Thursday, January 26, 2012

To Belong or Not to Belong, That is the Value

According to Tor Hernes, co-author and co-editor of “Autopoietic Organization Theory”, there is among scientists today a growing “desire to relax the demand on theory as a means of prediction, [ … to see theory instead] as a means of providing plausible explanations of evolutions and particular phenomena.”(My emphasis.) Plausible explanations of particular phenomena. In other words, we are asked to embrace uncertainty, or, less poetically, to accept that total exactness is impossible. Theory, or hypothesis, is a core component of the scientific method. To request that it need not yield totally accurate predictions, merely plausible predictions, is to question the efficacy of Falsificationism. In Falsificationism, a theory must be testable to be falsifiable. If a theory is not falsifiable—that is, if it cannot be proven wrong—that theory cannot be scientific. A theory asserting God created the world, or that luck is part of successful gambling, is not falsifiable for all sorts of reasons, and therefore not scientific. It can be neither proved nor disproved because it can make no accurate prediction. Thus, to soften this foundation stone is to soften science, to step away from David Hume’s admonition to consign the unmeasurable to fire:
“Let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames; for it contains nothing but sophistry and illusion.”
Hume, that ‘pragmatic’ philosopher, wanted nothing to do with fripperies such as love, or caring, or friendship, or luck, because such subjective experiences cannot be measured. The position is that if a thing cannot be measured, it cannot therefore exist. If it cannot exist, yet we think it does, it must then be an illusion. That in itself is a very strong assertion, a very aggressive theory, which, irony of ironies, is itself not falsifiable. For we cannot prove or disprove a theory that unmeasurable things cannot exist—we can’t measure them! So, Hernes’ soft-sounding request is evidence of a softening at science’s heart (albeit small evidence) I consider noteworthy and important. This is the deep background of this post.

The more immediate background is the ‘urge to belong’ Jeremy Rifkin cites as a primary human drive more fundamental to us than greed and selfishness. This is an interesting assertion, one I tend to agree with. However, it is not as controversial as it first seems, nor all that disruptive to current neo-Darwinian theory, since the urge to belong is likely an emergent property of being a social animal, which we humans most certainly are (even psychopaths ‘need’ a society to interact with, to feed on, and are darkly fascinated by our empathy, our rich emotions). Furthermore, the need to belong can be seen as the underpinning of selfishness and greed. For example, we may be producing hoards of unhealthily greedy and immaturely selfish people, simply because they feel like they don’t belong, strongly suspect society does not need them. This problem correlates closely with valuewhat do we value, how do we measure it, and how do we distribute what we have so measured (reward and punishment)? (Economics attempts to answer these questions.) But value is a subjective phenomenon impossible to measure (even with money), a delicious challenge which has been too far from our cultural mind for far too long. Economics is, in my opinion, the sequestering of richly subjective value assessments from the wider culture into the hands of the owners of wealth, where value has been standardised into money. And that process is one of the many consequences of elitism, which is itself, I suspect, an immature stage of human development which emerged from specialisation and humanity’s Ascent, its battle to control and master all of nature.

This post takes a brief look at these two phenomena, and ekes out a connection between them. To belong we must be valued, in some way, by the group to which we wish to belong. Do we need to accurately and explicitly measure value (money) in order to measure belonging, or can we have a far more open society (say, one built around resource-based economics) which thrives in the absence of an explicit and standardised measure of value?

Those like me, who hope for some form of anarchist/RBE (resource-based economy) world, are happy to see the urge to belong characterised as a stronger driver of human behaviour than competition, selfishness, or greed, since such a future mode would be built on cooperation and sharing. But, isn’t belonging a survival urge? We ‘belong’ when we are important to our group in some way, whether as a leader or entertainer or thinker or scientist or whatever; we feel we belong when what we contribute to our group visibly (this is subtly different from ‘explicitly’) helps it thrive and enjoy life. It is difficult imagining someone truly belonging to a group while being of no use to it whatsoever, contributing absolutely nothing. Always taking, never giving. We have to contribute to belong, and we need to belong. Can everyone everywhere belong to some group somewhere, be important to some people somehow? For the first time since our ‘primitive’ beginnings, I think so, and the Internet is key here, but—this is a huge “BUT!!!”—, not while money is our sole measure of value; money is just too crude and clumsy—air has a value of zero in money’s eyes, for example.

But regardless of our opinion on that, the urge to belong probably stems from the urge to survive, where, very importantly, the quality of survival is highly significant, ‘valuable,’ we could almost say vital. Humans aren’t really alive, when all they do is survive. And it is not only fear and scarcity fuelling the need to belong. Even though belonging to a group means better protection from the ravages of the wild, or the ‘safety in numbers’ principle of each relying on and helping the other, the question today should be, relying on each other for what, and to achieve what quality of life? That asked, is a quality-based inter-dependency of people constructively and sustainably binding? Could such an open and abundant society keep us healthily cohesive, when something vague and unmeasurable like quality of life is the implied reward and motivator, and not something immediate and palpable like blank survival? If existential angst were largely removed via technological development, could we humans cope with that much comfort, freedom of movement, absence of oppression? In “The Matrix”, the AI Computer Overlords construct a perfect virtual reality for their human slaves, but it backfires horribly. Entire crops are lost. Humans, concludes the AI machine, need misery and suffering to thrive. The film’s joke is funny, because we all have that kind of fear somewhere inside us. Things can be too good to be true.

In a full-on, Venus Project, resource-based economy, in which we “constantly maximise existing and future technologies with the sole purpose of enhancing all human life and protecting the environment” (Jacque Fresco), there would be close to no existential angst, certainly not for material reasons. Societal ‘interbeingness’ (to coin an Eisensteinian phrase), or interdependence, would be pleasure- and project-based, functionally speaking, not fear- and scarcity-based. We would not be meeting base needs like food and shelter by contributing and being important—such things would be available for ‘free.’ We would contribute to meet social needs like kudos, joy, belonging, reputation, respect. Our reasons for contributing, the manner in which we feel we make ourselves useful to some group or other, would be greatly different to today, where job and income are symbols and proof of our contribution to society. There would be new symbols for sure, but far richer, more contextualized, less fixed, less linear, than $, € and ¥.

