Monthly Archives: January 2017

Beyond ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’

After the recent inauguration of Donald Trump, a row broke out about the number of people who actually attended the inauguration, in which Trump’s spokesperson was derided for using the phrase ‘alternative facts’. The evidence, as illustrated by the photos, seems pretty clearly not in support of the ‘alternative facts’ offered by the Trump administration, but I’m not interested in discussing the details of that (which have been much debated) here – rather I’m interested in the outrage attached to the idea of ‘alternative facts’. After all, the thinking seems to go, we have the facts here, so how can there possibly be alternative facts? A similar line of thinking seems to be behind the burgeoning phrase ‘post -truth’ – as if we used to know the truth, but now people aren’t accepting that truth any more. My  view is that people who pay attention to evidence and try to develop personal objectivity are not doing their cause any favours by talking in terms of ‘post-truth’, but rather reinforcing the kind of confused thinking out of which the Trump phenomenon has been born.Inauguration_crowd_size_comparison_between_Trump_2017_and_Obama_2009

Let’s first reflect on some basic features of the human condition, that we can all probably find in our own experience. We all have beliefs about the world, but those beliefs have also often turned out to be wrong, even if we held them along with lots of other people. This applies not just to ‘values’ such s the past belief that slavery is OK, but also to past ‘facts’ such as that the world is flat. As an individual, I can confess that I used to believe a number of ‘facts’ that I now no longer accept, such as that sisters are always older than you, that I would never be able to find a girlfriend, or that it’s safe to drive at 60mph over a moor with loose livestock on it. There are also the limitations of our senses, perspective, and most of all our language, which depends for its meaning on our bodies and metaphorical constructions, not some kind of correspondence with potential truth (for more on these sceptical themes, see this article). On the whole then, we must admit that we have no access to facts. It’s not just Trump who is deluded if he claims to know ‘the facts’ or ‘the truth’, but you and me too. Post-truth politics, along with post-truth philosophy and post-truth everything else, thus seems to have begun with homo sapiens as a whole, and our emergence of a capacity to hold and express any kind of belief that we might assume to be true. The first post-truth politician was the Serpent tempting Eve.

If we finger populist politicians for a fault that it can easily be seen that we all share, then, it is hardly surprising if we’re seen as hypocritical. Though I don’t see a lot of the often unpleasant social media output by Trump supporters, one thing that has struck me about a lot of what I have seen is the predominance of accusations of ‘liberal hypocrisy’. If liberals claim to have ‘the facts’ and respond to Trump’s excesses with blustering counter-assertions in a similar style, that accusation doesn’t seem to me wholly unjust. I think there are far more effective ways of responding that identify much more clearly what Trump and his henchmen are doing wrong and which avoid this ‘post-truth’ shortcut. It’s not whther they have or don’t have the facts, or don’t share your view of them, that matters here: but that they don’t offer those facts with provisionality, are not open to correction, are not interested in examining evidence or justification, are not even concerned about gross inconsistencies in their beliefs, and are not at all interested in improving on their beliefs or making them more adequate. In terms of values, they do not respect the truth or the facts. In relation to all these points, I agree very much with Trump’s critics that the new administration’s attitudes are extremely alarming.

If you genuinely respect the truth, you don’t claim to have it, just as if you respect the power of electricity, you don’t stick your finger in a live socket. Truth is a meaningful concept to us, because we use it in all sorts of ways in all sorts of practical contexts – for example, in science, in law, and in everyday conversation. We have set up an abstract model in which ‘truth’ stands for an idealisation – a fabled position in which we could really know what is going on, not just more than we did before, but totally, as in a God’s eye view. But nevertheless that abstract idealisation is just an extrapolation of our much more limited experience: the experience of recognising things we didn’t ‘know’ before, and of confidently interacting with the world around us in a consistent way. Most of the time, our confidence about how the world works turns out to be justified, so we apply this idealised concept of ‘truth’ to that experience, in the process completely failing to take into account the limitations of our view. So it’s very important that ‘truth’ is recognised as meaningful, and not relativised in its meaning, but at the same time recognised as beyond our reach.

