The Virtuous Cyborg - Out Now!

The Virtuous Cyborg - Cut-outHow would you know if you were a good cyborg? My latest philosophy book explores this and other problems of contemporary cyberethics. From arcade machines to social media to Pokémon Go to Google, encounter our strange relationship with technology from an entirely new angle. The Virtuous Cyborg is out now from Eyewear Publishing.

Go to or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!

Termites vs Meerkats in the Knowledge Wars

12 minute read

Termites vs Meerkats v2Among the more surprising things I've been told by an intellectual acquaintance this year is that there was no point debating the evidence on a certain contentious issue because we could each cite our own supporting research. Yet this amounts to saying we've given up on empirical science - and honestly I rather fear this might be the case. But if this were so, how can it then be insisted by those who purport to possess authority that we must 'follow the science'...? There are questions here that matter and that can hardly be ignored without undermining any plausible concept of democracy.

When we encounter strangeness, the easiest psychological defences will always tend towards either denial or demonisation - hell, the whole of the political landscape in almost every democratic nation is almost entirely explicable through cognitive dissonance. The path less taken (especially by contemporary philosophers) is thinking. To borrow my mentor Mary Midgley's metaphor of philosophy as conceptual plumbing, this means tearing up the floorboards underneath our house of concepts in order to discover where the nasty smells are coming from.

In this instance, and indeed many like it, the problem originates in the loss of something we didn't even know we had: our shared framework of collective knowledge, that is, an epistemic commons. 'Epistemic' is the adjective for knowledge, and a 'commons' is something everyone makes free use of, while communally agreeing on the practices relating to it (for instance, a field that anyone can bring their sheep to for grazing, and the community itself decides how to organise this). A civic society requires an epistemic commons, not least of all to ensure we are talking about the same things. That major political arguments can now occur over such traditionally uncontroversial concepts as 'woman', 'man', 'climate' and 'weather' - not to mention 'safety' and 'efficacy' - are clear warning signs that something has gone horribly wrong with our epistemic commons.

This problem is rooted in radical and unprecedented changes to our academic circumstances. Up until the twentieth century, it could be claimed that the primary civic role of universities was to cultivate a community of virtuous scholarship that maintained the epistemic commons. Since then, alas, research investment has usurped and supplanted this purpose and arguably led to the end the university as such (see After Universities). The impression that this is 'how it is supposed to be' is merely back projection to justify the enslavement of scholarship to technology (that is, 'science plus money'). We have forgotten what a university was and now resolutely believe this to denote a research institution, a concept that arrives only after 90% of the history of universities to date has passed.

We cannot afford to leave this matter unattended, much less permit the cognitive dissonance it engenders to heighten our denial or our demonisation. Without either a newly negotiated epistemic commons (see No Reality without Representation) or an entirely unconceived alternative, we are slouching towards civil war on a global scale, the outcome of which could be far more catastrophic for human life than current anxieties about our every-growing environment impact. This question is thus a most urgent locus for thinking, perhaps the most urgent our species has yet faced, and it is no solution whatsoever to refuse to talk about it.

In order to trace possible solutions, I want to present two different metaphorical images for epistemic commons, one that I believe lies behind my academic acquaintance's ongoing allegiance to the ruling power structures, and another that I suspect underpins my own rejection of this new whirled order. Neither is 'right', both have strengths, weaknesses, and risks - both could be corrupted... indeed, my sense of the crisis we have sleepwalked into (see Awakening the Sleepwalkers) is precisely that both have been corrupted in radically different ways.

Termite Knowledge Networks

Of all the incredible aspects of the natural history of Africa I witnessed during my brief time in what is now Burkina Faso, little was more impressive than termite mounds. Towering above the ground - often at twice my height - these insect-built skyscrapers are constructed above underground nests that are home to thousands of termites, each specialised to different roles within the colony. Workers, soldiers, reproductives... specialisation is key to the extraordinary achievements of these relatives of the earliest winged insects, who in parts of Africa have transformed the entire local ecology in ways that have benefitted all the local wildlife.

The names of 'queen' and 'king' termites are misleading - they do not rule as such, but merely provide the eggs for the huge number of nymphs that then differentiate into specialist roles. Rather, each termite colony is a collective (a so-called 'superorganism'), where the contributions of each insect is vital to the prospering of all. This kind of eusocial arrangement has developed among many other largely unrelated insect species such as ants and bees, and the key in every case is specialisation and not - as the regal euphemisms imply - hierarchy. This is not hierarchical monarchic rule but a network of mutually defined purposes.

By analogy, then, we can speak of a termite knowledge network, where specialisation of roles is the underlying principle. Indeed, intuitively this what we imagine underpins our industrial knowledge economy. Specialist researchers and non-researcher experts (whom today we often forget exist) maintain knowledge in compartmentalised domains. Journalists with their own specialisations (sometimes asininely conceived, as with the absurdly broad term 'science reporter') then propagate changes with respect to this knowledge as 'news', while book publishers try to capture lightning in reference books.

I feel confident that faith in the efficacy and reliability of these networks are the reason so many, including my aforementioned academic acquaintance, place their trust in government and industry sponsored narratives, despite a lack of trust in both government officials and corporate CEOs. Indeed, this is the only way to explain the widespread acceptance of such diverse and otherwise arcane popular beliefs such as 'climate change is so vital we must not research it', 'vaccine candidates without pharmacovigilance are safer than with rigorous oversight', or 'pornography in school libraries saves lives'. Yet the strangeness of these claims is not prima facie evidence that our termite knowledge network has been corrupted. Remember the oddness uncovered in quantum mechanics, after all...

However, the termite knowledge network absolutely requires that those who have been specialised to a role are able to fulfil it. The sign of the corruption of our knowledge network - and the consequent collapse of the epistemic commons - is that those who are best positioned to advise are prevented from doing so if they do not align with pre-prescribed positions. The strongest evidence of this can be found in the lawsuit Missouri vs Biden administration (now, Murthy vs Missouri), legal discovery for which showed how epidemiologists and health economists were censored on social media at the command of the US government (shredding the First Amendment), solely because they brought attention to the lack of reliable knowledge behind what were very odd courses of action to undertake. Likewise, despite their evident qualification to speak on the topic, detransitioners are routinely excluded from the conversation about how to approach the fraught political quagmire that is gender metaphysics (see Were You Born This Way?).

As always, denial and demonisation remain the most common result of confronting any aspect of this corruption of our termite knowledge network. Ever wondered how a diverse range of people are suddenly 'far right' - even committed lefties like Russell Brand! - and thus necessarily deplorable...? The tremendous desire to believe that there's no reason to be concerned and that the problem is entirely up to those terrible Others is in itself a sign of the problem. But to truly get to grips with the situation requires us to wrestle with the other go-to cognitive dissonance avoidance phrase: conspiracy theory. And this brings us to the meerkats.

Meerkat Knowledge Communities

Unusually for social mammals, meerkats do not have a strict hierarchy. It is not that no meerkat is dominant - there is always a pair 'in charge' - but unlike wolves (or indeed chickens) there isn't a strict 'pecking order'. Up to thirty meerkat cooperate in each mob, pursuing a variety of communal activities including keeping watch for predators. There are even birds, drongo, that will stand guard in return for some of the food the meerkats gather - a situation that sometimes becomes a real life Prisoner's Dilemma when the bird proves less than trustworthy.

Again, by analogy we can speak of a meerkat knowledge community, where trust and cooperative practice underpins the activities, the groupings are smaller, and roles are mutable and overlapping. Historically speaking, many academic fields went through a stage like this: when Isaac Newton wrote about the mathematics of planetary motion, the number of 'natural philosophers' with skin in the game was few enough that everyone had read everyone else with anything to say on the matter. Anyone with an interest in Newton's physics simply read Newton's own book. (Of course, a printer also produced the book itself - but they changed nothing in what Newton wrote, which is never true of publishers today.)

The impression that this form of knowledge curation is no longer around is caused by our false association between knowledge and research. But maintaining knowledge is a much older and indeed far more crucial practice than research, which has only risen in importance owing to the commercialisation of the sciences through technology. We can find meerkat knowledge communities at every church, temple, mosque, and synagogue; in every scout and guide troop; at every gun range and bowling alley - even pubs and bars can be meerkat knowledge communities. Wherever knowledge is conserved and propagated, there will be a knowledge community... and the communities entailed are typically small and localised.

An authentic meerkat knowledge community maintains the practices of a form of knowledge, and these are legion. Such communities can also adapt to almost any change in the circumstances surrounding their practices - consider the enormous transformations entailed by raised row gardening as a brilliant example of how even successful knowledge practices can undergo radical and unexpected transformations, even within comparatively short intervals.

Furthermore, because such communities are usually comparatively small (many have no more than a hundred or so people) they can also maintain practices which may or may not constitute knowledge as such. Some may be metaphysical, such as theology or faith in the sciences; some may be speculative in other ways - and this is where we find conspiracy theories being shared. Despite the archetype of the lone kook, communities of one kind or another connect almost all conspiracy theorists (by which I mean people speculating about actual conspiracies, not people being censored for holding inconvenient views).

