Saturday, April 24, 2021

Is the Maga Carta a worthy symbol of the ongoing struggle for freedom?


I was prompted to ask myself this question when reading Zachary Gorman’s recently published book, Summoning Magna Carta, Freedom’s symbol over a millennium

Gorman does not attempt to argue that the freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies flowed inevitably from the Magna Carta. He notes that the history following the Magna Carta “is one of difficulties, setbacks and moments that could have easily set us down a very different path”. He suggests that there is “semi-mystical power” in the history of the Magna Carta:

“The supposed laws of Edward the Confessor became a living Great Charter of liberties; the ancient constitution became the current working constitution.” (238)

My conclusion, after reading Gorman’s book, is that the Magna Carta is a worthy symbol of the ongoing struggle for freedom.

King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215 - at Runnymede which is on the Thames, west of London (not far from the location of Heathrow airport). He probably perceived that the alternatives to signing were unpalatable. He had been waging war in France in an attempt to recover lost territory. A large number of barons refused to provide troops as requested, claiming that their obligations extended only to the Anglo-Norman heartland of England, Normandy, and Brittany. Eventually, the rebel barons captured London, with the help of local townsfolk. King John did not have the funds required to hire mercenaries to reverse the situation, so he agreed to meet the rebels at Runnymede. Magna Carta was negotiated between King John and the barons with the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (although Pope Innocent III sided with King John and opposed the Magna Carta).

With the benefit of hindsight, the most important provisions of the Magna Carta were those that required the barons to be consulted before taxes were raised (a step in the direction of “no taxation without representation”) and those establishing some fundamental legal rights. The document stipulated that freemen were not to be “taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled … except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land”. That provision had limited application at the time because serfdom was common, but was a step in the direction of rule of law.

I learned about the Magna Carta at school, but at that time it just seemed to be one of many boring incidents in English history. My more recent reading led me to think of it as evidence that England had retained some of the Classical Roman tradition which viewed law as evolving via judicial processes (in which precedents were seen to provide guidance) rather than as being created by the edicts of kings (or emperors). Gorman’s book provides the historical background to development of the narrative that the Magna Carta reaffirmed ancient rights, that were observed to some extent during the reign of Edward the Confessor – about 150 years earlier, prior to the Norman Conquest. The book documents how the Magna Carta was re-affirmed and extended, and became a symbol of the ongoing struggle for freedom.

Highlights of Gorman’s book include his account of the central role played by William Penn in bringing the Magna Carta to the American colonies and the role of the Magna Carta in the fight for self-government in Australia. Gorman notes that after Imperial legislation of 1850 failed to provide self-government to New South Wales (NSW), William Charles Wentworth got the NSW Legislative Council to cite the Magna Carta in declaring that the Imperial parliament does not have any right “to tax the people of this Colony”. The argument that taxation required consent, both in its raising and spending, was no doubt intended to remind the British government of the American Revolution, which had occurred because many American colonists perceived that the British Government was violating their ancient rights.

In Australia, the Magna Carta still shapes how the High Court interprets the constitution through the common law. In 1925, High Court Justice, Isaac Isaacs, declared that it is the Magna Carta, rather than the Australian Constitution, that ensures everyone “has an inherent right to his life, liberty, property and citizenship”. However, the ongoing influence of the Magna Carta seems likely to depend on citizens continuing the tradition of viewing it as a worthy symbol of the ongoing struggle for freedom.

On Anzac Day (April 25) when Australians commemorate those who served and lost their lives in past wars, speechmakers often tell us that they were fighting for freedom. It is worth remembering that the freedom they fought for has strong links to the Magna Carta.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

How can we comprehend the emergence of consciousness?


It seems common for consciousness to be viewed either as an inexplicable mystery or as something we will only be able to comprehend if advances in science can explain how thoughts – a rich inner life - can somehow be created from matter. However, the problems we have in comprehending the emergence of consciousness may stem from our habit of thinking in terms of a separation between mind and body.

