The Samovar

What makes science work?
November 5, 2010, 3:30 am
Filed under: Academia, Epistemology, Manifesto, Philosophy, Science | Tags: ,

You often hear people responding to the claims of homeopathists and the like with a request to see the peer-reviewed literature supporting their claims. The idea is that peer review is a unique characteristic of proper science that is essential to make science work. I recently read a history of peer review in science (subscription to Trends in biotechnology is unfortunately required) that throws some doubt on this. Fascinatingly, peer review didn’t really take off until 1959 with the invention of the photocopier: before then, it was just too expensive to make copies of the papers to send out for peer review. There was something like peer review before then, in that the editor would ask the opinions of friends and colleagues, but this was far from the standard we have for peer review today. A few journals would make the effort to make copies of papers and send them out for review, but it was rare.

Since science before 1959 was, in fact, extremely successful, and able to develop very well, it cannot be the case that peer review is an essential component of science. That’s not to say we should do away with it: it serves an important function today, essentially that of reducing the workload of the editor. So many papers are submitted for publication that some method for choosing which papers should and shouldn’t be published is necessary, and the reviews help the editor make that decision. What the exact function of peer review today ought to be, and how it should evolve, was the subject of an interesting debate in Nature in 2006 (no subscription needed for this one, I think).

So the people demanding peer-reviewed papers from the homeopathists should perhaps question what it is exactly that they’re doing. My guess is that they use it as an easy, but wrong way to distinguish science from pseudoscience. It makes for a good quip. The danger, though, as argued in this article, is that in fact it’s easy to cherry-pick bad ‘scientific’ papers that have passed the peer-review process. By using peer review as the ‘gold standard’ of scientific enquiry, they allow the justification of all sorts of nonsense.

This poses a problem though: if it’s not peer-review, what is it that makes science work? There have been many theories about this, most focussing on methodological aspects of scientific enquiry, for example Popper’s falsifiability criterion. I want to suggest an alternative point of view that doesn’t focus on methodology:

Science is the study of problems that can be addressed with the techniques available to us.

Techniques here should be understood to include both technology and, for example, mathematical or statistical tools. In this view then, physics is the ‘hardest’ science because the problems it looks at are the easiest. The variables in physical problems are much less interdependent, there are many fewer of them, and their interactions are much simpler than those in, for example, the study of social systems or economics. Our simple, mostly linear mathematical techniques and statistical methods based on independent variables then apply very nicely to physical problems.

Why does science work in this view then? The answer is that science is part of a social process: scientists do science, they are genuinely interested in finding out what happens, and even though individual scientists will sometimes be very wrong, will try to promote a bad theory that doesn’t have much support, or will attack a rival theory, eventually the egotistical motives involved will fade whereas the usefulness of good theories will last. This process may take a generation before change happens, but it eventually works. This process relies on there being at least some bias in favour of good theories over bad ones, even if the bias is small in comparison to the egotistic biases in favour of established theories. However, if available techniques are not good enough to introduce this bias, the good theories won’t win out over the bad ones, even in the long run. Thus, in unscientific subjects we shouldn’t be surprised to see cyclical variations in theories, where the period of the cycle is related to the duration of a scientific career. Young researchers will look at the work of the old researchers with disdain and propose radical alternatives, to which they will become attached. In turn, their theories will be rejected by those that come after them, and so on without ever stabilising.

In a way this is obvious: if there is no evidence to support or reject theories, then we cannot improve them. But it’s important to note that whether there is or is not any evidence to support or reject theories is to a large extent a function of how easy the problem being studied is. The fact that evidence in physics is so much stronger than it is in economics is hardly a reason for scorn of economists.

This point of view on why science works may help scientists look at researchers in other fields both more humbly and more reasonably. Humbly, in that they should realise that the reason their field of study is so advanced is that the problems are so easy, and reasonably, in that it should help them to see more accurately why it is that some fields make better progress than others, without getting distracted by methodology.

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“Belief” – la revanche!

A couple of years ago I wrote a post cheekily entitled Nobody believes in God which, following some recent conversations with friends, I want to revisit. This will actually make the third time I’ve gone back to this idea (see the first and second). I think this is because there’s an important kernel of a good idea there, but also much that is unclear.

Unfortunately, and perhaps to some tediously, the biggest problem is that the term “belief” is not well-defined. In my original article I wrote that “To believe something, you have to act in a way that is consistent with the belief being true. Otherwise, you’re just saying that you believe it.” This is an important sense of the term “belief”, somewhat akin to Daniel Dennett’s notion of the “intentional stance”, but it became clear that this isn’t a definition most people would agree with, and is problematic. It’s not necessarily detrimental that most people wouldn’t agree with it, but there are other problems. Notably, it assumes a certain consistency and unitary quality that people don’t have. All of us have beliefs that are inconsistent, and we wouldn’t want to say we don’t have beliefs just because of that. Similarly, all of us take actions that are inconsistent with our beliefs. Imagine that someone tells you that if you move your leg they will kill you, and then they tap you just below your knee with a hammer – you will, despite your sincere belief in what they say, move your leg. It’s not possible for you not to – the signal never even reaches your brain but is instead turned into a motor command by your spinal column. This is a trivial example, but suggests a general point: we do not have a single identity that we could ascribe our beliefs to, we have multiple systems in our brain that are sometimes under conscious control and sometimes not, etc. Ramachandran describes the case of a split brain patient who had one half of the brain which believed in God, and one that didn’t.

So using an individuals actions as a guide to their beliefs cannot give us the full story on belief, but that still leaves us in a quandary: what can we go on? Since people lie, we obviously can’t uncritically go on what they say. So if we can’t go on what they say or what they do, what is left? The only option remaining, it seems, is to give up the idea of a single, unitary thing called “belief” that people have, and admit that belief is a vaguely defined, context-specific thing that can, depending on specific circumstances, violate almost every single intuition we might have about it. Again there is a risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and giving up usage of the term completely. No, clearly the idea of belief has some use, but we have to be careful about saying what type of belief we’re talking about, and when reasoning about statements involving “belief” be aware of the practical consequences of the different types of belief in different contexts. The next task is to unpick some of those types of belief and how they affect our actions. In the remainder of this entry I’ll discuss some of the types of belief that have been suggested to me in recent discussions that are relevant to religious/theistic belief.

The first conception of belief I’ll talk about is my original one, broadly corresponding to Dennett’s intentional stance, that someone believes something if they act consistently with it being true. For example, the shortest way from my office to the street is through the window, but I take the more laborious route via the stairs because I believe in gravity. There’s no doubt this is a useful conception of belief that has practical consequences. And, I stand by my original contention that most religious people don’t believe in God in this sense.

There is a complication though, which is that in this sense stated as above, I “believe” there is a china teapot orbiting the Sun between Earth and Mars: I never do anything that is inconsistent with there being one. Somehow we want to exclude such beliefs as this, but this quickly becomes problematic if we want to talk about religious beliefs, for obvious reasons. There is a kernel of religious belief that cannot ever come in conflict with our actions. The idea that God “exists” and “created the universe” cannot be in conflict with anything we do. Many people today will, when questioned on their religious beliefs, agree only to this minimal kernel of faith and nothing more, but will vehemently defend the idea that they do believe in God. So do they believe in God or not? Here’s where context comes in handy: we can say of these people that although they may believe in God in some highly rarified symbolic context, in the everyday context of the real world, they have no belief in God. If God didn’t exist, nothing they did would be any different.

One suggestion for defining belief was precisely this: by the term “belief” we mean exactly that component of our thoughts that doesn’t come into conflict with reality. If it could be proved (or disproved) we wouldn’t have to believe it. This corresponds nicely with the notion of faith developed in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” where the Babel fish causes God to cease to exist by proving his existence and thereby eliminating faith. I feel that this definition does indeed correspond to some aspect of what we ordinarily mean by the term “belief”, and it has some resonance with the Christian relationship with “doubt”, but I’m not sure there are many theists who would be happy with a definition of belief as that which is inconsequential.

