Thursday, 1 September 2011

Review: Aping Mankind (2011)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIV No. 2 Autumn 2011

and plenty of misrepresentation of humanity too
By Martin Cohen

Aping Mankind* is in many ways a timely book, but too long, and too complicated. It seems unlikely to make much impact on contemporary debates. That is doubly unfortunate, as it is in many ways this is also an 'important' book, in the way that few books are. Indeed, Tallis, admits at the outset, in a bizarre introduction entitled 'The Strange Case of Professor Grey and Other Provocations', that he is hoping here to digest the fruits of a whole lifetime of writing and cogitating on the question of the true nature of Man, into one comprehensive account that would then receive the kind of media attention and indeed public interest that books putting the opposite point of view, like The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins, have done. At the very least, he hopes to rival books like Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals by the Professor John Grey. But in this sense, it seems more likely that Professor Grey will have the last laugh.

Aping Mankind, Tallis says openly, indeed, one might say, shamelessly, 'owes its origin it many moments of exasperation but Straw Dogs was probably decisive'. Tallis calls the work of his academic rival 'self-indulgent and lazily fragmentary'. How often do we find the right words to insult others from unconscious knowledge of our own weaknesses! And so it is the case here. This introduction should have been consigned to the waste-bin by a competent editor, and so should about half of this near four hundred page tome. We don't need summaries of Tallis' earlier books. We don't really need endless witty asides, nor lecturer-style 'repetition for effect'. And if all this could have been stripped out, what then would have been left? But indeed there is a lot, I venture to say there is a great deal more in this book than in those two just mentioned. Tallis correctly identifies not only issues in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, but in social science and above all philosophy. For time and time again Tallis ends up on philosophical turf, debating, competently and stimulatingly, philosophical issues about the nature of consciousness, self, and the mind.

However, let's start with the social dimensions. Tallis is appalled by what he calls the 'Darwinization of our understanding of humanity' as well as 'neuromania', which he defines as the almost ubiquitous use of what is offered as the latest, cutting-edge brain science to supposedly reveal how our minds work. The stakes are high too, he warns. 'The Twentieth century demonstrated how quickly social polices based on pseudo-science, which bypassed the individual as an independent centre of action and judgement but simply saw humanity as a substrate to be shaped by appropriate technologies, led to catastrophe.'

However, the' central theme of the book is that there is a difference between 'brain activity' and consciousness. Tallis says that he started arguing this point as a medical student, and has been struggling to explain it ever since. Several earlier books on the theme have been optimistically written and then left widely unread and neglected. In this, personally I am not at all surprised, having seen that 'neuromania' is indeed, as he complains, completely dominant in academia - not only in the supposed sciences but in philosophy, social science and even aesthetics and literary criticism too. (My own small effort to combat neuromania, the book Mind Games was just recently cruelly lambasted by a kind of brain scientist as having no useful 'facts' (let alone brain scans) in it at all about how the brain worked - merely tangential illustrations and metaphors.)

It seems that books arguing that consciousness remains a mystery are not the flavor of the day. Nonetheless, newsworthy or not, I very much enjoyed Tallis' romp through some of the idiocies of the neuromaniacs.

First of all, he briefly and competently explains that the brain simply cannot be reduced to a computer, impressive though indeed today's computers are. 'The seemingly unlimited power of computers to do things - 'detect' events, 'calculate', 'control' outputs, [make] it superficially attractive to think of the mind-brain as a computer, and an enormously powerful one.' But the mind is non-linear and 'also unified' - computers are linear and necessarily modular - fragmented. Nor indeed is it any more persuasive to make the computer out of to a vast array of molecules, as Francis Crick imagined when he wrote:
You, your joys and sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, our sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. 
Yet for most academics, it seems, from this it is but a small step to assume, that the 'mind is a system of organs of computation designed by natural selection to solve the problems faced by our evolutionary ancestors', as Stephen Pinker has put it.

A small step but one too far for Tallis, though, who writes:
You would have to be pretty resistant to the overwhelming body of evidence to deny that the human brain is an evolved organ, fashioned by the processes of natural selection acting on spontaneous variation. It does not follow from this that the mind is unless you believe that the mind is identical with brain activity. 
 Instead, Tallis refreshingly puts the contrary argument that the human brain is 'an unimaginably complex nexus of neural circuits responding individually or sometimes collectively, or en masse, in highly specific ways to stimuli of various sort, and to complexes of stimuli' - read 'non-linear', unpredictable, chaotic, even. Add to which, 'What is now realised is that the way the neurons are wired together can be dramatically changed as a result of experience'.

Neuromaniacs, assume - because they have to- that there is some central controller of these neurons, an 'homunculus', or little man, inside the big man - something akin to the program that runs in a digital computer. This conceit goes back a long way, and can be seen in Descartes or, as Tallis recommends, in the writings of the physiologist, Albrecht von Haller (1708-77) who wrote that there must be a 'principle part' of the brain in which sense date is processed and 'motions' are initiated.

And this fine myth has been given much apparent substance by new technology in recent years - notably by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).
It is fMRI, more than anything else, that has taken the analysis of brain function beyond the laboratory into the wider world of popular science, to the point where it is now almost impossible to pick up a newspaper without encountering an image of the brain, showing the location of love, or hatred, or wisdom. 
Wheel out Colin Blakemore, for example. Giving a series of Reith lectures on the BBC, he expounded the view at leisure to a doubtless highly impressed middle class listening audience.
The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all out actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs. All our actions are products of the activity of our brains. It makes no sense (in scientific terms) to try to distinguish sharply between acts that result from conscious attentions and those that result from our reflexes or are caused by disease or damage to the brian. 
Indeed, a series of experiments by the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet in the 1980s (repeated many times since, invariably to much media admiration) 'seems to show that our brain takes decisions to act before our conscious mind is aware of them'. Could it be then, that our decisions are not really 'our 'decisions!?

Astonishing implications and indeed astonishing research money follow such theories. One recipient was Alfred Mele, who in 2010 was awarded the princely sum of $4.4 million by the Templeton Foundation to look at the implications of all this for human free will.
Libet's interpretation of this own experiments was that they demonstrated that we do not have free will: the brain 'decides' to move, the brain 'initiates' movement. As Libet put it in a recent paper, "if the 'act now' process is initiated unconsciously, then the conscious free will is not doing it". This is presented as a pure philosophical argument, of course. IF something IS unconscious THEN it is NOT conscious. Ker-ching! $4 million please. Tallis will get no money for his own thoughts though, which are much more interesting. 
Think about it: there is a sensory input, triggering peripheral never impulses, which in turn trigger central nerve impulses that trigger motor activity or other outputs. Yes, there are many intermediate layers of activity between the input and the output, but they consist only of other never impulses and these are not qualitatively different from those more immediately related to inputs and outputs. The hierarchical vision of the nervous system 'does not help'. This sequence does not have a beginning, a point of origin, a point of departure, that would correspond to the initiation of an action. We have a loop of activity passing through the nervous system, without an obvious point where anything could be started. Tallis continues to explain that, after all:
...the circuitry of the brain is causally connected with its immediate surroundings, and these are in turn simply part of a boundless causal nexus extending backwards in time to the beginning of the universe. The inescapable consequence of seeing ourselves identified a material object - the brain - must be to conclude that we are wired in the material word: subject to the same laws that hold sway over it. And so the arguments of neuroscience must lead not only to the end of 'freewill' but also to the end of the individual 'self', the 'I'. The individual self is revealed as a mere piece of propaganda, that has no ultimate reality.
Of course, this is an old argument in Western Philosophy too, Tallis recalls. Hume wrote:
For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I can never catch myself at an time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception. For Hume, the human is nothing but a 'bundle.. of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.'
But back to the technology. Tallis is a medical man, and he points out rather revealingly that fMRI is not all that it made out to be. It measures brain activity only indirectly by detecting the additional blood flow prompted by the need for additional oxygen by busy neurons. 'Given that neuronal activity lasts milliseconds, while detected changes in blood flow lag by 2-10 seconds' there is indeed some imprecision in the method - notably 'blood flow changes maybe producing oxygen to more than one set of neuron discharges'. What is more, Tallis explains, many millions of neurons have to be activated in order to discern a change in blood flow. Not here the pinpointing of particular thoughts placed in minds by the social scientists.

