Wiser Universities

Yesterday evening Nick Maxwell presented “How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World” launching his latest book of the same name. Alan Sokal and and Philip Ball provided responses.

Some 50/55 in the theatre as the UCL Grand Challenge on Human Wellbeing is introduced.

Nick is describing his main theme that science has enabled the technologies that have contributed, even created, many of the global problems we face, but blaming science is the wrong response. Obviously science and technology are to be credited with immense positive progress. The problem is a damagingly irrational conception of “enquiry” that dissociates the pursuit of knowledge from how we apply technologies to achieving what is of value in the world.

The idea that Human Well-being is seen as a grand challenge by an academic institution like UCL is an indication that some part of the necessary revolution is already under way. But the rationality of Wisdom Enquiry is not yet recognised as part of this. The problem is that Knowledge Enquiry excludes value-based aspects of problem definition and problem solving – objectivisation and even hyper-specialisation often, without any interaction with the values and aims of the bigger picture. And that’s true even though the concern with the bigger picture may be exercising the minds of the same participants in their wider social world, evenings and weekends.

If you’ve read Nick’s earlier works, the continuing arguments are well recognised and rehearsed. (From Knowledge to Wisdom and Is Science Neurotic for example.) His 7-level model of Aim-Oriented Empiricism / Rationality. In fact as Nick concludes, it’s the same message he’s been pushing for over 40 years.

Feeding AOR into “Social Life” –  the task is social methodology or social philosophy, not social science. Methodology notice, philosophy of action, about doing not theorising

Dr Philip Ball responds, mainly to the book itself. Science is much less methodical than it appears, than it might formally admit (Maxwell’s scientific neurosis?). Trend to have to define and justify (funding) aims in terms of economic benefit. (But must aims be economic – bean-countable?) Dr Ball sees the solutions as essentially economic, even if they may require alternate market models and incentives. The recently recurring reminder that Adam Smith was a moral philosopher before and above his position as an economist. (Very Benthamite – reducing all issues to cost-benefit, even justifying art projects on relevance and benefit.) Democracy is not a necessary part of scientific progress. Agree focus must shift from knowing, but to doing.

Alan Sokal responding;  Science does make metaphysical assumptions, even though it would deny it. Scientists take weekends off, but we all know when non-unified scientific hypotheses are crazy. Nick’s work on the hierarchical AOE/R are important contributions to the philosophy of science, but the lack of “Wisdom Inquiry” in academic institutions is not really the fundamental problem preventing progress, rather than say economic incentives. Nick’s wisdom inquiry claims are probably more targeted at the social sciences than the natural sciences. (Quite the opposite in fact.)

My take is this.

Alan Sokal is well known for his fighting on the side of strict rationality against social constructivism, and yes we can all shoot PoMo Social Constructivists like fish in a barrel. Nick Maxwell’s “Aim Oriented Empiricism” basis for wisdom is however at that interface of rational knowledge with the social.

Yes, the rationality of the processes of gaining and applying knowledge may be strictly objective, logical, scientific. But, the rationality of aims is more than that. It’s also about what we value and how we agree what we should value. That is philosophical, even subjective and clearly social. They’re “problematic” – the task as Nick says is social methodology or social philosophy, not social science – requiring more than rational knowledge to manage and solve. Wisdom.

So, does Alan Sokal believe there can be more to applied wisdom than strictly logical, objective, scientific rationality and knowledge? Apparently not.

Ultimately disappointing, the discussion drew out into very general criticisms of “too hard”, and wider questions of national, resource and conflict governance – the arithmetic of democracy not excluded (*1) – well beyond academe. In fact both respondents really failed to pick up on the social values aspect of Nick’s “Aim Orientation”, slipping too easily to see aims as quantifiable economic goals (*2).



(*1) Sure, the one man one vote emancipation, epitomises the importance of the value of any human, but we’re talking here about methodology and doing, We can’t all take equal roles in every action, let alone deciding every action.

(*2) Sure, technology is universally recognised as the main driver of global economic activity, and science as the main enabler of technology (Kondratiev, Schumpeter, Kuhn, you name them). But as well as enabling, what we do needs enacting, requiring populations of people with hearts and minds, hopes and fears, that ultimately determine what is achieved; Hiroshima or Heysham.