The second conception of belief that came up was several ideas around a common theme: the idea that belief is a form of post hoc rationalisation of our actions. This is related to the notion of confabulation in psychology. This is easily shown in an experiment with split brain patients where you tell one half of their brain to go and get a coffee (by whispering in one ear so that the other ear can’t hear it), and then you ask the other half of the brain why they went to get a coffee: they will typically reply that they were thirsty, or felt like a coffee, or something like that. In other words, having observed their own actions, they create a rationalisation for them. With probably a minimum of reflection, we can see that this isn’t just a peculiarity of split brain patients: we all do this from time to time.

Jacques Ellul used this notion of belief following action as an explanation for an important part of the power of propaganda, what he called “integration propaganda” (which I discuss in the last paragraph of this entry). Essentially, if you can get people to engage in certain actions, especially ones with a powerful emotion attached to them, then they will tend to create their own beliefs for why this was the right thing to do. The alternative to believing that it was right is believing that it was wrong, or meaningless, and most people don’t want to do this (cognitive dissonance). This form of belief applies very nicely to religion, in which you are first enculturated into various patterns of behaviour (going to church, prayer, etc.) and are thereby integrated into the social community of the Church. There is a strong incentive later in life not to admit, even to yourself, that you don’t believe in God, because to admit that would be to admit that all those actions were meaningless, or even worse, actually wrong.

So what type of belief is this? At first glance, it is a purely symbolic form of belief: you will say “I believe in God” if asked. Does the belief have consequences though, and in what contexts? It’s difficult to distinguish, in this case, because a belief such as this came with a period of social integration, which, especially in the case of people raised as religious, will have defined their whole moral outlook. Which consequences of this process are due to the belief, and which to the social process of creating the belief? It was put to me that religious people often do extraordinary things, such as not having sex before marriage, hating gay people, reading the bible, and praying, and that shouldn’t we take this as evidence that they believe? I countered that we can equally well explain those as consequences of their being brought up and part of a religion which encourages these sorts of behaviour (think of the extraordinary things that people did and thought in atheist Soviet Russia). I don’t think either of us was satisfied with this answer, it’s too difficult to pick apart why people did those things.

The question then, to me, is what explanatory power does the idea of “belief in God” have beyond membership of a religion? My argument is that it has very little power to explain behaviour because social pressures are able to explain so much. Twisting Laplace, I have no need of the hypothesis that people believe in God. You can say that I’m trying to have my cake and eat it – or rather, eat my cake and have it, as the expression should be in order to make sense – on the one hand I want to say that belief in God doesn’t lead to any actions, but when faced with an action that does appear to stem from a belief in God I want to write it off as the consequence of religious enculturation. How could I be proved wrong? But the defender of the idea that people really do believe in God has the same problem: when a religious person does something that isn’t consistent with their beliefs, they want to say that it’s because they are inconsistent, or weak, or because their belief doesn’t really apply in that case. I will put forward a few reasons, that may not be conclusive, to suggest that the social process is more important to explaining behaviour than the belief:

  • Historically, behaviour by religious people is very inconsistent. In the past, and still very frequently today, Christians hated gay people, abhorred them as sinful, sometimes citing some of the nastier bits of the Bible in favour of this. These days, more liberal Christians will cite rather sophisticated theological reasoning to explain away the passages in the Bible that refer to killing gay people (apparently, Jesus “fulfilled the law” so we don’t have to follow it – if you can make any headway on that good luck to you). In any case, if both of these types of Christian “believe in God” in the same sense, then this belief clearly isn’t reflected in their attitude towards gay people. “Belief in God”, in other words, has no explanatory power with respect to attitudes towards homosexuality. We can play the same game with any number of attitudes and behaviours. What is left?
  • In my original entry, I argued that if you really believed in hell, you would never sin, and yet people often do. It has been countered, innumerable times, that these days most Christians either don’t believe in hell, or don’t believe that they’ll be going there. But, this is sophisticated theological reasoning, and I’m pretty sure that throughout most of the history of Christianity, the masses certainly did believe in hell, and thought that they might well go there. And yet, they sinned. Is our “belief in God” so different to theirs? Could it be that they didn’t believe in God, but that Christians today do? Perhaps, although that makes belief in God a very recent phenomenon, which seems somewhat counterintuitive. I would rather say that the belief (or lack of it) in God is the same, but that there has been an innovation in the language game of belief, coming about as a response to the increased interaction of religious people with atheists. Since the belief in God is the same we can apply my arguments about belief in hell to people a couple of hundred years ago and find that they don’t believe in God (beyond their membership of the religion in question), and that consequently, neither do people today.

Although I may be able to explain the actions of people raised as religious without using the idea that they believe in God, and therefore show that the post hoc rationalisation form of belief exists only at the symbolic level, there is still a problem with saying that there is no such thing as consequential belief in God. The problem is: what about people that come to believe in God later in life, perhaps having been raised as atheist? They didn’t experience a correlative moral training by theists, and so their actions, such as they are, must be explained by the belief in God. And since these actions are often similar to those of the people brought up as religious, shouldn’t we interpret both as stemming from their belief in God? This is certainly a conundrum, and perhaps even an antinomy, but it applies equally to those who believe that people believe in God (see bullet points above). I suspect that people who have converted later in life are often those who have experienced some sort of psychological trauma, and want the safety and acceptance of a social group, and perform the actions because they are an entry requirement to the social group. If anything, we would expect them to be more extreme in their performance of the rituals, because they have more to prove: they are trying to come in from outside, rather than being allowed to stay in by default of having grown up inside. This does seem rather supercilious though, and I have little to no evidence that it’s the case.

To finish with, I want to outline a position similar to my first followup to the original article, which is also similar to a suggestion made to me recently, and that at least partly resolves some of these difficulties. The position is this: we hypothesise that we think at a symbolic and non-symbolic level, and that there are interactions between these levels, but that they are not tightly integrated. The reality is undoubtedly more complex than this, but perhaps this hypothesis can shed some light anyway. Belief in God then impacts only directly on our thinking at the symbolic level. Typically, this symbolic belief in God is instilled by integration into a community (although it can also occur through other means). Normally, our actions are guided by pragmatic reasoning, or by routine, and these actions can be correlative with our thinking at the symbolic level having both been influenced by our upbringing.

The suggestion that was put to me was this: Infrequently, a decision presents itself which cannot be decided by either pragmatic reasoning or by routine. For example, what do we think about stem cell research? Stem cells are sufficiently far removed from anything we have ever thought about before that neither pragmatic reasoning nor routine thinking can enable us to come up with an answer to this. It is in these unusual instances that our belief in God can have an effect, because we are forced to pass from our beliefs to our actions rather than the other way around. My response to this though is that belief in God doesn’t have strong explanatory power here: the situation is really that the stated set of (self-contradictory) principles that someone believes in have to be resolved in a particular case by making a choice one way or the other. The fact that these decisions can sometimes go one way, and sometimes another (for example, in religious schisms that come about in these situations) shows that the resolution is to some extent arbitrary, or at least decided by other factors.

In conclusion then, I prefer to look at religion as a purely social phenomenon, which happens to include the notion of God, but that could equally well be replaced with any other purely symbolic object and serve all the same purposes. Everything that I’m interested in as regards religion can be understood in this way: we can see how it is that religion is capable of both great evil, and great good, just as any other form of power can be exercised in ways that are harmful or beneficial. In fact, we can treat religion purely politically, and I think if we do this we’ll see that it’s harmful and beneficial precisely where political systems are harmful or beneficial. Harmful when hierarchical, centralised, authoritarian, and beneficial when democratic and driven by ordinary human needs and desires. See also my old manifesto entry on religion, and followup on religion, atheists and hierarchy.

Why is this important? Because it changes the stance that atheists should take towards theists. For a start, we should probably not expend much energy in trying to undermine the idea that God exists because this is probably not primary for most religious people. It may have some use as a focal point for atheistic communities, may serve as a hook on which to hang ones atheism, and may help to give the final push to people who have already decided to give up their religion, but is unlikely to be a major force in converting people. More important than this rhetorical or didactic reason for not focussing on God, we shouldn’t do so because belief in God is largely inconsequential in comparison to religion as a political phenomenon. If the atheist community could apply their considerable talents to political analysis, perhaps really great things could be achieved. As it stands, atheists are as likely as not to be politically reactionary and supportive of authoritarian and hierarchical structures.

