Interview with René Descartes

I recently came across this interview, dated 2001/1649.

Interviewer: Bonjour, Monsieur Descartes. Can I call you René?

Descartes: Allô, allô. Mais of course!

Interviewer: I have come back from the twenty first century to ask you a few questions. People there are very interested in your ideas, but you have been getting some bad press lately. Are you happy to take part?

Descartes: I think so.

Interviewer: I gather that you lived at an interesting time, when ideas were in ferment and the old certainties were being undermined?

Descartes: Well, you can say that again! Aristotle’s ideas had ruled the roost for over a thousand years. Suddenly, there were all these new ideas around, rediscovered from other ancient Greeks. There were people trying to hang on to the old certainties, and others pushing their pet new ideas. Chaos!

Interviewer: What led you into becoming such an influential philosopher and scientist?

Descartes: As a young army officer, I had a vision, then a sequence of dreams,whose meaning became quite clear to me. This led me to devote my life to philosophy and the future unity of the sciences.

Interviewer: First, can we clarify your role in the development of science, and your main influences. What about Copernicus?

Descartes: Well… some people did use copper bracelets for medicinal purposes…

Interviewer: I meant the astronomer Copernicus!

Descartes: Oh… Well, the old Aristotelian science wasn’t working, wasn’t getting anywhere. When Copernicus came along and said ‘the earth went round the sun’, it was like a breath of fresh air.

Interviewer: And Galileo and Giordano Bruno?

Descartes: Galileo said ‘if you can’t measure it, it ain’t worth bothering with’, and invented loads of instruments for measuring, along with his telescope. Brilliant! He also explained inertia – why a rolling ball keeps on rolling.

Poor old Bruno, quite a heavyweight. Picked up this idea that everything was atoms from the Greeks. Neat! Unfortunately he was a bit careless with what he said in church circles. Always spoiling for a fight! Too radical. Threat to the old dogma. They bumped him off. What a pantomime!

I really just put all these ideas together, though I couldn’t get a handle on why things fell to the ground, or why the earth went round the sun, not in a straight line.

Interviewer: Isaac Newton later sorted that out with his theory of gravity.

All these predecessors were attacked by the church, and even the inquisition. I guess you also had to be careful?

Descartes: Yeah, in the end they put my books on the ‘banned’ list, but at least it wasn’t as hard for me as those other guys.

Interviewer: As a philosopher, you were seeking a basis for certain knowledge in these changing times?

Descartes: I certainly was. Intelligent people no longer trusted what the church or royals said. And there was a new scepticism in philosophy, again coming from the Greeks.

Interviewer: What was the basis for this certain knowledge?

Descartes: It seemed to me that only mathematics and critical rational thinking gave certainty. The senses themselves are unreliable – you only have to look at a straight stick dipped into water – it looks bent! The only thing we could be sure of was our own consciousness and thinking. So I coined this strap line cogito ergo sum, which seemed to catch on. ‘I think therefore I am.’

Thinking was separate from the physical world, which seemed pretty mechanistic to me. So we could take an objective look at this world and derive truth by reason. That was one up on the church establishment with their ‘revealed truth’!

Interviewer: This was the famous Cartesian dualism?

Descartes: Yes, we could be totally rational about the objective physical world- res extensia in the lingo of my time. This is distinct from the subjective world of mind and soul – res cogitans – that can only be experienced.

Interviewer: So, the dreams that originally inspired you came out of the res cogitans?

Descartes: Yep. They weren’t rational, were they?

Interviewer: What did you have to say about animals?

Descartes: Animals are just machines. They don’t have souls, so are not capable of feeling.

Interviewer: Religion had been very important to people. Where did God fit in your scheme of things?

Descartes: Obviously, God created the world. He was outside it, the fount of all truth, the great architect. I proved it! Although I have to admit that my proof made certain ‘obvious’ assumptions. Of course, I was a devout catholic. I wanted the Jesuits to take on and propagate my ideas, but they didn’t.

Interviewer: What did you see as the benefits to humanity from adopting these ideas, which became known as the Cartesian revolution?

