[ExI] Cosmopolitanism, collective epistemology and other issues

Anders anders at aleph.se
Sat Jul 9 21:15:30 UTC 2016

On 2016-07-09 17:25, William Flynn Wallace wrote:
> I, for one, would like to hear what you have to say about the Brexit, 
> and why it disturbs you.

There are three reasons Brexit disturbs me: (1) it represents a 
rejection of cosmopolitanism, (2) it represents a serious failure of 
collective cognition, (3) it likely has somewhat bad effects for me.

(1) I do not regard myself as a Brit or a Swede. Sure, I have my 
cultural background, but the parts I truly cherish are non-national: 
classic, renaissance, enlightenment and modernist ideas about human 
flourishing, liberty, open societies, science and transhumanism. I feel 
at home when wandering past Planck's lab in Berlin, Pantheon in Rome, 
the Royal Institution in London, seeing Franklin on a bill or comparing 
EU and Japanese robot regulation with a Chinese scholar located in 
Brazil using Skype. I am a cosmopolitan internationalist: states are 
merely public service providers.

But Brexit was very much a nationalist event. Looking at the attitudes 
of the people who voted for Brexit ( 
) you see that they dislike multiculturalism, social liberalism, 
feminism, environmentalism, globalization, the internet and of course 
immigration. These are the people who regard affiliation to their 
"English" tribe as higher than even their "British" identity. Many think 
that the state should reflect their tribal affiliation and reject other 
affiliations: loyalty and purity are more important than tolerance and 
openness. These are not my people.

I think we need to defend the enlightenment globalist vision. We need to 
push for tolerance, which is extra complex because many of those who do 
not share the vision feel they do not benefit from a more cosmopolitan 
world, and prefer a closed one: tolerance of the Other is bad for their 

(2) The pre-election arguments that Brexit would be a horrible mess were 
very strong: essentially all mainstream experts (regardless of political 
color) in law, policy, economics, administration you cared to ask could 
give good reasons. However, this did not impress many people. Maybe part 
was somewhat misguided attempts at being even-handed that gave far too 
much media space to pretty non-mainstream experts and weak arguments, 
but the main part seems to have been that people just regarded facts as 
rhetoric. Why should you trust experts at the Bank of England about 
monetary policy when you can decide for yourself?

The problem is not just that a stupid decision was made - accidents 
happen. The problem is this does not look like an isolated issue (think 
Trump, think Syriza). If a society cannot actually tell good and bad 
evidence apart, then we should expect collective decisions to be random: 
very bad news when dealing with important and dangerous things. Open 
societies depend on the freedom of citizens to find things that ought to 
be changed and then convincing society to change them. If this process 
is too noisy open societies have no strong advantage - moral or 
practical - over closed societies.

This is deeply troubling, and we spent a fair bit agonizing over it at a 
panel debate a few days later ( 
) The causes are complex: a cultural shift, networked media, new noise 
sources, far bigger societies... but we better find them and figure out 
how to fix them, or we will be drowned in noise.

(3) is fairly simple. I became about 10% poorer overnight as the 
sterling fell. The UK economy will go into recession at least until 
there is clarity, which at best will take months. There is *huge* 
uncertainty about EU-funded research, and this will affect the academic 
world in the UK badly (sure, current grants are still "in the bank", but 
suddenly nobody is certain if having UK researchers on a new grant 
proposal is a minus - which means that many will be dropped). Some very 
minor risk that I might be forced out the UK in a few years or at least 
be subjected to bureaucratic hassle. Nothing serious, but it makes life 
slightly worse.

There you have it.

Let man's petty nations tear themselves apart
My land's only borders lie around my heart
--Chess, https://youtu.be/61DiWi00d2w

Dr Anders Sandberg
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Oxford University

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