Category Archives: Philosophy

Morality and other questions to which there are no answers…

Favourite quotations

images

Studying English for 20 years gave me a collection of useless quotations that are constantly rattling around in my head. Here are the ones I actually thought it worth writing down!

“I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.”

Emily Dickinson

“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.”

Walt Whitman

“These fragments I have shored against my ruin””

TS Eliot

“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.”

TS Eliot

“It’s a good thing to be loved, even late.”

Samuel Hamilton, East of Eden by John Steinbeck

“Up to 40, girls cost nothing. After that you have to pay money, or tell a story. Of the two it’s the story that hurts most.”

James Bond, Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

“It is an intoxicating moment in any love-affair when, for the first time, in a public place, in a restaurant or a theatre, the man puts his hand down and lays it on the thigh of the girl and when she slips her hand over his and presses the man’s hand against her. The two gestures say everything that can be said. All is agreed. All the pacts are signed. And there is a long minute of silence during which the blood sings.”

Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

[On being asked by Tiffany Case why he had never married] “I expect because I think I can handle life better on my own. Most marriages don’t add two people together. They subtract one from the other.”

James Bond, Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming

“She was wearing something blue that did her no harm”

Raymond Chandler

“I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognised apprehension that, here at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.”

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Mark Twain

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair

“Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature.”

Michael Faraday

“For a smart girl, you’re good at stupid.”

Georgia, Georgia Rule

“I feel like Dorothy when everything just turned to colour.”

Don Draper, Mad Men

“Hockey puck, rattlesnake, monkey monkey, underpants.”

Lorelai, Gilmore Girls

“You can’t get old as a woman without having at least one lousy man in your life.”

Mr Brooks

[When asked if his whole body was built in proportion to his height] “No, love. If I was I’d be 8′ 10”!

Wade Dooley

“He looks at me like he’s the spoon and I’m the dish of ice-cream.”

The Jane Austen Book Club

“Get your mittens round your kittens.”

Ray Fontayne, Grease

“When they circumcised Herbert Samuel, they threw away the wrong bit.”

Lloyd George

“Ninety per cent of politicians give the other 10 per cent a bad name.”

Henry Kissinger

“I like baseball, movies, fast cars, whisky and you.”

John Dillinger, Public Enemies

“This is her picture as she was:
It seems a thing to wonder on,
As though mine image in the glass
Should tarry when myself am gone.”

The Portrait by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.”

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

“Here, at the age of 39, I began to be old.”

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

“I brought a jar of anchovy paste, half a dozen potato farls and a packet of my own special blend of Formosan Oolong and Orange Pekoe, but I was set upon by a gang of footpads outside Caius and they stole it all.”

Adrian Healey, The Liar by Stephen Fry

“No woman Veronese looked upon
Was half so fair as thou whom I behold.”

Sonnet on Ellen Terry by Oscar Wilde

“His eyes are sparkling like a rippled sea at sunset.”

Jeremy Clarkson

Hud: You’re a regular idealist
Nephew: What’s wrong with that?
Hud: I don’t know. I just ain’t never tried it.

Hud, Hud

Hud: Let’s get our shoelaces untied. Whaddya say?

Hud, Hud

“I think I’d miss you even if we’d never met.”

Nick, The Wedding Date

“Let me see if I have this straight. You’re going to date a different girl every week for the rest of your life, and then you’re going grow old and die alone in a log cabin by a lake somewhere?”

His ‘n’ Hers Christmas

“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Mark Twain

“We took risks, we knew that we took them; things have come out against us, and therefore we have no cause for complaint, but bow to the will of Providence, determined still to do our best to the last. Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.”

Message to the Public, Captain Scott

“In one of the Bard’s best thought-of tragedies, our insistent hero, Hamlet, queries on two fronts about how life turns rotten.”

Anagram of “To be or not to be…”, Hamlet by Shakespeare

“I can remember a reporter asking me for a quote, and I didn’t know what a quote was. I thought it was some kind of soft drink.”

