Philosophy and General Reading

Review: Bertrand Russell’s ‘In Praise of Idleness’

In Praise of Idleness and Other EssaysIn Praise of Idleness and Other Essays by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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To some, or perhaps to many, it may seem a radical idea: idleness. But for the great British logician, mathematician, and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, idleness is seen as a historically rooted concept which ties intimately together the bonds of labour, leisure, and the prospect of human rationality. Or, at least that is my reading of his famously titled composition, ‘In Praise of Idleness’.

So, what does Russell mean by ‘idleness’? In some sense, it infers a socially organised definition of time that is economically independent of professional labour, in which one may instead expend their energy to fulfil personally meaningful pursuits. This could be, for example, a time for a person to explore painting or to explore a scientific pursuit or any number of interests. In some bodies of literature, such projects are called ‘existential projects’ to convey the personalisation of their meaning in one’s life. One may also call them ‘special interests’. In this sense, one can think of idleness simply as being the economically independent pursuit of a subject, activity, or quality for no other reason than it evokes the state of personal interest. Study for study sake, or a painter to paint without the pressure of starving – these are the sorts of examples that Russell evokes.

Russell_In Praise of Idleness

Idleness should thus not infer or be confused with one’s being disinclined to work or with simplistic views pertaining to individual laziness. Idleness should also not be seen as ‘the root of all evil’, as the idiom would have it. If we are to follow Russell’s arguments, idleness has substantial roots in positive human traits, such as curiosity, exploration, and invention. We also read how the notion of idleness is based on ethical, moral and empirical economic arguments. For Russell, social consumption can mean something very different, both existentially and socially, and thus humanistically. He also speaks of economic production and the way in which work and leisure cycles could generally mean something altogether more philosophically transformed in conception, particularly in terms of the meaning of leisure and its tradition and practical cultural configuration.

It is interesting to consider, on that note, how for thousands of years human beings have established traditions of celebrating different sorts of festivals – Judeo-Christian, Pagan, and so on. Think, for instance, of midwinter festivals based on the solstice or on religious themes. With these traditions follows also a deep historical relation between festivity and work. The festival represents, to frame it in terms of economic history, an interruption of daily labour cycles, with its concept rooted primarily in principles of free time for enjoyment [1]. Thinking of this, it is also interesting to recall that, using Christmas as an example, it was during the Victorian era that a formal socioeconomic relation developed between festivity, worker rights, and the commercial profit motive, particularly as middle-class families were afforded time off work with the financial means for surplus consumption. But if festivity and leisure – or idleness – are intricately related with labour by their very definition, and thus with economics, Russell’s account would seem to carry a certain diametric opposition to work patterns that exhaust the possibility of what he describes as energetic leisure.

In this sense, I read Russell’s essay as having some classical enlightenment motivation. Thoughtfulness – indeed, the time to practice thought and to explore intellectually – this seems a theme to Russell’s social philosophical view of which an advanced and aspiring rational society should strive to achieve. In other words, if idleness is a positive human experience, one which supports or fosters the individual subject to flourish rationally and, perhaps, self-actualise existentially, Russell ties this concept with the possibility of continued self-education and self-betterment, among other things. At the same time, while he celebrates the concept and experience of idleness, he also laments the loss of its broader social-economic and cultural realisation. It is argued that leisure time is expunged of idleness much as in the present-day example of Christmas, which is hyper-commercialised and seemingly increasingly filled with passive entertainments, as active energies are instead exhausted by work, intensely driven consumer cycles, and various other contemporary social behavioural patterns rigidified in such a way to maintain systemic mores. Russell’s arguments are based on traditional views of social-economic class structures, and he seems to suggest that the logic of social economy has been skewed; contemporary societies have in some ways lost sight of the meaningful idea of social production and the social purpose of consumption that may foster a more enlightened and rational society.

For these reasons, we read how with more energetic and thoughtful leisure one would then be better able to enjoy pleasures in which it was possible to take an active part. The central thrust of Russell’s argument in this regard is not so different than in present-day concepts of economic democracy and automation, in which in advanced technological society it is argued individuals should be increasingly afforded the freedom from necessary labour in order to pursue the many positive possibilities that life has to offer, including education and learning.

Reading his essay, I was reminded of a few historical examples. Think, for instance, about the development and evolution of writing and of our early mathematical ideas – a history that is intimately entwined with the genesis of civilisation. A good example comes from the ancient Babylonians. To Russell’s larger point, the early development of mathematics, much like writing, can be seen to be owed to the economic development of agriculture; because with agriculture one result was increased freedom from the precariousness of sustenance living in which people were then allowed more free time, with greater access to resources. As new technologies were conceived, and human pursuit was increasingly freed from the limits of basic survival to expand beyond that which was unavailable to hunter-gathers, the time available to explore, experiment with, and create things like writing became possible. The study of mathematics could also be pursued and formalised.

Indeed, to offer another example, the entire history of physics is riddled with such stories, like Michael Faraday playing with his magnets on a park bench in London or Issac Newton watching apples fall from trees, contemplating the nature of gravity. To the point of anthropologists and biologists who study human play, as another example that we may interpret in the frame of idleness, there is an argument to be made that what Russell is describing is in fact a fundamental biological and cognitive feature of universal human experience that is very much tied to inventiveness.

At this point, we may enter into various complex social, economic, and political arguments. Instead, as there are already many terrific reviews of Russell’s essay, both positive and critical, to close this discussion I instead want to focus on two things that struck me when recently rereading ‘In Praise of Idleness’. One playful thought was the potentially interesting applications in relation to a physics of society and of human beings, particularly regarding energetics. This has to do with the study of energy under transformation, and one may think of such transformation particularly between the individual and their labour under the fairly universal economic notion of the work-leisure trade-off. For the author, he argues that there is a sort of fetishisation of labour, especially manual labour, and he seems to want to argue that how we use labour energy is not efficient or optimised in the best ways. From the standpoint of a physics of humans and of society, it would be fascinating to see if some of his ideas are quantitatively grounded.

