An assessment of the status of climate change modelling as a scientific paradigm (part 2)

The latest news that the Antarctic has undergone rapid melting in the period 2014-2017 (Vaughan, 2019), undoing 35 years of gradual growth, one of the touchstones of climate change sceptics, effectively demolishes the argument that global warming is not real. Nevertheless, the pressure by activists for radical and immediate restructuring of the economy is potentially dangerous, though probably futile. The utility of viewing the model of anthropogenic climate change as a scientific paradigm, established in part 1 of this essay, is that it attempts to insulate the work of scientists in the field from overt pressure and the decontextualization of their data for political ends, while giving space for practical policy to meet the challenges climate change presents.

Such a move also raises a number of questions. One is that if a paradigm shift is under way, what is the nature of the prior paradigm (or paradigms) from which resistance has emanated? Another concerns the status of scientific prediction within the paradigm, as opposed to political grandstanding or wild speculation. Then there is the issue of the limits of the concept of a paradigm – what defines a scientific paradigm and at what point does it outlive its usefulness?

Resistance to the climate change model from prior paradigms 

From the perspective of the Kuhnian paradigm hypothesis, rejection of the climate change model can be considered as a clinging-to and resistance-from the perspective of a prior paradigm. The question then arises as to the nature of this prior paradigm. In fact, there seems to be no prior unitary paradigm, as global warming was barely a perceived issue until the 1990’s. Instead there were individual disciplines working within their own silos – climatology here, oceanography there – with their own specialisations and methods, which would rarely if ever have talked to each other. Many, though not all, climate change sceptics represent the older generation of scientists wedded to older ways of thinking. As Kuhn and others have proposed, the nature of a paradigm shift is that it frequently accomplished more by the older generation dying off than by conversion to the new paradigm, which, in any case, is never a matter of pure rational decision.

As a paradigm is, at least in part, a social construct, it is never just a matter of reason organising data; there are always assumptions, values and biases, such as cultural prejudices, built into its structure. If this is the case, then the paradigmatic forerunner of the climate change model can be understood as an essentially conservative one, one that embodies, explicitly or implicitly, a religious vision of nature and humanity. This is not one that necessarily disavows science but sees it as an expression of the mastery of nature granted mankind, ultimately by a benevolent deity. It is optimistic in outlook compared with the current environmentalist view, believing that nature is abundant and limitless and too resilient for us to do much harm. Moreover, it prioritises human life over other forms of life and asserts our cosmic right to exploit nature for our own benefit and is, thus, essentially also humanistic. This model was essentially shared across the political spectrum before the advent of the widespread adoption of the environmentalist perspective.

Thus, another source of resistance to the climate change model can be seen from those who have difficulty accommodating within their worldview the dethroning of human beings as masters of creation or the pinnacle of evolution. They see science as a tool for the continuing expansion and improvement of the human race, or at least the fortunes of the nation. Perhaps the realignment of the left almost universally with the environmentalist vision is less an expression of conviction with the facts of the climate change model than it is with the universal failure of socialist economics and its essentially optimistic view of humanity. That leaves resistance now to the climate change model from believers in nationalist supremacy allied to capitalist economics,  which  includes most of the world, though few are brazen enough to put it that bluntly.

This resistance is a powerful force. Moreover, even those who believe in global warming have a problem in following the logic of their conviction, because it is not just pro-environmentalist but also markedly anti-humanistic, and it is difficult in practice to deny your own right to exist and prosper. Few are willing even to give up the most environmentally unfriendly practices we are aware of, such as driving cars, taking holidays to exotic locations by plane, using high-tech equipment and shipping food and goods around the world to satisfy our needs and desires. Fewer still are willing to give up on the modern world and retreat to a natural life – even if such a thing could be defined; after all, it was not modern peoples that eliminated the native megafauna of the world, but peoples in primitive societies. It is certainly paradoxical to the environmentalist argument that the people most inclined and best placed to live life in harmony with nature are the richest.

Within the climate change paradigm – and this is a sign that it is gaining growing acceptance – different philosophical, economic and political agendas are emerging, besides radical de-modernisation. One sees the future as adaptation to a changing climate, looking for new economic opportunities in a warming world. Another sees the route to controlling anthropogenic warming being through new technologies which mitigate the harm done and even reverse it. In these views sound environmental policy means that consumers are able to make choices better for the environment, such as buying hybrid or electric vehicles, changing their diet away from those that require intensive farming, etc. This demonstrates the beginning of the maturation of the paradigm. Not all will be converted, but they will not be around forever.

Scientific explanation, prediction and control

A claim that is raised by sceptics of global warming and its associated climate change is that the model is invalidated by a history of failed predictions or predictions wide of the mark, invariably on the side of doomsday scenarios rather than on the side of caution. This is not the place to consider the various anomalies in data that are seized on from time to time by opponents of the model, who, perhaps unknowingly, hold to a radically falsificationist view of science – that a single counter-example is sufficient to demolish a theory (rather than presenting a challenge that needs to be accommodated within the theoretical framework); there is an extensive literature on such claims.

The issue to be considered here is the relationship between a theory’s ability to explain and to predict. A viable theory must do both and clearly prediction is built on the foundation of having offered an explanation for some phenomenon. There is a fundamental imbalance, though, between the two: an explanation is an interpretation of the existing data, while a prediction is a projection into the unknown (often, but not necessarily, the future) for which there is no existing evidence, which only the future can supply. As discussed in the first part of this essay, the reasons for the acceptance of a theory can be, and usually are, more than just rational and evidential; they often involve an aesthetic component – the new theory is simpler and neater in some respects. This also presupposes that there is an evidential gap in the present. Theories are able to usefully predict and lead to the possibility of control only when they have completed the theoretical gap in “successfully” explaining the contemporaneous data.

I want to look at four examples of generally-accepted paradigm shifts and examine their relation to explanation, prediction and control: the Copernican (heliocentric) revolution; evolution by natural selection; general relativity; and plate tectonics.

The case of the Copernican Revolution is often upheld – if one can be excused the lexical quirk – as the paradigm of the paradigm. This has much to do with the fact that Kuhn first developed the idea of the paradigm shift looking at the historical emergence of heliocentrism in Europe (Kuhn, 1957; 1985), but also that it manifests clearly those characteristics which came to define the paradigm in other cases to which the concept was applied. Copernicus had surprisingly little data on which to base his theory; his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres was published in 1514, 100 years before the advent of reliable telescopes and Galileo’s evidence from planetary observation in 1615. It was based more on a theoretical consideration – that Kuhn refers to as conceptual ‘economy’ – that heliocentrism resolved  the increasingly untidy and unrealistic model derived from adapting the Ptolemaic system of epicycles.

Copernicus’ model paved the way for Newton’s theory of forces, gravity and the mechanics of ballistic flight, without which we would not be able to place satellites in orbit. It also opened up the way to astronomical research and the possibility of flight to other planets. The fundamental intellectual shift that took place in the Copernican revolution, allowed us to see the possibility of other systems and worlds like our own and begin the search for them, unhampered by dogma. The number of exoplanets now identified runs into thousands, some having many earth-like characteristics (NASA, 2019).

Darwin’s (1859) theory of evolution by natural selection was the culmination of a tradition of observation that went back to Aristotle, but which was subsumed under the scholastic theological and philosophical concept of the Great Chain of Being and the revival of ancient mythology in the western medieval period. Darwin was preceded by important classifiers of biological form, such as Cuvier and Linnaeus, as well as a philosophical tradition of evolutionary thinking. Darwin’s seminal contribution, though, was to imagine a mechanism by which the transformation of form over time might occur. There are two fundamental ideas: continuous variation of organisms in form from one generation to another and selective pressure from the environment of the organism that allows particular variations to prosper down the generations.

At the time Darwin’s theory accounted for the great variety of organic forms that exist, the prevalence of unique species in isolated environments, such as the Galapagos Islands, and the existence of different creatures in the fossil record. However, there was no evidence to support the idea of inherited variation. This only gradually emerged, first in the rediscovery of Mendel’s work in 1900, then the elucidation of the structure of DNA by Crick & Watson in 1953, confirmation coming through research into the mechanism of the development of viral resistance. The theory underlies all current experimental work in biology and has given rise to new technologies that promise increasing control of biological processes. The decoding of the human genome in 2000 raises the possibility of individually tailored treatment for a variety of diseases as well as direct intervention in the blueprint for life.

Though we continue to live largely in a Newtonian worldview regarding the everyday interactions between things – indeed we have been able to send rockets to the planets based on Newton’s equations – we now consider Einstein’s theory of gravity, developed between 1907 and 1915, to be more general and more accurate. Einstein dealt with a long-standing philosophical problem with Newton’s theory of gravity, the difficulty of a force acting instantaneously over immense distances, by re-conceptualising gravity as the curvature of 4-dimensional space-time. This fulfils the requirement of a paradigm shift that there needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking, not merely in detail. Einstein was also able to achieve in the process a unification of other concepts, such as the equivalence of mass and energy.

Einstein’s work was almost entirely theoretical. Nevertheless, confirmatory evidence came within a few months with his prediction of anomalies in the orbit of Mercury. In 1919 gravitational lensing was observed for the first time. Two predictions proved difficult to confirm: gravitational waves and black holes, massive stars collapsed to a singularity. The first evidence of gravitational waves was seen in 2015 (Castelvecchi & Witze, 2016). The existence of black holes was generally accepted from the 1970s and indirect evidence has accumulated. It is only in 2019, though, that direct evidence – a photograph of the energy released by infalling matter forming a halo around a black hole – has been available. The data over the past 100 years has confirmed the status of Einstein’s theory. We know, however, that it must be an incomplete theory, as it is not compatible with quantum mechanics, which has also been repeatedly confirmed at the atomic level. This again is a facet of the paradigm; it remains an area of research precisely because it continues generates questions in problematic areas.

The fourth example, Plate tectonics, is probably the least well-known, as it raises no profound philosophical or ethical issues, generates, as a result, few headlines, and was the cumulative result of quiet research by scientists unknown outside their specialised fields. It had been observed for several centuries that the shape of some of the continents suggested that they had once fitted together, rather like a jigsaw puzzle. By the nineteenth century it was also speculated, based on the presence of common sedimentary deposits around the globe and the distribution pattern of identical fossil species, that the continents had a shared geological history in a supercontinent called Gondwanaland. In 1912 Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift, whereby the continents had moved to their present position over millions of years. Though the theory accounted for the known evidence and was more plausible than alternative theories, such as an expanding earth or land bridges between the continents, it provided no mechanism for this motion and was discounted by the mainstream geological establishment. In the 1930s Arthur Holmes proposed that convection currents in the mantle, generated by heat from radioactivity, drove the movement of the earth’s crust. This remains until now the accepted mechanism, though there has been no experimental verification. The main outlines for plate tectonics was developed in the 1960s, based on the work of Wilson (1965) and others on transform faults, whereby the continents are considered to float on giant plates of oceanic crust that are created at oceanic ridges, slide past each other and disappear at subduction zones.

Plate tectonics has created a unified theory that encompasses all the large-scale geological processes. It has very strong explanatory power, supported by an increasing body of evidence and, therefore strong predictive power. However, this predictive power is limited to macro rather than micro scale events, which are statistically correlated and highly chaotic. Practically, plate tectonics has not yet afforded us a way to accurately predict and thus control (or control for) potentially devastating events such as volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis and mudslides, the dynamics of which are, nevertheless, very well understood.

What these examples demonstrate is that a paradigm shift to a new paradigm:

  • Occurs to address anomalies within an existing paradigm.
  • Meets resistance from adherents of the existing paradigm.
  • Reconceptualises the core elements of a theoretical system and gives a different explanation, which forces us to think differently.
  • Achieves the unification of hitherto disparate phenomena by being more general.
  • Predicts outcomes, events or phenomena that would act as confirmatory evidence.
  • Initiates a period of normal science, usually extending to decades, which includes the hunt for confirmatory evidence and exploring the limits of the paradigm.
  • Opens up the opportunity for new forms of control over nature.

The anthropogenic model of climate change, from this perspective, is the epitome of an emerging paradigm. Perhaps a couple of points need some explanation, the first, regarding reconceptualisation. I would argue that the model is virtually unique in seeing human economic activity as a part of nature that merits scientific investigation, rather than as a subject of political and economic critique. Not only that, but economic activity becomes the conceptual core of the theory that ties together the various systems – atmospheric, oceanic, lithographic, ecological – into a coherent theory. The second is that it bespeaks the need for a dispassionate evaluation of the predictions of the theory, primarily global warming, which, if precedent is anything to go by, is likely to be measured in decades. That means at the level of scientific research we should be wary of sensationalist claims reported before proper peer review takes place, which are likely to result in bad policy decisions, just as we should be dismissive of sceptics grasping straws to uphold outmoded paradigms.

The validity of the concept of the paradigm

So far, I have undertaken an evaluation of whether anthropogenic climate change conforms to the idea of a scientific paradigm as laid out by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. I want to turn this around now and consider the extent to which climate change science tests the limits of the paradigmatic concept. In particular, I want to look at the contemporaneous extra-scientific ethical, political and philosophical debates around two of the cases considered in the last section, those of the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, as a precursor to evaluating the status of paradigms vis a vis climate change.

The concept of the paradigm as envisaged by Kuhn has strong sociological roots, not only in the idea of science as the activity of a scientific community, but also that of intergenerational resistance and advocacy, and the aesthetic appeal of the new. This is important to discover the limits of the idea of the paradigm, what is not included; a concept in which every form of human intellectual (and other) endeavour could be included would have little utility. It is ultimately to determine whether the paradigm is a useful concept in understanding the development of scientific theories and, specifically, whether it applies to the climate change model.

Today the controversy that raged around the introduction of heliocentrism is, when considered at all, viewed through the lens of our own values. We tend to be highly critical of Copernicus’ decision not to publicise his ideas more widely, challenging the earth-centred view promulgated by the Catholic Church, and are appalled by the threats made to Galileo by the inquisition and his virtual silencing. It is important to remember, though, that the acceptance of the heliocentric model was not only a challenge to Catholic tradition and authority (the upholding of geocentrism is Greek in origin, not biblical), but to the idea that humanity occupied a central position in the Creation and was accorded a value as such and, moreover, that the evidence for it was thin and itself theory-dependent (Chalmers, 1982).

After 400 years the controversies over the move from a geocentric to a heliocentric model have faded. We now know that our solar system is a miniscule part of a galaxy, that of a galactic cluster, in turn one of billions in a universe that may, hypothetically, be part of a multiverse. The knowledge is background to the everyday, while forming part of a great deal of scientific research, which is where it enters the realm of politics and finance. Beyond considerations of cost for some of the more ambitious programmes, and perhaps of risk and priorities in the case of space exploration, there are few troubling ethical and philosophical issues associated anymore with this paradigm.

