Towards a Christian economics?

Elgin Hushbeck has responded to my recent post in the comments to his original article; this is my reply.


Sorry it wasn’t still fresh in your mind – I confess it took me nearly a month from first putting down some reaction to actually posting it; various other things kept intervening and it nearly didn’t get posted at all – but I didn’t want to waste the work…

Let me start with where we agree. As you note at the end, we agree that there is a problem when organisations get too big, and this goes for both companies and governments. It also goes for Labour Unions, which I think are a good thing unless they become too large and powerful (i.e. significantly more powerful than the organisations they are negotiating with). We definitely agree that a government in the pocket of large companies is an extremely bad thing, and that we have moved towards that over the last 50 years.

We also agree that a bargain between individuals is an extremely good way of establishing an equitable result, as long as the parties have a fair level playing field, i.e. neither has any duress applied to it to close the deal, neither is unable to walk away if a deal cannot be struck, and both parties are in full possession of all the facts (there may be more caveats on further reflection).

We also agree, I think, that when purely financial considerations drive an organisation, that organisation becomes toxic. I have had quite a bit of experience of organisations driven by cost accountants and MBA’s of the Harvard school (happily mostly from the outside), and they are every bit as nasty as I’ve described.

However, I don’t see the problems of short-termism and intolerable pressure to keep on producing more for less as flowing purely from the payment of performance bonuses, as you do; I think the root problem lies with a stock market which can respond within milliseconds to any perceived opportunity or risk, and where you have a market which works to a timescale of milliseconds, you are likely to be forced to think short term.  Performance-based incentives for CEO’s just makes things that bit worse. The system itself forces the actions of individuals; even if managers wish to be long-sighted, the demands of finance make them short-sighted.

That is, however, just an intensification of a tendency already inherent in the idea of a market in shares in large limited companies. Ambrose Bierce (one of your better American sceptics) said that the limited liability company was the greatest instrument of fraud ever invented by humanity; I would add that it is the second greatest instrument for dissociating an organisation from its ownership (the greatest being a representative democracy with a strong party system).

We also agree that attempts to create pure socialist societies have been, to a large extent, failures; we agree that they come up against the problem that people are not all paragons of civic virtue, and some of them will game the system, some of them will grab and hold power. However, you do not concede that moving closer to the idyllic concept of socialism would produce a society far better than the ones we live in, while you do maintain that moving closer to your idyllic concept of capitalism would do this.

This is where we completely part company. I don’t think that moving too far in either direction would be a good thing, and in particular I am absolutely convinced that removal of all restraints on capitalism would make things far worse.

The thing is, we have seen societies which have been substantially less regulated by government than either of ours now is, and indeed have seen some where there was absolutely minimal regulation. What results is the development of larger and larger organisations, the concentration of wealth (and power) in fewer and fewer hands (both of which Karl Marx observed would occur), the cartels and price-fixing which Adam Smith warned were a feature, as I quoted:  “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” , and the increase of influence of corporations over government, which both of us have observed and deprecate. It is the system itself which tends to monopoly and cartel, and not any particular failing of individuals beyond normal human nature.

Incidentally, the replacement of small shopkeepers by chains here has nothing to do with government regulation (which is far lighter on small businesses) and everything to do with economies of scale and cartels involving the chains and suppliers, i.e. the negative effects of an imbalance of power.

Yes, such societies can indeed “produce wealth” – indeed, it is the whole objective of their economic systems (and frequently of their governments as well). Without redistributive taxation and strong curbs on the power of corporations, however, in the absence of a labour shortage this wealth largely stays in the hands of a very few people and is of no benefit to the wider population. Both of our societies were far less regulated in the days of our respective industrial revolutions, and both saw the absolute degradation of labour and the rise of super-rich individuals until governments started to limit the power of the industrial concerns and provide for the mass of the population both by providing a safety net, by restricting the ability of the employers to make use of their disproportionate bargaining power and by legislating as to the conditions in which they were asked to work. Both produced appalling living and labour conditions for the workers, frequently worse than those they had had before moving to work in cities. I for one do not want us to go back to the systems of the early 19th century.

We definitely agree that monopolies are in principle a bad thing; where we disagree is that I see the likelihood of monopolies growing as regulation decreases, and you see competition as being a sufficient mechanism to stop that happening and even think that deregulation assists competition. While we agree that government-sponsored and protected private monopolies are a bad thing, we are not agreed, I suspect,  that there are no areas in which a government monopoly is beneficial.