Indeed, Tallis accuses the experiments of being laughably crude and 'mind-numbingly simplistic'. 'In a typical experiment, subjects are exposed to different stimuli, or asked to imagine certain scenarios, and the change in brain activity is recorded.' Thus subjects may be shown photographs of friends on the one hand, and lovers on the other, and the 'differences' in the brain scans taken to indicate the 'unconditional-love spot'. Yet when more mundane experiments are done with subjects being asked to, for example, tap their fingers, 'the test-retest correlation ranged between 0,76 and zero'! In other words, nothing could be deduced from the brain scans about finger-tapping. How much less then can be deduced about grand emotional reactions?

Remember too that 'that most brain activity is not associated with consciousness and the small part that is associated does not look all that much different form the large amount that is not'. The point is, 'the more you think about the idea that human life can be parcelled out into discrete functions that are allocated to their own bits of the brian, the more absurd it seems.'

'Physicalist neuroscience has no problem with light getting into the brain through the eyes and triggering never impulses. The gaze looking out is another matter entirely.' And a bit later 'it is a person that looks out, not a brain.' Even neurophysiologists allow that the object that we construct is not really there, but created by the brain. But this is paradoxical - the brian is shaping the world that is it shaped by? Philosophers in particular should remember that the world is an undifferentiated mass until the mind splits it up into discrete parts.
...think of everyday consciousness as a million set of ripples in a pond created by the impact of a dense shower of hail, compounded by all sorts of internal sources of ripples... ultimately the nervous system has to allow everything to merge in the moment of present consciousness.
Tallis draws other general conclusions too.
... neuroscience does not address, even less answer the fundamental question of the relation(s) between matter and mind, body and mind, or brain and mind. If it seems to do so this, it is only the result of a confusion between, indeed a conflation of, three quite different relations: correlation, causation and identity.
 Of course, philosophers specialise at that sort of mixing things up. That is why they have useless thought experiments about martian water and brain transfer machines. Add to which their ineffectual musings on the gap between experience (sensory inputs) and perception and beliefs. Tallis identifies many things that have apparently slipped the philosophers by in their enthusiasm for the latest brain research, notably that 'the physical world does not have tensed time, in which present, past and future exist'. This is a creation of consciousness. And alongside that, the notion of 'position' is an uncomfortable one to apply to a never impulse, which is a signal that never stops moving and never arrives.

There is an interesting but I think unconvincing discussion of memory with relation to consciousness. Tallis offers the example of a broken tea cup. To its owner it can be a record of the unfortunate event that led to its breaking.
But this requires my consciousness. If you allow that the present sate of the cup can signify its past state, or the events that took it from its past to its present state, without importing consciousness, then you should be prepared to accept that the present state of anything can be a sign of all the past events that brought about its present state and that the sum total of the past can be present at every moment.
Tallis thinks this would be a mad thing to say, producing a universe made up of a 'delirium of all its present states' and adds, in characteristically lofty style: 'Fortunately such a claim is without foundation'. 'A synapse no more remembers its previous state than does a broken cup' says Tallis, a touch too easily, adding that this would be necessary 'if synaptic alteration were truly to be the stuff of memory'.

Yet the idea that each particle of the universe is interconnected in a web of cause and effect is by no means so bizarre, and it seems to me that the broken cup does signify some event in the past, even if the observer is not personally able to trace back to it. Tallis points out that 'the temporal depth created by memories, which hold open the distance between that which is here and now and that which is no longer, is not to be found in the material world' by which he means particularly that past, present and future are constructions of the human mind, with no parallel in the 'underlying' realities of physics. (As Einstein explained persuasively, two events are synchronous only to an observer who perceives them that way, and not synchronous to another observer who perceives the matter differently.) It is in this latter world (of fundamental physical particles) that neurophysiologists are heading towards when they posit that 'memories' are written into the brain by changes in the state of countless synapses.

Tallis looks at some of the philosophical literature on this, and finds, some confirmation of his theories, he thinks, in Bergson and indeed in the classics of Plato, Descartes and Galileo - but philosophers are good at talking impressively on generalities and falling down on the actualité. Explanations of causation and time are not their strong suits.

Closer to the heart of this book though is the argument about the differences between humans and animals, which the rather misleading title tends to highlight - 'Aping Mankind'. Tallis offers that:
..a great gulf separates us from our nearest animal kin. There are, however, many thinkers who do see these differences but insist that they are not real or, if real, not fundamental. Under the surface differences, they tell us, there is a deep similarity or even identity. The life of a person in the office is essentially shaped by, and driven by, the programmes, instincts, tropism, motivations, imperatives and so on that guide the life of an ape in the jungle - to replicate their genetic material through individual survival or through their contribution to group survival. It is this that has shaped their brains, the consciousness supported by their brains and the behaviour that flows from that consciousness. 
As to that Tallis offers a whole jungle of arguments that really make up the least compelling or persuasive part of the book. He says we do many things that animals do not do, and that we do them for complex, socially defined or aesthetical reasons. 'Consider something as commonplace and seemingly simple as buying a can of beans in a supermarket', he starts unpromisingly, before concluding:
The implicit frames of reference that make sense of this seemingly simple act are endless and none have any counterpart in the life of any beasts.
At least, it can be allowed to his credit that Tallis has opted for a practical example, rather than, as he puts it, dwell on those more grand 'human achievements' such as 'writing sonnets or composing symphonies or investigating the laws of nature of believing in God'. He explains that to argue for human differences to animalkind on the basis of such marginal activities is to play into 'the hands of the Darwinitics [sic]' because it suggests that our differences are themselves only marginal.

Even on his own account, the fact is the differences are in many ways marginal. The lives of humans and Chimpanzees probably looked very similar a few hundred thousand years ago - no tins of beans or supermarkets then, let alone those sonnets and symphonies. Unless we developed our mysterious minds in an evolutionary blink (and Tallis accepts that the 'mind' evolved as per all the other organs) then we must have had pretty much the same kind of 'consciousness' then. That is why Tallis is obliged to spend so much space attempting to prop up his thesis with tangential attempts to reduce the complexity and sophistication of animal lives and deny animals conscious thought. Much of this effort. looks amateurish and inappropriate in a book that seeks to debunk orthodox opinions elsewhere. (Jean Kazez's recent book, Animalkind, is a fine antidote to this kind of thinking.)

On the other hand, Tallis is nearer the mark when he says that what is distinctive about humanity is the social environment - bound together by language and tool use, 'artefacts, institutions, mores, laws, norms, expectations, narratives, education, training,' all utterly different from the world that animals exist within. And it is interesting to be reminded that although we share, as every pundit likes to say, 98% of our genes with chimpanzees, we share precisely zero per cent of our chromosomes with them, and it is the chromosomes that actually do things.

Writing in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett, speaks for many philosophers today when he says:
If I were to given an award for the best single idea anyone has ever had, I'd give it to Darwin ahead of Newton and einstein and everyone else. in a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.
This, of course is absolute nonsense, but popular nonsense. Tallis provides a public service here in attempting to put the record straight.

*This being a review article for: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity by Raymond Tallis, Acumen. June 2011. ISBN 978-1-84465-272-3

An Empirical Approach to Religious Belief (2011)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIV No. 2 Autumn 2011

The psychologist, Wilhelm Wundt

By Zenon Stavrinides

The question for psychologists is, how does the meaning believers derive from religion enhance their sense of control and self-esteem?
 Up until the end of the nineteenth century at least, most scholars who worked in what counted as the field of psychology or 'mental science' took it upon themselves to identify the various elements of mental life and the provide an account of their character and interaction in accordance with a set of more or less speculative theories, like the division of the mind into a number of 'faculties' such as cognition, affection and volition, and the catch-all principle of 'the association of ideas'.

All that changed, however, in 1879 when Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychological laboratory in Leipzig in order to study in a scientific spirit the phenomena of consciousness, and soon afterwards William James began to carry his own brand of research in physiological psychology at Harvard University. These two parallel developments on either side of the Atlantic initiated a new and in time very productive tradition of psychology, as a discipline which aimed to achieve an understanding of mental life by employing the working principles and procedures of the natural sciences, principally observation, measurement and experimentation.

