Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

An oil field in North Dakota, US. Photograph: Les Stone/Les Stone/Corbis

Just following up on last Monday’s post with this link from 2015 concerning an issue we ignore at our peril.

I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I will be posting links to related topics as and when I find them as this sequence of posts unfolds. Below is an extract from an article on the Guardian website which came out earlier this month: for the full post see link. It relates to my last week’s posts which dealt with  our entropy problem in the light of Jeremy Rifkin’s Empathic Civilisation.

The coming debate is about two things: what governments can do to attempt to regulate, or otherwise stave off, the now predictably terrifying consequences of global warming beyond 2C by the end of the century. And how we can prevent the states and corporations which own the planet’s remaining reserves of coal, gas and oil from ever being allowed to dig most of it up. We need to keep them in the ground.

There are three really simple numbers which explain this (and if you have even more appetite for the subject, read the excellent July 2012 Rolling Stone piece by the author and campaigner Bill McKibben, which – building on the work of the Carbon Tracker Initiative – first spelled them out).

2C: There is overwhelming agreement – from governments, corporations, NGOs, banks, scientists, you name it – that a rise in temperatures of more than 2C by the end of the century would lead to disastrous consequences for any kind of recognised global order.

565 gigatons: “Scientists estimate that humans can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have some reasonable hope of staying below 2C,” is how McKibben crisply puts it. Few dispute that this idea of a global “carbon budget” is broadly right.

2,795 gigatons: This is the amount of carbon dioxide that if they were burned would be released from the proven reserves of fossil fuel – ie the fuel we are planning to extract and use.

You do not need much of a grasp of maths to work out the implications. There are trillions of dollars worth of fossil fuels currently underground which, for our safety, simply cannot be extracted and burned. All else is up for debate: that much is not.

And how we can prevent the states and corporations which own the planet’s remaining reserves of coal, gas and oil from ever being allowed to dig most of it up. We need to keep them in the ground.

. . . . We will name the worst polluters and find out who still funds them. We will urge enlightened trusts, investment specialists, universities, pension funds and businesses to take their money away from the companies posing the biggest risk to us. And, because people are rightly bound to ask, we will report on how the Guardian Media Group itself is getting to grips with the issues.

. . . . We begin on Friday and on Monday with two extracts from the introduction to Naomi Klein’s recent book, This Changes Everything. This has been chosen because it combines sweep, science, politics, economics, urgency and humanity.

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I have a small number of physics books in my collection. As far as I can remember Paul Davies’s was the only one till now that I had read right to the end. If I include the one I am about to describe, they span from 1994 till now. I was doing all right on Why does E=mc2? until my reading was interrupted halfway through and I didn’t have chance to pick it up again for over three months, by which time I had forgotten so much of what it said that I couldn’t understand what I was reading.

So, why did I buy Rovelli’s book? Well, it has good reviews (but so did the others). It is short, a mere 234 pages of text. And the print is big.

Even so I’m feeling very smug because I’d read it in a week.

‘It can’t have been very good, then,’ you think.

You couldn’t be more wrong.

Even though I could not follow all his arguments to the last detail, I could get the gist. Not only that, but being able to understand enough made it exciting to read.

Now, I’m not a physicist, in case that is not already obvious, so I am not competent to do a credible review of the physics. All I can say is that what I understood of what he explains gels with the little I have already read and retained.

His basic thesis throughout the book is to explore his perspective that physics has been going through a process of deep simplification, as he illustrates in his last diagram on this theme.

I will just look at the implications that he spells out concerning only one of these transitions into deeper simplicity, and that is the last, the one where space and time have disappeared from the mix. How on earth could that be possible?

Well, not on earth at the macro level as we experience it with our unaided senses.

He believes that the evidence as we best understand it, from a loop theory point of view (he’s not a fan of string theory), is that matter is not infinitely divisible and there comes a point where it cannot be divided anymore at the quantum level. When he is talking about space, the quanta he is concerned with are the quanta of gravity, which constitute space itself (page 148): ‘the quanta of gravity, that is, are not in space, there are themselves space.’ What is crucial is the relationship between particles, their interconnections. He clarifies this by saying (page 150):

Physical space is the fabric resulting from the ceaseless swarming of this web of relations. The lines [between quanta] themselves are nowhere; they are not in a place but rather create places through their interactions. Space is created by the interaction of individual quanta of gravity.

This is how space disappears. Now for time (page 158):

We must learn to think of the world not as something which changes in time but in some other way. Things change only in relation to one another. At a fundamental level, there is no time. Our sense of the common passage of time is only an approximation which is valid for our macroscopic scale. It derives from the fact that we perceive the world in a coarse-grained fashion.