Let’s take an example. A child brought up in a household with a  friendly dog, confidently playing with it and interacting with it, thinks it’s ‘true’ that dogs are friendly. When he encounters the first unfriendly dog, though, his whole model of the world is briefly shaken, the ‘truth’ is shattered. There may be denial – the unfriendly dog doesn’t really count as a dog. There will certainly be initial stress, followed by suspicion and unease in a new uncertain relationship with dogs. But we don’t all have to be as fragile as that child, if we stop thinking in terms of ‘truth’ but rather cultivate the awareness that our beliefs are only justified for the moment on the basis of the evidence so far. If we can be aware of other possibilities to begin with, we will be less overwhelmed by the nasty surprise when it happens.

In the realm of politics, that means concentrating on the qualities that actually matter in making our judgements adequate, the ones that involve a larger respect for truth, rather than railing about others offering ‘alternative facts’: namely the personal qualities of provisionality, awareness, imagination and observation. It means setting the example to those who don’t understand this, and teaching children not to ‘tell the truth’, but rather to reflect upon and justify what they say. It means holding Trump to account, not for ‘lying’, but for being grossly inconsistent and failing to offer evidence or respond to criticism.

It may well be that most of those who complain about lack of truth, when pressed, would actually agree that what they value in practice are these ways of justifying and adjusting our beliefs. But while they continue to use ‘truth’ and ‘post-truth’ as a lazy shortcut, I think they will play straight into the hands of people like Trump. All that such populists have to then do when challenged is to turn back to their unsophisticated supporters, deny the criticism, and offer their own ‘alternative facts’. The discussion will then stay at the completely unfruitful level of mere claim and counter-claim. As our beliefs about the world are wrapped up with our goals, our ontological obsession with what is or is not ‘really’ the case is our biggest weakness, the absolutizing vulnerable spot in our cognitive abilities. It’s only by putting ourselves in the messy middle zone of neither accepting nor denying these ‘realities’ that we can make progress, whether in politics or any other area of human dispute.


Picture: Comparison between inauguration crowd sizes for Donald Trump in 2017 (left) and Barack Obama in 2009 (right). Images copyright to 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee (left) and ewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images (right), and are used at low resolution under fair use criteria. 

The MWS Podcast Episode 113: Sugata Mitra on Learning as an Emergent, Self-organising Phenomenon.

Our guest today is Sugata Mitra, who is professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in the UK. Sugata is by training a physicist with over 25 inventions to his name in the area of cognitive science and education technology. He is widely cited in works on literacy and education and is perhaps most well known as a proponent of minimally invasive education and his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment. He won the 2013 Ted prize for his talk ‘Build a School in a Cloud’ after which he used the prize money to set up a number of the schools. He’s here to talk to us today about how learning might be seen as an emergent phenomenon in a self organising education system which emerges as spontaneous order at the edge of chaos.

MWS Podcast 113: Sugata Mitra as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_113_Sugata_Mitra

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Finding Jesus (perhaps that hole isn’t God shaped after all)


My relationship with Jesus of Nazareth has recently changed for the better.  I’ve never felt particularity negatively towards him, as I have towards God (I just can’t respond well to a character who encourages filicide, slavery, bigotry and genocide, to satisfy their own jealous insecurities) and have always found his depiction to be strangely captivating.  Yet I have not consciously regarded him as a figure of inspiration; I always felt that he was the property of practising Christians, and anyway, wasn’t he the Son and earthly manifestation of the God that I find so problematic?  This, I am pleased to report, is no longer representative of how I feel (about Jesus, at least) and I’d like to spend some time explaining how this change of heart has come to pass.

As the assumed Son (and earthly manifestation) of a perfect God, it has always been posited to me that Jesus must also be perfect; this was either something you believed in or you didn’t, take this view of Jesus or don’t take him at all.  I assumed that as there are compelling arguments to suggest that the Abrahamic God is far from perfect, then it must also follow that Jesus could not be perfect.  Further confirming this view, a recent reading of the New Testament revealed a sometimes flawed and aggressive Christ rather than the serene, unshakably tolerant, haloed figure of Christian tradition.  This Biblical character seemed leagues apart from the perfect Jesus that I’d been taught about, through art and carefully selected Bible readings.  I also had the suspicion that even if I did find inspiration in Jesus, I could not do so openly and easily without belief in God – as an atheist (hard agnostic) I have often been asked (sometimes forcefully) why I celebrate Christmas, and the fact that my wife and I were married, as atheists, in our local parish Church has also caused confusion and even offence.  When I considered all of this alongside the glaring inconsistencies in the New Testament my response was one of rejection.