Joe DiMaggio

If I ruled the world…

That's me kneeling down

I used to be passionate about politics. I debated at school and college, edited the Oxford Union magazine and generally had arguments at the drop of a hat about how the country should be run. Happily, I’ve calmed down since then, and I know now that my political beliefs are just the expression of a few pesky genes. That means there’s no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in these matters. We’re all simply following orders. This post will simply outline what would make me happy. I don’t claim it would solve all the country’s problems, but it would be nice to think it would appreciated by any like-minded readers out there. Apart from Daniel Hannan, there aren’t many popular writers and politicians speaking from the libertarian camp, so they need all the help they can get.

I believe in freedom of contract and caveat emptor. I believe the role of government is to decide binary questions of right and wrong where there is a clear victim of force or fraud. In all other cases, the market has the flexibility to arrange as many different solutions as there are people on the planet. Some libertarians believe in limited government. As far as taxation goes, I don’t believe in government at all. I also don’t believe that the end justifies the means. That means that every law has to apply to every citizen in every situation. If it doesn’t, it should be scrapped.

So what would the world look like if I had my way? Clearly, transitional arrangements would have to smooth the road to this economic and philosophical nirvana, but I don’t imagine all that much would change. We would still go on with our lives, earning money and tending to our loved ones. All that would happen is that we would get richer much faster, and the scope for government corruption and inefficiency would be dramatically reduced.

Government

The first thing to say is that we would still have a government. Laws would still have to be passed or (more importantly) repealed. Treaties would still need to be signed and decisions made in all walks of life. However, the scope for misgovernment would be much smaller because there would be no taxation to pay for government spending. Parliament would have to be funded by voluntary subscription on the part of the voters, and there would be so little it could do without any funds that it would probably only sit for a few weeks or months a year. I would keep the House of Commons and either abolish the House of Lords or replace it with politicians voted in by proportional representation. To be honest, the exact shape of parliament wouldn’t matter, because it would have so little power. Updating the criminal justice system every now and then is not a full time job for 650 politicians, and major decisions would be taken far more often on the basis of referenda. The population would even have a say over whether we went to war or not. After all, killing people costs money, and kings throughout history have had to go down on bended knee to their paymasters when they wanted to go to war. In this case, the paymasters would be the citizens of the entire United Kingdom, and that means that we would no longer be able to be members of the European Union. If there is one thing I’d be sure to do, it would be to make certain that parliament was once more sovereign. The idea of foreigners passing laws affecting citizens in the UK is wrong, and that’s all I have to say about that.

Taxation

Taxation is wrong in my view, so the first and most obvious change to people’s lives would be that we stopped paying taxes. That sounds like pie in the sky, but we’ve become so used to the post-war status quo that we’ve forgotten the historic norm. Over hundreds and thousands of years, people haven’t been taxed until the pips squeaked. There have been cruel despots and tyrants aplenty, but the total peacetime tax take and government spending as a share of GDP has hardly ever been as high as it is now. Sixty per cent of our taxes go towards paying for services. If I ruled the world, the government would stop providing those services and hand over the job to the private sector. The other 40% of the funds is currently earmarked for redistribution. All that would happen in future is that people would have to examine their own consciences and decide how much to give and to whom. Worthy causes would flourish. Others would get little support. The voluntary sector would take over looking after the poor and needy, and we’d never again have to complain about poor government decision-making during economic hard times.

Health

People worry about the privatisation of the NHS, but it’s clearly not fit for purpose in its current state. Something has to change, and the obvious solution is to spin off individual hospitals into the private sector. Doctors are already largely private practitioners, so it’s not as though we have an entirely government-run healthcare system at present, and there are already major health insurance providers such as BUPA. People may protest that smokers or those who have ‘unhealthy’ lifestyles are a drain on the system, but that is one of the glorious benefits of the private alternative. Nobody would have to pay for anybody else’s bills. That doesn’t mean that the poor would starve or be left to die. Hospitals and clinics were always until very recently set up by benefactors, charities or the church. Returning to such a system would restore the incentive to live a healthy life by linking personal choices to the price of healthcare insurance and treatment.

