Saturday, October 24, 2020

 

498. Conspiracy theories revisited

 I wrote about conspiracy theories before (item 490 in this blog), and here I expand on it. I thought it was a matter of a lunatic fringe that reinforced each others’ ideas in the ‘echo chambers’ of social media, but in an article on conspiracy theorists in the London Review of Books, James Meek reported that ‘The latest survey by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation suggests that in Germany, as in Britain, as in the US, about half of the population tends to the view that malign sercret elites are directing events’. I find that astonishing.

 Such theories are not new and are widespread. Meek: ‘The French revolution was a Masonic conspiracy, the WHO is a Chinese conspiracy. British Labour Party and trade unions are a communist conspiracy, the EU is an anti-British conspiracy’. One could add that according to the Nazi’s capitalism was a Jewish conspiracy.

 Apparently, people need conspiracy theories to assuage their uncertainty in threatening times. The Covid crisis has stimulated those theories, with phantasies of the intended dire effects on health, including covid, of 5G, the latest mobile telephone technology. Covid is also ascribed to the machinations of a secret cabal of elite groups such as the illuminati or , again, Jews. In ‘Q-anon’ conspiracy theory, Covid is attributed to a coven of pedophiles who drink the blood of children The theories satisfy an urge towards clear causes, and give clarity in terms of ill-intending groups, after the loss of the devil as the cause of all evil.

 Conspiracy theories also exhibit a loss of trust in public institutions such as the government, health care, the professional media and science.

 They exhibit a shocking loss of regard to facts. Meek recounts a case where someone defended the thory of the dire effect of 5G with the claim of the precedent that the Spanish flu was caused by radar, regardless of the fact that the flu was in 1918, and radar was invented in the 1930’s

 In the previous piece on conspiracy theories, I observed that while science is aimed at falsification, of finding the failures of theories, conspiracy theories are focused on confirmation, no matter how much they have to twist facts and logic to achieve it. To be acceptable, theories should adhere to the principle of pragmatic philosophy of ‘warranted assertibility’, promoted by John Dewey, as discussed earlier in this blog. The warrants are logic, facts where they can be agreed upon, and viability of the theory in practice.

 What complicates the issue is that conspiracies do occur, and one should be sceptical of  power. I have a theory of how big business practices lobbying to force advantages of low energy prices, wage restraint, tax benefits, cheap labour conditions and lax environmental rules, with the threat that otherwise they will move their employment elsewhere. Why is that not a conspiracy therory?.The lobby is hidden and therefore difficult to prove, but the theory is open to facts.

 The disregard of those warrants is caused, in part, by the view that science claims absolute, indubitable, fixed truth, while it regularly failed and was corrected. Therefore, conspiracy theorists argue, they have a right tot heir view of ‘alternative facts’ and unscientific reasoning. Scientists did not try enough to admit publicly that science is fallible and temporary

Saturday, October 17, 2020

497. What can we learn from Corona?

 From Hegel I learned that one gets to know something in its failure or its shortcomings. That opens your eyes for the thing’s limits. The resulting slogan is: Do not waste a good crisis. What are we learning from the present breakdown of society, with the Corona crsis? Conclusions can only be tentative, since developments are ongoing.

 There is an economic lesson. A fundamental thesis from Adam Smith is that division of labour is a source of prosperity. But it requires trade and that makes one vulnerable, as we now see, when international supply lines are broken, which matters, for example, for health supplies. Some 80% of medicines and its chemicals in the world are from India and China, and we are vulnerable to disruption of its supply due to Corona or geopollitics. After the crisis, world trade is likely to shrink. Of some goods there will be more local production.

 Much trade can continue through internet, and while many suffer economic setbacks, internet traders flourish.

 What will happen to the EURO? Southern European countries will need help from the Northern countries. Those seem to resist, and this may lead to break-up of the EU and the Euro.

 How long will banks be able to be lenient on loans and mortgages? They now have larger buffers than they did before, due to measures taken after the financial crisis of 2008, but those are limited, and banks may start falling again. Will they be bailed out again at the cost of citizens?

 Who will pay for the measures taken to contain the virus and to provide financial recompense? This will mostly be taxes on future incomes, hence the young. One can think of shareholders, but many of those are pension funds, and the elderly will protest against reduced pensions. 

 If Marx was right, the ‘superstructure’ of ideology is produced by the physical ‘infrastructure’, and if that is so, the crisis will have a major impact on ideology. With many people out of work and needing an income, a massive handout is given in developed countries, The importance of this is that the connection  between income and labour is severed. Income is no longer a reward but a need. What will this do, if it lasts for long? Perhaps it will eliminate the largest obstacle for a universal Basic Income, the resistance to income without performance.