He is aware that much remains to be done before this view of reality is confirmed and widely accepted (page 186):

The theory [quantum gravity] is in its infancy. Its theoretical apparatus is gaining solidity, and the fundamental ideas are being clarified: the clues are good, and concrete – confirmed predictions are still missing. The theory has not yet taken its exams.

I suspect his tongue was rammed into his cheek when he wrote that – ‘solidity,’ ‘concrete’ – unlikely!

He feels (page 203) that the two theories of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory are not contradictory but rather ‘the two theories each offer the solution to the problems posed by the other!’

In his annihilation of infinity, his closing remark paves the way for an interesting discussion later. He writes (page 208) ‘The only truly infinite thing is our ignorance.’

The roots of his concept of science go back at least as far as William James’s pragmatics of uncertainty, which I have discussed elsewhere. As he puts is (page 230):

But if we are certain of nothing, how can we possibly rely on what science tells us? The answer is simple. Science is not reliable because it provides certainty. It is reliable because it provides us with the best answers we have at present.’

While I am not comfortable with his various disparaging references to religious belief and feel that a dose of Plantinga would have done him good, his next point is valid within the sphere of science and also points towards the potential dangers of any kind of fundamentalist and dogmatic certainty (page 132):

We don’t have absolute certainty, and never will have it – unless we accept blind belief. The most credible answers are the ones given by science, because science is the search for the most credible answers available, not the answers pretending to certainty.

Unfortunately his earlier expressed certainty that there is no life after death, which he calls ‘nonsense,’ betrays his message somewhat. However, I still feel his point is valid in the main. He spells out its implications (ibid): ‘the nature of scientific thinking is critical, rebellious and dissatisfied with a priori conceptions, with reverence and sacred or untouchable truth. The search for knowledge is not nourished by certainty: it is nourished by a radical distrust in certainty.’

Even so, if you find his main ideas as exciting as I do, the book is so accessible and stimulating it’s worth buying.

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For the source of the picture see link

When I had almost finished drafting the sequence of posts I planned to start publishing last week, I realised that it was missing the true significance of what I was writing about. I thought I could finish re-writing it in time, but it needs far more thought so I’m having to delay it by weeks rather than days. In order to focus on the re-write, I’m having to re-publish posts that relate to it either directly or indirectly. This second sequence is about the need to draw on deeper powers than instinct or intellect: this is the first post.

I’ve looked at one example of where Kahneman‘s thinking works at its most powerful. I’d like to dig a bit deeper now. It’s easier to understand more fully the strengths and weaknesses of Kahneman’s model of System 1 and System 2 thinking if we start with a concrete example. So, here’s rather a long – or do I mean tall? – story from sometime in 2008 to get us going.

The young girl slid the tray onto the table and placed the plate and the cafetière side by side.

‘What’s this?’ the man asked, picking up a purple hourglass with pink sand still running through it.

‘Oh, sorry!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’m new here. I shouldn’t have brought that. It measures how long the coffee takes to brew.’

‘Ah! I didn’t know that,’ he said as he handed her the hourglass. ‘Can I have some milk instead?’

He stared blankly out of the window at the passers-by in the passageway outside as he waited for the milk. She came back in a couple of minutes and placed it on the table.

‘Sorry about that,’ she giggled.

‘That’s OK,’ he replied, unable to manage a smile.

The Plan Cafe, Cardiff

The Plan Cafe, Cardiff

Jack was really cheesed off. He was sitting in his favourite cafe, with a gleaming cafetière of his much-loved Ethiopian coffee nestling up against a tempting piece of Courgette cake, with his mood completely spoiled by the problem on his mind. It was his damn brother again. Why did Sam think he had a right to get bailed out of his self-inflicted difficulties simply for the asking?

He could hear the email that he had printed out rustling in his pocket as he leant forward to press down the plunger on the cafetière. If only he hadn’t read it yet. Still, he was always hopeful that a good coffee would improve his mood. He watched the stream of steaming coffee mingle with the milk in the white cup.

The first sip helped, though the second pouring would be better now the cup was warm.

His gut reaction to Sam’s request for help troubled him. His brother knew he didn’t drink. He tried to remember the last time he had tasted alcohol. He thought it was the half pint of bitter after his last game of squash. Somehow once he had started meditating, alcohol lost its appeal completely. It mucked your head up anyway so you couldn’t meditate properly, and in any case booze had stopped tasting as good.

But even after all the meditation he had done, he was sitting in the cafe feeling stressed.

