The Truth of Karl Popper–A Discourse

April 17, 2017

The Truth of Karl Popper–A Discourse

 by Paul Levinson and reply by Jonathan Lieberson

In response to:

The Romantic Rationalist from the December 2, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

Despite Jonathan Lieberson’s unsubstantiated summary of my In Pursuit of Truth (a Festschrift in honor of Karl Popper’s 80th birthday) as a series of “sugary and obsequious expressions of praise” in your December 2 issue, I found this and the first part of Mr. Lieberson’s two-part essay on Karl Popper’s philosophy to be a generally fair and reasonable attempt to explicate Popper’s work. Lieberson’s achievement, however, is unfortunately marred and nearly nullified by a conclusion that seriously misunderstands one of the central aspects of Popper’s philosophy.

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Lieberson begins with an essentially accurate description of how Popper’s method of “falsification” or conjectures and refutations seeks to improve upon the traditional Baconian scientific method of induction or absorption of knowledge from mere repeated experience. As Hume and even Sextus Empiricus before him had seen, no amount of induction or positive repeated experience can ever verify or even support a general theory (for all of our repeated observations may merely be at the tip of an iceberg that runs counter to our general theory); but even one negative or counter experience can, as Popper emphasizes, serve to logically falsify or refute a general theory. Thus, no amount of repeated observations of white polar bears can prove or strengthen a theory that all polar bears are white (for we may from then on encounter nothing but black polar bears), but observation of even one black polar bear—assuming it is indeed a black polar bear—means our theory that all polar bears are white cannot be right.

Lieberson then correctly points out, however, that Popper’s fallibilism is so pervasive as to lead Popper to assert that even observations of black or white polar bears are theory-impregnated (we identify the black object that we see as a polar bear rather than, say, a crow, because of theories that we hold about what polar bears look like, the constancies of species, etc.), and thus conjectural, uncertain, and eminently unprovable. How, then, Lieberson asks, may conjectures-and-refutations and its uncertainty be considered an improvement over induction and its problems? And why, recognizing the inconclusiveness of both, should we reject induction and rejoice in falsification? Since conclusive knowledge is not possible through Popper’s method of conjectures and refutations, Lieberson concludes that Popper’s hope for a non-inductive growth of knowledge is an impossible and thus misleading and dangerous ideal, a romantic “wild-goose chase.”

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The problem that Lieberson raises—the conjectural nature of falsifying observations—is indeed profound, and one that most intelligent people almost always bring up on their first reading of Popper. Indeed, had Lieberson come upon his knowledge of Popper a priori, or from some casual discussion in a classroom, then the conclusions that Lieberson draws from the fallibility of falsifications would be entirely understandable. But the fact of the matter is that Popper himself has continuously raised, addressed, and dealt with this problem throughout his writings, going back to his first published work on scientific method, Logik der Forschung of 1935; and, I am obliged to add, this problem is similarly raised and dispatched with in at least four of the “sugary” essays in my volume. The situation is actually quite simple. We indeed must begin, as Popper does, with the recognition that all observations—whether used to falsify or “verify”—are themselves conjectural, and of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory. We are then faced with a choice: do we use these uncertain, problematic observations to build knowledge inductively, or via a process of conjectures and refutations as suggested by Popper?

Our decision might take into account the fact that induction is, quite independently of the uncertainty of all observations, logically untenable (as Hume had shown, there is no logical warrant that allows us to jump from even a huge number of specifics to a general theory), but that falsification, or the negation of generalities by specifics, is (as Popper and others have shown) quite logically acceptable as a process, even though the contents of that process (the observations) may be forever uncertain. Our choice would thus seem to amount to this: use conjectural, uncertain tools in an illogical process (induction), or use conjectural, uncertain tools in a logical process (falsification). Granting the obvious fact that neither choice can yield perfect or certain knowledge, which one would you choose, Mr. Lieberson?

But if we opt for conjectures and refutations as at least being logically possible, does not the uncertainty of the observations used as refutations condemn us to stagnate in our knowledge, to wallow in a perpetual state of conjecture? Is Lieberson’s characterization of Popperian method as a wild-goose chase appropriate after all? It is not—as a careful reading of Popper and, again, any one of a number of the contributions to my own In Pursuit of Truth makes clear. Indeed, discussions of how knowledge can progress and even flourish despite the endemic uncertainty of our cognition predate Popper by many years, and in Peirce we even find an implication that knowledge grows precisely because it is uncertain (see, for example, the Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, vol. 1, paragraphs 135-149; for extended discussions of Peirce on certainty and fallibilism, see any of Peter Skagestad’s recent writings).

From among the many arguments for the growth of knowledge in an uncertain world that Popper provides, let us look at but one—the biological or evolutionary analogy central to the field of “evolutionary epistemology,” which is where my own interest in Popper most lies. Assuming the general accuracy of the Darwinian model (but of course alert to its inevitable flaws), we notice three aspects of evolution that have pertinence to the possible growth of uncertain knowledge: (a) all organisms and organic adaptations are imperfect relative to their environments (i.e., they don’t always survive or succeed); (b) all organisms and adaptations appear to develop via a series of trial and error encounters with the environment, with organic characteristics initially generated or “proposed” independently of the environment, and then either eliminated or not by the environment; (c) on the basis of the first two processes, evolution or progressive change does indeed seem to occur, e.g., organisms seem to have developed from simple to complex, from non-intelligent to intelligent, etc., across time.

