Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another. Philip Ball

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9780099457862: Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another. Philip Ball

Philip Ball explores the age-old question: are there any 'laws of nature' that guide human affairs? Is there anything inevitable about the ways humans behave and organize themselves? Have we complete freedom in creating our societies or are we trapped by 'human nature'?

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About the Author:

Philip Ball writes regularly in the scientific and popular media and worked for many years as an editor for physical sciences at Nature. His books cover a wide range of scientific and cultural phenomena, and include Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads To Another (winner of the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books), The Music Instinct, Curiosity: How Science Became Interested in Everything, Serving The Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Science Under Hitler and Invisible: The history of the Unseen from Plato to Particle Physics.

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Critical Mass
ONE RAISING LEVIATHAN THE BRUTISH WORLD OF THOMAS HOBBES  
 
 
 
 
A work on politics, on morals, a piece of criticism, even a manual on the art of public speaking would, other things being equal, be all the better for having been written by a geometrician. --Bernard Fontenelle, secretary of the Académie Française, late seventeenth century  
"I perceive," says I, "the world has become so mechanical that I fear we shall quickly become ashamed of it; they will have the world be in large what a watch is in small, which is very regular, and depends only on the just disposing of the several parts of the movement. But pray tell me, madame, had you not formerly a more sublime idea of the universe?" --Bernard Fontenelle (1686)  
The most complete exposition of a social myth often comes when the myth itself is waning. --Robert M. Maclver (1947)  
It is no longer very useful to ask the question "Who governs Britain?" Discuss. --Exercise in Stephen Cotgrove's Science of Society (1967) Brothers will fight and kill each other ... men will know misery ... an axe-age, a sword-age, shields will be cloven, a wind-age, a wolf-age, before the world ends.1 This is how the Norsemen envisaged Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods; but in political exile in France in 1651, Thomas Hobbes must have thought that he had lived through it already. At Naseby and Marston Moor, Newbury and Edgehill, the stout yeomanry of England had hacked one another to bloody ruin. Oliver Cromwell reigned as Lord Protector of a country shocked to find itself a republic, its line of monarchical succession severed by the executioner's ax. The combatants in the English Civil War, unlike those in France's Revolution or America's blood-soaked battle of North against South, had few clear ideological distinctions. The Royalists fought under the king's banner, but the Roundheads also claimed allegiance to "King and Parliament." For all his presumptuous arrogance, Charles I had no desire to live outside the constitution and laws of the land. Both sides were Anglican and wary of Papists. There were aristocrats in the Parliamentarian ranks and common folk among the Cavaliers. Many of those who slaughtered one another might have found little to dispute had they wielded words instead of swords. Such a conflict could be nothing but a prescription for confusion once the beheading of the king brought it to an end. Embarrassed by the power with which fate had invested him, Cromwell searched in vain for a constitutional solution that would guarantee stability. Such was the might his troops, the formidable Ironsides, gave him that as Lord Protector he could experiment more freely than any British ruler before or since--although this was a freedom Cromwell would happily have relinquished had he felt able. Time and again he created parliaments on which to shed some burden of authority, only to dissolve them once he found them unworthy of the responsibility. In the turmoil of those times, none could be certain that friends would not become foes, or old opponents emerge as allies. The Presbyterian Scottish Parliament, whose fierce antagonism to Charles I had precipitated the conflict between Parliament and Crown in the 1630s, was by 1653 fighting against Cromwell with Charles II as its figurehead. Cromwell himself expelled from the House of Commons the Parliament he had fought to instate, and struggled to maintain control of the monstrous army he had created. After Cromwell's death in 1658, this militia restored Parliament and longed for an end to the Protectorate. John Lambert led the troops to victory over a Royalist uprising in 1659 even as he plotted to restore Charles II to thethrone (and conveniently make him brother-in-law to Lambert's daughter). Yet in the end it was by defeating Lambert that George Monk, a former Royalist, restored a Parliament in 1660 that he knew would crown the exiled king. What could the common people possibly have craved more than stability? Twenty years of war and changing fortunes had convinced them that only a monarchy would supply it; and Charles II, who had narrowly escaped the tender mercies of the Ironsides just eight years previously, found a loyal army and a joyous population awaiting his return from France. There is no way to understand the extraordinary quest on which Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) embarked without