Skip to content

To Survive or not to Survive – What should we value?

November 14, 2015

Whilst I studied for my MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences, I was fortunate enough to lightly cover a broad spectrum of the seminal texts that form the foundation of the subject. My classes conveyed several of the key schools of thought and the variety of approaches they employed in a bid to make sense of the social world – naturalism, behaviourism, functionalism, hermeneutics, positivism , rationalism and more.

Despite all these methods, one insecurity seemed to continue to plague the subject and indeed philosophy as a whole.  Namely how to attach any kind of precise meaning to anything – Descartes was largely to thank for this after he doubted existence itself – only managing to defeat his scepticism by assigning his mind’s apparent ability to think, a singular certain existence.  From this starting block, philosopher after philosopher tried to build up a larger collection of definite truths – items that could be assigned some kind of certain value – the Vienna Circle even sought to develop a means of uncovering more truth and value through maths-like operations which would start from a few certain truths and uncover many more.

Meanwhile I was also studying two units on Social Psychology.  Social Psychology had its own similarly fundamental struggle – namely to understand what specifically motivates human behaviour.  I learnt a number of theories, but here too no one theory seemed able to pin it down precisely. One system proposed that conscious humans were constantly trying to make sense of the world around them and defining it. Another claimed humanity’s evolutionary history now defined human behaviour.  My conclusion was that for one reason or another consciously or unconsciously the human mind values one course of action over another and ultimately follows it. Behaviour is the result of some kind of process – the outcome of which is the one which is considered the most valuable at that moment in time.

Of course if humanity had never evolved consciousness and even sub-consciousness, then it would never of had the ability to make sense of the world, the ability of language or indeed the ability of any kind of behaviour at all.  In fact if Darwin’s theory of evolution is to be taken seriously then everything or more precisely every characteristic of life lives because it has at one time or another in its genetic ancestry enabled survival. So why on earth then would not language, behaviour and in fact everything we do and say not be directly linked with a bid, past or present, for survival?

From this point onwards in my studies I found it difficult to take seriously any theory that did not put survival (either past or present) as the root cause for human behaviour – language included.  And since human behaviour has led to social norms, institutions and culture, then survival in one form or another is behind these too. Everything that has value associated to it is now intricately associated with – defined by – past or present bids for survival.

Now of course just because one evolved characteristic has survived once does not mean it will survive again and so there is still good cause for society to consider how it thinks best survival will be achieved in the future – that is assuming one is still intent on survival. Does what we value today, because it once enabled survival, still merit the value we associate to it? Will it continue to deliver survival?

So if the above concepts are roughly right, for any project which seeks to influence society – understanding these concepts is important.  Social science is still struggling to make sense of human behaviour – but if it is defined as I suggest by survival and will continue to be so, then understanding how this has happened might help to explain how it might continue to.  At every point in the journey the question is – what should we value?

By looking at our existing society:

  • at what is currently valued and what is not,
  • at what value can be consciously ascribed too and what it cannot,
  • at what value is unconsciously ascribed to and what it is not,

we can far better equip ourselves to help shape our behaviours, our communities and our lives so that survival and thus hopefully long-term well-being are secured.

Jeremy Corbyn and Values Based Politics

September 12, 2015


th4VLBL1VLToday as I heard a snippet of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory speech, he described the world he envisaged. My initial thoughts were of what a lovely world he was dreaming of, but that there was no regard for economic reality. As he continued however, I think prompted by the language that he was using, another part of my mind stirred. It was not the subject matter but his perspective on it. His focus was on values – things that should be held dear to humanity and on drawing on human emotion to guide us.

Whilst I may not agree with Corbyn’s views and in particular his proposed policies, I do think there is a greater need for values based discussions at the heart of British politics. My experience as an officer in the Royal Navy, and now as the person responsible for managing governance at my workplace, has led me to the firm conclusion that leaders of groups, organisations or communities are responsible for setting the values of their members – explicitly and implicitly.

