Discourse on the Logos

Reason without love and the imagination is a curse

by Phil Hall

In trying to understand the concept of the Logos I read how Pope Benedict described Christianity as the religion of the logos.

From the beginning, Christianity has understood itself as the religion of the Logos, as the religion according to reason. … It has always defined men, all men without distinction, as creatures and images of God, proclaiming for them … the same dignity. In this connection, the Enlightenment is of Christian origin and it is no accident that it was born precisely and exclusively in the realm of the Christian faith. … It was and is the merit of the Enlightenment to have again proposed these original values of Christianity and of having given back to reason its own voice … Today, this should be precisely [Christianity’s] philosophical strength, in so far as the problem is whether the world comes from the irrational, and reason is not other than a “sub-product,” on occasion even harmful of its development—or whether the world comes from reason, and is, as a consequence, its criterion and goal. … In the so necessary dialogue between secularists and Catholics, we Christians must be very careful to remain faithful to this fundamental line: To live a faith that comes from the Logos, from creative reason, and that, because of this, is also open to all that is truly rational.’

Christianity pairs itself with science and all human knowledge because Christ is the embodiment of reason, too. The reason why Christ is considered to be the son of God is because he is the logos. So Christ is the embodiment of the word of God and he manifests God because God is the word.

But there are serious questions to ask about the nature of the logos. Not only in the Christian meaning, but in the Greek meaning and in the meaning of logos embedded in the philosophy of science.

The idea then is a simple one. That the world is an ordered place and that it is formed and ordered and that there is something about it that orders and forms it.

Humans have characterised this ordering principle in different cultures in different ways. For example, the Hindus and Buddhists characterise it as Dharma. But according to the peoples of the book the principle way this force expresses itself is through language: the logos. They understand the universe through exegesis, through readings and analyses of the scriptures of their religion. The concept of the logos comes down to us from Heraclitus via Philo of Alexandria and it was incorporated into Christianity:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God ‘

‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’

John 1

Harold Bloom, the literary critic thought Shakespeare used words to bring a certain type of human awareness of self into being. Bloom was also a Kabbalist and while he was a literary critic, he didn’t get lost in deconstruction and semiotics, where meaning tends to disappear up its own fundament. Kabbalism thinks of words as intermediaries or connections between us and God, אֵין סוֹף‎,.

Words exist, according to one branch of Jewish philosophy, in the methos: acting as a bridge. This is the obvious philosophy of a literary critic who venerates literature. In the Targumim (authorised translations of the Torah) the Logos is discussed. In The Book of Wisdom it is called the memra.

Shakespeare himself understood the idea of the logos perfectly. The power of language to conjure up whole orderly, consistent realities. In the end, Shakespeare drew many people into his world, just as the Bible did before Shakespeare.

But, unlike the Bible writers, Shakespeare doesn’t manage to convince himself of the transcendent value of what he has written. In The Tempest, Shakespeare the writer describes how Prospero breaks his staff and eschews his art. Shakespeare breaks his magic wand (his pen). He can’t enchant himself, though he can enchant everyone else.

Helen Mirren as Prospero

The ancient Egyptians thought the word hu brought everything into being. They personified it. In modern terms you might say that the people who believe the universe is best explained through mathematics believe in the logos and Mathematics. Science and mathematics as their Hu. They personify science in the way the ancients personified the logos, but in an odd, disembodied way: ‘Science tells us that…’ Science is placed in the subject position of a sentence, as if it were an animate noun.

Logos is rationality, reason, thought. It is the essence of the enlightenment. The enlightenment disembodies god, ‘killing’ him, returning the logos to the abstract, the material. and depriving it of the imagination, of love and altruism. These become mere welcome additions. The enlightenment steals away some of the key defining qualities of the embodied and personified logos in Christ. In doing so it makes utilitarian obscenities like the Internet panopticon and eugenics seem logical and desirable. Once you separate out reason from the Logos, reason usurps the Logos and it becomes Procrustean.

My problem with the logos as a rational force is that it becomes what Jung termed the animus. It is what Nietzsche characterises as the Apollonian. It rejects the anima and the Dionysian.