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Since the earliest entries on this blog, I’ve had in mind to write something about why I’m an anti-capitalist, and in what sense. I’ve written before several times about aspects of my opposition to capitalism (here, here, and here amongst other places, and also about parecon, an alternative to capitalism), but never attempted to do it comprehensively. Incidentally, that word “comprehensively” should be a sort of warning – this entry is long.

Defining capitalism is tricky because it is a very general concept, and means very different things in different places and at different times. So this entry will be necessarily somewhat nebulous, as it attempts to address the concept of capitalism without defining a specific conception of it. So it won’t be a strict argument against capitalism, but rather some ideas which might be useful in thinking about it, and also a guide to criticising me (being as it is, a summary of my own reasons motivating my opposition to capitalism).

In the broadest possible terms, I have two fundamental problems with capitalism: it creates inequality, and it forces us to pursue ends that are other than the ends we would choose of our own free wills. The relevant underlying principles are fairness and freedom. Although I state these two problems separately, they are really quite intertwined.


Before I go on it might be worth saying  a few general things about fairness and freedom since they are key to my criticisms of capitalism. If you’re happy with these principles, you might want to skip this section and the next as I ended up going on and on for longer than I intended.

It might be objected that fairness is not important, that in the face of the enormous positive benefits that capitalism has brought the world, the fact that some groups consistently do better out of it than others is of marginal significance. I would agree that fairness as a principle doesn’t have the same level of support as freedom, for example. And I can understand why. Although freedom can be (in my view somewhat crudely) defined simply as the lack of explicit interference in ones affairs, fairness involves a comparison of the lot of one individual with the lot of all the others. On the basis of an individualistic view of the world, how better or worse of others are shouldn’t really effect anything. Supposing there are aliens on another world that are all living incomparably wealthy lives in comparison to ours, we shouldn’t feel hard done by. Similarly, it seems we shouldn’t feel badly done by if our neighbour is doing better than us through no merit of his or her own, the only difference being that we see the neighbour every day but we never see the incomparably wealthy alien.

So I can understand doubts about fairness as a principle, it doesn’t have the same uncomplicated status as the simple notion of freedom as lack of interference, but in my view it is still significant. I might go into why in more depth in another entry, but for the moment I’ll just make a couple of observations. First of all, things do change depending on what we know about. If the aliens landed on Earth and started visibly enjoying their wealth, even if they weren’t harming us by so doing, I think we would be within our rights to want part of that. Of course we couldn’t demand it in any incontestable way, after all we did nothing to deserve it – they developed the technology, found the resources, etc. But then, probably most of those aliens did nothing to deserve it either, most likely they just made small improvements on what their ancestors had done (and not even that in many cases). The application of this line of thought to the purely human situation should be obvious.

This leads me to my second observation, that criticisms that amount to criticisms of fairness as a principle come down to saying that there is no incontestable reason to choose the principle of fairness, it is not a “natural” and unavoidable principle and indeed in a “state of nature” there is very little of it. I would agree, but you could say the same about any principle, they are all matters of choice (see my earlier entry on arationality). It comes down to deciding what sort of world we want to live in, not what sort of world we ought to live in. Ultimately then, I choose to value fairness, and I would hope that others would choose likewise.


Next I want to say something about freedom. It is often characterised “negatively”, particularly by right wing thinkers, as freedom from explicit constraints. And there are good reasons to be dubious about the “positive” version of liberty, because it seems to imply duties on someone to provide these liberties, in an unspecified way that can be taken to suggest the necessity of a strong central authority whose duty this would be. The philosophical debate about this is ongoing and complex (see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on it). I tend more towards the “positive” version, but not straightforwardly.

We live in modern states whose functioning in practice cannot be ignored. Thousands of years ago, when someone who didn’t like the way his society was organised could leave, find some unused land, and set up his own, a purely negative conception of liberty would have made more sense than it does now. Nowadays, we’re not faced with the choice of whether or not to live in the society we find ourselves born into, we must live within the institutions that actually exist, and these inevitably circumscribe our liberty. This is a particular issue when these states have enormously extensive conceptions of property that include property in land as well as property in objects, and even go so far as to extend into property in ideas. Property is enforced by the state, and assuming that this is being done, the state already has power over an enormous part of our liberty. It is worth noting that some right wing thinkers would like the function of the state to be only one of protecting property rights. Despite their being apparently motivated by liberty, they fail to give due consideration to the extent to which liberty is circumscribed by the institution of property.

So although we can talk about simple negative liberties, any choice of institutional arrangement of society also defines, by the way in which it circumscribes our liberty, a positive conception of liberty as well. We can choose not to talk about that bit, but the choice of institutions and the functioning in practice of those institutions makes a choice whether we recognise it or not. Given that, I prefer to be explicit about the positive components of liberty as well as the negative ones. In particular, I want to draw attention to how a capitalist state, through its support of property, provides more positive liberties to some groups rather than others. In a nutshell: in building good roads, a state provides freedom to travel faster and more safely, but only to those who can afford a car and fuel to run it. In providing a police force that enforces property, it stops people from having the fruits of their labour taken away, but this service is enormously more valuable to those who have wealth to be stolen than those living from day to day on what they can earn.


My first objection to capitalism was that it creates inequality. The questions are: why? and what of it? I’ll start with the second question first. A society of unequal wealth is first of all unfair. We all rely on the correct functioning of the state for the vast proportion of what we have. I don’t just mean that we’re paid by the state, although many are, but that if the state didn’t exist the circumstances in which we work wouldn’t be able to exist either. We need the rule of law, enforcement of contracts, property, etc. (I don’t say we need all of these in an absolute sense, but that we have them and if we couldn’t rely on them in this particular society we wouldn’t be able to profit from our work in the way we do.) If someone like me, tinkering around with equations in a comfortable situation, can earn hundreds of times what someone doing really demanding and unpleasant work can earn, then something is wrong (for what it’s worth, I don’t earn hundreds of times what anyone else earns, but as someone with a mathematical background I probably could if I chose to, or at least I could have if I had chosen to at the appropriate point in my life).

One criticism of this viewpoint is that capitalism does not make value judgements about the importance of the work that people do, the prices for different sorts of labour are set by the market. Strictly speaking that’s true, and it is indeed a good thing that there isn’t some governing body that decides the value of different types of work, but if the mechanism (the market) produces outcomes that are obviously crazy and in no sense fair then it can be criticised. We don’t need absolute inequality, we don’t have to have a principle that says that all sorts of labour are equally valuable, but we should use our common sense and point out that it is in no sense fair that people doing work that they enjoy in comfortable circumstances should be enjoying wealth that is hundreds of times that of people who are doing unpleasant work in difficult circumstances. Again, this comes down to a matter of choice, but it is emphatically not the case that capitalism represents a lack of choice or a natural choice. The state is making all of this wealth possible, and so if it makes more wealth possible for some and less for others, that too is a choice. We can’t look at inequality and shrug our shoulders and say “that’s the way it goes” – that’s not the way it goes that’s the way we make it go, and we could choose to do otherwise.

There are more reasons to be dubious about inequality than just the unfairness of it. For example, inequalities of wealth tend to produce political inequalities too. In a democratic capitalist society, political parties need funds to operate and they have to get these from somewhere. Wealthy individuals have more to give and so have more power than the poor. This is a problem that could be solved if there were political will to do so, which is not entirely impossible although the current system mitigates against it happening. There is a second mechanism by which economic inequality creates political inequality. When an individual or group of individuals can affect the entire economy by their own private economic decisions, everyone, including the government, must act in such a way as to stop them from making decisions which would hurt the economy generally speaking. In a society in which there were not huge concentrations of wealth, this wouldn’t be so significant (but then, the dynamic of capitalism is to increase inequality so to some extent this seems inevitable). This problem is aggravated by globalisation and hyper-mobility of capital, a point I’ll return to later. The result can be clearly seen today, all successful political parties are largely funded by the wealthy and work largely in the interests of the wealthy, and they cannot do otherwise. The only difference is the extent to which they are in favour of policies which mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism, and this is something which they have increasingly little control over (which again, I’ll return to later).

