Knowledge theory

What is truth and what is knowledge? These are questions philosophers have been busy discussing for thousands of years. Knowledge theory is sometimes called epistemology. It is about the nature of knowledge and deals with concepts like truth, knowledge, belief, and justification (of beliefs). This branch of philosophy aims to answer questions like “What do we know?”, “What does it mean that we know something?”, “What makes beliefs justified?”, and “How do we know that we know?”

This treatise on knowledge theory is an historical account as thoughts are usually built upon previous thoughts. It discusses Western philosophy even though many of the ideas presented here have been invented elsewhere too. The reason is that the scientific revolution took place in the Western world and science is based on thinking but also greatly has influenced thinking so this is easiest way to tackle the most relevant topics.

Classical philosophy

The first ancient Greek philosophers speculated about the nature of reality. This is called metaphysics. Some early Greek philosophers believed that reality consisted of four basic ingredients. These are fire, water, earth and air. Later on a few Greek philosophers argued that the building blocks of reality are small particles called atoms that differ in shape and size and that the objects we see are groups of atoms stuck together. This was already close to the modern understanding of reality.

There were other issues that the ancient Greeks were thinking about. Some of them figured that the Earth could be a sphere. They guessed it by looking at the sea. The sea horizon is slightly curbed while boats disappear in the distance before their sails do. A philosopher named Xenophanes began to doubt religion. He realised that people believed that the gods are like themselves. For instance, black people believed that the gods are black while red-haired people believed them to be red-haired. He then argued that we can’t know what the gods are like. This was an early form of scepticism.

And why would you believe in the Greek gods if the Persians and the Egyptians have different gods? If your place of birth determines what you believe then your beliefs probably are false. The sophists were an early group of philosophers who had come into contact with other cultures. They claimed that absolute knowledge is impossible. Everything is subjective, they argued. This is called relativism. Socrates is known for his dialogues in which he debated the sophists.

Socrates claimed that there is absolute truth even though we may not know it. His pupil Plato claimed that ideas are at the basis of knowledge. He believed that ideas are more real than things. This is called idealism. Plato’s pupil Aristotle on the other hand believed that knowledge comes from observations. This is called empiricism. Both approaches have their problems. If you imagine that unicorns exist, you have the idea of a unicorn. The idealist reasoning could be that therefore unicorns exist. On the other hand, if you see a unicorn after eating some mushrooms, the empiricist reasoning could be that unicorns exist for that reason.

The foundations of knowledge can always be called into question. It is for that reason that scepticism emerged. In ancient times there were two main groups of sceptics. The first group argued that nothing is certain. They aimed at refuting the claims of other philosophers. The second group claimed that it often isn’t possible to prove or refute claims and that it is better to postpone judgement until the matter is sufficiently clarified.

These ideas were revived in Europe during the late Middle Ages after the texts of the classical philosophers were rediscovered in Arab libraries. European philosophers of that time like Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham were theologians who believed that there is no difference between theology and science. Over time science and religion became separated as they both come from different sources. Science is based on observations and reason while religion was believed to be based on divine revelation.

Ockham is known for his simplicity principle called Ockham’s razor. It is usually phrased as follows: “If there are several hypotheses that can explain a phenomenon equally, the hypothesis that comes with the fewest entities should be selected.” The entities can be seen as assumptions that need to be true. This argues for minimalism in reasoning. So if you want to prove a point, it is better to have as few necessary assumptions as possible.

Modern philosophy

Around the year 1500 European thinkers began to realise that Christopher Columbus had just discovered a completely new continent. Traditional knowledge had failed dramatically here. There was nothing in the Bible or other sources suggesting that such a continent exists. At the same time Protestants began to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The ensuing religious wars ravaged Europe. They ended without a clear winner. And so the question arose as to how to evaluate the claims of the different branches of Christianity. After all, they can’t all be true.

brain in a vat believing itself to be a person who is walking

These developments spurred a renewed scepticism and a new search for the foundations of knowledge. As our senses can be deceptive, only rational thinking can produce knowledge, philosophers like René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza argued. Their view is called rationalism, but it was a new version of idealism. In a thought experiment similar to the brain-in-a-vat scenario Descartes questioned everything the senses register. Your brain could be inside a vat filled with a life supporting liquid and it could be connected to a computer that generates the impression that you are a person who is walking. This is also the theme behind The Matrix. What is beyond doubt, according to Descartes, is that you exist even if you are just a brain-in-a-vat. And you can establish this fact by thinking. “I think, therefore I exist,” he claimed. Other philosophers like Francis Bacon, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and David Hume, believed that knowledge comes from observations. This was a renewed empiricism.