Now it is an interesting feature of our times that 'conspiracy theory' has been massaged into the implication of being false. Because this could only be a plausible assumption if nobody was ever involved in conspiring - which would be a ludicrous assumption. Indeed, the people who benefit from a blanket dismissal of conspiratorial thinking are precisely those most likely to conspire. Still, most conspiracy theories are not knowledge as such but rather speculative scenarios that seek to provide explanations of events in terms of the causal actions of people who would plausibly deny wrongdoing (i.e. everyone). Authentic conspiracy theories inevitable lack decisive evidence (although evidently some of the reports that are now dismissed under this term are well-evidenced e.g. that the Biden administration has censored inconvenient discourse, which disclosure in Missouri versus Biden confirmed as factual).

The meerkat knowledge communities of conspiracy theories are thus engaged in discussing speculative models of events that run ahead of the evidence to some degree. As such, they perhaps ought to be called speculative hypotheses, and we might therefore talk of meerkat speculation communities as a specialist kind of knowledge network. It is my conclusion after observing the discussions of this kind of community online that they occur in a pattern of layers, from the surface layer of a meerkat knowledge community that constrains its speculations to the available evidence, to the most fanciful deep layers that explain half a century or more of events as the result of interlocking conspiracies. I cannot prove these hypotheses false, and if they become extremely fanciful in the depths they are not more fanciful than the hypothesis that everything done by government politicians and corporate executives is strictly for the good of humanity.

Thus much as strange conclusions from our termite knowledge networks are not evidence of their corruption, neither are conspiracy theories evidence of the corruption of meerkat knowledge communities: nobody is in a position to discredit or debunk speculation that further evidence might yet reveal to be true, and by definition conspiracies are underdetermined until such time as substantial evidence is unearthed (especially but not exclusively through legal disclosure). It is worth remembering, after all, how preposterous heliocentric cosmology, continental drift, and even hand washing to prevent infection were in their times. It is certain that some subset of conspiracy theories will be validated - and nobody can reliably predict which will come to be accepted. (Look at the utter reversal of beliefs about Emily Dickenson, for instance).

Rather, the corruption of meerkat knowledge communities is evidenced by the collapse of the community itself. The minimum knowledge any community possesses is an understanding of how to remain a community - a far more significant achievement these days than we give credit! No matter the weird and wacky beliefs of any group that associates, the fact of their continued association is a kind of knowledge (often of a habitual rather than a propositional kind), and it is the corruption of this knowledge that will destroy the association.

This provides a clue as to the other reason why the epistemic commons has collapsed. In addition to the corruption of our termite knowledge network through censorship, we have also thinned down our knowledge of how to maintain meerkat knowledge communities by supplanting them with an automated alternative: social media. Yet the knowledge entailed in participation with these digital tools is not knowledge of how to associate, but merely interface competence. Worse, the associations we make in such spaces (follows) and their opposite (blocks) serve not to foster community but rather to purify ideology - they group people into an illusion of community without providing any knowledge of how to associate. Indeed, the habit inculcated through participation in these non-communities is how to push a button in order to self-alienate from anyone remotely different from us - it is a sick joke to then make claims that our motivations are 'diversity and inclusion'!

We have thus corrupted both aspects of the epistemic commons, and the illusion that our collective knowledge is still functioning normally is scaffolded by the manipulation of the very tools that facilitated this wretched calamity. I am largely agnostic to the question of whether this dreadful state of affairs was intentionally manipulated or the consequence of a cascade of incompetence, although it is my default policy - we might call it hokum's razor - to avoid invoking conspiracy where ineptitude suffices as an explanation. Frankly, how this happened is far less important than what we do about it... and in this regard, it matters greatly that an enormous number of otherwise sapient people, like the associate I mentioned at the beginning, continue to have faith that our epistemological situation remains fundamentally trustworthy.


It will come as little surprise if I say that I place greater trust in meerkat knowledge communities than I currently can in our termite knowledge network. Yet I would be the first to admit that we do not currently have a means of maintaining a global epistemic commons without the help of the termites. It is a luxury I possess as a voracious reader that I am willing to negotiate the conflicted accounts of the meerkats with some confidence, sorting wild speculation from grounded interpretation with the care that flows from perpetual agnosticism. It is evident that this is not a general solution to the problem, but rather a situation evoking endless ambiguity, and whatever my competence I am limited by all the weaknesses inherent to any lone investigator.

Of course when the termites are causing more harm than good they become a pest - I find it easy to abandon premature certainty under such wretched circumstances, yet acknowledge the psychological costs involved will not appeal to most academics, who derive a great deal of their self-worth from the legitimacy claims of the network they participate in. This is also true of those downstream of academics, most obviously science reporters, who are apparently woefully incapable of the thinking required to operate without termites, or else perhaps have 'purified' their associations of anyone who might be so endowed with prudence.

The crisis here is exacerbated by the fact that all the oddest positions taken up by the termites are politically aligned with the blue team in the United States - this, indeed, is the most plausible explanation for why the termites have fallen into corruption: politicisation. This is why this nightmare could result in civil war if it is not resolved, since a nation of gun owners founded upon 'the shot heard around the world' requires an epistemic commons to bolster any stable national identity. Furthermore, the collapse of the US would trigger a global destabilisation (if indeed one is not already underway). The epistemic commons has been helping to stabilise international relations far longer than banking and commerce, which have failed to achieve the international peace Kant and others hoped for (see The Great Graveyard of Humanity).

If we want to escape the worst consequences of this ever-growing catastrophe, we must begin by admitting we have a problem. Termites see the problem in those who don't acknowledge their network's authority, but a great many meerkats don't seriously recognise any authority but their own liberty. Small wonder this dispute frequently manifests polemically as authoritarians versus libertarians. Yet we agree on one thing: we have a problem with our knowledge, and anyone who thinks the solution is going to come from a policy of 'shut up and accept what we say' is more naïve than the most credulous of conspiratorial speculators.

The only viable solutions begin by admitting failure and renegotiating the terms of our collective knowledge. There is more than enough political, historical, scientific, religious, and ethical knowledge held in our extraordinarily diverse meerkat knowledge communities to rebuild a termite knowledge network capable of acting as a viable epistemic commons. But to get there, we first have to recognise that a metaphorical wasteland we cannot bear to acknowledge has been encroaching upon our termite mound for decades. Now and forever, we need the wisdom of Socrates who warned "all I know is that I know nothing".

Comments always welcome, although my replies here may not appear swiftly.

The Minds of Squirrels

The Minds of Squirrels.coverMy last long-form essay for Only a Game this year has been drafted for quite a while, but I haven't had time to paste it up and run it owing to requests at other publications for submissions. The first of these, The Minds of Squirrels, picks up two themes of mine with quite a history at this blog: evolutionary mythology and, of course, squirrels. Here's an extract:

Indeed, if we take a long hard look at the role of genetics in animal behaviour, we may find that we are so closely related to everything from worms, to lobsters, to fish, to birds, and of course to squirrels in terms of the key genetic contributors to behaviour. It then becomes laughable to suggest, as so many do these days, that the behaviour in, say, the corridors of contemporary desk slavery can be explained in terms of what human ancestors were or were not doing on the African savannah. We would be on surer footing explaining anything we observe in terms of what early mammals did in the Cretaceous period, or fish in the Devonian—but in all these cases the genetic explanation provides only one thing: the Lego blocks behind emotions.

You can read the entirety of The Minds of Squirrels over at Analogy magazine.

PS: While I'm cross-posting, I should mention the final part of Origins of Ghost Master, over at, which I ran for Halloween this year.

Were You Born This Way?

Sonia Gechtoff - Children of Frejus 1959Can you be 'born Christian'? 'Born gay'? 'Born trans'? This is a perilous question to ask, because frankly everyone reading will already have an answer to these questions. What's more, the more certain you are about how to resolve these questions, the angrier you will get when you confront those who believe otherwise. It is absolutely vital to some Christians that their children were 'born Christian' i.e. born into a Christian family, and it is equally vital to others that they were 'born gay', or 'born trans'. If we are used to encountering fights here, we expect it to be between the Christians and the gay community... so it's a new and fascinating situation that we are now witnessing battlegrounds between trans advocates and their gay and lesbian opponents who amazingly have now forged political alliances with certain Christians. How did this happen?

These topics stray into what philosophers call 'metaphysics', and all your untestable beliefs can be described as 'metaphysical'. This includes such diverse subjects as the qualities of God, or the belief that the sciences are destined to achieve ever-more-accurate descriptions of reality. It includes belief in your own nation's existence, and the existence of yourself as an individual. It includes the idea that a child can be 'born gay' or 'born trans', or that either is a 'lifestyle choice'. In short, in includes everything that lies outside of the possibility of definitive evidence, although an unfortunate quality of contemporary metaphysics is that people have become incapable of recognising this.

Pragmatically, a complete discussion of metaphysics is impossible. If I focus primarily upon Christians here it is solely because this religious identity has the key role in the United States where the political skirmishes I am sketching originated and from whence they propagated. They apply just as well to Hindus, Sikhs, or indeed Odinala of the Igbo, at least some of the time. Likewise, I am going to use 'gay' as shorthand for 'gay and lesbian', and I shall avoid using any of the various vowel-free Scrabble words deployed to pretend that there is still a unified community represented by the Rainbow flag, rather than the grim 'queer wars' that have been raging for more than a decade now.

