Bringing Trippy Theory to the Safe World of Business, Composing, 01/04/2015

I’ve started researching the basic principles of sociological social network theory. It’s for multiple purposes. The kind of blog posts this will probably constitute are collisions of one expert in a humanities discipline with the concepts of another. Social network analysis is a very quantitative and mathematical discipline, and a lot of my thoughts on going through Charles Kadushin’s book regard the implications of how easy it is to describe human social behaviour with mathematics. 

In the context of my writing work, the science of social networks will be very important in understanding what I’m currently calling network politics. 

This is my spin on anarchist approaches to politics that will incorporate the modern libertarian critique of state authority (with which I agree), but overcomes the problems of the libertarian economic principles which encourage oligarchy and the development of a permanent mass underclass who lives in increasingly deeper poverty as the value and quality of manufactured goods shrinks with aggregate demand, reinforcing and being reinforced by the continuing downward pressure of workers’ wages.

The problem with writing about network theory is that it's
so abstract. I think I'll just have my accompanying images
be random graphics of networks that I find lying around
the internet.
Well, that was a very long sentence. 

In the immediate term, I’m concerned with my new career in corporate communications. There are a lot of aspects of this field that I don’t really want to be involved with, like agency-for-hire jobs, or product PR jobs. I just don't think I'd like those kinds of hustles. There are some promising opportunities showing up on the jobs boards for communications positions in the health care industry, and my internship is also with a public service organization.

The long term focus of my new career will be in strategic communications, and internal communications management in large organizations. For this kind of work, a solid grounding in theory is important. Speaking in a human resources sense alone,* I consider it a way to develop more nuanced ways to use the communications tools and products that we’re taught in my program at Sheridan.

* I originally described this as a ‘mercenary’ sense. Comme çi, comme ça.

Here’s one example, still abstract, but here it is. Think of the entire communications industry as the practice of creating networks. Consider just the basic level of a single message. An essential element of any communication strategy is evaluation, a mechanism to judge whether your strategy and its different component activities achieved what they were designed for.

Evaluation tracks reception, uptake, and feedback; how well your communication physically reached its targets, the degree to which its receivers understood it, and whether those who understood it acted as you wished them. 

Here’s what that means in the terms of network theory. You or your organization is a node in a network, a network that’s generated by acts of communication, and all the individuals and organizations are other nodes. Your evaluation methods should figure out how many other nodes your communication should have reached, which actually established a one-way link with the initial act, and which formed a reciprocal link with you. 

Network analysis can create nuanced interpretations of all these interactions, understanding the characters of different information and action flows among people simply from tracking their affects. The only company that I’ve interacted with who uses network analysis this way is Cision Analytics. One of their workers gave a talk at an evening conference at Centennial College that I attended in 2014, and I found it a fascinating subject to discuss. I just wish she had been given more time.

I even think I’m going to buy a fairly inexpensive program for generating social network diagrams and analytics, though I’m not sure which ones will give me the most value for my money. I’ll probably be one of the only people since some of these programs were developed who is thinking of using network analysis software for his business career.

But you never know. I won’t know for sure how useful social network software and theory will be in a corporate communications job. It depends on the job, really, and how much leeway I’ll have from my employers to do new things and experiment with evaluative techniques. I’ll also have to practice with the program, and as I’ve never actually used one of these programs before, my learning curve might be a bit long.

You never know until you try, though.

How the Left Forgets the First Entire Nation of Refugees, Composing, 29/03/2015

Just over a week ago, I read an article by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. It sparked an idea that very well expresses the ethical idea that I’d like to end the Utopias project. Follow me through the example. 

When Israel was first formed as a state, supporting it
was a central pillar of the Western left. Needless to say,
quite a lot has changed since then.
Goldberg’s a typical militaristic sentimentalist writer of the Bush era, someone who can write an article in The New Yorker in March of 2002, sit back, and let that touching story of people suffering under Saddam Hussein push his own country just a little bit further into a new war.

A deranged intervention whose long term effect wasn’t a beacon of liberal democracy in the Middle East, but a war that stretches from Libya to Yemen to the Turkish/Syrian border. Bush’s war turned out to be such a great idea, especially in those little details of locking your most dangerous and insane prisoners in the same prison camp where you tortured them beyond sanity. Then left Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the desert with all his very dangerous friends. 

How can one friend ask me to be a humanist, and be optimistic about the transformation of humanity into something better, when the world is so clearly the product of idiots?

Goldberg wrote another article this week, the same string of sob story anecdotes which, when each episode links together, ends with the idea that no Jew has a place in Europe, and are all better off in America or better, Israel. 

What’s more, he blames both Muslims descended from the former colonies and ethnic continental Europeans. Each group is anti-Semitic in its own way, combining into a cultural stew that leaves the former colonized and former colonizer of Arabia and North Africa finding common political ground in the persecution of Jews. 

Michel Houellebecq’s hero of Soumission is real, and he’s the face of Europe’s anti-Semitism, that’s what Goldberg’s world suggests to me. But I’m pretty sure Houellebecq’s protagonist is meant to be an anti-hero, someone we’re supposed to hate. All Houellebecq’s protagonists are miserable assholes. He isn’t depicting Europe’s hero, but the essential European jackass of the modern era. 

This is Israeli life too, ordinary people like us, who
love to party.
Maybe the lesson is, never elect a jackass, and keep the rest of the jackasses off the streets.

Goldberg plays into one game of anti-Semitism. Painting leftism and social movements to free themselves from some economic or political oppression as haters of Jews will mobilize a liberal to back the military interventions of idiots. Those idiots can be pretty smart.

And the influence of Boycott, Divest, and Sanction plays right into the hands of those militaristic idiots. I’ve been thinking of this ever since my old doctoral university’s undergrad student union passed a non-binding resolution* to support BDS. And I hope my friends who supported this will see this post as, in part, my sincere attempt to explain why I could never support that organization. And why I will always do my best to help the social movements of the left.

* They didn’t have quorum after enough BDS opponents left the room, a last desperate gesture to take an edge off the vote’s legitimacy. 

BDS messaging goes beyond simply opposing the policies of the Israeli government in the Palestinian Territories and lobbying or beginning social initiatives for their peaceful resolution. Its framework principle is that Jews do not authentically belong in the territory that is now the state of Israel. Jews, as people.

Consider the feedback seen at, of all ridiculous places, a Waitrose grocery catalogue. Waitrose is the snooty, over-expensive British grocery store chain, which defines its customer base as the entirety of the old money upper classes. It’s basically like Longo’s is here in southern Ontario, only way more self-entitled. 

