Listen to the audio file of session V (MP3 format)
Session V – Mindset
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ian Rappel: Colin, working our way down the diagram, we come to mindset. I wonder if you could take us through that?
Colin Tudge: Well, it seems to me that the root of all our ideas and all our thoughts is a whole number of kind of things going on in our heads for want of a better place to put them. Which, ideas that we take for granted, attitudes – which actually are very, very important, but can also be deeply pernicious – and I’m suggesting that we should take these ideas out of the sort of subconscious lockers of our minds, attics of our minds, and expose them to the light of day and see what they’re made of. And that was all partly to do with mindset. There’s a question of knowledge, or what we presume is knowledge, and a question of attitude, how we really look at things. And I’m suggesting, for the purposes of discussion, really, that we could break the discussion of the mindset down into four categories, represented as balloons in the diagram.
One of which is science, which is basically the source of what we consider to be fairly solid knowledge about how the universe works, and what’s in it. The second is morality, what do we think of as good, and so on. Third thing is metaphysics, which is the thing that’s sort of gone missing from the modern Western world, which some people think is the greatest cause of everything that’s wrong with the modern world, our attitudes to it, because all very big ideas, including those of science, and including those of morality, in the end, are rooted in ideas of a metaphysical nature. So if you’ve lost sight of what metaphysics is, it seems to me that all our biggest thoughts about everything are in a sense, rootless. And the fourth balloon, fourth category of things I think we should be thinking about is the arts, which I regard as being extremely important, but need to be sort of fitted in with everything else that we do.
And between them, this whole thing called mindset leads to the nearest we’re ever going to get to what one might call wisdom. And I see the ultimate kind of ambition of human beings, putting it in a sort of highfalutin way, is to arrive at a sense of universal wisdom, sometimes called perennial wisdom, although the word perennial wisdom has been used in various special senses. But to get as close as we can to something that we might call perennial wisdom, and apply it to everyday life. So the task is to identify and apply the perennial wisdom, of a kind I’ve talked about to everyday life. And so that’s the agenda.
Ian Rappel: That’s the balloons.
Colin Tudge: That’s the balloons. So if we take them one by one -what about science, first of all. And science, of course, is often conceived to be a sort of homogenous thing. It’s like you do science at school, and chemistry is called stinks, and biology, etc. In fact, of course, it’s very, very disparate. And it’s also seen to be a modern Western thing. And, of course, it’s actually very disparate. It’s got lots of roots, craft, folk lore, etc. Maths, which has got a sort of quasi mystical connotations. And it’s also very ancient. I mean, if we want to see the origins of science, well, we should probably go back to the caves and Neanderthals. It’s got its origins in craft. It’s got its origins in, more specifically, at an intellectual level, Greece, Mesopotamia, India, China. Extremely important. The Arab world, very, very important. And in a sense, the Western world came to it late but picked up on the threads, made them coherent, certainly added a great deal. But it’s not a sort of uniquely best pursuit. Except, we might say it is in its modern form, but not in its origins.
I think the science is indisputably wondrous, for want of a better word. And I think the sort of wonderfulness of it has two connotations: one is, it’s wonderful because of what it shows us about the universe and life. And what the reality of science – if it is indeed reality, it seems like it – is much more wonderful than anything you could even dream of or conceive of. I mean all the ideas of modern physics, relativity, quantum mechanics, and so on, and the ideas of modern biology, evolutionary biology, and so on. So it is astonishing in what it shows us about the universe and goes on showing us. I watch a great deal of afternoon telly, being retired. And you know, the some of the stuff, they do a lot of good science, a lot of good natural history. And I’ve been looking at the natural world, natural history for 70 odd years. And every week there’s something new coming up, rather wonderful. New species, new groups. And also the fact that we can do science at all is rather wonderful, because scientists themselves tell us that our brains are evolved organs like everything else, that the sort of final finishing touches, as it were, were put on our brains. The actual origins are billions of years old, but what made us really human was what we experienced on the east of plains of Africa, and the woods of Africa, mainly in the Pliocene and Pleistocene, three million years ago up to the present. And actually, our brains, when you think about it, evolved primarily because of our need to find food. We now need to avoid hyenas, and our need to find mates, without which we come to a bit of a sticky end or full stop. And the fact that, in other words, the brain evolved in terms of various sort of day-to-day material pressures, the idea that an organism evolved in response to those pressures can lead us into some of the most highfalutin ideas that you could possibly conceive of, like the ideas of quantum mechanics, and E=MC2, and all that kind of stuff is, to me, rather wonderful. I mean, we get really far beyond what you might think natural selection might have selected us to do, which is I think, most interesting.
However, although science is wonderful, and she’ll be taught widely, and everybody should have some grasp of what it’s about, because if they don’t, you know, you’re missing out, frankly. Although it’s wonderful, it has its limitations. And there’s a whole group of people who think it doesn’t have limitations, who think it will tell us everything we need to know, everything we can know, and that anything that isn’t science is not knowledge, and is a waste of time and all that kind of thing. And the people who believe that sort of kind of belief in science, that extreme belief and its value and veracity, is called scientism, as opposed to science. And scientism is rooted, I think, in logical positivism, which was a very fashionable set of ideas in the beginning of the 20th century around about the First World War, which began really in Vienna. And it’s been filtrated ever since. And logical positivists said, look, the only ideas that are worth taking seriously are those that can be verified. And the only ideas that can be verified in practice are those of science, ergo, this leads us directly onto scientism. And for a time, people were really seriously taken in by this, but actually logical positivism as a sort of respectable branch of philosophy, more or less died out in the 1970s. But, it continues in the sort of psyche of a great many scientists and a great many non-scientists in the form of scientism, because there are people who still believe that science tells us everything. And what it can’t tell us is not worth doing.