At the time there were great advances in the natural sciences driven by thinking but these advances themselves also spurred thinking. The combination of observation and thinking created scientific progress. This worked more or less as follows. Assume you plan to investigate the effect of gravity on the motion of objects. You can do this by dropping an iron ball from a tower from different heights and measure how long it takes for the ball to hit the ground. The table below shows the measurements.

Height (in metres)Time (in seconds)
0.050.10
0.500.32
1.000.45
5.001.01
10.01.43
50.03.19

It takes some thinking to figure out that the relationship between height and fall time is reflected in the following mathematical formula: fall time = 9.81 * √ (2 * height). For instance, 3.19 = 9.81 * √ (2 * 50.0). If the tower is only 50 metres high then it isn’t possible to measure how long it will take for the ball to fall from 100 metres. But if you know the mathematical formula of the relationship then you can calculate the fall time without measuring it, so: 9.81 * √ (2 * 100) = 4.52 seconds. It is observation and thinking combined that made this possible.

Finding the mathematical formula that matches the data is a bit like fitting the pieces of a jig saw puzzle. This type of reasoning is called induction, which usually is formulating a general rule based upon observations. You can never be sure that the outcome is correct. For instance, on the basis of your own observations with the help of induction you might conclude that all swans are white. On the other hand, deduction is logical reasoning from assumptions to conclusions. If all assumptions are true, and the rules of logic are followed correctly, then the conclusion must be true. Deduction usually is about applying general rules to specific situations. An example is: all men are mortal (first premise) and Socrates is a man (second premise) then Socrates is mortal (conclusion). Also, if the relationship between height and fall time is reflected in the mathematical formula: fall time = 9.81 * √ (2 * height) (first premise), and the height is 100 metres (second premise) then the fall time is 4.52 seconds (conclusion).

Immanuel Kant realised that knowledge arises from observation (empiricism) but that it is impossible to have knowledge without thinking (idealism). Observations have to be interpreted. Thinking imposes a structure upon observations. For example, we do not perceive trees or gravity. These are categories of human thought that we attach to the world. We do not know and cannot know what reality is like (relativism). The things themselves remain unknown so metaphysical speculation about the nature of reality is pointless, for instance asking yourself whether or not gravity is real or imagined. This was one of the greatest advances in knowledge theory in 2,000 years. It is a synthesis of previous thoughts that can be seen as a higher level of insight. Such major leaps in philosophy are extremely rare.

Subsequent idealist philosophers argued that absolute knowledge is possible because the mind creates reality. They argued that reality is subject to the mind so reality can be uncovered with reason. For instance, the fall of a ball is subject to mathematical laws invented by the human mind. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel believed that history is a dialectic process resulting in progress. In science and philosophy a reasoned debate of ideas in the form of argument and counter argument could lead to a higher insight called synthesis. It doesn’t seem an accident that Hegel came up with this just after Kant had upset knowledge theory by coming up with such a synthesis.

Contemporary philosophy

Kant more or less had ended metaphysics or the speculation about the nature of reality. Philosophers became less ambitious. One reaction was pragmatism. Evolution theory suggests that we hold the beliefs that help us to survive and reproduce. American thinkers such as Charles Sanders Peirce and William James viewed thinking as a means of solving problems. They weren’t interested in truth or the nature of reality. Another approach, hermeneutics, with thinkers like Wilhelm Dilthey and Martin Heidegger concerns itself with interpreting human communication. Dilthey argued that natural sciences are about interpreting observations while humanities are about understanding meaning expressed in communication. Heidegger goes a bit further by claiming that the essence of human existence is understanding.

There was also a renewed search for the foundations of knowledge. Analytical philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that the main tools of philosophers are language and logic. Their aim was to develop a new method to gather certain knowledge of reality. They assumed that there is an outside world and claimed that language can be used to express facts that correspond to elements of reality. This is called realism. It is related to empiricism. They claimed that there are justified true beliefs. So if Jane believes something to be true, and it is indeed true, her belief is justified. The main problem here is that this doesn’t clarify which facts are true and justified.

Karl Popper then came up the concept of falsification, which was a significant advance in knowledge theory. He believed that ideas can never be proven but that they can be falsified if there is contradicting information. For instance, you may believe that all swans are white until you spot a black swan. From then on, you may believe most swans are white and some are black. This is how knowledge progresses. The belief that most swans are white and some are black is closer to the truth than that all swans are white, even though it may still not be true if there is a red swan somewhere out there no-one has ever seen.