Now to the extent that the trial-and-error evolution of organisms seems descriptive of the conjectures-and-refutations growth of human ideas—and despite some obvious differences (for example, the important role of intentional rationality in the development of human knowledge), the two processes do seem to have much in common—we have in biological evolution an example of how progress can occur in a world utterly pervaded by, indeed constituted of, imperfection or uncertainty. In other words, if we accept the biological evolution of imperfect organisms as real, the growth of uncertain human knowledge through non-inductive conjectures and refutations seems possible: the nihilism that Lieberson imputes to Popper’s thoroughly conjectural method is unwarranted.

Of course, Darwin’s theory of evolution and for that matter the living world itself may be a chimera; reality and all our perceptions of it may be false or even non-existent. Popper’s philosophy does hold open such disturbing possibilities. But Popper’s philosophy also allows, more, encourages us to choose an alternative to the despair of nihilism and the illogic of inductivism, an alternative which seeks to parlay our uncertainty into a genuine, hard-won, painfully groping growth of knowledge. Granted that such a choice is something less than rational—I elsewhere call it “pre-rational”—but a choice and possibility it nonetheless is. It is just this golden egg of opportunity that Lieberson’s banishment of Popper’s wild geese would destroy.

Paul Levinson, Bronx, New York

Jonathan Lieberson replies:

Paul Levinson claims that the conclusion of my pieces on Popper displays a serious “misunderstanding” of “one of the central aspects of Popper’s philosophy,” namely Popper’s views on the nature and status of “falsifying observations.” But he does not accurately report my thesis: I did not say that since falsifying observation statements (not “falsifying observations”) are “fallible” or “conjectural” Popper’s theory of science falls to the ground. Nor did I claim that “since conclusive knowledge is not possible through Popper’s method of conjectures and refutations, his views are unacceptable.

My difficulty, as I explicitly stated [NYR, December 2] was that a combination of views held by Popper render his alternative to inductionism (as contrasted with Baconian inductivism, which nearly all contemporary philosophers disagree with) a self-defeating and incoherent account of scientific inquiry and the growth of scientific knowledge. As such, I went on, it does not constitute a serious alternative to inductionism.

Thus, although I certainly discussed it, the problem of falsifying observation statements was not my main concern. I was aware that Popper has repeatedly discussed this problem, which Mr. Levinson believes is “one that most intelligent people almost always bring up on their first reading of Popper.” I was not aware, however, until I read Mr. Levinson’s letter, that it has been “dispatched with” in his collection of essays. Mr. Levinson claims that the “situation” with regard to falsifying observation statements is “actually quite simple”: all observations are conjectural, “of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory.” Granting this point, he continues, we should clearly prefer the process of falsification to that of induction, which is “illogical.” I do not agree. While it is true that observation statements are, in a sense, “theory soaked” (as Popper says), not all the theories in which such statements are soaked are of equal merit, and not all observations are “of no firmer epistemic import than the wildest, concocted abstract theory.”

I wonder whether Mr. Levinson actually believes what he says; for my part, I have no difficulty in concluding that the claim that I am now seated before a typewriter is of far greater “epistemic import” than the abstract theory that the world is entirely made up of butter. I also hold, for reasons I set forth in my articles, that we do upon occasion possess perfectly good reasons for accepting such observation statements as true, a view Popper does not hold. Secondly, while we await an accurate codification of inductive practice—a task to which many philosophers, statisticians, and others have devoted their labors—I do not think that we can responsibly and without qualification claim that induction is “illogical.” That induction does not conform to the standards of deductive logic is obvious, but as I took pains to point out in my essay, there are no good reasons for regarding deductive standards of inference as establishing the standard of rationality in science.

In short, I think I can answer the portentous question Mr. Levinson poses: granting that observation statements are not infallible, and that neither the methods of induction or of falsification can yield perfect knowledge, I continue to hold that induction is an activity—a “method” if you will—that we can in some circumstances rely on. It turns out, accordingly, that my alleged “misunderstanding” of Popper is no such thing, only disagreement.

I must add that the force of the evolutionary tale Mr. Levinson tells toward the end of his letter eludes me. Presumably it is an argument that is intended to contribute toward showing that the “nihilism” I impute to Popper, the view that his account of science describes a wild-goose chase (with respect to the aim of discovering the truth), is unwarranted. But does it do so? First of all, the argument depends upon an analogy that is seriously imperfect: the example of “obvious differences” between the “growth” of conjectures and refutations and the trial-and-error evolution of organisms that Mr. Levinson mentions is only one of many that could be presented—another would be the lack of analogy between the truth of a scientific statement and the adaptation of an organism to an uncertain environment.

Moreover, it is not clear to me that, even if we grant the analogy, the claim that imperfect organisms can develop through trial-and-error encounters with the environment into increasingly complex entities damages any of the points I made. The key issue, it seems to me, concerns “progress,” which in the case of science means making some advance toward the aim of discovering the truth about the world. After all, the whole process of evolution might yet be a non-progressive affair, displaying only a temporary “progressive” character, as indeed some celebrated and dismal evolutionary speculations have suggested. As such, the analogy does not seem to me to support Mr. Levinson’s thesis that he has presented a good argument for “the growth of knowledge in an uncertain world.”

When scientists speak of the growth of knowledge, they do not mean, I take it, simply a gradual increase in the complexity of their guesswork, or the increasingly successful adaptation of guesses to still other guesses. A parlor game or the process of creating myths and fairy tales, spurred on by problems of internal consistency, might exhibit this character; but while science might be an uncertain affair, wouldn’t this be a grossly exaggerated and perverse description of this uncertainty?

Also read this:

GDP or GNH (The Bhutan Way)?

