Review: “Rationalism” by Brian Ellis


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“Rationalism. A critique of pure theory” by Brian Ellis contrasts the  scientifically and socially productive rationalism of mathematics and physics based on valid a priori assumptions with the social, economic, and environmental failure of neoliberalism (economic rationalism) that is based on flawed assumptions. Rather than discard a failed model, the politically dominant One Percenter beneficiaries of neoliberalism have destructively reverse engineered society to make it fit a flawed theory that must be urgently discarded.

Brian Ellis (Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at La Trobe University and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne) has made a major moral contribution in publishing “Rationalism. A critique of pure theory” [1]. He has previously written a cogent critique of neoliberalism, namely “Social Humanism. A New Metaphysics” [2, 3] . In short, the presently  dominant economic ideology of neoliberalism demands maximal freedom for the smart and advantaged to exploit the physical and human resources of the world for private profit, with an asserted “trickle down”  of benefit to the less smart and less advantaged. Brian Ellis argues that the social failure of neoliberalism (through gross inequity, rapacity, disempowerment, unemployment, and unsustainability) demands its urgent replacement by social humanism (aka democratic socialism, eco-socialism, the welfare state)  that aims to sustainably maximize happiness, opportunity and dignity for everybody through evolving national and international social contracts [2, 3].

In the Preface to “Rationalism. A critique of pure theory”, Brian Ellis summarizes his conception  of Social Humanism: “As a theory, social humanism is as much like socialism as it is like capitalism. But it is not just an unprincipled compromise between the two. It has its own foundation in social moral theory (social idealism)  which, as a matter of fact, is also the foundation for the   Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its decision-making processes are fundamentally democratic, not driven by a priori theory, nor determined by markets. And, it is clearly incompatible with the kinds of centralised power structures typical of socialist regimes. Rather, it is essentially a socially democratic theory. It is also, as a theory, strongly egalitarian, and therefore not one that could possibly operate according to neoliberal principles” ([1], page xxi).  Brian Ellis concedes that in terms of free trade and globalisation, neoliberalism has brought benefits to formerly impoverished Third Worlders but the price has been “a moral vacuum” in the Western Establishments and the continued, disproportionate accretion  of wealth and power to the dominant One Percenters in Western societies.

In the Introduction to “Rationalism. A critique of pure theory”, Brian Ellis sets up a very productive “straw man” in comparing  the failed model of economic neoliberalism  based on  flawed but dogmatically asserted social assumptions, with the rationalism (reason) based  on a priori assumptions (axioms that are intuitively true independent of experience,  as compared  to a posteriori knowledge which is dependent on experience or empirical evidence) that  led to the brilliant achievements of Euclidean geometry (Greece, 3rd century BCE), Newtonian mechanics (17th century England) and the flowering of pure mathematics from the Enlightenment onwards. Ellis points out that “Attempts to construct a priori theories based on weak foundations have led to blind dogmatism”, citing the circa 2 millennium-duration cosmological  dogma  that the Earth was the centre of the universe ([1], page xxvii). He  makes an interesting evolutionary and anthropological  point that “Every animal that hunts for food, or seeks to avoid predators is biologically well-adapted to living in a world that is locally almost Euclidean and very nearly Newtonian. But we are not biologically adapted to living in a modern city or nation states . So it is extremely unlikely that our moral or social institutions  should be as well founded as our geometric or dynamical ones” ([1], page xxvii).

Crucially Ellis makes the key empirical point that: “We are naturally social creatures, and morality is mostly, and properly, concerned with how we, as human beings, should treat each other. The axioms of [humanitarian economist] Keynes’s General Theory would seem to be much nearer the truth … the way forward in moral theory is to democratise it, by changing our theoretical model from that of a rationally ideal society, to that of a socially most desirable one” ([1], page xlvii).

The book is divided into  2 sections, part I dealing with “Rationalism in Science and Mathematics” (Chapters 1-4) , and Part II dealing with “Rationalism in the Moral Sciences” (Chapters 5-9). These chapters are successively considered below.  

Chapter 1,  “The Birth of Rationalism”, asserts that “Philosophically, rationalism is the belief  that the laws of nature and morality are discoverable  a priori… My overall aim in this book is to explore the nature and sources of a priori beliefs, to explain them, and to say something about what their roles have been, or should be, in the histories  of science and culture” ([1], pages 3-5).  However, whereas cognitive intuition (assumptions about  the physical world)  can be clear cut,   moral intuition (assumption of right or wrong) is messy in nature and origin. Thus a fantastic recent example of cognitive intuition of hunter-gatherer survival value was an international  womens’ Rugby Sevens match incident in which a defending player near one side of the pitch had to run after  an opponent running for the try line down the other side of the pitch –  the defender made an  instantaneous triangulating  estimate of what point to aim for in a straight line to effect the ultimately   astonishingly  successful tackle. However “moral” behaviours (e.g. maternal altruism)  may evolve through selection of  mutant genes or through socially-selected behaviours  (memes) that favour progeny survival to reproductive  age (as cogently discussed by Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” [4]).   A hunter-gatherer might leave a tribe-endangering, disabled new-born infant to die from being further away from the campfire whereas this would horrify and be “murder” in a medically sophisticated First World society. Ellis provides a fascinating  account of brilliant, “pure” a priori reasoning by Euclid, Plato and Aristotle and, conversely, of how the Sun-centred cosmos of Aristarchus of Samos (310-210 BCE) was ignored in favour of a  Ptolemaic Earth-centred cosmos until the scientific  revolution by  Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo in  the 15th – 16th centuries CE. Brian Ellis concludes that “The propositions  we feel compelled to assent to that have no plausible genetic origins are the ones we should be most wary of … This was the case in the history of cosmology, and it may well be the case today in economics and moral theory” ([1], page 26).

