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 cyborg.ihobo.com or click the book in the sidebar to learn more!


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:

...in 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

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Five Choices (3): Health vs Disease

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

3 - Encaustic GreenHow should we try to look after ourselves? We have a choice. On the one hand, we can choose health, and therefore try to find ways to maintain and encourage good health in all those we share the world with. This is the difficult process of finding ways to balance whatever gives us pleasure and enjoyment with whatever harms are associated with it. It is not a one-size-fits-all situation; even if I know that I need exercise, companionship, and sustenance, what works for me in this regard need not work as well for someone else. Living for good health means wrestling with situations as complex as humanity itself.

Fortunately, there is a far simpler approach to the problem of living: we can declare war on disease instead. If we call 'disease' whatever causes harm, the problem of how we should live becomes far simpler, since all we have to do now is minimise disease. Unlike good health, which requires us to think about humans in the context of their minds and lives, minimising disease seems amenable to a simple calculation - does this cause more disease, or less? If it causes less, that is the option we must choose. All other considerations can be rescinded, or at least brushed under the carpet - even the impact of this choice on other diseases is all too frequently ignored once the order to charge is given.

But this negative policy of disease is a chimera. Disease is always hiding in shadows, and it is never as clearly defined as when it is painted by those who insist we are obligated to wage war against the invisible enemy. 'Disease' is a book of names that is always open for additions, but the naming is not the problem. It is the presupposition of disease that we might question, for once we commit to replacing the problem of good health with the Sisyphean task of fighting diseases, every problem becomes deceptively simple. Here is another disease, what can we manufacture to fight this disease...?

Alas for proponents of this infinite medical crusade, good health is not merely the absence of disease. At best, limiting disease is a component of good health - and how great a contribution it might make we certainly shall not discover by treating disease as a war we are obligated to fight on all fronts. For unless a battle, a disaster, or an accident claims your life you will eventually die of disease - to think otherwise is merely to deceive yourself. As long as you approach the problem of life from the presumption of arresting disease, failure is inevitable.

There is another way: to choose to pursue good health and thus enter a strange and ambiguous world whereby your physical and mental well-being are yours to claim and discover. Paradoxically, committing to fighting disease is not a path to good health at all, but merely a means of escaping thinking about it. For as we always knew, disease is not another name for health, but rather its diametric opposite.

Next week: Censorship vs Disagreement

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Five Choices (2): Technology vs Sciences

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

2 - Encaustic YellowWhere should we place our trust if we wish to help humanity flourish? We have a choice. One path is to commit to scientific practice to give us means to evaluate our options for living. Through the laborious work of investigation, disagreement, and eventual consensus, the sciences give us means to parameterise the options available to us. We can, for instance, compare different treatments for a particular kind of cancer in order to determine what is effective in comparison to no treatment - and this latter option is much more important than we sometimes recognise, since from the point of view of scientific work, taking no action must always be compared to taking action if we want to be sure that the conclusions we are reaching are valid.

There is an alternative path - technology. We have tended to think of the relationship between science and technology as akin to cause and effect: first we conduct The Science, then we build The Technology. And there is some truth to this understanding, for revisions and expansions to our knowledge attained by the meticulous work of researchers do indeed open up new possibilities for creating tools. But technology, as Martin Heidegger realised, is not just a name for our devices but rather an enframing philosophy of instrumental means. We back-project the name 'technology' onto windmills and ploughs, but when we evoke this name today we are ordering the world to our purposes. Through our commitment to technology, all things become resources for our exploitation.

To think of technology and the sciences in tension feels strange, given how we have learned to view one as a consequence of the other. But if the core philosophy of the sciences is to patiently construct the truth of any situation, the core philosophy of technology is to produce superior means for exploiting all available resources - including humanity. Have you never wondered why so many organisations can name a department, without a trace of irony, 'Human Resources'...? The vital question becomes whether exploiting humanity and the world as resources can indeed serve human flourishing rather than, say, rendering it impossible. Technology offers us an alternative to human flourishing: ever greater technical power.

What does it mean to choose between technology and the sciences? It is the tension between exploitation of resources and answering questions about the effects of so doing. Thus if we choose 'technology' we can (for instance) claim that cars get safer as we add more safety equipment, whereas if we choose 'sciences' we can determine that 1.2 million people still die from road accidents irrespective of those modifications, while the environmental damage associated with their manufacture and operation remains unrelenting. If we choose the sciences over and above technology, we are obligated to look our cyclopean monster in its eye and can scarcely reach any other conclusion than that technology, far from saving us, has raised us up so high that we can see our own extinction from here.

