Sunday, 17 February 2019

Criticism of David Papineau’s Paper on Karl Popper

My responses to David Papineau are in RED.

Intellectual reputations are changeable.  Thinkers who are revered during their lifetimes are often forgotten afterwards.  In the late sixteeenth century the French philosopher Peter Ramus was widely acclaimed as the greatest logician since Aristotle, and most Victorians regarded the polymathic Herbert Spencer as the prime genius of their age.  But now these two are now quite unread, and appear only as footnotes in historical surveys.

During his lifetime Sir Karl Popper was as revered it is possible for a philosopher to be.  In addition to his many academic accolades, he was knighted in 1965 and made a Companion of Honour in 1982.  He had the rare distinction of election as a Fellow both to the Royal Society and the British Academy. 

Popper was always an outsider in academic philosophy and his contemporaries at Oxford and Cambridge actively opposed him being offered a post at either of those universities, even though Popper was by far the best philosopher of his generation.

However, there is room to doubt that this standing will long outlast him.  Indeed, it is already becoming difficult to understand exactly how Popper acquired his renown.

In large part Popper's eminence as a public figure stems from his political works, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) and The Poverty of Historicism (1957).  These were passionate defences of social democracy against the twins threats of fascism and communism.  For all the virtues of social democracy, it is not often associated with passion, and many middle-of-the-roaders in the Butskellite years found Popper's fervour a welcome source of excitement.  Even so, few of his supporters would argue that that his political writings alone justify the stature of a major philosopher.  If they are important, it is because they express the political credo of a philosopher of science who has shown us a new way to think about the relation between theory and reality.

Popper is usually described as an important philosopher of science but this neglects his equally significant contributions to political theory and epistemology as the solver of the problem of induction.

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1957, originally Logik der Forschung, 1934), Conjectures and Refutations (1963), and Objective Knowledge (1972), Popper develops an analysis of science which breaks radically with previous views.  If this analysis were right, it would have significant implications for most aspects of our intellectual life. Unfortunately, it does not stand up to examination.

Popper’s ideas are as intellectually vibrant today as when he originally conceived them almost a hundred years ago. If anything, he was ahead of his time.

Popper's philosophy of science centres on his rejection of inductive reasoning.  This is the kind of reasoning by which we judge that some hitherto observed pattern will continue to hold good in the future. 

We should instead think that a hitherto observed pattern will continue to hold good if and only if we have a good explanatory theory of why it will continue to hold good.

Popper objects that all such inferences are logically flawed, since nothing guarantees that the future will be like the past. 

A good explanatory theory is the only reason to think the future will resemble the past and it will never guarantee it.

Moreover, he argues that inductive reasoning is discredited by the history of science, since the characteristic fate of scientific theories, from Ptolemy to Newton, has been failure.

No he argues that inductive reasoning is logically invalid, not that failures in science show it is invalid.

For Popper, these failures of induction do not demean science itself. 

…because induction plays no part in good science…

This is because he views science as an essentially conjectural activity.  On the conventional view of science, theories are derived inductively from past observations.  Popper turns this conventional view of science on its head.  Rather than starting with past observations, scientists first propose their theories as conjectures, and then try to test them against experience.  If the theories pass these tests, they survive as conjectures.  But if they fail, they must be rejected, and replaced by new conjectures.

At first blush, this vision of science can seem attractive.  Popperian science is dynamic, yet free from any taint of induction.  However, there is an obvious flaw.  Popper's falsificationist strategy of conjectures and refutations can only deliver negative knowledge.  It shows certain scientific theories are false, but it never shows that any theory is true.

Why would that be a flaw if that is the only kind of scientific knowledge that has ever existed? Science has been spectacularly successful in creating good explanations and allowing fast technological progress but this hasn’t depended on the creation of certain knowledge.

Popper is driven to this denial of positive scientific knowledge by his rejection of induction.  But the denial is hard to take seriously.  Nobody properly acquainted with the evidence doubts that cigarettes cause lung cancer, or that matter is made of atoms. 

It seems astonishing that a philosopher should think nobody could express doubt about these things when modern philosophy begins with Descartes. A modern take on such doubt would be to wonder if the physical world is a computer simulation – if it was then matter would not be made of atoms, nor could cigarettes be the cause of lung cancer. It is not the evidence that forces us to believe in these things but rather the success of the explanatory theory.