There are also many interesting economic points of consideration. First, it is worth noting that the contents of ‘In Praise of Idleness’ remain quite relevant today, given the resurgence of the idea of a shortened work week, especially in the UK and Europe. Some would argue that there is empirical evidence and many qualitative arguments about why the current configuration of work hours is not optimised for the benefit of both productivity and well-being [3, 4], supporting his view. Take a quantitative and qualitative view: work hours, commuting time, modern pressures of digital communication in which it is well studied that people also now routinely answer work emails in their leisure time – all of this and more matches data that substantiates the claim of an emerging culture of longer working hours [5]. Are the effects, psychological or otherwise, just as Russell observed or predicted?

On the other hand, inasmuch that the philosophical idea of idleness is tied with the economic argument of a shortened work week, how economically substantiated and viable is his argument? Some examples are as follows. If as a general rule of labour economics working more hours correlates with higher hourly rates of pay, and if as a general rule from a behavioural perspective higher rates of pay are one motivation for people in their social and economic life, then one may ask whether an economic conception of idleness is realistic. For instance, if the introduction of a shortened work week were to correspond to a cut in pay, would people be dissuaded to pursue the possibility of increased free time for the benefit of obtaining greater earnings? As this is a question about human behaviour and behavioural regulators, and hence agency, it is not so easy to model. Having said that, we observed major strikes by German steel workers in 2018 that saw them secure the right to work less at the cost of a drop in weekly earnings – although this also came with flexibility where workers may work longer hours if they choose. Perhaps agency and choice matter in this discussion.

Another point one may consider is that some economists argue that a shortened work week will likely result in an increase in earnings differentials and inequality. If, in general, those who work longer hours have higher hourly earnings than those who work shorter hours, then one would expect increased disparity in the earnings structure. Additionally, in a UK study of the public sector, a shortened work week was approximated to cost upwards of £45 billion, depending on some modelling assumptions including no increase in productivity [6].

For these reasons, when it comes to recent debates in the UK, should a shortened work week be considered some studies have shown that this reduction in time would need to be matched with an increase in productivity during work hours. There are some empirical examples where businesses that trialled shortened work hours saw productivity remain as it was or effectively increase. Although the sample is small, the argument here is that work hours – maximal output of energy during those hours – is better optimised and maintained when shortened and focused. This ties into arguments about the inefficiency of work hours within the current model – that, in the sense of Russell’s energy economics, maximum productivity and the maximum time of energetic labour – i.e., maximum labour hours – do not contradict an increase in leisure. This is partly why I think a physical theory would be interesting, if we could even construct the appropriate Hamiltonian. In empirical sociology, observations of phenomena like ’empty labour’ may also serve as an illustration of what some interpret as the outdated nature of present economic values and of modern conceptions of work [7]. Do these types of studies offer clues or evidence as to how and why economy may be reconfigured in ways in which Russell seems to indicate? It would furthermore be interesting to learn, in using separation theorem or something similar in the study of labour economics [8], whether energetic leisure serves as a positive argument in the utility function of the individual.

The problem when it comes to these sorts of economic ideas and debates is that, in many cases, we require much more accurate modelling. Current mainstream economics is quite inept at understanding the reality of human behaviour. If one considers the likes of Paul Romer’s contentions on macroeconomics (as well as notable research by many other contemporary economists), it is not controversial to say that the current economic model and its established ideas may be challenged quantitatively and qualitatively [9]. From what I can see at the present time, some arguments are emerging about the need for an interdisciplinary theory. Much like a physics of society, in which it has been suggested that a physical theory of society will not achieve systematic and objective clarity without an interdisciplinary form of research [2], in economics agent-based models are issuing similar demands. If the challenge of an objective economics is to look for the cause of instabilities inside the system, some argue that this means that what one inevitably comes up against are the details of human decision making, which, in principle, drives one toward the randomisation of decisions based on both rational and irrational processes. But it also seems more than that: it’s about thinking systemically – not just about economic models in the abstract sense but also the incentive structure and the problem that economics faces in terms of an orientation of ethics. A trivial example is as follows: if a model fosters the pathology of a simplified self-preservation worldview, and if I am one of the only two bakers in town, am I not incentivised in some way to run the other baker out of town by whatever means justified by that very principle of my own preservation? The point to be drilled into is that in social-economic modelling, simplified arguments and narratives about agents engaging in free or purely voluntary trade can, and often do, end up moralising what are otherwise deeply systemic issues. I think, in certain respects, this takes us some way toward the message in Russell’s essay about realistic economic models.

Given the transformation of the incentive structure, perhaps energetic and thoughtful leisure would be realised as an important feature of a healthy system. In terms of Russell’s arguments, framed in a systems way, the benefits would be in reducing the social deficit of reason by maximising the subject’s energetic capabilities to reason, in which education may then be ‘carried farther than it usually is at present’, fostering the provision of ‘tastes which would enable a man to use leisure intelligently’. As I read it, his argument implies the enlightenment ideal that the individual would be better scientifically informed (eg., against myths); they would potentially be better politically informed about policies and more engaged when fulfilling their democratic duties; they would make thoughtful economic decisions; and, perhaps ideally, they would approach social debates with greater consideration and in greater awareness of their own biases.

References

[1] Josef Pieper, 1999, ‘In tune with the world‘. St. Augustines Press.

[2] Guido Caldarelli, Sarah Wolf, Yamir Moreno, ‘Physics of humans, physics for society’. Nature Physics Volume 14, p. 870. DOI:10.1038/s41567-018-0266-x.

[3] Will Stronge and Aidan Harper (ed.), ‘Report: The Shorter Work Week’ [http://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Shorter-working-week-final.pdf]

[4] Lord Skidelsky, ‘Report: How to achieve shorter working hours’ [https://progressiveeconomyforum.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/PEF_Skidelsky_How_to_achieve_shorter_working_hours.pdf]

[5] Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano, ‘The Expanding Workweek? Understanding Trends in Long Work Hours among U.S. Men, 1979-2006’. Journal of Labor Economics, 26 (2) April 2008: 311-43.

