Torn on Corbyn

20 Sep

The most important thing about Jeremy Corbyn is what he symbolises to the tens of thousands of people who have joined the Labour party since he became leader. After years of soulless Blairite pragmatism without principles, Corbyn represents a return to conviction and hope for radical change. In the unlikely event that Corbyn were to lose this week, most of these new members would probably break ties with Labour, and return to disillusionment and a sense of impotence. I don’t think the numbers inspired by Corbyn are enough by a long shot to win an election; but it’s still a huge number of people, and their energy and conviction could be a crucial part of a broader election winning strategy.

But the fact that Corbyn is genuine, and has political views we might like, should not blind us to the fact that he has proved extremely bad at the practical skills of leadership. After many years of being a backbench rebel, he has not taken well to the business of putting out press statements, formulating soundbites, putting together a simple narrative that gives people a sense of the party’s positive vision, etc. Of course, for those of us who like Corbyn, this rejection of conventional media just increases his personal appeal. But I’m afraid in the real world these are things you need to do if you want to cut through to the vast proportion of the electorate who don’t follow lefty politics on social media, and get their news by catching the odd line on the television or radio news.

This is all well-documented in Owen Jones’ heartfelt expression of concern. For me two things summed up Corbyn’s public relations problem. Firstly his demand the day after the EU referendum to immediately trigger article 50. This was a big moment, an important statement, and he clearly hadn’t thought it through, as he now admits. Secondly, in his interview with Owen Jones, Corbyn was asked what he could do to appeal to older voters, for whom Labour is not popular. His immediate response was that older people should be invited into schools to meet young people. At this point I was screaming at my laptop.

And the polls bear out the PR failure. I believe that someone with Corbyn’s politics could cut through and win an election, especially in these post 2008 times when people are seeking radical alternatives. But the reality is that Corbyn has not been on course to do this. Even before the leadership challenge Labour were consistently behind in the polls (occasionally neck and neck, very occasionally a point ahead), and Labour lost seats at the local elections and did significantly worse than under Miliband at the same point in the electoral cycle. An opposition needs to be way ahead at this stage to have a shot at winning. Under Miliband Labour was ten points ahead of the Tories mid-parliament, and still went on to badly lose the election. And Corbyn has had the worst personal ratings of any opposition leader ever. Yes, there has been a media bias against Corbyn. But that’s what’s going to happen if you propose radical alternatives, which is precisely why a radical opposition leader needs to have a high level of skill and ingenuity, especially regarding her or his media strategy. My concerns with Corbyn are not about his politics but his abilities.

And so I’m left not knowing who to vote for. I don’t want to halt the growing people’s movement that Corbyn represents. But I don’t think flesh and blood Corbyn himself is very good at his job. In my ideal scenario, Corbyn would voluntarily hand over the leadership to Clive Lewis in the near future, thus securing the movement under more capable leadership. But unfortunately that option isn’t on the ballot paper. 26 hours left to make my mind up…


Quantitative Analysis of Labour’s Leadership Problem

20 Jul

Guest post by Tom McClelland (a fellow consciousness comrade from the University of Manchester).


Did Blair Lie?

10 Jul

Last week the long awaited Chilcot report on the Iraq War finally came out. I’m sure everyone’s read enough commentary. All I have to add is this wonderful poem by Graham Danzein.


Did Blair lie?

You should expect most politicians’ lies.
And it is such a clanging word to use –
when fibs and fiddles come in every size –
for registering complaint of our bad news:
complicity with criminality;
attraction to intrusive action red;
to fixed intelligence a casualty;
hundreds, then thousands, reliably dead.
To talk of lies belies the truth, for thought
was Op-Ed stated: tyrants, like disease,
no longer shall refuse the western shot,
since freedom disinfects the needle holes.

You should expect most politicians’ lies,
and never trust them to philosophise.

The EU and Democratic Control of Capitalism

21 Jun

I am extremely busy at the moment, finishing my book and giving talks in UK, but I just wanted to write something short in support of the UK remaining in the EU.

My view is that the essential problem of our age is a crisis of sovereignty:

Although in many countries (imperfect) democracy has been achieved at a national level, global capital runs the show at a global level.

Countries are not free to set tax rates and regulation as they choose, because multi-national corporations pit nation and against nation in a race to the bottom. Our economic sovereignty has been handed over the market. The only way to reverse this trend is international co-operation, though institutions such as the EU. The forces of aggressive international tax competition keep economically feasible tax rates artificially low. If countries were to co-operate rather than compete –what I call ‘fiscal solidarity’ – we could eliminate these forces, ensuring a vastly greater proportion of profits go to schools, hospitals, infra-structure and education.

It is true that this is not the direction the EU is currently going in, but visionary economists such as Thomas Picketty (in particular read this manifesto) and Yanis Varoufakis are campaigning for such a radical re-imagining of the EU project. We should remain in and fight for this vision.

In the aftermath of the second world war Europe and the US took small but significant steps moved towards the democratic regulation of capitalism, including (relatively) high income and business taxes and strong regulation of markets. It worked, and lead to the most rapid period of growth experienced in human history, the so-called ‘golden age of capitalism’. People got richer, society got more equal, the 60s happened.

Then came the Thatcher/Reagan ideology. The idea was that if we set capital free by cutting taxes and regulation, we’ll all get richer. The result was huge inequality, mass homelessness, and a string of financial crises culminating in the crash of 2008. The Global Financial Crisis should have been the decisive end of uncontrolled capitalism, just as the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of state run communism in 1989.

But the lessons of the crash were not learned. And we are now living in scary times with people flailing wildly looking for answers outside of the mainstream, from UKIP to Golden Dawn to Donald Trump. The only solution in my view is to revert to the project of the post-war period: democratic control of capitalism. This project requires a radically re-imagined EU. A long shot, but I can’t see any other way forward.

This is why I’ll be voting remain.

Why I don’t believe I’m a Spacetime Worm

31 May

Imagine you’re having coffee with your best friend; for the sake of discussion let’s call her ‘Basil’. According to common sense, the whole of Basil is present with you in the coffee shop. (If you’re facing her then you probably can’t see the back of her head; but it, and the rest of her, are before you nonetheless.) Now there is a peculiar philosophical position – known as ‘four-dimensionalism’ – which denies this datum of common sense. According to four-dimensionalism, you’re sharing the coffee shop with only one tiny bit of Basil. And that’s because Basil is spread out over time; she is a ‘spacetime worm’.

Suppose Basil was born in 1992 and will die (let’s be optimistic) in 2092. If four-dimensionalism is true, then the human being that is Basil is a four-dimensional object stretched out over these 100 years. And thus only one tiny slice of Basil, one ‘temporal part’ of her, is in the coffee shop with you. As four-dimensionalist Ted Sider vividly put it, if you wanted to embrace the whole of somebody, you’d have to cling to them from cradle to grave.

It is clear that four-dimensionalism is counter to common sense. But many philosophers believe that modern physics, in conjunction with various philosophical considerations, give us reason to think that it’s true. In this post I want to share my reasons for thinking the view cannot be true; or at least for sincerely hoping that it isn’t.

The basic argument is quite simple:

  1. My conscious experience is not the conscious experience of a spacetime worm.
  2. Therefore, I cannot be a spacetime worm.

There is at least one thing I know with certainty to exist, and that is my own conscious mind as it is right now. That thing which I know with certainty to exist – my conscious mind – is currently having an experience of a table with a laptop on it, beyond that a window, traffic outside, and a couple arguing in Hungarian in the next apartment. I am certainly not experiencing events of my childhood or of my life at the age of sixty four.

