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.


[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’ []

[4] Lord Skidelsky, ‘Report: How to achieve shorter working hours’ []

[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’ []

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

[8] Daron Acemoglu and David Autor, ‘Lectures in Labour Economics’ []

[9] Paul Romer, 2016, ‘The Trouble with Macroeconomics’. [].

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

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.

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.

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.

persistence of memory
Philosophy and General Reading

Free Will, Determinism and Probabilities

The debate about which triumphs, free will or determinism, can on many occasions feel so unsatisfying. Over the years I’ve picked up or have come across quite a few pieces of literature on the subject, from historical and social studies to psychological research, neuro and cognitive science, and also various speculations within philosophy and physics. It is a debate that is hotly contested from both sides – a longstanding philosophical matter of concern.

Through history philosophers and scientists have organised arguments around numerous points of empirical validation. On the one hand, human beings can affect change. The human subject – consciousness and all – has the ability to change social and economic structures, protest and revolt in the face of tyrants, and conceive of novel inventions that will forever shape civilisation. Imagination, creation, the impulse to explore and discover, and the ability to deviate from established patterns and social norms – these are all cited as examples that support some idea of free will.

Moreover, that a person could, spontaneously and on a whim, decide to paint a picture of melting clocks in a desert simply because they can, and because they have the ability to imagine and philosophise about such radical symbolism, could be construed as an act of free will. Jean-Paul Sartre famously argued from the basis of two well-known aspects of human experience in this regard: choice and responsibility. With some concept of free will comes both freedom of choice and responsibility of action (and for one’s actions), two qualities that are argued to be of basic human experience. The assumption, of course, is that free will exists. On the other hand, Sartre, the master of existentialism and 20th century notions of freedom and the subject, also conceded at the heart of his philosophy that the situation is complicated. There are many more forces at play that extend beyond pure unadulterated free will. Hence, he employed the term “facticity”. This term represents all of that sociohistorical-cultural stuff that exists external to the individual subject – economy, cultural norms, social and individual psychology, and so on. In other words, he recognised all of these things – the stage in which one pursues life – as also playing a significant role in fostering subjectivity and in suggesting, in my own words, certain sets of probabilities in behaviour. Human choice, in other words, is delivered within a historical context – the range of things that comprise that context extend or constrict the horizon of possibility. This is similar, in some ways, as considerations one might read within biology texts about how or in what ways biology and culture may become entangled and thus affect one another.

Sartre is just one philosopher of a long list that argues toward some notion of free will – or rather, the mediating subject which is, as I take it, more nuanced that the traditional idea of free will. He does so within a set of certain constraints, similar, indeed, to likes of Adorno and others. But Sartre serves as a particularly useful example because, on the other hand, there is also a strong argument for some notion of determinism. On the level of the human, not only is there all that social, historical and cultural stuff that contextualises the stage of one’s existence – some even refer to the “economic horizon of possibilities” – but there are also worthy scientific concerns and speculations that would contradict any argument toward the idea of pure and unadulterated free will.

Contemporary cognitive and neuroscience rightly have a growing voice on these matters. Indeed, in my opinion, the answer likely lies within a better understanding of both the human brain and mind. One plausible estimate is that there are 86 billion neurons in the human brain. We’re speaking of an inconceivable amount of cells, not to mention synapse, of which up to one-hundred thousand can be associated with just one neuron. Factoring in brain chemistry – and biochemical processes more generally – notions of unadulterated free will become less likely. The likelihood then constricts even more given the role psychology and emotions play in human experience, and how these may then relate to the brain – not to mention how the social, cultural and economic contexts may affect the development of the brain. (For example, there is emerging evidence that suggests things like poverty affect a child’s brain development). But even on a purely physical level: consider something so simple as two people talking with one another, or interacting in some way. This situation is dependent also on the laws that atoms behave in a certain way in this situation, that electrons behave in a certain way – the interaction depends on chemical forces, electrical forces, and even forces of gravity and so on. It is easy to just see two people talking, conscious and engaged, conceiving of new thoughts and imaging new future topics of conversation. It is a common daily image to witness two or more people engaging in conversation over tea or a meal. But there are so many dimensions or factors to this interaction as well as to each individuals behaviour in that moment of interaction, it is difficult to fix the idea of free will because almost immediately the context and complexity of the engagement demands focus.

We could substitute the word “dimensions” for what the great physicist Richard Feynman would describe as interconnecting hierarchies – a sequence of relative hierarchies, their connections and interconnections, from the elaborate complexities of fundamental particles quantum mechanics to atoms and then microbes and biochemistry and the ~100 billion neurons firing in the brain; then constantly higher to perception, motor control, memory processes, psychology, emotions, prejudices, and social concepts and then also established norms of social interaction, and so on. When thought of in this way, with the complexity of interacting and interconnected hierarchies, it is difficult to not only find sense in the idea of unadulterated free will but it is also difficult to follow or trace the complex causal chain that would define a tangible concept of determinism, even in a simple situation of two people conversing with one another. Just the operation of the visual cortex of the brain alone, with its many excited neurons, as light reflects off objects in one’s field of view, entering the eye (a complex optical refracting system and photodetector). As the light passes through the cornea and to the retina, light sensitive cells cause photochemicals to decompose, sending necessary electrochemical signals to the brain that then stimulate the visual cortex. Although a gross simplification – without even mentioning the greater complexity of the human eye, the millions of rods and cones in the retina, or even the million nerve fibres connecting the eye to the brain – the point is that each subtle moment in even the most basic experience of two people talking is filled with an inexplicable amount of interconnected processes. How to account for all of this in the context of free will or, for that matter, causal chain determinism?