[6] Centre for Policy Studies, ‘The Costs of a Four-Day Week to the Public Sector’ [https://www.cps.org.uk/research/the-costs-of-a-four-day-week-to-the-public-sector]

[7] Roland Paulsen, 2014, ‘Empty Labor: Idleness and Workplace Resistance’. Cambridge University Press.

[8] Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, ‘Lectures in Labour Economics’ [https://economics.mit.edu/files/4689]

[9] Paul Romer, 2016, ‘The Trouble with Macroeconomics’. [paulromer.net/the-trouble-with-macro/].

**Cover image: ‘Woman Reading in a Landscape’ by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

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Philosophy and General Reading

New Home, New LaTeX Problems

It has been two weeks since my last post. At the time, I was preparing to travel to Universidad Autonoma de Madrid for SiftS 2019. In my note I also mentioned that I was enjoying a brief pause from active blogging, mostly to take some time to revise, edit and reorganise the collection of string theory notes that I had already uploaded. I also mentioned that I wanted to take some time to reflect more generally on my first few months as a blogger, particularly about what I might change and improve.

The regular reader will have noticed that a lot has indeed changed. For one, my blog has moved to new home.

One problem that I was having with the old website concerned how it was configured in the backend. It was incredibly inefficient to upload LaTeX, which proved a hindrance considering most posts that I write use LaTeX. This is actually one reason why, before leaving for my summer string theory and holography engagement in Spain, I was not posting regularly; between finishing my paper and my ongoing research, it took too much time to transfer work from my usual LaTeX environment to my blogging environment each time I wanted to post something.

While away in Spain, I have since restructured everything. In addition to the new backend configuration, I am now also using LaTeX to WordPress in conjunction with Python. This software should hopefully enable me to transfer work directly and efficiently from my everyday LaTeX environment to my blogging environment.

Unfortunately, the new set-up also means that all of my old posts using LaTeX are broken and need to be re-written / re-uploaded one-by-one. This includes all of my string notes.

As I work on this issue, I am eager to return to active blogging. There is much to write about and discuss from SiftS 2019, and I am also eager to write about more pure string theory matters that I have been researching of late. I also will close by saying that I want to continue sharing more string notes over the course of the summer, hopefully up to and through the textbook contents of superstring theory. How it all gets organised on the new site, however, remains an open question.

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Philosophy and General Reading

Learning to Write for Others: String Notes and Future Posts

It is fitting that I write this post on National Writing Day. A few months ago, following some encouraging nudges by others, I decided to commit to active blogging. I already had this website designed and online, but it was mostly left idle. The odd time I would post a note, or share a short essay. But for the most part, my struggle with writing was so much that it took too much energy to find the courage to write on a regular basis. Besides, as much as I genuinely enjoy the idea of writing, in practice I find it uncomfortable.

In reflection, these may seem like odd things to say because over the years I have written a lot of things. Essays, articles, and academic papers. Two years ago I also had a book published. But as a writer I have never been more than barely functional, driven primarily by my enthusiasm and penchant for the written word. Writing, not to mention communication in general, has never come naturally to me. As much as I read and spend my days studying, method in writing is a completely different matter.

To be a good writer, I think one needs to have access to understanding the reader. Empathy, in other words, seems important. In the world of Asperger’s, we talk about “strategies”. And there are a lot of support organisations and groups, including at my university, who help people with Asperger’s like myself learn effective strategies to be a good writer. Part of the strategy for me involves developing a consistent sense of structure – a logically ordered and intelligible set of rules – that assist in navigating the writing process, such that the communication extended to the other person is received as lucid, apprehensible and overall pedagogically cogent. Or, that is the idea and what I am trying to attain. In general, subjective concepts and practices are difficult for me to understand. What defines the objective criteria in which one may assess the art of a piece of writing? What makes a good piece of writing? Or, perhaps more pointedly, what makes for effective writing and communication? As a person with Asperger’s, writing is very much like floundering in the dark.

Since developing this little space on the internet – and with much encouragement – I have been working hard on trying to understand how to write for others. It’s like with my maths/physics – I have become aware since joining university that I am no longer writing my maths/physics for myself, where I can do as I please with my notation. On my whiteboard at home, or on the back of a scrap piece of paper, I may write my equations as I please, as long as I am following the rules. When I write my maths/physics for myself, I don’t need to explain or communicate anyone else. I can change my indices or for convenience suddenly switch notation, without needing to contemplate the legibility for another set of eyes. But to another person, it might not communicate or it might be difficult to follow. And so, to function as a professional physicist, it means I must learn to write my maths/physics for another and thus to ensure consistency and effective communication for the student or external reader. It is the same when it comes to the writing process. Like with the rules of mathematics and, indeed, the basic set of rules that we practice in mathematical physics, it is not so much a problem in the sense of grammar, syntax and spelling. It is more about what makes for good transmission – how people communicate, with use of signposting and other mechanisms.

In the few months since actively maintaining this blog, I’ve learned a lot about writing, and I have started to make small steps in understanding in my own way how to think about communicating through the written word, thanks to feedback from others and from my own support networks. There is still a lot of work to be done. But never before have I felt more confident that I am on track to obtaining a clear sense of consistent structure when communicating through writing – how to think about referencing for the reader, being more concise when explaining an idea, and how to convey a building of logic for another person. I find it exciting, and for once I look forward to writing more and to continued practise on my blog.

Having said that, I would like to highlight that over the coming weeks I may not publish anything new. The reason for this is because I want to take some time to revise, edit and perhaps even reorganise the collection of string theory notes I have already posted. It will also be a time for me to reflect. In some cases, I may even perform a complete rewrite of a particular article in my string theory series (each reviewed article will be timestamped from this day forward). I want to make sure these articles are clear and communicate the inspiring and wondrous ideas of string theory, both technically and pedagogically.

Another reason this blog will be quiet for the next month or so is because I will be away for three weeks in July, visiting the Universidad Autonoma de Madrid for a string theory and holography engagement (SiftS 2019).