In other words, whatever the logos as reason is, whatever the logic is that is used to justify a certain privileged position or viewpoint is, that which it is not considered reasonable is discarded, pathologised, relegated, ignored, misinterpreted, bowdlerised and rubbished.

So, some people who regard themselves to be rational and reasonable would abort all foetuses with Down’s syndrome. But someone with Down’s syndrome might strongly protest the abortion of all people with Down’s syndrome. Autistic people, people with crooked noses, the list of foetuses that the rational eugenicists might decide to abort is long.

Reason alone as the logos burns alternatives and possibility and creates chaos and destruction. Reason must be informed by ‘a holy spirit’. By an inclusive vision of humanity and life. By a closer, more intuitive and open-minded understanding of the real underlying ordering system of the universe, that which is sometimes characterised as the inexpressible Tao.


‘Existence is beyond the power of words

To define:

Terms may be used

But are none of them absolute.

In the beginning of heaven and earth there were no words,

Words came out of the womb of matter;

And whether a man dispassionately

Sees to the core of life

Or passionately

Sees the surface,

The core and the surface

Are essentially the same,

Words making them seem different

Only to express appearance.

If name be needed, wonder names them both:

From wonder into wonder

Existence opens.’

Verse 1 of Lao Tsu’s Tao The Ching, Witter Bynner translation

Alternatively, as the Muslim Hadith has it:

‘The Prophet (ﷺ) said “If a house fly falls in the drink of anyone of you, he should dip it (in the drink) and take it out, for one of its wings has a disease and the other has the cure.’

Al Bukhari

Reason without love and the imagination is a disease.

Obituary: Bryan Greetham, teacher, writer and thinker

By Pat Rowe

Bryan Greetham (1946-2022) the writer and thinker, died on Sunday 26th June in Estepona, Spain. Above all, Bryan wanted to help students of all ages be the best thinkers possible.

Bryan was born in Faversham, Kent. He failed the 11 plus exam and went to a secondary modern school. But this didn’t hold him back. He pushed to take his A’ Levels and got a place to read History at the University of Kent. Then he took an MA in Intellectual History at the University of Sussex. He was awarded a PhD, in moral philosophy by the University of Newcastle of New South Wales, Australia when he was in his 50s. He was an honorary fellow at the University of Durham.

Bryan loved teaching and was always happy to help any of his students. It was for them he started writing and had just finished the fifth edition of his first book, How to Write Better Essays, when he died. Some of Bryan’s more recent books focused on techniques to develop the art of thinking itself: Smart Thinking and Thinking Skills for Professionals.

Helen Caunce, Bryan’s editor at Palgrave:

“he demonstrated intellectual curiosity, consideration, astute judgement and – above all else – genuine warmth and kindness. There really is no-one I’ve enjoyed working with more in my publishing career. Bryan’s books will continue to represent the very best of study skills publishing: his work stems from a keenly felt desire to make the experience of studying at university more accessible – to make the ‘rules of the game’ clear – particularly for those coming from a less privileged background. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to commission so many of these inspirational books.”

Bryan had almost finished a novel about the moral dilemmas facing people in the Second World War but it will remain uncompleted.

I hope he will be remembered for his books and for the passion with which he taught his students and tried to help all those who bought them and later contacted him. As well as philosophy, which he loved, he also taught history and politics. Bryan was always curious about our world, constantly reading, writing and questioning our origins, our existence and our future..

Bryan Greetham was a generous contributor to Ars Notoria. Phil Hall, its founding editor, said:

Reading Bryan Greetham’s book resulted in an intellectual epiphany. Despite the fact that I thought hard and studied for so long, after I came across Bryan Greetham’s books, I realized that my thought processes were neither clear nor profound. Bryan’s book dispersed my mental fog, and it was important to incorporate his ideas into my classes at all the different universities and colleges I worked at in the UK and abroad. Bryan opened his students’ (and his friends’) intellectual horizons. His ideas were transformative. He was a great humane thinker and socialist and if everyone was able to think the way he suggested we think we would be living in a much better world, not in this strange infra-mundo.

Bryan wasn’t just an academic, though. He loved cycling and music. Cream, Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin were some of his favourites. He supported his beloved Newcastle United FC, and he had many other interests that filled his life. Early on in his life, Bryan played piano and sang in a church choir. He played tennis, cricket, rugby and football, and he loved swimming.