Indeed, and moreover, we can think of this example of two people talking and compare it with a study of patients undergoing brain surgery while still awake. This might sound strange at first. But it is an interesting example because, while undergoing surgery, it is not uncommon that the patient may lie awake and play their favourite instrument or recite their favourite maths, so as to be sure that the particular part of the brain associated with the patient’s favourite activity in life may not be damaged. It is also the case that, in such instances of brain surgery, it has been found that electrical stimulation to the relevant areas of the brain can cause the patient to move their hand or exercise a certain muscle. With this direct link between stimulation and action, it is difficult to speak of free will or even agency. One of my favourite passages currently on these debates comes from the late Professor Stephen Hawking in Grand Design (2010), who also cites similar examples of patients undergoing brain surgery. He writes, in one part of his book, “the molecular basis of biology shows that biological processes are governed by the laws of physics and chemistry and therefore are as determined as the orbits of the planets…so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion” (p. 32). Later, he writes, “Quantum physics might seem to undermine the idea that nature is governed by laws, but that is not the case. Instead it leads us to accept a new form of determinism: Given the state of a system at some time, the laws of nature determine the probabilities of various futures and pasts rather than determining the future and past with certainty” (p.72; emphasis added).

With everything that has already been noted, and in taking seriously Professor Hawking’s argument, how might we proceed?

If we return to the example of two people talking and interacting, perhaps over a cup of coffee, one enlightening point of study involves the new science and emerging conceptual picture of complexity and networks. In other words, I think it can be said that human behavior can be modeled as a complex system. Unlike particles, human beings respond to history . In fact, every single moment of human experience is based on a fermenting and simmering cocktail of interacting factors. Consider the relation of the brain to the body and vice versa – it seems a mistake to liken the brain purely to a machine, and frontier neuroscience certainly sheds light on this error. Less mechanical and predictable, the brain is equally dependent on genes that make proteins, which then enable a brain cells to communicate with another brain cells. These cells then of course manufacture or establish circuits, the basis then of macro brain structures, and so on. In the instance of two people communicating verbally with one another, or simply one person perceiving an object, a multitude of interacting parts are at play, some of which I have already alluded. The complexity of human experience is then only complicated further when we consider the subject’s unceasing interaction with their environment – some philosophers and scientists describe this through the notion of intentionality. But even more complex yet, throughout ones entire life genes are constantly being switched on and switched off, the brain is also constantly receiving biochemical signals and triggers as chemicals are released, while biochemical forces can trigger emotions or other response patterns or behavioural patterns. It is, again, a fermenting and simmering cocktail of interacting chemistry and active neurons, in addition to more superficial aspects such as emotions and psychology, which, in every moment, plays some role in human behaviour. It is becomes even more complex when we consider the nurturing and developmental aspect of things like human emotions, in which a great deal of psychology elaborates, including how healthy and positive emotional development can lead to increasing capabilities for rational and logical considerations to overcome emotional responses. Not only does all of this deepen questions or valid enquiries into the state or status of determinism with respect to a conscious human being; it most certainly dampens, in my view, any idea of free will.

Rather than thinking in terms of simple systems or of interactions within simple systems – or simple mechanical models of behaviour – even in the example of two human beings interacting at a coffee house, science from across numerous disciplines seems to suggest a picture of where we’re now converging more with the need of having to think in terms of complexity (or even networks).

To approach the issue from another angle: if the notion of free will is being brought into question here, perhaps impliedly another point of enquiry that emerges concerns the status of choice and responsibility. Indeed, the implications in moral philosophy about the absence of free will are well known. Informed scientific debates have existed for decades, including within the legal realm. But as this discussion relates to Prof. Hawking’s view, perhaps it depends on one’s interpretation or conceptualisation of determinism? I mean, the idea of libertarian free will would seem an “illusion” in many ways; but what of the general idea of human agency? What of the idea of the free-flourishing human subject? How might, instead, the notion of probabilistic determinism offer a language, or a way of conceptualising, that in some way preserves the idea of determinism while acknowledging the computational mechanism of the subject of the human agent? I think these are very interesting questions to ask, which, likewise, raise very interesting ideas that are worth considering.

I suppose what I am encircling in a very informal way is how, on a purely physical level, we can most certainly say that what we have is two human beings with each human being comprised of a certain configuration of particles and atoms that obey the laws of physics. In that there is physical reason to argue for a new form of determinism, this also serves an interesting question. How can such a new form of determinism fit within a complex picture of human behaviour?

For example, in the illustration of two people speaking with one another, perhaps over a cup of coffee, one could ask: did they choose to drink that coffee or was their behaviour determined? But what if there is a third explanation: what if there is a certain probability that the individual will drink a cup of coffee or will not? How do we fit this question into a complex picture of human behaviour keeping in mind, also, the empirical argument for an interacting subject?

One might argue, like some philosophers do in relation to the “soul”, that free will is entangled in the self-stimulation of electrical signals – in knowledge, and observation, and thus in reason which can overcome purely biochemical motivations. One might argue, alternatively, that on the basis of quantum theory and moving up the conceptual hierarchy, determinism is the most accurate explanation for human reality, made complicated with the existence of consciousness of which we have yet to really understand. I think these types of considerations are helpful in that the longstanding stalemate in the debate between free will and determinism is due to how it has so often become limited to the entrenched ontological distinction between materialist views and dualistic views. In my opinion, this is negatively restricting. Instead, when considering all the current best arguments in addition to the weight of the physical evidence, I am left thinking: perhaps the reality is more convoluted, more nuanced – that our lack of certainty and inability to conclusively reconcile the concepts of free will, or agency, and determinism is a measure of our ignorance. In other words, what if the answer is neither a 1 or a 0. What if there is some mechanism for computation and for some mediating agency in making decisions whilst also some mechanism of determinism? How can we stretch our conceptual vocabulary to make sense of the physical nature of human beings and what we observe in terms of behaviour and psychology in the context of interacting systems?