Is all this a pipe dream? Are humans in fact unhealthily greedy and immaturely selfish 'by design'? Is it our ‘wiring’ makes us so? I say no, and one look at the Piraha or other ‘primitive’ peoples confirms this. We lived for hundreds of thousands of years without money-symbols of success and motivation, without ‘exact’ measures of value. All sorts of discoveries, such as taming fire, grain and beast; farming and metallurgy; specialisation; states, nation states and corporations; and elitism separate us from ‘primitives,’ but our genes are largely unchanged. These discoveries, these bio-social pressures, are recent phenomena on a biological time-frame. We are not ‘wired’ to be unhealthily greedy, immaturely selfish. Such are reasonable behavioural adjustments to environmental conditions.

(For the record, I do not think The Venus Project is going to flower as suggested by Jacque Fresco, but it does represent a powerful set of ideas, which brings into sharp relief the important questions of motivation and value. On the other hand, I do believe that our developmental arc is—if we seize this opportunity creatively—generally towards The Venus Project, or at least towards a recourse-based economics (no one yet knows what such a thing will look like), but the path thither (to use archaic language), should we tread it, will be Eisensteinian, or like this.)

Again, we are obliged to recall that we are social animals, not wolverines or tigers or trapdoor spiders, that therefore our social needs are neither weak nor ignorable. On a broader note, and by way of suggesting we are very flexible social animals, richly varied, I strongly suspect relationships—society’s glue—would necessarily be more supple; marriage would wither away, and blind loyalty—staying true to one partner, ideology, etc., no matter what—would be much rarer, perhaps non-existent. One consequence of this should be that Big Brother entities and institutions become impossible. The social soil suggested by the principles and trains of thought of resource-based economics could not be a breeding ground for systems of paranoia and control. Systems emerge from and are sustained by environmental conditions enabling them. They adapt to new environmental conditions, or die. Similarly, social systems emerge from and are sustained by an enabling social environment. Even institutional power to manipulate perception and paradigm via propaganda is not total, nor immortal.

If our general trajectory now (for sure a very turbulent one) is ever less economic activity for humans (this is key), and less disruptive susceptibility to vagaries of nature such as famine and drought (assuming the spread of all sorts of positive technological outcomes for a moment, including technologies like permaculture and wise management of commons), that trajectory will generate more ‘leisure’ time alongside an intelligently shared abundance. In such an atmosphere of abundance and ease, what pressures would be felt by people to acquiesce to group demands? Principally, the ‘inner’ (human-systemic) urge to belong, as shaped by the general sharing and cooperation of honest and transparent social structures made necessary by a new economic and environmental reality. Greed and selfishness would find new forms of expression. We would be ‘greedy’ for accomplishment, new adventures, stimulating challenges; ‘selfish’ in our support of those systems enabling and sustaining our quality of life.

If, on the other hand, our trajectory is forced towards generating ever more work and economic activity, a.k.a., the Pillage of Perpetual Growth, humanity will implode in the frenzy, and do deeper harm to ecosystems everywhere.

For my part, I believe there will be less and less economic activity for humans, less Growth—because of technological unemployment, falling population growth, the Internet, the death of consumerism, Open Source, global warming, soil fertility, water tables, and other such variables. Therefore, the RBE trajectory—‘high-tech’ style—seems the more logical … assuming sufficient, clean energy sources.

On energy briefly. After fossil fuels are exhausted, or become too energy-costly to extract, there are many who believe the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) humans enjoy will return to some 1.n to 1 ratio evident elsewhere in nature. Today, oil yields somewhere between 10-15 to 1. It yielded about 100-1 a century ago. If what awaits us is pre-fossil fuel energy, humanity goes ‘back’ to tilling the fields. Or, if we’re luckier, ‘forwards’ to permaculture. But I simply cannot believe an EROEI of 1.n awaits humanity after fossil fuels are no longer sufficiently available to us. Wind reliably delivers around 20, solar around 5 to 1 and rising, and new technologies promise more than that, including cold fusion (now re-branded as Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) to make it more palatable). A steady state economics would need an EROIE about 10-1 (I dimly recall reading somewhere, but don’t quote me on that). Without consumerism; wasteful suburban sprawl; moronic Monday-Friday, nine-to-five work weeks; with intelligently designed cities, transportation systems, super-efficient housing, etc., our energy consumption would fall dramatically. (Far more troubling than energy are concerns like water and soil. These are not (quite yet) deal breakers, as far as I’m aware. Global warming might be.)

Obviously, I cannot know how all this pans out, but toying with ideas, encouraging critical thinking, discussion, and ‘independent’ study, helps us arrive at better ‘decisions.’ How ‘problematic’ is it that the urge to belong is ‘selfish?’ Well, taking care of that which takes care of us makes very clear sense. We are social. It therefore makes sense to take care of the society we cannot help but want to belong to. ‘Exactly’ how we do this, that devil in the detail, cannot be known. Ever. Even now. For who can explain exactly how it all works today, let alone in a distant tomorrow?

And is all this simply a new way of saying ‘enlightened self-interest,’ that tired, old chestnut? Have I just laid out yet another (updated?) take on Smith’s Invisible Hand? Perhaps. But a new perspective on, or perception of, an old devil helps sometimes. We don’t snap over to completely new ways of being, we slowly and disjointedly transcend, or emerge from, current ones. Maybe the market doesn’t take care of business, but ‘enlightened’ or long term self-interest might make a better fist of it, as money is demoted, and wealth (real value) promoted. Somehow. Ditto embracing uncertainty. How does that really work? How do we bring that into science? Again, I don’t know. Somehow, there is always a mystery ingredient X involved. When you plan, you cannot cross all the Ts and dot all the Is in advance, and know, 100%, you’re right. X was, is and always will be.