March 24, 2017

GDP or GNH (The Bhutan Way)–Maybe it’s Time to screw the  Economists and start looking at alternative ways to measure what makes life worthwhile

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Listen to this TED presentation by Chip Conley and reflect. I enjoyed it and wonder why we continue to measure only the measurable (the tangibles) and ignore the intangibles. As  someone who is trained in Economics (and does being taught this academic discipline make a economist?), I am wonder how it is that  I can be so misled and still have not abandoned GDP as a measurement of national wealth if I know it is misleading when intangibles matter more today. Maybe it is a force of habit. Should be I Aristotelian or Maslowian?  Let me know what you think.–Din Merican


Economists in Denial

February 27, 2017

Economists in Denial

By Lord Skidelsky*

*Robert (Lord) Skidelsky, Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University and a fellow of the British Academy in history and economics, is a member of the British House of Lords. The author of a three-volume biography of John Maynard Keynes, he began his political career in the Labour party, became the Conservative Party’s spokesman for Treasury affairs in the House of Lords, and was eventually forced out of the Conservative Party for his opposition to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999.

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View from above of the Bank of England. The central bank of the UK manages the sterling currency and regulates financial transactions. Banker to Central Banks.

Early last month, Andy Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, blamed “irrational behavior” for the failure of the BoE’s recent forecasting models. The failure to spot this irrationality had led policymakers to forecast that the British economy would slow in the wake of last June’s Brexit referendum. Instead, British consumers have been on a heedless spending spree since the vote to leave the European Union; and, no less illogically, construction, manufacturing, and services have recovered.

Haldane offers no explanation for this burst of irrational behavior. Nor can he: to him, irrationality simply means behavior that is inconsistent with the forecasts derived from the BoE’s model.

It’s not just Haldane or the BoE. What mainstream economists mean by rational behavior is not what you or I mean. In ordinary language, rational behavior is that which is reasonable under the circumstances. But in the rarefied world of neoclassical forecasting models, it means that people, equipped with detailed knowledge of themselves, their surroundings, and the future they face, act optimally to achieve their goals. That is, to act rationally is to act in a manner consistent with economists’ models of rational behavior. Faced with contrary behavior, the economist reacts like the tailor who blames the customer for not fitting their newly tailored suit.

Yet the curious fact is that forecasts based on wildly unrealistic premises and assumptions may be perfectly serviceable in many situations. The reason is that most people are creatures of habit. Because their preferences and circumstances don’t in fact shift from day to day, and because they do try to get the best bargain when they shop around, their behavior will exhibit a high degree of regularity. This makes it predictable. You don’t need much economics to know that if the price of your preferred brand of toothpaste goes up, you are more likely to switch to a cheaper brand.

Central banks’ forecasting models essentially use the same logic. For example, the BoE (correctly) predicted a fall in the sterling exchange rate following the Brexit vote. This would cause prices to rise – and therefore consumer spending to slow. Haldane still believes this will happen; the BoE’s mistake was more a matter of “timing” than of logic.

This is equivalent to saying that the Brexit vote changed nothing fundamental. People would go on behaving exactly as the model assumed, only with a different set of prices. But any prediction based on recurring patterns of behavior will fail when something genuinely new happens.

Non-routine change causes behavior to become non-routine. But non-routine does not mean irrational. It means, in economics-speak, that the parameters have shifted. The assurance that tomorrow will be much like today has vanished. Our models of quantifiable risk fail when faced with radical uncertainty.

The BoE conceded that Brexit would create a period of uncertainty, which would be bad for business. But the new situation created by Brexit was actually very different from what policymakers, their ears attuned almost entirely to the City of London, expected. Instead of feeling worse off (as “rationally” they should), most “Leave” voters believe they will be better off.

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Justified or not, the important fact about such sentiment is that it exists. In 1940, immediately after the fall of France to the Germans, the economist John Maynard Keynes wrote to a correspondent: “Speaking for myself I now feel completely confident for the first time that we will win the war.” Likewise, many Brits are now more confident about the future.

This, then, is the problem – which Haldane glimpsed but could not admit – with the BoE’s forecasting models. The important things affecting economies take place outside the self-contained limits of economic models. That is why macroeconomic forecasts end up on the rocks when the sea is not completely flat.

The challenge is to develop macroeconomic models that can work in stormy conditions: models that incorporate radical uncertainty and therefore a high degree of unpredictability in human behavior.

Keynes’s economics was about the logic of choice under uncertainty. He wanted to extend the idea of economic rationality to include behavior in the face of radical uncertainty, when we face not just unknowns, but unknowable unknowns. This of course has much severer implications for policy than a world in which we can reasonably expect the future to be much like the past.

There have been a few scattered attempts to meet the challenge. In their 2011 book Beyond Mechanical Markets, the economists Roman Frydman of New York University and Michael Goldberg of the University of New Hampshire argued powerfully that economists’ models should try to “incorporate psychological factors without presuming that market participants behave irrationally.” Proposing an alternative approach to economic modeling that they call “imperfect knowledge economics,” they urge their colleagues to refrain from offering “sharp predictions” and argue that policymakers should rely on “guidance ranges,” based on historical benchmarks, to counter “excessive” swings in asset prices.

The Russian mathematician Vladimir Masch has produced an ingenious scheme of “Risk-Constrained Optimization,” which makes explicit allowance for the existence of a “zone of uncertainty.” Economics should offer “very approximate guesstimates,” requiring “only modest amounts of modeling and computational effort.”

But such efforts to incorporate radical uncertainty into economic models, valiant though they are, suffer from the impossible dream of taming ambiguity with math and (in Masch’s case) with computer science. Haldane, too, seems to put his faith in larger data sets.