My thanks to Aboud Dandachi for linking this incident, the public furore over Waitrose including a section on the “Taste of Israel,” exploring the everyday traditional foods of the cultures there. 

Among the absurdly angry Mary Whitehouse types were dotty old British housewives saying that Israeli people have no national food of their own because they stole it from the Palestinians when they invaded. It’s as if the Sephardic Jewish communities, who have lived continuously in the territory now called Israel for thousands of years, never existed.

Salvador Allende, former President of
Chile, who died during a coup that saw
the fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet
take over his country and rule for over
two decades.
Such racism from people as innocuous as these dumpy British housewives plays straight to the militaristic right. This is the same modern militaristic right that idiotically meddles in the most volatile regions of the world trying to defend amorphous interests that have vaguely to do with the oil industry, but mostly from the sheer inertia of having spent 50 years destabilizing governments and starting wars out of an only partially justified paranoia of totalitarian socialism spreading across the world.**

** I think the problem of the CIA and their White House directors in the 20th century was that they couldn’t always tell a North Korea, East Germany, or Cuba from a Vietnam, Iran, or Chile. They didn’t know which leftist, anti-corporate political change would ally with the Soviet Union. Just like in 2003, they erred on the side of pre-emptive action.

Writers of the openly militaristic right, like another Goldberg named Jonah, have their own conception of the meaning of this talk from the left that the Jews have no authentic home, that they are chameleons and thieves without true culture. People of the left dedicated to human rights and justice swallow BDS propaganda that implies, though you may not see it at first, that there should be no Jews in Israel. 

The militaristic right wonders why any Jew can support the political left, since the modern political left is parroting all the classic signifiers of anti-Semitism. 

The worst part is that it sullies the cause of Palestinian liberation. I mean liberation from the constraints of Israeli military and police pressure over their lands, yes. But I also mean liberation from the warmongering leadership of Hamas and the corrupt leadership of the former Palestinian Liberation Organization. 

The proliferation of BDS rhetoric with its slippery anti-Semitism allows even friends of Israel to paint all critics of Israeli government policy as anti-Semitic. People like me, who genuinely hope for real peace among all the peoples of Israel and Palestine, are tarred with the same brush for criticizing Israeli state policy. The anti-Semitic messages of BDS dominate the global conversation of such criticism.

It prevents the most genuine voice of the left from making itself heard. It’s a voice that would perhaps say that Israel suffered a terrible wound in its creation. I hear it in the stories of Amos Oz. 

A group of noble peasants who had suffered under the cultural and economic suppression of the Turks and then British clashed with a wave of refugees from a terrible genocide fleeing the land where they were persecuted to literal mass-extermination.

Amos Oz, a voice of peace in literature.
These refugees had European ways of living, European appearance. A people who had been ground into generations of poverty, who had seen so many foreign forces arrive to dominate them, thought the same of these refugees. Both were escaping industrial colonialism, the Palestinians in the British (or Turk, or Persian) occupied territory, and the Jews running from the ovens.

Those disenfranchised people should have built Israel together, but they misunderstood each other. And that failure to communicate has led to horrifyingly violent hate all around. There is a left here, a progressive voice for peace. It’s the desperate voices of the left in Israel’s Labor party, or in the glorious idealism of Meretz. 

They see the only true way forward as the most difficult move: one by one, people whose cultures are defined by their mutually reinforcing hatred, must find the strength and courage to overcome that force. It is as simple to say, and feels as impossible to do, as living peacefully with your neighbours.

I call my next big political philosophy project Utopias. Well, this is mine. A society where each of us lives peacefully with, and does what we each can, to help our neighbour.

Knowing Knowledge V: Honesty as Anarchy, Dialogues, 27/03/2015

Due to a busy schedule from his speaking tours in New York and Pennsylvania, my dialogue with University of Warwick's Steve Fuller about his new book Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History is posting on Friday this week. We should be back to Thursday posts next week until the end of the longest review in academic history. Unless we aren't.
• • •
Dear Steve;

We've spent the last couple of weeks talking about the epistemic implications of humanity's divinity, how our scientific inquiries were conceived as bringing us closer to God, in touch with our divine nature. As I get into these other chapters, I find that the focus of your book is shifting to the epistemic implications of humanity's profanity, how our distance from perfection is incurable. 

A central idea in the first years of one of my favourite
television comedies, Red Dwarf, was that even in
fantastic science-fictional settings, humanity would
still be just as lovably loutish as it is today. Only the
fatuous would believe themselves to have enough
inherent dignity to be as epic as our surroundings.
I'm much more comfortable negotiating these waters. 

This is a chapter about how psychological work into the minds of scientists was supposed to ground the power of science, but the field's discoveries were ultimately disillusioning. If you think examining the minds and thoughts of scientists will show how special they are and the nature of their cognitive and methodological powers, you're in for a rude awakening when you discover that scientists are humans too.

One of the most illuminating things I learned from reading some of your earlier works was the fight between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes on how to pitch the new experimental techniques of scientific research that the Royal Society was developing. This was in your collaborative work with Jim Collier, Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge

Hobbes advocated total transparency: experiments were demonstrations, purposely artificial scenarios whose purpose was public education, not only about the principles and phenomena they helped discover, but also about how scientific investigation actually worked. Boyle wanted scientists to be a new order of mysterious authorities; the public would consider them a special class of people, a priestly order of material truths instead of divine ones. That way, science would be above politics.

Ironically for Hobbes' modern reputation as an authoritarian, his conception of science was democratic, even anarchist. Science was a public enterprise in which anyone could participate as best they could or wanted. Boyle's clericalism was a product of the English Civil War, just as Hobbes' openness was. 

Hobbes was honest about the political power of science. Boyle wanted scientists to stand above the orders of human politics so they'd be left alone while the kings and militiamen killed each other. You can't have a sacred order if the magicians show everyone their strings. 

Father Ted taught me everything I needed to know
about whether any priestly order ultimately
deserves the trust and authority we give them.
Boyle's idea worked well for a long time. But it was a matter of time before some discipline of knowledge developed that would give the game away. Psychology is the subject of this chapter, and later chapters explore history, sociology, and philosophy. Giving the game away is the anti-clerical move that shatters the myth of science as an order of men above humanity. 

Scientists being ordinary people meant that their intuitions were just as flawed as the rest of humanity. There was no special scientific intuition better than the rest of ours, just the same jumble of contingently-developing habits. Research on probability theory shows just how ill-suited human intuitive judgments are to the actual workings of the world. Our instincts are completely unable to perceive trends in large data sets. Humanity's psychological science showed that human reasoning abilities are universally fallible.