Chapter 2, Rationalism and Empiricism, provides a succinct account of  the Copernican Revolution and the re-discovery  of a Sun-centred Solar System. Ellis discusses the scientific  approaches to reality at the core of the Enlightenment and involving rationalism (the use of a priori reasoning) and empiricism (the use of careful observations).  He observes that Francis Bacon was an avowed empiricist whereas Descartes was impressed by the purity and finality of rationalism-based mathematical proofs. Newton was an empiricist in his studies of optics but applied a priori reasoning in his monumental seminal work on force, mass, gravity and motion.

Chapter 3, Rational Mechanics, considers a developing dichotomy between a more practical and empirical  Britain and a purer and mathematically more inventive European scientific  culture. The burgeoning scientific revolution  led to the Special Theory of Relativity, the General Theory of Relativity,  and Quantum Mechanics that relate both to the cosmological astronomically gigantic (in which gravity waves have just been detected associated with the interaction of 2 Black Holes [5]) and the tiny sub-atomic scale (in which electrons behave both like particles and as waves) that are outside the Newtonian realm of normal  human experience.  (However one notes that in the rarefied world of experimental physics a clock will detectably run faster at higher altitude [6] and a beam of relatively large carbon-60 molecules can give rise to an interference pattern after passage through a double slit, this being  the classic signature of the wave-particle duality of quantum particles like electrons, atoms and very small molecules [7]). Brian Ellis comments: “Perhaps the moral of the story is that rationalist theories are essentially limited in scope. Our primitive conceptions of shape, size and motion are likely to have been forged by natural selection, because animals that can most naturally respond appropriately to the shapes, sizes and motions of things in their environments are much more likely to survive than ones that cannot… It remains to be seen whether there is any other area in which rationalism is, or might one day become, a powerful source of theoretical inspiration of the kind that it has been in the past” ([1], page 80).

Chapter 4, Development of Pure Theory, commences “Mathematics is the systematic development of pure theory. The manner of this development is fundamentally different from that of scientific   theory-development. Nevertheless the pure theories of size, shape, number, and proportion explored by the ancient Greeks were the ancestors of both science and mathematics” ([1], page 81). Put simply, from my perception, “pure” mathematical theorems proven from starting axioms would be true in the absence of man, the Earth or indeed the universe. In contrast, science is about imperfect but successively better refined models of reality and is operationally about the critical testing of potentially falsifiable hypotheses. Mathematics from arithmetic to String Theory is important in generating and testing scientific hypotheses. Not explicitly mentioned but possibly implied in “Rationalism”, is the role of imagination and fantasy in the generation of scientific hypotheses  as discussed in T.S. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” [8] e.g.   Kekule stumbling upon the 3-in-1 resonance structures of benzene by gazing into a burning fire, the mystery-attached  solids that  inspired Kepler’s Sun-centric solar system [9], or indeed the famous apple falling on Newton’s head. Brian Ellis implicitly acknowledges this  as quoted above in relation to our evolved intuitions: “It remains to be seen whether there is any other area in which [intuition-inspired] rationalism is, or might one day become, a powerful source of theoretical inspiration of the kind that it has been in the past” ([1], page 80).

In considering pure and applied economics, Brian Ellis states that economic models based on defined axioms have validity as mathematical constructs but may not be valid scientific hypotheses (models) to explain economic realities.  In science if the model doesn’t fit reality it has to be tweaked or trashed. Brian Ellis: “But what has actually happened is something that has no parallel  anywhere in the history  of science. Neoclassical [economic] theory [based on a perfect, buyers and sellers village market] has been accepted as a being a poor predictor concerning the behaviour of market economies. But instead of choosing option (c )  [replacing the theory] , as John Maynard Keynes did in the [Depression-impacted] 1930s, the Austrian school of economics, lead by Friedrich von Hayek, accepted the conclusion, but refused the remedy… So, the remedy, they said, should not be to throw out the theory, but to change society. These [neoliberal] economists therefore urged that neoclassical economics be applied in reverse mode, not as a theory of economics for managing the economy but now as a theory for changing the social and political structure, in order to accommodate the pure theory” ([1], page 93).  There are actually some parallels in the history of science e.g. the  Earth-centric Catholic Church rejecting Galileo’s Sun-centric model as heresy (except insofar that it could help commercially profitable navigation), and Stalin-backed Lysenko’s Lamarckianism that rejected Mendelian genetics in favour of the direct heritability of acquired characteristics, and consequently devastated Soviet genetics research and Soviet agriculture [10].

