Cover of The Matter With UsThe Matter With Us: A Materialistic Account of the Human Predicament
by John Rawles (Pen Press)

This is an ambitious book published by a small press and deserving wider notice. Its ambitions are conveyed by the pun in the title. The only reality is that of the material universe – matter in motion. How then can anything matter to us? What is it that matters, why does it matter, and what can we do about it?

In pursuit of those questions, Rawles covers a great deal of ground: the so-called “Big Bang” and modern cosmology, evolutionary theory, morality and values, the workings of capitalism and the dangers of unconstrained economic growth. With such ambitions there is an obvious danger of going over well-trodden ground in a superficial way, but Rawles avoids the danger, partly because his expositions of the science and history and economics are admirably clear, vivid and accessible, but more importantly because he asks the right kinds of sceptical questions. Why should we believe what scientists tell us? How can we make up our minds when the experts disagree – about the details of evolutionary theory, for instance, or the claims and critics of genetic determinism? And how can we be on our guard against the drawing of false inferences – religious or moral or political – from these specialist bodies of knowledge?

Rawles has good things to say about the misuse of mathematical models. He has incisive criticisms of religious apologists who use the “fine tuning” argument to argue for the necessity of a divine creator. The “Big Bang” is simply a mathematical extrapolation from known features of the existing universe, and it makes no sense to ask what came before it or caused it – questions which would require a knowledge of something outside the universe. Likewise claims that it is highly improbable that the initial conditions of the universe could just by chance have been “fine-tuned” for life make no sense, because there is nothing against which to measure their probability or improbability.

Another common intellectual error against which he warns is the tendency to reify and project human intentions on to external reality. This criticism too is used to good effect against religious apologists. It leads on to another unifying theme of the book – the significance of complex processes which have their own momentum and are not guided by any intentions or purposes. He makes good use of chaos theory and the “butterfly effect” to ground the idea of emergent properties – properties such as consciousness which have material causes but are the creative product of complex systems.

The fact that complex non-linear systems typically have unpredictable outcomes is also, according to Rawles, a principal source of the problems that face us. He identifies nine challenges that make up our current predicament: population growth, economic growth, peak oil, climate change, environmental degradation, armed conflict, nuclear catastrophe, the subversion of democracy and the erosion of social capital. Underlying all of these is the problem of complex systems with a runaway momentum that eludes our control and threatens unpredictable and catastrophic consequences.

Does this leave us helpless? No. Rawles’s hero is Don Quixote – not for tilting at windmills, but for seeking “grievances to redress, wrongs to right, injuries to amend, abuses to correct, and debts to discharge”. Given the inescapable limits of predictability, we can’t change the world wholesale in the light of some ideology or utopia, but we can and should engage pragmatically with the problems, using whatever opportunities come to hand. In that spirit he proposes various “quixotic things to do” in response to the nine challenges, ranging from “Resolve to work less, earn less and spend less” to “Pay your taxes with pride and pleasure”. It’s an approach that he calls “positive pessimism”. It may sound unpromising, but it’s a tribute to the book that Rawles makes it sound inspiring.