Monday, April 30, 2012

Should Enlightenment humanism be equated with Western Civilization?

In a comment on Jim Belshaw’s blog a couple of weeks ago Ramana, one of his regular readers, commented:
‘Surely, words like civilisation and progress themselves need acceptable definitions before we can arrive at a consensus?
These two words have gained a lot of notoriety because of the heavy slant towards the Western idea of them. That other parts of the world could have different ideas need to be recognised and accommodated.’

Jim drew attention to the comment in a later post in which he also referred to my post: ‘Is Enlightenment humanism a coherent world view?’ A spirited discussion ensued.

My response to Ramana, influenced by Steven Pinker’s ‘Better Angels  …’ book (which I still haven’t finished reading) was that the civilizing process is about widespread adoption of an attitude that violence is unacceptable, accompanied by a reduction in violence within societies. I suggested that such a view of the civilizing process should have appeal all over the world. I noted that the societies in which rates of internal violence have fallen over the last couple of centuries are certainly not all in the West and the process doesn't have much, if anything, to do with the 'westernization' of culture. I was making a distinction between western culture and the social norms associated with classical liberalism and humanism.

Wolfgang Kasper’s monograph, ‘The Merits of Western Civilization’ (IPA, 2011) is directly relevant to the questions we have been discussing. Wolfgang discusses the evolution of western civilization in a particularly thoughtful manner.

In discussing the tendency of people to feel that their own civilization is superior to others, Wolfgang acknowledges that there could be a kernel of truth in such claims.  They make sense because each individual ‘has to become habituated to his community’s given rule-set, and many institutions have to be internalized to the extent that they are obeyed unthinkingly’.  Wolfgang makes the point, however, that ‘not all rule-sets … are objectively of equal value in terms of attaining such fundamental goals as freedom, justice, security and peace’.

Wolfgang also discusses the importance of rule-sets - particularly informal institutions or social norms - being able to evolve in response to changing circumstances, in harmony with accepted cultural values. He notes that civilizations tend to decline culturally and materially when they are based on rigid rule systems.  On this basis, he argues that the most outstanding feature of western civilization is that it has remained adaptive and open to new challenges and opportunities as well as sufficiently open to allow other civilizations to borrow from it.

The openness of western civilization to influence from other cultures, along with strong historical influences from Western Asia, make the task of defining western civilization somewhat difficult. In his discussion of how to define ‘the West’, Wolfgang provides a fairly supportive critique of the views of Philippe Nemo, in his book ‘What is the West?’ Nemo argues that a common cultural heritage is shared by Western Europeans and North Americans, as well as outliers such as Australians.  He asserts that the values on which western civilization are built stem from the invention of the city and rational science in ancient Greece, Roman invention of the law, the addition of compassion by Judaeo-Christian thinkers, a papal revolution between the 11th and 13th centuries (which apparently introduced the concept that individual initiative and good deeds can redeem humanity) and the Enlightenment from the 17th to the early 19th centuries.

Nemo ‘fails to completely convince’ Wolfgang that a medieval papal revolution acted as ‘a stepping stone to modernity’. He suggests that Nemo ‘almost forgets’ the role of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, which gave religious endorsement to innovation and material progress ‘and distinguished European civilization from the many others that made a virtue of a fatalistic outlook on life’.

The intellectual, political and economic liberalism of the Enlightenment is viewed by Wolfgang as the ‘crowning achievement’ of western civilization. Since the Enlightenment happened in the West, it seems to me that it certainly makes sense to identify the emergence of modern western civilization with Enlightenment humanism and intellectual pluralism.

Does this mean that Enlightenment humanism and intellectual pluralism should be equated with western civilization? I don’t think so. I think it is an exaggeration to assert, as Wolfgang does, that ‘no civilization outside the West has turned intellectual pluralism into a value of its own’. It seems to me that recognition of the merits of intellectual pluralism has spread outside the West to such an extent that it is no longer appropriate to identify these values solely with western civilization. In my view Enlightenment humanism and intellectual pluralism should be seen as cosmopolitan values that tend to be reflected in social norms to the extent that a society is open to influence from other cultures.