After the UK, we lived in Portugal. Together, Bryan and I started an international college. After Portugal we moved to Australia. Then we lived in France and finally in Spain. But Bryan always loved Kent and that is where I will take his ashes.

Although he was not traditionally religious in adult life, Bryan had strong spiritual beliefs of his own, so maybe he has taken a Stairway to Heaven, to his own idea of heaven. I hope so.

Bryan wanted to feel he had done something good and useful. I know from all the messages he received over the years that he achieved this.

A toast to Bryan.

Material Monism: Just One Thing…

Mathematics, Substance, Consciousness

by Martin Clewett

There are hundreds of theoretical physicists thinking about how to properly construct a mathematical description of the universe consistent with all the measurements we have so far made of it. Properly means the mathematical description must produce new predictions that can be checked. 

There are two accepted mathematical descriptions. They are known as The Standard Model and General Relativity. The Standard Model is a mathematical description of how all known elementary particles interact with one another and it describes particles as excited states of underlying quantum fields. These fields extend through space, changing with time. The theories do not explain gravitational interaction. The Standard Model is Quantum Mechanical and describes all possible particle interactions for any given scenario simultaneously.

Probabilities for the outcomes of those interactions can be calculated. But, strangely, only one outcome can actually be observed.

General Relativity is a mathematical description of gravity. This is where the energy of matter, the energy of radiation and the energy of non-gravitational fields together shape the curvature of space-time. Anything in this curvature affects space-time and appears to accelerate: for example falling objects, or objects in orbit.

Let us take a step back

abstract beach bright clouds
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Consider the philosophical implications of the preceding paragraph. I was careful to use the term mathematical description: something real in the universe is being described by mathematical physics. 

To replace the term mathematical description with the term mathematical model is to assert something like this:

I don’t have any idea of what is out there in the world, all I have is a model of it in my mind that allows me to interact successfully with it

But if I can interact with the world successfully, then I must know something about it. Therefore, it is safe to make statements about the world and so, to describe the world. We can confidently say that our mathematical models are also mathematical descriptions (at least in the domain of physics) – unless of course we have good reason to doubt them. 

One example of this is when Copernicus put forward a mathematical model of the solar system with the sun at the centre. We have now come to accept his view as an accurate description of reality – although there are still a few flat earth diehards out there.

Is the universe mathematical?

red and orange galaxy illustration
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

But there are physicists who actually think mathematical ideas are reality itself. Max Tegmark’s Mathematical Universe Hypothesis is an example of this. According to Tegmark, mathematical theories are not a description of reality, but actual reality itself. 

However, as theoretical physics advances the mathematics it uses changes. Logically, then, if it were true that mathematics were reality then reality would change when mathematics changed. The response from mathematecists is to say that all mathematics is an approximation of the actual mathematics of the universe in which we all reside.    

And if we regard all mathematical theories as only approximations then these can be understood as mathematical descriptions of a deeper, universal mathematics, a reality which physicists like Tegmark claim is reality itself.

But the question remains: at what point does a mathematical theory transition from being a description of reality into being reality itself? 

at what point does a mathematical theory transition from being a description of reality into being reality itself?

Worse still, if we ever reach the ultimate universal mathematics, we face a paradox: the ultimate mathematics would be a subset of itself, popping out of its own equations. According to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem an ultimate mathematics of the universe is unachievable as, in the end, all mathematical theories are inconsistent, or incomplete. None of this is satisfactory to physicists.

The substance of the universe

Thales of Miletus

An elegant mathematics that makes accurate predictions about measurements should not be arrogantly considered to be the ultimate reality, but neither should it be completely dismissed as meaningless. Successful mathematical descriptions of the universe are suggestive of the content of reality. In the same way, maps of mountains are suggestive of mountains. 

Substance itself, rather than mathematics, is a better basis for reality. There are many very similar types of substances.  Firstly, there are the substances described by the Standard Model’s quantum fields. They exist everywhere and these substances must also be the source of the energy described in General Relativity that curves the space-time in which it exists.  

“Substance rather than mathematics is a better basis for reality.