The roots of these issues are far older. Aristotle coined the term 'metaphysics' for whatever thinking could happen 'beyond physics' (hence the name), but for our purposes we only need to go back a hundred and not two thousand years. For if there was a single topic that dominated the trajectory of the twentieth century it was metaphysics... specifically, the steadfast avoidance of this philosophical hinterland, and the denial of its relevance. From the Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 30s onwards, metaphysics were marked as suspect, deemed the exclusive preserve of that catch-all category of dismissal 'religion'. It is frankly no surprise at all that the bizarre fruit grown from this trend in the twenty first century are beliefs that to the eyes of many people are indistinguishable from religions.

Yet metaphysical commitments are not religions, not least of all because they do not foster a direct community of care, which is a central defining trait of all religious traditions. The association of 'metaphysics' as purely a religious matter, therefore, distorts religion as much as it does the sciences, knowledge, and morality - all of which must be bootstrapped by metaphysical commitments. It is the breaking away from organised religion (primarily but not exclusively Christianity) that is the historical backstory of the twentieth century turn away from metaphysics, and that legacy has had unfortunate consequences.

Part of this story is the one I have told many times before, about how the association of metaphysics with nonsense by the Vienna Circle of philosophers and scientists led inexorably to new and more disturbing forms of nonsense. These prototypes for the analytic philosophers' fateful trajectory tried to 'think scientifically' by dismissing everything that could not be known as irrelevant to all rational thought. Perhaps if they'd read and understood Friedrich Nietzsche, they'd have appreciated the bitter irony of this curiously self defeating move, as nobody before or since Nietzsche has been so spot on about it being "still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests."

We deceive ourselves when we think we can secure our knowledge without resort to metaphysics, because even the commitment to investigate matters through research requires a metaphysical foundation. Albert Einstein and his generation of scientists understood this. They had necessarily read Immanuel Kant, whose philosophy underpinned every position on scientific matters after him. But the current generation of researchers not only don't know Kant, they don't know Karl Popper, or even Francis Bacon - indeed, they seem to know nothing at all about the established practices of the sciences. How else are we to explain utterly incomprehensible remarks like Peter Hotez's recent and bizarre suggestion that "one doesn't typically debate science"...?

A great deal of trouble has been caused by this century-long attempt to brush metaphysics under the carpet. Quite honestly, scientific investigations are extremely difficult to pursue if you cannot distinguish experiment and theory from metaphysics, something that arguably reached peak nonsense in evolutionary psychology and related subjects that throw away all the complexities involved in investigating biology and behaviour over geological time. As I accused in The Mythology of Evolution, these half-metaphysical domains offer the kind of simple pat answers that we also find in Victorian natural historians attributing the perfections of nature to God.

But all this is nothing next to the metaphysics of gender, which is now eclipsing the blurring of scientific research via various forms of 'science-loving' beliefs as the premier metaphysical battle line. On the one hand, there are trans activists espousing gender metaphysics that mean that you can be born a different gender to your biological sex, a gender that exists in the mind of the individual and can only be known by them. I have some sympathy for the radical existentialism being attempted here, and also for its inherent absurdity since I am a lover of the absurd. But I draw the line at death threats, something trans activists have repeatedly engaged in and refused to denounce.

When your metaphysical beliefs tell you that other people have to believe a particular way, you are immediately in the problematic territory that caused the Abrahamic religions to get their bad reputation. 'Believe or die' has been the clarion call of the metaphysical fanatic for millennia. Any attempt to defend against this by evoking the image of 'trans genocide' is a gross insult to the historical victims of genocide, such as the 1994 mass murder of the Tutsi in Rwanda. Supporting trans people in their individuality is a key contemporary challenge - yet this is categorically not achieved by vocal advocates being unable to distinguish between literal and figurative genocide, nor indeed by a refusal to condemn those who purposefully terrorise their political adversaries.

Don't think for a second, however, that the trans activists are the only people whose gender metaphysics have spun out of control. Among their political opponents are gender-critical feminists who assert the absolute truth of biological sex and the utter unreality of gender. While I support their freedom to break out from the strictures of social gender however they wish, it can hardly be said that this position represents truth to the trans activists falsehood. The 'unreality of gender', after all, is in the same boat as the reality-or-otherwise of nations and individuals - if we are to disbelieve social realities, why stop at gender...?

It was difficult to appreciate the vast cultural problems of metaphysics when the topic was 'atheists versus Christians', because each side had their own metaphysical commitments to 'God' or 'Not God' and could only encounter the other side's perspective as madness. Now we have reached an equivalent state regarding the metaphysics of gender as well - nobody seems to have realised that we are facing multiple radically different gender metaphysics. Two of these are visible in the clash between the classical gay and lesbian belief that 'you are born gay' and the new metaphysical belief that 'you are born trans'. Factions in the gay community now claim, not without justification, that foregrounding trans gender metaphysics amounts to 'erasing' gay culture. Small wonder the Rainbow Alliance has been torn asunder by this new factionalism that brings to mind the wars in the wake of the Reformation in 16th and 17th century Europe...

Of course, it doesn't end there. There is also the metaphysical belief of certain Christians that being gay, lesbian, or trans is a 'lifestyle choice', which was in fact a major cultural battleground before gender nonsense took the main stage. We might recall that the New Atheists made a push not that long ago to have us rethink religion so that all religions might be deemed a 'lifestyle choice' - another pointless and offensive metaphysical skirmish to throw onto the ever-growing pile. Honestly, if you can accept that you can be 'born Christian', it's not that big of a stretch to being 'born gay' or 'born trans', yet all of these descriptions fall short of getting to the heart of the matter.

What's frequently in conflict here is somewhat closer to 'family versus individual' - since 'Christian' is an identity built over millennia upon ideal conceptions of the family and, for good or ill, both gay and trans identities were predicated at least in part of their troubled history upon breaking with the family. If you take a visit to a Spencer's store in the US and browse their 'statement' T-shirts you'll immediately see why I can say this ('This is not a phase' is clearly a message intended for parents). The battleground over access to medications for trans people has become so fraught precisely because it continues this undermining of the legitimacy of families.

It is staggering to me that those who argue for the medical autonomy of minors cannot even conceive of the risks involved in handing the responsibilities of parenthood over to government intervention. The trans community urgently needs to think through the problems it actually faces. On the one hand, the power of doctors is denied in the trans invocation of 'assigned at birth'. On the other, the trans community is enslaving itself to medical corporations that are far more interested in selling drugs than in respecting what it means to be trans. All manner of disasters lie not very far along this path.

So what's the truth about how we are born? Can you be 'born Christian'? 'Born gay'? 'Born trans'? It depends upon what you believe, upon your own metaphysical commitments. Sadly, it is precisely because these commitments are untestable beliefs that these disputes have become largely meaningless distractions from far more important political matters. If you are a Christian, your children can be 'born Christian', and if you are gay or trans you can back-project and say you were 'born that way'... but in so much as there is any kind of absolute truth here, it is only that you are born a baby, and what you may discover you are or are not as you grow up has precious little to do with your birth.

The political skirmishes in the early twenty first century that railed against the idea of 'gay' or 'trans' being a 'lifestyle choice' revolved around what kind of legal protections ought to be afforded. That's precisely what made these disputes so bitter. Frankly, acknowledging that these are metaphysical beliefs ought to be enough to see that we must allow these diverse perspectives, because religious freedom is supposedly protected. Today, the category of 'religion' obscures more than just the truth about religious practitioners - it conceals the necessity of recognising all metaphysical beliefs and thus never instituting one set to the exclusion of all others. Teaching young students that there are 1,001 genders is to take one set of metaphysical beliefs and to canonise it - if that would not be an acceptable thing to do with Christian beliefs, it cannot be acceptable for gender metaphysics either.

Freedom, the authentic capacity to set your own purposes, rests upon the demilitarisation of metaphysics. Freedom of religion was the formulation that made sense to the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, but today limiting metaphysical beliefs to 'religion' is causing more trouble than it is worth because the term 'religion' has devolved into merely a generic bogeyman. What is needed now is freedom of metaphysics, and this is next to impossible when gender metaphysics are absurdly couched as a scientific dispute, all while prominent imbeciles insist that the sciences are not in the business of discussion, as if truth emerges from the heads of scientists by divine intervention. What a mess!

You must own your metaphysics, or else your own beliefs will betray you without fail. You - along with every other human - cannot live from moment to moment without embracing a peculiar set of untestable beliefs that underpin everything meaningful about you and those around you. Only when you can do this, when you can acknowledge that your metaphysics make you who you must be will we come close to ending the uncivil war of gender metaphysics, and behind and before it, the cultural skirmishes over religious practice and its alternatives. Freedom of metaphysics is the unrecognised political necessity of our time. Until we appreciate this, there will be nothing but endless, intractable culture wars that harm everyone involved in ways we have not even begun to acknowledge.

The opening image is a detail from Sonia Gechtoff's 1959 Children of Frejus. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down as asked.

Equal Stupidity

Kral.My Stupid HeadThe expert is given power over us because we believe that we are stupid and they are knowledgeable. But this is a mirage... expertise is not intelligence, but merely one way of exercising the potential of our intelligence. No amount of expert knowledge will prevent us from falling prey to those blind spots in our understanding where despite our expertise, despite our knowledge, despite our intellectual prowess, we all remain - every one of us - equally stupid.