This is also how science progresses. Scientific theories must be falsifiable, meaning that they can be used to do predictions that you can check. For instance, the mathematical formula reflecting relationship between height and fall time can be used to predict the fall time from 100 metres. And if you do an experiment and the outcome is different than the formula indicates, the theory is falsified, unless your measurement is inaccurate, which is probably the case.

Edmund Gettier attacked the notion of justified true beliefs. For instance, if Jane looks at her watch and it says that it is two o’clock she may believe that it is two o’clock. What she doesn’t know is that her watch stopped exactly twelve hours earlier. Her belief is therefore not justified. But because the watch stopped twelve hours ago it accidentally gives the correct time so that her belief is nevertheless true.

Thomas Kuhn noted that science is characterised by a succession of paradigms. A paradigm is a theory or a set of theories that dominate a field in science. Usually, a theory explains some phenomena but fails to explain others. The theory that explains the most phenomena and leaves the fewest unexplained, is usually considered best and the dominant paradigm in the field. The unexplained phenomena can be seen as falsifications of the theory, but if no better theory is at hand, most scientists will probably believe that the experiment is not important in improperly executed.

The succession of paradigms in science affects the views ordinary people hold. Only 500 years ago most people in Europe believed that the Earth is flat, a few thousand years old, and at the centre of the universe. The ancient Greek discovery that the Earth is a sphere was only known to educated people. When Columbus set sail to the West, he expected to end up in the Indies (Indonesia). Now most people in Europe believe the Earth is a sphere, billions of years old, and an insignificant spot in the universe.

Post-modernism claims that great stories like religions and ideologies are dead and that there is no absolute knowledge. Words like reality and truth are even seen as totalitarian concepts by post-modernists. There is still room for small stories and fragments of reality but they depend on perspective. A great source of inspiration for postmodernism is Friedrich Nietzsche who proclaimed the death of God and heralded the end of the classic Christian story of God’s people on the road to Paradise that gives meaning to our existence. Postmodernism is just renewed relativism. This view was, not surprisingly, criticised by philosophers who claimed that post-modernism makes it appear that truth is subjective.

And so we are more or less back at the point where Socrates was refuting the sophists. And with the simulation argument the speculation about the nature of reality or metaphysics re-emerged. We could all be living inside a computer programme created by an advanced humanoid civilisation. And so it may seem that knowledge theory has gone nowhere. At least it is obvious that, while our knowledge increased dramatically during the last 2,000 years, knowledge theory didn’t progress accordingly.

Takeaways

There are a few takeaways from what has been discussed so far:

  • The truth or falsity of a statement may depend on whether or not it accurately describes (some part of) reality. With the help of empiricism and induction you may arrive at correct conclusions.
  • The truth or falsity of a system of statements may depend on its logical consistency. Contradictions are evidence of errors. With the help of idealism and deduction you might arrive at correct conclusions.
  • Assertions can always been called into question as the foundations of knowledge itself are questionable. Empiricism and induction as well as idealism and deduction can lead to wrong conclusions.
  • Plausibility can be used to support theories. An assertion is plausible if there is evidence supporting it and there is no evidence contradicting it. In science it often means that the theory hasn’t been falsified.
  • Pragmatism implies that usefulness is more important than truth. For instance, religions make larger scale cooperation possible. Religions allow tribes to grow larger and muster more men for war.
  • Minimalism argues for using as few assumptions as possible to prove a point and not to engage in unnecessary speculation.
  • Finally, there can be progress in thought. Two contradicting arguments can both be correct as there may be a higher level of truth that resolves the contradiction. For instance, the simulation argument can resolve the contradiction between creation and the big bang and evolution theories.

There is difference between proof and evidence. In common language these terms are used interchangeably. Proof is a final verdict that removes all doubt whereas evidence only supports a particular explanation. Proof is usually achieved by deduction while evidence is often used in induction. Proof is an idealist concept. For instance, in mathematics proof is possible when it comes down to pure deductive reasoning that doesn’t involve an outside reality. Evidence is related to empiricism. Applying idealist concepts like proof to reality is problematic. General rules like the relationship between height and fall time used in deduction are usually attained through induction so proving something about reality is problematic. At best we can support meaningful claims about reality with evidence.

Featured image: Owl eyes. Brocken Inaglory (2006). Public domain.

Other image: Brain-in-a-vat. Alexander Wivel (2008). Public domain.

The only known photograph of Chief Seattle

Towards a spirit of connectedness

A world without hope?