Defence

Some say the armed forces are a ‘public good’ that cannot be provided by the market. Well, I cannot imagine even for an instant that the people of this country would discard our army, navy and air force just to save a few quid on their taxes. I honestly don’t know how we would arrange to pay for our defence without the guaranteed income from taxation, but it would have to be from some form of voluntary levy. Yes, some people wouldn’t pay it, but others would. As with every other service the government currently provides from money taken by force from the taxpayer, it would in future be provided by the market, by charity or voluntary subscription.

Emergency services

If the armed forces can be paid for and organised without the benefit of taxation, then the emergency services certainly could. Different towns might set up different systems. In some places, there would be a voluntary levy, in others an insurance-based system for fire and theft. Whatever the solution, it would be down to the local population to decide.

Education

It boggles the mind how far people are prepared to test a failing system to destruction. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Again, I honestly don’t know what the education system would look like in my imagined future, but one thing is certain: the government would have no say in it. It’s not the government’s job to school our children. It’s not the government’s job to set exams. It’s not the government’s job to decide the entry requirements of our universities. Government was never a part of the equation until late in the 19th century, when it took over the role from the church and other charitable providers by bribing them with taxpayers’ money and then finally nationalising almost all schools.

Business

Individuals would not be the only beneficiaries of the abolition of taxation, of course. Businesses would benefit hugely from the removal of VAT, corporation tax and National Insurance. There would probably be a flood of foreign businesses setting up shop in the UK to benefit from the generous new régime. Red tape and tariffs would also have to be cut to stimulate trade and employment. The minimum wage is an offence against freedom of contract so would have to go, as would any government licences to practise medicine, the law or any other profession. People should be free to choose the doctor or lawyer they prefer without having to pay for the hike in fees brought about by government-sanctioned monopolies. Our withdrawal from the EU would also mean an end to the Common Agricultural Policy and any other regulations brought in to interfere with free trade. We would finally be able to trade with whomever we liked and prove David Ricardo’s insight that removing all trade barriers – even unilaterally – would make the country richer, not poorer. There would be winners and losers, and in some cases the new rules would not benefit the country as a whole, but then that’s not the point. ‘Natural monopolies’ would not have their profits reined in by regulators, so prices might go up, but at least the companies would reap the rewards of their investment, and the monopolies could be contested by new entrants. There are always network effects and economies of scale in every business. The answer is not to create a special regulator for each industry but to grant companies a level playing field.

The dream

I have a dream, and the consistent feature of this dream is the removal of government interference from my own life and the lives of millions around me, whether family, friends or strangers. In this dream, I would try to put in place a system that was fair to each individual. I wouldn’t try to maximise the wellbeing of the whole country, but I’m quite sure Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ would make sure that the country was still better off than it is now, whether economically or from any other point of view. I know my view of ‘fairness’ is not everyone’s – in fact, I know it’s just a product of my genes – but even a prisoner of his genes can write a manifesto.

It’s the principle of the thing…or is it?

"There is grandeur in this view of life"

As a biological determinist, I don’t believe in free will. As a Darwinist, I don’t believe in ‘principles’ or any absolute standards of behaviour. However, as a man, I behave as if biological determinism and Darwinism don’t exist, and that paradox makes me uncomfortable…

My tutor at Oxford once said that academics should be concerned with ‘the true, the good and the beautiful’. I asked him why on earth we should be studying anything that wasn’t true. Moral and aesthetic principles stem from feelings, but where does the universality or ‘goodness’ of those principles come from? If principles come from our ‘conscience’, then we can’t rely on them, because everyone’s standards of right and wrong are different. If they come from religion, then we still can’t rely on them, because all religions differ. If they simply come from feelings, then what makes selflessness ‘better’ than selfishness? What it seems to come down to these days is timing and numbers.