Karl Popper seems like a key figure in the philosophy of science with an answer to how we can practice good science — scratch that word, really it's how we can practice good knowledge. We intuitively think in terms of confirmation and the truth of the obvious, not the superior methods of disconfirmation and falsification. 

He came up with prescriptions of how we should think to become better at understanding the world. We improve how we understand the world through a literal revolution in our thinking as individuals, which is how I conceive of the purest political power of philosophy in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, forthcoming from Palgrave McMillan this August. It makes me realize that I should read more Popper, as I haven't really gone near his work since my undergraduate years. 

Modern skepticism in science is rooted in those discoveries of the last 100 years that scientists are "only human after all." Most of the philosophy and literature with that basic message that I've encountered tends to be sadly pessimistic. To be only human associates humanity with our mistakes and stupidities, and postulates that our virtues and productive powers are grounded in the divine elements of our nature.

Douglas Adams wrote of life as a play of creatures
who imagine themselves divinities inevitably falling
on their faces in the most theatrically beautiful and
hilarious ways.
I think differently. We're the creatures who dared to become sublime. We ended up being theatrical instead, a 7-billion-strong walking catastrophe of ridiculous, twisted ingenuity. And it probably won't end well (at least, the next couple of centuries won't be much fun). But it's all our doing!

The mad self-destructive dance of a creature forged in the image of God is a sad disappointment. Our mistakes would drop our end of the bargain to approach God in our own creations and lives. But as creatures of blood, mud, and guts, we've made ourselves remarkable whether we collapse in accidental self-destruction or we somehow transcend the worst of our nature. There's never been anything like us on Earth, and there never will be again. That's something to be proud of.
• • • 
Dear Adam,

It turns out that as I begin to write this, I am about to speak at Stevens Institute of Technology, just across the Hudson from Manhattan. My host, the Scientific American writer John Horgan, is also taken by my fallibilist, anti-authoritarian stance on science. There is much to say about your post at several levels. I can only address a few of them in any depth.

The point I stress about the history of psychology, especially if we take seriously its early roots in introspection, is that the 19th century guys believed that people with scientific training were more ‘conscientious’ in the sense of realizing that when they have made mistakes they should endeavour to figure just how bad they are – but in any case, acknowledge and correct them. 

Aside from finding uproarious laughter in violence
toward underpaid immigrants, Fawlty Towers is a
wonderful study in the ridiculousness of shame, as its
best episodes involve Basil contorting himself into
insane situations to avoid confessing some mildly
embarrassing truth to his wife.
Non-scientists might try to hide their mistakes, in the spirit of Adam and Eve after eating the apple.* In this context, shame is an expression of cognitive closure that prevents the collective growth of human knowledge. It is a feeling that arises from an exclusionary sense of self-regard (i.e. I am simply ‘me’ in a sense that I alone determine, and not part of a greater whole, so you don’t need to know if I don’t tell you – and if you do find out, I feel ashamed).

Here I must thank Mark Doorley of the Ethics Programme at Villanova for raising this point during a recent visit there.

People keen on protecting privacy as the ultimate human right should perhaps think twice here. The main problem with others finding out things you instinctively want to hide – ‘errors’ in that broad sense – is that often you don’t benefit from what is revealed as much as they do. In fact, error is usually held against you: you’re penalized, blacklisted or imprisoned. 

Yet those the inerrant beneficiaries might have committed a similar error under similar circumstances – and, at a more basic level, didn’t take the initial risk that generated the new knowledge related to the error! In effect, sheer inactivity accrues an unfair advantage. No discrimination is made whether those others who did not commit the error manifested wisdom, ignorance, cowardice, lethargy, etc. 

This counterfactual consideration – that inerrancy itself masks an indeterminate and quite possibly dubious psychology – that has led me to conclude that the protection of privacy is much less important than the right for everyone to benefit from whatever there is to know. Hence, I’ve endorsed Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly’s concept of ‘co-veillance.’

However silly Allo Allo was, its pantomime cartoon
style is perhaps the only way to depict honestly on
family television the nightmarish experience of
living under a totalitarian surveillance state, where
a massive government organization had more power
to pry into the private lives (and wine cellars) of any
individual who tried to stand up to it with what
espionage they could manage in their own power.
But deeper metaphysical issues follow, which we can’t explore here – in particular, whether actions are accorded the value they really deserve. On this more general point, I believe that normally we both reward and penalize agents too much. Thus, the Einsteins are over-rewarded and the Hitlers are over-penalized. This is understandable – and perhaps even welcomed as a first approximation in balancing the cosmic moral ledger, but it should not be left to stand as the final word.

In terms of modern ethics, our spontaneous tendency to both over-credit and over-blame people marks a deontological orientation, which is important to motivate action by presuming – certainly in extreme cases like Einstein and Hitler – a potentially godlike reach for the autonomous agent. However, a utilitarian orientation is then necessary to redress the balance, as we factor in the various contingencies that mitigate the efficacy of the agent’s actions. In this mode, we add in the costs of the successes and the benefits that we derive from the failures. 

In terms of temporal horizons, our deontological judgements are very much like snapshots of the human psyche at the moment of decision. This helps to explain the specific criteria used to establish agency in juridical contexts. In contrast, our utilitarian judgements presume an indefinite time horizon, in which our understanding of the significance of human action improves, the longer the consequences play out – and all the mitigating factors come into view.

And so when your mentor Barry Allen portrays me as wishing philosophers to be sorting out the World Bank’s balance sheets, he’s got a point – and it’s too bad that he feels ashamed to take it with the seriousness it deserves. Would he prefer that philosophers leave the World Bank to its own devices or that we roll up our sleeves and try to improve their fallible attempts to deliver justice to the world? 

Science as an institution deals with error ambivalently. On the one hand, it is very difficult to publish a simple refutation of an already published knowledge claim. You’ve got to refute in aid of promoting some alternative position, what Karl Popper – after Francis Bacon – called the ‘crucial experiment.’ It is here perhaps that the norms of science and those of philosophy diverge the most, since many philosophers make their entire careers out of refuting others without adding substantially to the positive body of philosophical knowledge. In principle, I am on the side of the scientists here. 

Pretty much anyone can spot a fraud as obvious as
Del-Boy. A question Fuller poses for peer review
practices in science is how frauds whose
temporary credibility becomes the seed of
widespread suffering and ignorance (perhaps his
name rhymes with Jamdrew Cakefield) can take so
long to call out.
However, in practice, this means that science creates an incentive simply to presume that whatever has passed peer review is a stable block of knowledge on which one can build without question. At least, that is the path of least resistance if you wish to make a mark in science. 