In conclusion, I believe we are in the midst of a sweet irony. It is science and its methodologies which have yielded the potential wisdom to ‘return’ to far more ‘anarchic,’ far less state-run, social systems; federated communities interconnected with Internet and database management technologies. But, we will only plant our feet firmly on that path, after we give up on the religious dogma that only the measurable exists. Money is the conduit between the two, since value—which money purports to measure—cannot be measured. I find it absolutely fascinating, and detect here the poetic mind of god at work, that money—a symbol measuring the unmeasurable as economics struggles to be ‘scientific’—stands between us and our continuing development, and that a softening of science’s heart can help light the way.


Игры рынка said...

It is too late and I have random thoughts but would like to drop some lines.

Firstly, regarding money and inter-connectedness/-dependence. David Graeber in his book "Debt" draws a clear connection between money/debt and society. My simplified version of his argument is that all money is debt (it certainly is today) however the concept of debt preceded formal money. Debt turned into money only when a need to deal/trade with complete strangers became urgent. In small societies aka villages there was no need for money since everybody knew everybody else. But there was non-monetary debt. This debt created a microcosm which was impossible to break. Without trust any insider became a black sheep and was expelled. And no stranger could get in. And that is why, btw, anonymity was not possible and did not exist back then.

Regarding energy ... we do not need to struggle with wind or solar. We already have technologies which can supply us with clean energy for the next millennium or two. One of these technologies is called thorium molten-salt reactor. This technology exits for decades and the first prototype reactor was built something like 50 years ago. Only history can tell why we still use other reactors and not this one.

Thorium is a radioactive element with an extremely long half-life. We are talking billions of years. The consequence of it is that one can find thorium everywhere. Much worse. Thorium is a by-product of mining of many other useful metals without which, for instance, we would not have had mobile phones. And as a by-product it has to be disposed of and disposed of as a radioactive waste. Anyways what makes thorium super-great as an energy source is that under certain conditions thorium can turn itself into uranium which is already a regular nuclear fuel. But it turns into a "good" uranium. The burn-out rate of this uranium can be pushed with technological tricks into high 90ies% compared to 5-10% of mainstream nuclear reactors. Additionally, the molten-salt reactor is a low-pressure reactor because it does not need forced water cooling. Therefore the risk of explosion is virtually non-existent. And so on. There is enough info on internet about it. It is really beyond me why we still do not use this technology. But I know for sure that Chinese and Indians are very active in this field. Which brings me to another point...

Western civilization is intrinsically very primitive as it relies on pure power. On the one hand this strive for power allowed us to build a technological civilization. But on the other hand we lost any connection to ourselves (remember the discussion about things called mediators from the last post?). On the contrary, Asian civilizations are much more nuanced and more complex and they do care about internal workings of human beings. If WE do not spoil THEM with our VALUES, and that is a rather big if, then we might have a hope that combining the best of the two worlds can become a step in the right direction. Otherwise, it very much looks to me like dogs eat dogs and will require a complete breakdown only to get a chance to build something new. If we survive...

ps. And though I would prefer to stick to my anonymity, I am fine to disclose my name - Sergei :)

Toby said...

Hi Sergei! We meet at last. As an Englishman, formal introductions are so important to me. ;-)

I've read Graeber's "Debt" twice, and think it a very important book. The argument that money is 'accurately' recorded debt resonates strongly, and has influenced much of this post. Eisenstein's books "The Ascent of Humanity" and "Sacred Economics" are excellent, and in terms of the history of money, Zarlenga's "The Lost Science of Money" is worth the effort. Bernard Lietaer is great and does important research into ecology, e.g., ecosystem resilience, looking for dynamics elsewhere in nature we might learn from. In German Bernd Senf is good, and Franz Hörmann you now know. Then there are the weird MMT folks who have plenty to offer too, and should be well studied by those who want to understand the current system of central and commercial bank monies. In short, I've been studying the money problem for a long time, and yes, money is debt. In fact, it can only be debt.

Frederick Soddy (in "The Role of Money") put it best:

"Money now is the NOTHING we get for SOMETHING before we can get ANYTHING."

(The all caps are Soddy's.) Money is nothing, even gold as money is nothing. All you can do with it is hand it over in exchange for something else. Typically you can do something with the thing you buy, like eat it, or drive it, or otherwise consume it. But money, that thing we value oh so much, is just an IOU, a debt, the NOTHING you 'earn,' in exchange for which society 'owes' you for that SOMETHING you did to 'earn' it. Money is a credit-debt record. I could go on and on about this (and have done!), but, keeping it simple, money is always and only debt from someone's point of view. The real question is whether it should be interest-bearing debt to be paid back to some lender where it disappears (the earned interest remains), or whether demurrage (negative interest) should be applied, as per Lietaer, Senf, Gesell, Eisenstein and many others.

Deeper than that is the issue of scarcity (Jacque Fresco's analysis), for, functionally speaking, we only 'need' money to distribute scarce goods and services we might otherwise fight over. Hence, air has a value of zero because it is abundant and cannot be controlled or distributed via some controlling conduit. That is, should we produce an abundance of all goods and serives, we would no longer functionally need money. In many ways we're technically there already, only cultural lag and many infrastructure problems prevents us from implementing a far more sustainable arrangement: resource-based economics. Culture is the more intractable problem of the two.

As for thorium, I've heard of it. When it comes to fission, I worry about the waste. Hence I am for renewables and other clean energy generation technologies. Why produce poisonous waste when you don't have to? But perhaps more important (and worrying) than that is Infinite Growth. We don't need to solve our so-called energy problem to keep Growth going at all costs, we need to address how we produce energy as part of how we arrange and organise society more sustainably and transparently, a huge part of which is dealing with the absurdity of Consumerism.

However, never say never. If you could point me to some good (English or German) material on thorium I'd be happy to take a look at it.


Toby said...


