Light, Enlightenment, and the Limits of Knowledge

We are in the dark season!

In the dark season we rejoice in the contrast between light and darkness. Light is comforting, cosy, the saving grace. From darkness we flee. Despite the mystery of darkness, despite us coming from darkness, darkness gets a bad rap! Throughout history humankind has been darknessphobic.

Witness the Bible:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.

And God saw the light, and it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.


Compare that to the physicist’s Genesis:

In the beginning the Big Bang created the heaven and the earth.

And the Big Bang created light.

And the scientist saw the light, and that it was good.

And the scientist said, let us use light to explore the heaven and the earth.

And the scientist divided the light from the darkness.


However, from a human standpoint you can argue that darkness is a relative of light because we get a sensory input from encountering absolute darkness similar to that of our eyes meeting light. We say ‘it was all black’ when we talk of darkness, so darkness is a colour and hence a relative of light. Not so easy to divide light from darkness – and not so easy to perceive of light without darkness!

Of course, in both versions of Genesis what is left unsaid is what there was before the beginning. Before the beginning there was not darkness, and, at least in the physicist’s Genesis, there was not even ‘nothing’ because nothing still tends to be a spatial concept. Nothing is still something! Nothing implies emptiness, but in the beginning there was not nothing, because there was no space for the emptiness. In fact, we do not have a word for the absolute ‘nothing’, for the nothingness beyond the nothing! Kant talked about space and time as the necessary features for human experience. With absolute nothingness both disappear, so perhaps it is not surprising that we cannot understand!

We talk about light as something physical, but we also use light as a metaphor for visibility, for understanding.

Enlightenment is the most prominent example. But our language is full of it, ‘she saw the light,’ ‘to shed light on a matter’, ‘it came to light’ etc.. “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman” said Louis Brandeis. In a somewhat similar vein Plato: ‘We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.’

Light as a metaphor informs so strongly our perceptions of knowledge. This is clear also when Plato talks about the shadows on the wall of the cave. Our grasp of reality is hindered by being chained to the cave. The philosopher may be able to break the chains and see reality for what it is, but the starting point is that we are chained and that we only see what our imprisoned state will allow. Plato assumes that we do not see reality except as a reflection created by light.

Breaking the chains is primarily a mental activity on this view, but, of course, there is a physical parallel. The human urge to explore and to seek new horizons is the accompaniment to the mental breaking free, and we see this parallel very clearly in the Renaissance. Santa Maria brought Columbus to unexpected new land. He wanted to find the new route to India, he was in search of riches, but he was also an explorer, somebody who wanted give us new ways, new knowledge.

And the renaissance, of course, did give a new worldview. Not only with a new continent, but with a move from the geocentric to the heliocentric perspective. Cusanus, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, all products of the renaissance. And Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler all entirely dependent on actual light as they pursued enlightenment before its actual Age.

By and large we have stayed on the path the renaissance scientists and the ensuing Enlightenment have shown us. The Romantics may have rebelled, but ours is a science and technology dominated society. A society beholden to narrow logic despite the protestations of anti-positivists . A preeminent Enlightenment figure like David Hume explained, by the use of perfectly rational analysis, that ‘reason is the slave to our emotions’, yet it is debatable whether we calibrate emotion sufficiently in our investigations. To let reason vet our emotions is surely a wise corrective, but whether we value emotion sufficiently and correctly in seeking truth can be doubted. The chess World Champion Magnus Carlsen said in an interview that some of his best moves had been intuitive. In a wildly analytical game like chess this statement is not obvious. But it perhaps demonstrates a place for emotion in rational inquiry that we are reluctant to accept. Perhaps vast mastery of a discipline allows emotion to re-enter. And perhaps humankind has gained such a mastery of science that it will allow emotional inquiry to again play a larger role!

Generally, we have come quite far out of the cave. Our knowledge has become so extensive that our confidence might have become excessive. A recent film about Stephen Hawking is called ‘The Theory of Everything’. Not ‘A theory’ but ‘The theory’. That is bold stuff. The title seems to chime in the ultimate success of Enlightenment, whilst also sounding a bit like proclaiming ‘the end of history’ or even ‘the end of time’.

Physics have certainly come a long way in terms of explaining things, with Schrödinger’s wave function being the foundation of all ‘materiality’ and Max Tegmark suggesting that all reality is just relativity that can be captured in mathematical formulas, hence his book ‘Our Mathematical Universe’. The theory of everything is an ultimate aspiration of immense beauty – but are we, for all our knowledge, really close?