Descartes: How flattering!

Breaking the stranglehold of the old theology on European thought was the big one – freedom to make progress after a thousand years of stasis. I also wanted to get rid of the superstitious organic and magical view of nature that was popular after what you later called the Renaissance. Science and rationality were the way forward.

Interviewer: The development of history since your time shows great improvement in material well-being, with untold wealth, for a fair percentage of the earth’s population. However, there has been a decline in religion and a loss of contact with God, soul and spirit. And the earth itself shows signs of stress. Innumerable species of plant and animal, that you could only dream of, are dying out. Could your ideas have contributed to this?

Descartes: Gosh, something seems to have gone wrong with your res cogitans. Sorry mate, I didn’t spend much time on that one. I was too busy sorting out rationality.

Anyway, I didn’t say anything about abandoning God and soul. And what you lot are doing isn’t really rational anyway, is it?

Interviewer: You have a point.

Thank you for that, M Descartes. Would you like to come back with me for a glimpse of the twenty first century?

Descartes: I think not. [disappears]

End

Featured image of Descartes After Frans Hals – by André Hatala via Wikimedia Commons

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What was the problem?

I’ve never really understood the case for Brexit. What was wrong with over 40 years of peace and prosperity? Of course there were issues to be addressed, there always are. In a recent issue of The Times, Max Hastings neatly summarised the situation we, the UK, find ourselves in with Brexit.

Three years ago any thoughtful citizen could identify the principal problems facing Britain: productivity; Londonification; the flagging education system; a society financially skewed in favour of the old and against the young; Islamist extremism; funding of the NHS and welfare; stagnation of real earnings; job losses to technology.

None had anything to do with the European Union yet a faction of fanatics not only believed, but was successful in convincing millions of voters, that if we could only escape the thraldom of Brussels, a Heineken transformation would overtake the country, miraculously refreshing everything else.

I don’t agree with all of his list of problems, but leave that aside. Why did Britain stop worrying about the most important issues facing the country (many self-inflicted by Conservative austerity) and instead focus all its energies on the single issue of Brexit, as indeed it continues to do today?

The catalyst issue was immigration, which Brexit will probably in the end not significantly address because of sheer economic necessity. But how did the ideas become so prominent in the public domain, such that the Brexit vote was lost by the Cameron government against all expectations?

Essentially, the problems of the status quo were projected on to questions of nationhood and Europe because the political establishment and the media had not, since the New Labour years, seriously engaged with the European project. It appeared from the start that David Cameron insisted on being a right wing outsider in Europe, rather than a mainstream player, pandering to the right wing of his own party. When he needed European help with the immigration issue, the help was not there, because the bridges had not been built.

It did not help that a significant portion of the mainstream media were very anti Europe, reflecting the self-interested views of their rich owners, reinforced by the amplification of reactionary viewpoints in the ghettos of social media.

The final nail was the referendum, called to see off UKIP, in which it succeeded, but with the result no one expected.

But wasn’t the real problem more in London than in Brussels?

Mute Swans

Mute swans are common in the UK, possibly related to the fact that the Monarch retains the right to ownership of all unmarked swans in open water.

Mostly you see them in small family groups, but in some places such as Windsor there are large colonies. This group that we saw on Southport’s Marine Lake were clearly acting as a coherent grouping, speeding along together, like lads who’ve heard there’s free beer – presumably to meet up with others we’d spotted further along the water.

The single cygnet suggests that this is not a family grouping as such.

The case for a second poll grows by the day.

This post by Bruce Nixon repeats an article published by Peter Kellner in the New European 24 November. It is worth reading, as it articulates well an important facet of the debate about a possible second Brexit poll.

Perhaps the most important point Kellner makes is that on the age of voters.

We know that young voters are overwhelmingly opposed to Brexit, while older voters voted two-to-one to leave the EU.