Sam had asked for a ‘loan.‘ His tobacconist shop was losing money. He ‘just’ needed £20,000 to tide him over while he closed the tobacconist’s down and opened an off-licence in the next street. It was perfect, he said. The guy was retiring and wanted a quick sale so he could move up north to be with his daughter in time for the birth of his first grand child.  Sam had a buyer in line for his own business and was getting a reasonable price even though the new laws about smoking in public places had hit the trade badly – but the price was not quite enough to cover all the costs of the off-licence. He just needed to pay off his debts and cover the shortfall and he would be fine.


For source of picture see link

Jack had hated Sam’s idea of opening the tobacconist’s in the first place as he regarded smoking as second only to drink as a legal evil. And in a way he was glad it was failing. But he was being asked to help finance a move towards selling drink which he hated even more. With an inward groan he took the email out of his pocket.

‘Hi, Jack. Long time no see. Hope all is OK with you and the family. How’s Stella and the kids?

‘Just needed to touch base with you. I’ve got a slight problem right now and I could do with your help. You know I’ve had this tobacconist’s for a while now. Things have got tight since the law changed and I’m not making enough to make ends meet.’

He could hardly bear to read it again. It had been four years since he had heard anything at all from Sam, and, now he had heard, it was because Sam wanted something. And something his younger brother should have known Jack wouldn’t want to give. He skipped to the end of the explanation.

‘Hope you feel able to lob me the £20,000. I’ll pay you back, you know that. It’s not like when you paid my fees at uni. I knew that was given to me ‘cos you knew how important my education was.’

‘Like hell it was a gift,’ Jack spluttered in his head. ‘I told you right from the start I wanted it back.’ He was aware he was grimacing to himself and tried to compose his face. The woman at the next table was giving him a strange look. He made himself calm down by counting ten breaths very slowly.

It would have been tolerable if Sam had made good use of his time at university. Their parents were both dead by then, and had never been rich enough to leave them anything in any case. They’d had to fend for themselves. Jack felt he had always taken that challenge more seriously than Sam. Instead of studying hard, Sam had spent more time in the pub than in the library and just scraped a third in modern languages, To add insult to injury he then got a job in a pub kitchen and trained to be a chef. That’s probably what made the idea of opening an off-licence so appealing now. He already knew the trade from the inside to some extent, not just from the wrong side of the bar.

Jack made himself read the email to the end.

‘I don’t know whether you know but Bryony’s not working now and we’ve got Jim, Ned and the baby to provide for. I wouldn’t have asked you if I didn’t really need a hand desperately, and there’s no one else I can ask.’

‘Too right,’ thought Jack. ‘None of the bums he knows has two pounds to rub together.’

He stopped himself. Sam always brought out the worst in him. He remembered how close they were when Jim was born. Though Jack had been bitterly disappointed at Sam’s choice of career, he was fond of Bryony. She was bit scatty and could spend money like there was no tomorrow, but she was a good mother to the kids. She had a warm heart and a great sense of humour. He smiled to himself as he remembered her imitation, almost where he was sitting now, of Meg Ryan’s deli moment in ‘When Harry Met Sally.’ The woman across the way smiled back. He didn’t really notice.

trigger for meditation

For source of the image see link

He wasn’t quite sure why they had drifted apart. Maybe it was partly because he had stopped drinking and taken up meditation. Sam couldn’t get his head round that, and Jack got very bored spending time with Sam and his friends once they were three sheets to the wind, which was most evenings, even after the kids were born. Bryony just put up with it and was grateful that the money he brought in was usually far more than he spent.

Jack felt caught between a rock and a hard place. Part of him was so narked with Sam for the way he seemed to use people and for the unprincipled choices he made that he just wanted to tell him to get lost. The other part thought of Bryony and the kids: it wasn’t their fault Sam was a waster. He ought to give something at least for their sake. On the other hand Stella would go through the roof if he handed Sam anywhere close to £20,000.

‘Have you gone out of your mind?’ he could hear her now. ‘You might as well start the bonfire with it!’

And the pendulum in his head went back and forth as he sipped his coffee and nibbled on his cake without really tasting either of them.

He tried to step back from his gut feelings into a higher place in his head and think about it more objectively. The problem was that his logical mind was not much better than his gut when it came to this situation. Pragmatism simply said that what mattered really was whether Sam could make a go of it in the off-licence and provide properly for his family. If he could, then supporting him would be justified and, if he couldn’t, Jack should use the leverage the loan would give him to get Sam moving in a better direction. The problem was that the information he’d found on the net about the off-licence trade suggested that it might just provide a good living in the right location and with the right approach.

Not that anything was certain when it came to setting up a business.  He’d read somewhere that two out three small businesses died within five years. On top of that, his knowledge of Sam suggested strongly that he shouldn’t be in business at all because, unless money was growing on trees, he’d never make a go of it.  Yes, maybe he really should try and steer Sam towards some form of paid work within his abilities.

But he knew where that would go.

