Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Have we reached “Peak Civilization” yet? (Hint: you already know the answer)

In my previous post I stated that looking around at how our society is evolving, the kind of cultural manifestations it produces and the long term trends of growth it displays (both economic and demographic) I was becoming more and more Spenglerian (the West is significantly decaying) and less and less Toynbeean (no, we will not end up being the first civilization in the history of the species that escapes from the cycle of rise, consolidation, degeneration and final demise). In this post I want to develop a bit more such argument, and share with my readers the reasons for such a (at first sight pessimistic) assessment of our immediate prospects.

But first I would like to subject the argument to a bit of self-critique, as my contention about the already apparent decadence of the west (and, as the West already encompasses the whole world-system, the decadence of humanity) can be accused of unfalsifiability, and of being held by the expedient (and all-too-extended) method of paying attention only to those news that portray increasing violence, riots, revolutions, conflicts and social and technical failures, whilst ignoring all the good things that are happening out there. Such biased perception can easily enter in resonance with the overtly negative tendency of the media to over-report bad news, which sells more papers that just highlighting how everything is reasonably hunky-dory. That is indeed a danger of any generalization about society, and that is why “social sciences” (an oxymoron, I know, but just bear with me) try to be extra careful in the collection of significant enough data to support their theories (big background laugh, of course). Any semi-literate conservative (and most members of the dominant liberal elite that rules the opinion forming circles in the West are semi-literate conservatives these days) would tell you that we live in the best of all possible worlds, and that humanity as a whole never had it so good (exhibit A would be that recent classic by Steven Pinker The Better Angels of our Nature), and present an impressive amount of statistics about declining violence, increasing wealth, improving health and unclear tendencies about reported happiness (but “reported happiness” is another canard, an insufferably self-referential and vacuous concept that we should never be fooled by). Which may very well be both true and inconsequential. It could very well be true at the same time that “this is the best age in humanity’s history” AND “the current state of affairs of the world is morally unacceptable”…

Back then to the accusation of unfalsifiability regarding my original contention about the demise of our civilization. Being ultra skeptical of quantitative analysis of big scale social trends (you end up with bad political philosophy masquerading as bad statistics), I’ll rather counter such accusation by offering a number of predictions that, were they to come true in the next decade, would make me seriously consider I am (was) wrong about our whole culture going already to the gutter:

1.       We put a living human being on the surface of Mars

2.       We have a working fusion reactor (one that can extract more energy than the amount required to ignite the plasma)

3.       We have a functioning (commercial) fission reactor of 4th generation or above

4.       We have a supersonic means of transportation (plane or hyperloop)

5.       We have more that 40% electric vehicles worldwide

6.       We have banned and destroyed all existing nuclear weapons

7.       We have defeated extreme poverty (the percentage of population living with less than 2 $/day -2010 $ is below 10% of the total population of the planet)

8.       We have built a permanent (habitable) moon base

9.       We have launched a vehicle aimed outside our solar system (obviously, with the capability to get there and send us communications from there)

10.   We have reached a life expectation above 100 years at least in one country of more than 5 million inhabitants

11.   We have developed a general purpose AI capable of passing a full-fledged Turing test (with unlimited time and no confounding factors)

I’m strongly confident that exactly ZERO of those predictions will come true between now and 2026. Indeed, if my thesis of civilizational decline is right, to reach any of those milestones we may need to wait centuries, since the collapse of our current system plays out, and a new system emerges, more capable of tackling those kind of challenges which will have proved too much for our current collective capabilities.

Am I putting the bar too high, and setting objectives that is unreasonable to ANY civilization to reach, no matter which phase of development it finds itself in? I don’t think so, as previous civilizations, or even our own one in previous decades, have cleared similar hurdles, except for the last one (indeed, our civilization is the first one so deluded as to think it could fashion something that it doesn’t understand, and somehow manufacture artificially that which still can’t characterize in its more humble, natural appearance).

So, having established the factual bona-fides of my position (“our civilization decays” can be translated for “our civilization is not capable of achieving any of those milestones… or any other of similar significance”) let’s guide our attention of what such inability teaches us. The first thing that a critic may retort is “well, there is one reason why those things may not be achieved in a decade, which has nothing to do with the vibrancy or overall capacity of society as a whole: there is not enough money NOW for such expensive undertakings, but as the economy keeps on growing and we get richer they will fall more and more within our grasp, and sooner rather than later we will end conquering all of them, most likely within the current form of social organization”. That’s the argument from techno-optimism, and it has been straw manned under the name of “cornucopianism” countless times. As I find it a most pernicious mystification, I will devote the remainder of this post to its rebuttal.

Let’s start unpacking what may lie behind the argument that just a “lack of money” prevents us from achieving faster such lofty goals. I won’t go in the debate of “what is money” (a social mechanism to keep track of who owes what to whom) and present the techno-optimist with the following predictions:

1.       The US will have spent an estimated amount of 350 billion $ in the development and purchase of its new F35 fighter jet, assuming it can have the first units ready by mid-2018 (a very big if, additional overruns are expected). The total cost including maintenance and operation of the planes is currently estimated to be in the ballpark of 1.5 trillions (about 650 million $ per plane)

2.       The current projected cost at completion of the Flamanville-3 EPR reactor (still 3rd generation, and with a technology that outside of the nuclear industry would be considered already obsolete) is of 13 billion $ (depending on the exchange rate with the euro), assuming it can go online in 2018 (again a big if, in the face of continuous delays that also affect Olkiluoto-3 in Finland, with the same technology). The initial cost estimate was around 4 billion $

3.       If it just sticks to its currently approved budget, the UK will spend roughly 565 billion dollars between now and 2026 in its "defense" (basically armament and payroll of its armed forces). Let’s remember we are talking of a relatively peaceful island with no territorial disputes (well, there’s the Falkland islands, which Argentina famously attempted to seize in 1982…) Only slightly more ludicrous, in the same timeframe Brazil (yup, that paragon of wealth and welfare for all its citizens) will spend in the ballpark of 270 billion $

4.       The technological giant Apple recently disappointed investors with his profit for the 2nd quarter of the fiscal year, of only 1 billion $ (analysts expected ten times that, as in previous quarters they had easily passed the 10 billion mark) with sales of roughly 50 billion $. The total valuation of the company stumbled to “only” 700 billion $. It is interesting to note that for many years Apple has been unable to find lucrative enough venues to invest the tons of money it was making (at the clip of roughly 40 billion $/ year no wonder!) and even before announcing an increase in what it pays back its shareholders via dividends it is believed to be sitting on a humungous pile of cash (about 200 billion $ of it, according to some estimates)

