Ultimate reality – what if anything is the truth?

“Whether you’re a scientist of not, consciousness is a mystery that matters. For each of us, our conscious experience is all there is. Without it there is nothing at all, no self, no interior and no exterior.”

So writes Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex in his book Being You. And in writing it, of course, he explodes the myth, as espoused by Tartaglia in the previous blog, that neuroscientists have to abandon the concept of consciousness. This is true of some neuroscientists and neuro-philosophers, but by no means all of them. Of course, Seth still has to make his case that consciousness can be captured in a satisfactory way by materialism, but he is in no doubt that his ‘preferred philosophical position…is physicalism’ or materialism as we have been calling it here. In this the fourth, and final, blog on this subject – for now at least- we explore his materialist approach and try to find a solution to the great materialist v idealist debate.

Anil Seth

In a really simple and effective way he points out that materialism and idealism have similar, indeed, mirror problems. Whereas for materialists it’s the problem of how the mind emerges out of matter, for idealists it’s ‘how matter emerges out of mind’ – although, as we have seen, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle argues that this is a pseudo problem because mind and matter should not have been split asunder by philosophers like Descartes in the first place.

Seth begins his climb up from brute matter to consciousness by claiming that there are actually several levels of consciousness which are linked to the idea that ‘every conscious experience is both informative and integrated, inhabiting the complex middle ground between order and disorder’. He simplifies this claim by writing that ‘a system is conscious to the extent that its whole generates more information than its parts‘. But Seth goes further than this and his position rests on the argument, much like Kant and Schopenhauer as we have seen in previous blogs – and indeed Tartaglia – that the world as we perceive it is a ‘construction of the brain’ or, as Seth puts it, a ‘controlled hallucination’ in order to distinguish it from the uncontrolled hallucination of our dreams.

The mystery of consciousness

In short, Seth argues that the brain is a ‘prediction machine’ and that what we ‘see, hear, and feel is nothing more than the brain’s “best guess” of the causes of its sensory inputs’. Interestingly, if true this would furnish a materialistic account of intentionality, or aboutness, so beloved by some idealists who argue that matter simply can’t accommodate this aspect of consciousness. What Seth is saying is that matter, in its particular manifestation as the brain, can.

According to Seth our perception of a cup of coffee, for example, is caused by our sensory signals but the image itself is constructed by our brains as its best guess of what is out there. He writes: “We never experience sensory signals themselves, we only ever experience interpretations of them.” This, again, is very close to the transcendental idealism of Kant and Schopenhauer, both of whom acknowledge the existence of an ultimate reality that lies forever beyond out knowledge.

Still further Seth argues that what the brain is doing is deploying Bayesian logic or abductive reasoning, often referred to as ‘inference to the best explanation’, the insights from which are central to understanding how conscious perceptions are central to ‘understanding how conscious perceptions are built from brain-based guesses’.

For Seth all this has a profound impact on who we are – or think we are. For him the ‘ground-state of conscious selfhood’ is ‘formless, shapeless, control orientated perceptual prediction about the present and future physiological condition of the body itself. This where being you begins, and it is here that we find the most profound connections between life and mind, between our best machine nature and conscious self’.

Curiously, both idealism of Tartaglia and the materialism of Seth have the same basis – the Self. For Tartaglia that leads to his form of idealism which thinks of ‘ultimate reality as something within each of our perspectives, while materialism does not’. As we have seen, however, this is a mischaracterization of materialism, or at least the positions of materialists like Seth. Tartaglia’s position is also in danger of falling into solipsistic abyss in which each individual flails around unconnected to any other Self. It also ignores the possibility, as Seth suggests, that our internal experience is formed by the physical world, even if we have no direct intuition of that world.

Is the world a construct of the brain?

Seth also dodges the solipsistic problem by acknowledging that even though there is no actual essence of self, part of what gives us the sense of selfhood is what he calls the ‘social self’, which is ‘all about how I perceive others perceiving me’. And he adds: “It is the part of me that arises from me being embedded in a social network.” Accordingly, the ‘social self emerges gradually during childhood and continues to evolve throughout life.’

We have come a long way since the first blog on ultimate reality was posted last year. It has felt sometimes that there is no principled way of deciding between idealism and materialism – and dualism doesn’t seem to solve the problem because it too has the seemingly irresolvable mind/body bifurcation. Maybe there simply isn’t a single ultimate reality. Maybe it’s a bit like the wave/particle dualism of photons or the duck/rabbit illusion.

Is it a duck or a rabbit?

On the other hand either idealism is true or materialism is true – but not at the same time!

But if one were forced to make a decision then it could be argued that materialism just edges it mainly because it avoids the problem of solipsism and acknowledges that Ultimate Reality resides outside of us as individuals. No doubt there are idealists out there who have answers to meet these problems and nothing that has been written here suggests that either side has a knock-down argument. But for now at least that’s all folks, and this blog will move on to other topics.

Narrowing Ultimate Reality

IN the last blog we investigated the somewhat bewildering range of positions on ultimate reality. So, it is now time to narrow things down. And to do that we will be eschewing dualism, or at least remaining agnostic about its truth, simply because of the seemingly unsurmountable problems it has with how two different substances can interact with each other. No doubt its proponents have a way of resolving these problems but that may be for another blog. For now we will be concentrating on trying to determine whether Idealism of Materialism is true – and of course if one or the other is found to be true then dualism falls by default. Helping us through this enquiry are two thinkers – James Tartaglia with his book Gods and Titans, which promotes Idealism, and Anil Seth in Being You, in which he promotes Materialism.