‘I hate bloody cooking. It’s hard work for next to no money.‘

‘But you’re good at it. And you’ll get promoted pretty quick so the money will be good. You might even be able to start up somewhere like this place eventually.’

Deep down though he wondered whether he would have the heart to withhold the loan if Sam didn’t buy the plan.


For source of image see link

His reading of Buddhist writings had taught him that he needed to go deeper into his mind to find wiser answers but he didn’t seem to be able to get past the blocks at the end of each pendulum swing. Anger versus pity. A good trade he disapproved of combined with Sam’s fecklessness. Don’t give him a penny. Give him a good leg up. There must be a way of getting past the stand off, transcending the conflict.

He found himself fruitlessly analysing the moral issues. What passed for compassion in his head said he should pay, for the kids’ sake. His version of wisdom said he shouldn’t because he’d be indulging Sam, he’d never learn from the consequences of his actions and it’d be throwing good money after bad. In any case it wasn’t fair as Sam hadn’t paid him back a penny of the money he owed for his education.

He shook himself. He tried counting his breaths again. He needed to go deeper, but how?

And that question along with many others will have to wait until tomorrow.

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Sugar prisonAs someone all too aware of how scientism can rule out in advance evidence that does not fit with its dogmatic materialistic assumptions about mind and spirit, I may be too prone to accept as valid evidence from other specialisms of this same unscientific tendency. However, the same unscientific tendency was at work in a less contentious area within my own field of expertise when adherents of the dogma of neurorigidity, which contended that the brain could not change after maturity, refused for decades to accept the overwhelming evidence for neuroplasticity, with disastrous consequences for  innumerable victims of brain injury. This may be why I read with particular sympathy a recent Guardian article by   on how the strong relation between sugar and health problems, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, came to be buried for so long. Whether the article is absolutely right in every detail is beyond me to determine, as diet is not my area of expertise. I am however convinced that it highlights a case that needs to be answered rationally and not adversarially. It also feeds my sense that the toxic aspects of science’s social processes, while they may never be entirely eliminated, need to be more effectively curbed. After all, in this case, knee-jerk orthodoxy would seem to have caused innumerable premature deaths. Below is a short extract: for the full-length and detailed article see link.

In 1972, a British scientist sounded the alarm that sugar – and not fat – was the greatest danger to our health. But his findings were ridiculed and his reputation ruined. How did the world’s top nutrition scientists get it so wrong for so long?

Robert Lustig is a paediatric endocrinologist at the University of California who specialises in the treatment of childhood obesity. A 90-minute talk he gave in 2009, titled Sugar: The Bitter Truth, has now been viewed more than six million times on YouTube. In it, Lustig argues forcefully that fructose, a form of sugar ubiquitous in modern diets, is a “poison” culpable for America’s obesity epidemic.

A year or so before the video was posted, Lustig gave a similar talk to a conference of biochemists in Adelaide, Australia. Afterwards, a scientist in the audience approached him. Surely, the man said, you’ve read Yudkin. Lustig shook his head. John Yudkin, said the scientist, was a British professor of nutrition who had sounded the alarm on sugar back in 1972, in a book called Pure, White, and Deadly.

“If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive,” wrote Yudkin, “that material would promptly be banned.” The book did well, but Yudkin paid a high price for it. Prominent nutritionists combined with the food industry to destroy his reputation, and his career never recovered. He died, in 1995, a disappointed, largely forgotten man.

Perhaps the Australian scientist intended a friendly warning. Lustig was certainly putting his academic reputation at risk when he embarked on a high-profile campaign against sugar. But, unlike Yudkin, Lustig is backed by a prevailing wind. We read almost every week of new research into the deleterious effects of sugar on our bodies. In the US, the latest edition of the government’s official dietary guidelines includes a cap on sugar consumption. In the UK, the chancellor George Osborne has announced a new tax on sugary drinks. Sugar has become dietary enemy number one.

This represents a dramatic shift in priority. For at least the last three decades, the dietary arch-villain has been saturated fat. When Yudkin was conducting his research into the effects of sugar, in the 1960s, a new nutritional orthodoxy was in the process of asserting itself. Its central tenet was that a healthy diet is a low-fat diet. Yudkin led a diminishing band of dissenters who believed that sugar, not fat, was the more likely cause of maladies such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. But by the time he wrote his book, the commanding heights of the field had been seized by proponents of the fat hypothesis. Yudkin found himself fighting a rearguard action, and he was defeated.

Not just defeated, in fact, but buried.

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Because in the background of my last sequence of posts lurked the thinking of William James, it seemed a good idea to republish this sequence on The Eclipse of Certainty from last Autumn. The three posts will appear on consecutive days.