Rather like Copernicus, Darwin delayed the publication of his theory of evolution because of its theological and potentially social implications at a time when religion was still a powerful force in society. Whereas we have absorbed the knowledge of our dethroning as the centre of the cosmos, we are still dealing with the implications, philosophical and ethical, of our existence being contingent on blind chance, as well as the power to alter our destiny. Unlike the Copernican revolution, the Darwinian revolution has from the beginning generated troubling ethical dilemmas, political philosophies and social movements. Social Darwinism emerged in Darwin’s own lifetime and the twentieth century saw the rise and fall of the eugenics movement. Today we face dilemmas over genetically modified plants and animal, the threat of bioweapons, designer babies or clones and the potential combining of human DNA with that of other species or advanced robotics and the emergence of human sub-species. These possibilities pose ethical and political problems of an existential nature.

In these cases there were, or are, highly contentious issues of a political, theological, philosophical or ethical nature that form a penumbra around the core science. Popper refers to these collectively, which do not meet his criterion of falsifiability, as ‘metaphysics’. Indeed, evolution by natural selection does not meet this strict criterion, though Popper allows it the status of a ‘metaphysical research programme’ (Popper, 1976). By this criterion none of the established scientific paradigms would have got off the ground, certainly not the heliocentric paradigm, which was clearly falsified by some of the information available at the time. This metaphysical penumbra exists – to a greater or lesser degree – around all scientific endeavor, but is recognised as significant and, therefore, has a more natural place within the concept of the paradigm. The question is whether there is a limit beyond which it is no longer possible to talk about a scientific paradigm, but only a political or ethical agenda, and whether anthropogenic climate change has crossed that line.

An accusation levelled at climate change science is that it is not real science but a fabrication designed to bolster left wing and environmentalist criticism of capitalism and the consumer society and justify anti-capitalist activism that, by implication, leads to a vilification of conservative politics, which has mostly been business-friendly. If this were true, it would blend imperceptibly into the entire political activism of the left on issues such as economic inequality, women’s and minorities’ rights and increasingly issues around identity. In that case, if the model of anthropogenic climate change would be considered a paradigm it could be argued that any body of theory and practice, including those of the social sciences, humanities and arts, which include variable degrees of interpretation and imaginative construction, should be legitimately considered paradigms. This would virtually render the term meaningless and we would have to look at alternative means of demarcating science from non-science, such as Popper’s criterion of falsifiability or Lakatos’ (1974) notion of research programmes.

I suggest that the way out of this corner is to look at the issue of control rather than explanation or prediction. This means that the assignment of paradigm status remains intact to the degree that control is exercised primarily in the technological realm, not in the political realm, notwithstanding the political and ethical dimensions of all science and technology. This is clearly the case with heliocentrism, where almost all issues are technological and few ethical or political, and it is increasingly so with evolution, although there are areas where major ethical concerns and scope for political decision-making arise. I would say that anthropogenic climate change’s status hangs in the balance at the moment; there is clearly a theoretically cohesive idea, based on real-world data, which leads to explanation and prediction, and a limited penetration of alternative energy technology into the market, but control of the agenda is still largely in the hands of activist and political players, not led by research, development and economic priorities.

Conclusion – the new normal

There is little doubt in my mind that we are experiencing the effects of human colonisation of virtually every natural system on the planet – how could it be otherwise with regard to industrialisation and global trade, when we have had an impact on nature from prehistoric times? However, we have to see this in context – actually, a number of contexts. The first is that we are on the brink of a number of existential crises, some of which receive far less publicity that they should compared to climate change. Secondly, we should recognise the resilience of nature; as long as we implement changes, there is reason to think that much of the present damage can be reversed and we can adapt to those that cannot. Then, we need to recognise the enormous capacity science and the free market have shown to generate solutions to seemingly intractable problems and improve the quality of life.

The acceptance of the anthropogenic climate change as a scientific paradigm creates a new normal, meaning a realignment of our values and economic practice, driven by increasing technological control over environmental parameters. It increases the probability of the extreme fringes of anti-humanism and year zero advocates within the environmental wing and anti-Capitalists within the left having less impact on policy and the focus being put on mitigation and alleviation technologies. In this context Toyota’s recent decision to make its hybrid technology open source is an interesting development (Gorey, 2019), as it promises to seed a fundamental technological change in the direction of mitigation, while expanding the market in which competition based on quality – rather than monopoly – becomes the norm. Initiatives of this kind represent a realistic and hopeful step-change in the new environmentally aware economy.

References and Bibliography

Calder, Nigel (1978). The Restless Earth: A Report on the New Geology. London: Penguin.

Castelvecchi, Davide; Witze, Alexandra (11 February 2016). “Einstein’s gravitational waves found at last”. Nature News. doi:10.1038/nature.2016.19361. Retrieved 11 February 2016.

Chalmers, A. F. (1982). What is this thing called science? An assessment of the nature of science and its methods. Milton Keynes: The Open University Press.

Darwin, Charles (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection. New York: D. Appleton & Co.

Gorey, Colm (3 April 2019). Toyota to make secret hybrid tech open access until 2030. Silicon Republic. Available at: https://www.siliconrepublic.com/machines/toyota-prius-hybrid-tech-open-access

Kuhn, Thomas (1957). The Copernican Revolution (Copyright renewed 1985). Harvard University Press.

Lakatos, Imre (1974). The methodology of scientific research programmes. Philosophical Papers Volume I. edited by John Worrall and Gregory Currie. Cambridge: CUP.

Lutz, Ota (April 19, 2019). How Scientists Captured the First Image of a Black Hole. Teachable Moments. NASA: Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Available at: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/edu/news/2019/4/19/how-scientists-captured-the-first-image-of-a-black-hole/

NASA Exoplanet Archive. Available at: https://exoplanetarchive.ipac.caltech.edu/. Retrieved 10 July 2019.

Popper, K.R. (1976): Unended Quest, an Intellectual Autobiography, Fontana/Collins, Glasgow.

Vaughan, Adam (1 July 2019). Antarctic sea ice is declining dramatically and we don’t know why. New Scientist. Online at: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2208180-antarctic-sea-ice-is-declining-dramatically-and-we-dont-know-why/

Wilson, J. Tuzo (July 24, 1965). “A new Class of Faults and their Bearing on Continental Drift”. Nature. 207 (4995): 343–347.

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The Infinite Ways of God: Universalist Theology in a Post-Monotheist Age

(Adapted from a presentation to a theological conference)

The following outlines my sense, primarily as a social theorist, of the direction in which a universalist theology could develop, if it intends to underpin a form of society in which every person, of whatever culture or creed, feels they have a place, but which is true to the life, example and teachings of their particular philosophical or spiritual tradition. I propose that there are two main requirements for this to be realised: a philosophical basis for a universal spirituality and a set of universal socio-cultural values.

As I am not a theologian, my approach to religions is principally in understanding their efficacy in promoting good societal outcomes, which from my perspective is the extent to which they promote individual flourishing, social harmony and human progress. However, I wish to approach that obliquely and take as my starting point part of a biblical verse, Genesis 3:8, “And they heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day”, which is a literal translation from the Hebrew. The particular context is that Adam and Eve, after the fall, hid from the presence of Yahweh in shame. The author of the verse, however, seems to suggest that Yahweh was predisposed to taking a daily constitutional in his creation. How we understand this extract – literally, figuratively, symbolically, poetically, metaphorically or sceptically – is a matter of personal interpretation. Perhaps we can agree, though, that as an expression of a literary imagination steeped in an oral tradition passed on through generations, it has the power to transpose us from the mundane to a world of transcendent possibility.

Such a possibility sits uneasily with the dominant monotheism of the Christian West and Islamic world. Phenomenologically, the peregrinations of Yahweh are no different from those of Enki, Krishna, Zeus or Odin, literary gods based on oral traditions that are similarly open to interpretation as a source of ontological grounding and moral insight. Monotheism, however, forbids the possibility of existence of any gods but the one God and, therefore, by inference, the spirituality of traditions other than those based on its presuppositions. Ironically, then, the monotheistic religions fail to agree amongst themselves and have historically been in a state of near-perpetual conflict.

My thesis here is that the problem with monotheism is not the belief in a God from whom one finds spiritual sustenance and moral guidance; it is with its philosophical underpinning of monism derived from Greek philosophy, ultimately that of Parmenides of Elea. Parmenides pushed the pre-Socratic search for the basis of reality in a single substance to its ultimate logical conclusion in claiming that the ‘One’ is being itself, that the only thing that exists is being, that nothing exists outside of being and that the appearance of plurality, motion and change is an illusion.

An important inference from this is that thinking and reasoning are a part of being, there only being the ‘One’. In the words of Parmenides, “‘To be thought’ and ‘to be’ are the same [thing].” (fragment 3, tr. Herman, 2004) and “It is not possible to say or to think that it ‘is not’,” the denial of non-being (fragment 8, tr. Taran, 1965). There are two important corollaries to this philosophical monism: that being is the only thing that can make an appearance in our mind, since it is the only reality; and that the inability to see or to acknowledge this reality is evidence of error. It is a small step from this to the absolutist claims to truth of the monotheistic religions and the condemnation of ‘otherness’, which give theological justification to the horrors that have been committed in their names.1

Whether there is direct evidence of the influence of Parmenides on the development of monotheism is unsure, but there is circumstantial evidence as there is a conceptual lineage concerning the ‘One’, from Parmenides through Plato to Plotinus, who as the father of Neoplatonism influenced many early Christian theologians, including Augustine.

I would argue that a universal theology should not be based on Western philosophical and theological concepts founded on monistic presuppositions, but on philosophical and spiritual traditions that have understood being as plural, relational and dynamic. These would include the pre-Socratic philosophies of Heraclitus and Democritus, developed in response to Parmenides’ absolute monism, and the Taoist philosophy of Yang and Yin, which sees the underlying reality as the dynamic unity of opposites. The theological positions which are most closely aligned to this are pantheism and what philosophers such as Whitehead and Hartshorne refer to as panentheism.2

Pantheism is a total identification of the divine with the world, a position advocated by Leibnitz and the default position of many erstwhile atheists, while it is compatible with the phenomenological approach to the sacred espoused by the anthropologist Mircea Eliade (1957, 1963). As a spiritual tradition, pantheism is most beautifully expressed in the ancient Vedic Sanskrit saying tat tvam asi – That Thou Art – an articulation of empathetic identification alien to monotheism, though not, in all fairness, to some of the mystical traditions that have sprouted from the biblical and koranic religions. However, these mystical traditions are not actually pantheistic, but panentheistic. The failure of pantheism, as I see it, is that it is another form of monism; if everything is divine, then nothing in particular is.

The virtue of panentheism is that it unites the experience of transcendence and that of immanence, that of the divine beyond experience with the experience of divinity in the world. It thus compensates the weaknesses of monotheism and pantheism, the epistemological vices of “nothing but” and “everything”. While immanence in principle accepts as valid every experience and assertion of the sacred, transcendence creates a critical space for moral sensibility, based on cultural values.

A post-monotheist age, to be more than a theological fiction, must correspond to a social reality in which people are free to choose their own spiritual path, whether they do that individually or collectively, but in which there is recognition of an underlying philosophical unity in diversity that promotes collective tolerance, respect and even appreciation. This could be called something like an elective panentheism. As a social theology it would need to both engender and, reciprocally, be grounded on universal values. I suggest, below, what some of those might be, as they are common to the great philosophical and religious traditions, and exemplified by great figures throughout history. At the end of each section I have indicated in parentheses a small sample of related disvalues, that is, traits in opposition to the value, which may be contextually useful.

Uncertainty and the acceptance of our ignorance. This is why we think, why we talk to others, why we read and why we pray. The basis of wisdom is the acceptance of ignorance, a philosophical tradition that goes back to Socrates, but a religious teaching found in all the great religions which must, nonetheless, be cultivated as a practice by the individual. [Sample disvalues: arrogance, self-righteousness]

Openness to the mystery of being: nature, our minds, other people, other cultures. The more we know, the more we realise we don’t know. This is based on the values of humility and curiosity, the foundations of discovery. Science is an exemplar of this approach to nature, but all forms of knowledge arise through openness. [Sample disvalues: closed-mindedness, xenophobia, racism]

Sensitivity to truth, beauty, goodness, wisdom, and other great values; sometimes referred to as absolute values, they have been at the basis of all cultures. Though critiqued in modernist philosophy through the twentieth century, there is a growing understanding of these as important (if strictly unrealisable) aspirations that motivate social progress. [Sample disvalues: deceit, ugliness, evil, stupidity]

Support for the great institutions and accomplishments of cultures that allow individuals to flourish; prime among these is the family, which is reckoned foundational to all social life and, in some senses, a paradigm of all social structures, nurturing the individual within the collective. [Sample disvalues: mockery, promiscuity, disloyalty]

Respect for the everyday and the desire of people to live in peace. Barring those who are pathological by nature, the desire of ordinary – and even extraordinary – people is to nurture the mundane longings of loving one’s country, landscape and culture, achieving one’s own place, settling down, marrying, having and raising a family, achieving a modicum of accomplishment and respect from one’s peers, growing old among family and friends. [Sample disvalues: aggression, expropriation, enslavement]

Opposition to evils that deny fundamental human freedoms and the dignity and full expression of human life; basically, that which denies or denigrates the values discussed here. There have been many ideologies, movements and lifestyles that disavow these universal values and many examples of heroic figures who have opposed such negative forces at the risk or cost of their lives. [Sample disvalues: ignorance, indifference, cowardice]

Humility and generosity in the face of good fortune. The wise never take their good fortune for granted; external achievement should be matched by the development of character. [Sample disvalues: pride, arrogation, meanness]

Acceptance of the place of misfortune and tragedy in life, while attempting to solve and mitigate it as much as possible. Human life, like all life on earth, is framed by death and the possibility of injury and sickness. Some of this is natural, while some arises from human stupidity or malevolence. While acceptance is psychologically healthy to some degree, this should be balanced against a desire to lessen human suffering in whatever way we can, and many in society fulfil this function. [Sample disvalues: complaint, resentment]

Empathy, compassion and concern for the suffering of others; Humans are naturally social beings as well as individuals, and we naturally develop the ability to identify with others’ feelings, although that can be enhanced or diminished based on attitude and circumstances. [Sample disvalues: indifference, cold-heartedness]

Commitment to being at least not a burden and, ideally, a contributor to society; Any society can only create the opportunities for us to prosper; the responsibility finally rests with us, on or willingness to make effort. [Sample disvalues: laziness, apathy, lack of concern for self and others]

Believing, as I think most people do, that the only societies worth living in are as free as possible, the human proclivity for evil cannot be ignored. That is why all societies have laws. Laws, though, only set the boundaries of permissible acts. Values establish the core of a culture’s aspirations for a way of life and, if properly transmitted, can reduce reliance on the application of law. My hope would be that a post-monotheist age would see the emergence of a value-centred culture to which every philosophical and religious tradition contributed and from which they took their moral sustenance.

 

NOTES

  1. The litany of the sins that can be laid at the feet of the monotheistic religions includes genocide, torture, persecution, excommunication, dogmatism, schism, war, terrorism, the sacking of cities, iconoclasm and the destruction of cultural and historical artefacts. While these acts have not been restricted to the monotheistic religions, the scale and intensity at which they have occurred within these faiths should raise questions of whether there is something intrinsically wrong at the heart of the belief. The philosopher John Gray has also asserted that monotheism is the cause of atheism (Gray, 2003). At one time, in light of this history, atheism might have seemed a rational response. However, atheism has proved to be just as destructive of human lives and property when allied to monistic views of truth.
  2. Panentheism as a philosophical term originates from the early nineteenth century, but the concept long predates that. As a mode of religious belief and experience it has appeared in many different traditions, including Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism and in some ancient Greek and Chinese philosophy (Culp, 2017).

