Idle Theory Preface 2009

The Concept of Idleness

It has been 10 years since I wrote the first preface to Idle Theory. Now, in the continual process of revision, I have returned to write a new one.

Idle Theory is an unorthodox way of thinking about life. And 'life' covers so much. The essays in the Idle Theory website range over biology, the theory of evolution, anthropology, economics, ethics, and politics.

In Idle Theory living things are seen as self-maintaining processes that acquire energy and expend it in in work repairing and reproducing themselves. For plants this energy comes in the form of sunlight, and for animals it comes in the form of sugars and starches which are produced by plants. Inert non-living things - like stones - perform no work, and do not repair or reproduce themselves. In Idle Theory life is energetic, working life, and all living things must work to stay alive.

There is nothing particularly unorthodox or controversial about this commonplace conception of life. The central concept in Idle Theory, that marks its departure from orthodoxy, is that of Idleness. In Idle Theory the 'idleness' of a living creature is the amount of time it has left over once it has performed all its necessary self-maintenamce activities over some period of time. So, for example, if it takes a bird five hours a day to find enough seeds and insects to survive for another day, and another hour to find water to drink and to preen its feathers, it will be busy for 6 hours each day, and its 'idleness' will be (24-6)/24 or 75%. The idleness of a living creature can range from 0% to 100%, or from 0 to 1. At zero idleness, a living thing will be spending all its time on self-maintenance activities, and should life become any more difficult, it will be unable to maintain itself adequately, and will typically starve and die. At perfect or unit idleness a living creature will have to do nothing at all to survive another day, although in practice this perfect idleness is never achieved, because even the most cossetted pet bird will still have to make the effort to nibble the seeds and drink the water provided by its owner. In general, the most idle creatures are likely to outlive the busiest creatures, because the latter are closer to the threshold of death, and more likely to stumble across it.

It may be asked immediately what are 'necessary' activities, and what are 'unnecessary' ones, and how the one class of activity may be separated from the other. When a bird preens its feathers, we might ask whether this is a necessary activity or not. If this preening is an unnecessary activity, carried out for the sake of avian vanity, then if it is ceased to be done, the bird will become more idle as a consequence. If however the preening is a necessary activity, required to straighten ruffled feathers and to remove detritus of one sort or other from among them, then if this is ceased to be done, it may well be that the bird flies less well, at a lower speed, and the net result may be that it will take it longer to carry out its other necessary tasks of finding seeds and catching insects, and ends up less idle for not preening its feathers rather than more idle. In this manner, it is possible to draw the distinction: failure to perform unnecessary activities increases idleness, and failure to perform necessary activities decreases idleness.

Idle Theory's variant theory of evolution grows out of this approach to life. The natural world is seen as throwing up a variety of living creatures, of differing idleness, and whose idleness increases or decreases with available food, water, sunlight, with the least idle variants becoming extinct and the most idle surviving, to reproduce thereafter and leave slight variants of themselves in subsequent generations.

Human life is regarded as a variant form of life, not essentially different from any other. However, unlike many living things, humans are often very active in their idle time, playing games, making and enjoying the use of a variety of luxuries and amusements. They also, unlike most other living creatures, make and use a variety of tools to assist them in their necessary self-maintenance work - tools like ploughs, hammers, saws, computers, and the like.

In human life, the degree of human idleness defines the degree of a rather fundamental kind of freedom. For to the extent that humans are busy, to that extent they are constrained to a small set of self-maintenance activities - like ploughing fields. It is only in their idle time that they can choose from an infinite range of possible activities. Completely busy humans, at zero idleness, are entirely constrained. Perfectly idle humans, at unit idleness, are absolutely free.

In Idle Theory's economics, economic growth consists entirely in growth in human idleness. The primary economy is something which generates idle time for humans to dispose of as they wish. Some of this idle time may also be devoted to making and exchanging luxuries and amusements of one sort or other, in a secondary economy whose size is limited by the idleness of the society in which they live. And so in busy, hard-working human societies there will be few amusements and luxuries and pastimes.

In Idle Theory's ethics, 'good' acts are those which serve to maintain or increase the sum of human idleness, and 'evil' acts are those which serve to decrease idleness. Idle Theory's ethics is in many ways a variant of Utilitarianism in which 'happiness' is replaced by idleness. Laws follow on from this ethical perspective, with sanctions being placed upon people whose actions reduce social idleness. e.g. murderers.

In Idle Theory's political perspective, busy human societies are ones in which few people have the idle time in which to consider the overall direction of human society, and political decisions which affect everyone are taken by the minority who have sufficient idle time to frame such policies. And so busy societies tend to be authoritarian in nature, sometimes with a single individual - a king - making decisions. In more idle societies, in which many more people have the time to consider matters of political policy, political decisions are made by larger groups of people, as in democracies. The transition of a society from a monarchy to a democracy is a consequence of increasing social idleness, not of political 'maturity' or any other kind of intellectual or moral progress.

Idle theory's critique of modern Western society is, for the most part, that it tends to implicitly regard human life as being almost perfectly idle. This 'rosy vision' of life results in economists seeing economies as doing nothing other than producing luxury consumer goods - things of one sort or other -, and economic growth as rising productivity in making these amusements. The same 'rosy vision' very often results in a highly moralistic view of life, in which everyone is regarded as not only perfectly free but also completely culpable for all their actions. And it also lead to varieties of political idealism, in which it is felt that the economic and moral and political rules of society can be changed at will, much like the rules of games of chess or football. In short, from the point of view of Idle Theory, modern Western society is seen as having some unrealistic illusions about itself.

As an economic, ethical, and political idea, Idle Theory will probably strike many readers as coming at the concerns of these disciplines from an unusual direction, because it owes much more to physics than it does to classical philosophy. Its fundamental concept - idleness - is mathematical in character, and can be framed in terms of simple physics. As such, Idle Theory may well fall into the no man's land between the humanities and the sciences, by considering humanitarian issues using the perspectives of physics. Students of the humanities are generally unfamiliar with the language of physics, which they regard as inapplicable to their discipline, and physicists are generally unfamiliar with the puzzles and riddles of economics and ethics and politics, which they regard as lying beyond the scope of physics, because such questions are concerned with choice and value.

But idleness is at once a physical measure, by being the measurable ratio of two periods of time, and also a measure of value, since idleness represents a degree of real freedom. As such, idleness is both a physical and an ethical measure, and aims to bridge the gulf between the humanities whose principal concern is with matters of choice and value, and the sciences which are principally concerned with a unified physics.

By contrast, the 'happiness' of Utilitarianism is a measure of value, but a physically unmeasurable quantity, and so must remain a metaphysical concept that belongs wholly within the humanities. And the height and weight of a man, while they are both physically measurable, are not measures of any kind of value, and so remain wholly in the province of physical science. Only idleness offers, or claims to offer, the peculiar characteristic of being a physically measurable quantity which also happens to be a measure of freedom and value. And this may open up the possibility of directly employing the methodology of science to address hitherto metaphysical problems of value.

Whether Idle Theory provides such a route to allow rational science to begin to deploy its methods in these new fields is of course open to doubt. But in the long run something like this will probably have to happen. For the pressing problems faced by humanity are largely to be found , not in an increasingly unified science, but within economic, ethical, and political thought that remains diverse, fissile, and often deeply irrational.

Replaces: Why? (1998)  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: April 2009