophers from Kant to Bentham to come up with hard and fast rules. But it's a weak remedy for that virulent and dangerous disease of contempt for animal lives that has taken such a firm hold on 'humankind'.

About the author: Martin Cohen is author of several books including Paradigm Shift and 101 Ethical Dilemmas
Address for correspondence: Readers can contact him via Twitter @docmartincohen

Review: Pygmy science (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 1 Spring 2010

By Perig Gouanvic

What's Wrong with Science?Towards a People's Rational Science of Delight and Compassion 
by Nicholas Maxwell
Pentire Press, 2009, 290 pp., UKP 6.99 ISBN 0955224012

Do you know Pygmy science? In What's Wrong with Science?, Nicholas Maxwell boldly states from the start that ideal science could be best described as 'Pygmy science': like Pygmy's songs described in Colin Turnbull's influential 1961 book The Forest People, it should help Humans 'experience that which is beautiful in Nature.' Technologies result from these songs, they are those parts of nature that best prove that our songs have reawakened in Nature her ability to protect and amaze us. But Maxwell's book, a theatrical play really, is not about what is beautiful in Nature, but about what's wrong in our science. Equip yourself with the tools of a producer, because this play in two acts will require that you feature the Pygmy philosopher of science and the Bantu scientist, in the first act, and a merry crowd made of a Marxist, a Liberal, a Romantic, a Buddhist, and many others, during the second act.

Our scientists are like the Bantu. They believe that Nature is dangerous, and that it should be fought. They have elaborate rituals to exorcise the evils of Nature. Maxwell's thesis, as it unfolds during the first act here, the debate between the philosopher and the scientist, is really that there are Pygmys who think they are Bantus and the Pygmys who know they aren't - like Einstein or Kepler, those mystics. Or, in other words, what's wrong with scientists is really that they are neurotic, and that their goals (which are Pygmy-like) and their practices (which are Bantu-like) don't match, as Maxwell and his philosopher explain. Instead, most scientists just want to have fun, and they love at least some aspect of nature. Karl Popper (the archetypal Bantu) was wrong: rarely do scientists wake up in the morning and walk merrily to the lab propelled by the hope of creating theories to subsequently be proven wrong.

Once it becomes obvious that this posture of scientists is, really, that of any honourable man or woman who lends oneself to criticism, and that science has no monopoly on honesty, what is left? What is left is the sad state of affairs today, where some people wave the flag of science, as Paul Feyerabend said, to champion their cause, as if the quest for 'neutral' data was the most honest one. Science is about goals, says Maxwell.

What a beautiful paradox, detailed in the debates between the Scientist and the Philosopher. But what does Nature says? (S)he is not amongst the protagonists, because the object of science, in Maxwell's terms, is something to be either sung about or to be fought against. Personally, although I wouldn't personify Nature, I would find a way to let 'her' make an appearance in the play. Isn't it what happens in the course of our scientific or otherwise honest endeavours, when it seems that reality, nature, biology, the cosmos, the unconscious, is talking to us?

Let's return to the Pygmys: they sing about what's beautiful in nature. Do they think that nature is a being who has beautiful features? Probably. But is Maxwell's ideal science about a being that is intrinsically beautiful, or about the true scientists who make beauty happen? This is not to annoy the reader with a philosophical paradox (if no one sees the leaf falling from the tree, does it fall?). But rather, the problem raised by Maxwell's book is: how can one talk about science without talking about what science is about?

Nicholas Maxwell talks about Einstein's endeavours, mainly. (Imagine a Pygmy Einstein ? Rather convincing, isn't it?) However, there is a prejudice in favour of physics in his depiction of science. Maxwell, in the second act, outrageously (but quite amusingly) steps into the debate and depicts his metaphor of the world. In his world, the sciences are arranged like the layers of an onion. At the onion's core, of course, is physics. Now personally, I would say that physics should be the outermost layers of the onion. Physics does not relate to my songs about nature, which are rather different. (To do with my amazement about the beauty of neurochemistry, its complexities, its poetic value...) 
I suspect many scientists think about the object of their research in a similar way, and that it is this that makes them wake up and go to work. Is Maxwell doing justice to these scientists who wake up without, obviously, seeking a Popperian refutation? Nicholas Maxwell invites us to be involved in science. Those ivory tower types wish we wouldn't, that's true. But I am left wondering: if curiousity is absent, or spoken about indirectly, how can science fructify? The songs of the philosopher still ring in my ears, but the long arguments with the scientist were easy to forget. Why argue with someone if you can't share your amazement?