Indeed humanity has evolved to rely on leaders who may have either been explicitly identified as a leader or simply have emerged. They are a fundamental part of any group, organisation or community which gives guidance, direction and allows a shared understanding to be generated which in turn gives a sense of togetherness for the members; and by the way a sense of togetherness doesn’t have to feel harmonious.

Over the last 50 years or so the relevance of institutions which provided society with much of its leadership have diminished, and new diverse ones have emerged – one could argue now more than ever British society would benefit from a clear set of values by which to understand the changes around it.

So my point is that perhaps Corbyn is right to make value based statements (unsupported by policy) – charting out a map for others to understand their world by. Perhaps that is actually a better role for national politicians rather than wrangling over the minutia of policy.


uk-mapSo if our national politicians have a role to bring together an understanding of what the nation and its citizens should value, how are these values going to be delivered and upheld? It is this question, or rather their proposed answers for it that we ceaselessly hear our politicians arguing over.

Of course when it comes down to who is right, not even the most advanced social science can guarantee one policy over another will succeed. In effect, all politicians are guessing what is best and then stating it as boldly as they can to gain the upper hand over their rivals in developing a following.

Painted in this light, it seems like a risky method for governing a politically centralised nation. Your central government get’s it wrong and the whole country suffers; all the eggs are in one basket.

The alternative is a devolved process. The central government charts out the nations values and devolved regions decide how they are going to deliver and maintain them. The two key benefit of this are that the risks of getting it wrong are hedged and that with variety comes greater collective learning – just as the Ancient Greeks came to realise. There are of course other benefits such as a greater number of members involved in their own governance, thus hopefully forcing the electorate to take greater interest in their self-determination something that Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century foresaw as one of greatest challenges facing democracy.

Why a mutual?

March 28, 2015

truth2Humanity has always been gripped by an urge to seek knowledge; “the truth”. Quite possibly because people believe having knowledge is most likely to help them live a happy and successful life e.g. find a good job, have enough food, find a partner, buy a home. However before you can look for knowledge, you first have to know what it looks like – what does it or does it not consist of? Fortunately for us Philosophers have for thousands of years, through the subject of Epistemology (literally meaning the study or knowledge or understanding) specialised in trying to establish the answer to this very question. For much of this time it was claimed that knowledge was Justified True Belief (the JTB model) i.e. something that was true, believed and could be justified. However this model has never fully satisfied critics, for the model always required other bits of knowledge in order to do the justifying with. Another epistemological model claims that there is no ultimate truth. The truth is what a community holds to be true. Today the community could believe the World is flat and for all intense purposes it is, and tomorrow it could believe the World is round. This would then constitute the new truth or knowledge. This form of epistemology is the foundation of the philosophy of pragmatism. The truth is what is believed by a community and allows it to survive.

So then what should a community believe. Well it could start by believing what it has seen with its own eyes. Surely if I throw a ball up in the air 100 times and it falls back to my hand, then if I do it once more the same will happen again? Well one would have thought so. However for hundreds of years philosophy has struggled with the problem of induction (or inductive reasoning). Inductive reasoning states that known facts can be used to predict the future e.g. because of gravity if I throw a ball up in the air, it will come back down again. However the problem of induction was a concern that there was no way of guaranteeing that something would not change, e.g. the laws of physics, or had not previously been observed; which meant on the 101st throwing of the ball in the air, it might just not come down. The basis of this concern is that in the vast World in which we live, what seems even a very simple situation is in fact infinitely complicated and so the next time we experience what appears to be an identical situation, it may actually unfold in a way previously unseen. Newton’s laws of gravity were held as an absolute truth for 2 centuries until new means of observation at sub-atomic level exposed anomalies with the laws; which prompted Einstein to discover the theory of relativity  and supplant Newton’s laws.

So then what does this have to do with mutuality? Well a mutual organisation is a community consisting of members with certain shared values. Members are considered equal and have one vote each for deciding on key issues. This gives equal right to each member. It recognises each member’s set of personal experiences and beliefs which leads him or her to form an opinion before voting for a decision. This is important because by giving everyone’s personal experiences and beliefs equal validity a mutual takes into account every member’s experience of throwing a ball up into the air and the subsequent result. If one of those members had genuinely seen the ball not come down again, there would be reason to question whether or not belief in Newton’s or Einstein’s laws was sound and whether or not the mutual’s following of such principals was still likely to secure happy and successful future for its members.