acknowledging its historical setting. Centuries of monarchical rule over a hierarchical society had been graphically dismembered with the fall of the ax on January 30, 1649. A system of governance previously upheld by divine and moral imperatives had been revealed as arbitrary and contingent. Almost every political idea that was to follow in later centuries was voiced then, in seventeenth-century England, and many of them were put into practice. Soldiers and laborers became Levelers and Diggers, advocating socialist principles of equality and an end to individual ownership of land. Cromwell himself seems to have toyed with the notion of a freely elected democratic government, yet he spent much of his Protectorate heading a military dictatorship. Charles I had dissolved Parliament and had instigated an absolute monarchy in the years before the Civil War. Which of these systems should a society adopt? The issue was a burning one. Although war between nations was regarded almost as a natural state of affairs, it might hardly pain the common person beyond the imposition of new taxes and levies. But internal strife was agonizing. The Civil War in England, conducted on the whole with restraint toward civilians, was bad enough; but the Thirty Years' War that ravaged Europe from the early part of the seventeenth century killed one in every three inhabitants of many German states. For Hobbes and many of his contemporaries, civil peace was worth almost any price. England's miseries were a symptom of broader changes in the Western world. The feudal system of the Middle Ages was waning before the rise of a prosperous middle class, and from the ranks of this vigorous and ambitious sector came many of the Parliamentarians, who no longer felt obliged to submitto every royal whim. The monarchy, with its councillors and Star Chamber, harked back to the medievalism of Elizabethan society, but the spirit of the age cleaved to something more democratic, however limited in scope. The Reformation of Luther and Calvin had split Europe asunder; no longer did a single Church rule all of Christendom. The backlash to the assault on ecclesiastical tradition--prompted not only by Luther's heresy but by the. humanism of the Renaissance--gave birth to the Counter-Reformation, the Council of Trent, the Jesuits, and a ruthless Inquisition. The greater the religious diversity, it seemed, the greater the intolerance. Emerging from this ferment were ideas about the nature of the world that were ultimately to prove as challenging as any of the proclamations that Luther allegedly nailed to the church door in Wittenberg. Copernicus had been fortunate to develop his heliocentric theory--the idea that the Earth revolves around the sun--in the early sixteenth century, before the Counter-Reformation, and his first manuscript, circulated around 1530, even received papal sanction. But by 1543, when the full treatise was published after his death, it was prefaced with a note through which the editor, Andreas Osiander, hoped to evade ecclesiastical condemnation by indicating that the new view of the celestial bodies should be regarded simply as a convenient mathematical fiction. How Galileo fared against papal authority when he placed the same idea on firmer footing is the stuff of legend. The Inquisition condemned him in 1616 and forced him to recant in 1633. But by the middle of the seventeenth century, with René Descartes revitalizing the ancient Greek atomic theory and Isaac Newton soon to be admitted to Trinity College in Cambridge, the banishment of magic and superstition by mechanistic science seems in retrospect inevitable. Hobbes's masterwork, Leviathan, was an attempt to develop a political theory out of this mechanical worldview. He set himself a goal that today sounds absurdly ambitious, although at the dawn of the Enlightenment it must have seemed a natural marriage. Hobbes wanted to deduce, by logic and reason no less rigorous than that used by Galileo to understand the laws of motion, how humankind should govern itself. Starting with what he believed to be irreducible and self-evident axioms, he aimed to develop a science of human interactions, politics, and society. It is hard now to appreciate the magnitude not just of this challenge in itself but of the shift in outlook that it embodied. There has never been anyshortage of views on the best means of governance and social organization. Almost without exception, proposals before Hobbes (and many subsequently) were designed to give the proposers the greatest (perceived) advantage. Emperors, kings, and queens sought to justify absolute monarchy by appealing to divine covenant. The Roman Catholic Church was hardly the first theocracy to set itself up as the sole conduit of God's authority. In Plato's Republic, one of the earliest of utopian models, cool and self-confident reasoning argued for a state in which philosophers were accorded the highest status. The rebellious English Parliament of the early 1640s demanded that the king transfer virtually all governing power to it. One could always find an argument to put oneself at the top of the heap. Hobbes was different. What he aimed to do was to apply the method of the theoretical scientist: to stipulate fundamental first principles and see where they led him. In theory any conclusion was possible. By analyzing human nature and how people interact, he might conceivably have found that the most stable society was one based on what we would now call communism, or democracy, or fascism. In practice, Hobbes's reasoning led him toward the conclusion that he had probably preferred