The theory of everything must ultimately be a theory of everything we ask ourselves, or can ask ourselves, not necessarily a theory of everything everything. Reality has throughout human history shown itself to have many more facets and dimensions than we start out believing, and the theory of everything might hence just be a step to understanding an even wider and wilder reality.

The theory of everything in an absolute sense, should it come about, would, by the way, not mean that we then actually understand everything – it would only be a tool allowing us to understand everything, so in that sense would not herald end time. Even with the theory of everything there would still be much to explore by deploying our God-like new tools to the immense diversity of reality.

But more fundamentally, light as rational enquiry has given humankind a tool for enlightenment on everything that can be exposed by such light. But can all be so exposed? In our material times we may think that spirit and spirituality is just another ‘material’ quality, but perhaps it is of a different quality altogether, to be explored by other means. Perhaps the theory of everything will be the theory of everything that can be captured by scientific means as we understand them now. This was the fear of one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg: ‘The positivists have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can one conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing?’ In this sense, is it possible that we cannot rationalize quantum mechanics because it has an undiscovered spiritual dimension not present in gravity and relativity?

Perhaps another theory of everything is needed to capture all features of the spirit, which might, or might not, be the result of a wave function. The latter is a question much wider than the religious question on whether humans possess a soul! A question even more interesting, perhaps, than all the questions that can be captured by current scientific method.

Whether the human condition would be well served by a theory of truly everything, leading ultimately to perfect knowledge, is doubtful. Striving for understanding is such a central feature of human existence both at the personal and the societal level. A human society without seeking the light of truly new insight might not be so human! Thus we should perhaps relish Tennyson’s words while we can:


Not of the sunlight,

Not of the moonlight,

Not of the starlight!

O young Mariner,

Down to the haven,

Call your companions,

Launch your vessel,

And crowd your canvas,

And, ere it vanishes

Over the margin,

After it, follow it,

Follow The Gleam.


The Bane of Rapacious Elites

An ill wind of populism is blowing. To a large extent it originated in Europe (Front National, UKIP) and its effects are not only the death of truth but also more abuse of power, more corruption. Elites of all kinds have seen how tolerant society can be of abuse and have been quick to follow suit. The rule of law is increasingly under threat. 

The spread of corruption in Europe is worrying. Particularly in wealthy societies there is no excuse. The murder of crusading anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta is a stark reminder of elite remorselessness, and a reminder of the inability of national systems to deal with abuse by national elites.

 One of the most effective ways of bringing local elites to heel is to rely on non-local enforcement. Both in the Roman and the Habsburg empires the downtrodden would often appeal to the imperial centre when their rights were violated by local elites. The demise of feudalism was to a large extent a result of kings being able to tap local discontent against feudal masters. 

What the European Union can learn from history is that the Brussels institutions must protect the weak against local elites – and must be seen to do so. Both the Commission and the European Parliament do good things but were so far unable to connect with local populations to show them that the European project is really for them. In terms of the fight against corruption what the European Union should do is to create a dedicated anti-corruption tribunal under the aegis of the Court of Justice of the European Union. This anti-corruption tribunal should have as its mandate to prosecute corruption crimes if a European level prosecutor would deem that national courts were failing in specific instances. A system of subsidiarity similar to that of the International Criminal Court. 

The creation of such a tribunal would obviously not be supported by national governments, and hence it is for us, the citizens, to put pressure on the European Parliament and the Commission to give birth to a tribunal that would allow us to bypass local elite institutions when local elite interests try to brush away the rule of law.


Death and Resurrection of Germanism

I have lived in German-speaking territory for the past almost 30 years. For most of that time it has felt like living in a shadow culture. The piercing of the Iron Curtain in 1989 might have heralded a resurgent Germany, but the time was nevertheless the highpoint of Anglo-Saxon culture. Most of the music was American and British, most of the literature we talked about, a lot of the art. In Darmstadt, where I lived at the start, the presence of an American military base was an important link to the dominant culture. For God’s sake, we even had a Walmart!

When I grew up in Denmark in the sixties and seventies German culture was the uncoolest, even if Bach and Beethoven were tolerated. Buddenbrooks was feared, and German lessons detested like math, the German language being so rigorous and logical. The anarchy and freedom of English was what we wanted, the music of Jimi Hendrix its artistic apex.

The reason for the rejection of German culture was not only that America was so strong. History, of course, put a shadow over everything German apart from the cars.

