The US election and my holiday reading list

It is reasonable to wait for confirmation; however, as things stand, it appears Donald Trump is about to get walloped in the election, losing both in terms of the electoral college and the popular vote. One might indeed take a moment to say, ‘good riddance!’. But it will take a lot more than a Biden victory to defeat the prejudiced, often anti-science, and certainly contra-enlightenment views that have been amplified in the past years, not to mention the shady funding behind them.

What is super interesting, I think, is that when looking at the numbers the definitive nature of the urban / rural divide in the United States is made explicit. It is old sociology, to be sure, and I can think of no better description than how there seems a complete contradistinction of views. It is a rigid contest, and it is certainly not as simplistic as designating the young, educated urban dweller against the opposite in the country bumpkin. For example, it is noticeable that in some circles the right-wing voices in support of Trump have expressed anti-globalisation views in almost identical ways as some circles on the left, the difference primarily being in the framing. Although this doesn’t factor ideological residues, the point is that the split seems rather nuanced with as much economic as cultural import, not so different than what we have also witnessed here in the UK. For many reasons, I have been reminded also in recent years of Stephen Bronner’s analysis of anti-modernism movements. It will be interesting to read in the coming months new studies on these socio-economic and cultural dynamics, as no doubt a few books are already in the works.

One last comment before moving onto other things: it is hopefully telling that Biden’s first speech as president-elect made explicit mention of the need to reconnect with science. Rebuilding trust in scientific impartiality is imperative, after much opportunism that subordinated key scientific institutions to political bias and ideological ends. Surely, also, such a rebuilding effort coincides with the demand to strengthen evidence-based approaches to policy. Philosophically, such approaches are still not completely without their problems, but it is a project we ought to work toward.

Unification was also a key message, and quite understandably. Whatever one may think of French President Macron, last week he gave what I thought was a nice talk on the principle of enlightenment in the form of communicative reason (it reminded me very much of Habermas): to continue to work to create a public space structured in such a way that rational dialogue and debate may be achieved. This runs completely counter to demonisation and intense polarisation – the old habits of tribalism. Objective reason doesn’t commute, or is not compatible, with ideology in as much that analysis should work continuously to free itself from bias. It is unfortunate to see that it has become a tenet of general discourse to succumb to irrational worldviews in which their political and cognitive biases overshadow the normative process of reason. Biden spoke the other night of the battle between our better angels and our darkest impulses, which I interpreted in these terms – an expression that gives description to the enlightenment project. From a systems view, I am sceptical; but I am also open to seeing what he does. As with an incredibly difficult calculation or when probing an important proof, it is about incremental steps.

***

Now that I have submitted my thesis on double sigma models and field theory, I have two months holiday before I am due to return to university. During my break, I plan to catch up on a lot of reading. I would also like to finish a number of essays and potentially start drafting several more. For example, I am currently finishing an essay on braneworlds from my studies in autumn 2019. I also have a long essay being polished on deriving general relativity from string theory, among a list of others in my current area of the doubled string, generalised geometry, and de Sitter. So I look forward to my holiday where I can be in my own space a bit and enjoy writing on these fantastic topics.

I also have some others essays that I would like to write in other fields. For example, one essay that I have been working on for some time concerns the epistemology of the early medieval university in which Aristotleanism was formally introduced to Europe. For that purpose, I have added Nicholas Orme’s book on Medieval Schools to my holiday reading list.

There is another book at the top of my reading list. It’s Vincent Azoulay’s acclaimed ‘Pericles of Athens‘. I’ve been thinking of Pericles lately, perhaps partly to do with the experience of a year marked by a global pandemic. Indeed, the collapse of Periclean Athens was instigated in no small way by its own terrible malady – a rather vile plague that proved catastrophic for what was one of the earliest of egalitarian and democratic experiments in human history. (A nice discussion between historians was recently presented here). The intent here is in no way to draw analogies with our contemporary times, although with current trends it is not completely outlandish to suggest that contemporary democracy – and certainly present economic models in which it is housed – is facing a challenge. Indeed, and furthermore, it’s not just the pandemic but many trends in behaviour, not least what we have been seeing politically in the past years, that have highlighted the utter idiocy capable of human beings in a test of democracy at its very foundations. Isaac Asimov once wrote, ‘The great anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge“‘. In a similar vein, there is a great passage by Bertrand Russel that strikes the same point, and similarly a most famous passage by Walt Whitman comes to mind. Considering that some would argue that the prospect of enlightenment has not been fully realised, nor the prospect of democracy completely fulfilled, it will be interesting to read more about the struggles of Periclean Athens. An inspiration to some prominent enlightenment thinkers, often engagements with Pericles are dominated by the same old question that Socrates once asked: has philosophy made citizens (and, I would add, the life of citizens) better? History can often serve as a magnifying glass, and if philosophy’s remaining relevance is tied to asking the question of the existence of needless (social) suffering, maybe there is still something in Pericles to write about.

As a fun read, I’ve picked up Stephen Brusatte’s celebrated title exploring the latest research on the history of dinosaurs. It is a book that I have been desperate to read since the summer. I can’t wait to dig into its pages!

Finally, I was thinking of Brockman’s cross-field collection ‘Life’, with a contribution by Dyson on the garbage-bag-model followed by Ackerman’s ‘The Genius of Birds’. This was actually one of the first on my lists as it relates to my interests in mathematical biology (and plus, I enjoy studying birds in my spare time).

If there is time, I’ve been wanting to read Edward Wilson’s ‘Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge’. In addition to his now dated ‘On Human Nature‘, these books will certainly inspire a number of essays (his book ‘The Diversity of Life’ is also worth mentioning) because I have studied epistemology to great lengths and I am always keen to delve with nuance into evolutionary psychology and its issues. But they will likely have to wait until my summer holidays, along with a list of others (it is an ever-growing list!).

These mostly comprise my general academic reading and don’t really get into some of my ongoing non-academic books. I’ve been reading through a lot of the Star Wars canon recently. For my holiday, I picked up the new Marvel Kylo Ren comic series as well as the new Darth Vader series, and so far I have been enjoying both.

Disenchantment and the anthropology of (re-)enchantment

I recently read an interesting essay by Egil Asprem entitled Dialectics of Darkness. Its original purpose was to serve as a review of The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences by Jason Josephson-Storm. I have yet to read Josephson-Storm’s book, so I shall have to reserve comment for another time. But I am certainly already familiar with its main subject and the history behind it, which is one reason I found great interest in navigating Asprem’s essay on the enlightenment (and thus, too, the notion of enlightenment reason) and the anthropology of active (re-)enchantment.

Additionally, following the publication of Asprem’s work, a number of other short essays and articles appeared directly in response. I list them as follows, The Enchanted World Today by Josephson-Storm with a reply by Asprem; The Reemergence of Magical Beliefs by Adam Possamai; and, finally, Models of (Re-)Enchantment by Dafydd Mills Daniel. 

The latter article by Daniel offers what I think to be a decent and certainly interesting reading of Bertrand Russell and Richard Dawkins, particularly their nuanced and deeply considerate approaches to naturalist philosophy as well as their attempts to satisfy the demands for ethical norms rooted in a naturalistic model. It is no secret that I enjoy a lot of Russell’s writing, and a short disclaimer would highlight at this point that Russell’s essay A Free Man’s Worship (referenced by Daniel) is perhaps one of my favourite pieces of humanist literature. However, while I think a review of the contents of Daniel’s contribution could, in itself, be the focus of an entire essay, I will save a few comments for the end.

In reading the essay by Asprem, and then the follow-up by Josephson-Storm with a reply by Asprem, one thing struck me in particular. Up to this point, I’ve tended to see the enlightenment not as some cultural totality or as a total cultural shift in a particular moment of time but as a historical process. From d’Alembert and Descartes to Leibniz, Pascal, and Newton (to name a few enlightenment thinkers) – I think there is also a kernel of insight to be retrieved from their respective notes on this issue. Indeed, for many notable enlightenment thinkers, not least Kant, there was no such enlightenment as a historical period that completely extinguished enchantment; it was instead perceived as an ongoing process of social, psychological or spiritual development in human history. (In fact, as an aside, I would be inclined to argue that the enlightenment philosophes are generally distinguishable by the very nature of their confrontation with the dichotomy between process vs. substance metaphysics, a point that I think is relevant here). The philosophes were or can be read as an attempt to formally describe this process and capture its positive implications. Indeed, I think for many enlightenment scholars this view would not be received contentiously. And so, I am inclined to perhaps warn against the view that the enlightenment should be seen as a period of total cultural disenchantment that may or may not have eventually regressed to an unfolding process of (re-)enchantment over time.