James Tartaglia of Keele University

Surprisingly, perhaps, Tartaglia begins with a plausible account of materialism, which is also where he started as a philosopher. What makes Materialism seem obviously true, he writes, is that we are living in a ‘physical world out there which exists independently of us’. Furthermore, with the rise of science we have an excellent description and explanation of this physical world. And while there are still some philosophers out there who believe there are immaterial things like minds and gods, or God, this is ‘obviously old-fashioned, superstitious nonsense: there are no spooky, immaterial things floating around in the physical world’.

It is true that this is a plausible account of ultimate reality and it is one that has held sway for the last 100 years or so. But it is at this moment that Tartaglia makes a startling claim: “This is just one big misunderstanding. You can pick holes in anything…but there is nothing to be said for any of the above.”

His most important attack is one that he takes to be the materialists’ attempts to ‘discredit our natural, subjective understanding’ of our experience – although, as we shall see later, this criticism does not apply to all materialists.

It’s all subjective

But Tartaglia makes the point that if there really are immaterial things like minds then it cannot be right, as the materialists suppose, to ‘think of them floating around in the physical world’. He continues: “Any philosopher who ever seriously contended that minds or experiences were non-physical was not thinking about them objectively, but rather subjectively – in terms of the subject who has them.”

Tartaglia’s positive argument for Idealism begins with: “Each of us lives through a stream of conscious experience, which is intermittently interrupted by sleep, and then, eventually, permanently ended by death.” It then gets a little more complicated because he argues that the stream of consciousness is all that our lives consist in.

“Everything we know or care about either enters into our experiences or else we believe in it in order to make sense of of what does.” Science, far from describing Ultimate Reality, simply describes and explains what we experience not experience itself. “Experience is all we can be sure of has independent existence. The key difference from materialism is that ‘idealism thinks of ultimate reality as something within each of our experiential perspectives, while materialism does not’. So, for Tartaglia, them, ‘ultimate reality is to be found within each of our individual experiential centres’.

Interestingly, Tartaglia argues that we need to see that ‘mathematical physics does not describe the world we see and touch, but it is rather a means of predicting and controlling our experiences of that world’ and we ‘need metaphysical beliefs rooted in the concrete reality of experience, rather than the abstract predictions of mathematics’.

This argument is intriguing because, as we shall see in the next blog, Seth argues the same point from a materialist’s position except that for him this predicting and controlling that the brain does just is our consciousness.

There are at least four main problems with Tartaglia’s position. One is, as we see here, he assumes that materialists have to deny our individual subjective experience and consciousness to maintain their position; as we shall see this not necessarily true. Secondly, he also assumes that the only alternative to idealism is the objective world as unveiled by science. But there is another reality that he ignores and this is the noumenal of world-as-it-is-in-itself of Kant or the Will according to Schopenhauer, which is, for them, forever beyond the knowledge of scientists or individual experiences.

Arthur Schopenhauer

At the risk of drifting into politics, it could also be argued that Tartaglia’s vision of Ultimate Reality draws us away from the world into our solipsistic selves and downplays our engagement with the world.

It is also odd to suggest that if there is an immaterial mind then it has to exist outside of the physical world. Far from solving the problems of how anything immaterial can exist in a physical world, this simply pushes the problem one step back and risks splitting Tartaglia’s insistence on mono-idealism into the Cartesian dualism he rejects.

In the next, and final, blog in this series on Ultimate Reality we shall look at a modern take on materialism and see if it can solve the problems of Tartaglia’s position and counter some of his attacks on materialism.

The labyrinths of Ultimate Reality

THE first move here following on from the last blog is to is to give a brief definition of Ultimate Reality – and are there are two possibilities. The first is that it is whatever the universe is in itself regardless of our position within it. Secondly, it is what ever presents itself to our understanding regardless of our position within in it. Another important distinction to make is the difference between Ultimate Reality and metaphysics – the latter being the method by which we develop our understanding of Ultimate Reality rather Ultimate Reality itself.

In the last blog we looked at the history of materialism and idealism. So, we now begin with a closer look at what these terms mean. It could be argued with some cogency that the most basic or the purest form of materialism is physicalist materialism, which bases its position of Ultimate Reality as being whatever the discipline of physics asserts Ultimate Reality to be. A variant of this is what is often called emergent materialism within which there are certain complex entities like minds that, while they have their origins in the brain, are not wholly reducible to it.

Of the first type Rex Wilson writes in Philosophy, Neuroscience and Consciousness that ‘conscious properties must somehow be properties of physical things’. Of the second type neuro-philosophers, writes Wilson, argue that although ‘conscious properties’ remain within the ‘framework of science’ they nevertheless retain an ‘open-minded willingness to refrain from inferring that conscious properties are also reducible to micro-physical properties of neural events’.

Turning now to idealism, one of its most important aspects is the concept of an essence both in the abstract and the concrete. So, in this sense, according to many idealists at least, there is the universalism of humanness – or a type – of which all humans are tokens. But many also argue that there is such a thing as concrete essence which relates to a specific class of things like humans or dogs – and because this is, unlike the fixed abstract universal, dynamic and developing it can accommodate the individual. It is likely that these two concepts can be merged as when abstract universal humans rights apply very concretely to individuals.