5.       In 2015, an especially tough year (“the worst since 2011”… jeez, these guys have really short term memories!) the 20 most successful hedge funds “made” 15 billion dollars (net of fees, which were in a similar ballpark of stratosphericity) to their top clients

I could go on and on and on. To put those figures in perspective, I’ll just quote some estimates of what it would cost (a very imperfect and most likely insufficient estimate, but it’s the best we have) to reach some of the civilizational goals I mentioned before:

1.       Sending a manned mission to Mars: 80 to 100 billion $ /, btw, Elon Musk claims he can do it for much less, and recently announced he expects to send the first flight there around 2015, in direct contradiction to my first prediction. I still know who I would bet for in this one

2.       Cost at completion of ITER (the closest thing we have to a fusion reactor, it is doubtful if it will be able to produce it first plasma –still with a gigantic energy deficit- within a decade): anything between the current 15 billion € and 20 billion € (up from an initial estimation of 5 billion €)

7.       Cost of eradicating extreme poverty: 730 billion $/year (just give 2 $/day to each of the roughly 1 billion people still living with less than those 2 $... the cost of getting below the threshold I marked of having less than 10% of the population below that level would be substantially lower, though, as it would be enough with getting just a third of those out of destitution, with a third of the cost)

I mention the Mars travel and poverty as they are supposedly some of the most intractable problems of humanity, which dwarf because of its sheer size very other problem (and interfere between them: how can we morally devote a single penny to space adventures when innocent children are dying by the thousands every day by easily preventable maladies? Conversely, how can we just give them food and incentivize their reckless reproduction when there isn’t enough space for all of us in the planet already?). Well, confiscate Apple’s benefits and the 100 more rapacious/ luckiest hedge funds and you can solve both and still have some money to spare. I don’t mean literally you can “solve” things so easily, I’m just saying that the “lack of money” is a false argument, which reveals the underlying problem I pointed at in my previous post: civilizations collapse not because they can not raise enough resources to keep working, they collapse because they loose common narratives that are required to set a common set of values everybody can agree on, and that are essential to set themselves common goals that keep their peoples working in coordination.

The hedge fund manager and the Apple investor have very different views of what a life well lived consists in, what priorities would be attended first by collective agency, and what is the proper way to allocate resources (especially scarce ones). The goy in the slums of Mumbai and the taxi driver in Buenos Aires have yet a different set of values and priorities, and we, collectively, don’t have a clue on how to adjudicate between their competing interests, so we have settled for the minimum common denominator, and let everybody decide for themselves what to do with their time, how to employ their talents and what to do subsequently with their gains. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with such approach (I don’t like the collectivist tone I was using, either, and it is not that history supplies us with tons of examples of how to do things differently and more satisfactorily), only that it is not the most conductive to achieve great things, do great deeds and utter great words.

And indeed, what our epoch seems to be chock full of is small deeds and small words, and what we have to investigate relentlessly are the mechanisms of our current era that impede such great achievements as those of the past. Not just the Acropolis of Classical Greece and the cathedrals of Paris, Burgos or Prague bequeathed to us from our forebears in Medieval Europe, but our most immediate predecessors, which just a generation ago formulated new encompassing models to understand reality (quantum mechanics, relativity, the Standard Model), built the complex machines to prove the validity of those models (CERN), sent a craft outside the solar system (Voyager 1 recently surpassed the limits of such system, we launched it in 1977), built supersonic passenger transportation systems (the Concorde, first flight in 1969, retired since 2003), reached the moon (first lunar landing in 1969, haven’t been there since December 1972) and developed and deployed a completely new source of energy (nuclear fission reactors, first went in operation in 1954 in Obninsk).

But hey, the last 30 years have been amazing, too! We have invented and deployed mobile telephony! (well, that’s truly something) and the Internet! Doom (the videogame)! Grand Theft Auto! And soon Oculus Rift and Virtual Reality! Call me old-fashioned, but somehow I think they are not on the same level of greatness, and I can’t see our descendants 3,000 years from now looking at us in awe and wondering how we could conceive and materialize such wonders 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Bullshit jobs and Civilization’s collapse

The idea for this post started innocently enough, researching the concept of what I called “make believe jobs”, or jobs that really added very little value (technically, whose cost to the employer were beyond the marginal benefit they added to the organization of said employer). It was to be an additional step in the series developing the General Theory of the Organization, as my initial hunch is that those jobs are much more prevalent of what neoclassical economic theory would predict (well, for that theory those jobs shouldn’t exist in the first place, so they could only be understood as a temporary deviance from equilibrium, and set to disappear as soon as possible as the market regained a minimum of efficiency). Such prevalence would be both a cause for pessimism (in this blog! Who would say!) , as significant amounts of improvement in aggregate demand could be absorbed without any improvement in the overall employment picture (as companies had a tremendous cushion of “hidden capacity” lying dormant as a fixed cost that they could turn to before they started hiring from the outside, and thus reducing the unemployment numbers) and an additional argument in favor of the rollout of a UBI, as that would be the only way to reduce such population of non-value-adding employees without the trauma of depressing even more the already paltry labor participation figures (as many of those are old enough to never be employed again if they were laid off).

Unfortunately (or fortunately), pursuing that line of thought I found myself having netted a much bigger fish (so big, indeed, that a single post may very well not be enough to tackle with it), but let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and try to present all of this in a somewhat orderly fashion. I’ll go through the three steps it took me to reach the overall conclusion (unsurprisingly, it all comes down to us being doomed in the short run… but do not worry, as I wrote about in another post Our sunny future 500 years from now our descendants will laugh at our current tribulations)

1.       They pay for it, but it’s still bullshit

Anybody that has worked in a big firm, doesn’t matter how apparently ruthless its HR policies, knows that they all harbor a great deal of slackers and deadbeats. In some cases they are astute, cunning fabricators that convince enough of their supervisors that they are actually doing something useful, and that their lack of results (for definition a make believe job produces no results, if it did produce some it becomes an overpaid job, or even a sinecure if It is safe enough, which is a totally different category) is due to some set of circumstances entirely out of their control. One would expect that time would put everybody in its right place, but that would be grossly underestimating human ingenuity, and the number of counterexamples I’ve seen to that maxim would be enough to fill a book to rival with the telephone directory of a city the size of New York.