 Liberalism is in decline, in two ways. One is that under uncertainty there arises a desire for stringent rule, by an authoritarian regime.The second is that while originally action was left to voluntary compliance with corona rules, that has been shown not to work, and measures had to become more strict and obligatory.

 There are cultural differences between countries. Some, such as Scandinavian countries,  are more oriented to civic responsibility and others, such as the Netherlands, more to give way to personal, individualistic desire and action

 There are also institutiopnal differences. For example, I have read that while in the Netherlands grandparents often provide care of their grandchildren, in Denmark, there is more governmental support of child care, lessening the risk of the elderly being infected.

 It is tragic to see how people are affected not only physically, but also mentally, in having to renounce social and familial contacts, sports, social pleasures in pubs, parties, festivals. Especially the young suffer from this, and many rebel. And one should acknowledge that the development of personal identity requires interaction with others. However, this suffering also shows up a lack of resilience, ability to accept and stomach setbacks, which arises from a long period of peace and prosperity, in developed countries. Also lack of flexibility, among many, to find alternatives, as in using internet for maintaining contacts. And in not being able to deal with isolation, lack of entertainment The virus shows up how much we have developed, and become addicted to an inane pleasure economy.

 What manifests itself is that people are so accustomed to work and entertainment away from home, such as dining out, ging to the pub, shows, sports, that they find it hard to be alone. Locked into home, they get bored or lonely or get on each others’ nerves. A good effect is that it stimulates conversation and contact and promotes reading and hobbies as making art or do-it-yourself, making people more resourceful and creative.

 What is the effect on (in)equality? At first sight one might think that the virus is indiscriminate, affecting all equally. But protection against it is unequal. Rich people have a large house, with more spaces to seclude themselves, and a garden as a shielded outdoors. A large house gives more opportunity for children to do their home shooling. Also, in many countries only rich people have health insurance, and can appropriate means of protection, such as testing and respiratory machines, and vaccines. People with work that is essential but requires contact, such as in stores for food or medicine, delivery and care, run more risks, and  for a large part receive lower pay. Many poor people lack a computer and corresponding skills to use Internet for shopping and for contacts.

 In refugee camps and slums, with cramped quarters, narrow paths, shared toilets and washing facilities, social distancing is not practicable. Spread of the virus will be rampant, uncontrollable.

 There is a positive effect of less pollution, but that is weakening the effort of energy transition away from fossil fuels.

 Paucity of traffic lures wildlife onto roads, increasing traffic victims among them, in spite of the lesser traffic.

 It is reported that the crisis enhances other-directedness, in empathy and mutual help. I am a bit sceptical about that. Also, this positive effect that emerged in the first wave is eroding now, and people lapse in protest, rebellion and conspiracy theories.

 What are the long-term effects of social isolation? Does it promote solipsism and self-orientation or the reverse: will people appreciate and seek contact, perhaps all the more, in new ways?

 If the crisis lasts long and recompense falls short, how long will people resist violence to rob resources? In the US, admittedly a special case, people are buying more guns. 

Friday, October 9, 2020

 496. Stoicism and hope

Stoicism, originating with Zeno in the 3rd century BC and  influential until the 3rd century AD, with Marcus Aurelius. Seneca and Epictetus, has had considerable influence. It pleaded for invulnerability, in autarky, i.e. self-sufficiency, in a simple life, and not letting oneself  be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, accepting the moment as it occurs, using one's mind to understand the world and to do one's part in nature's plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.

There is much to be said for it it for weathering the present storm of the Corona virus, in being thrown back on oneself or one’s family, lack of recreation, in sports or entertainment, social distancing, with few social contacts, no services with bodily contact, and so on.

One can object that it is a philosophy of distrust, no hope, no room for improving the challenges and risks of life, no thymos, the urge to manifest oneself and engage with the world, and even smacks of cowardice. It disables entrepreneurship.

The literature on trust renders confidence as surrender to the inevitable, such as laws of nature or policy measures of the state, on which one has no or little influence, and where one cannot feel sorry afterwards for submitting to it. This in contrast to trust, where one could have avoided risk, and creates risk voluntarily, and can regret it afterwards.

Stoicism accepts confidence, pleads for resilience and robustness to inevitable disappointments, and discourages trust. An example would be Schopenhauer, who preached distrust and suspicion.

As indicated, with Corona we can now benefit from the prudence, autarky and resilience of stoicism, but can we do without trust and hope?

The future is uncertain, and can harbour both threat and promise. Now, one can look at it in despair, but loss of hope yields loss of strength and initiative. Here confidence, faith in nature, can breed defeatism and deepen the crisis. Hope is needed to take action and survive. One can try to see opportunity and what good remains, appreciate what formerly one took for granted.