One of the other aspects of idealism is that the mind cannot be reduced to the brain or a higher level of reality, like consciousness, to the firing of neurons in the brain. In fact idealists go further to argue that while matter can be explained by the mind, matter cannot explain the mind. Indeed, idealists like Arthur Schopenhauer, following on from Immanuel Kant, argue in his The World as Will and Representation that the ‘world is my idea’. That is the ordinary everyday phenomenal world is created by our brains and the world beyond our representation of it – the world as Will as he put it – must forever be beyond our understanding, although it can at least be inferred to be undifferentiated.

Is the world as we know it created by our brains?

In terms of Ultimate Reality many idealists either believe that it rests in the everyday, solipsistic experience of each individual, as Scottish philosopher David Hume of Bishop Berkeley believed, or, at the other extreme, there lies the pantheistic idealism of Baruch Spinoza. Most philosophical idealists, however, attempt to steer a middle course between these extremes.

The third aspect of Ultimate Reality is dualism whose adherents claim that the mind is a non-material entity that not only cannot be reduced to the brain but doesn’t even have its origin there. This distinguishes it from emergent materialism and those idealists who claim that Ultimate Reality is nothing other than purely non-material, although it can come close to thinkers who try to find a middle way. The distinctive aspect of dualism is that they believe that there is indeed a material world in which resides the brain, but the brain is is not part of the immaterial world of the mind. In this sense, then, Ultimate Reality is made up of these two entirely separate and unconnected substances, although it’s not clear whether the mind can be described as a substance as such.

Rene Descartes, of course, is the best know exponent of dualism in the modern era, although it was Gilbert Ryle in the 20th century who memorably and disparagingly dubbed Descartes’s immaterial mind the ‘ghost in the machine’ in his The Concept of Mind.

Karl Marx is often thought of being a pure materialist but as Karl Popper notes in his The Open Society and its Enemies there is a sense in which he too can be described as a dualist. In the third volume of Capital, for example, he clearly equates the Kingdom of Necessity with the material world and humanity’s interaction with matter. But his idea of the Kingdom of Freedom, even though it has its origin in the Kingdom of Necessity, nevertheless transcends it when it breaks away into the immaterial world of the mind beyond the drudgery of material machinations. Not a pure dualist, then, because of the link with matter but Marx does seem to think that Ultimate Reality, is ultimately, dualist. Perhaps Marx could be seen as one of those thinkers adopting a middle way, which, of course, is very far from his political thought!

In the next blog we look at ways of narrowing the field down, to make it more manageable in an attempt to work some sort of conclusion.

What is ultimate reality?

IT’S a big question. Perhaps the biggest that humanity can ask itself. And it’s one that also feeds into our sense of meaning as we shall see. Whatever the answer is, indeed whether there is an answer at all, helps to explain and locate our place in the universe, or multi-verse.

What is ultimate reality?

Even asking the question ‘what is reality?’ says something about the universe itself because it means that creatures have evolved in it – homo sapiens – who are here to discuss the question in the first place – a phenomenon that is sometimes called the anthropic principle.

There are two main strands of thought when we talk about ultimate reality that come under the titles ‘materialism’ and ‘idealism’. Simply put materialism states that the world is entirely made up of material objects without remainder. So, no immaterial or supernatural entities. Everything is contained within the material world – even consciousness. Idealism, in contrast, holds that the immaterial, like the mind and, yes, consciousness, or spiritual, like deities, are at the core of the world and crucial to our understanding of it.

It might be helpful here to give a brief history of the two approaches. It should be pointed out, firstly, that materialism is not a new idea.

All is matter in materialism.

In Western philosophy it can be traced back to Greek thinkers of ancient Athens like Leucippus and Democritus, who were born in the 5th century BCE. Famously, Democritus asserted that ultimate reality consisted of atoms. Epicurus followed and he argued that, although the universe was indeed made up of atoms, there was an indeterministic element to them. According to him atoms fall to earth is parallel lines, but change is explained by chance deviation, causing them to collide.

Materialism largely disappeared from the scene with the rise of scholasticism but was revived by the Catholic philosopher Pierre Gassendi in the 17th century and then by the thoroughly materialistic philosophy of thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (incidentally, Hobbes was born in Warminster and there is an early copy of his magnum opus Leviathan on display in the town’s library).

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection boosted materialistic thinking. A key figure in 20th century materialism is the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle who famously castigated Descartes for his dualism, dismissing his immaterial mind as the ‘ghost in the machine’. He also argued that the traditional problem associated with materialism about reducing the immaterial kind to the brain was really only a pseudo problem because they shouldn’t have been separated in the first place. A modern day materialistic philosopher is Galen Strawson who holds that ‘we are wholly physical beings’.

Idealism also has an ancient history in Western philosophy at least can be traced back to thinkers like Plato with his Theory of Forms or Ideas.

Plato’s idealism

Unlike materialism, this way of thinking flourished during the medieval period, although St Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century did have a materialistic streak in him. As Denys Turner notes in his Thomas Aquinas – A Portrait, although he equated the intellect with the immaterial soul he did at least acknowledge that ‘the human intellect is deeply rooted in, not separate from, the animal and vegetative live of a human person’.