It is similar, in a certain sense, to the ongoing debates between process metaphysics and substance metaphysics. Both positions offer valuable arguments, and also serve their own respective substantial empirical and logical case as evidence. But what is most interesting – and perhaps this is another example of the value of the march of science – both of these debates are making their way into contemporary physics. And among all the speculations within theoretical physics about the correct interpretation of quantum theory, perhaps it is that there is process in substance and, reversely, substance in process. Relatedly – even if only by analogy – when we take the weight of all the arguments, perhaps it is fruitful to ask whether some notion of free will – or mediated agency, which is different than traditional notions of pure free will which still does justice to the computation factor and to agency – can exist within a physical theory of determinism? In physics, building from the uncertainty principle, there implies in uncertainty some idea of freedom from a traditional hard determinism. Instead, from one vantage, we are looking at the potential of probabilistic determinism. (A site of interesting consideration here can be found in the study of the path integral – or of particle paths more generally. To give historical context, Albert Einstein was famously cautious about quantum theory as currently conceived, primarily because he saw probabilistic determinism as evidence of an incomplete picture. Instead, the idea was that there are variables still hidden from us, mathematically and experimentally. This is what gives meaning to Einstein’s remark, “I am convinced God does not play dice”. On the flip side, there is quantum contextualism and Bell’s famous theorem that counter this notion of hidden variables).

Of course, these last comments point back to the frontier sciences and what we strive to know. Fascinatingly, the debate of free will versus determinism has some connection.


To conclude, it should be said that there is a great deal more still to be said on these matters. What I will end with here is a simple acknowledgement that the topics at hand are incredibly interesting and certainly important. I do not mean to offer any formal argument, but simply to suggest certain questions that might be raised. Disagreements pertaining to determinism versus free will arise in so many different research contexts, it is difficult to not find reason for stimulated curiosity.  In terms of my own perspective, I would say that what is encouraging is that the question of free will or determinism is become increasingly scientific. As for my own arguments, I currently argue toward some idea of probabilistic determinism. I have often expressed some argument toward some notion of causality, and I would be inclined to suggest that the case for some sort of determinism is overwhelmingly strong – that is, a determinism given the state of a system at some time. Human beings are comprised of atoms and other things that obey the laws of physics. To speak as a human being as if there is no determinism would seem foolish. But what if we begin thinking in terms of networks and systems, as some biologists are beginning to do? I think it leads to a very different idea of determinism compared with traditional or classical notions of deterministic thinking. Is there a wider analogy that one might offer? In this manner of wording, the idea would seem to be not that different to the concept of “facticity” mentioned earlier – a concept also given many different names by many philosophers and social scientists. It’s also a concept one will find, however it may be expressed, within places like developmental and behavioural psychology – the idea that the subject is mediated with its sociohistorical-cultural conditions. But I am currently thinking of these ideas in the background of strictly mathematical and physical study. It is interesting to point out, for example, that many mathematical models of physical systems are deterministic. There are also mathematical models that are not deterministic – stochastic – and there are those that are chaotic, with an interpretation of the latter and its implications still very much open. In chaos theory, it may actually prove impossible to predict outcomes in complex systems – perhaps including systems involving consciousness – and this may or may not offer some statement about the parameters or limits of determinism. It also remains that deterministic systems – even very basic systems or models using differential equations – can be sensitive to their initial conditions (much like with chaotic systems), giving the false appearance of non-determinism.

Using these insights to offer wider analogies is difficult. But, as things currently stand, probabilistic determinism would not seem unfathomable. We have not even scratched the surface of arguments in physics and biology and elsewhere, while on the level of human experience, there is also intriguing empirical examples that might be raised: it is interesting to consider how given a current state – or situation – and even preserving some space for human agency, it is entirely possible to predict a person’s behaviour if you know them well enough (given the probabilities of their action). Think, for instance, of insights offered by way of cognitive behavioural therapy – the existence of established thought patterns and triggers to certain stimuli. In other words, a person’s behaviour may not be absolutely determined or determinable, but there is still a certain probability or predictability. Of course people can change their behavioural patterns, alter or change the ways in which they think. After all, the assumption is that some space for agency is preserved and in preserving some space for agency absolute knowledge is forbidden. But the probability of a person’s behaviour, given a certain situation or context against which such probability may be judged, is likely not out of reach. If I know that a person is hungry and that they like apples, then when experiencing hunger and situated around some apples, the likelihood is that they will opt to eat an apple. Or, if a person is known to be triggered by a certain stimuli, there is a sense of predictability or at least predictable probability that such stimuli will act as a behavioural trigger. One may think, furthermore, of Bayes theorem or think of studies regarding predictive models of consumer behaviour. Indeed, it does not seem outrageous to suggest some predictability – even conditional probability – about a person’s behaviour given prior knowledge of conditions and some definition of familiarity with that person: a knowledge of that person, their psychology, history, and motivations over time, etc. In the very least, probabilistic determinism is interesting to think about from a number of perspectives. In a not so subtle way, some of the ideas also remind me of certain insights offered by predicative coding theory in which it would seem possible that both the idea of determinism and the idea of the mediating subject might coalesce. The only problem is that, once again, the coordinates of the point where these two concepts might intersect remains largely undefined.


systems theory
Philosophy and General Reading

Systems, Functions and Technological Futures

By R.C. Smith

Recently, I explored the idea of a social function operation. It takes from the basic mathematical concept of a function, with its domain and range, and extrapolates, or, in the very least, draws an analogy with social system inputs.

In systems theory, a complex society such as the modern version can be treated as a complex system of interrelated and interdependent parts. Every system has its boundaries. In speaking of modern society as a system, it is no different. A key boundary, one might argue, relates to the global economy. It sets, or defines, restrictions on the output of whatever is inputed into the function. Or, if you will, is defines a certain set of parameters on how newly inputed data or information might be realised. This input can take the form of something like a new scientific concept or technological advancement. Thinking about complex modern society in this way can evoke many interesting thoughts, or help explain many common observations.