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A Towering Figure in Economics–Lord Keynes

Keynes, for his part, didn’t think this way at all. He wanted an economics that would give full scope for judgment, enriched not only by mathematics and statistics, but also by ethics, philosophy, politics, and history – subjects dropped from contemporary economists’ training, leaving a mathematical and computational skeleton. To offer meaningful descriptions of the world, economists, he often said, must be well educated.


Unveiling Donald J. Trump – the Revolt against the Establishment

February 25, 2017



Unveiling Donald J. Trump – the Revolt against the Establishment

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller, Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore

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Why are people turning their backs on the ‘Western’ model? The Reason: Donald J Trump making America Great Again

Why are people turning their back on the ‘Western’ model? How could it happen and even more so in such a short time span? While most of us associate the recent string of events to failed regimes or fictional story plots, it now haunts the U.S. – playing out like a reality show except the consequences are real and cannot be tuned out by a press on the remote control – however tempting that might be[1].

The elite has cut the link to the people, who retaliate by turning against the elite. A revolt!

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Conceptually industrialization was anchored in enlightenment, science, rationality, and logic. Ethically a higher degree of decency followed. The nexus was check and balances, which not only framed economic prosperity, rising equality and fairness, but also opened the door for the majority of people to influence political decision making.

Now, negative side-effects start to overrule the positive side of the model. Polls show that a majority of people in industrialized countries feel that their children will NOT live in a better world. Consensus and coalition building – the mainstay of the check and balances system – is no longer the plinth of our world order – world view, weltanschaung. Political correctness emphasizing tolerance and respect and crafted to block a repetition of 1914 to 1945 is now rejected yes ridiculed and cast aside. It is legitimate, in some places even laudable to vilify other people and advocate discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and religion.

Subjectivity has replaced objectivity blurring the difference between truth and non-truth. Between facts and made up figures. Today any viewpoint is legitimate. ‘My point of view is as good as yours!’ No insistence on evidence.


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Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ gave birth to economic theory explaining capital formation conducive to growth. The market – economic thinking and behavior – precipitated change and dynamics after centuries of near stagnation. Concomitantly economic policy started to guide the political system (liberal representative democracy) in its endeavors to control the economy and distribute wealth between capitalists and non-capitalists.

It was not a global model, but build around the notion of rich (insiders) and poor (outsiders). Countries could be ‘relegated’ (as was the case for Argentina one hundred years ago), but not promoted. Sometimes around 1975 the outsiders challenged the insiders. Promotion, incompatible with the model, started. The result quickly became competition for jobs, welfare, and resources on a global scale. The industrial age edifice began to crack.

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Philosopher  of the Enlightenment– John Locke

Capitalism is a marvelous growth machine especially combined with globalization, but aberrations, distortions and negative side-effects must be kept under control. The challenge from the socialist/communist model did precisely that. When that challenge disappeared in 1991, the self-imposed barriers for egoistic behavior melted away. The dominating perspective became short-term profit defined by pure market economy disregarding potential or real negative societal side-effects – what an economist would label external diseconomies on a societal level/scale.

Globalization introduced economies of scale which:

– Generated enormous profits for multinational companies.

– Opened the door for minimizing tax by shuffling revenue and profits around among countries.

– Suppressed the wage share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in rich countries destabilizing and impoverishing their middle class.

– Dislocated manufacturing in rich countries; small-scale plants in local communities disappeared and people felt abandoned, desperate, and without hope.

The upside – enormously important – was that hundreds of millions of people in poor countries were lifted out of poverty.

The political problem gradually suffusing the agenda was that the negative side-effects were mainly, almost exclusively felt in rich and industrialized countries with the upside blessing Emerging Markets and Developing Economies (EMDE). Suddenly the dichotomy between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ changed dramatically – a complete reversal of roles.

Technology introduced the skills factor to determine distribution of income. Three groups of “workers” emerged. Those having the skills in demand asked for and got a premium. A thin layer. Those doing repetitive functions, the middle class, were squeezed. Those in lower paid service jobs were forced to accept lower wages under pressure from the middle class above them in the social strata now competing for their jobs and immigrants in social strata below them. In the U.S. wage differentials and inequality was falling 1920 to 1940, stable until the 1970s where after inequality started to explode – almost exactly at the time when Information and Communication Technology (ICT) plus globalization began to put its mark on the economy.

Social losers tried to be heard by voting for the opposition, but the opposition fared no better than the government because there was no answer. In reality government and opposition was the same side of two coins!

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University of Manchester Economics students aim to tear up free-market syllabus

And who are the losers? They are broadly speaking people unable or unwilling to cope with change – not necessarily unemployed or poor. In Europe and the U.S. many of them are found among the middle class being eradicated, disappearing as the stabilizing factor. Year 2000 US, Europe, and Japan accounted for 2/3 of global middle class. prognosis tells that year 2020 it will be about half and year 2050 about 15%. The privileged status built up over the industrial as skilled workers – the hero of industrialization and its main beneficiary – was suddenly taken away from them; other social groups or ethnicities fare better. Since 2007 close to ten million new jobs have been created in the U.S., but whites have lost one million jobs. This discloses the losers as white Anglo-Saxon protestant males powerful during the industrial age fighting almost literally to maintain their privileges.

They constitute a large segment of the population, but they are not the ‘people’. Did the British people vote for Brexit? No. Figuring in the turn out 38% of the electorate did. We read that the American people elected Donald Trump. Wrong. Hillary Clinton got almost 3 million more votes. Figuring in the turn out approx. 26% of the Americans voted for Trump. The depressing interpretation is that a large and growing share of the population does not find it worthwhile to operate inside the system. The system is not theirs! They vote against the system or stay away. The silver lining is that if the system – the establishment – can get the act together and deliver, those people may return. The game is not lost.