Now on the first question, which is why does capitalism cause inequality and is this inevitable? My answer is that the basic dynamics of capitalism tend to increase inequality but that these can be mitigated to some extent (by for example, social welfare programmes). First of all, the existence of wealth tends to create inequality in it. If there is any disparity at all, then those who have more are in an advantageous position, all other things being equal, to those who have left. The most obvious application of this is borrowing and lending. The wealthy lend money to the poor (indirectly through the institution of banks), and the poor then have to pay back the money loaned at interest. When an economy is growing, everyone can profit by this in absolute terms, but the wealthy profit by it hugely disproportionately to the poor, so inequality increases (or at least, never decreases). But there are other mechanisms too. For example, the wealthy can afford private education which gives them a competitive advantage even when employers make purely meritocratic decisions. Also, those with (possibly inherited) wealth have more freedom to choose between jobs because they can survive for a period without a job, whereas those who have nothing must take a job immediately, forcing them to take worse jobs where their prospects will not improve. (This is the aspect that can be mitigated by a social welfare programme.)

Those are some specific mechanisms by which capitalism causes inequality, but there is an overriding meta-reason too. Basically, in a competitive system some will get more than others, and all things being equal having more to start with must be an advantage. Assuming the advantage grows with the amount of extra wealth, over time the effects of these advantages must produce even larger disparities, and so on. This could probably be mathematically formalised, I expect someone has done it.


My second objection to capitalism is that it makes us pursue ends other than the ones we would choose to pursue. To some extent, this is inevitable. If I want to pursue a career in interpretative dance like Marty in The Big Lebowski, then I need to either find enough people who feel this is worth it, or pursue some other career which isn’t the one I would choose. Proponents of capitalism would say that this all there is to it, that although you may not like the collective choices we as a society make through our individual purchasing decisions, they more accurately reflect people’s real wishes than the prejudices of socialists and academics. Although I like the unsentimentality of the argument, and there is probably some truth in the attack on prejudiced ideas about what people really want, I think it rests on the unfounded and inaccurate notions that people can express their wishes through purchasing decisions, and that the mechanisms of capitalism aggregate these individual decisions into collective ones in a satisfactory way.

We clearly cannot express all our wishes through our purchasing decisions. For a start, there are many things that cannot be bought such as clean air, beautiful countryside or parks to walk in, etc. Economists recognise this problem of “externalities” (factors which are external to the market mechanism), but the capitalist way of dealing with the problem is to bring everything into the market and create new forms of (private) property. This is summed up in the classic economists’ treatment of the problem of the tragedy of the commons. But it exacerbates the problems of inequality mentioned above (imagine if clean air was something to be purchased, as in Ben Elton’s play “Gasping”).

More than our individual desires though, we cannot express our desires about the sort of world we want to live in through our economic decisions. We can express them through our political choices (who to vote for), but in politics, economics trumps everything else. The reason for this is that in a capitalist society, all aspects of the economy, and by extension all aspects of life because everything relies on a reasonably functional economy, are redirected towards the production of short-term profit. Capitalist society makes it much more difficult to implement a policy or take an action that favours a long term goal or the improvement of our lives through an “externality” in preference to short term profit.

Suppose a government wanted to increase taxation to spend on doing many things that people desired, such as better parks, health care, education, and so forth. The most logical way to do this would be to increase taxation on the largest concentrations of wealth, the companies and the rich. A government that chose to do this though, would risk a capital flight – the sudden movement of capital out of one country (where there is a perceived economic risk) to another which offers safer or better investment prospects. As the case of the Labour government from 1974-1979 shows, capital flight can be truly devastating to the whole economy (there’s an interesting analysis of this on the Anarchist FAQ). In other words, under capitalism we cannot choose to live in a society that doesn’t give priority to the interests of the largest concentrations of wealth without undermining our whole economy.

This sort of phenomenon is endemic to capitalism at every level – the interests of wealth, and in particular short term profit, are always absolutely prioritised over everything else. In a global capitalist system, different countries compete against each other to provide the most congenial environment for investors. This means that low taxation is forced, and consequently low state expenditure. This in turn means that public goods will be undervalued, and because social welfare programmes are so expensive they would also have to be limited in scope, and therefore inequality gets worse. As capitalism becomes more globalised, and wealth can be transferred even more quickly at lower cost, this effect is getting stronger and stronger, so that previously successful mixed economies are now struggling too, and are being forced to respond to the needs of capital and reduce taxation and spending.

The same mechanism of competition between countries, or even between different cities or regions means that regulation of companies tends to reduce. If one country offers its workers legal rights to compensation if they are injured at work, and another country doesn’t, all things being equal in a global economy the company will set up business in the country with less regulation. This works at every level, and the effect is that regulation of economic activity for reasons that serve human interests must inevitably decrease over time. This is bad for individuals, but it is also potentially unstable because regulation of economic activity can be good for the economy as a whole. For example, monopolies and oligopolies stop free markets from working correctly, but regulation is very weak. This may well be because big businesses who might be in danger of anti-monopolistic actions would move their capital out of a country that proposed stronger anti-monopoly laws.

At a smaller level, the same phenomenon can be seen in individual companies. In order to be successful, they must pursue short term profit over anything else (even their own long term profit). If they don’t, then another company will, and investors will move their money to the other one, destroying the one with a longer term plan before it could come to fruition. Recently this has been demonstrated with the subprime mortgage crisis. Here we had a situation in which all the people involved knew that it couldn’t work in the long term, but that because it was so profitable in the short term they had to keep doing it to keep up with their competitors.

There are certainly situations in which the pursuit of (short term) profit leads to beneficial effects. For example, the refinement of already existing products and technologies which capitalism excels at. However, because of the emphasis on short-term profit to the exclusion of all other things, the “invisible hand” of the market does not work towards the ends that we would choose, andis even self-destructive (perhaps a Marxist analysis could kick off here… another time).

To a certain extent, the same logic even applies to individuals although we are at slightly more liberty to choose our own paths (for example, we can choose to “buy” more leisure time by working at less high profile jobs). Nonetheless, in a world where the pursuit of profit, and more particularly short term profit, is fundamental in all organised economic activity, that must affect the way we see the world. More straightforwardly, if the whole economy is geared towards short term profit, then we are not free to pursue activities that are not also geared towards this. The problem therefore goes beyond that addressed by the hypothetical critic earlier in this section, it is more than just that we must do work that is valued by someone, we must do work that produces short term profit.

You’re almost at the end

I wanted to explain why I think capitalism is a bad idea, and hopefully the reasons above do that. I’ve mostly focused on the present, but perhaps a word or two on the past and on the future. After all this criticism of capitalism, it would seem reasonable to respond that capitalism has done a great deal of good too. As Adam Smith says in the first chapter of Wealth of Nations, capitalism has allowed everyone to live better than kings of the past did (I’m paraphrasing here). I think that’s true. One might question whether or not that could have been achieved more expeditiously, but it’s in the past and the question is whether or not we can do better in the future. The Marxist (and some anarchists) would say that how you should organise society depends very much on the level of wealth. A rich society can in principle choose to organise itself in a much more egalitarian way than a poor one can. As our basic needs are provided for to a greater extent, we can stop worrying about living from moment to moment, and focus our attention on reorganising society to be more like how we wish it would be.

Experiments with Communism in the past largely failed for political reasons (democracy is essential), but also because countries that tried it hadn’t reached the point where basic needs were met, and because central planning was an inefficient mechanism (the planners didn’t understand the effects of their actions well enough, nor what was needed). I believe that the time may have come, or at least will quite soon come, when we will have the necessary means (basic needs satisfied, better understanding of economics, decentralised planning mechanisms such as those of parecon or otherwise) to do better than capitalism.

Arationality and honesty

Perfect rationality is impossible, and the limit of the scope of the concept of rationality is important. I start from an observation that many would not agree with, that there is no such thing as truth (which I’ve argued elsewhere to some extent). It’s just a heuristic concept that helps us to function in everyday situations. Dropping the notion of truth involves us in some considerable difficulties, which I discuss in the previous link, but these difficulties are not insurmountable. It is possible to have a useful conception of epistemology free from the notion of truth. In this entry, I criticise the idea that we can be ultimately rational, and look at the consequences of taking this seriously for ethics and morality.