In the past year or so I have read two books that have caused me to think again: Zealot by Reza Aslan and Jesus for the Non-Religious by John Shelby Spong.  Although I discuss them here, this is by no means supposed to be a detailed analysis or synopsis.  I would, however, recommend them both for reading.  Aslan spends a lot of time exploring the historical context of Jesus’ life and of the subsequent writing of the books of the New Testament.  I think he does this well and draws many interesting conclusions.  The main one being that Jesus was a radical Jew who, as part of a wider movement, challenged the authority of Rome and perceived corruption of the priestly class, and despite being unsuccessful had a profound impact on those that followed him.  In the decades after Jesus’s death and in the wake of the Roman’s retaliatory destruction of Jerusalem (following their successful expulsion), the foundations of the Christian church were laid – by some that knew him and by many that did not.  Interesting as they are, such conclusions were not the most affecting aspect of my time with this book.  Rather, by thinking about Jesus as a human being and the New Testament as a series of documents – both worthy of historical analysis and set within a surprisingly (for me at least) well understood historical context, I found that my entrenched rejection began to subside.  The fact that Jesus might have existed (and I think it seems likely that he did, given the short time in which his cult developed following his death) and that I felt able to explore this possibility, without feeling that I should harbour some sort of Christian belief, has become fundamental to the way I am able to engage with him and the texts in which he appears.

One can argue, rather successfully as it happens, that to be inspired by Jesus’s life and message requires neither Christian belief nor interest in the historical figure.  I agree, to an extent; why should one have to suspect that Jesus existed to respond positively to his message of forgiveness?  One doesn’t.  Nonetheless, by doing so I have been able to attain much more meaning from the Jesus story than I could before.  Why then, should it matter if individuals or events can be argued to be historical in relation to the meaning they have for me?

Take the image of Father Christmas.  I’ve long believed that the red and white colour scheme of his outfit was designed and introduced by Coca-Cola as part of a marketing campaign.  Red and white are the identifying colours of the company and they do have an irritating habit of plastering Santa’s image over a massive articulated lorry that appears on their festive adverts and visits various towns and cities.  It came to my town this year and people went wild, standing round it in large crowds staring excitedly – filming it on their mobile devices, no doubt.  Anyway, this association with a) the advertising industry and b) a multi-national company, that has a rather chequered ethical reputation, tarnished the meaning of images of Father Christmas for me.  I still had fond memories of childhood, of family getting together in merriment, of nativity plays, of Christmas smells (the list goes on) – but they were mixed up with notions of cynicism, commercialism and exploitation of communities in the developing world.  Of course, the whole Christmas season involves these things, it is a time of excessive contradictions, but the idea of this treasured figure from my childhood being the cynical marketing construction of a company that I have had ethical concerns about distilled this somehow.  Thus, I was quite delighted to find out that the story is probably not true.  Yes, Santa’s image is widely used for cynical marketing purposes, but the fact that his traditional image is used, rather than having been created for, this purpose seems to matter to me.  The story of Coca-Cola creating Father Christmas’s modern image still exists, but the knowledge that it is likely a misconception, rather than historical event changes, for me, the nature of its meaning, and the meaning of depictions of Santa.

Walter White and the series Breaking Bad provide another example of how confidence in the historicity of events can impact on the meaning they may have on an individual.  I loved Breaking Bad; I didn’t want to, because of its popularity, but I did.  The series is harrowing in places and the actions of White become increasingly extreme and difficult to justify.  It skilfully explores a wide range of ethical issues, and I often found myself questioning not only the characters, but myself.  However, if I’m honest, I was always on the side of White.  No matter what he did, I was with him all the way.  Now, if I ‘d gone into the series with the belief (or found out after) that it was either a biography based on actual events, or that it was a documentary, I would have had a very different response to White and his activities.  The ethical questions would still be there, as would the wonderful grey morality in which the story revels, but my response, both intellectual and emotional would be very different; White and his story would have had different meanings for me.