But while it may be a few weeks until my next post appears, I very much look forward to regularly contributing to this blog and to continuing to share with whoever may visit this space. In addition to the continuation of my string theory notes, and other writings in fundamental physics, I would also like to think about writing a few new essays – perhaps even a paper or two – on history and other subjects.

Until then, thanks for reading.

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Philosophy and General Reading

As a substitute for Christmas tales, let’s talk evolution

Some time ago I wrote a post on human evolution and civilisation. It was one of my first contributions to my general reading blog. But I feel it is worth thinking about this morning, as, generally, this is what I tend remind myself of at Christmas: our immaturity as a species. Instead of fanciful tales of miraculous birth, I think of the hard grind of evolution and our general cosmological insignificance.

This might sound gloomy and depressing, but it’s lesson is the opposite.

Human evolution is a process over millions of years, and still that is nothing in contrast to geological and cosmological time. With early migrations estimated to be between 2 and 1.8 million years ago, current best approximations place first arrivals to Australia as 60,000 years from present and 30,000 years from present for the Americas. And yet, if we maintain a macroscopic view, agriculture and civilisation only began to emerge approximately 12,000 years from present. In the greater context of reality, this timeline is not even a mark on Earth’s total history.

In our current history, we tend to issue the belief of advanced civilisation. But this notion of advancement is only relative to a microscopic history that, in the grand scheme of things, is puerile or callow. Social-historical, moral and technological progress are both micro and macro in scale. Our systems, knowledge, even the genesis of such concepts as reason and human rationality are at best fledgling, should we take seriously the idea of evolutionary process. General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are only about 100 years old, while our theory of the Standard Model of Particle Physics is much less than that. Physics is young. Science, while having made significant progress in a few hundred years, is far from complete. Still, today, human beings believe in myth and remain governed by prejudices and tribalisms, from arbitrary nationalistic identities to fear-driven impulses of racist and bigoted behaviourism. The total of what we know is little, and the extent of genuine progress of our systems is morally and ethically debatable.

As far as human beings have come as a species, as much as the historically recent modern enlightenment traditions have stoked the fires of human intelligence, reason and science – our systems, our ideas, the genesis of our concepts and the macroscopic patterns in our behaviours and beliefs are the mark of a species still very much young and undeveloped. The continued persistence of irrationality in addition to the microscopic pathology of our societies, dating as far back as the earliest tribalisitic identifications along with the continuation of the constituent psychologies of Myth in both shamen and totem, attest only to this immaturity. But these also serve as healthy reminders.

If Christmas is generally a story entwined with narratives of the divine, encompassing also a greater historical tale spanning just a few thousand years in which human beings are said to be of special rank touched by God (see creationism), I prefer instead to remind myself of the actual reality that human beings are in fact cosmologically insignificant. We’re a product of millions of years of evolution. Our knowledge is fledgling, and the total body of that which we know scientifically is not that much at all. Hurling through space on a rock, in the context of our own micro-scale history of life, the lesson of science is that culturally and morally we have only our humanism. I think this reminder contributes more to one’s ethics and morality than any tale of miraculous birth.

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Sagan demon haunted world
Philosophy and General Reading

Thinking about philosophy and Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”

I find philosophy to be an incredibly controversial subject, one that is difficult to get a handle on. There is a value to philosophy, though I often struggle to understand it or place it. Perhaps this is because I lack a satisfactory definition of philosophy – a term which can represent so many different bases of ideas, including different methodologies and epistemologies ranging broadly from the analytical to the postmodern and purely subjective. For me, any grasp I may have of philosophy breaks down with the latter – I find a lot of contemporary philosophy to be subjective and lacking what I once termed “epistemological and methodological coherence”.

Maybe this last comment strikes a more explicit concern: philosophy not as a particular form of systematic enquiry, but as a weapon to enforce the formalising of opinion.  I suppose as a person who has engaged a lot with philosophy over my younger years, from the enlightenment philosophes to critical theory and anglo-american or what is otherwise known as analytical philosophy, I think I can say that, despite my struggle to find the basis for logical and rational validity, I am not of the scientific representatives who reject philosophy’s relevance. I think philosophy is relevant, in some ways, perhaps most crucially with respect to the social world. In other words, I think the situation is much more nuanced and convoluted than to merely assert “philosophy is dead” and that its fate was brought about by the march of science. Even though some of the utmost traditional philosophical areas of study are becoming (and rightfully so!) increasingly subject to scientific methodologies and epistemology – there is still something lastingly relevant to genuine philosophical thought.

From the perspective of science, one of the easiest mistakes, I think, is to presuppose the existence of some sort of rational communicative utopia. It doesn’t correlate with the phenomenology insofar that the ideas of science, of scientific logic and rationality, and more broadly of the principle of objectivity, are found to be in constant tension with the opposite: the irrational characteristics of the human social world. Science can report objectively verifiable facts and those facts may still be rejected for the benefit of political bias or general prejudice. This duality seems quite apparent, at least from my vantage. The more science becomes politicised the worse the situation because the more rational and objective engagement and communication is undermined. At the same time, the pathologies of the social world also confront the scientist, as a human being, embedded in those systems and cultural patterns. The idea of objective reality, natural and social, can easily fade by force of overwhelming communicative disorientation. That even a scientific subject of concern – say, for example, climate change (without fronting my own position and study on the subject) – is contested by some members of the scientific community (for example, see here or here) despite overwhelming consensus reveals that something fundamental in human knowledge and in the engagement with scientific study is vulnerable to bias, ulterior motivation or worse. Indeed, even scientists – perhaps especially physicists – can be guilty of hubris. But it still begs a different question. Science is principled on the basic idea of expert consensus forming, and with that a weight is given to experts in their field followed by great trust and responsibility. In such a debate, who is right and what are the facts for rational consensus? The hope, always, is that the scientific method will prevail (assuming a scientific matter). But there also seems to be implicitly a philosophical criterion here which demands consideration.