The timing of an action has always been important in allocating ‘blame’. Wars of ‘aggression’ are frowned upon because the ‘aggressor’ throws the first punch. Self-defence is permissible because it is simply a response to an unwarranted attack. However, technology and Realpolitik seem to be changing all that. Under the old rules, Khruschev might have been right to bang his shoe on the table over being asked to give up his ‘defensive’ missile shield, but the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction relied on the development of a ‘first strike’ capability and the corresponding absence of a plausible defence. Cold War leaders had persuaded themselves that the practical outcome of an uneasy peace was worth throwing away thousands of years of moral philosophy. The second Gulf War raised similar issues. Were the allies justified in being the ‘aggressors’ even with the dubious backing of UN resolutions and the promise of freeing millions of Iraqis from the rule of Saddam Hussein? And should the Americans or the Israelis make a pre-emptive strike on Iran now that the country appears to be dangerously close to developing a nuclear bomb?

The slipperiness and mutability of moral judgments makes arguments about property rights and territorial disputes difficult to adjudicate. Looking at the historical patchwork quilt of ‘discoveries’ and settlements in the Falkland Islands (as they are still called), it is hard to argue who ‘should’ own them from first principles. It is more like a boxer’s championship belt. The UK is simply ‘the man who beat the man who beat the Englishman or Frenchman or Spaniard who first discovered and laid claim to the islands’. The democracy card is an easy one for the Government to play, but what if the original occupation was somehow ‘illegal’ and the current inhabitants are merely there as a result of squatters’ rights or even ‘ethnic cleansing’? Why should they have the right to decide their national flag? How far back do you go to judge ownership, particularly since the ‘rules’ of conquest and discovery only applied to western explorers and not indigenous peoples? I guess timing isn’t everything, after all…

Numbers are often more important than political and ethical principles, and immigration is the classic example. Racial discrimination is now illegal, but it was once essential for survival when strangers who often looked and sounded different brought the threat of rape and pillage. We have a set of genes that was honed to perfection in the competitive world of the African savannah thousands of years ago but is hopelessly outdated in modern society. How can ‘principles’ ever solve that fundamental mismatch? It’s just a matter of numbers. One stranger in the neighbourhood running a curry house is no threat, so there is no reason for racism, but what happens when the majority is no longer a majority? When it drops to a plurality or even a minority, that’s when the trouble starts, and you only have to take a look at all the Spanish billboards springing up in New York over the last ten years to see how quickly that can happen.

Principles are always changing, and they simply reflect the will of the majority. ‘Tit for tat’ is just a good strategy, and it happens to lead to a proliferation of collaborators over thieves. The collaborators form the majority and are numerous and therefore powerful enough to invent and uphold a value system that lays claim to words such as ‘good’, ‘thoughtful’ and ‘honest’. The paradox is that we may not like it, but we have to live with it…

My fair nightmare

All publicity is good publicity

All’s fair in love and war…and politics, apparently.

Bankers’ bonuses, workfare, the 50% tax rate – every headline in the news at the moment seems to be about ‘fairness’. Now, I know what we regard as ‘fair’ is simply a byproduct of our genetic strategies, and I know you can’t prove a ‘should’, but despite that – or perhaps for that very reason – I’m still amazed (and deeply depressed) by people’s extraordinary double standards. If rich people go shopping for groceries, we don’t expect supermarkets to charge them higher prices than poorer customers – in fact, it’s illegal – and yet the tax system is built on the assumption that the rich should pay more than the rest of us. We now know that the richest 1%  pay over a quarter of this country’s income tax bill, but that’s not just because they earn so much more than the rest of us. We expect them to pay tax at a higher marginal rate, irrespective of the fact that they generally use public services less than those who can’t afford private healthcare, public schools and chauffeur-driven limousines. Why is their extraordinarily disproportionate contribution not enough? When will it ever end? Will ‘fairness’ never be achieved until all our bankers are forced to retreat to their ski chalets in Switzerland?

