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.

3 thoughts on “Wiser Universities

  1. My thanks to both Ian and Nick for the recaps of this presentation. A shame the attendance was so low, but not surprising given the current state of academia. An even greater shame that the respondents and much of the audience seem to have missed the central point entirely, given that Ian found the discussion almost entirely focused on “bean-counting”–again, not surprising given the extreme obsession of our larger culture with the abstractions of economics to the exclusion of being able to see ourselves as the living organisms who constructed those abstractions in the first place and who, after all, are lifeforms in need of “wellbeing,” and of a “wiser world” which would aim at securing it instead of seeking to maximize quantities of abstractions that we carry around in our heads.

    Nick asserts, “The crisis of our times is that we have science without wisdom.” Yes; we have science, but a “science” that is largely construed in the derivative, Baconian sense of figuring out how we can “use” the things of this world according to the manipulative approach of the left human cerebral hemisphere, the hemisphere that also specializes in abstraction. A science faithful to its original primary aim as an endeavor for understanding reality and our place within it, were it to be fully integrated into the way we approach the world–an approach that would also incorporate a right-hemisphere orientation taking for granted our relatedness to and responsibility for that world–would situate us in a very different place than this impoverished form of “science” that leaves us so disconnected from the very possibility of engaging in wisdom-inquiry today.

    Yet it is this impoverished form of “science” that both Ball and Sokal have in mind, or so it seems based on the two summaries of what transpired. I am not familiar with Ball’s work, but from what I know of Sokal (I used to include his famous “debunking” essay, and various reactions to it, in my philosophy of science class) and what I see here of his concerns regarding metaphysical “unity” and theoretical physics, I would presume that, like many others who take physics as their paradigm for “science” itself (and abstract, “theoretical” physics at that, since like most academics they seem helpless to enlist the most basic Newtonian thinking in political critique of recent governmental misinformation), he is most likely to be virtually entirely Life-blind, and therefore, of course, unable to grasp the full implications of what is meant by “wellbeing,” let alone wisdom.

    Jeff and I have been hammering out something that we have been calling “Vital Philosophy,” which I think dovetails nicely with Nick’s call for a realignment of academic effort under the banner of wisdom rather than economic gamesmanship (aka “bean-counting”). Vital Philosophy focuses centrally upon Life. It does not hesitate to go “metaphysical,” but in a way that does not exclude 99+% of what is important for human life by seeking unification with a reductive physics: it recognizes the metaphysical distinctiveness of Life as a phenomenon, the crucial difference between the constantly active, anentropic processes of metabolism, teleologically aimed at keeping the organism alive as long as possible, that are intrinsically characteristic of all cellular lifeforms evolutionarily joined in the Tree of Life, and the lack of such processes within the nonliving (including artifacts given a semblance of goal-direction by human engineers of various stripes). Importantly, it recognizes as an overriding goal the seeking of wellbeing for all of the organisms that evolved together with us over geological time, wellbeing in terms of the sustaining of the extant Biosphere and the flourishing of all its components, individually and as species.

    Broadening our worldview to embrace the science of Earth Systems, within which the science of relationships among organisms of the Biosphere is a significant discipline, we can start to put our human efforts in perspective as those of a single species of organism, the collective activities of which are now threatening to push the Earth System past a bifurcation point, into a new and potentially quite different state–welcome to the Anthropocene! If we continue along our present trajectory, is that a wise thing to do? Of course not–not even on a construal of “wellbeing” as applicable to humans alone.

    Why, then are we doing so? Well, I’d say because we still don’t “see ourselves as primates,” as clever symbol-manipulating apes who have forgotten, or are trying to deny–as hard as Descartes tried to deny!–that that’s who we are and what we’re doing when we count our “beans.”

    Lee writes, “As long as we continue to create money as interest bearing debt there really is no other choice; the debt keeps growing and we choose to grow the economy to obscure the Ponzi scheme we are all engaged in.”

    What on earth IS “interest-bearing debt,” and how did we get so far away from money as a simple tool for exchange? It seems that all of us in industrial culture (rapidly becoming global) have gotten caught up in a conceptual scheme spun out by our “runaway left hemisphere” detached from right-hemisphere anchorage in the real world. Can we call off this crazy game? Since Lee obviously can “see” that it is nothing but a Ponzi scheme, I would say yes, but to get that rolling we have to do a little “reductionist,” deflationary analysis of our own when we find ourselves in forums like this, where the majority of people want to continue imputing a false ontological solidity to the “beans” they believe they need to count. Call out the huge mote in the eye of Life-blind philosophy!

  2. Agreed Lee, you can probably tell I was disappointed the whole response focussed on bean-counting.

    I have no problem with money as a practical means of exchange, my problem is simply one of it being used to the exclusion of all other values – simply because its easier to use arithmetic than moral philosophy. [Philip Ball in particular made a gaff in my opinion, talking about “hard” issues, conflating hard vs soft with hard vs easy – falling into the trap of arithmetic being the easiest (lowest) common denominator. Completely missing Nick’s point.]

    Topically, also on today’s BBC web pages is this story about what makes for a satisfying job, which happens to include some interesting recent UK government policy quotes.

    Six months after arriving in Downing Street, David Cameron told the country how there was a need to “take practical steps to make sure government is properly focused on our quality of life as well as economic growth”.

    The prime minister wanted a “reappraisal of what matters” that would “lead to government policy that is more focused not just on the bottom line, but on all those things that make life worthwhile”.

    The Green Book (the bible for Whitehall policy wonks) was amended to include a section devoted to Valuing Non-Market Impacts, and among those was social wellbeing.

    Officials were advised of the importance “in ensuring that the full range of impacts of proposed policies are considered”. Happiness – or the lack of it – should be part of the equation.

    But searching through the vast piles of Treasury documentation published around this week’s budget, I cannot find any reference to “quality of life” or “wellbeing”. Not one.

    The words “happiness” and “wellbeing” did not appear anywhere in the chancellor’s budget speech. George Osborne’s “long-term plan” had no mention of joy or even life-satisfaction. It was focused on economic resilience, growth and jobs – with no calculation as to how fulfilling those jobs might be.

    People pay lip service to (problematic) values,
    but find it easier to count beans (or votes).

  3. Ian,
    Thanks for this recap, and congratulations to Nick on the book launch. I wish I could have been there.

    In my opinion, Universities pursue financial wealth under the guise of pursuing knowledge. The typical value proposition presented to students (and their parents) is “Study X so you can get a job doing Y (and make money (and be happy)).” Research agendas are similarly profit driven.

    As long as we continue to create money as interest bearing debt there really is no other choice; the debt keeps growing and we choose to grow the economy to obscure the Ponzi scheme we are all engaged in.

    Money is a poor surrogate for well-being because of many economic faults. We are also well beyond financial and ecological limits to growth.

    Arguments to pursue wisdom rather than wealth will continue to fall flat until we fundamentally redesign how we create and use money. The choices require very new thinking. Several promising ideas and approaches are presented in the book Sacred Economics and in Steady-state economic theory. More ideas are presented in books on the “Rethinking Money” reading list.

    Universities will continue to purse wealth under the guise of knowledge until we stop creating money as interest-bearing debt. We must attain a level of wisdom and courage that compels us to bite the hands that feed us. All the rest is talk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *