A few months ago I took a three part bbc series with me to India to watch. It is called ‘All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace’ and is fascinating. The filmmaker’s thesis is that a number of popular theories currently underpinning so much of our lives are based on an entirely false premise. Our sick financial system is examined in episode 1, and features mad Russian philosopher Ayn Rand and her acolyte Alan Greenspan, and suggests that American policy was shaped by Greenspan’s obsession with Ayn and her ideas; and the theory of ecosystems, which I was brought up to believe are self-correcting and will maintain a perfect balance if left alone, is blasted to smithereens in episode 2; and the selfish gene is exposed as a fallacy in episode 3 (poxy Richard Dawkins is now ringleader of this particular bandwagon), and human beings are not, in fact, little more than programmable machines dominated by selfishness.

Basically, the rule of law in the universe is chaos (according to the film maker) and however much scientists may long to impose or uncover some kind of underlying system or balance, it just isn’t there. Just because a machine can be programmed, it doesn’t mean human beings can. If you haven’t seen these programmes, you are in for a treat. (Thanks to Phil for giving them to us.)

Anyway, I thought about this series today after I came across a list of one-liners about various philosophers I downloaded from the In Our Time site at the BBC (I’m a big fan). It started me thinking about how we love to come up with potted histories and simple descriptions of things (the ‘profound’ as opposed to the ‘vast’). Even Khyentse Rinpoche used to say that if you were asked at a dinner party what Buddhists believed, the short answer would be that where there are a certain set of causes and conditions, if there is no obstacle, there will be a result. Which I repeated ad infinitum because I am a sucker for pithy one liners. Here are a few which may be useful if you get stuck on a table of philosophers over Christmas, but lack the requisite quantity of mind-numbing substances to get through without uttering a word.

Thales (c.585 BC) – Everything is made of water
Pythagoras (c.570-495 BC) – The universe is underpinned by mathematics
Heraclitus (c.535-475 BC) – Everything changes, fire is the basic matter of the universe
Parmenides (c.510-450 BC) – Nothing changes, change and motion are illusions of the senses
Confucius (6th/5th century BC) – Founder of Confucianism; the highest moral ideal is jen (humanity or goodness) which is achievable by all; the rites and traditions of society are to be followed but not without question.
Gorgias (c.485-380 BC) – founding Sophist; believed there is no truth, only argument; mastered the art of rhetoric
Socrates. Socrates (469-399 BC) Said “All I know is that I know nothing” and yet was prepared to die for his beliefs. Saw philosophy as the pursuit of moral good.
Aristotle (384-322 BC) – The first scientist; emphasised direct observation of nature and believed that theory should follow fact. Hugely influential on Islam, Christianity and Judaism; also tutored Alexander the Great.
Epicurus (341-271 BC) – All sensations are true; pleasure is our natural goal.
Zeno of Citium (335-263 BC) – founder of stoicism; pointed out that humans have two ears and one mouth so should listen more than they speak.
Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) – Reconciled faith and reason for the Christian church.
Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) – Political philosopher and father of Realpolitik; believed morality is subordinate to power. Set down his ideas in The Prince.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) – people are inherently selfish and need strong governance, otherwise anarchy will reign and life become “nasty brutish and short”. Such social contract thinking influenced Rousseau, Spinoza and Locke.
Rene Descartes (1596-1650) – Declared Cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) as the only proposition not open to doubt. A dualist, he separated mind and matter as incompatible substances.
Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) – Pantheist; believed the universe to be a single substance with infinite attributes; God and nature are therefore the same thing. Influenced German idealism, especially Goethe
John Locke (1632-1704) Founder of British Empiricism; the mind is a tabula rasa (a blank canvas) in which knowledge arises from sensation and is perfected by reflection. Science is possible because the senses faithfully represent reality.
Baron Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716) – Claimed we live in the best of all possible worlds; believed the universe possessed a divinely established harmony and developed the calculus to unlock how it worked.
George Berkeley (1685-1753) – believed matter cannot exist independent of perception, thus reality only exists in the mind. However, God organises sensations to give the impression of a real world.
Voltaire (1694-1778) – Enlightenment rationalist; based religious tolerance on empirical scepticism – if we cannot know things ourselves, we cannot persecute those with whom we disagree.
David Hume (1711-76) Reason is subject to the emotions; knowledge cannot go beyond experience.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) “Man was born free but everywhere he is in chains”. Philosopher of the French Revolution.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) “Act as if the maxim from which you act were to become through your will a universal law” (Kant’s Categorical Imperative or moral law).
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) – Founder of Utilitarianism; believed morality was a question of ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number”.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) – Man is a slave to his will, pleasure is merely the absence of pain
Karl Marx (1818-83) – “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55) – Suffering is necessary; the individual must stand alone against the crowd.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) – God is dead; man is governed by the ‘will to power’.
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) – Analytic philosopher; argued philosophy should be conducted with the rigour of science; masterful logician.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) – Analytic philosopher; philosophical problems are primarily confusions about language; language is a game without formal relationships to reality.
Gilbert Ryle (1900-76) – The mind belongs to the body and is not “a ghost in the machine”; philosophical problems are usually problems of language not logic.
A.J. Ayer (1910-89) – Meaningful statements must be empirically verifiable; otherwise they are simply expressions of like and dislike.
Karl Popper (1902-94) – philosopher of science; conceived the falsification principle – a claim must be capable of being proven false to be a proper scientific theory.
Jean Paul Sartre (1905-80) – Grand existentialist; “Man is condemned to be free”
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) – Meaning is internal to language; language must be deconstructed to reveal how its assumptions and ideologies masquerade as reality.

6 thoughts on “Chaos

  1. I agree the idea of magical markets à la Rand – daft
    The idea of ecosystems producing magically ‘good’ results’ – daft
    But that doesn’t leave ‘chaos’ – and especially if you assert a system of cause and effect, you are also asserting a system of ‘rules’ in which these causes have inevitable effects
    (unless other causes … etc)

    The whole point of Kant’s ‘Critique of Practical Reason’, and of the investigations of – say – science are to establish a way of finding out what exactly those ‘rules’ are

    …. markets *do* function according to some sort of order (big supply low price etc), and evolution – selfish genes or whatever – does function according to some set of rules

    > however much scientists may long to impose or uncover some kind of underlying system or balance, it just isn’t there

    Any scientist worth his salt is very skeptical – *especially* about the model he builds of ‘reality’. He doesn’t ‘impose’ anything. This view of science is sort of ‘Daily Mail’ level and maybe applied to the 19th century empiricist, but is at least 100 years out of date.

    Soooo…. open mind, would like to see the programs, but it sounds like bollocks 🙂

  2. … and nice to hear from you too Janine.

    I think the point I would make is that there is a very, very important distinction between the a priori ‘truths’ (nonsense) of Rand and Gaian ecologists, which depend on magical thinking and Dawkins who is attempting with skeptical thinking to approach a better model of how evolution works.

    That ‘real’ reality is more complex than any model is another matter.

    If the programs attempt to make us skeptical – also and especially about a naive belief in science – than that would be very good.

  3. And I’m sure you’re right, Joe. Thanks again for your comments and I hope you’re well. Andreas just showed me the video of you playing your flute, which I really enjoyed.

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