I have in mind there that there are going to be natural monopolies in some areas – it is, for instance, inconceivable that it would be sensible for me to have two entirely different sets of wires connecting my house to two different electricity producers – and in those cases, if private companies are supplying my electricity, they need to be extremely strongly regulated. In fact, we now have here a rather artificial “market” in which a number of middlemen companies contract with individuals on the one hand and with electricity generators on the other, and “compete” with each other (which would never have happened without government intervention – without that, there would have been local monopolies and possibly a national one). I am unconvinced that this system actually delivers any benefits over and above the previous government-owned and run electricity monopoly. Rail transport is another area in which I am not convinced the current privatised system works as well as the former British Rail, which had to be formed when the previous private railway companies became insolvent and incapable of providing a reasonable service. The theory behind both these moves was hugely convincing, but the outcome has been fairly bad.

And, of course, I have not come across any advocates of privatising the defence of the country – though it could be argued that the USA has experimented with this with several private military contractors. I do not envy you that piece of privatisation!

This is a position I could well have reached (and in fact did) without years of reading the scriptures, and in particular the synoptic gospels, and within them the injunctions of Jesus to his followers. It is not too dissimilar from your own – that market forces are the basic way in which human commerce is best organised, and government should intervene primarily to ensure that competition is fair, though I think far more needs to be done by government than you do to ensure that fairness.

However, I see a different set of injunctions from Jesus. In particular I see a clear identification of the pursuit of wealth as evil; “you cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24), which is underlined by Paul “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). Jesus enjoins those who would follow him to sell all they have and give it to the poor (Matt. 19:21) or at least half of it (Luke 19:8-9) and asks followers to abandon their small businesses in order to follow him (Matt. 4:18-22).

Now you think that socialism taken to its extreme doesn’t work, I think that capitalism taken to its extreme doesn’t work (and largely agree with you as to socialism); I think both of us would have substantial problems thinking that following Jesus’ economic injunctions would work. If we did follow them, we would probably end up as itinerant beggars – but that is, I am wholly clear, what following Jesus demands when taken to its extreme. I can’t do it myself, and setting aside all arguments that it isn’t practical, that I have responsibilities I’d be abandoning and the like as self-serving excuses, at the root I am too scared to do it and lack the faith to trust that God would see that I was all right if I did.

So Jesus is suggesting that money is an alternative to God, i.e. a demon, and Paul is reinforcing that; Jesus then suggests that we renounce Satan in renouncing wealth and its pursuit (to paraphrase him).

Pope Francis put it this way in a recent address:- “Friends: the devil is a con artist. He makes promises after promise, but he never delivers. He’ll never really do anything he says. He doesn’t make good on his promises. He makes you want things which he can’t give, whether you get them or not. He makes you put your hopes in things which will never make you happy. … He is a con artist because he tells us that we have to abandon our friends, and never to stand by anyone. Everything is based on appearances. He makes you think that your worth depends on how much you possess.”

This all leads me to the position that free market capitalism, at least in the form it’s developed to, is an inherently satanic system. However, it’s the one we’re stuck with; the alternatives are perhaps theoretically attractive but can actually be worse in practice – it’s much like the Churchilian comment about democracy, which he said was a bad system, but better than all the others which had been tried.

I could, however, also point to a set of injunctions of Jesus which militate against putting faith in governments (or nation states); these too are at least potentially satanic. What I advocate is not to let either have free rein, but to balance the one with the other and in the process always have in mind that both are flawed, both are man-made, both are fallen.

Are Conservatives generous?

It’s been mentioned to me a few times (mostly by my conservative counterpart on GCP, Elgin Hushbeck) that conservatives are more generous than liberals. This is a claim I haven’t investigated previously, but it is definitely one which is apparently backed up by research in the USA.

On closer examination, however, I find that the situation might not be quite as the headlines taken off that and similar pieces of research claim. An article in Huffington Post, for instance, brings out the facts that one such study merely looks at tax deductible contributions, and rightly enquires whether this is a sound basis for assessing charitable giving; in particular it notes the fact that payments to churches are all considered charitable, and raises one issue involving the Knights of Columbus which casts doubt on the charitable nature of payments to churches.