By thinking about Jesus without personal associations of Christian dogma, I’ve been able to imagine, with varying degrees of confidence an individual of greater scope and depth.  This does not require a separation of Jesus from either Jewish or Christian belief.  Nobody seems to quarrel when historians study Alfred the Great or Joan of Arc.  Both individuals were pious Christians, both have mythologies that blur the lines between history and fiction, and one does not have to share their beliefs to study or take inspiration from them.  It seems acceptable, in a way that it often isn’t with Jesus, to examine the evidence and conclude with a degree of confidence that each of these figures existed and that some life events are more likely to have occurred than others.  Joan of Arc (like most historical figures) is both a figure of mythology and of history, there is no conflict and the lines between the two need not be distinct.  If I consider the possibility of Jesus as the radical reformative Jew described above and then take a hard-agnostic view on the possibility of him being the Son of God (whether he thought he was or not is often debated, but there is at least the possibility of finding historical evidence) then Jesus ceases to be perfect, and this is a good thing.  Apart from being more interesting, his sometimes erratic and even intolerant behaviour becomes less problematic.  As a human in a specific historical context, he can be excused for being imperfect, or even morally questionable in a way that God cannot.  The New Testament can be similarly viewed.  Even more than Jesus (who is not around today), the Bible has a history, its various books can be placed, with varying degrees of accuracy, within historical times and places.  The authors need not be identified to understand the context in which they were written.  The Anglo-Saxon chronicle is a vast document that details events over a long period.  It’s often contradictory and seems to freely mix fiction with historical events and yet it’s place as an important historical document is rarely questioned.  I don’t have to have the same beliefs as those that wrote it and I don’t have to think that everything that is written in it actually happened.  Aslan, treats the New Testament in much the same way, not just studying the text itself, but also exploring the societies and historical events that frame their construction.  While Aslan’s book enabled me to look at Jesus with fresh eyes and provided an interesting perspective, it didn’t describe a Jesus who significantly inspired me.  Agreeing with all of Aslan’s conclusions felt unimportant compared to the process of exploration that he provided.

Spong’s book, on the other hand, did present me with an inspirational figure.  Like Aslan, Spong also considers historical evidence for Jesus’s life and the formation of the books of the New Testament, but his focus is very different.  In many ways, it’s an account of how he, as a Bishop and long standing Christian who can no longer adhere to mainstream Church teachings, has struggled and succeeded in maintaining his meaningful experience of Jesus and God.  The Jesus he presents is (very roughly) a first century Jew whose radical activities and high levels of humanity, love and integration were able to inspire similar attributes in those that knew him and those that came to know the versions of him that existed after his death.  Spong describes a Jesus that is able to inspire a deeper level of human experience; an integrated state that he calls the ‘God experience in Jesus’.  For me, as someone who has no attachment to the idea of God, I would not describe such an experience in those terms.  Nonetheless, a combination of my experiences with this society (especially Roberts explorations of inspirational integrated Christian figures such as St. Francis of Assisi) and the reading of these two books has allowed me to reassess and come to understand how one could experience and describe a ‘Jesus experience’ of integration, regardless of background or faith.

I haven’t had such an experience, but I’m now able to experience Jesus as a figure of inspiration alongside others, such as Julian of Norwich, Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela or Malala Yousafzai.  Another unexpected consequence is that my various Buddha figures have taken on additional meaning: instead of representing only the Buddha, the statues now seem able to represent all those who I find inspirational and who also appear to have experienced high levels of integration.  For some, the historical existence of these characters, and others like them will have little impact on their relationship with them.  For me, confident historical speculation seems to augment my experience with deeper levels of meaning.  I have got no idea if the story of Jesus washing Peters feet (depicted above) represents something that happened but I still find it inspirational.  If, however, evidence was discovered that increased my confidence in its historicity then the inspiration and meaning I experience would be further enhanced.

Yielding to Buddhist torturers

The latest film from Martin Scorsese, now in cinemas, is entitled ‘Silence’, and concerns the struggles of Jesuit missionaries in a nascent Christian community in seventeenth century Japan. It’s a harrowing film to watch, because it contains a great many scenes of gruesome torture inflicted by the Buddhist Inquisitor on Japanese Christians and missionaries to get them to apostasize their beliefs, but it’s also a film that I felt raised troubling questions about how we should treat our identities and commitments. Should we be prepared to renounce them to save our lives? For someone of Christian identity, is stepping on an image of Christ just a formal gesture of no great significance, as the wily inquisitor urged? Or is it, simply by yielding to power and surrendering the individual conscience, a deeply undermining act, compared to which martyrdom might even be preferable? silence_2016_film

This film depicts a world that is a long way from any obvious application of the Middle Way – a deeply polarised world of clashing absolute beliefs. After initially tolerating limited European influence, at this stage the Japanese government had entered a phase of isolationism during which they were determined to limit foreign religious influence as well as other kinds of political influence, by any means necessary. Christian villagers are depicted as being crucified, ‘baptised’ with boiling water, summarily decapitated, drowned, or hung upside down in a pit with their neck veins opened, to induce renunciation either from them or from equally unfortunate missionary spectators. Ironically, of course, the Buddhist torture being inflicted on religious minorities in Japan mirrors the equally gruesome and better-known torture inflicted by the Catholic Inquisition on any type of heresy in Europe, at the very same time.