But the whole idea of the logical positivism, verification, it began to be eroded within a few years of the whole idea being formulated. And I see sort of four main figures in this: one is Kurt Girdle, who was an American, I think German American. And one of the ideas of logical positivism was that you couldn’t possibly go wrong because in the end, the ideas of science are mathematical. And maths can’t possibly be wrong, because it’s public knowledge and anyone can expect to write it up. Kurt Girdle was obviously a genius, came along and said actually all mathematical statements that are a bit complicated, in other words to try and add something, and not just tautologies like two plus two equals four, by definition, any statement that’s got more to it than that, is bound to contain elements that are not themselves verifiable. And this really knocks the stuffing out of the whole idea of verifiability, actually. And yeah, we’ll leave it at that for the time being.
Hot on girdles heels, starting really in the 1930s, came the Austrian Viennese philosopher Karl Popper, who came to England and was therefore called Sir Karl Popper, because he was very clever. And we’re good at knighting people we think are very clever, as well as a lot of people who aren’t. And he’s pointed out that you can’t really verify or prove any idea of an empirical nature, any scientific idea, beyond all possible doubt, you simply can’t do it. He gave an example, which wasn’t a very good example: supposing you had the hypothesis that all swans are white. Well, you couldn’t possibly count all the swans in the world to see what all the swans that have ever been, to see whether that’s really true. Although, he said, and this is the point, if you would find one swan that wasn’t white, then that would disprove the hypothesis that all swans are white. And of course, there are black swans living in Australia, so that doesn’t add up. But his point was that what makes a scientific hypothesis scientific, as opposed to being a good wheeze, is not whether it can be verified, because it can’t, but whether it can be disproved, or at least theoretically disproved. Because there’s a lot of ideas where it’s very, very difficult to arrange a definitive disproof, just as it’s impossible to arrange upon absolute proof.
In the 1960s, Thomas Kuhn, beginning of the 1960s, American philosopher, pointed out that science isn’t the sort of giant ziggurat of irrefutable truth, irrefutable facts. It’s more on your kind of world picture, put together collectively by lots of scientists, which you call a paradigm. And he said, which literally means example, this is a picture of the world. And he said over time, any one age has its own paradigms, but over time, as people add more insights, get more observations that they need to take into account, the paradigm of the day is bound to collapse. And then there’s no point in trying to repair it anymore. You just take away that existing paradigm, and replace it with a different paradigm, a different worldview, which is what he called a paradigm shift. And the expression paradigm shift, of course, has crept into all forms of life. It’s been appropriated by advertisers, and all that kind of thing. But it’s a very, very fine idea. And I think a connotation of this is that all our understanding, all human understanding of everything, is, in a sense, just a narrative. It’s just a story that we tell ourselves at any one time. I like that.
In the mid 19th century, Otto von Bismarck, who was one of the great German statesmen, said politics is the art of the possible. And Medawar about 100 years later picked up on this and said, By the same token, science is the art of the soluble, which is very strong. What that means is that scientists, okay, you know, are jolly good at what they do, but they can only look at what they’re capable of looking at, with the maths of the day, with the equipment of the day, with the money of the day. So they have to build a hypothesis on what they are actually able to find out. That’s a very big idea, which again, shows that there’s a tremendous limitation to what science can really do. But the point is that in the end scientists, because they’re focused on what it’s possible for them to investigate, mostly investigate the material world, because they will need to look at things that you can observe reliably, that you can measure, that you can do statistical analysis of an on the whole. The material world lends itself to that. Science also, of course, also extends itself into things like psychology, and to some extent in sociology. And economists would claim into economics, but I think we could dispute that. Anyway. But it tends to be materialistic. Now along comes a group of people who accept that science, a very good body of knowledge about the material world, not perfect but always being improved, paradigm shifts. But a lot of scientists and non-scientists, including the logical positivists really, have got the idea that because science gives us what fairly solid insights into what the universe is like, not by no means perfect, but because you’re dealing with testable hypotheses or disprovable hypotheses, they’re better than top of the head ideas. And so they got the idea that really, scientist ideas or material ideas are the only ones that can seriously be taken, taken seriously. And that means you can’t for example, take ideas like God seriously or the ideas like metaphysics seriously. So science of a certain kind, is become – or a sort of logical positivists kind – is naturally atheistic. And Richard Dawkins, I think epitomises this. Very good scientist of a kind, who simply rejects all ideas about religion, all ideas that anything transcendent beyond material. Because it got, you know, because it doesn’t fit into the paradigm of science can’t be measured, etc, can’t be found.
So you’ve got this idea that science is about is peculiarly materialistic, and is naturally atheistic, which is not actually how science is. A lot of scientists are very deeply religious. And of course, science, actually, in the 17th century, and theology were very closely intertwined. And Bach said, in the 18th century, I regard my music, all my music, is for the glory of God. And I think you could say that the 17th century scientists – people like John Ray, and obviously Newton, and Robert Boyle, and so on – felt the same way about science. Science basically, wasn’t an atheistic pursuit, it was actually an attempt to explore the mind of God, in the spirit of a worship of God. That God is actually worth investigating, worth looking at, which I think is not a bad idea. And I liked the idea. And if you put that idea together with the idea, that in a science, the philosophy of science, and science has its limitations, for the reasons we’ve discussed, you get the notion that science actually should be seen as a cultural pursuit. And I’m suggesting you should teach science as much as you can and develop science as much as you can, but you should regard it primarily as a cultural pursuit. In other words, it’s a contribution to our understanding into our attitudes. But it’s not innately atheistic, it doesn’t seem to understand everything, and so on, and so on, and so on. And I think, for example, with the College, that this should come across as philosophy. Teach science as much as you can, but also teach the philosophy of science, which shows its limitations, and also put it into a sort of grander context and ask questions, as I’ll say, are in the end, metaphysical. What actually happens is that science is taught as a sort of purely material pursuit in general. When I was at university, effectively, the scientists were treated as apprentice scientists. You know, we don’t have to do science, rather than all these high flown ideas, even though at my particular university, which is Cambridge, there were a huge number of scientists or local scientists, who were deeply religious people, as they still are. Interesting, I think that. Leave that one aside. That’s basically what I want to say about science.