Address for correspondence: Perig Gouanvic can be contacted vis The Philosopher

On Scepticism (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 1 Spring 2010


David Hume, and
the role of chance in reasoning

By Paul Healey

What role does blind chance play in reason?
Sentiments that can be otherwise or not, as in feelings that follow from what is thought to be right, have a power. To simply deny sentiments their power, as Hume does, is to see those who stand by religion, democracy, environmental and any other contemporary issues, as irrational and irrelevant. By Hume's reckoning, choices are based upon suppositions which cannot be identified by their speculative value.

What is necessary, possible or contingent for the choices that can be made, if chances are merely the appearance of what can be otherwise? We don't have to agree that it is necessary that one of two opposed ways of thinking can make no difference, or that what is possible is determined by someone's opinion. It could be the custom that the chances are determined by the proportion of properties, like those of cards in a deck, but given the influences that can affect an outcome are external to the deck, what is determined, is what is true for the combination of the cards as an event which is possible. By denying certain combinations are possible, the understanding can place limits on what can be experienced and in so doing, can make errors. So when Hume asserts that 'Necessity is regular and certain.', while 'human conduct is irregular and uncertain', what can be said of human conduct is assumed to be necessary and certain, so one claim does proceed from the other! Yet Hume insists that it doesn't.

That we agree with a proposition, is explicit in making a claim. Belief in the truth of a proposition must be implicit if science is to have any moral standing. Many scientists to be sure, do believe all that can be done is to run trials and tests, so what is thought to be true for an hypothesis as a scientific claim can always be falsified in the light of new evidence. Clearly Newton's Laws as formulae, work for bodies on the supposition that there motion is regular and certain, but do not work when their motion is irregular and uncertain. Counting such an understanding of hypothesis' for the theories where it does work, is not proof that it is true for all of them. By such a reasoning, exceptions cannot be eliminated.

With this notion of falsification, it would appear that a belief in any claim can be true sometimes and false others; the opposition between two different ways of thinking can never be settled with any certainty. In mathematics, there is plenty of certainty, so why should there be none for science if its hypothesis' depend on what is true for mathematical relations? What is necessary, possible and contingent for mathematical formula presents a big problem for the morality of this hypothetical thinking. At this point, it seems the public are left in the dark between different ways of thinking that are in opposition. Knowledge of these it is claimed, require a special training within a language designed for an analysis that would be foreign to them. Not so, if the difference between making decisions which are efficient and effective can be compared with those that are not. Consider, for example the following explanation by way of an analogy that is portable and accessible to ordinary thinking:

Imagine an ideal engine where all its parts work at an optimum level of efficiency. Let us not worry whether such an engine actually exists, but rather think about what happens if some of its parts are replaced by ones of a lower standard. Chance tells us that a car that has a more efficient engine should produce more power, and vice versa. The driver and the mechanics don't have to believe that the engine is an ideal one; just that it is good enough. The car that it belongs to, can have flaws and yet still be the best one in a race. Surely that is a reason to improve their chances of success? What the modern sceptic should not deny, is that the efficiency of a car's function counts more than its looks! What is true for an understanding can mean there is a denial of the evidence.

Clearly, it is not belief in its efficiency based on mere appearances and assumptions, but the actual efficiency that counts. Many other relevant conditions can be counted, for example, the skill of the mechanics, but to count all those which are irrelevant to its history seems absurd. Why should their selection be irrelevant? Well it can be justly claimed, that there are many properties which coincide with the state of an event, such as turning the engine on; but do not have a direct effect on it i.e., what is happening in some other workshop. Although it can be said they are connected by space and time, this does not make them relevant to a degree that it is worth adjusting our beliefs. Neither do the actual chances of winning a race determine the efficiency of an engine. For example, the fact that some drivers might be more likely to crash, less experienced and have won fewer races has nothing to do with an engineís efficiency until they use it. Even that might not be a reason for the chance of an event to happen otherwise.

Of course, there are chances that affect why the driver's team believe what they believe. If not, their confidence would not be about knowing what the reasons for their successes and failures are. There are therefore reasons for their lack or gain of knowledge that affects their chances. A lot depends on their training, skills and creativity. In this sense, they are beneficiaries of others knowledge and the customs that make its acquisition possible. That is, the belief that the driver's team has in winning, as compared with their actual chance of winning, can be a fuzzy measure of the enthusiasm, commitment, loyalty and passion.