Science is a many-sided institution, and not all its deliverances deserve equal respect.  But something is wrong with a philosophy that tells us that science can never yield any positive findings.

No good arguments have been given to show that this philosophy is wrong…

 In retrospect, Popper's falsificationism can be seen as an over-reaction to the demise of classical physics at the turn of this century.  The replacement of Newton's physics by Einstein's was a great surprise, and showed that the evidence underpinning the classical edifice was far less firm that everybody had supposed.  Popper's mistake, however, was to condemn all inductive reasoning for this failure.  Maybe inductive evidence will never suffice to lay bare the large-scale structure of space-time, or the other fundamental secrets of the cosmos.  But this does not mean that it can never identify such more mundane facts as that cigarettes cause cancer.

The explanatory theory that cigarettes cause cancer is a good one and is open to falsification.

It is true that induction presents an abstract philosophical puzzle.  Inductive inferences are not logically compelling, and because of this their ultimate authority is an issue of philosophical controversy.  But this is a puzzle, not the start of a philosophical system.  It is akin to the question "How do I know there is a table in front of me?"  This is a good issue for first-year philosophy students to cut their teeth on.  But outside the classroom nobody seriously doubts that we do know about tables, and it is just as unserious for Popper to doubt that we know that smoking causes cancer.

The reason I know that there is a table in front of me is that I have a good explanatory theory involving atoms coming together in a way that appears in my consciousness as a solid piece of furniture as a result of the way light is reflected off the table surface and in to the photosensitive cells at the back of my eyes. If I had good reason to doubt any of that, I would have good reason to doubt the table.

 It is sometimes said that even if Popper is wrong about induction, he still does a good job of "demarcating" the difference between science and non-science.  Popper's answer to this "problem of demarcation" is that proper sciences, unlike "pseudo-sciences" such as astrology or phrenology, are distinguished by their falsifiability.  They are precisely enough formulated to yield definite predictions against which they can be tested.

 However, this "problem of demarcation" is not a genuine problem, but entirely of Popper's own making.  The real difference between the atomic theory of matter, say, and astrology, is that the atomic theory is firmly established by a large amount of evidence, whereas astrology is mere speculation. 

If an astrologer were to accept an empirical test of whether their predictive theory was accurate, it would be a scientific theory, though a very bad one, because it would have low explanatory content. Atomic theory is a good scientific theory because it is hard to vary and has high explanatory content. It has also survived many empirical tests, but the number of empirical tests that it has survived does not increase the probability that it is a true theory.

This is what most non-philosophers would say, and they would be quite right.  But Popper cannot say this, because he thinks that inductive evidence is impotent.  So he is forced to regard the atomic theory as no less speculative than astrology, and is stuck with the non-problem of explaining why some speculations are better than others.

Popper would say both theories are speculative but that atomic theory is a better theory because it offers more scope for empirical falsification.

 Despite these manifest failings, Popper's falsificationism is popular among practising scientists.  The reason is probably that Popper's story best fits science at the cutting edge of research. 

What makes your reason “probable” as opposed to just being true or false?

Most new ideas at the limits of knowledge do start life as pure speculations, and it is true that they are distinguished from the musings of madmen only by the precision which allows them to yield definite predictions.

All ideas start life as speculations, including the idea that there is a table in front of me. The musings of madmen are usually different to those of science and philosophy because the latter, if they are good, yield explanatory content. The precision with which a scientific theory yields predictions is not the only criteria on which to judge it – instrumentalism is false.

By focusing exclusively on this aspect of science, Popper creates the impression that all scientists, however workaday, are creative visionaries with minds of steel.

Popper makes no claim about the infallibility of scientists. Quite the contrary.

But speculative research is not the only kind of science, or even the most important kind.  There would be no point to science unless its conjectures sometimes acquired enough inductive evidence to graduate to the status of established truths.

Progress does not depend on knowledge becoming certain truth and it never relies on “inductive evidence”.

This is the real reason for testing hypotheses against predictions.  The aim is not to falsify them, but to identify those that can be turned into the kind of positive knowledge that enables us to build bridges and treat diseases.