Next week: Health vs Disease

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Five Choices (1): The Science vs Research

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

1 - Encaustic RedWhere can we turn in these troubled times for solutions to the difficult problems? When it comes to empirical matters, we have a clear choice. One option is to turn to researchers to conduct investigations, but this takes time. Experiments and studies require planning and execution. While laboratory studies can be completed in mere days, substantial trials take months - years for longitudinal data. Then papers must be written, submitted to journals, peer reviewed (often, alas, under highly manipulative conditions), and even after that the scientific community does not treat a matter as closed. Other researchers and theoreticians will respond to the initial reports and conduct further research, either in support of or in opposition to the conclusions drawn in the original paper. All in all, reaching a firm interpretation of the evidence can take years - in some cases decades. Scientific research is slow.

Fortunately, we have a faster alternative - The Science. The Science works on an entirely different basis, because unlike the meticulous investigations conducted by researchers, the Science is always by definition true. Therefore, if you rely upon The Science instead of research, you are never wrong, and do not have to face the time, effort, or aggravating disagreements that happen whenever researchers strive to reach viable interpretations of the evidence. Once you choose The Science over research, you simply reach a conclusion - either instantaneously, on the basis of prior theory, or rapidly on the basis of the early guesses - and magically your work is done! You have your decision, and far faster and more easily than if you had committed to the painstaking process of assembling the truth via the work of researchers.

Precisely because The Science is never wrong, errors are simply attributed to specific scientists, which is to say, to mere researchers, further increasing the conceptual distance between these two alternative forms of knowledge production. The sciences and their researchers are not only slow and messy, they must be the site of all mistakes, because The Science, by definition, is infallible. That's why it commands such vehement commitment from its advocates: unlike research, The Science is never wrong.

This ideological idol we have built over the site of research practice works so effectively to usurp and undermine scientific work that we can brazenly dismiss all claims contrary to The Science as belonging to "just some scientists". Regrettably, in the last year we have intensified the power of The Science by permitting - nay, insisting! - that everything contrary to The Science must be excluded as dangerous. The Science is threatened by those who disagree with it, because it is necessarily true and therefore beyond challenge. Yet haven't we seen this pattern before, in other institutions that claim authority, and decry contrary viewpoints as blasphemy? The Science seems remarkably similar to precisely that which is claimed to be its opposite...

Next week: Technology vs Science

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Prelude: Five Choices

A preface to Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

0 - Encaustic - BlackAt a time when we are told there are no choices, that what must be done is known and certain, it is impish - practically blasphemous! - to suggest we have choices. But we always have choices. What we often don't have are good choices.

In the short serial that follows, Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge, I offer a series of five choices in how we approach the production of scientific knowledge.

Or do I...?

Reading each choice it may seem as if no reasonable choice is actually entailed, that if we accept my premises we must make the choice that, clearly, I am arguing for. And this is precisely the point - the trick, even. For given that on all five choices we already somehow chose the unthinkable choice, something must be seriously wrong with our collective thinking on scientific knowledge to have made not just one horrible mistake but five dreadful and ghastly mistakes.

And of course, the reason we choose the unthinkable choice in each case was precisely that it was not presented as this choice at all, but as another choice, a choice where there was no choice. An infernal alternative, as Isabelle Stengers and Phillipe Pignarre put the matter: "Wherever an infernal alternative is constituted, politics gives way to submission, and even those who resist may be trapped, that is to say, may define their opposition in the terms fabricated by the alternative."

If I am successful in reconstructing these non-choices as non-choices of another kind - of a kind that reveals that there always was a choice and we merely made bad choices and called them unavoidable, it may hint at a secret path out of the political labyrinth we have found ourselves imprisoned within. Only it is not much of a secret... it is so blindingly obvious that, incredibly, we did not even consider it an option. We could choose to uphold our prior ideals, ideals we have been told remain important even while we are instructed that they have been completely trumped (pun intended) by urgent crises that require us to pack them away until that jam-tomorrow moment when these self-inflicted amplifications of catastrophe are over.

Mary Midgley, as ever, saw the risks of such bizarre salvation narratives when they become falsely associated with the work of the sciences. Writing in 1992, she remarked:

Science really is a wonderful thing, and human beings really are wonderful creatures. But there are other wonderful things and wonderful creatures in the world as well. To exalt science properly is to show it in its place among them, not to send it off to an unreal, isolated pedestal among the galaxies. The true value of science is something that is only insulted by tagging it with the offer of pie in the sky. Nor can that offer restore the meaning to life, if indeed meaning is lacking. If it was wrong for religion to make capital out of offers of this kind, it is no less wrong for science to do so.