However, the guy that really hides is inability to do anything mildly productive for years on end, while he collects his monthly salary and even get the occasional promotion, is just the tip of the iceberg, as there are not that many of them. Let’s call this class “the fancy dress make believe job”, as they really have to carefully camouflage their valuelessness, and pass it for some useful activity, apparently performing some valued function within the enterprise (normally accompanied by a fanciful job title). Needless to say, these species can only be found in the upper echelons of the corporate world, where “results” are notoriously difficult to measure, as in the lower ones a complete lack of production would be more immediately apparent (an engineer that didn’t produce any calculations, a designer that didn’t produce any drawings, or an operator that didn’t turn out any manufactured piece from his workstation would be soon reprimanded and duly fired if persisting in his lack of work, whilst an executive that didn’t do much at all is more difficult to detect).

There is a whole additional category of make believe jobs, reputedly more prevalent in government and the public sector, which we could call “the paper pusher of papers that should have never been printed in the first place”. Paper pushing (getting approvals of forms filled by somebody else, which has done the thinking) is already a questionable activity, which could add a sliver of value (even in these times of electronic forms, automated workflow information systems and paperless offices) sometimes, but surely could never justify the brigades, the divisions, the full armies of administrative staff that people most offices where the administered (that is, the whole of the population) has to deal with the administrators. Not just for government service (like filing taxes, registering the acquisition of landed property, transferring a business and the like) but for any modification the supply of most utilities, regardless of how much they are supposedly in private hands (water, electricity, gas and communications, and in most places the provision of health services).

I will not go into the vast swathes of workers in sales and marketing, as it should be self-evident that in a sane society we wouldn’t have millions upon millions of clever guys doing their best to try to convince us to buy (and sometimes pay outrageous amounts of money) things we don’t need. In this case, each individual salesperson can be extremely valuable for the company that employs him (indeed, in professional services organizations selling is the only ability people consistently need to show to get to the top, as the great challenge they face is convincing their clients once and again that what they bill them for is of any significance, or may cause any kind of improvement to their bottom line, regardless of it being true or not), but if we apply the rule of “imagine what happens if all the people doing this were suddenly abducted by aliens and taken to a far away planet” is difficult to envision a planet Earth significantly worse off (or worse off at all) by the sudden disappearance of all the Don Draper lookalikes…

Finally, there is the category of honest-to-god workers that are doing some activity that requires skill and commitment, and they are doing it competently and even with gusto, but for a completely counterproductive end, dictated by a society that has lost its bearings (more on that later on). Engineers, architects, middle managers, tradesmen, secretaries, the full works engaged in the construction of megalomaniacal infrastructure works that nobody will use, be them airports with no actual demand, trains that run empty, and the tons upon tons of advance weapon systems that were devised for a type of conflict that the world may not see again. It is amazing that, given how petty the public investment in most advanced countries has come to be seen, I raise the possibility that there are still spades of money being thrown at inexpedient projects, while basic infrastructure seems to be rotting at the roots and in a state of utter disrepair, but such is the sad state of things, and while well used highways, bridges and airports crumble and rot new, wholly unnecessary ones are being built everywhere, following decisions taken for political expedience (to favor the career and election prospects of their proponents, when not to inflate their secret bank accounts in fiscal paradises) rather than the ones dictated by their measured contribution to the greatest good. Let us call this last category the “good soldiers deployed in the wrong battlefield” to complete our categorization of jobs that add nothing to the collective output and would not cause any diminution in the real GDP if the people performing them were suddenly dismissed without notice (the third category is a bit more problematic, at least in the short run, as building a completely useless airport or train line does indeed count as part of the GDP while the construction is taking place, although it stops doing so the moment it finishes, as nobody then is willing to pay to use the service). 

2.       The economic impact of bullshit jobs

So I would ask my less experienced readers to take my word regarding the enormous number of people belonging to the three categories previously described (the more experienced ones already know it is true). No exhaustive measure of their ranks has ever been attempted, but I dare to say they constitute between 30 and 40% of the total working population (well above that in certain well-established sectors and industries, and below that figure in the ones subject to more competition and change). To have a better grasp of such figure, the current occupation rate of the USA (in theory a super-dynamic economy, with a most frayed and uncomfortable safety net that forces almost everybody to swim or sink) is roughly around 60%, after decades slowly falling. That means that a 40% of the population of working age is not working at all (and, given that the unemployment rate is just 5%, 35% of them are not even looking for a job, although much could be discussed about how voluntarily that giving up may happen to be).

 If we take as most likely figure of make believe jobs a 35%, that means that more than half of the working age population (40% + 35%*60% = 61%) doesn’t add zilch to the GDP (that probably includes you, kind reader, that instead of working is reading this silly post… just kidding, we both know you are a hard worker and a productive citizen), and the remaining 39% is doing all the work. Let’s not forget we are talking of working age population here. If we consider the fact that people is living longer thanks to the increase in life expectation at birth (and at any age, really, except if you are a middle age North American Caucasian, in which case you are expected to kill yourself by overdrinking, substance abuse or similar expedient methods any day now) we have to conclude that roughly 20% of the people keep society going, another 10-15% just goes along for the ride and pretend to work just as hard in order to have a solid claim in the distribution of the benefits, and the rest basically expect the truly working ones to maintain them in different levels of opulence.

That puts the claims of many conservatives about the unsustainability of the welfare state in some perspective, as really if 20% of the population working can achieve our current production level the idea that we can somehow magically find occupations (through creative destruction, technological advance, development of entirely new industries, the right incentives and whatnot) for at least the 40% that nominally could work is ludicrous. The size of the problem is not increasing the amount of jobs available by a 10 or a 20% by “unleashing the energies of the free market” or similar claptrap. To really materialize the rightists utopia of full employment for everybody (achievable by making any life situation different from full employment for each individual as utterly miserable as possible) you would need to more than double (and most likely triple) the size of the economic pie.

That is not only incompatible with the increasing automation of more and more activities, but with any kind of social organization we can dream of. As a member of the tory government one commented drily answering to the drive of their leader to turn the UK into a service economy, “we can not survive on cutting the hair of each other”… somebody somewhere must be doing something originally valuable to enable the distribution of such value in exchange for the provision of services (be such services cutting hair, flipping burgers or advising in innovative financial strategies to minimize the tax exposure). But when that somebody is so hard to find (one in five people) the problem should not be making more schlubs act like that uber-valuable (and most rare) individual, but in distributing fairly the product of that individual’s labor (product that is not only obtained thanks to his or her superior ability and moral worth, but also thanks to circumstances beyond his control, like a functioning society, the capital accumulated by his ancestors and pure and unadulterated luck).