[The remainder of this review contains plot spoilers.]

But many people have lived in such a desperately polarised world, and indeed still do so. The Middle Way should still be practicable in such a world, as it should be in any conditions, but what does it imply? On the whole I found my sympathies with the character of Father Ferreira, an earlier Jesuit missionary who is depicted as having renounced his faith under earlier torture and to be living in Japan and studying Japanese thought. Ferreira urges the younger Jesuit who has come to find him (Rodriguez) to renounce similarly, rather than waiting for Japanese Christians to be tortured to death one by one in front of him. Ferreira recognises that the religious meaning of Christ and of Christian commitment to him is not just a matter of tribal identity, and insists that the loving action in the circumstances is to yield. After a great deal of resistance, Rodriguez finally convinces himself that Christ would understand his action, and apostasizes. In effect, Ferreira recognises the unhelpfulness of absolutizing religious commitment and confusing it with tribal identity. He seems to have made a step in the direction of the Middle Way, by allowing new information from outside to soften his previously rigid beliefs.

However, this also didn’t seem to me to be such an obviously right judgement, because of its political effects. If the state or a religious authority uses absolute power in this way, yielding to it could also be seen as encouraging that type of policy. Defying it, on the other hand, could possibly have the effect of encouraging tolerance. In the circumstances, though, the prospects of changing Japanese policy through defiance would seem to have been pretty remote. Much longer-term social and political change was required to eventually open up Japan. So I continue to see Ferreira as more justified on the whole, though with a full acceptance of the limitations of any judgement I can make from my comfortable armchair in relatively tolerant 21st century Britain.

However, I doubt if this is Scorsese’s own view. In the very final scene, we see Rodriguez’s burial according to Buddhist rites, with any indications of the deceased’s Christian origins strictly forbidden: but Rodriguez is clutching a hidden cross which his wife has presumably planted in his cupped hands. At the beginning of the final credits, there is also a dedication to the martyred Japanese Christians, ‘ad majoram dei gloriam’. Scorsese, as a Catholic, seems to want this in the end to be a triumphalist film about Christian heroism in the face of Buddhist oppression, despite the deep ambiguity of most of the film. I felt this was an artistic betrayal of the more creative ambiguity that the film would have done better to stick with.

Critics have been lambasting the film for being too long – the trademark criticism of an impatient age. I didn’t find it too long, but I did sometimes feel that the torture scenes were overdone. Despite these limitations, it is still a film well worth seeing for anyone interested in confronting the full anguish of our religious past. Although Scorsese’s artistic instincts seem to be in conflict with his dogmatism, most of the time the artistic instincts win out.

I’d especially recommend this film for any Buddhists who are inclined to idealise their religion by considering it intrinsically different from any other in the mix of its historical attitudes to violence and oppression. For example, Sangharakshita wrote:

Not a single page of Buddhist history has ever been lurid with the light of inquisitorial fires, or darkened with the smoke of heretic and heathen cities ablaze, or red with the blood of the guiltless victims of religious hatred. Like the Bodhisattva Manjushri, Buddhism wields only one sword, the Sword of Wisdom, and recognises only one enemy – Ignorance. That is the testimony of history, and is not to be gainsaid[1].

Such completely inaccurate idealisations are unfortunately still found amongst Western Buddhists, together with the assumption that the conceptual content of your metaphysical beliefs somehow makes a difference as to how rigid they are and how much conflict and oppression they create. But it’s not whether you call your ideal ‘God’ or ‘Enlightenment’ that makes the difference here, but whether you absolutise it. Scorsese’s film has the merit of making this point abundantly clear.  


[1] Sangharakshita, Buddhism in the Modern World

Picture: film poster copyright to the film-maker/distributor but copied from Wikipedia under fair use criterion. Please see this link for fair use justification.


Alexander von Humboldt, synthesist

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book, ‘The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science’ by Andrea Wulf, which has made me much more aware of the profound scientific legacy of Humboldt (a figure who seems to be largely forgotten in Anglophone countries). Humboldt (1769-1859) was a towering figure of science, not because he created a massive new theory like Newton or Einstein, but because of the way he linked different spheres of discussion together to recognise new conditions. He can be a new source of inspiration today precisely because science, and indeed the academic world in general, suffers so much from over-specialisation and the narrowing of assumptions that this brings with it.

