Andy Walton looks at whether there is a "Religious Right" emerging in Britain
Nick Spencer reviews Steve Jones' "The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold at Science"
Masters of Nothing and the meaning of everything
1st June 2012
One way of sorting good equations from bad, it is sometimes remarked, lies in whether or not they are “beautiful”: elegant, short, simple, highly explanatory. If one were to apply the same criteria to the many books about the financial crisis, Masters of Nothing, a recent offering from two Conservative MPs, Matthew Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi, would be a rather beautiful book.
The field is a notoriously complex one. The blizzard of terms and acronyms –MBOs (mortgage-backed securities), CDOs (Collateralised Debt Obligations), SPVs (special purpose vehicles), CDSs (Credit Default Swaps) – is liable to confuse even insiders. It is telling that when Pricewaterhouse Coopers went into Lehman Brothers after it collapsed in 2008, it took teams of ten people about ten days to start to understand actually what products they were dealing with. That’s not “understand what deals that Lehman had actually done”. It’s ‘understand what products’ they were dealing in the first place.
Hancock and Zahawi’s argument is that this complexity has been part of the problem, confusing progress with scientific/ mathematical rigour, and masking the fundamental problem underlying the financial system and crash, namely that people do not behave anything like as ‘rationally’ as economic theory presupposes they do.
We do not make rational choices, and not simply because we have insufficient information. We are too non-rational, too instinctive, too much informed by our “animal spirits” – to take a phrase used in Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money that has recently gained common currency – to choose, consistently and reliably, that which makes for our, let alone the long-term or common, good.
For anyone who has not bought into this modern quasi-scientific economic thinking, or the unreflective, Enlightenment rationalism from which it is descended – for anyone who basically lives in the real world – this should not be news. But, regrettably, for many people, including those who spend their waking hours handling other peoples’ money, it apparently is.
Hancock and Zahawi do not ignore the need for regulation and government intervention as means of addressing the problems behind the financial crisis. Nor, however, do they imagine that regulation is the solution. In essence, they argue that if the financial system is built on the fallacious idea of taking the human out the equation, the human needs to be put back in, with all its immeasurable, irresolvable ethical complexity. In other words, to quote T.S. Eliot, we should not try “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.”
And this is the point at which their book is particularly interesting, at least for this writer, because Hancock and Zahawi’s call for morality is both perceptibly Christian and also not Christian. What does this mean?
Well, for a start, Christianity, so named, is entirely absent from Masters of Nothing. The book is not about the church or Christian ethics, so neither features, end of story.
What we do, however, see is a series of suggestions and ideas that are appreciably Christian in their conception. The most obvious example of this is the authors’ repeated use of the word ‘faith’, sometimes replaced with ‘trust’. They talk about our (misplaced) faith in objectivity, our faith in mathematical models, our faith in human rationality, and our “faith in the stories we tell ourselves”. However else humans operate, they clearly cannot do so without faith. There is no myth of sufficient human rationality here. The real issue is whether we have the right amount of faith in the right thing.
More subtly, there is a discussion of memory. The authors make a good point in the observation that few people operating in the financial sector today having a working memory of the previous crash, and, of course, none has one of the Great Crash. Moreover, they point out that the history of economics is hardly ever taught in business school and only rarely on economics courses.
To those immersed within the Christian tradition this will sound familiar. The Bible is full of commands for the people of God to remember their past, in particular what God has done for them. Indeed, at the centre of Christian liturgy is an act of remembrance. One of the reasons so many of the commands in the Torah end with the line “I am the Lord your God”, a phrase which grates on the modern ear, is because it serves as a shorthand for “I am the God who rescued you from slavery and created you as a people”. Only by remembering the past, it implies, can we hope to live well in the present. In his book on The Great Crash, which Hancock and Zahawi quote, J.K. Galbraith once wrote, “as a protection against financial illusion or insanity, memory is far better than law.” Given the way in which law is embedded in memory in the Torah, this is a revealing observation.
A third topic is that of sin. The word is, of course, entirely absent from Masters of Nothing, which prefers to talk of our “flawed nature”, but the book is fascinated, indeed founded, on the peculiarly human habit of not doing what is good for us, let along for others.
Much of the subtlty of the idea of sin is captured in the book. The authors talk about how neuroscience (rapidly becoming our new gospel) “suggests that anywhere between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of our behaviour is conscious.” They also observe that “a sense of personal responsibility is diminished in a group.” It is not necessarily that we wilfully choose the wrong, but rather that our nature overpowers our will to that effect. Paul’s tortured prose to the church in Rome – “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me” – comes to mind, as does the admonition in Exodus 23.2, “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong.”