There is another way, of course. Pay everybody a basic income and fire all the people in make believe jobs. But that's the kind of solution we would expect only a fully functioning civilization to settle on, and not a decaying one…

3.       Can civilization pull it off?

Sounds sensible, doesn’t it? The problem is, as we mentioned, everybody is pretty good at identifying the “bullshitness” of other people jobs, but quite blind to their own job’s. We have reached a point in the development of our complex, multiply interconnected, half real - half virtual economy when we do not know what is valuable any more, we do not know who is adding value to a product or an activity and thus, we do not know how to maximize the utility we derive from a certain allocation of our resources with alternative uses (which, by the way, is the definition of what Economics does, but in my last post I already said that Economics is basically a gigantic amount of malarkey with a side dish of baloney, so nothing new here). Not that such inability would keep me awake at night, as I have always said that thinking in those terms is counterproductive, and the whole maximization of utility thing is the wrong way of approaching how to live (a wrong way that, by the way, is enshrined in the dominant reason of the age, and foisted upon unsuspecting and innocent children since their first day on this planet, so those of them that have not been exposed to any countervailing influence may find it somewhat hard to adapt to a reality without those guiding principles), except for the little fact that I don’t think our civilization can survive without it, and that I see more and more signs around us that it has already lost it for good.

Because the proliferation of bullshit jobs is just one (especially salient) manifestation of the deeper malady I have just pointed to: the complexity of our current social organization and adjacent productive system has just surpassed a point of no return that makes it impossible to assign any intersubjective value to any good or activity. But as all (or most of) our institutions have been designed (and derive their legitimacy) from their ability to maximize value (under the guise of “utility”), the fact they can not discharge the duty they were constructed to fulfill (or that they can not satisfy the expectations that have been put upon them) will surely, sooner or later, lead to their demise. And the demise of a functioning civilization is never a nice thing to contemplate (even less to live), although I’m afraid that’s the lot we are bequeathing our children.

This is the “big fish” I mentioned at the beginning of the post, and it surely needs more than one entry in a paltry blog to be fully explained. It may also seem like too big a conclusion to extract from the fact that in some companies (OK, in most of them… OK, in all of them) there are a few slackers that do not really pull their own weight but their bosses don’t seem to notice (or if they notice, they don’t seem to care). The casuistic of make believe jobs was just the pointer, but once that particular clue leads you to suspect that may be the problem with our world-system affects  something pretty foundational, reveals something truly rotten at the very root of it, you start to see a number of apparently disconnected (or very loosely connected) threads in a completely different manner:

·         Global warming: may be it is incredibly urgent (like catastrophic floods and total disruption of the climate patterns in 50 years), may be it is not (like the same but in 200 years, whopeee!). May be it is 100% caused by man’s activities (most pointedly their burning of fossil fuels) may be man is causing just 90% of it. Fact of the matter, the climate is getting warmer, the potential consequences for the livability of the planet (its ability to sustain an enormous population of primates with very high metabolic demands) are devastating, and we are doing essentially zilch (if anyone seriously think the Paris climate accord are going to do anything at all to curb the emissions of greenhouse gases I have a bridge in Brooklyn I may be interested to show him). The whole thing is too complex, the temptation to free ride the efforts of other actors too big, the penalties for individually doing nothing too small (or inexistent) and the lure of being just plain old complacent (“it’s all a giant hoax, surely things are not going to be that bad, why bother at all”) has proved to be just overwhelming…

·         Part of what makes global warming intractable is that it is mainly caused by the most widespread of producing energy, and energy production in a complex, commercial, capitalist society as ours is non negotiable. Not just old style manufacturing, but communications, agriculture, construction (air conditioning in a sweltering planet!), sanitation, provision of health services, transportation (increasingly, if we move from internal combustion engines to an electric powered fleet)… all require modern societies to produce vast amounts of energy. And the news on that front are pretty dismal. Yes, photovoltaic energy is so cheap as to be close to (or have already reached, depending on who you trust) “grid parity” (a price low enough to be competitive without being heavily subsidized… which makes you wonder then why it keeps on being heavily subsidized everywhere, and why threatening to rationalize –i.e. reduce- such subsidies cause a universal cry of outrage from a misinformed public opinion). Yes, eolic energy is expanding (in this case, without even pretending to be cheap). In the most wildly optimistic scenario both may account for anything between 20% and 40% of humanities need (and that requires a massive overhaul of the distribution grid and a similar enhancement of our storing capacity, which today is for all practical purposes nonexistent at any scale bigger than your AAA batteries). As for the rest, carbon capture has not advanced much in the last three decades, ditto for nuclear, and fusion… is still a good two decades away, and will probably be three (or four, or five) decades from now. We have just, as a society, lost the ability to innovate technically. We have literally thousands of designs for new reactors (and for improving the efficiency of the current ones) but it is just too damn tough to get them approved by the regulator, so they sit for decades on the shelves, without ever being built (or, if we attempt to build them, the costs and schedules spiral out of control, see Flamanville, Olkiluoto and ITER). But hey, Moore’s law is alive and well, and we still get faster computers and mobile phones, and better software running on them (only the software is actually worse and more buggy, as that is other area where we have not learned to deal with complexity, and even the rate of replacement of technological wonders seems to be slowing, as people realize that the latest version of their expensive geegaws only serves to reduce the weight of their wallet, for very, very little additional convenience or functionality)

·         But probably the worst of it: in one of the most gripping pieces of journalism I have found in the last months I read in The New Yorker how the USA pacific coast will sooner rather than later be wiped off by a devastating Tsunami (as it has regularly been for most of its unrecorded history, the lovely advantages of the advances in the science of seismology allow us to gain this kind of knowledge): The really big one will not be where you expect it . and knowing this, we are just collectively unable to do anything at all about it! I find almost unbearable the mention, in the final paragraphs, of the schools and day care centers that are well into the inundation zone of a tsunami that has roughly one in three chances to strike in the next half century. We are collectively letting hundreds of kids stay as sitting ducks to inescapably drown under forty five feet of water and debris (along with a good number of hundreds of thousands adults and elders) because it is just too complex to take any fucking measure at all to put them in a safe place. They may make it to adulthood, but then it will be their cousins, or their own children the ones subject to such fate.  But hey, the Germans shut down ALL their nuclear power plants after the Fukushima earthquake and Tsunami for no friggin’ reason at all! And when disaster strikes in the NorthWest of the USA (notice that it is when, not if, as it will strike for certain sooner or later, it’s just the way of blind nature following its unbending rules) we will wonder if there is a God and how could he allow such a terrible thing to happen, and so much suffering and grief…

So all in all pretty grim prospects, uh? When I first read Toynbee’s A Study of History I wholeheartedly agreed with him that our particular civilization (western Greek-Judeo-Christian, or whatever you want to call it) was the first one to have escaped from the iron law of rise, consolidation and decay that had affected every other major human culture until now, and that with the scientific method and the knowledge we had gained about how nature (including ourselves) really work (as opposed to convenient rationalizations of whatever false superstition happens to be widely believed by the mass of the people) we had for the first time in history the opportunity to learn and adjust our mores to the circumstances we found ourselves in. Probably the same that Egyptian noblemen thought 2,000 years BC.