And interesting observations on power. Already, though, the Internet is speeding up the process of East meeting West (we have been cross-fertilizing with each other for centuries), and this process is the hope I focus on. I don't watch TV or read the papers, since their focus is on the negative, and is so drenched of ideological propaganda I can't bear to watch more than a couple of minutes any more. So my sense of the imminence of war is peripheral. If war comes, and societal collapse with it, so be it. There's not really anything I can do about that. Meanwhile, I do what little I can in the direction you see here.

Unknown said...

I'm using that in the lyric of a song; We're 'not wolverines or tigers or trapdoor spiders'
Excellent post.

Toby said...

Thank you, Ru.

Now rhyme like the wind! Write like the wind! "Remember, that's wind like the air, not wind like the watch..." (Do you remember that Ken Wind character from "Electra, Assassin"? I know you remember The Three Amigos!)

Florian Popp said...


you're really starting to become my favourite utopian writer these days, slowly but surely pushing Kim Stanley Robinson from the throne... If now only I had a nice, utopian novel from your hands, I'd spend all day immersing myself in it... As it is, the blog has to make do.

Toby said...

Hi Frank,

you know, it's funny you should say that. I've had a sci-fi plot for a novel (it would be called "Mind Games" and be in two parts) tumbling around in my head for about ten years now. I keep on planning to get back to fiction writing, but somehow other bits of life get in the way. And there's something more satisfying about dealing with non-fiction (whatever that really is) than fiction. For now at least.

And thanks for the high praise. You know how much I love it!

Debra said...

Hi Toby,
I'm breaking my promise to myself and you ... ;-)
On the subject of soft science, I am going to refer you to my favorite Dominique Meda (philosopher) book on work, in the following approximate translation (courtesy of me) :
..." In the big controversy between the natural sciences, and the sciences of the mind which traversed the 19th and 20th century at several points, the "operational" sciences triumphed, the ones which offered guarantees in terms of verification and utility. The model developed by logical positivism, which insisted on imposing a definition of "science" as an ensemble of hypothetical-deductif reasoning susceptible of being verified, or invalidated has supplanted the model of GENERALIST sciences incapable of showing their foundations, or of showing how they are different from ideologies. Philosophy seems to be one of the major victims of this development, (particularly METAPHYSICS, the favorite target of logical positivism, or criticism."

Debra said...

"Starting in 1892, Frege, in a famous article, proposed that the value of truth constitute a reference in assertions, and statements which have meaning.... Russell's "Principia mathematica" and Whitehead mark the beginning of logical positivism. The major characteristic of these authors, and those who follow them, is to eliminate from speech phrases "sans sens" (without meaning...), like those which can be found in metaphysics, AS THEY SAY.. As A. Ayer says in "Truth, Language and Logic" (1936) :"A statement literally HAS MEANING if and only if it is verifiable from an empirical or analytic standpoint". Exit.. OUR IMAGINATION, and FICTION, right ??
Many of my friends refuse to see how such apparently.. ABSTRACT considerations have momentous effects on THEIR DAILY LIVES, but I for one, can definitely understand how such CORSETED IDEAS about what language can do/be define.. OUR CURRENT REALITY, and stick "science" into a very uncomfortable spot WHERE IT JUST MIGHT DIE, if we don't rescue it... ;-).

Toby said...

Hi Debbie, that's a great comment, and thanks for translating that for us. Here I fear we two are one. Dogma damages, and logical positivism is a dogma. To cast the unmeasurable aside is an act of unbridled hubris from which humanity is still in shock. I hope we can relearn the beauty of science, its humility, its 'I don't know' posture. Because, as I say, I love life, humanity, Universe. Selfishly speaking, I want us to learn, grow wiser, be wealthier.

Игры рынка said...

Here is a nice but somewhat long lecture on thorium

Re human civilizations... Unfortunately anything primitive tends to win over everything else. You can say it is Darwin. Or even the 2nd law of thermodynamics. But unless you intentionally and externally over-complicate the existence of human beings we will inevitable lose our fight with nature. Historically, religion used to serve the function of the "external" complicating, organizing and motivational force. However, if again you take us, westerners, and Christianity as our religion and look into history (I am not an expert in religion or history; so these are my feelings) you will see that Christianity is a very primitive religion based on ... power. Christianity never looked to complement our existence. It always looked to replace and control. And in the end it won our souls though the path was not easy. However we managed to turn ourselves into an even worse society than that. We became region-less. Or rather we replaced our real religion, even though it was already bad enough, with the religion of "capitalism". So we promoted the idea of "capitalism" to our religion and it became our external motivational force. This force is primarily the fear of unemployment. In our advanced stage of capitalism we even managed to get rid of national leaders as they were 50 or even 30 years ago when they often were our motivational force. As government is "by definition" bad then by the same definition so are our presidents, prime ministers and chancellors. But then why do we keep on "electing" those morons?

I could go on and on about this. And I could also talk about events in Europe where our civilization started and the today's role of Germany in shaping our future (to add insult to injury I live in Vienna, Austria) but I rather stop here. I realize that your perspective is much longer than mine. But before we get to the longer we do have to find a medium-term solution. Once we step on the path downwards of self-disintegration it is next to impossible to turn around and start climbing again. It is not enough to say "we are humans and deserve/want to have a better future". You can not change society's "religion" by just declaring it. So I hope that martians look at us and at some point of time they will say "enough is enough" and declare a war on us. They will win this war and we will pay war tribute to them, i.e. export (Germany would feel very proud), and only then, under this external motivational pressure, we might be able to re-design our senses of who we are and what we want. And lets hope that martians will then say that we deserve to be free again.

Otherwise I am a happy human being who works in finance and lives in an exporting country which even uses German as its official language. I am just teasing :) But as I used to say of Russians: "I love all of them but only as long as they are less than three together". They are stronger because they are more primitive. Today!

Debra said...