One of the throwaway comments in my short philosophy book, Wikipedia Knows Nothing, is that we are all equally stupid. This is not the triviality that it may at first appear, but a reworking of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière's concept of 'equality of intelligence' from The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Knowing how much resistance there would be to the idea that 'we're all equally intelligent', I inverted Ranciére's concept to claim the same thing in reverse: 'we're all equally stupid'. Hidden in this apparently idle remark is a revolutionary way of thinking about humanity.

Rancière's equality of intelligence emerges from a particular way of thinking about what it means to be a human: as a will served by an intelligence. 'Intelligence' here isn't anything like IQ (which is, rather circularly, merely a measure of the ability to complete IQ tests) and it is nothing much to do with education either. What Ranciére means by 'intelligence' is our potential as thinking beings to learn skills and solve problems. This intelligence is our own mental tool that is deployed by our will, which is our capacity to set our sights on future states (to set 'ends', as the Enlightenment philosophers put it). We are all a will (our sincere intentions) served by an intelligence (the capacity to fulfil those intentions), and on this understanding, our intelligences are equal.

I know the objections - intelligence is 'obviously' not distributed equally, what about those with congenital defects, and so forth. This misses Ranciére's point. We choose arbitrary measures of competence and then name this 'intelligence'. But this is rigging the game such that whosoever happens to match our chosen measures will seem 'intelligent'. Intelligence for Ranciére is not any kind of measure at all, but rather a name for the human potential to master any skill. Nobody has devised - or could devise - a measure of all the infinite potentialities of the human mind. In this respect - our potential to learn - we are all equals. This is equality of intelligence, and it is fundamentally opposed to expert power, which assumes there must be a hierarchy of intelligence that education magically reveals.

The evident inequality in the manifestations of our potential has no bearing at all on equality of intelligence. Besides, does anyone truly think that a 'one size fits all' education is the optimal way of encouraging learning...? No, we are far too focussed on regulating assessment, and not at all interested in facilitating learning, because assessment serves our desire for hierarchy. Likewise, the teacher is supposedly superior to those they teach - expert power in microcosm. Yet whenever a teacher exercises authority rather than building trust, it is a betrayal of their students' unbounded potential. The different outcomes of our education systems are not evidence of inequality of intelligence, but merely the inevitable consequences of their design.

A will served by an intelligence explains our varying intellectual circumstances in terms of differences in our will, our commitments. We can only master what we will that we shall learn. It is probably worth stressing that what we will and want we desire, are not the same. I can want a single malt whisky (I frequently do!) but I cannot will a whisky. I could, however, will that I would run a whisky distillery. Our will, therefore, is about ideals in our imagination, future states that we commit to bringing about. I sometimes suspect that the reason that a multitude of marriages fail is that many people merely desire to get married, or even just want a wedding (which is not the same thing at all). If you do not will the marriage, the partnership, it cannot last, for then it is merely an expression of our fickle desires. Only if partners truly will a future together as equals can any marriage honestly persist.

A will served by an intelligence draws attention to how we can be equals, whether in marriage or as citizens (our equal potential), as well as why we would support democracy (because we all will different things). My own concept of 'equal stupidity' inverts the idea of 'a will serving an intelligence' such that we foreground the commonality of our limitations instead. Yes, we can learn anything provided we will it... frankly, trying to learn what you do not will is nothing less than excruciating. But nobody can learn everythingAs a trivial example, those who learn arithmetic but do not learn algebra can often conduct sums in their head quickly and easily. Those who learn algebra tend to lose this ability - the more complex mathematics supplants the simpler habits. Furthermore, those who can solve the most complex mathematical equations tend to be lacking when it comes to, say, diplomacy or poetry. Similarly, a professional poker player can be loathe to play against amateurs because the skills they require to win against other pros are radically different from what it takes to play against those who never learned all the outs and pot odds. We can learn anything, but we cannot learn everything.

There is at least one sense in which 'equal stupidity' exceeds 'equality of intelligence' as a means of understanding human capacity. 'Equality of intelligence' implies that everyone can get to grips with every problem, given both the time and the will. I believe this to be true, as illogical as it sounds. But 'equal stupidity' reminds us that whatever we can or cannot achieve on our own, we can achieve far more when we work together. The aspect of our stupidity that is equal is the degree of our fallibility as thinking beings. But we fail in different ways, and we fear different pitfalls, precisely because we will different things and this draws our intelligence into thinking about problems in different ways.

It is hard to avoid the obvious, recent example. You see the urgency of saving the vulnerable from a deadly infection, I see the health harms inflicted by your untested proposals for how to achieve that goal. If we could have co-operated, who knows how many people might yet have lived...? Yet again, as with so many times before, our hate and fear destroyed our unity, and while we were squabbling, expert power betrayed us, as it always must when left unchecked. Equal stupidity makes it too dangerous to let a solitary individual work on any serious problem. Mistakes are certain to be made by anyone acting alone. But we can defend against our equal stupidity if we open ourselves up to trusting one another, thus pooling our equality of intelligence. First trust, then truth. Else first fear, then failure. Forever and ever, amen.

'Equal stupidity' thus helps to draw attention to the ridiculous assumptions of expert power. We are besotted with the fantasy that there are those with a super-intellect who can solve any problem as simply as snapping their fingers. Magical science has become the literary mythology of scientific research... As I have said before, Sherlock Holmes always has a flawless investigation, which makes him a terrible model for actual detectives. Likewise, a movie scientist can make anything happen given a sufficiently long montage. Equal stupidity is a maxim reminding us that these glorifications of individual intellect are fantasies. The true power of scientific investigation lies in the redundancies brought about by pooling our intelligences - empowered by network effects, whatever truths can be ascertained by these methods can be carefully revealed, and whatever mistakes have been made will be exposed.

The power of the sciences lies in overcoming our equal stupidity through open co-operation. Authentic research is nothing like this idolatrous beast we have named 'the Science', which is merely a mask for expert power. When our talents are pooled successfully in scientific investigations, when our wills are committed to finding the truth together, we can indeed defend against our equal stupidity. But it is not only the sciences that can benefit from pooling our equality of intelligence to overcome our equal stupidity. We can take this idea far further, as long as we can remember how to trust one another. Within this concept of equal stupidity lies a warning about how we have failed to live up to the ideals of equality, and perhaps also the possibility of restoring our dreams of democracy.

Next week: Meritocracy vs Equitocracy

The opening image is My Stupid Head by Mitsi b Kral, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Fabrication Doctrines

Image of Unknown OriginWhat is the opposite of a 'conspiracy theory'...? If we say it is an antonym of the truth, we are assuming that conspiracy theories are always false, which would be unwise. But we certainly don't want to say that falsehood is the opposite of a conspiracy theory either. In our current usage of this term, we are tacitly assuming something more than we are willing to recognise...

This term, 'conspiracy theory', has steadily gained currency as a means of discrediting certain ways of viewing events. The unstated assumption is that if something is a 'conspiracy theory' it isn't true and can be ignored. "Oh, that's just a conspiracy theory..." But of course, just because someone theorises about a conspiracy, it doesn't necessarily mean that they theorise in error. It was a conspiracy theory that Emily Dickinson could be understood as a lesbian, a view that is now essentially mainstream. Likewise, it was a conspiracy theory that Edith Wilson, the wife of President Woodrow Wilson, was running the country after her husband suffered a stroke. However, this is now accepted as an entirely credible account of what actually happened.

In terms of scientific parlance, 'conspiracy theories' are hypotheses as to what may have happened, which could be validated be the appearance of further evidence. In the lexicon of the sciences, 'theory' is the contrast case with 'hypothesis', but since that word is baked into 'conspiracy theory' we can scarcely use that to construct an alternative term! Besides, 'theory' is a word that is simultaneously too strong and too weak for our purposes... we forget when it comes to scientific theories that these models of events, much like conspiracy theories, can be validated or invalidated by future evidence. We mistake them for truth, something we humans are especially good at doing.

I want to propose as an antonym for 'conspiracy theory' the term 'fabrication doctrine'. It is a fabrication doctrine that Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and a conspiracy theory that this event was faked. It is a fabrication doctrine that the world is a sphere, and a conspiracy theory that it is not. It was also a fabrication doctrine that Emily Dickinson was a lonely poet who didn't show her poems to anyone, and a conspiracy theory that she loved women and shared her poetry with them. In this regards, I note that Dickinson had ten poems published in her lifetime... this fabrication doctrine did not even reflect the available facts at the time it was circulating.

Now the objection that will come in at this point is that the word 'fabrication' implies 'lie'. But frankly, these days, so does 'conspiracy theory', even though neither 'conspiracy' nor 'theory' entail this meaning when used alone. On similar lines, 'fabrication doctrine' can take on whatever inference we need it to. It is strictly true that our majority viewpoints of events are indeed fabricated - just like every other understanding of the logical truth or falsehood of the world. Furthermore, as long as we are intolerant of other ways of understanding any given issue, then these fabricated understandings are also doctrines, which is to say, accepted ways of thinking. And we have always been hostile to alternative points of view.

What appeals to me in contrasting 'fabrication doctrine' to 'conspiracy theory', is that it makes it clearer that both these ways of understanding can be doubted. The increasing tendency to associate 'conspiracy theory' with falsehood obfuscates the vital knowledge that our consensual understandings of the world will be incorrect in ways we are not aware of. We need them to be challenged if we want to be open to the possibility of truth.