Wolfgang Kasper ends his monograph with the assertion that the history of civilizations and the role of cultural evolution are among the most fascinating fields of study. In my view his monograph makes a useful contribution in demonstrating that to be so.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What is the 'World Happiness Report'?

World Happiness ReportThe release of the UN’s ‘World Happiness Report’, edited (and to a large extent authored) by John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, does not seem to have captured much media attention. I became aware of it only while looking for reports of the meeting on ‘Happiness and Well-being:  Defining a New Economic Paradigm’, which was held in New York early this month. My interest stems from my attendance at a preliminary meeting in Bhutan last year. I still don’t have much idea what happened in New York, but the ‘World Happiness Report’ deserves consideration.

The mainstream media apparently didn’t consider the ‘World Happiness Report’ to be particularly newsworthy. That is presumably because it doesn’t contain much information that is new. It is not news that people in wealthy countries tend to be happier than people in poor countries. It is not news that average levels of happiness are still fairly low in China despite substantial gains in income levels over the last couple of decades. (That makes it difficult for me to understand reports that the Chinese government has apparently made it difficult for people in China to obtain the report via the internet.)
The report consists of an introduction by Jeff Sachs and chapters on the state of world happiness, the causes of happiness and misery, and policy implications. The report also contains three case studies – one on measurement of Gross National Happiness in Bhutan, one on the work of the ONS in Britain and the other OECD proposals for measurement of subjective well-being.

The introduction sets the scene by arguing that the quest for happiness should be seen to be intimately linked to the quest for sustainable development.  The author seems particularly concerned that economic growth will ‘undermine the Earth’s life support systems’: ‘In years or decades, conditions for life ‘may become dire in several fragile regions of the world.’ He is also concerned that economic growth is not making people happier: countries ‘achieve great progress in economic development as conventionally measured; yet along the way succumb to a new crisis of obesity, smoking, diabetes depression and the other ills of modern life’. He suggests that we can ‘protect the Earth while raising quality of life’ if we adopt ‘lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment.’

In my view the picture painted in the introduction is exaggerated, in terms of both impacts of economic growth on the environment and human happiness. In broad terms, the regions where conditions for life are under threat are suffering from lack of economic growth, rather than too much of it. The regions where happiness levels are highest have had greatest economic growth.

It is tempting to dismiss the introduction as alarmist nonsense.  It provokes in me the same feelings as I get when religious fanatics try to tell me that the end of the world is nigh. Yet, I readily acknowledge that some aspects of human activity are impacting adversely on the environment and that many people who have the benefits of living in high-income countries do not make good use of the opportunities that modern life offers to them. My point is that the introduction is unlikely to persuade many people that the measurement of happiness is worth considering seriously.

The introduction raises in my mind the question of how measurement of happiness will induce people to change their lifestyles in ways that reduce environmental damage. Will this occur through a spontaneous change in culture or are we about to see a new wave of central planning to regulate individual lifestyles? Perhaps happiness research will provide evidence that individuals with a small environmental footprint tend to be happier, other things being equal. Such evidence might induce larger numbers of people to make substantial lifestyle changes spontaneously.  I would not be surprised to see such evidence emerge, but the possibility of obtaining it doesn’t seem to be discussed in this report.

I think there is reason to be concerned that we are about to see a new wave of central planning of individual lifestyles, linked to happiness measurement. I am not referring here to limited action by governments to change relative prices in order to reduce specific negative spillovers associated with economic growth e.g. through carbon taxes or trading schemes. My concern is about the manipulation of the tax and regulatory system in ways designed to counter any aspirations that people might have that are not immediately reflected in happiness or life satisfaction. The author of the introduction fuels my concerns by objecting to the view that ‘happiness is in the eye of the beholder, an individual’s choice, something to be pursued individually rather than a matter of national policy’. There are plenty of political players in most countries, who will be only too eager to use this report to support their efforts to try to make people happier by regulating their lives.