For myself, my concern is with science inasmuch as it is also with knowledge, such that the former also implies fundamental concern with reason and the idea of obtaining as objective of an understanding  of reality (social and natural) as possible within the confines of human ignorance. There is an entire thesis to be written systematically dismissing many arguments by the likes of Thomas Kuhn and others regarding the nature of “ordinary science”, “scientific revolution” and theory-forming from historical, epistemological and scientific perspectives. That science probes closer to some truer notion of reality is should not be contentious.

And yet, these concerns also become philosophical when science is forced to reflect upon itself in a critical way. And in thinking about this, I’ve come to the suspicion that the continued relevance of philosophy is possibly featured particularly with respect to the social domain as it exists in tension with such concepts of reason and unrelenting scientific consideration. Moreover, it is hard to avoid that many questions remain with respect to human behaviour, society and ethics that currently extend well beyond the scope of scientific enquiry. That scope may, indeed, continue to narrow over time, such that even the traditional philosophical subject of consciousness is becoming an increasingly scientific concern. But today it is not possible to find a scientist who, outside of thinking scientifically and performing scientific research, offers non-scientific opinion and thus also implies non-scientific philosophical assertions. That one might feign opinion as scientific – or exploit one’s position and authority in science to propagate personal bias outside of science – is something we observe all the time. To recognise the existence of bias is perhaps one of the certain hallmarks of broader intelligence in a systems-thinking frame. And yet, when all things are considered, the question of unavoidability is genuine. That, generally, the whole of science as a movement in history teaches valuable lessons – morally and broadly philosophically – does not mean that, in particular instances, subgroups may still profess scientific reason and be simultaneously fascist or bigoted or whatever.

I suppose, if one follows this course of enquiry, it can be stated that there exists and may always exist a contiguous region within a scientific society – a region of questions about greater (systemic) moral and ethical patterns and trends that require critical philosophical concepts and tools to enable science science, empiricism and evidence-based thinking to reflect upon itself in truly systemic ways. Even members of the scientific community that argue against the lasting relevance of philosophy (in whatever form) often invoke philosophical arguments outside of scientific matters of concern reveals an intriguing contradiction. That one may argue, as a matter of opinion, toward or from a basis or counter-basis of facts without the objective means to recognise potential implicit bias in the simultaneous formation of biases in those arguments, is an essential element of human irrationality that seems to come with being human (or, so the science of cognitive bias increasingly reveals). Some people are better than others in such practices of critical reflexivity, but one can hardly argue with any clarity that this is the general rule.

In any case, and whilst I have deviated somewhat from the primary trajectory, the key idea I am encircling considers whether philosophy continues to have genuine meaning in this context – that is, whether it has a role to play a critical function in human thought. As much as I have engaged with philosophy in the past, placing the role of philosophy in the enterprise of human thought (especially in the age of modern science) and excavating some satisfactory definition of “genuine” or objective philosophical theory as opposed to “bad” philosophy is something I struggle to grasp in any sort of satisfactory way. I think, primarily, because delineating between the basis of objective and even systems-based philosophy and philosophy with objective flavouring or even completely fiendish philosophical argument – the point at which one blends into another is currently subjective. And this subjective problem is what perhaps undermines completely any claim to philosophical objective enquiry, whereas science, despite microscope tensions and struggles and problems in practice, has much more of a grip on the objective.

But if the question of philosophy as a relevant critical function remains open, what I am reminded of whilst writing this short essay is piece is perhaps one of the most penetrating and thought-provoking pieces of social philosophy that I have ever read. The book I am referring to is by Carl Sagan titled “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (2008). Sagan may have his critics, but this book has always struck me as being intriguing for the reason that it interweaves both science, scepticism and philosophy (social and natural) in a way that seems to exemplify the continuing power of philosophy to draw certain connections and illuminate objective patterns for the benefit of broader critical reflexivity.  Sagan evokes, if not practices with a relatively high degree of success, a rational and critical epistemology, applying scientific logic and reason along with philosophical tools to evoke deep questions about the human world. In the process, he unfolds his own humanistic values as those which he sees as a product of the unfolding of science (and, perhaps, of enlightenment reason). It is not the perfect book, by any means. And almost all popular literature shares the same fatal flaw. But what Sagan does is capture, or at least has a unique way of tracing, a sort of enlightenment scientific philosophy (however one may then project their views or biases on such a philosophy). He goes from deriving the importance of scepticism in all things (in science as well as in human policy) to forewarning about the dangers of dogma in the form of modern witch-hunts, New Age healing, and fundamentalist religion. He extracts patterns from human history – patterns of bias and repeating tendencies toward the irrational, pathological and dogmatic – to offer explanations that fit with the science.  There is also the presence of critical thinking, and, perhaps, the presence of a sort of critical theory, in which great emphasis is placed on understanding and being able to dissect fallacious arguments and practice media literacy (to be able to identify sensationally fallacious media stories and biased narratives) as well as rationally consider all that which envelops a person, with grounding in evidence; it is, in a sense, Sagan’s own social philosophical appeal to a future rational society. This is deeply philosophical inasmuch as it is motivated by science and its broader lessons.

Below are two particular passages. Reading these parts of Sagan in the contemporary social context remind one that perhaps science does serve many valuable critical lessons – even moral lessons, should one argue from the basis of its epistemology and draw out a broader philosophy of human reason. In what way, and on what basis it might philosophy be grounded in science, or cooperate and collaborate with science, I am not sure. That there are theoretical physicists who have vacated their physics departments in order to find new homes in philosophy departments, where it is felt they can then ask potentially deeper questions about the physics they are practising, is perhaps one reference point. Of course, I might also invoke MY past studies of history here, and cite the classical context in which philosophy and science were not separate, divisible parts. The natural philosopher – through the tools provided by philosophy – conceived of the scientific method, and a trace of that legacy – in the very concept and practice of scientific logic – surely remains.