I stand ready to escape from the oubliette. I hope some of you will come with me.

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.


A Magisterium for Science

Pope Peter Rabbit"I believe in free speech," goes an archetypical conversation I sometimes have in the pub with people largely outside of any religious tradition, "but people shouldn't reject vaccination/evolution/science etc." Oh dear, I think to myself... how do I unpick this knot without offending them? Because these apparently innocuous statements run perilously close to saying "democracy is great, but I prefer theocracy". How can this possibly be...?

For more or less anyone reading this, theocracy will seem like the worst possible form of government. Indeed, a great deal of the tacit hostility that some today hold for the Catholic Church lies in the rejection of the idea that anyone should be placed in a position of arbiter of the truth, and thus in hostility towards theocracy, broadly construed. This is sometimes expressed in a conceptual rejection of the Catholic pope, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone did in their hilariously blasphemous South Park episode "Fantastic Easter Special", which ends with a rabbit being appointed pope and the claim that this was what God had always intended. This episode really interested me, as I believe it successfully captures Protestant Christians' prejudice against Catholics, from which the so-called "New Atheist" movement descended (all the prominent New Atheists began by rejecting Protestant Christianity, then expanded their dismissal until it encompassed all world religions). A similar theme also manifests in the Principia Discordia, the sacred book of the Discordian Society, which also aligns with elements of Protestant theology against Catholic theology, while softening the hard edges by cross-breeding (rather productively) with those schools of Zen Buddhism that embrace absurdity as a path to wisdom.

In Catholic parlance, the term 'theocracy' is seldom if ever used (although Vatican City can be understood as a theocratic nation - albeit a rather small one!). The official term for the authority of the Vatican is 'magisterium', meaning 'power of the office of magister', where 'magister' is Latin for 'master'. The magisterium is understood as the capacity of the pope and the bishops to render a judgement on the authentic interpretation of the Word of God, taken both in the sense of establishing an official interpretation to scriptural texts but more importantly in terms of guiding traditional practice, which encompasses an extremely broad range of human activities. Thus, when Pope Francis endorsed the idea in 2016 that Catholic churches could offer the sacraments to divorced Catholics (a controversial suggestion in some quarters!), he was exercising his official role in the magisterium.

The term was applied outside of Catholicism in 1997, when the brilliant evolutionary essayist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that the alleged conflict between science and religion could be resolved by asserting 'non-overlapping magisteria' (NOMA). His proposal was to assign dominion over facts to the sciences, while religions (and non-religions) would have separate dominion over values. Gould's use of the term 'magisterium' was borrowed directly from Catholic parlance; as a palaeontologist coming from a Jewish family in New York, where 60% of the population is Catholic (and only 10% Protestant), he would have been quite familiar with Catholic terminology and thought. This proposal did not go down particularly well - those who would go on to align with the New Atheist movement unilaterally replied that there was no need for such a principle because science could claim authority over everything and there was thus no need to make concessions. In such situations, 'religion' is being rejected not over the idea of asserting a magisterium, but merely because the wrong magisterium is being asserted. 

This is roughly where I see the problem with my friends in the pub claiming to support free speech, but placing its limit on topics that they consider to have been scientifically resolved, and thus beyond dispute. This position implies a magisterium of science, and in the same way that the presence of a magisterium in Catholic tradition implies a theocracy, any time someone unthinkingly singles out a scientific topic for special status (vaccination and evolution are by far the most common), they are also requesting or expecting something similar, if only implicitly. For it is solely in the presence of a magisterium of some kind that there could be authority to adjudicate what is or is not permitted as an absolute matter. The law, after all, is free to change when the people require it; only a magisterium is beyond dispute.

I think back to a very good friend of mine expounding his outrage in respect of a Creationist Museum somewhere in the United States that he had heard about. And I found this odd, because it sounded very amusing to me, and I could not see any legitimate cause for indignation here. "But it's not true," was his retort. But so what? It's not true that there is an inherent goodness to humanity, but I still choose to believe it, and if we are defenders of the so-called free society (and always assuming such a thing still exists) we should be able to accept that at least some of the things others believe are 'not true'. It seemed to me that a Creationist Museum was hardly likely to change anyone's opinion about anything, which means even if we accept that it's 'not true', the expected harms of such an establishment are rather limited.