The future prospects for humanity appear grim. At best we manage to avoid a planetary ecological disaster. And that already may be too high an aim. So what will our future look like? Which direction should we take? Can we build a sustainable and humane world society? And what is wrong with our current way of living? Perhaps the answer can be found in a speech the native American Chief Seattle allegedly gave in 1854 when the United States government wanted to buy the land of his tribe. Here are his first words:

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clear and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people.

Only, Seattle never said this. It is fake history. It has been made up by a screenwriter in 1971. Still, the speech strikes at the heart of the matter. Nothing is sacred anymore. The pursuit of money destroys our values and our planet. For instance, it is argued that if we don’t allow the airport to expand, money and jobs will be lost. This is killing us. The speech contains some more interesting words:

This we know – the Earth does not belong to man – man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.

Whatever befalls the Earth – befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life – he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

We know this deep down in our hearts but it is hard to deal with it. What can we do? The people from the environmentalist group Strohalm worked for decades on an outline for the society of the future. They were not hindered by established interests nor did a lack of perspective deter them from continuing their search. They tried to learn their lessons from history and were part of a small group of people that kept on caring and never gave up. Here is another take-away from the speech:

Even the white man, whose God walks and talks with him as friend to friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We shall see. One thing we know, which the white man may one day discover – Our God is the same God. You may think now that you own Him as you wish to own our land, but you cannot.

In 1991 Strohalm issued a booklet named Towards a Philosophy of Connectedness. It lays out their vision for a future society that is both sustainable and humane. It gives possible steering mechanisms that can help to achieve such a society. It is a vision that long seemed unattainable, not because it is impossible to do, but because vested interests stood in the way. Seattle also never said:

That destiny is a mystery to us, for we do not understand when the buffalo are slaughtered, the wild horses tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires. Where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. The end of living and the beginning of survival.

In 1994 I was an active member of the environmentalist movement. In this way I became familiar with Strohalm. For a long time I believed them to be naive dreamers. Most people I know do not like environmentalists. And indeed, they weren’t always realistic and sometimes decades ahead of their time. I kept on supporting their work because there is no alternative. You can’t allow realism to stand in the way of what needs to be done. And so this vision is here because of the hard work of environmentalist groups like Friends of the Earth and the Strohalm Foundation.

A new perspective

We need a new starting point, a new foundation for our culture, our beliefs and thinking and our place in the universe. There is no other choice. Small steps can’t save us anymore. We need to fundamentally change ourselves and the way we live. The planet we live on is given to us on loan to live off and not ours to destroy. Sadly, the fate of our planet does not compel us to do the right thing so God may be needed to make it happen.

As long as we do not completely change our approach to the major issues of our time, our societies will not become more humane and respectful of our planet. As long as production and consumption increase, new problems emerge faster than old problems can be solved with laws, technology, targets and other solutions.1

We are not confronted with an array of regrettable separate incidents, but with a culture that is on the loose. It is a throw-away culture in which not only materials and energy are wasted. Human relationships and values end up on the waste dump too.1

You probably know that but you may find it difficult to admit. It can make you feel hopeless. And so you may be inclined to ignore this, to focus on smaller and more concrete problems, or to withdraw yourself1 by fleeing into cynicism, new age spiritualism or conspiracy theories.

Most of us believe that massive structural changes are impossible and that we can’t influence the course of history in a meaningful way. And I can’t blame you for having what I for a long time believed to be a realistic view on this matter. And so we choose to manage existing developments with smaller measures. That is not going to help us in the end.

There is another way of looking at the situation. Acknowledging a problem is already solving it half. Our belief that nothing will help can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As soon as there is a realistic perspective for change, many of us will let go of their cynicism and help to make it happen1 and then it can happen fast. Twenty years may be all we have left. And twenty years may be all we need.

Natural World Order

You do your job and perhaps you achieve something. Your activities do not only have the intended consequences but many others as well. If you succeed and get a promotion, a colleague might get jealous. If you go to your job by car, the exhaust gases can make other people sick.1 The unintended consequences of your actions hardly play a role in your decisions but they change our reality in unexpected ways.

The world is complex so the models we use can’t get a proper hold on what is going on. And so it appears that we can’t change our future in a meaningful way, and that at best we can anticipate what is going to happen. The failure of communism demonstrated that centralised planning does not create a happy society. That left us with capitalism and markets. They brought us prosperity while our living conditions are being destroyed.