Let me provide a simple example. I mentioned above that it is a fabrication doctrine that our planet is a sphere. You might prefer to consider this as absolutely true. But this instinct is driven primarily by the desire to avoid concluding that it is flat (the most popular conspiracy theory offered as contrast). Nonetheless, the Earth is not in fact a sphere in anything other than an approximate sense, and  a more accurate description of the shape of our planet would be 'oblate spheroid'. Furthermore, whether our planet should be understood as a sphere depends entirely upon the frame of perception we are dealing with. If we render our solar system in a four dimensional model of Minkowski spacetime, say, the Earth is no longer anything like a sphere. We could approximate its 'shape' in this context as a cylinder, but even this would be inaccurate. The fact is, humans can only think in four dimensions by analogy, and so our language breaks down in this particular perceptual framework. If we accept that Minkowski spacetime is indeed a more accurate description of reality, then we must also accept that 'the Earth is a sphere' is merely a fabrication doctrine.

The French philosopher Alain Badiou advanced a view of truth that he associated with Plato: the truth exceeds our ability to express it in language or thought. Every time we try to grasp an understanding of any situation - every time we build a fabrication doctrine - the truth exceeds that situation. Truth, therefore, is nothing so dry and dull as a statement... rather truth punctures our experience of reality, it breaks through, as if from the outside. For Badiou, this is a description of scientific revolution - the excess of reality overwhelms the old model; Einstein's understanding replaces Newton's, which replaced Aristotle's physics. Badiou also sees this excess in art, politics, and indeed, in love... the truth punctures our understanding and reveals something hitherto unrecognised.

It is, alas, far easier to live life within the fabrication doctrines we are offered. The less you question, the less resistance you will meet from the world around you. But this is not to suggest there is anything good about this state of affairs. It is merely to claim that life is easier when you become indifferent to lies. That statement is logically true. But that does not make it an expression of the truth, nor ethically desirable. On the contrary, when we become indifferent to lies, we permit terrible things to happen. We have, in fact, all permitted terrible things to happen precisely because we prefer to live inside our fabrication doctrines rather than seek out the truth.

Likewise and conversely, if we try to shut out the conspiracy theories, we do not become closer to truth... on the contrary, we will then find ourselves accepting lies as if they were true because we the enforce our fabrication doctrines as inviolable and deny that they could be in error. All this obsessive commitment to ensuring "harmful disinformation myths are stopped in their tracks", as BBC Director-General pontificated at the foundation of its political power bloc with Google et al, is self-deception. If what is being defended are fabrication doctrines - and this is the only thing they can be - then stopping 'disinformation' necessarily means enforcing dogma. We have seen this error so many times before, and yet still we blame it on religion and not on the inherent fallibility of our nature as humans.

To be open to truth is to be open to error. To attempt to prevent error from being spoken is not just pernicious and unjust censorship, it is to turn our fabrication doctrines into quasi-religious dogma. Regrettably, there is just as vast an appetite for this today as their was in the Middle Ages... we just don't recognise it, because - then as now - our fabrication doctrines are misunderstood as truth. Only when we accept the fallibility of human knowledge can we hope to remain open to that rare possibility of encountering a truth that inevitably exceeds the limits of our understanding.

The Paradox of Conviction

Topographical3-1200The 1992 movie A Few Good Men gave us the memorable phrase "You can't handle the truth!", beloved by internet memesters. Yet it is just so: we cannot handle the truth, and indeed we would far rather have certainty than know the truth uncertainly. Certainty brings with it a contentment that we long for, even while we profess that our longing is for the truth. We want to know, we say... but what we desire is the certainty we call 'knowledge', or 'science', which we then falsely conflate with truth. We are not committed to the truth at all. We are desperately seeking certainty - and will sacrifice anything - even and especially the truth - to get at it.

Here is a paradox: certainty (a mental state) seems to rest upon alignment with the truth. We think that if we know the truth, then we are certain. Therein lies precisely the pitfall - we feel certain, and this feeling has nothing at all to do with whether what we are feeling certain about is true. Yet beyond doubt, the only thing our feelings can offer certainty upon is how we feel - and even then, we can be deceived. We can persuade ourselves that we hate someone we love, or vice versa. As Wittgenstein realised, our mental state of conviction is in no way dependent upon any associated truth.

In the grab-bag of half-developed ideas that is contemporary psychology, it is accepted that we are uncomfortable with uncertainty. One experiment conducted in 2016, based upon the ever-popular delivery of electric shocks, suggested people would rather be given a shock immediately than suffer one at an indeterminate point in the future. The amygdala, which mediates fear and anxiety, can be activated by incomplete information - consider a simple example of having said something that you worry might have caused offence. Not knowing is, in itself, a significant cause of anxiety. Certainty alleviates fear.

It is therefore not surprising that we have made an idol out of this thing we call 'Science', which no longer means (as it once did) 'knowledge'. Two centuries ago, many and varied were the things that could be called a science. Today, this term denotes the exclusive authority of those experts upon whose say-so we attain certainty. Yet the history of the sciences is not just theories being replaced with later theories that explain situations with greater accuracy. It is also the history of plausible-sounding gobbledegook that was accepted as knowledge by humans who placed more value on certainty than on truth.

The psychological description of this kind of certainty is nothing of the kind: it is literally faith. Never mind the mismatch between belief and certainty we ascribe to the religious - this has little to do with religion and everything to do with human nature. Our desire for certainty is such that we will take claims on faith as long as in so doing we can feel certain. The truth, on the other hand, is always uncertain. It is only in logic and mathematics that a system admits of truth by 'proofs', which is to say, reliable inferences from foundations that are secured by definition. Once we depart from the artifice of constructed systems, truth lies distant from us and requires tremendous effort to uncover - and even when it is uncovered, it is still uncertain.

And here we are today, still just as human as we ever were. We hide from the truth because it is too challenging - too exhausting! - to seek it, and also because that very search is neither guaranteed nor likely to end in certainty. Instead, we choose certainty, by whatever means it is offered to us. A hypothesis dressed up in theoretical clothing. A non-binding referendum that becomes binding. A fallacious argument from authority. Any escape at all to avoid dealing with the inevitable uncertainty of the truth.

This is the paradox of conviction: we are certain that certainty is truth, and that only the truth deserves our certainty. Thus, we fail to accept that uncovering the path towards truth requires a commitment to uncertainty. The most essential skill for any scientist to cultivate is the one we don't want from them: an openness to the inevitable uncertainties of scientific practice. Certainty and truth are not one and the same, but the exact opposite of one another. Knowing this, we still gladly choose certainty over truth, without hesitation. We must know, and we must know with certainty... and so the truth is forever barred to us.

The opening image is Conviction by Dan Sisken, which I found at his art blog. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.

Virus: A Love Story

Uncoiling StrandsIn the beginning were the replicators... we know very little about them and we never will. Our windows on the past are limited, and for the ancient past they are reduced to mere speculation. What we do know is that our cells are based upon the intricate relationship between our DNA and our RNA. DNA provides the library of all the protein recipes we have inherited from our ancestral forms. RNA does the labour of building proteins and communicating between cells. We have deduced that RNA preceded DNA, and that there was, therefore, a time in aeons past when there was an "RNA world", although we do not know (and may never know) if there were other replicating molecules that preceded RNA. Even if there was, it remains true that the replicators precede life as we know it.

The replicators were here first. And we owe them our lives.

The first cellular organisms developed out of these primordial replicators. Right from those very first cells it seems that we had both the DNA library and the RNA messengers, astonishing organic technology that may actually deserve the adjective 'miraculous' that we prefer to reserve for our own crude tampering with genetic codes. Replicators begat single celled life forms about a billion years after our planet formed, some 3.5 billion years ago. We did not arrive until 300,000 years ago. That's quite a home field advantage right there.

These unfathomably immense time scales are rather difficult for us humans to grasp, so I sometimes like to index the past using logarithmic time, which is a fancy way of saying "count the zeroes". After writer John McPhee's memorable phrase for geologic time, we can call log time the 'deep time' index of an event, and this number is just a matter of 'counting the zeroes' in a fancy mathematical way. One billion years in the 'short scale' we have come to prefer is written as 1,000,000,000, which is nine zeroes, and the base 10 logarithm of a billion is indeed 9. Last year would be 0 in deep time. Ten years ago was deep time 1. A century ago was deep time 2 (again, count the zeroes!). So each increment in logarithmic deep time is ten times further away than the previous one. The large dinosaurs went extinct at deep time 7.8, whereas the universe is believed to have kicked off about 13.7 billion years ago, at deep time 10.1. The origin of bacteria lies at 3.5 billion years ago, which is deep time 9.5.

Our single cell ancestors at deep time 9.5 are just as amazing as the replicators that preceded them and gave birth to them. They are the archeobacteria, which is to say, the old bacteria, indeed the oldest bacteria. Then as now, patterns in the DNA library were transcribed by the labour of RNA into the complex biochemical building blocks - proteins - that can do all manner of amazing things. These ancient single-celled creatures swam, fed, reproduced through division, and formed protective outer shells to ward off catastrophic conditions such as great heat or high acidity. What's more, they traded. Unlike later life forms, bacteria don't keep a very strict DNA library. On the contrary, through what has been called lateral gene transfer, bacteria (even today) trade genes with each other. That means that rather than their parental heritage determining the entirety of their biology, bacteria can swap genes to make up new patterns all the time - which also means that bacteria develop new forms far faster than the more complex life forms that were eventually to descend from them.