Thus it was that during the first half of the Twentieth century a considerable number of universities in Europe, North America and other parts of the world with advanced scientific cultures set up Departments of Psychology with increasingly sophisticated laboratory facilities where researchers formulated problems about human behaviour and mental operations which lent themselves to empirical treatment. Psychologists with acknowledged scientific credentials adopted and adapted ideas, procedures, techniques and equipment which were proving successful in the areas of human and animal physiology, biochemistry, evidence-based sociology, applied statistics, and other human sciences, and framed appropriate hypotheses which were capable of confirmation or refutation by empirical tests.

Both during and after World War II, the insights of psychology were utilized, applied and extended by psychologists working in special units in educational institutions, military establishments, hospitals, industrial concerns and other types of organization. By the middle of the century psychology grew into maturity and stature as one of the recognized sciences with its own characteristic concepts and theories in terms of which wide ranges of problems were investigated, and hypotheses were framed and tested by objective methods.

One of the special branches of psychology is the psychology of religion, the core issues of which received a masterly formulation and treatment in William James' magnum opus, The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902.

In the following half-century the psychology of religion grew in complexity and sophistication, along with other areas of psychology. Innumerable studies about the nature, conditions and consequences of religious experience and other kindred topics were carried out in many parts of the world and reported in professional journals of psychology, including a number which were exclusively devoted to the psychology and social scientific study of religion.

The extent of writing on psychology since the second half of the Twentieth century is amply reflected by the fact that the number of words published since 1950 comfortably exceeds the total output of works on the subject produced since the time of the Greeks. This, at least, is the claim of three American psychologists Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter Hill and Bernard Spilka in their magisterial critical survey The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach, now in its fourth edition; and with a bibliography that extends over 106 closely printed pages, listing for the most part contributions to the psychology of religion, the claim is hard to dispute. The book presents and assesses a vast range of works in the field, embodying issues, data-based studies, broad theories and specific hypotheses which marked the field in recent decades. This magisterial work offers a synoptic view of the field and should be of great value to professional psychologists, researchers and PhD students working in this area.

It is no doubt significant that the authors draw a distinction between the psychology of religion and religious psychology pointing out that:
... empirical psychologists of religion tend to be primarily social psychologists, [who] come from the psychological tradition of social psychology, not the sociological tradition... The natural-scientific assumptions of psychology remain firm for most of the psychologically oriented social psychologists who do empirical research. Those who confine themselves to natural-scientific assumptions tend to produce a psychology of religion rather than a religious psychology per se
And what exactly does the distinction between the psychology of religion and religious psychology amount to? The authors suggest that:
A psychology of religion places psychological categories at the forefront, and would have psychology explain religion only insofar as its phenomena of religion can be captured within natural-scientific constructs from mainstream psychology. On the other hand, religious psychology gives supremacy to religious constructs, and finds psychology to follow from and to be constrained within the conceptual limits of a natural science whose explanatory power is superseded by religion.
This passage appears to suggest that the psychology of religion and religious psychology operate, so to speak, within the same area of human life and experience, but they operate differently: they differ from each other in respect of the kinds of concepts the use to describe and explain the phenomena of religious life of individuals and social groups, and this must be taken to imply that they differ in the kinds of questions they raise and the kinds of answers the seek.

A scholar in religious psychology may express an interest in how a devout Christian experiences the presence and authority of God in his life and how as a result he understands his duty to his fellow men and women under God's commands. Any advance that may be made on this question must reflect how God's commands manifest themselves in this man's understanding of himself as God's creature ? and here the methods of observation, measurement and experimentation have hardly any application. These methods, however, may be usefully deployed in trying to discover how religious believers within the same or different social cultures respond to specific religious demands for Church attendance, marriage and family, charity or commitment to various social projects; and such inquiry is typical of the psychology of religion.

The domain of the psychology of religion will become clearer once we consider the organization of the material contained in The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach. In the opening chapter the authors set out a number of basic issues which face the psychologist of religion and of which the book provides accounts. These issues - complexly interrelated with one another - include:
* What is religion and what are its practical features?
* What does religion in its various forms mean to the individual, how it is expressed, what does it do for people and their thoughts and behaviour (doctrine, knowledge of sacred writings and principles, emotions)?
* What are the complex ways in which a community's religious faith, experience and activity manifest themselves (ritual and ceremonial behaviour, ethical values, involvement in group life)?
* What does religion come from, in the sense of what are the sources of religious impulses and needs?
* How do men, women and children relate to their faith, and how does the meaning they derive from religion enhances their sense of control and self-esteem?
In a series of chapters the authors expound and evaluate ideas and data concerning the place of religion and its various form of expression in different stages of life, such as childhood, young adulthood, adult life, and old age when the prospect of death is imminent. There are detailed discussions on religious experience, mysticism, conversion, the social psychology of religious organizations, the impact of religion on moral attitudes and behaviour, the effects of religion on such processes as coping and adjustment, and the relation between religion and mental disorder. In each of these chapters, various components of religious faith are highlighted and analysed along a number of more or less quantifiable dimensions such as the following:
1. Content: the essential nature of the component (e.g. specific rituals, ideas, knowledge, principles etc).
2. Frequency: how often the content elements are encountered and acted upon.
3. Intensity: degree of commitment.
4. Centrality: importance or salience.
Each chapter, indeed, each part of each section of each chapter, presents a wealth of empirical material, frequently peppered with complicated statistical data, leading to hypotheses of various degrees of plausibility. Quite plainly, many researchers expended considerable energy, ingenuity and resources to carry out experiments in order to discover features of religious life they deemed interesting. Not all experiments are equally illuminating.

The book contains some experimental reports whose point and importance may be difficult to evaluate. To take an example at random, Ralph W. Hood, Jr (to grace him with his U.S. style nomenclature) and two colleagues report an experiment in which, roughly speaking, a number of religious and non-religious individuals were placed in a sensory isolation tank which was totally enclosed, light-proof and sound-proof to maximise solitude. 

Earlier the subjects had completed the Allport Religious Orientation scale on the basis of which the had been classified as intrinsic, extrinsic and 'indiscriminately pro'. They were told of the typical images they were likely to experience under those conditions, and then they were asked to keep silent for ten minutes and then 'expose' themselves to whatever the experience brought. 

The results, according to the researchers, 'were as predicted': among other things, the intrinsics and 'indiscriminately pro' participants reported more religious interpretation of their experiences than extrinsics. The isolation tank elicited religious experiences in subjects of all religious types, it did not have a similar effect on non-religious individuals. How far experimental conclusions of this kind bear on our understanding of, say, the visions which Saint Bernadette claimed to have had in Lourdes - this being the kind of understanding which religious psychology would seek to achieve - is a moot point.

The heterogeneous empirical data which the book cites and analyses - heterogeneous in character and scientific value - invite debate on the feasibility of bringing it all under a good scientific theory. The authors of our book are well aware of what is at issue, for they write:
One major challenge to a measurement-based psychology of religion is simply put - interest. It is not clear whether the massive literature spawned in psychology in general has yielded fruits relative to the effort. When one considers the explosion of literature in mainstream psychology, it is obvious that no psychologist can master even a small proportion of it... This massive literature has spawned no agreed-upon theoretical integration. There is no such theory in general psychology, much less in the psychology of religion... The rigours of measurement and the cleverness of experimental design fail if the ultimate result is, as is so often the case, trivial or uninformative. The psychology of religion is likely to become more like a quilt, in which measurement will be at best sewn together patches derived from diverse theoretical perspectives.
We may well wonder if the absence of a general theory of the psychology of religion means that this field of research and knowledge lacks 'interest'. After all, there is no all-embracing theory in other human sciences, such as sociology, political science, economics and so on - yet is that so terrible? Ever since James' 1902 effort, the psychology of religion has surely proved its value by the interest of the questions it raises and the insights on the human mind found in its results.

This was a review article occasioned by the publication of: Ralph W. Hood, Jr, Peter Hill and Bernard Spilka's book:
The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach
Hardcover: ISBN-13: 978-1606233030) 636 pp.
New York: The Guilford Press; 4th Edition.

A Future Without Science? (2011)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIV No. 2 Autumn 2011

By Ian James Kidd

The history of science is often depicted as a series of progressive triumphs - but is that view a myth - or a reality?

Scince is one of the most powerful and pervasive features of modern human cultures. We can all agree with that statement, even if it is hard, when pressed, to specify just what we mean by 'science'. Yet most of us will have various images and ideas in common when pressed on the question of what science is ­ shining laboratories, colourful molecules, particle colliders, and the like.

