Saturday 6 July 2013

Beyond the powerlessness of politicians

ted-rsSteve Richards is a fascinating political columnist and he even has a one-man show, showing off his political wisdom - and particularly about the sheer powerlessness of politicians.

One of the many things I learned carrying out an independent review from the government was just how difficult it is to make anything happen.  The sheer complexity, political and administrative, of the current arrangements get in the way - the vested interests, the unpredictable side-effects of any change, and the sheer inertia of the delicate balance we have at the moment, all conspire to prevent it.

Sir Keith Joseph used to complain that he had spent his whole life trying to get his hands on the levers of government, only to find they weren't connected to anything.  And that was four decades ago or more.

I've been thinking about this for some time, especially in the light of the frustrations that Liberal Democrats have found in government, which are legion.  But I've just run across an article that has made me think differently.

Because this idea that government is some kind of machine goes very deep.  The sins of Whitehall are mainly mechanistic, and reductionist, and born of the Age of Newton.  Politics seems not even to have caught up with the Age of Einstein, let alone the Age of Chaos.  Perhaps we have become so wedded to Keith Joseph's levers that we can't see there are other ways of making things happen.

I just read an article by the highly controversial scientist Rupert Sheldrake (pictured above) about his new book The Science Delusion.

Bit of background here.  Sheldrake is the man who designed a whole series of populist experiments to test out peculiarities - is it true, for example, that dogs really know when their owners are coming home, as they so often seem to?

He sends many, but not all, scientists completely bonkers, which is why his TED talk last year was censored - though you can still watch it online.  His main sin is that he has questioned whether science is pretty much done and dusted, and whether there are actually major changes coming in the way we understand the universe.  As if that wasn't enough, he has questioned the following broad, and as he says, unproven, assumptions:

"1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, “lumbering robots”, in Richard Dawkins’ vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.

2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.

3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).

4. The laws of Nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same forever more.

5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.

6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.

7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.

8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.

9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.

10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

Together, these beliefs make up the philosophy or ideology of materialism, whose central assumption is that everything is essentially material or physical, even minds. This belief system became dominant within science in the late 19th century, and is now taken for granted. Many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption; they simply think of it as science, or the scientific view of reality, or the scientific worldview. They are not actually taught about it, or given a chance to discuss it. They absorb it by a kind of intellectual osmosis."

That is what he says.  I don't want to argue here whether Sheldrake is right in his scepticism or not.  I'm not a scientist, though I recognise the besetting sin of the English in this debate - a miserable and unthoughtful positivism, that still has our debate in its grip 70 years after it was worn out as a philosophy.  But, as a political blogger, well, I'm interested.

Because if there are radical changes in the way we understand reality, and how it is connected, then that has implications for the way we change the world - and it opens up other possibilities.  And right now, anyone who believes in the possibility of political change needs other possibilities very badly.

1 comment:

Simon said...

The philosophy of science is complex, deep and suprisingly un-naive. It is something that most of the rest of my department knows a great deal more about than I (I just do ethics), but if think it is still in the grips of logical positivism then you are most wrong.

One point I do want to make however is that materialist assumptions (with a few exceptions) don't seem to me to be 'wrong' they just form a particular point of view, that of the physical sciences. Speak to an antrhopologist or a psychologist and there is a good chance they will not share that point of view. The problem isn't that our scientists are materialist, but that we have so little respect for the non-materialist sciences. Even the American Psychological Association doesn't want to subject their diagnostic manual to scientific examination because, as one pscyhologist put it to me, ïts just a list of terms used by psychologists" - as if this rendered out outside of the field of scientific enquiry.

One of the things that people like about economics as a sociel science (and its very close cousin ínustrial psychology' - almost exactly the same now it is known as business management as it was when first concieved at the beggining of the 20th century - is that they can claim to share the world view of the physical sciences. However that does not mean that very good work is not going on that takes a dramatically different aproach, and is all the better for it. My favourite group to date are the 'human ecologists', who occupty the broad spectrum from semi-mysics (Alasdair McIntosh) to those who even economicsts now respect (Elenor Ostrom) and a wide views in between.

A world view is one way of viewing the world, it is not the world. Anybody who takes the materialist position should be the first to agree with this.