Humboldt was born into an aristocratic family in Prussia at the time of Prussia’s increasing ascendancy in Germany, but before its unification. Influenced by Goethe and Kant, he treated human understanding as an interconnected whole, developing a concept of nature that recognised all these interconnections at a time when few of them were understood. He was the first to recognise the relationship between animals, plants, geology and climate across the world, and the first to warn of the destructive effects of human activity on the environment, including climate change. He spoke and read four languages fluently and was as equally at home in Paris, London, Washington, or Bogota as he was in Berlin. He travelled to South America and Russia, combining meticulous observation, intrepid exploration, and broad awareness of the relationships between all the phenomena he observed. Back in Paris and Berlin, he wrote books that interwove geology, astronomy, botany, zoology, human geography and politics, describing his experiences with sensitivity and power and illustrating them visually, as well as providing all the data. He spoke to the public and became massively popular, as well as being an inspiration for such varied figures as Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. The great strength of Wulf’s book is that she unites an engrossing account of Humboldt’s own life and achievements with one of his influence on all of these figures.humboldt-bonpland_chimborazoHumboldt’s way of doing science united analysis with synthesis in a way that seems to be largely lost today. His general conclusions could be backed up with detailed evidence from observation that was often first-hand, but at the same time he could pan out and make links between diverse fields of study. For example, he noted the effects of the Spanish colonial system on the environment of South America, and the impoverishment of plant and animal life it was already creating in some areas, even whilst abundant life thrived in those less affected by human interference. He also linked human-created deforestation to a feedback loop of climate change, as the lack of trees desiccated a local environment. To make links in this way, across the boundaries of politics, botany, meteorology and geography, is to synthesise, creating new understanding, rather than just to analyse causes and justifications within an accepted field of discourse.

Some of the thinkers I most admire today are synthesisers who have likewise linked together fields that are often falsely separated: Carl Jung, Iain McGilchrist, or Nassim Nicholas Taleb, for instance. But synthetic thinkers today have the odds massively stacked against them, and are typically forced by the academic system to plough a narrow furrow for many years before they can be allowed to synthesise and be taken seriously. ‘The academic system’ here means peer-reviewed journals that take the limited assumptions of a particular specialisation as their sole basis, and expect highly-evidenced work covering a small area that can be fitted into an existing accepted framework of knowledge. Anything in the least synthetic is almost automatically rejected by such journals, and even if they are supposedly inter-disciplinary they are often highly limited in the starting assumptions they will accept. No academic career is possible without the support of these journals, and thus the triumph of analysis over synthesis maintains a stranglehold over the academic world.

But if you read about Humboldt’s scientific world of the early nineteenth century, you find quite a different world. Here a scientist was still largely thought of as an individual thinker and observer rather than someone who had to conform to a massive socially-regulated project. Here synthetic abilities could still be recognised, appreciated and cultivated alongside those of analysis and observation. The scientists were much fewer in number and had much more limited facilities at their disposal, but they still made great breakthroughs, because they were free to reflect on their experience from a variety of perspectives and thus come up with new theories. Humboldt’s recognition of what we now call ecological relationships was a discovery that could hardly be of greater practical importance to us today – probably much greater importance than the relative breakthroughs made today by specialised teams who persist in ploughing a well-ploughed furrow a little bit further.

Of course, it would be easy to idealise that earlier scientific world, and the current one has many other advantages. What seems important to me is not to in any way belittle the efforts of scientists in the current specialised system, but to encourage awareness of the overall limitations of that system and urge it to incorporate more synthesis. It is like a tree that has grown strongly in one direction when the light was available there, but now lacks the flexibility to grow in a new direction when the source of light moves. The scientific system depends on the education system, which gives far too little grounding in philosophical, psychological and emotional awareness which would help people more readily see the limitations of a specialised position. In turn philosophy itself needs root and branch reform, because it has been warped in mistaken imitation of over-specialised science, rather than fulfilling its practical function of a general critical consideration of our widest beliefs and assumptions. Without a recognition of the perspective from which synthesis is so important, we are unlikely to be motivated in changing our institutions to encourage it. Looking back at the strengths of what was done in the past can at least provide a vein of inspiration for that, even if it doesn’t tell us exactly how to act today.


Picture: Humboldt and Bonpland by Mount Chimborazo by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (public domain)