at the outset, from which we may reasonably suspect that his method was not as objective as he would have had the world believe. Nonetheless, its claim to have dispensed with bias and to rely only on indisputable logic is what makes Leviathan a landmark in the history of political theory. But it is something more. Hobbes's great work is seen today as historically and even philosophically important, but political science has become a very different beast, and no one seriously entertains the notion that Hobbes's arguments remain convincing. Nor should they, in one sense--for as we shall see, his basic postulates are very much a product of their time. Yet Leviathan is a direct and in many ways an astonishingly prescient antecedent to a revolutionary development now taking place at the forefront of modern physics. Scientists are beginning to realize that the theoretical framework which underpins contemporary physics can be adapted to describe social structures and behavior, ranging from how traffic flows to how the economy fluctuates and how businesses are organized. This framework is not as daunting as it might sound. Contrary to what one might imagine from the popular perception of modern physics, we do not have to delve into the imponderable paradoxes of quantum theory, or themind-stretching revelations of relativity, or the origins of the universe in the Big Bang, in order to understand the basic ideas involved. No, this is an approach rooted in the behavior of everyday substances and objects: water, sand, magnets, crystals. But what can such things possibly have to say about the way societies organize themselves? A great deal, as it happens. Hobbes had no inkling of any of this, but he shared the faith of today's physicists that human behavior is not after all so complex that it cannot occasionally be understood on the basis of just a few simple postulates, or by the operation of what we might regard as natural forces, For Hobbes, contemplating the tumultuous political landscape of his country, the prime force could not be more plain: the lust for power. THE LEVIATHAN WAKES Thomas Hobbes (Figure 1.1) had never been able to take anything for granted. His father was a poorly educated and irascible vicar, a drunkard who left his family when Thomas was sixteen and died "in obscurity." This put his son to little inconvenience, since from a young age Thomas was supported and encouraged by his wealthy and altogether more respectable uncle Francis, a glover and alderman of Malmesbury. Francis watched over the boy's education, helping to nurture a clearly prodigious intellect: by the time the fourteen-year-old Thomas won admittance to Magdalen College at Oxford, he had already translated Euripedes' Medea from Greek to Latin. He so excelled at the university that when he graduated, he was recommended to the Earl of Devonshire as a tutor to the earl's son (who was only three years younger than Thomas). From such a position Hobbes was free to continue his studies of the classics. In his early twenties he acted as secretary to Francis Bacon (1561-1626), whose interests ranged from natural science and philosophy to politics and ethics. During this time until Bacon's death, Hobbes showed no evident inclinations toward science; but Bacon's rational turn of thought left a clear imprint on his thinking. It was not until 1629 that the forty-year-old Hobbes, a committed classicist, had his eyes opened to the power of scientific and mathematical reasoning. The story goes that Hobbes happened to glance at a book that lay open in a library, and was transfixed. The book was Euclid's Elements of Geometry, and Hobbes began to follow one of the Propositions. "By God, this is impossible!" he exclaimed, but was soon persuaded otherwise. As Hobbes's contemporary, the gossipy biographer John Aubrey, tells it, So he reads the Demonstration of it, which referred him back to such a Proposition; which proposition he read: that referred him hack to another, which he also read, and sic deinceps [so on], that at last he was demonstratively convinced of that trueth. This made him in love with Geometry.2 Hobbes was deeply impressed by how this kind of deductive reasoning, beginning with elementary propositions, allowed geometers to reach ineluctable conclusions with which all honest and percipient people would be compelled to agree. It was a prescription for certainty. The axioms of geometry are, by and large, statements that few people would have trouble supposing. They assert such things as "Two straight lines cannot enclose a space." We can typically convince ourselves of their validity with simple sketches. Other fields of inquiry struggle to muster analogous self-evident starting points. "I think, therefore I am" may have convinced Descartes that, as an axiom, it is "so solid and so certain that all the most extravagantsuppositions of the skeptics were incapable of upsetting it"; but in fact every word of the sentence is open to debate, and it has none of the compelling visual power of geometry's first principles. Hobbes was sufficiently enthused to attempt geometry himself, but he was never a master of the subject. Through clumsy errors he persuaded himself that he had solved the old geometric conundrum of "squaring the circle" (something that was later shown to be impossible). But that was not his principal concern. In the 1630s, the tensions between Crown and Commons led Charles I to dissolve Parliament and embark on an eleven-year period of "personal rule." In the midst of an unstable society, Hobbe...

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