The future.

It is fascinating to reflect on how things will turn out, but foolhardy to put forward a picture of the world order to come. Mankind might cut the link to nature and live in a totally artificial environment – mankind may choose the opposite and opt for a return to stronger human relations while respecting the cycle of nature, as our ancestors actually did – or be so confused and bemused under the onslaught of globalization and technology that we end up with some kind of superstition like in the middle ages.

What we can do is to search for some fundamental trends controlling the future development; intercept them to build a system/model strong enough to keep the ship steady until the fog has cleared and a better view of where we are going beckons.

If civilization is a work in progress, we should mobilize discipline and self-discipline to rally people to a common purpose aiming at:

– Societies as a whole instead of egoistic behavior.

– Long term thinking/behavior instead of short-term effects.

– Sustainability instead of throw away consumption.

– A new kind of self-esteem among human beings with people feeling they are a spoke in the wheel contributing to society and receiving something in return.

– Mutual respects leaders – people instead of mutual disrespect and distrust.

The future main thread is common and shared values gradually crowding out economics as the main motivating force. The objective is a new social contract. The vehicle is communication via social networks. The playing field for communication becomes level instead of top/down or down/top or passive only (radio/TV). The social networks should belong to the people and used by the people. Neither commercialized nor allow concentration of knowledge opening for abuse of power.

Political system.

Power distance separates politicians’ values from voters’ values. In many countries, barely 2/3 of the electorate turns up signaling indifference. Membership of political parties tells the same story.

A lower power distance can be sought through roll back of centralization and concentration to lower power distance. Turn local communities into yes LOCAL and small communities; reject increasing returns borrowed from economics for public services. Look for solutions to combine social networks with human contacts. The service provider – welfare, education, and health – must be close to people to cater for their basic needs and not perceived as business.

There are innumerable challenges and opportunities embedded in social networks. In principle, they ‘should rally people to a common purpose’. In reality the opposite happens: Segmentation of public opinion through vociferous and importunate persons/groups hijacking the agenda. Social networks become divisive, disruptive, and increase power distance. Human contacts so vital a glue for unity and coherence fade away.

Segmentation/fragmentation comes into play as people communicate more, but with like-minded people. Those who contact us have analogous opinions. We search, maybe unconsciously, for opinions & views similar to our own ones. A closed-circuit network appears with people reinforcing one another in already held opinions eschewing contradictory information. It is no wonder that extremists’ views have established themselves and got a grip on the political agenda simultaneously with the explosion of social networks.

Using social networks anybody can try to set the agenda. If the message resonates with the public the cascade effect guarantees success irrespective of facts, objectivity, and merit. The ‘newcomers’ are proactive, offensive, snippy, aggressive, using rude/disparaging vocabulary, and dispense with objectivity, facts, and the truth. The establishment appears as reactive, defensive, even boring with politically correct vocabulary which does not strike a chord with the public – and do care about objectivity, facts, and the truth. Studies show that many, maybe most people decide in the split of a second based on instinct, intuition, own experiences and background. We live in a world dominated by a pressure of impression: Catch attention every day and use simple language. The attention span is short so select your audience and appear to be like them. Our ‘self’ is the template for judging others. This opens the door for tailor-made interference in people’s decision making. Recently Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica was quoted saying ‘we have a massive database of 4-5,000 data points on every adult in America’. Allegedly the company helped Trump to win.

The establishment can also use this model! And doesn’t because it has severed the links to the people.

Economic model.

Economics has always loved the idea of general equilibrium, but for the economic system only. Now a kind of societal equilibrium could be the objective.

Short term profits from a purely economic point of view distort the social fabric. Many people look – in vain – for stability and security – human security, economic security, and social security. After disruptive and explosive change over the preceding half century – a burst of activity rarely seen in history – there is a growing preference for calm down, digest, and find out how to use technology and globalization – instead of letting these two big forces, disruptive at that, steer where we go.

Relative prices reflect market perspectives rewarding short-term profit regardless of potentially negative societal effects (inequality, unfairness, and low social mobility), pollution, and depletion of resources. Incorporating societal effects other than economics the scoreboard in its entirety may not be profitable for economic operators – business. So it is not done.

Therefore, they should be changed to reflect these societal aspects. Making it expensive to use resources, punish pollution, and put a price on activities beneficial for society for example care for the elderly and couching children. The immediate objection is that such policies interfere in the market mechanism – the reply is: Yes, that is also the purpose. The market mechanism may have served us well, but can it continue to do so under different conditions? Can the market handle ‘less’ in a socially acceptable way? Doubtful.

Relative factor prices favor technology and robotics. Economically that makes sense. But not for those people losing their jobs. We cannot and should not stop technology and robotics, but provide jobs in labor intensive areas – among other things societal purposes – by remunerating such work.

The theory of the firm dating back to the 1930s explains why it is profitable – short term market economy profitability – to organize production within the firm (concentration and standardization/ uniformization) rather than relying on a multitude of contracts (de-concentration and diversification). Transaction costs become lower. Main advantage is to have the workforce inside the company – figuratively under one roof.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has shot that theory down. Now transaction costs outside the firm is cheaper than inside the firm mainly because of savings in overhead costs. Part time work and one person companies are going up – in some cases selling the product to firms instead of doing it inside the firm. It’s odd to read every month about employment and unemployment not taking into account how many people have left companies to do the same work outside companies.