Moreover, an investigation into the objective validity of reason and of scientific knowledge discloses, I think, a sort of naivety that sometimes saturates our thinking with regards to the idea of the historical realisation of cultural enlightenment. In the essays cited above, Newton is mentioned because for all his mathematical and scientific genius he also studied alchemy. But when the enlightenment is seen as a process, which too must exist or manifest in given history with its own established domain of concepts and prejudices, the weight of this contradiction becomes more measurable. To generalise my complaint: it is no secret that many enlightenment thinkers, even some members of the radical enlightenment (as some scholars distinguish), maintained belief (personal or via organised religion) in God whilst championing secularised knowledge and humanistic values. However, I’m not convinced this should be seen as a failure or interpreted in the context of (re-)enchantment. Even today, I don’t think it is entirely false to say that some members of the scientific community maintain a belief in the superstitious, supernatural, or the divine. Famously, there were many significant and famous modern physicists who also carried superstitions beliefs or artefact beliefs in myth. Taking a broader view, we may objectively perceive and criticise such logical inconsistency, and perhaps for the benefit of reason take lesson from their example. One lesson to recognise is that myth – or perhaps its remnants depending on how we parameterise the theory – may persist in very organised or established ways as historical legacy or artefact. It is not at all controversial to say that human bias and prejudice may continue to exist despite evidence against whatever belief; and it would seem very appropriate to look at these issues in their sociohistorical context in order to establish as nuanced a view as possible.

So from my own reading and studies, my interpretation of the enlightenment project is as an ensemble of concepts not necessarily unique in category but realised uniquely in time. In a sense, my view has been shaped around the idea of the enlightenment as a unique realisation of concepts, the genesis of which dates back and through such pre-Socratic scholars as Anaxagoras and Democritus, Thucydides and the The Mytilenaean Debate, and then eventually the philosophical considerations of Plato onward. Such concepts include, in modern language, basic ideas of reason as set against myth and political realism.

In many of the grandfathers and fathers of modern science we see this much more in terms of a general shaping of epistemology, however much residues of myth and enchantment may be found (from one philosopher to the next), given that human history is saturated in the perpetuation of prejudice. Although such a course of discussion requires a fuller essay in itself, what I am trying to say, in different words, is how the enlightenment may be viewed as a certain continuation in the historical generation of ideas and that epistemology is perhaps the best site to study its development. In philosophy, particularly or especially philosophy of the subject, this may be expressed by way of a study of the genesis of the modern subject, which some trace as far back as Homer’s Odyssey. Perhaps more insightful is Bertrand Russell’s study of knowledge in The Problem’s of Philosophy (1912) in which, rather than considerations of metaphysics, epistemology is brought directly into focus. From this view – namely, from the study of epistemology – the genesis of well-known enlightenment values and ideas appear in different forms, under different guises, and through manipulations of different frameworks in the very seeds of philosophical thought in classical antiquity forward.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave can very much be read as an investigation into epistemology not so dissimilar to the enquiry of enlightenment philosophes into the possibility of knowledge – rational and scientific or otherwise. The leading question for the enlightenment may be stated, ‘What even constitutes knowledge, let alone rational and objective knowledge?’. As a profound site of investigation, often ignored or not taken serious enough, it is one that can be traced back to pre-Socratic study which was, I am inclined to argue, eventually refocused with advent of the first Medieval universities and their systematic introductions of Aristotelian language, then in the humanist renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, and finally in the 18th century philosophes.

On the other hand, although the enlightenment project did not emerge simply out of nothing, there is something unique about it which continues to draw serious interest and consideration. In a sense, I think it may also be viewed a lexicalized concept. As such, it is unique in what it represents as a particular unification of ideas and values realised in such a way as to be epistemologically revolutionary. Taking this view, I think we can also begin to delineate different epistemologies and their significance with respect to the prospect of enlightenment knowledge.