Think, for example, of AI, or things like automation. Here we have a clear concept, which, presently, very much represents a new tangible conceptual input. But how we realise, socially, this new technology, considering that technology is mediated to whatever degree in social terms – a large part of this has to do with parameters set with respect to the boundaries of its output.

I’ve studied a lot about AI and even things like automation, from engineering and its science to the varying social philosophies. I can say that, from my current vantage, I see both developments and possible futures as incredibly positive in potential. But the key word is potential. How we realise, in terms of social formation, development and imagination is a completely independent matter from the actual science and finally also technological concept. The science, or, in the case of automation, the brilliance of the original technological and engineering concept, is inputed into the social function – the current system with its parameters and boundaries, biases, influential forces and other such variables. The output? That is precisely what is up for debate.

In my latest book, I argued toward the immense positive and transformative potential, structurally speaking, of things like automation in relation to human health, labour, and overall civilisational development. I argued for it in relation to increasing democratisation as well as in accordance with the core enlightenment and humanist values that underpin almost everything that is positive and shared in the modern age. But things like automation can also be realised in a very different way, which, as some economists and philosophers warn about, should the right direction not be pursued and the right policies not be implemented. I am not speaking of the debates around the “lump of labour“, and whether this is real or fallacy. There appears to be no question that labour markets will be disrupted, news skills and jobs will be required. A modest view is that a complete transformation of human labour is forthcoming. What I am speaking of is how we ought to conceived of this structural transformation, and whether it will fall within an increasingly exploitative, dystopian model of the future with continued trends of economic inequality; social scoring systems that measure, in effect, social worthiness of citizens; mass surveillance; and so on. Or, will such a structural transformation be realised in terms of the increase in democratisation and according to universal humanistic values of egalitarianism, justice and equality (to name a few). If the measure of social progress, from an empirical historical perspective, is based primarily on the alleviation of needless social suffering, according to what future does our present technological potential project?

This is an incredibly intriguing and important question. One need not approach it with political bias or reactionary fervous or existential anxiety. Rather, it is there to be assessed objectively. And the answer, I would be inclined to suggest, is that the future direction of human civilisation remains more ambiguous than lucid, more unclear than concise in historical aim, and more disenfranchised from ideas of progress and economic democracy than grounded in such tangible values. This assessment may be completely wrong. In the way that science represents a form of knowledge that keeps unfolding, consideration of profoundly important philosophical questions, such as those explored here, must also align with a similar epistemology.

But if one were to be inclined to sway toward the side of the cynic, such contemporary examples of a possible corporate dystopian technological future in the form of a simple “vibrational nudge”, would surely represent a quickly cited example. But with every questionable realisation of technology, and of science for that matter, there are also many examples of positive realisations. The enlightenment philosophes realised that the future is not yet determined, which gives substance to the concept that progress and things like democratic transformation are possible – that a science-based society is possible just like the abandonment of prejudices is possible.

And so I return to the idea of the social function operation.


I came across an interesting set of notes in one of my old notebooks. The notes are dated from a time when I was heavily reading and studying systems theory, beginning with the likes of Uri Bronfenbrenner,  Karl Ludwig von Bertalanffy and  Niklas Luhmann. What makes the set of notes interesting is that they contain the development of an idea, a methodological concept, however much it may be in its infancy, that I continue to find fascinating. The idea is part of a broader methodological frame within complex, systems analysis: it is the concept of resolving forces. What does this mean?

From my notebook, it is clear that the notion of resolving forces is taken directly from classical physics. Working and studying in physics, it is a practice that I am very familiar with. Whether it makes sense in a social scientific context relating to the study of social phenomena and objects, is completely and entirely up for question. But let’s think about it a little bit, even if only for the purpose of entertaining an idea.

In physics, the concept of resolving forces pertains to how any vector – think of a velocity vector, for example – can be broken into its component parts. In other words, a vector can be resolved into two components at right angles to each other. The purpose for doing this, in very simplistic terms, is how by considering component forces we can quickly find what is called ‘the resultant force’. A very common and simple mathematical description is as follows.

In considering the diagram above, F is some force. The magnitude of the force, F, is illustrated with components X and Y. From this it can be determined that F = Xi + Y j. Notice we also have a right-angled triangle. Thus,

Y = F sin θ and X = F cos θ.
∴ F = F cos θi + F sin θj.
Also F = √X2 + Y2

But what if we take this idea – the concept of resolving forces – and think of how it might be (if at all) applied in the context of the study of social forces within the context of the social function operation?

Admittedly, my notes are rather rushed and therefore vague. But the phrase is to ‘treat a complex social force’ in a similar way. It is not so much political science as it is simply mathematics, inspired, I supposed, by a bit of social philosophy, looking at the structure of a certain historical development and its component forces so as to better understand, in systems terms, some form of a negative feedback loop or perhaps some form of adaption (or whatever).

systems theory

Image by Dr. James J. Kirk:

To use an example, let’s think of a popular topic in much of contemporary social science, sociology and social philosophy: neoliberalism. It seems like almost every other book to emerge from contemporary social sciences contains a critique of neoliberalism. But, in the time when I found interest in understanding the issues for researchers in relation to this term, two things consistently struck me: 1) neoliberalism is almost unanimously considered as a negative and 2), very rarely did the research look into what its frame or structuring of policies might also do well or what positive policies it might also offer. Relating to 1) and  2), rarely did I find research on what drives neoliberalism, why it developed as a social philosophy or political ideology as a historical formation of contemporary organised society outside of the purely biased views that it is an absolutely negative development. For example, why did neoliberalism emerge and what did it offer to people that might have been received as positive? What is neoliberalism responding to, not just economically, but also in terms of a wider response among social actors. Not everyone among the public body is against neoliberal policies. Or some people may support certain particular policy interventions while being critical of others. This issues, or the study of such phenomena, are often much more complex and nuanced that ‘good versus bad’ narratives. In what ways did it impact society, the economic and its many interrelated and interdependent parts that people perceived in a positive way? Balancing the negative and the positive allows one to arrive at a more honest and comprehensive picture. If, as many researchers argue, neoliberalism is a negative socioeconomic and political force, what are its positives that people accept and why? Likewise, what do people find negative? Or, what are the negative consequences?