So errors, including outright frauds, can go undetected for quite a long time. Nowadays we seem to be discovering more of these errors than in the past. My guess is that this is simply because money is involved and so there are now non-epistemic incentives to look for error – and also the presence of money incentivizes scientists to cut corners in the face of imagined competition.

To be sure, none of this is wonderful – but just how bad is it in the great scheme of things? It depends on the particular cases. Many of the cases that we would now call ‘frauds’ and take as a basis for humiliating scientists are really about scientists fabricating the set-ups and results of ideal experiments. In other words, they did what historians nowadays think that Galileo and Mendel did, but these icons of modern science escaped detection during their lifetimes. 

Yet it doesn’t seem to matter much that Galileo and Mendel fabricated their science because their ‘intellectual intuition’ was basically correct and so others built on their work safely. Indeed, the fact that it took a while before their fabrications were suspected may have had a quite salutary effect on the overall history of science, given the radicalness of the claims that they were trying to make. In any case, we haven’t demoted Galileo or Mendel from the pantheon of great scientists.

Finally, I want to comment on the Hobbes-Boyle controversy as presented originally in Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump, and which, as you rightly point out, has influenced my thinking strongly. This book really led me to shift my view on Hobbes in a more positive direction– as it did to my student Bill Lynch, whose book Solomon’s Child is the best account of how the early Royal Society translated Bacon’s vision.** 

However factually inaccurate the first Blackadder
series was, it depicted a brutal medieval world
where ruling power accompanied constant threat
of violence, even from as close as plots by your
own children to poison you. Being up front about
that brutality, forcing the politics of violence to
account for itself and make its own logic clear to
the people, as Thomas Hobbes does in Leviathan, I
find an inherently anti-authoritarian gesture.
** Keeping in mind that Hobbes began life as Bacon’s private secretary.

The key thing is that when Hobbes talks about the ‘state of nature,’ he’s not talking about primitive humans. It’s an allegory of his own times, in which religious wars are blighting Europe. So Hobbes is actually talking about Christians who take the Bible into their own hands and need to decide for themselves what to believe and do. 

In the first instance, established authorities are de-legitimated but then what steps in to fill the vacuum – other than endless conflict? The absolute monarch: the Leviathan. The monarch is ‘absolute’ by virtue of his ability to resolve the conflicting claims that people are making on the basis of their readings of the Bible (i.e. he absolves them of error and preserves what’s good). So the rational decision that people need to make in the state of nature is to trust this monarch as they would God to provide a peaceful ground for them to flourish despite their differences.

Easier said than done, of course, but it seems to me this is the point at which the state replaces the church as the corporate principle for ensuring and promoting humanity. Thus, when Hobbes refuses to accept that experimental demonstrations can settle metaphysical disputes, he is not being an anarchist. 

On the contrary, he is objecting to the way that human power is being hidden through a kind of ventriloquism, whereby a ‘natural reading’ is projected on the experimental setting without anyone having to take personal responsibility. (It’s just nature speaking for itself!) 

In short, in Hobbes’ eyes, the Royal Society was trying to erase the socially constructed character of its knowledge claims and hence render itself unaccountable as a body. Hobbes would have probably dealt with Boyle more easily, had Boyle been more upfront about the power issues involved in resolving knowledge claims.

What Is the Utopias Project (Right Now, At Least)? Composing, 26/03/2015

The reading I’ve discussed on the blog lately has included a few different topics, and a few divergences as I’ve looked into different corners of political philosophy to research the Utopias project. Lately, I’ve gotten some pleasant feedback about my critical reading of Friedrich Hayek. I also got some intense feedback about my discussions of Marxist ideas. 

All this feedback has been interesting to me, because I’ve essentially promised, in response to these questions, that it will all become clear when the entire Utopias project is finished. As I look at how my research schedule works out alongside having to work for a living, whether I have to deal with the time commitments of a communications job or (in some other possible world) a professorship, I realize that I probably won’t be able to have a Utopias manuscript ready to go before 2021 at the earliest. 

Another important aspect of the Utopias project is the
concept of liberation through becoming a machine, a
creation of the Italian artist and writer Filippo
Marinetti. One of his key images was the freedom of
speeding down a deserted highway in a powerful car.
So I thought I’d briefly discuss just what the Utopias project actually is today. Also, because the latest instalment of my dialogue with Steve Fuller about his book Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History won’t be up until tomorrow. He’s doing a few public lectures in New York and Philadelphia this week, and is on a bit of a time crunch. Most likely, part five will run tomorrow.

Utopias is a three part book. The material on libertarian political philosophy and the modern epoch of neoliberal global and state politics that it inspired are a key element of the third part. This last third is where the conventionally political concepts of the project come directly to the foreground. 

I say conventionally political because I’ll discuss how the concepts of what humanity is and can become that are the subjects of the earlier two parts impact how we think about the state, economics, industry, colonialism and empire, and social movements of revolution and peace. 

I’m still figuring out the precise arc of the arguments in detail, of course. But the third part of Utopias will basically look like this. It begins with a reconsideration of the dominant narrative of the 20th century in Western popular culture, a narrative that was set by the priorities of liberal (and also neoliberal [and also right wing libertarian]) philosophy in the light of the argument in the previous two halves.

The first two of three halves of Utopias are, in a couple of sentences that ridiculously oversimplify all the ideas involved, about the vision of humanity as a mechanism that arose from the First World War. This is the mass man, the man whose individuality, personality, and desires are superfluous to the unified movement of the people. Unpacking this totalitarian vision is the task of Utopias Part One.

Part of the irony of our age (and my planned manuscript
for Utopias) is that Marinetti's dreams of liberation
through a union with technology that wipes away our
soft, organic individuality culminated not in the
glory of the totalitarian mass man, but in Jeremy
Part Three would begin with the first diagnosis of this vision to be published and reach the popular consciousness: Friedrich Hayek, particularly Road to Serfdom because it was such a sensation across the Western world. A polemical philosophy book read by millions which pretty much single-handedly defined the liberal opposition to totalitarianism in the mid 20th century, and the neoliberal opposition to social democracy in the late 20th century. Hayek saw the root of totalitarian evil in the ambition for bureaucratic state management and control of the economy, which is why social democracy and the trade union movement get lumped in with Stalin and Hitler.

Hayek was right, I think. But only about 1/4 right. Bureaucratic state management of national (and perhaps also global) economies is an oppressive regime. We know this from George Orwell and Terry Gilliam

What the libertarian philosophy at the heart of the new liberalism misses is the essential character of totalitarianism that’s rooted in the vision of the human person as an interchangeable (and therefore largely expendable) cog in a vast industrial war machine. 