What I like about this blog, Sergui, is that people who are at least... bilingual have a different, and often complex perspective on the world.
On Christianity, I think that human beings are into power, period. Feeling powerful. And that, independant of religion. Perhaps the history of Western consciousness is a history of the rise of conscious control, privileged over rolling with the punches ?
In the best of cases, organized religion provides a more or less sophisticated backdrop in which aggressive forces, and negativity can be harnessed into constructive outlets, while giving people a sense of community and ritual/stability.
I tend to think that the universalist "In Christ there is no East nor West... but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth" is still the horse that is driving the cart in our civilization.
Love as a totalitarian project. Kill 'em with kindness, as my grandma used to say.
It can be done... it can be done, unfortunately.

Tao Jonesing said...


I look forward to you finding your way. You need to doubt yourself more to do so, however. For example, you wind up your post as if economics were a science, but it has been proven false time and again.

What happens if a falsifiable theory has been proved false and we ignore the proof that the theory is false? Is it still "scientific" or is it just false?

I was led to this place months ago by Debra, but I have lurked, in part, to leave this place hers (in spite of the fact that I question her gender). There is no such thing as human nature other than the cognitive function that makes us compare what we experience to what we expect and react accordingly.

By the way, I loved Sergei's comments. Really good stuff. Not far off from what can be proven through the historical record

Toby said...

Hi Sergei,

I'm not sure your entropic view of nature is accurate, though I know I'm very much on the fringe to doubt it. For example, our fight against nature is part of nature. As is religion. The human body itself is the exquisitely organized cooperation of trillions of cells. This amazingly complex cooperation needed no 'unnatural' Hobbesian state nor Big Brother threat to evolve. Hence, though I agree that we will "lose our fight against nature" it is because we are not really in a fight against nature, but 'suffering' under the illusion that we are in a fight against nature. We are as much a part of nature as the weather. But this is a very complex topic which goes very 'deep' indeed.

I'm still in the middle of my 10 yr old daughter's sleep-over Harry Potter Pyjama Party, so I've yet to watch that lecture on thorium. Thanks for the link, I'll get to it soon.


nice of you to stop by, despite those odd gender reservations about Debbie. And I certainly do not believe economics is a science, and did not mean to imply it is. I looked again at the last paragraph with your observation in mind and can just see how you'd see that there. But it isn't there, not as an intention anyway.

As for a theory being proved false again and again, is that theory then scientific? My answer to that is a qualified no. It's a very open question. Proved how? How wrong? What was the theory? On what definition of science? If we are talking about economics specifically, I personally have found nothing in it with which I agree. That is more important to me than whether or not it is scientific. But it is not that science is 'bad,' or 'good' for that matter. It is that we should not idolize it. As I said, Falsificationism itself is not falsifiable.

Human nature 'exists,' but it is remarkably flexible, which is why I put flexible in italics in the post. We are a social beast, capable of abstract language, with opposable thumbs. That is about the extent of it. In our rich interactions with our environments, the amount of complexity that has emerged boggles the mind.

As for me needing to doubt myself more, you are the first person ever to have asked me to do so. My wife tells me the exact opposite, that I need to doubt myself less. As do my friends, as did my parents. The person you 'meet' at this blog is a tiny fraction of who I am. And as for me having doubt-free convictions, I have none. The tone I strike in my posts varies, depending on my writing mood. Besides, I would have thought there were enough 'I don't know' postures in this, and many other posts here, to at least suggest that I am open minded in my approach. I'm in this for the long haul, learning far more than I impart. I see myself as growing up (very late—I'm almost 46) in public. A small public, but a public nonetheless.

Игры рынка said...

Toby, yes, it is a deep topic, but no, we do not really fight against nature. Or rather there are two natures here: the nature-nature and human-nature. We have pretty much mastered the first nature. But at the cost of losing the second one. We, as society, deem today that any activity which does not produce exportable results (just to use the modern fetish) is a cost which should be cut to relief the rest from carrying it. Thinking about life and guiding ourselves into the future is not exportable. Even in Europe and not later than 100 years ago we still had a dedicated class for this particular task, for what its worth. Anyways, what we do here is considered a waste by contemporary standards. And this is the fight we are losing. Once we are sufficiently down that path, the nature-nature will kick-in and write the final dot. There is nothing in this that contradicts the fact of existence of complex multibillion cells organism called human-beings. Each of these multibillion organisms is a complex thing to organize and we have brains for that. But when we get to a multibillion number of brains looks like we are losing any urge to organize this mess. So how do we turn around given that in the meantime we also lost diversity of views?

Toby said...

I don't know, Sergei. The diversity we must embrace, that rich, spicy variety of life, vital as it is, does not 'care' about this or that direction. Perhaps. I really don't know.

What I do here is, as I said, drop soundings into the dark, listen for echoes, respond, and repeat. You could say I do it for myself. But my desire is for something 'better,' even though I know I have no 'right' (there's another word to battle with!) to define for others what "better" means. Again, I just don't know. But I work at what I do nevertheless.

But I do disagree slightly with the human-nature nature-nature dichotomy you present. If memory serves, over 99% of all living things that ever lived are now extinct. Was that e.g., dodo-nature versus nature-nature? Was there tyrannosaurus-nature versus nature-nature? Do humans deserve a special category above and beyond that which each and every living organism has, as system adapting or failing to adapt to its environment? That is the 'against' which does apply to living organisms' ongoing interaction with environment. We co-affect, co-create with environment the changes we must adapt to, e.g., technological unemployment, nuclear power and waste, atomic bombs, pollution, global warming, etc. We may or may not survive the consequences of our genius, but this is hardly a unique situation in the sense of Darwinian adaptation and survival, which is 'nature' generally speaking. The deeper question, in my opinion, is, what comes 'first,' consciousness (whatever that is), or matter (whatever that is). And, is linear causality the 'truth' of Universe. I don't think we have these fundamental properties of Universe correctly 'ordered' in our intellectual lexicon, hence we don't yet know what Darwinian evolution 'really' is. Here I am with Charles Eisenstein. There's far more to all this than Newtonian, discreet, 'objective' particles bumping into each other, with A causing B causing C ad infinitum. Or until the whole show 'entropies' to pure 'chaos.' At least, I strongly suspect there is more than that.