The paradox is that the number of people employed by firms in rich countries goes down while at the same time concentration of finance and knowledge goes up not only shaking the established relationship between workforce and the company, but cutting the bond between firm and workforce, which was the core of the industrial age social contract. They are no longer indispensable for each other.


The golden days of economic growth and distribution of wealth will not return. The creeping dehumanization and denaturalization is being questioned – is this really what we want? The shift to non-economic values cannot be integrated in the existing political system and economic model.

The challenge now is to keep societies together under burden sharing and adapt to stability and human security. Groups as an alternative framework for organization of societies enter the picture. The risk is that values and social networking break societies into a small number of groups with limited inter-group mobility – are you with us or against us? A kind of social immobility. The group serves as service provider – you cannot live outside the group. ISIL is an illustration of this as was the communist party. You belong to us forever.

The key is a social contract embodying

– The shift in preferences from economics as the dominant element to reflect societal values.

– A reinstatement of confidence and trust between politicians and voters.

– Building a bridge over the rising gap between interests of firms (owners and management) and interests of the workforce.

– Make the service provider visible in daily life, close to the people and increasingly delivering stability, security and peace at mind.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore and Adjunct Professor Singapore Management University & Copenhagen Business School. Honorary Alumni, University of Copenhagen.

[1] ‘The Veil of Circumstance’ [ISEAS PUBLISHING, November 2016] offers a deeper analysis of the transformation our societies is undergoing.

(2). ISEAS –Yusof Ishak Institute. PERSPECTIVE. ISSUE: 2017 No. 11 ISSN 335 667


 “Trump and Brexit:  Some Lessons for Southeast Asia” by Joergen Oerstroem Moeller @

Executive Summary

  • Donald Trump’s victory and Brexit illustrate that a considerable share of the population in the U.S. and Britain feel left behind, side-lined and neglected by recent globalising trends.
  • Despite their revolt, the establishment and the existing political systems have a chance to stage a comeback, especially if President Trump fails to live up to expectations of those who voted for him.
  • A surge in migration over the last 15 years in the US and Britain has also put the question of identity on the agenda. Although most countries can assimilate migrants over the longer term, a huge inflow of migrants in a short time span tends to generate serious negative opposition.
  • Rising unemployment in small towns in these countries has reinforced the identity problem, and initiated emigration to cities, undermining what were once stable societies and dilapidating their towns.

    Southeast Asian countries have lessons to learn from this development and should be aware of the risks involved as urbanisation in the region continues unabated.

End of summary.



A.C. Grayling reviews Paul Johnson’s Socrates

February 1, 2016

A.C. Grayling reviews Paul Johnson’s Socrates

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Philosopher A C Grayling

by A C Grayling

Bertrand Russell was of opinion that Jesus was not as clever as Socrates or as compassionate as the Buddha. Although this view has its merits, by focusing on the differences among the three it misses an important similarity: that they all gained large followings because (and emphatically not in spite) of the fact that they wrote nothing. All their teachings are attributed by others, their lives are the stuff of followers’ legends, their place in history secure because, inadvertently or otherwise, they anticipated the significance of the proverbial remark “Oh that my enemy had written a book!”

What little we know about Socrates comes to us, with a few exceptions, from his friends and their followers. The resulting portrait is on the whole an affectionate one, and testifies to his charisma as an individual. The same is true of the other large civilizational figures whom we know only through report; to those already mentioned we can add Confucius, Islam’s Muhammad, and Sikhism’s Guru Nanak as examples.

The trouble with such figures is that they lend themselves to endless interpretation and reinterpretation, to reading-in and reinvention, to different and often competing depictions. As far as I know, however, in the case of Socrates there has never been such a jaw-dropping hagiography as the one here provided by Paul Johnson, whose admiring — perhaps the better word is besotted — account of the ancient thinker has joined Iman Wilkens’s Where Troy Once Stood (the book that places the Trojan War in England’s East Anglia and, with perfect seriousness, claims that Achilles was a Dutchman) among my all-time favorite Amazing Books.

Johnson claims to be able to extract the “real, actual historic Socrates” from Plato’s “irritating” habit of interpolating his, Plato’s, own take on things into accounts of Socrates’ character and teachings. Johnson’s “real actual” Socrates is not just “the noblest, the gentlest, the bravest man” but veritably a kind of religious prophet, a divinely inspired preacher of surprisingly Christian-like views, or perhaps (the portrait blurs in and out as the pages turn) a proto-quasi-John the Baptist making straight the way of St. Paul — this by preparing the Greek world to be more receptive to the Christian message that Paul brought it.

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The unexamined life is not worth living (Ancient Greek: ὁ … ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ)

Johnson gets progressively more carried away by this theme as the book proceeds, these encroachments on the avant la lettre Christianity likeness of the Socratic “ministry,” as Johnson calls it, becoming dithyrambic. “It was the combination of Jesus’s inspired Hebrew message of charity, selflessness, acceptance of suffering, and willing sacrifice with the clear Socratic vision of the soul’s triumph and the eternal life awaiting it,” Johnson claims, “that gave the Christianity which sprang from Paul’s teaching of the Gospels its astonishing power and ubiquity and enabled it to flourish in persecution and martyrdom.” (A few lines later, with a sudden but all-too-brief awareness that nonsense hovers, Johnson contradictorily recants: “Socrates was not a Christian precursor…”). The fact that Christianity adopted the neo-Platonists’ version of the immortal immaterial soul several centuries into the Christian era, having until then been good Jews on the question of death by expecting actual bodily resurrection at the Second Coming, does not trouble Johnson because, obviously, he does not know it.