The idea of mind as separate from body has been part of Western philosophy for a long time, but is commonly referred to as Cartesian dualism after René Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes who famously said, “I think, therefore I am”, concluded “I knew that I was a substance, the whole essence or nature of which is to think … [that] does not depend on any material thing”. These days, not many people believe consciousness to be a substance, but dualism still seems to linger on in much discussion about consciousness.  

Descartes reached his conclusion after going through a process of considering what sources of knowledge could not be doubted, and discovering that he could not doubt that he was thinking. In his book, The Metaphysics of Emergence, Richard Campbell suggests that Descartes was on the right track in observing that he was unable to doubt that he was thinking:

“If I seriously think that I am not thinking, what I am thinking is pragmatically self-refuting.” (283)

Descartes error arose when he asked himself, “What then am I?” after observing that he could not doubt he was thinking. As Campbell points out, that question “presupposes that he takes himself to be some sort of thing”.

(Campbell’s discussion reminds me of the part of the long speech Ayn Rand had John Galt make in Atlas Shrugged in which Galt proclaims the axiom that “existence exists”, and that consciousness is “the faculty of perceiving that which exists”. Galt adds “a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms” (1015). Readers who are allergic to Ayn Rand will be pleased to note that Campbell’s book contains no references to her, or to Objectivism.)

Before going further I should note that Richard Campbell is an emeritus professor of philosophy at the ANU. The Metaphysics of Emergence was published in 2015.

Campbell asks what conclusion we can draw from the observation that we cannot doubt we are thinking. His answer:

“Thinking that one is thinking, being aware that one is aware, has to be at least a meta-level operation, interacting with the processes of more basic awareness.

To understand what Campbell is getting at here, it may be helpful to have some knowledge of the general line of argument he develops in his book.

  • In the preface, the author explains that he has come to the view that any satisfactory account of the emergence of complex phenomena has to begin with recognition that “processes underly what seem like stable enduring entities, and therefore should be accorded priority over them”.
  • Campbell argues that everything is fundamentally in process. That line of argument is opposed to the dominant tradition of Western intellectual history (began by Parmenides) which views entities as the norm. The view that everything is a process presents us with the challenge of explaining the emergence and apparent stability of enduring things, whereas under the dominant tradition change requires explanation.
  •  Campbell suggests that Plato may have misrepresented Heraclitus in claiming he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Heraclites may have been trying to convey the insight that the river stays the same even though it consists of changing waters. Campbell suggests that rivers exemplify “that the continued existence of things depends on their continually changing”.
  • The view of stability as the norm led to a focus on particular entities and the “matter” of which they were comprised. Since matter itself seemed to be comprised of entities (atoms and sub-atomic particles) it seemed to follow that everything was composed of entities (countable things). However, advances in physics make that view no longer tenable.  Although sub-atomic particles are often still talked about as though they are well-defined micro-entities, they behave more like processes than entities. Entities can no longer be accorded the role of the primary way of being.
  • Entities, including living things, can be best understood as special cases of generic processes constrained in certain explicable ways. Entities are minimally homomerous – they exist in fixed portions or units. If you cut a cow in two the result is not two smaller cows.
  • Many types of dynamic system retain their distinctive properties even though their constituents are replaced over time. That points to the importance of the constituent processes in maintaining the system.
  • Living creatures perform actions. Interactions between internal and external processes binds them together as cohesive entities and enables them to behave as integral wholes. Their actions are an emergent phenomenon – resulting from the interaction of many processes.
  • As Aristotle recognized, talk of actions carries implications of teleology – actions are directed towards some goal or end. In the case of simple multi-cellular organisms, goal-directedness is directed toward survival, but does not carry any implication of conscious choices or purposes. “The recursive self-maintenance of an organism is what requires the category of action to be predicated of it as an integrated action system and provides the necessary condition for other kinds of action which are directed at ends other than survival.” (176)    
  • As evolution proceeds, living creatures become capable of performing selective actions in response to differences in their environments. In relatively simple organisms, those actions are instinctual rather than choices involving deliberation or calculation. Selection becomes more significant in more complex creatures which need to choose between fighting and fleeing, or whether to search for food or find a mate. Complex organisms can learn by detecting that some action they have performed is in error.
  • The appropriate question regarding motivation is what makes an organism perform one action rather than another, rather than what makes it do something rather than nothing. Living organisms cannot do nothing, or they cease to exist as living beings.
  • When an organism has the ability to learn which kinds of action yields rewards and to select actions on the basis of that learning it seems reasonable to say that it can evaluate the projected outcomes. As organisms become more highly developed, goal-seeking activity becomes increasingly self-directed, more flexible, and more generic (not confined to specific task routines). The behaviors of many species of non-human animals indicates that they have some awareness of their surroundings.
  • The consciousness of humans evolved from the awareness displayed by other animals. Primate awareness includes elaborate event representations in which experience across many sources including bodily feelings are integrated and can be remembered. However, primates seem to lack the “fundamental defining capacities” to develop language skills (unless raised by humans) and do not express any kind of self-description.
  • Human evolution went through several stages: a mimetic culture employing the whole body as an expressive device; the mythic stage in which spoken language evolved (arguably to meet specific cognitive and cultural needs); and the theoretic stage beginning around 5,500 years ago with invention of the first writing systems. The theoretic stage is characterized by “institutionalized paradigmatic thought” – using external symbolic devices to store and retrieve cultural knowledge.
  • One’s sense of oneself is an aspect of consciousness that seems to be distinctively human, although some species of apes and elephants can recognize an image in a mirror as their own. “Our individual self-understandings are informed by our autobiographical memories, whose meaning depends on a shared oral tradition.” (290) Our consciousness of ourselves has been shaped by cultural and institutional factors that influence how our brains develop and function. While we talk metaphorically of the evolution of modern humans, this is not evolution in the Darwinian sense. A child born today differs little genetically from one born 60,000 years ago.
  • The development of human brains is strongly influenced by personal experience. Cultural interactions play an important role in determining the way the brains of children develop. They do not reach their mature architecture until adulthood. 