Fourthly, and following on from the dissection of sin as surely as it does in Romans 7, Hancock and Zahawi pick up, without realising it, on that vexed New Testament debate between the spirit and letter of the law. They note that many of the financial culprits “knew that as long as they obeyed the letter of the law they would be safe”, pointing out how fundamentally immoral that is. It is not the regulation/ law is bad, of course; just that it is inadequate. The law is not enough.
Fifth, that discussion then leads to talk about the need to live well, to live a virtuous (working) life of “trust”, “thrift”, “duty”, “fairness”, “responsibility”, “reciprocity”, and so forth. This is common currency within many ethical systems, at least historically, but particularly interesting in Masters of Nothing is the way that the authors talk about the need for institutions, with their memory, weight and capacity, to embody such virtues. It is not enough that people behave virtuously as individuals. We need institutions to nurture, protect and promote such virtues. Again, anyone familiar with Christian thought, at least beyond it more aggressively Protestant forms, will recognise in this the familiar idea that for society to flourish we need a landscape well-populated with organised, operative institutions, not least the Church.
Sixth, the authors talk about repentance, although again without using the word. “Those who do not accept personal responsibility rarely change their behaviour,” sounds like a line from the Alpha course. Indeed, on occasion they sound almost liturgical when discussing this. “It is a strength to accept we are all flawed, to accept the frailty of our knowledge, and to protect ourselves from hubris”, they write at one point, sounding like an abandoned draft of the Alternative Service Book.
Finally, but no less prominently within the book, is the repeated talk of “social norms”. This is a phrase that has gained much airtime of late. A modern, free, liberal society hates to speak of “shame”, “guilt” and the like, as such terms embody everything against which we have, apparently, bravely struggled. But – shock – we are increasingly learning that cannot do without them. And so, we square the circle by talking about the same thing with different words. Thus, “social norms” is simply a cuddly, not-threatening way of talking about the self-regulating forms of shame, guilt, honour, and respect that were the currency of society before money and moral relativism had their way.
The fact that Hancock and Zahawi advocate such responses without ever mentioning how consonant they are with Christian thought (the closest they come is a single reference to “ancient descriptions of behaviour [that] are as telling today as when written over two thousand years ago”) can be seen in two ways.
The unreflective Christian response will say something like, ‘There you go; proof positive that only Christianity can see us through the moral minefield we have created for ourselves.’ The equally unreflective anti-Christian one will try a different line, arguing something like the following: ‘The fact that Hancock and Zahawi can put forth an argument to solve the financial crisis that draws on such ethical principles without any reference to a Christian framework shows how the “Christian” element is redundant. We are simply talking ethics here and adding “Christian” to ethics actually adds nothing.’
Neither argument is satisfactory but at least the way in which the latter misses the point is instructive. To adopt this argument is to buy into the idea that the Christian universe is the same one as everyone else’s only with certain Christian things – God, sin, repentance – bolted on. If you can’t find God in the same way as you can find the sun or Wolverhampton, he’s clearly not there. Or, again, if you can use the word “flawed” instead of “sin”, or “social norm” instead of “shame”, or choose to “apologise” rather than “repent”, then the Christian universe simply doesn’t exist. The alternative one, the God-less, sin-less, shame-less, repentence-less world – will do quite well enough, thank you.
But Christian teaching does not pretend that the universe is anything other than what is the case. Sin is not anything ontologically different from flawed human nature, shame is not different from a social norm, repentance is no different from apologising. Put another way, Mr A uses “sin” and “repentance” to describe particular phenomena, whereas Mr B uses “flawed nature” and “apology” to describe the same things. The difference is not in the things themselves, the phenomena described in both cases are exactly the same. The difference lies in how they are seen.
This is where the important point about the horizons of meaning comes in, because the words we use to describe the same reality we all inhabit point towards different horizons, different worldviews, ultimately to different ways of conceiving that reality. It is through the grammar we use of different things that we identify what they mean; what, in fact, they are.
For those with ears to hear, it may seem that the ghost of the later Wittgenstein haunts this case. What is under the microscope when we talk about different words being used to describe the same things is our capacity to see the same thing differently.
Wittgenstein’s example of the duck-rabbit in Philosophical Investigations is the classic one given for the idea of “seeing-as”. Whether it ‘is’ a duck or a rabbit depends on how one sees it. Similarly, as he says elsewhere in that book “the meaning of a word is its use in language” (#43) or again, later on, “grammar tells what kind of object anything is”. (#373)
This is not an easy argument to convey on paper because you are necessarily limited to using words, which in themselves presuppose what you have seen an object “as”. However, if you can imagine, for a moment, a phenomenon or practice without describing it, and then allow Mr A call it an act of repentance and Mr B call it an act of apologising, you can begin to see how the duck-rabbit works. Both Mr A and Mr B see the same thing, but both see it as something different.