If I allow reason to take over from emotion for a moment, I can see exactly why. As Darwin eventually revealed, we’re all in competition with one another. Never mind the fact that we have a set of genes left over from the African savannah that’s 40,000 years out of date, we still want to be better than our peers. And it just so happens that democracy and economics are fundamentally at odds. We live in a constantly shifting equilibrium, in which the distribution of wealth is skewed dramatically towards the wealthy, whereas political power is apportioned equally to each voter, regardless of income. That means the poor will always be able to demand more from the rich – up to a point. A balance is only struck because the maximum levels of wealth creation and income redistribution lie at opposite ends of the curve. As Arthur Laffer pointed out, too high a tax rate removes any incentive to work, but too low a tax rate results in zero income available for redistribution. The calls for punitive taxation from the masses constantly bump up against the limits imposed by economics, while the rich are beaten with the ‘fairness’ stick to within an inch of their lives.

I understand the inevitability of the ratchet effect, as government grows and grows, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that there is a limit. If one of our parties were brave enough to shrink the tax burden and therefore the deadweight cost of government, people might find out that the economy would grow faster, and rich and poor alike would be better off, but that wouldn’t solve the problem. People will always want to compete with one another, which means absolute levels of wealth are never so important as relative wealth. Given a choice between earning £20,000 when their neighbours earn £15,000 and earning £50,000 when their neighbours earn £100,000, people will, sadly but inevitably, choose the former. It may not be ‘rational’ to an economist, but it makes perfect sense if you’re in a race. The lesson is: be careful what you wish for. You might get the economic system you deserve!

Sharing or stealing?

"I don't get a bad back from filesharing"

If I have an apple and you have an apple and we steal each other’s apples, we both end up with one. If I have an idea and you have an idea and we steal each other’s ideas, we both end up with two!

I’ve never understood why people don’t distinguish between stealing things and stealing ideas. It may be easy (and common) now to download music for free from various Napster-like peer-to-peer file-sharing sites, but that doesn’t make it legal. We have laws to protect copyright, trademarks and other intellectual property (IP). To me, making copies is a victimless crime because nobody loses anything. The original product has no intrinsic value when it can be copied so cheaply and accurately. Producers of music and other IP products obviously feel it’s ‘wrong’ for people to deprive them of revenues and profits by doing it, but it depends where you stand. Every problem is a fact plus a judgment, and you can’t prove a ‘should’. You might as well say it’s ‘wrong’ for artists and authors to have a monopoly on their own works for 70 years after their deaths. Monopolies are illegal in most other industries, so why should copyright be any different? Should Amazon really be the only company allowed to offer ‘one-click’ purchase?!

Another objection is that repealing copyright legislation would remove any incentive to produce any new works of art or indeed think up any new idea, but, again, it depends on your point of view. Are we not simply removing an unfair subsidy? And are we not restoring the original incentive to keep commercial secrets secret? That may be hard work, but that doesn’t give IP owners the right to complain. It shouldn’t be a moral problem but a technical one: how can I best distribute my product to make sure I get paid every time a copy of it is consumed?

Technology plays a large part in causing and solving all these problems. Copyright wasn’t an issue when scribes in monasteries took months to make a single copy of the Bible, but photocopiers and digital computing changed the rules of the game. Equally, the BBC and other free-to-air broadcasters were given their monopolies when it was impossible to restrict access to the airwaves, but Sky and other satellite providers showed that such a justification is long past its sell-by date. How can the BBC justify getting billions in guaranteed income from the licence fee when viewers could simply be forced to subscribe to the channels they want?

The basic choice is between cross-subsidies and free-riders. Either people pay for something they don’t use or they use something they don’t pay for. Neither sounds very appealing – although I prefer free-riders! – but there isn’t any alternative when goods are non-rival (ie can be freely copied) and non-excludable (ie freely available to all). These are known as ‘public goods’. ‘Common goods’ like fisheries (non-excludable but not non-rival) and ‘club goods’ such as cinemas (non-rival but not non-excludable) throw up similar problems.