 

REFERENCES

Culp, John, “Panentheism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/panentheism/&gt;.

Eliade, M. (1957). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Eliade, M. (1963). Myth and reality. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Gray, John (2003). Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. London: Granta.

Hermann, Arnold (2004). To Think Like God: Pythagoras and Parmenides: The Origins of Philosophy.   Las Vegas, NV:  Parmenides Publishing.

Taran, Leonardo (1965). Parmenides: A text with translation, commentary and critical essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

An assessment of the status of climate change modelling as a scientific paradigm (part 1)

These past two weeks have seen an escalation in ecological activism with protesters taking control of the arteries of major cities in the UK, bringing traffic to a standstill, in order to force radical action on the government regarding climate control. While I feel encouraged by young people taking action over an issue they are passionate about and one which they feel will directly impact their own lives, it is not clear that the situation is as apocalyptic as the most dire predictions or that implementation of the most extreme demands would not result in anything less than the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

The science of climate change is fairly simple in its fundamentals, but complex in the processes which make up its phenomenology, imprecise in its predictions given the complexity of the interacting contributory systems and overladen with moral, political and ideological perspectives which make it a contested ground even among developed nations. Even where consensus has been reached on the nature of the problem, in realpolitik there is little incentive to act, as the scale of the changes that might need to be made are unknown and every concession disadvantages the economy under the competitive rules we live by at present.

In this essay I want to explore whether the science of climate change is best understood as a scientific paradigm and the moment we are living through now coincides with what Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1970) referred to as a paradigm shift. This may help to create a neutral space between and make possible a degree of rapprochement between climate change believers and sceptics, if the hypothesis is legitimate, but, more importantly, also suggest what some of the main priorities should be.

The Kuhnian idea of a paradigm

Kuhn was principally an historian of science, and his concept of a paradigm was derived from a fundamental historical truth that things change over time and that prior certainties come, with historical distance, to be seen as erroneous or, at least, limited. This observation could apply to scientific theories as much as political systems and moral beliefs. The paradigm concept was fashioned as a sociological perspective on the development of science, that what constituted science was defined by the activities of the scientific community. At any time, the scientific community is acting largely around a consensus on fundamental scientific truths, beliefs about reality that enable them to carry out the routine work they do, such as experimental research, authoring research papers, teaching, devising new technologies, and so on.

At the fringes, however, there are always questions and anomalies in the data that challenge the prevailing consensus. These can be ignored for the most part or accommodated within the prevailing theories by theoretical ‘fixes’, as the consensus allows ‘normal science’ to continue, the economies to be boosted by new technologies, people to have jobs and more comfortable lives. At a certain point in time, the anomalies will inevitably become too great and the fixes patently unconvincing and the time will be ripe for a new theoretical foundation and new consensus. From the fringes a new theory will emerge that claims to explain the phenomenon better than the existing consensus but based on different assumptions. The new paradigm will be embraced enthusiastically by some and rejected by others, perhaps based on the claim that there is insufficient evidence. Over time, if certain conditions are met, a new generation will come to accept the new paradigm and the believers in the old will die off. In Kuhn’s parlance a scientific revolution will have taken place.

Criticisms have been raised of Kuhn’s work, principally of relativism and of lack of specificity of the concept of the paradigm. On the charge of relativism, there is the obvious criticism that Kuhn’s idea of the definition of science as that activity carried out by the scientific community, would tend to support the charge, as well as involving an obvious tautology. Nevertheless, Kuhn does set out fundamental criteria of rationality as a basis for judging between competing paradigms (Chen, 1997). Pointing out that theories change over time does not automatically qualify as relativism. However, a failure to indicate that theories have improved in terms of the accuracy of predictions or our ability to manipulate nature, might.

Regarding the accuracy and specificity of the term paradigm, it is difficult to judge. The change from the Newtonian concept of gravity to an Einsteinian one is an obviously paradigmatic example of the paradigm, which has fundamentally altered the way that scientists (at least) see the world. Yet relativity is incompatible with quantum physics, so there are two competing paradigms for the overlap between the macrocosmic and microcosmic worlds. So, even this one example demonstrates a problem with the concept: it is one thing to have historical incommensurability between explanations of the same phenomenon, and see a universal paradigm shift, and another to see multiple incommensurabilities between paradigms in narrow areas. Do general relativity and quantum mechanics belong to an as-yet undetermined greater paradigm?

As well as these criticisms, it is also necessary to consider the important contribution of Kuhn’s ideas. Compared with the strict and exclusionary criteria of falsificationism, it allows for the existence of anomaly within the day-to-day operations of the scientific community. Not every fact will fit within an existing paradigm, but for the most part they can be put to one side awaiting explanation within the existing paradigm when new and better data is gathered, or such facts will accumulate, eventually putting pressure on the scientific community to seek a better explanation, while still allowing routine scientific work to continue.

Does climate change modelling constitute a scientific paradigm?

The political and moral posturing around global warming, to say nothing of the preferments and funding within the relevant academic departments and scientific specialisms, make it difficult to separate out the facts from the fictions, credible theories from ideology and justified belief from mere convenience. The problem is compounded – indeed it is rooted in – the complexity of the global system of the climate, something that is still imperfectly understood, comprising not a single, but multiple interlocking systems, including the atmosphere, the oceans, the biosphere and the anthroposphere, the arena of human economic activity. It is almost certainly the case that the regulatory flows and feedbacks within and between these systems are not completely understood and are the subject of ongoing research.

The hypothesis underlying the climate change debate consists basically of two linked ideas, that human economic activity since the industrial revolution is the main contributory factor to a global increase in average temperature and that this rise in temperature produces changes in climate patterns, resulting in more thermal burden on plant and animal species, more chaotic, more extreme and less predictable patterns of weather, and terrestrial changes such as the shrinking of the polar icecaps and glaciers, all changes that will in turn impact on human civilisations.

There seems to little contention over whether regional climates are changing, because even the most casual observers have noticed changes in the weather patterns over the last few decades, particularly with less severe winters and higher summer temperatures. What is less clear is whether the planet as a whole is warming, though data from remote regions indicate that changes are taking place there too. For a period, sceptics were able to trumpet the fact that, after decades of temperature increases, there was no net atmospheric warming for about 20 years and proclaim that global warming had ended or even reversed. In fact, data indicates that the warming had switched to the oceans, one of the little-understood complexities of the global energy system.

The most contentious issue, though, is the purported cause of this change, as it is reckoned to be a single vector: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Again, there is little dispute over the basic facts, that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (though by no means the most powerful), which functions to retain heat in the atmosphere and slow its radiation into space. Its presence is the reason we are able to live on earth under temperate conditions but its proportion in the atmosphere is increasing, has been increasing since the start of the industrial revolution, and stands at a historic high. Carbon dioxide is produced naturally as a by-product of animal respiration and volcanism, but, significantly, also as a by-product of burning fossil fuels, which we have done in increasing amounts since the industrial revolution.

The supposed anthropogenic causes of global warming driving climate change are where the scientific data become muddied by politics. At an early point, those on the political left and radical environmentalists saw in these hypotheses evidence that man, and specifically, capitalism, was destroying the planet, which gave spurious support to their politics – spurious, because the worst precipitators of ecological disasters have been socialist countries in which the state is all powerful and unresponsive to citizens’ concerns. Nevertheless, the acquisition of global warming as an issue of the left naturally sparked a reaction from the right, which was essentially to carry out a rear-guard action in the form of multiple denials: denial that there was any warming; denial that it was the result of human activity; denial that it mattered anyway, and so on.

Is there any merit to the claims of warming deniers? While not doubting that there are anomalies to be explained, the question itself is indicative that the bigger question, of whether the proposed model of global warming constitutes a scientific paradigm, has been answered in the affirmative. We are already thinking within the paradigm, either in support of it or in opposition to it. Global warming has all the hallmarks of a paradigm: it has absorbed many of the individual scientific disciplines and allowed ‘normal science’ to continue, giving a patina of coherence to their endeavours, even if the science is not settled and anomalies exist. It has created a research frame, in which people are funded and have jobs and proceed to fill in the gaps in a theoretical construct that they have accepted largely on faith, because it offers a plausible explanation for the data available and because it accords with their sense of worth as a moral agent.

Does this mean that global warming is true? As Kuhn pointed out, the lesson of history is that all theories are ultimately shown to be overturned by theories that have more generality and better predictive strengths; that is the strength of the paradigmatic view, in enabling us to separate out the utility value from absolute truth claims. On the first of these points, that of generality, I would say that the climate change model has been successful in proposing a unifying framework for multiple sciences, particularly the climate sciences, atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and to some extent ecology, the biological sciences, ethology (animal behaviour), chemistry and the social sciences. Its record on predictions has been less successful, owing to some exaggerated claims, possibly to gain media attention and funding, possibly as a result of partial or faulty models, but the overall claim that human activity has resulted in climatic changes as a result of industrialisation seems to hold up.

(part 2 will consider how climate change scepticism may challenge the idea of the model as a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense)

References

Xiang Chen (1997). Thomas Kuhn’s Latest Notion of Incommensurability. Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie, Vol. 28, No. 2 (1997), pp. 257-273.

Thomas S. Kuhn (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. London: The University of Chicago Press.

Beauty: more than the eye of the beholder (part 2)

Changes in the apperception of the beautiful across historical time and the very individuality of the experience of beauty, have led to a false doctrine of the relativity of beauty and the negation of the idea that there is anything essential, constant or communicable regarding beauty. In fact, the history of the development of knowledge supports an alternative view, that the variability across time and place of the experience of beauty is the possibility for the discovery of what is essential, constant and transmissible.

One of the oldest and most mysterious of artefacts, known as the Willendorf Venus, is a hand-sized nude statuette of a woman of considerable rotundity. Scholarly evaluations of the artefact differ, but the traditional view is that it represents a goddess of fertility. Perhaps not to modern sensibilities, but the assumption is that for the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer peoples, this would have represented a figure of beauty. The comparative abundance of such fertility figures distributed throughout the world has, in part, led some to conclude that the basis of our sense of beauty lies in the evolutionary advantage of sexual attraction (Ryan, 2018). There is undoubtedly truth in this proposition, but having rejected the relativism of a wholly subjective account of the beautiful, it would be a mistake to fall into the trap of accepting a wholly deterministic one either. While sexual attraction intersects with our experience of the beautiful, it does not exclusively define it.

The sexual attraction thesis, though, does illuminate a fundamental point about beauty: that it is an emotional response to an experience of something in the world, that is something objectively existing.1 As a basic proposition it is unarguable that beauty is related to the physical attributes of the object of perception and our appreciation of those attributes, how the form of the thing becomes something which is valuable to us. The question then follows: in what regard and through the agency of what does the form become valuable to us in the particular way that we refer to as beauty, in other words, that stimulates the emotional response that we recognise as our being in the presence of beauty? This has been the subject of philosophical speculation and scientific and even mathematical analysis throughout history until today.

The evolution of the perception of the beautiful2

From an evolutionary perspective, the precursors of the human appreciation of beauty lie in the development of a perceptual apparatus that can identify and discriminate among signals being apprehended by an organism in relation to its environment. Among those signals, the most fundamental visual ones must be shape, movement, light and shade, depth and colour. There is no unanimity about when perception evolved into an aesthetic sense, but a critical point appears to have been around 30-40,000 years ago, when cave art made its appearance in the archaeological record in different locations around the world. This is also reckoned to be the time at which ritual and more complex social forms emerged (Pfeiffer, 1982).

From the moment homo sapiens began to represent perceptions of the world and – later, we assume – ideas about the world, is the moment when we can meaningfully begin to speak of cultural history as an existential phenomenon rather than a retrospective historiographical reconstruction. It may be, although we lack, presently, any data on whether further changes in the genetic underpinning of brain structures are responsible, that this moment of the creative explosion is when cultural evolution superseded biological evolution, and the development of an aesthetic sense proceeded through the cultural assimilation and refinement of the fundamental perceptual signals received through the senses.3

Almost certainly the first of these signals to be refined and pressed into use were shape and colour. The perception of form, probably as the distinction between light and dark, is the most primitive form of perception (Gehring, 2014). Interestingly, this matches a fundamental assertion of most creation myths, although why this should be so is, when one thinks about it, puzzling. The evolution of perception was a response to the emergence of autonomous movement and predation, as a defence mechanism: movement equalled potential danger. The first proto-art, before even painting, was probably ritualistic dancing,4 evoking the movements of the real and imaginary denizens of heaven and earth. I think it likely the roots of our aesthetic sense were forged here, in the intoxicating immersion in the play of movement, colour and sound.

The discovery of colour is particularly intriguing. The evolution of the visual cortex to perceive colour has a two-fold purpose: to refine the perception of danger and to render the necessary attractive (Jacobs, 2009). Again, it interesting how often the ancient myths linked attraction with danger. Flowering plants, which are the most coloured, were the last group to evolve and co-evolved with pollinating insects and birds. They evolved to stand out for reproductive purposes, and colour plays a central role in the mating rituals of many animals. So, it would be reasonable to assume that in the evolution of human species colour plays a similar role. The colour red, especially, seems to function as an indicator of reproductive health (Davis, 2013).

However, sex and danger are not the whole story about colour. The transformation of life through ritual enactment into vicarious representation, as in cave art, was probably only possible through the discovery of a technology to represent images in colour, namely pigments. The loss of lived-experience involved in a static creation, as well as the investment of time necessary to execute such designs, necessitated a compensatory gain, the possibility of the representation and transmission of a felt idea, and that could only be given force through the use of colour, even of a rudimentary type and limited range. Such creations, I surmise, presaged the advent of cultural history, allowing the reflective appropriation and multiplication of ideas and images.

Although I use the terms cultural transmission and cultural evolution, their definitions, their connection and their relationship to the beautiful cannot be fully explored here. Biological evolution proceeds through the transmission of variability at the genetic level and specifically rules out acquired characteristics; cultural evolution proceeds by a hypothesised mechanism of cultural transmission that is considerably more context-dependent than genetic inheritance, more prone to errors in the transmission process and depends on the accumulation of individually-acquired knowledge.5 Among the many things not known are whether biological evolution continues to contribute changes that affect cultural evolution. The argument I make here is a simple one, that the perception of the beautiful is rooted in our biological nature, but refined by the accumulated wisdom of historic cultures.

The first advances in the formalisation of the aesthetic sense was made under the Greeks, with the development of ideas about symmetry and proportion. Symmetry is a design feature of many animals and plants. Most higher creatures are bilaterally symmetrical, and a high degree of symmetry has come to represent health and attractiveness, to humans as well (Grammer & Thornhill, 1994). To this natural propensity, the Greeks gave a mathematical basis through their exploration of two- and three-dimensional geometry.6 Pythagoras additionally identified what we call ‘the golden mean’, roughly equivalent to the proportion 1.618, that creates a balance which is most pleasing to the human eye. It is found throughout nature wherever an iteration of the proportion of whole to parts occurs, such as the in structure of animal and plant bodies, and in the spiral formations of snail shells. In the 12th century this was recognised as equivalent to a mathematical series we now know as the Fibonacci sequence.