But because libertarian / neoliberal political philosophy has triumphed to the degree that it has, it’s stopped the revolution against the vision of man as mechanism before it could be completed. It was right to attack the infinite growth of bureaucratic state, but because it saw this as the fundamental aspect of the attempt to destroy political singularity, it ignored totalitarianism’s other aspects. 

These would be colonialism / imperialism / empire, oligarchy, and racism. I’ll conclude Utopias with a description of the political principles that can overcome these frameworks, an anarchism that ignores communitarian frameworks of authority to organize itself on principles of the network.

This is all quite provisional, naturally. But I think the basic outline has come together.

Damn Sociology III: That Universal Reason Grounds Freedom, Research Time, 25/03/2015

Continued from last post . . . What reveals Friedrich Hayek’s fear of the implications of sociological studies of knowledge and its production are all those references to Karl Mannheim. Mannheim was an advocate of government social planning, and considered the sociological work of Marx as an intellectual predecessor. He was friends in his early Hungarian career with the Marxist scholar György Lukács. He was clearly a man of the left.

Weimar Germany is a fascinating period
of European history for its artistic and
intellectual creativity existing at the same
time with growing social movements of
barbarism and violence. The image is
Hannah Höch's Cut with the Dada Kitchen
Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly
Cultural Epoch in Germany
And he was a relatively popular sensation as a social theorist, as his 1929 book Ideology and Utopia was widely discussed throughout the Weimar Republic. If Hayek wanted a visible target for his rhetoric to support his social theory, Mannheim was the best one. 

We can learn a lot from this, because Mannheim’s most influential single idea is a central idea in sociological theory: the cultural environment in which we live and were raised deeply influences our personalities, values, desires, and ways of thinking.* For Hayek, this amounts to the conclusion that reason is not universal, but that our very logics diverge according to social contexts like class, gender, and culture.

* In some of the Facebook discussions about earlier parts of this series of posts, my old colleague Krazee Eyez mentioned Leo Strauss’ critique of Mannheim’s ideas, accusing him of cultural relativism. This is another seed of modern new liberalism that I plan to look into for the Utopias project.

Sociology analyses the many ways in which the way we think changes through our interactions with our social environment. Hayek describes this, both in 1944’s Road to Serfdom and in essays he wrote as early as 1933 on the rise of National Socialism in Germany, as an outright attack on reason itself. 

Reason, goes the argument, is universal, and what is rational will be the same to anyone anywhere at any time. Hayek considers Mannheim a relativist about the faculties of humanity itself. If you relativize reason, then you should no longer call it reason, but sentiment, letting your desire be driven by your feelings. 

Through his attack on Mannheim, Hayek makes one of the central concepts of all sociology out to be a dangerous lie that will drive irrationalism, witless sentiment, and the barbarity of animal instinct into politics. The falsehood is that when Mannheim describes these variable phenomena, he calls them reason. The danger is that people, including Mannheim himself, believed his mistake was a discovery.

Of course, discovering variation in reason doesn’t cause its breakdown. It just complicates things. Reason isn’t about the content of what you believe, but the ability to think critically. It’s a process more than substantive rules. The ability to reason is universal, but your culture affects a lot of your moral and political beliefs. It doesn’t determine them. Our reason is the ability to develop different ways of thinking that can do different things than what we’ve inherited from our culture, and spreading these new ideas and powers is political activism. 

Karl Mannheim, another villain for the
founders of neoliberalism.
Hayek and the new liberals should be best suited to accept this variability, since the Austrian School’s argument against the usefulness of statistical knowledge is that it obscures the idiosyncratic differences between individuals in their thoughts. That sounds similar to the sociological point, until you realize that there’s an important difference.

For the libertarian perspective,** the content of each individual’s desires are idiosyncratic, arrived through chains of reasoning that arise from rational contemplation on its own personal history. His mind and person are irreducibly, atomically singular. Sociology, meanwhile, interprets each individual’s desires as a product of environmental causes. These causes are general, applying to many individuals across classes, cultures, and communities. 

** As far as my readings of Hayek and some intellectual advice from more experienced critical philosophers lets me understand and generalize a little. 

The libertarian believes that the idiosyncrasy of the individual is irreducible to any general cause for its beliefs. And the libertarian believes that sociology promotes a concept of reason and individuality that reduces that idiosyncrasy to its general causes. At least this is the paradigm that I see in Hayek’s writing, and the contemporary attitude of hostility and contempt that remains in modern neoliberal conservatism.

I actually arrive, in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, at a conception of the singularity of the individual personality that is very similar, in its specific substance, to what Hayek describes. But I disagree with him that the singularity of each person makes any attempt to learn about human individuals through general causes an exercise in falsehood. 

Sociological knowledge has and can teach us much about how each of our singular personalities and histories affects and is affected by where and how those histories happen. Sociological knowledge stays in the realm of the general. There is no longer the belief in the discipline that the general patterns they discover constitute the whole of the human mind. Sociological investigation discovers general, aggregate affects. 

Some sociologists may once have believed that social causes constituted the entirety of an individual’s personality. Some historians have interpreted Auguste Comte as thinking this way, and Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance charted how this belief spread across popular culture in the 19th and early 20th century as sociology was first developing as a discipline. 

But that belief was disappearing from the discipline by the time Hayek wrote, and it’s completely disappeared now. Again, Hayek has already won, and sociology continues to function, having absorbed the substance of both major neoliberal critiques. The question that still mystifies me is why so many people still read Road to Serfdom and take on the same enemies Hayek did, even though those battles are long over.

Don’t expect me to answer that question anytime soon. This series of posts is over, and I have absolutely no fucking idea what the answer to that question might be.

Damn Sociology II: The Contradiction of Neoliberal Statistics, Research Time, 24/03/2015

Continued from last post . . . There is a second level of depth in Road to Serfdom’s rejection of sociology and the corresponding rejection of sociological knowledge in new liberal politics generally. It has to do with how particular kinds of knowledge gathering affect how you understand the world and humanity generally. Or at least, how you presume such knowledge to affect sociologists.

Sociology as a scientific discipline emerged from the creation of statistical mathematics, and the application of these mathematics to the massive collection of data on citizens that European states had been collecting since the first government population survey in 1749 in Sweden under King Gustav III. Statistical analysis discovers general trends of behaviour or social activity, evidence for what the population wants and needs.

