These are some notes from the festival How the Light Gets In, held in Hay on Wye 24-27 May 2019. The festival’s starting point is philosophy, although the talks cover a wide range of subjects including science and politics.
I’ve included the short talk description from the festival programme in italics at the beginning of each summary (unfortunately the programme is no longer available online).
Mark Salter: The Meaning of Pain
Have we got pain wrong? Is something awry with how we understand suffering? Consultant psychiatrist Mark Salter draws from his experience treating patients to make the case that the West has made a mistake.
Pain is a complex thing. Like the word love, pain has several meanings. It is a sense, an alarm mechanism at the level of the body. Another meaning of pain is experience. The famouns quote from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenena says it “All happy families are the same, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Our pain defines who we are.
The third meaning of pain is as a social language communicator. It tells you about your relation to the world. When a woman gives birth she experiences extreme pain, but then when she cuddles her baby the pain is forgotten – the baby modifies the experience. Pain is a teacher.
Different experts see pain differently. Psychiatrists are lucky in they can get to know the whole person.
Acute pain and chronic pan are quite different. Acute pain causes us to call for help, and others to give it. Chronic pain causes depression and resignation. It is a terrible thing.
We can experience pain from seeing the external world, for example tsunamis, earthquakes, wars. Also from experiencing other people – hell is other people, when you don’t agree with them.
The emotional part of the brain is next to the remembering part of the brain. Remembering is emotional.
Increasing fear in the world (e.g. from Brexit and climate change) is freezing our ability to act. “Fear like frost will freeze the stuff of thought.’.
What can we do about it? Stop over communicating, don’t reach for your phone the first second you wake up. When trolled, understand the person doing the trolling is in pain. For 5 minutes a day put your phone down and watch a tree. Watch how you feel. What are you doing? Saving the planet. Practise being uncomfortable in tiny amounts. Sit still. Listen to the pain and sadness in your body. Find people you disagree with. Talk to them. Reach out. Stay with it. Feel hunger and enjoy feeling it.
Pain is a great teacher, listen to it. [During the Q&A a GP asked a question about the link between mental and physical pain. The answer was that 60% of visits to the GP are related to unexplained pain, a large proportion of which have a mental component related to lifestyle.]
Linda Yueh: The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today
Economist and former BBC chief business correspondent Professor Linda Yueh looks at the thinking of the great economists who changed the world and asks how their ideas can help us tackle issues such as Brexit, globalisation and Trumpism as discussed in The Great Economists: How Their Ideas Can Help Us Today.
This talk was based on her book about the “great” economists. She suggested that the ideas from these economists could help us solve the big challenges of today. These are:
An observant reader might spot a tiny omission from this list. Climate change. She didn’t mention it in her talk either, and I must have been in holiday mode as I didn’t notice until after, and had to go back and check my photos of her slides that it wasn’t on there. So it’s not clear whether she thinks either that climate change is not one of today’s great economic challenges, or that great economists have nothing to teach us about it.
She told the interesting story of why Irving Fisher is not more widely known or highly thought of (he had the misfortunate to predict that the US stock market had reached a “permanently high plateau just prior to the 1929 Wall Street crash). But the talk was mainly interesting for providing contrast to the other talks.
Anatole Kaletsky: Economics and Uncertainty
How might the current political uncertainty be affecting the economy in ways we cannot yet see? Is capitalism – felt by many to be failing – going to make it through the next few decades? Eminent economist and author of Capitalism 4.0, Anatole Kaletsky charts the road.
Kaletsky started by talking about the history of capitalism. It can be divided into several broad periods, during which there was either faith in the power of markets to generate a good outcome for society and disillusion with government, or vice versa.
He showed some fascinating charts. They showed the growth of the UK economy in:
- the period from 1960 to joining the EEC in 1975. In this period, while other European nations were catching up with the United States after WW2, the UK was falling further behind. It was the “sick man of Europe”
2. the period from 1975 to the start of the single European market in 1993. During this period the UK kept pace with other European nations.