Customs that affect our understanding of chance

For those that follow Hume, all our reasoning concerning the cause and effect for the way probabilities can be calculated are based on custom, which given customs are thought to be evidence against the truth of speculation, they appear to be an argument against being skilled in the dialectic. Even if true, its truth has more to do with a psychological disposition than it has of being evidence. This implies that one of two opposed ways of thinking cannot conform to what is true for experience. In his own words Hume clearly rejects the idea that a belief is a cognitive part of our nature and so falls back on presupposing what is true for our understanding of chance is determined by that which he attributes to our human nature:
The principle is custom or habit. For whatever the repetition of any particular act or operation produces a propensity to renew the same act or operation without being impelled by any reasoning or process of the understanding, we always say that this propensity is the effect of custom. By employing that word we pretend not to have given the ultimate reason for such a propensity. We only point out a principle of human nature which is universally acknowledged, and which is well known by its effects. Perhaps we can push our inquiries no further or pretend to give the cause of this cause, but must rest contented with it as the ultimate principle which we can assign all our conclusions from experience.

- An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding 
As a guide to life, we respect the custom that surrounds the meeting, but we need not agree that they account for the chances of an event. Hume, it could be said was an advocate of those who have an interest in preserving customs. A reasonable enough desire, but what has this to do with undermining the reason for the chance of it coming about? In a world with no oil, both reason and chance count, for the occurrence of a combustion engine has a chance given the conditions are suitable. There is no reason why there couldn't exist a world with oil, but then it will never have any combustion engines. An understanding which is in opposition to this would be a belief in a proposition that does not conform to what can be experienced.

By proposing that chance is only about what appears to be otherwise, Hume makes the truth of what propositions refer to, determined by their mere being. This is how Hume interprets Newton's Laws.

The problem which modern sceptics like Lewis, Hall and even their more recent advocates; Ismael and Briggs as well as Thau who is supposed to be a critic, fail to recognise, is that if hypothetical use of language is based upon presuppositions, this has the effect of placing limits on our understanding as opposed to recognising what those limits are for it to have an identity in its difference. That is, the whole of the scepticís position hangs on the idea of a belief being a function as opposed to being subject to what is true for them. What a person believes does not have to be true for that which is confirmed by experience. That is why, for example, it is sensible to believe that someone who has a better knowledge of an engine should be trusted to repair it and so have a better chance of working as a result. Any mechanic who deserves the name of being one, would have a better chance of finding the reason why an engine doesn't work than someone who is not one! The beauty of the dialectical analysis, as bought down to us by Socrates, is that you don't have to be a mechanic, or skilled in any particular vocation, to appreciate what they can do, or that their way of working is efficient and effective.

To understand why this is so important, consider the presuppositions that surround the benefits of new technologies. These can be challenged, as science without reason can have no morality. A supposition which denies this is too handy for those in a position of power and influence and so needs to be refuted. To challenge the future consequences for the use of technologies is not unlike insisting that the rules of the race must be fair. Technology is a race where reason is no mere sentiment, but the conscience of a folk psychology that gives some teams a winning edge. Such an edge is a reason why its effect can become a spectacle; like the Roman games, it can end up being for the benefit and desires of the oligarchs and their preferred understanding of our customs.

Chance as a reason for our understanding of morality and human conduct

If sentiments about choices and their chances can only be guided by emotions expressed as sentences, presumably there would be no way to distinguish them. Once it is admitted that the weighing of choices does count, the reason for moral judgements should not be denied. That is, what is true for them is not a contingent state of affairs. By presupposing that it is, in the following quote, Hume undermines reason again by making everything that can be referred to, subject to being determined by the experience of its being:
I have objected to the system, which establishes eternal rational measures of right and wrong, that ítis impossible to show, in the actions of reasonable creatures, any relations, which are not found in external objects; and therefore, if morality always intended these relations, twere possible for inanimate matter to be virtuous or vicious.

- The Treatise of Human Nature 

Our understanding of science is not found in external objects like a brain, but is a product of its biological processes. Humeís reasoning results in a contradiction as processes are as real as sticks and stones, so if their properties have limits, why should beliefs not have them? In fact dispositions are a reason for the different understandings that constitute our beliefs in moral judgements. If we believe Hume, the consequence of our acts are subject to us being blind to the effects they have as mere outcomes of chance.

The idea that immoral sentiments, where capitalism is greed, are healthy for the worldís markets persists. It persists, because judgements like Hume's, about what constitute beliefs about chance have been absorbed into our folk psychology. Of course there are degrees of belief, and not everyone takes a sceptical position, which is as extreme as Hume's. The problem is, as long as it is considered reasonable to deny that the relation of good to evil is a moral judgement that is not affected by our understanding of chance, there seems no point to having them. If it is correct that the limits of our understanding about chance do affect our conduct then it does have an impact on our future. If human conduct is all and only about what is irregular and uncertain then this makes us look rather stupid. While Hume's attack on reason could be said to have had a profound influence on scientific attitudes towards chance, it appears that it does not readily conform with what is actually true for our everyday experience.