Arguably, one of the last great philosophical efforts to answer the fundamental question of the status of knowledge and the possibility of knowing – and, really, the status and legitimacy of abstract concepts – was in the work of Kant. Interestingly, I think it can be strongly argued that Kant’s investigations, and likewise also Hume’s skepticism in which Kant seeks to overcome, are much more relevant to philosophical systems of knowledge than scientific systems of knowledge. There is, at a point, a divergence between traditional philosophical epistemologies and scientific epistemologies. For Kant, and also Hume, neither seem to be able to do justice to the unique epistemological domain of scientific enquiry, which, I think was clearly realised in the 20th century to be very different than the general philosophical domain of enquiry. Although, in my opinion, Kant comes extremely close in places, I would be inclined to expand that, at least in a Platonic sense of conceptual space, scientific knowledge can be cleanly and clearly differentiated from purely subjective reasoning, and that while Kant’s response to Hume’s skepticism is not entirely satisfactory, the latter can be overcome through explanation within scientific systems of reasoning. But with these matters put to one side, the deeper point is that I think one can see clearly this delineation of epistemologies not only in the progression of modern science but also in what it has to say about the prospects of reason and human rationality.

Mention has already been made of Russell. It would be terrific to write more about his works in both a critical and non-critical way, because his 1912 investigations are some of the best when it comes to late-modern encircling of these differences in epistemology by way of fairly systematic investigations into the nature of knowledge. That said, I think some of the most illuminating sites of reflection can also be found in the writings of many of the great 20th century physicists, who concerned themselves with such longstanding historical debates. Einstein, to offer one example, is noted to have spent time thinking about epistemological questions and engaging with debates on the nature and status of knowledge.

***

These essays, especially the one by Asprem which ignites a wonderful chain of contributions and perspectives, are undoubtedly stimulating. The one thing that stands out to me, given the above reflections, is the risk that one may easily take a viewpoint that is too binary, lacking the complexity of a systems view of human society and the general types of behaviour it fosters. Disenchantment and re-enchantment seem less like fundamental processes than epiphenomena. In many ways, I think the antimony often defined between disenchantment and enchantment can be broken down into very basic elements of the epistemological study of reality versus appearance, from which Russell for example delineates two forms of knowledge: by description and by direct acquaintance. The latter is very much akin to the best of existential phenomenology of the 19th and 20th centuries, in which intimate description of the phenomenal world of direct experience and sense data is given. Often these movements neglect the abstract and theoretical or are simply unable to conceptualise it. Russell, on the other hand, is able to substantiate the validity of logicism and logical reasoning – indeed, we may even extend his analysis today to theoretical knowledge – whilst maintaining ample recognition of the experiential and the phenomenological. Preservation of the recognition of the type of knowledge by direct acquaintance is important in terms of secularised ethical and moral foundations; but doing so while maintaining a concept of the objective and not regressing to subjectivism is no easy task. Much of contemporary post-modern philosophy, for instance, sinks into the muddied confusion of pure subjectivism and at a great cost.

But if we decide that the disenchantment-enchantment model is not satisfactory, what I want to say is that, as I have been alluding, perhaps the more fundamental site of enquiry is the study of epistemology, from which any and all discrepancy between disenchantment and (re)-enchantment may emerge. And, in few words, I think this and the paragraph immediately above describe why Daniel’s essay touches on something very important in his reference to the compelling arguments by Russell and also Dawkins, respectively. Intentionally or not, they both present fairly convincing approaches principled, firstly, on the foundations of knowledge and the validity of objective knowledge. From this, and as modern science would also indicate, (re-)enchantment is reduced to the domain of cognitive human bias, dogma and superstition; the persistence of myth played out in daily human life has its roots here, just as the violence and irrational ideologies that define the contemporary political domain are often a projection of the unreasonable on the basis of the prejudiced nature of the subject’s interaction with the world. If, as some scholars describe, the contemporary political domain may be generally depicted as a polarised space for the practice of bias and prejudice, with the establishment of echo chambers and irrational subjective pursuits of ideological ends as opposed to rational, disclosing, truth-giving processes – I take it from the view of Russell that such a space is merely the continuation pathological epistemologies.

What is also significant about both Russell and Dawkins is that, rather than completely rejecting the human existential inclination to search for meaning, it is acknowledged and reformulated positively. They argue that there is no deeper source of meaning than that which is naturally disclosed within the epistemological domain of science, and that through science and its many lessons the human need and thirst for meaning may be quenched, even in the face of our own cosmic insignificance. Unlike romanticism for example, in which meaning and inspiration is deduced purely subjectively and with emphasis on the primacy of the individual, which completely prefigures the notion of the subject by neglecting the objective; what we see in the better parts of Russell and Dawkins is a positive, evolving notion of enlightenment meaning-giving process that in many ways may begin to answer Camus’ deep (and certainly valid) conundrum.