Theories that are falsifiable but resist falsification and have high explanatory content are precisely those that allow us to build bridges and treat diseases. Finding more and more reasons to think a theory is true is unlikely to improve the theory but seeking to falsify a theory might result in a theory being discarded in favour of a better theory.

Scientists who follow Popper in emphasising speculation over evidence are like architects who admire the aesthetic use of new materials, but don't care if the building leaks.

Popper would be focussed on finding potential problems with a building and solving the problems.

We can see why they find innovation exciting.  But they have lost their intellectual moorings if they think that originality for its own sake is the point of their profession.

Popper advocates progress through problem solving, not originality for its own sake.

None of these criticisms of Popper's philosophy of science are new.  They have been well-known among professional philosophers for over half a century.  However, Popper has never given straight answers to the objections. 

Popper has given straight answers to the objections to anyone who has taken the time to read him.

Instead he reassures his readers of the importance of his views, while throwing up various smokescreens to hide their deficiencies.

This is ad-hominem attack on Popper.

One of Popper's strategies is to use words in a way which make his views seem far more sensible than they are.  The Australian philosopher David Stove has pointed out (Popper and After, reviewed in the TLS, July 1 1983) that Popper characteristically talks about scientific "knowledge", "discovery" and "progress", even though his views imply there are no such things. 

Popper’s views do not imply that knowledge, discovery and progress are impossible.

In the normal sense of these words, we can only know or discover what we have reason to believe is true. 

Knowledge does not imply either belief (knowledge might be in a book) or certain truth (which is unobtainable).

Popper's official doctrine is that we never have any reason to believe that any scientific theory is true, but his non-standard usage often serves to obscure this from the less than fully attentive reader.

 A scientist or philosopher does not have to believe that their own theories are true.

Another ploy is to refuse to engage with his critics. 

Popper did engage with his critics, most famously with Wittgenstein who stormed off.

Throughout his career Popper belittled other professional philosophers for their finicky concern with definitions. 

Popper was a methodological nominalist and recognised that no useful knowledge could come of arguing about the definition of words, for example, a puppy is what I call a young dog – don’t bother asking whether a puppy really is a young dog.

He was certainly right to condemn much modern academic philosophy for its scholastic introspection.  But modern philosophy is not all bad, and in particular its criticisms of Popper deserve answers. 

Ironically part of the reason that much academic philosophy is bad is that it lacks the error correcting mechanisms associated with science which is the core of Popper’s philosophy of science. Academic philosophers often compound the mistakes of their predecessors without realising that they are mistakes.

One unfortunate result of Popper's self-imposed intellectual quarantine is that the tradition in philosophy of science that he founded is slowly having to relearn many of the basic philosophical truths that were omitted from its curriculum.  

When Popper does offer  arguments, they are not always strong.  One of his objections to inductive reasoning is that it militates against bold theories of wide scope, since a wide-ranging theory is harder to confirm inductively than a more cautious and limited one.  This argument has often been repeated, even though it did not take his opponents long to respond that it mixes chalk with cheese.  Boldness and inductive confirmation are both important desiderata, and the fact they pull against each other is not a good reason for discarding the one for the other.

Popper’s objection to inductive reasoning was that it was logically invalid, not that is militated again bold theories of wide scope. The reason a bold conjecture is better than a limited one is that it contains greater explanatory content and more opportunity for falsification.

Another favourite Popperian argument against induction reasoning is that it focuses on support for subjective psychological states like belief, and so is of no importance to the objective realm of scientific methodology.   But once more the repetition of this argument owes more to Popper's personality than to reason.  It is true that beliefs are subjective states, but questions about which beliefs ought to be held are as objective as any other normative questions.

Popper was an advocate of seeking objective moral truth in the same way as he advocated seeking objective scientific truth (though never being certain in either case). What people “ought” to believe is never logically derivable from what is the case, but there are good moral conjectures about the objective fact of how one should live and bad ones and only argument can distinguish between them. Whether someone subjectively believes or disbelieves a moral conjecture has no bearing whatsoever on whether a moral conjecture is a good one.

Towards the end of his career Popper inflated this jibe about the subjectivity of beliefs into an overarching metaphysical system.  He postulated an interlinked universe of three worlds:  the world of physics, the world of subjective psychological states, and the objective world of knowledge, theories, arguments, and problems.  These three worlds are quite distinct, in that none reduces to any other, but at the same time each can influence the others.  

Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem is largely concerned with this system of worlds.  The book is a version of a lecture series delivered by Popper at Emory University in 1969, complete with a transcript of a question-and-answer session from the end of each lecture.  If the transcripts are a fair sample, Popper's non-specialist audience let him off lightly.  Even Popper's own followers regarded his three worlds as cranky.  The discussion in this volume betrays some of the effects of his intellectual isolation.  He does not seem to understand the workings of alternative views, and the arguments he gives in favour of the three-world system could be countered by nay well-trained philosophy undergraduate.

Why not give an example of a counter-argument?

Both of the books under review are derived from the archive of Popper's papers now held at Stanford University.  The Myth of the Framework is a more substantial volume, gathering together nine essays, mostly first published in the 1970s and 80s.  In the course of these essays, Popper touches on a number of topics, and his comments on biology, the social sciences and the history of philosophy are worth having.  Most of these essays are not easily accessible in their original places of publication, and it is a service to have them gathered in one volume.

The overall impression created by this volume, however, is not entirely pleasing.  A constant theme running through these papers is the importance of free discussion and open-mindedness.  Popper is of course right to emphasize these matters.  But he is wrong to suggest that they are the special property of his falsificationism.

Falsificationism is a methodological technique that demarcates science from non-science. He nowhere limits philosophical discussion to topics concerned with falsifiable statements and to think he did is to confuse his philosophy with logical positivism of which he was the leading critic.

 Those who oppose Popper by seeking positive truths in science have just as much reason, If not more, to insist on the importance of critical discussion, and Popper has no basis for his accusation that these opponents are all dogmatic authoritarians.

To believe that the truth is manifest and that certainty is in human reach inevitably ends in authoritarianism.

 The survival of critical standards in the modern academy is by no means assured, and the fight to preserve them needs every support.  It does not help the defence of these standards if their most prominent twentieth-century proponent failed to uphold them in his own intellectual practice.  Popper preached the importance of open debate and recognition of error, but throughout his intellectual career he fought to insulate a discredited idea against any possible criticism.  Perhaps it would be best now if we remember what Popper preached, and lay the rest of his doctrines quietly to rest.

The whole point of Popper’s philosophy was to point the way to scientific, philosophical, political and ethical progress and to highlight the intellectual currents that prevent progress. He was the first to admit that the ideas we need to subject to critical rationalism included his own.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Covey, Heidegger and the Love of Wisdom

On Monday evening the Hull and East Riding Humanist Group, to which I have been associated since its conception, hosted a talk by the soon to be faculty member of the University of Tokyo, Dr Michael Gillan Peckitt. Michael is something of an expert on the philosophy of the existentialist Martin Heidegger (a branch of philosophy popular in Japan due in part to a relationship between Heidegger and Buddhism/Taoism) and his talk was about Heidegger’s friendship with the existentialist Karl Jaspers. My interest in this subject was prompted in part by the fact that the founder of the British Humanist Association Harold J Blackham, who died three years ago at the grand old age of 105, wrote a book called “Six Existentialist Thinkers” which featured chapters on both Heidegger and Jaspers. I have been reading Heidegger all week and I have come to the conclusion that he wrote interminable nonsense.  I have since found that I am in good company in thinking this, the once president of the BHA Bertrand Russell commenting on Heidegger’s book: “Highly eccentric in its terminology, his philosophy is extremely obscure. One cannot help suspecting that language is here running riot.” Freddie Ayer, another BHA president had a similar opinion. Besides talking much nonsense, Heidegger was a terrible fascist and Nazi until the end. It’s a shame that humanism is more closely linked to Nietzsche and Heidegger because of their atheism than the more religious Kierkegaard and Jaspers. It’s an association Heidegger himself renounced in his 1947 “Letter on Humanism”.  Indeed Heidegger was an early expositor of anti-humanism as promoted in the latter day by thinkers such as John Gray (the professor of European Thought at the LSE, not he of “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” fame). Sartre was an atheist but a more positive influence on humanism than the rest.
I learnt today on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the American business and “character ethic” guru Stephen Covey had died on Monday, the day of my Heidegger dicussion. I read a tribute from Covey’s fellow business guru Tom Peters in the Washington Post with great interest, especially since Covey’s famous second “habit of highly effective people” focused on imagining what people would say about us in our obituary. Peters said:

“Professionally, the term ‘humanist’ could have been invented to encapsulate Stephen’s work.”