Address for correspondence:
Paul Healey <>

Philosophical Anarchism (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 1 Spring 2010

A Critical Philosophical Presentation
By Magda Egoumenides

In all the important aspects of our lives, we want to decide by ourselves. We care a lot about living our own way. About being able to make our own decisions concerning who to be, how to live and what to value and achieve. We do not want others to make these decisions for us. Except that is, it seems in the all-important public sphere of life. Yet why should the public sphere be different? What is so appealing about the state when our natural and basic tendency is not to be ruled? This is one concern that gave birth to anarchism. It is also a central problem of political philosophy, theory and practice. And yet it seems so strange to us when the idea of rule is challenged. Perhaps the reason is that, being used to protection by the law, we have forgotten the basic concern anarchism expresses. So here I present the main forms of anarchism in order to arrive at a position which, in my opinion, makes the anarchist insight clearer and shows us a way to remember what otherwise we too easily may forget.

In the history of the anarchist tradition and ideology there are two main sides of anarchism: political and philosophical. The first of these, Political Anarchism is primarily devoted to the task of demolishing the state. It sees this task as an immediate implication of rejecting political authority. But Political Anarchism also views the state as a very bad form of social organisation, and there is a reason for opposition which is, for this form of anarchism, additional to its belief that the state's existence and authority remain unjustified. Correspondingly, its critique of the state is premised on a vision of social life without political institutions.

I distinguish Political Anarchism from Philosophical Anarchism, on the other hand, which concentrates on the critique of political authority and does not necessarily require the abolition of the state. This latter characteristic is reflected in the fact that negative philosophical anarchism is compatible with many alternative political outlooks. A subspecies of Political Anarchism might be identified as the idea that individuals have each an inviolable sphere of action under their total control. This form of anarchism views social relationships as contractual interactions between independent beings, beings seen as able to lead their lives abstracted from their social environment and its impacts.

Opposed to this is kind of individualism is what we might call Political Communal Anarchism, a view which has roots in socialism but nonetheless differs from other socialist ideologies, especially in the latter's devotion to politically centralised forms of organisation and control (if not always as ends, at least as means towards an ideal society). As John Horton puts it in his book Political Obligation (1992), communal anarchism points out 'the social character of human life' and the accompanying values of community, equality, free co-operation and reciprocity. Proponents of Political Communal Anarchism, like Peter Kropotkin and Michael Bakunin, have devoted themselves to developing visions of society which involve a series of co-operative enterprises in every aspect of social life (economic, cultural, educational, etc.) and which are offered as alternatives to views of society which essentially involve the state. These visions are based on reasonably optimistic views of human nature and are accompanied by the characteristic (anarchist) rejection of coercive schemes.

I should like to focus however here on the philosophical side of anarchism and outline its contribution to the debate on political authority. For this, I will need to concentrate on what I call 'critical philosophical anarchism'. This I define as the view which examines the best candidates for moral theories of political obligation and derives from their failure the result:
* there is no general political obligation, and that in this respect,
* political institutions remain without justification.
Incorporated in this approach is a prior standard of theoretical criticism merged with some idea of what an ideal legitimate society should be like. Philosophical Anarchism considers all existing states to be illegitimate insofar as they fail to meet this ideal. 
This anarchist position, as it figures within the debate on political obligation, offers something valuable to the perspective we have towards political institutions and our relation to them. I think that it is important to stress both its critical perspective and its ideal of legitimacy. I see these aspects as defining features of the approach and furthermore as incorporating crucial elements of the arguments of Philosophical Anarchism against political obligation. These are also compatible with certain features of Communal Anarchism.

Anarchists enter the debate on political obligation with a concern about freedom. They concentrate on the importance for individuals to be self-governed, to be able to have a say on and determine the main aspects of their own lives. But how can this be compatible with external constraints? The respect for self-government and the rejection of constraints are characteristic anarchist arguments, each of which might take, and at times has taken, priority over the other within the anarchist tradition. Yet, an anarchist can insist on the priority of freedom and criticise political institutions without rejecting constraints in general. Anarchists are sensitive to the fact that political constraints create problems for self-determination and it is with this in mind that they criticise the way traditional defences of political institutions work. Critical Philosophical Anarchism points out that, if these defences start from a different perspective on political institutions, one which involves the task to show a positive relation between them and freedom, they will deal all the more successfully with the difficulties which they face in their effort to justify the political reality. The debate can then develop in a different light and can provide more fruitful ways of addressing our relationship to the state. It is exactly these features which are significant in the critical philosophical anarchist position.