Игры рынка said...

Toby, I think that is an easy question. The 99% that died out (ha-ha) did not have their own nature. There was no dodo-nature or tyrannosaurus-nature. We also did not have our nature until we drew a clear line between the laws of nature (lets call them a-la Darwin) and our own laws. That is when we effectively said that despite what nature-nature thinks we think that even weak ones should have a chance and right to live. We now think that it is not we who should adapt but nature-nature. So we started building houses, burning oil sorry wood, mining metals etc. And so technological unemployment, nuclear waste, pollution and global warming is our nature, not nature-nature. We do NOT adapt TO it because we create it. It might and does hurt us but that is a different story. Actually, it is THE story which is at question here. Can we adapt to creatures of our genius or our genius should adapt? And was there a genius at all to start with? Some people commit suicides and some even do collective suicides. So maybe in the end we all are going to commit a super-sized collective suicide like a nuclear war? But it is not the nature-nature which will do this to us.

Or, to put it another way, what is the value of survival instinct if there is no fear of individual survival anymore? And how can we develop an "instinct" of *collective* survival? Because even bees have this instinct. Maybe, just maybe, it IS the idea "to belong". And I could agree with it. But the question of getting there is torturing me. Therefore I feel much less concerned about universe. At least not before we solve our own micro-problems. But then as I said above, I realize that your perspective is much longer than mine.

Toby said...

Sergei, I do not wish to make my concerns or perspectives any one else's. An impossibility even if I did want that. You draw a valid distinction which reflects, to my mind, the idea of differentiation. We humans are differentiated, dodos and other beasts are not. This self-awareness—a property of universe—leads to the things you list. And yet the distinction, the differentiation, is as natural as anything else. That is, the battle is in our minds. Which is very real, and powerful, since it's all an illusion anyway, for reasons of structural coupling.

So I would say this is not about aligning concerns, nor is it about me doing this and you doing that, and oh no, we're not pulling on the same rope! There is the collective, the group-mind, universe, and we are far less individual than we have sung to ourselves these last centuries. There are no actions, only reactions. I go so far as to say there is no such thing as an individual, only nodes in the network, the contemporary way of defining a very old idea. The differentiation you describe is simply one of nature's symphonies, so to speak, and it leads us we know not where. So don't be concerned for universe. I'm not. My perspective is mine and I enjoy expanding it in conversation with people here, or here at home with friends, and in books, and as I write. The relevance of my 'concerns' and wishes is neither here nor there. I am Universe 'tobyrusselling,' as you are universe 'sergeiing'. It comes through us and is the song of everything, always changing. Or, put another way, what will be will be. And even there I think parallel realities and linear time are elements we are very far from understanding. It's complex out there!

Debra said...

I tend to agree with Toby on his position about our current BELIEF that human nature can be separated from nature nature.
I think that it is our hubristic belief in SEPARATION and OPPOSITION which has seriously damaged our feeling of connectedness with our world, the feeling of being part of.
In a prayer group with other... mothers, the other night, I wanted us to pray for the wild animals which are being displaced during the construction of our local ECOLOGICAL (!!!) industrial estate, but at least one person objected.
SHE wanted us to pray that human beings would change their attitudes towards nature, and she wanted to pray for Nature.
My Catholic daughter in law sees no need to pray for the animals, because they are outside of the domain of sin, thus innocent, and also thinks it would be best to pray for our leaders ? men and women ?
And I still would like to pray for THE INDIVIDUAL ANIMALS in their suffering and homelessness as a result of this project.
Three different attitudes.
This may sound rather trivial, but my experience leads me to think/believe that momentous things hinge on our attitudes. Our ideas are behind everything we touch, create, and do.

Tao Jonesing said...


The scourge of humanity is false certainty, and in that sense we all need to doubt ourselves more, particularly about the options we believe are presented to us.

The reason I say there is no such thing as human nature is that the very concept implies a static thing. Humanity is dynamic, and the cognitive function determines a magnitude and direction for both the individual and the collective. It is this cognitive function that provides the flexibility you perceive, but it does not actually exist because humanity is simultaneously all of the things that that each of us says it is: greedy and altruistic; evil and good; etc. In fact, an individual's declaration of human nature tells us more about the individual's nature than that of humanity as a whole.

Toby said...

Hi Tao,

I agree. Good comment. In many ways everything we study, including ourselves, are Rorschach blobs, and everything we say and do Freudian slips.

Игры рынка said...

We do not know whether nature-nature is static or not to say that being dynamic is bad or different. The whole idea of being static or dynamic is orthogonal. Even chaos is driven by natural laws. But what differentiates human nature from nature-nature is that we collectively define the former. We can eat our mates for breakfast as some animal do but we collectively chose not to despite the fact of us clearly being animals. That act of choosing is what defines our nature. "Collective" is the key word.

Debra said...

Serguei, I do not think that we can differentiate human nature from nature nature.
Perhaps man is the animal which enjoys the greatest plasticity in terms of being acted on, and acting on his.. environment ?
He has lots of "choices", as the variety and diversity of human culture/society on this planet (up until recently) shows.
But each "choice" limits another choice further on, until at some point, a great deal of determinism arrives...

Игры рынка said...

Debra, I have a strong feeling that we are suffering from a fallacy of composition here. In other words, I am far from sure that we can talk about "Freudian slips" once we move from an individual to the collective uber-mind. But because we lost or never had a connection to our individual minds we fail to even contemplate anything at the higher level in the hierarchy.

However, one can easily observe that in the real world if you take a random person and put him into a random social environment then after a short while the behavior of this person starts to change and to adopt to the collective "habits". I.e. the collective exists, it exists independently from any single individual and it tends to dominate the individual.

Toby said...


but what is choosing, and how does it happen, exactly? (Questions which have 'exactly' as one of their demands are horrible. My apologies. But my point is rhetorical. I don't think we know what choice is, as Debbie's speech marks suggest.) Do we have free will above and beyond other animals? If so, how? If we answer yes, is our position 'scientifically' provable? We can't turn back the clock and watch the same person make a different decision in exactly the same circumstances as previously. And even if we could, would that prove free will? I don't think so.

