Not so long ago, mainstream psychology considered the mind a black box[1], but we all know from our own experience that this cannot be right. There is no doubt that the human mind (and possibly the minds of other species) has an active role in shaping, kneading, and moulding the materials it receives. This processing can be enormously useful, but sometimes it may be counterproductive, as certain ways of processing are not designed for the complexity we are facing in the modern world. The following principles have been formulated to address this challenge. As modernity was built on doubt, let’s start with doubt and truth first.

Doubt and Truth

Doubt those who have no convictions and those who have no doubts

Doubt has always been around: Buddha, Socrates, Muhammad and the heroes of the enlightenment all had doubts. However, in modernity, doubt has become part of the zeitgeist[2] (at least in the West), influencing all aspects of life, from religion and science to politics and psychology. In fact, doubt has become the new certainty: truth is now more often than not in inverted commas, as it is looked upon with suspicion, derision and even hostility. This has value in guarding against the straight jacket of monolithic views, but when pushed too far it is a dead-end. If everything is doubted, everything becomes equally true (and equally untrue). This makes a productive dialogue or reaching any agreement difficult, which may ultimately lead to social fragmentation. But, of course, most of us would not want to go back to the time of unquestionable truths. The synthesis between truth and doubt seems to be a better way forward. To achieve this, (especially normative[3]) truths can be considered provisional and our doubts can be considered provisional too. There is a place for truth and there is a place for doubt, and they can relate dynamically to each other.

Almost anything can be deconstructed – this is relatively easy, certainly easier than constructing something, as breaking is easier than making. But we will not get far by only deconstructing. In fact, doubt can be used in the service of constructing. Einstein doubted that Newtonian physics was without limitations, but he didn’t waste much time on deconstructing the old; instead, he created new theories that transcended it. In a similar vein, there is a place for doubting, challenging and deconstructing the existing social system, but it is more important to attempt to construct a new one. Of course, such constructs should be considered provisional as well, and open to further challenges, but we will all lose if we don’t get an alternative ready on time. The stakes can’t be higher. So, the question to ask (when writing or reading) is not ‘Is this good?’, but ‘Is this better than what we have?’ and ‘How can we make it even better?’

This raises a question though: how do we decide what is better? Apparently, rationally – at least this is what the mainstream economists have been betting on. But do we? And even if we do, is rationality sufficient? This is our next topic.

Rational and Phenomenological methods

In 2007, the University of Alabama hosted a debate between two professors from Oxford. One was John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics, a devout Christian and defender of the faith. The other was Richard Dawkins, Professor for Public Understanding of Science at the time, and one of the world’s most renowned atheists. They both claimed that they were rational, and they both used rational arguments to make their points and to attack each other’s views. But, of course, they ended up where they started. They were not moved an inch from their respective positions by the force of the opposing arguments. One suspects that those in the audience did not change theirs, either. Those who cheered Lennox at the beginning of the debate cheered him at the end too, and the same applied to Dawkins. They were not there to discover the truth – they had already made up their minds – they were there to confirm their existing views and to be entertained. So, how is it possible that a rational debate can end with such irreconcilable conclusions? Is rationality useless? And what is the point of writing or reading books that claim to be based on rational principles if rationality can be used as a tool to prove anything?

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We contend that rationality does matter. Without rationality, we are left with only personal preferences, with no hope of building bridges and sharing. Still, one doyen of modernity, David Hume, pulled the rug from under the feet of rationality when he concluded that it is always based on our sentiments. And indeed, it often is. It has taken 150 years to show that this, however, does not need to be always the case. Arguably, that’s the most important legacy of phenomenology[4]. Its method – so-called phenomenological reduction – rather than reducing the perception of the world, reduces one’s own assumptions, sentiments and inclinations in order to approach the subject under enquiry with minimal distortions and bias. In other words, it reduces what comes from us and contaminates our perception. The intention is to start without an agenda, to have no preconceived idea of where the journey will end.

This approach could be of significant practical value. If we continue taking our assumptions for granted and let them fashion our picture of the world, we may be in for some nasty surprises (which is what the 2008 Crash, the Brexit referendum, and the US election in 2016 have in common). Instead, we should allow the world to fashion the nature of our assumptions. From this perspective, rational argument is not used to prove something or to make a point, but to discover a point. This can be achieved by combining rational thinking and phenomenological reduction. Applying this in Social Synthesis meant that its perspective is not left-wing, right-wing or the centre-ground. It has no position at the beginning, and it has no position at the end. Some readers may decide that the text has a left-wing leaning, some may decide that it has a right-wing leaning, and some may see it in the centre. This would, however, say more about them than about the Social Synthesis position. If they stand on the left, they may see it as right-wing – if they stand on the right, they may see it as left-wing – relativity in practice. The truth is that its perspective is undetermined except, perhaps, in relation to the reader or other similar materials.

Granted, this fluidity might be confusing. One may ask, ‘If you don’t stand anywhere, what do you stand for?’ The next principle should address this question.

