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‘Rationalism’ by Brian Ellis slams neoliberalism

‘Rationalism’ by Brian Ellis

Professor Brian Ellis (Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University and Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne, Australia) is a leading Australian philosopher, and 5 years ago published an important book entitled ”Social Humanism.

Professor Brian Ellis (Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University and Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne, Australia) is a leading Australian philosopher, and 5 years ago published an important book entitled ”Social Humanism.

A New Metaphysics” (Routledge, UK, 2012). I published a detailed review of this book in MWC News (Gideon Polya, “Review: “Social Humanism. A New Metaphysics” by Brian Ellis”, MWC News, 18 August 2012 ).

This important book set out a theory for the social humanism of the welfare state, empirically arguably the most successful current social system as evidenced by Scandinavia, Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Ellis advanced social humanism (socialism, democratic socialism, eco-socialism, the welfare state) as an alternative to the extremes of communism and neo-liberalism.

 Neoliberalism, that presently holds sway in the world, demands maximal freedom for the smart and advantaged to exploit the physical and human resources of the world for private profit, with an asserted “trickle down” of benefit to the less smart and less advantaged. In stark contrast, social humanism aims to sustainably maximize happiness, opportunity and dignity for everybody through evolving national and international social contracts.

In 2017 Brian Ellis has published a further book, ““Rationalism. A critique of pure theory” that contrasts the marvellous successes of “rationalism” in science (involving the proving of mathematical models of reality from starting a priori axioms) with the massive failure of asserted “economic rationalism” (also known as neoliberalism) as evidenced by a huge and ever-increasing wealth gap between rich and poor, mounting intergenerational injustice, and the worsening and indeed existential climate emergency. I was 1 of 4 main speakers in presenting the following review of Brian Ellis’ ““Rationalism. A critique of pure theory” to a symposium on the book that was held in Eltham, Melbourne on 7 October 2017 and was attended by a large audience that included academics, politicians, activists and thoughtful members of the public.

1. Rationally-derived theorems from starting axioms.

 “Rationalism. A critique of pure theory” by Brian Ellis contrasts the scientifically and socially productive rationalism of mathematics and physics based on valid a priori assumptions with the social, economic, and environmental failure of neoliberalism (economic rationalism) that in application is based on flawed and arbitrary moral and social assumptions.

Economic models based on particular assumptions may be perfectly correct mathematically but may fail when applied to the messy real world. Economic rationalism can thus be seen as a kind of “straw man” in Brian Ellis’ analysis. However, rather than discard a failed model of economic rationalism (neoliberalism), the politically dominant One Percenter beneficiaries of neoliberalism have destructively reverse engineered society to make it fit a flawed theory that must be urgently discarded as One Percenter share of wealth inexorably increases (to the detriment of both the economy and of democracy) and the Biosphere is dying under the impacts of unsustainable economic growth and population growth.

The book is divided into 2 sections, part I dealing with “Rationalism in Science and Mathematics” (that works marvellously) and Part II dealing with “Rationalism in the Moral Sciences” (that is flawed in application because of different perceptions of goals, values and morality)

 “Pure” mathematical theorems proven from starting axioms would be true in the absence of man, the Earth or indeed the universe. In contrast, science is about imperfect but successively better refined models of empirical reality and is operationally about the critical testing of potentially falsifiable hypotheses in order to generate successively better models of reality. Mathematics from arithmetic to String Theory is important in generating and testing scientific hypotheses.

The products of rationalism from starting axioms are exampled in the book with the proofs of Euclidian Geometry; the proof of a Sun-centric solar system by Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo; Newton’s laws relating to motion, energy and gravitational attraction applicable to our “normal”, human scale reality ; and Quantum Mechanics and Relativity having applicability to the sub-atomic and cosmological extremes.

Not explicitly mentioned but possibly implied in Brian Ellis’ “Rationalism”, is the role of imagination and fantasy in the generation of scientific hypotheses as discussed in T.S. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” e.g. Kekulé stumbling upon the 3-in-1 resonance structures of benzene by gazing into a burning fire, the mystery-attached solids that inspired Kepler’s Sun-centric, elliptical solar system, or indeed the famous apple falling on Newton’s head.

2. Evolved intuitions suggesting axioms for rationalism.

Brian Ellis makes a very interesting biological point that as a species we have evolved intuitions about the physical world that led to axioms and theories such as those about geometry, the solar systems and mechanics. Thus a fantastic recent example of cognitive intuition of hunter-gatherer survival value was an international women’s’ Rugby Sevens match incident in which a defending player near one side of the pitch had to run after an opponent running for the try line down the other side of the pitch - the defender made an instantaneous triangulating estimate of what point to aim for in a straight line to effect the ultimately astonishingly successful tackle.

Not mentioned are styles of writing and language. Thus the Zoroastrians used hieroglyphics that promoted deep empathy with the natural and human world and a profoundly humane agrarian society, whereas the Roman, Greek etc. alphabets have enabled precise descriptions of reality enabling recording of evolving science-based models and complex technologies, development of nation states, development of nuclear weapons and possible terracide this century (notwithstanding the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN).

In relation to our evolved intuitions, Brian Ellis states: “It remains to be seen whether there is any other area in which [intuition-inspired] rationalism is, or might one day become, a powerful source of theoretical inspiration of the kind that it has been in the past”. Thus to indulge in realistic science fiction one might well imagine that rapidly self-evolving Artificial Intelligences might within decades achieve self-awareness vastly exceeding that of ourselves, and develop intuitions beyond our imagination that might inform axioms leading to radical mathematical theories applicable to, say, the nature of dark matter that seems beyond our human comprehension.