The Harper government's original reason for removing
the mandatory long-form census was that its questions
invaded the privacy of Canadian citizens. Apparently,
that duty is for the security services, not StatsCan.
Extrapolating a population’s tendencies for wants and needs, their desires, from statistical data is the cardinal affront to individual liberty, from which sociology can’t be redeemed. This is my theatrical way of expressing the irreparable hostility right-wing neoliberal politicians seem to have for sociology. Road to Serfdom is the expression in political rhetoric of the revival in liberal philosophy that developed from the Austrian School’s ideas in economics.*

* I’m indebted to Steve Fuller for filling in some of the ideas behind the hostility of Austrian School economists to statistics in sociology and statistical analysis in economic modelling of desire. There was a brief mention of Hayek in his new book Knowledge, but asking him about it directly for our long-running review/dialogue would be too much of a divergence.

Fuller’s interpretation of the Austrian School conception of statistics runs like this. A person’s preferences are unique to them, so each person’s reasons to make the same action as another person are inevitably different. That divergence can’t be expressed in a quantitative measure of the action that several individuals made. The sociologist only measures that everyone made the same action. 

Everyone’s reasons for coming to the same outcome never reach the quantitative sociologist. So the sociologist would see a false commonality and uniformity of thought, where there was really just the momentary convergence of irreconcilably different individuals. 

Worse, the sociologist imparts a kind of collective consciousness to the group of individuals. They perceive a false necessity in the organic movement of a culture instead of the true contingent agreement of unique individuals. That’s why sociologists advocate for state policies that manage a population of individuals on the presumption that their convergence in action indicates unity in everyday thought. Sociologically-informed policy therefore results in government activity that ignores the individuality, and therefore the basic liberty, of the population.

An elderly Friedrich Hayek,
fighting the same fights he did
fifty years before.
Now anyone who knows anything about the current theoretical mainstream of sociology knows that no one seriously believes that a measured trend in opinion is the expression of a collective consciousness. That’s ridiculous.

Nonetheless, it fits the strange intellectual heritage of popular libertarian thinking, where an essentialist conception of a phenomenon from its founding era is carried into the present. Hayek’s was a time of world-shattering conflicts with militarized collective states, the end of an era where societies were popularly conceived much more organically than we now know them to be. Libertarians are fighting a battle that they’ve already won.

What’s more, the dehumanizing power of statistical knowledge is more frequently used in institutions that are ruled entirely be new liberal political principles, where public institutions are run as if they were private industries. Take the university system, for example. 

I came across an article in the London Review of Books last week, where Marina Warner, an instructor at the University of Essex, described how the management priorities of her institution were being shaped by business norms that were improper to education. Much of this was similar to what we experience here in North America. 

She describes a university bureaucracy whose priorities were set by administrators who did not and had not ever worked as researchers or instructors themselves. Professors were informed that they were to spend their time, not writing books or articles or actually carrying out the research to do so, but writing grant proposals to public or private institutions to fund their research. They had to fill out timesheets to be submitted to administration, attesting that they were actually doing research.

The biggest problem for the university sector in the UK, according to Warner’s piece, is the means by which researchers’ performance is evaluated in the first place. The Research Excellent Framework (REF) is a statistical guide to account for research impact. Nothing wrong on the face of it, but it measures only those impacts that occur within disciplines, when humanities work is most impactful in its direct popular reception. Like Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.

The Albert Sloman Library at University of Essex.
Research products in the humanities are most driven by an individual’s identity. A humanities scholar negotiates a field of study and concurrent research done by others, advancing ideas that they develop individually. It’s where research accords most with individual expression. The best products of humanities research are books and essays that develop perspectives and interpretations which are stimulating and informative to their readers, but which would have been completely different if someone else had written them. 

Warner gives the example of a literature scholar who splits what would have been a book about Shakespeare, Blake, or Moore into four academic journal articles to satisfy immediately the demands of REF impact assessment, which concentrates on the number of research products and their placement in professional, paywalled publication venues. The book could have achieved a genuine social impact and popular reception, but is devalued precisely because of the greater popular accessibility of books.

Grant money received is also a measure of prestige in the REF, though humanities research rarely receives large grants. The scientific research wing of a military contract could win an enormous grant because such research is extremely expensive. A humanities research project requires only a library and time. It doesn’t need the money, but it’s devalued on official impact matrices because it doesn’t receive the money that it can’t justify using.

University research is being removed from the public interest and literally dehumanized because its institutional priorities have been reshaped along a model of the private sector. It was private sector norms, not state governance and support, that ushered in a regime that marginalizes and delegitimizes the most singularly individual research in the name of scoring high on statistical impact frameworks. 

But the new liberal right wing whose ideas dominate so much of our political conversation doesn’t perceive this hypocrisy. There’s an even stranger paradox in new liberal thinking that I discovered reading Hayek of which this hypocrisy is an expression. That’s the neoliberal outrage that you can sociologically understand the production of knowledge itself. To be continued . . .

Damn Sociology I: Social Science as Means of Control, Research Time, 23/03/2015

One of the fascinating parts of modern right-wing politics is its hatred for sociology. I’ve discussed how my Prime Minister here in Canada, Stephen Harper, holds the discipline in contempt. Donald Gutstein’s book Harperism identified many elements of Conservative party policy that’s hostile to knowledge that the general practice of sociology produces. 

Stephen Harper is probably the most pure new liberal
political leader since Margaret Thatcher. Whether you
consider that a glowing compliment or a powerful
insult is an excellent political compass.
Two examples are gutting the long-form census, and referring to the widespread deaths of missing and murdered aboriginal women as not a true social problem because each event is an individual crime. Destroying the power of the census to collect anonymized data about the overall situation of the Canadian population undercuts the government’s ability to make any kind of well-informed large-scale action or new regulation to help remedy social iniquities. 

The hostility of the modern (new liberal) conservative to the vulnerability of aboriginal women to violent crime seems to have a more complex philosophical basis, and how I conceive of its underlying concept will become clear in time. This is a multi-part post. 

How did sociology, one of the major innovations in the last 200 years of human knowledge, come to be something you commit, like a crime? A philosophical answer lies in Friedrich Hayek. 

Sociology as a discipline actually does suffer a vulnerability, in its history, to those critics who would accuse the discipline of being anti-democratic. One of the founding intellectuals of the science, Auguste Comte, did conceive of sociological research as ultimately uncovering the laws by which human communities and groups interacted. 

These laws were conceived as roughly analogous to the laws of physics, relations among bodies that were regular, deterministic, and accurately represented mathematically. Knowledge of these laws would ultimately be applied to reorganize society into optimal forms. Comte’s first major work was called Plan for the Scientific Work Necessary to Reorganize Society

Road to Serfdom is a superficial
book with a remarkably complex
set of ideas running underneath.
I am vastly oversimplifying here. Actual scholars of Comte would call my conception of his philosophy ridiculously too simple. But right now, I’m not interested in the details of Comte’s actual detailed set of ideas about what sociology was for, but how his general message was received popularly. Hayek has a lot to do with this popular reception because of the curious nature of Road to Serfdom.