Chapter 5, “Moral Rationalism”,  is the first chapter of Part  II, “Rationalism in the Moral Sciences” and commences with definitions: “The moral sciences are those concerned with what social agents of various kinds should aim to do , and how they should aim to do it… Moral theory, as I understand it, is the history of fundamental social choice, and this is clearly a question that must be addressed in all of the so-called moral sciences” ([1], page 97).  Referring to his seminal work “Social humanism. A New Metaphysics”, Brian Ellis states: “Any plausible social theory of morality requires a strong humanistic premise” ([1], page 99) and argues that while past moral political movements were for liberty, equality and fraternity, the fundamental  imperative for the  Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the horrors of “two world wars, the Great Depression and the Holocaust” was human dignity. (One must comment here that the horrendous  Jewish Holocaust (5-6 million Jews killed) was part of a European Holocaust (30 million Slavs, Gypsies and Jews killed) that paralleled the  WW2 Chinese Holocaust (35 million Chinese killed under Japanese occupation, 1937-1945) and  the WW2 Indian Holocaust  or Bengali Holocaust (6-7 million Indians deliberately starved to death for strategic reasons by the British with Australian complicity in the man-made 1942-1945 Bengal Famine)) [11-14]. Ellis observes that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a precursor in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Second Bill of Rights” that he proclaimed in 1944 (however one notes that while US entry into WW2 determined the defeat of Nazi Germany, Wall Street backed Nazi power in an anti-Soviet strategy [15] and the UK and US policies were ultimately successful in involving Japan in WW2 and thence winning WW2 [11]). Ellis provides a critique of Kant’s position that, to quote Ellis,  “morality is founded in human nature, and that the true morality could be discovered by a priori reflection” [([1], page 103) . Unfortunately,  Kant’s morality was based not on that of Kalahari Bushman  but on that of an “ideally rational agent”, to whit an educated middle European gentleman  for which  the horrors of WW2 are hardly a good testamonial. Ellis concludes: “The subjectivist foundations of morality proposed in this chapter do not constitute a new metaphysics of morals, as this concept is normally understood. Metaphysical theories are supposed to be theories about the nature of the underlying reality. But if I am right there is no underlying reality in moral theory. There are just states of affairs that we believe to be more or less desirable, and a desire to achieve some kind of consensus about what is most desirable” ([1], page 123) . Brian Ellis sensibly wants that consensus to be arrived at through evolving intranational and international social contracts [2, 3].

Chapter 6, “Rationalist Economic Theories”, commences with the observation that “The moral sciences are all concerned with our efforts to achieve good social outcomes” ([1], page 125). Ellis has a fundamental criticism that the intrusion of [asserted] rationalism into economic theory has been disastrous: “It has created the [false] illusion that the economy of a free-market society is a sort of engine [the “invisible hand”] that operates necessarily according to the universal laws of nature, comparable in their status to  those of Newtonian dynamics” ([1], page 126).   The neoliberals demand that governments keep out of the engine room as much as possible and the engine will maximize wealth creation. However Ellis points to the current dilemma of Western countries  with increasing indebtedness, wealth inequality and loss of manufacturing  to the Developing World.   Ellis crucially states that “The predominant theories of economics are the neoclassical and the Keynesian ones. Both are rationalistic . That is, they are based on axioms,  definitions and postulates  that were considered to be self-evident , just as Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s mechanics had been… the economic forces were quickly identified as supply an demand , and the quantitative theories that were developed at this time were collectively known as neoclassical economic theories… For neoclassical theory the domain is a perfect market in an ideal society attended by ideally rational and perfectly well-informed traders exerting the forces of supply and demand… But there is no society anywhere in the world whose economy is very nearly neo-classical. And those who have sought to remake their societies in the image of the neoclassical model [e.g. neoliberal America] have lamentably failed to produce anything like the results that neoclassical theory predicts” ([1], pages 134-136).  Scientific method says that if the results don’t fit the model you must tweak or scrap the model,  but the neoliberals absurdly fail to scrap the model and attempt to savagely  reverse engineer society  to suit the model. In the disastrous 1930s Keynes attempted with much success to modify the neoclassical model with useful government intervention for social decency,  but for the last 30 years the dominant neoliberals have resolutely rejected this humane approach.  Brian Ellis concludes: “Economics is not a natural science; it is a moral science, much more like health care than Newtonian dynamics. There are some sensibler policies and some reckless ones. To pretend that neoclassicism has a status similar to any of the great rationalist theories of history is absurd ([1]], page 148).

