Tag Archives: philosophy

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…

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…