Road to Serfdom doesn’t develop any detailed or nuanced philosophical concepts, though it does employ them. Quite obviously, Hayek uses concepts of liberalism, the individualist person, and freedom that should be familiar to any reader of John Stuart Mill (who Hayek frequently cites) or John Rawls (who Hayek never cites because Road to Serfdom was written decades before A Theory of Justice and this isn’t the kind of work that uses retroactive causality). He also uses concepts of force, dynamism, and affectivity that should be familiar to any reader of Gilles Deleuze. 

I’m not going to be one of those many critics of Hayek from the left who leans on unfortunate ad hominem attacks. I am genuinely impressed by the complexity of the conceptual machinery running under Hayek’s most popular and influential books. 

But Road to Serfdom also cuts some interesting corners that undermine his core messages. The most obvious such flaw is that it’s filled with misquotations of well-known intellectuals of the time. Many of those who advocated state economic planning have key words in their quotes slightly skewed to make them sound more extreme than they were. Many opponents of state planning similarly have key words misquoted to make them sound more extreme in their opposition.

Hayek depicts the world in the easy terms of black and white, good and evil. When global politics were dominated by a clear war of genocidal, militaristic, totalitarian regimes with liberal, democratic countries. It’s easy to tell good from evil when your exemplar of evil is Adolf Hitler and the Nationalsozialismus movement. 

State planning finds its purest form in National Socialism and Bolshevik Communism. And Hayek described the social democratic politicians of his day, who all advocated state controls over economic production to keep people employed at good-paying jobs, as leading us down a path to totalitarian government control over all aspects of human life. 

My former friends spoke this way, and I thought they were extreme and ill-informed until I read Road to Serfdom. Now I understand that everyone who takes Hayek’s word as gospel – a lot of people – sincerely believe that Jack Layton is no better than Vladimir Lenin.

Hayek interpreted the original political vision of the first sociologists, particularly Comte, as advocating the bureaucratic control of all society through a government that used sociological laws to organize humanity. But such a blunt idea isn’t the only source of the new liberalism’s hostility (and sometimes outright hatred) of sociology. To be continued . . .

Knowing Knowledge IV: Humanity as Pinnacle, Dialogues, 20/03/2015

My discussion yesterday with Steve Fuller ran for so long that we didn't get a chance to cover two more interesting issues that came up in Chapter Two of his Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. So we talked about them here, Fuller's thoughts on David Hume and a central concept of modern evolutionary theory.
• • •
Dear Steve;

Two other ideas in this week's chapter struck a chord with me, but I wanted to explore them separately from the larger discussion about theodicy that we've gotten into. Nonetheless, I think they're genuinely important. One is a quibble in the history of philosophy, and another has some lessons for the modern revival of theodicy concepts in science and politics. 

Films like Roman Polanski's The Tenant explore the
horror of a fragmenting personality, but the
freakiest aspect of Hume's philosophy is the prospect
that all personality is always already fragmented.
The smaller question is about the hate you get on for David Hume. You describe him, if I could use your economic epistemic terms from a previous chapter, as a supply-side theorist of knowledge. Your account of Hume also fits with the traditional interpretation of him as an epistemic skeptic that was canonical for so long in Analytic philosophy, particularly thanks to the influence of Bertrand Russell.

Hume also embodies what appears in your text as a fundamental contradiction. He's part of a tradition of secular liberal political philosophy thanks to his skeptical writings on religion and the existence of God. But his conception of how individual humans are actually built precludes the strong notion of the discrete individual person that political liberalism needs to function. 

A person is not a discrete, unified individual in Hume's thought, but a fluctuating jambalaya of different and mutually inconsistent forces and processes (which Hume called passions), whose unity is retroactively constructed through an exercise of memory. And that memory can get quite faulty.

What's more, Hume's own explicit everyday political beliefs were retrograde by our standards, and even some of the standards of his day. Essentially, he was a monarchist and a racist. 

But Hume's theory of subjectivity was, in its substance, a major crack at an assemblage conception of personality. From this philosophy, its contemporary form arising from the work of Gilles Deleuze, the subject is a singular contingent formation of particular kinds of forces. A complex machine constituted from the continuing collision of other complex machines. 

The political articulation of this theory of subjectivity is an experimentalist anarchism that encourages trying out new ways of making subjects. I make this connection of political philosophy with the ontology of subjectivity in my own upcoming book, Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, available this August from Palgrave McMillan.

Artist John Barker's depiction of the Battle of
Marston Moor, a brutal event in the English Civil
War. I sometimes think that most of our stereotypes
about Britain would be very different if more
people understood the long-term cultural heritage
of the English Civil War. I don't fully understand it
myself, but I know it's significant.
It's really quite unfortunate for Hume that he had come to the political conclusions he did, but he was unlucky to have lived in a time whose social climate just didn't offer the political articulations of his theory of subjectivity. 

If he had lived in continental Europe during the medieval period, he would have seen how well his anarchic conception of the subject fit with the communitarian, locally-networked politics of free cities like Mainz and Worms. As it is, his political culture was shaped by the authoritarian statism of the aftermath of the English Civil War and the unification of the United Kingdom.

The other point I wanted to discuss is about evolutionary theory, particularly your philosophical interpretation of convergent evolution. You're right that straight Darwinian natural selection doesn't have the conceptual capacity to cope with the fact of convergent evolution. 

But convergent evolution isn't quite enough to preserve an account of biological evolution that accords directly with theodicy. An essential idea of the specifically Christian theodicy is that humanity is made in the image of God. As such, humanity is something of a pinnacle of life. Creation does take on something of a purpose, a telos, whose embodiment is humankind.

Convergent evolution just doesn't get you there. It's more of a pragmatic scientific principle, as I understand it. Living creatures will face similar problems throughout a planet's evolutionary history, and similar problems will have similar optimal solutions. 

For example, the problem of how to get around an environment soaked in light is an issue wherever the sun can shine. Developing photoreceptive abilities is an optimal solution. The camera model of the eye in particular is the optimal model of a photoreceptive organ in an animal that needs detailed focus on objects at various long-ish distances. That's why camera eyes have developed independently in vertebrates, cephalopods, and annelids. We all have to solve similar problems of quickly adjusting our vision while we move.