David C Lamberth’s excellent treatment of William James’s thought was not the only trophy I brought back from a second-hand book shop recently. A second book (please don’t groan – there is a third to come!) by Paul Jerome Croce has proved equally, if not more fascinating. The full title is Science and Religion in the Era of William James: Eclipse of Certainty (1832-1880).

At first I thought I would fit everything I wanted to say into one post. It turned out to be too long so I have split this into three to be posted on three consecutive days. 

Even before I read a word of it, just seeing the title of the book on its cover and the tantalising photograph behind it gave me goose bumps. Sad really I suppose that I should react so strongly to something so apparently obscure.

What was it exactly that triggered such a strong positive reaction to the sight of such an ordinary seeming book? I’m not sure I can answer that question fully but I know what some of the elements are of its attraction.

The Period of History

The dates for starters.

That period of history is full of strong emotionally loaded associations for me. Right from my childhood I was told stories of my mother’s parents and their conversion to the Roman Catholic Church as a result of the Oxford Movement. I’ve already blogged about that so I won’t go into more details here.

Not only that but one of my favourite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins was also a convert and recently reading his story revealed what a huge price people had to pay at that time for that choice. It could totally wreck their prospects. My father’s family disowned him for choosing to marry my Catholic mother. When I was in my late thirties, I followed my grandparents’ footsteps and converted, in my case from my sceptical atheism to the Bahá’í Faith.

This strengthened my ties to this period of history in two ways. For one, I felt closer to my grandparents. The other reason is that the Bahá’í Faith is rooted in this same period of history. The day the Faith first shone out was in 1844 to be followed by a greater disclosure of its meaning in 1863. It’s fair to add that the charisma of William James added considerably to the force of the frisson I felt.

My Default Position

This is all very straightforward as an explanation of part of my strong reaction to the book. What may be less clear is why the eclipse of certainty should have held any attraction at all for someone who had converted to a new faith?

This is harder to pin down but is at least as powerful a component as the other things I have mentioned and a brief exploration of some of the ideas in the book will have to be included in this explanation.

To begin at the beginning though, I need to say that my default position, for as long as I can remember, has been doubt. The crisis of my two pre-school experiences of hospitalisation underpinned this position. As I have explained in an earlier post the feeling of being abandoned by my parents, who were not allowed in those days to stay in the hospital, and the sense that Christ was not rescuing me, led to the conclusion that I had only myself to rely on and that I could not really trust anyone or anything else including God. Perhaps related to this my chronic condition is uncertainty.

This was reinforced by my absolute revulsion, as someone growing Mixed Dictators v5up in the shadow of World War II, from dogmatic and damaging ideologies such as Nazism, Maoism and Stalinism,  which had been or were being implemented with ferocious conviction.

Certainty came to seem pathological to me. I do not believe that I can be certain of anything except possibly my memory of such things as my name and address.

Reinforcing still for me the value of this state of mind are the widespread current evidences of the toxic effects of certainty. People are resolutely butchering other human beings completely convinced of their own rectitude. I have also blogged about this dark side of conviction before, and have recently republished this sequence of posts so I won’t dwell on it further right now.

Even so, when I finally sat down to read this book I had not expected to feel quite so relieved to be so comfortably at home with the ideas it explores. But more of that tomorrow.

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William James. (For source of Image see link.)

William James (for source of image see link)

We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless. Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance—for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge. Religion which consists only of rites and ceremonies of prejudice is not the truth. Let us earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks – pages 130-131)

“Let empiricism once become associated with religion, as hitherto, through some strange misunderstanding, it has become associated with irreligion,” James writes, “and I believe a new era of religion as well as philosophy will be ready to begin.”

(William James quoted in Lamberth – page 152)

Human beings are not passive observers of reality and our personal reality, our thought, is not simply imposed upon us. In a very specific way we may consider ourselves – collectively – as co-creators of reality, for through the power of the human mind and our interactions, the world undergoes continued transformation.

(Paul LampleRevelation and Social Reality – page 6)

Because in the background of my current sequence of posts lurks the thinking of William James, it seemed a good idea to republish this post and then my sequence on The Eclipse of Certainty from last Autumn. 

My battle to finish reading Irreducible Mind, the Kellys’ monumental and significant collection of chapters on how psychology lost the plot at the beginning of the last century and where it should think about going from here, alerted me, when I visited Hay-on-Wye and Cardiff, to look out for anything about William James or Frederick Myers.

I found zilch on Myers in either place, sadly, as I wanted some real books of his instead of the soft copies I’ve downloaded. It feels distinctly incongruous reading massive 19th Century masterpieces on an iPad.

I was much luckier with the better known, but not necessarily more significant James. I decided to start by reading the thinnest of the three books I now have, one I’d acquired in a bookshop hidden away down Morgan’s Arcade in Cardiff near the Plan café.