So, what to do? The wisdom of stoicism lies not in inaction but in engagement with what is within the scope of one’s possibilities, and to achieve invulnerability or resilience or disregard to what lies beyond them. Could you safely support care for the sick and the vulnerable, such as vagrants, the  elderly, and the indigent?

 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

 

495 Rise and fall of theistic religion

 How have theistic religions, such as Christianity and the Islam, been so successful, persisting for so long?

 My hunch is that this is because of a clever combination: the universal, eternal, pure, and Platonic, not a plurality but a single God, or Allah, together with the individual, specific, earthly, fragile, weak and human, in he form of a saviour or prophet, a Christ or Mohammed, to bring the universal down to earth. Christ succumbs in suffering but is resurrected, re-connected with the eternal, and by his suffering offers the bonus of salvation. The human need for earthly nuance, plurality, indviduality, tragedy of contingency, is provided but remains connected to the pure and vigorous, is reabsorbed in celestial universality and eternity.

 Then, if that is correct, what about other religions or philosophies, such as Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism? They lacked the one or the other: the absolute and universal or the individual, the earthly nuance. Buddhism and Confucianism are wisdoms of life that have no absolutes of God. Taoism, by contrast, is oriented not to human tribulations but to the system of nature as a whole, in its harmony and perfection. As such it is like the God of Spinoza.  

 Their histories are patchy, with intermissions and shifts, thinning out, and their survival was precarious.

 In attempts at synthesis between them, as in forms of neo-confucianism in China, is there a perspective for forging a unity of the supreme and absolute with earthly contingency, justice and individuality?

 Totalitarian ideologies try to implement on earth the absolute and pure, of race or doctrine, and cannot tolerate the grace of nuance and tolerance. The craving for justice, taking into account individual circumstance, in Aristotelian phronesis, needs to be suppressed by terror. But sooner or later such ideologies will collapse for want of justice.

Theistic religions are not exempt from the need for terror to sustain the absolute, as exhibited in old Christian crusades and inquisition, and present Islamic fundamentalism, and terrorism, which have the appeal of returning to the purity of old, rejecting the niceties and decadence of democracy and diversity. 

In Western society Enlightenment ideals, inspired among others by Spinoza, have served to provide the pure, Platonic, and universal in reason and knowledge. Elsewhere in this blog I noted the demise of the old culture of delving for the deep, the fundamental, the abstract, which is being replaced by the rush and race of the superficial. If that is now being lost, what next will appear to satisfy the urge for the pure and perfect? Will there be a return to God, or a new ideology?

 

Saturday, September 26, 2020

 

494. Power, people and things

 Earlier, I adopted the definition of power as the ability to affect the choices of others, and I distinguished between the negative power of reducing choice and the positive power of increasing it. People mostly think of the negative form. Why is that? Here is a speculation.

 The distinction is relevant only when there is choice. A stone does not have it. Neither has a plant. An animal has instinct, automated behavior. In the debate on freedom of the will, some people hold that people have no conscious choice. Much choice is instinctive or routinised.

 Elsewhere in this blog I conjectured that people suffer from an ‘object bias’. An imperative for survival of Man, in the long period of evolution as a hunter-gatherer, was the ability to deal with things moving or located in time and space, such as plants, prey, ennemies and hide-aways, to the extent that thought came to be dominated by that, and later abstactions came to be conceived in analogy, metaphor to it. A telling example was that of the ‘container metaphor’ where we see things as contained in smething larger, as a boat, or home. Even where that does not apply, such as meaning in a word.

 Part of this, perhaps, is the predilection towards negative power, since that is what applies to things, since they do not have choice, and can only be handled, and we see that as a guiding metaphor for dealing with people as well. In fact, people do have a choice and one can give precedence tot their will, and giving options to choose from, in other words positive power.

 This connects with the idea, for example with Karl Marx, of alienation as people being handled as objects without autonomy or freedom. This is associated with capitalism as the rule of capital, seen as indicating how to operate.

 I have been pleading for the view of multiple, Aristotelian causality, for human activity, recognising not only the efficient cause, but also the motivation of the final cause, and the availability of material and formal causes and environmental, conditional causes of nature and institutions, and the exemplary cause of paradigms or role models. That gives an alternative approach to management. This is in fact known in the business literature as magement by giving, the material, the knowledge and technology, the motivation, and the leading example for work. Here, capital is not what leads labour but enables it, provides the nmeans and conditions for it.

 This can still slide into manipulation, by indoctrination or nudging, discussed elsewhere in this blog, preying on or utilizing the fact that much choice is driven by subconscious impulse. But one can never be completely free of that, since the individual is constituted, in his thought and feeling, in society, in interaction with others, imbuing ideology and unreflected custom in the process.