What I am signalling is an objective analysis from every possible conceivable angle when it comes to the study of this particular social phenomenon. What does the economics say? Psychology? Sociology? Anthropology? Geography? In other words, what does a systems analysis reveal that considers all of the interrelated and interdependent dynamic parts?

What if we were to take this approach to something like automation? The socioeconomic, political and cultural development of automation would surely be found to have several or more component forces. In considering the social function operation, the science and technological concept is inputed into the social function. (We’re assuming here that the science and technological concept are primarily free of bias). Within this social function – the current system with its parameters and boundaries, biases, influential forces and other such variables – we have the domain that is the complete set of possible values of the independent variable(s). There are different social values, economic values, philosophical values, and so on. Included here are also many component forces. Many researchers claim that economic bias is one such component force. It is complex mess. But then we also have the range the function, which, simply put, is the complete set of all possible resulting values or, in this case, possible resulting socioeconoic, cultural and historical realisations.

If we can break down a social force, or potential development, in to its many components, perhaps that offers a more clear (and non-biased) empirical supplement to a general systems view of the complex economics, behavior, psychology, engineering, and even epistemology of the future possibilities of something like automation. If it is to be realised in a negative way, why would this be the case? What forces are acting on the object, or, in this case, the technological potential of automation? What values dominated in the social function operation, what does a systems analysis reveal in terms of the broader trends of present historical development? Like, the same things could be asked with respect to its positive realisation – I would assume, positive and negative are themselves defined according to a set of normative philosophical and empirical criteria. For example, the increase in equality would be considered positive. The reduction of needless social suffering, war and violence would be considered positive. The lack of democratisation, or, the contrary of democratisation, would be considered negative.

systems theory

These, of course, are just rough if not vague ideas scribbled in an old notebook. But, in the very least, I think it is interesting to think logically and rationally in these ways.

When we look at a social phenomenon objectively from all possible and conceivable angles, then it is possible, I think, where we might reach a point where we can begin to resolve forces (in a manner of speaking) so as to better understand the nuances of a particular phenomenon and its net force: what drives it? Why did it develop in this historical moment? What are its antagonisms? How does it influence subjects, such as policies, administration of governance, regional and geographic affairs, or even culturally? Who does it benefit most? What are its biases and how does this affect the mesosystem functions? Is it a matter of homestasis and thus can it be determined that it is a product of negative feedback loops, or is it a positive, rational and constructive intervention? There are many, many questions that can and should be raised.

But most importantly, perhaps something can be taken from the mathematical and physical scientific tool of resolving forces in order to conceive of a unique social scientific methodological approach for the study of resultant social forces, functions, systems and their constituent parts?

Carl Sagan once wrote in The Demon-Haunted World, “Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to knowledge… It can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes.” In a similar way to Bertrand Russel, who I discussed in my last book, and who once remarked, “without science, democracy is impossible,” Sagan expands in his unique way: “Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action”. Democracy is not perspective. I believe physicist Brian Cox is one of his books that it is best of all possible evils, which is similar to Winston Churchill’s great quote.

In some ways, I subscribe from a historical perspective that what makes democracy to superior to the alternatives is that it fundamentally exists in tension. This tension is the product of structurally different groups each pulling in their own direction.  In fact, it has long been a hypothesis of mine that we can view the whole of democratic society in this way – it evokes the image of a tensor, but the basic idea is that there are multiple forces pulling in multiple directions. Perhaps it could even be said that democracy operates according to a system of tensions, with groups pulling as they respond to their own complaints, needs or critical assessments. The difficultly is identifying some normative critical criteria according to which the legitimate and illegitimate force of complaint might be judged. Racist, reactionary forces exist contrary to democratic, egalitarian and humanistic values – basic enlightenment values – and thus they should be judged accordingly with respect to their lack of egalitarian content (should the idea of progress remain historically important).

We could apply the same approach to the different variations on the realisation of technologies.

Where things get incredibly convoluted is when one begins to consider the sheer magnitude of bias and the input of unrelenting bias into a democratic system that ought, for the purposes of its structural healthy, be predicated on rational, evidence-based and scientific deliberations. And perhaps this is where everything comes to a head: what we have now is a very human problem.

Thus, I close with the following thought: discerning the legitimate and illegitimate requires a clear sense of objectivity as well as an unbiased normative frame of critique. It is not political analysis, I have come to learn. It simple builds from the idea of knowledge and the project of learning – like in the natural sciences, which are about the open study of nature, the social sciences should be the open study of social phenomena.

And I guess the question is, can a model be constructed that helps us accurately analyse a system of fundamental forces? What might this reveal in terms of the broad study of micro and macrosystems? How might this also influence the study of history and our understanding anthropology?

Perhaps it is another misguided attempt at translating at a mathematical and physical concept into the area of study of social phenomena. To be sure, more rigorous treatment is required. But, at least to my mind, it raises an interesting line of thinking on how one might think of breaking down social forces and future potentialities in a systematic way.

Philosophy and General Reading

‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’: Epistemology, Feedback Loops and the Science of Bias and Human Irrationality

R.C. Smith

If we take as a stated assumption, based off the growing body of science, that prejudice is pervasive – that human irrationality is, to put it philosophically, a central theme in the human struggle toward a rational society – I think one of the lessons is epistemological in form. Its basic reduction is this: instead of approaching the world of phenomena, a priori, through the conscious endeavor to understand, which implies openness in the learning subject as a sort of constant and normative orientation process, the standard paradigm of irrational society is driven to approach the world a priori through hardened established frameworks. It is the practice of what some call dogmatic thinking. It is the philosophical account of being deeply consumed by paradigmatic emphasis on bias of opinion instead of an emphasis on fact.