But life was only just getting warmed up. Swapping genes like trading cards seems like child's play next to what the bacteria were to achieve around deep time 9.3. They started co-operating. As Lyn Margulis described in 1966, the differentiated components of plant and animal cells - the energy-making mitochondria of animals, the light-farming chloroplasts of plants and algae, and much more besides - originated through a unique process of symbiotic co-operation. Margulis suggested this was probably the result of a failed attempt at digestion, but no matter how it happened the bacteria discovered they could become more than the sum of their parts. It was yet another miraculous occurrence - and it was directly responsible for the conditions that would eventually lead to our own existence. The separate genetic libraries of these cellular allies would eventually come to be pooled into a single DNA archive (the nucleus of a cell), so that different 'bacteria' were being made by the same gene library.

Now admittedly, for quite a long period of deep time our multicellular ancestors were basically little more than slime moulds. But deep time is full of miracles, and another one occurred at 8.7: the notorious Cambrian 'explosion'. Up to this point, the new superbacteria had no way of maintaining a differentiated form. Yet 'suddenly' (in the deep time perspective, at least), new patterns made it into the library, those encoding shape. We still do not adequately understand all the mechanisms entailed, but what is clear is that the superbacteria continued their billions of years of co-operation with the ancestral replicators that had formed them in entirely novel ways. By expressing certain proteins at specific points in a cycle of cell division, organisms with a profusion of different shapes and forms emerged.

And what an emergence! The Cambrian explosion is wild and marvellous, full of strange and incredible creatures. Many show body plans that we can still recognise today - the radial symmetry of the starfish; the multi-limbed creepiness of the arthropods that would become insects, spiders, and scorpions; the molluscs that would give rise to squid and cuttlefish; an immense diversity of worms; polyps that would become corals; and of course those plucky little chordates, the little skeletons who could, from which all the fish, reptiles, dinosaurs/birds, and eventually even the humble little mammals would descend.

All in the water, to begin with, where life had begun, but you can't keep a good life-form down. We were onto the land by deep time 8.6 (a clock tick in the logarithmic index, but more than a hundred million years as humans reckon time). We were into the sky soon after. Live birth by around 8.4. Social colonies of the kind we associate with termites and bees by 8.2. Social packs of larger animals by 7.9. The direct ancestors to humans arrive around 6.3. The first humans at 5.4, some 300,000 years ago. Those first five numerals of deep time belong to life in all its diversity. Human history begins at 3.7, our 52 centuries of writing occupying just the shallow end in the immense scope of the time of life.

Now the danger in thinking about these developments in terms of 'progress', as a certain way of thinking invites us to do, is to misunderstand that new life doesn't replace the old. Contrary to the lazy competitive thinking we've been led into believing, bacteria were not invalidated by the arrival of multicellular life. On the contrary, bacteria adapted to live in, on, and around their incomprehensibly larger descendants. Your stomach is a great place for a bacterium that thrives in acidic environments to hang out, and it is quite comfortable there, for all that you might prefer not to think about all your tiny passengers. Likewise, the bacteria did not force the free replicators out of business. Quite the contrary, in fact. Those replicators are still among us. We call them viruses now.

And oh how we have turned upon our ancestors in the last two centuries, after about deep time 2.3. The arrival of scientists in the Victorian era, who supplant and assimilate the natural philosophers around 3.4, brought more of what we like to call 'progress', which is half ignorance and half arrogance. The sciences brought to us an understanding of contagion, of the role of bacteria and replicators in causing disease... but they brought with it a prejudice against germs, our germophobia, if you will. We have all sadly adopted this general inability to distinguish between those scary situations where our ancestral forms are fatal to human life, and the great many circumstances where we depend upon them.

Never forget in the first place that you have some hundred trillion bacteria living in your digestive tract, without whom we would struggle to break down carbohydrates to feed your mitochondria, the bacteria-within-bacteria that power your whole body. For your body is a colony of cells, and each of those cells is analogous to the single-celled bacteria that preceded them. We are not only home to bacteria, we are made of bacteria, our bodies are the most successful and most cosmopolitan bacterial colonies that ever existed.

Ah, but you might say, I'm willing to make peace with the bacteria (or at least to say that my bacteria are good but yours are evil). But not the viruses. They are truly evil... they bring only disease and death. We must exterminate them all. How quickly we turn upon our ancestral forms! We refuse to accept just how essential the replicators were to our even having the chance to come about in the way we have. Just as your body is made of bacteria, those bacteria are made from replicators - we are, at root, beings sustained by the replicators. We are thus the impossibly distant cousins of every virus.

There is a brutal truth to the process of mutation we have not yet accepted. Far from the romantic image of the X-Men, whose freak mutations bring about superpowers, mutations are deadly. Our genetic library encodes all the proteins the many different denizens of our hyperbacterial colony bodies need to live, and when one of them is corrupted - by radiation, by pollutants, by a great many things, the vast majority of which at this point in time have been made in human factories - it causes disease and death. You cannot simply scribble all over our genetic library and expect to shoot force beams, regenerate, or control the weather. When our DNA library is corrupted, we die.

But if this is so, if mutation is death, then how did our ancestors acquire new traits, new proteins, new biological capabilities? The answer is that the replicators role in the story of life did not end at deep time 9.5 with the arrival of bacteria. They kept doing what they had always done... copying themselves. Even as the younger forms of life built the genetic libraries and deployed them to unfold the story of life as we know it, the replicators kept copying, making changes, hacking life by accident, and even becoming domesticated by the replicators in our cells to serve new purposes. Beneficial mutations (by far the least common kind) happen either because our own replicators 'slip' and make transcription mistakes, or because the other replicators - the viruses - give them a nudge in a new direction.

In 1982, Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba proposed exaptation (ex-ap-tation) as a description for the taking on of new functions for which a certain aspect of an organism was not originally adapted. This was an important turning point in our thinking about the development of biological capabilities, since the tendency to treat every feature as having developed for its apparent purpose severely limited the range of explanations available, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Back-projecting the role that feathers now serve in flight effectively limited the explanations considered for how they might actually have developed. Gould and Vrba proposed seeing feathers instead as an exaptation: a feature which originated with a role in temperature regulation that only later opened up possibilities for flight.

Since then, researchers have repeatedly discovered new kinds of exaptations, perhaps most amazingly in the context of viruses. Far from the image of the virus as 'them' to the human 'us', ancestral viruses inserted themselves into our genetic library, and in so doing opened up remarkable new capabilities for humanity. Consider as just one example the syncytins (sin-sigh-tins), genes originating in retroviruses that were captured and domesticated by a variety of mammal species in parallel. These genes opened up all the amazing possibilities of placental mammals from ancestors that were egg-layers - and they did so not once, but apparently multiple times. Primates, mice, cats, and dogs all have different genes domesticated from varying ancestral viruses that are essential to the placenta that sustains life in the womb. Lateral gene transfer - the trading of genes - isn't just something that bacteria do... viruses have brought this genetic marketplace to the multicellular life forms too.

What's more, even our immune system - the means by which we fight off unwelcome viral intrusion - owes its effectiveness to viral co-operation. Around deep time 7.7, we seem to have acquired a viral stowaway in our genetic library (an endogenous retrovirus) that now plays a pivotal role in our immune system. A gene that has been named AIM2 can become activated in response to viral infection, triggering immune responses that include instructing infected cells to effectively 'self-destruct' to prevent further viral spread. As Kat Arney put the matter, these ancestral viruses which are now part of our own DNA act as 'double agents', protecting us from hostile viral intrusion. A reminder that not all viruses are 'the enemy'.

The replicators were here first, and they are still here now. They enabled the bacteria to exist. They empowered multi-cellular life to specialise and diversify. They maintained genetic libraries through untold millennia, such that even now we owe our very lives to the tireless and unfathomably ancient workings of these chemically-inscribed forms of proto-life. Even the viruses, those rogue replicators that nomadically pass between our gigantic colonies of intricately co-relating cells are not merely our enemies. We have incorporated them into our library, and they have opened up new biological possibilities for our species and so many others.

There are times when we fight with our viral neighbours. This is nothing new... our genetic library demonstrates that this has been going on throughout deep time. There are times when we need to take steps to defend ourselves. But still, we should not fool ourselves. The viruses are never solely our enemies... we are dependent upon them, upon the replicators in our cells and the domesticated viruses that have joined them, for everything we are as living beings. That we must sometimes take steps to defend against that minority of viruses that disrupt the elegant workings of cellular life is inevitable. Yet this is merely the biological analogue to the rule of law, and in medicine - just as with law - we do not always make wise choices.

The replicators were here first, and they will likely be here long after we are gone. If we want to continue accompanying them for some tiny fraction of the great journey they have been on - a voyage that is nothing less than the tale of life itself - we might consider paying them the respect they are due.

Cultural Disarmament

Raimon Pannikar 4 - squareEven the mention of peace has now seemingly left our world. We have gone from wishing for a peace we doubt we can have, to no longer even wishing for peace. Yet if we still desire peace, there are few greater guides to that journey than Raimon Pannikar. His work has been a consistent source of inspiration to me. A Catholic priest and a philosopher, he became a crucial figure in the interfaith dialogue that prospered in the twentieth century. Upon visiting his father's homeland of India, he wrote: “I started as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without having ceased to be a Christian.”