Will these government planners be successful in their efforts to use happiness data to make people happier? It seems to me that there are parallels here with the use of GDP in economic planning. Half a century ago economic planners had great hopes that national income measurement - then being standardized with United Nations involvement – would help them in their efforts to lift economic growth rates. The UN’s 1969 Declaration on Social Progress and Development (discussed on this blog a few weeks ago) must have provided economic planners with great comfort by supporting their efforts to raise GDP through economic planning.  In the end, GDP measurement has helped to show that the efforts of the economic planners were counter-productive. I would not be surprised if social planning to raise happiness levels eventually meets a similar fate.

Planners are faced with the challenge of evidence that individual freedom is important to life satisfaction.  On that basis, it seems reasonable to predict that people will tend to become increasingly discontented as social planners intensify their efforts to make them happier.

Unfortunately, the introduction to the report has side-tracked me from considering the main content. People who might be interested in my views on the other chapters have probably stopped reading already. In case anyone is still reading, however, I will add some brief comments.

For the most part, the report equates ‘happiness’ with subjective well-being. It focuses on subjective well-being measures based on questions about happiness and life satisfaction. The authors seem to have in mind that those two questions should form the basis of happiness measurement systems. (The Bhutan case study is an exception. Objective measures of well-being are included in the measurement of GNH in Bhutan along with subjective measures.)

The report contains interesting information on the distribution of happiness in different countries as well as on average levels of happiness. The information on the distribution of happiness suggests to me that great caution is required in interpreting average happiness levels (whether mean, median or mode) as indicators of national happiness. This is particularly so in Latin American and African countries where inequality of happiness is relatively high.

The focus of the report on subjective well-being seems to me to be a weakness, despite its recognition that happiness measurement is part of a larger effort to understand well-being. This weakness is particularly evident when the report comes to making suggestions about policy priorities. It is apparent in that section that the authors were unable to confine themselves to findings arising from subjective well-being research. For example, the report states that a decent education for all is essential. Few would argue with that, but the research findings reported suggest that education makes a contribution to life satisfaction only through its effects on income.

In my view the methodology for measuring well-being should recognize all the factors that people consider to impinge on the opportunities available to them to live the kinds of lives they want to live. It seems likely that many people would consider education to affect those opportunities in ways that are not accounted for by either income or life satisfaction. Similarly, are other factors that contribute to the opportunities for people to live the lives they want to live, including health and the state of the environment, are probably not adequately accounted for by measures of subjective well-being.

Jim Belshaw has made the additional point, in the comments below and on his blog, that when you measure something there is a great temptation to focus on improving 'performance' as measured. Extending this reasoning, if happiness measures focus on contentment one might therefore expect government policies to focus to a greater extent on making people feel content - for example, by viewing ambition as a mental health problem and making medications freely available to treat it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Is Enlightenment humanism a coherent world view?

‘The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism.’

The quote is from Steven Pinker’s book, ‘The Better Angels of our Nature: Why violence has declined’, 2011, p 180. I am only half-way through reading the book, but I am becoming bored with the chapter on ‘the long peace’, so I will comment on this aspect now.

John Gray’s response to the quoted passage is that Pinker has listed ‘highly disparate thinkers, and it is far from clear that any coherent philosophy could have “coalesced” from their often incompatible ideas’.  On the face of it, Gray would appear to be correct. In his explanation following the quote Pinker makes matters worse, in my view, by equating Enlightenment humanism with classical liberalism.

Friedrich Hayek’s classification of liberals into British (classical liberal) and French (constructivist rationalist) varieties is helpful in this context. Classical liberals retained strong respect for traditions and institutions that had spontaneously evolved, including respect for individual rights. By contrast, rationalistic liberals made strong assumptions about the powers of human reason and sought to construct a utopia in which economic and social outcomes would conform to the will of the majority.

Hobbes and Descartes helped to provide the intellectual foundation for the views of Voltaire, Rousseau and Condorcet, which led to the French Revolution, the development of socialist ideology, liberal progressivism and even neoconservatism. (See Troy Camplin’s recent discussion of how neoconservatism can be linked to Continental enlightenment thinking.) There are also several other people on Pinker’s list, including Jefferson and J S Mill, who were strongly influenced by Continental rationalistic thinking.