Chapter 7, “Economic rationalism”, starts with the blunt assertion: “Economic rationalism or neoliberalism, as it is standardly called, is not an economic theory; it is a political one” ([1], page 149).  Instead of scrapping a failed  theory  the neoliberals seek to “reverse engineer” society to fit the failed model. However neoliberalism has evidently been successful for the One Percenters whose share of wealth (presently 50% of the world’s wealth) has steadily climbed, especially in Anglosphere countries as documented by Professor Thomas Piketty [16-18]. Piketty argues that disproportionate wealth is bad for the economy as a whole (the poor cannot afford to buy the goods and services they produce) and bad for democracy (Big Money buys public perception of reality and hence votes) [16, 17], and recommends a graded  annual  wealth tax of the kind presently obtaining in France and which has applied  in the Muslim world for 1,400 years as a 2.5% annual wealth tax or zakat [19]. I have argued that an annual global wealth tax of 4% would abolish the Global Avoidable Mortality Holocaust in which 17 million people die from deprivation each year on Spaceship Earth with the One Percenters in charge of the flight deck [12, 18]. However neoliberalism as a political project has been immensely successful in fooling most of the people most of the time because of One Percenter control of the media.  Brian Ellis in his previous book “Social Humanism. A New Metaphysics” bemoaned the reality of Corporatocracy in which Big Money dominates democratic societies and blocks adoption of the social humanist agenda [2, 3]. Indeed Western democracies have become Plutocracies, Kleptocracies, Lobbyocracies, Corporatocracies and Dollarocracies in which Big Money purchases people, politicians, parties, policies, public perception of reality, votes and hence more political power and more private profit. One Percenter-beholden Mainstream media presstitutes are grossly deceiving the public by “fake news” through lying by omission [20-25].  Many people have deserted Mainstream media for the Web, but even here the mega-corporation Google that has over 80% of Search traffic is involved in massive Google censorship that effectively “hides” humane dissident opinion [25].

In this chapter Brian Ellis explores the consequences of neoliberalism such as increasing inequity,  indebtedness  and wealth accretion that has been “bought at the expense of future generations” ([1], page 178). Ellis observes that “The first, and most obvious effect of neoliberalism, therefore, has been to make people more self-centred, and fundamentally less concerned with the plight of others” ([1], pages 160-161) and gives powerful examples of corporate board members giving huge salaries and bonuses to themselves, universities being run as “knowledge businesses” by grossly overpaid, ex-academic  CEOs (“refugees from scholarship” in the words of my late father, Dr John Polya), and banks that make the rich get richer and gouge the impecunious. Ellis observes that “rather than seeking to bring children up to be self-sufficient”,  neoliberalism seeks to make children “self-interested, so that they will become good capitalists… An economic rationalist society is essentially individualistic , and therefore one that lacks any positive human rights. It is necessarily an amoral society” ([1], pages 180-181). Professor  Ellis cogently argues for a “social contractual utilitarianism” and that “the utility we are seeking to maximise is the satisfaction of our natural humanistic values” ([1], pages 185-186).

Chapter 8, “Towards the Restoration of Democracy”,  summarizes the forgoing thus: “My critique of pure theory is that of a priori reasoning. It is not a critique of practical reason or of rationality in general. The trouble with a priori reasoning in the fields of moral and political theory is that it is too abstract. There can be no doubt that pure theory has had a huge influence on Western civilization. It inspired the two great periods of enlightenment in our history, and still has a major role to play in the development of logic,  mathematics,  and basic physical theory. But pure theory has proven to be much less useful in the social and moral sciences. Presumably, this is because our  a priori intuitions  have had little opportunity to prove their survival value in these areas ” ([1], page 187).  This can be seen as a confession of setting up a kind of “straw man” concerning  pure theory in economics but the device has surely been very useful in exposing its limitations – neoliberalism was based on faulty a priori premises about the real world,  has failed and now represents an existential threat to Humanity and the Biosphere [26-30]. Thus Brian Ellis observes: “The problem is that the world’s economies are now pushing up against the limits to growth. And, in all probability, the rich countries of the world have already exceeded those limits, and so must be prepared to scale back their levels of economic activity. The neoliberal doctrine of endless growth must therefore be rejected” ([1], page 209).

Professor Ellis is correct in his surmise that many countries have exceeded the limits to growth. Thus in 2009 the WBGU that advises the German Government on global changes, determined a budget of  less than 600 Gt CO2 (600 billion tonnes CO2) in further emissions between 2010 and zero emissions in 2050 for a 75% chance of avoiding a catastrophic 2 degree Centigrade  temperature rise [31]. The average world population in the period 2010 and 2050 will be 8.321 billion. Accordingly, the per capita share of this Terminal Carbon Pollution Budget is less than 600 billion tonnes CO2/8.321 billion people = less than 72.1 tonnes CO2 per person. Using corrected data for the annual per capita greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that properly accounts for  land use and livestock impacts,  one can determine how many years left at current rates of GHG pollution (in units of CO2-e or CO2-equivalent i.e. taking other GHGs into account) before a given country uses up its “fair share” of this Terminal Carbon Pollution Budget. Thus, for example,  for Australia 72.1 tonnes CO2-e per person / 52.9 tonnes CO2-e  per person per year  = 1.4 years left relative to 2010,  noting that this analysis does not take into account historical pollution of the atmosphere. Thus Australia used up its “fair share” of the world’s Terminal Carbon Pollution Budget in 2011 and since then has been stealing the entitlement of the countries which have not yet used up their entitlement. Many other countries have also used up their entitlement. Indeed the whole world in 2017 has only about 1 year to go before it uses up this Terminal Carbon Pollution Budget [32].