He goes on to quantify:

Around 600,000 Britons die each year; a further 700,000 reach voting age. Taking account of polling data about older voters, and recent surveys of the views of new voters, and allowing for the fact that older electors are more likely to vote than younger electors, we find that…

demography alone is shrinking the Leave majority by almost 500,000 a year, or 1,350 a day. As the overall Leave majority in the referendum was 1,269,501, the effect is to cause the Leave majority to disappear on January 19, ten weeks before the scheduled Brexit day.

So, at the point of leaving, the majority for Brexit has disappeared. Now it’s a weird form of democracy that does not at least pause at this prospect, and check ‘Is this what you really want?’. Particularly when the deal on offer is manifestly worse economically than the status quo.



‘Everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile’

I just discovered Tim Jackson’s excellent website and blog, particularly this item with the above title. (Thank you, daughter.) Tim seems like the sort of economics thinker that we need so much, questioning the conventional wisdom that is not working, and pointing the way forward.

In the post he reminds us of Robert Kennedy and particularly his thoughts on the usefulness of GDP as a measure for the health of an economy.

The GDP ‘measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country… It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’

Robert F Kennedy, Kansas 18 March 1968

You can hear the Kennedy speech in greater length on the video included in the above blog item.

Tim goes on to identify a number of modern initiatives that give hope that the professionals in this area are really eventually going to move on from the obsession with GDP, which is stopping us from addressing many of today’s problems (I will not bore you by listing them all again). When will the politicians and media follow suit, one wonders? The obsession with GDP and ‘growth’ is still evidently pervasive in UK ‘mainstream’ discourse.

Of course, this is just one example of the modern business and political approach of managing by metrics, which gives the illusion of control, without actually addressing the real issues that need to be managed. Metrics can be useful, so long as you are aware of their limitations, and so long as they do not become the dominant factor in what you are managing.

As Tim reminds us, Robert Kennedy was assassinated a few months after his Kansas speech, while mounting his run for the US presidency. I well remember the devastating effect that event had on young people in the UK, including myself. Robert Kennedy seemed a beacon of hope in difficult times. How different history might have been…

Picture shows Robert Kennedy addressing a crowd in 1963, by Leffler, Warren K., via Wikimedia Commons

Sundown at Martin Mere

One of the delights of visiting WWT Martin Mere, Lancashire, in November is to see the feeding of the thousands of birds – ducks, waders, geese, whooper swans, with flocks of lapwings wheeling overhead, sometimes a starling murmuration, more geese and swans circling and descending gracefully onto the water,…

This is soon followed by the gradual descent of the sun to the horizon behind the mere, as the birds begin to settle for the night.

At such times all seems well with the world.

Black Tailed Godwit

A number of smaller birds were taking their chances in the mêlée of larger ducks, geese and swans at feeding time at WWT Martin Mere. I concentrated my camera onto these small waders, which turned out to be black tailed godwits. As waders go, they are reasonably large, much bigger than the delightful ruffs that were also scampering around.

Interesting features in these photographs are:

  • the comparatively huge feet of the pink footed goose in the first picture,
  • the seemingly transparent leg in the second picture and
  • the seemingly sinister coot in the background of the last one.

Sea Buckthorn

I was intrigued to know what was this colourful plant amid the marram grass on the sand dunes at Southport.

A bit of research shows that it is sea buckthorn. It is the plentiful berries that are so colourful, lit up by the low November sun. Like the marram grass itself, sea buckthorn has an extensive root system that is able to cope with the extreme environment of the sand dunes (which also helps to stabilise the dunes).

The featured image shows the berries, leaves and thorns closer up.

Southport pier

I tried a number of shots to get a good photograph of Southport pier. By far the best was this wide angle one taking in lots of sea and sand, reducing the pier itself to seeming insignificance.

The few breaks in the cloud, which is lit by low late afternoon sun, give colour in what might otherwise be almost a monotone picture.

You can see Blackpool tower on the horizon to the left of the pier.

Stubble field farmhouse

Today, after an unseasonably warm month, typical November weather has finally arrived – cold, wind, and rain. Yesterday afternoon, in marked contrast, we had balmy sunshine, giving wonderful light for photographs in the late afternoon.