Secondly, there is the substance of space-time itself which, by definition again, is every-when, and everywhere and contains everything.  If theoretical physicists wish to write a theory that includes all these substances then presumably this theory would result in a description of a substance that exists every-when, everywhere and as everything. 

Thales of Miletus said water was the fundamental substance of the physical world. Unfortunately, water is not a fundamental substance.

Nevertheless Thales’ idea sets the stage for the possibility that there may actually be a fundamental substance. Modern theoretical physicists desire to bring theories together into a master theory that is the mathematical description of a singular substance.

The word to describe everything in terms of one substance is Monism. The mathematical description of particle interactions describes multiple simultaneous outcomes for a singular particle interaction setup.  As I said in the third paragraph: strangely only one outcome can be observed. What is actually observed when measured is a subset (of one) of these outcomes.

Modern theoretical physicists desire to bring theories together into a master theory that is the mathematical description of a singular substance.

Interestingly, if we repeat the setup, we get a different measurement, although it will still be one of the outcomes predicted mathematically by the theory. The weighting for each outcome corresponds to the probability of the outcome; this can be verified by experimental repetition. 

This raises the question: if the description of the substance includes all possible outcomes co-existing, then what happens to all the rest of the outcomes when we perform a measurement?  Why is there only one measurement outcome observed when the description includes many?

For some, the quantum field is not real. Rather, it is a tool for making predictions. Another approach to this problem is to say that there is something missing from the description: since observation requires consciousness then perhaps consciousness is removing all other outcomes except for one. Maybe consciousness controls the physical universe. This kind of magical thinking is the starting point for many self-help philosophies.

The process of decoherence was worked out as part of the mathematical landscape of quantum mechanics in 1969″

Actually, if we simply allow for the fact that the mathematical description of what is happening should also include the observer then this, coupled with a technical process called decoherence, is enough to explain why only one outcome is observed. 

The process of decoherence was worked out as part of the mathematical landscape of quantum mechanics in 1969 and it occurs irrespective of interpretation. When we include the observer itself within the mathematical description decoherence ensures that from the perspective of each of the observed outcomes none of the other outcomes can be observed.

Matter and Consciousness

person holding string lights photo
Photo by David Cassolato on Pexels.com

Mentalistic monism implies that the mind only can be experienced and that the brain is not the cause of that experience.  Mentalistic monism implies there is no cause of consciousness at all, that it is intrinsic. 

A few philosophers hold that consciousness is fundamental – even more fundamental than the reality described by the Standard Model and General Relativity. However, it is clear that it is the physical brain is the immediate seat of consciousness.

We have no direct way of measuring or examining consciousness as we do particles, although we can examine the correlations between reported consciousness and brain activity. We can also examine the correlation between physical alterations to brain activity and reported changes in consciousness. From this it is clear that it is reasonable to believe that the physical brain is the immediate seat of consciousness. Given that consciousness arises from matter, we should be able to infer details of the cause of consciousness by close study of the workings of the physical brain.

A theory explaining consciousness at a physical level must explain how conscious first-person subjective experience is caused by the brain. If consciousness has a cause, and it must have a cause, then that consciousness mut derive from something that has no consciousness to begin with. By examining the workings of the brain and speculating we should be able to develop a partial description of consciousness.

Martin Clewett has a Master’s degree in Physics from Oxford University and he works as a Software Developer of C#, JavaScript, SQL, VB. He is also a Martial artist with a 3rd Dan Black belt in Zen Shorindo Karate. He is a musician and a content creator on YouTube and Facebook and is created an album called Music For The Modern Shaman. These days Martin is busy being a full-time dad.

The philosophy of Iris Murdoch

by Jon Elsby

During her lifetime, Iris Murdoch was probably better known – and more highly esteemed – as a novelist than as a philosopher. Privately, Isaiah Berlin once called her ‘a lady not noted for the clarity of her ideas’.’ Yet she taught philosophy at St Anne’s College, Oxford for several years, and, since her death, her reputation as a moral philosopher has steadily grown while her standing as a novelist has (unfairly, in my view) somewhat declined.