Besides, who are we to call out other people's nonsense and not our own...? I have yet to meet a human who does not harbour strange non-testable beliefs of some kind, and I am perfectly happy for this situation to persist - because the alternative can only be a theocracy of some kind, or rather, I suppose atheocracy, in that it has become very possible to compose the kind of metaphysically-justified autocracy without any concept of deities. Besides, we make a mistake when we associate religions exclusively with positive theology (a concept of God or gods), since we are singling out just one aspect of the immense diversity of religious experiences and making it central. This is not entirely surprising, however. Christianity and Islam were too successful at making a theology of truth versus falsehood central to our thought via the creation and maintenance of libraries over a span of millennia. We never lost this habit of thought, we just switched from from theology to atheology and from libraries to corporate-managed online repositories while also ceasing to notice the change entirely

The idea that truth is singular and that deviation from it is abhorrent is an artefact of the monotheistic religions that has been inherited by those who place their faith in 'science', as Nietzsche shrewdly pointed out in 1882. This desire for a magisterium for science is far more widespread than we tend to admit. Consider the political questions that have continued to erupt over gender and sex for the entire duration of the feminist movement (which is to say, since at least Mary Wollstencroft in the latter half of the 18th century). Feminists largely managed to avoid calls for anything like a magisterium on gender up until the end of the twentieth century. After this, the number of non-testable beliefs about gender required to meet everyone's emotional needs ballooned beyond any reasonable expectation. Problematically, tolerance between these different metaphysical conceptions has been extremely limited - remind you of anything? I can't be the only person who thinks that offensive labels like 'TERF' or the 'trans cult' are oddly resonant of older insults like 'heretic' and 'infidel' that came from others who were rather too certain about their beliefs...

No-one should be subjected to the arbitrary beliefs of others, and it does not matter to me one jot whether those beliefs are about God, or gender, or flying spaghetti monsters. However, quite unlike the South Park creators, I don't find a rabbit a desirable replacement for a human Catholic pope, especially one with such an uncommon passion for the oft-forgotten humility of the Christian tradition as Pope Francis. It rather seems to me that the problems with the Protestant Christian traditions I was raised in emerge precisely from the consequences of deciding that a rabbit would indeed be better than a human as a pope. As a Discordian, the absurdity amuses me; as a Christian, I am less convinced. The Catholic church may lag behind the western zeitgeist by about a century but it does eventually change its mind, whereas certain Protestant Christians seem to have an almost negligible possibility of changing their mind under any circumstances! Frankly, they are far from alone in this...

Here I should like to note that the Discordians have a different and altogether more hilarious conception of what it is to be a pope. In a move clearly inspired by the Protestant philosophy of the Enlightenment, Discordians claim that every human is a pope, and some Discordians like to give out 'pope cards' to certify people as such. Indeed, I was ordained as a Discordian pope by Robert Anton Wilson in the late 1990s, which sounds impressive but really is not, since there is no Discordian magisterium and if there were, Wilson would have excommunicated himself. The followers of this religion are almost universally anti-magisterium, and I hope that most if not all of my fellow Discordians would have the sense to never be caught arguing for a magisterium of science, although the golden rule of the followers of Eris is that "we Discordians should stick apart". As such, Paul Feyerabend's adage for capturing the realities of scientific practice, "anything goes!", applies far better to Discordians than to scientists, where suggesting that 'anything goes' is widely considered tantamount to blasphemy.

And here lies the awful truth of the idea that we can claim to be a supporter of free speech but place its limits at some scientific point of reference: the emotional framework that makes this possible is directly parallel with that of blasphemy. This word, after all, is only the name we have given cognitive dissonance when it occurs within a religious context. We must already have determined a necessary truth in order to wish to prevent dissemination of alternative views, and this implies that we secretly desire a scientific magisterium, the rejection of which would be tantamount to blaspheming. Yet free speech depends upon an absence of limitations, with the sole exception being the one proposed by Immanuel Kant: that we should only enact limitations upon freedom where they are necessary to protect a like freedom for others. It requires a real commitment to liberty for people to negotiate how to achieve such a balance, and alas for the most part we have decided not to bother.

Besides, why worry about being free to speak when the social media giants of Facebook, Twitter, et al. and the search engine giants of Google, Baidu, et al. have conveniently provided their own magisterium of thought for us? Watch them with amazement as they merrily adjust search results and the relative visibility of what different people are saying, choosing on the one hand what should be read first, and on the other hand pronouncing which blasphemies must never be heard. Habemas papam, Cyberpope Google I...? I shudder to think. It is situations like this that ought to provoke the outrage my friend felt for a mostly harmless 'museum of ignorance'. Yet we apparently accept this gerrymandering of information without concern - some of our neighbours even advocate for this censorship, as the example from the pub at the opening of this piece foreshadowed!