“many with whom Stephen had direct or indirect contact surprised themselves as they marched forward with their own enhanced humanism, courtesy of his work and example”

Stephen Covey was well known for his Mormon faith, a religion I would usually take a critical stance on, but I can see why Peters calls him a humanist. Humanism in its true sense is philosophy in its true sense, from “philo” meaning "loving" and “sophia" meaning “wisdom".  Covey had the gift of focussing on what kind of behaviour constitutes the life lived well. He didn’t write dense, incomprehensible "fashionable nonsense" in the style of Martin Heidegger or Jacques Derrida. If anything he was accused of stating the obvious, but I have long thought common sense not so common and Covey leaves a legacy of clear thought about habits of thought worth adopting, eminently more worth the effort of reading than the phoney continental philosophy of postmodernism all too prevalent in intellectual circles.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Higgs, the god particle and me...

It has been reported in the media that the well-known TV comedian and actor Eric Sykes has died. I have always found the obsession with celebrity culture and the attention the media pay to the lives of celebrities vaguely embarrassing, but today will not go down in history as the day a TV personality died. No, the 4th July 2012 will be remembered for the announcement made by the scientists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that after spending over six billion pounds on the largest scientific apparatus ever constructed, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the much discussed Higgs boson has finally been detected. Seeing the photos of the reclusive Peter Higgs breaking down in tears and seeking to turn attention away from himself took me back to 1988. I was then an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh and would sit in the common room of the James Clerk Maxwell Building each morning with my flat mate, who was studying physics and another friend I attended my mathematics lectures with, sipping coffee and chatting between lectures. Sometimes a middle aged academic who often wore a black polo neck top would sit across the table from us never speaking. I once asked my flatmate, “Who is that guy?” and was told it was Professor Higgs. Apparently, he had postulated the existence of a new particle sometime in the sixties. Twenty-four years have passed, my flatmate went on to do nuclear physics at CERN, my other friend dropped science and is now a top hedge fund manager and I…well, I didn’t go on to either of those things. Why should it be that I remember this as if it had some significance? Peter Higgs is now justly famous for his contribution to the scientific enterprise and I suppose me remembering being ignored by a famous physicist is even more ridiculous than people remembering seeing, speaking with or being sat next to any other celebrity, yet I do remember it. Does the fact that Higgs really is a great man whose name will live for centuries to come make any difference? Not at all. Ideas are sometimes much bigger than the people who have them and perhaps we should spend more time focusing on the development of our own ideas, however apparently insignificant, rather than try to live vicariously through some vague association with celebrity or someone else’s achievements.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Secular Monarchy or Republicanism?

A recent Guardian/ICM poll found that the UK monarchy is enjoying record popularity with a 69% approval rating. The current diamond jubilee celebrations have prompted some prominent humanists such as Polly Toynbee to write on the republican cause in the national press. Perhaps now would be an appropriate time to discuss the relationship between monarchy, republicanism and humanism. It has to be said at the outset that as someone who dropped history in favour of sciences when choosing my GCEs, some may think me not a credible opponent of the learned President of the British Humanist Association whose illustrious family might be seen as left-wing royalty of sorts, her grandfather and great-grandfather being prominent historians and social reformers of their time, the former being an expert on the decline of imperial Rome due to the abandonment of the republican principles upon which it was founded . As a freethinker and humanist whose current beliefs are not founded on authority, whether hereditary, religious or academic, the truth is that I find little to agree with in Polly Toynbee’s journalistic output. I don’t like her constant and unjustified attacks on Nick Clegg, himself an active humanist in the past and the Liberal Democrat party he leads and I don’t like her petty killjoy attitude to the pleasure and security ordinary people, usually of conservative temperament feel in enjoying a national celebration centred on the royal family.  Unlike the head of state, the presidency of the BHA is not for life and we have been expecting a new president for some time since the excellent A. C. Grayling felt he had to withdraw his acceptance of the role fearing reprisals from the unreasonable far left wing of the humanist cohort after he became the provost of a private university (staffed almost entirely by prominent humanists), perhaps the upcoming conference would be an opportune time to announce a change. Of course, the selection of the BHA president is not directly democratic but if I had a vote I would nominate the recently made Viscount Matt Ridley, the voice of reason incarnate. Immanuel Kant famously explained the meaning of “enlightenment” to be the willingness to use one’s own reason without the guidance of another. This freethinking attitude to life gives rise to contrarian spirits such as that of the late great humanist Christopher Hitchens who courted controversy by sometimes appearing to switch sides, for example in his much publicised support for the Iraq War and there is an irony in that I should choose defend the status quo and take a reactionary stance against the tide of humanistic republicanism, but I have my reasons which I hope to set down.