Now consider a Philip-like spacetime worm which is stretched across (let’s hope) seventy or so years of time. That Philip-like spacetime worm is certainly not having the experience I have just been describing; if it is conscious at all it is having some kind of weird consciousness involving all of the experiences of my life. But that is not my consciousness; it is not the consciousness of that thing which right now I know with certainty to exist.

In a recent article Josh Parsons has drawn attention to this point, but offers a solution: I am not a spacetime worm, rather I am a temporal part of a spacetime worm. The thing which has my conscious experience, the thing I know with certainty to exist, is just one tiny slice of the Philip-like spacetime worm stretched over seventy years of time. This is a coherent view, and it might be true. But I hope to God it isn’t. Because on the four-dimensionalist view such temporal parts do not exist for very long at all. Human-like spacetime worms are stretched through fairly long periods of time; enveloping many temporal parts. But the temporal parts which could be plausibly thought to have human experience last no more than a couple of seconds each.

Thus, if Parsons is right, then my conscious mind, that thing I know with certainty to exist, won’t be around in a couple of seconds’ time. It will be replaced by some other conscious mind which will be very similar to it, which will share its memories, but which won’t be me: the thinking, feeling thing I know with certainty to exist right now. This is precisely the content of the fear of imminent death: the fear that I won’t exist in the near future. If four-dimensionalism is true, then there is a very real sense in which I am dying every second.

It is not yet clear whether scientifically-based philosophy can provide us with overwhelming reason to believe four-dimensionalism. Until matters become clearer, I reserve my right to hope that four-dimensionalism isn’t true.


The Desire for Low Taxes has nothing to do with Freedom

30 Apr

The demand for freedom is a powerful rallying call. The economic right often portrays its relentless demand for ever lower taxes as a fight for freedom from ‘big government’. One problem with this framing is that money is itself a kind of freedom; financial freedom is freedom to have and to do. The poor have few options, and this is a perfectly good sense in which their freedom is severely constrained. When we reduce (or even abolish) redistributive taxation we take financial freedom from the poor and give it to the rich.

The real concern of the economic right is not with freedom but with property rights. Their fundamental resentment is the state taking ‘our money’. The most worked out defence of this position is due to the philosopher Robert Nozick, in his classic work ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’. Nozick thought of property rights the way most of us think of basic human rights. Just as it is a fundamental duty of the state to protect our basic human rights, so for Nozick it is a fundamental duty of the state to protect our property rights. If the disadvantaged suffer, or are even left to die, then that is regrettable. But for Nozick no evil is so great as to justify the state taking even one penny of our property away from us (beyond what is required to fund the most basic functions of the state, such as the police).

In other words, Nozick thought that the protection of property rights is more important than human happiness. Does that makes sense? Jesus famously said ‘The Sabbath is made for man; and not man for the Sabbath.’ His point was that the religious authorities of his time were fetishizing religious institutions and traditions, putting them above human happiness when the very purpose of such institutions is to serve the spiritual nourishment of people. I think a similar charge can be levelled against the economic right. The right to property is not some natural, sacred thing that exists independently of human conventions and legal practices, and which we are obliged to shape our laws to protect. Rather we create property rights, by setting up legal institutions which ensure that people have certain legal rights over the material world.

Given that we create property rights, we can shape them as we choose. We could make the legal right to property as inalienable as the right to life, and thus rule out the possibility of taxation. Or we could make the right to property a qualified right, conditional on the payment of taxes. The only question we need to ask is which of these possibilities better serves human happiness or other considerations of justice.

There is obviously room for debate about how much redistribution is economically feasible, and about which things are better left in public/private ownership. But when we remember that property rights are manmade, we appreciate the full range of possibilities available to us; we are empowered to create a system of tax and property which serves the betterment of human kind. In contrast, when the economic right declare that ‘Taxation if theft’, they inculcate the idea that property rights are natural rather than manmade, and as such are unchanging and inflexible; to be respected even if this is at the cost of justice or happiness of 99% of humanity.