For these reasons, I agree and sympathise with Daniel’s assertion that, in many ways, Russell and Dawkins successfully carve a path a forward, transcending the pitfalls of the romantics so often tied to (re-)enchantment and anti-modern movements, whilst preserving the existential depth of what it means to be human and in search for meaning. Through this lens, I think the picture of total enlightenment disenchantment from the perspective of cultural anthropology becomes something of a myth. Allow me to explain.

In certain strands of contemporary philosophy, the projection of some complete realisation of reason and the crystallisation of rational society (such as in Weber’s construction) would seem to rely in some way on a view of cultural enlightenment as a sort of final development. In that sense, it too would seem predicated in places on the myth of cultural enlightenment and hence the achievement of solid rational outcome. But I would argue that history has witnessed neither, and even the best examples of contemporary society fail satisfy the demands of both concepts.

Furthermore, many of the critical philosophes of the 20th century, most of which were rooted in or indebted to the enlightenment, placed great importance on reason, its historical genesis, and the ongoing struggle in its realisation. That is to say that the genesis of the modern subject was a central point of focus, and with this focus many provocative debates on knowledge and reason may be found. Crucially, the concept of enlightenment reason is not perceived as a given. The concept of enlightenment reason may have historically crystallised in a unique way – or at least some framework was formalised to better describe it – and hence concepts of rational society may have begun to spring forth. But we learn in the critical philosophies that the parameters in which reason and notions of rational (thus disenchanted) society may be historically realised can be more or less pathological, and that generally in the social and communicative domain it is reason’s absence that continually defines humanity’s historical struggle. In Weber’s construction, then, one could argue that the concept of reason is essentially utilised in a less than rational way. There is, in other words, an ongoing classical distinction between form and content, and their lack of synthesis, that I would argue underlies much of the struggle for reason that continues to the present day.

Such a viewpoint reinforces the idea – indeed, the acute observation – that we do not presently live in a rational, scientific society. Evidence of this can easily be found in the very structure of contemporary debates and the issues they concern. Instead, it would seem much more akin to a society that uses notions of reason or quasi-systems of reason and science at its convenience, without complete subscription to its logical and rational demands. So, in a way, I think there is a deeper truth to Josephson-Storm’s study. I would say that some enlightenment disenchantment has been achieved but only up to a point within a particular epistemological domain that exists within broader social-pathological and enchanted parameters. I think the subtlety and nuance of such a viewpoint carries forward what may have been deemed the radical enlightenment based largely on the assessment that, following a lexicalized concept of the enlightenment, the reality of the process of enlightenment reason is much more akin to a struggle for reason and for a future rational society against the forces of its absence.

One last comment, to conclude this already lengthy engagement. If the enlightenment is seen more as a unique configuration of concepts and ideas, as part of a larger history, which triggered a process (against myth, prejudice, etc.) in the development of reason, science and ultimately fundamental secularised values – from this point of view, reason and human rationality may be perceived within the scope of a theory of society that recognises how, and in what way, such important concepts must be socially fostered. The notions of disenchantment and enchantment, if the binary is correct to construct, discloses a tremendous conflict: namely, the legacy of historical and cognitive biases, in addition to general irrational human tendencies and inclinations which reject the objective. That a society may, in recent time, promote itself as disenchanted only to then be said to have regressed to (re)-enchantment and myth – or only for (re)-enchantment and myth to continue propagate – would seem one of the central themes of Dialectic of Enlightenment. At the same time,  modern science continues to push the boundaries of human thought, and its special epistemological domain of enquiry is generally irrefutable. The influence and demands of enlightenment reason continues to challenge, even scientists, to normatively check one’s biases and to continue to struggle for a clearer recognition of objective knowledge within the historical context of constraints of that knowledge at any given time.

However, in that the promise of enlightenment reason – the promise of reason and human rationality – may exist and yet simultaneously be folded into a human social world of continued and renewed enchantment – and hence, myth and the irrational confluence with the rational – this is akin to acknowledging that differentiated spheres of society may each be affected differently. It is this fragile and precarious existence of reason and its unrelenting possibility of betrayal that seems to be one of the essential features of today’s social world, so much so that in continued enchantment reason can take on the appearance of a disfigured form that is, in fact, absent of any rational content.