Ian Rappel: Can I ask you a couple of questions about it? In earlier sessions, we talked about things like green economic democracy and notions of, if you’d like, bringing to the fore the greater mass of humanity that are excluded from the prevailing system, if you like. How much of the kind of Western tradition of science and its rigidity that you’re talking about, how much of that is a product of the fact that there’s only a very small sliver of humanity who are deemed to be qualified scientists? It hasn’t been touched. I mean, in the enlightenment it was used to explore the parameters of individual freedom, but it hasn’t been utilised particularly to enhance, if you like, the democratic throughput and the discourse and to capture the wider cultural context of science. If so, is some of the problem with science itself, do those problems stem from the very narrow parameters that acceptable science sits within, especially when you think now at this neoliberal phase, that a lot of science is geared towards profit maximization? Not any kind of genuine exploration of the world, but more how much money can be generated for corporations for various things. So is some of the tension of science and your tensions with science in particular, is some of that reflected by the fact that it’s exclusive and it’s specialized?
Colin Tudge: I’m sure that’s true. I’m sure that’s true. I mean, we talked earlier about the world being dominated by an oligarchy. People who just assume that they ought to be in charge and are in charge and the supremacy of the economy over everything else, and particularly of neoliberalism. So as you say, I mean, there’s a sort of short sequence. Science is the root of what is called high technology. Technology is not intrinsically scientific. But there’s a whole bunch of technology, which is entirely dependent on science and comes out of science. And you couldn’t conceive of it the other way. That includes things like lasers and computers, and GMOs, genetic engineering, and so on. They are children of science. And one thing about high technologies is that they are potentially extremely lucrative. And they lead to, of course, power. So there’s a nasty sequence of grown up that says science is basically what we need to produce high technologies, and high technologies are what we need to make us rich and ensure our position of supremacy in the world, etc, etc. That is, indeed, as you say, how science these days tends to be driven, not only in the West, of course, but in China and India, wherever science is practised. And as you’re suggesting, I think it’s a great pity. The stance needs to be reconceived. I would say as a cultural pursuit, but as you were saying slightly different, but same idea.
Ian Rappel: Yeah, no, I agree.
Colin Tudge: And a great shame. And there needs to be a change, for sure.
Ian Rappel: A terrible waste of potential.
Colin Tudge: Waste, yeah. Tremendous waste!
Ian Rappel: So we go from science to morality.
Colin Tudge: Yeah. One thing about morality, everything – it seems to me that the world in general gets more or less everything wrong. Good premise. If you didn’t send it to us, what’s right? But the idea has definitely grown up in recent years that morality is, as they say, relative. I.e., some societies believe this is good. Some people decide to believe that is good. And who’s to say one is better than the other? So morality is what any particular society decides. This isn’t quite the way it is because all societies, in practice are dominated by oligarchies, and oligarchies are dominated by powerful individuals. So morality comes to question what powerful individuals and powerful forces like the market decide is right. In fact, in the modern world, where the market, you know, the market economy, neoliberalism, the market is effectively the arbiter of morality, because what people will buy is considered to be good, more or less by definition. And what they won’t buy is considered to be wasted space, and you can forget about it. When I say buy, I mean what they’re really paid for. So there’s tremendous emphasis on making bigger and smarter cars, and bigger and smarter computers for fun, and much less emphasis on developing, resilient vaccines that will cure curable diseases in poor countries, for example.
So anyway, what I want to argue is that this idea of morality being pure purely relative, is wrong. And I want to argue, unfashionable though it might be, that I might talk about moral absolutes. Just to go back, a little bit of history, in reality over the history of the world, the ideas about moral nature, moral philosophy, has fallen into three main categories. And I got this idea from a very good, but not very well known, Oxford philosopher/theologian called Timothy Bortel, just as a matter of interest. Anyway, he’s pointed out to me that actually, morality falls under these three headings: One is utilitarianism, otherwise known as consequentialism, which says that you judge the goodness or badness over a particular moral action, by the outcome. And the outcome that was considered desirable is this horrible word, happiness. And Jeremy Bentham, in particular, beginning of the 19th century, full of enlightenment zeal, more or less defined morality as to serve the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It’s got it uses, that. But I think it’s very obviously flawed. I mean, for example, the example I like to give, it’s my own little example, is if six Nazis beat up one Pole, you know, got six-to-one ratio. Is it okay? No, it’s not, because mere numbers doesn’t do it. If you ask, why is it bad for not Nazis to beat up anybody? And in our bones, we feel it’s bad – but we need to identify why. The second category of ethics, morality – ethics and morality don’t quite mean the same thing, but in this context, I’ll conflate the two – is what is called deontological. And deontological means that it is right to obey an authority. And loyalty to an authority is intended to be the right thing. Now, if your authority is God, and if your authority is, in fact, a good God, and it’s assumed that God is the, you know, the source of all goodness. And if you can be certain that that source is, in fact, God, and is not some deceiver, then you can see that that has a bit of point to it. And actually, again, like utilitarian ethics, this deontological idea has its uses. At its worst, of course, you could make a virtue of being loyal to really bad people. Right, you know, the great defence at Nuremberg, I was only obeying orders. And it’s the same actually, with same principle, with executives of corporates, who are doing bad things, or indeed support politicians in supporting governments who they know are doing bad things, and nevertheless, excused that by saying, Well, I, you know, I’m being loyal, as if that outweighed everything else. So that’s deontology. The third force of what we generally mean by goodness, was provided by Aristotle, who sort of simply – a very sort of straightforward chap, really, Aristotle – and he said, What do we consider to be the characteristics of a virtuous person? What are the virtues? And it was a good question. I mean, it sounds very feeble. But actually, it’s a good question, what are the virtues? I reckon – I mean, it’s not just me – but concluding from talking to people and reading stuff, that were three really prime virtues that stand out. One of which is compassion. I think we know what compassion is, really caring for other people, etc, and the natural world. The second is the virtue of humility, where you just don’t assume that you are superior, or you know more than anybody else, or that humanity is superior to all other creatures, etc, etc. That’s a prime virtue. And of course, people like Jesus, the great moralist of that kind, Buddha, preached humility. And the third is what I think should be seen as essentially a metaphysical sense, but the metaphysical sense of oneness, the sense of being humanity, a sense of you as an individual being at one with humanity, and humanity being at one with the natural world, with all other species. The sense of oneness is I think, should be seen as a prime virtue.
