Archive for the ‘Science, Psychology & Society’ Category

People for the most part delight in superstitions. They regard a single drop of the sea of delusion as preferable to an ocean of certitude. By holding fast unto names they deprive themselves of the inner reality and by clinging to vain imaginings they are kept back from the Dayspring of heavenly signs. God grant you may be graciously aided under all conditions to shatter the idols of superstition and to tear away the veils of the imaginations of men.

(Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh – page 58)

This time I will be looking more closely at both expressions of bias, as well as at possible remedies for discrimination.

Before doing so I want to include a reminder of Tom Oliver’s take on a closely related issue: our delusion that we are an independent and separate entity from the rest of the world. In his illuminating book, The Self Delusion, he explains:[1]

We are seamlessly connected to one another and the world around us. Our independence is simply an illusion that was once adaptive but now threatens our success as a species.

He makes it clear later that ‘recent social research reveals that people respond strongly to subtle stereotyping and their personalities go on to develop in ways which reinforce such stereotypes.’[2] So, when we harbour prejudices, which are included in his list of ‘viruses of the mind,’[3] our behaviour serves to create experiences that confirm to us our misplaced beliefs, and can be infectious. This all resonates strongly with Bahá’u’lláh’s description of us as ‘wandering in the paths of delusion’ and of how ‘superstitions become veils between’ us and our own hearts.[4]

This theme is worth bearing in mind as we move forwards.

Examples of Bias

I suspect most people who have had the patience to read this far are already aware of the many ways that bias can be reflected in behaviour. I shall therefore deal with those aspects of the matter briefly.

An obvious example that Jennifer Eberhardt adduces, in her book Biased, relates to policing:[5]

[In New York City] of all stops made for furtive movement, 54 percent were of blacks, in a city that is only 23 percent black. . . Yet blacks were less likely to have a weapon than whites. In fact, less than 1 percent of those stopped for furtive movements were found to have a weapon.

Studies have been done to examine this kind of pattern. In a study of what triggers a response to fire a gun:[6]

[Joshua Correll and his team] . . . found a race effect. Participants were even faster to respond “shoot” to a black person holding a gun than they were to a white person holding a gun. They were also more likely to mistakenly shoot a black person with no gun.… It was found with both white and black study participants.

The latter finding may seem counter-intuitive but, in the light of how powerful and pervasive stereotyping is, it should come as no surprise. That black participants were prone to this error supports the notion that it is often the result of conditioning rather than an expression of racially motivated behaviour. The same tendency can be seen on the streets: ‘. . . research shows that black police officers were just as likely as white officers to exhibit less respect to black drivers.’[7]

There is no escaping the fact that, ‘Every encounter police officers and community members have with each other happens in a larger societal context that shapes how each responds.’[8]

The conditions prevalent in a work context play a significant part in shaping negative responses:[9]

Yale Law professors Tom Tyler and Tracey Meares have worked together to develop a model for training police officers on the principles of procedural justice. But why do officers need to be reminded of these principles? Because one of the primary barriers to good policing is the cynicism the officers develop while working the streets. It’s easy for officers to get beaten down by fighting crime. . . As that cynicism grows, it also narrows their vision.

The legal system at higher levels is not immune to this virus of the mind either, though without the same excuse of bitter experience:[10] ‘Judges are not immune to the pull of their own unconscious biases, and the algorithms that risk scores [to assess the likely failure to show up in court] rely on have already been shown to tilt against blacks.’

It is only fair to add that black people are not the only targets, though for reasons explained in the previous post they are likely to be the most persistently targeted. Concerning a white supremacist demonstration Eberhardt writes:[11]

The verbal attacks were also meant to signal to everyone else the Jews were no longer to be accepted as white. Their status was probationary – to be threatened in threatening times.

This also illustrates the previously mentioned role of fear in escalating prejudiced behaviour.

Possible Remedies

It is not easy to counteract patterns that are so deeply entrenched and reinforced by so many influences.

Not surprisingly I registered education as a potentially key aspect of Eberhardt’s thinking. Inside prisons she runs classes for offenders:[12]

Every class reminded me of the power of education to move us beyond our biases and reminded my students of the power of bias to shape their lives.

Clearly, education, over time in a supportive culture, could inoculate us against such viruses of the mind as racism. However, given the situation in which we find ourselves, making lasting and effective change is not easy. She quotes many examples and perhaps an attempted intervention in an organisation affecting a huge clientele would be as good an illustration as any. She tells of Laura Murphy’s work. She was an African-American civil rights attorney enlisted to help Airbnb deal with bias amongst their ‘hosts’:[13]

It’s easy to tell yourself that you don’t see colour, come up with a host of other justifications, and relieve yourself of any self-incrimination for your bias. Laura’s job was to focus the company’s managers on how these psychological manoeuvres worked subconsciously.