That I read short after Spengler’s The Decline of the West (an abridged edition, I’m toying with the idea of going for the full thing, may be in the original language… we’ll see), and it was a good antidote. But now the thesis of the German seems like more and more plausible, and the one of the British less and less so, its optimism more and more unfounded.

Again, to deduce from the fact that a good deal of the workers in most advanced societies are not really doing much that our whole (apparently robust and solid) culture is about to collapse may seem a bit unwarranted. I’ll develop in a subsequent post why I think we have reached “peak civilization”, and the true explanation of why we can not achieve the kind of feats (technological, ideological, religious, demographic) that may get us some reprieve from such collapse. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ontology, epistemology and free will

I have been wanting for some time now to write another highly philosophical post that almost nobody reads, and a couple things that have caught my attention in my latest forays in the field of philosophy of mind may provide me the excuse, as I have noted:

·         The inability of the field as a whole to go much beyond Hume. I mean, I’m the first fan of ol’ Davey, and devoted a good deal of my dissertation to his thought, but is this really the best we can do as a culture? As a civilization? As a species? Well, most of what you read out there that doesn’t come directly from the playbook of the Scot comes from Aristotle anyhow, which isn’t exactly breaking news either, so… I do get that some issues never get entirely settled, but the baffling thing about this particular one is that there seems to be only one “official” position, that every philosopher since Plato seem to be discovering anew, and announcing loudly how daring, unprejudiced and deep of a thinker he is for revealing it to the world. It essentially comes down to the fact that there are no innate ideas, and everything that is in the mind has been first perceived (so the mind builds itself through the accumulation of impressions of the external world). Not that original for Hume, as both Hobbes and Locke had already said it almost with the same force, and they were not that original either, as “nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu” was already stated in the XIIIth century by that most obscure and marginal figure, none other than St. Thomas Aquinas, only reckoned as Doctor of the Church and the most influential thinker of Christendom in the late Middle Ages and thereafter…  but again, when devoting a good deal of the first book of his Treatise on Human Nature to convince us of what a self-evident truth that is, Hume seems to think that he is being a courageous, bold and innovative thinker, fighting against the obfuscations of “the schools” (the inherited corpus of scholastic thinkers, although the most scholastic of them all was Aquinas, who as we have seen had exactly the same opinion as the Scottish philosopher). You would think stating the predominant position of his age as if it were marginal and obscure was a peculiar trait of Hume, but you read the same statement, similarly accompanied by the claim of being unusually valiant, uninhibited, sagacious and discerning, in Condillac, Brentano, Freud (his Project of a Psychology for Neurologists is a poor remake of the mentioned part of the Treatise with barely the addition of confused references to a mysterious “neuronic energy” that gets “deployed” or “associated” to certain memories –besetzung in the original German, that for some reason the Standard Edition under the supervision of Strachey decided to translate as “catechted” in what has been a much maligned and frankly quite boneheaded choice), Ryle, Russell and practically every recent philosopher of mind.

·         The extent to which two apparently different questions are intermingled. “What is it really out there” and “What can we know about what is really out there” are endlessly confused (may be endlessly confusing), and any philosopher of mind worth his salt jumps from ontology to epistemology shamelessly in any of his writings (as I’ve done in the title of this post, by the way). One would expect Kant to have settled this one once and for all (we can not know what is really out there, so any time devoted to the first question is misspent), and the logical positivist (and the whole thrust of the “linguistic turn”) to have put the last nail on that particular coffin, but…

After some thought, it seems to me that both confusions/ distortions are intimately related, and that they can be explained by a common worldview (you probably know where this is heading) that has developed historically until it came to be seen by any thinking person as the only “sensible”, “rational” one. Let’s devote the rest of this post to make that view explicit and potentially debunk it.
To that extent, let’s think for a moment about the opposite view that all the philosophers of mind were raising against, assuming collectively that it was widely held (while in reality you would be really hard pressed to find a philosopher that actually held it). What is the opposite of thinking that you only find in our mind things that have been previously grasped by our senses? Who has actually defended the opinion that there are those “innate ideas” that Hume so carefully wanted to prove that couldn’t exist? Plato, of course, for whom knowing was really remembering (“anamnesis”), but not remembering just of any previous sensory experience (that is, after all, the same that the empiricists, and the scholastics, and the peripatetics and the stoics were later to defend in opposition to him), but remembering how the “soul”, which was distinctly non-material, had experienced the “ideas” of which material reality was but a mere, washed-down shadow. So Aristotle, the scholastics (harder to explain in their case, but we’ll get to that), Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Condillac, Freud and Ryle (and countless others) are essentially telling us, over and over again, each of them claiming to be uniquely original and perspicuous and contrarian, that there is no soul, no stuff different from everyday matter that can explain how we “know” things, and specially no stuff that can exist independently from the body.

OK, fair enough, I’ll be the first to admit that the idea that there is this “spooky stuff” is problematic, and distinctly in the minority nowadays. I’d just like to point than when you hear that it has been “thoroughly debunked”, “exhaustively disproved by science” and “demonstrated as false by the best and most reliable ways of thinking of our epoch” you may want to take all those authoritative declarations with a grain of salt, as they all come down to a bunch of guys repeating endlessly what Aristotle already said two and a half millennia ago (when, let’s be honest about it, there wasn’t much scientific method going around) but for some odd reason each of them claiming to be extraordinarily original and presenting the claim as the most counterintuitive breakthrough ever presented to humanity. Especially because Science (with a capital S) has surprisingly little to say about “what is really out there”, and every discussion between monism (“there is only one real kind of stuff, namely matter”) and dualism (“may be there is something else than matter, namely minds, which can not be entirely explained in terms of, reduced to, supervenient on or caused by the aforementioned matter”) is metaphysics or, as our forebears liked to spell it, metaphysicks.