Would A N Whitehead have agreed with Pinker that Enlightenment humanism constituted a coherent world view? I raise the question because my last post was about Whitehead’s book, ‘Adventures of Ideas’. In fact, Whitehead’s seems to be more guilty than Pinker of lumping classical liberals and rationalistic liberals together. He presented Adam Smith as ‘a typical figure of the 18th century enlightenment’ and emphasized the links between the intellectual life of Scotland and France. He also emphasized the influence of Continental enlightenment thinking on America’s founding fathers by suggesting that the ‘mentality’ of people like Jefferson and Franklin, was French. Whitehead argued that while many factors contributed to the change from a presupposition of slavery to a presupposition of freedom, the ‘chief factor’ was ‘the sceptical, humanitarian movement of the eighteenth century, of which Voltaire and Rousseau were among the chief exponents, and the French Revolution the culmination’ (p 22).

Pinker has a very different view of the French Revolution. He sees it as a catastrophe and a departure from ‘the Enlightenment script’. He suggests that the French philosophes from whom the revolutionaries drew their main inspiration were intellectual lightweights. He argues that the American Revolution was more successful because the founders were products not just of the Enlightenment but of the English civilizing process promoting self-control and cooperation. They were very conscious of the limitations of human nature and sought to devise a system of government that would counteract the temptation of leaders to abuse their power.

In considering whether there is any sense in which Pinker could be correct to view Enlightenment humanism as a coherent world view I think it is important to consider the context in which he makes that claim. He is writing about a market place of ideas, with many new books emerging and being discussed. At the same time, the rise of cosmopolitan cities helped to bring people and ideas together. He implies that when a large enough community of free agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, it is likely that some kind of consensus will emerge.

I think Pinker would be on much stronger ground in claiming the emergence of a more general consensus supporting Enlightenment humanism among leaders of political opinion, rather than the existence of a coherent philosophy shared by a group of intellectuals. While the classical liberals would probably have seen little merit in the views of the rationalistic liberals, and vice versa, many leaders of political opinion would have seen varying degrees of merit in different viewpoints and would have sought to reconcile and assimilate them in developing their own views.

Intellectual leaders can also have an important influence on public opinion. It seems to me that J S Mill was correct in his view that the civilizing process led to the growing power of public opinion which in turn would lead to democratic political reforms. (I discussed his reasons on this blog a couple of years ago.) Mill was particularly concerned about the influence of universities on public opinion and advocated reforms that would enable universities to become bastions of Enlightenment humanism.

Over time, it seems to me that the values espoused by Enlightenment humanism have developed the status of a coherent world view in the democracies that is often, but not always, supported by public opinion. The process seems to be one in which disparate political philosophies, often going back centuries, act as tributaries to the broad streams of thought that flow into the rivers of public opinion. Enlightenment humanism is one of those broad streams of thought. The colour of the water in the streams and the rivers changes over time, depending on relative contributions from the different tributaries.

Jim Belshaw has commented and provided further discussion of the concepts of progress and civilization on his blog. Troy Camplin has provided references below to other posts in which he has discussed the influence of different philosophies on current political beliefs.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Could civilization be maintained without progress?

Adventures of IdeasA couple of weeks ago I quoted Friedrich Hayek: ‘In one sense, civilization is progress and progress is civilization’. Hayek provided a Cf reference to J S Mill’s ‘Representative Government’, but I don’t think the connection between civilization and ongoing progress comes through nearly as strongly in anything Mill wrote as in Alfred North Whitehead’s book ‘Adventures of Ideas’, published in1933.

I was prompted to take a look at Whitehead’s book by a recent comment by Jim Belshaw that Whitehead had an enormous influence on his thinking as a young man because he seemed to show a process of change in which combinations of ideas could, with time, create civilisation (Personal Reflections blog, March 31). Since then I have seen several other favourable references to Whitehead, including in Frederick Turner’s book, ‘Culture of Hope’, discussed recently on this blog.