   

Saturday, September 19, 2020

 

493. Nature, nurture and pre-wiring

 The principle discussed in this item may be already be familiar to the reader.

 A puzzle in the familiar debate between ‘nature and nurture’ is this. How can traits be innate, as a result of evolution, as well as the result of experience, in upbringimg, education and action and response in the world?

 An answer lies in ‘prewiring’ of the brain or ‘virtual innateness’, where we are not born with ready-made features of thought and feeling, but with a potential to develop them in a certain direction, depending on the environment. That gives the malleability and adaptability conducive to survival.

 For example, according to Chomsky, but this is controversial, humans have a universal ability to acquire a language when young, with common features, across languages, concerning a structure of verbs, nouns and adjectives. Individual languages vary, but the underlying structure does not. This also yields a human bias in the construction of language, in conceptualizing abstract things in metaphor to concrete things moving in time and space and being acted on, which were most crucial in the early developmen of Man. Earlier in this blog I called that the ‘object bias’.

 Another example is that people have an internal, general disposition towards fear, and whether this develops into fear of snakes, spiders or crocodiles depends on the habitat.

 That malleablity arose as a quirk of evolution, when Man started to walk upright as it also developed a larger brain, narrowing the pelvis, and this necessitated premature birth, to let the enlarged head through before full development, which then could be geared to the environment. A disavantage of that was that the human baby needed more care and protection than animals who were more fully developed at birth. However, humanity learned to deal with that, with he aid of social coperation in kinship groups and widening communities, with the aid of language. The larger brain was needed for that.

 A similar potential to produce features rather than giving a full, repertoire of pre-formed ones, was offered in ‘Object Oriented  Ontology’, discussed earlier in this blog. A fixed, predetermined repertoire requires  a large capacity of memory and lacks adaptivenss to unforeseeable circumstances.

 However, as the potential to develop becomes wider, less specific, the time to develop something useful takes longer, and the period of vulnerable infancy takes longer, and this becomes an evolutionay trade-off.

 

Friday, September 11, 2020


492. Rationality and morality

Recently, I was asked to contribute an article to a special issue of a scientific journal, on the occasion of the decease of the Nobel prize winning economist Oliver Williamson. I have used his work succesfully, but we disagreed on the role of trust in markets, on which we had debated several times at conferences. His claim was that if trust does not go beyond calculative rationality, it does not add anything new to economics, and if it does go beyond it, it is not viable in markets, because it cannot survive under competition, where one needs to take every opportunity at gain, even to the detriment of others. I argued that to survive in markets one needs to innovate, which necessitates collaboration with others, to arrive at the ‘novel combinations’ of innovation, that this entails non-calculative uncertainty, which requires trust as a partially non-calculative ‘leap of faith’. I discussed that debate in the article, and it was then rejected because two reviewers had judged my paper ‘unscientific’ for coming up with that claim of the need for partially non-calculative trust. To a traditional economist everything has to be explained as individualistic, calculative rationailty. The possibility that the leap of trust is partially non-calculative, and is based on a moral instinct of empathy went against that dogma.

I argued that trust as a partially ingrained , unconscious instinct had arisen in evolution because it is ‘adaptive’, conducive to the survival and procreation, of the group (clan, tribe, community). In debates on this, economists have used the following argument: Since this instinctive drive is conducive to the survival and evolution of the group, it is rational. My rejoinder is that while the ‘remote’ cause of survival of the group is rational, in the sense of being adaptive, the ‘proximate’ cause of the motivation of people, is instinctive, subconscious, and cannot be called calculatively rational. rational. If you reject theory that claims this, you must also deny the ‘behavioral economics’, imported and accepted in economics from social.psychology, which claims that many decisions are taken subconsciously, and hence are not or only partially deliberative, let alone rational. I have not yet received an adequate answer to this.

I appealed to the verdict of the journal’s editor, saying that I thought the journal would agree with me. He replied that he agreed with me, but surely I appreciated that he could not wave aside the verdict of two referees. I replied that I did not appreciate that, and that an editor should stand by his conviction. Apparently he had chosen inappropriate reviewers, and in any case he could have communicated his argument tot hem. He did not reply.

This case shows that science at times is not as impartial as many people make it out to be, and is driven by theoretical ideology, with the bias of dogma. The dogma that economics is driven by rational, individual rationality is ineradicable, even among enlightened economists

I grant that sometimes moral judgement and pleas for moral improvement constitute an easy way out in exolanation. Not leaving it at that, one can analyse underlying causes, in an analysis of selfish motives, in terms of economic concepts such as prisoner’s dilemma’s and other games, monopolies, collusion, reputation and so on, and on how to employ economic notions to find ways of moral improvement, for example in that it can be in the interest of shareholders to maintain a firm’s reputation of ecological responsibility or fairness.