Symmetry and proportion were recognised in cultures other then Greece and incorporated into their monumental architecture and decorative arts. The Egyptian pyramids are highly geometrical and necessitated the development of mathematical and engineering tools; however, their art was functional within a systematic religious worldview and, as far as we know, not created for aesthetic pleasure (Mark, 2017). In the later Islamic world highly stylised and complex forms of symmetry were utilised in the calligraphy that adorned public spaces, an art form that flourished to fill the niche left by the prohibition of human and animal images, and one that clearly had an aesthetic purpose. Muslim architects also developed intricate patterns of tiling that have been likened to the contemporary tessellations of Escher and Penrose.

The evolution of binocular vision and depth perception in mammals and some birds imbued an evolutionary advantage for hunting which was bought at the cost of the loss of panoptical vision found in herbivores, most birds, reptiles and insects. The loss of this survival ability was compensated, in mammals at least, by the emergence of complex social systems involving common defence of the group. Depth perception also became a fundamental component of aesthetic appreciation, a form of contrast that complemented that of shape and colour.

Although three-dimensional representation, in statuary, for example, existed in the ancient world, and various techniques for representing objects in space, it was the Renaissance that saw the emergence of perspective in two-dimensional painting – which in previous cultures had been rendered flat – adding depth to the representative arts. In the fifteenth century the first treatises on perspective were written, drawing on the reborn appreciation of nature and the human form at the centre of Renaissance sensibility, the practical issues to be solved in making a realistic representation, and the search for mathematical rules. There are speculative theories that rules of perspective existed in the ancient world, but not to date any evidence to support this idea (Anderson, 2007, p.15)

Depth seems to be one of the qualities that renders landscape beautiful. Those living on reclaimed flatlands, such as the Dutch, and the dwellers on the Eurasian plain may beg to differ, but most of us consider a landscape with variations in height provided with mountains and valleys to be more beautiful than a completely flat landscape. Villages and cities that exhibit variations in height and elevation of buildings are more attractive than those which are built at a single elevation – just consult the property market.7 In the early 90’s I travelled from Moscow to Sevastopol in the Crimea by train through Ukraine, when such a thing was still possible (and for a cost equivalent to about £1). My impression of the landscape was one of unremitting monotonous flatness consisting of grassland, agricultural fields and endless birch forests. Perhaps – it is not entirely unreasonable hypothesis – dwellers of the world’s flatlands experience aesthetic depth in a different, less obvious, way: the depth to horizon; the depth of the broad expanse of sky. Perhaps, as the phenomenologist Mikel Dufrenne proposes of that paradigmatic flatland, the ocean, aesthetic depth is not to be sought in any external dimension, but in our sense of its “corporeal unity” and “unfathomable totality” (Dufrenne, 1973, p.412), that is the overlaying of metaphysical narrative on the landscape.

One the earliest metaphysical narratives applied to reality concerned the nature of motion and change. According to Parmenides the appearance of movement and development is an illusion; reality is continuous, undivided, immobile Being. Influenced by Parmenides, Plato and his Christian interpreter, Plotinus, established the orthodoxy in Western culture of beauty as a stable quality, that is to say, it inhered in permanence and unchangeability. The alternative view put forward by Heraclitus, that all is in a state of flux, virtually disappeared, but this insight has re-emerged with the advent of Chaos theory.8 The theory refers to ‘the edge of chaos’ as being the most creative place, where a certain amount of destruction is taking place, but where order is preserved, which suggests that a degree of instability has a place in beauty. The beauty of nature is that it is neither wildly chaotic or static, but that its forces are constrained by natural law and by human ordering, while at the same time, this constraint does not suppress development. The Japanese have a very distinctive view of beauty as passing and impermanent, which is why they fetishize the spring cherry blossom, which fades within a few days, but which nevertheless returns each year and is incorporated into the social ritual. Japanese poetry and calligraphy, by contrast with that of other cultures, also esteems the spontaneous over the mannered. This aspect of movement and change within the perception of beauty brings it into the moral realm, which is why we can speak of the beautiful also as the good.

The Beautiful as Balance and Variance

Beauty is both complex and simple. The fundamental property seems to be a balance between opposites, the finding of the harmonic centre between extremes; yet it also exists in the departure from this balance and the enrichment of the centre with the new and innovative. Beauty can flirt with the extremes, but it can never be wholly committed to the extreme and it must always seek to reinvigorate the centre. If this seems to anthropomorphise beauty, that is because beauty is ultimately a human creation and an aspiration of the human spirit. It is, however, a creation rooted in nature, which our biology and psychic parameters reflect. For beauty to exist chaos must be resolved, even momentarily. However, as an evolutionary function, variability, selection and adaptation play an important role.

For each component of the aesthetic experience the perceptual apparatus for appreciation evolved in the cause of survival and reproduction, then found a subsequent use within a medium of communication. In this medium a set of skills were honed over generations before being formalised, for example in mathematics, and this formalisation entering the ongoing and evolving cultural discourse, to add order, reason and depth to the emotional force of working in a particular medium. In the process, this discourse has been continuously bent back upon nature itself, which has become an aesthetically interpreted reality.

Nature manifests the interplay of movement and rest or durability, which is mirrored by the cultural categories of performance and tradition. The performance would be a moment lost in time unless it were recorded and communicated, becoming, in the process, part of our social bonding. This is also true of the appreciation of natural beauty. A few weeks ago, walking with family in the countryside, we crested a hill to be confronted by a spectacular sunset. Few words were said, but as the sky moved in performance from blinding vision to glowing embers we stood and absorbed this moment, tried to capture it in some photos, but knowing above all it was a shared experience that bound us more closely.

 

Part 3 will consider the philosophical discussion around beauty

 

Notes

  1. We are not in the habit of labelling our own internal states as beautiful, although I would concede the possibility of ‘clear and distinct’ dreams, visions and drug-induced hallucinatory states also being so-valuated. This much is uncontroversial and is the source of the relativist dogma that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which our culture has largely come to accept.

There is a problem with this, though. Unless we accept that the beautiful is ineffable and, moreover, hold to the Wittgensteinian position that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, discussions of and exclamations about the beautiful enter naturally into public discourse. Utterances to the effect that something meaningful is being communicated must do so with certain criteria in mind, which lie in the realm of objectivity. The beautiful must have the potential to be universally judged as such, so even a valued internal state must be objectified and brought into the public domain.

  1. This essay will focus on the visual sense. While beauty, or its closely related values, can occur through the other senses – touch, smell, taste and hearing – the visual sense is paradigmatic for beauty. The other sense routes for aesthetic appreciation, though, have also gone through a process of development and refinement in history like the visual sense.
  2. In speaking of the evolution of the perception of the beautiful it is important to make some basic distinctions. Evolution is fundamentally a theory of the development of the biological form of life, through variation and selection. Any extension of the term to society and culture is, at best, allegorical. There is, however, the possibility of a range of human abilities and skills that are subject to evolutionary pressures that bridges the divide between the biological and the cultural. These have been explored in sociobiology and, more recently in evolutionary psychology. The central argument advanced here is that there has been an evolution in our perception of the beautiful, which is fundamentally biological but knowledge of which has unfolded in historical time through human discovery, through the arts and through the scientific analysis and evaluation of the arts. This knowledge has itself contributed to the refinement of the sense of beauty.
  3. For example, the prehistoric art at the Bhimbetka rock shelter in India, reckoned to be 30,000 years old, depicts dancing figures, which suggests that that art form precedes its depiction.
  4. Beginning in the 1970s a considerable body of theoretical work has amassed on the evolutionary basis of cultural transmission. One of the most prominent hypotheses is known as the Dual Inheritance Theory, which claims that human nature and behaviour can best be understood as an amalgamation of genetic inheritance and cultural transmission (McElreath and Henrich, 2007). The main contributors to the field have been Lumsden and Wilson (1981), Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Boyd and Richerson (1985) who all developed mathematical models of how genetic and cultural factors can reinforce each other. Slightly predating these, and far better known, Dawkins (1976) proposed a theory of memetic evolution (cultural transmission though ‘memes’, a cultural analogue of genes).

For example, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) developed a theory of cultural transmission based on an epidemiological model of viral diffusion. That model drew on four evolutionary factors (ibid, pp. 65-67) as the driving forces of evolutionary change, the two classical Darwinian notions of variation and selection and the later neo-Darwinian concepts of drift and migration. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman utilised the first two to create a basic typology of cultural change akin to genetic variation. As in epidemic spread, they identified three transmission routes (ibid, p. 54): vertical, from parent to offspring; horizontal, from peer to peer (non-related individuals of the same generation); and oblique, between non-related or distantly-related individuals of different generations.

  1. The relationship between the instinctive recognition of the attractive and the mathematical formalisation of symmetry or proportion is not a necessary one. However, the felt-experience of attraction can be augmented by the wonderment felt at the mysterious order and simplicity underlying so much complexity.
  2. The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are an exception to this widespread observation, where the slums have come the occupy the slopes of the city and the wealthier districts the low-lying areas.
  3. Chaos theory is a relatively new branch of mathematics concerned with non-linear complex systems, which are not modelled well in traditional applied mathematics. Its principal insight is that the output of recursive equations yields results that are analogous to chaotic systems in nature, such as the weather, turbulent flow and population changes, to economic behaviour and social fashions, and to complex geometries such as that exhibited by landscapes (fractional dimensionality) and vegetation, such as trees.

The branch of chaos theory most closely associated with beauty is fractal geometry, pioneered by Benoit Mandelbrot, which posits complexity and self-similarity as a fundamental property of the beautiful. While there is a grandeur in some modern skyscrapers with their endless and uniform glass fronts, most people recognise the architecture that incorporates intricate design and detail as being more beautiful, in the same way that we recognise the baroque work of Bach to be more transcendentally beautiful than a work of minimalism (although there is more at work here than mere detail).

 

References

Kirsti Anderson (2007). The Geometry of an Art: The History of the Mathematical Theory of Perspective from Alberti to Monge. Copenhagen: Springer.

Boyd, R. and Richerson, P. (1985). Culture and the evolutionary process. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Cavalli-Sforza, L. and M. Feldman. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Stephen Davies (2013). The Evolutionary Value of an Aesthetic Sense. Aisthesis. Pratiche, linguaggi e saperi dell’estetico, 6(2), 75-79, (Dec. 2013). Available at: <http://www.fupress.net/index.php/aisthesis/article/view/13770/12802&gt;.

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mikel Dufrenne (1973). The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience [trans. Edward S. Casey, Albert A. Anderson, Willis Domingo and Leon Jacobson]. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Walter J. Gehring (2014). The evolution of vision. WIREs Dev Biol 2014, 3:1–40. Available at: http://www.smithlab.net/courses/biovis_2014fall/Lecture4-reading2-Swamynathan.pdf

Grammer, K., & Thornhill, R. (1994). Human (Homo sapiens) facial attractiveness and sexual selection: The role of symmetry and averageness. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 108(3), 233-242.

Gerald H. Jacobs (2009). Evolution of colour vision in mammals. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. (2009 Oct 12); 364(1531): 2957–2967. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2781854/

Lumsden, C. and E. Wilson. 1981. Genes, mind and culture: The coevolutionary process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Joshua J. Mark (26 May 2017) Ancient Egyptian Art, Ancient History Encyclopedia (online). Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Egyptian_Art/ [accessed 01/03/2019]

McElreath, R. and Henrich, J. (2007). Dual inheritance theory: The evolution of human cultural capacities and cultural evolution. In R. Dunbar and L. Barrett, (Eds.), Oxford handbook of evolutionary psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 555-570.

John E. Pfeiffer (1982). The creative explosion. An inquiry into the origins of art and religion. New York: Harper & Row.

Michael J. Ryan (2018). A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

 

The Soul of the World: Teilhard de Chardin’s Evolutionary Pantheism and its Challenge to Secular Humanism

Despite the obvious attractions of secular humanism, particularly in freeing individuals from conformity to religious doctrines unsupported by science, and by transcending religious particularism and exclusivity by focusing on the universality of the human experience, there are several problems with it. One is, at a fundamental philosophical level, there is no more evidence (there might actually be less) for secular humanism, particularly of its more militantly atheistic persuasion, than there is for a rational theism. Another is that the human experience of every culture up to the present day has included the religious as well as the secular. Third, the abandonment of a religious perspective in predominantly secular societies has not contributed to human happiness. The fundamental breach is that between the scientific and religious views of the world. Many thinkers have attempted to address this dilemma, of which one of the most important, in my opinion, is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1890 – 1955).

As a young man I remember reading my newly-purchased copy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man sitting on a rock atop a hill in the Welsh borderland, as the sun poked through a lingering mist. It was probably that concatenation of heady ideas on an impressionable young mind in those surreal and sublimely beautiful surroundings, as much as the ideas themselves, that caused this book to have a long-lasting influence on my thinking. Nevertheless, as a student of geology, but with an interest in philosophy and spirituality, and becoming aware of the conflicting interpretations of the world which those perspectives entailed, reading Teilhard at that time had a revelatory power.

Teilhard was an unusual figure even by the standards of the time, and of a sort that could barely exist today; or at least, if they did, would be a peripheral figure of interest to no one, in our technophile, celebrity-obsessed, instant-information age. He was a heroic-tragic figure, a thinker and writer, and explorer, who straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. But he was as unlike the romantic figures of that age of exploration as could be, for example Burton of India, the chronicler of the profane, or Shackleton, who led his expedition into perdition. First, he was a Catholic priest, and a particularly pious one, who wrote a number of books on the inner spiritual life, such as The Divine Milieu and Hymn of the Universe. Then, he was also a philosopher, much influenced by the vitalism of Henri Bergson and the evolutionism of Samuel Alexander, as well as a geologist with a strong interest in palaeontology.

His writings attempted to bridge the gap between Catholic theology and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Teilhard envisioned a universe in which God, rather than creating by fiat – in the biblical six days – in some mysterious way fashioned the fundamental principles that allowed the evolution of the universe towards a final eschaton, that represented the fusion of the material and the divine. He coined several terms that were once fashionable, although are perhaps less heard now, such as the ‘noosphere’ to describe the world of human consciousness (the human equivalent of the biosphere), and the ‘Omega Point’ to describe the final destiny of the universe.

Such views naturally brought Teilhard to the attention of the Catholic authorities. He was accused of denying original sin and promoting a pantheistic view of the universe. During his lifetime his writings were suppressed, and he was banned from teaching in Catholic seminaries. As a Jesuit under holy orders he was exiled from France and sent to China, where as part of an expeditionary force, he assisted in the discovery and identification of a new early hominid species, Pithecanthropus or Peking Man. Long after his death, he was rehabilitated and many of his views are now part of the orthodox Catholic view on evolution.