Brian Ellis notes that the new digital technology has “made millions of workers redundant, and at the same time, it has greatly expanded our capacities as individuals to access and process information. Consequently, the technological revolution  has added to the power of the neoliberal one” and  concludes “Let us, therefore, reclaim democracy, and rebuild welfare states wherever we can – states that are adapted to the needs and aspirations of people in the 21st century” ([1], pages 211-212).  “Our capacities as individuals to access and process information” must be realistically qualified by the realities of Mainstream media censorship and Internet censorship by Google that can effectively “hide” humanitarian dissident opinion [20-25].

In relation to “reclaim democracy” one can refer to an earlier comment by Brian Ellis: “A new social contract cannot just be created and implemented: it needs to evolve over time, to become adapted and fine-turned to the needs and aspirations of society. But, imperfect though it is, there is already a well-honed social contract for our society, and for every other society that is governed by consent”. Ellis amplifies this in a footnote “I use the phrase “governed by consent” deliberately here , because what I have to say is true of many societies that are not necessarily democracies like ours. China, for example, is certainly governed by consent; its government has a very high approval rating by the Chinese people” ([1], page 184).  Brian Ellis provides as an Appendix  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights  Articles 22 to 29, commencing (Article 22): “Everyone, as a member of society, has the  right to social security and is  entitled to realization … of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensible for his dignity  and the free development of his personality”. Of course the “right to life” is the most fundamental  human right and one notes that infant mortality is the same in impoverished One Party Cuba as in rich democracy America, and that annual avoidable deaths from deprivation are zero (0) for One Party China but total 4 million for ostensibly democratic India [12]. Professor Jorgen Randers (a co-author of  “The Limits to Growth” in 1972) has observed (2012): “I am a climate pessimist. I believe (regrettably) that humanity will not meet the climate challenge with sufficient strength to save our grandchildren from living in a climate-damaged world. Humanity (regrettably) will not make what sacrifice is necessary today in order to ensure a better life for our ancestors forty years hence. The reason is that we are narrowly focused on maximum well-being in the short term. This short-termism is reflected in the systems of governance that we have chosen to dominate our lives: Both democracy and capitalism place more emphasis on costs today that on benefits forty years in the future… Otherwise, I predict, it will be the Chinese who solve the global climate challenge – singlehandedly. Through a sequence of 5-year plans established with a clear long term vision, and executed without asking regular support from the Chinese. They are already well on the way, for the benefit of our grandchildren” [26, 29, 33].

Chapter 9 , “Truth and Rationality”, is a heavily philosophical chapter that Professor Ellis  has included for “the sake of completeness” with a warning that it “might prove to be difficult for  non-philosophers” ([1], page 213) . I very much liked the following statement of pure scholarly and academic motive by Professor Ellis: “The primary aim of metaphysics and philosophers of science in my tradition is to improve our ways of understanding things. Its methodology is to reflect upon some practice or area of study with which one is familiar, and to make conceptual or theoretical experiments to try to improve our understanding of it… For most of us in metaphysics and philosophy of science, the aim of improving  our ways of understanding ourselves , and the world around us, is enough and no further purposes are entertained”  ([1], page 235).

Principled academics will sadly concur with  Professor Ellis’ sad commentary on the neoliberal perversion of Australian universities provided in Chapter 7, “Economic Rationalism”: “But, at this final stage in the decline of our collegiate universities, the business case for an academic development came to outweigh the academic one. Universities did not exist to pursue knowledge and research , as they saw it. They are now multinational corporations in the “knowledge” industry. The real creators of new knowledge and understanding have either been marginalised, or recruited to the ranks of corporate executives. I count myself as one of the marginalised” ([1], pages 163-164). The new corporate universities of Australia have been subject to merciless scrutiny in cogent and critical analyses that are nevertheless largely ignored by the mendacious Mainstream media, politician and academic presstitutes serving the neoliberal One Percenter order [34-46].  University students  are horribly deceived and exploited by the corporate  neoliberals. Thus every nation needs a large complement of science, technology, medical and scholarly experts but there is no good reason why impecunious circa 20 year old students should have to pay for it – university education can and should be free,  as already effected in 24 countries [41, 43-46]. 2 decades ago as the neoliberal order was taking over Australian universities, a much-admired, traditional, university Vice Chancellor, Professor John Scott, observed: “’The prime roles of a university are threefold: to teach, to conduct research and to provide service, including constructive criticism, to the community . The teaching role has been severely threatened. Fundamental research is now difficult to conduct. Critical comments by university staff have been censored. It is time that governments recognised that universities are not just an expensive luxury, but a highly important part of our national activity” [41].

Final comments.

At the heart of this important  book are (1) rationalism and the search for truth, and (2) rationalism and social morality to which I will address some final brief comments, noting that my professional background is that of biological chemistry (biochemistry) rather than metaphysics or philosophy of science.