I remain interested in the notion of social pathology, particularly in how through the notion of “social pathology” there exists the potential for a broader meta-analysis of human irrationality. Further, it is interesting to think about how human irrationality might become deeply normalized paradigmatically, in both thought and practice. One description or example is in the form of the increasing hostility and polarisation of political views, which has been observed or described also in terms of the hardening of attitudes (toward opposing views). The idea of pathology, in critical sociological terms, attempts to explain this (in part) through an account of positive and negative feedback loops. This concept is one that can be found in a number of areas, from science and engineering to social systems theory. But the idea, applied in the current context, is simple: the more divisive and polar people’s views, including also things like media consumption (which have become increasingly biased and tribalised on both sides of the spectrum), the more that creates a sort of echo chamber that basically serves only to reinforce the extremity of polar views. As the median of polarisation widens, into opposing extremes, the pathology of the cycle is such that it leads to increasing irrationality of views that no longer have any first order engagement with facts, unbiased researched, or constructive rational debate.

Another additional account of such pathological cycles or feedback loops can be found in a critique of the sociology of “worldviews”, in which these feedback loops essentially operate in terms of the solidification separate hardened and almost absolute views of reality. But the core detail, at least in how I’ve thought about it in the past, concerns how the feedback loop leads to or is an exemplification of increasingly extreme positioning of views that are no longer rational in epistemological engagement. The study of an issue or social phenomena, the engagement in debate about varying interpretations, is not based on an openness to learn or to arrive at a more accurate account – rather, the drive seems more to argue from the basis of one’s biases. This is not only generally counter-scientific, and also non-rational, it is very similar to the sort of patterned dogmatisms that was critiqued by certain enlightenment philosophers centuries ago.

Evidence of such trends can be found both in theoretical and empirical research, such as the widely cited study by Pew Research on Political Polarisation in the American Public.
But we can also deepen this discussion by noting that what one is also describing here is the implicit (and often explicit) presence of bias in people’s engagements, as well as what seems to have become the cultural acceptance of that bias on behalf of “politics”. This signals the magnitude of the problem of human self-ignorance, individually and culturally. I think it is an epistemological problem inasmuch as, in other studies, we understand such bias and prejudice and dogma as sociological, cultural, psychological and even bio-chemically driven. As an aid, what is required, to the best of my reading, is genuine critical thinking that challenges the very existence of the construction of these negative feedback loops and “worldviews” as well as, psychologically, the production increasingly hardened attitudes.


But let’s pause a think a little bit about the psychology. This problem seems to be more than instinct versus rational cognition, though that is one reduction. The notion of a “gut feeling” – or an intuition or impulse based purely off experience (i.e., emotional history, past experiences, etc.), could be argued as being one distinct basis of the irrational process of belief formation. It is based on subconscious decision making processes, cognitive biases, memories and even bio-chemical reactions. There is a lot of incredibly interesting science in this area, especially in relation to survival training. One might think, too, of the psychology of self-affirmation theory, in which researcher describe how “much research suggests that people have a ‘‘psychological immune system’’ that initiates protective adaptations when an actual or impending threat is perceived” (p. 184). Additionally, and interestingly, “At both the individual and collective levels, important domains of functioning—health, political decision-making, conflict, relationships, academic performance—call forth the motivation to defend the self. People defensively distort, deny, and misrepresent reality in a manner that protects self-integrity” (pp. 230-231).

Furthermore, there is a lot of evidence in psychology about how, when one perceives oneself to be under threat, one’s brain resorts to an evolved fight or flight reaction. This perceived threat can be immediately physical or cognitive. Under anxiety, the brain shuts down (for lack of a better description). This state is certainly not prone to rational deliberation, as areas of brain that govern working memory, the processing of new information, and so on are prohibited as adrenaline floods one’s bloodstream and the hormone cortisol is released. Working memory has also been shown to be impaired in response to increases in the hormone cortisol. In other words, the body switches into or turns to being reliant on instinctual mechanisms.

In these situations, and even those where one is faced with overwhelming or unclear information and uncertain decisions, studies have found the people tend to resort to cognitive shortcuts. In psychology such shortcuts are referred to as heuristics, which can be useful but also tend to lead to irrational decision-making processes. It’s an interesting concept, which refers back to the inhibiting of the brain and basic cognitive processes which might foster rational deliberation and consideration. Most recently I learned of a study in The Journal of Neuroscience, which furthered discussion on heuristics.

There is too much science to link in one essay. But one of the basic ideas across the literature seems to suggest that, in many situations, the cognitive status can be incredibly reactionary and certainly not logical. That some studies on heuristics, such as the one in The Journal of Neuroscience, suggest that it is not all emotion, but potentially also cognitive laziness, add even more intrigue to the total picture that researchers are slowly building.

From a behavioural perspective – and here I am thinking aloud in memory of passed resources I’ve studied over the years – it would seem that there are many instances in which one’s inclination is toward very instinctual pattern of thinking, designed similarly to the fight or flight reaction; though I don’t think it is necessarily deterministic, as survival studies show people can think rationally under threat or stress. And this makes sense in that, if my memory serves me correctly, the primitive part of the brain is understood to be the amygdala. Located deep within the medial temporal lobe, it is thought that this part of the brain is link to both fear and pleasure. Some describe it as the “danger detector”. But the amygdala has also been linked to cognitive bias and biased behaviour.

On an epistemological level, these fascination points of research remain me of the widely celebrated book Thinking, Fast and Slow (2012) by Daniel Kahneman. I discovered this book far beyond my particular period of interest and study that resulted in my thesis on social pathology, which is a shame as it would have significantly impacted my arguments and would have served as a key reference.