It is not solely a wry joke about our obsession with box-ticking categories that I identify as a Zen Sufi Hindu Christian Discordian. On the contrary, like Pannikar, I found a path between religions that brought me to a deeper truth than I could ever have attained from within one tradition. Still, at a time when it is fashionable to deny the relevance of any religious tradition, those like Pannikar and myself who have found wisdom within many religions are all too easily dismissed. This presents a substantial barrier to sharing any of Pannikar's philosophy today: the religious are trapped inside the limits of their faiths, and the non-religious are wedged inside their box of non-belief. Small wonder we can no longer find a role for peace!

In the case of Cultural Disarmament, a 1992 book originally published in Spanish, Pannikar's insistence on treating the question of peace as a religious matter will seem to instantly disqualify his philosophy of peace from further consideration for a great many people. Yet his arguments are sound, his intuitions persuasive, and his programme represents the only plausible path to peace that could be taken seriously. It is harder now to make a call for the kind of disarmament he espouses: so many view themselves as 'outside' religion, and thus beyond any thought of being swayed by religious reflections. Yet there is an illusion here.  The religious communities Pannikar was writing for in 1992 were no more open to his case than the non-religious. In fact, both the religious and the non-religious share the same mythos that Pannikar sought to challenge.

Peace, for Pannikar, is precisely a question of our mythos. It is a symbol rather than a concept, and symbols are "the building blocks of myths". With a good symbol, one can build many myths, which is to say, mythos for different cultures, regardless whether these are religious or non-religious cultures. Since the awareness of the role of mythology in human thought has declined along with religious practice, attempts at peace may have become more difficult. The non-religious, after all, are even more blind to their mythos than the religious, and as Pannikar points out, no one is fully aware of their own myth. Yet this situation is not so different in practical terms, since no culture can claim a monopoly on peacefulness and the name 'religion' changes nothing of importance. Regardless of which culture we are talking about, the meanings of the term 'peace' rest upon what each culture evokes with this term. This is why Pannikar insists that peace is always a symbol rather than a concept. Cultural disarmament, therefore, necessarily refers to an intercultural striving for peace. 

What's more, cultural disarmament, although it is a call to everyone, is especially a call to us, to anyone who reads this and thus certainly belongs to the predominant world culture, where a veneration of scientific thought and technology is taken for granted. This culture, Pannikar attests, originates in Europe, for all that it is now global in reach. We who belong to it see our values as indisputable and not open to negotiation - even though, as the last few years have made clear we do not agree on the meaning of these values at all. Pannikar was writing in 1992 about the need for the conceptual disarmament of the technocratic culture we all belong to, in order that we might foster peace with all cultures. Today, the same disarmament is also a requirement for peace within our own technocratic culture. The 'culture wars' that journalists report on with lurid glee reveal that the problems which prevent dialogue between us and the other nations of the world now also prevent dialogue within our own nations.

We deceive ourselves when we take up a cause, such as social justice, and then believe we must be fighting for peace. Pannikar is explicit: "One cannot fight for peace. One fights for one’s own rights, or, in a particular instance, for justice. But not for peace. To fight for peace is a contradiction." This is particularly so because "the regimes that we ourselves impose are not peace for the one who must endure them, be that one a child, a pauper, a foreigner, a family, or a nation." We might add to that all those suffering from racial disparities and those suffering from the attempts to enforce a rebalancing of these disparities. We might add to that all those suffering from the imposition of gender regimes, whether the terrible old version, or the dreadful new one. We might also add those unvaccinated pariahs who have been made into scapegoats by a medical empire that long since parted company with scientific discourse.

Dialogue is precisely that which we have lost touch with as we have given up on the wish for peace. Yet it is only through dialogue that peace has any hope of attainment. Whether we are talking race, or gender, or vaccines, we have given up on equality, and thus made dialogue impossible. Pannikar writes:

One must realize that dialogue, concerning which so much is presumed, is utterly impossible without conditions of equality. Indeed, it is insulting to speak of dialogue to someone who is starving to death, or has been stripped of all human dignity, or who does not even know what we are talking about because his or her suffering or difference in culture generates an incapacity for doing so.

This tendency for us to "treat others as enemies, barbarians, goi, mleccha, khafir, pagans, infidels, and the like" is precisely the problem to which the symbol of peace is a potential solution. Attempting to defeat the enemy is fruitless, because all we will do is enforce some new regime on the vanquished. "Victory leads to victory, not peace. And we all know the lethal effects of prolonged 'victories'...". Neither does Pannikar see any aspect of peace as lying with the restoration of a lost past, or indeed in defence of the status quo. Indeed, he sees peace as requiring emancipation from the current order and the acceptance of what he calls a fluxus quo, which is never settled outright.

What Pannikar calls cultural disarmament does not mean that we have to give up our own values - it means that we learn to recognise when we are wielding "reason as a weapon", as happens whenever we force our own technoscientific biases upon others. To Pannikar, this issue was primarily about the enforcement of economics and technology upon so called 'developing' nations, presupposing in the very name that we ought to be making them more like us. I have argued from the opposite direction: we have much more to learn from these cultures that have not yet fallen into technocracy than we ever presume.

It is even easier than ever to see this problem today. When the colonial programme occurred elsewhere, in places far from us, we were unlikely to witness it, and thus it tended to pass unnoticed. In the last two years, however, we have resorted to forcing our colonial technoscience onto each other. In so doing we have created an incredible opportunity to finally understand that 'science' was never the secret name of absolute truth, but rather that of a fragile method of exploring possible truths through experimentation and discussion. Authentic scientific practice cannot be deployed to police the truth without falling back into our colonial arrogance, and it is a farce to talk about 'decolonising curricula' without first accepting cultural disarmament - all this can possibly mean is imposing new dogmas, new regimes. Peace will not be found on such a path.

Rather, Pannikar warns that we require "a critique of current technoscience," and stresses this does not mean "destruction" or "reform", but rather "an intellectual demythologization". The myths of technocratic rule are so widespread now that we utter them without ever noticing. "Sustainable development" is something oft spoken of, for instance, but Pannikar cautions that even the concept of 'development' entails a presupposition, it is a kind of "cultural colonialism" (he optimistically suggests this was finally coming into question around the time he was writing). Our technocratic values are deployed "as weapons for invasion with the excuse that it is the natives themselves who seek entry into the technocratic club." A greater lesson for Bill Gates has never been written.

Peace Sign 3 - RoughPannikar builds a figurative emblem out of the peace symbol created by Gerald Holtom (pictured right). This originally represented a desire for nuclear disarmament, but it came to be incorporated into the civil rights movements in the United States with a broader meaning. Pannikar assigns to the three divisions of the sign the meaning of 'freedom' (left), 'justice' (right), and 'harmony' (below), suggesting that these are the components from which peace can be built. He thus remarks: the ensemble of the elements that make up peace, each of them seems to tend to invade the terrain of the others, that is, to destroy what medicine calls “homeostasis.” Countries overly concerned with justice restrict freedom. And vice versa: where freedom is sacrosanct, justice frequently suffers. And with too much harmony, “your neighbours invade you.”

He remains resolute that "freedom is an essential ingredient of peace", but stresses that while there can be no peace without freedom, liberty should not be confused for mere freedom of choice. It is perfectly possible, Pannikar persuasively argues, to have a wider range of choices and yet suffer a severely diminished freedom. True liberty requires that our decisions are not shaped by dependencies and influences from the outside. "Neither a car nor its driver is a free being." He invokes the supermarket as symbolic for those situations where an immense range of choices do not entail authentic freedoms (in particular since we are dependent upon the supermarket, and have limited capacity to influence what it stocks). Likewise, "to be able to vote for this candidate or that, along a limited spectrum of possibilities, means a very relative freedom, and sometimes merely an apparent one..." The wisdom of this remark will not be lost upon those whose political landscape is so one-dimensional that elections can be determined primarily by who it is that we wish to prevent from winning.

The inclusion of justice is an important part of his symbolism, since Pannikar does not mean by this simply obeying the law: "lawfulness is not justice, many dictatorships are perfectly legal." He engages especially on the question of terrorism, where he wisely observes: "If violence is not the solution, still less will state or legal violence be." Rather, violence persists whenever two sides are unable to share in the same mythos, because "the parameters are different". Therefore, throughout his discussion, Pannikar returns to this same point: the need to discover or forge shared mythologies that can foster peace. It is a theme that is recurrent in my own philosophy of imagination, and in this respect Pannikar and I have always been firm allies.

In a novel conception unique to Pannikar's philosophy, he asks not for autonomy (self-government) but ontonomy. He develops this idea from the premise that "the ultimate structure of reality is harmonious", and therefore concludes that the potential forms of existence available to any one being must have a relationship with the potential perfection of the whole they belong within. Neither is this some permanently determinable circumstance. Quite the opposite. He argues that there is no way to legislate for peace in some permanent and unchanging manner. Indeed, to attempt this would not be any kind of peace "any more than love can be commanded - it would not be love." Rather, peace must be continuously created and re-created.