I love the effect on this otherwise rather undistinguished Lancashire farmhouse, set on the edge of a stubble field.

Travellers in the Third Reich

The Rise of Fascism Through the Eyes of Everyday People

As one of a generation haunted by discovering the then-recent calamity of WW2, now disturbed by the rise in populism across the world, I found this a timely book by Julia Boyd.

It tells the story of the Third Reich through the eyes of people who visited or lived in Germany through the days of Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, its consolidation, the increasing drumbeats towards war, and the war itself.

What is remarkable is how many people gave the Nazi regime the benefit of the doubt, despite the clear signs, such as the centralisation of all power, rescinding of civil liberties and press freedom, the early concentration camps, the persecution of Jews, the burning of books (all in 1933) through to Kristallnacht (1938) and the subsequent descent into war.

Of course, the desire to avoid another war was a major part of this, and there is the interesting story of Neville Chamberlain’s vain attempt to make peace in Munich in 1938, and Hitler’s dismissive attitude to the whole affair.

The book presents an interesting story, perhaps a bit long-winded at times. It certainly opened my eyes to some things, such as the fact that Germany welcomed English and American tourists throughout the 1930s, and many found the country very efficient and friendly, except where they came face to face with the persecution of Jews and supposed non-aryans.

The stories from the 1920s and early 1930s show that, after making a fair recovery from WW1, Germany was not in a good place after the shock of the great depression. The arduous reparation terms imposed by the Allies at the end of WW1 were a major cause of German suffering and dissatisfaction. It seems that these were major factors in the rise to power of Hitler.

The evident parallel today is the rise of populism following the 2008 financial crash, and the subsequent failure to make due reckoning with its causes. The missing factor today is there is no sense of national persecution similar to that caused in Germany by the WW1 armistice terms.  

In the case of Donald Trump and the US, it is maybe too early to say how far the parallels go – but he clearly came to the presidency by exploiting white male dissatisfaction with the status quo that had come about – economic, racial and misogynistic. On the positive side, the US constitution appears to be much more robust in resisting over-centralization of power than was Germany in the 1930s.


In the groove

Human societies get so stuck in a collective mental groove, like a railroad track, that they cannot see a way out of the predicaments caused by being in that groove. Take ‘jobs’. As automation gradually replaces many of the jobs that make society work today, we worry about where the future jobs are going to come from. For instance, what are all those lorry/taxi/delivery drivers going to do to earn a living when transport is automated? How are we going to generate enough taxes to adequately provision the public sphere and feed those who don’t have jobs?

The only answer is to get out of the groove.

  • Why do we need a 5-day-week job, why not 4 or 3 days?
  • Why does everybody have to have a ‘job’?
  • Why not a basic income for everyone that provides for minimal subsistence?
  • Why do countries across the world need to compete economically, and thus drive down standards of living for everyone, can they not co-operate?
  • Why is money created to the benefit of banks, not of people or of governance?
  • Why can’t we have a more equal distribution of wealth?

The answers lie in the human imagination. History suggests that crisis precedes the inevitable change. It doesn’t have to be that way. There are enough intelligent people on the planet, but many vested interests that do not want things to change…

The same is of course true about other issues, such as climate breakdown and its consequent travails. The forward scouts (scientists) have long told us the bridge is down on the track ahead, and the train will go over into the ravine if we stay on this track. We just need the imagination to change track.

Featured image by Mississippi Department of Archives and History – via Wikimedia Commons


Alcohol and gambling

We were sent to Methodist chapel every Sunday in 1950s Lincoln – morning service and afternoon Sunday School. This gave a good grounding in bible stories and hymn singing, and table tennis at the social club. Two messages became memorably ingrained into us – the evils of alcohol and gambling.

In the later teenage years, we tried beer at the local pubs. It turned out to be a good social lubricant, especially for a quiet lad like me, and we soon learned not to drink too much – the effects were most unpleasant. At university I discovered wine and that was that.