Now you will hear (and read) a lot of guys trying to pass their metaphysical speculations as plain ol’ honest-to-god physics (even the very admirable Stephen Hawking did a good deal of that in his quite abominable The Grand Design, but I tend to think the fault lies mostly in his ill-chosen coauthor rather than in the great man’s dwindling capabilities –which, let’s not forget, still have a long, long way to go while still being far above the average man capabilities, including my own), but I encourage my readers not to be fooled by the noise of the multitude, and bear with me for a while. Any sober evaluation of the independent force of the multiple (or rather, multiply repeated) arguments for the implausibility of the existence of anything distinct from matter rests in the end in a single claim: matter (the stuff described by physics without really knowing what it consists in, but again more on that later) is enough to describe, explain and predict what goes around us, so there is no need to “postulate” any additional stuff and, by neatly applying Occam’s razor (of which I’m the first fan), such additional stuff does not exist.

Which is all well and good, and as I just said I’m the first enthusiastic proponent of the thorough and merciless application of the Franciscan friar’s implement, but let’s gain some perspective before we accept such application is pertinent in this case. I think we can all agree that physics and chemistry have accumulated a vast store of knowledge that rings undeniably “true” and that allows us to confidently model  (represent with mathematical tools) how certain entities evolve and, given their current conditions, how they were arranged in the past and are likely to be arranged in the future. Those entities are characterized by being extended in space and having mass (according to Hume, the knowledge about them pertains to quantity, measurable quality and geometry). Negatively, they are also characterized by not being conscious (unless for Galen Strawson, but again more on that later), for there not being “something there is like to be” any of those entities. It doesn’t matter how imaginative we are or how hard we try, we just can’t put ourselves in the place of a rock, a chair, a meteorite or a pool of water and somehow conceive what we would be experiencing. The furthest we can go down that path leads us to intuitively believe that we would be experiencing nothing at all. Such negative definition effortlessly drives our attention to other entities that indeed do have consciousness: human beings all round us, which we can easily imagine as having experiences just like ours, only from a different perspective. Whole fields of human activity have been developed on the premise of making each one of us feel “how it is like” to be somebody else (mainly literature, but it may be argued that it is a common feature of all great art), so I think it is safe to assume such other minds do indeed exist, and are as real as our own (for the record, the opposite opinion, called solipsism, is logically unassailable but ranks low in the list of skeptical arguments that may be true after all so you may legitimately lose some sleep over them).

I think even the most hardheaded physicist or chemist will admit that their disciplines do not have much to tell us about the individual or collective behavior of those other entities (human beings) except in the most limited situations. Being composites of carbon, if you heat them a lot they will burn, and suffer a number of very predictable reactions (with quite adverse effects). Being physical bodies, if you throw them from a sufficient height they will accelerate at the rate of 9.8 m/s each second (and, when they reach the floor, will experience effects potentially as adverse as the ones in the previous case)… I’m sure you get the gist, hard science tells us a lot about how the matter we are made of would behave, but not much about what we call “behavior” (choices initiated by “us”, initiated by what, for a time, were called our “superior faculties”). But no biggie, we have a host of equally scientific disciplines that deal precisely with such actions that are dependent on us having a mind: psychology, economics, sociology, anthropology, political science, whose track record is as resplendent as that of physics and chemistry, that have developed models for understanding human behavior that attain similar levels of precision and reliability and that, given the current conditions of any person or group of persons, can similarly predict both how such persons felt and thought in the past and how they will feel and think in the future.

For those with super-high threshold irony detectors, that was indeed an irony. 

It is not just me that says that the “humanistic” disciplines have a terrible, terrible record reaching any kind of unified conclusion about what is true and what is false in their respective fields, and using such conclusions to produce reliable predictions: I already touched on the results of the initiative by Brian Nosek to replicate some of the better established experiments in psychology (Me flogging a dead horse), and along similar lines I read this most recent post in Aeon: Economics is the new astrology, although this confession by an economist may be more telling: The Money Illusion discovers some truth, (note especially this acknowledgment “People used to mock economists by saying that it wasn’t a science, that it didn’t know anything.  Economists would reply that they knew a few things.  For instance, they knew that free trade is good and that price floors create surpluses.  Now they’ve even abandoned those EC101 ideas, and admitted that their critics are correct.  The field has trashed its own reputation. Economists are implicitly admitting that their profession is an empty shell, completely devoid of knowledge.” And that comes from a reputable economist, Scott Sumner, which has been mostly in the right since I started following him a few years ago). And let’s not forget Economics is the “queen of the social sciences”, the one with most reputable credentials and considered as most serious by almost all the educated public. Nothing really surprising here for regular readers of this blog; when we come to the humanities, the Geisteswissenschaften, it is high time to admit it is “empty shells” all around, which truly “don’t know anything”. In the language of older times, they are all doxa (opinion) and very little episteme (knowledge).

But back to the main argument of the current post, so we have in one hand  some disciplines that have developed solid, valid knowledge to know a portion of how the world around us works (riding the coattails of a methodology which we will call “the scientific method” whose broad outlines can be agreed upon by most practicing scientists, although there may be some differences in the fine details of what constitutes such method which doesn’t need to concern us at this point), the part of the world constituted by stuff describable by “quantities, measurable qualities and geometry”, or to put it shortly, matter. And we have in the other hand a bunch of additional disciplines that so far have been utterly unable to do something similar, so the part of the world described by them (a part of the world characterized by including mind, and/ or consciousness –I won’t enter yet in the discussion of to what extent one requires or implies the other) is not very well understood, and the little understanding there appears to be is highly disputed, and has shown to be unable to produce consistent, reliable predictions, BUT we confidently claim that for all we know the same methodologies and the same basic building blocks that successfully explain the first part of reality (the ones characterized by the lack of mind) are all we need to describe this other part. Well, sorry but no, such claim is unwarranted, and such application is illegitimate. We just don’t know enough (hell, we don’t even know if we know anything at all!) to make such inference.

The position of the materialist monist claiming to have Science (again, with a capital S) on his side reminds me of the drunkard seeking for his keys under the lamppost, because that’s where there is more light, although he most likely lost them on a totally different section of the street. Yes, we have as a species developed a methodology that has allowed us to expand and deepen mightily our knowledge of a part of what surrounds us. But that methodology is of no use to decide if that part is everything that there is or not, especially on the light of the recurrent failures of its intended application to matters of the mind. Coming back to the title of this post (and to Kant’s original insight, that we seem to have mostly forgotten), we have a solid foundation for a materialist epistemology (that it, for an epistemology pertaining to matter, geared to decide what knowledge about matter is true). We have a robust set of criteria for what constitutes well based, sufficiently warranted knowledge in the field of the “natural” sciences (the sciences that deal with objects), but such epistemology almost by definition has very little to say about what are the ultimate building blocks of reality, about what reality “is made of” because by definition that’s the realm of ontology.