Some of these images and ideas enjoy rich histories, whilst others are quite new, but certainly those grasping for a definition of science have a rich resource to appeal to and much to go on. Some will cite theories, like those of evolution, or laws, like those of gravitation and thermodynamics. Others will prefer to talk about the institutional and disciplinary structures of science, pointing to distinctions between natural and social science, or theoretical and applied science. Yet others will gesture to the fact that ours is a 'scientific culture', one shaped and, perhaps, defined by the presence of scientific knowledge, practices, and institutions.

Such diverse possibilities will not, of course, provide us with a neat definition of science - as a body of knowledge, a particular method, or a 'way of life' - but the very fact of such a diversity of answers does indicate one useful fact: science informs much of contemporary human life, has done for some time and, one supposes, will continue to do so into the future. Or will it?

There seems to be a strong presumption that, barring catastrophe, the sciences will remain central and valued features of human cultures into the future. Often this presumption is implied, rather than explicitly stated. For instance, authors who write stories set in the future inevitably envision that future as a scientific one, even if some of those stories, such as H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, depict a rather grim outcome of contemporary science and technology. This presumption seems to reflect the power of the sciences over our imagination. 
Few people could really take seriously the idea that in the year 2453, say, human cultures might not be 'scientific' in any sense we would recognise. Or if they turn out not to be, then something, somewhere down the line, must have gone very wrong - perhaps a meteorite impacted the Earth and brought an end to civilisation, taking science and everything else with it. That is a dramatic scenario, but it indicates just how influential the presumption of a scientific future is. One can understand why people are naturally keen to ensure the persistence of science ­ after all, it is, at present, the best resource we have for understanding and manipulating the material world. But is it possible that, sometime in the future ­ whether in decades or centuries ­ human beings might cease to be engaged in science?

The history of science is often depicted as a series of progressive triumphs, with one generation of intrepid inquirers passing on their knowledge to the next. The resulting image of scientific progress was nicely captured in Newton's remark about 'standing on the shoulders of giants', a beautiful image of long-term intellectual co-operation. Some enthusiasts for science have even gone as far as identifying science as a necessary and inevitable stage in human evolution; the nineteenth century French philosopher Auguste Comte identified science as the third and final stage of human cultural evolution, after the religious and the philosophical.

Such admiration for science is understandable, but one worries that it disguises a very important fact: science might never have arisen. A whole array of factors could have prevented the emergence of the sciences ­ the social and intellectual climate, political factors, wars, and so on. The writings of many early natural philosophers, like Descartes, indicate a constant anxiety about whether their fledgling sciences would take flight. Moreover, the establishment of those sciences, as authoritative sources of knowledge about the world, was also dependent upon wider social and intellectual factors. Had history taken a different path, science might have disappeared. Could events in the future bring it about that science, like the gods and monsters of the past, disappears? But how could science actually cease to be a function of our culture?

The sciences are such an omnipresent feature of modern life that few stop to reflect upon them. Schoolchildren are taught about science; newspapers have science correspondents; television channels have specialist science programming; considerable amounts of money are spent ­ by governments, charities, and corporations ­ on encouraging scientific research and applying it to the improvement of human life (or, for the cynical, the maximisation of profits). But the philosophically-minded should always be alert to unchallenged presuppositions, especially when those presuppositions protect and disguise something powerful. Science is powerful, but often poorly understood, even by those who do it. The philosopher of science, Imre Lakatos, once joked that the average scientist understands science about as well as a fish understands hydrodynamics. Like all good jokes, this points to an important truth: science is so pervasive and so much taken-for-granted that serious critical questions about its central place within our life are rarely asked.

That said, today, many groups are rightly cautious or critical of science, in regard to issues about, for instance, the environment or safe energy sources. Such environmental and other worries are not new, of course, but science ­ as an institution and as a body of knowledge ­ has become entrenched within our life. Although there are public debates about science policy and periodic media frenzies about GM (Genetically Modified) crops, and so on, one rarely gets the sense that the idea of a world without science is even possible, let alone plausible. Even if certain policies, like animal cloning, are objected to on moral grounds, and even if other projects, like manned space flight, are criticised on financial ones, there is no real sense that science might cease to be a central and valued feature of our culture. For sure, there may be changes in the particular projects we pursue. But that science might cease to be a significant feature of human life seems so remote a possibility as to be practically inconceivable.

Yet, there are very many ways in which this could happen. An important point to start with is that science is not automatically valued by human beings. No-one simply 'does' science, period. Instead, we do science because we imagine that it will fulfil our needs and satisfy our interests. These interests can be intellectual ones (focused on curiosity and learning), practical ones (to improve health and the environment), or economic and political ones (to produce new materials and technologies for profit or to impress one's rivals). Other interests are available too, and doubtless new ones may emerge in the future. But the point here is that the value of science depends upon its capacity, whether real or imagined, to satisfy our needs and interests. In today's world, science is highly valued because we value curiosity and inquiry and see technology as an essential means of coping with certain features of our world. However, there are plenty of examples of cultures and communities which do not, or did not, value science in the way that we do.

Again, there are some cultures and communities which are indifferent to science. Examples might include the Amish, who value activities only insofar as they contribute to one's moral improvement. The Amish often report their puzzlement at the time and energy we spend on science because, to their minds, scientific research and development does not make one a better person. In a similar vein, Wittgenstein invited us to imagine a culture dominated by belief in a Last Judgement. The members of that culture, he suggested, would be quite justified in their disinterest in science, because it is hardly obvious that a deep knowledge of the structure of matter, or the behaviour of chemicals, will help one to save one's soul. And there are many people for whom knowledge for its own sake is not valuable; they prefer moral improvement, artistic activities, or committed religious practice. If, in the future, these sorts of moral, artistic, and religious concerns become dominant within human societies, the significance assigned to science will change. It might become the case that science passes away as a feature of those societies, for the good reason that such knowledge becomes a matter of indifference to people ­ it would not relate to anything they cared about.

One can also imagine cultures and communities which, far from being indifferent to science, view it as a source of corruption. There are many examples, both historical and contemporary, of those who see the sciences as something dangerous. The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau warned that science 'owed its birth' to two key human vices, 'sloth' and 'vanity'. Human beings, lazy and vain as they are, suppose that through science they can understand how the world works and therefore manipulate it, satisfying their sloth and their vanity. Later philosophers shared Rousseau's worry. That melancholy Dane, Søren Kierkegaard, warned that 'in the end, all corruption will come from the natural sciences' because they present us with a new ideal for life ­ one of inquiry and knowledge ­ rather than embracing what Kierkegaard saw as the true goal of life, the Christian faith. In more recent times, there are many environmentalist, feminist, and pacifist critics who see science as a source or reflection of a disturbing human desire to dominate and control. For these critics, anthropogenic climate change, gender inequalities in the scientific ranks, and the deep complicities between science and the military are all good reasons to reassess the privilege we give to science.

The above examples are intended to indicate that there have been ­ and still are ­ communities and cultures which equate the sciences with indifference or corruption. The stories of Icarus, Faust, and Frankenstein are illustrative: perhaps we cannot yet control the knowledge and power that science promises, so that, for the time being at least, we should abandon it.

In the future, then, humanity may become indifferent to the sciences. Perhaps over the coming centuries, we will return to deep moral and religious concerns, so that an understanding of the fine structure of matter, or the properties of chemicals, no longer seems to be what really matters. Or maybe ongoing environmental ills will prompt us to regard science as a source of moral and intellectual corruption ­ one whose legacy is a desolate biosphere. I cannot say how likely these scenarios are. No-one can know the future; however, my point is simply that, despite the power and presence of science in the modern world, such scenarios are possible.

A future without science may then seem a remote possibility, but of course many ages were blind to the possibilities confronting them. A world without science may seem as impossible to us as a world without the Olympian gods may have seemed to an inhabitant Athens in the sixth century BC. If history teaches us anything, it is to expect surprises, no matter how disturbing they may be. Hopefully these remarks should give us one advantage: in taking seriously the idea of a future without science, we can, perhaps, begin to take measures to insure ourselves against it. The name of the Greek god of invention was, after all, Prometheus, which means 'forethought'. My proposal is, then, that we imitate Prometheus and enjoy his gifts to us ­ inquiry and technology ­ whilst keeping one eye, at the least, on a perhaps very different future.