‘Adventures of Ideas’ is largely about the link between civilization and progress (even though the word ‘progress’ doesn’t actually appear in the index). The following quote seems to me to capture the essence of that link as perceived by A N Whitehead:
‘The history of ideas is a history of mistakes. But through all mistakes it is also the history of the gradual purification of conduct. When there is progress in the development of favourable order, we find conduct protected from relapse into brutalization by the increasing agency of ideas consciously entertained. In this way Plato is justified in his saying. The creation of the world – that is to say, the world of civilized order – is the victory of persuasion over force’. (p 25)

At one point, Whitehead defines civilization as ‘the maintenance of social order, by its own inherent persuasiveness’. He suggests that ‘recourse to force, however, unavoidable, is a disclosure of the failure of civilization, either in the general society or in a remnant of individuals’. He views commerce, broadly defined, as an important example of intercourse between individuals and social groups that takes place by persuasion rather than by force.

Later in the book, Whitehead presents a more complex definition of civilization: ‘that a civilized society is exhibiting the five qualities of Truth, Beauty, Adventure, Art, Peace’. (p 274) He views the fine arts as an important element of civilization, but (unlike Kenneth Clark in his famous TV series) he makes clear that civilization is more than appreciation of the fine arts.
By peace, Whitehead means ‘a quality of mind steady in its reliance that fine action is treasured in the nature of things’. In his later explanation he suggests that the concept of peace that he is looking for is a ‘Harmony of Harmonies, which shall bind together the other four qualities, so as to exclude from our notion of civilization the restless egotism with which they have often in fact been pursued’. It is clear from his subsequent explanation that he is referring to an inner peace that involves a surpassing of personal interest.

Where does goodness fit into Whitehead’s concept of civilization? Is a civilized person a good person? Is a civilized society a good society? He doesn’t seem to answer these questions explicitly. He rejects the idea that the arts should strive for goodness as well as truth and beauty, but in viewing civilization as a process involving ‘the gradual purification of conduct’ he must see a civilized society as being in the process of becoming good, or better.

If there is any point in this discussion where it might be appropriate for me to mention my irritation at Whitehead’s writing style, it is here. Many passages in the book are full of mind-numbing sequences of capitalized words that seem to me to hinder rather than to help understanding of the ideas being presented. For example:
‘The attainment of Truth belongs to the essence of Peace. By this is meant, that the intuition constituting the realization of Peace has its objective that Harmony whose interconnections involve Truth. A defect in Truth is a limitation to Harmony. There can be no secure efficacy in the Beauty which hides within itself the dislocations of falsehood’. 
The author might mean that truth-seeking promotes inner peace, and vice versa. But he could be attempting to convey deeper thoughts. Who knows?

Now, back to Progress! In my view the most important contribution of Whitehead’s book is his explanation that Adventure is integral to civilization.  Whitehead argues that no static maintenance of perfection is possible:
 ‘Thus in every civilization we see at its culmination a large measure of realization of a certain type of perfection. … The culmination can maintain itself at its height so long as fresh experimentation within the type is possible. But when these minor variations are exhausted, one of two things must happen. Perhaps the society in question lacks creative force. Staleness then sets in. Repetition produces a gradual lowering of vivid appreciation. Convention dominates. A learned orthodoxy suppresses adventure. … There remains the show of civilization without any of its realities.
There is an alternative to this slow decline. … In that case a quick period of transition may set in, which may or may not be accompanied by dislocations that involve widespread unhappiness. … These quick transitions are only possible when thought has run ahead of realization. … The world dreams of things to come and then in due season arouses itself to their realization’. (p 277 – 279)

Whitehead emphasized the importance of liberty of thought and action to the ‘upward adventure of life on this Earth’.

At the end of the book, Whitehead suggests that the concept of civilization remains inherently incomplete. He seems to be suggesting that advancing civilizations must continually re-define the concept for themselves. In that regard, it is interesting to speculate whether Alfred North Whitehead would define the characteristics of civilization differently today, in the light of changes that have occurred in the last 80 years. My guess is that he would, perhaps, feel inclined to put greater emphasis on the importance of loving kindness and reverence for life in all its forms.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Are the arts a force for progress or do they just reflect contemporary society?

As I begin to attempt to answer this question, I wonder whether it might not be too silly to consider seriously. First there is the problem of making broad generalizations about the arts. It is possible that some components of the arts to be a force for progress whilst others promote regress.  Then there is the possibility that just by reflecting society the arts could be a force for progress. Even offensive and grotesque examples of punk art – which seem to reflect some of the worst characteristics of the societies we live in - might provoke some people to contemplate whether it might be possible to build better societies. Negative actions sometimes provoke positive reactions.