In fact I’d be inclined to go much further than the article. What churches spend on evangelism, on the upkeep of buildings, on the teaching of religion, on the presentation of worship services and for the most part on personnel is not the kind of charity which liberals typically have in mind (which is payments to or for the benefit of the poor, the homeless, the sick, the disabled and those generally cast out of society). Most churches I know do not actually spend a very high percentage of their income on such objectives. I would therefore be inclined to disallow as “charitable” maybe 70-90 percent of giving to churches. In point of fact, I split my own giving, which currently goes about 30% to the church, 40% to charities for those target groups and 30% to education (which doesn’t necessarily satisfy my criterion). Although I do give rather more than 10% of my disposable income, the church doesn’t get a tithe of it.

A study reported in the Washington Post raises another problem with the research which is commonly used; it is based on a test of social conservatism rather than political conservatism. When purely political stance is taken into account, the study they quote reveals that political conservatives and political liberals give about the same amounts, but of course not necessarily for the same purposes; it is then arguable that the political liberals’ contributions are higher, as part of the political conservatives’ giving is for church purposes rather than strictly charity. Again, I note that while I’m politically liberal, I’m socially significantly more conservative in the way I act myself – I don’t, for instance, like the ease with which divorces are available, and I frown on people bringing children into the world without considering how they will be supported and brought up (not that I’d want to prevent other people doing these things, merely that I think they shouldn’t).

I don’t know of any comparable studies done in the UK. I fancy that the statistics might be somewhat different, as of our main churches, the Methodists have traditionally had a close relationship with the Trade Union and Cooperative movements (and thus with the Labour party), a very significant number of Catholics are left-leaning (locally to me they have provided several longstanding Labour councillors) and even in the Anglican church, which used to be called “the Tory Party at prayer”, I know a lot of left-leaning people, particularly clergy. Even if, as seems likely, churchgoers here give more than non-churchgoers, I suspect that the US assumption of churchgoers being politically conservative may not hold good, or at least not as good as it does in the States.

I therefore arrive at the conclusion that no, political conservatives are not more generous than political liberals. I wouldn’t want to argue that they were less generous, though…

A free market exchange of views…

Elgin Hushbeck has written an impassioned piece in favour of capitalism. I quote him at length:-

“One of the common criticisms of those on the left, particular the religious left, is that capitalism is an evil system because it treats individuals as commodities of momentary worth, rather than as people made in the image of God.  This is really just a self-serving definition that tells us more about the person making the claim than about capitalism itself.

One reason for this is that at its core capitalism is based on a mutual giving among individuals that is, at least ideally, freely chosen.  There is nothing in this that demands greed or exploitation.  Granted we live in a fallen world where people are not always driven by the highest motives, but this is a problem with all systems, from sports to science, movies to teaching, the private sector, government, and yes, even socialism. It is hardly limited to capitalism.  People are people, regardless of where they are.


There is nothing inherent in capitalism that makes men greedy or teaches them to exploit others, in fact if anything it is the opposite for capitalism simply seeks an exchange that is best for both sides, where what is best is determined by each individual.  Since it is based on mutual consent, it encourages people to be concerned with the needs of others, which I believe is one of the reasons those supporting capitalism are on average more charitable than those supporting socialism.”

Now, as Elgin is my opposite number from the Global Christian Perspectives webcasts (currently in hiatus pending new technology and a new format), and by “opposite” I mean in politics, theological stance and country (the UK and the USA being opposites at least from the point of view of the Atlantic), and he is therefore well aware of my take on capitalism; I still recall the expression on his face when I called free market capitalism “the System of Satan” (which I later elaborated on in a post of the same name). I have written other posts in a similar vein – “Depression, the System of Satan and the Devil’s Evangelism”, “Freedom with or without Property” and “What price Free Trade”.

Do I feel just a teeny bit targeted by that This is really just a self-serving definition that tells us more about the person making the claim than about capitalism itself.” ? Well, even if Elgin hasn’t read all those four posts of mine (and I’m not going to recapitulate them here – you can click through and read or reread them to see that I do have some very good reasons for thinking the way I do), I think it isn’t unreasonable to think I am, if not THE target, then part of the target. Mind you, it does seem possible that this is just turnaround, and he felt himself targeted as one of the “Devil’s Evangelists”. That would be fair enough, I suppose.

What, then, does it “tell you about me”? It seems to me that in writing it, Elgin meant to imply that my view of capitalists is an overly negative one (after all, he goes on to paint a picture of capitalists as benefactors of all…). What it should tell you is, I think, expanded upon in the four blog posts I link to, but Elgin hasn’t dealt with the contents of those, so I suspect he hasn’t read them. They would also tell him that I’ve reached my position largely due to reading and rereading the synoptic gospels.