Polly is not the first president of the BHA to conflate humanism with republicanism and she won’t be the last. Shortly before her death, the erstwhile president of the BHA, Claire Rayner, who was also an active member of “Republic” – the organisation campaigning to make the UK a republic – said in response to an article linking humanism to republicanism that she couldn’t be a humanist and also support a monarchy and suggested that a humanist monarchy is an oxymoron and that the BHA should ally itself to the republican movement. On the contrary, what would be an oxymoron would be an "orthodox humanist" and the BHA campaign for constitutional reform does not mention republicanism at all. Virtually all of the humanists I know have echoed the sentiments of Toynbee and Rayner, pointing out that having a hereditary head of state is irrational since given the random nature of genetic inheritance there is no guarantee that a person born of royal lineage will be fit to be head of state. They point out that the monarchy is an anachronistic hangover from feudal times and doesn’t reflect the aspirations and values many of us hold, in relation to democracy, human rights, social mobility, etc. It simply establishes the permanent position of a particular social class with a particular political standpoint. I agree with this analysis for the most part – so what’s my problem?
Let me make an analogy. I don’t like soap operas. I think they are boring, tiresome and predictable – I have better things to do with my time. So in the unlikely event of me being made controller of the BBC, I am obviously going to cancel Eastenders and replace it with a new David Attenborough documentary, right? It’s only rational isn’t it – the UK population would gain great educational value from my decision and perhaps I could wean them off the rubbish. Many societies of the past, such as the former Soviet Union took just this paternalistic attitude. The problem is that such an attitude is in opposition to the humanist ideal of the “open and free society”. Eastenders is not for me, it is for other people who like that sort of thing and would feel outraged in being denied their weekly fix. If people want Eastenders and Eastenders does no real harm to anyone other than stultify their minds, they can have Eastenders and if they enjoy the pomp, ceremony, sense of continuity and security afforded by the British Royal family, that isn’t necessary a bad thing. Perhaps the comparison of the Royal Family to a popular soap opera is particularly apposite. The Queen is not a true autocrat, she does not really rule over us in the way that monarchs of the past did – crucially the period in history when the republican ideals were laid down. Nobody thinks of her as having a hot line to God or a divine right to rule. She “rules” if it can be called that by public ascent, something that looks likely to continue given the statistics showing support for the monarchy.  She is a figure head for UK PLC, a popular focal point for national unity, a fixed point in these days of corrupt democratically elected politicians and has been very successful in that role given the current widespread support for the monarchy, despite the efforts of some members of her clan to tarnish the brand. Her success lies in her ability to project herself as the embodiment of civic duty upheld over an entire lifetime, the chief civil servant of the people. It is true that the royals are more of an extension of the media celebrity culture evident in seeing them posing with people like Cheryl Cole and Tom Jones at the end of the “star studded” concert held at Buckingham Palace. Is that a bad thing? It’s show business. Like Eastenders, the monarchy is not for progressive intellectual types, its part of the bread and circuses that constitute the meaning of life for many ordinary people and a humanism that seeks to despise and ridicule the very human predilection for nationalism combined with entertainment and the security of a strong establishment is less than human. It also fails to recognise the progressive nature of the monarchy itself, for example the recent changes to the rules of succession, replacing male preference primogeniture with absolute primogeniture, in which the first born child of a monarch is heir apparent regardless of gender and the end to the ban on marriage to Catholics, also the requirement for those in line to the throne to gain the permission of the sovereign to marry. This shows the kind of slow and piecemeal change those of us on the right of the humanist spectrum favour, following Karl Popper in his seminal work, “The Open Society and its Enemies”, in opposition to revolutionary fervour.