Address for correspondence: Ian James Kidd at <>

Secrets of the Tao (2011)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIV No. 2 Autumn 2011

Modern Pathway to Ancient Wisdom
By Peter Hubral

Western Philosophy starts with Plato's advice to try to free ourselves from the conventional, everyday truths of the external world. Plato suggests instead that we should try (once in a while) to withdraw from it to our inner world, a realm that he calls the things before the things. Recall the words of the Oracle at Delphi, so characteristic of Socrates:
Recognise thyself 
This is an example of both how enigmatic Socrates' philosophy can appear but is equally an example of how often it is clumsily re-interpreted to fit this or that commentator's purpose. The original Greek is gnothi seautón, and is usually put as 'know thyself'. In this paper, I shall argue that much of the sense of this and many other Ancient texts has been lost. Now I was very early in my life attracted to the Platonic Dialogues and Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching or The Classic of the Way and Power. I started to make real progress in grasping both works, however, only after I 'experienced Taoism' under Tao-Master Fangfu. He taught me the essentials of Tao Mediation, as rooted in ancient China and the teaching of Lao Tzu and the Yellow Emperor.

The first lesson I learned was that interpretations of natural philosophers such as Lao Tzu , Pythagoras, Thales, Empedocles, Parmenides, Socrates, Plato and many others may appear plausible, but this does not mean that they are correct. Conventional readings of both the Ancient Greeks and Taoists indicate rather that it is more as Bertholt Brecht once wrote: Invisible becomes the insanity then, when it has gone out of proportion.

Take for example an article I read recently honouring Charles Darwin. In it the author claimed that Darwin had given the words of Socrates a deep meaning, because in them he thought he saw Socratic support for the theory that humans evolved from apes. But this is just one of many questionable interpretations of words of ancient wisdom; indeed the commentaries are full of them as pointed out by the contemporary philosopher, Sarah Kaufman, who notes in her book, Socrates: Fictions of a Philosopher, (1998) that with Socrates there are 'no facts', only 'interpretations'. This is true if one has no guide to track one's way through the jungle of literature about Socrates and many other ancient natural philosophers.
Tao Meditation: The key to ancient wisdom
Bear with me that I present here a new way of interpreting Plato. It is no 'insane fiction' for me as it is based on the use of Ancient Chinese techniques of Tao Meditation, techniques that  became for me a kind of  'Invisible Stone of Rosetta' able not only to unlock the Tao Te Ching, but Plato's Dialogues and many other ancient writings.

In retrospect, I can say that Fangfu, my Tao Meditation guide and mentor,  'acted like a midwife', who brought to birth in me the gradual development of an unusual knowledge, which 'came out of itself' in Tao Meditation. Recall that Socrates describes himself as a 'midwife' to knowledge too. He speaks about the things that become themselves by themselves (auta kath'hauta), as is the case in Tao Meditation.

My experience with it has led me to view Plato in many ways as a kind of Greek Lao Tzu and, conversely, to see Lao Tzu (who historically is rather earlier, being thought to have lived in the sixth century BCE) as having a similar place in Chinese philosophy as Plato has in the Greek tradition. More than that, it seemed natural to me on account of numerous insights to suppose that many of the Ancient Greek philosophers, and certainly Socrates and Plato, also practised (something very like) Tao Meditation.

Tao Meditation is a technique with no rules about what should or should not be done. It rather involves applying the principle of rigourously doing nothing. This is called by the Chinese, the Wuwei-principle (Wuwei signifies the complete absence of intentional action in rigourous stillness, so that nature can spontaneously act). The abundant benefits (with respect to relaxation and health and unusual knowledge) that result from it stem from this simple principle, irrespective of where and when it is applied. What is attained is comparable in different cultures.

Although there are no rules, typically, Tao Meditation is performed in a relaxed quiet standing position. It is interesting to recall that Socrates is often referred to as 'standing', most particularly in Plato's Symposium.
One morning he was 'thinking' about something which he could not resolve; he would not give it up, but continued 'thinking' from early dawn until noon... there he stood fixed in 'thought'; and at noon attention was drawn to him, and the rumour ran through the wondering crowd that Socrates had been standing and 'thinking' about something ever since the break of day. At last, in the evening after supper, some Ionians out of curiosity (I should explain that this was not in winter but in summer), brought out their mats and slept in the open air that they might watch him and see whether he would stand all night. There he stood until the following morning; ... and with the return of light he offered up a 'prayer' to the sun, and went his way.
This is the conventional interpretation of the passage, unlikely though it seems. 'Prayer' is a misleading translation, for example as the ancient pagan masters were not religious. What results from 'meditative standing' can be recognised only in between the lines if one has experience with Tao Meditation. In the cited quotation thinking is, for instance, not familiar discursive but unusual intuitive thinking (thinking before thinking). It is nurtured by the Wuwei-principle as intuitions (insights) occur in absentmindedness. They are there, where (discursive) thinking cannot get to.  The application of the Wuwei-principle can hardly be gauged from the literature, because not much can be written about doing nothing. Teaching and implementing it is a very high art - as Tao Meditation shows. It requires the help of a Tao Master. It brings the Tao-practitioner onto a 'path of expanding his consciousness (and five senses).' There are good indications that I refer here to the 'Path of Truth' that Parmenides, often cited by Plato, talks about when he mentions two different paths to perceive the world.

Taoists accept that without Tao Meditation you can only investigate half of the world. What can be uncovered with it can be viewed as a recollection (reawakening) of unusual knowledge that Plato calls gnósis. Recall that he refers to anámnesis, which translates to recollection.

Recall too, the Fourth Speech of Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium. There we read that humans were once ball-like beings rolling through the cosmos. Such a prenatal experience can be recollected as a result of applying the Wuwei-principle, the technique of thinking of nothing. In the words of my Tao Meditation guide, Fangfu: In ordinary life it is the world surrounding us that determines our consciousness. In Tao Meditation it is the (gradually expanding) consciousness that determines (enhances) our perception of the world.

We can also read in the Fourth Speech that after the ball-like beings attempted to conquer the Olympus, Zeus separated them into two halves. These words imply that without Tao Meditation, also called 'Great Path', we use only half of our capabilities, the ones to explore the outer world. With Tao Meditation we can investigate the other half and thus discover inner worlds (realms, states, levels, planes, ranges of consciousness), the so-called Tai Chi worlds. These can be subdivided into the three worlds You, Wuyou and Wu.

You corresponds to the (consciousness of the) known world, which can be labelled 'Being'. Wuyou is an intermediate creative world available to someone with an expanded state of consciousness; and lastly Wu is 'Non-Being', the opposite world of Being.

The three worlds are addressed in the following summary of the 'Great Path': 
The seeker begins the practice in You (on the first plane of consciousness) to perceive and amplify (on the second plane: Wuyou) the life-energy Qi (Chi), to illuminate the spirit (Shen). One illuminates the spirit, in order to get there, where the origin is of all things: Wu.
The summary provides no instructions on how to progress from Being (You) to Non-Being (Wu) as there are none! It, however, indicates that the seeker (practitioner) steadily penetrates into higher worlds (Tai Chi worlds) after exiting the familiar world of consciousness (You) . The inner worlds (encompassed in Wuyou) are unattainable by language and thinking. They reveal themselves by unusual insights and experiences, which may be called psychic or eidetic (to use the German existentialist, Edmund Husserl's nineteenth century term). They occur by themselves (in Greek: auta kath'hauta), because stillness creates movement. The 'Great Path' brings the Tao-practitioner into contact with the 'creative world' (Wuyou). This is the central (intermediate or mixed) world that acts like an interpreter to translate the 'unknown world' (Wu) into the known, 'created' world (You), which gradually expands on the 'Great Path' while Non-Being (Wu) gets diminished.

As I became more familiar with the 'Great Path', it deepened my understanding of many Ancient Chinese and Greek philosophical metaphors. I find myself now in the position to unravel reasonably well their contents using as a guide the distinction at the heart of Tao Meditation between the (creative and potential) inexpressible things before the (created and actual) expressible things. (in the terminology of Tao Meditation, the distinction between Wuyou and You.)