This point is subtle but crucial. In a democracy the wealthy must continuously find ways of getting the poor to vote against their interests; of creating what Marx called ‘false consciousness.’ After the 2008 financial crisis the fetishization of debt was used to distract low and middle earners from the fact that they were paying for the mistakes of bankers. The fetishization of property rights is a much more pervasive source of false consciousness. It is a way of making the current distribution of wealth and property seem natural and inevitable; a matter of what people have an inalienable right to. In fact, the system of property and taxation is manmade. We have the power to shape it as we choose.


Debating Wittgenstein’s Private Language Argument

4 Mar


Yesterday Professor Hanoch Ben-Yami and I debated Wittgenstein’s famous ‘Private Language Argument’. In this argument Wittgenstein tries to refute the idea that there are inner experiences which have no logical connection to behaviour, by arguing that we could not refer to such ‘private entities’ in language or thought. If this argument is sound, my entire approach to consciousness is incoherent.

Above is the recording of the debate, and I’ve cut and pasted below the information from my PowerPoint. We present our positions for 15 minutes each, before debating it at length. It’s too early to say who won, but the results should be clear in 150 years or so.

Slide One: The Acquaintance View

Below is the essence of my view in three propositions:

šGrasping properties – At least some properties can be grasped, where one grasps a property iff one understands what it is for the property to be instantiated, e.g. one grasps sphericity iff one understands that for something to be spherical is for all points on its surface to be equidistant from its centre.

šGrasping simple properties – Some simple properties can be grasped, even though what is understood in grasping them cannot be expressed in more fundamental terms, e.g. existence, possibility, necessity, causation.

šAcquaintance – In normal circumstances, when a person P attends to a sensation S that she is currently having, P thereby grasps S, i.e. it is a apparent to P what it is for someone to have S, e.g. when I attend a certain pain it is apparent to me what it is for someone to feel that way.

Slide Two: Making Sense of Reference to Sensations in Thought

Here is the key passage of Wittgenstein’s argument:

š‘How [is an ostensive definition possible]?…– Well, that is done precisely by the concentrating of my attention; for in this way I impress on myself the connexion between the sign and the sensation. – But “I impress on myself” can only mean: this process brings it about that I remember the connexion right in the future. But in the present case I have no criterion of correctness. One would like to say: whatever is going to seem right to me is right. And that only means that here we can’t talk about “right”‘ (Philosophical Investigations 258).

šMy Response –  The attention to sensation S fixes reference in virtue of its allowing me to grasp the nature of S.

šA coherent scenario – A person with radically defective short term memory might at time T1 grasp sensation S1, and at T2 grasp a sensation S2, and mistakenly judge that at T1 and T2 she grasped the same property.

šTherefore, I see no reason to accept that ‘whatever is going to seem right to me is right’. Even though sensations are ‘subjective’ (just in the sense that they are states of subjective experience), it is perfectly objective which sensations I have, and consequently which sensations I grasp.

Slide 3: Making Sense of Reference to Sensations in Language

š1st Problem – One’s access to sensations is private, whereas language is public.

š2nd Problem – Whereas paradigmatic thought about sensation is extremely precise, any public language term for a sensation refers to an extremely broad and vaguely specified range of sensations.

My response to these problems:

šThe move from reference to sensations in thought to reference to sensations in language is dependent on:

šA/ The fact that sensations have a certain causal role, i.e. they are typically caused by certain sensory inputs and cause certain behavioural outputs (but I don’t think we need to suppose the connection between sensation and causal role is conceptual, or even necessary)

šB/ The anti-skeptical assumption that ceteris paribus sensations which play the same causal role (in different humans) are similar.

Slide 4: The Problem with Practice

šThere is some number, n, so huge that human beings will never apply ‘+’ to it.

š’x quus y’ = x + y if x, y < n, and = 5 otherwise

šHuman practice does not determine whether humans mean plus or quus by ‘+’

šWhat the solution? Phenomenal intentionality, i.e. the intentionality intrinsic to consciousness.