Some twenty years ago, I read, with great enjoyment and no little excitement, most of Iris Murdoch’s novels and, with more muted feelings, the better part of her published writings on philosophy. Having done so, I concluded that I had learned everything I could from her and, rather reluctantly (for one never parts readily from old friends), sold my copies of all her works to a second-hand bookseller.

Murdoch shared the belief of most of her philosophical contemporaries (1) that the idea of a personal God is no longer tenable, and (2) that God is irrelevant to morality. Both of these beliefs are treated by many modern philosophers as self-evident: so much so that, in most contemporary philosophical discourse, they are simply assumed without any discussion, argument, evidence, or proof. This seems rather high-handed, given that there are approximately 2.4 billion Christians and 1.8 billion Muslims in the world (which adds up to some fifty-seven per cent of the global population), for whom a personal God is not only a tenable idea but a reality; and all monotheists would concur that their deepest moral insights and convictions are derived from their conception of God. It would seem, therefore, that modern trends in analytical philosophy run counter to the common sense of rather more than half the human race. This does not seem in any way to inhibit the confidence with which most analytic philosophers hold and propound their beliefs. What that shows, it seems to me, is that, even where highly intelligent people are concerned, communities of the like-minded tend to reinforce existing prejudices and discourage the expression of any contrary views. Whether this is a good thing or not depends on the facts of the case. If the prejudices are benign and the contrary views malignant, then to reinforce the former and discourage the latter may be justified. If, however, the prejudices are dangerous errors, and the contrary views are necessary to their correction, then the opposite is the case.

It seems to me that Murdoch’s views on religion are deeply confused – and somewhat confusing. She expresses approval of the way religion ‘is detaching itself from supernatural dogma’, but fails to ask what remains of religion when this process of detachment is complete. She wishes to defend ‘the sovereignty of good’ and the reality of a transcendent dimension, but denies the existence of any transcendent source of goodness. It is not at all clear what ‘the Good’ means, or why, in the absence of God, it should be accorded a transcendent status. She claims that ‘as moral beings we are immersed in a reality that transcends us and that moral progress consists in awareness of this reality and submission to its purposes’, but she does not explain how a non-personal transcendent reality can have ‘purposes’ of any kind, let alone purposes to which we are morally obliged to submit.

It is surely not unreasonable to ask where Murdoch’s philosophy leaves God. The answers she offers are incoherent. She wishes to affirm the transcendent reality of the Good while detaching it from the idea of God – i.e. from a, or rather the, transcendent source of goodness. She wants morals without any foundation in metaphysics. She wishes to endow ‘the Good’ – the central concept of her moral philosophy – with ‘all of the characteristics traditionally associated with God’, but without positing any Divine Being: the divine attributes are left, as it were, suspended in mid-air, unattached to anything that might conceivably have such properties. In articulating her moral philosophy, she uses words such as ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’’as if their meaning were patently clear, which, in the absence of any religious framework, it certainly is not. She wishes to defend ‘an adult religion’, but a defence which consists in robbing the concept of religion of some of its defining characteristics – in fact, of all that distinguishes it from moral philosophy – is no defence at all.

Murdoch has been called a ‘Godless theologian’ but the term is a self-contradiction. Atheology is not some dynamic new form of theology, but its negation. Theology means literally ‘talk about God’. If the concept of God is evacuated of all meaning, if it is no more than a name without a referent, then there is nothing to talk about. And, in the absence of God, theology is meaningless – it becomes, quite literally, nonsense.

If, as Murdoch herself acknowledged, religion and morality are inextricably tied, then we should do well to desist from attempts to sunder those ties. The twentieth century graphically showed what becomes of such attempts. The totalitarian politics of the Nazis and the communists, the absurdist experiments of the Dadaists, the liberal humanism of the Bloomsbury Group, Sartrean existentialism, nihilistic hedonism, and the counter-culture of the 1960s, were all, in their different ways, responses to the Nietzschean proclamation that God is dead.1 They were endeavours to fashion a purely human world – a Godless world, in which absolutely free and autonomous human beings would create their own moral reality through their consciously willed choices. Iris Murdoch (who, as a student at Oxford, had briefly joined the Communist Party) was a part of that period; and her atheistic moral philosophy, notwithstanding its fundamental incoherence, is one of the more admirable and humane responses to the exigencies of the time. She deserves our gratitude for maintaining, however incoherently, against the prevailing trends of her time, the continuing vitality, relevance, and necessity of metaphysics to the enterprise of philosophy.