That such a deep connection exists suggests that a rational, critical and objective philosophy would not see itself as being too far from also being normatively informed scientifically. Moreover, perhaps it is true that philosophy is necessarily speculative, but philosophy without science is condemned to the practice of blind speculation. From another angle, I’ve read in the past that perhaps it is the categorical imperative of philosophy to support the project of human reason, science and critical thinking – to guide such efforts and keep them honest. In some ways, I read this in Sagan – he is philosophical in his humanism without ever vacating from his scientific foundation, referring to the support of science, education and a literate and rational social class as key values (there is also a very clear economic argument to be made here, if one is thinking of psychological well-being in relation to fostering the capacity for increased social rationality, as linked in past discussions on social pathology). He writes, for example:

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Sagan lays out these arguments in the context of science and its potential broader moral and ethical lessons, while discussing anything from Maxwell’s equations and electromagnetism and quasars to the human genome. He does so from a framework that allows for prescient critique, such as in the following quote that I reference to close this article. Notice, too, the kernel of applied critical philosophy as the web for each concerning depiction of the future. I close with the following quote,

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

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Information systems bias
Philosophy and General Reading

Bengt Holmström on contemporary trends

MIT Professor and former Nobel Prize winning economist, Bengt Holmström, known mostly for his interesting work in contract theory, recently offered an intriguing analysis with respect to the reemergence of extreme and violent populisms in relation to the appeal for simplistic narratives and information streams. I found his comments especially striking, particularly in an epistemological context. I think he raises a number of socially pertinent questions, including about the role of information and perception in the sociology of extremes.

Holmström’s comments can be read in the frame of a theory of information society, wherein, it seems, he explicitly suggests a structural connection between citizens growing frustrated with representative and liberal democracy – an emerging frustration in terms of wanting to have more direct control – and finally the outcome of an increase in appeal toward dictatorships or elected leaders as bold, simple-minded character types. Admittedly, the psychology and sociology of such patterns with respect to ‘bigger picture’ social scientific study are fairly well established and nothing short of timely and fascinating. There is so much psychology and sociology on such patterns and trends, it is overwhelming. And while Holmström offers few comments, he seems to capture something quite profound about both the pervasiveness of bias and how that might shape wider developments in how human beings consume information as well as shape the use of media and information technology in the context of the sociology of extremes. The emergence of the “click bait” phenomenon and “misinformation news” are two examples.

But what does one mean by the notion ‘simplistic narratives’? Holmström offers a conceptualisation via contract theory (one of is specialisations): namely, how the reduction to snippets of information comes at the cost of substantive analysis, which, I think, we can extend further to discussions on “fact” and “truth” and their absence. What is intriguing about his analysis is how he links what he views, in my own words, as structurally emerging patterns of simplistic information streams with increasing calls in the contemporary social landscape for transparency. At first, one might ask, how could these seemingly opposites be linked, considering that demands for greater transparency would suggests demands for more information. For Holmström, as I read it, the link between increasing demands for transparency and the prevailing trend of simplistic and reductionist narratives energises almost facile and non-reflective concepts of transparency within the limits of biased and simplistic channels of information digestion. Or, at least, this is my interpretation of his argument.

Consider his assessment in light of recent political trends in which far-right populism has been gaining traction throughout the world. Brasil offers the latest example. But we can observe these trends also in North America, in parts of Europe, and elsewhere. In Brasil in particular, it is one more example in what some experts are describing as the objective trend that is the unravelling of liberal democracy. In that history also seems to be repeating itself in the form of extreme populisms, from what I’ve studied on these subjects it very much seems there’s a pattern of predictability in macro human behaviour that we ought to take seriously. We might describe it in the form of the deficit of reason or, perhaps, economically or from other vantages; but how I read Holmström is precisely to this point: there is a(re)emerging objective trend in the appeal of extreme political movements, and this trend conveys something important about the deficit of rationality and the biases of information digestion in these contexts.

It would be interesting to think about how we might more accurately quantify such trends, as another way to analyse macro human behaviour.

Putting that to one side, I also want point to another interesting article by Amanda Ripley that applies many of the same ideas as Holmström, but she does so more explicitly in the context of increasingly polarisation and the development of ‘alternative facts’. These are interesting topics to think about when trying to understand the human social world and some of the irrational patterns we observe.

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Philosophy and General Reading

Latour’s Revision: Objects and “Truth”

One may have noticed something distinct about the title of this essay, namely that I have enclosed the word “truth” in quotations.  The purpose is to bring focus to the question of its status, not because the concept itself is in doubt, but because after what seems like much neglect, whatever truth content may have existed for human beings appears to have increasingly eroded. I am not just speaking of climate denialism, or of observations regarding the status and role of “fact” in popular discourse. I am speaking also to what one might describe as the crisis of metaphysics in postmodernism.

So why comment? The short answer is that, on the side of my physics, I am interested in the study and history of mathematics, including the history of scientific and mathematical knowledge. With that, I have also developed a study of epistemology more generally (i.e., human knowledge). The opening statement of this post draws on these studies. It was also inspired by an article I recently read on Bruno Latour’s revision of his postmodern challenge against “scientific certainty”. The article cites that recent reconsiderations by Latour have formed in the context of growing unease with the development of things like climate denialism and post-truth culture. It was intriguing, nonetheless, to read these words in relation to such a staunch postmodernist thinker. For me, as I detailed in my study in social pathology, the question of rational discourse – its lacking – is a concern.

The trouble I have with Latour’s position – and this probably goes for the whole of postmodernism – is that, from what I can see, it lays the foundation not just for the irrational but for a reject of reason as a whole. Why? I think it begins with what I see as the misguided rejection of the object. Indeed, there is even a frequent conflation between the scientific study of objects – consider, for example, mathematical objects or the study of things like neutrinos or stress tensors – and the social epistemology of object reductionism (argued to be a site of ethical violation). For Latour and the broader postmodern view, natural epistemology and social epistemology seem to be awkwardly collected into one. Indeed, this seems to be the case for much of what is called contemporary critical theory. In epistemological terms, the objective side of the subject-object dialectic is rejected outright without sufficiently working through the role the object plays in the progress of human thought. While the ethical philosophy of social object reductionism is applied in contexts of violence and prejudice (see concepts of epistemic violence and economic reductionism, for example), and while the arguments can be compelling, something is missing when a wider assertion is made linking this reductionism with scientific methodology.