In a sense Brian Ellis sets up a “straw man”  in comparing  rationalism (proving rational conclusions from starting axioms) as applied to mathematics and physics on the one hand and economic theory on the other. Rationalism in mathematics and physics has been outstandingly successful (e.g. Euclidean geometry, Newtonian mechanics, relativity and quantum mechanics) but economic models based on axioms are true as outcomes of a rational process, but fail when applied to economic actualities i.e. the starting axioms fail to properly encompass economic and social realities. Science is about the critical testing of potentially falsifiable hypotheses,  and when the model (hypothesis) doesn’t work it is pragmatically tweaked to better accommodate reality or is radically discarded. In contrast, anti-science spin involves lying by omission through the selective use of asserted facts to support a partisan position. Lying, whether by commission or omission,  is anathema to science because it subverts the rational process. As described by Brian Ellis, neoliberalism fails in application  as an economic model because the starting axioms – while perfectly fine for a rational, theoretical,  intellectual exploration – ignore actual social realities and desirable, egalitarian social outcomes.

Another problem with economic models   is that while truthfulness  is crucial to rational inquiry,  dishonesty and disinformation are at the very heart of the economic process.  The 3 Laws of Thermodynamics that underlie physics, chemistry and biology  are (1) the energy of a system is constant, (2) entropy (disorder, lack of information content) strives to a maximum, and (3) zero motion  at absolute zero degrees Kelvin (minus 273.15 degrees Centigrade). Polya’s 3 Laws of Economics mirror the 3 Laws of Thermodynamics and are (1) Price minus COP (Cost of Production) equals profit; (2) Deception about COP strives to a maximum; and (3) No work, price or profit on a dead planet. These fundamental laws help  expose the failure of neoliberal capitalism in relation to wealth inequality, massive tax evasion by multinational corporations, and  horrendous avoidable deaths from poverty and pollution that are likely to culminate in general ecocide, speciescide, climate genocide, omnicide and terracide [47].  Human greed and human altruism are innately co-existent  through gene- or meme-based evolution as, for example,  reflected in the dichotomy of sibling rivalry and sibling love [4]. Bioethicist Peter Singer’s critique of the idealistic  economic model of Marxist socialism revolves around the inevitability of human greed, egoism and ambition  [48]. Indeed it is said that while many animals deceive others (e.g. predators deceiving their prey) only Man deceives himself. Even an unemployed person selling matches succumbs to greed – finite profit means finite greed and finite deception. However, as outlined below, Humanity and the Biosphere  are presently existentially  threatened in a neoliberalism-dominated world  that ignores the actual human and environmental Cost of Production.

Thus, for example, Debt is a key economic parameter  and Brian Ellis provides a very insightful analysis of neoliberalism and Private Debt  in Chapter 7, “Economic rationalism” (pages 165-173). However, commercial Debt as commonly understood by economists  and laypersons is but one part of indebtedness. The Historical Carbon Debt (aka Historical Climate Debt) of a country can be measured by the amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) it has introduced into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century. Thus the total Carbon Debt of the world from 1751-2016 is about 1,850 billion tonnes CO2. Assuming a damage-related Carbon Price of $200 per tonne CO2-equivalent [49],   this corresponds  to a Carbon Debt of $370 trillion, similar to the total wealth of the world and 4.5 times the world’s total annual GDP. Using estimates from Professor James Hansen  of national contributions to Historical  Carbon Debt [50] and assuming a damage-related Carbon Price in USD of  $200 per tonne CO2-e [49],  the World has a Carbon Debt of $370 trillion that is increasing at $13 trillion per year,  and Australia has a Carbon Debt of $7.5 trillion that is increasing at $400 billion per year and at $40,000 per head per year for under-30 year old Australians [51] , an appalling example of neoliberalism-driven intergenerational inequity and intergenerational injustice.  By way of comparison, the total world commercial Debt is $200 trillion [52]. Further, the neoliberal, pro-One Percenter Eurozone and IMF demand timely repayment of Greece’s Government Debt but ignore the huge Carbon Debt of major industrialized  countries like Germany that measures huge and deadly global environmental damage – thus the per capita Government Debt plus Carbon Debt is much greater for Germany than for Greece, which accordingly should insist with indebted Developing Countries that Carbon Debt is also put on the repayment and global action discussion table [53]. Indeed back-of-the-envelope biochemical estimates of the basic, biological energy requirements of Man come up with a figure that is just a few percent of Man’s current energy output.

Neoliberalism-driven intergenerational inequity and intergenerational injustice is alluded to by Brian Ellis  in Chapter 7 , “Economic rationalism”, in which he correctly states that  consequences of neoliberalism have been “bought at the expense of future generations” ([1], page 178). However the intergenerational injustice goes well beyond charging huge fees for university education when it can and should be free [43-46], Educational Apartheid (that disproportionately benefits the children of the rich) [54, 55], religious education that amounts to egregiousintellectual child abuse [55], and burgeoning Carbon Debt [51, 53]. The Gadarene rush of neoliberal societies means that Humanity is existentially threatened by nuclear weapons (a post-Nuclear Holocaust nuclear winter will wipe out most of Humanity and the Biosphere [28]), poverty (that kills 17 million people per year [12]), and climate change (that may kill 10 billion people in a near-terminal Climate Genocide this century in the absence of requisite climate action [26-30]).  In short, it is now too late to avoid a catastrophic plus 2 degrees Centigrade temperature rise, and all decent people can do is to try to make the future “less bad” for their children and future generations [26-30].