Perhaps nature can show us the way. Organisms start relationships with each other. These relationships can become permanent if one organism makes something another organism needs and the other way around so that both benefit. For instance, plants and animals have such a relationship. Plants produce oxygen that animals need while animals produce carbon dioxide that plants need.1

Plants and animals are part of a self-sustaining cycle. They are connected. They are parts of a whole. If plants die then animals including humans die too. There are many of such relationships in nature. Such a natural order emerges spontaneously but it takes a long time. It starts with individual organisms starting relationships. These relationships can grow to a global scale as long as the external conditions allow for it.1

External conditions are like a dictate. If there were no fossil fuels then we can’t burn them. If there was no technology to build cars, we can’t drive them. External conditions are usually taken for granted but when they suddenly change then we must adapt and that can be brutal. For instance, the spread of the corona virus brought long-distance travel to a standstill. And climate change can become far worse than that.

Make no mistake. Running into the limits of our planet will be more brutal than anything that ever happened before in the course of human history. That leaves us with no other choice than setting global limits on human activities before the planet does it for us. But the sudden stop of air travel also teaches us that we don’t really need it. And there are many more things we do not need.

People, businesses and governments must deal with these limits. Once they are in place, communities, governments and businesses all over the world can reorganise themselves via communities, so that the Natural World Order will arise more or less spontaneously. Humans can make this happen fast because they can quickly change the ways they cooperate by changing their cultures. That doesn’t require planning every detail but it does require altering the steering mechanisms of our societies and economies.

One of the most important things we must change is the way we look at wealth and conspicuous consumption. Wealthy people are seen as great examples and their consumption is seen as good for the economy. If conspicuous consumption is frowned upon, there is less fun in being extremely rich, and a lot of crime becomes pointless. For example, what’s the point of risking your life by being drug dealer if you can’t drive around in your expensive cars any more? This way looking at wealth and consumption is essential to make the Natural World Order come to pass.

Steering mechanisms

Money is now the most important steering mechanism in society. Realising goals of any kind usually requires the cooperation of others and therefore money. That is understandable. Everyone needs money but it may be better that we are motivated more by our job or our contribution to society and less by money. Economic decisions are affected by interest as well. Interest is a steering mechanism. High interest rates promote short-term decisions while low interest rates promote long-term decisions. So how does that work?

If the interest rate is 5% then € 1,00 next year is worth € 0,95 now. That makes you prefer to get € 1,00 now rather than next year, even when you need the money next year simply because you can receive interest and will have € 1,05 next year. Interest reduces the value of future income and therefore the future itself. Interest makes people and businesses prefer the present to the future and short-term gains at the expense future generations.

This is why a sustainable economy requires low or even negative interest rates. Ending growth also requires negative interest rates otherwise the interest on debts can’t be paid. Interest is any return on capital so interest doesn’t depend on money but on capital. As the wealthy own most capital, interest is a flow from everyone else to the wealthiest. A humane society may therefore need to end positive interest rates. Central banks do not determine interest rates in the end. The supply and demand for money and capital do. But ending interest may soon be possible.

In markets competition is a steering mechanism. Competition promotes efficiency and progress but it also causes problems. Competition affects economic decisions.1 It can force corporations to produce as cheaply as possible or to produce stuff that no-one really needs because it can be sold at a profit. Some corporations faced with intense competion see little room to treat their employees well or to care for the environment.

If you desire that latest model, the best service, the lowest price, and want more money to buy even more stuff, you are part of the problem like many others, and that includes me. It may be strange to realise that you have enough, or even have far more than enough, and that you can do with less, older models, poorer service and higher prices, so that local businesses may survive.

Another important steering mechanism is the distribution of cost. Short-term gains are for corporations while societies deal with the long-term cost like pollution and unemployment. Education and health care are public costs that corporations often do not pay for. Taxing systems do not take into account the limits of the planet. They need to be changed in order to attribute the true cost to the products and services people buy.

Shifting taxes from labour to raw materials and energy can help. This measure can induce people to use items longer and promote repair and recycling. Corporations must be responsible for the entire life-cycle of the products they produce. Non-essential products that are harmful can be banned completely. The advertisement industry can be regulated to stop people from buying items they do no need.

Laws are a steering mechanism too. What is legal isn’t always fair. Unethical behaviour is often not punished by the law. A greater role for ethics in law is needed, most notably in matters of business. Savvy people and corporations use loopholes to their advantage or bribe politicians into changing the law into their favour. Exploiting people, misusing public funds, and harming the planet should be sufficient ground for persecution and conviction, even if the specific activity is not declared illegal.