Nazism and WWII did not kill German culture but assigned German culture to the margins. After the war Berlin and Vienna by and large became wastelands in terms of cultural innovation. The rest of the world admired the Wirtschaftswunder, but was sceptical about German culture, particularly of recent origin. Why read Durrenmatt if you could read Salinger or Kerouac? Even if Karajan became an icon of popular culture, Kraftwerk was not Beatles, Baselitz not quite Pollock.

But the times they are a-changing. Berlin is a hothouse of creativity and traditional German culture is becoming if not cool then far more accepted. Schiller is gaining on Shakespeare, Love Parade, now shrouded in tragedy, was born in Berlin, not New York. Still, truth be told, German culture will not replace Anglo-Saxon culture in the short term. Things can be expected to become more balanced, however. Austria is still caught in creativity killing nostalgia, but Germany, with its strong cultural orientation and its new preeminent political position, will likely steam ahead and give us new appreciation of how rigour and logic can bring outstanding cultural achievements.

The revival of Germanic culture will, one must hope, also bring a much keener interest in German and Austrian history. The well-educated citizen of the world knows more about the US Civil War than about Bismarck’s unification of Germany, knows more about the Glorious Revolution than about the reign of Frederick the Great, more about the reforms of Napoleon than about those of Joseph II. That is a shame, because there is so much to be learned from the history of the German peoples. At a time of crisis for the European Union few people look at what can be learned from the rise and fall of the Habsburg Empire, can be learned from Bismarck’s iron-willed forcing of German unity, from the nationalist messes of the period between the wars. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ George Santayana said. That saying is first and foremost about learning from the mistakes of the past, of course, but implies also that we should learn the salutary lessons. Yet, the conditioning factors of Germany’s remarkable recovery from the depth of despair to affluence within 20 years of WWII is little reflected upon even by Germans themselves although there are crucial lessons to be learned. Economists are enamoured by Adam Smith, but forget that the basis of German broad-based wealth is worker participation in corporate decision-making. Germany’s Willkommenskultur is being bad-mouthed, although it is a triumph of learning from history. Germanism has a long way to go yet.

Germany is critically dependent upon Europe and Europe is critically dependent upon Germany. If we can get our European house in order we can then hope to continue enjoying the fantastic benefits of multicultural exchange. And we can hope to continue to benefit from a German culture that is international, tolerant and humanistic, and that gives lie to the impressions of my youth and is very cool, indeed. Buddenbrooks, here we come!

Rhetoric and Reality

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously said ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’. The US ambassador said a week ago in the Security Council that Kim Jong-un is ‘begging for war’. This was preceded by President Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ threat a couple of weeks earlier.

This language is now starting to expand the limits of our world. The possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear war even, starts to become part of our reality. We are starting to make ourselves acquainted with the thought that millions of people might die as a result of military action against Kim Jong-un.

The ramifications of this new reality are horrifying. History has shown us that words have their own logic; that possibility often turns into fact. We sleepwalked into WWI, as historian Christopher Clark has explained, and there is a real risk that we will do something similar again. We might lull ourselves into the illusion that a limited military strike is possible against North Korea – that Kim Jong-un will not risk everything if faced with a targeted military strike. But he will, perhaps step by step, but escalation in these situations tends to be frightfully quick. Seoul is on North Korea’s doorstep, and Seoul will be the first victim of military action.

In principle the United States cannot act on its own. Society has tried to put limits on everybody’s world by demanding that military action against a state will have to be authorised by the Security Council, except in cases of self-defence. Unfortunately the effectiveness of this limit is doubtful, as we saw during the second Gulf war.

The task of everybody scared of the power of language, and scared that haphazardly millions of lives will be sacrificed, is to use the power of language to resist the inflation of war rhetoric, and to make clear to the United States that North Korea is not only an issue for Mr. Trump, but for the community of states. We must do all we can to empower the Security Council, must make sure that this does not become a shoot-out at the OK Corral in which millions of human lives are sacrificed at the altar of temperament, impatience and lack of cool thinking!

The Globalisation Misunderstanding

We live in the era of migration because it is a logical consequence of globalisation. All those who leave their country in search of a better life, rather than fleeing because of the horrors of wars and oppression, do so because the world has grown smaller and more interdependent. Economic migration mirrors Economics 101: free movement of labour makes for most effective production.

When capital flows freely and production can seek optimum conditions by moving from country to country, it is not strange that labour seeks the same.