And I think if you just take those three principles, one interesting thing about them is that you find that they are common to all the great religions, the global religions. All of the great global religions stress compassion. As I think I said earlier, the Christians of course talk about love; that’s their main thing, which is basically compassion. All chapters of the Koran except one begin with an appeal to the Compassionate One. I’ve got this wonderful quote from the Dalai Lama, who said to Californian students, the real revolution in this world must be a revolution of compassion. Learn to be compassionate, and that does it basically. And I went to a lecture of his in Oxford, he visited Oxford, and he was answering sort of moral type questions from the audience. And a very senior paediatrician said to the Dalai Lama, look, I work in the Middle East. And there’s a huge amount of thalassemia, which is an inherited form or various inherited forms of anaemia, similar to sickle cell anaemia. And I know if a child has got some kind of thalassemia, that he or she is very unlikely to live for more than 18 months if it’s a severe case. And in the course of that time, the baby will have lots of blood transfusions. Very distressing for the child, very distressing for the parents. He said, but nowadays by doing amniocentesis, genetic analysis in the utero, you can see which foetuses carry or have the thalassemia genes and you can abort them as foetuses when they’re really, really young. And he said to the Dalai Lama, is it right, as a Western paediatrician professor, is it right for me to abort these children, these babies, foetuses? And the Dalai Lama said, No, of course, it’s not right. Of course, it’s not good. But he said, always ask yourself, what is the most compassionate thing to do? That’s brilliant, actually. And if everybody in every moral context said, what is the most compassionate thing to do? I think that’s cracked it, frankly. So compassion is huge.
The idea of humility being a central moral virtue is at the heart, I would say, of all the great religions. No human being presumes that he or she is superior to another, or that one group of human beings is innately superior to another, whether it’s race, or class, or whatever, or indeed, that the human species should not be conceived as being naturally superior to the rest of life. And I think the religion that sort of stresses the whole idea of humility more than others, is Islam. And I like very much in this context, the fact that when – I mean I watch a lot of cricket – that for example when the Pakistani batsman or the Afghanis or the Bangladeshis leave the field, having just made brilliant flashing century. The commentator said that was a wonderful century, what you’ve just struck. And they say, nothing to do with me, it’s all the will of Allah. Thanks be to Allah. And that’s good. I think that’s very good. You don’t take credit. You accept that the good things that come to you, come to you. But what Martin Luther, or John Calvin, in a Christian context, would have said, the good things that come to us, come to us by grace. For the grace of God, not that it’s anything to do with our intrinsic merit, or intrinsic right.
And the third one is sense of oneness. Lots of religions have it. Buddhism has it, Sikhism has it, Hinduism has it. All the Eastern religions, in fact, have this strong sense of oneness. So do African religions, North American traditional religions. The one that’s actually rather the weak on this is Christianity, because of this line in Genesis really: God gave us dominion over the beasts of the field, etc. And also the idea that human beings are made in God’s image without saying, absolutely everything is made in God’s image, which is what somebody like Spinoza might have said. We’ve got this innate idea that we are different from the rest, and that we should preserve our difference. And we should jealously guard our specialness – a sort of Christian view, deeply pernicious, and it’s not shared by the other great religions. But broadly speaking, most significant that all the great religions, which have arisen sometimes sort of from the same source, but sometimes quasi independently, they’ve all arrived at this fundamental importance of compassion and humility and mostly, this idea of oneness, which suggests to me that this morality is sort of intrinsic to us, it’s in our biology. And I liked the idea which we discussed earlier, that nature itself is fundamentally cooperative, and compassion rather than competitive. And compassion, of course, is the sort of underpinning of cooperativeness. You can cooperate because you give a damn, and because you will feel your sense of you are one. Very simple, really. So that’s what I think of as being universal morality. And I don’t see why it can’t be taught in that way.
Ian Rappel: So I’ve got one question in relation to this. So I don’t think it was surprising the direction that it comes from, which is, so you talked about universal morality – and your frames of reference were religious?
Colin Tudge: Well, I’m just saying that the fact that it’s common to all the religions, yeah.
Ian Rappel: Yeah. So for someone like myself, who’s an atheist, coming to a concept of universal morality is, I mean, first of all, is exciting, because that’s a commonality. As you say, if it’s reflected in organised religions, it’s suggestive of a common thread within humanity. But coming to it from – if you’d like, I mean, for want of a better phrase – a humanist position, you talked about concepts like good authority, if the good authority is located, not using a shorthand, not with a god, but with humanity itself? Do you still see the same throughput if you like, from the kind of sense of a good authority, that perhaps isn’t displayed socially, because we’re contorted and twisted by whatever society it is we live in, but it’s there at the core of humanity. And that for someone like myself, who wants to live a life that is moral and good, it’s still a source of good moral authority drawing on human beings as themselves, you know, in isolation of a god or a spiritual sense.
Colin Tudge: I find that actually a very strong idea. I don’t have any problem with it at all. Actually, you know, I think you’d find quite a few fairly religious people who would agree with that, including Saint Augustine, who said, If you want to find the truth, look within yourself. It’s not bad at it?
Ian Rappel: No, no. I mean, I’ve heard other versions of it, like living well is the best revenge, you know.
Colin Tudge: Okay – not sure, there’s a similarity in there somewhere.
Ian Rappel: Somewhere in there is the weave of it! I’ve seen it constructed other ways as well, you know, you’re responsible for the predictable action, predictable consequences of your own actions, and not those of others. And I think that was Chompsky and others. But yeah, it’s a sense, I suppose that that just because perhaps you don’t locate your humanity in association with spirituality or a god or anything like that, that it’s still legitimate to talk about.
Colin Tudge: I think it was just about, and you can appeal to biology, as we’ve just said, and why not appeal to biology? Evolutionary biology? Dobzhansky said nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. And one can say this, universally shared sense of compassion is an evolved thing with very clear survival value, if you want to put it that way. And the fact that you do put it that way, doesn’t of course preclude the possibility.