The primary problem is not that “People on the platform say, ‘Look, I don’t want any African-Americans’,” Lauren said. “The biggest problem to me is the unconscious bias.” And it’s more difficult to police and remedy that than it is to root out blatant bigotry.

She was able to make a difference, and there was one key factor involved:[14]

When hosts are provided with the previous reviews of guests by other hosts, for example, they are more likely to accept them into their homes, and the racial differences in acceptance rate begin to disappear.… Indeed, decades of research on stereotyping highlight the power of individuating information to mitigate bias.

Care has to be taken to take account of complicating factors. Improvements in behaviour resulting in lower levels of discrimination can backfire. Studies found that:[15]

. . . it was as though responsible behaviour handed [people] a license to behave recklessly. That suggests that companies that offer bias training might be loosening the reins in ways that set prejudice free.

Situations can also be complex in ways that reinforce the prejudices trainers are seeking to reduce. Back to policing again. The general point here is:[16]

Resetting norms isn’t easy, for a country or a company. But the next step – revamping company practices that allow sustained bias – is where things really get complicated.

Eberhardt analyses the exact dynamics in detail. What follows here is a brief helicopter view:[17]

What [these police officers] were experiencing on the streets was the fallout of racial disparities that reflect and generate biases that keep the cops and the community divided. . . . That lack of goodwill stalls investigations and lets crimes go unsolved which sours the perceptions of police and community members alike.

. . . Disparities are the raw material from which we construct the narratives that justify the presence of inequality. Those narratives spring to life to justify unequal treatment not just in the criminal justice arena but in our neighbourhoods, schools, and workplaces. . . . The narratives that prop up inequality can help us to live less troubled in a troubling world. But they also narrow our vision . . . Those biases will continue to be reproduced until we understand and challenge the disparities that fuel them.

It is easier to blame immigrants, foreigners or strangers for the problems that surround us, than grasp the difficult reality that the system is broken and is in urgent need of a complex repair or even a complete replacement. For more information on that see the sequence Can We Balance Matter and Spirit? Also reading Tom Oliver’s book would be a good place to start.

An Overview

Time to return to some general points. I have already noted that fear plays its part in prejudice. America is experiencing a transition that is raising anxieties in the minds of many white Americans:[18]

 . . . by the middle of this century, white people are likely to be a minority in this country… And simply reminding some white Americans of their diminishing presence can lead them to express more negative attitudes towards blacks, Latinos, and Asians . . . Feeling outnumbered can signal a threat to the legacy of dominance and the white privilege that affords.

Even what appear to be straightforward ways of using scientific evidence to counteract bias can backfire. There are two main ways that this can work. The first concerns what happens when we explain how many people experience bias:[19]

It’s true that we are wired for bias. But the problem with narrowly settling for that perspective is that it can lead us today to care less about the danger associated with bias, instead of more.

. . . A research group… found that people are more likely to endorse stereotypes about out-groups – from racists to drug users to porn stars to trash collectors – when they believe the stereotypes are widely held in society.

The second way piggy-backs on this first one because ‘too much focus on how good innocent people can be biased without intention can sap people’s motivation to do something about it,’ which means that ‘teaching and learning about bias is a balancing act that has to be expertly calibrated to have the appropriate impact.’[20]

Not a walk in the park then.


There’s no way we can walk away from this problem, even if we want to:[21]

The strategy of turning a blind eye to bias has indeed failed to stem discrimination. But there are powerful currents that pull people away from confronting bias, even when they believe that’s the right thing to do.

Bringing people from different races closely together can make a huge difference, but the key word here is closely. Eberhardt makes it very clear that simply living in close proximity, but not gaining detailed knowledge of each other by frequent and meaningful interaction, can serve simply to reinforce prejudice:[22]

Science has shown that intense relationships across racial, religious, or ethnic boundaries can quickly undo fundamental [negative] associations that have built up slowly over time.

Her words toward the end of her book particularly resonate with me:[23]

. . . The capacity for growth comes from our willingness to reflect, to probe in search of some actionable truth. . . And there is hope in this sheer act of reflection. This is where the power lies and how the process starts.

I have explored many times on this blog how the power of reflection, especially when allied to the process of comparing perspectives Bahá’ís call consultation, can help us resolve even the most intractable of problems. There is perhaps another core principle of the Bahá’í Faith relevant here as well: the independent investigation of truth. Bahá’u’lláh exhorts us to ‘see with [our] own eyes and not through the eyes of others,’ and ‘know of [our] own knowledge and not through the knowledge of [our] neighbour,’[24] if we are to be truly inspired by justice and fairness in this world.