3. Mathematical models and scientific method.

Proven mathematical theorems can be the basis for scientific models of reality (hypotheses). The scientific method according to Karl Popper involves the critical testing of potentially falsifiable hypotheses and consequent progressive refinement of models of reality. Thus Galileo had a solar system based on circular orbits around the Sun whereas Kepler’s correct refinement was for elliptical orbits with this model better fitting empirical reality.

In contrast, spin that is the antithesis of science and is beloved by right-wing politicians involves the selective use of asserted facts to support a partisan position, this leading to current pro-coal Coalition absurdities such as “clean coal”, “clean gas” and the views of climate scientists and science-informed climate activists being deemed “ideological”.

Of course lying – whether by spin, lying by commission or lying by omission – utterly subverts the scientific method and in relation to our security-obsessed society utterly subverts rational risk management that successively involves (a) accurate information, (b) scientific analysis, and (c) science-informed systemic change to minimize risk. Our corporate and political leaders typically pervert this to (a) lying, censorship, and intimidation, (b) spin-based analysis, and (c) counterproductive “blame and shame” that inhibits reportage and in the worst case leads to war..

4. Deception and economics.

Truthfulness is crucial to rational inquiry, but dishonesty and disinformation are at the very heart of the economic process. Thus the 3 Laws of Thermodynamics that underlie physics, chemistry and biology are (1) the energy of a system is constant, (2) entropy (disorder, lack of information content) strives to a maximum, and (3) zero motion at absolute zero degrees Kelvin (minus 273.15 degrees Centigrade). Polya’s 3 Laws of Economics mirror the 3 Laws of Thermodynamics and are (1) Price minus COP (Cost of Production) equals profit; (2) Deception (falsehood, misinformation, lying) about COP strives to a maximum; and (3) No work, price or profit on a dead planet. These fundamental laws help expose the failure of neoliberal capitalism in relation to wealth inequality, massive tax evasion by multinational corporations, and horrendous avoidable deaths from poverty and pollution that are likely to culminate in general ecocide, speciescide, climate genocide, omnicide and terracide this century.

The mathematical economic models derived from starting axioms may be perfectly sound per se but when applied to real economic systems may founder not just due to issues of equity and morality but also due to implicit deceit that utterly subverts the scientific method. Thus, by way of examples, human greed, deceit and altruism are innately co-existent through gene- or meme-based behavioural evolution as, for example, reflected in the dichotomy of sibling rivalry and sibling love. Bioethicist Peter Singer’s critique of the idealistic economic model of Marxist socialism revolves around the inevitability of human greed, egoism and ambition.

5. Neoliberalism (economic rationalism) versus social humanism.

Brian Ellis provides a critique of “moral science” and in particular Kant’s position that “morality is founded in human nature, and that the true morality could be discovered by a priori reflection”. Unfortunately, Kant’s morality was based not on that of sane, mutually-supportive Kalahari Bushmen but on that of an “ideally rational agent”, to whit an educated middle European gentleman for which the horrors of WW1 and WW2 are hardly good testimonials.

As Brian Ellis points out, we have evolved genetically to be hunter-gathers and not to be citizens of populous agrarian states. However memes – ideas selected and passed on socially, as described by Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” - enable us to overcome our genetic and social behavioural deficiencies as exampled by the rise of feminism and gender equality in the last century. Thus women have much more power in hunter-gatherer societies through specialized roles than in modern, male-dominated agrarian societies in which women have been suppressed as chattels and breeders (the primitive, genocidal Old Testament, populate-or-perish essence of the current No vote). This differential empowerment of women is proven by the much lower genetic diversity in modern agrarian societies in which the dominant males kept wealth and power “in the family” as exampled by first cousin consanguinity in some traditional Muslim societies and in Jane Austen’s English upper classes.

Brian Ellis has previously written a cogent critique of neoliberalism, namely “Social Humanism. A New Metaphysics”. In short, the presently dominant economic ideology of neoliberalism demands maximal freedom for the smart and advantaged to exploit the physical and human resources of the world for private profit, with an asserted “trickle down” of benefit to the less smart and less advantaged. Brian Ellis argues that the social failure of neoliberalism (through gross inequity, rapacity, disempowerment, unemployment, and unsustainability) demands its urgent replacement by social humanism (aka socialism, democratic socialism, eco-socialism, the welfare state) that aims to sustainably maximize happiness, opportunity and dignity for everybody through evolving national and international social contracts.

A crucial dilemma for social humanism lies in the success of the profit motive and inevitable increase of disproportionate individual or corporate wealth and power leading to what Brian Ellis has described as Corporatocracy. Indeed Western democracies have substantial social safety nets but can be seen as Plutocracies, Kleptocracies, Lobbyocracies, Corporatocracies and Dollarocracies in which Big Money purchases people, politicians, parties, policies, public perception of reality, votes and hence more private power and more private profit. French economist Thomas Piketty has suggested an annual wealth tax to mitigate this economy- and democracy-damaging disempowerment, and indeed France has such a tax and an annual 2.5% wealth tax (zakat) has been applied in the Muslim world for 1,400 years.


 “Rationalism. A critique of pure theory” by Brian Ellis is an eminently readable, absorbing and very rewarding book with profoundly important messages. It certainly deserves to be in every library and to be read and discussed by a wide range of people in the interests of Humanity and the Biosphere that are existentially threatened by mindless neoliberal greed. For a detailed review simply Google “review rationalism”.

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