Hogwash, you may claim. That “ontology” I speak of is a bunch of confused thinking and smoke and mirrors, and there is no need to question “what reality is ultimately made of”, what we should really direct our attention to is how we can instrumentally manipulate it (that’s what me make models for, to enable us to pick the most salient features, like mass, energy and position, and predict how they will evolve without needing to grasp what they “are” in some mysterious ultimate sense), which is what the natural sciences teach us to do now, and what the social (or mind) sciences will teach us to do in the future, without any need to include in their field of inquiry references to “spooky stuff” like substantially different minds, which lead unavoidably to souls, ghosts, fairies and similar superstitions. The only difference between both (natural and social sciences) is that one is more developed than the other, but with time (and as long as they don’t get distracted with all this nonsense of minds being somehow essentially different from the rest of matter) they will reach a similar level of advancement. The less evolved are just in an infancy crisis, but it is nothing that a good, healthy dose of empiricism, mathematical formalism (although the maths they rely upon rarely go beyond statistics 101 and basic algebra) and looking up to their elder sisters won’t cure.  

I remain unconvinced by such arguments, and I think the need for a good ontology to complement a coherent epistemology is nowhere more clear than around one of the key concepts that separate my (vastly in the minority) view from that of the monist materialists: the possible existence of free will. The monist and I both agree that in a world of pure stuff (a world where only matter really exists, and where a thorough description of matter and its interactions, according to a few, simple, elegant laws, is enough to describe everything that has happened or may happen) there is no place for free will. Where we differ is in the consideration of what really obtains in our world, and thus the consequence we can deduce from it:

·         Materialist monist: the world is made only of matter behaving predictably => there is no free will

·         Me : there is undeniably free will => the world can’t be made purely of matter behaving predictably

Now, we can analyze a bit further the claim that the world is purely made of predictable matter by breaking it down in two subordinate claims, one regarding what there really is, and one regarding what we can now (or put in other terms, one ontological and one epistemic):

·         M1 (O): there is only matter

·         M2 (E): matter behaves in a way that is describable by simple, elegant laws, which allow for no exception. Given the knowledge of such laws, and the state of the Universe in a certain moment, all other states in all other possible moments can be known

Note that the materialist monist needs the two claims to be true, as a material world that is not predictable (that doesn’t follow those simple laws or, in older terms, that is not deterministic, where M2(E) is not true) doesn’t allow him to use the successes of natural sciences in support of the first claim (if there are no universal laws with no exception, all bets are off and all the usual skeptical arguments about other minds not being real or the universe having been created five minutes ago obtain). But remember that all the plausibility of that first claim came indeed from the successes of natural science (in what is an incorrect inference, in my view). I, on the other hand, require just one of the previous claim to be false to be right (both a purely materialistic universe, as long as it is non deterministic, or a dualistic universe would allow for the existence of free will, although only the second one provides a straightforward solution to the problem of consciousness).

However, in the last century Science (with as capital an S as you may dream) has leaned more and more heavily towards “proving” that M2 (E) is almost certainly false. The dominant interpretation of quantum mechanics establishes that there are “uncaused”, truly stochastic, events that no hidden variable can predict (so, in some sense, using Einstein’s sentence, God does indeed play dice). And the hodgepodge of mathematical intuitions and curiosities somewhat petulantly referred to as “chaos theory” allow us to understand how the microscopic effects of such indeterminacies can scale up to have vastly macroscopic consequences that we can observe, measure, but not in any way predict either. The theory presents us, in other words, with incontrovertible evidence that there are highly significant events in nature of a non-linear nature, that to be predicted (specially using finite elements modeling and Fourier series) would required an almost infinitely detailed knowledge of their initial condition. But Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle sets an unbreakable limit to the level of detail we can achieve, so…

I’m sure a materialist monist could still say “very well, then, we do not live in a deterministic universe, but that kind of indeterminacy doesn’t buy you the space you need for your wishy-washy free will. All you would have is soulless, inert matter behaving sometimes (mostly, I dare say) predictably, and every now and then unpredictably. The occasional (and infrequent, I dare say again) unexpected macroscopically observable indeterminacy is just random chaos, it doesn’t allow for the kind of “character-dependant” “agent-originated” causation that you surely want to claim”. Indeed, I would answer. Just the falseness of the epistemic part of the materialistic vision does not provide me yet with the kind of Universe I think we inhabit. I do need at least the ontology part to be similarly false, as I require more than “soulless” matter, I require true, substantial, non-material minds to get to the kind of free will that I believe we are actually endowed with, and the falsity of M2 (E) does in no way entail, or even point to, the possible falsity of M1 (O).

However, I’ll leave you with three last things to ponder before closing this record-length post:

1.       Once we accept that M2 (E) is false (not just “I’d like things to be this way, so I give more credence to evidence that points towards them actually being so” false, but “the best theory humanity has ever developed to explain how the material world behaves, QED and the standard model, point towards its falseness” false), coupled with the failure of the so-called social “sciences” to predict reliably their supposed field of interest, how warranted M1 (O) turns out to be? (my contention is that not much).

2.       One statement usually derived fromM1 (O) flies in the face of our first-hand experience: according to the purest materialism (remember, “there is only matter”), our own consciousness is illusory. We think we experience and feel and think, but it is just an elaborate ruse nature plays on us (by complete chance, evolution just happened to produce creatures that believe they are conscious, but that are really not, as there could not “be” something as being conscious). The only reason that such counterintuitive statement has not been used as a definitive argument for the falsity of M1 (O) is because “the whole weight of modern science” seemed to be behind it. But if M2 (E) is false ,then the whole weight of modern science is not behind M1 (O) any more, and what seems in the face of it absurd (that we are not conscious after all) may be, indeed, absurd.

3.       Finally, any statement X has its plausibility undermined if we find some features of the world that may explain how X arose and have nothing to do with the truth or falsity of X (that’s the argument materialists have been using against any religious claim since the times of Feuerbach’s Wesens des Christentums, by explaining them as a product of the manipulation of priests, or of the psychological need of humans for an all-powerful father figure, or of evolutionary psychology and the like). Is there, then, some explanation for how M1 (O) got to be so widespread that doesn’t appeal to its coincidence with some set of observed facts? To how it got to be such a central part of the dominant reason of our age (aha!)? well, of course there is. In the transition from Baroque reason to Economic reason it was obviously beneficial for the increase in the social production of material goods to have people’s minds distracted away from a possible afterlife and focused instead into the material betterment of their conditions in this life. And to justify lives devoted more obsessively to the pursuit of material well-being (to the exclusion of anything that could only be detrimental for that pursuit) it was as obviously beneficial to convince them they were but lumps of matter blindly obeying the dictates of their instincts. And of course, the societies that most successfully indoctrinated their citizens in such set of beliefs vanquished the societies that did not espouse them so fully and became the sole survivors of a scenario of inter-societal competition.