But yes, it does tell you that I don’t regard capitalists as generally beneficial to humanity as a whole. For that I have good reason.

It tells you, perhaps,  that I read a bit of economics occasionally, in which people are either units of consumption, units of production or “wealth creators” (i.e. profit takers). Elgin himself is fond of saying that taxation is bad, because it holds back “wealth creation”.

It tells you that I’ve encountered (and advised) large companies governed by cost accountants, balance sheets and share prices, I’ve encountered (and advised) individuals ground down to unsustainable wages and then continually pressured to make more and work harder and faster for no extra benefit to them than that they keep their jobs while the capitalists they work for grow rich, and others thrown on the scrapheap of society as unemployable and therefore worthless, and somehow also morally reprehensible.

It tells you that I’ve seen societies in which the size of your bank balance is the main indication of your worth as a human being (and on both sides of the Atlantic that is increasingly true). It also, perhaps tells you that I spent a significant part of my life enslaved by the fear of loss of financial security and the need to make more (as I deal with in the second post above) and have only with substantial pain learned that that is a way to exist, but not a way to live.

But actually, if you read on in the piece I’ve quoted, it tells you not about me in myself, but about me not being a writer who confuses capitalism with a market economy – perhaps particularly a “free market economy”. Capitalism is about the ownership of the means of production by individuals, which in and of itself seems innocuous enough; you can have a capitalist economy with very restricted trade, as indeed we used to in the UK when mercantilism was the dominant economic model (and, for what it’s worth, I think the free market version of capitalism is significantly superior to the mercantilist version).

As with the rest of Elgin’s piece, however, he describes (in descibing a free market rather than a capitalist economy) an idyllic world in which everyone bargains freely for everything they want or need with others who merely wish to make a reasonable return for their labour, and if he actually lives in a world which generally operates like that, he is incredibly lucky and privileged.

Actually, in order for the bulk of his transactions to resemble the picture he paints, he must be truly privileged and have a significant disposable income as well. Those who are “scraping by” or who are dependent on low-paid employment in order to exist will not recognise that picture, wherever they live.

No society I have encountered actually operates that way. In small towns in the UK, some businesses certainly used to operate like that when I was growing up (though by and large not in cities), but not any more – that type of business owner has mostly been driven out of business by large companies, and those who survive, survive on the margins. Most typically this change is seen in the case of small retailers who have almost all fallen to the supermarkets and chain stores, which, of course, operate purely for profit; these may try to make their customers happy, but this is at the expense of their producers and their workers (and in the celebrated cases of Wall-Mart and others like them, the expense of the taxpayer who subsidises the workers’ poverty wages). Both their producers and their employees scrape along without any of the supposed benefits of a “free market”, the first because there is now nowhere else to sell to, the second because if they raise any objection they can be fired and instantly replaced by one of the millions of jobless.

His idyllic scene, of course, only works if we ignore the fact that (as he concedes)  “we live in a fallen world where people are not always driven by the highest motives”Better, I think, that we assume that people are not driven that way and be agreeably surprised if things turn out otherwise – but please, let us not make a virtue out of greed and exploitation. Elgin writes of an idealised (I’m tempted to say “fantasy”) capitalism, suggesting that greed and exploitation are not at the root of a free market capitalist economy, but this is not what conventional economic theory says; he claims “capitalism simply seeks an exchange that is best for both sides, where what is best is determined by each individual”. However. the form capitalism has actually developed to (which is probably properly described as “financialised capitalism”), does not remotely “seek an exchange that is best for both sides”, it attempts to extract the maximum price for the least possible overheads (and the wages of employees and the quality of raw materials are both overheads). Anything else hurts the bottom line, and impedes “wealth creation”.

This is traditional economic theory, which holds that the market is at its most efficient when individuals act rationally to maximize their own self-interest without regard to the effects on anyone else. In other words, it demands exactly “greed and exploitation”, and rewards both with bonuses for CEO’s and managers. This capitalism indeed does not “care what motivates a transaction” (as Elgin says later), but it also does not “care whether it is freely entered into by both sides” contrary to what he suggests – indeed, it prefers monopolies, particularly in goods which are necessities, and in labour relations it prefers that the option is “take what we offer or starve”. For example, our young people are increasingly forced to take “zero hours contracts” where they are at the beck and call of the employer, but the employer has no obligations to them.

