Ken MacLeod's comments.
The title comes from two quotes:
“Work as if you lived in the early days of a better nation.”—Alasdair Gray.
“If these are the early days of a better nation, there must be hope, and a hope of peace is as good as any, and far better than a hollow hoarding greed or the dry lies of an aweless god.”—Graydon Saunders
After enjoying the 'Nothing but the Poem' event on Sorley MacLean, I couldn't miss Wednesday's major session on his work at the Book Festival, marking the centenary of his birth. Again the event was packed and all the tickets sold out; again the proportion of Gaelic speakers in the audience was low, and again the audience was mainly of an older rather than a younger generation. Aptly enough, a great deal of the discussion concerned the pitfalls of translation and the parlous situation of the Gaelic language.
Joan Bakewell is a speaker who needs no introduction, and in this capacity she's been introducing and interviewing speakers on key ideas for the 21st Century. Yesterday's topic was numbers, and the speaker was Ian Stewart. She introduced him by saying that of all the topics in her series, she found mathematics the hardest to understand, but that Ian Stewart was the best person to explain it.
Professor Ian Stewart is one of the great science popularisers - and not just in his own field of mathematics. Some of his many books on science were written with Jack Cohen, reproductive biologist and oft-invited speaker at SF conventions. In recent years, the two have teamed up with the wildly popular fantasy author Terry Pratchett to write (so far) three books on 'The Science of Discworld', which cleverly exploit the contrast between the eponymous flat planet (which runs on the rules of magic and the caprice of gods) and our universe (which doesn't) to explain an astonishing range of serious scientific points ... including the ways in which magic does work in our world, through the human propensity for Story.
The problem of personal identity - of what makes you, you - has for a long time been investigated through thought experiments. John Locke asked us to imagine what it would mean to say that your immortal soul had in a past life been that of a warrior who fell at, say, the seige of Troy - given that you have no actual memories of being that warrior, and only the most coincidental resemblances in personality, outlook, knowledge, and beliefs. Leibniz asked us if we'd agree to 'become' the Emperor of China, on the sole condition that we took with us no memories of our present actual life. In this way, they tried to bring into focus our intuition that what matters in personal identity is continuity of memory and personality, and that our belief or lack of it in any immortal spark is strictly irrelevant.
But the self itself may not even be a mortal spark.
At a session chaired by Steven Gale, Julian Baggini spoke yesterday (Monday 22 August) on his book The Ego Trick, in which he explains the 'bundle theory' of personal identity, long familiar in the teachings of Buddhism in the East, and first explicated in the West by Hume.
When the hero of Alastair Gray's Lanark was a typically tormented teenager, he happened to open a book. The book began:
All the perceptions of the human mind resolve themselves into two distinct kinds, which I shall call IMPRESSIONS and IDEAS.
As he read on, he found that the text soothed his mind by lifting him right out of his problems, and giving him something else to think about. This is one way that philosophy can be applied to everyday life. Another, of course, is by mining the great philosophers for nuggets of practical wisdom. Not many of us have time to do that, or have any idea where to begin prospecting, but thanks to the division of labour (you'll find that in Adam Smith) someone else can do the mining for us, and package the result in a book you can read on the bus.
Former Guardian Edinburgh BeatBlogger Michael MacLeod (sometimes referred to in the distant past of this blog as 'Young Master Early') is blogging the book festival on a more professional basis for the Guardian.
Over the past few days I've had a worse sense of insecurity and instability than I had after 9/11, and far more unsettling than I anything I felt when I was actually, ah, present at scenes of considerably more consequent rucks, not to mention rocks. Seeing Lewisham's clock tower on the telly had me thinking along the lines that when I was that age we knew what we were fighting for. There's probably a blue plaque there in our memory.
On Monday evening I watched The Grand Experiment, a documentary in a series on Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words - their words to, and on, the BBC: which institution, we are reminded, was a grand experiment in itself. I spent the rest of the evening and too much of the small hours watching BBC News 24 on the riots, the night Croydon burned.
The Grand Experiment was, of course, the postwar Keynes-Beveridge full-employment welfare state. Supported by the main parties of left and right, by the end of the sixties it was coming under attack from both flanks: you can see Tariq Ali calling for the abolition of money and the power of the soviets, and Milton Friedman calling for the ascendance of monetarism and the freedom of the markets, and in the middle some floundering mouthpiece of the consensus, such as poor old Lord Balogh marching into the lions' den of Chicago to defend the Labour Government.
It seems obvious now that the postwar settlement had reached its limits by 1979. But I sometimes wonder if a more rational left than I was part of could have carried it forward, rather than helped to bring it down.