Arguments based on values can never be won (or lost), but what this all boils down to is individualism versus collectivism. It may be true that public goods are ‘under-supplied’ unless the regulator steps in, but relative to what, exactly? If it is the maximum level of economic activity (or ‘consumer surplus’) across the whole country, then the individual surely has the right to complain. Any Benthamite government taking decisions for the greatest good of the greatest possible number has effectively decided that the end justifies the means. Whether it’s the licence fee or compulsory purchase orders, a binary moral decision – is it right or wrong? – has been turned into an amoral economic or political sum – what’s the effect on GDP, and how many votes are in it? Where do we draw the line, though? Is one little murder justified if it’s a nasty man whom nobody liked? It may be true that killing is justified in certain circumstances (the ‘just war’, for example), but ethical guidelines have to be based on universally applicable rules to decide the outcome of any given conflict between individuals.

As the Gipper always said, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are: “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help…”

Free will-ish

I should warn you that I don’t know what on earth I’m talking about. On the other hand, nobody else does either. The question is, do we have free will or not?

Willy - but is he really free...?

What if I actually did raise my right arm? Would it prove that free will didn’t exist? What if we repeated the experiment hundreds of times, locking our predictions up in a safe, and I still ended up doing whatever you predicted? Would life turn into one long episode of Early Edition? How often would you have to be ‘right’ to prove the theory that free will didn’t exist? And what would be the alternative explanation? Would it be ‘scientific determinism’, the theory first advanced by Pierre Laplace that people could predict the future if only they knew the position and velocities of every particle in the universe…or would people simply think you were psychic?!Einstein liked to come up with thought experiments to prove the likelihood (or absurdity) of scientific theories, either his own or those of other physicists, so here’s one for you. Free will implies that only I can determine my own intentions, so let’s see if that’s true. If I asked you, “What am I going to do next?”, what would you say? You might say you had no idea, but that would simply accept the premise of free will as proof, which is a circular argument. If I pushed you for an answer, you might say I was going to raise my right arm. If I then raised my left arm (or did anything other than raise my right arm), you might think that was ‘proof’ that you were right all along, but is that true? What if I had simply changed my mind? That might itself demonstrate the exercise of free will, but you could always write down your prediction, and I could write down what I thought I was going to do, and we could compare the results afterwards. And this is where it gets interesting…

Laplace’s idea has now fallen foul of quantum theory. Specifically, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that you cannot measure a particle’s velocity and position simultaneously. Instead, particles are described by a wave function, which only indicates the probability of each value. As I mentioned earlier, probability is problematic. It seems to imply an effect without a cause, and it also relies on the assumption that full information is not available, which it would be in this case. Quantum physics only makes predictions at the atomic level, and it falls apart when dealing with objects at higher magnitudes such as stars and galaxies. Perhaps a hierarchy of explanations is needed, in which physics is the foundation of chemistry, which is the foundation of biology and then every other science in turn.

Whatever the outcome of that argument – and it’s been going on since at least 1905! – it certainly raises more questions than answers. Should people be held responsible for their own actions? If so, why should criminals be allowed to plead ‘extenuating circumstances’? If not, why should they go to jail in the first place if it’s ‘not their fault’. Maybe Shakespeare was right, and character is fate, or maybe Shakespeare’s works were banged out by a monkey on a typewriter! As Conan Doyle once wrote, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth…”

Priests and democrats

Priest...

...or democrat?

“Are you a priest or a democrat?”

That was the question my English tutor asked me during my very first tutorial at Oxford. Confused, I thought he might be talking about my father, who happened to be a Methodist minister, but instead he was introducing me to a rather useful distinction. It turns out that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe decisions should be made by the best and brightest and those who believe the people should decide for themselves – however misguided they may be – for fear of tyranny or incompetence.