Additionally, this discussion brings to mind a study I recently read on the epistemology of bias, particularly in relation to conspircist ideation.

PLOS Study

The study, titled Epistemic beliefs’ role in promoting misperceptions and conspiracist ideation, is interesting in that it studies prejudice, bias and conspiracist ideation in relation to epistemology. As an empirical reference, it seems to drill down a bit deeper into an incredibly fundamental issue: human irrationality.

In short,  the researchers found that “People who tend to trust their intuition or to believe that the facts they hear are politically biased are more likely to stand behind inaccurate beliefs. And those who rely on concrete evidence to form their beliefs are less likely to have misperceptions about high-profile scientific and political issues”.

As the lead researcher, Kelly Garret, commented in the article linked above:

“Scientific and political misperceptions are dangerously common in the U.S. today. The willingness of large minorities of Americans to embrace falsehoods and conspiracy theories poses a threat to society’s ability to make well-informed decisions about pressing matters […]. A lot of attention is paid to our political motivations, and while political bias is a reality, we shouldn’t lose track of the fact that people have other kinds of biases too.”

In addition to the PLOS study, the book by Kahneman also serves to suggest, it seems, how there is potentially the question of an interesting connection between all the points discussed so far and the general cultural development of thinking fast as opposed to slow, rational thought and consideration. More than that, as the author’s of the PLOS article suggest: one counter to epistemic beliefs not based on evidence is premised on “emphasizing the importance of evidence, cautious use of feelings, and trust that rigorous assessment by knowledgeable specialists is an effective guard against political manipulation”. It echoes calls that what is needed – at the very roots of culture and society – is a more scientific mindset. Perhaps it also signals the need for a more slow, thoughtful and considerate culture? Perhaps, too, it signals the need for “critical thinking” and less political thinking?

All of these questions and many others encircle a deeper issue that seems to be subject of increasing empirical acknowledgement. But more concisely there is also the question as to whether – or to what extent – there is a social and structural component to the fostering or promoting of cultural groups based on misperception, bias and conspiracist ideation. It sort of ties-in to discourses on social pathology, in which there is a component of human stupidity and, thus, irrationality, understood to operate as a scar. It’s the idea of the frightened snail, as edges along with its tentacles extended, until, in fear, it recedes back into its shell. The analogy serves also as a description of the hardened subject, of which stupidity is, in a sense, a developmental and emotional scar. The key idea here concerns an enquiry into what role social, economic and broader environmental conditions play in fostering rational subjectivity, as opposed to irrational, fear-driven and hardened forms of subjectivity.

It is striking, too, in this age of post-modernism in which post-empirical, post-truth developments provide ripe soil for the growth of conspiricist ideation and non-scientific approaches, that such conspiracies as the earth being flat often also refer in some way to hidden forces. It’s almost like the myth of the devil all over again. But what I am really angling toward is the question of sociohistorical-cultural context in addition to psychological, emotional and cognitive development. A lot of conspiracy theories are premised, as the PLOS study alluded, on manufacturing what I would describe as a substitute reality. As such, many of them seem to perform the same operation as the myth of devil – and of religion writ large – insofar that they explain away, in a ‘just so’ sense, everything that the individual finds overwhelming or difficult in life and in the (real) social world. Unemployed or stuck in a dead-end job in one’s thirties? ‘It’s not my fault, it’s the Illuminati or some hidden New World Order!’ These sorts of explanations or justification don’t seem uncommon – they indicate some belief that society is rigged, and that one’s struggle in life or in seeking personal success are the result of a massive hidden force, as opposed to one’s choices or concrete social issues like economic inequality. Conspiracies, in this sense, act as substitute realities to appease the psyche not only with respect empirical injustice, struggle and suffering – that is, concrete structural social, economic and political issues – they also seem on my observation to deflect from personal responsibility and the platitudes of existential angst common to human experience. These “worldviews” become so entrenched, even the concept of facts are rendered meaningless.

Thinking broadly – and perhaps searching philosophically

What I am mostly curious about at the current juncture is how all of this might link together, especially considering the PLOS study with respect to the formation of closed and prejudiced – or dogmatic – systems of belief. Philosophically speaking, it is interesting to think about how prejudiced systems of belief seem to operate according to established predictors of misperception. Indeed, that is something the PLOS study hints at.

Another interesting study from Stanford University was recently published. It seems to go with recent trends in terms of research findings and the slow piecing together of a much larger picture on human bias. It suggested that changing behaviors may be easier when people see norms changing. This raises a number of very interesting sociological questions.  One example cited, as summarised in the article linked above, concerns how “people ate less meat and conserved more water when they thought those behaviors reflected how society is changing”. One can think of a long list of examples that would seem to support, or be supported by, this research. Think of such a facile example as the changes in fashion trends, where majority of people will think a new fashion style looks ridiculous only for that same style to be normalized and supported by the majority five years later. One can draw examples of the same basic meaning from a number of areas.

More deeply, it is interesting to think of this research in relation to cognitive bias. Can it help explain why some norms, which may have become pathological or destructive, continue to be sustained? For example, think of the norms of gun culture in the U.S. in comparison to every other western society, particularly in relation to levels of gun violence. The data, at least when I last reviewed it, was striking. Moreover, in that studies of social pathology have a direct connection to the study of social norms, can it be said that there is link between this research on behaviour in relation to norms and social bias more generally? One can think of a number of different types of bias in this context, including Bayesian priors.

Ultimately, these questions should be saved for another time and after more thorough research and studies have been achieved. Indeed, a lot of the questions I am hinting at need to be weighed against the evidence. But this essay has, admittedly, aroused in me a deeper question about bias and what, in sociology, one might described as “systemic trends”. If bias is so widespread and prevalent, and if human beings are (or can be) incredibly irrational, what does this say in epistemological terms about us in our present history? Let me put it another way, what does it say about the current successes of the enlightenment project and how far do we still have to go to defeat the epistemologies of myth? Bias and prejudice are intimately linked to myth, which, itself, is perhaps the most pure case of human irrationality.