It is unfortunately the case that in a free market businesses grow inexorably towards monopolies (or at least cartels) and as Adam Smith wrote “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” The result is that the ideal of the free market is distorted by the players in the market, until it stops being free, and until it takes at least partial control of government, as this article shows. The “wealth” (i.e. ownership) becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands until a very few people hold almost all the ownership and power – and money, and therefore worth as human beings.

It is also resolutely short term, because it is forced to be that way by the financial system which sees only the last balance sheet and profit and loss statement, and will take profits where it can, as there are always other bigger short term profits to be made than building for long term stability of a company. Whatever type of motivation people may have personally, finance-driven capitalism substitutes the law of the bottom line.

Elgin is, of course, right that at the root of much of this is the insurance companies, pension schemes and banks on which we normal human beings rely – and so very few of us are not in the end complicit in this system. Short term means that you do not want your employees to be loyal, just to work harder (they can always be replaced), you do not care about the environment (far too long term!), you do not care about quality as long as you can get people to buy (what, after all, are marketing and advertising for?). The fact that we are complicit, however, does not mean that the system is good…

Finally, he contrasts capitalism with socialism, which he states needs a strong central government, and suggests that as government restricts autonomy, this is axiomatically a bad thing.

Now, bearing in mind that markets (as we have seen) tend to produce monopolies, and monopolies are bad even from the point of view of the most ardent free-marketeer, and that capitalism tends to produce a smaller and smaller percentage of individuals with a larger and larger percentage of wealth/ownership, which itself distorts the market (a free bargain for something requires that you have disposable income sufficient to buy, which is increasingly not the case for a large proportion of society, and mere disparity in power to purchase negates any sense of free bargain), there is clearly a need for something to mitigate these effects (and the other negative effects I’ve mentioned above, including perhaps most strongly the short term perspective of everything), and as businesses and the markets are not going to deliver that, government must; that is to say the people acting as a whole by their representatives and employees must take a stand to prevent the domination of everything by a few corporations. Many of those corporations are now multi-national and have  wealth and power well in excess of that of some countries, so government must be at least that strong.

However, Elgin has a point with which I do agree. Just as corporations tend to get bigger, so does government, and the larger something is, the more remote it is from its ultimate owners even in a system of representative democracy. Just as by the time I have followed through the investment of my pension through multiple companies, my voice cannot be heard, so by the time my democratic vote has been filtered through a party system, a lobbying system and the necessary apparatus of civil servants my voice also cannot be heard (though it is there somewhat easier, as I can at least find where to meet my immediate representatives in person).

In addition, the financial power of big business, big finance and the very wealthy allows them to influence government in a way the ordinary individual cannot match, even in combination, just as it creates automatic distortion in markets. Elgin and myself are agreed that this is a bad thing, but he appears to consider that capitalism, left to itself, will produce a beneficial effect and that anything else is transferring power to government and is therefore axiomatically a bad thing. I consider that capitalism and government both are at least somewhat broken; capitalism needs restraining, but so does government – and we have, in theory at least, the means to restrain government via the ballot box.

I am thus very slighly hopeful, seeing the collapse of both our UK main political parties in infighting, that we may see a political restructuring here which may, just possibly, restore a small amount of control to the individual voter. Maybe in the course of that, the messages that bigger is not always better and that local issues should be dealt with by the people who live there may strike home. Perhaps, just perhaps, we could see the possibility that all of big business, big finance and big government might have their wings clipped.

It’s a small hope, but I need to nurture it.


What’s love got to do with it?

There are at the moment a set of posts on Patheos about the intersection (or not) of faith and reason. Many of them merit a read.

One of those which most connects with me is from Barry Harvey, who (to my mind rightly) points out that:- “When we talk about faith in relation to reason we naturally focus on its cognitive aspect, but this isn’t its only or most significant dimension. As Augustine noted, to believe in God is ultimately to love, delight in, and draw near to God, and to become a member of the body of Christ. The cognitive aspect does contribute to this understanding of faith, for we can only love, delight in, and draw near to that which we know. At the same time, however, we can never reduce faith to a set of abstract beliefs to which someone gives mental assent.”

I’ve complained about the identification of faith with intellectual assent to a set of propositions before. That is belief, in one sense of the word, but it doesn’t amount to faith, which (as Harvey and Augustine point out) is a matter of personal relationship with God. If I say, for instance, that I have faith in my wife, this is not saying that I accept a set of propositions about her. It is to say that I love and trust her.