The struggle is to see reason and unreason, solid as the ground beneath one’s feet or as the material objects in one’s daily life. Even those who believe they command reason often, in their certainty, fall guilty of its opposite. It is notable that most major cultures and religions to have crystallised in human history possess a concept of good and bad, in moral philosophical terms; light and dark in religious language; or reason and unreason, in epistemological terms. With no exception, none have reconciled these ideas however much one may faithfully believe the contrary. This is as close to an objective view that may be accessed, and almost always whatever lesson one may wish to glean such fleeting objectivity can quickly turns subjective through the simple demand of interpretation. This was as much a struggle for Plato as Aristotle and the 18th century philosophes. In the modern lens, it was as much a struggle for Kant and Hegel as Adorno or alternatively the opposing attempt to formulate the post-modern.

One thing I can speak to is that in mathematics, ideally, we follow the systematic through to the result, and then we ascertain whether the logic is true or not. But this space of concepts and of thought would seem different to the world of social occupations, in which concepts – like policy – can be reasonable, unreasonable, or both simultaneously. This is why there is no realised fundamental moral theory, because the space of concepts is saturated in the subjective stuff of daily human life. The point is not to say that the objective is in accessible, but oftentimes its fleeting and precarious nature cannot be trusted in the eyes of human beings. Even when solid objects are attempted to formed in words, such as God, or in symbols, such as peace, one can easily feign through solid and rigid representations the opposite of its conceptual substance. People have killed in the name of religion or the idea of a just politics without any awareness of the indignation of the contradiction. I think here, too, Russell and Dawkins serve important lessons and insight as we continue to reflect on the importance of the enlightenment and its realisation.

**Image: Projection of the Enlightenment by Anshu Kumar.

On Recent Events

Dear Reader(s),

It has been some time since my last post. Just as I was gearing up with a series of different articles and essays – and generally getting into a good pattern of regular blogging – Covid-19 broached the shores of the UK. With the outbreak, life for all was turned upside down. In addition to having to adjust to the unsettling reality of a global pandemic and its implications – I usually respond to such world events with lots of studying and research as a way to get my head around what is objectively happening – one of the practical consequences was a series of changes to daily life and usual routines. As a person with Asperger’s, these types of changes means it can take time for me to re-establish solid ground. I’m sure everyone reading this will be able to sympathise one way or another, given that the global pandemic has affected us all in different ways. For some, the pandemic will have had a greater impact than for others, whether directly in terms of illness or economically or otherwise. People have lost loved ones; there are stories of vulnerable individuals struggling for support or being taken advantage; we are now seeing unemployment rates increasing; among a list of other things. I once wrote about the concept of rational compassion as an alternative to empathy, and it seems pertinent. In addition to the public health crisis and the suffering that has caused, there seems no shortage of economic suffering for many. It is unfortunate, I think, in a very critical and objective way, that rational debate and dialogue has often seemed to be overtaken by extreme political rhetoric and ideology on both sides of the spectrum. I know in the UK and elsewhere, important debates about managing public health and economic health have often become reduced to two ideological positions and what is essentially a false moral dichotomy. It shouldn’t be so surprised, I suppose, since wearing a mask and social distancing – two science and evidenced-based policies that require some semblance of social reason and rational compassion – have become politicised and subject to the irrational. We of course have the far-left and the far-right, both of which ultimately seem to fold into one another as the spectrum of extremes takes on the image of the ouroboros (you can decide which is the head and which is the tail); but it is not just the extreme polarisation, but also the interior of these poles. Perhaps the moral is as it always was: it is no secret that the condition of the human being is one of struggle for reason and rationality; as I am currently writing in a series of essays on the enlightenment and the anthropology of (re-)enchantment, the enlightenment was a historical moment that resulted in the culmination of developments since Plato and beyond. Enlightenment disenchantment was by no means total, such is evidenced surely in taking a systems view of contemporary patterns and trends.

But I digress. What I meant to say is that these are uncertain times, to be sure. For whatever it may mean to each individual that reads my blog, I hope you’re keeping well.