Some further explanation can now be given of what Campbell meant by writing that being aware that one is aware has to be at least a meta-level operation, interacting with the processes of more basic awareness. He is suggesting that when he detects something with one of his five senses there is more than one operation going on:

I am actively eliciting and processing those sensory inputs, and at the same time reflectively experiencing the qualities of that awareness. If that is right, then the way many philosophers today pose the issue of experience – how is it that certain complex physical systems are also mental – is misconceived. The situation is not that there is one phenomenon which has two aspects: one physical; one mental. Rather, experiencing is an on-going self-organizing activity which involves two distinct types of process: exploratory sensory activity (which is both bodily and neural); and another higher-level process operating upon the former. Being self-organizing, these interactions essentially involve feedback. That is why humans’ consciousness is reflective, reflexive, and thereby self-aware.” (283-4)

Before concluding, I should make clear that I prepared the above summary to improve my own understanding of the line of argument in Richard Campbell’s book. I hope it is a reasonable summary, but it not a substitute for reading the book. I am publishing this article in the hope of encouraging others to read the book.

I would also like to mention that I was prompted to read The Metaphysics of Emergence by a comment made by Robert L Campbell, a psychologist, in his review (published in JARS) of Harry Binswanger’s book, How We Know. I am pleased that I was given that prompt to read the book because I have a long-standing interest in explanations of consciousness - for example, see my comments on Alva Noё’s book, Out of Our Heads, published on this blog over a decade ago.


We cannot doubt that we think. That seems to me to be a profound observation. We may have reasons to doubt that what we are thinking at any moment is related to reality, but we cannot doubt that we are thinking. We are aware of both the flow of inner experiences – thoughts and feelings – and of our experience of the world in which we live. Thinking about our experience of the world enables us to contemplate the goals we seek, to make choices in pursuit of those goals, and to learn from experience. Our observations of the world tell us that many other animals also engage in similar processes - which imply an awareness of their surroundings. We have no problem in understanding that their awareness emerged/evolved to help them to survive and reproduce. Our human consciousness is just another step in that evolutionary process. Awareness of our own awareness has emerged to help us to flourish as individuals in the cultures in which we live.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Do political partisans make credible assessments of the views of their opponents?