When I first starting thinking about 'science popes' and a magisterium for science - always in opposition of any such concept! - my concern was that there would come some kind of attempt to create a Council of Scientists that could attempt to act as magister and offer declarations of what was or was not scientifically valid and therefore permitted to be enforced. Then came 2020, when the World Health Organisation - to its own great distress! - found itself unwittingly appointed to this role in a new and disturbing medical magisterium that spread into almost every world government and swiftly ran out of anyone's control. The topics upon which adjudication was demanded rapidly and inevitably fell into that state of pseudoscience whereby disagreement was not permitted (and thus the sciences cease to function), and the medical magisterium that we collectively instituted immediately undermined its own credentials in a manner rather parallel to the idea that a rabbit would make a better pope. I will not say that a rabbit would have made a good replacement for the WHO, only that the WHO struggled to fulfil its role scientifically while it was also expected to act as magister.

It is an admirable thing to stand up for public health and say "what can I do to help?" It is far more problematic to stand up and demand that everyone must satisfy your chosen vision of public health. In a democracy, any such claim is valid solely while it is has the support of the people, and if we propose any intervention on scientific grounds (where the people may have to take it on trust that we are not mistaken), those acting must at all times be ready both to absorb any new evidence, and to remain open to even the most difficult debates about what it all means (which is never a scientific judgement). We are no doubt emotionally secure in our support for science, but it remains to be seen if we are intellectually secure in our support for the sciences. The test for this is whether we are indeed open to new evidence... whenever you no longer need to test your own claims because you know in advance that you are correct, it makes little sense to assert that what you are doing is 'scientific': you are just playing at magister.

We have a choice to make, between free scientific enquiry and a magisterium of science. Yet there is no viable magisterium of science that will not swiftly become an abomination, since it is only because scientists are free in their enquiries that they gain their cybernetically-enhanced power to secure whatever limited truths are available via various research methods. Without debate there can be no legitimate science of any kind, and since a magisterium of science necessarily declares an authorised truth to enforce it could never be scientific. Rather, these kinds of atheology (like so many brutal monotheisms before them) rest upon an ideological claim to a complete and final knowledge - a rather ugly conception that might truly deserve the name 'anti-science'. Inevitably, every attempt at a magisterium of science prevents discussion and therefore unleashes the state of pseudoscience where free research is impossible, thus destroying the very conditions for enquiry that make scientific methods effective.

Perhaps, if you have read this far, you have nodded sagely to everything I've said and thought it obvious. Yet the moment you step away from this train of thought, you will encounter the anti-vaxxers or the pro-maskers, the Creationists or the militant atheists, the 'TERFs' or the 'trans cult' or whatever else it might happen to be that throws you into a blind seething rage. And when you do, won't you still experience that powerful emotional upheaval that comes with encountering blasphemy...? Underneath it all, our desire for a truth that we can depend upon is entirely human, and the Catholic church's stumbling towards hopes of a good life via its magisterium are only one expression of our unquenchable desire for secure foundations to truth. The Catholic pope these days always has the moral defence that the magisterium of the Vatican applies solely to those of the Catholic faith. A magisterium for science demands more: it demands obedience from us all, and a silencing of all objections. This is not, and can never be, scientific, no matter what claims it defends, no matter what motives it evokes. This is the ghastly confusion at the heart of the terrible events of 2020. Yet all it would take to bring this mistake to an end is the restoration of free scientific discourse, of listening once more to all we have refused to listen to. If only any of us knew how we could go back to doing that.


The Power of No

The Four Oxford Moral PhilosophersPerhaps more than any other twentieth century philosopher, the late Mary Midgley understood that there were great conceptual misunderstandings emerging out of the deep commitments to the power of scientific thinking that began in the nineteenth century. She remarked that this confusion had permitted bias to be "smuggled in as if it were a technical matter only accessible to experts" - a warning written in 2003 that captures a great deal of what went wrong in 2020.

This extended role for the sciences where they are taken to possess an authority that could in itself never be scientific flows from the mythos of magical science I discussed back in January, and it is an entirely contemporary problem - indeed, I rather suspect it is the essential contemporary problem, of which others such as the environmental crisis (euphemistically concealed by talk of 'climate change') are only shadows and reflections. It is because so many have emotionally invested in the power of science, while so few have intellectually invested in understanding the intricacies of the actual workings of the sciences, that we find ourselves in strange places where nobody can say 'no' to even a ghastly mistake provided it is made in the 'name' of science.