Idealism in its purest form is represented by Bishop George Berkeley in the 18th century for whom the phenomenal world of hard objects only exist while they are being perceived by a subject equipped with sense organs. Later in the 18th century Immanuel Kant tried to find a synthesis in which he replaced Berkeley’s ‘subjective idealism’ with ‘objective idealism’

Immanuel Kant

Kant argued that in his Critique of Pure Reason that the human self creates knowledge from sense impressions on which we impose certain universal concepts, which he called categories. This process creates the world as we know and understand it beyond which lies the world as it is in itself, which is forever and necessarily beyond our knowledge.

Arthur Schopenhauer idolized Kant but also corrected and stream-lined many of Kant’s arguments including reducing his rather cumbersome categories to just three -time, space and causation.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Having given this brief history and introduction to materialism and idealism the next blog will delve deeper into the various nuances involved. It can sometimes feel as though this is an either/or situation – one is either a materialist or an idealist. And although this fundamentally true, there are many degrees to consider with some arguing that there is a range of views from extreme to moderate materialism, which is also true of idealism. Then, of course, there is dualism, which has been touched upon here but not, as yet, explored.

This is going to be a long four-blog journey but one that is, hopefully, worth the ride. At this stage it cannot be stated what the conclusion will be, or even whether there can be a conclusion. So, fasten your seat-belts and get ready for an exploration into – ultimate reality!

From the marshmallow mind to Citizens’ Assemblies

MANY argue that short termism is the curse of representative government. The Taliban, for example, famously said when troops entered Afghanistan in 2001 that while the invaders had watches ‘we have time’. The Chinese have a similar long-term view. But in representative governments everything is geared to the short term – from our electoral cycles to the machinations of the marketing and social media giants who want us to act and buy NOW, even if it sends us into debt. We are dominated by the tyranny of the NOW and that has consequences for the way we deal with – or fail to deal with – climate change and the future itself.

For Roman Krznaricin inThe Good Ancestor our ‘societal attitude is one of tempus nullius: the future is seen as “nobody’s time”, an unclaimed territory that is similarly devoid of inhabitants’. But it doesn’t have to be like this. As Daniel Kahneman noted in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow while we do think short, we can also think long. This ability could be seen as Homo Sapiens’s greatest asset, along with its tendency to work collectively, an asset that eluded the Neanderthals who were probably more intelligent but less social. So, if our ability to think long-term is crucial to our success as a species, it is particularly perverse that it is being so actively undermined.

Krznaricin graphically describes these two aspects of our brains as Marshmallow versus Acorn.

The marshmallow or…
…the acorn

Obviously, it is the latter that he wishes to tap into rather more than we do. It’s a major problem because, as he writes ‘seeking the instant thrill of a dopamine rush…has been intentionally designed into the technology’ that we use. However, this phenomenon flies in the face of our evolution because, as psychologist Daniel Gilbert says we are ‘the ape that looks forward’.

Accordingly, what we need to do, according to Krznaricin, is recapture our sense of deep time from the dominant ideology that time is money that developed with the ‘growing merchant class in medieval Europe’. He also explores other ways of encouraging acorn thinking, including developing a legacy mindset, cathedral thinking or the art of planning into the distant future; developing a transcendent goal or lodestar for humanity like, for example, the idea that ‘human beings are not separate from the nature but a dependent part of the living planetary whole’ which can act as a ‘compass for humanity’.

One of the big ideas at the heart of the book – and there are a few – is what Krznaricin calls Holistic Forecasting as a way of helping shift our gaze beyond our immediate concerns. He is, of course, well aware that our ability to predict the future in our enormously complicated and fast moving world is limited. A 20-year old study by political scientist Philip Tetlock, for example, shows that predictions of experts from a range of organisations were ‘extremely inaccurate’.

However, Krznaricin is convinced that that is not the end of the matter. This is not necessarily a good thing because we know that the giant tech companies are able to use Big Data gleaned from our own use of the internet to predict our preferences and, ultimately, to manipulate those preferences in both the commercial and political worlds. But Krznaricin reckons there is one pattern that repeatedly pops up in human history that can be beneficial for humanity as a whole – the S-curve.


The S-curve

While the S-curve or sigmoid curve will not tell you specifics, it simply states that nothing grows for ever – and it expressly counters the dominant model that shows growth for ever.

It is in the light of the S-curve that Krznaricin argues for what he calls the ‘transformation path’ in which the aim is to ‘safeguard and promote conditions to allow the flourishing of life on Earth for generations to come’ in a ‘world where the old institutions of representative democracy and growth-dependent economies lose their dominant position and replaced by the new political, economic and cultural forms’. Of course, the relevance of this kind of thinking is shown up starkly during the COP26 talks Glasgow.

Krznaricin suggests a number of ways to get to where we need to be to shift from marshmallow to acorn thinking including ecological and cultural – but one of his most interesting sections is on what he calls ‘deep democracy’. In particular he calls for ‘time rebellion’ to be the ‘vanguard rebel movement to reinvent’ or perhaps to create for the first time a fully functioning democracy. He splits this movement into four: 1 – The guardians of the future who ‘represent and safeguard the interests of disenfranchised youth and future generations’; 2 – Intergenerational rights which involve legal ‘mechanisms to guarantee the rights and well-being of future generations’; 3 – Self-governing city states and; 4 – Citizens’ Assemblies, which is, of course something that Salisbury Democracy Alliance has been campaigning for for years.

As Krznaricin writes: “The rise of citizens’ assemblies signals an extraordinary development in the history of modern democracy: a revival of the ancient Athenian model of participatory democracy.” He points out that citizens’ assemblies are an ‘exercise in slow-thinking, allowing participants the time and space to learn about and reflect on long-term issues facing society’.