Teilhard proposed the idea, known as orthogenesis, that the evolution of the cosmos, life, consciousness and human history were all linked and guided by the immanent presence of the divine in nature and the human mind. He saw evidence for this in the appearance of increasingly complex forms of life, in the appearance of increasingly human-like forms in the fossil record, and in the appearance of increasingly large brains and resultant rise in intelligence, processes which he referred to, respectively, as complexification, hominisation and encephalisation. Teilhard theorised that evolution had passed through three qualitative stages, that of existence, life and consciousness, and proposed that this foreshadowed a fourth and final stage, that of super-consciousness, in which the divine and human become fused, in what he termed the Omega Point. Powering these developments, he asserted, was the agency of two types of energy, called radial and tangential. Radial energy he surmised was responsible for the radiation of the complex variety of life from a single point of origin, while tangential energy bound matter into more complex arrangements that allowed the emergence of higher order

Teilhard considered that he was advancing a scientific account of evolution, albeit one that incorporated a theological perspective, and at the time he wrote The Phenomenon of Man, his ideas were considered an important contribution to the debate on science and religion and sufficiently influential that the prominent evolutionist Julian Huxley wrote an effusive introduction to the book, perhaps despite reservations. Today, Teilhard’s ideas on evolution are largely discredited, and almost universally so by evolutionary biologists. Evolution is asserted to be a stochastic process, guided only by the principle of differential survival through adaptability to changing environmental conditions, underlain by natural, random variation. I would add a caveat to this. While natural selection explains in a very satisfactory manner the adaptability of nature, it does not explain – without a great deal of apparent fudging and speculating – the appearance of new forms of life or the transition between forms, for example reptiles to birds, or the appearance of bipedalism in humans. That is not to argue for creationism or a form of guided evolution, only to point out that our understanding of these processes is still incomplete.

However, while Teilhard may not have succeeded in adding to our scientific knowledge of the evolutionary process, there is a case that he has contributed to an understanding of human nature. In the concept of the emergence of the human mind/brain as ‘evolution understanding itself’, Teilhard has distilled the idea of humans as quintessentially and uniquely spiritual beings, even as we are continuous with the rest of nature. This brings me to a second caveat; even those who maintain a strict agnosticism and reductive interpretation of human biology – even those who advocate a forthright atheism – fail to be unmoved by the sacredness (their terminology) of nature and of the highest human cultural achievements. This does not constitute evidence for the existence and intervention of a divinity; it is, however, an argument that human nature represents a qualitative discontinuity with the rest of nature.

Furthermore, while the concepts of radial and tangential energies owe more to the ideas of vitalism and the evolutionism of Herbert Spencer than to empirical science, they are a useful tool for thinking about human social change, particularly in the more generic and less loaded terminology of differentiation and integration. These are widely observable tendencies in all societies throughout history; moreover, they are principles which tend to stay in balance. If differentiating tendencies, for example the desire for freedom, independence and personal glory, become too strong they result in social fracture, but tend to provoke moves towards greater integration, such as solidarity or cooperation. On the other hand, if integration becomes over-dominant, as it does in authoritarian and totalitarian states, this tends to provoke moves towards liberation and secession. To put that in context, differentiation and integration form part of a complex of reaction and resistance, which all healthy, dynamic societies exhibit, although I would be loath to raise this concept to the level of a predictive category.

There are important ideas in Teilhard’s philosophy that enable us to see an alternative to the soulless bureaucratisation of life. Going beyond the sense of awe at the majesty of nature seen in the immensity of distance, size and time, that is often referred to on the literature on secular spirituality, is the perception of the immanence of divine wonderment in the simplest and smallest of things of nature, in the processes and systems of the natural world, in the emergence of the universe, and the evolution of life, specifically the emergence of man and the evolution of human consciousness and human achievement. Moreover, these perspectives are neither inimical to existing knowledge nor any sort of impediment to any future understanding of nature. In fact, like Teilhard himself, the sense of wonderment and curiosity that nature evokes may actually be a spur to future research. Moreover, the spiritual dimension of knowledge, which places human consciousness at the foreground, acts as a counter to the dehumanising tendency of modern technocratic and bureaucratic processing of information.

There are criticisms that can be made of Teilhard. One is that his essentially pantheistic view, makes it difficult to reconcile the human desire for goodness and justice, with the real existence of evil in the world, however one evaluates its ontological or epistemological significance, and this was a just criticism of his Catholic superiors in an otherwise unjustifiable suppression of his teaching and writing. Teilhard’s vision was, to some extent marred by his political naivety and he offered little in the way of criticism of the monstrosities of Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany, or offered much hope for their oppressed peoples. His focus was unremittingly on the eschatological future of mankind, at the Omega Point of the future of super-consciousness. There are recent interpretations that predict the Omega Point to the moment when human consciousness becomes augmented by artificial intelligence, when human minds interface imperceptibly with supercomputers. To quote the cyber-sage John Perry Barlow: “Teilhard’s work is about creating a consciousness so profound it will make good company for God itself.” Some may find in this prospect the closest approach to divinity imaginable. To me it would seem the sacrifice of our very humanity and freedom, which is as much constituted in the limitations of our physicality and the proximity of our bonding as it is in the extension of our knowledge.

 

Bibliography

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1961) The Phenomenon of Man. Harper Torchbooks, The Cloister Library, Harper & Row, Publishers.

Beauty: more than the eye of the beholder (part 1)

In my estimation there is no more perverse doctrine than that which states that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Not because it is not true that the experience of beauty is apprehended and appreciated at the level of individual perception, which is, in some sense, a redundant observation, but because of the reductiveness of identifying beauty itself with its mere apprehension. It is perverse, and not just mistaken, precisely because it refuses to accept the reality – and by that, I mean the real existence – of beauty and therefore its possibility of being analysed and understood, communicated and becoming once more a central part of our cultural narrative, repudiated as it was for a large part of the twentieth century.

The perversity of the reduction of beauty extends beyond ontological and epistemological concerns, though, into the social; it implies that we cannot refine our own sense of the beautiful through meaningful interaction with others; and it suggests – or even mandates – that we dare not teach the young about what is beautiful, as this would imply a denigration of some culture and cultural forms as inferior. The abandonment of a commitment to beauty can be seen in the parlous state of our culture in the West today, which increasingly celebrates the ugly in all its forms, or else, in reaction to that, the twee and insipid. It is perhaps an artefact of the infantilisation of our culture that the space for the mature appreciation of beauty is being squeezed to the margins, displaced by the unenviable choice of teen rebellion or kindergarten sensibility.

It is true that the apparent relativity of the beautiful seems to be confirmed, not only by the fact that we individually assert different things to be beautiful, but by the change in the perception of beauty over historical time. I will argue, however, that this is best understood as the process of the discovery of beauty, in the unfolding of the nature and structure of beauty’s constituents with the passage of time, to which various civilisations have contributed their own insights. I will also argue that the beautiful cannot ultimately be separated from notions of the true and the good and predict that the closer we come to an encompassing theory of beauty, the more that will become apparent.

The historical semiotics of beauty

Some time ago, while out driving, my wife and I witnessed a glorious full moon, hanging clear and limpid above the horizon. My wife was the first to spot it and commented how large and beautiful it was. We decided to pull over and spend some time just contemplating it. Being so inclined and interested in things astronomical, I mentioned that sometimes the moon is closer to the Earth, which makes it appear larger to terrestrial viewers, referred to as a supermoon. She refused to be impressed by this information and merely wondered whether such a sight had been seen in the remote past. I was not quite sure what she meant by this, but set forth again what I considered to be the interesting and salient fact that in the past the moon had been much closer to the Earth, that Earth’s day had been much shorter and that over time the drag of the moon’s gravity had caused the Earth’s spin to slow down and days to become longer. The imparting of this wisdom was received in silence.

Looking back and reflecting later, it became apparent that compared to the empirically-rooted but rather banal information I was supplying, my wife’s question was far more perceptive, as it could be excavated to reveal a richer stratum of ideas. For example, a thousand years ago, in what we for so long have referred to as the Dark Ages, would people have seen such a sight? The question is not about the physics of light or the biology of perception; it is about meaning, interpretation and social possibility. In our modern intellectual sphere, we have the possibility of a choice of epistemological perspectives: instrumental or structuralist, phenomenological or evolutionary, for example. For a medieval peasant, we suppose, not only did those terms, or their equivalents, not exist, but we doubt whether even those perspectives, which those terms denote, existed.

In all probability, the medieval peasant, farming a strip of land on the estate of the local lord, had a well-developed semiotics, but it was one rooted in the cycles of nature and of the agricultural cycle, tied in to the festivals of the Church. The priest as the most educated local would have been on hand to explain, or dismiss, the questions of the curious, almost certainly with reference to church teachings. According to Eco (1986): “The Medievals inhabited a world filled with references, reminders and overtones of Divinity, manifestations of God in things. Nature spoke to them heraldically: lions or nut-trees were more than they seemed; griffins were just as real as lions because, like them, they were signs of a higher truth.” Nature was full of signs, and in many ways the medieval peasant, being much closer to the natural world than we are generally today, would have had a more detailed knowledge of its practical processes and warnings, but not the theoretical insight to the interconnectedness of all nature that we would perceive today through our embedding in a scientific worldview. However, for the medieval peasant the signs were infused with symbolism through which they lived simultaneously in a mythopoeic reality, a Christianised revival of the sense of awe and wonder that had so characterised the Classical period of antiquity (ibid).

Could a peasant farmer appreciate the beauty of a full moon or a sunset? The barrier to such knowledge is almost as impassable as the attempt to recreate the prehistoric mind, or that of another species. As peasants were universally illiterate, they did not record their thoughts; as they were uneducated, poor and powerless, neither did anyone evince any interest in what they thought or experienced. Today, revealing the prejudices of our own age, we assume their consciousness was similarly constructed to our own, but we have no evidence for this. The closest we can get is through the theologians and poets of the era. This reveals some differences from modern consciousness. According to Myers, Pastoureau and Zink (2017), medieval nature poems “combine a myopic attention to what is close by – branches, blades of grass, the banks and hedgerows – with the pleasures of the other senses – the song of the birds, the rushing waters of the spring, the scent of the flower, the caress of the breeze – that are made possible by this very proximity and intensified by the limited vision”.

This suggests that the medieval idea of beauty was less conceptualised than that of the Greeks (at least the Greek philosophers) and less holistic than today, but sensually richer. The medievals saw the underlying unity of things in theological terms, the ‘Great Chain of Being’ and their own immersion in nature, but they lacked the framework of objectivity, to the extent of lacking the concept of ‘landscape’ (ibid). We surmise that the medieval peasant, in common with most pre-modern peoples, would have been in awe – that curious mixture of apprehension, wonderment and intoxication – at the sight of a supermoon or anything that strayed from the mundane and regular and, lacking knowledge of causes, would have fallen back on a supernatural explanation. This could be totally wrong; perhaps they were simply indifferent to nature or incapable of an aesthetic appreciation. It is unlikely we will ever know.

Part 2 will consider the evolution of the perception of beauty

References

Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (Originally published as: Sviluppo dell’estetica medievale, in Momenti e problemi di storia dell’estetica, vol. 1, 1959.) [Trans. Hugh Bredin] New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.

Nicole Myers, Michel Pastoureau, Michel Zink (2017). Art and Nature in the Middle Ages. New Haven: Yale University Press

A Resolution of the Problem of Absolute Values in Transcendent Individualism

Since antiquity, and particularly after Plato, philosophers have pondered on the question of the absolute values, of truth, beauty and goodness. Now, just as then, there have been advocates of their status as real, as well as sceptics. The twentieth century was mostly a sceptical period, although I predict a revival of interest presently, given the generally calamitous state of public discourse, awareness of human depredation of the natural environment, and rising international and societal tensions. The concerns of philosophy have never been, throughout its history, entirely devoid of influence by or relevance to the social world in which philosophers are embedded. Nevertheless, the foundational issue of their ontological status must be addressed. I propose that the problematic status of absolute values finds its resolution in social structures founded on an anthropological concept of transcendent individualism.

The concept of value as a distinct theoretical concern of philosophy has its roots somewhere between the Enlightenment and the late 19th century when the first writings on value theory as a distinct branch of philosophy appeared in the writings of Brentano, Lotze, Meinong and others, though it has precursors in the medieval scholastic concept of the ‘just price’ and the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill, among other sources (Werkmeister, 1970). The modern idea of values (in the plural), the ordinary language usage we make of the word when we are not wearing our philosophical hats, however, emerged with the advent of the modern science of society, or sociology, in the writings of Max Weber, in which values are judged to play an important mediating role in social interaction and institutional viability. It is precisely the existence of a realm of shared values in any given society which, according to sociologists, enables the social discourse between proponents of even profoundly different experiences, beliefs and views.

Weber took the view that values were functional aspects of social structures, largely irrespective of the actual moral force of particular and specific values, skirting around the fact-value dichotomy identified by Hume, wherein it is impossible – according to Hume – to derive a value judgement from the accretion of any number of facts. No one has yet advanced a plausible argument that Hume is wrong. In reality, though, in all social contexts (apart from conventions of philosophers possibly) we indiscriminately mix facts and judgements, even if there is no logical transition between the two. Weber put values on a new footing, ontologically, by assigning them a function while being mute about their fundamental nature. The influential mid-twentieth century American sociologist Talcott Parsons, put it thus: ‘An element of a shared symbolic system which serves as a criterion or standard for selection among the alternatives of orientation which are intrinsically open in a situation can be considered a value’ (Parsons, 1951, p.112).

While I am in general agreement with Parsons’ description of values as ‘an element of a…. system’, this describes their place from an ‘outside’ perspective only; their essential nature as conceptually specific, experiential and immanent in the emotions is ignored in sociology. Perhaps the best exponent of this view of the interiority of values is the Romanian anthropologist Mircea Eliade, who links the root of value even in the modern secular world to an experience of the sacred and for whom ‘even the most desacralized existence still preserves traces of a religious valorization of the world’ (Eliade, 1957, p.24). For Eliade, to hold firmly a value or set of values involves a hierophany, a ‘manifestation of the sacred [that] ontologically founds the world’ (ibid, p.21). While this may seem to imbue values excessively with meaning, they have the quality of remaining invisible and mysteriously opaque to inspection (Hechter, 1993) while inspiring and regulating social action (Kluckhohn, 1951, p.399).

A philosophical analysis of values can demonstrate that they can manifest as both conceptualisations of broadly agreed standards and an intense inner experience, though they do so under different conditions. Within normal societal discourse in open social circumstances we have frequent recourse to value terminology, which commits us to nothing more than a general assertion that we have a preference for one thing or perspective over another (Rokeach, 1973, p.5) or an interest in a specific thing (Perry, 1926). But there is another kind of discourse, which takes place within closed social groupings, in which a strong sense in in-group and out-group consciousness is maintained (Tajfel, 1974), in which value concepts take on a highly symbolic invocatory function and in which the experiential nature and sacred manifestation of the value is shared, or, at least, held to be shared. We can speak, therefore, of values as a conceptualised shared experience, conceptualisation or shared experience being uppermost depending whether the social context is open or closed.