And, of course, love is an emotion. For the record, I don’t think it can be a “second hand emotion”, referring to the song my title is drawn from; you can’t love someone second hand. In this respect, I tend to think that the evangelicals (who I normally don’t see eye to eye on on very much) are right in stressing the need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As they consider that Jesus Christ is the accessible aspect of God, this does not raise my theological hackles very much at all, though I might prefer to stipulate that what is required is a personal relationship with God. How someone conceives of God is, to me, much less important.

How, I ask, can you love someone you’ve never met? I don’t think that can truly be described as “love” – it sounds more like stalking to me – and yes, I think a lot of theologians past and present have been theological stalkers.

Is it rational, then? Well, frankly, of the set of options Patheos give, I would plump for “arational”. Love does not really have anything to do with rationality – it may be rational, it may be irrational, but that is supremely not the point.

So what I’m actually saying is “What’s reason got to do with it?”

From my editing work

“God’s healing power is mediated through prayer and Prozac, chanting and chemotherapy, meditation and medication, and hospitality and hospices.” (Bruce Epperley)

Going slightly loopy

File:Progressive infinite iterations of the 'Nautilus' section of the Mandelbrot Set.ogg

On 3rd June, the funeral of an old friend brought together a few friends who had known him and me since our university days, horrifyingly 40 years ago now, for an occasion which was partly sad, partly joyful (as he was possessed of a powerful sense of humour which ignored the bounds of taste and propriety, and a lot of stories about him were exchanged) and partly stimulating. In discussion afterwards, although I don’t remember any of shoes, sealing wax or cabbages being mentioned, pretty much any other topic you might think about was – and one was founded on Rob’s very wide set of interests, which had brought together people from many different spheres of life, some for the first time.

This was also a feature of our university life, as the group I traveled there with included people who had been part of the Physics, English and Geography departments, and probably the largest group there was musicians – Rob had been an enthusiastic and eclectic lover and performer of music. In conversation with Rob’s son Ruaridh, it seemed that these days, students tend to stick with people from the same department and frequently the same course. In our day, there were a lot of interlocking friendship groups which linked through Rob, through myself and through others of our group, or rather set of groups, due to our extensive ranges of interests (in which Rob and myself coincided in a fair few areas). I think it’s a pity that university doesn’t seem to produce that kind of varied friendship network these days. Mind you, this might well be because we seem to be pushing children to look to a future career in their choice of subjects earlier, and thinking of university degrees as vocational rather than as discursively educative.

Circles of friendship led to thoughts of loops, and recalled a post I wrote a while back about (inter alia) Douglas Hofstadter’s idea of “Strange Loops” ; Hofstadter was talking of feedback loops within our consciousnesses, and posited that these could well amount to working models (albeit simplified ones) of people we knew well – and I think few of us will not recognise the sensation of “someone else’s voice” (generally a loved one) telling us something. Rob was certainly very much alive in memory on Friday, and will be for many years to come. I may, indeed, have been channeling Rob when we came out of the chapel; someone asked “which way is the Links Hotel?” and I answered “left”. “How do you know?” they asked. “Because if it was to the right it would be the Rechts Hotel”…

And, having found myself talking theory of language and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on the way home, it was natural to keep thinking “loopy” thoughts. I don’t like the strong version of Sapir-Whorf, which seems to me to be self-evidently wrong; if you can’t formulate a thought without language, I can see no way in which you can start the process of developing a language. However, iteration would allow the use of rather vague words, and repeated use and development (in a kind of feedback loop) would make them more specific. I find that use of words is hugely facilitated by keeping them at least a little fuzzy in the definition anyhow!

Iterative procedures might well apply equally to concepts. Consider for a moment Niels Bohr’s model of the atom, which is actually still taught (because it’s clear and not excessively wrong), which was closer than the previous, but not as complete as the quantum mechanical model which followed soon afterwards. To quote the article “So why has the Bohr atom stayed around? “It gives us a good place to start the conversation about the composition of the atom,” says high school chemistry teacher Dr. Jason Dyke.” The replacement theory, which surrounds the nucleus of the atom with probability density clouds looking rather like inflatable cushions, still incorporates the basic concept that the nucleus is central and the electrons are dispersed around it.

