“No man is an island”

It’s a fact that we might be loath to accept, but the act of experience changes the constitution of reality.  Indeed, no fact exists in glorious isolation – even as an act of self-knowing that seeks no other point of reference: “I think therefore I am”.  Tellingly, there is an artificial objectivity in this rank subjectivity: to set thought apart as a ‘thing in itself’.  Furthermore, there is an underlying subjectivity in our ambitions to know the world objectively – for the idea of a factual firmament existing apart from our knowledge requires a momentous act of imagination.  The point is that neither the subjective nor the objective does justice to the knowledge that is now a blend of both, and anything we purport to know outside of that ‘now’ amounts to a speculative abstraction.  Similarly, it is unrealistic to say that the truth must be ‘one thing or another’ – since all the evidence tells us that ‘the reality’ is both one thing and another, and there is no static world that sits in the middle – except when construed as a point of reference for the understanding of what has become.  How else are we to understand the fact of an insensible universe that is knowable by a part of it, a lesser part at that, but which is nonetheless sufficient to confirm that the reality is now both conscious and unconscious?  Then what might a greater ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ amount to?  What might make humanity more than a passive cog in the mechanism of nature?  Alternatively, what technical possibility allows a biological ‘mind machine’ to deceive itself with its beliefs?

The trouble is we are inclined to hang onto truths as representatives of the whole truth, as if our experiences cannot fail to guide us – as if change is wholly predictable from the fact of what is.  However, change also bewilders us.  For instance, are we to assume that the biological facts, in making us what we are, actually recognise this fact of themselves without the intervention of ‘our assumptions’?  On the other hand, ‘the whole’ that is more than the sum of its parts remains nothing apart.  So what gives the biology beliefs and ideas about itself?  What allows us to imagine that there is more to thinking than the physical functions of the brain – even though there is nothing else to see when we stay focused on the brain alone?  And what obliges us to believe in ourselves, to see nothing beyond the empire of our humanity in the facts of culture and biology?  But where would culture be without imaginative thinkers like William Shakespeare or John Donne?  Therefore, whilst it remains true that Shakespeare drew inspiration from his surroundings, it doesn’t mean that we can explain his contribution analytically – as if his creativity is no more than a summation of mindless causes that can reproduced by a suitably programmed machine or replicated at random by the antics inside a suitably equipped ‘infinite monkey cage’?  Likewise, the immortal meaning in John Donne’s dictum is both distorted and diminished in being detached from its original context of belief which reaches out to the wholly inexplicable possibility of a yet higher purpose.

Mike Laidler

 

Defining democracy

It is said that actions speak louder than words, but the subtleties of context and meaning are honed to perfection through the power of language as it channels ideas into deeds.  Indeed, civilised life relies upon words taking control of muscles, and to this day politics manages the delicate balance between the two – with various persuasive methods serving to manipulate mass action in the cause of adopted truths.  Even liberal democracies institute systems of leadership and control to curtail freedoms in the name of ‘the greater good’.  In the event, democracy is legitimated by the idea of it, which doesn’t necessarily translate into bowing to the voter’s express wishes.  A crude example surfaced with ‘Boaty McBoatface’.  In 2016 the British Government’s Natural Environment Research Council invited the public to name a new polar research vessel, but the Council couldn’t countenance the outcome when ‘Boaty’ topped the list of chosen names by a wide margin, so they demoted the public’s choice by deciding to assign it to one of the on-board submersibles.  This democratic slight is significant precisely because it is so trivial, because the Council stood to lose nothing by acceding to the popular vote – except for the loss of face.  The name finally chosen, The Sir David Attenborough, was selected by the Council in allowing itself the final say.

Governments govern in the same fashion.  Voters in ‘proper’ elections are given the impossible task, made ‘possible’ because they accede to it, of being required to assent to a raft of issues loosely held together by manifesto pledges that ‘their’ elected government will deliver on its promises.  But governments are subject to their own internal politics which can lead to changes in their policies, priorities and captainship – sometimes leaving the electorate with a leader they didn’t vote for.  In reality, votes count most when they reflect societal norms and values carried by an ‘implicit manifesto’, usually defined by the language of money – the reality being that governments and the electorate alike find that their choices are curtailed by ‘their’ spending power in a world where borrowing money is a fact of life and investment (qua money) is seen to make money.  Consequently, successive governments have taken the liberty of borrowing mountains of money over the years in the name of necessity – defined on an ad hoc basis by the rule of ‘as and when’.  Afterwards, the public are left wondering why their taxes never seem to stretch whilst forgetting that substantial amounts have to be spent on servicing the wealth of lending cartels and other vague repositories of virtual money which can hold the ‘wealth of nations’ to ransom.

The occasional referendum appears to give voters exactly what they vote for.  The UK’s ‘Brexit’ referendum asked people if they wanted to ‘remain’ in the European Union, or ‘leave’.  The choice was clear cut, but complicated by the government’s expensive publicity blitz which described the EU as ‘reformed’ – a nuanced misnomer suggesting the EU had changed when it hadn’t.  The issues were shrouded in dubious delineations from the start, although the electorate applied their own interpretations and voted to leave.  The ‘apple cart’ was really upset when the unprecedented skirmishing continued after the vote, after it transpired that there was no formal policy on what leaving was supposed to mean – so the idea of a second referendum was mooted.  Also it was rumoured that Brexit could become Brino (Brexit-in-name-only).  Some politicians claimed that the existing referendum had been legitimated by the encompassing general elections, when the public had two opportunities to vote-out the whole idea.  Throughout this political wrangling the electorate had been assured that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.  Of course the word was absent from the dictionary, but then the dictionary has yet to be written in which every word simply means itself.  Meanwhile voters are constantly being reminded that ‘the right thing to do’ is, by definition, the right thing to do – implying they don’t need to be asked to vote on it.

Mike Laidler