The objection could be raised that the very disparate social conditions under which this dual nature of values manifest itself, as information with an ethical subtext in open society and highly symbolised medium of shared experience in closed community, undermines the coherence of the philosophical concept, that is, of value as a single entity with a dual nature. I would argue, though, that the modern idea of value has co-evolved with the form of society in the post-Enlightenment period characterised by individualism, in which an individual can freely move between multiple belongings, each form of life having the nature of a closed group built around a core of shared values, but in which the hard distinction of in-group and out-group is mitigated by a tentative membership and complex, self-assumed identities. Such societies – the liberal democracies – are, in theory at least, committed to maximising the freedom of the individual, while leaving the pursuit of meaning and happiness to the individual.

Individualism is one of the most misunderstood socio-political and philosophical concepts. This is partly because it does not feature or not feature highly in most non-western cultures, which favour some form of collective identity and almost certainly privilege the collective over the individual. Dumont (1973, p.34) makes a distinction between the ‘empirical subject of speech thought and will’ which is common to all cultures and ‘the independent, autonomous and (essentially) non-social moral being’ who is the inhabitant of modern societies. Thus, Dumont distinguishes between the facticity of individuality – as singular body and capacities – and the belief that one is free and the essential equal of all other human beings. It is this latter concept, which has evolved in the crucible of European history and its Hellenistic and Judeo-Christian inheritance, that has enabled the forms of society that we characterise as open to exist. Individualism, though, is not a peculiarity of Western culture; it is a periodic human discovery that has been made a number of times in history, notably by the Greek city states, but also in ancient Zoroastrian Persia and in medieval Islam. However, in the West individualism has probably had its most sustained form, allied as it has been to the rise of science and modern market economies, which have improved human life considerably over the past few centuries. Thus, although individualism is not peculiar to western thought and western ways of life, a case can be made that it is fundamental to modernity. If so, this entails that as collective cultures modernise, they will have to grasp the issue of individualism, otherwise progress will stall.

In my estimation, the major world religions have a relatively sophisticated and enlightened concept of the individual, which has enabled humanist outlooks to emerge in religious cultures as diverse as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. Indeed, the typical view of the individual found in the sacred texts of the great religions mirror a contemporary humanist view, attributed to a 19th century scholar Lysenkus-Popper, that with the death of a single person, a whole universe disappears. Moreover, the sacred texts contain significant statements of existential value, in which each individual man and woman is accorded the opportunity to stand as a figure of moral significance, by taking up a significant historical role. This accords with the contemporary views of many social psychologists that we find meaning in life through assuming our burden of responsibility (Peterson, 2018). Thus, religions’ views of the individual accords unique value both ontologically and as a social actor.

Nonetheless, a view of society is not complete by just its anthropology. One criticism I have of religions as a basis for social theory is that they have an underdeveloped notion of freedom. This can be accounted for somewhat by their origins in strongly hierarchical cultures. For example, in its hermeneutics of the origin of evil, the standard Christian analysis of the story of Eden in Genesis 3 emphasises the Fall from God’s grace and alienation from God’s presence, without sufficiently, in my opinion, contextualising that within the creation narrative of the autonomy of the original ancestors, most obviously represented by the retrograde Catholic concept of felix culpa, the predetermination of sin in order that salvation be granted.1 In the moral narratives of religions, freedom is frequently minimised and bounded by conditions, particularly the idea of responsibility, which again is found to be bound up with the ideas of duty and obligation prevalent in closed communities and hierarchical societies. I believe this cultural loading perhaps prevents a more enlightened understanding of the relationship between freedom and responsibility. Rightly understood, responsibility is not the inhibitor of freedom, it is its complementarity and its guarantor.

First, the responsible person must accept that they are free, in both an existential sense and as a social actor making choices. Without this affirmation there can be no responsibility, only obedience, and at worst, slavery. The great tragedy of much of human history and still much of the world today is that social conditions do not allow people to be free and, therefore, not responsible, rather than duty-bound, though this number is, arguably, diminishing. The human thirst for freedom is unquenchable; we always choose it as an alternative to the burden of excessive societal expectation and to other forms of oppression, especially when we have experienced them.

Secondly, the responsible person must accept that their choices and the acts that flow from them all have consequences, for good and ill, for which they reap the benefits and the costs. With experience comes a greater ability to discern between the two and the wise person will not only make better choices but also choose to impose limits on their actions. The actions that destroy, deplete and offend are the ones that are most likely to result in a reaction that aims to curtail the freedom of the individual for the protection of the common good. For this to happen, the power of the community or the state must be invoked. Every invocation of the power of the greater collective or its authoritative representative entails a diminution of the freedom of the individual, which itself informs the state of freedom of the society. Consequently, that which guarantees the freedom of society is an act of self-limitation imposed on oneself for the sake of the greater good.

Thirdly, the responsible person should work for the common good, which is another way of saying social justice. A commitment to justice in this sense is not a commitment to equality, but it can be compatible with a commitment to reducing inequality, particularly of opportunity. Justice, we might say, is relative freedom, rather than absolute freedom. Justice is the addressing of actual injustices, where there is the absence, limitation or oppression of freedom. It is not attempting to equalise everything by limiting the freedom of the majority in favour of a minority. People are not, and never will be equal in freedom, but it is not unreasonable to address that issue by increasing the freedom of the less free.

From the perspective of a social theorist, absolute values can only be broached in a society which is committed to freedom based on individualism, partly because there is a strong case that the concepts have co-evolved. As the twin forces of religion and monarchy have been weakened in the modern period, individuals have become empowered, science, art and humanism have flourished, and the concepts of the true, beautiful and good have become dissociated from religious doctrine. Religions are, and will continue to be, though, an important mythic narrative source of local and universal values and an important agent in community structure and civil society. However, they can never be the model of a free, individualist and humanistic society, such is their penchant for otherworldliness (at worst apocalyptic nihilism), schism, persecution of supposed heretics and dogmatic control of thought. Their social utility, if that is the right word, lies in the deconstruction of their myths into moral narratives that pose existential challenges for individuals in secular societies, not in forming the authorised template for individual behaviour.

Nevertheless, individualism is clearly declining in the West. It is now routinely ignored in educational establishments, being replaced by postmodern values of equality, diversity and inclusivity, for which groupthink and commitment to collective political activism are required. Additionally, its foundations and the fundamentals of modernity such as evidence-based knowledge and logic, are being undermined, accused of being merely expressions of Western hegemony. But individualism is also declining because over time it has drifted from its roots in the spiritual iconoclasm of such figures as Francis, Luther, Kierkegaard and King and become all too often a justification for selfishness, indifference to suffering and greed. It has the appearance of a spent force whose ideals no longer inspire a civilisation. As Arthur Miller more cynically put it, ‘an era is over when its basic illusions have been exhausted’. The survival and reinvigoration of modernity will depend on the transformation of individualism into what I call transcendent individualism, which draws on the religious and secular heritage of the world’s cultures for the highest values that sustain the human conscience, lust for discovery and the instinct to altruism. These values will in all likelihood turn out to be universal and culminate in the absolute values of truth, beauty and goodness.

One can argue about the ontological status of absolute values, depending on whether one is inclined to Platonism or some form of instrumentalism. Work by Russell, Carnap, Wittgenstein, Quine and others laid bare the logical basis of mathematical and linguistic truth, fundamental science has added enormously to our knowledge of the universe, work on chaos theory has added to our knowledge of the constituents of beauty – such as symmetry, proportion and depth – that of creative instability, and the research of psychologists is building a slowly growing picture of what constitutes the good personality. There is little doubt about the existential force of these values in the lives of individuals and cultures for betterment, prosperity and peace, nor the minatory power afforded by awareness of the proximity of the disvalues of falsity, ignorance, ugliness and evil.

I believe I have made a case based on societal development and social expectations that absolute values and transcendent individualism are mutually supporting concepts. There is still a requirement, though, for some philosophical justification and underpinning for this argument. I believe this can be found in Munsterberg’s concept of the actualisation of absolute values through stages, culminating in the ‘self-assertion of the world’ (Munsterberg, 1909, p.74). I take this to mean that the only world that can be asserted by individuals in a world of individuals as constituting an identical experience of the world is a world of absolute values. However, it can additionally be interpreted as the assertion by the individual that they as an individual constitute a world-in-potential determined by absolute values, which is exactly what transcendent individualism implies. Absolute values provide the metaphysical space for the concept of transcendent individualism, which in turn embeds them in realistic societal conditions.

Because they are absolute, truth, beauty and goodness are, in principle, unattainable. Yet, the human condition is such that, under favourable conditions, it strives against its limitations spurred on by the prospect of the absolute – despite suspecting that it is unattainable – because glimpses of the ineffable are had from time to time. A society of freedom liberates individuals’ creative capacity to pursue truth, beauty and goodness and in pursuing these the individual ensures that the society remains free. The transcendent individual is moving outwards from themselves. Being in themselves, consciously and bodily, they nonetheless attempt to dissolve the boundary of self and other to achieve social solidarity and justice. They challenge themselves to transcend themselves in every dimension of their being: physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially to ensure their social attributes – such as compassion, hospitality, empathy and altruism – are continually being extended outwards. Above all there should be respect for the unique value of the individual and a recognition that everyone has a unique contribution; at the same time, the society of such individuals should be attuned to empowering those who are less able – as a result of natural or social disadvantage – through the progress of knowledge and technology.

The world today is a confusing mixture of optimism and pessimism, potentialities and threats of great magnitude. The idea of transcendent individualism grounded in the aspiration to absolute values could provide the vital nudge the world needs at this time. Our institutions – such as the press, the judiciary, the arts, the sciences, and politics – pay lip service to truth, beauty and goodness, though they frequently fail, both institutionally as well as in the actions of their constituent members, to uphold them. It is high time they were awoken from their constitutional slumbers.

 

NOTE

  1. The lesson of the myth of the Garden of Eden, to my understanding, was that the first ancestors did not protect their freedom and did not accept responsibility for their lives and their actions, but sought to play the victim, just as today (as throughout history) many seek to blame others or ‘society’ for their personal misfortunes. The victim mentality which seems to be sweeping so much of the West today is not the result of individualism, but the result of the decline of individualism and the retreat into polarised collectives characterised by philosophical incoherence, hysteria and addiction to blame and conflict.

 

REFERENCES

Dumont, L. (1970). Homo Hierarchicus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Eliade, M. (1957). The sacred and the profane: The nature of religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.

Hechter, M. (1993). Values research in the social and behavioural sciences. In M. Hechter, L. Nadel and R. E. Michod (Eds.), The origin of values. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, pp. 1–28.

Kluckhohn, C. (1951). Values and value-orientations in the theory of action: An exploration in definition and classification. In T. Parsons and E. Shils (Eds.), Toward a general theory of action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 388-439.

Munsterberg, H. (1909). The eternal values. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Parsons, T. (1951). The social system. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Perry, R. B. (1926). General theory of value. New York.

Peterson, J. B. (2018). 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. London: Penguin Random House.

Rokeach, M. (1973). The nature of human values. New York: The Free Press.

Tajfel, H. (1974). Social identity and intergroup behaviour. Social Science Information, vol. 13, pp. 65-93.

Werkmeister, W. H. (1970). Historical spectrum of value theories. Lincoln, Nebraska: Johnsen Publishing Company.

 

The value of the self: three views on privacy in the digital age (part 2)

“All that is solid melts into air” (Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto)

The most fundamental revolution and radical transformation of human nature and society may already be under way. The last vestiges of organic society are being eroded from human experience as we move towards becoming a totally virtual society. The organic ties that have bound us together have been loosening since the Industrial Revolution, but they have never been superseded to the extent that that are being now. This is just the beginning of the process. It is not just jobs that are disappearing, but a way of life that brings people into daily contact with each other; just as the earlier technological revolutions reduced the need for manual labour, so digital technology is eliminating the need for human expertise of all types and also eliminating the need for human relationships as they have been experienced hitherto.

In the past, and still in organic society1, social bonds are built on trust and the basis of trust and of identity itself is personal knowledge of people. Identity is established in a mind-network of the people one knows, whether intimately, as family or friend, or more passingly, as neighbour, acquaintance or colleague. As populations have grown, people have become more uprooted and cities more impersonal, people more opaque to each other; the term ‘community’ has been redefined from its organic sense into a socio-political concept and, subsequently, subject to dubious claims of ownership and representation. Moreover, many of our interactions are now with people that we communicate with on a single occasion in order to, for example, purchase goods and services, and whom we never meet face-to-face. This process only looks to accelerate.

These changes have been and are being driven by the relentless logic of economics, the ruthless pursuit of efficiency and profit with little consideration of the human cost. Within this fundamental shift there are, it is true, the seeds of a new economy. It is one, though, that necessitates a transformation in our conception of what it is to be a social being, including all our fundamental values, our moral codes and even our idea of truth. In part I of this essay, I considered the meaning of privacy in organic society. In the digital age privacy is inverted and is commoditised like everything else, which requires that the elements of the self are fragmented and digitised. Without a fundamental re-evaluation. the existential dilemma this raises will ultimately only be solved by a totalitarian digital state.

The Commodification of Privacy

The great hope has been that the digital era will create the potential for the monetisation of personal information and, in fact, this could become one of the principal sources of income. This can only become a reality, though, if individuals retain (and increase) power over their own information. The alternative and, unfortunately at present – unless the threat can be faced down – more likely scenario, is that powerful emerging interests will usurp for themselves the economic value of the individual in the name of a purported collective good.

The basis of privacy lies in mythic narratives of the self, and manifests itself as the protection of intimacy, the concealment of transgression and the nurturing of identity. Our sense of self and concepts of privacy are nurtured by deep cultural traditions, which is a perspective that would probably be congenial to both Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysts. Although the arrival of the digital age is transforming many aspects of culture, its mythic basis remains fundamental; indeed, it is, I would argue, the only basis upon which we can meaningfully talk about privacy as the psychic space of individuality. That said, the full-blown information age that has arrived with digital technology, allows us to consider privacy from a different perspective, as a commodity.

What transformations have taken place that enable the commodification of privacy and thence its monetisation? The first transformation must be the vertiginous growth in the amount of information, which is not increasing arithmetically but geometrically. Information, unlike natural resources it seems, is increasing in value as it becomes more plentiful. The reason for this is that demand is growing faster than supply. Every area of life, and particularly the economy, is driven by information and the more information there is the faster growth accelerates. Closely related to that is the digitisation of information. In the pre-digital age information could be separated into various types (verbally communicated information, written information, visual information), but now almost all information is, or soon will be, reduced to binary code. Money is, or is well on the way to being, similarly transferred totally into a digital format. Therefore, the barrier to transition between these different formats is becoming invisible.

Beyond these technological parameters, though, a social transformation is taking place. The digital revolution is democratising mass communication. In the organic society communication was close and personal. Basic technologies allow communication at a distance, but it remained overwhelmingly personal. The advent of newspapers, radio and television allowed really for the first time the possibility of mass communication; however, it was limited to a communicative elite. Through digital technology everyone with some digital literacy has the possibility to communicate with millions of people. This has its obvious downsides, as the ubiquity of trolling and online abuse and bullying confirms, but it is also opening up new areas of economic, political and humanitarian activity facilitated by mass communication.