He describes his book as being hopeful rather than optimistic but it can be difficult even to be hopeful when one sees the myopia of government and the corporate world. But we have to hold on to the fact that sometimes things do change. Look at the sudden and unexpected collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. Look closer to home to see how the Vienna Circle including Hayek and Mises were political outliers for 30 years or so until the political door opened with Thatcher and Reagan.

We have to hold on to the belief that change is possible, which is why Salisbury Democracy Alliance continues to fight for a Citizens’ Jury in Salisbury. We are the Time Rebels!

In pursuit of beauty

BEAUTY, they say, is in the eye of the beholder – although it’s probably more accurate to say it’s in the visual cortex of the beholder, but that’s a subject for a future blog. However, beauty performs many other functions. An elegantly stroked cover drive for four in cricket is somehow valued more than the hack over cow corner with the same result. The same is true for all sports. In maths the search always seems to be for the elegant solution to a problem. If it isn’t beautiful then the concern is that there must be something wrong with the solution. And as physicist Brian Greene claims, the universe itself is elegant – or at least it will be if string theory turns out to be correct. In ancient Greek philosophy Plato’s Theory of Forms is beautiful in its sheer simplicity. Beauty is often seen to be good, even if some artists try to undermine that concept, but is it morally good? Well, that’s the claim made by Heather Widdows in her new book Perfect Me.

International Pakistani batsman Babar Azam executes the perfect cover drive

In this book Widdows argues that the ‘beauty ideal is increasingly presenting itself as and functioning as an ethical ideal for very many people’. There is, she claims, a ‘duty to be beautiful’ and for those who ‘fall under it the beauty ideal provides a value framework against which individuals judge themselves, and others, as being good and bad’. And she continues: “As such, the beauty ideal is functioning for some, as their overarching moral framework, to which they must conform to think well of themselves irrespective of, and in addition to, other metrics by which they judge themselves.”

This heady stuff and she could easily be accused of ignoring the harm that the beauty ideal can do, if were not for the fact that Widdows recognises this problem and confronts it head on. “I do not mean to underplay the extreme harms that attach to a dominant and demanding beauty ideal. The harms to individuals who engage, individuals who do not engage, and to us all are extensive and devastating,” she writes, but adds that ‘to simply tell women not to engage is unrealistic and ineffective, and, as I will argue, profoundly unethical’. However, she adds: “How we look should not be, as increasingly it is, our very selves.”

Widdows makes the point early on in the book that beauty has long been associated with morality and refers to Plato for whom ‘beauty is the only spiritual thing we have by instinct, by nature, and it is love of beauty that sets us on the moral path towards goodness and moral virtue’. In contrast in many traditional stories and fairy tales ugliness and evil are considered to be one and the same – think of the ugly sisters in Cinderella. And the contrast also plays a significant role in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. For some, Widdows argues, beauty is the ideal to work towards for and in itself, while for others it may also be a ‘means to other goods, and some may not value beauty at all’.

Widdows spends a considerable amount of time defining what is meant by beauty in the modern context but what it means essentially is that we ‘are good when we have resisted bad food…and eaten healthily’…while ‘not engaging in beauty activity is not merely a prudential failure, an aesthetic failure, or failure to conform to some social norm…but a moral failure’. However, Widdows does not herself ‘endorse beauty as an ethical ideal’ but rather that we ‘should recognise what is happening and part of this is an ethical turn’.

What are we to make of this argument? It may come as a shock to those of us who do not put much stock by beauty that we are not seen as being moral as others who do. But this isn’t really what Widdows is saying. So what is she saying? This is actually quite difficult to determine because although at best this book contains some subtle and nuanced arguments, at worst it can be quite confusing and muddled. But it seems to be that even if the beauty ideal fails as a moral ideal for some, we should at least acknowledge that for others it is. In that context she writes: “While it is the case that beauty matters more, it matters as well as and not instead of all the other qualifications, skills, and achievements necessary for success.” And: “If we carry on regardless, ever more isolated in our quest for the perfect me, the future will be bleak indeed.”

Is beauty really an ethical ideal rather than a delusion? One of the many problems with this assertion is that it only seems to be an ethical ideal for those who are or value beauty and it only them for whom beauty is a an ethical value, which is horribly circular and has no meaningful throughput. Indeed it is this circularity that circles infuriatingly throughout the book. Another major problem is that one cannot help feel that Widdows has simply committed a category error by conflating the sense of feeling good when we seek beauty with actually being good and surely these are not the same at all.

A moral egoist is not troubled by altruism

Further, valuing one’s own beauty, or at least seeking it for oneself, is an extraordinarily self-centred, egoistic activity that excludes other-regarding activities captured in the altruistic ideal. As such, for some at least, it doesn’t qualify as a moral ideal at all and those that think it does are merely deluded. However, it should be added that moral egoists might disagree!

The myth of the Social Contract

Social atomization

IT is a common observation, though no less powerful for being so, that we live in an atomized society where the individual rules supreme and the collective is dead. As Margaret Thatcher once said there is no such thing as society, or words to that effect. The key philosophical definition is provided by methodological individualism in which, as Steven Lukes writes in Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy, asserts that ‘all attempts to explain social (or individual) phenomena are to be rejected…unless they are couched wholly in terms of facts about individuals’. It was this fundamental principle that was seized on by the likes of Hayek and the philosopher Robert Nozick and eventually entered the political arena with what is commonly called neoliberalism. But as Lukes points out it is an ‘exclusivist, prescriptive doctrine about what explanations are to look like’ and ‘excludes explanations which appeal to social forces, structural features of society’ and ‘institutional features’.