If philosophers wish to move beyond the ethical dilemmas arising from a moral philosophy which tries (unsuccessfully) to have things both ways – to affirm the reality of a transcendent dimension without acknowledging the logically necessary Being who alone can be the source of such transcendence – they should resume the ancient dialogue with theology. Here, some analytic philosophers will demur, saying that philosophy is concerned with the natural realm, not the supernatural, and therefore it cannot admit the claims of revelation, which are essential to religion. But to argue thus is to beg the question, not to answer it. The proper subject of philosophy is the whole of reality. If reality includes supernatural beings, then such beings must form part of the subject matter of a true philosophy. The only sense in which supernatural beings are excluded from philosophy and made the proper subjects of revealed religion, is that philosophy concerns itself only with the aspects of supernatural beings that can be known through the exercise of natural reason. Anything beyond what natural reason can discover belongs to revealed religion, which is the subject of theology.

Finally, moral philosophers should remember the words of George Washington in his farewell address of September 1796—

Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of a peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

The history of the last hundred and twenty years is one long demonstration of the wisdom of those words. They deserve to be carefully pondered. The post-Nietzschean – and, more particularly, the post-war – generation of philosophers assumed too readily that the concept of God had been wholly discredited. It should have occurred to them that a concept which has formed the cornerstone of every great human civilization, and which has given rise to so many of the world’s religious and philosophical systems, its artistic masterpieces, its concept of law, its sense of the necessity of order, and its theories of government, would not be likely to disappear merely because, in certain parts of the world, it had temporarily ceased to be fashionable.


1The word ‘proclamation’ is here used advisedly. The death of God was not a proposition for which Nietzsche adduced any rational arguments. It was merely an assertion, violently made and vigorously insisted upon – but one for which no evidence was offered.

Jon Elsby’s spiritual and intellectual journey has been from Protestantism to atheism, and finally to Catholicism, an evolution he has traced in his memoir Wrestling With the Angel: A Convert’s Tale, published in paperback by CentreHouse Press. His most recent book, also published by CentreHouse Press, is Seeing is Believing, which develops themes touched on in his memoir, but with greater focus on the relations between faith and culture, an issue addressed by several American apologists, though very few on the UK side of the Atlantic have taken it up. Seeing is Believing is available on Amazon Kindle.

Escaping the Monkey Trap

By Bryan Greetham.

We are busy producing a generation of the most sophisticated recyclers of received opinion

In Robert Pirsig’s best-selling book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he describes ‘the old South Indian Monkey Trap’, which consists of a coconut, which has been hollowed out and chained to a stake. Inside there is some rice, which can be grabbed by reaching for it through a small hole. The hole is large enough to allow the monkey’s hand to go through, but too small for him to take his clenched fist back out once he has grabbed the rice. He’s suddenly trapped, not by anything physical, but by an idea. The principle ‘when you see rice, hold on tight’ has served him well, but has now turned against him.

We also find ourselves trapped by our ideas in exactly the same way. We struggle to accept climate change, because we are trapped by a certain idea of progress, which we can’t let go even though it has turned against us. As John Maynard Keynes put it, ‘The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.’1 We are all conventional thinkers trapped by our intuitions and routine patterns of thought.

In the 1990s and 2000s companies in the banking sector were successful through their acquisitions. Buy an underperforming company on the cheap, ruthlessly strip it of costs and you create value with a more successful company that produces the level of profits that shareholders are looking for. Yet in 2008 following the same established principle the directors of the Royal Bank of Scotland paid £48bn for parts of the Dutch bank ABN Amro and not only wrecked RBS, but threatened to bring down the whole of the British banking system.

Brown declared that, as a result of the ingenuity and creativity of bankers, ‘A new world order has been created’: we have the privilege of living in ‘an era that history will record as the beginning of a new Golden Age’.

And it wasn’t as if this was an impetuous decision by the RBS board, which they regretted at leisure. They met to discuss it 18 times and still the directors were unanimous that the deal should go through. Like the trapped monkey, they relied on established patterns of expectations and applied a principle that had served them well, instead of analysing the evidence and taking a different course.

modern education systems are designed to teach students what to think, not how to think.