The point I was trying to get at when I posed the question was whether there is a strong component of the arts at present that is likely to be viewed in future as a force for the progress of culture - in the same way, for example, as we now view Shakespeare’s plays, the music of Mozart and Beethoven and the impressionist art of Monet and Renoir. And, if such a force exists, what might cause us to recognize it as a force for progress? What is it that has led us to regard the great historical achievements in literature, music and art as progress? Do we accept such developments as progress merely because the most powerful influences on our own personal development – including our parents, teachers and peers - cultivated our taste for them? If so, doesn’t that imply that we have to concede the possibility that one day a high proportion of the world’s population might come to regard the advent of punk art as a positive force for progress?

It seems to me that the best way to escape despair about current trends in the arts is to find criteria that developments could reasonably be expected to meet if they are to be viewed as progress. Frederick Turner’s book, ‘The Culture of Hope’ (1995) seems highly relevant in this context.

Front CoverTurner nominates beauty as the test of all ideas:
‘In the absence of the deep test of beauty, by which all true scientists and philosophers assay their ideas, cognition is increasingly arbitrary in its conclusions, the search for truth is bereft of its compass, and the connection between human beings and the rest of nature begins to get lost.  … Without beauty, the difference between good and evil comes to be defined in terms of the avoidance of pain and the maximization of comfort. I think we are still aware that a human being whose sole desire is a state of painless comfort is scarcely a human being at all, since we ban the drugs that can induce such a state, but we are in danger of forgetting the intellectual or moral or perceptual beauty that might make someone choose the pain and struggle and deprivation of discovery, heroic charity, and art’.

In my view, this passage claims too much for beauty. We don’t actually need to apply a test of beauty in the search for truth and goodness. We test claims regarding the advance of scientific knowledge by confronting them with evidence. We assess claims regarding the ethical merits of changes in social norms in terms of whether or not they are good for the members of the societies concerned.

Yet, there must be a close relationship between beauty, truth and goodness. It makes sense to think of truth as having the quality of ‘epistemological beauty’ and goodness to have the quality of ‘ethical beauty’. The meaning which the author attaches to beauty comes through clearly in the passage in which he describes his personal experience as a teacher of karate and literature. He notes that young karate students begin to shift from the self-esteem ethic they learn at school and attain greater humility and confidence as they adopt ‘the pure pursuit of good karate form’. Similarly, the allegiance of literature students shifts from their own psychological comfort to the poem they are working on as they come to understand when ‘a rhyme is forced or a line stumbles’. Turner makes the point very well that as a ‘as a culture we are stunningly ignorant about beauty’.

It seems to me that Turner also has a strong response to the view that beauty exists solely in the eye of the beholder. Although recognition of beauty emerges from the neurobiology of the individual, the findings of scientific research suggest that it exists as a reward for ‘the recognition and creation of certain complex, organized and unified patterns – patterns traditionally known a beautiful’. Turner points out that beauty is a natural pleasure and intuition possessed by all humans which is activated, sensitized and deepened by culture.

It is not possible in the space I am allowing myself here to do justice to Turner’s concept of social progress and the role that may be played by the arts in reconnecting with science and improving our understanding of beauty and its links with acceptance of shame. The flavour of what he is suggesting is that progress involves ‘continuation of the natural evolution of the universe in a new, swifter and deeper way, through the cooperation of human beings with the rest of nature, bringing conscious intention and organized creativity to the aid of natural variation and selection’.

The arts are certainly a force for progress insofar as they promote changes that meet the test of beauty. It seems to me, however, that beauty is not the only relevant test. When I ask myself whether Adrian Bejan’s constructal law would shed any light progress in the arts (see a recent post for relevant links) the answer I come up with is that the function of the arts is primarily to facilitate flows of communications about the feelings and insights of the artist. In this context, progress occurs as the flows generate shape and structure which make communication more effective.

It is easy to identify artistic endeavours that are destined to fail because they generate resistance rather than facilitate flow. For example, self-respecting humans do not willingly subject themselves to communications that are insulting or degrading.