Some readers may be reminded here of the relationship of 'Plato's Forms' to the 'everyday world'. I think indeed such a comparison is correct. I see here indeed the dependency between the eternal, creative world (Wuyou = kósmos noetós) and the familiar, transient, visible world (You = kósmos aisthetós). 'Plato's Forms' is for me a misnomer. 
Reports of the Great Path
Lao Tzu expresses his experience on the 'great path' - great Tao: 
There exists chaos, which existed already before heaven and earth existed, still and formless. It is in a state of a circular movement that is nourished by itself. One may call it the mother of the 10.000 things. I do not know his name and for that matter I call it the Tao. Because I find no better attribute, I call it 'great'. 
Lao Tzu's insights could be repeated by everyone with enough motivation and talent for Tao Meditation. And indeed, many other persons have put Lao Tzu's experience into similar words. Confucius, considered in China as representing a worldly philosophical tradition, and thought to have not practised the techniques himself, puts certain Taoist experiences into his own words (rather as Aristotle, who additionally questioned recollection, did with some wise words of his teacher Plato).  Confucius writes in his commentaries on the I Ching:
Change has Tai Chi, which creates the two poles. 
'Change has Tai Chi' is a confusing formulation. But it is the first ever quotation of Tai Chi. Most likely it is poorly translated from Chinese, or perhaps Confucius did not understand what he was discussing himself (just as Aristotle did not understand many things he reports about Plato). But 'Change has Tai Chi' means something like 'impermanence (change) is the eternal constant of the world.' Here Confucius uses Tai Chi as a synonym of 'Great Tao'. Tai signifies the very first beginning and what is before. Chi signifies the very last end and what comes thereafter. Simply put, Tai Chi addresses the sensation of eternity (and infinity). What Lao Tzu calls chaos Confucius calls change, what Lao Tzu calls heaven and earth Confucius calls the two poles.
In the fragment on the creation of the world (the theogonía) of Hesiod (about 700 BCE), we can read:
At first was created chaos, and then Gaia with her separate breasts.
One can also recognise in the metaphor of the separate breasts,  the two poles (heaven and earth) which are used to characterise what the Chinese call You, and which Hesiod calls Gaia - the earth. Again, in ancient Taoist China earth is another term, a metaphor, for You - and heaven is for Wu.  The ball-like beings rolling through the cosmos mentioned by Aristophanes (according to Plato) can also be related to the 'chaos with circular movement' alluded to by Lao Tzu and experienced on the 'Great Path.' The two poles (heaven and earth or separate breasts) characterise the 'familiar world of conscious experience (You)', as a world of antagonisms or juxtapositions. Juxtapositions like those between part-whole, content-border, past-future, believe-disbelieve, right-wrong, becoming-decaying, et cetera, so that we can discursively communicate our thoughts about the 'visible (external) world.

The price we pay for this is that in this way we do not address the (true) natural world, the realm of the unnameable things in Wuyou (Tai Chi) before the named things in the everyday, consciously comprehended world of You. In You we rather consider the appearance (or image) of Wuyou.

To give an example, let me consider a nameable thought in You, which is the appearance (image) of a preceding unnameable intuition in Wuyou. What I express agrees with Plato. He says that 'the psyché is imprisoned in sóma, so that it can only perceive the things as through a grid.'

Sóma is usually translated as 'body', but in fact it is more than this. Plato uses it as a synonym for the apparent (bodily) outer world You and its many nameable appearances -phainómena - that veil true unnameable nature (ph'ysis). This is indicated in the etymology of that word, phainómenon, which is a synonym for existence in the everyday world, pointing to change (transitoriness) and appearance.

In order to get the psyché out of 'prison (sóma)' Plato recommends that one should not confine oneself to the 'world of appearance (You)', but should aim for the things (in Wuyou) before the things (in You) as is possible in Tao Meditation. In other words, it is language (with its many antagonisms) and thinking that make the visible world (You), an appearance (or a view through a grid, a veil) of true nature (Wuyou). This can be verified on the 'Great Path' but is not easily grasped by those, who cannot share what is recollected on it without language and words. As Lao Tzu wrote: The Tao that can be spoken about is not the 'real (great) Tao.
Eón: the Greek equivalent of Tai Chi and the Great Tao
My Tao-experience led me to look for equivalencies of Tai Chi in Plato's work. An often used one is eón, which is given much attention by Aristotle, who asks: What is ón (eón)? In the same way, Tao Meditation guide, Fangfu, would frequently ask: What is Tai Chi? Because this is the profoundest question of Tao-philosophy. But back to eón. Though whatever is formulated as an answer cannot be complete, useful information is given by Parmenides: 
The eón is one (unity) and eternal, aloof of becoming and decaying.
These words are similar to the ones of Confucius about Tai Chi, because becoming and decaying refers to the two poles. The two poles characterise the everyday transient world (You), but not the eternal Tai Chi (Wuyou), in which all opposites like becoming and decaying coincide. This is indicated by the fact that any inexpressible insight (that results from thinking before thinking in Wuyou) is a mixture of 'what is known (You)' and 'what is unknown (Wu)'.

Comparing Confucius with Parmenides provides only one indication that eón = Tai Chi. Parmenides, who uses mè eón as an equivalence for You, gives other hints. When he claims that mè eón cannot be recognised, he does not say as mostly claimed that Non-Being (Wu) cannot be comprehended (which is true and trivial), but that Being (You) is an unnatural or cultural appearance of eón. He made jokes about his contemporaries, who confused mè eón with eón. This mix up still creates a tremendous distortion in understandings of the Ancient Greeks today. When Parmenides writes that eón and mè eón are the same and not the same then he emphasises that both states of consciousness deliver different perceptions of one and the same reality.

What Parmenides writes is supported by Plato in the Sophist (260 c 3-5): 
The wrong emerges from the word as the word does from (intuitive) thinking. Who expresses his thoughts about mè eón  is not telling the truth.
This explains why for Parmenides and Plato only 'creative eón' has truth and not the 'created mè eón'. In his Allegory of the Divided Line, Plato puts eón to mè eón into the same relationship as tà gnostá (Wuyou = world of recollection) to tá dóxasta (You = world of opinions). What is written about Lao Tzu, Socrates, Plato and other masters is the best proof that mè eón (Being) is a world of opinions, beliefs, 'no facts' and only 'interpretations'.

  The traditional way back to nature
The 'Great Path' is a way back to nature (ph´ysis). But ph´ysis is not the simple everyday 'nature.' It is rather what hides behind Being and creates everything from the inexpressible 'things before the things', like us, our expressible language, thoughts, knowledge, health and virtue. Realising this helped me to understand the natural Greek philosophers. They must have experienced the other half of the world in Tao Meditation by rigourously doing nothing, thus approaching Wu, which is also the Chinese word for illumination.

From what I have indicated so far, we can certainly get a greater appreciation of the famous saying of Socrates: 
I only know that I know nothing
This phrase (In the Greek, oída oudén eidós) does not reveal him, as it is so often said to do, as the inventor of ignorance. On the contrary, Nothing refers to the philosophical attempt to approach Non-Being (Wu) through the technique of emptying the mind (with Wuwei).  That is why Pythagoras taught his students for five years to do 'Nothing'. And Socrates is proud of his non-knowledge (hypomnesis). This is the pre-natal knowledge (Plato: gnósis) gained by recollection, about which Plato writes: But this knowledge is something that cannot be put in words, as is the case with other sciences.

Tao Meditation, the way back to nature, is also called 'cultivate life' (Yangsheng) and 'search for truth' (Xiuzhen). Plato calls it (for example, in the Republic and the Timaeus) among many other terms metrétiké techné (the Art of measurement) and  also geometría, which has nothing to do with geometry but is rather for him a way to ensure virtue in the Ideal State. He says that if geometría is used to explore eón it is useful and if it is used to investigate mè eón it is useless. Plato describes in the Phaedo as the 'right philosophising' a 'practice of death (melete thanatou)' that will let the psyché, in death, arrive at its divine, immortal, and wise status in truth (81a).

There are ancient eastern masters, who allegorically relate Tao Meditation also to dying and Wu to death. This has nothing to do with contemplating about (true) death or yearning to die, let alone, as one can read, that Socrates suggested to his students to commit suicide. What hides behind it is rather a full dedication to a balanced life as can be attained with Tao Meditation.

Address for correspondence:  

Dr. Peter Hubral is Professor of Applied Geophysics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany. He runs a website giving more details.  