Ian Rappel: No.
Colin Tudge: Good, so we’re agreed. We could move on to metaphysics?
Ian Rappel: By all means!
Colin Tudge: Well, metaphysics – interesting, obviously strange concept, effectively gone missing from the Western world, from modern education, etc – and one guy that I’ve met professor of Islamic Studies in Washington called Seyyed Hossein Nasr, he has written a book in which he says, you know, the loss of a sense of metaphysics, metaphysical ideas, is the greatest single cause of all the world’s disasters. And, one knows what he means really. And I think it’s quite interesting just to observe, I said earlier that agriculture should be right at the centre of our thinking, and the loss -the fact that we don’t take it seriously enough – is one of the major reasons for the disasters of the world. And it strikes me that metaphysics is at the root of all very, very big ideas. Most important, and has gone missing. And it strikes me therefore, that in the modern, particularly the Western world, but really the whole world, the two things that matter most are very different kinds of the things that have gone missing. I find that quite interesting. In other words, agriculture, and I was concerned for agriculture and metaphysics.
Anyway, what NASA also says, and a lot of other people say, is that metaphysics asks what he calls and other people call the ultimate questions. He doesn’t – not of anything I’ve read so far – say what the ultimate questions are, and I don’t think other people have either, as far as I know. So I will answer that. And I reckon the ultimate questions are of four kinds. A one is, what is the universe really like? I mean, science deals with the material aspects of it and with slightly measurable aspects, such as psychology, sociology. But is that all there is? I mean, the enthusiasts for scientism would say, yes, that’s all there is. But that’s a huge assumption, actually. It’s just because of the things I choose to study, and I’m able to study, represent the sum of all knowledge and what goes – and one doesn’t lead to the other. So that’s a huge assumption, and we should be asking is that not only – you know, what does science tell us under this heading? But is it telling us everything else? Is it telling us everything? And if not, what? One idea, which comes under this category – what is the universe really like – which actually comes out of science, is that of universal mind. That consciousness or mind – shouldn’t conflate the two, but I do -consciousness or mind is the most fundamental thing, actually. The modern assumption of the materialist is that the material world is the basis of everything, and mind is the kind of the noise that material things make, see what I mean. Whereas many people, philosophers, theologians and scientists, have argued the opposite. Actually, mind is the most fundamental thing, and material things, the material world is, in a sense, a creation of the mind. And people have said very similar things that to that, including people like Max Planck, the grandfather of modern physics, really. And Niels Bohr, father of quantum biology, quantum physics. Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and modern people like John Bell, with their various very fancy physical ideas. They all say, actually, you can’t explain how the universe works unless you consider the mind is in there. We’re pulling the strings. Well, I don’t know, I’m just taking their word for it. But it seems to me to be intuitively a very, very strong idea comes out of physics. And that had all sorts of connotations, like, is an assumption.
I mean, if you look at animals, it’s pretty obvious that different animals have invented intelligence of one kind or another independently. I mean, the mammals are very intelligent creatures. On the whole, we’ve got lots – not just us, but monkeys, also things like squirrels and hyenas – very bright – elephants. And, okay, they’ve all got a common ancestor. But the common ancestor wasn’t itself particularly bright, I mean, judged by the size of its brain. So they’ve all independently developed their versions of intelligence. And the same would be true of birds. I mean, you’ve got some very, very clever birds, not just crows and parrots, but lots of others as well. And again, birds and mammals have a common ancestor 300-something million years ago, but that common ancestor had a brain about the size of a broad bean. So that’s not true. It wasn’t they weren’t endowed with intelligence from the start; they evolved it. Go back even further, I mean, there are, there are non vertebrate creatures that are extremely clever, including the cephalopods, including the squids, octopuses and cuttlefish. And the plural of octopus is octopusus, not octopi. It’s not Latin, it’s Greek. So my point is that it would be a very, very difficult thing to explain, really, something as complicated and intricate as intelligence should have been evolved independently, many, many times. It becomes less difficult to explain if you assume that as it were, intelligence, or mind or whatever, are intrinsic qualities of the universe. And then you can say, actually, these different groups didn’t invent the single mind independently, they independently, as it were, evolved the means to respond or take on board what was already out there. We don’t have any problem saying that many different lineages of creatures, not even just animals, are able to perceive light. Because what they do is they pick up on something that exists; they don’t invent light. And by the same token, analogously, I’m suggesting different creatures evolved the means to respond to the universe, intelligence. They don’t have to reinvent it for themselves every time. A strong idea, I think, and I quite like it as an idea.
Ian Rappel: What’s the difference between universal and collective mind? Or is there any difference?
Colin Tudge: I hadn’t really thought about this specifically, but I would say universal mind, as I see it, is about the mindfulness or mind, the intrinsic in the fabric of the universe. At least as fundamental as material itself. Collective merely means creatures which are already intelligent – let us assume that you and I come into that category, for the purposes of argument – the way I look at the word collective is that between us we could develop an idea. And with the society as a whole, we can further develop the idea, and that sort of collective sharing of what we already have. But it’s not as fundamental as the idea of partaking.
Ian Rappel: No, but is it is it right to privilege the universe in that sense, as the scale of consideration for mind? The only reason I’m asking is, as far as we know, there is no other life in the universe. So the sort of link between organic forms and intelligence seems at this moment to be quite restricted in terms of the universalities. That’s why I suppose I’m more interested in the idea of collective mind rather than universal mind. We have life and therefore intelligence here, but does it go much further? I mean, I’m not talking about Elon Musk’s spreading life to Mars, and all of that sort of stuff. I mean, you know, genuinely in the scale of the universe, if it’s only in one tiny, tiny, almost indecipherable corner of the universe, is it right to privilege the universe?