By pooling together the views and experiences of the whole community, you are maximising your chances of someone seeing something which calls into question the validity of an existing theory and thus enables the community as a whole to investigate the theory in greater depth and if necessary remove and replace it. So this is the strength of a mutual. A mutual makes the determination of the truth (the determination of the right thing to do) everybody’s business.

A stir?

February 24, 2015

Quill and InkDoes the internet not have the most amazing ability to embezzle those few precious hours of freedom following ones return home from work?  Superfast broadband able to bring to one at the slight depression of a finger an unending assortment of jokes, quotes, messages, news, explanations, anecdotes – in fact these days one merely needs to utter the words “Okay Goog…” followed by whatever spurious request that strikes ones fancy and immediately and unquestioningly the digital world-wide brain of knowledge is plumbed and an answered picked out for us and neatly presented on the screen in front of our very eyes…… How could one not be ensnared?

But time is slipping by and with it opportunity.  Why not instead ink one’s quill and pen some words of received wisdom?  Vent ones spleen after the day’s antagonisms?  After all paper has no way to quell beliefs and aspirations.  But of course is there the need for any more than oneself for this to indeed happen?  Where to start?  Where to end?  How not to doubt oneself?

Luckily for me however a good friend of mine reminded me that the parchment of a blog is little more than the opening statement of a conversation.  No more… no less…. How many times has one in anticipation made the opening statement to a conversation only to find no response is forthcoming.  Ones words had no more effect than the exhalation of ones breath and yet no harm is done.

And so today pen has touched paper, digits depressed keys and what is there of it?  Well if there is no more than nothing then no harm and otherwise perhaps the unexpected.  For me, no more than that is reason enough.

When Capitalism goes bad!

August 24, 2013

Just keep turning the handle!!!

A short quote from Wikipedia page on “Production for use” that I would like to share:

A number of irrational outcomes occur from capitalism and the need to accumulate capital when capitalist economies reach a point in development whereby investment accumulates at a greater rate than growth of profitable investment opportunities.  Advertisement and planned obsolescence are strategies used by businesses to generate demand for the perpetual consumption required for capitalism to sustain itself so that instead of satisfying social and individual needs, capitalism first and foremost serves the artificial need for the perpetual accumulation of capital.

Surely this is immoral? Hence should it not be made illegal.  The problem comes from the difficulty in proving whether something is or is not to the benefit of the consumer.  For sure it should not be assumed that the consumer knows.

A couple of other associated and interesting Wikipedia articles I’d like to highlight:

More to follow….


The Debate on Marriage

January 25, 2013

ImageRecently on my  various personal social media accounts, as well as reported in the media, there have been a number of reactions to those who oppose or question the merits of gay marriage. The type of responses I am referring to are vociferous condemnations which leave little room for discussion.  For the respondents there are no questions to be asked or answered on the matter – the limiting of traditional marriage to a man and a woman is wrong – full stop!

Off the top of my head I have 3 reasons for which this makes me feel uncomfortable:

Firstly the manner in which no room is left for discussion constitutes nothing less than an authoritarian claim to absolute truth; a stance positioned to force other views on the matter, wherever they may be on the spectrum of agreement or disagreement, out of the public sphere.

Secondly I question what argument they have for taking such a stance bearing it is generally recognised by social scientists that there is no such thing as an accurate prediction of what is right and wrong when it comes to social matters.

Thirdly their stance apparently lacking in substantial argument, makes little reference to the roots of culture.

It is the third point which concerns me most.  How will a change in cultural practices affect society?  It cannot be predicted as there are too many possible un-intending effects to consider.  In keeping with the Darwin’s concept of evolution one can say that the net effect of specific practices that have survived millennia must have emerged as effective or fitness enhancing, despite any negative side-effects and a pragmatist would claim that what is right is what stands the test of time.  On the other hand what stands the test of time may not stand a recent change in our environment.