To conclude, the distinctive perspective of Critical Philosophical Anarchism is that it revives the question of whether we should have political institutions by questioning our obligation to them. It is a question which has been overlooked for too long in discussions of political authority. Rather than promoting a duty to justify constraints, anarchism makes compelling a duty not to accept illegitimate constraints: it focuses on what constraints take away and thus on the need to account for the point of their very existence. Critical Philosophical Anarchism makes us think about what freedom and its loss imply for the way we defend political institutions, and it helps us to re-establish our methods of justification.

Critical Philosophical Anarchism offers an indispensable outlook: it re-assesses the very approach to political authority that has incorrectly been used as a starting point for the debate on political institutions and this offers a clear view of the character, possibilities and problems of political constraints which point out and correct this. At the same time, Critical Philosophical Anarchism preserves its authenticity. It is not about putting limits on political institutions out of a concern to preserve them. It does not emphasise the legitimacy of the state. The anarchist is rather motivated by the problem of subjugation, the way in which improper relations between people undermine them. The defect of political institutions detected through the anarchist criticism of political obligation is that political constraints, by their very nature, tend to accept, cultivate and establish subjugation. In the end, anarchism is about how difficult it is to substantiate political legitimacy

A selection of Anarchist quotations
William Bailie
'Modern primarily a tendency - moral, social, and intellectual. As a tendency it questions the supremacy of the State, the infallibility of statute laws, and the divine right of all authority, spiritual or temporal. It is, in truth, a product of Authority, the progeny of the State, a direct consequences of the inadequacy of law and government to fulfill their assumed functions. In short, the Anarchist tendency is a necessity of progress, a protest against usurpation, privilege, and injustice.' (The Anarchist Spirit, 1906)

Alex Comfort
'Anarchism is that political philosophy which advocates the maximization of individual responsibility and the reduction of concentrated power -- regal, dictatorial, parliamentary: the institutions which go loosely by the name of 'government' -- to a vanishing minimum.' (Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State: A Criminological Approach to the Problem of Power (1950)

Noam Chomsky 
'...anarchism can be conceived as a kind of voluntary socialism, that is, as libertarian socialist or anarcho-syndicalist or communist anarchist, in the tradition of, say, Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin and others. They had in mind a highly organized form of society, but a society that was organized on the basis of organic units, organic communities. And generally, they meant by that the workplace and the neighborhood, and from those two basic units there could derive through federal arrangements a highly integrated kind of social organization which might be national or even international in scope. And these decisions could be made over a substantial range, but by delegates who are always part of the organic community from which they come, to which they return, and in which, in fact, they live.' ('The Relevance of Anarcho-syndicalism', an interview with Peter Jay, July 25, 1976)
Bill Christopher, Jack Robinson, Philip Sansom and Peter Turner: 
'Anarchism is a philosophy of freedom. It is a body of revolutionary ideas which reconciles, as no other revolutionary concept does, the necessity for individual freedom with the demands of society. It is a commune-ist philosophy which starts from the individual and works upwards, instead of starting from the State and working downwards. Social structure in an anarchist society would be carefully and consciously kept to a minimum and would be strictly functional; where organisation is necessary, it would be maintained, but there would be no organisation for its own sake. This would help to prevent the hardening of organisations into institutions - the hard core of government.' 
(The State Is Your Enemy: Selections From Freedom (a London Anarchist newspaper)  1965-86)
Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
'The notion of anarchy...means that once industrial functions have taken over from political functions, then business transactions and exchange alone produce the social order.' (The Federal Principle, 1863) 
'Anarchy is... a form of government or constitution in which public and private consciousness, formed through the development of science and law, is alone sufficient to maintain order and guarantee all liberties...' (Correspondence, 1864)
Leslie Green
'Is there a general obligation to obey the law, at least in a reasonably just state? Increasingly, political theorists deny that proposition. Of course, anarchists, marxists and many theologians have denied it all along ­ their allegiance is to things higher than, or at any rate different from, the state. Now, however, a number of writers within the liberal tradition are denying it too. To call this an emerging consensus would be more performative than descriptive; but it is, shall we say, a significant coalescence of opinion.' ('Who Believes in Political Obligation?' in For  and  Against  the  State:  New  Philosophical  Readings, 1996)

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