Gambling was a different matter. My dad did the football pools every week, so I got to looking at the weekly sheet that he had to fill in. At the back I noticed the ‘fixed odds’ where you could bet on the outcome of particular matches. This seemed more attractive to me than the general lottery entered by my dad. I used to notionally fill it in and then check on the results – I usually ‘lost’. But I became aware of the inner ‘pull’ of fixed odds betting, so never tried it out for real. So I can understand the attraction of the fixed odds betting terminals that have been the subject of recent controversy in the UK, where the maximum stake in a betting shop is being reduced from £100 to £2. Good thing too.

Gambling is highly regulated in the UK yet, since the relaxation of attitudes in the 1960s, plays a significant part in the economy. My own attitude to gambling has changed little since the 1950s, apart from the odd raffle ticket. Maybe that’s one up to my teachers at Chapel, or down to a wartime-induced attitude of frugality.

At times I’ve come across people who became addicted to alcohol or gambling – for them, yes these things really are evil. And Alcoholics/Gambling Anonymous provide a necessary salvation.

Featured image from 1857 report by James Haughton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Squirrel silhouette

It’s a busy time of year for grey squirrels, gathering and hoarding ready for winter. We spotted this one high in the bare branches, perfectly silhouetted against the midday November sky near Marston, Cheshire. With strong backlighting and a maximum zoom shot, there’s no detail in its features. The result is a pleasing, almost monochrome composition.

The Business Plan for Peace – Building a World without War

For many years Scilla Elworthy has been putting forward her ideas for a plan for peace. Here Bruce Nixon’s excellent post reviews her recent book. It’s about time the media took more notice of the need to invest in peace, rather than in war.

Bruce Nixon

Scilla

As I begin to write, it is Armistice Day when we honour the dead on both sides of the conflict. The best way to honour all those who lost their lives in the Great War and subsequent wars would be to commit to end war for good. In her book Scilla Elworthy shows us how this can be done. Her key message is: War is past its sell-by date.

 

This is a marvellous book both visionary and, as the title implies, hard-headed and pragmatic. It’s based on years of practical experience of peace-making and the prevention of violent conflict.

Key Themes

 

At the heart of this book is the belief that humans have the capacity to evolve and become more humane. There is a growing change of consciousness centred in Europe and much of North America. Thus peace and a future without mass violence is possible. Journalists on…

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How to lead a good life, from an unlikely source

Here’s a wonderful post about how to live the good life, and learning from dogs. It’s so true.

Robby Robin's Journey

There’s no doubt about it, we’re not all going to agree on what constitutes a “good life”. Some people will measure a good life in terms of good health, some in terms of their wealth, some in terms of the strength of their circle of family and friends, and some by personal accomplishments. Others will measure a good life by the fulfilment they feel from contributing to making the world a better place, however small that contribution may seem. The list is long. As has become abundantly clear recently, we’re never all going to agree on what making the world a better place means, but hopefully we can all agree that making others feel good helps us feel good, too. That’s a good starting point. In fact, in Cynthia Reyes’ excellent blog post today, she makes the point that when life brings you disappointments and you struggle to get past…

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Gratitude

Daughter often sends interesting web links. The latest was this one How to Avoid Raising a Materialistic Child. Apparently, research shows that practising gratitude makes children’s attitudes less materialistic. Well of course it does.

Psychology Today defines gratitude: “Gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has—as opposed to, for instance, a consumer-driven emphasis on what one wants or thinks they need.” So it is also an antidote to consumerism.

Those messages to children to ‘say thank you’ are very important and need reinforcement by adults in their words and their behaviour. I know I used to think this was just a socialised habit that was meaningless; I now know it’s just so important. Gratitude is one of the main ways we connect with others, and with the natural world.

While researching this, I came across this excellent TEDxSF talk by Louis Schwarzberg – well worth the ten minutes run time, with some superb time lapse photography and inspirational messages – gratitude is the secret! The beauty of the natural world inspires gratitude for existence, gives meaning to life.