This may not have been as smart a move as I thought as thin does not mean easy to read, as I discovered. None the less David Lamberth’s book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience, has turned out to be an excellent starting point, even though I probably understood less than half of the first half of the book.

The last part, though, from my point of view, was crammed with valuable insights into where James took us to and where we might now profit by following the path he was pointing towards.

The key to what Lamberth feels James is saying is summarised in the title to this piece. Not surprisingly grasping this idea, for me, Lamberthdepends upon a rigorous way of analysing what religious revelation might mean operationally for those of us who are striving to understand where humanity is spiritually at this point in its history. By that I mean ‘What does it imply both for how we enhance our understanding further and how do we turn that understanding into effective action, socially, scientifically and morally? Lamberth helps towards the clearer definition of those implications.

Acknowledging that Lamberth may not be able to recognise his own ideas in the use I am going to make of them, I will quote him whenever possible, though obviously outside of the full context of his thinking which I don’t completely understand. I doubt I’ll ever make it now as a philosopher.

James’s Dissatisfaction with Materialism

It would seem that, while James was a resolute empiricist, he was deeply frustrated by materialism (page 155):

[James] generally sides with empiricism on methodological grounds, even though he was consistently dissatisfied with the world-view of its premiere representative, materialism.

This seems partly to relate to the distinction, in James’s own words (page 182), between ‘theoretic . . knowledge about things’ as against ‘living contemplation or sympathetic acquaintance with them.’ The former ‘touches only on the outer surface of reality.’

Lamberth explains (page 184):

. . . [c]uts that are made in the fabric [of experience] conceptually must be seen to be arbitrary to a degree, in that they are not necessarily “natural” to the pure experience itself . . .

James expresses the problem vividly (page 186):

Philosophy should seek this kind of living understanding of the movement of reality, not follow science in vainly patching together fragments of its dead results.

Lamberth goes on (ibid.):

(James) seeks a philosophy that both can account for the practical successes of the sciences and can value and provide insight into our moral and religious sentiments and experiences . . . .

The Nature of the Transcendent

This leads on to the consideration of exactly what is truth and its possible relationship with our concept of the absolute. Lamberth quotes James’s own statement of part of this problem (page 192):

. . . .[I]s one all inclusive purpose harboured by a general world-soul, embracing all sub-purposes in its system? Or are there many various purposes, keeping house together as they can, with no overarching purpose to include them?

James clearly struggles with this, remarking on the next page of A Pluralistic Universe, from which this quote was taken, that ‘We are indeed internal parts of God and not external creations.’

Lamberth takes the view that, in the end, James does not feel able to conclude with certainty that there is an Absolute. His ‘pluralism’ (I will return to what that might mean for James) assumes (page 197) ‘that the superhuman consciousness, however vast it may be, has itself an external environment, and consequently is finite.’ As we will see as this argument unfolds, this is a much subtler and far less reductionist position than might at first seem the case.

It will help to start from James’s own words (page 198):

Our “normal” consciousness is circumscribed for adaptation to an external environment, but the fence is weak in spots, and fitful influences from beyond leak in, showing the otherwise unverifiable common connection [between all]. Not only psychical research, but metaphysical philosophy and speculative biology are led in their own way to look with favour on some such “panpsychic” view of the universe as this.

The modern mind, saturated as it is in materialist mantras, could find this naïve. Lamberth is keen to dispel this preconception (ibid):

Contrary to what his final conclusions suggest, James was actually quite sceptical of jumping to conclusions about the veracity of purported psychical events. He did, however, find himself forced to resolve that the most reasonable explanation for certain psychical phenomena was to postulate some sort of “leakage” between a wider, interpersonal area of consciousness (or experience) and the otherwise “fenced” individual field or sphere of experience.


Wind-rose (for source of image see link)

From this we move, in my view, to a strong sense of the transcendent (page 199):

Every bit of us at every moment is part and parcel of a wider self, it quivers along various radii like the wind-rose[1] on a compass, and the actual in it is continuously one with possibles not yet in our present sight. And just as we are co-conscious with our own momentary margin, may we not ourselves form the margin of some more really central self in things which is co-conscious with the whole of us? May not you and I be confluent in a higher consciousness, and confluently active there, tho [sic] we now know it not?

The pluralism mentioned earlier therefore stems from our multitude of different perspectives as unique individuals who are subliminally interconnected and potentially subsumed into a greater consciousness.

James’s use of the word ‘pragmatism’ has been part of the source of confusion as to exactly what he means and what the implications are for any sense whatsoever of the ‘Absolute.’ Lamberth is clear that pragmatism, for James, was not limited to the material realm (page 212).