Critically, Brian Ellis states that “The first, and most obvious effect of neoliberalism, therefore, has been to make people more self-centred, and fundamentally less concerned with the plight of others” ([1], pages160-161). If you wanted one word  to encapsulate  the heart of Brian Ellis’ plea for social  humanism and maximal happiness, opportunity and dignity for everybody,  it would be Empathy. Thus Australia only finally began to count Indigenous Australians (Aborigines, Aboriginals) as Australians  50 years ago and thence began to pour  billions of dollars into Aboriginal  welfare, education, housing and health. However in 2017 the Australian Aboriginal Genocide and Aboriginal Ethnocide continue with record removal of Aboriginal children from their mothers, appalling differential social circumstances and outcomes,  continued acute threat from Government policy to surviving Aboriginal languages (of 150 surviving from the pre-Invasion 350-700,  only 20 are not presently endangered),  and an annual avoidable death rate as a percentage of population of a shocking 0.6%  per year (as compared to 0.4% for South Asia,  1.0% for Africa and 0.0% for White Australia) [56]. Yet what seems to be missing is genuine and meaningful Empathy. US English professor Walter Davis’ “Death’s Dream Kingdom. The American Psyche since 9-11” [57, 58] is about how sensible humans attempt to understand themselves (through earnest, honest, painful  introspection) and others (through Empathic internalizing and analyzing of the suffering of others) – as compared to the greedy, selfish, self-interested, psychotic,  Other-hating, “ideology-driven” simplicity of “compulsory happiness”, “endless demand”, “axiomatic rightness”, “certainty- and guarantee-demanding”, denial, avoidance of Empathy and introspection, and  violent externalizing of inner fears by both the US Religious Right and contemporary neoliberal America as exemplified by Donald Trump.

“Rationalism. A critique of pure theory” by Brian Ellis is an eminently readable, absorbing  and very rewarding book with profoundly  important messages.  It certainly deserves to be in every library and to be read and discussed by a wide range of people in the interests of Humanity and the Biosphere that are existentially threatened by mindless neoliberal greed.  


[1]. Brian Ellis,”Rationalism. A critique of pure theory”, Australian Scholarly, Melbourne, 2017.

[2]. Brian Ellis, ”Social Humanism. A New Metaphysics”,  Routledge , UK , 2012).

[3]. Gideon Polya, “Book Review: “Social Humanism. A New Metaphysics” By Brian Ellis –  Last Chance To Save Planet?”, Countercurrents,  19 August, 2012: .

[4]. Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene”, Oxford University Press, 1975.

[5]. Tim Radford, “Gravitational waves: breakthrough discovery after a century of expectation”, Guardian, 12 February 2017: .

[6]. David Derbyshire, “How to add 90billionth of a second to your life… live in the basement: Scientist prove time really does pass quicker at a higher altitude”, Daily Mail, 25 September 2010: .

[7]. “Wave-particles duality seen in carbon-60 molecules:, PhysicsWorld, 15 October 1999: .

[8]. T.S. Kuhn, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”.

[9]. Arthur Koestler, “The Sleepwalkers”.

[10]. “Lysenkoism”, Wikipedia: .

[11]. Gideon Polya, “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History. Colonial rapacity, holocaust denial and the crisis in biological sustainability”, G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 1998, 2008 that  is now available for free perusal on the web:  .


[12]. Gideon Polya, “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”, that includes a succinct history  of every country and is now available for free perusal on the web:  .

[13]. Gideon Polya, “Australia And Britain Killed 6-7 Million Indians In WW2 Bengal Famine”,  Countercurrents, 29 September, 2011: .

[14]. “Bengali Holocaust (WW2 Bengal Famine) writings of Gideon Polya”, Gideon Polya: .

[15]. Jay Janson, “27 million died in Russia because Wall Street built up Hitler’s Wehrmacht to knock out Soviet Union”, Countercurrents, 9 August 2017: .

[16]. Thomas Piketty, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, Belknap, 2014.

[17]. Gideon Polya, “Key Book Review: “Capital In The Twenty-First Century” By Thomas Piketty”,  Countercurrents,  01 July, 2014: .

[18]. Gideon Polya, “4 % Annual Global Wealth Tax To Stop The 17 Million Deaths Annually”, Countercurrents, 27 June, 2014: .

[19]. The “1% ON 1%: one percent annual wealth tax on One Percenters”: .

[20]. Gideon Polya, “Mainstream media fake news through lying by omission”, Global Research, 1 April 2017: .

[21]. “Lying by omission is worse than lying by commission because at least the latter permits refutation and public debate”, Mainstream media lying: .

[22]. “Mainstream media censorship”:  .

[23]. “Mainstream media lying”:  .

[24]. Gideon Polya, “Australian ABC and UK BBC fake news through lying by omission”, Countercurrents, 2 May 2017: .