We accept the free movement of labour within our countries and within the EU, and we have seen that free movement of labour tends to flatten remuneration differences for same work within each country or region. The migration pressure the ‘rich’ world is experiencing is ultimately a push for global free movement of labour. If it is achieved, as it should, the world would not implode on workers in the rich world, but it would, for a time, mean that their wages would stagnate. It is thus natural that there is resistance. However, the reality is that the world cannot have a globalised economy without globalised free movement of labour. It might come step-by-step, so that economic displacement effects are softened. But come it will – or globalisation in general will be dismantled, as President Trump so assiduously and short-sightedly is trying to do.

Fact is that global free movement of labour in the longer term will mean increased wealth for all, will lead to wealthier and bigger markets. Abandoning globalisation or trying to stop rather than manage migration flows will lead to disaster and war.

Jeremy Bentham talked about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. This is what globalisation and global free movement of labour should be all about!


Bernie Sanders – Leader of the Opposition?

In the current desolate state of US politics there are two opposition voices that are often heard, those of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Elizabeth Warren speaks rather narrowly on banking and consumer protection, Bernie Sanders on everything. What Bernie Sanders does is admirable, but not enough in terms of opposition politics.  

The tandem of Schumer and Pelosi is completely ineffective and remarkably tone-deaf. In their defence one should perhaps remember that opposition is hard when both the Presidency and the two chambers of Congress are in the same hand. Democratic opposition is made even harder when the Republican Party is so disunited as to form its own opposition groups. 

The Democratic Party could learn from the mother of all parliaments, that of the UK. Although British democracy is also in dire straights at present, there is something that is worth emulating, and that is the system of shadow cabinets. Such a system might come more easily to a system where the government emanates from the Parliament, but it can, of course, also operate in a presidential system. 

What the Democrats should do is to formally designate shadow cabinet secretaries that could always be the counterpoint to the actual cabinet secretaries. This would move opposition politics a bit away from being only no, and would allow a broader front towards the ruling party. Relying on the senior member of the individual committees does not work, even if shadow ministers, of course, could come from those ranks as well. 

But, most importantly, a shadow cabinet would force the Democrats to start to coalesce around a leader already now, and would give that leader an opportunity to lead the party before it gains power. The Republicans are currently a classical example of how easy it was to be a party of no, and how hard it is to become one of yes. 

Choosing a leader now would not mean scrapping the primaries system, but would set the scene for it. Choosing a leader now would make it hard to change horses later on. But given the advantages that is a price worth paying! Letting the unprepared assume the mantle of the most powerful office in the world is really not a good idea!


The Federal Gaelic Republic?

When you travel in the Republic of Ireland you will often be hard-pressed to tell the difference to Scotland, let alone to Northern Ireland. The nature is very similar, the architecture too, and the friendliness and sociability certainly as well. The Gaelic heritage shows. You are much more likely to be able to tell an Irish face from an English one, than an Irish face from a Scottish. Remarkably, 700 years after Edward, Hammer of the Scots, and more than 250 years after Culloden, Scotland still seems to have more in common with those on the Emerald Isle than with the English.
The English wishing to leave the EU has left the constitutional structure of the UK in limbo. Brexit has fuelled a desire for independence in Scotland, and Scotland clearly wants to remain in the EU if at all possible.
Tongue-in-cheek one can perhaps suggest that the dreams of Scotland are perfectly possible, particularly if one shows a bit of constitutional creativity, and looks at the pieces on the chessboard of the British Isles without assuming that England must always be the centrepiece. On the British Isles the Republic of Ireland is currently the odd man out, no part of the United Kingdom. Now that England has invoked its uniqueness, perhaps it is time for England to leave the unity and allow Ireland to enter instead. A federal republic of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would actually be entirely sensible. Similar culture, similar nature, many similarities in terms of economy and economic outlook.
A Federal Gaelic Republic would potentially also resolve the Northern Irish question in a sustainable fashion. Northern Ireland has, of course, always been riven by the Catholic/Protestant issue. With Scotland solidly Protestant, but with Catholic history and Catholic minorities, a Federal Gaelic Republic could provide a balance between the two religions, with the Republic of Ireland overwhelmingly Catholic, Scotland overwhelmingly Protestant, and Northern Ireland in between. Of course, this does not resolve entirely the ‘loyalist’ concern, the loyalists being loyal ultimately to England. But frankly that loyalty cannot play out as it used to if Scotland gains independence. A Federal Gaelic Republic would resolve many of the most difficult issues for Northern Ireland arising from Brexit. It would resolve the hard border issue with the Republic of Ireland (and Scotland), it would resolve many economic concerns, many cultural concerns.
We live in radical times, yet a Federal Gaelic Republic may still be too radical. But it would make perfect sense!