A fascinating example, which I’ll cite here to touch on the deeper point I seem to be encircling, refers to an anti-vaccination movement in the 1990s. I recently read about this in relation to the latest science which suggests, due a variety of factors (some cyclical, some in relation to climate change), that lyme disease is potentially about to explode among the populace. Currently, there is no vaccine, and lyme disease remains a very urgent problem. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t a vaccine! Indeed, as Chelsea Whyte wrote, “We used to have one, but thanks to anti-vaccination activists, that is no longer the case”. What happened?

In the late 1990s, a race was on to make the first Lyme disease vaccine. By December 1998, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the release of Lymerix, developed by SmithKline Beecham, now GSK. But the company voluntarily withdrew the drug after only four years.

This followed a series of lawsuits – including one where recipients claimed Lymerix caused chronic arthritis. Influenced by now-discredited research purporting to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, activists raised the question of whether the Lyme disease vaccine could cause arthritis.

Media coverage and the anti-Lyme-vaccination groups gave a voice to those who believed their pain was due to the vaccine, and public support for the vaccine declined.

What is interesting about this example is because it is in no way uncommon, and it offers interesting angle of insight into a similar problem the PLOS study sought to investigate. A few years after the anti-vaccination movement won the media battle and persuaded public opinion, comprehensive research in a retrospective study showed “only 905 reports for 1.4 million doses”. “Still, wrties Whyte, “the damage was done, and the vaccine was benched”. And even though there is a vaccine currently in ear;y human trials, what is essentially myth – false or baseless knowledge thought of as true – remains insofar that it will be an uphill battle to fight anti-vacc. lobbyists and re-educate the public.

Why this example, among many others, stand out is because it seems to correlate not only with the PLOS study but also more broad studies on the development of post-factualist, post-empirical culture. And the deeper question of this essay asks: what, if at all, underlines such developments in thought, perception and in human behaviour?

Concluding reflections

To conclude: it will be fascinating to monitor the emerging research and growing body of evidence when it comes to understanding human bias. What direction it all goes, it is difficult to say. We know human beings can be deeply biased. Not only is this a problem is greater society, it is one we must also constantly fight against in the natural sciences. But in thinking about epistemology in relation to the PLOS study, I suppose what I find interesting is the question of whether, if bias can take different forms – from the construction of some sort of complete worldview (think of a highly politicized subject) to prejudiced belief about a particular topic (think of a generally pro-science politically left individual, who then is also anti-GMO in the face of scientific consensus) – perhaps the simple reduction is one of science or anti-science? When I think of anti-science, and anti-reason for that matter, which can actually sometimes operate under the guise of pro-science and pro-reason, I think of a closed, repressed, dogmatic form of thinking that possesses very particular epistemological characteristics. What does one call such thinking? I have no answer. I’ve seen accounts under numerous headings: “uncritical thought” (associated with the critical thinking movement), anti-enlightenment epistemology, ideological thought, the epistemology of cognitive bias, and so on.

It also serves to emphasize things like Bayesian reasoning, critical thinking and critical reading (and simply general cognitive and epistemological agility and openness to new evidence), which are incredibly important skills and analytical tools when it comes to academic study and even daily experience, forming a precursor to exercising to the fullest extent one’s capacity to reason and to engage with the world in a rational way. Critical thinking has a deep place in science, and is increasingly informed by advanced scientific research in learning, cognitive and neural systems, and so on. The definitions of all these terms are very well known, with students introduced to critical thinking and reading exercises at undergrad (or earlier).

Having said that, it is worthwhile noting that critical thinking is not necessarily a negative process, although some describe it this way. This is because the a priori aim of critical thinking and reading is not to find fault. Identifying, constructing and evaluating arguments is certainly one aspect of critical thinking, and this includes the ability to dissect arguments and locate underlying assumptions, and thus test those things for inconsistency. At its most basic however, critical thinking is a deeply rational process – to assess the strength and weakness of an argument, especially when weighed against the evidence and a fuller assessment of the phenomenon or issue in question from all points of study in its complexity. Thus, it refers to systematic evaluation and problem-solving, as well as normative consideration and reflection on the status of one’s own beliefs and values as a subject, so as to ensure openness against potentially creeping bias and prejudice.

In this sense, it may not be entirely accurate, but I often think of “critical thinking” in epistemological terms as systemic thinking in that one one component of it is to seek to understand not only  the local phenomenon but also the systems around it or within which that phenomenon (or issue) exists, and thus also the logical connections between concepts, ideas and the thing itself. It is about deep, multidimensional and open consideration inasmuch as it entails scrutinizing the work presented to see whether there are biases that one can detect which shape the author’s interpretation of any facts and ideas. But beyond that, to think critically does not necessarily mean to think “politically”. It is much closer, in epistemological terms, to thinking objectively, slowly and with great deliberation.

And so maybe one lesson here – in a consideration of deeply biased social world – is the need for more critical thinking, and less political thinking?

Perhaps another interesting questions concerns whether, if bias and prejudice are so widespread and prevalent, as emerging research on cognitive bias would seem to indicate, is the current trajectory of social culture not then heading in the opposite direction that it should? Contemporary social culture seems, in a more speculative tone, predicated on “fast thinking” (to borrow from Kahneman) and heuristics. There seems to be a lot of reactionary debates, instead of thoughtful, informed and considerate engagements. With an overwhelming and endless flow of information – which almost acts as a new form of censorship repressing genuine content, data and fundamental discussion – there seems to be a significant emphasis and discernible demand for immediate reaction, click-bait headlines, news spectacle and watered down literature, as opposed to thoughtful and well-informed and evidence-based deliberation that requires deep rational consideration. It leaves one to wonder,  would the general coordinates of a science-based society or science-inspired culture not be represented by a complete different vector?