Is this “the truth” of the situation? Well, if an iteration is involved, you start with a guess, feed it into an equation which you develop for the purpose and from  that generate a better guess. I can remember being overwhelmed by the beauty and simplicity of this process back in my teens, when I was introduced to the standard first example, finding a square root. You divide the number you’re trying to find the root of by the guess, average that result with your guess, and that produces your second guess. It converges fairly quickly on the value you want, to any desired accuracy – but it never quite gets to an absolute answer (you can test this by applying the process to a number you already know has a whole number square root, such as 4…).

If, as I suspect, this kind of process applies to all our thinking (and Hofstadter is right that our consciousnesses are the result of a set of feedback loops), it is never going to be possible for us to say that any model we have of a physical process is “the truth”, though we might well suspect that we are extremely close to it. I couldn’t therefore ever quite be a philosophical realist, at least not a scientific realist.

One product of this is the strong tendency in science for progress to take place largely by “fine tuning” some aspect of a Theory which has already proved itself by explaining most of the available data and by successfully predicting data which we didn’t have when the theory was formulated. As an example, every advance in the broad biological scheme which is the Theory of Evolution since Darwin has been a tweak, even such major changes as punctuated equilibrium and the “inheritance of acquired characteristics” through epigenetics.

But, of course, this all depends on the iterative procedure being convergent, i.e. the feedback loop damps rather than amplifies slight variations. A positive feedback loop is divergent, and is responsible for the scream as a microphone is brought too close to a speaker, thus amplifying any extremely slight sound round and round until the pained humans responsible turn it off or move the microphone away. There are also iterative functions which produce chaotic results, one of which is the Mandelbrot set. Are we looking at convergent iterations at any point? Only the results can show – if they start becoming more and more extreme,

How do we therefore know that the process we are using to refine our concepts is convergent, rather than divergent or chaotic?

With reference to the question of God, Richard Beck recently posted something apropos. Can we use a positive feedback model to characterise our developing concepts of God, and is God therefore a feature of our universe which can be, if not completely accurately, at least approximately described in full? Obviously, Beck reacts against this, as would probably anyone who feels strongly that God is beyond our comprehension in more than the technical way I describe above, that he is a mystery and must remain that way. The emotional part of me certainly feels that way, and the rational part might be inclined to go along with that; certainly that-which-is-God as experienced in peak mystical moments is something well beyond the ability of my reason to understand in full.

But my reason is not happy about anything being in principle immune to examination and clarification. What is more, hosts of present and past theologians have spent much time and ink in trying to establish what God is like, and therefore what God might do.

And, unless you are a Deist, who consigns God to something very akin to another force of nature, albeit one whose operation is more removed from our experience than science can examine (such as the “blind watchmaker” version of the uncaused cause of all), there must be some aspect of God which is capable of being examined, analysed and at least to some extent predicted. If none of these are possible, God cannot have any effect whatsoever in the universe as we now experience it; any effect is accessible to reason (even if reason cannot make complete sense of it…).

If this is the case (and I think it must be) then an iterative procedure should be capable of moving steadily closer to the reality of that-which-is-God, even if it can never capture that exactly, or capture the fullness of God (though I am minded of Col. 2:9, which says “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form… “). One might reasonably hope that the more recent the theology or philosophy, the closer to something reliable it may come. That is, unless the procedure is divergent, in which case the later models may diverge more and more from the original (which would perhaps be the position of the Biblical fundamentalist).

I suggest, however, that we do not really see either of these features when we press ahead with newer and more sophisticted theologies and philosophies; what we see is, in theology, an oscillation between the poles of immanence and transcendence (and theologies which privilege either at the expense of the other are hugely incompatible), and in philosophy an oscillation between singular (and incompatible) ontologies (such as materialism or panpsychism) with occasional forays into dualism (such as Cartesian dualism) .

This argues to me that we might be looking at a third type of iterative procedure, the oscillating iteration. In this kind of iteration, values converge not on one point but on two, and nothing will persuade them to “split the difference”; a point halfway between the two poles is more wrong than either of the poles is. I will grant that in mathematics the type of limit you get, convergent, divergent, wandering or oscillating, is very dependent on the way in which you set up the system, which might mean that we merely need to rethink our entire basis of thinking itself and we will have a singular end point. However, it may also mean (and for the time being, I think, does mean) that we are stuck with a dual reality, transcendent and immanent, matter and mind.

And we have to live with there being at least two equally “right” answers to everything…

(OK, the title gives it away – this may be just a loopy idea!).