Most people take the existing steering mechanisms for granted. A few people like the anti-globalists and religious extremists think of an alternative. Only most people would not like a reign of terror. And so we limit ourselves to taking small measures in order to reduce the fall-out. It is hard to believe that the steering mechanisms themselves can be changed. Perhaps technology will save us, we hope. That may not be the case.

The throw-away culture

Science, technology, society and culture are closely interconnected. It is fair to say that we live in a technological society and a throw-away culture. If we have a problem then we look at scientists and engineers to solve it. Even our emotional problems we address with therapy sessions and pills. This is also true for environmental problems.

A good example is perhaps a report of the Dutch research agency TNO in the 1980s about replacing milk bottles by milk cartons. Milk bottles were used many times while cartons are thrown away. The discussion that followed was about the number of times a bottle was reused, which determines whether or not the bottle is better for the environment. That depended, amongst others, on the number of times a bottles was reused.

These discussions can be useful. What was not discussed however, was the throw-away culture. Milk bottles were part of a culture of reuse that was disappearing. The cartons are part of the new throw-away culture. Discussions are about quantity, objectivity and efficiency, but not about fundamental questions about the way we live.

The things we use deserve more respect. Valuable resources and energy have been used to make them. We should not depart from them until they are worn out completely. If they are broken we should fix them until they can’t be fixed any more. And why should we buy frivolous items or make long distance trips for recreational reasons?

The fourth way

The damage done to our planet is escalating. There is a lot of excess. Nowadays there are more obese people than hungry ones. The end of our way of living is here. Communism and state planning have failed. Capitalism and free markets have failed too, but most people have yet to find out. Many countries have combined state planning with market economies and called it a third way. That didn’t change much either. Many people have become cynical. But there is no need for poverty.

It is not surprising that people distrust stories that have a claim to the truth like religions, ideologies and science. But it is the absence of great stories we can believe in that makes our societies directionless. Individuals and their desires are now at the centre stage. So is there anything left that binds us together? Sure there is. A soon as a crisis emerges people join and help each other. The future is not without hope.

There is a fourth way. It can be called the Natural World Order. It is setting limits on a planetary level and letting people deal with them via communities, governments and markets. It is not clear from the outset what will happen because this can’t be planned from the top. Developments can take different turns. For instance, if energy is to become expensive, international trade would diminish and local products would be favoured. If most people do what needs to be done then it can be done.

This is the time to act. The current order can’t be sustained. The limits of our planet should be respected. Administrating these limits would require a global government and the same laws everywhere around the planet. It can only work if people, communities and businesses help to make it become reality. It can work when we want to make it work whatever it takes. It all begins with admitting that enough is enough.

We want more stuff because the advertisement industry tells us that we need this or that product or that buying it will make us happier. Our current economic system needs growth. We must buy more to keep the economy from collapsing. That is why fundamental change freaks us out. There can be enough for everyone. Eve and Adam had everything they needed. And so we may enter the Final Gardens of Paradise that await for us at the End of History. The change is not going to be easy but there may be no alternative.

Featured image: the only known photograph of Chief Seattle taken in 1864

1. Naar een filosofie van verbondenheid. Guus Peterse, Henk van Arkel, Hans Radder, Seattle, Pieter Schroever and Margrit Kennedy (1990). Aktie Strohalm.

Imagine

Inspiring vision

It is hard to imagine that there will be world peace one day. War seems a constant in history. But most people nowadays have never witnessed war. It may seem that ideals and visions did not make things better. The number of people killed under the guise of equality, freedom, nationalism and various religions might be close to a billion. The War to End All Wars didn’t live up to its promise either. John Lennon and Martin Luther King imagined a better future but world peace and equality for all haven’t arrived yet.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

– John Lennon, Imagine

John Lennon and Martin Luther King imagined a better future but world peace hasn’t arrived yet and minorities are still discriminated. It isn’t as easy as it may seem to naive dreamers. Different people may find it difficult to live together because they do not understand each other or do not share the same values. Drugs may seem to make these problems go away. Perhaps that’s why hippies were often on weed or LSD. John Lennon and Martin Luther King didn’t have the power to change the world. Neither do I.

Wars have been remarkably absent in many parts of the world in recent decades. The cost of war has gone up while its spoils have gone down. The elites don’t want a major war any more. It is bad for profits. In the past conquerors could enrich themselves by looting and annexing enemy land. Wealth was material in the form of fields, cattle, oil, and gold. Today, wealth consists of human capital, knowledge, and corporations. They are harder to loot and more easily destroyed.1 And then there are weapons of mass destruction that can easily end human civilisation.