Static only happens in theory, i.e., at absolute zero, or 0 Kelvin. As I understand it, this temperature has never been measured or achieved, which means energy-matter is always in motion. Hence, change is the only constant. And, as you say, chaos is not chaotic, but simply formlessness (as far as we perceive it anyway) within certain delimiting 'laws'; we are of nature as 'perpetual law-based change.' Are there immutable laws? I'm very fringe here, and would say not, but that takes us into strange theoretical territory.

And I'm rambling.

Cut a long story short, Debbie is (and this is really weird for me) doing my usual job rather well. Nature is systems and subsystems, of which we are one, as are our social organisations and infrastructure. We can't step out of her, nor one millimeter deeper into her. We are of her. The self-awareness you refer to as a distinguishing feature of humanity is indeed distinguishing (perhaps, dolphins and primates pass the mirror test), but other species have distinguishing characteristics too. No distinguishing characteristic can 'separate' an animal from nature simply because it is rare or unique. Anything and everything which nature develops is part of nature's ongoing change. Including this discussion, and the Internet which enables it, and the English language we 'use' to deliver our information, etc.

I just noticed your latest response to Debbie. Yes, the collective exists, and continues to absent one particular individual. But is of course made of humans, which are subsystems of the collective, in the same way they are subsystems of nature. And I'm beginning to suspect we are on the same page here and I'm wasting your time. Just in case I'm wrong on that I'm posting this comment right now...

Debra said...

Thinking about those choices...
I like to think about the situation in England under Henry VIII, which led to the English Reformation.
Henry, an individual, was in the extremely delicate position of feeling, at least, that he had to produce an heir to the throne, and that was what was behind his big tiff with the Pope, who wanted to maintain HIS prestige, and that of the Church, so... no divorce granted.
IF... Luther had not nailed those theses to the door of that church in ??, it would have been a hell of a lot harder for Henry to come out and break with the Roman Catholic Church.
And once Henry had seized control of the Church, and NATIONALIZED IT, and seized control of Church lands and monies, well, there was no going back.
This little example of momentous events shows, in my mind at least, how IDIOSYNCRATIC history really is, and how much individuals are really much more important than we are capable of seeing at this time, since we have blinders on to train our eyes on.. THE SYSTEMS, THE SYSTEMS...
The American Republicans have it right.. you ultimately see... WHAT YOU WANT TO SEE (and that is what Freud says too, by the way...).

Tao Jonesing said...


Interesting comment on Henry VIII, who legalized usury in England in a 1545 act entitled "An Act Agaynst Usurie."

Henry VIII, consistent with your thesis of human nature, sought to perpetuate his own power and used Protestantism as a cover for doing so, but I think Calvin was more to his way of thinking than Luther.

The entire "liberal" Enlightenment was merely an opportunity to rephrase the false covenant of Christianity (and Judaism before it) as a secular social contract. It is no different in effect.

A key fact to note is that within six years of the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which formed the example of the American Revolution, the Bank of England was formed.

The control structure has been "reformed" numerous times over the last 2300 years by the "them" you refuse to see. All of this started with the invention of western monotheism, which is not identifiable in the confirmable historical record until the the third century BCE.

Toby said...

But the 'decisions' Henry made, Debbie, were in reaction to circumstances beyond his control, in an historical context beyond his control. And he made them as the King he had become, again a person of particular characteristics and desires he did not choose nor create. His constitutional position is what granted him power, not his genes or uniqueness. Uniqueness is not evidence of free will (if I'm reading your comment correctly), since all snow flakes and storms and pretty much everything else 'out there' are unique. Thus, idiosyncrasy applies to everything.

It's funny you should post that comment, because yesterday my wife was describing a monarch's crown as handcuffs, that a monarch is the least free and least 'individual' person there can be. It was a passing comment—slaves and chattels are hardly free—and yet it's clear why she said it. That is, what matters is the system, not the individual. The individual can only be unique, yes, thus in social systems where 1 person can decide the fate of a nation, it looks on the surface the way you describe it. But only on the surface.

Tao, the "them" you reference, do you mean the now infamous 1%? They are certainly there and defend their position as surely as a lioness defends her cubs, and though we 99% must fight against centuries (if not, then millennia) of purposeful propaganda to rid our system of such a 1%, we are in fact 'responsible' for doing so, because no one else can do it for us. For this reason I prefer to under-emphasise Us and Them thinking and look to systemic effects.

I'd be interested to hear your position on that.

Debra said...

So, once again we come down to the millenia old question of "free" will...
It is not because we are... DETERMINED by tons of things beyond our control that we do not make choices on an individual scale, and those choices have an immense impact.
I think that perhaps lots of our current theories about system, and the overriding importance we give to system within ourselves are a way of... REASSURING OURSELVES, and blotting out that incredible feeling of PANIC that comes when we realize (dimly, most of the time...) the degree of freedom which we truly have.
If we spend so much time.. RATIONALIZING why we do things, it is to give us the comfortable.. ILLUSION that everything makes sense, and that we can understand.. EVERYTHING, and give it a comfortable explanation ?
I certainly don't believe in any consistent identity in any shadowy.. 1 %.
Because, although Toby is the only one to engage with me on the ABOVE THREAD, Hannah says rightly that "the Lord bringeth up, and He sendeth down". Like... the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.
Now, if anybody thinks that we are going to get rid of the category "the rich", well, I have a used car that I would like to sell you, as my grandmama used to say...
Tao, I used to incriminate the monotheistic organization of our thought, but, hey.. the Greeks had their own perception of the effets of that dichotomy between... THE ONE AND THE MANY.
Singular and plural..
It's in the words... and we certainly are not going to get rid of THEM (the only system that i recognize as significantly determining us).

Debra said...