So have there been any changes in our environment which would mean the traditional concept of marriage is no longer valid?  What constitutes a change in environment? The questions stretch out ad infinitum….but this I feel is an important and so far under-explored area of the debate.

Perceptions, Concepts and Representations – Making Sense of Reality

December 4, 2012
Serge Moscovici

Serge Moscovici

The human brain is arguably the most complex thing known to humankind and recent times have seen it become the subject of intense research around the world. Despite now regular revelations regarding the nature of the brain, it still remains shrouded in mystery. Social Representation Theory (SRT) is a paradigm within Social Psychology conceived by Serge Moscovici in his book Psychoanalysis; it’s theory and it’s public. SRT does not claim to explain the complexity of the brain and all human thought but does offer an explanation of how we make sense of the world which for humankind is inherently social, and how we orient ourselves within it.

In this article I highlight one of the key elements of Moscovici’s theory. An element which, if true and intuitively to me it seems so, has enormous implications for our understanding of how we make sense of the world. This element is the process of representation.

Before referring to Moscovici’s words let me clarify the difference between two terms that he uses; perception and concept. Perception is the psychological sensation an individual experiences when subjected to a sensory stimulus. For example the sight of a landscape or sound of a tune; perhaps even a combination of more than one sense e.g. sound and sight or sight and smell. A concept however is the trace that is left behind in a person’s mind once the perception is over i.e. the sensory stimulus ceases leaving behind what we colloquially call a memory. A concept when called upon in many ways seems able to recreate the original sensory experience. The recreation however is not an exact copy. For example if you think of someone you have recently met for the first time, you may well recognise him if you saw him or her a second time. However you may not be able to recall from memory the colour of the person’s eyes. Furthermore the concept may have emphasised, biased or even distorted elements of the original sensory experience.

Returning to Moscovici’s words; how does he describe the process of representation? He says it is a “process that makes concepts and perceptions in some sense interchangeable because they generate one another” (Moscovici 2008: 15). This is a fundamental claim. To the layman it may seem a bizarre exclamation. For one easily understands how a perception gives rise to a concept – e.g. after seeing something one has the ability to recall it because the visual experience creates a memory. But how does a concept generate a perception? How is what we perceive shaped by past memories? Spared a little thought however this actually does not seem quite so surprising. For example a friend walks up to you, welcomes you and asks you how you are. Now without past memories, the perception would be the sight of a person in front of you and the sound of a series of noises emanating from his mouth. Taken to the extreme however, the pure sensory stimulus would be the sight of strange moving shapes and colours and then a series of noises coming from somewhere. Now of course this is not at all how we would perceive such an event. On the friend coming up to one, one immediately recognises the concept of a person. Then one recognises the features of the person and that the person with those features is the friend concept. Emanating from the moving opening located towards the top of his body, the mouth concept where one expects to hear sounds by which people can communicate, one hears a series of noises. The noises are instantly recognisable as words and are structured in such a fashion that one can decode a message. The message is what one would expect from meeting a friend and as it finishes in a question, a response is required. This is a simplistic example, but it starts to show the enormous part that concept has to play in shaping perception. The representation process uses concepts “to organise, relate and filter” sensory stimuli giving us perceptions that are structured and meaningful. Furthermore these perceptions transform existing concepts and generate new ones; changes that will themselves cause the shaping of future perceptions.

The above example uses the concept of a friend. A friend by definition is something that we are familiar with. It draws on matured concepts of the friend. But how do concepts shape things that are encountering for the first time? Moscovici claims each mind has its own logic for doing this. The logic is used to first anchor then objectify a new experience. It does this by using existing concepts as symbols and analogies to ground the unfamiliar in the familiar – e.g. on first sighting a car, one might draw the analogy that it is a self-powered cart, or symbolise it as an object for moving things. The logic which undertakes this is itself created from foundational perceptions and concepts. These foundational concepts are often rooted in myth, religion and science. Not only does this logic remain an unfinished product which continues to evolve as new concepts and perceptions are acquired but it remains unstated, unwritten and under normal circumstances not something that we control consciously.