[25]. Gideon Polya, “Google Censorship & Zionist Constraint On Effective Free Speech Threaten Planet”, Countercurrents, 9 August 2017: .

[26].  “Are we doomed?”: .

[27]. “Methane Bomb Threat”: .

[28]. “Nuclear weapons ban , end poverty & reverse climate change”:  .

[29]. “Too late to avoid global warming catastrophe”: .

[30]. “Climate Genocide”: .

[31]. WBGU, “Solving the climate dilemma: the budget approach”, 2009: .

[32]. Gideon Polya, “Revised Annual Per Capita Greenhouse Gas Pollution For All Countries – What Is Your Country Doing?”, Countercurrents, 6 January, 2016: .

[33].  Jorgen Randers, “Systematic short-termism:  Climate, capitalism and democracy”, Climate Code red, 2012:  .

[34]. Richard Hil, “Whackademia” (University of New South Wales Press, 2012.

[35].  Gideon Polya, “Book Review: “Whackademia” reveals parlous state of Australia ‘s censored, under-funded & dumbing-down universities”, Countercurrents, 14 December 2012:  .

[36]. Donald Meyers,“Australian universities. A Portrait of Decline” (AUPOD, 2012): .

[37]. Gideon Polya, “Book Review: “Australian Universities. A Portrait Of Decline” By Donald Meyers”, Countercurrents, 4 February, 2013: .

[38]. Linton Besser and Peter Cronau, “Degrees of deception”, ABC TV Four Corners, 1 May 2015: .

[39]. Richard Hil, “Selling students short. Why you won’t get the university education you deserve” (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2015).

[40]. Gideon Polya, “Book Review: “Selling Students Short” By Richard Hil – Neoliberal Corruption Of Corporatised Australian Universities”, Countercurrents, 29 May, 2015: .

[41]. Gideon Polya, “Crisis  in our universities”, ABC Radio National “Ockham’s Razor”, 19 August 2001:  .

[42]. Gideon Polya, “Current academic censorship and self-censorship in Australian universities”, Free University Education, 2001: .

[43]. “Free University Education”: .

[44]. Gideon Polya, “Accredited Remote Learning (ARL) (Distance Learning, DL) to maximize Deep Learning”,  Free University Education, 2002: .

[45]. Gideon Polya, “Review of Global Distance Learning (DL) systems”, Free University Education, 2002: .

[46]. Gideon Polya, “50 Reasons For Free University Education As We Bequeath The Young A Dying Planet”, Countercurrents, 19 March 2017: .

[47]. Gideon Polya, “Polya’s 3 Laws Of Economics Expose Deadly, Dishonest  And Terminal Neoliberal Capitalism”, Countercurrents,  17 October, 2015: .

[48]. Peter Singer, “Marx: A Very Short Introduction”, Oxford University Press, 2001.

[49]. Chris Hope, “How high should climate change taxes be?”, Working Paper Series, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, 9.2011:  .

[50]. James Hansen, “Letter to PM Kevin Rudd by Dr James Hansen”, 2008: .

[51]. “Carbon Debt Carbon Credit”: .

[52]. Matthew Philips, “”The world’s debt is alarmingly high. But is it contagious?”, Bloomberg, 23 February 2016: .

[53]. Gideon Polya, “Germany’s Per Capita Government  Debt Plus Carbon Debt Greatly Exceeds Greece’s”, Countercurrents, 8 July, 2015: .

[54]. “Educational Apartheid”:  .

[55]. Gideon Polya, “37 Ways Of Tackling Australian Educational Apartheid And Social Inequity”,  Countercurrents, 22 May, 2013: .

[56]. “Aboriginal Genocide”:  .

[57]. Walter Davis’ “Death’s Dream Kingdom. The American Psyche since 9-11” , Pluto, London, 2006.

[58]. Gideon Polya, “Book Review: “Death’s Dream Kingdom. The American psyche since 9-11” by Walter Davis, MWC News, 15 August 2006: .

Dr Gideon Polya taught science students at a major Australian university for 4 decades. He published some 130 works in a 5 decade scientific career, most recently a huge pharmacological reference text “Biochemical Targets of Plant Bioactive Compounds” (CRC Press/Taylor & Francis, New York & London , 2003). He has published “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950” (G.M. Polya, Melbourne, 2007: ); see also his contributions “Australian complicity in Iraq mass mortality” in “Lies, Deep Fries & Statistics” (edited by Robyn Williams, ABC Books, Sydney, 2007:

) and “Ongoing Palestinian Genocide” in “The Plight of the Palestinians (edited by William Cook, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010: ). He has published a revised and updated 2008 version of his 1998 book “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History” (see:  ) as biofuel-, globalization- and climate-driven global food price increases threaten a greater famine catastrophe than the man-made famine in British-ruled India that killed 6-7 million Indians in the “forgotten” World War 2 Bengal Famine (see recent BBC broadcast involving Dr Polya, Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen and others:  ;  Gideon Polya:  ; Gideon Polya Writing: ; Gideon Polya, Wikipedia: ) . When words fail one can say it in pictures – for images of Gideon Polya’s huge paintings for the Planet, Peace, Mother and Child see: and .


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