Epistemology in some sense is a specific form of rationality, it concerns only thoughts and ideas whereas rationality is supposed to also encompass actions. An action can certainly be instrumentally rational. Someone is thirsty, so they pick up a glass and turn on the tap and drink – this is instrumentally rational, rational with respect to a given set of goals which are not in themselves analysed. But actions cannot be rational in and of themselves, they must be relative to a set of ends, and ultimately these ends cannot be described in terms of rationality. In consequence, people cannot be rational (ultimately). One consequence is that Vulcans couldn’t exist – you cannot act by logic alone. I call the aspects of our behaviour that cannot be analysed in terms of rationality, arational. This is in distinction to irrationality, which is about doing the opposite of what rationality dictates. Examples of arationality abound: emotions, tastes, etc. But also at the boundary, things like the fact that we keep breathing rather than just stopping.

So can we analyse the arational? To a certain extent yes, we can say more about it than nothing, but there are no complete answers. Later, this leads on to the ethical concepts of honesty and responsibility which I believe are related to arationality.

To start with, let’s take the trivial observation that we humans are nothing so special. We’re essentially “meat machines”, machines built by our genes to replicate themselves (this too is a simplification, but bear with me). We’re built on a physical substrate subject to physical laws. It’s surprising that we can do anything like thinking at all. It’s instructive to think about the extent to which we could call the behaviour of other animals as rational. Is a dog rational? What about an amoeba?

So given that, rather than talk using high level concepts like “reasons” (X believed Y and so took action Z) that presumably are supposed to be understood in some undefined way as related to the internal state of the central nervous system, I’m just going to talk about decisions which can be analysed externally. We can say in some way unambiguously that individual X took action Z, they made a decision to take that action. The decision need not be conscious, remember we’re not talking about internal states here. So we repeatedly make the “decision” to breathe, just as the amoeba makes “decisions” to extend its pseudopodia, or what have you.

Now this way of looking at things helps us to see what we can or can’t say about arationality. To some extent it can be analysed. Obviously we mostly keep choosing to breath because we would be unsuccessful meat machines if we didn’t, and so our genes wouldn’t be replicated. This isn’t to say that we must do these things, just that you would expect to see that most individuals would make these sorts of decisions most of the time because they’re meat machines formed from recombinations of genetic material that tended to act in this way (there are some assumptions there, but that’s another story). Evolution also gives us a point of view on when we can’t analyse arationality. A new individual, either because of a particular recombination of genetic material or because of a mutation, exhibits a new type of behaviour. This happened for reasons we can understand (maybe just chance), but until the individuals interactions with the environment determine the success or otherwise of the individual in reproducing, we can’t say whether it was a good behaviour or not (from the point of view of the genes). Until that point, the behaviour just is a behaviour, and the individual is just an individual that exhibits that behaviour. What more can be said before the success of the behaviour is tested in the world? In conclusion, looking at arationality in terms of behaviours, we can obviously analyse much of arationality in a scientific way, but ultimately in certain cases all we can say is that such-and-such is the behaviour exhibited by such-and-such individual.

At this point I want to bring in the moral and ethical aspects. We like to think of morality and ethics as being about right and wrong, but just as there is no truth, and just as rationality is not entirely straightforward, there is no such thing as right and wrong. There are only decisions. There are decisions individuals make for themselves, and decisions that a political entity makes for others (social mores, codes of conduct, rules, punishment, etc.). A poor person steals from a rich person, the rich person is so rich they never notice they’ve had something stolen. Has a wrong been done?

Rather than talk about this from the point of view of whether or not the poor person made the right decision, I want to just talk about the types of decisions that have been made here, by whom, and what considerations bear on them. First of all, the thief has made a decision to break the rules. Secondly, the society has made a decision to punish people who are caught breaking the rules. We wouldn’t like to say the thief did wrong because nobody was hurt by the action, and the thief’s life was made better as a consequence. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean the decision was necessarily right because if it was right then surely the society would be wrong to make the decision to punish people who are caught. It’s clear that talking about this case in terms of right and wrong is a surefire way to end in confusion. Instead it’s a calculus. The society makes its choice to punish thieves because if they didn’t – they believe – there would be a breakdown of order. The thief makes the decision to break the rules knowing the decision of society, and must take responsibility for this action. If they are caught, they will face punishment, if not then they won’t.

Suppose now that the thief was a rich person stealing from a poor person. The analysis above seems unchanged, and indeed it is. One thing that may change is that the society may choose to allocate its resources differently towards catching the one or the other sort of thief. For example, a society may decide to put more resources into catching poor thieves stealing from the rich than rich thieves stealing from the poor, or it may do it the other way round. That’s politics. In my view, society today tends more towards the former whereas it ought to tend more toward the latter, and I make political decisions based on that. These are my decisions, which are ultimately arational. I could put forward reasons for this view, but those are ultimately judged on arational criteria. Others may differ.

Equating the identity of an individual with the actions they decide to take in the circumstances in which they find themselves gives us a useful way of looking at two problems: free will, and morality. There is a classical problem which is that free will cannot be consistent with determinism (if an action was determined by physical laws it cannot have been freely chosen because it couldn’t have been otherwise). There is an extension that says that all decisions must either be determined or random. It goes like this. If an action wasn’t determined by physical laws, then it would effectively meet the physical definition of randomness. In exactly the same circumstances (including the experiences, desires, preferences, state of mind, etc. of the individual concerned at the time of making the decision) you could have different outcomes, making the decision effectively meaningless (not dependent on anything at all), or random in short. However if we identify an individual with the decisions they make it doesn’t matter whether they are determined (or random), they are still the decisions of that individual (it is just that the identity of the individual is also determined). A forced (unfree) choice would be one that no individual in the same circumstances could have made differently (e.g. you cannot choose to ignore the force of gravity).

This last point has a moral and ethical component. If we accept all the choices we actually make are not forced in this sense, then we have to take greater responsibility for them. An ugly choice that we were put under great psychological pressure to make is still our own choice because it is we ourselves who are choosing to respond to that psychological pressure. It is not an external thing acting on us in the same way that gravity is. Even if we were offered the choice between one option which would lead to our death, and another option, it’s still a free choice because we are free to choose how to weight the significance of our own death. Evolutionary processes explain why so many people will weight the significance of their own death so highly, but since the identity of the individuals themselves is the output of that process, we cannot consider that process as an external force acting on us.

The general point here is one of taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and being honest about their status as one’s own actions. Often, we attempt to excuse our actions by giving the reasons why we took them, as if these reasons were themselves external forces acting on us which we couldn’t ignore. However, as we have seen, an action itself cannot be rational, it can only be instrumentally rational with respect to an arational core. We rarely think to deeply analyse our own arational cores, but the considerations given here suggest we ought to be more aware of them and identify with them more explicitly. It may be that to do so, we must become more aware of our own logical inconsistency (even incoherency). We are often in the situation, for example, of wanting a thing and also wanting not to want it or even believing that we don’t want it. If we make the mistake of thinking of ourselves as having a core identity that is coherent and consistent in some sense, then we are inevitably led into confusion. It may be this that underlies the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance.

Following this logic through and acting on it is actually a very difficult thing to do. It means really coming to terms with the inconsistency of our very identities (which the word alone suggests the difficulty of). It means realising that much of what we do we do without reason (our arational cores), and that we  have made choices that we both like and dislike not by mistake or because external forces acted on us, but because that is our nature. It means taking responsibility for every choice we have made, being honest about them, and analysing ourselves. Self-analysis is unavoidable if we do not have a consistent and coherent unitary core (and can be done by introspection and by looking at our choices and identifying those choices with ourselves). Finally it means living with all that inconsistency.