So am I in favour of the status quo simply because the monarchy is currently enjoying great popularity? The modern monarchy rightly relies on popular support. As a humanist I could hardly be said to be a follower of Edmund Burke, but as the late Christopher Hitchens quoted William Hazlitt in the collection of articles (“Arguably”) he wrote shortly before his death, the chapter “Edmund Burke: Reactionary Prophet; Reflections on the Revolution in France”:
“It has always been with me a test of the sense and candour of any one belonging to the opposite party, whether he allowed Burke to be a great man.”
This is in contrast to Paine's suggestion that in mourning the plumage he forgets the dying bird. As Hitchens points out a statement employed the world over by pitiless revolutionaries to justify unscrupulous actions. Hitchens goes on to quote Burke:
“It is known; that armies have hitherto yielded a very precarious and uncertain obedience to any senate, or popular authority; and they will least of all yield it to an assembly which is only to have a continuance of two years. The officers must totally lose the characteristic disposition of military men, if they see with perfect submission and due admiration, the dominion of pleaders; especially when they find that they have a new court to pay to an endless succession of those pleaders; whose military policy, and the genius of whose command (if they should have any) must be as uncertain as their duration is transient. In the weakness of one kind of authority and in the fluctuation of all, the officers in the army will remain for some time mutinous and full of faction, until some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of command, shall draw the eyes of all men upon himself. Armies will obey him on his personal account. There is no other way of securing military obedience in this state of things.  But the moment in which that event shall happen, the person who really commands the army is your master, the master (that is little) of your king, the master of your Assembly, the master of your whole republic.”

As Hitchens noted, this passage eerily prefigured the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in the aftermath of the reign of terror and I would suggest that this unfolding of history would be the true enemy of humanism. The only time Britain had a republic it only lasted twenty years and was led by a man dismissed by the pre-eminent Scottish enlightenment philosopher, David Hume, as a regicidal dictator whose measures against Catholics in Scotland and Ireland have been characterised as near-genocidal. If we were creating a new country, with a new constitution, there is no doubt that I would be strongly in favour of a secular republic along the lines of the United States, but that is not where we are and it is churlish to deny that the pomp and ceremony associated with Royalty adds colour to the nations life. Thomas Paine excoriates his former friend Burke's refusal to criticize the crimes and cruelties of the "ancien regime" in his book "The Rights of Man" and perhaps I will receive the same response to this polemic, but in truth, the monarchy of the 21st century is not the monarchy of Paris 1789 and this is not the same quarrel. To think it is is to be out of touch with reality.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Is Happiness the only Good?

This is a recording of my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Tuesday 17th April. I didn't intend it to sound so gloomy! Here is the script:

The humanist Robert Ingersoll once said “Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now and the way to be happy is to make others so.”  But what do we really mean by happiness? Many of the most gifted writers, artists, scientists and philosophers have lived lives of great value whilst enduring neurotic misery day-to-day. Surely we must separate feeling joy in the moment from the idea of a life lived well. The scientific discipline of evolutionary psychology offers a fascinating insight in to the evolutionary function of happiness in the sense of subjective wellbeing and why finding lasting happiness is so elusive. Other emotions such as fear and disgust are easily explained in terms of an evolutionary pressure to avoid the things that would threaten our survival in the environment in which our brains evolved such as the venomous spiders and snakes that were plentiful in Palaeolithic Africa. They each prompt different reactions to specific threats. The function of happiness appears to be that it helps us to strive for the goals that evolution has built in to us, such as finding food, finding a mate and spending time with our children. There are fewer positive emotions because they prompt us to keep doing what we were doing and there is only one way of not changing anything. For this system to work, our feeling of happiness has to be reset each time we obtain the desired outcome, whether it is receiving a pay rise or promotion at work, winning the lottery or your football team gaining promotion to the premier league. The feeling of happiness soon wears off but natural selection has programmed us to still keep thinking that lasting happiness is in our reach. Thinking about this helps us to cherish the moments of joy experienced in life whilst accepting their transitory nature.