For my part, I’ve been fortunate to continue my studies and keep working away on stringy things. During the last few months I’ve spent a lot of time catching up on mountains of string study. One thing that comes with academic acceleration from undergrad to post-grad, at least in my case, is that there is a lot of catching up to do in terms of daily research level string physics and computation. It is not too difficult; rather it is the sheer amount literature. I’ve managed to cover so much in a short time, which has been satisfying, and I’m delighted to have reached a point where it seems each day I am growing increasingly comfortable with the bigger research picture and my place within it. The word ‘orientation’ is perhaps fitting; but how I’ve spent my time is probably more than some typical orientation process. It’s not only about going over foundations as well as contemporary literature and trends of thought, I also find great urgency to go back to the earliest and significant historical string papers and build up as much as I can from first-principles – to deepen my understanding and intuition of the issues and where we need to be.

In the last month or so, I’ve also been working on my MRes thesis, mostly thinking through a lot of double sigma model stuff and generally just putting a lot of energy into maintaining focus on this particular project. Of course, as my professor will attest, numerous things are constantly pulling at my attention and slowly I am finding my way. As for my thesis project, it has been enjoyable. Proficiency in double sigma models is important for future work as well, particularly with my interest in generalised geometry sharpening (among a list of questions from which I may entertain), so I’ve managed to properly sink in to the work allowing the occasional distraction: such as, for instance, Ashoke Sen’s deeply interesting paper on string field theory plus a lot of non-geometry stuff. I often tweet samples of thoughts or references, but I will likely start blogging about all this cool stuff as well.

There is much to write about in string theory and quantum gravity, with some absolutely brilliant papers sitting on my desk. I also have a stack of maths papers I would like to discuss at some point, also not at all irrelevant to string theory. All in good time I’m sure.

For now, as a gentle return, I wanted to make one last comment: with the murder of George Floyd and the re-emergence of Black Lives Matter, there has been a lot of discussion again about racism and racial injustice. There is quite a bit of science behind understanding how bias and prejudice plays notable roles in human experience, including in the sort of cognitive processes that operate in the form bigoted and racist attitudes. As many have highlighted, education is certainly one important strategy as a lot of studies indicate the role of environment in relation to subject development. To that end, I’ve seen a lot of people sharing books and important literature on things like the history of slavery and civil rights. When I was young, about the age of 7 or so, I remember studying the history of slavery in the UK as well as slavery in America, including the Underground Railroad and the life of Harriet Tubman (I can’t recall the books we read, but see for instance this biography by Catherine Clinton). This of course also coincided with studying the American Civil War and other events in Europe. Over time I’ve also read a number of books, like Stephen Bronner’s ‘The Bigot’, which formulates the persistance of racism and bigotry as a sort of anti-modernity. It is an interesting philosophical read. Somewhat relatedly, a couple of weeks ago I tweeted about some of my recollections of Olaudah Equiano (extracts of his memoirs have been digitalised by the British library), a former slave and prominent abolitionist in Britain. In the time of the 18th century enlightenment, he was very much a man of letters. There were also a number of other prominent voices during this period, and, if I remember correctly, a key to generating popular repulsion toward slavery was the industrial workers movement of the time, of which I believe Equiano was a part. Among whites, English Quakers were one a notable organised support. A historian will certainly be able to offer many more details. When one studies this history – take the end of the 18th century in Britain for example, where there was popular support for abolition – it is easy to slip into a view that slavery was abolished and that is the end of it. But it was, and continues to be, a messy and complex moral picture. Indeed, even among enlightenment thinkers of the time, there were several notable secular philosophers supporting abolitionism; but it was certainly morally convoluted and not at all universal. It is fair to say that the actual abolition of slavery in the 19th century also did not mean an end of social-racial thinking; in fact, it is well documented how new forms of formalised racial thought emerged, including new theories of formal racial hierarchy and the formalisation of systems of belief based on eugenics. There is an article in the UN Chronicle that summarises a bit of this history. In terms of books, I’ve recently learned of two that sound informative and interesting: George M. Fredrickson’s ‘Racism: A Short History‘ is often cited. I also recently learned of a book by Timothy C. Winegard entitled, ‘The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator’. This is not a book on epidemiology, nor is it a work of biology, virology, or for that matter even anthropology. It is a popular history book, the sort I tend to try and avoid; but I’ve heard it offers a fairly detailed history of the slave trade as it relates to mosquito-borne diseases during European colonisation.

Of course, one can easily find online a list of important and widely cited books on the topic. These are two new ones that I’ve highlighted for myself. I’m currently putting together what would be my summer reading list, although my break is delayed until after my thesis is submitted (likely during the autumn before my PhD in December or January). That could be a topic for another post :)

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.

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.