But these changes externally in technology are not enough to explain the path towards the commodification and monetisation of privacy. I think two things have happened regarding thinking about the self and individuality: the first is that people in the west (but other cultures are on the same trajectory) are gradually losing their ability to mythologise their interiority, through the decline of sacred discourse and through the decline of the mythic imagination; the second is through the changing complexion of the transgressive. Popular culture, encouraged by new communication technologies, is increasing privileging externality over interiority.

The Culture of Externalisation.

Privacy requires a strong sense of self and of an interior space, which is created reflectively, sustained through mythologised narratives of the sacred and its protective barriers. For the emerging homo digitalis interiority is something to be feared, avoided, suspect even. Increasingly, the technological infrastructure of the digital age, rather than being the midwife of a revolution, is becoming its prevailing obsession. Into this existential vacuum pours the anxieties of the age, augmented by the interconnectedness of the digitised world. This generation is the first without an identity in the sense that it would have been understood in a previous age and must, therefore, seek to assert selfhood and the vanquishing of emptiness through extreme physical transformations and through assuming extreme identities, abetted by social media contagion. Shared experience, the fundamental mode of social being and the basis of our social values, has become weaponised. Without the dialectic of experience and reflection, mere experience overwhelms individuality.2

For the fundamental values of the near future look to celebrity culture. The celebrity is the avatar of the digital age. The celebrity represents the evaporation of character into image, that which can be pixelated and reproduced infinitely, becoming a potential commodity. The celebrity ‘famous for being famous’ is no longer the butt of ridicule, but the exemplar. The fact that the virtual celebrity offers nothing but the possibility to be celebrated is their virtue, not their limitation or their failing. It is not even about beauty, because the icon can be endlessly manipulated, endlessly creating desire and feeding it. Pornography raises this idolisation of form to a higher level still, to the perfect geometry of ecstasy, that will culminate in its total mechanisation, with the advent of robotic sex. The deceptiveness, the tromp l’oeil of celebrity beauty converge on the monotony of the infinitely repetitive, the uniform, and the detestation of difference, of divergence from the formulaic ideals, which will lead eventually to the clone culture.

It seems at first glance that the concept of privacy is redundant in the culture of externality, as potentially every part of life has been digitised and commodified. There is no intimacy that is not available to the public (for a price); there is no transgression to be hidden, as the transgressive has become the new normal3. Privacy, which was ultimately the realm of the mind, has become meaningless when we are continually bombarded with information that absorbs all our attention – the most private realm is dominated by public theatre. Privacy becomes inverted under such conditions: it becomes the insulation of the individual from the physical presence of others. We come to occupy the same physical space without occupying the same social space, while we occupy the same virtual social space without occupying the same physical space.

Wittgenstein considered the status of private language, which was reviewed in part 1 of this essay. I had occasion to critique this idea from a philosophical perspective, but the culture of externality forbids the existence of such a notion as dangerous. Our thoughts and desires increasingly converge on what is deemed acceptable by those with their hands on the levers on taste. But it becomes more insidious than that, which, after all, is hardly a new phenomenon. The moral keepers of the new culture accuse us, knowing us and our interiority better than we know ourselves, of ‘unconscious bias’. Even the ramparts of our very self, that interior monologue, which is even only half-formed even to our own conscious mind, is treated and stained by ‘awareness’ advocates, thin-sectioned by the scalpel of ideological rigidity, and magnified to utter transparency by the preening self-righteousness of moral certainty.

 

The New Digital Powers

As the digital revolution has proceeded, questions have arisen about the ownership of information, such as how much information we are obligated to share with others who are providing a service and how we can protect our privacy and information from those who would abuse them, but the awareness of personal information as a commodity is only – belatedly – growing as we become aware of the growing value it has in the economy to governments and businesses, who have been using it as an open resource. Private companies now hold a great deal of our personal information, which they have accessed for free. This is enormously beneficial for them, with no reciprocal benefits to us, at least no equivalent benefit. Finally, we are beginning to ask the right question: do the benefits we get from a largely free internet equate to the benefits that accrue to companies’ use of our personal information? As the recent inquiry into Facebook shows, there is a growing awareness of the issues of ownership of information that has too long been taken for granted by the internet giants.

Whereas we are uncomfortable with businesses possessing our information, most would accept that the state does have a right, at least to basic information about our identity and history, as a quid pro quo for the goods and services that it provides, in terms of protection against external enemies, public order, health, education and welfare. Since the delivery of these good is not increasing exponentially – in some cases is falling – yet the amount of information about each one of us is growing exponentially, the question arises when the state may go too far in its acquisition of information. Moreover, we can legitimately ask at what point the data on identity becomes information of an intimate nature, that we have a right to protect or to profit from, if we so choose. The only basis on which the state might legitimately strip us of this right to our own information is when we have transgressed the laws of society. The spectre haunting society in the digital age is that of a state which can demand total transparency of information by treating citizens as potential – if not actual – transgressors. This could be accomplished by expanding the realm of the transgressive and the state of heightened dependency. These are issues that I will deal with in the third part of this essay.

For the wealthy and the powerful, the nomenklatura of the digital age, there is the option to retreat behind physical and digital walls, where the reach of prying eyes and of the ubiquity of the digital world. I am reminded of the high Party member O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984, who is able to turn off the ubiquitous screens. Today, these are the elite who create and control the infrastructure and products of the digital age. They are the ones who forbid their children to interact with digital technology or severely control access to it. They read books rather than text messages and emails, they visit museums, parks, concerts, mountains and the sea, rather than look at them online and they join clubs rather than online communities and play sports or music rather than play video games.

For the proletarian masses their occupation is increasingly only an interaction with digital technology. We see it already in every place of work: the serried ranks in open plan offices chained to their computers nine-to-five, managers who are never out of office, even at home, evenings, weekends and holidays. The digital age does not bring release from work or greater efficiency; it creates its own work, to which we are indentured; the broader the bandwidth, the more sluggish the response, such is the detritus of mediocrity it fosters. It promises freedom of choice but binds us with ever greater regulation of our lives. For the proletarian, privacy is the retreat into social silos that can be personally curated. However, this privacy is largely illusory, firstly because it is externalised and shared with the world and, secondly, because the commodification of data means that the personal space is constantly monitored. This is the first generation for whom there is no inside; there is nowhere to retreat to. Moreover, there is no desire to retreat, because as knowledge of interiority has been lost, so has desire for it also vanished; we cannot desire what we do not even know we have lost.

The prophets of doom warn us of the dangers when artificial intelligence achieves the ‘singularity’ of surpassing human intelligence, but few are warning of the almost certainly greater danger when we abdicate our own interior life and our sociality for the unutterably vapid world and empty promises of the digital age. A computer, in its many forms and together with all its paraphernalia, is a tool, and not a particularly good one. However, at present it is being treated as if it is the panacea of human problems. This is infecting us with a type of solipsistic nihilism which is eroding social ties and the idea of a shared culture. Short of us being able to contextualise this technology within a perspective of human interiority and sociality4, the inevitable descent of society into anarchy will only be solved by the state assuming totalitarian control of the means of digital production and dissemination.

NOTES

1.By organic society I mean the forms of society in which relations between people are largely direct and unmediated by technology, by which I mean specifically the technology of the digital age, that is mediation through screens and the deconstruction of individuality into online content. Of course, every technology, including writing, the telephone and television, has introduced an element of mediation and subtly altered the nature of human discourse and community. However, in order to explore the nature of privacy in the digital age, it is necessary to first establish the meaning of privacy in forms of society as near as possible to the organic within the living experience of most of those living today. This was explored in part 1 of this essay.

2.What is the distinction between the self, individuality, identity and privacy? The self is a neutral term that denotes the fact that we are constituted individual physically and experientially. Individuality is more of an evaluative term, that is, the self has a value as an individual, because of its uniqueness, its non-replicability. Identity is the most ideological of the four, in that it is asserting a category (or a set of categories) onto innumerable individuals, for philosophical, administrative or political reasons. As categorisation is an infinite exercise, it is the most dangerous of the concepts, as it is the most open to systems of ideological manipulation and the institution of bureaucratic control. Privacy is the sphere of individuality, its space and the protection of that space.

3.The only thing that could potentially, usefully be hidden is breaches of the law, but within a few years, such is the acceleration of data mining, even this will become virtually impossible. That is not to say that such breaches will be punished; the descent into lawlessness is already under way; in many cases the police have abdicated responsibility for solving crime. Crime and punishment will be decided by the online mob, driven by ideological extremism. In some cases, the police are already more alert to breaches of cultural sensitivity than they are to actual crimes, such as theft and assault.

4.Based on the theories of George Herbert Mead, Habermas (1984) developed a theory of intersubjectivity based on language. According to Habermas (ibid, p.390), ‘Mead elevated symbolically mediated interaction to the new paradigm of reason and based reason on the communicative relation between subjects, which is rooted in the mimetic act of role-taking, that is, in ego’s making his own the expectations that alter directs to him’, which is to say that reason (hence subjectivity) emerges from the sharing of and response to signs and sign acts. There have been a number of critiques of Habermas’ idea of intersubjectivity. Frie (1997) delivers what I think must be a fatal blow when he claims that recognition of the signs others make presupposes subjectivity; it is not the basis of subjectivity.

In my view intersubjectivity is probably a philosophical cul-de-sac. Yet I think that Habermas is partly right. Signs conveying meanings between us are the only basis on which we share our experience (which, after all, is the essence of our subjectivity – indeed the case can be made that it is our subjectivity). While it is incorrect to say that our subjectivity emerges from such interactive sharing, it is certainly true that knowledge, and hence functional rationality (if not essential rationality, such as proposed by Descartes et al), do. Intersubjectivity is conceptually incoherent. Subjectivity is individual, a property of the self; it cannot be shared. However, experience can be shared, that is the properties of my subjective experience can be shared with another, to the degree that the other can experience an empathetic identification with my experience. This is not experiential identity, as this is impossible, but understanding to the degree that is likely to result in strengthened social bonding. A case can be made, therefore, that increased dissemination of knowledge, which is what culture, particularly forms of education, undertakes, increases social bonding overall.

A more rational account of ‘intersubjectivity’ would be Popper’s concept of World 3 culture, the shared world of ideas, theories and cultural artefacts. What I find missing in Popper’s account, though, is the basis of societal interaction in which such a world of culture is embedded. Paradoxically, knowledge can only exist where there is a foundation of social bonding.

Selected Bibliography

Jurgen Habermas (1984), Theory of communicative action, volume one: Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Karl Popper (1972), Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Michael Betancourt (2015), The Critique of Digital Capitalism: An Analysis of the Political Economy of Digital Culture and Technology. New York: Punctum Books.

Roger Frie (1997), Subjectivity and intersubjectivity in modern philosophy: A study of Sartre, Binswanger, Lacan and Habermas. London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Ellis Cashmore (2006), Celebrity Culture. Oxford: Routledge.

Antagonistic Tribalism: the cement of political extremism

The social psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has achieved a certain internet notoriety recently, through his lectures on the analysis of cultural myths and stories and, in particular, his moral opposition to mandated speech in Canadian law and the encroachment of the radical left in academia and social institutions in general, has, it seems to me, struggled to find a conceptual language in which to position himself as a politically neutral arbiter, amid claims that he is a ‘right-wing’ or even ‘alt-right’ ideologue. He claims that it is easy to distinguish when the right has gone too far – when it makes claims of racial superiority – but the consequences of pushing a radical egalitarianism, which is what Peterson identifies as the distinguishing mark of the left having gone too far, are less obvious to many, despite the millions of corpses sacrificed to this idea in the twentieth century.

While Peterson’s formulation captures something of how the extremes of right and left are bad in different ways, it doesn’t in my view capture the way in which they are fundamentally similar: both right and left – and, indeed, all other forms of extremism, such as religious and environmentalist extremism – are committed to a form of tribalism that negates the developments in individualism that are the hallmark of the modern world of individual liberties, relative prosperity, relative peace and relative freedom from suffering. The forms of society either envisioned by or instituted by extremists offer no such relative bounties, but unbounded and, therefore, unrealisable visions, resulting in social catastrophes when they are forced on recalcitrant populations.

It is important to analyse the aetiology of extreme tribalism, because humans are tribal by nature. Although we are physically constituted individual, we are social beings, and this is manifest at a fundamental physical level, in our genetic makeup and in our hormonal responses to others. At the psychological level, we are attuned to seek tribal allegiances, which can be interpreted liberally to include everything from family, to ethnic identity, profession, religion, political affiliation, nationality, football or baseball team, hobby clubs, and so on. One of the features of social media sites is the emergence of spontaneous tribalism among those who find common identity in a shared interest. I drive an older car and have noted the tendency among drivers of the same model (me included) to acknowledge each other on the road, establishing an immediate if evanescent identity. We have a capacity for tribalism, both profound and trivial.

Tribalism means more than just a sense of identity, though. To belong to a tribe also involves a value judgement that the tribe with which we identify is ‘better’ or ‘superior’ in some sense. Henri Tajfel, a French social psychologist and pioneer of social identity theory, claimed we make a distinction between an “in-group”, to which we belong, and an “out-group” to which the rest of the world belongs, privileging the former as the basis of our social identity and sense of worth. This is the unassailable logic of the tribe; from this it is not difficult to see wherein many social tensions and conflicts have their root. What mitigates this in modern developed societies is the existence of multiple belongings, riding on the individualism which has emerged in modernity, but which has a long pedigree in the West with roots in antiquity. In the modern developed society, characterised by a high degree of political emancipation, economic autonomy and liberal education, the individual is not beholden to a single, totalising identity, but is free to build a complex self-identity through belonging, whether profoundly or superficially, in multiple in-groups, which has the effect of fracturing the monolithic cohesion of the out-group.

It would be a mistake to think, though, that individualism is universally accepted or necessarily a stable element of liberal democracies. The criticism is often raised that individualism is just an excuse for selfishness, that it is fundamentally immoral or amoral. I would counter that selfishness is inimical to the individual and to the idea of individualism, which has at its foundation the well-being and enhancement of the individual. Nevertheless, there is a justified concern that the focus on the individual in society undermines the cohesion of the broader society by a focus on the desires and interests of individuals to the detriment of duties and responsibilities to others. For this reason, I prefer to speak of transcendent individualism, which specifically includes sociality and areas of spirituality as dimensions of human development. Most advocates of individualism are in fact advocates of transcendent individualism. Yet, the widely-held misunderstanding about individualism and the minority of people who justify the bad choices they make, in terms of their health, education, prosperity, relationships and happiness within an individualist framework, declaring themselves to owe no duty to anyone else or to any moral standards, makes the philosophical foundations of individualism particularly prey to absolutist and tribalist critiques.

Having asserted that political extremism of both the left and the right share a commitment to tribalist ideology, despite obvious ideological differences, it is necessary to distinguish the tribalism of such extremism from the natural tribal affiliations we all experience. I believe that can be summed up in two words: stance and strategy. The stance of extremists is antagonistic: they revel in hatred and conflict, whatever fine justifications they may dress it up in; they develop a hypersensitivity to perceived injustices, whether personal or against the group they identify with; they categorically reject the safeguards to extreme stances which the culture around stable democracies have built into them – tolerance, dialogue, the willingness to listen and learn, respect for truth and evidence, compromise, perhaps even a willingness to change. The strategy is the polarisation of society into antagonistic tribes and the elimination of the ‘other’, the out-group, using the power of the state.