To be responsible in relation to the work of the sciences, then, requires a certain vigilance to ensure that what we are doing when we invoke terms like 'scientific research' or phases like 'the science says' or 'scientists increasingly believe' is accurately reporting the state of research programmes, and not mistaking the findings of scientific research (which are always provisional) with specific doctrines that are neither a requirement for, nor a part of, the work of the sciences. As Midgley warned of such philosophical smuggling, a great deal of so-called 'anti-science' positions are reacting to these imported ideologies rather than the research programmes that are truly the activities central to scientific work. This is not only problematic because of the way it complicates all attempts to share scientific perspectives more widely, but also because these unnoticed doctrines "import irrelevant, inhuman standards into non-scientific aspects of life and lead people to neglect the relevant ones."

No philosopher has had greater influence upon me than Midgley, and this is not only because she was my first (and for a long time, my only) philosophical correspondent. I have always aspired towards - and all too often failed to reach - the clarity of language that Midgley was able to bring to bear on quite complex problems in her always-excellent books. For her, as she said to me in the interview I ran back in 2010, specialist terminology such as can be found in the work of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger "runs counter to my deep identification with everyday speech", and the essence of her work in philosophy was always written in a way that makes her far easier to read than Kant, or Wittgenstein, or any of the other staples of modern philosophy. Since I believe any philosophy excised from a general readership has sealed its own doom, I have always considered Midgley's philosophical methods exemplars for what a philosopher ought to be.

When it comes to my own work in philosophy of science, Midgley is more than just an influence, she is the foundation of my thinking. Again and again, she was able to return to the problems springing from the persistent illusion that a pronouncement made by a scientist carries with it an almost magical power to authorise (or de-authorise) certain actions. Yet this authority is not scientific, but metaphysical (non-testable); it is a faith of a very specific kind, and one that tends towards the same blindness that all human thinking is prone to: of excluding ourselves from consideration when it comes to the errors of thought we can see quite clearly in others. It is the clarity of her understanding of this point, and many others related to it, that makes Midgley the essential guide to the broader philosophical problems of the sciences.

Midgley was part of an exceptional group of four female philosophers who studied at Oxford University during the Second World War - from left to right in the photo above, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, Elizabeth Anscombe, and Iris Murdoch. Indeed, in my correspondence with Midgley while she was with us, she still could not resist calling one of her former classmates 'P Foot' in a way that felt like an in-joke from decades past. Recently, attention has finally been paid to these four astonishing women philosophers, a recognition that was long overdue - and there is even a certain gathering momentum to recognise them as collectively representing a movement. Rachael Wiseman tentatively suggests 'uncommon sense realism' or 'depictive metaphysics' as names for this philosophical school... I do not think these names will stick, but they are a solid attempt to capture the commonalities of these four astonishing thinkers.

Midgley associated the perspective shared by these four philosophers with the collective issuing of a resounding "No!" to the ethical currents of the early twentieth century. Writing in 2017, she remarked:

Did that make us four into a Philosophical School?

This is a loose term, but the point is worth discussing. We did not at once become a 4-headed unanimous squad of prophets. We each followed our own diverging paths in various directions. But what, for me, makes the unanimity-story still important is a persisting memory of the four of us sitting in Philippa’s front room and doing our collective best to answer the orthodoxies of the day, which we all saw as disastrous. As with many philosophical schools, the starting-point was a joint 'NO!'. No (that is) at once to divorcing Facts from Values, and – after a bit more preparation – also No to splitting mind off from matter. From this, a lot of metaphysical consequences would follow.

These two elements of the prevailing dogma that Midgley singled out are important because they do indeed frame both the significance of these four philosophers and the disastrous trajectory of the twentieth century, from which we are still reaping ever more grotesque fruit.

The split of mind from matter is taken as rejection of Descartes' philosophy, but as I've discussed many times previously, it is actually a perverse commitment to it. Whereas Descartes sought to demonstrate the necessity of treating mind as distinct from matter, today we are committed to the same framework yet inverted, such that we now agree wholeheartedly with Descartes' cleaving of existence - but only in so much as it allows us to make 'matter' (and not mind) the important side of the equation. The power of No had to be placed against this because in reducing who we are as beings to merely the action of molecules, we simultaneously created an illusion of humanity (indeed, of all animals) as merely mechanistic machines, and fatally undermined the conditions for understanding what a good life might be.