In particular, it can be very difficult to honestly appraise the inequality of society, our own place in it, and live with that. Most reading this will have been the recipients of more than their fair share of luck and will have benefited disproportionately from the work done by everyone. Born into (relatively) wealthy families, receiving (relatively) good educations, etc. It would be easy to fall into the habit of thinking, as many do, that we deserve what we have because that is an easier idea to live with. Choosing not to engage in this sort of self deception requires us to honestly face up to our arational cores, and the experience may not be pleasant. Why do we not give away all our wealth to those who are in need? If we even asked ourselves the question, we would probably find some reason that explained how it couldn’t be otherwise. Perhaps the prospective recipients of our wealth wouldn’t be able to make correct use of it, perhaps charities are essentially corrupt and wasteful, etc. I don’t want to say that we don’t do this because we are selfish. It is more like the choice to keep breathing, there is no need to find a reason for it, it is just a decision we keep making. The danger in finding a reason why we don’t give all our wealth away to others who need it is that it may stop us from giving any away. If there were a good reason why we shouldn’t give our money away, then presumably we shouldn’t give any away. Similarly, if there were a good reason why we should give our money away, we probably ought to give almost all of it away. If we must act by the one sort of reason or another, then we’re faced with the choice of giving away all or nothing, and most would give nothing in that situation.

This may explain why the poor tend to give more money away than the rich. Suppose the choice were not between all or nothing, but between nothing and everything except the minimum necessary for my own survival and that of my family, dependents, etc. For the rich, this choice would then be between nothing and maintaining their lifestyle, or of changing their lifestyle to one of poverty. For someone who is already poor, it wouldn’t involve any change of lifestyle to give away enough money to leave them poor as they already are. By choosing to live by the idea that we do what we do because we have reason for doing so, we put ourselves in the absurd situation that those for whom it would be easiest to give are least likely to do so. The alternative is to say that the amount we choose to give away is our own choice and is not dictated to us by our reason. To take responsibility for the choice, and not to try to pretend that we are acting by a coherent code that dictates our behaviour.

Knowledge, here particularly self-knowledge, is always better than delusion, even when it hurts. When we allow ourselves to be deluded, things always end worse than when we are clear and honest about what is going on. There are many applications of these ideas: religion in this view is obviously problematic because it attempts to externalise our moral choices (indeed, our wish to externalise them may explain why religions are so prevalent); much ethical and moral philosophy, secular or otherwise, is problematic for the same reason, it supports the pretence that there is a coherency or could be such a thing, which stops people from coming to terms with the lack of it. Finally, I want to focus on just one more example, propaganda.

In a previous entry I talked about Jacques Ellul’s book “Propaganda” and the idea that intellectuals are most subject to propaganda because they want to believe that they understand the world, but lacking sufficient time to really do so they rely on answers provided to them by others (putting them in the power of those others). The other aspect of propaganda is what Ellul calls “integration propaganda”. The idea is that once you have participated in an action, you will rationalise that action and create a justification for why it was the right thing to do. The propagandist only needs to get you to participate in an action and you will do the intellectual reorganisation yourself. This is an aspect of propaganda that most people don’t understand (believing that propaganda is just a way of getting people to believe something by repeatedly saying it, or some other such simplification). This is essentially a form of cognitive dissonance: nobody wants to consider themselves the bad guy. Or in the framework of this essay, people want to think of themselves as coherent and consistent, so if they took an action they must have had reason for doing so. Recognising that we are not consistent, rational beings working to some perhaps unknown moral code then has the potential to free us from integration propaganda. Taking our own arationality and inconsistent as a given, we would no longer feel the same requirement to create a self-justifying rationalisation, and so the propaganda would not have its desired effect.

Belief and Pragmatism: God, ideals and addiction

Recently I wrote a post that provoked much disagreement, claiming that almost nobody believes in God. On further reflection, I think I can make a clearer statement (although with a less punchy headline sadly). A less divisive way of putting it might be, what should we make of statements like

He believes X but acts as if he doesn’t,


He believes X but doesn’t act consistently with those beliefs.

These are quite curious statements, especially the first. I find these statements interesting because I want to try to interpret them as a Pragmatist. Briefly, a Pragmatist tries to only talk about things to the extent that they have real world consequences, and tries to give things meaning relative to those consequences. From this point of view, if we take the first statement as accurate, then we have a real problem. The first clause says that he believes X, but the second denies any connection between X and his actions. To define a pragmatic (I’ll use small p from here on) conception of ‘belief’ would mean defining it in terms of its consequences, but the statement says there are none.

This might seem like a fairly irrelevant problem, but I think it’s more significant than it seems because people make statements like this all the time. I’ll illustrate with three examples:

  1. The “champagne socialist” claims to believe in an ideal of equality, but acts to get as much as he can for himself.
  2. The theist who regularly sins and just generally doesn’t seem to pay anything more than lip service to his faith.
  3. The drug addict, can see clearly that his habit will kill him but keeps on doing it anyway.

The first two seem problematic to me, and the third less so although it shares many similar features.

Now at this point I should say that you could easily disagree that these are problematic. For example, most people aren’t pragmatists and so wouldn’t see the difficulty in finding a pragmatic definition of belief to be a problem. For my part, I feel that something like pragmatism is inescapable – if we’re to make sense then what we talk about has to be grounded in experience. William James sometimes referred to pragmatism as “radical empiricism”, which seems appropriate.

In the entry I wrote about belief in God, I took a point of view which I think is roughly equivalent to what Dennett calls the Intentional Stance. Although I must say I haven’t read his book so I might be mistaken. As I understand it, the intentional stance says: hypothesise that an individual is acting rationally with respect to his beliefs and desires. We can’t know what the beliefs and desires are (they’re internal), but we can see the actions and from that attempt to infer what the beliefs and desires are. Even though we know that individuals are not rational, thinking about in this way might tell us something useful.

Because I’ve been making Powerpoint slides for presentations recently, I couldn’t help but turn this idea into one of those silly diagrams with boxes and arrows. In the diagram ‘internal model’ refers to the model of the world that an individual has, which is continually updated according to their experiences. The ‘plan’ box gets arrows from ‘goals’ and ‘internal model’ because it is a rational maximiser attempting to find actions which, at least in the individuals internal model of the world, would best fit its goals.

Model 1

Model 1 – The intentional stance?

I think this way of looking at things can tell us a lot, but it has some difficulties with the example of the drug addict. Now the drug addict doesn’t appear to act as if he believes his habit will damage him, although he says he knows it will, wishes to stop, etc. His claims about what he claims to believe also seem fairly uncontroversial in some sense, and are entirely about real world things with real world consequences (unlike the case of belief in God). One response would be to say that his goals are different to what you might think: an addict has the overriding goal of getting high. The trouble with this is that for this to be right, the goals must have been changed by his previous actions. If the individual’s goals as well as his internal model can be changed, then it becomes a lot more difficult to infer anything about the goals or beliefs from the actions. In particular, what is to stop us saying that everyone’s ‘goal’ is to do the actions that they actually do? This fits with the intentional stance but tells us next to nothing. I think I know what the response to this criticism would be: that that would be to multiply the number of ‘goals’ unnecessarily (one for each action). Fair enough, but it does point to a genuine problem with that theory I think.

In the case of addiction, we actually have quite a good scientific theory as to what happens. Taking addictive drugs releases chemicals into the brain which mess up the reward signals that our brain uses as part of its decision making process. It shouldn’t be a surprise that injecting chemicals into the part of us that makes decisions might mess up that process. Now should this be described as messing with our goals and desires, or as messing with our rationality?

Returning to the first two examples of the champagne socialist and the sinning theist, I think most people would say that they really do believe what they say they believe, but that those beliefs don’t directly determine the individual’s actions. This seems a reasonable point of view, but it needs some work to make it more precise. My first attempt is this boxes and arrows diagram:

Model 2

Model 2 – The adviser to the king

In the top left we have a box with little boxes inside it. The large box represents in some sense the conscious part of this individual’s mind. He has a conscious model of the world, conscious goals, and from this he can formulate a conscious plan. However, in the larger scheme of things, these consciously determined plans don’t have the final say. There is also an unconscious scheme: an unconscious internal model of the world, unconscious goals, and a plan based on these unconscious elements in addition to the conscious ones. It is this unconscious bit that has the final say, and the results of actions taken feed back into both the conscious and unconscious internal models of the world. In this model, the conscious part is in some sense acting as an adviser to the real decision maker, the unconscious part. Relative to this scheme, we can say that the beliefs of the conscious part (the internal model inside the top left box) are that individual’s ‘beliefs’. This could explain why an individual could be capable of ‘believing’ one thing but acting in contradiction to that belief: the unconscious planner is just overriding the suggestions of the conscious adviser.