The charts shown above suggest that some of the assessments that political partisans make of the views of their opponents are wildly inaccurate. The probability that a Democrat will consider that men should be protected from false accusations of sexual assault is higher than Republicans believe it to be, and the probability of a Republican accepting that racism still exists is higher that Democrats believe it to be. The organization which published the data makes the point that Americans have much more similar views on many controversial issues than is commonly thought, especially among the most politically active. My focus here is on why partisans make such large errors in assessing the views of their opponents.

Probability assessment is not always easy.

Steven Pinker included “a sense of probability” in his list of 10 cognitive faculties and intuitions that have evolved to enable humans to keep in touch with aspects of reality (Blank Slate, 220). Individuals obtain obvious benefits from an ability to keep track of the relative frequency of events affecting their lives. A capacity to reason about the likelihood of different events helps them to advantage of favorable circumstances and to avoid harm.

Pinker points out that our perceptions of probability are prone to error, but Daniel Kahneman has a much more comprehensive discussion of this in Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman points out that even people who have studied probability can be fooled into making errors in assessing probability when they are led to focus unduly on information that appears particularly pertinent and to ignore other relevant information. He gives the example of a cab involved in a hit and run accident in the city in which 85% of cabs are Green and 15% are blue. A witness identifies the cab responsible as Blue, and the court establishes that he would be able to identify colors correctly 80% of the time under circumstances that existed on the night of the accident. What is the probability that the cab is Blue? Most people say 80%, but the correct answer, provided by Bayes’ rule, is about half that (Loc 3005-3020). People tend to make a large error because they overlook the fact that a high proportion of Green cabs means that there is a good chance that the witness has mistakenly identified a Green cab to be Blue, even though his observations are accurate 80% of the time.

Kahneman notes that people are more likely to make errors in assessing probability when they “think fast” rather than analytically. However, it is not necessary to understand and apply Bayes’ rule to solve problems such as the one presented above. A simple arithmetic example can suffice. If there were 1,000 cabs in the city, there would be 850 Green cabs and 150 Blue cabs. If we had no more information, the probability of a Blue cab being responsible for the accident would be 15%. We are told the witness saw a Blue cab and would correctly identify 80% of the 150 Blue cabs as Blue (i.e. 120 cabs) and would mistakenly identify 20% of the 850 Green cabs as Blue (i.e. 170 cabs). The total number of cabs that he would identify as Blue is 290 (120+170). The probability that the witness has correctly identified a Blue cab is 0.414 (120/290) or 41.4%.

Kahneman also makes a point about causal stereotypes. He does this by altering the example to substitute information that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of the accidents, for the information that 85% of the cabs are Green. Other information is unchanged. The two versions of the problem are mathematically indistinguishable. If the only information we had was that Green cabs are responsible for 85% of accidents, we would assess the probability of a Blue cab being responsible at 15%. As before, if we evaluate the witness information correctly, it raises the probability of a Blue cab being responsible to 41.4%.

However, when people are presented with the second version, the answers they give tend to be much closer to the correct one. They apparently interpret the information that the Green drivers are responsible for 85% of the accidents to mean that the Green drivers are reckless. That causal stereotype is less readily disregarded in the face of witness evidence, so the two pieces of evidence pull in opposite directions.

Political partisans don’t have much incentive to make accurate assessments of the views of their opponents.

The potential for errors in fast thinking and the impact of cultural stereotypes may account for much of the error of partisans in assessing the views of their opponents, as shown in the above charts. People do not have a strong personal incentive to ensure that they accurately assess the views of their political opponents. Potential errors do not affect their income and lifestyle to the same extent as, say, errors in the probability assessments they make relating to personal occupational and investment choices.

In addition, political partisans may not even see any particular reason to be concerned that they may be misrepresenting the views of their opponents.

