I see Stephen’s been Hawking his new book all over the place. You might remember that A Brief History of Time was famously the most bought and least read book in Britain: I am one of the few people who can claim to have read but never owned a copy. Anyway, just as Darwin cast God out of biology, so Hawking claims to have cast him out of physics, once and for all. He doesn’t stop there though: philosophy is also dead.
I’ve often scratched my head about why anything, rather than nothing, exists and I’m pleased to see that this most fundamental question of all has finally got some attention in the old MSM, with Hawking showing that ‘something’ (matter, energy, etc) necessarily came out of ‘nothing’ (the existing laws of physics). A philosopher might point out those laws aren’t necessarily nothing, and that to assert the inevitability of their existence isn’t so different from asserting the inevitability of a creator: but Hawking has a point that philosophers (those employed to interpret existence for the rest of us) have failed to keep up with the baffling advance of cosmology. One egghead on the Today programme this week was suitably affronted: you could almost hear the magisteria overlapping before her eyes as she compared Hawking to the Taliban.
There’s a wonderful line in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall where Thomas Cromwell (the reclaimed hero) tells Thomas More (now the bad guy) that, “for 1500 years all you’ve given us is things that only children could believe”. He was talking about transubstantiation, relics, saints and priests, and the Protestant rejection of these was indeed quite a step forward for human reason: but it was hardly the end of the story. The renaissance gave us the reformation, which gave us the enlightenment, as the original Christian idea of respect for the lowest human bodies and souls found its voice: from this flowed our present liberty and wealth. Five hundred years on, though, and with each year that passes even the least literal, most sophisticated forms of theism seem more and more like they could only be believed by children. But – with the failure of socialism, capitalism, nationalism and internationalism, and as shown by the surge in fundamentalist religion, whose followers see where science leads so won’t deal with it at all – our bizarre, dystopian times need moral and existential guidance as much as ever.
I’ll leave the science to Hawking and chums, but here are some questions for the philosophers to get their heads round in the years to come: how to reconcile the human need for religion with the scientific rejection of God? How to save the best of the social and psychological benefits of collective worship and individual prayer without the attached dogma? How to replace the structure that religion has given to billions of lives with something other than nihilism, materialism and selfishness? In effect, we need a secular, civil philosophy with the moral authority and existential reassurance of religion: an atheist or agnostic movement, that is, with rather more meat to it than secular humanists have so far provided.
I don’t charge them with having the answers, but Hawking, Dawkins, Hitchens and co should at least be asking these questions, rather than hoping that the advance of science means the end of religion, or pretending that this would be entirely a good thing. Perhaps the only conclusion, a depressing one, is that liberal, self-questioning religion will always end up doubting itself to death, while fundamentalism – the fundamental rejection of science and doubt – will always live to fight another day. Across the developed world, the birthrate of religious fundamentalists is much higher than that of the lightly religious, which in turn is higher than that of atheists. The stage is set for an almighty clash between increasingly irreligious science and increasingly unscientific religion. The centre cannot hold.
Back to the temporal world, and one of the fun things about recessions is how monetary policy becomes politicised again. These Tea Partiers in America are an interesting bunch: I wonder how many of them know that their hero Ayn Rand was a Russian-born atheist and fan of free love. It’s hard to know how well the TPs would do under the sort of system they say they want – though I can’t go along with the Guardian/BBC’s snide portrait of them all as incestuous hillbillies – but you can’t fault their radicalism. Leading teahead Ron Paul, who even named his scion Rand, advocates the end of fiat money by putting the dollar back on the gold standard. Their complaint is that the Federal Reserve (as with the Bank of England here) has debased the currency, and inflated away the savings of the thrifty, by printing money over the years (and especially since the crash). The idea of eliminating inflation also appeals to sadomonetarists in this country.
I’m not quite convinced: this Economist article arguing in favour of low (but not zero) inflation and interest rates in the low single digits seems about right (at least in theory, which in economics has a very loose relationship with reality). Perhaps it is the case that consumption is a consequence, rather than a cause, of economic growth. But a degree of loose credit benefits business and job creation, and so wealth creation, too. And the money supply isn’t the only cause of inflation. Ultimately the question reduces to: is it worse to accept ingrained unemployment (involuntary unemployment caused by everyone keeping their savings under the bed, that is: the extent of the British benefits trap is clearly worse than almost anything) than to accept the punishment of the thrifty? If it is a zero-sum game, my instinct is to say that the moral evils of unemployment outweigh the moral hazards of inflation, but only up to a point. I can’t share Carswell and Ron Paul’s anger at inflation of 2, 3 or 4% – at least so long as it’s not rising – but I would be a bit peeved if I lived in Zimbabwe (where the trade-off between inflation and unemployment seems to have broken down a bit).
I suppose the problem is how to ensure the unsound pound goes into capital investment, or even consumption, rather than asset bubbles. Answers on a postcard please, cc’d to the Bank of England, and preferably with some edicts for my secular religion while you’re at it. This isn’t to argue for more fiscal stimulus, by the way: the fear of higher inflation and tax rises to come probably offsets any advantages of getting even more money flowing in the short term, never mind the sovereign debt crisis. But governments and central banks need to steer a steady course between the splurging of the Bush and Brown years and the rigid anti-Keynes stance of those who hoard precious metals. The Rons and Rands should also be careful: if they buy all the gold in the world, no-one else will use it as a store of value; and if they burn all the oil left in the world, they will get a hell of a shock from inflation.
Financial regulation is a related dilemma. In recent years, too much of the energy and innovation that gave us such a superb rise in living standards since WWII went into devising financial products that seemed incredibly clever until they were shown to be incredibly stupid. (John Lanchester tells the story in his entertaining if rather rambling new book Whoops!) We don’t want the housing bubble to build up again, and we don’t to be at the mercy of the outrageous fortunes of the slings and arrows of the casino: but, if it must happen somewhere (and it will) perhaps it’s better that it happens in London.
Also in the news this week: the SNP government dropped its planned referendum on Scottish independence, Daniel Hannan and Ruth Lea launched a campaign (on a surprisingly amateurish looking website) for an in/out EU referendum, and MPs voted through the LibCons’ plans for a referendum on the AV voting system. Personally I’d have us voting on everything, all the time, with MPs relegated to debating the form the questions should take. Right now I’d settle for those three, though a straight choice between FPTP/AV isn’t much to get excited about. Why doesn’t the Tory half of the government trust us to decide the voting system for ourselves, and put multi-member single transferable vote on the ballot? STV seems to me the best compromise between fairness and simplicity, and already works well for Scottish council elections. (The stupid Scottish Tories could point out that they owe their shred of an existence to a form of PR in the Scottish Parliament: being stupid, they also failed to call Salmond’s bluff and support his independence referendum, which he would have lost.) Why do so few people in any of the major parties think we can be trusted to decide how we’re governed: whether the question concerns parliament, the Union of the Parliaments, or the European Parliament? You don’t have to think very long and hard about that one.