This model can also explain a lot. You could say that the conscious module at the top left is a sophisticated, rational reasoner, capable of using logic, deduction, etc., whereas the unconscious decision maker uses much cruder rule, something along the lines of: do what’s worked well in the past according to how much dopamine is sloshing around my brain afterwards. This would obviously explain the drug addict example where the unconscious decision maker is getting directly messed with chemically. It would also explain the sinning theist and champagne socialist: the unconscious decision maker with the real power has just realised that the high and mighty ideals of the conscious module don’t make it happy, whereas sex and champagne do.

So this scheme is nice, but it has a different set of problems. The first is that it is much more empirical than the intentional stance scheme. Who knows if this is how the brain really makes its decisions or not? Further neuroscientific research may tell us how we really make decisions, but wouldn’t we like to be able to say something meaningful without waiting for that (which may easily be many decades coming)? In general, ‘belief’ clearly relates to an internal state and therefore a definition of it would seem to have to relate to a model of human thought and behaviour. Or is there another neutral way of defining it? I haven’t got one. Any suggestions?

The second problem is more philosophical, and relates to how we use a term like belief. Suppose the model of decision making in the adviser model was accurate, does it make sense to say that the individual as a whole ‘believes’ what are really just the beliefs of one part of it? Or is this just overemphasising the conscious part of belief? Perhaps we need a new vocabulary of belief that makes this distinction clearer? Or perhaps we should just abandon the word entirely?

I propose that instead we always bear in mind the limit of applicability of a concept. Most concepts are useful when used in certain contexts, but break down at certain edge cases (like for example, the concept of ‘inside’ breaks down at a quantum level when objects can jump between positions without going through intermediate ones). From this point of view then, we could say that the concept ‘belief’ has some everyday uses, but that we should always have in mind the pragmatic limit of applicability. Things like belief in gravity or belief about some observable facts, which people act consistently with almost all of the time, could be still used unproblematically, but talk of belief in ideals or belief in God should raise alarm bells because we know that these beliefs will not inform us as to individuals actions. An alternative conclusion to my previous controversial entry would then be: belief in God is beyond the pragmatic limit of applicability of the concept ‘belief’.

Nobody believes in God

OK, not nobody, but almost nobody.

To believe something, you have to act in a way that is consistent with the belief being true. Otherwise, you’re just saying that you believe it. If someone tells you that twiglets are highly toxic and will kill you instantly, at the same time as munching a bag full of them, you’re likely to doubt they really believe it. Same thing if they told you that it would lead you to an eternity of damnation. You wouldn’t trade in the brief pleasure of eating a bag of twiglets for an eternity of damnation if you really believed in it. But this is exactly the situation of people claiming to believe in God whilst simultaneously doing things all the time that are inconsistent with it being true. Anyone who believes in hell but sins anyway – they don’t really believe in hell. Someone who believes in the teaching of Jesus, but also thinks that capitalism is a great idea – doesn’t really believe in Jesus’ teachings at all. And so on.

Now at this point, a Catholic will come along and say: you don’t necessarily go to hell if you sin, as long as you repent afterwards. But… if you sin planning to ‘repent’ afterwards, that doesn’t count (so I’m told). Well, I bet quite a lot of that goes on if people were honest with themselves. It seems to me that if you really believed in God, you wouldn’t try to sneak stuff by on a technicality. If you have any respect for the concept at all, you’ve surely gotta believe that He is wise to that.

In fact, when a religious rule is inconvenient, it tends to be ignored, or the meaning of it changed. In a capitalist society, the stuff that is antithetical to the pursuit of wealth is ignored. In a liberal society, the stuff about stoning adulterers and homosexuals is ignored. Conversely, in an illiberal one the stuff about loving your neighbour and turning the other cheek is ignored.

When it comes to a clash between what religion says you should do, and what is convenient to do in real life, convenience wins out over religion almost every time. Or in other words, the reason that there are so many adulterous affairs is that people don’t give any credence to the idea that they will be eternally punished for it in the afterlife (no shag is good enough to warrant infinite and everlasting pain as a consequence, surely?). In practice they behave, quite sensibly, as if the notions of religion were false. And for these reasons, I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t believe in God.

The meaning of ‘belief’

I suppose to make my case a bit more convincing I need to say something about the meaning of the word ‘belief’. Three obvious possibilities come to my mind when trying to define what belief might mean, someone believes something if:

  1. They say they believe it.
  2. They act in a way that is consistent with it being true.
  3. They are in some internal state correlative with the concept ‘belief’.

The twiglet example shows that (1) isn’t good enough, and it’s not clear that (3) has any meaning although it’s obviously compelling in some way. So for me, I have to go with (2), although I’d modify it slightly. I would say that to believe something is, roughly speaking, to act in accordance with a mental model of the world in which the proposition is true. I prefer this way of talking about it because it deals with the difficulty of defining what is or isn’t true (you can define truth or falsity of a proposition relative to a model without having to define it for the real world), and it gives a slightly more precise idea of what sorts of actions would count as consistent (i.e. those that are made by some decision-making procedure based on a mental model relative to which the proposition is true). This definition has its difficult points too, but I think it’s a helpful starting point at least.

In my experience of explaining this idea to people, there are various sticking points that stop people from agreeing that nobody believes in God. For starters, it seems kind of rude to suggest all these people are saying they believe in God but don’t really. Well, maybe that is rude, but is it any ruder than saying that one of their fundamental beliefs is wrong and that their view of the world is completely warped? I don’t think so, but even if it is that’s no reason not to say it. I think a more fundamental sticking point is that most people tend to have some sort of mixture of definitions (1) and (3) in their minds when asked about what belief means. If there is a mental state correlative to ‘belief’ – and introspection and intuition says there is – then surely the best person to report the status of that mental state is the person concerned. All very democratic, but people are often very bad at introspection and may themselves think that the fact that they are saying something without attempting to deceive means they believe it. The problem with that is: what about the unconscious?

The last sticking point is perhaps the most interesting of all, that in many ways it seems as though people do act in a way that is consistent with it being true. They go to church (some of them), they try to avoid sinning too much, they pray, etc. My response to this is that all of these actions are consequences of their believing that they believe, but not their actual believing. And I think that’s not a contradiction. The thing is, our mental models are disjointed fragmentary ones, not grand theories of everything. To get by in the world, we only need incomplete, heuristic models of situations that tend to recur. A mental model of the world in which we act as if we had a mental model of the world in which God exists doesn’t necessarily mean that we do indeed have a mental model of the world in which God exists. Mental models, and decision making procedures based on them, don’t have to be complete or accurate. They don’t need to be deductively complete or consistent, because most of the time we’re not capable of nor interested in making all the deductive conclusions possible from our different fragmentary mental models. In particular, our mental models of ourselves are often quite incredibly wrong. We think “In situation X I would do Y”, but then situation X happens and we do Z, the exact opposite of Y. It happens all the time. So it’s perfectly possible that we can believe that we believe in God, and consequently do all of the things we associate with a person who believes in God, but not actually believe in God (which would if we thought about it deeply enough, entail doing all sorts of things we wouldn’t actually do).


With most ideas, someone has already had them before you (often Hume in my experience, the clever bugger), and this is no exception. I haven’t read much Dennett, but it appears he has covered some of the same ground. I’m told that he makes a distinction between belief and opinion that is somewhat akin to what I’m talking about here. I didn’t find anything directly about this (please post a link in the comments if you have a good one), but his article Do Animals Have Beliefs? has this interesting nugget which might have some relevance to the discussion of the three definitions of belief above:

There are independent, salient states which belief-talk ‘measures’ to a first approximation.