Binary thinking and Fuzzy logic

As already mentioned, the present system is, by and large, based on binary, black and white thinking. This has paid off in many ways, but it has also led to polarisations that are too simplistic for a complex society. To illustrate this point, let’s take, for example, privatisation v. nationalisation. Most people (including economists and politicians) are for either one or the other. And yet, it is easy to recognise that there are good and bad points to both (which will be discussed in the chapter on the economy). Both have something to offer and both have limitations. So, it seems that maximising the good elements and minimising the bad elements of both would be more productive than just putting our weight behind one or the other.

This necessitates so-called fuzzy logic, as the boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are far less precise than those between privatisation and nationalisation. Black and white thinking makes life simple by ignoring the bad elements of one side and the good elements of the other side, but this doesn’t reflect reality in which more or less everything has good and bad aspects. Seeing one thing as wholly good and another as wholly bad will not get us much further from where we are now. But if we cut the pie up differently, we could utilise useful aspects of both, privatisation and nationalisation, which will save us from having to take the whole package of the one we favour.

Note that this does not dispense completely with binary thinking – how else can we separate the wheat from the chaff? We still distinguish between good and bad, so all of this hinges on the criteria used to decide what is good and what is bad. Nevertheless, such criteria are easier to determine if they are not attached to particulars such as privatisation and nationalisation. Of course, we may still disagree, but we will at least know, with greater precision, what we are disagreeing about. For example, a disagreement may not really be about what contributes to the flourishing of society, but whether my own flourishing is more important than the flourishing of society as a whole. But let’s consider that we agree, at least broadly speaking, on what is good and what is bad. Would relative still have its place (as argued in the section ‘Relative and Universal’)? Well, if we agree that both, privatisation and nationalisation may have a good side, some countries may need more privatisation and some may need more nationalisation. This is very different from saying that one is always and everywhere the best. So, a further advantage of looking at social issues in this way is greater flexibility in taking into account local differences (localities may differ in the degree to which something may be good or bad for them).

Needless to say, we will not get very far if we only operate with the existing materials. Sometimes we need to add to the mix new, original ideas or suggestions, which brings another challenge: balancing creativity and realism.

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Creativity and Realism

These two are also often poised against each other. Those who favour creativity and novelty tend to neglect ever-present restraining conditions, while those who prefer realism are usually more conservative and tend to dismiss attempts to make creative changes as a naïve idealism. Neither need to be the case though – in fact, creativity and realism can indeed be complementary and enhance each other.

There is no doubt that creativity matters. Just processing what already exists is not always enough. It is hard to imagine any substantial change (be it scientific, technological, artistic or social) without creativity. However, we too easily assume that our creative ideas will work because they are in our mind, where we can play God. We usually don’t want to think about possible restraining factors, because they would spoil the wonderful creative idea we have. The trouble is that we are not God in the world we share with others and if we ignore that, our ideas would remain pie in the sky. There are always psychological, historical, cultural and environmental conditions that set boundaries to creativity. Realism means taking them into account. New ideas need to be tested against these conditions if we want them to become reality. In some cases, we can test them by doing an experiment. But social experiments are costly, sometimes unethical, and we often lack resources to carry them out, so we may have to resort to other ways of making sure that our ideas are sound. For example, we can try mind experiments: playing devil’s advocate, putting some effort into imaging what can go wrong. Mind experiments can work – after all, Einstein created a new kind of physics out of his mind experiments. But people are more complex than atoms. Mind experiments may not be enough in the face of such complexity. So, they need to be complemented, whenever possible, with a search for something similar that has been done before, tapping into the pool of the greatest social experiment – history. To take just one example, Marxism may have avoided some extremes if it paid greater regard to the experience of the French revolution and its aftermath, particularly the tendency of the leaders to hijack a revolution. As the philosopher George Santayana famously put it, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

In short, creativity is essential if we want to forge an alternative to the existing social system, but it needs to be pruned if we want it to work. Creativity cannot ignore conditions. But how can we avoid realism stifling or hampering creativity? The ‘brain storming’ technique suggests an answer. It consists of two stages: you first generate as many ideas as possible, and when that’s done you evaluate them. This technique is successful because it separates these two processes. It has place for both, creativity and realism, but not at the same time. When they get tangled, the results are often not optimal as creativity and evaluation tend to inhibit each other. There are many ways of doing this: one can be creative in the evening (perhaps with a glass of wine), sleep on it, and then prune the results in the morning with a mug of coffee.

So far, we discussed receiving and processing. This mix of what we have absorbed from outside and our own thoughts and ideas needs to be communicated, though, which has its own unique challenges. We will turn to them now.

[1] Something that is viewed in terms of its inputs and outputs, without much concern for its internal workings.
[2] The defining spirit or mood of a historical period as shown by its ideas and beliefs.
[3] Truths that are a basis for setting norms or standards.
[4] Phenomenology is the study of how we experience (rather than what we experience).

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