It is also possible to identify other developments in the arts that represent progress because they contribute to better communication between the artist and the audience. For example, I think Nicola Moir’s painting ‘The in-between space’, reproduced below, is successful in conveying the authors message that ‘everyday’ landmarks of the suburbs such as telegraph poles, road signs etc. can look beautiful.  Nicola has stated that her intention is ‘to inspire the viewer to stop in their city, look around it and appreciate it’.

Troy Camplin has posted a response on his Austrian Economics and Literature site.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How much willpower do we want to exercise?

Book Cover:  Willpower: Rediscovering Our Greatest StrengthWhere does a person get the willpower to read a book with the title, ‘Willpower: Rediscovering our Greatest Strength’? A book with such a title could not help reminding readers of their past failures in exercise of willpower. However, I didn’t find the book by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney an ordeal to read. Rather than making me feel more guilty, the book left me feeling that some of my past failures might perhaps be understandable under the circumstances.

The authors discuss research findings which suggest that in the short term an individual’s willpower is limited and is depleted by exertion. When your willpower is depleted you are more likely to become frustrated and to act impulsively. This means that the best time to make changes in your life is when there are few other demands being made on you, so you can allocate most willpower to the task.

The book provides some good advice about how to deal with procrastination and the anxiety that can be associated with it. For example, once you make a definite plan to do the things that you have been procrastinating about, you will stop fretting about them. If you find yourself procrastinating by substituting other activities for the activity that should have highest priority, try the ‘nothing’ alternative. Set aside time to be spent either on the high priority activity or doing nothing.

The book also has good advice on how to deal with temptations. Postponement can work better than trying to deny yourself altogether. Where necessary, use pre-commitment. Set bright lines – clear unmistakeable boundaries that you expect your future self to respect. Monitor performance regularly and don’t forget to reward yourself for reaching goals.

One of the points that came through to me in the book is how careful we need to be in making judgements about the ability of other people to exercise willpower. For example, the book suggests that it is often a mistake to attribute obesity to lack of willpower. Paradoxically, many people who are over-weight or obese have in the past exercised a great deal of willpower in following crash diets that have resulted in rapid weight loss. The problem is that when subjected to diets that simulate the effects of famine, human bodies tend to respond by holding on to every fat cell they can.

My main reason for reading the book – apart from the feeling that my own willpower could do with some improvement – was to see what light it sheds on arguments for government interventions to remove temptations that are bad for individual health and well-being. This issue is not discussed directly but, as the subtitle implies, the book argues strongly that individuals have the potential to exercise a great deal of self-control if they know how and want to do so.

This raises the question of how much self-control each of us wants to exercise over our impulses. While reading the book I found myself thinking that I don’t actually want to remove from my life all temptations for impulsive behaviour that I might later regret. I feel that I may obtain some satisfaction from leaving myself somewhat vulnerable to impulsiveness. For example, while I accept that there would probably be health benefits in restricting my (already moderate) alcohol intake to one glass of wine per day, that is a bright line that I don’t want to draw – at least, not yet!

I suspect that a lot of other people think as I do about such matters. We feel that it is appropriate for the control we exercise over ourselves to be somewhat lenient. Some of the boundaries we set are deliberately flexible, for example with allowances for special occasions. We don’t want our lives to be totally governed by bright lines. The last thing we want is a paternalistic government that seeks to help us by taking the temptations out of our lives.
Paternalists tend to respond: ‘It's not about you. Our aim is to help vulnerable people’.  
So why don’t they help vulnerable people to develop the inner strength they need to deal with their addictions and leave the rest of us to run our own lives for ourselves?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Should the 'constructal law' restore our faith in progress?

‘Everything that moves, whether animate or inanimate, is a flow system. All flow systems generate shape and structure in time to facilitate this movement across a landscape filled with resistance (for example, friction). The designs we see in nature are not the result of chance. They arise naturally, spontaneously, because they enhance access to flow in time.’

Cover art for DESIGN IN NATUREThe quote is a statement of Adrian Bejan’s ‘constructal law’ and is from ‘Design in Nature, How the constructal law governs evolution in biology, physics, technology and social organization’ (2012, p 3). Bejan, a professor of mechanical engineering, has co-authored the book with Peder Zane, an assistant professor of communications.