Sunday, 1 May 2011

The Bankers' Ramp (2011)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXIX No. 1 Spring 2011


Risk, social justice and elusive reforms
of Financial Markets

By Desmond Cohen

Inspecting the tatters of its financial services industry, following the banking crisis, the UK Labour government produced a White Paper, setting out its remedies. Yet here, there is but a single reference to 'moral hazard' and to issues of credit control. Such an omission is remarkable and seems to reflect a total misunderstanding of how to avoid a recurrence of events which have caused, and will continue to cause for years to come, enormous costs for the country as a whole. Is recent and current economic policy management instead simply a reflection of the needs of bankers - what Keynes in the 1930s called the bankers' ramp?

Indeed the primary conclusion of the great economist, John Maynard Keynes' General Theory was that economic systems are inherently unstable, in part because of irrational expectations which drive the system towards exuberance sometimes, and the opposite at other times. George Soros, one of the most astute participants in global finance, has argued strongly for effective regulation of financial markets precisely because of the inherent instability of economic systems.

But what we currently have, and seem likely to be left with, are financial institutions of enormous size which are functioning in a globalised market, and which continue to exhibit risk-taking behaviours that are destabilising both nationally and internationally. Many of them are simply Too Big To Fail - TBTF - and given their systemic importance cannot be allowed by policy makers to fail, causing enormous economic and social costs.

Since major financial institutions know that they are TBTF then they also know that, irrespective of their risk behaviours, Governments will bail them out. In these circumstances why should financial institutions behave differently in the future from the way they behaved in the past since they know they will be rescued irrespective of the financial and other costs to Governments?

That this is, of course, the problem of 'moral hazard', the Governor of the Bank of England well knows. But it is more or less dismissed in the present policy debate. It is a problem ducked by the British government since it does not want to take on powerful vested interests in the financial services industry (who incidentally are also major funders of all of the main political parties).

Remedies such as a separation of investment banking from retail banking with real competition between companies; effective regulation of private equity companies which have generated enormous costs in terms of asset stripping and the casualisation of employment in many sectors of the UK; effective international regulation of hedge –funds so as to minimise their destabilising impact on global asset and commodity markets - none of these are being put centre stage. The proposals on how to regulate the financial markets in the UK, written by those from the industry, offer a good deal of cosmetics but relentlessly pursues their interests to the neglect of the rest of the economy and society.

When times are good and everyone seems to be making money, no one cares too much about the details. It's only after the crash that the regulators and the ethicists come in.

Between 1999 and 2007 financial corporations in the UK increased their share of total corporate profits from 8.9% to 12.2% for reasons which must relate to increasing application of maths and scientific skills in the development of new financial products such as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs in the parlance), that is bundles of loans packaged together by a lender and then sold on, In such circumstances no one had an interest in ensuring that loans were made to those who could afford to repay, and once they were bundled no one could assess the underlying riskiness of the CDOs. A recipe for chaos in financial markets.

Indeed all that leverage and risk-taking, turned out all to be much more problematic than was initially assumed by the banks and others.

In a very insightful paper called 'All those Arrows', in the London Review of Books, back in the summer of 2009, Donald MacKenzie describes the analytical failures of those undertaking risk assessments of different categories of securities, and wrapping these up in CDOs, and argues that the approach is fundamentally flawed. MacKenzie concludes that:

In a situation of severe economic stress- falling house prices, rising unemployment-it wasn't just that some of these securities would perform badly, they all would....[ and] the crux of the problem has been not in CDOs per se but in the uncomfortable encounter between the world of CDOs and that of mortgage-backed securities… increasingly risky loans were made to private equity firms and to other highly indebted corporate borrowers because it was possible to package and sell on these loans...

And then, sure enough, came the payback. To get a better idea of the costs in monetary terms, adjusted for inflation, it is reported that United Kingdom Treasury estimates made in 2008, applying IMF methodologies, found that the output losses over the 4 years since the start of the banking crisis amounted to £280billion. This is probably an underestimate if anything.

When the decline in GDP, that is the total value of all goods and services in the economy, is added to the loss of potential growth that would otherwise have occurred then the impact of the reckless greed of bankers and others managing financial institutions becomes much clearer – and is vastly greater than is generally estimated.

Over the whole period 2008-2012 the effective loss of GDP looks as if it will be around 13-15%, and representing a dead-weight economic loss for every citizen in the UK. These costs are much larger than the purely financial costs of the support provided through the Treasury and the Bank of England to the banking sector.

Of course it is this decline in demand that accounts for the inexorable rise in unemployment since 2008. If the present recession is at all like the one in the early 1990s, and it seems likely to be both deeper and longer, then it will take many years for the level and rate of unemployment to return to their pre-recession levels (in the late 1990s it took 6 years). Since income from employment is by far the largest source of income for the economy as a whole then it is unsurprising that living standards overall will fall in the coming years.

It is estimated that about 1.5 million workers from Eastern Europe came to the UK after the opening of the borders in May 2004 and that by the end of 2009 some 50% of these had returned home. Many of those who remained continued to work in low paid and unskilled jobs. The outlook looks very bleak for labour, and especially for young workers entering the labour market in the coming years.

One of the factors that are likely to have strongly negative effects on employment is the unwinding of the excessive leverage of private equity companies. Between 2000 and 2006 there was a frenzy of lending, mainly by the pension funds, so that what economists call 'leveraged buyouts' in the UK racked up an incredible £1.9 trillion of property and securitisation debt. As a result private equity companies now own one-fifth of corporate Britain! Yet more than 60% of their outstanding loans will need to be repaid within the next 5 years (starting in 2012). Major companies face enormous financial liabilities with inadequate levels of assets to offset against their debts, and in the changed climate no easy way to raise new loans.

There are two other large-scale effects of the banking crisis neither of which received much if any attention. One of the consequences of the huge financial sector in the UK in a globalising world has been huge inflows of capital. The consumer boom and price inflation, especially in the house market and commercial properties, as well as the continued public sector fiscal deficits would not have been possible without this huge expansion of domestic credit. This credit expansion pushed up the value of sterling, and pushed down the UK's competitiveness particularly in manufacturing.

In this way too, the favouring of the Financial Services industries in the UK will have long term and negative implications for growth and employment.

Bank lending to the public sector - for things such as motorways or new hospitals - during the so-called boom years permitted a huge rise in public expenditure without the need to raise taxation. Such expenditure was treated by the Treasury as if it was off the books. This practise was not dissimilar in purpose to that of private companies, such as Enron, the giant US energy business that eventually collapsed under the weight of its debts. 

It is unsurprising therefore that the FSA, the supposed watchdog of the Financial Services industry in the UK, and the Bank of England were expected by the Government to 'have a light touch' in their regulation of the banks.

And so, given the fact that the government itself was compromised in being a beneficiary of the excesses of the past several years from the growth in domestic credit then what confidence can anyone have in any system of regulation where the government continues to have a decisive role? This is a matter I will come to below. For the moment it is enough to reflect that it is estimated that some £904 billion has already been spent by the UK Government on rescuing the banks – a sum so large, and with consequences so damaging, as to be beyond comprehension.

For economists, the telling figure is that the debt/GDP ratio is expected to double over the next five years to nearly 100% of GDP. There will inevitably have to be drastic cutbacks in public expenditure which will affect all areas of public expenditure. These cutbacks will have significant effects both on employment in the public sector, and on the level of services to the population.

Since the choices facing Government are so stark it is also unsurprising that they would obviously prefer a return to continued credit creation - an addiction that would enable relatively easy financing of the crisis. And so, again the element of self-interest will affect government proposals for the regulation of the financial services industry.

There does not exist, as far as I know, any detailed research on banking compensation in the UK for the medium and long term but such research has been undertaken for the financial sector in the USA. This has concluded, as one might have expected, that employees in the financial sector are overpaid. More specifically, as a 2009 research paper put it, that:

From the mid-1990s to 2006 the compensation of employees in the financial industry appeared to be too high.... Overall we conclude that bankers were paid about 40% too much.

One of the most unfortunate and costly impacts of the excessive rates of remuneration paid to many employees in financial services has been to destabilise the structure of pay and rewards in the UK. Thus even in the public sector there has been pay inflation for senior management on a totally unjustified scale, together with the introduction of a bonus culture that has no place in such areas of employment. How to restore traditional pay structures across the economy and how to rein back the ludicrous and unjustified levels of pay of many managers, directors etc is indeed one of the major problems that remains almost completely unaddressed.