Yet they weren’t the only ones who failed to see what was coming. On the eve of the financial crash, neither the Prime Minister Gordon Brown, nor the opposition leader David Cameron, had any suspicions of what was about to happen. Gordon Brown declared that, as a result of the ingenuity and creativity of bankers, ‘A new world order has been created’: we have the privilege of living in ‘an era that history will record as the beginning of a new Golden Age’.

Similarly, at the time when there were clear signs that the banking system was in trouble David Cameron was confidently declaring that, largely as a result of the bankers’ efforts, a new world economy had been created. The Left’s misguided belief in regulation had been thoroughly discredited, he claimed, ‘Liberalism’ had prevailed and the world economy was now more stable than for a generation.

Even those with the expertise to predict it, failed to see what was coming on the eve of the crash, when there were obvious signs of what was about to happen. Recently the Bank of England released the minutes of their meetings before the crash, which revealed that they had no idea what was about to happen.

As this shows, we are all trapped by ideas and unexamined intuitions, even when it’s clear we are struggling to solve a problem and ought to find other ways of thinking. Over millions of years we have adapted to our environment to become routine, unreflective thinkers. For much of our existence our survival has depended on rules and patterns of behaviour well-tested by the thousands of generations before us.

the untapped potential of thousands of gifted students go to waste

Learning to flee without thought in response to a certain pattern of colours and movement that signalled a predator was essential for survival. Our neural circuits have been designed by natural selection to solve the problems our ancestors faced. They are programmed for survival, not to seek out truth. As evolutionary psychologists are fond of pointing out, our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind.

The exceptions, of course, are those notable individuals, like Marc Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, who appear to be able to put aside routine thinking and produce deceptively simple ideas that totally transform our thinking and our way of life. A website on which we can exchange news and photos with family and friends – it couldn’t be simpler and we think, ‘I could have thought of that.’ And it’s true, you could, if only you had the skills of a smart thinker.

The greatest breakthroughs in our thinking, the revolutionary concepts that have so transformed our lives, have come from those who are smart thinkers. In 1905 a little known engineer, second class, at the Swiss patent office in Bern published four papers, which totally transformed the way we see the world. Albert Einstein had been turned down by every academic institution he had applied to, so he had no access to laboratories and knew nothing new, no more than anybody else. All he did was think differently. Like all smart thinkers, he challenged established concepts, like absolute space and time, created new, revolutionary concepts, like relativity, and forged surprising connections between ideas, like mass and energy, producing insights that were to transform our thinking.

we are all trapped by ideas and unexamined intuitions

The question is why is it so difficult for us all to think this way? Unfortunately, modern education systems are designed to teach students what to think, not how to think. Universities have always seen their primary responsibility as research, so, rather than teachers, they tend to appoint researchers, who only have a secondary responsibility to teach. This amounts largely to passing on their authoritative knowledge to students, not to develop their ability to think. A student then has the complementary role of recycling this authoritative opinion; showing that they understand it and can reproduce it accurately.

So, while we are busy producing a generation of the most sophisticated recyclers of received opinion, the untapped potential of thousands of gifted students go to waste trapped, like the monkey’s clenched fist, in the routine rules and patterns of conventional thinking.

1 J. M. Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936 (London: Snowball Publishing, 2012), Preface, p. viii.

Bryan Greetham was born in Faversham, Kent, in England. He was educated at the University of Kent, where he gained a BA Hons in History, and at the University of Sussex, where he completed his MA in Intellectual History. He was awarded his PhD at the University of Newcastle in Australia for his work in moral thinking.

Currently Bryan is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Durham. Much of his work has been in moral thinking, applied and professional ethics and in complex adaptive systems. His current research involves what we can learn about moral thinking from the perpetrators, victims, rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust.

He is the author of How to Write Better Essays, How to Write your Undergraduate Dissertation, both on writing and thinking skills, Philosophy, an introduction to philosophy for undergraduates, Thinking Skills for Professionals and his latest book, Smart Thinking, all published by Palgrave, Macmillan.

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