Relatedly, and perhaps more importantly, the attempt to divorce facts from values - a mistake that the Scottish philosopher David Hulme made in 1740 and then unsuccessfully retracted in 1758 - is perhaps the pivotal error of the twentieth century, from which so many other philosophical disasters have flowed. This is a mistake imported from moral philosophy, but the consequences of making it have bled out into everything, and especially into philosophy of science. Indeed, as the opening piece to this current philosophical 'campaign' already observed, the confused idea that the sciences can be 'value-free', from which the wilfully ignorant state of pseudoscience flows, emanates precisely from this horrible misunderstanding of both facts and values, to which the power of No had to stand up in opposition.

It is worth reflecting upon the contributions of Midgley's three friends at Oxford, and how they relate to this resistance against the orthodox philosophy of mid-twentieth century Europe. Elizabeth Anscombe is sadly most famous for being Wittgenstein's student, and although that connection with Wittgenstein is important (as Midgley attests) it is worth noting that the four philosophers rarely saw him, even though his ground-breaking philosophical work was instrumental to developing their ways of thinking about the world. Midgley speaks of how Anscombe handed out loose-leaf bundles of papers containing Wittgenstein's notes (what are now called 'the Blue and Brown Books', and would go on to become Philosophical Investigations and On Certainty)... it is hard not to be slightly envious of this chance to be personally connected to what would prove to be the most influential work of twentieth century philosophy. (Heidegger's Being and Time - the likely contender to this dubious crown - is read solely by philosophers; Wittgenstein, on the other hand, was also taken up by psychologists, a rare honour for any philosopher!)

Anscombe, alas, had the misfortune of being too overtly influenced by her Catholicism, and thus was too easily dismissed by the philosophical establishment. Academic philosophy has tended to treat religious commitments as something that can be overlooked as an indulgence in men (it is routinely overlooked for Wittgenstein, for instance, despite its central place in his work as a philosopher), yet it is almost always perceived as a fatal flaw in women, for whom the path to being taken seriously was (and perhaps still is) to act and think as much like a man as possible. Nonetheless, Anscombe's paper "Modern Moral Philosophy" is perhaps the single most important critique of consequentialism ever written. This term 'consequentialism' marks the belief that what matters beyond everything else in our ethics are outcomes, and this specific name was invented by Anscombe and is still widely used by philosophers today - generally without even a passing reference to her work! She remarks of this narrow focus upon outcomes that this approach...

...leads to its being quite impossible to estimate the badness of an action except in the light of expected consequences. But if so, then you must estimate the badness in the light of the consequences you expect; and so it will follow that you can exculpate yourself from the actual consequences of the most disgraceful actions, as long as you can make out a case for not having foreseen them.

A more apposite summary of the disaster that was 2020 I have not seen.

Philippa Foot is known for being the creator of so-called 'trolley problems', and in an irony that is now so common that it will not raise any eyebrows whatsoever, her purposes in using these thought experiments was diametrically opposed to how they are now used today. As I have written about in Chaos Ethics and elsewhere, trolley problems have come to be deployed as a convenient way of fooling people into accepting consequentialist thinking as necessary by making the truths of mathematics seem to possess moral rather than merely logical truth, and thus a means of luring people into acting and thinking atrociously (as Anscombe clearly warned would happen, and as was already happening in the early years of the twentieth century). Foot could not possibly be blamed for this absurd misuse of her toolbox, and the lack of attention to her work in moral philosophy is unfortunate, since she insightfully engaged with the attempt to divorce facts from values in ways that are still well worth reading. I have been particularly struck by her concept that injustice can be understood as a kind of injury, and therefore we have rational reasons to avoid injustice - another idea that bears gainfully upon many of the grim events of 2020.

Iris Murdoch had the fortune or misfortune (depending upon how you wish to view the matter) of having succeeded in writing excellent novels, and therefore of enjoying critical and indeed commercial success - she even scored a 'Dame' in the Queen's 1987 honours list, something no other philosopher has ever achieved. This has allowed Murdoch's philosophical thinking to be roundly ignored, since novels are deemed too frivolous a form for philosophising; even Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are only grudgingly accepted as philosophers these days, having chosen novels over treatises. The idea that a contemporary academic philosopher would choose a novel as their preferred medium is one that doesn't even need scoffing at - despite the self-evident fact that writing a novel allows philosophical concepts to propagate far more effectively than writing a series of impenetrable arguments for echo chamber journals.