Indeed these matters, of excessive pay and bonuses, have been left to the recommendations of a Committee chaired by a banker, Sir David Walker, who was himself a major beneficiary of this culture. That there remains a critical need to curb bonuses which have had the effect of inducing reckless lending is the populist remedy of all politicians. But it is also clear that unacceptably large payments are still being made to senior executives irrespective of the general situation and that the bonus culture is alive and well at this time.

The hope that bonuses can be restrained by more information about their payment and greater vigilance by Boards of Directors and shareholders is precisely that – a hope. Expecting so called 'risk sub committees' of the Boards of banks to restrain excessive risk taking is another institutional recommendation which seems unlikely to be successful. All of these proposals are simply tinkering with structures that need to be fundamentally changed. Until executives and board members of banks are required to internalise the costs incurred by the rest of the economy as a result of their excessive risk taking and greed then nothing much will ever change.

Not only have pay structures been distorted by the practices of the Financial Services industry and their generalisation to other sectors of the economy, but the levels of pay and other rewards have totally skewed the patterns of consumption everywhere. Inequality of income and wealth was dramatically increased during the past decade in the UK – more so than in any recent period in UK history. Again this reflected government policy – a relaxed view about the filthy rich and accompanying low rates of taxation on persons and on companies. A study by the Institute of Fiscal Studies concluded as follows:
Income inequality has risen [on most measures] in each of the past 3 years and is now at its highest level since our comparable time series began in 1961.....[between 1996/7 and 2007/8] income growth at the very top and very bottom of the distribution looks similar to the pattern under the Conservatives- with the lowest growth at the very bottom of the income distribution and the fastest growth at the very top. (Poverty and Inequality in the UK, 2009)
The result is a drawing-out of the reward structure in the UK with an accompanying increase in social anomie and alienation. The Gini coefficient, a measure of equality and social justice, was for the UK 0.25 when Margaret Thatcher came into office and it is now 0.36. In other words, the UK now sits alongside countries like Greece, Lithuania, Latvia and Portugal within the European Union, in terms of income inequality, with their uneducated underclasses and skeleton social provision, and far away from Europe's economic success stories, like Sweden (with a Gini of 0.23) and Germany (with 0.28). The rich in the UK became richer at a price paid in terms of social cohesion. Not least in the areas of private education and private health care which have expanded dramatically in recent years.

It is worth reporting one of the key conclusions of the National Equality Panel in 2010 which found that,
Inequalities in earnings and incomes are high in Britain, both compared with other industrial countries, and compared with thirty years ago......there remain deep-seated and systematic differences in economic outcomes between social groups across all of the dimensions we have examined including between men and women, between ethnic groups, between social class groups, between those living in disadvantaged and other areas, and between London and other parts of the country.
Missing from the policy dialogue apart from bemoaning excessive bonuses in the FS is any commitment to reducing inequality in the UK. It seems no longer to be an important policy objective – but it should be.

Of course, governments always face the risk of being captured by special interests. As mentioned already, writing in the 1920s and 1930s Keynes himself was very exercised by 'the bankers ramp' which he saw as undermining economic policy. But this is not a mere fanciful supposition of the Left. That most conservative of institutions the International Monetary Fund has concluded that,
Findings seem to be consistent with moral hazard interpretation whereby financial intermediaries lobby to obtain private benefits, making loans under less stringent terms....Under such interpretation, specialised rent- seeking and short-termism might justify reining in lobbying activities....our analysis suggests that the political influence of the financial industry can be a source of systemic risk [and] the prevention of future crises might require a weakening of the political influence of the financial industry... 
(A Fistful of Dollars: Lobbying and the Financial Crisis, IMF Working Paper December 2009.)
Certainly, looking at the UK government's proposals, it is evident that financial interests have again succeeded in manipulating policy to their own benefit and irrespective of the tremendous damage they have visited on every man, woman and child in the UK. Costs which will have to be met for many years into the future.

It is remarkable that, as I write this paper, the usual suspects: J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo, Barclays, Goldman Sachs, HSBC, Credit Suisse, and so on, are all announcing huge profits and the setting aside of billions for the payment of bonuses. In part these profits reflect the demise of Lehman and Bear Stearns and the opportunity to move into markets that they were active in before they failed. But in large part the profits are due to booming bond markets due to the massive borrowing by Governments caused in large part by their rescue of the banking system.

It is truly a world where 'heads I win, tails you lose'. Indeed this is exactly the term used by Mario Cuomo in a July 2009 report called No Rhyme or Reason. The 'Heads I Win, Tails You Lose' Bank Bonus Culture. Cuomo is absolutely damming in its condemnation of US banking compensation practices and of the underlying so-called competitive processes that determine pay and rewards in all of the big US banks. The scale of the bonuses that were paid by lenders in the US in 2008 was huge: 9 banks that were all in receipt of government assistance paid bonuses of at least $1million each to 5,000 employees – a total of $32.6 billion. Six banks paid out more in bonuses than their total profits!

Mind you, the rebound in profits during 2009 has been truly amazing. While 'Main Street' has suffered the bonus pool at J P Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs increased by 31% in 2009 over the previous year, and Wall Street banks as a group increased bonuses by 17% in 2009 to a staggering $20 billion (£13 billion). If the scale has been somewhat muted in UK, nonetheless personal bonuses of £95,000 (a politically astute whisker under six figures) seem to have been the norm at Barclays Capital. At RBS, a bank that is now publicly owned, in spite of losses of £3.6 billion in 2009 a bonus pot of £1.3billion has been awarded. It is worth noting that as the banks major shareholder, the UK government could have vetoed the RBS bonuses but chose not to do so.

The culture and excessive level of bonuses remains largely unaffected by the crisis. Indeed, it seems to have been coated with Teflon, and even the one year payroll surtax of 50% on bonuses in the UK in excess of £25,000 paid in 2009 has not dented it.(That this tax was not renewed by the Coalition Government is hardly suprising...)

It is worth quoting the conclusions of the Cuomo report again, since they have perfect resonance with the situation in the UK, where it is hoped by Government that a Code of Conduct will be enough to change the culture of excessive bonuses. If only pigs could fly! Urging moderation on banks is 'spitting into the wind' and just as useful.

One thing is clear from this investigation to date: there is no clear rhyme or reason to the way banks compensate and reward their employees.... Thus when the banks did well the employees were paid well. When the banks did poorly, their employees were paid well. And when the banks did very poorly, they were bailed out by the taxpayers and their employees were still paid well. Bonuses and compensation did not vary significantly as profits diminished...[and] our investigation suggests a disconnect between compensation and bank compensation structures lacked consistent principles and tended to result in a compensation system that was all 'upside'.

On the face of it perhaps the best way to restrain bonuses and shift pay systems to a rational and fair basis is through restraining the profits of the banks. Hence the need for both more effective regulation and much greater competition.

Since bonuses and other forms of compensation are at the core of risky behaviour then they should be subject to regulation by the authorities. But instead we are told that the bonus culture can be controlled and changed through the application of a 'Code of Conduct'. Indeed, it is evident from the most recent statement by the British government's regularly body that they are wholly unwilling to regulate pay and compensation while freely admitting that existing systems have contributed to excessive risk taking and thus the destabilisation of the economy.

Instead, it looks as if Government believes it can return to business-as-usual plus some marginal changes in the framework of regulation. It is evident that so far there have been no fundamental changes either in bank regulation or in the conduct of monetary policy in the UK despite the severity of the collapse of the economic and financial system. While the Government has set up a Banking Commission to advise it on reform it is evident from statements it has made that they have more or less ruled-out structural changes such as the separation of retail and investment banking. So we will be left with banks that are Too Big To Fail - with all the risks that this entails.

This strategy holds out the possibility, nay the probability, that next time the system will indeed collapse, with unknown but dire consequences for the people of the UK. In this respect it is worth quoting the Governor of the Bank of England who is clearly supportive of the need for structural reform of the financial sector and as such is at loggerheads with Government who continue to believe either that structural reform is not feasible or would be ineffective. Mervyn King could not have been more outspoken in rejecting the position of the Government:
It is important that banks in receipt of public support are not encouraged to try to earn their way out of that support by resuming the very activities that got them into trouble in the first place....The belief that appropriate regulation can ensure that speculative activities do not result in failures is a delusion...The case for a serious review of how the banking industry is structured and regulated is strong.
He might as well have been spitting into the wind.

About the author: Professor Desmond Cohen is a former economic advisor to the United Kingdom Treasury and the World Bank

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