Colin Tudge: Well, one thing I would say is that, most – I’d say most – scientists nowadays, accept that life itself is a quality of the universe, they’d say, the universe is bound to have produced living forms of one kind or another hundreds, if not millions of times. I mean, living things are out there, life forms are out there. I don’t have any doubt about that. I’m not speculating that they’re little green chaps with television arrows sticking out of their heads, but in one form or another. So, you know, the other thing is that I think we might appeal to animism and say that really the point is that you could say that mind, in a very, very primordial sense, is in fact present in everything, including this teacup, for example. It’s part of the fabric, but it’s only when you get very good conditions, everything coming together, that, you know, you start getting minds that can actually think and feel. And so I don’t really have a problem with what you’re talking about.
Ian Rappel: It’s just my problem.
Colin Tudge: Well I think so! Anyway, the first big question, what is the universe really like – and that was a bit of a diversion; I think that’s nice. A second is, oh, I’d also like the idea in this context, everybody has an idea of what a mystic is. You know, William Blake and his visions, and various shamans and so on. But I quite liked the idea that what the mystic does and what we all can do, to some extent, but not adeptly as William Blake, is to tune in directly to the universal intelligence without actually consciously thinking about it. Do you see what I mean? It’s a sense of, and you get this kind of feeling in romantic poetry. You get it in Coleridge, you get it in words with, there isn’t time here, and I’ve lost my references to discuss that, but it’s there, and we could discuss it at some point, I hope.
The second question, big question, the second of the ultimate questions, is how do we know what’s true? Which actually is discussed by philosophers under the heading of I think it’s epistemology, is it not? And so, okay, but it’s also a metaphysical question, you know, how do we know what’s true? And I would say the short answer is that we don’t, we simply don’t. And if you look at science itself, which is the sort of most secure body of our understanding, or so we think it is, people like Newton, who after all knew a thing about science, said, and, I’m paraphrasing slightly, but all great ideas begin, or mega theories begin with a guess. And Richard Fineman, 300-something years later said exactly the same thing. And when it comes to deciding, I mean, okay, then you begin with a guess, you develop that into a specific hypothesis. You then test the hypothesis mathematically and by doing experiments and all the other ways you test hypotheses. But in the end, the question is, why does any one scientist or any one thinker of any kind faced with the same set of data – it’s not called all the facts, but in fact, data – why did they arrive at different conclusions? And the point is okay, you arrive, you have this hypothesis, which has been well-tested and is robust, as people say, but you don’t have to believe it. And I saw a television programme the other day, I like watching television programmes, in which there were about half a dozen very senior physicists of equal stature, who were questioning the idea of the Big Bang. And one of them said, it just doesn’t feel right. The alternative hypotheses were some people are still pursuing Fred Oilers idea of continuous creation. Others say, actually what happens is the universe does sort of die in its present form, but then through various forces, it expands again, and we begin the whole process ever again. So the whole thing is pulsating. And so on, and so on. So, but the point is, that some scientists, physicists, except the Big Bang, most do, but some don’t, of equal standing. And what is the difference between them in the end? Well, a guy saying it doesn’t feel right. In the end, it’s intuition that causes a scientist to believe one idea and reject another. Intuition, a very strange notion, but absolutely crucial. That’s a metaphysical pursuit.
Ian Rappel: Or Richard Fineman went further, didn’t he? He said that nature should be beautiful.
Colin Tudge: Oh, yeah. Nobody was ever the first to say things. It echoes Keats – beauty is truth, truth, beauty. That is all you need to know. And Paul Dirac, an English mathematician, physicist, said, always look for beauty in your equations. If it’s beautiful, it’s probably okay. And if it’s ugly, it probably isn’t. It’s wonderful, you see, it’s all down to intuition. And so the next question, how do we know what’s true? Well, there’s an intuitive grasp of what’s true.
The third big question is what is goodness? Moral philosophy tends to ask, what is it good to do? Basically an ethical question, what is it good to do in a particular situation? But the metaphysician asks, well, what is this thing called goodness? And it’s very difficult, you can’t really answer that. But again, it comes down to ideas, which intuitively appeal actually, an idea which intuitively appeals to me, is one interpretation of the term dharma, as found in Buddhism, and Hinduism, is one version of dharma, or the Buddhist concept of dharma, which is that it’s about universal harmony. And I liked the idea, which not entirely captured here, that the universe is fundamentally harmonious. You know, it relates to the idea that in the end, if cooperation didn’t win over competition, then you wouldn’t have a universe at all. You wouldn’t have life, you wouldn’t have societies, you wouldn’t have anything. In the end, cooperation prevails. And I quite like the idea that what you’ll get, because of cooperation prevailing, because of universal harmony, everything really working together. And I think it will be at least as sort of poetically interesting, intuitively interesting, to say that goodness, it is good to enhance or work in accord with the universal harmony, dharma, and it is bad to get in the way of it. It’s very kind of Taoist as well, actually. So I like that.
The fourth of the very big metaphysical questions is, How come? I think that’s a very good question, How come? You look at the universe, and you say, Well, why? How did it come about? And there’s a whole group of scientists who are working on the idea of the grand unified theory. And part of that sort of general inquiry is the idea that the most fundamental things in the universe are superstrings. That they are the basis of all – fundamental particles – as the basis of all the fundamental forces, like gravity and strong nuclear force, and so on, and so on. But the question that arises, so you say, okay, you’ve got an explanation, you have superstrings. But then the question is, how come there are these things called superstrings, that have the qualities that are able to produce fundamental particles that are able to produce material stuff in the universe, plus the fundamental forces that make the whole thing work, and in turn, go on to produce things that are living, and in turn, go on to produce things that are intelligent, and in turn goes on to produce goodness knows what, because we don’t know what the potential is, actually. We only know the potential that we’ve seen so far. And so the question, How come? will never be answered. And one of the interesting conclusions there then, is that in the end, which many people have said, all is a mystery. All our science and all our contemplation, all our discussion, actually, we don’t know anything really; it’s all in the end, it’s mystery. And Einstein was very happy with this. A lot of scientists aren’t, you know, because basically, they’re looking for certainty, which of course is not possible, which at least you can achieve certainty, but you can’t be certain that your certainty is justified is your domain. But Einstein gloried in mystery and said, the greatest thing that scientists can have is this sense of mystery, which I think is rather wonderful.