This allows for the possibility of the transcendent, the absolute even, and therefore absolute truth, in some sense, but in what sense exactly has been a vexed question apparently (page 216):

. . . the question of “Truth” has continued to vex interpreters of James to the present.

Lamberth finds Hilary Putnam’s work helpful here. Putnam sees James as distinguishing between ‘absolutely true’ and ‘half-true’ (page 216-17):

On Putnam’s reading, what is merely verified is always only “half-true” for James, while what is “true” by contrast, is true absolutely, standing in relation to an ideal or absolute truth to which we imagine all our formulations will converge.

Which is not the same, by any means, as saying that anyone knows the absolute truth (page 217):

“No relativist who ever actually walked the earth,” writes James, “has denied the regulative character is his own thinking of the notion of absolute truth. What is challenged by relativists is the pretence on anyone’s part to have found for certain at any given moment what the shape of that truth is.” James concludes by noting that “the proposition ‘There is absolute truth’ is the only absolute truth of which we can be sure.”

He continued (page 220):

. . . “[W]e have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.” . . . . . “No pragmatist needs to dogmatise about the consensus of opinion in the future being right,” James writes; “he need only postulate that it will probably contain more truth than anyone’s opinion now.”

Lamberth unpacks exactly what this implies, clearly and succinctly (page 222):

On this view, truth claims – however stable – are only ever hypothetical and provisional; moreover, counterfactuals, should evince some concrete grounding in fact, are only the beginnings of new trails of enquiry that lead to the revision of old truths or the addition of new ones. For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

A Two Way Street

Lamberth explains that after James’s death (page 226):

. . . the study of religion . . . . . developed in such ways that the insights of James’s views, in particular, the varied commitments of radical empiricism as a systematic, spiritualistic world-view, were never fully explored, much less embraced.

Science nominally endorses James’s criteria for the correct application of empiricism, but in practice privileges its own untestable assumptions while dismissing those of others. James has little patience with this kind of double standard[2].

Lamberth explains (page 227):

James seeks critically to hold off temptations towards reduction, whether reduction to quasi-mystical phenomenalism that eschews valuable reflective insights – scientific or philosophical – or reduction that privileges the philosophical or scientific account over the concrete, diverse first-order experiences that are its spark.

Lamberth nails his own colours to the mast shortly after this (page 229):

I . . . think that James’s turn to experience – understood in the broader context of his radical empiricism – is of crucial, substantive importance to the philosophy of religion, now and in the future.

A core component in his view as in James’s is a two-way street (page 234):

Considering James closely suggests that we should not adopt a theoretical stance that presumptively protects dominant metaphysical assumptions concerning “scientific” or “realistic” explanations from . . . scrutiny any more than we should adopt such a protective strategy for religious explanations and experiences.

If science were (page 235) to subject ‘its own metaphysical assumptions . . . to critique, testing and revision in a dynamic, empirically informed but rationally accountable form of inquiry, ’Lamberth feels, ‘such an open, minimally presumptive stage for investigation’ would be most beneficial. It would facilitate two important things:

1. the productive reopening of a range of presumptively foreclosed questions for novel reconsideration; and

2. the development of new insights.

Bahá’í Implications

A full understanding of all the implications of these insights goes further than simply hoping to reconcile science and religioncolorful_hands_small while they continue to go on their separate ways.

The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities[3].

For those who have the time, a viewing of the video below will demonstrate a part at least of what I am trying to say.

Here we see communities across the globe applying their current understanding of the Bahá’í model for community action, learning from what goes well and what does not, to enhance their implementation.

It is important also to realise that all significant details concerning these experiments are fed back to the centre of the faith, collated and fed back to the Bahá’í world as a whole for further implementation, experimentation and hopefully eventual validation. What is learnt is also preserved, to be cascaded down through time as well as across widely dispersed locations.

It is precisely the lack of this co-ordinated and consolidated kind of information preservation and exchange that Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Andersen lamented in Cultural Creatives, their seminal examination of modern movements for cultural change. Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. When a group in one place dies, as is often the case, all that they learnt is lost. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded (page 246):

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.

For pragmatism, scientific or religious, to produce valid revisable conclusions of lasting practical value, the improbable combination of radical open-mindedness and strong institutional co-ordination is vital. It is to this combination of essential qualities that the Bahá’í community aspires – not an easy task by any means, calling as it does for a degree of detachment from what you think you are doing so you can see what is actually going on, whether at the individual, community or institutional level.