The MI position is anathema to communitarian (which is not the same as communism of course) philosophers like Michael Sandel for whom it expressly excludes people for whom a sense of belonging to a community is constitutive of who they take themselves to be. And in the German Ideology Marx wrote: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men – the language of real life.” But note those words ‘at first’ because Marx continues to make the claim that autonomous individuals cannot happen ‘as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity’. It should also be noted that in her magnum opus The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt argued that atomized societies in which communal networks are shattered are prime breeding grounds for dictators like Hitler and Stalin.

It is relatively easy to see how the Big State versus Small State fits into this philosophical dialogue and it is into this explosive arena that the economist Minouche Shafik dips her toe into what, is has to be said, are very shallow waters indeed with her book What We Owe Each Other.

For her the fundamental aspect is what she calls the ‘social contract’, apparently unaware that this device is in itself an expression of political liberalism ranging from the thoughts of Thomas Hobbes through John Locke and Jean Jacque Rousseau to John Rawls in the 20th century with his Original Position. The social contract is a device for more socially minded liberals to bridge the gap between the fundamental political unit of the individual on the one hand and society on the other. But, as Sandel has pointed out many times, this expressly excludes a communitarian approach to society so constantly fails to build the bridge.

So, Shafik’s discourse is riddled with her underlying and unacknowledged liberalism. As an example she rejects the concept of Universal Basic Income mainly because the recent experiment in Finland failed to ‘help people find work by giving them support to learn new skills or start a new business’. After two years, she notes, the ‘evidence showed no impact on employment – participants were neither more of less likely to find a job than someone on unemployment benefit’.

A common view about UBI but does the evidence back it up?

She seems to be blissfully unaware, as indeed did the Finnish government, that UBIs are not designed to be job creation devices but to create stability in people’s lives and help to address inequality. What it did show, as the more socially minded Ed Miliband points out Go Big, that it does not necessarily result in people dropping out of the jobs market, thus countering a common concern about about UBIs.

Instead Shafik argues that targeted benefits are a better option without apparently understanding that it is precisely this system that has become so unwieldy and punitive in today’s splintered workforce. She argues that the ’empowerment of workers can be achieved through better minimum wages, benefits, unions and retraining programmes, without, again, understanding that unions struggle to survive and recruit in an atomized society. She also seems to be unaware that the work ethic is itself a problem in a society where so much is likely to taken over by artificial intelligence leaving humans to do pointless jobs or, as David Graeber put it, bullshit jobs just to maintain the culture of work for work’s sake

Compare all this with the much more profound problem posed by Sandel in The Moral Limits of Markets when he argues that we have drifted from a market economy to a market society and asks ‘how can we protect the moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?’ And: “Not only has the gap between rich and poor widened, the commodification of everything has sharpened the sting of inequality by making money matter more.”

Ultimately Shafik is unable to extricate herself from her establishment positions and high-ranking roles in the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England and bases her entire argument on the myth of the social contract that exists only in the minds of political philosophers. She seem to be unaware, also, of the work of Wilkinson and Picket in The Spirit Level and the Inner Level in which they identify inequality, rather than poverty as such, as the main cause of various social ills for everyone – rich and poor. (It should be noted here that both these books have come under severe criticism of late, which will be the subject of a future blog). There is no mention of inequality in the index of her book and, as such, this means that there is a black hole at the heart of the book in addition to her failure to acknowledge her own political and philosophical foundations and undue reliance on the myth of the social contract.

Disobey – and take charge!

SOME argue that we are living in a spectator society – one in which, if people take any interest in society, politics and democracy, they do so from the side-lines. Reality TV sums all this up – and perhaps Gogglebox is its perfect manifestation with us, the viewer, watching other people watching TV. The argument goes that in our consumerist society most people are happy to acquiesce in life as a spectator sport. If true, then this is truly Kafkaesque as people willingly contribute to their own obsolescence.

The philosopher Frederic Gros, however, will have none of this as he explores the history of disobedience and claims that philosophy is, or at least should be disobedient and urges us to refuse to accept the obvious or to acquiesce in anything. In short, he urges us to disobey and take political responsibility – to take back control.

In his appropriately named Disobey, Gros writes that he wants to ‘present the problem of disobedience from the ethics of politics’. Here he acknowledges how difficult it must be for the poverty stricken to fight for themselves ‘while an indecent elite can earn in a few days what they never save up in a lifetime’. It is in this context that there is a tendency to believe the myth that these ‘social inequalities are natural’, a view perpetuated by the super-rich clique because ‘disobedience amounts to anarchy’.

It is in the early stages of the book that Gros starts to get really interesting when he refers to what he calls ‘surplus obedience’ in which people ‘commit to their own submission with energy and desire’.