I also found this YouTube video of him saying that he doesn’t believe that believers really believe. It’s my first embedded video on this blog, too.


Democracy is one of those words that everybody uses but about which there is not a great deal of clarity as to what it means. The first ideas I can remember having of democracy were that it means a government elected by the people, or a government representing the will of the people. The first idea led me to declare that democracy was not a good thing, the second to declare that we do not live in a democracy (for various reasons to do with the biases and influences in our political process, and the impossibility of designing a perfect voting system). I no longer believe these. Instead, I now say that we do live in a democracy, that this is a very good thing, but that it means a lot less than many people think it does, and that we can do better.

For the past few years I’ve been considering an alternative view of democracy, which although it seems fairly obvious, doesn’t appear to be widely considered (Wikipedia’s article on democracy doesn’t mention anything like it anyway).

Democracy as elections, and democracy as government by the will of the people both have problems which relate to each other. The main problem with the democracy as elections theory is that it doesn’t explain why this should be a good thing. The most obvious response is that this process ought to result in a government that is representative of the electorate. Likewise, if you try to define democracy as meaning a system with governments that are representative of the people, you then have to explain how the system ensures that. Both of these views of democracy rely on the other, and they each have meaning only if they can be satisfactorily connected. Democracy as government by the will of the people is the intent, democracy as elections is the process used to try to ensure that.

It’s usually considered that you also need to have free and fair elections, secret ballots and a free press. It’s intuitively obvious at first glance that these things are all good ideas, and that not having them creates problems. The question is: does having them guarantee a representative government as a result? I know of no convincing argument that it does. Indeed, it misses out what I consider to be a fairly major additional requirement: that there is a certain level of equality of wealth and power in the society concerned. Even adding this in as another basic requirement for democracy, it’s not clear that this would guarantee a representative government. Maybe you also need a certain universal level of education and political awareness? How do you specify and guarantee that? You could go on and on.

There’s also the problem of what these requirements themselves mean. What is a free press for example? Is it just a press free from censorship? Or is there a requirement for a certain level of diversity? Can a press in a ruthlessly competitive free market, relying on advertising for most of its income be considered enough to satisfy the requirements of a democracy? Other questions you might need answers to are: what level of equality is required? What level of education and political awareness? Which form of voting system should we use (FPTP, PR, etc.)? This last question is related to perhaps the most fundamental question of all: what exactly is the will of the people? What does that even mean? These are all enormously complex questions, and without answers to them it’s not clear that we can say we know what democracy means in the standard view.

My alternative view doesn’t explain away the problems mentioned above, but I believe it clarifies the problems, connects the theoretical issues with reality more firmly, and suggests more useful ways of moving forward.

The first view is that democracy shouldn’t be seen as a positive guarantee of good government, it should rather be seen as a negative guarantee: a guarantee that the extremes of bad government are excluded. It’s clear that all our voting procedures, our not-quite-free press, our unequal society and so forth do not necessarily guarantee a government that is good in any sense of the word. But, it’s also clear that in this system it would be very difficult to get a really awful government that acted manifestly against the interests of everyone in society. In England, this view is a historically accurate one. The Magna Carta came about not because the barons wanted a good government that worked in the interests of everyone in society, but because the King was abusing his powers too much and it was hurting them. Further extensions to democracy in England came about gradually, slowly increasing the number of people whom the government could not systematically abuse. Each increase was hard fought for and was a reaction to abuses by the government, rather than an attempt to create a positive system of government. We should not expect a historical process that advances in reaction to abuses to have produced a system that goes far beyond the prevention of abuses to guarantee positive good government that works in the interests of all.

This view has several consequences. First of all, we should realise that the democracy that we have has been very hard fought for, and we need to preserve those aspects of it which prevent these extreme abuses. A danger of thinking of democracy in purely positive terms (how can we make government work better for everyone rather than how can we prevent the government abusing its power), is that by underestimating the importance of the negative aspect it potentially opens the door to precisely those abuses which democracy evolved to exclude. If you believe that the democratic process guarantees a government that is good in some positive sense, then it doesn’t make any sense to put restrictions on what that government can do – why hamper their good efforts? The present Labour government in the UK has introduced or attempted to introduce several pieces of legislation which reduce the limitations on its own power, supposedly to allow it to serve us better (to protect us from terrorism). The now infamous Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill attempted to give ministers the power to overturn legislation without consulting parliament. It’s important to realise that our democratic process doesn’t guarantee positive good government, and that’s why it’s absolutely essential to maintain those aspects which stop the government from abusing its power, even if that also makes it more difficult or stops them from doing some things which might be considered positive. Our democracy is not yet secure enough that we can forget about this fundamental negative aspect of it. In fact, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until 1928 in the UK when women were given equal voting rights to men that the majority of the population participated. Even now, the 21% of the population under the age of 18 cannot vote (see this fun age pyramid).

A second consequence of this view is that democracy develops by narrowing the window of opportunity for abuse. Advances in democracy are moments when an old form of systematic abuse ends. This can be a progressive notion. For example, at the moment I would argue that there are various structural aspects of our democracy and capitalist economy that mean that a series of governments which systematically favour the interests of the wealthy is possible. Changes in our society that made governments that were systematically biased in favour of the wealthy impossible or unlikely would be an advance in democracy. I would go further and say that the democratic case for socialism is strong, but that’s another story.

The obvious criticism of this view is that it misses out the positive aspect of democracy. Sometimes elected governments do things which are positively in the public interest, and the reason for that is that they were elected to do so. The creation of the NHS or the welfare state might be a good example of this. There are a few responses to this. First of all, there is a question of whether or not the creation of the NHS and welfare state were positive acts, but rather acts taken to avert further dissent (i.e. defensive manoeuvres). Secondly, the alternative view doesn’t say that positive acts are impossible, just that there is no guarantee that they will happen. To argue for the positive view of democracy you would have to argue how democracy makes these outcomes more likely. It’s not obvious to me that this is possible even if we had a good idea of what socially good outcomes might mean. Indeed, there is some good evidence that democratic structures don’t encourage such outcomes. For example, the median voter theorem is a mathematical idealisation of two party democracy which suggests that governments will tend to suggest policies which favour the median voter. This is clearly not encouraging policies which are representative of the electorate, but it is encouraging policies which exclude the worst extremes (although actually, the median voter theorem is a sort of perturbation analysis so it doesn’t say anything about extremes). A good example of this was Brown’s last budget which increased the tax burden on the rich and the poor, but decreased it for those in the middle. The third response to the criticism is that where abuse of a system is possible, it seems that it tends to happen. This makes understanding the extent to which democratic structures exclude possibilities for abuse much more important than understanding how they enable positive acts.

The idea of this way of looking at democracy is to better understand what it actually is and how things really happen, a realist view rather than an idealist one. But I am an idealist, so I also want to understand how to make things better and believe it can be done. This way of looking at things helps in various ways. First of all, it’s always good to be realistic about what is actually going on to better understand how to make things better. Much thinking about democracy appears to be of the self-delusional form. Secondly, it already suggests a whole series of ways of improving democracy by reducing the window of opportunity for abuse. Lastly though, it provides a better framework for proposing positive improvements to our democracy. By dropping the fiction that democracy is about good government and representing the people, it concentrates our attention on systematic analyses of what different democratic structures can do. It also strongly emphasises that positive functions of democracy have to be backwards compatible with the important negative function.

One day, we will perhaps reach a stage where we have a society of rough equality, where no part of it is systematically abused by any other part of it. At that stage, our thinking about democracy and government can begin to focus on ways to achieve more directly positive outcomes, but we haven’t reached that stage yet (and if we do reach that stage, we’ll likely be thinking about everything very differently anyway). At the moment, our problem is the opposite. We have many governments of democratic nations around the world systematically attacking fundamental aspects of democracy, we have the press becoming less and less free as it reduces spending to compete for ever diminishing profits and becomes more and more reliant on government and corporate propaganda. We also have the prospect of potential crises such as climate change, which mean that the negative function of democracy will become even more important than ever if we want to avoid the worst happening to our society in the aftermath of the crisis (for example, the BNP has an electoral strategy that is designed around gaining power in exactly this sort of crisis situation).