Whereas so far the main attempts to validate religious practice have focused on such admittedly significant areas as meditation, and the related experience of mysticism, or the correlation between religious beliefs and an individual’s charitable action, there have been very few examples indeed of the careful examination of the beneficial impact of constructive religious practices on communities as a whole. This is what in my view makes the Bahá’í process an innovative if embryonic example of pragmatism in the Jamesian sense. To operate this way effectively, of course, those who are testing the model need to accept that they will sometimes get it wrong as well as right.

It is for me exciting to see a rigorous explanation of why, in philosophical terms, such an enterprise makes sense, though it is also disappointing that there are, so far, so few concrete examples in either field of pragmatic and dispassionate investigation crossing the currently great divide between religious and scientific practice, though both these disciplines have the capacity to mount them and a self-evident duty to do so.

[1] A wind rose is a graphic tool used by meteorologists to give a succinct view of how wind speed and direction are typically distributed at a particular location. When the magnetic compass began to be used in navigation, the wind rose was combined with it and used as a compass card.

[2] Not everyone would agree that science lacks this kind of humility. For instance, Paul Jerome Croce describes it somewhat differently in his book Science and Religion in the Era of William James – page 4 – stating ‘probabilism, relativity, and hypothetical methodologies firmly established the fundamental uncertainty of modern science.’ I will be looking at this in more detail in a subsequent post. My suspicion is, as Croce also suggests, that the evangelists of science, who tend to monopolise the public gaze, were then and, for me, are now mostly dogmatic materialists. This is even more true in the UK, I suspect, than in the States.

[3] There are those on what are probably the edges still of the scientific community who would already recognise this as a viable method of investigation, one that will enhance both understanding and practice. One example is the model of action research described by Peter Reason.

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Though we know the importance of bees we seem unable to decide to do something effective to turn their decline into thriving. There’s an interesting interview about this issue on the Salon news site. Below is a short extract: to find out the simple solution see link.

The only thing stopping us from protecting pollinators is greed, Dave Goulson tells Salon

The world’s bees are in trouble, and progress in addressing the underlying problems contributing to their demise, from the use of dangerous pesticides to the destruction of their habitat, is painfully slow.

But it still isn’t too late, a hopeful, if not terribly optimistic Dave Goulson tells Salon.

A professor of biology at the University of Sussex and the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Goulson knows better than anyone just how massive the challenges are, but also how capable we are of meeting them — if we only muster the will. His work studying the bees’ plight was the focus of his first book, “A Sting in the Tale” — Salon spoke with him about it last May. His latest book, “A Buzz in the Meadow,” has as its centerpiece a small part of the solution: Goulson writes of his decade-plus-long project of transforming a rundown farm in rural France into a thriving meadow, which teems with life of all sorts and has become a haven for wild bees.

Salon caught up with Goulson to gauge the current situation and for a much-needed reminder that saving the bees isn’t as impossible as it may seem. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s been happening in the bee world since we talked a year ago? Have there been any big developments in research or policy that stand out to you?

The thing that everyone talks about is all the pesticide-related stuff that’s rumbling on and on and on. There’s a lot of politics there. Obama has just announced his bee care bill, and in Ontario they’re having a big battle over proposals to withdraw neonicotinoids or reduce their use by 80 percent. Over here in Europe we’ve got this moratorium in place, but it runs out this year and no one knows what to do next, so there’s a pitched battle running at the moment between the agrichemical industry and the environmentalists and scientists all caught up in the middle of it. So that’s all been interesting and messy.

I was wondering what you thought about Obama’s new pollinator plan. I know it emphasizes bee habitat and creating these pathways for bees, which you talk about in the book as extremely important to be focusing on.

I guess I’m naturally a bit of a skeptic as to the value of big documents produced by politicians, because they often don’t seem to actually result in much real action. If they really produce, now I forget of the top of my head how many million hectares of habitat it was supposed to be, was it 5 million or something?

Yes, 5 million.

If that actually happens, and it’s good habitat for bees, that would be amazing. That really would massively help. But talk is all very well; it doesn’t help anybody or anything, so it would be nice to see whether it really works.

I suppose I also thought it was a little bit weak on the pesticide side of things. It was just really saying, “We need to do loads more research.” Well, I do research, so you’d imagine I would be saying, “Yes! Lots more money, that’s what us scientists need.” And of course, that would be nice. But actually, I think we know enough to do something, so some more specific measures to reduce pesticide use would have been nice. But perhaps that was further than they were willing to go.

Are there any areas where you might suggest that, so far as pesticides go, more research really could be useful? Or is this just buying time? That’s what it sounded like to me.

I think it is buying time rather than biting the bullet, because we all know that we use too many pesticides and it’s not really good for the environment. But nobody really wants to tackle it, because there are such powerful vested interests and so much money is made from selling them that it’s politically a difficult one to take on. So it’s an easy option to say “Let’s do more research.”

Our meadow

Our feeble attempt at a meadow


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