Stanley Milgram’s classic experiment

This willingness to obey was demonstrated in Stanley Milgram’s classic, if controversial, experiment in the 1960s during which ordinary people from all walks of life were instructed to inflict what they wrongly believed to be steadily increasing electric shocks on ‘learners’ up to levels that would have been fatal had they been real. Although Gros doesn’t refer to this infamous experiment, he does argue that ‘what must be resisted is not power in its established forms, but above all our own desire to obey, our adoration of the leader because it is precisely this desire, this adoration, that gives him his hold’. Before we gain the power to effect the change that Matthew Bolton advocates in his How to Resist, we first need to learn how to disobey. As Gros writes: “To be free essentially means wanting to be free.” And disobedience leads to what Gros calls the ‘right of resistance…a right recognised for people when the laws fail to fulfil their initial purpose: to build concord and work for the utility of all’.

For Gros, obedience to authority is not a given because the citizen always has the ability to take the responsibility implicit in disobedience and, in doing so, truly taking back control. “Rather than individual positions expressed by way of voting slips politely slipped into the ballot box – which we are told is the kernel of democracy – it is a matter of returning to the living essence of the contract: we make the body of society by disobeying collectively.”

At the core of Gros’s position is what he calls the ‘non-delegable subject’, reminiscent of existentialism, which is ‘now threatened by individualism, relativism or subjectivism’. This because the ‘non-delegable point in each of us is precisely the principle of humanity, the demand of a universal’.

The Enlightenment has come in for considerable criticism in recent years for supposedly privileging cold reason over emotion, although this blog has repeatedly stressed the over-simplification of this view. Interestingly, Gros defines the Enlightenment in the sense that Immanuel Kant did as a kind of coming of age for humanity or ‘the capacity of emancipation, independence, autonomy’ or the ‘capacity of dissension. From this Gros develops his theory of taking responsibility through dissent: “Enlightenment = coming of age = critical judgement = examination = care of self = thought.”

Another powerful, and related claim of Gros is that it is not obedience that is the characteristic of responsibility – but disobedience. But there is a problem here as well to the extent that the individual that takes on this responsibility feels a ‘burden weighing on my shoulders’.

Gros responds to this problem by acknowledging that it is ‘impossible to stand for too long in the ethical fire of the subject responsible for everything, without being driven mad’. Nevertheless, this responsibility can act as an ideal or, as he puts it, a ‘necessary provocation’.

All this seems to be far from where we started – watching people watching TV, and it seems inconceivable that our love of obedience can be broke by Gros’s erudition. But as always with political philosophy it is possible to break his thought down into manageable chunks when, for example, he writes that ‘to think is to disobey’ and to stop becoming ‘traitors to ourselves’. And maybe in discovering the ‘politics of disobedience’ we may cause the rich and powerful to quake in their boots!

Land ownership and tax

Was the Roman slave market the origin of our sense of ownership?

DOES it make sense to say that anyone owns land? Ever since the times of the Roman Empire we have had a notion of ownership in terms of absolute dominion over property. But as the late David Graeber wrote in Debt: The First 5,000 Years this idea is ‘really derived from slavery’. “One can imagine property not as a relation between people but as relation between a person and a thing, if one’s starting point is a relation between two people, one of whom is also a thing.” This is how the Romans saw slavery and, according to Graeber, it’s also the origin of the word dominion ‘meaning absolute private property’. In contrast to this view Graeber argues that a better definition of ownership is not ‘really a relation between a person and a thing’ but an ‘understanding or arrangement between people concerning things’ in which we refrain from interfering with one and other’s things.

It is somewhat ironic in these circumstances that what we call ‘landowning’ in the UK actually in law means only that the ‘landowner’ holds land in estate. Absolute possession rests with the Crown. It then becomes relatively easy to imagine this property being socialized, even though this would be, to say the least, politically controversial.

However, there is an alternative approach that does not argue for socializing land but taxing it. In his 2015 book Land Martin Adams argues that the ‘value of land is best shared, and that when we profit from land we profit from society’. This was also the argument used by Henry George in his seminal 1879 book Progress and Poverty. It was written as a way of undermining the Social Darwinism of thinkers like Herbert Spencer which provided the ideological underpinning for the reducing the tax burden on the rich by shifting it on to the poor and the middle classes.

George denied the theory of natural superiority, which also justified the eugenics movement, and argued that economic inequality emerged out of allowing a few people to monopolize natural opportunities and denying them to the rest of society.

For some this would lead them to argue for land nationalisation. But not George: “Recognising the common right to land does not require any shock or dispossession. It can be reached by the simple and easy method of taxing only land values.”, he writes. This, he claimed, would ‘make possible a higher and nobler civilization’. Some of his observations still have a shock resonance with us today: “So long as the increased wealth that progress brings goes to building great fortunes and increasing luxury, progress is not real. When the contrast between the haves and the have-nots grows ever sharper, progress cannot be permanent.” As a matter of interest, George reverts to the labour theory of value proposed by Adam Smith and Karl Marx as opposed to the circular argument identified by Mariana Mazzucato in The Value of Everything in which ‘finance is valued because it is valued, and its extraordinary profits is proof of that value’, which conveniently side-steps the value imparted by the labour and leads to valuing wealth extraction equally with wealth creation.

It is also interesting to note that George identifies the shift from the notion of land being common property in ancient times to one of absolute or exclusive ownership in Roman law. As we have seen his critique of land ownership does not lead him to ‘abolishing titles and declare all land public property’ but to ‘abolish all taxes – except on land values’. George writes that the policy would reduce inequality by distributing one part of the proceeds to ‘individual producers – as wages and interest’ and the other to the ‘community as a whole’. Perhaps somewhat optimistically, George thinks ‘it would become possible to realize the goals of socialism without coercion’.