As we increasingly depend on computers and networks, societies can break down if they fail. Just imagine what will happen if your mobile phone stops working. And so cyberspace has become a new domain for warfare by powers like the United States, China and Russia. As you might have learned from experience or otherwise, the man with the biggest gun is always right, even if it is a woman. This proverb is not about gender but about gun size. Neither the United States, China and Russia may have the biggest gun.

World peace

And so world peace may be around the corner. At least that appeared to be the message I received in December 2008. There was a candy vending machine at work. Often I went there to get a Twix bar. One day it malfunctioned. I couldn’t get my Twix. The machine repeatedly misfired. This never happened before and it never happened later on. Other people didn’t have any trouble with the machine. It only affected me. After trying three different options, the machine finally worked after choosing option 22, a Nuts bar. This was nuts, even more so because 22 = 11 + 11, which makes a reference to 11:11.

Aaahhh!!

But it was going to get even nuttier. The next day I bought a bag of potato crisps at the same machine. The machine worked fine but after opening the bag I found a small piece of paper with the crisps. It was a temporary tattoo with the following Chinese text:

世界和平

A colleague knew a Chinese man who translated it. The characters stand for world peace. No-one else did get a temporary tattoo. It was a production glitch. The paper had slipped into the bag and this bag just happened to end up in my hands, just when so many strange incidents were happening at the same time, but that is a different story.

Remarkably absent that day was my colleague Ronald Oorlog. He had fallen ill exactly on that day. His last name Oorlog is the Dutch word for war, a peculiar coincidence as the Chinese characters stand for world peace. It was the only time he fell ill as he was a temporary worker, which suggest that he may have been hired to make the coincidence happen. If you can do this, you don’t have to worry about any weapons the United States, China or Russia might have. You can easily let them malfunction like the candy machine.

So who might that be? You may already have guessed it and I had received a specific hint on that matter a few weeks earlier. A few weeks later, in January 2009, it was confirmed. I was biking to work. Next to the office was the municipal health service GGD. When I looked at the GGD building, perhaps because of all the strange coincidences that happened, a thought poppped up that GGD could mean Great GoD. Immediately I tried convince myself that it was delusional to think that God had put such a sign there. The thought was rebuked on the spot. The next thing I noticed was a car in front of the GGD building. It had license plate number 99-GRG-9 (with the nines being numbers I do not recall). GRG could also refer to GReat God.

This isn’t a joke or is it?

The following incidents may demonstrate that God isn’t joking around and means business. A few days later while I was biking on the same spot near the GGD building, the following thought came up: “Now I found out that God exists, what could happen to me?” Within a second a ran into a flat tire.

I had two close colleagues named Rene. The last name of the first began with E. The other had a last name starting with H. In March 2009 there was an urgent situation requiring the password of a new system. Rene H knew the password but he hadn’t arrived yet. And so I asked another colleague for his number. He gave me the number. I called Rene H on his mobile phone. After dialling his number the phone rang. Suddenly the connection appeared to be switched. There was some switching sound. A woman with apparently the same last name as Rene E answered the phone. I excused myself to her.

Then I said to the colleague who gave me the number: “It appears that you have given me the number of the wrong Rene. Please give me the correct number.” He was convinced that the number was correct. I checked it with a few other colleagues and they confirmed the number. I dialled it again. The same switching occurred. I put down the phone before it was answered. Then Rene H arrived. The number I dialled was correct. His phone was in working order and he hadn’t put a switch on it. Some colleagues then made funny remarks about Rene H messing with the wife of Rene E. So, perhaps God is joking around and world peace isn’t going to happen any time soon, but we can’t know that.

Featured image: Hippie symbol

1. Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

The newspaper Pravda dated 29 May 1919

Truthfulness and accuracy

At the age of thirteen, and fed up with the pestering of my younger sister Anne-Marie, I started a funny newspaper together with my cousin Rob. Rob and I were best friends for more than a decade. During the holidays we stayed at each others home. Rob was good at making drawings while I had a vivid imagination. We depicted ourselves as smart and good while my sister and her friends were made to appear stupid and evil. Made up stories can be a lot more interesting than real ones. The best stories are those in which imagination and reality are mixed up so that it is difficult to discern fact from fiction.

A reason to produce the newspaper may have been a desire to write and make the news and feel some control over what is happening. After all, it didn’t really happen if it didn’t make the news, and most people believe it happened the way it is reported. Later on I became part of the editorial team of the school newspaper Ikzwetsia. The name referred to the Dutch word for bluster as well as the official Soviet newspaper Izvestia. Ikzwetsia became a prolific and popular periodical and a bit of a problem for the school board. At the time I entertained a career as a journalist. Becoming a journalist was just one of the options I considered, and it was more entertainment than a serious consideration.