The Last Million Mile Men

It’s scary to think how much driving I’ve done in over 50 years since the late sixties. Probably not quite a million miles (that would be 20000 miles per annum), but getting well towards that. That’s about 28000 hours, assuming a probable average speed around 35mpg, or around 3500 average 8-hour days. So that’s nearly 10 years of possibly productive time devoted to driving.

There must be many of mine and the next generation who will ‘achieve’ the million miles over their lifetime. No wonder we have a problem with global warming and pollution! Now, driving is not unpleasant, but what could I have achieved in all that time spent driving?

But it is clear that these generations will be the last million mile men. The technologies are converging fast and change will happen fast – just as horses and carriages were supplanted by the motor car within a decade or so at the start of the twentieth century. Electric vehicles, order on demand and automated driving are inevitable. Only the rich and people in sparsely populated areas will bother to own cars – until driving is banned on many roads for safety reasons.

Just think of the advantages – unpolluted towns and cities, no hassle of car ownership, an end to 1.25 million global traffic deaths per year (WHO-2013), reclaiming of the suburban front garden for plants and wildlife, a new mobility for the old and disabled, the opportunity to work or read while travelling… Of course, there will be problems, like hacking could take in a whole new dimension of crime – but these should be soluble. In the end, economics should force the change.

Well, yes but… There is now that unpredictable variable of climate breakdown, with extreme weather events becoming ever more frequent. Those who can afford it may just like to hang on to their motor vehicles, just in case… But they won’t be million mile men.

PS Before feminists complain, I would say that I am using ‘man’ in its old sense to refer to both genders. It would spoil the alliteration to add ‘and women’ to the title.
And I know I haven’t considered truckers, the ten million mile men!

Barn Owl

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about owls. I was once quite stunned when an owl flew towards me down a dusky country bridleway, and then passed by within a few feet.

So yesterday it was something special when a barn owl (or Tyto alba) appeared at an RSPB ‘Raptor Watch’ event at Parkgate on the Wirral. Parkgate quay looks out towards North Wales over the marshes that comprise the estuary of the River Dee. The sun had disappeared behind the Welsh mountains, the light was fading fast and it was getting cold. The owl had come to feed.

Backwards and forwards he patrolled over the marshes, perfectly framed in my binoculars. Frequently he dropped down into the marsh grasses, disappearing from view, often just for a few seconds, only to reappear and resume the search. Then it was a longer period – he must have caught something. Suddenly a dark shape flashed by to where he had disappeared, reappearing seconds later, followed by the owl resuming his search. It seems a kestrel had stolen his dinner. This happened once again.

Mesmerised by the graceful spectacle of this huge bird hunting like a ghost in the fading light, it was only the cold that eventually forced us back to our van to warm up. The barn owl was still hunting, almost a spectre in the gathering dark.

I was too entranced to take the time to get the camera out – I knew that it was not up to getting decent pictures at that level of light. So I’ve searched Wikimedia Commons for pictures of barn owls in flight – here are some of the best. Click and click again to see a bigger image.

According to the RSPB, although populations declined in the 20th century, these birds are not currently under threat. Given that they feed on small animals they are clearly vulnerable to chemical farming.

Thanks to Steven Ward, Edd deane from Swaffham, I Luc Viatour, for making these images available on Wikimedia Commons.

Liver Birds

Liverpool’s Liver Birds enhance the attractive waterfront skyline at any time, but especially on an autumn afternoon, when a clear sun is at a low angle across the River Mersey. The mythical birds, believed to be representations of cormorants, have stood on the clock towers of the Royal Liver Building since 1911 (my grandfather worked for the company Royal Liver Assurance).

According to legend, the female looks out to sea, watching for the seamen to return safely home, and the male looks in to the city, watching over the seamen’s families. The birds face away from each other; if were they to mate and fly away, the city would cease to exist.

liver birds

Look at the full-size photograph and the image appears to not be horizontal. That diagonal line from the modern building in the foreground has completely messed up the perspective. Actually, I think it is pretty well true.

The interloper in the picture is unfortunately not a cormorant, but probably a pigeon.