At that stage in my career, with all the arrogance of an ‘Olympian Oxford Man’, I considered myself one of the best and brightest and therefore a ‘priest’, but now, when I think of all the bad decisions made by our politicians, business leaders and others in positions of authority and how powerless I am to influence them, I can’t imagine being anything but a ‘democrat’. It doesn’t stop me moaning, of course, but at least I have the hope that the existing lot might eventually be thrown out and a new lot brought in to clean up the mess.

I used to have many alcohol-fuelled arguments with people about economics, politics and ethics, but I don’t any more. That’s partly because I see the futility of such conversations (and the enormous potential for offence!) and partly because I realise most arguments are caused by a simple difference in values. You can’t prove a ‘should’, as they say, so the chances of convincing people that they’re wrong about what ‘should’ be done are virtually non-existent. My tutor used to say we should be discussing the classical trinity of ‘the true, the good and the beautiful’, but perhaps all three collapse into just one truth. Whether we’re talking about morality, science or aesthetics, we wouldn’t want to say anything that wasn’t true, would we…?!

It’s also a matter of perspective. The classic appeal of the Communist is: “I’ve got nothing. You’ve got something. Let’s share!” He’d be lucky to get half my money, but that doesn’t stop me understanding his point of view. We all have strategies for getting on in life. Some of those are conscious, some unconscious. We are what we are, and a Darwinian would suggest that we’ve reached an equilibrium point with a mixture of angels and devils, heroes and villains, go-getters and scroungers. It’s like the story of the hawks and the doves. Just because hawks are birds of prey and eat doves for breakfast doesn’t mean they’ll dominate the skies, because they need the doves to provide food, and if they ate them all then the hawks would die out, too. That means there’ll always be a balance. The girlfriend of my roommate at Oxford was actually a biological determinist, and she once told me that we didn’t have ‘free will’ at all. It’s just an illusion. How could we possibly make ‘decisions’ when there’s no effect without a cause? We’re simply glorified computers desperately trying to maximise our well-being under an unpredictable bombardment of conflicting drives, both physical and intellectual. As such, our  minds can only ever come up with one answer, just as a computer will always ‘decide’ that 2 + 2 = 4. We might get it wrong sometimes, but we’ll always reach what we feel is the ‘best’ conclusion given the information available.

Come to think of it, that worldview makes any discussion of ‘priests’ and ‘democrats’ pointless, because we can’t even choose to be one or the other, but I still believe in freedom – even if it is illusory – and I can still watch from the sidelines, cheering on my fellow democrats!

The logic of quantum physics

I was always more of a dog person myself...

I bet you more people have heard of Schrodinger’s cat than the Law of the Excluded Middle. I say that because people like paradoxes if they show how ‘fab and groovy, windswept and interesting’ they are, but how many people ask enough questions to resolve the paradox? That’s usually the job of scientists, but with quantum physics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle those questions remain unanswered. In fact, it’s worse than that. In order to explain certain quantum phenomena, scientists have had to resort to suspending the laws of logic.

How can Schrodinger’s cat be both dead and alive? Paul Boateng once asked the same question about the Labour party at an Oxford Union debate on ‘zombie politics’. The answer was that it depended whom you asked. The Lib Dems wanted Labour to be dead, but the Conservatives relied on the party being very much alive! It’s the same in the world of astrophysics and quantum mechanics. If you believe Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, you get one set of answers, but if you believe his Special Theory of Relativity you get another. The world of the very large and the world of the very small appear to behave according to different sets of rules. Admittedly, those rules make scientific experiments predictable to an astonishing level of accuracy, but they’re still different rules. Is it too much to ask that we have only one set of laws however big the objects we’re trying to describe?