My favourite journalist was the conservative political commentator G.B.J. Hiltermann. He had a weekly radio commentary named The State of World Affairs. His special trick was summarising the most important world events of the week in a short story while making it appear as if there was a connection between them. His last commentary was aired on 22 November 1999 (22-11-99), a peculiar date.

There is another side to me. My sister was more pragmatic than I was and she had a more flexible arrangement with the truth. When it came out that Santa Claus didn’t exist, I was upset. Something I believed in turned out to be a lie. My sister, who was two years younger, just promised she would still believe in Santa Claus as long as he brought her presents. I was rigid when it came down to truth issues.

Many people believe lies if that suits them but I was not like that. This turned out to be a symptom of a social handicap. And in order to stress the frivolous nature of our newspaper, it was issued by the fictitious Bullcrap Newsagency. It was fake news labelled as fake news. Facts and fiction are different domains and should clearly be marked as such in order to avoid confusion. Anne-Marie was amazed at me keeping so strictly to the facts. “Bart never lies,” she said. This might have been an expression of admiration.

But what if the facts turn out to be stranger than anything you ever imagined? In that case you don’t need to make up stories, not even to embellish things a bit. What if it turns out that there is a connection between all events? My history suggests that I might be equipped to deal with that. And it doesn’t appear to be a coincidence either. And so I followed my calling to become a journalist, albeit belatedly, documenting events as good as possible, trying to work out the connection between them, and presenting evidence whenever that is possible. The ultimate feat of a journalist is to uncover the ultimate conspiracy and discover who is pulling the strings. And I may have done just that.

Featured image: The newspaper Pravda (Russian for The Truth) dated 29 May 1919. RIA Novosti archive. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

broken mirror

A shattered mirror

Most of our thinking happens intuitively. Intuition works fast so it is sometimes called fast thinking.1 Only when our intuition runs into trouble reason is called into action. Reason is called slow thinking. If you can get away with the judgements coming from intuition there is no reason to think things through. Evolution made this happen. It is easy to understand why. Humans who took the time to consider all the options when a pride of lions was coming into their direction didn’t survive and procreate so their genes died out.

Great chess players don’t consider all the options either. Based on past training and experience their intuition presents a few options to the conscious thinking process called reason. Billions of other options are ignored, nearly all of them not worth considering. That’s what makes a great chess player a great chess player. The brain has limited processing capabilities. Clogging it with countless useless options would downgrade its performance. That’s also why people train for their jobs.

Computers don’t have an intuition but they have become fast enough to consider so many options, including a lot of useless ones, that they are able to find better moves that chess players can’t think of because their intuition limits them. Nowadays computers beat even the best chess players. But what if intuition fails you more often than happens to most people? In that case you might consider options other people don’t think of. Others may call you crazy or insane. Indeed, most options you consider are not worth considering, but you don’t know that until you have found it out yourself. If that applies to you then you may be autistic. If the condition is sufficiently mild you can still lead a normal life, but you need a major amount of reasoning and experimentation to achieve just that.

Let’s explain this using an example. Yuor brian autmotaically corercts speillng erorrs. Probably you were able read the previous sentence without effort. Otherwise you have to solve the puzzle by trying out different words to see if they make sense. In that case you might find meanings that weren’t intended. If you must figure out social rules in a similar way, for example by trying courses of action and evaluating responses of other people, you’re in for a lot of trouble. Most people make sense of the world intuitively, but if you are autistic, reality appears to you like a 10,000 pieces jig saw puzzle or a shattered mirror. You must fit the pieces together. That takes a lot of time and effort and the pieces hardly ever fit perfectly. What you get is something similar to what other people think of as reality.

Autism nevertheless survived the evolutionary rat race. How could this happen? There is a possible explanation. Who can find the answers when intuition fails everyone? These situations require trying out ideas other people don’t think of, and quite possibly ignorance with regard to social conventions to pursue these ideas. Perhaps you think of autistic people as weirdos cracking riddles nobody else can. There is some truth to that. Fixing a broken mirror requires patience and determination. Some pundits have claimed that Newton and Einstein were autistic. They may have appeared to be geniuses just because they tried options other people didn’t think of. In this way they may have discovered things other people couldn’t. Autistic people can keep working on their eccentric projects despite constant rejection. And some of their efforts may turn out to be useful.

1. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman (2011). Penguin Books.