This could lead to an easy and mushy relativism. You say “repentance”, I say “apology”; you say “sin”, I say “flawed nature”; you say “shame”, I say “social norm” – let’s call the whole thing off.
It could, but should not, because sometimes some linguistic frameworks simply work better than others. Sometimes seeing the object or practice as a ‘rabbit’ rather than a duck is more coherent, consistent, and comprehensible; it has greater descriptive and explanatory power; it makes more sense of the world. To be sure, this can be difficult to tell and impossible to prove, but on occasion, at least in retrospect, it is clear.
Thus, the grammar of the machine is inadequate for the human body, as we can see more easily now when we read those eighteenth century texts that described the body in terms of levers, forces, clockwork, and cogs. Conversely, attempting to describe and understand the natural world with the grammar of agency, as if plants and clouds could think, feel and act, as was common is animistic religious traditions, is equally wrong.
One of the reasons why people have come to object to evolutionary theory over recent decades is that it seems to have made a land-grab for other disciplines, describing and purporting to explain a whole range of historically-autonomous subjects in evolutionary terms. A similar thing seems to be going on at the moment in terms of brain activity, where appending the prefix “neuro” to a word seems to give it special credibility (on which see Roger Scruton’s recent The Face of God).
There appears to be a stubborn human tendency to want to explain the world in just one way or, put differently, to impose one linguistic horizon on some very different landscapes. Even as erudite a historian as Ian Morris, whose magisterial Why the West Rules – for Now will be reviewed later in these pages, can write a sentence as blunt as “biology… tells us what humans truly are: clever chimps.”
But the world is variegated, reality is stratified. One particular language, with its particular mental horizon, is best for describing and understanding sub-atomic physics, but that is a poor tool for describing and understanding molecular biology, which is itself, in spite of what some evolutionary biologists claim, a poor tool for describing and understanding economic or social or public activity, and so on.
This is not a new observation. The critical realism advocated by philosopher Roy Bhasker argued that each science has developed a methodology appropriate to its ontology. In other words, different strata of reality merit investigation by different methods – social science, psychology, biology, molecular, sub-atomic physics, and so forth – which have different processes that are conveyed by means of different grammars. They cannot simply be reduced to one, no matter how much we covet simplicity.
This is clearly something we need constantly to be reminded about, not least when it comes to discussing what it means to be human and to live together, the underlying subject of Hancock and Zahawi’s book. For humanity is surely the Holy Grail for explanatory schemes, the thing that they all want to ‘explain’. It is surely no accident that biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists and theologians alike seek so keenly to describe and explain “what humans truly are”.
Human life, however, is a complex thing, existing on as many levels as the rest of reality and, frustratingly, no one discipline has the monopoly on explanations. Some questions are clearly better answered by some disciplines. “Why does my tooth ache?” is probably best answered on a medical/ scientific level, as (probably) is the question “why do I have a sore throat?” But bigger questions, like “Why am I ill?” or “Why do I feel sad?” may have multiple answers, from the biological, through the psychological, to the sociological, and spiritual.
Any attempt to answer such questions monolithically is a sure-sign of intellectual imperialism, hammering flat a stratified reality, or, more poetically, trying to sober up the “drunkenness of things being various”. It is a sin (there we go) for which Christianity has often been guilty, such as when Christians put sickness, poverty or destitution solely down to sin, when sin has either played a minimal or no role whatsoever in those conditions. But, to repent (there we go again) of this is emphatically not to acknowledge that Christian theology has no legitimate role to play in answering questions about human nature and how should we live.
It is surely telling, to return to where I started, that a book about one financial crash and how to avoid another, should adopt ideas from a perceptibly Christian ethical framework, whether or not the authors acknowledge or even recognise the fact.
The whole premise of this essay is that one cannot simply say, in response to this, “this proves that…” It is possible and legitimate to interpret it in different ways, to “see” it “as” evidence for a Christian-duck or an anti-Christian rabbit. That acknowledged, this writer sees it as evidence of how a Christian grammar makes best sense of the vexed question of what it is to be human and how, now, we should live.
The financial system that went into meltdown in 2008/09 was byzantine in its complexity. But beneath that confusion there lay grotesque errors about what humans are and how we behave. Hancock and Zahawi appear to be saying that in order to navigate our way out of the crisis and to avoid such rocks again, we need to recognise that humans are faith-placing beings; susceptible to sin; amenable to guilt and shame; informed by remembrance; in need of repentance; capable of virtue; and safeguarded by institutions. They just don’t see it as that.
Masters of Nothing: The Crash and how it will happen again unless we understand human nature by Matthew Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi is published by Biteback Publishing
Image from canstar.com.au