3. the period from 1993 to 2017. Surprisingly, in this period the UK economy was the best performing of any rich nation in the world, including the US. Kaletsky suggests that this was largely down to the European single market, which Margaret Thatcher negotiated. The single market was pushed by the UK not France or Germany, and its rules favoured the UK which is strong in services.
Kaletsky talked about Brexit, as an example of uncertainty in economics. He talked about “project fear” and the projection at the time of the 2016 referendum that every family would be several thousand pounds a year (£4k?) worse off if Brexit happened. He said this is thought to have been debunked. But actually the projection was for 15 years in the future. To come true the UK economy would have to grow at a rate around 0.5% slower than it would have without Brexit. Over the last 3 years the UK has grown at a rate around 0.5% slower than the trend rate before the referendum, so in fact the projection is exactly on track so far. This is not a disaster but is a significant effect.
He recognised that GDP on its own is not a good way to measure the success of the economy, and also that climate change is a huge economic problem, but the talk was not about these subjects.
Paul Mason: Clear Bright Future
How do we preserve what makes us human in this age of uncertainty? Broadcaster and author of PostCapitalism Paul Mason covers markets, algorithms, neuroscience and protest to put forward his new case for optimism, and how we can all be much more than cogs in a machine.
Dr Will Davies at Goldsmiths College has explained neoliberalism. Mason paraphrased this as the “evisceration of politics by economics”. It worked for a while, but in 2008 it stopped working. The financial crisis was like when a religion stops explaining the world. When a belief system fails, people can go back to older religions. What were the old religions? Racism, misogyny, worship of powerful themes.
Mason asked us to imagine the future, when artificial intelligence is fully developed, we could have a fully intelligent machine running out lives, making decisions for us that are beyond our capabilities. Would we welcome such a prospect? He then said that if you substitute ‘market’ for ‘intelligent machine’, this is the system we have been living under.
Michel Foucalt said that the people would become ‘entrepreneurs of the self’, and this would make them eminently governable.
Hannah Arendt wrote in 1953 about the origins of totalitarianism. She said that it arises from a temporary alliance of the elite and the mob against the working class and the bourgeoisie. The mob gain access to history even at the price of destruction.
We need a materialist analysis of where Trump came from at an elite level. Deregulation and detaxation are his tools. Mason believes that we risk reversal of progress since 1945, and even the entire enlightenment.
Mason talked to a farmer in the United States about climate change. He did not believe in it. Disbelief of climate change is a retreat from rationality. This is logical for those with neoliberal views. The neoliberal character is disintegrating.
We have in our pockets an unbelievable amount of computing power plus access to the entire world’s knowledge, including the Stanford dictionary of philosophy. Mason believes that the principles of creating a fully intelligent computer were solved by Alan Turing in his 1950 paper. Ultimately computers will be fully intelligent, they will feel love, pain etc. They will become so much more intelligent than us they will ask what right does the puny human have to control me?
Modi’s India and Xi Jinping’s China could be our future. Modi can win any election he wants to by controlling propaganda. The Chinese regime is already monitoring its population on an unprecedented scale and it is exporting its technology to do it to other countries. We need to mount radical defence of human being.
The philosopher Rosi Braidotti has written about the effect of technology on humanity. Post-modernism does not help us find a good future, we need to move beyond that. We need to fight for a utopia. The old left utopia died in 1989.
Mason has a Marxist view of human nature. This suggests that we can liberate ourselves. We need to make ourselves and our institutions better at the philosophy of humanity.
Massimo Pigliucci: How To Be A Stoic
We all want to lead a good life. But that goal seems always elusive. What can we learn from the ancient Stoics? Hear philosopher of science and author of How To Be A Stoic Massimo Pigliucci explain how the philosophy that inspired the great emperor Marcus Aurelius can help us focus on what really matters and to confront the challenges of modern life.
This talk was based on Pigliucci’s book which is a manual on stoicism. The subject of mindfulness came up during the talk. Part of stoicism is not to let events you can’t control have too much emotional impact on you, this is also one of the goals of meditation and mindfulness.