In summary, I made summaries, we could ask the question, what is metaphysics? Well, a very fine philosopher, one of my favourites, possibly my favourite, RG Collingwood, who’s professor of philosophy at Oxford, just after the Second War, said look, every idea that you have is rooted in the end in what equals absolute presuppositions. You can’t have any idea without supposing some things. And in the end, the things that you suppose can’t be analysed further, are absolute presuppositions. And the example he gave, which is rather good, is if you ask a pathologist, what causes this disease? He will say, or she will say, it’s this particular germ. And then you can ask all sorts of reasons for asking why it’s that particular germ – Cox postulates, all that kind of stuff. But in the end, if you’ve gone asking the question, how do we know it’s this germ, etc, etc, in the end, you have to ask the question, well, how do you know it’s cause and effect? It’s the biggest question. And of course, you don’t know that it’s cause and effect. And many people have pointed out before, correlation is not cause. But as David Hume pointed out in the 18th century, the only way in which you infer cause and effect is by correlation, A is usually followed by B and B is usually preceded by A and you say, cause and effect. Whereas in fact, both A and B could be caused by something else called C. And so you don’t really know that there is a thing called cause and effect. But all science really is based on the idea that there is a thing called cause and effect. And that is an absolute presupposition. And wherever you look, in any branch of learning, you will find that it depends on these absolute presuppositions. And Colinwood said, well, we will define metaphysics as the sum of all absolute presuppositions. What are all very, very big ideas that sit in your brain – you don’t analyse, you take for granted? Bringing them out into the open, and ask what they’re about. That’s metaphysics. I think that’s rather good, I like that.
Most of what metaphysics is concerned with, is also the concern of standard philosophers. And it also the concern to a certain extent of scientists, but metaphysics adds things to this, it’s got special contributions to make. And I reckon there are sort of four very big ideas that metaphysics adds, and one of them is the idea of transcendence. And that is going beyond scientism and going beyond materialism. And saying that, in addition to the sort of forces we know are at work in the world, there is good reason to suppose that the forces that we know are existing in the world are not actually all there is. Why should they be? Why should it be the case that the things that has occurred to us is all there is? And you can’t – in a sense, metaphysics is about the things that you can’t know, but which are very possibly present and influencing effect, you see what I mean? So it’s the idea of transcendence. And the idea that of God, for example, would be a transcendent idea. You don’t have to believe it, but I just say it’s that kind of idea. Another big contribution of a metaphysical kind that I like a lot, is the idea of the dharma as defined the universal harmony. A third idea, which is metaphysical in nature, is that of intuition. That we grasp things, we guess things, with no real reason to do so. And we intuit things as being the case without having sort of cast iron demonstrations that it is the case. It’s a strange process, but intuition. And the last thing, I think the last contribution of metaphysics is this acceptance or embrace of the idea of mystery. And I think that’s a very nice idea myself. So did Einstein. So that’s it in a nutshell. Quite a large nutshell
Ian Rappel: It’s a very nice nutshell. And the question that comes to my mind, I suppose, is in relation to the diagram that you’ve developed, and those different levels, what would you say to someone who perhaps is farming, so they’re very, very busy? They’ve got lots of other things going on in their mind, a balance of – whether they’re conventional farming or agroecological – a balance of interacting with nature, they’ve got this triangulation, if they’re a conventional farmer between the three markets of consumption, inputs and outputs. They’ve got layers and layers of cultural weight on their shoulders as they’re working in the fields, and they’re working very, very hard. It’s very physical work. How would you convince them, I suppose, if they were to pick up a book like The Great Rethink, how would you convince them of the importance of going into this depth? Because it might sound to them with a busy life and everything else that indulging in philosophy is that – an indulgence and a luxury, rather than as us arguing, actual, you know, a very important core aspect of how they operate. Have you got any kind of – I’m not asking you to make any glib comments, but just, how do we convince people to come towards this position and this understanding?
Colin Tudge: One thing I like to say, when asked that kind of question, is that I’m actually not trying to persuade anybody, not really. But what I do take to be the case is this hello to other people out there who already agree with the main premises. And all I’m trying to do is to, in the first instance, at least, is to communicate with those people, and to bring them together so that we can have a conversation and develop the ideas. And many people will not be at all interested, but that’s fair enough. I’m convinced that a huge number will, and I convinced that huge number is enough to form a critical mass to turn the world around. You don’t need a majority for a critical mass, as you well know. So that’s one answer. Another is the empirical observation, that the kind of people who are most receptive to this kind of idea are among them, people who are most receptive are people who are in fact, farmers or smallholders, who do it because they’re sort of looking for meaning in life as it were. And the ideas that give it meaning are of a metaphysical nature. So I don’t see it as being a problem, actually.
Ian Rappel: Lovely, thank you.
Colin Tudge: My real pleasure.
Ian Rappel: So the last section in this level is about the arts. And that, again, might not be the first thing that comes to people’s minds, the importance of the arts. I wonder if you can say something about that?
Colin Tudge: Yeah, it was a danger being glib, obviously, as you suggested, but –
Ian Rappel: I haven’t suggested that you would come across!
Colin Tudge: But you know, there’s a danger of it. But I would say, what the arts does, as I see them, they represent the human imagination in free flight. And you know, the human imagination is related to the idea of intuition. It’s an intuition taken to the next level, and the idea of the guests and etc, etc. So imagination is key. Coleridge wrote very well about all this. And scientists, of course, are extremely imaginative, if they’re any good. I mean, many of them are box tickers. But you know, the Einsteins of this world are incredibly imaginative, and Darwin and so on. But the scientist is always asking, How does my imaginative flight of fancy relate to what one might say, as the real world? observable, measurable world? The artist doesn’t have to ask that question, and simply follows the imagination and sees where it leads. In a sense, somebody like Blake is the archetype who way away in realms of fantasy, so called. But the other interesting thing is that these so called fantasies can be extremely illuminating. I mean, they put new light, they throw new light on the world, which you didn’t previously appreciate.