That science – and scientific epistemology -might be exploited on behalf of economic ideology is a problem that I think we ought to take seriously. There is a lot of bad science out there – not science as such, but science as an abstraction of itself on behalf of economic or political biases. This leads to a comment that the argument in the context of social philosophy – namely, the concern of socially mediated facts in the context of a highly irrational social world seems, to me, to scratch some kernel of philosophical and empirical truth. In especially convoluted circumstances in which rational discourse appears significantly lacking, the postmodern idea that there is no such thing as “natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth” takes on a certain meaning. But to argue toward a metaphysics of post-truth seems absurd to me.

For Latour, “the opposite of relativism is totalitarianism”. I take this to be the general postmodern view. Uncomfortably absolutist and overly simplistic, I’m not sure the assumption is a necessary or even sufficient condition for the conclusion, particularly or especially when extended beyond the realm of social and political truth. That is because the postmodern case seems more of a social projection on metaphysics than an actual genuine statement about metaphysics. It takes a pathological and thus irrational social world and projects it on the plane of metaphysics, as though human society is an example of natural truth and natural scientific epistemology. Moreover, or to put it another way, I struggle to see how it is logically or rationally sufficient to extend social critique to a metaphysics of reality. That the social world produces patterns of dogma, which may or may not then be a sufficient condition for tyranny, does not necessitate that the idea of objective reality and truth is fundamentally despotic. To conflate the former with the latter seems very much misguided.

Social truth contexts, I would say, are very different than scientific truth contexts – they do not share the same epistemological grounding – although in social science the two may overlap. But the idea that in the human social world, the concepts of fact and truth might be easily manipulated or epistemologically convoluted, and that one might then extrapolate from this experience that “truth” as a whole is subject to Foucault’s notion of power seems to me to be grossly simplistic.

But this is exactly what seems to happen in postmodernism. For postmodernism, the object, severed from the subject, becomes epistemologically and methodologically inaccessible. In other words, postmodern philosophy, rejecting any claims of objective reality, seeks to establish a response to modernity by suggesting human beings are prisoners of language, facts are thus entirely constructed. Through the lens of such cultural theory, objects do not exist in the world insofar that facts do not exist “out there” waiting to be discovered. This is the epitome of the postmodern trope – the essence of postmodern philosophy.

For me, it is hard to read such opinions in the context of natural scientific study. To posit such beliefs or arguments in the context of the success of things like quantum field theory or general relativity, two of the most successful scientific theories in human history, offers immediate disproof of the epistemological biases of the postmodern narrative.

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What, then, of objects? It seems to me that the idea that the natural scientist reduces everything in the world to objects is an overstated myth. The “objects” of science may be plants in botany, a fundamental particle in physics or a distant phenomenon in cosmology. An object can also be a system. But, in general, we could just as well replace the word “object” with “model” and we can also replace the notion of pure reduction to contextual isolation. If “object” and “model” are synonymous, as they often appear to be, this concept of modelling is based on the scientific activity in which a particular part or feature of the world is made easier to understand, define, quantify, visualise, or simulate by referencing it to existing and usually commonly accepted knowledge.

Think, for instance, of weather patterns as a dynamical system. This object of study may be further visualised, at least in terms of human intuition, by creating a plot. Or, perhaps for the sake of simplicity, think of a more classical picture of study in which something, say a cow, is being acted on by a number of forces. For whatever reason, we want to know or understand the forces acting this cow! A number of simplifying assumptions could be made, such as modelling a cow as a circle. In this case, let’s model it as a particle. In doing so, we could then accomplish a number things, such as calculating the net force acting on the cow. Indeed, though the cow is an object of study in this example, this does not necessitate that there is some lasting epistemological skew. The cow is also a subject, and this can indeed be recognised. Most of the reports I’ve read by scientists study fruit flies are never short of expressive their appreciating and wonder for the subject of the fruit fly. In other words, the notion of the object seems to mean different things to the natural scientist and to the postmodern philosopher. Firstly, there are two different definitions of objects at work here. Secondly, in the scientific frame, there are also different types of objects. Thirdly, the status of objects in biology – a very young science – and the status of objects in physics are not necessarily one and the same. In biology, the objects of study are also subjects.  Philosophically, I understand this is very sensitive ground for many who partake in contemporary ethical debate, particularly, as I have read, around the meaning of the study of animals. Simply put, one is no longer studying mathematical objects of the traditional sort, or systems and phenomena in the physical sense, but things other creatures.

But it is striking that the one of the most vocal sources of appreciation for the natural world is the scientific voice. In biology, to say that a forest is an object of study is different than the economic reductionism of that same forest, even though there seems to be conflation here amongst certain philosophers. That the global economy might equip scientific tools for the economic harvesting of the natural world is not an issues of science but, in my opinion, an issue of the misuse of scientific methodologies and epistemology. Biology sees the forest in its diversity of biological life – all the wonderful particularities of the forest to be studied, explored and appreciated with a great sense of discovery for each subtle hint that may be disclosed at a broader truth. The epistemology of the global economy only feigns a scientific appearance in this regard, using scientific tools to reduce that forest to the status of economic objects to then be exploited for profit. This is not science, and I think a survey of the biological scientific community would reveal quite the opposite appreciation for the sensitivity of the life of that forest that exists as much more than some economic resource.

On my readings, it seems like if there is any rationality to the concern of object reductionism it exists primarily within social and ethical philosophy with respect to the reduction of phenomena as social and economic objects as a site of violation. As I mentioned early, the arguments can be compelling. At the same time, to confuse scientific objects of study with economic objects of control makes no sense in absolute and definitive terms. Indeed, and putting aside the recognition that many of the most staunch defenders of environmental health are scientists, and that within the scientific community the ethical view of celebrating the diversity of life and the complexity of the subject is one that fills so many popular science books, I would challenge the idea that to analysise the world “out there”  necessitates a lack of investment with the reality of subjects. To construct this argument, there needs to be clear epistemological connection and I personally do not see it.

