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Ideas, Power and Social Progress

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This chapter draws from the preceding arguments to summarize the ways we have begun to understand and govern ourselves in modern terms. While influenced by Foucault’s perception of the desire for and emergence of social truth, it relies heavily on modern advances in social science. Social truth as defined by Foucault is not confined to understanding the physical basis of our world; it means coming to terms with our biological and social being. A model of social and philosophical dynamics is formulated to represent the way in which social knowledge in Foucault’s sense can be—and is being—developed, and how we can—and for our survival, must—learn to govern ourselves and others. The model illustrates how the Popperian/Deutschian ivory tower of deliberated conjecture and refutation, Kahneman’s ‘slow-thinking’ and Zaller’s model of political discourse relate to the social cauldron of ‘fast’ individual and social decisions. Society must learn how to balance these complementary mechanisms to achieve social truth. These propositions pose formidable problems and many are being challenged by contemporary politics. Can we begin to establish the basis for accurate measurement of social well-being and mechanisms to determine just policies to achieve secure and just social progress?


  • Governing ourselves
  • Conjecture and refutation
  • Epistemes
  • Memes: Paradigms
  • Fast and slow-thinking
  • Will to knowledge and power

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  1. 1.

    Cox and Cohen (2013; an imprint of a BBC television series—one of a sequence showing the linkage between laws of physics, cosmology and life) give an excellent and accessible overview of the linkage between the basic laws of physics and chemistry and the emergence of biological processes, from single-celled prokaryotes capable of photosynthesis through to the evolution of eukaryotes and separation of non-photosynthetic mobile life forms that, driven by sentient development found increasingly diverse ways of surviving and acquiring food and protection. Carlo Rovelli’s Reality Is Not What It Seems (2017) almost provides a non-mathematician an understanding of where fundamental physics has come from and is going to! Thomas Suddendorf’s The Gap: The Science of What Separates Us from Other Animals (2013, Basic Books/NY) gives a good evolutionary overview of the relation of human sentience to that of other animals. While he does so from the perspective of emphasizing the large differences between human and other animal sentience, it nonetheless points to the likelihood of these evolutionary trends and the nature of human sentience being explained in terms of the laws and concepts of physics. Wohlleben (2015) provides a range of evidence that mechanisms of survival and communication have evolved over time in the plant world and that these mechanisms need to be recognized in humankind’s intervention and commercial exploitation of natural forest ecosystems.

  2. 2.

    This mode of discovery neither proves nor disproves the existence of a deity or ‘designer’. The evidence that the phenomenon appears to be knowable does point to the possibility of perfect knowledge, but parallel to the dismissal of the ontological proof this possibility does not show that perfect knowledge exists now or that a supreme designer does or does not exist. Somewhat beyond the present purpose, the notion of biological sentience also raises the possibility of non-biological sentience and sapience or some grand unity of human and machine mechanisms of finding and verifying knowledge. Many, notably Kurzweill (2005) and Bostrom (2014), suggest that technological advances will enable the creation of non-biological intelligence in the not-too-distant future, leading to what Kurzweill has termed the ‘singularity’ where human intelligence is replaced by (or merged with) machine intelligence. Bostrom in particular sees the necessity for humans to prepare for what he describes as a series of possible existential threats to humanity when its intelligence is superseded. The singularity concept also features in Ian Morris’ (2010, Why the West Rules for Now: The Patterns of History and What They Reveal About the Future, Profile Books, London) writing on the evolution of economic and political systems over the past 15,000 years,) emerging from the exponential increase in scientific and technological knowledge predicted for the twenty-first century. The exponential progress of technology by humanity does not of itself guarantee that a ‘singularity’ is a necessary outcome. But the long-term survival of sentience would seem to require the emergence of a less vulnerable physical form for it to survive beyond the life of this planet and this solar system. Notions of human spirituality and ethics, however, would be significantly different in a non-biological entity, and the transitional issues of the emergence of non- or quasi-biological sentience would be formidable.

  3. 3.

    Proposals made by Berggruen and Gardels (2013) are consistent with this proposal; they argue for a middle way between West and East, whereas the present book aims to apply principles of governance that are equally applicable to all forms of government.

  4. 4.

    Frans de Waal (2013) provides a summary of evidence establishing an evolutionary basis for morality and emergence of basic moral behaviour among primates that is similar in a number of respects to human empathetic morality, and demonstrates (pp. 162–165) the interdependence between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ statements˗ ˗as he notes David Hume originally intended (The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, WW Norton: NY/London).

  5. 5.

    Simon Blackburn’s Being Good: A Short introduction to Ethics, OUP: Oxford UK (2001) gives a clear summary overview of the philosophy of ethics. Part I: Seven Threats to Ethics, could all be discussed comfortably in terms of the fast- and slow-thinking processes illustrated in Fig. 8.1.

  6. 6.

    A coda, however, is that individual belief, however open to doubt, is of no consequence unless others are coerced into subscribing to it; in large part a question of power relationships.

  7. 7.

    The development of Islamic State thinking and ideology is well-described in Robert Manne’s book The Mind of the Islamic State (2017), from which the term ‘Salafi-jihadism’ is taken.

  8. 8.

    A reinterpretation of Bosch’s work given in the film The Curious World of Hieronymus Bosch, prepared for the Noordbrabants Museum for the 500th anniversary of the painter’s death, emphasizes that Bosch was deeply religious and the purpose of his paintings was primarily a moral one to show the dire consequences of sinful behaviour. At the time few were literate, so painting was a major medium for communicating moral messages.

  9. 9.

    He says “the mistake is to confuse an abstract attribute with a physical one of the same name. Since it is possible to prove theorems about the mathematical attribute, which have the status of absolutely necessary truths, one is then misled into assuming that one possesses a priori knowledge about what the laws of physics must say about the physical attribute” (p. 183). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

  10. 10.

    Elinor Ostrom. Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Kindle Locations 307–308). Kindle Edition. See also Kindle Location 340.


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Allan, W. (2017). Ideas, Power and Social Progress. In: The Last Empires. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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