Reasoning along those lines seems to me to provide a straightforward explanation for the prevalence of partisan conspiracy theories. Research by Steven Smallpage et al (in an article entitled ‘The partisan contours of conspiracy theory beliefs’) suggests that partisans know which conspiracy theory is owned by which party, and that belief in partisan conspiracy theories is highly correlated to partisanship. The authors conclude:

“Many conspiracy theories function more like associative partisan attitudes than markers of an alienated psychology”.

Extreme partisans tend to promote theories that discredit their opponents. Perhaps that is the way we should expect partisans to play politics in a society where many people think it is ok to “bear false witness” because they believe everyone has “their own truths” and objective reality does not exist.

We do not have to speculate that partisans are deluded or crazy when they hold firmly to improbable theories about their opponents in the face of contrary evidence. They are more likely to be ignoring the evidence to demonstrate loyalty to their party and its leaders.  

However, that doesn’t offer us much solace. Some of the conspiracy theories currently circulating seem similar to the false rumors that governments circulate about their enemies during wartime. Extremists among political partisans may be circulating those rumors with the intention of promoting greater political polarization and a breakdown of the values that have hitherto made it possible for people with divergent views to coexist peacefully.

Is increasing polarization inevitable?

Much depends on the attitudes of the majority of people who currently disinclined to spread rumors that they believe to be false and likely to promote social conflict. If people with moderate views make known that they expect political leaders to disavow false rumors about their opponents, they can encourage that to happen. Leaders of the major parties have an incentive to try to attract voters with moderate views away from opposing parties. If leaders disavow false rumors, partisans will tend to echo their views.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Does T S Eliot provide useful hints about the resilience of Western culture?


The quoted passage comes near the end of T.S. Eliot’s poem, Little Gidding, which was written in Britain during the Second World War. Eliot goes on to use vivid imagery to describe the beginning:

“At the source of the longest river

The voice of the hidden waterfall

And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for

But heard, half-heard, in the stillness

Between two waves of the sea.”

The theme of the poem is:

“All shall be well, and

All manner of things shall be well”.

The author urges us to view history as a pattern of “timeless moments”. We celebrate those who died as a consequence of sectarian strife even though they were not “wholly commendable’. We do not celebrate them to “revive old factions”. We celebrate them because of what we have inherited and taken from them. They now accept “the constitution of silence” and are “folded into a single party”. They have left us with a symbol “perfected in death” that “all shall be well”.

The poem seems to me to offer hope for the future of Western culture, despite the author's experience of the “incandescent terror” of bombing raids while it was being written.

Eliot elaborates his views on culture in his book, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture. The first edition of that book was published in 1948, but he began writing it at around the same time as Little Gidding was published.

At one point, Eliot suggests that culture “may be described simply as that which makes life worth living” (27). He views culture as linked to religion: “there is an aspect in which we see a religion as the whole way of life of a people … and that way of life is also its culture” (31).

Eliot claims that it is an error to believe that “culture can be preserved, extended and developed in the absence of religion”. Nevertheless, he acknowledges: “a culture may linger on, and indeed produce some of its most brilliant artistic and other successes after the religious faith has fallen into decay” (29).

The author saw Western culture as already in decline at the time of writing, by comparison with the standards 50 year previously. Eliot “saw no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further” (18-19).

Although I am skeptical of such sweeping claims, I think Eliot makes an important point about the potential for cultural disintegration to ensue from cultural specialization:

Religious thought and practice, philosophy and art, all tend to become isolated areas, cultivated by groups with no communication with each other” (26).

From my perspective, one of the most interesting aspects of this book is Eliot’s suggestion that “within limits, the friction, not only between individuals but between groups”, is “quite necessary for civilization” (59). In discussing the impact of sectarianism on European culture he acknowledges that “many of the most remarkable achievements of culture have been made since the sixteenth century, in conditions of disunity” (70). Perhaps disunity helped by encouraging artistic freedom of expression.

My reading of Notes Toward the Definition of Culture left me feeling optimistic that Western culture can survive the current culture wars. The culture wars seem to me to be akin the historical sectarian disputes between Catholics and Protestants.

Western culture has previously survived attempts of dogmatists to silence their enemies, so it can probably do so again.