20 August 2009

No such thing as genius

The commonsense view of invention ... overstates the importance of rare geniuses ... the question for our purposes is whether the broad pattern of world history would have been altered significantly if some genius inventor had not been born at a particular place and time. The answer is clear: there has never been any such person. (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, Jonathan Cape 1997, pp. 244-245.)

I think that the wish to establish that there is no such thing as genius, in the sense of ability to do things in a way that is qualitatively different from other people, is very strong in the modern ideology, and this accounts for the constant opposition which I have encountered.

When my mind gets enough to work on I don’t think it does work like other people’s. When I mentioned to a philosopher that Rosalind Heywood wanted to prevent my incipient research institute from building up to any size, he asked ‘Why?’ Various answers can be given but certainly one is that if I were allowed any freedom of action at all there would be a distinct risk of my noticing some relationship that other people had not noticed and would be unlikely to notice, and also starting to build a quite complex system of relationships on the first one. (As I did with the areas of potential research that I identified when I was at the Society for Psychical Research and have been prevented from proceeding with.)

I suppose that is why there was so much aversion to my taking degrees in science when I was at school so that I would be able to have a suitable career in research. Consciously or unconsciously, people perceived that I did not have the inhibitions that would have made me safe. At that time I did not think about being able to do more than other people in the way of making progress in research; I thought only of having as intense and hardworking a life as possible, both in exam-taking in the present and in research in the future.

Now, of course, I do think that I could make a lot of progress in any field that I was able to work in. Other people are inhibited by their social belief-system as well as by relative lack of IQ.

I say I could make a lot of progress in any area in which I was permitted to work, but that depends on its being something to do with reality. I know that no real progress could be made if I were financed to run a large research department on topics such as Causes of Absenteeism in a Bootlace Factory or similar. However, provided it were large enough to have a hotel environment attached, my life would become liveable and I might get something out of any research or writing which I might do in my spare time, as well as its contributing to the progress of science.

If I were provided with finance for a philosophy department, primarily devoted to criticising the pernicious rubbish that is being freely produced by other university philosophy departments, the same would be true. It would not exactly be making progress to criticise what has sprung up under the auspices of the modern ideology, but it should be done.

When someone I know was studying philosophy of science at Cambridge, they showed me a paper which included dogmatic assertions that no advance in science depended on above-average individuals. There was nothing that could not be done by ordinary people, provided they worked together as a group. This paper also, if I remember correctly, referred to the concept of IQ as an example of a false hypothesis which (it was apparently considered self-evident) had failed.

That was over twenty years ago; there must be a great many equally criticisable papers being produced all the time now.

04 August 2009

The right not to be killed

Debbie Purdy is a woman suffering from multiple sclerosis who thinks she may, in the future, wish to commit suicide with the assistance of the Swiss euthanasia group Dignitas, and who says she would want her husband to accompany her on her trip.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has been ordered to clarify the factors which would be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute someone for the crime of ‘assisting suicide’. The Daily Mail claims this has taken Debbie Purdy ‘a step closer to dying on her own terms’.

Critics of the latest development seem to fall into two camps. They may deplore suicide on moral grounds. For example, Ruth Dudley Edwards writes about a friend, a successful lawyer, who ‘decided when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer that he would try to make his dying life-enhancing for others’. Her comments seem to imply that other should follow his example, whether they want to or not.

Curiously, one does not hear the same people condemning the common practice by doctors of hastening the death of terminally ill persons by administering excessive doses of painkillers, or suggesting those people could have been induced to make their dying ‘life-enhancing’ for others. Perhaps it is presumed that a doctor’s judgement on this issue can never be wrong.

The other type of critic regards the latest development as a move down the slippery slope towards legalising murder. Part of the problem here lies in the definition of ‘assistance’. Accompanying someone to the place where they plan to commit suicide seems innocuous. Giving an elderly person a lethal injection and claiming afterwards that they asked you to do it may seem less so.

As is usual in such discussions, however, the context – that medical goods and services are immorally controlled by a monopolised profession which transfers the right of decision from the patient to the doctor – is ignored. If the law on medicine reflected the basic moral principle (respect for individual volition, unless others are harmed) a number of consequences would follow.

First, medicine delivered by doctors would become more accessible to many people who currently find it obnoxious to submit to arrogant authority figures who can choose to refuse them what they urgently need. Second, the goods and services necessary for treatment would also become available without the involvement of doctors. For both these reasons there are likely to be people currently contemplating suicide who would be able to recover their health sufficiently to want to go on living.

Third, the issue of ‘assistance’ would become far less relevant. In a free market for all medicines, including those which can be used to produce a painless death, ways would be found for individuals to administer the means of suicide themselves, even if they were incapacitated, without an active role being played by outsiders. Family members could be present at the suicide without having to become involved. People would not have to travel to far-off locations to achieve their objective.

Fourth, and most importantly, the issue of assistance by medical professionals would also cease to have the same level of relevance. This – not assistance by laymen, and certainly not ‘assistance’ in the sense of accompanying on a journey – is the most worrying possibility among those being contemplated. In the institutional setting of a hospital, where respect for autonomy is absent, and where ‘best interests’ arguments have been used to perform euthanasia without consent*, legalising suicide-with-assistance in general seems certain to lead to even more surreptitious medical-killing-with-presumed-consent than is already going on.

* as for example in the case of Hillsborough victim Tony Bland

01 August 2009

Capital, freedom and the King's head

Copy of a reply to an email from a person living overseas, who appears to have been a fan of my books for some years. What I have written is of general relevance to people who might consider coming.

I gather you are thinking of coming to this country. There are problems associated with someone coming from outside the EU, and I am afraid we could not give you any help with them. Things are very difficult these days with all the restrictions on personal liberty that have arisen. We are extremely overworked as it is. You would have to solve these problems for yourself, if at all.

The idea has been widely encouraged, in this country and elsewhere, that the difficulties of becoming sufficiently independent to do what you want to do by building up capital (if you have not inherited enough without building it up for yourself) can be avoided by accepting an impoverished life and finding something ‘creative’ or ‘interesting’ to do within it.

I do not myself subscribe to this idea, although unfortunately I think that some people have taken my books as providing support for it.

If anyone wants to come and form an association with us, it is very desirable that they first build up enough capital, by saving out of income if necessary, to get themselves to Oxford in a trouble-free way and pay for rented accommodation for themselves near to us.

It is only by building up money for oneself that one increases one’s freedom of action, which includes freedom from social interference.

In the pre-1945 world, saving money had a numinous respectability. Children had money-boxes, provided by the Post Office, with the King’s head on the front. When the boxes were opened, the coins could be used to buy savings stamps or savings certificates, which were stuck into books with the child’s name on the front, encouraging him to think of his capital – built up by saving – as his territory and as an extension of himself.

Now capital is seen as faintly immoral, and idealistic young people are encouraged to believe it would be better if it was not in the hands of private individuals at all.