We may have a long road to travel but there is evidence that we can effect even such massive changes in the way our society and culture work. Even relatively simple steps can make a difference. Oliver, for example, quotes a study by Kang of loving-kindness meditation. He ‘found that participants who had undergone a course in loving kindness meditation had reduced intergroup bias. In particular, they were less likely to stigmatise homeless people compared with participants who were simply taught about the value of the meditation technique not shown how to perform it.[25]

I am well aware though, from reading Goleman and Davidson’s book on The Science of Meditation, that the road from transient state of mind to enduring trait of character requires long and sustained effort over months and years. Oliver is also aware of this same evidence and how effortful bringing about such fundamental changes will be.[26]

That’s no reason though not to keep on trying.


[1]. The Self Delusion – page 4.
[2]. The Self Delusion – page 170.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 141.
[4]. From the Tablet of Ahmad.
[5]. Biased – page 63.
[6]. Biased – pages 66-68.
[7]. Biased — page 104.
[8]. Biased – pages 74-75.
[9]. Biased – page 84-5.
[10]. Biased  – page 108.
[11]. Biased – page 240.
[12]. Biased – page 123.
[13]. Biased – page 192.
[14]. Biased – page 193.
[15]. Biased – page 282.
[16]. Biased – page 291.
[17]. Biased – pages 296-98.
[18]. Biased – page 231.
[19]. Biased – page 281.
[20]. Biased – page 282.
[21]. Biased – page 239.
[22]. Biased – page 289.
[23]. Biased – pages 301-02.
[24]. Arabic Hidden Words – No 2.
[25]. The Self Delusion – page 225.
[26]. The Self Delusion – page 158.

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Coronavirus Structure (for source of image, see link)

If you need a more upbeat take on the pandemic this blog post by Arthur Lyon Dahl is a good place to start. Below is a short extract that stops short of the positive possibilities he explores: for the full post see link.

Should we thank God for the Pandemic? It may seem weird to be thankful for a catastrophe. Human suffering is never something to be sought or revelled in. But the pandemic now sweeping the world, with its ultimate outcome still uncertain, may be a blessing in disguise or a cloud with a silver lining. Let me explain.

We have been working for decades to identify and address social and environmental challenges and to make plans and set goals for a sustainable society across the planet. I have personally been involved since the first Earth Day in 1970 and have contributed to many constructive processes, leading most recently to the UN 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Paris Agreement to address climate change.

However, along side this, governments have given priority to their national sovereignty, multinationals to their profits, and many world leaders to their inflated egos. Wealth is increasingly concentrated alongside growing inequality. Governments are failing to meet the needs of their people as they succumb to political fragmentation undermining democracy, when not already subverted to nativism, racism, corruption and despotism. A corporate stranglehold on the economy, feeding off a materialistic consumer culture, has escaped from all regulation or control. It is plundering the planet’s resources while driving us to a climate catastrophe and the collapse of world biodiversity as we drown in pollution. Nothing that we have done on the positive side has slowed this headlong drive to destruction.

As a systems scientist, I have often asked myself what it would take to slam on the brakes and slow the momentum of this material society out of control, before it takes us so far beyond planetary boundaries that it leads to the complete collapse of civilization. In our rapidly globalizing world, our economic, social and environmental systems have become increasingly interconnected, and while this has greatly increased human productivity and interaction, it also raises our vulnerability to a complex systems failure, with one problem precipitating many others like falling dominos.

For a triggering event, a third world war is an obvious possibility, but not very desirable, with most of the world’s population dying in atrocious circumstances. The Doomsday Clock has recently moved closer to apocalypse than it has ever been as reckless leaders re-arm in their desire for global greatness or domination. If nuclear arms are used, this could precipitate a nuclear winter and leave much of the planet uninhabitable for the survivors.

My preference leaned towards a financial collapse, as government, corporate and consumer debt grew into a giant bubble after the 2008 financial crisis. If currencies lost their value and global trade shut down, that might save us from a climate catastrophe and give us time to move to renewable energy sources.

A global pandemic was always another option, something resembling the Spanish Flu of 1918, but the emergence of such a threat, while probable at some point according to the World Health Organization (WHO), was unpredictable. Suddenly, it has happened.

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We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.