A basic point that the authors are making is that it is no accident that treelike patterns emerge throughout nature, e.g. trees, river systems, lightning bolts, blood capillaries and dendrites of neurons in brains. The treelike pattern is an effective design for facilitating flows – both from areas to points (as in the flow of water through the root system of a tree to its trunk) and from points to areas (as in the flow of water from the trunk of a tree to its leaves).

When I began to read the book I felt as though I had always believed that the design of flow systems in nature would evolve to facilitate the flow of the stuff that is flowing through them. It seemed intuitively obvious that that should be so, even though I could not claim to have thought much about the matter previously. (In fact, insofar as I had previously thought about it I would probably have been inclined to the view that the evolution of design in nature must be largely random because it is largely a consequence of random events.) After reading a few pages of the book, the main question in my mind was how the authors would justify the claim in the sub-title that the constructal law governs the evolution of technology and social organization as well as natural phenomena.

It seems to me that the authors’ application of the constructal law to technology and social organization is analogous to the application of the theory of evolution to economics (evolutionary economics) and culture (e.g. Hayek’s theory of group selection). The flow perspective actually helps to promote an understanding of social evolutionary processes as being about much more than just survival of the fittest – whether in terms of crude social Darwinism, or more sophisticated concepts relating to survival of ideas, firms, forms of economic and social organization, and social norms.

In my view the authors make a strong case that the accumulation of scientific knowledge can be viewed as a process in which the stuff that is flowing (new ideas) determines design (the organization of knowledge). In their words:
‘Indeed, all the great discoveries, from Newton’s laws of motion to the laws of thermodynamics, didn’t just tell us something new, they organized and streamlined our knowledge’.
The authors explain that scientific discoveries allow disorganized pieces of empirical information to be replaced by summarizing statements (laws). They suggest:
‘A hierarchy of statements emerges naturally because it facilitates the flow of information. It is an expression of the never-ending struggle of all flow systems to design and re-design themselves’ (p 163).

The application of the constructal law to social organization provides insights similar to those provides by the ‘new institutional economics’.  Institutional designs tend to evolve to facilitate transactions – i.e. to reduce transactions costs (which are analogous to friction in physical systems). Unfortunately, the authors don’t provide an explicit discussion of path dependency – in particular the potential for some societies to remain locked in to inferior institutions involving high transactions costs and poor social outcomes. Perhaps a flow perspective provides us with greater grounds for optimism that all people suffering under inferior institutions will eventually obtain the freedom they need to better their condition.

So, should the constructal law restore our faith in progress? The constructal law has not changed my view that it is better to think in terms of conditions for progress than faith in progress (see my last post). We can only be optimistic about progress if conditions are favourable. It makes more sense to ask whether the constructal law provides grounds for greater optimism than to ask whether it should restore our faith in progress. It seems to me that the constructal law provides an appropriately optimistic frame of reference for thinking about progress. Progress isn’t inevitable, but we have strong grounds to view it as a natural or normal phenomenon.

Adrian Bejan has responded as follows:

'Thank you very much for reading our book Design in Nature and writing about it.

I can respond to your call for "how the authors would justify the claim in the sub-title that the constructal law governs the evolution of technology and social organization as well as natural phenomena".

This is actually discussed in ch. 10, and it pivots on Fig. 57. The long version of this response is in the review article published last fall in Physics of Life Reviews (read the comments on Figs. 1, 5, and 20-24.

In our book Design in Nature, the justification is best illustrated by the story of how nature (not man) invented the wheel (Ch.4). Technology is all the contrivances that we make and attach to ourselves to in order to move farther, faster, more efficiently, and for longer (i.e. to live longer). This is no different than the morphological changes that stick as the river basin evolves

So, everything that looks good and we adopt and we acquire is helpful in this constructal flow direction, which is for the whole to flow more easily.. It sounds simple, and it is. Think about the evolution of the technology for power generation, for example. The same with transportation technology, science, language, communications, and currency, and bank tellers, and English as the global language. They all help us go with the flow.'

The article to which Professor Bejan refers in Physics of Life Reviews is also available at the constructal theory web site.