An example of that, actually, is the idea that Niels Bohr, who developed the idea of the fundamental ideas behind quantum physics, had on his wall, he took great interest in the emerging cubist art of Brock and Picasso. And he had these cubist paintings on his wall. And it was a sense that the cubists were exploring the idea that there’s a different perception of what reality really is, which was very much in tune with his idea that there’s a different perception. And that actually, life, the whichever word, is not solid, and it’s see what I mean. So there’s that kind of cross-fertilisation between the two. But also, of course, the real point – one of the real points – of art is that it’s an attempt or more than an attempt to communicate and to communicate very big ideas that are not easily expressed otherwise. And as a novelist I was reading the other day said, the artist above all draws attention to, and says, look at this, and look at it in a different way. And this, of course, very much influenced his attitude. And if you’ve read, say, Wordsworth – not that it’s that easy to read, it’s very long – but it affects the way you look at nature. Or if you listen to, if you’re a Nina Simone fan, it affects the way you feel about life and humanity. Any piece of music, Beethoven, Pastoral Symphony, etc, etc. And attitude is, I won’t say attitude is all because, you know, it could be attitude plus techniques and knowledge and stuff. But it is, as it were, the sine qua non, as the lawyers say; it’s attitude that causes you to engage with any particular subject in the first place. And if, as an artist, more than anybody else has pointed out, the supreme beauty or the pleasure to be had, for example, from the natural world, they’re not necessarily for the natural world, then this hugely influences how you how you treat them, and politics and everything else.
Ian Rappel: It’s an overlap that’s often I think, neglected, almost deliberately neglected the overlap between the arts and sciences. And in particularly, ecology, I think, would benefit from that much higher level of cross-fertilisation from the arts and sciences, because I’ve looked at, say, a nature reserves management plan, you can have a very technical management plan, you know, an Excel spreadsheet, and, you know, we will do this by that date to produce this, and then you can look at a painting of a wood with all the animals and everything else. And actually, that’s the same sort of thing, you know, that’s your reference point. And you as a conservation manager, for instance, your objective is to have that richness and that diversity and everything else. So it’s a shame in a way that there isn’t more cross-fertilisation between the arts and the sciences, especially around a living Earth. I mean, I like to think it was Leon Trotsky said that the poetry of the Earth is unwritten. And I quite like that, because what he’s saying is everything we do, we create another stanza or line, or you know, or rhythm within that poetry, but it’s always out there. We will always be changing it, we will always be developing it. So it’s quite nice to have the arts as a reference point for something like this, as well. So, Colin, simply where do we go from here?
Colin Tudge: First of all, I’d like the big general idea of renaissance, we’ve all got to rethink from the first principles. And it has to be a democratic renaissance led by people at large, who think about the problems, etc. On a more practical level, you need community-led enterprises. Fundamentally small farms, collectively owned markets, are a good place to start, and the general idea is to form sort of islands of what one might call islands of sanity. And if you have enough islands of sanity, and they talk to each other, and they begin to coalesce. In that kind of way, you can form an alternative, a genuine alternative to the status quo, so that people want to jump ship and leave the corporate or bank for which they happen to be working for have got somewhere to jump to. And that is the general strategy.
In more general, or more abstract terms, we absolutely, if we want to change the world for the better, need to define the goal, which governments don’t really do. And lots of organisations don’t really do. What are you really trying to achieve? And I come back to this convivial society, personal fulfilment, flourishing biosphere kind of idea. In doing that, by establishing islands of sanity, and by keeping our goal in mind etc, we need to restore farming, agriculture, to the centre stage, and it’s been sidelined in a neoliberal urbanised, etc, economy, and indeed so for farmers, and they should be among the very most highly regarded members of society, like doctors, etc. And at the moment, they’re not and actually never have been.
So we want to upgrade the whole sector of farming. And given that we need lots of small farms, we need about a million more farmers, for starters, in this country, and to make farming seen to be a major pursuit of people in general, but including the British people. And we need to develop, as it were in parallel, with that, and in sympathy with that, an appropriate food culture, based on plenty of plants, not much meat, maximum variety, etc. We need a new kind of governance, clearly, and we need it within that to make democracy work, which we will think of a good idea. But it’s never really been made to work. Actually, not everybody does think it’s a good idea. And I believe Xi Jinping in China says it’s a basic, decadent, redundant idea, which is a chilling thought if people like him actually believe that, which they clearly do. But we have to take democracy very seriously and make it work. Never really has. In support of that, we need a new kind of economy, which I’ve called green economic democracy. Messy, non-algorithmic, non- whatever the word is – non-ideological, but a pragmatic device, helping us to realise the goal, and be real societies, etc, etc, doing what’s necessary. And to underpin all this, to make it robust, everybody really needs to understand what is being done, and why it’s being done, and why it’s important. And to make that clear, we need a different kind of education. In other words, we need, in my view, the kind of education which follows the outline of the diagram, with all the different components of a convivial society being discussed; all of them in the light of all the others. And as I see the College, that is, the new kind of education it’s offering, breaking down lots of barriers, breaking down the barrier between town and country, breaking down the barriers between town and gown, intellectuals and the doers, so called, etc. And we need to develop a kind of worldview that is deeply based, on the one hand, a well developed sense of morality, what is it right, on the other hand, as far as possible, seeking to understand how the world actually works, what’s in it, in other words very good science, all underpinned in the end by ideas of a metaphysical lecture, which lie at the basis of all big ideas, the sum of absolute presuppositions, as Collingwood put it, and this leads us towards as far as we are able to get to such a thing of the perennial wisdom – ideas that are true for all time. The ideas, this is where other versions of the perennial wisdom, I think, have gone wrong. There are various people who liked the idea of perennial wisdom, but see it as a kind of ziggurat, you know, you will build a solid corpus of what is acceptable ideas, acceptable truth. And once you’ve done it, that’s it. Whereas in fact, of course, the perennial wisdom must be conceived as a living thing that we all contribute to the whole time, and which changes, morphs over time; paradigm shifts along the way, the model of what science ought to be like. And the task as I see it, therefore, is to develop what we still call the perennial wisdom and apply it to everyday life. So that’s it.
Ian Rappel: Thank you very much, Colin. Much appreciated.