Ignorance is remediable; logic-blindness takes longer to correct. Johnson pounces on the fact that Socrates talked about his “inner voice,” the apotreptic (“warning-off”) prompting that alerted him against making mistakes. He described it as the voice of a god, which was in keeping with the Greek way of speaking about everything from artistic inspiration to conscience. But Johnson inflates Socrates’ inner voice to a full-blown Judeo-Christian-like deity and its message to a full-blown ministry. From giving an occasional warning it becomes the determinant of the whole of Socrates’ career: philosophy was, Johnson avers, “the mission God had given him in life,” and “his inner voice from God…ordained him to conduct philosophy as he understood it.” Note the language: “mission,” “ordination,” “ministry.”

This magnification of the inner voice is merely over-excitement on Johnson’s part; the failure of logic enters when he says that Socrates’ philosophical “mission” was to encourage people to think for themselves. So according to Johnson, Socrates is commanded by God to tell people to think for themselves, and he obeys.

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This is not the only contradiction. On page 92 Johnson’s Socrates is a postmodernist and relativist: Socrates is “hostile not just to the ‘right answer’ but to the very of idea of there being a right answer.” By page 114 he is the direct opposite; he “opts firmly for moral absolutism.” By page 119 Socrates is even more emphatically anti-relativist; he there espouses “moral absolutism at its most stringent.”

Johnson asserts that Socrates’ interests were strictly practical, in that he was not interested in “justice in the abstract” but in actual practical workaday justice. This claim breathtakingly ignores Socrates’ relentless quest for the essence — the abstract defining quiddity — of justice, continence, truth, courage, virtue, knowledge, the good, and so on, which in the early dialogues typically terminates for the participants in aporia, the state of no longer knowing what one does or should think about the matter. Since Socrates’ claim was that he only knew that he knew nothing (which is why the Delphic oracle pronounced him the wisest of men), he was officially excluded from himself offering a definition; his role in the elenchus — the method of enquiry by question and answer, conjecture and refutation — was to get people to see that they were as ignorant as himself. We are a far cry here, in knowing no answers, from knowing any absolutely right answers.

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My Favorite Quote from LKY–Din Merican

In the middle and later dialogues of Plato, where Socrates is even more obviously a mouthpiece than he is in the early dialogues, answers most certainly appear — Plato’s answers, of course — in the doctrines of the Forms and anamnesis (this latter literally means “unforgetting,” that is, recalling the total knowledge one’s immortal soul enjoyed in its pre-embodied direct contact with the Forms, which are the eternal, immutable, and perfect exemplars of things).

Johnson’s misunderstanding of Socrates’ aims as they appear in Plato’s early dialogues, as well as in the tangential reports of others — admiringly in Xenophon, satirically in Aristophanes — and his insistent eagerness to make Socrates look like a Christ-like figure of perfect virtue and self-sacrifice, result in massive distortion. Oddly, his desire in the latter respect chimes with Plato’s own effort to portray Socrates as saint and martyr, though Johnson dismisses Plato’s portrait with lofty (and, as we see, hubristic) contempt.

Johnson’s beatification of Socrates leads him to claim, “In terms of his influence, he was the most important of all philosophers.” Were Johnson acquainted with philosophy beyond the Teach Yourself level he would know that Plato and Aristotle between them have an influence that is as Everest to Socrates’ molehill. A. N. Whitehead’s description of philosophy as “footnotes to Plato” does not exaggerate by much.

But what is the influence that Johnson thinks Socrates exerts? “What he did,” Johnson claims, “was to concentrate on making more substantial the presence of an overriding divine force, a God who permeated all things and ordained the universe. This dramatic simplification made it possible for him to construct a system of ethics that was direct, plausible, workable and satisfying.” Not one word of this even remotely applies to anything known of Socrates. Socrates was a religious prophet? Socrates was a pantheist? Socrates constructed an ethical system?

If you wish to know how Johnson gets to miss the point of Socrates so comprehensively, you only have to note two things. First, he ignores the possibility that Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates in The Clouds probably contained enough truth to make a knowledgeable Athenian audience laugh.

And second, and at his greater peril, he disdains Plato, asserting that  “[the Republic] is not a text where, in general, the real Socrates speaks, though I think he does in this particular passage” — meaning that he, Johnson, knows better than Plato (or any Plato scholar of the last 2,500 years) when the “real Socrates” speaks. When Plato’s depiction fails to chime with Johnson’s made-up version, it is dismissed as “illustrating his [Plato’s] irritating habit of foisting his personal views on others.” Pot and kettle here! So he cherry-picks words and passages that suit his purposes, and discards the rest.

Yet only consider the views that Johnson foists on Socrates. He has the sage teach that “[t]he most important occupation of a human being was to subdue his bodily instincts and train himself to respond to the teachings of the soul.” On another page, remember, his ordained mission was “to teach people to think for themselves,” as God told him to say: which is a bit closer to the Socrates we see through the dark Platonic glass.

One of the biggest twists Johnson gives to the tale concerns the politics of Socrates’ trial and death. Socrates and Plato had been associated with the aristocratic party that led Athens into ruin and subjected it to tyranny, and he was put to death by the democracy that supplanted it, a few years after the democracy had granted amnesties to various members of the tyrant party in the hope of soothing the troubled character of state affairs. That Socrates was brought to trial about four years after the amnesty suggests that he, alone or with others, was regarded as still a problem.

Subsequent history has blamed the democrats for executing Socrates, but Johnson tries to distance the sage from the tyrant party and thus have him wrongly maligned and condemned. Here, at least and at last, he is with Plato and Xenophon in painting Socrates in victim’s colors. But there is enough reason to think (the aristocratic fascism of Plato might alone make you think) that the smoke curling about Socrates’ head had a bit of fire under it. In the end, Socrates offers a portrait not of a real philosopher but of a fictional character, a portrait that says more about the author’s own beliefs than any Greek who lived within 500 years of Socrates.