Knowing what humanity shares with worms is
remarkably instructive in learning about the
processes of evolution.
There's a further political problem with the concept of humanity as the image of God in theodicy, which is that it blinds us to our own species-level maladaptive behaviour. If humanity, as the closest creatures in nature to God Herself, is the pinnacle of creation, and our powers and existence are essentially entwined with the telos of being itself, then it becomes difficult to conceive how anything in our nature could harm nature as a whole. 

Human behaviour, no matter what it is, could never harm the natural order of God's universe because we are its material culmination. And if we do harm it, then we do so as culminations of God's order, bringing the order of Earth's creation to its purposive end.

This denies the central motive of environmentalist thought, which I describe in more detail in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, still forthcoming from Palgrave McMillan this August. The environmentalist idea is that humanity is currently the most maladaptive imbecile of a species on Earth, stumbling into accidental species suicide by covering the planet in so much pollution that we cause a new mass extinction.

Environmentalism asks us to take responsibility for our own industrial actions, not for the sake of God, but for the sake of ourselves and everything else that we share the planet with. To do that, we must accept that human existence is contingent, and that we, like many other species in our world's history, have prioritized our immediate prosperity but jeopardized our long-term survival in doing so. 

A theodicy where we are the image of God holds us off from our collective forehead smack of humility because it privileges humanity's being. That privilege keeps us from understanding how God could allow our extinction, how God could permit the pinnacle of His creation to, as my favourite Clinton* once said, drown in our own shit. 

* That would be George Clinton, and the track would be the spoken-word introduction to Funkadelic's masterpiece "Maggot Brain."

Theodicy's concept that existence is the ordered expression of God or the Divine generally speaking makes perfect sense to me. I think I've held such a belief about existence and divinity for some time now, though I never thought to call it a theodicy. But a theodicy where humanity occupies a privileged place in nature strikes me as even worse than simply untrue. It's maladaptive.
• • •
Mother Earth is pregnant for the third time
For y'all have knocked her up
I have tasted the maggots in the mind of the universe
I was not offended
For I knew I had to rise above it all
Or drown in my own shit
Dear Adam,

Thanks originally to T.H. Huxley (who recast Hume as a proto-Darwinist) but more influentially to Bertrand Russell, David Hume has become contemporary philosophy’s go-to guy to show that you’ve got the angels on your side. 

I first noticed this as a teaching assistant to Annette Baier, who taught one of Pitt’s introductory philosophy courses in the early 1980s. She was then touting Hume as a virtue theorist comfortable with multiculturalism, not Russell’s radical sceptic who might prove a nuisance in mixed company. 

In recent times, as you point out, the continentals have gotten in on the act, with Deleuze – and more to the point, Anglophone Deleuzians – honing in on Hume’s ‘bundle of perceptions’ theory of the self as a precursor to the protean idea of ‘assemblage’. Moreover, considered in light of the relatively little use that empirically minded philosophers like Mill made of Hume prior to Huxley’s makeover, I conclude that Hume has been overused and quite possibly overrated.

Thus, I see you as going against the grain of Hume’s own thinking – and not simply because he didn’t live in the right times. The bundle theory is basically designed to demonstrate the illusory nature of any sense of a substantial self, which includes a self that is capable of experimentation in the sense you suggest. 

You are already attributing too much autonomy (or will) to the bundled self, which Hume denies. Any sense of self that we think we have is a product of faulty memory and wishful thinking, and once we recognize these in-built liabilities we’ll be able to live saner lives. Here Hume is really like Epicurus and Buddha – and Wittgenstein. The Humean self may be open to a wide variety of experiences that result in various personal reconfigurations but it is not one that would take responsibility for having initiated those experiences.

John Locke wrote when the concept of
consciousness was literally a new idea.
My own view is closer to Locke’s, who also had doubts about the idea of a substantial self. Indeed, he identified the self with the legal concept of the ‘person,’ an entity constructed for ‘forensic’ purposes, which is to say, to attribute responsibility. Locke didn’t deny the sort of psychological complexity that Hume highlighted but concluded that our ‘consciousness’ (a neologism in Locke’s day for second-order divine-like awareness) intervenes and we just draw a line and take – and are recognized as having taken – ownership for a range of thoughts and actions. 

The physical body provides the default locus for defining the jurisdiction of such interventions – i.e. the self that is mine versus the selves that belong to others. As the American founding fathers demonstrated, you can then get some serious politics out of what would otherwise be empiricist vagaries.

Now, the point you raise about convergent evolution is correct, I’m afraid to admit – namely, that it need not eventuate in our species as the crown of creation. However, there is a strong chance that it will eventuate in a species that might be reasonably called Humanity 2.0, leaving open just how much of Homo Sapiens it will actually incorporate. 

Figures in the Lamarckian tradition promoting convergent evolution seem to have thought this way, not least one of my schoolboy influences, that renegade Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who saw in the anticipated convergence the Second Coming of Jesus, or the Omega Point.

But we don’t need to go this far. The man who most effectively contested Stephen Jay Gould on his own palaeontological turf, Simon Conway Morris, has observed that over the course of evolution, the basic morphologies of organisms have become fewer and more similar. 

There is no need to postulate a divine hand or even natural selection to suppose that symbiosis and cross-species mimicry are playing a significant role here. In fact, one might even go so far as to suppose that the ultimate state of convergence will realize something like James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, whereby humans (when ecologically well-behaved) function as the brain of the superorganism called ‘Earth.’ My guess is that this line of thinking would be quite congenial to you.

A brief rebuttal to Steve on my environmentalism.
I'm uncomfortable thinking of humanity in the
stewardship role as I see here. I don't see how we
can make the progress required to do it right at least
until Humanity 8.0. The ideas I have for science-
fiction literature featuring my character of Alice
can explain better than a photo caption.
However, being more humanist than you, I don’t see things panning out quite this way. Much of the history of technology has been based on biomimicry at varying levels of abstraction from the organisms imitated (e.g. airplanes do what birds do but rather differently). 

The Bible certainly exhorts people to learn from nature, but what happens to nature afterwards is an open question. After all, scientists are also developing an ability to freeze-dry DNA for future use, which would allow us to keep various species ‘on tap’ should we need or want them around. So the exact normative role of ‘Nature’ in our thinking needs to be made clear, especially as we are clearly developing godlike powers. 

For me it means that ‘Nature’ should not function as a static – euphemistically called sustainable – vision of the ecology. Such a move is little more than environmental fetishism, since various combinations of known organisms might well live well together under radically different environmental conditions. 

And even when this turns out to be false, we will have learned something and our capacities for generating organisms will permit us to try again. The corollary of ‘No pain, no gain’ is ‘Life is a hypothesis.’