Should not have said "the ONLY system I recognize as significantly determining us".
I gave in to.. temptation.
And I agree with your wife, Toby about the Queen, and suggest watching the Stephen Frears film "the Queen" in order to see how, under monarchic power, when the King/Queen does not confuse his person/her person with.. "the King,Queen", well, he/she has little PERSONAL power.
But you gotta be able to understand those kind of distinctions in order to not turn the world into a dualistic power struggle.

Toby said...

Debbie, whether we reassure ourselves or frighten ourselves by giving to environment its rightful weighting as we seek to understand how 'decisions' occur, or in discovering what 'decisions' 'really' are (I'd say reactions; there are no actions), is not important. Fear or comfort are side-effects, reactions to data we generate. The illusion of free will gives the comfort of being 'in control' of our lives, i.e., not being at the mercy of a threatening environment. The 'illusion' of environment determining our reactions gives us the comfort of not having to take 'responsibility' for our so-called actions. Neither position interests me.

I see no way of explaining the existence of free will, except in the sense of unpredictability, or too many variables to be able to predict 100% accurately any real world outcome, plus a 'small' amount of some mystery Ingredient X 'in there' somewhere, at the still centre as it were, 'choosing' between options, where 'choice' can only be a reaction. Whether or not this is comforting doesn't interest me. For untold numbers of reasons I am the complex system "Toby Russell", and react as that system happens to react, ongoingly, changingly, interactively. Part of that is a keen sense of responsibility, moral as well as spiritual. To know 'precisely' why I am the way I am is impossible. So, to a large degree, my musings are redundant. Life goes on. But, in my desire to be wiser, I ponder, and this blog and my commenting at it, is one result of that. I also care deeply about humanity and life on earth. Again, the why of that is not as important as the fact of it. I do, therefore I am, and I am, therefore we are. And I control almost nothing, but love (and hate!) contributing. ;-)

Jason (ReportsFromEarth) said...

Great post Toby!

I envy you for your ability to let your creative thoughts just flow (it seems) while maintaining a high degree of consistency and logic ;)

A short comment on soft science:
I would say nearly all scientific discipline today are already soft science or something I used to refer to as "semi-science" which is still very different from the even less scientific pseudo-science.

I am a physicist myself and I have been amazed and a little shocked to see that disciplines like economics, medicine,biology, psychology or climate science and many more .. are considered "science" and therefore associated with the confidence and success level that hard science enjoys.

I believe that certain disciplines that have remained within physics (classic as well as quantum mechanics, electricity, optics) are much closer to real science than those mentioned above. Relevant parameters are well known and fairly control-able, experiments truly reproducible, predictions very accurate etc.

In essence anything that deals with living organisms or even semi-chaotic inorganic systems (e.g. part of climate science) does not allow a high degree of veri- or falsification of experiments, partly due to lack of control of many parameters.

Calling the above disciplines "sciences" is in the interest of the current economy and media to serve consumerism but not in the interest of finding true knowledge.

In that sense it is natural that scientists of these soft science disciplines are calling to redefine science favouring a softer definition.

Today everything sells better when associated with "science" but this naturally leads to self-destruction of the hard earned power of the "science" word once the flaws become too obvious.

To save the brand name "science" and its meaningfulness with regard to reliability and "truth", I would propose to create a scale, say one to ten to describe the degree of "science-ness". The less sciency discipline scoring least (including pseudo-sciences) then semi, soft and hard science near the top. I doubt though that mainstream papers are keen to adapt this idea posted here :)

That said it should also be clear that a higher degree of science-ness does not necessarily mean a higher degree of truth or reliability.

It only means the scientific method can be applied more thoroughly which should lead to more practical reliability of knowledge.

Other disciplines like para-psychology, shamanism etc may have access to true knowledge and things that may currently not be accessible by science. They are simply a different perspective for looking at and doing things.

By the way, you said "For we cannot prove or disprove a theory that unmeasurable things cannot exist— [because] we can’t measure them!"

This may only be true if you refer to things that will NEVER become measurable.

Not long ago, expanding space was not measurable or even not known/ thought of. Later - when it became measurable, we found out it existed. Hence the theory than unmeasurable things cannot exist is falsified (one prooven example is enough).

Keep up the good work - I really enjoy reading your blog - Jason

Toby said...

Welcome Jason, and thank you for an interesting and thoughtful comment!

Just for clarification, in this post I am not 'defending' the soft sciences, nor 'attacking' the hard sciences. And your comment is the first time it occurred to me that my choice of the word "soft" was unwise. Sorry about that. That explains Tao's interpretation that I was inferring we ought to call economics a science. Now it's clear to me. Ah, the things we miss under the spell of inspiration! ;-)

What I'm really getting at in this post is a re-welcoming or re-embracing of 'unprovable' things. While I fully accept that the now unmeasurable can become measurable, we should not be dogmatic about such discoveries meaning they therefore 'now' exist. And you seem to agree with that position. But some things will remain unmeasurable, and value is right up there on the list. For example, I enjoyed my holiday in the Philippines last year. But how can I prove or measure that? I can't go on that holiday ever again, and any other holidays in the Philippines will be different. Life never repeats. And again, this is not to say laboratory experiments have no validity, of course they do, only, let's not worship 'scientific' validity above other types.

I like the idea of accepting more and more uncertainty the further we are forced to take on board uncontrollable variables. Science is a methodology capable of spanning that entire spectrum; that is, the methodology doesn't change, only its predictive power. And yes, the brand Science will resist such subtlety while our broader system remains obsessed with money-as-wealth and other overly materialistic and dualistic perspectives. It's that obsession I work to soften, massage away to a memory.

Debra said...

Geez, Toby, wasn't it in this thread that I stuck down the Dominique Meda translation about the logical positivism battles during the.. 19th, 20th and now... 21st century ??
About which definition of science we're going to choose ??
While we're at it, I propose that we now call "soft" science.. FLACCID science, and "hard" science, ERECT science.
That will do the trick, I think.

Toby said...

LOL Debbie! I'd support your suggestion, but I'm not sure many others would.