Since she never developed any explicit moral theory, attempts to summarise her position will always be a simplification - although as the case of Philippa Foot demonstrates, explicit theorising is in fact no defence against this either. However, her collection of essays, The Sovereignty of Good, does provide an outstanding skeleton key for understanding Murdoch's moral philosophy:

The self, the place where we live, is a place of illusion. Goodness is connected with the attempt to see the unself, to see and to respond to the real world in the light of a virtuous consciousness. This is the non-metaphysical meaning of the idea of transcendence to which philosophers have so constantly resorted in their explanations of goodness. 'Good is a transcendent reality' means that virtue is the attempt to pierce the veil of selfish consciousness and join the world as it really is. It is an empirical fact about human nature that this attempt cannot be entirely successful.

Murdoch's intuition that there was an irreducible plurality to the moral 'fields of force' hinged upon the idea that there is a sense of unity haunting our thinking about ethics, and followed Plato in naming this unity 'good'. She too used the power of No that the four philosophers unleashed to tackle the crises they jointly perceived. But she did so through the methods of the arts because she believed, with good reason, that this was an approach with the capacity to wield the greatest influence. I hope and trust that through her novels she did in fact attain precisely what she set out to achieve.

As the twentieth century ended, the power of No has been increasingly taken up as a feminine power. The phrase "No means no" has become a commonplace, the meaning of which is that consent must necessarily be explicit because the risks of implying consent are too terrible to permit. Sadly, this is often meant to apply solely in the context of rape, since in truth the confused idea that we can consent to that which we are vocally objecting to has equal application in politics, whereby consent is all too often assumed to have been implied merely by election, and therefore that democracy is solely about choosing who should wield power and not about perpetually solving the recurring problem of how we should all live together.

But if I leave this discussion of the power of No and the four extraordinary women who choose to wield their philosophy under this unstated banner at this point, it will only further the feminist stereotype that women want to undermine and destroy. And this is a terrible misrepresentation not only of women and feminists, but also of what Midgley, Anscombe, Foot, and Murdoch strove towards. It will foreground their opposition to philosophical orthodoxy and not what they were seeking to defend. For the true power of No is not in denial but in resistance, and all effective resistance is grounded in defence of the good, however that needs to be construed.

The four Oxford moral philosophers represented a defence of the good life as it had been articulated by the ghosts of philosophy past, and as it had yet to be articulated in the spirit of philosophy yet to come. They unleashed the power of No in order to resist attempts to simplify, obfuscate, and distort the nature of human existence and the moral decisions consequent upon it. Of the four, only Midgley took on this vital struggle upon the battleground of philosophy of science, and if I have tended to favour her work it is almost certainly because my own conflicted and tortured relationship with the sciences - which I love and therefore recoil in horror when they are distorted, yet also fear because the vision we have unthinkingly chosen for them flirts so blatantly with catastrophe.

Midgley saw with immense clarity the way that non-scientific dogmas and orthodoxies could corrupt and undermine the work of the sciences, and sited that discussion directly in the alleged conflict between science and religion because she understood, with an insight that far outstrips any of her contemporaries, the immense danger of this artificial split, which mirrors the misguided split between facts and values or between mind and matter. To claim facts and matter 'for science' is to attempt to subjugate values and mind, and therefore to gut democracy, freedom, and indeed truth. It reduces the sciences to dogmatic caricatures of their true beauty and worth, and affords to anyone willing to wield this tainted sceptre of "following the science" an authority they neither truly possess nor justly deserve. Tied up in this mistake is the demonisation of religion as 'anti-science' - rather than, as history shows us, giving birth to every science as we now understand this term. It is perhaps the quintessential mistake made by those who claim to love science, yet who deceive themselves by falling prey of what Murdoch warns we are all deceived by: ourselves.

Against any and all such attempts to flatten and oppress the beauty of human existence we can and must join together in raising up the power of No, again, again, and ever again, unceasingly, if we are to have any hope of defending what is good in this world. When we stop, when we decide that we should let injustice that has been misrepresented as necessity, or bias that has been misrepresented as unchallengeable truth, happen without resistance - whatever good reason we may claim for doing so - we betray the efforts of all those who came before us and cleared the way for us all to try to make a good life together. In this neverending project, these four women will be our invaluable allies, if only we are willing to listen to the immense and incalculable wisdom they have bequeathed to us.

Unattributed Mary Midgley quotes in this piece are from her 2003 book, The Myths we Live By.