This road to the tribalising of erstwhile democratic society can be considered to take place through four stages. The first is the identification of a cause. Usually, it is a particular grievance held by one section of the population. This is frequently, though not invariably, associated with a pre-existing identity, such as a religion or an ethnicity; if such a correlation between identity and grievance does not exist, it must be manufactured. The second stage is the gradual identification of the individual with the cause and the withdrawal from multiple belonging which we said is characteristic of societies that have individualism as their basis. This is accomplished simultaneously through polarising propaganda which draws a clear line of demarcation between the virtuous “we” and the inauthentic, suspect or heinous “other”. Obviously, in such a confrontation the subtleties of complex social problems and the complexities of self-identity through multiple belonging are lost. The third stage is then to enter a period of increasing insulation of the tribe from reasoned debate and engagement with, and increasing hostility towards, the identified other. This is also marked by the maturation of the political culture of the tribe. The fourth stage is the overthrow or subjugation of the state – whether that be through a campaign of terror, a putsch or a ‘long march through the institutions’ – to capture the instruments of state power.

The outcome of a society overturned by such antagonistic tribalism does not have to be theorised, as the evidence is abundant in history, ancient, modern and contemporary. It is worth noting some of their common characteristics: suspicion of and hostility towards outsiders leading to frequent warfare; expectation of absolute conformity to traditions or the ruling ideology and ruthless suppression of dissent; the practice of barbaric forms of punishment, including mass killing of their own people; changes in power through violent removal of incumbents. Should the argument be made that these are the perversions of the ideology rather than the successful embodiment of it, one only needs to point to the same features in primitive tribal cultures – only the scale is different. These are not features of the developed democracies we generally inhabit today, because the development of an individualistic culture has mitigated the worst features of tribalism. However, the persistence of unresolved problems and the emergence of new ones in imperfect societies create conditions under which ideologues, rather than attempting to solve real problems, can promote absolutist fantasies as remedies to problems they have augmented or exacerbated.

The role of the state in a democratic society to counter such tendencies should be to maintain the basis of individualism within society, in order to maintain and develop the foundations of freedom, knowledge, well-being and prosperity. It is this foundation that encourages multiple belonging and the growth of complex identities across and transcending narrow sectarian ones. There are certain things a government should not allow: the existence of alternative (religious) systems of law or education that undermine transcendent individualism and multiple belonging and entrench tribal identities; political, religious or other ideological groups that operate on an exclusionary principle and advocate hatred of others and incite violence or the overthrow of the state; and any moves to suppress freedom of thought and speech.

This last point, freedom of speech, needs to be addressed in particular. We have moved from a society in which there was a consensus across the political spectrum that freedom of speech was a fundamental right, to one in which this is considered to be a right that advantages the dominant oppressive class in society, by both the far-left and, increasingly, the far-right. The left maintain, with some plausibility, which makes it difficult to see through the sophistry, that freedom of speech can be a cloak for permission to engage in ‘hate speech’ against unpopular minorities. True, if one is inciting violence against a person or group, but that is a crime under existing law (and has been for a long time); however, ‘hate speech’ is a term of such vagueness and elasticity that it encompasses everything from genuine incitement to violence to any opinion that might make someone feel uncomfortable (i.e. that they disagree with) or vicariously consider may be demeaning to a particular (vulnerable, so claimed) minority, as a precursor to the victimisation/oppression of that minority. There is evidence that rightist groups have started using the same strategy, particularly on campuses that are dominated by left-wing academics and students.

In psychology this chain of assuming the worst possible outcome on the slenderest of probabilities is known as ‘catastrophising’ and is a vector of mental illness. Nevertheless, the passionate intensity with which such scenarios are portrayed – in the language of risk assessment, high impact, without the concomitant low probability being considered – is such that an increasing number of academic institutions have been convinced to dismantle their commitment to genuine free speech. The danger for society is that free speech underlies the mechanism of the growth of knowledge and the identification of error, upon which the universities have their rationale, debate takes place in public and in the media, and which forms the basis of the other freedoms we enjoy.

There is a dimension of personal responsibility to this. Being that we are tribal in nature and have lived in tribal cultures for far longer that we have lived in individualistic ones, there is a strong propensity to be swayed by appeals to tribalistic urges, including negative propaganda, negative rumours and negative stereotypes. Sometimes we need no external catalyst, but are primed to categorise someone and assume the worst of someone on the basis of a perceived shared identity, ignoring and collapsing the likely complex self-identity of individuals on the basis of limited information and experience. This tendency is countered most effectively by personal knowledge of people from many different backgrounds (interestingly, opinion polls – in the UK at least – show a consistent trend of the greatest opposition to immigration in areas that have very little of it). Sometimes this is not enough; when social stressors are high, such as terrorist attacks or the pernicious influence of political propaganda, there is a strong reversion to antagonistic tribal mentality, projected onto individuals symbolising the ‘other’. At such times it is particularly important to remind ourselves and others of our cultural and philosophical commitment to individualism, multiple belonging and complex identities – our own and probably that of the individual we are in danger of pigeonholing and disparaging.

Dialectic of the Good: the structural containment of tradition in the establishment of virtue

As I write this, England will or will not be on the way to the finals of the World Cup, and that matter, like the fate of Schrödinger’s cat, will have been settled by the time this article is posted. Although I played (badly) as a boy, I have assiduously avoided following football as it seems an invitation to either adulation of bought success or perpetual disappointment à la Fever Pitch and, ultimately, always the latter. Moreover, the present games began inauspiciously, being located in a country that is an emerging threat to Western Europe, and through a process of tender that has come to be viewed in retrospect as highly suspect. However, like many others, I have been impressed by the shape of the England squad, less for their potential in lifting the Cup (though I would admit this is not entirely a negligible matter) than the character of the England manager, the care he demonstrates towards his players, the cohesion as a team and the attitudes they demonstrate on the pitch. This has inspired some thoughts on a topic not always considered these days, that is the nature of virtue.

According to Aristotle in Book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics:

Every art and every investigation, and likewise every practical pursuit or undertaking, seems to aim at some good: hence it has been well said that the Good is that at which all things aim.

Clearly, football, like any other pursuit, has an intended goal (no pun intended) of being played well. But what is it to play the game well? Aristotle makes a distinction between an art in which the goal is the pursuit of the practice itself and that in which the practice is productive of some tangible outcome. Aristotle’s examples are flute playing and house building respectively. Which one is football? For some this will be a ridiculous question, as the answer would clearly be that football is a productive activity, the product being scoring goals, winning matches and, at the professional level at least, winning cups and achieving eminent status. This much is not really in doubt. But as football has become increasingly wealthy, with the corruption that wealth can bring, the image that people have had is not so much that of ‘the beautiful game’ but something more akin to Game of Thrones.

Aristotle argued that every practice has an intended end, or telos, which is the cultivation of virtue; by which he meant the cultivation of the human character. This concept of the realisation of virtue through the cultivation of an expertise was also found in the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s teaching on the Tao – literally ‘the way’ – which persists today in various oriental arts, the do in Japanese martial arts (Judo, Aikido) and in the tea ceremony, Cha-do, for example. That is to say, the point is not merely to win, or more broadly to achieve success in something, although it is also that, but also to develop a virtuous character in keeping with one’s expertise.

The question then arises: what do we mean by virtue? The two great proponents of virtue in the history of philosophy are probably Aristotle and Confucius. There is some convergence between their thoughts on virtue, but important differences between them. For Aristotle the cultivation of reason (logos) was paramount, as this is what differentiates us from the animals, but this is mitigated to some degree by our sociality (ethos), what Aristotle calls our being a ‘political’ animal, that is one embedded in human society and its norms. Ultimately, though, Aristotle retains what today we would call a ‘critical distancing’ from the contemporaneous social form. By contrast, by today’s reckoning Confucius appears highly conservative. For Confucius virtue consists in obedience to the laws and rituals (li) of the past Zhou dynasty, which he considered to have embodied ‘the mandate of Heaven’. However, mere obedience to li without ren – literally ‘love’, though I prefer the translation ‘humanity’ – is empty of meaning.

Both Aristotle and Confucius, therefore, have a binary concept of virtue, consisting of an internal virtue and an external virtue, an individual response and an external conformity. I would argue that this essentially balanced and cohesive idea of virtue was sundered in Christianity, something which has haunted the idea of virtue in the West ever since, though it also added another dimension. Jesus, who according to Karl Jaspers, is one of the great ethical teachers of history, came with the radical demand that people leave behind worldly concerns and focus on the kingdom of God. Asked whether the Jews should pay the Roman tax, Jesus took a denarius and asked whose image was on it:

They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Matt 15:21)

There are various interpretations of what this might mean, but subsequent history was strongly influence by St Paul’s insistence that the spirit has precedence over the law, underlying the split between the sacred and the secular in the West.

For Confucius ren was the love within the family, particularly of the son for the father (filial piety), which he saw as the basis for good citizenship and the model of the relationship between the king and his subjects (benevolence and loyalty). Jesus, however, took a radically different turn:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… (Matt 5:43-44)

What it means exactly to love your enemies – specifically – is not elucidated, though there are extraordinary cases of those who have been the victims of bestial crimes finding in themselves the power to forgive. I think more generally, particularly within the modern context, though, loving one’s enemies can be interpreted in a twofold way: the call to universality; and the call to empathy, both emanating from the implicit deracination implicit in Jesus teaching.

Both Aristotle and Confucius, as far as we know, saw their duty as delimited by that which was close to them, for Aristotle the polis, which at the time would have numbered a few tens of thousands and for Confucius the State ruled over by the king. Universality was not within their conception. The world that Jesus inhabited was already much wider and interconnected; in Palestine the Egyptian, Graeco-Roman and Semitic-Hebraic cultures collided. Literally collided, that is, as Palestine was a vassal state under the dominion of the Roman Empire. Through exhorting his disciples to love their enemies, Jesus was extending the range of their concern from the local to the universal.

Despite its Greek linguistic roots, empathy is a modern term coined in the nineteenth century, developing out of German Romantic philosophy. It has no analogue in the ancients, which could be taken as evidence for humanity’s continued spiritual development. However, I would argue that the seeds for the development of the concept of empathy are in Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemy, and that, therefore, it is more likely to have arisen in a civilisation based on Christianity. There is no historical evidence for this, of course, as empathy arose from the romantic school of interpretation of the artwork, as Einfühlung, literally ‘feeling into’, and it was only later translated into social theory by Theodore Lipps as an explanation of our ability to identify the emotional life of others. But it is at least plausible that the Christian context allowed the development of the idea that it is worthy to understand the world from the perspective of minds other than our own.

Is it possible, though, that the teaching of loving one’s enemy, rather than extending the idea of virtue, has fatally undermined it? Nietzsche certainly thought so; he saw through the supposed Christian virtues of meekness and forgiveness an underlying corruption of the spirit and the values underlying European civilisation. His solution was a radical transvaluation and a return to the warrior codes of aristocratic society.

The moral philosopher Alasdair McIntyre in his 1981 book After Virtue, though no less aware of the demise of virtue, targeted the humanism that emerged in the Enlightenment. According to McIntyre the concept of virtue was lost when thinkers such as Hume and Kant attempted to reconstitute virtue in purely sentimental or rationalistic terms, undercutting the notion of tradition – whether religious or cultural – that had always been a part of it, as can be seen in the case of both Aristotelian and Confucian ideas of virtue. For Hume the good was no more or less than human feeling. Kant attempted to explain virtue in terms of the categorical imperative, the admonition to “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”, which while it is mirrored in the teachings of the great religions, is itself devoid of any particular content or transcendental cultural grounding. For McIntyre, modernism has so etiolated the notion of virtue that it is now virtually impossible to reconstitute it, unless through a return to classical notions of the community such as found in Aristotle.

I am not as pessimistic as either Nietzsche or McIntyre about the influence of Christianity or the Enlightenment project on Western civilisation. Both in their way have the potential to release us from the stultifying weight of tradition, as demonstrated historically by periodic episodes of reform and revolution. However, the discussion of virtue in the ancients placed an emphasis on what I have termed an external virtue, which can only be some form of social norms, as well as an internal attitudinal virtue. This, of course, is none other than a tradition.

Can we and, if so, how do we, reconcile these seemingly incompatible facets of a tradition, as an obstacle to aspiration and as a context to aspiration? It is, in effect, to achieve the seemingly impossible of a synthesis between the critical and the conservative approaches to tradition. There is in fact an activity with a long pedigree within religion, law, aesthetics and more recently in philosophy that sets out to accomplish that, which is the art of interpretation, the study of which is known as hermeneutics. Interpretation is premised on the assumption that the text – a general term for any object of interpretation, though frequently a written text – is given and indissoluble; that the interpretation extends the meaning of the text, but does not replace it. Interpretation, therefore, steers a middle course between literalism, which allows of no interpretation, and deconstruction, for which every interpretation has the same literary or aesthetic value as the original.

Interpretation offers a bridge between an Aristotelian more intellectual and critical approach to tradition based on the rules of the community and the Confucian one of loyalty to a tradition mediated by humanity. Interpretation allows the preservation of a tradition – in fact, insists on it – while seeking that which is essential and profound within it, not merely an external observation or observance. Virtue, then, can be understood as a variety of interpretation, one in which the telos of the activity is the acquisition of the good. The hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer likens interpretation to ‘play’ and cites the poet Rilke:

Catch only what you’ve thrown yourself, all is

mere skill and little gain;

but when you’re suddenly the catcher of a ball

thrown by an eternal partner

with accurate and measured swing

towards you, to your center, in an arch

from the great bridgebuilding of God:

why catching then becomes a power—

not yours, a world’s

Which is perhaps an apposite moment to return to football. According to Bill Shankly, “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that”. Perhaps not, but neither is it as mundane as kicking a ball around a field. Like all serious sports it is a game bound by rules that represent a tradition within the sport, but one that is symbiotic with the traditions of civilised societies. Some interpretations may push the rules to the breaking point in a winner-takes-all attitude; while this may appeal to a narrow sporting fan base, it does not command widespread public respect. A truer – certainly a more virtuous – interpretation, one which we have seen inklings of this time round, sees the rules as the occasion for exemplifying the values of sportsmanship – courage and fairness, magnanimity in victory and resilience in defeat. Sport at its best humanises and civilises us.

 

Selected Bibliography

Aristotle (2000) Nicomachean Ethics (tr. And ed. Roger Crisp). Cambridge: CUP. Online at: http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/samples/cam032/99036947.pdf

Hans-Georg Gadamer (1994) Truth and method. London: Continuum Publishing Group.

Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) After virtue: A study in moral theory. London: Duckworth.

Karsten Stueber (2018) ‘Empathy’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/empathy/&gt;.

Jiyuan Yu (1998) ‘Virtue: Confucius and Aristotle’. Philosophy East and West, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Apr., 1998), pp. 323-347.