George addresses many of the objections that are likely to arise against his proposals including the sort of objections raised against Universal Basic Income, particularly the claim that without poverty people would become idle and that ‘labor must be driven, driven with the lash’, while the idle rich simply need to be given more incentives with what has been called corporate welfare. George writes: “Nothing could be further from the truth. Want may be banished but desire would remain.” Humans may only be animals but we are the ‘unsatisfied animal. Every step we take kindles new desires’.

It is easy to read George with a world-weary cynicism – after all we’ve been here before and will be here again and again. We may continue to rail against the same injustices that George railed against only to be frustrated by the forces of reaction.

The forces of reaction continue to frustrate progressives.

But who can deny the force of his argument? “We cannot permit people to vote, then force them to beg. We cannot go on educating them, then refuse them the right to earn a living.” The forces of progress may seem weak at times but George reminds us that we cannot give up the fight.

The myths that justify inequality

HOW did it come to this? “In 1971 Britain was among the most equal societies on earth in terms of both household income and wealth. Today we are one of the most unequal.” So writes Robert Verkaik in Why You Won’t Get Rich. For him it is largely the result of government decisions. For, as Philip Alston, UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote – the UK government had inflicted ‘great misery’ on its people with ‘punitive, mean-spirited and often callous austerity driven by social engineering rather than economic necessity’. Needless to say that in some quarters he was vilified for his observations.

How did this happen and why do we allow it to persist? Well part of the reason must be that the machinations of the super-rich and their wealth extracting activities are cloaked in secrecy. It takes a dedicated academic at York University to inform us that more than £150 billion is handed to out in ‘corporate welfare’ every year directly or indirectly. Dr Kevin Farnsworth, of the university’s department of social policy and social work estimates that subsidies, capital grants, tax benefits, insurance and advocacy as well as transport, energy and procurement subsidies to be worth about £93 billion a year. He suggests that indirect benefits, including wage subsidies, education and public health care are worth £52 billion while the annual legacy of the 2008 bank bailouts and other crisis measures add a further £35 billion.

Secrecy conceals more than £150 billion in corporate welfare

In contrast every penny is accounted for in welfare payments and according to the government’s own statistics the net rate of loss from overpayments in 2019 to 2020 was 1.9%, or £3.6 billion. This has increased from the 2018 to 2019 rate of 1.5% (£2.8 billion). But it is the obscurity of the source of wealth for the super-rich, combined with the political apathy, or wilful ignorance, that is encouraged in certain corners of the establishment that helps to explain why the process of impoverishment continues. In our consumer society many people are content to be spectators in our government processes rather than engage with it.

Throughout the last decade or so there has also been the apparent paradox of high employment and high poverty. Verkaik argues that the reason for this is twofold – 1) a ‘decade of cuts in benefits directed by policies of austerity’. And 2) the ‘insecure nature of new kinds of low paid work’. This phenomenon was explained in detail by the late David Graeber in his Bullshit Jobs.

Meanwhile, one of the most astonishing aspects of modern life is the complete misrepresentation of the City as the paradigm of wealth creation, competence and probity, which somehow gets conflated with the view that the City enriches us all. The main problem with this view is that it is almost completely untrue. As Verkaik points out the ‘only people getting rich in the City are the people working there’. And as one client wryly observes of one institution: “It took my three years to realise why the partners were the only ones driving the expensive cars.”

Casino Capitalism

Casino Capitalism is an apt description because most people who make money in the City are just, well, lucky. Verkaik writes: “There are plenty of studies to show that a portfolio of randomly stocks can perform as well as a carefully assembled one.” And because the City doesn’t actually produce anything, apart from more money, it has to keep finding ways of creating – or increasingly extracting – wealth from the rest of us. “Every penny the City makes is paid for by people working outside the financial sector,” writes Verkaik and, amazingly, the ‘value of trade in foreign exchange alone is 100 times the value of world trade in stocks and services’. And so it goes on: “The stock market is no longer a means of putting money into companies but a means of getting it out.” All this is regarded as wealth creation because of a shift from the objective definition of value as expressed in terms of land or labour to a subjective definition in which ‘price is a direct measure of value’ as Mariana Mazzucato explains in The Value of Everything.

So, what is Verkaik ‘s answer to all this? Well, he has a three-pronged approach. The first is to have a ‘more efficient and progressive tax system’. The second is our old friend a Universal Basic Income. And the third is a ‘New Green Deal to create more sustainable jobs while also contributing the the arrest of climate change’.

Interestingly, Verkaik tackles the criticism of the ruling political clique that poor people need to be made to work or else they will just get drunk and laze about, while the rich, of course, just need more incentives to work.

Are we all just lazy unless made to work?

“When Canada paid a community in Manitoba a free wage in the 1970s everybody benefited,” writes Verkaik – and other evidence suggests that most people who have received a UBI have continued to contribute to society in one way or another. And: “A Universal Basic Income allows everybody to choose how they want to get rich, whether through the capitalist system or other less directly profitable activity.”

Of course, Verkaik is not alone in prescribing these solutions to the problem of wealth and power inequality. The problem comes when you try to create a groundswell of support among citizens when they are already turned off from politics and democratic decision-making processes. This why Salisbury Democracy Alliance is so keen to establish a Citizens’ Jury in the city as a small step towards engaging more citizens. But these on their own are not enough and a future blog will look at ways of engaging people and encouraging them to run their own campaigns for change.