This dependence upon an image of reality as harmonious will perhaps provide a significant stumbling block for many people today, yet most religious practitioners are honour-bound to accede to this presumption. Pannikar's knowledge of the dharmic traditions of the East is clearly an influence in presenting this view, for dharma in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophy has precisely this character. Exporting this wisdom to the Abrahamic religions would require a certain leap of faith - and finding a way to mount such an argument for the non-religious is perhaps impossible. Pannikar does not try. The entire book presupposes a religious reader (but not a specific religious tradition), which is arguably its greatest limitation, for all that having taken this path empowers him to explore some quite remarkable philosophical spaces.

The three elements of his annotated peace emblem also serve to draw attention to the obstacles to peace, for according to Pannikar whenever freedom, justice, or harmony are undermined, peace becomes unobtainable. But in an unexpected elaboration on this idea, he proceeds to demonstrate how this also applies to our veneration of the sciences: our adoration for the scientific can also become a barrier to attaining peace. When we yield scientific authority as "the privilege of a few", a "moral inequality" becomes struck in the heart of humanity, and Pannikar remains insistent that true dialogue requires equality:

Precious little good it will do for scientists to declare that they do not possess the universal panacea, and that they know perfectly well the limits of scientific knowledge. The fact remains: science’s unshakable successes, and its symbiosis with modern technology, have persuaded the people that “outside science is no salvation.” And indeed, unless you have a career in science, there is little to “eat” today in the First World and its satellites. If the fundamental thing for humanity is knowing, and if this becomes (except for the elementary necessities of life) the specialty of a few, then we are implanting in the human heart one of the causes of a lack of peace.

Our elevation of expertise into elitism is linked by Pannikar to the philosophical legacy of Descartes, which he calls 'the culture of certitude'. He further suggests that the logical consequence of this is a 'civilization of security', which has become our prevailing ideology - and this from an author writing in 1992! How much more have we seen this in the three decades since. Yet he challenges this obsession with safety by suggesting that while uncertainty and insecurity is something intolerable for human reason, it is something that perhaps may even be experienced pleasantly, if it can be pursued in love.

Pannikar draws against Saint Augustine's name for peace, 'the uncertain good', and contends that if we place our trust in the powerful to protect us, we will run into impossible contradictions. After all, he says (invoking the famous Latin phrasing): Who will watch the watchers? Against this, he suggests that we must place our trust in reality, which means placing trust in ourselves. It is a revolutionary proposition, yet it is also surely one which the civil rights campaigners of the twentieth century understood, and which we have since lost. As long as we are counting on an elite few to provide security and certainty for us, peace is rendered pragmatically unobtainable. Rather, we must be willing to undertake the call to peace ourselves.

Drawing once again from Hindu wisdom, Pannikar talks of what is required to "shatter the law of karma", which is to say, the cycle of violence. And in this, he maintains that forgiveness, reconciliation, and ongoing dialogue are a requirement to break through and open a path to peace. More than this, he makes it one of his central propositions that only reconciliation leads to peace. And here, he is keen to stress that the very etymology of this word requires the convocation of others - which is to say, to speak with them, to open a dialogue, which "is a science as well as an art". In a striking metaphor of how difficult it is to accept cultural disarmament and open discussion, Pannikar writes:

Humanity has known since prehistoric times that it is more painful to extract an arrow than to drive it deeper. If the social body is wounded by many arrows, there is nothing to be done but withdraw them. And that is no easy task.

The desire for peace must be, and can only be, the desire for dialogue - which requires us to accept something most of us find unthinkable: that those we must reconcile with might have something to teach us. We are so certain that we are right. Thus, when others cannot accept what we insist we know with certainty, any hope of dialogue is removed from possibility. It is thus in our own hearts that the path to peace must be opened. In concluding his vibrant reflection on peace, Pannikar rewrites the famous words of Flavius Vegetius Renatus ('Would you have peace? Prepare for war'). Against this, Pannikar counters: "Would you have peace? Prepare yourself."

Cultural Disarmament: The Way to Peace is published by Westminster John Knox Press, ISBN 9780664255497

Five Choices (5): The Experts vs the People

Part five of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

5 - Encaustic VioletWho can we trust to make the important decisions? We have a choice. One approach is to stand by the ideals of democracy and, one way or another, let the people decide for themselves. But what if they make the wrong choice? We could be committed to a terrible course of action causing immense harm to public health, political stability, or the ideals of civilisation. Can we afford to let that happen?

The alternative is clear - we can let the important decisions be made by whomever has the relevant expertise. The experts, having had the necessary training, are ideally suited to make decisions, and to abandon expertise would be reckless - especially in a time of crisis. But the nature of every emergency is that the facts are not always evident and prior training is no guarantee of insight into a novel situation. So we face the exact same risks here as in giving the decision to the people - what if the experts make the wrong choice? The risks here are no less grave than with the people, since a terrible mistake is just as disastrous when it is made the well-educated - and it may even be far worse, if only because of the tremendous difficulty experts have in admitting they made a mistake.

But it is here that all this construction of idealised choices as a rhetorical device comes to an end. As every pollster knows, we can mount options deceptively because every time a situation is simplified to a binary choice, we have necessarily abstracted away the context which gives that decision its true meanings. If we come at the question of who we can trust to make important decisions as a choice between either the experts or the people, it looks as if we have to side with the experts. But this is not in fact a choice we should ever face, for the way to get the people to make good decisions is necessarily to share with them the perspectives of all the experts, all of whom are also part of the people. There is no need to nominate a set of 'the experts' to replace the decisions of the people. We are all 'the people', no matter what expertise we possess.

When it comes to the important decisions, the only viable way forward is to discover ways to combine expertise with democracy - because we need expertise to help make difficult decisions, but we also need democracy to ensure accountability and legitimacy, for otherwise there can only be thinly disguised tyranny. Once we realise this, we might begin to appreciate that a crisis is not a time to abandon the people for a tiny subset of experts, no matter how comforting we may find the artificial certainty this provides. On the contrary, when the people cannot question expertise, the experts become as blind to the truth as any other despotic ruler, while the people robbed of discourse with expertise become a danger to themselves and everyone else.

Good decisions do not flow from limiting the availability of expertise, but from ensuring that everyone with relevant experience is allowed to speak. This requires that we not give in to the temptation of premature certainty (the risk of 'The Science'), that we never ignore the harms inherent to our tools and methods (the risk of 'technology'), that we do not eviscerate the immense complexity of good health (the risk of 'disease'), and most certainly that we do not undermine both scientific knowledge and civil rights by saying that anyone who disagrees must be silenced (the risk of 'censorship').

These five choices do not offer different visions of good scientific practice. They offer an understanding of what good scientific practice entails, and of the risks we face when we undermine the work of the sciences through our politics or our fears (if indeed those names refer to different things...). The attempt to make experts into a caste, a priesthood, robs expertise of the democratic foundation that alone can legitimise it. The experts and the people are not opposites at all, but one and the same thing. Only when we accept this paradox can we begin to discover how me might live together.

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.

Five Choices (4): Censorship vs Disagreement

Part four of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

4 - Encaustic BlueHow should we deal with misinformation? We have a choice. One approach is to accept disagreement, to let people share their perspectives even if they are wrong, and thus to tolerate arguments as an essential part of democracy and free speech. But if we do this, we run risks. People may be misled into doing things that put them at grave risk, or even that put everyone in danger. People may be incited into extreme acts that undermine democratic institutions. People might even be lured into hating their neighbours for their differences. Can we bear to undertake such risks?

We have a clear alternative: censorship. We can say that whenever the consequences are sufficiently severe, we are obligated to draw a line in the sand against disinformation and prevent it from being disseminated. We could form a media power bloc - say, a Trusted News Initiative - and get all the tech companies controlling social media, and all the major players in the journalistic media to agree to prevent the dissemination of misinformation. In short, we can unite the most powerful forces in communications technology to enforce censorship in order to prevent misinformation from being spread.

But this too carries risks. The nature of scientific process is built upon disagreements. Despite the simplistic orthodoxy of 'hypothesis, experiment, theory', the production of scientific knowledge is not a sausage machine that you simply crank the handle to reach conclusions. On the contrary, a fairer caricature of the process would be 'competing hypotheses, triangulation of evidence, validation of theories' - and in all three stages, disagreement is essential to success. In the absence of disagreement, we are in danger of drawing premature conclusions based on incomplete evidence, and thus treating provisional hypotheses as robust theories without the painstaking work required to assemble an accurate picture.

Applying censorship to active scientific research topics is not a way of defending scientific knowledge, it is a method of completely preventing its production. You simply cannot stop the spread of misinformation without knowing what the true state of affairs is, and you cannot know this without permitting the disagreements that allow the sciences to conduct effective research programmes. And given that every theory in the sciences is provisional until all objections are eventually resolved (a process that typically takes decades), there is never a viable point at which censorship could plausibly be in the service of scientific truth.

If you resort to censorship, you make it impossible to know the true state of affairs. As a result, people may be misled into doing things that put them at grave risk, even that put everyone in danger, such as prolonging widespread panic. People may be incited into extreme acts that undermine democratic institutions, such as reneging on civil rights agreements. People may be lured into hating their neighbours for their differences, such as whether or not they have taken a vaccine. Can we bear to undertake such risks?

Next week, the final part: The Experts vs the People

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.