Now let us consider further representation; the process of concept and perception generating one another. We have said that concepts or memories shape what we actually perceive. Now the collection of concepts that each individual holds must be different for everyone; no two individuals have had exactly the same experiential history (ordered set of experiences). Hence the shaping effect of concepts on perception is different for each person and so perception can only ever be a personal experience. This could be considered stating the obvious i.e. everyone has his or her own point of view. However conversely we find it difficult at times to understand how another person perceives exactly the same event so differently to oneself. We now have a suggested process which explains how this might come about. Referring to either concept or perception by itself now ceases to be very useful as they always act together and so representation can be used to refer to the output of the representation process.

Two questions arise from this: How much do representations differ or correspond from person to person? What are the circumstances that lead to this degree of difference or similarity? We can shed light onto a possible answer for the above questions by considering the answer to a further question: What are individuals doing when they engage in communication? Simply put each individual is sharing their personal representations. For the communication to succeed there must be a minimum degree of compatibility between representations. Otherwise the messages would simply be lost in translation. Furthermore each sharing act further shapes the existing representations of the communicating individuals. This has a kind of normalising effect and the outcome is a body of normalised but not identical representations which are easily recognisable between individuals. This body constitutes a shared reality or a social representation to which individuals can socially relate. Those sharing this shared reality are then part of a community. Depending on the community, the shared body of representations can be large or small. The nature of the similarity will depend on what is generally shared between individuals and how it is shared; not only in terms of communication, but also shared practices. For more information on this process see Knowledge in Context (Jovchelovitch 2007: Chap 3).

It is interesting to pry a little deeper into the normalising process for it is the process which will define the shared reality. How does it take place? Whose representations become the dominant shared ones? Whose reality is the “true” reality?

Having started from the psychological process of representation we find ourselves now dealing with the community practices and communication. It is those practices and communication that significantly contribute to the creation of the representations in our minds. An authoritarian social world where there is a strong hierarchy and top down power relations generally leads to less variety in representations. Practices, communication and experiences are mostly controlled by the lead authority. Approved representations are pushed down rather than allowed to generate freely by flowing back and forth between individuals. Conversely a social world with a variety of competing authorities and a flatter power dynamic allows a wider range of perceptions and concepts to flourish; no one individual source of representation is dominant. The above is only a brief example of how social dynamics and in particular the characteristics of communication can affect the normalising process and determine which representation becomes dominant.

If one is in a position to influence the normalising process, to determine which representation will be the dominant one, the one that will define reality within a society, how does one first nail down the truth? Representation is after all an individually specific experience. So who is the holder of the correct one which should form the basis of the shared or social representation? The notion of correct one itself is an interesting matter. If we take it to mean the representation which brings most well-being to society the problem rapidly gravitates towards challenges that have plagued philosophy and social sciences for centuries and continues to do so; that is how does one establish what will bring about the greatest social well-being? Even the meaning of well-being is up for grabs! Despite all this doubt and uncertainty perhaps as a minimum the following can be said: Each individual has a personal representation of a shared event; personal because it is shaped by the individual’s personal experiential history. The difference in experiential history means every individual perceives something which another individual will not. So each representation has the potential to inform another representation. Making the assumption that a decision is best made with the greatest amount of information relevant to the decision available then it would seem wise to gather and examine as many different representations of shared events as possible. Each representation will have its own contribution to make.

To say anything more than this regarding making good decisions and determining what is and is not true would be unwise. However we have already made a significant claim for to gather all possible representations on a shared experience requires a positive effort and a special set of social circumstances. This does not mean minority representations must be captured and used as the dominant shared social representation. Rather all representations must be located and captured. This requires a social dynamic where minority representations are not instantly distorted by dominant representations. Creating the social environment which gets this far would seem an achievement in itself; one which leaves communities best placed to make informed decisions that take into account reality as it is for all community members.

Jovchelovitch, S. (2007). Knowledge in Context: Representations, community and culture. London: Routledge.

Moscovici, S. (2008). Psychoanalysis: Its image and its public. tr. David Macey (orig. 1961). Cambridge: Polity Press.