Islamisation and its Freudian discontents

October 27, 2016

Islamisation and its Freudian discontents

by Azly Rahman

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I am back. I took a few weeks hiatus from this column to wrote a few literary essays, chapters from my memoir of growing up in the “sewel but sober and sensible seventies” – the best of times of the times of P Ramlee – as well as writing a long essay on the key novels of Salman Rushdie.

I spend days listening to the music of Pink Floyd and reading a collection of essays from the book ‘Pink Floyd and Philosophy’. These however did not keep me away from thinking about the issues in Malaysia, viewed from a global perspective.

The unresolved issue if the world’s record-breaking, hideously-linked case of the 1MDB. The ongoing drama of PAS, UMNO, Amanah, and the opposition parties. The continuing push for the Sharia Law add-on of the hudud. The story of the insanely massive amount of cash found in Sabah as it relates to corruption in the Water Department. The seeming helplessness of the Malaysian people in their struggle to demand for better and cleaner governance.

The failure of the Mahathirist slogan of ‘Bersih, Cekap, Amanah’ (Clean, Efficient, Trustworthy). The continuing saga of the Dr Mahathir Mohamad-Najib Abdul Razak-Anwar Ibrahim triangulating vendetta in the tradition of Mario Puzo’s la Cosa Nostra.

And today, I read about the story of the young father who jumped off the Penang Bridge in an apparent suicide for personal and political reasons, it seems. A Muslim who ended his life, leaving a wife and two young children – leaving this world after asking for forgiveness from God as well. A suicide note written both in despair and in great confidence.

At the global level, I thought of these: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – both will be warmongers of the new age of Russian-American authored Armageddon. World War III. New weapons of mass destruction. Aleppo, Syria. The battle for Mosul. The new Saudi Arabia after the fall of the empire of oil. The Saudi attacks on Yemen. The new Saudi Arabian venture: finance, tourism, and arms manufacturing.

Then there are also these global bogeymen called Al-Qaeda and IS – the invisible and elusive armies of Islam it seems that are keeping the American and the Russian war-machine going.

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All these in my mind as song after song from classic Pink Floyd albums play on. “Mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb?” asks Pink Floyd in the lyrics and I thought of Aleppo and the total destruction of once-beautiful Syria. Just like the total destruction of the once-beautiful and learned Baghdad. Destroyed by the Americans in their tens of trillion-dollars war.

I thought of these. I thought of this thing called ‘Islamic philosophy’ I thought existed. I had these questions:

Is Islamic philosophy totally dead? Murdered by the Charlotte Cordays of the theocratic-hypocritical imams of its own creation? As we know from the history of the French Revolution, Charlotte Corday murdered the scientist and revolutionary-philosopher Marat, signifying the beginning of the political war between the Jacobins and the Girondins.

How could it be possible for Muslims, whose daily confessions include saying that “God is closer to you than your jugular vein”, be creating governments that help “society be closer to Nature”, to philosophies of sustainability, rather than be destroyers of it?

Progress mistaken to be monopolising of licences

How could such a spiritually-cognitive dissonance be the leitmotif of many an Islamic government when the religion itself is supposed to preach, amongst others, ecologically sustainable plans for national development rather than surrender to Das Kapital – or capitalism – spiced with Quranic verses calling for the advancement of the ummah through economic progress, yet progress here is mistaken to be the monopolising of the licences to rape and plunder Nature – cutting down trees, destroying rainforests, desertifying fertile lands, throwing indigenous peoples out of their traditional lands (because they are not Muslims and therefore spiritually incomplete as human beings), and to do everything that tak

In short, what manner of a French-Revolution that Islamic societies, such as Malaysia, such as the state calling itself “the verandah of Makkah” (serambi Makkah) that is allowing the rape of Nature to happen whilst the idea of Islam as a religion of peace (at peace with Nature) is being made the agenda of global dakwah?

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Public Display of Piety in Malaysia by UMNO Malays

Help us understand this:How do Muslims remedy this situation? Resolve this contradiction? Reverse this trend of Islamisation? Could it be that Islam as a religion does not have a praxis (applications of the principles of Philosophy to social needs), demanding Nature to be preserved and the dignity of human Nature be upheld?

This could be an improbable claim but judging from the way Islamic governments engaging in destroying rainforests, building weapons of mass destruction, allowing leaders to live like Pharaohs and Croesus (Firauns and Qaruns), and bombing each other to the seventh level of Hell (as in Saudi Arabia and Yemen) – it looks as if Islam is devoid of a Lao-Tzian/Daoist philosophy of living and statecraft much-needed in this world already destroyed by the excesses of Western Civilisation which pride itself in a strange descartian pride of controlling and destroying Nature through the growth of Empires, colonisation, Imperialism, and now post-Imperialistic post-Apocalyptic regimes engaged in all forms of state-sponsored terrorism, sanctioned as well by an underlying philosophy of false Judeo-Christianity.

Guns, guts, glories – destruction of the colonies. Civilising mission. The Crusades. The Conquistadors and the Cross – these are prelude to the anti-humanism of the teachings of the Jesus at The Sermon on the Mount – of the reminders of the Beatitudes. These are ignored and hence, the new world of a strange brew – religion, capitalism, a truncated version of Weber’s protestant ethics and the ghosts and spirits of capitalism roaming the modern world ruled by cybernetic-terroristic technologies.

Is this the world we created? A nightmare of Cartesian absurdities? Help explain these.