I’ll let my readers reach their own conclusions.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Organizations and Dominant Reason

In this post I wanted to tie two of the series I've been developing separately so far: the one about the evolution of the West's (and now the World's) dominant reason (history of dominant reason Ihistory of dominant reason II) and the one expounding my theory of the organization (Theory of organization IIIIIIIV and V), neatly represented by the following diagram:

As you may remember, in the latter theory the organization was a group of people within a common environment which used the resources available to them to pursue a common end, and which renounced (willingly or by compulsion) to some freedom in order to increase their chances of achieving said end. A necessary part of that environment is the implicit set of assumptions, models and definitions that enable them to agree about what the end consists in, how it fits within the wider definition of what a “life well lived” consists in, and what kind of pre-defined relationships of precedence (hierarchy) can be assumed from the whole of society (remember that within the theory that “whole of society” is just the political organization of higher order every individual within a bounded territory belongs to) to inform the more detailed ones within the closer group.

So we can consider that the dominant reason of the society that harbors any organization is a substantial (and required) part of its environment, which limits the kind of organizational agreements that can be meaningfully reached and vastly reduces the effort to create new organizations by providing a template to which they can easily conform. To get a better grasp of the influence they exert, it may be helpful to analyze the relative importance of different kinds of organizations (and the most salient examples of each kind) during the different phases that Western dominant reason has gone through in the last three centuries and a half, starting by what I’ve called Baroque Reason:

The most important organization for almost every member of society was back then the Church one belonged to. Such Church had sway over the most minute details of everybody’s life (it was, in our terms, much more Dominant than now, albeit less Adaptable, less Voluntary, less Isocratic, less Simple and less Egalitarian). Education was reduced to a few (but highly influential), and mostly controlled by the Church anyhow, while there were almost not political organizations in the current sense (the Nation State was beginning its formation, and only in a few places like France, Spain and England) and very minor economic ones. As the money one earned or the resources one commanded where considered very secondary in order to determine one’s station in life, economic activity was mostly oriented (for the majority of the population) to the satisfaction of the most basic needs, and didn’t require much coordination beyond that.

For reasons I’ve explained elsewhere, such organizational structure of the baroque period was destabilized by the combination of the printing press, a phonetical alphabet and the Protestant reformation, and catalyzed by thinkers like my much studied Davey Hume it was finally superseded by a new environment, dominated by a new kind of dominant reason:

Politically economic reason flourishes under a new scenario, sanctioned in the Treatises of Westphalia, which enshrine the now firmly established nation states as ultimate guarantors of their citizens’ rights. In an increasingly complex economy (these are the years when the Industrial Revolution has already taken off, bringing in its wake an increasing job specialization and automation, and taming the motive forces of steam power to supplement the animal power available until then) a man’s occupation occupies a growing portion of his interests (I’m deliberately using the masculine pronoun, as this is essentially a man’s world, although the budding factories started incorporating massively women and children in their semi indentured workforces).

Partly as a reaction against the excessive rationalism of the economic organization, the dominant reason takes a more spiritual turn and rediscovers the attraction of the uncanny and the occult, in what has been called the Romantic Revolution, which gives birth to its own, well differentiated kind of Reason, which will in turn force to an adaptation of the relations of dominance between the different types of organizations its citizens belonged to:

Note that not only the political affiliation becomes more important (not only due to the increasing weight of the consolidated nation states in the individuals’ consciences, but also because of the increased polarization within each particular state caused by the class and attitude towards the past centuries’ attempts at revolution), but also the education, as befits a society obsessed by “genius” (motivated by the displacement of the problem that occupied most the minds of the ruling classes, from assuring their subsistence to amusing themselves once such assurance could be taken from granted). Religion, in the meantime, looses not only its collective salience, but becomes substantially less dominant at each individual’s level.

The growing complexities of economic progress, and the exigencies of consolidating power in the face of an exploding population force reason to shift once again towards what we have called bureaucratic reason, forcing in turn a new shift in the relationship between the different organizational types:

Which takes us to our current predicament, in which after the collapse of the two challengers for world supremacy (one still anchored in sentimental reason, Nazi Germany, and the other anchored in bureaucratic reason: the Soviet Union) the country that more thoroughly embodies the tenets of the latest reason (the United States of America) can reign unopposed and present its understanding of how to organize both each individual’s life and the collective whereabouts of the whole society as the ultimate exemplar. Needless to say, under such assumptions the different organizational types have adapted themselves once more:

Indeed, in our current value system the economic organizations are almost the only meaningful ones, and to a certain extent the rest “count” only to the extent that they can enhance our chances to land a better job in a more rewarding economic organization (employer). The apparent successes of some Christian denominations both in Europe and in the States (mormons, Opus Dei, etc.) can be seen as a testament to the networks they can form, the social capital they can build, and thus the enhanced job prospects they offer most of its adherents. The main measure of the quality of any Western university is what wage differential it allows its alumni to command. And as it is well known, political parties of any persuasion have morphed into giant redistribution machines, which act as parasites on the overall economic activity of the nation to suck resources and give them more or less covertly to those monogamously associated with them (that’s why declaring political allegiance can be a minefield for any businessman, as it would keep him unable to access the public teat while the opposing party is in power).

This analysis provides us with a powerful tool to imagine alternative ways to organize society, if we ever want to weaken the current dominant reason. Right now there is no way to dislodge the whole schema of values that force us in the direction of “keeping up with the Joneses” endless competition and increasing efforts in exchange for always diminishing returns (as attested by the growing realization that we in the West will bequeath to our descendants the dubious honor or being the first generation that attains a standard of living worse than the one his parents enjoyed). Within the current dominant reason the economic organization we belong to will necessarily demand our best energies and the vast majority of our time. And there is no way of “prospering” or “flourishing” outside an economic organization, as the only end we have been brought up (may be “programmed” would not be too strong a word) to understand is the kind of social recognition which can only be bestowed to those within the economic organization (even if it is one of their own founding). Now how such dominant reason could be modified would be the topic of a separate post.