The problem, rather, is that in seeking to construct the argument that it is a fundamental error to separate the world into subjects and objects, Latour, and many other postmodernists, seem to sidestep questions of epistemology in effort to avoid serious engagement with the role of the concept of the scientific object plays in the positive development of human knowledge. But even more broadly, the role of the  object in thought cannot simply be discarded. Indeed, rather than working through the subject-object relation in effort to establish some sort of logical reconciliation in what is likely to be their epistemological mediation. Even in theoretical physics, the great Albert Einstein pondered absence of humans in the measurement. In any case, if we assum such reconciliation is necessary in the first place – Latour seems to dismiss the idea altogether and instead substitute a different implicit dualism: human disinvestment-investment with natural reality. What is interesting in drawing this distinction, from what I can tell, is that any substantive discussion on the objects of myth is avoided. In the context of post-modernism, relativism, exceptionalism and mysticism are allowed to flourish and not only is truth deconstructed completely on a metaphysical level – instead of social truth in particular – so too is the notion of reason eroded. Such, it would also seem, is the nature of the conflict postmodernism has generated with the enlightenment. And while postmodernism seeks to work in the area of critical theory, unlike the foundations of critical theory which sought to defend the enlightenment, reason and the principle of human rationality in the face of the irrational and pathological, I fail to see how postmodernism is equipped with the right conceptual tools to tackle the problems of knowledge it seeks to evoke.

To construct the postmodern view, one must firstly reject the subject-object distinction outright. The rejection, in this case, comes on the side of the subject at the cost of the object. As the question of genuine reconciliation, or mediation, is not even of a concern – inasmuch that this rejection is synonymous with disposing of any idea that certain methodologies have more of a corner on the truth than others – the result is subjectivism and the manufacturing of the subjectivity of relative worldviews. The irony, I think, is the manner in which the foundations of postmodernism imply a sort of false reconciliation between subject and object without admitting that such reconciliation was even on the agenda. But the postmodern response to epistemology is just as regressive as the dogmatist who cuts the relation purely on the side of the object or the religious mystic who fantasises about the object through the lens of a subjectivism. But then again, in the postmodern case, it would seem to this reader that as a substitute for objective reality what we have is a purely socially constructed notion of reality – that is, instead of objects, we are left with a different doctrine of knowledge in which there are no facts external to the subject’s enterprise. So it is kind of like the reemergence of myth through an abstract reason, in the sense of how the rational and scientific description of the world is replaced with an epistemology in which natural or social phenomenon are given subjective explanations.

The mediated nature of the relation between subject-object is corroded, along with the differentiation between two very different forms of truth: natural and social.

Epistemologically speaking, it is in no way surprising that the effects of such misguided efforts have culminated in the development of the post-truth, post-empirical worldview with its inclination toward conspiracy and the falsely reconciled idea of the “truer truth” that we observe in conspiracy and anti-science cultures. What is surprising is that now even Latour is beginning to backtrack from making “scientific certainty” a “primary issue”, as the social, political and cultural foundations of climate denialism demand focus.

None of this is to say that postmodern philosophy has offered nothing positive. To my mind, its emphasis on the particular is a good thing. Post-modernism forced through the important social ethical concept of appreciating and celebrating the particularity, and sought to defend such particularity from reckless social and political attempts at hypostatisation. But I think it is also time to recognise that, analogously, emphasis on the particular cannot come at the epistemological cost of the universal. Indeed, there are philosophical problems that currently face us when it comes to a coherent theory or model of objective knowledge which satisfies, on the one hand, the limits of non-scientific and scientific knowledge in process and, on the other hand, the substance of our current best theories and the nature of identity. The discerning reader will acknowledge yet another connection by analogy: more broadly, debates between process metaphysics and substance metaphysics. Inasmuch that with each historical moment there is a limit to our knowledge it can also be said that science teaches us that with each historical moment, that knowledge also sharpens, deepens, and expands in the course of the next future moment. If, in my opinion, philosophy remains especially vulnerable to absolutist theories of concepts – that the antiquated law of identity predicates the conflation of concept, phenomenon and the non-identity of identity – I would argue that science generally fosters the opposite in the sense that its epistemology is a priori principled on the understanding of the revealing nature of phenomena: that identity, process, and substance can and do exist simultaneously. Where the trouble arises, I think, is when science and scientific knowledge enters the social world with it biased inclinations toward hypostatisation.

To the last paragraph, I think this also speaks to my own lack of comfort when it comes to the relation between science and industry, or any other obviously biased and social site of practice. Indeed, as scientific knowledge enters into a biased and less-than-rational social world, it becomes a political object or, in other ways, it seems to become an abstraction of itself in much the same way rationality might maintain its form but lose all of its content. As scientific knowledge is politicised, its truth content gets emptied. Of course this is not always the case, but examples are plenty!

I suppose the concern lends to the view that how science is realised, socially, and how science is used can be vulnerable to the biases of governing political, cultural and economic systems. For me, this is a much more pressing and nuanced issue than the postmodern case would allow.

In closing, if much of what I have read suggests the postmodern view is one that wants to respect history, then surely one ought to also recognise that the frontier of human knowledge has advanced to truly astounding boundaries of investigation, owed entirely to the modern scientific enterprise and its unique epistemological domain of enquiry. If human social history is largely one of prejudice, the development of an objective knowledge of the natural world over time points to the manner in which human enquiry ought to be accountable to scientific verification. Or, at least, this is the demand from the perspective of the history of scientific knowledge.

I suppose what I am saying is that I think it is important realise that the domain of social study is very different than the domain of natural scientific study; and that questions of social truth and of the operation of social truth are very different than concepts of objective truth and natural reality in the context of the scientific study of the natural world. But what is perhaps most obvious to me, it is the natural sciences by and large that remain a site for the mediation of subject-object and a truer view of reality.

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