During the Q&A someone asked whether the world would be a better place if more people practiced stoicism. Pigliucci said in essence, yes, and part of that would be that people became more mindful and noticed the world more.
Anna Murray: How To See Life’s Patterns
Pattern is everywhere we go and in everything we do. At a time of growing individual and global burnout, how can looking to nature’s patterns inspire us to find more sustainable and harmonious ways of living?
In this uplifting talk, hear Anna Murray, co-founder of award-winning creative organisation PATTERNITY, share her timely perspective on life’s patterns and rhythms, and hear how they can be harnessed to nurture society and bring about positive change in our lives.
Murray’s background is art and design, not science. She had lots of beautiful images, mostly from nature. She showed how fractal patterns repeat, for example showing how the structure of a human lung looks like a tree. She said that she was really talking about complex systems.
I didn’t take any photos except at the end when she explained the Eastern concept of yin and yang. Yin is about doing, yang is about being. Our Western civilization has focused almost entirely on doing. The outcomes we have experienced, both positive and negative, have been as a result of this focus.
Jeremy Lent: How To Change Your Patterns of Thought
How does contemporary culture inherit patterns of thought from previous generations and what can we do to change them? In this talk, Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct, will trace the historical origins of our modern worldview and show how, by becoming aware of our patterns of thought, we can redirect them.
“The most profound and far-reaching book I’ve ever read.” ~ George Monbiot, Guardian
Think about the world today. There are a million species at risk of extinction. We are over consuming the earth. At the same time we have massive inequality. Some people are talking about the risk of artificial intelligence taking over. All in all, things look out of control. How did we get here?
Humans have distinct way of thinking, different from other animals. We have an innate desire to search for patterns – a patterning instinct. Different cultures seek different patterns.
What did early cultures do? For most of the time since humans evolved we have been hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers did not see boundaries between man and nature. They could change from being a human to an animal. Nature was who they were.
When agriculture was invented this changed. Agriculture is about separation, of man from nature. Wealthier people wanted to protect their wealth, separate it from others. At the same time as agriculture developed, so did other developments of human society: hierarchy, patriarchy and specialisation of labour.
All early civilizations developed the general patterns of thought. Then after thousands of years, at around the same time Greece and China both developed new patterns.
The Chinese pattern of thought:
The Chinese developed the concept of yin and yang. They took the concept that man is part of nature from the hunter-gatherers and systematised it. They pondered the Tao, the cosmos. They saw the web of life as like a spider’s web. Everything we do resonates with the whole cosmos.
The Greek pattern of thought:
The Greeks developed dualism. They split the cosmos between heaven and earth. Earth was polluted. But we have a soul. Reason allows us to connect with the soul and divinity.
Although today we think of Christianity not as the primary home for rationality, in past times it was. Christianity was the incubator for science. Galileo, Newton and Kepler felt they were doing God’s work.
Western rationalism has led to many scientific achievements. But it also led us to view nature as a machine. It also led to the idea of conquering nature.
If you read Francis Bacon he talks about conquering nature, even torturing it. This view easily morphed into conquering other continents.
Ultimately this has led to the ransacking of the natural world.
Our modern cultural pattern is as follows:
Our modern worldview is based on separation. We are all separate and selfish. Nature is machine. Technology is the solution to our problems. Everything is meaningless, so fill the void with consumption.
Will this lead to the collapse of civilization, or is there an alternative sustainable worldview?
A more realistic view is that everything is connected in nonlinear ways – small changes can have large effects (the butterfly effect).
The question is, how do we change our patterns of thought?
Lent referred to a study from 1930 on pattern recognition. Two groups of people were shown the same set of symbols. The first group were told the symbols represented one thing, the second group a different set of things. When asked to reproduce the symbols the two groups changed the symbols to reflect the labels that each one had been given. The point is that the way we label things changes how we see them. Improving our metaphors can be called ‘cultural mindfulness’ or Ecoliteracy.
Oliver Bettis, 16 June 2019