Now, physicists are obviously working hard to reconcile these contradictions, but they haven’t got very far considering they’ve been at it since 1905!  What nobody seems to have done is to look at things from the other end of the microscope (or telescope): what if it’s not a problem with science but a problem with logic? What if the rules of logic that scientists have been following for thousands of years just don’t work? The Law of the Excluded Middle states that a proposition is either true or false, but it can’t be both. The Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment appears to be an exception to the rule, as the cat exists in a ‘superposition of states’ until it’s seen by a human observer. Now, in what other avenue of life do we accept that different versions of the truth exist in a ‘superposition of states’ or that cause and effect can be reversed? Do schoolboys only find out whether they’ve done their homework when their teacher opens their books? Can they then decide that they did it after all and see the answers magically appear like the keys to the jail in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure? You can’t have your cake and eat it – unless you happen to be a quantum physicist…

Another case where logic is set aside is the nature of light, which is either a wave or a particle beam, depending on what you had for breakfast that day. You would think that it could only be one or the other, and that was certainly what I thought when my old physics teacher playfully asked the class which it was. What I didn’t know was that it was a trick question: it’s both! I thought he was just messing with our 15-year-old heads, especially as it was the last physics lesson before the summer holidays, but it turns out we’d just gone through almost the entire O-level syllabus without being told the whole truth. “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” as he didn’t say…

Whether it’s photons or subatomic particles, physicists usually get away with breaking the rules of logic by invoking probability theory. Now, probability theory is just a decision-making tool and not any kind of explanation of cause and effect. The only reason we calculate probabilities is that we don’t possess complete information. If we toss a coin, we say the chances of it being heads or tails are one in two or 50%, but that’s just because we haven’t tossed it yet. Once we’ve tossed the coin, and it turns out to be tails, say, the ‘probability’ of that outcome collapses to 100%. If it’s tails, there was actually never a chance that it was going to be heads. It’s just we didn’t know all the variables such as how high the coin would be thrown or how fast it would be spun. With perfect information, probabilities are meaningless. However, quantum physics begs to differ. Whether it’s the rate of radioactive decay or the presence of electrons at different energy levels, outcomes are given probabilities as if that predicts and explains the phenomenon. Making predictions is fundamental to the scientific method, so we surely deserve a better answer than, “Well, it might do this or it might do that…” Logic demands that there is no effect without a cause and that causality runs from the past to the future. How have we reached such a pass that both those ideas have been thrown out the window? People used to ask whether knowledge of the positions and masses of every particle in the universe would theoretically make possible accurate predictions of every single event in the future. The uncertainty principle seemed to put an end to such speculation, but not in my book. If probability doesn’t actually ‘explain’ anything, then you’re back to looking for good, old-fashioned cause and effect. Unfortunately, that throws into doubt a whole lot of notions we tend to take for granted. Take free will. How can I be said to make a ‘choice’ when it’s simply the result of a collision between subatomic particles…? Do we all have to be biological determinists now?

When it comes to very big things rather than very little, physics has similar problems. There is no such thing, we are told, as ‘action at a distance’, and yet that is exactly what the effect of gravity seems to be. Physicists would say that gravity is ‘explained’ as the curvature of space-time and that we can visualise it by throwing little balls ‘in orbit’ round a big, heavy ball on a trampoline, but that’s (literally) a circular argument because it relies on the existence of gravity to explain gravity’s existence! When a theory is no more than a visualisation or a metaphor, you know you’re in trouble…

And another thing…in fact, a very big thing. If every effect must have a cause and nothing in the real world is infinite, then how did the universe get started in the first place? Religion bumped heads with this one a few thousand years ago, but making any kind of god the ‘first cause’ or ‘prime mover’ just begs the question, “Well, if God created the universe, who created God?” That leads to an infinite regress. Again, scientists have an excuse. The accepted version of events suggests that talking about anything ‘before’ the universe began is nonsense because time was only created during the Big Bang. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they…?! Unfortunately, the laws of thermodynamics don’t deal very well with the idea that a couple of particles of matter and antimatter just ‘popped’ into existence, collided, exploded and created the whole universe because of a slight imbalance. There’s no such thing as a free lunch – unless you’re Schrodinger’s cat, and we all know how that worked out…

Bertrand Russell upset the apple cart when he showed that the logical basis of set theory in maths was faulty, but nobody has done the same with science yet. Either science doesn’t stand up to logic or logic doesn’t stand up to science. Who knows which? The only stupid question is the one you never ask…