(Shoghi Effendi quoted in Compilation on Social and Economic Development)


Tong is very aware, as I indicated at the end of the previous post, that our blind spots are highly damaging. What makes them worse is our tendency to protect them, sometimes by legislation that inhibits illuminating examination. A particularly toxic example, which she adduces, comes from the States and concerns inequality:[1]

Being poor is not just about losing the game. The poor are increasingly penalized and criminalized for their lack of wealth. At the simplest level, many banks charge a fine, or a fee, if any account balance is too low. The Bank of America, for example, has proposed a $12 dollar fee for monthly balances below $1500, in essence charging people for not having enough money. . . . Cities continue to threaten, arrest, and ticket homeless persons for forming life-sustaining activities – such a sleeping or sitting down – in outdoor public places, despite a lack of any lawful indoor alternatives. . . . Even faith-based organisations and good Samaritans face arrest and criminal liability for feeding hungry homeless people.

As I have dealt in detail with the deficiencies of our economic and political system in a recent sequence, I’ll just include here a brief reminder of Matthieu Ricard’s perspective on the system and why it finds it impossible to mend itself.

Ricard, in his thought-provoking book Altruism, radically questions the operational model of our acquisitive society. We are not homo economicus,[2] ‘selfish agents’ out to promote ‘their own interests.’ We are potentially homo reciprocans with a desire to ‘cooperate’ and consider ‘the benefits to the community’ in what we do. He quotes Amartya Sen who wrote:[3]‘Taking universal selfishness as read may well be delusional, but to turn it into a standard for rationality is utterly absurd.’

He then quotes[4] Milton Friedman’s purblind declaration that any other policy for corporate officials than maximising the dividends of stockholders would ‘undermine the very foundations of our free society.’ The word ‘free’ there is of course doubly ironic: those who pay the true price of our society are anything but free. Then he follows up with Frans de Waal’s damning analysis: ‘Every advanced nation has had major business scandals [over the last 10 years] and in every case executives have managed to shake the foundations of our society precisely by following Friedman’s advice.’

He argues the evidence strongly suggests that the kind of regulation libertarians fear is conducive to economic growth.[5]Their fantasy of a ‘free market economy,’ far from being stable, leads to global crashes. He quotes the research of Thomas Picketty, which demonstrates that, even in-between crashes, none of the wealth realised by the elite trickles down to the less well off.[6] And the unkindest cut of all came with 2008 crisis: bankers walked off with bonuses while others, lower down this disgraceful pecking order, lost their homes and/or their jobs.[7] It is not without significance that, between 1998 and 2008, the financial sector spent 5 billion dollars lobbying politicians in the States.

Proof, if any were needed, of their lack of motivation to change.

Our Simulation

Tong’s conclusions are uncompromising while at the same time recognizing how steep is the hill we still have to climb:[8]

To see the world clearly, we must first become aware of the veil; we must recognize our blind spots. The way we’ve come to perceive reality is so deeply ingrained, so socially and inter-generationally rooted, that we’ve lost sight of the manner in which we think. This is important, because what we think creates reality.

Our constructed world has become so real and dear to us, we’ve forgotten that what we call reality is a product of our minds.

I have referred a number of times on this blog to the fact that our experience of reality, with all its vivid intensity, is simply a simulation. In a way this insight in itself is not the most important one to grasp. We need to dig more deeply into its implications. This is where the strength of Tong’s case and its ultimate value really begins to count:[9]

The system, as I’ve argued in this book, is our life support system. It is the system we have built so that we no longer have to rely on the whims of nature’s cycles. It is a system that made us the most powerful species on earth. . . . The irony is that our survival is merely incidental to the goal of the system: ownership.

We cannot see the system because it exists in our blind spots. It is nature in disguise. Today, if we fail to see our connection to the natural world, it’s because most of our products look nothing like it . . . Nature has been transformed into a product. . . . As a consequence, the economy grows, but nature dies.… None of us could have guessed that in the end we will need to pull the plug on our own life-support system, and if we don’t, it will destroy us.

What we see as our sustainer and protector will in fact eventually be the death of us if we do not act now to radically change it. And this is where Tong articulates the crucial insight shared in Tom Oliver’s book, which I referred to in the first post: our interconnectedness:[10]

We navigate the world by our common-sense perception, but that perception has blinded us to reality again and again. . . We have mistrusted processes and phenomena beyond the boundaries of what we can touch and feel with our limited senses . . .

Our senses tell us we are separate from the universe and the environment and other living things. Science, however, presents the evidence to prove that our physical perceptions are wrong.

Oliver is as intensely concerned as Tong is to counteract our dangerous delusion that we are independent selves:[11]

. . . We have one . . . big myth dispel: that we exist as independent selves at the centre of a subjective universe.

He explains:[12]

We are seamlessly connected to one another and the world around us. Independence is simply an illusion that was once adaptive but now threatens our success as species.

An initially subliminal sense that we are in some way tied tightly to diverse other races can have a negative effect. As our complex interconnectedness becomes more irresistibly obvious we see a defensive protectionism on the rise, and an increasing credulity towards simplistic and often scapegoating fixes.

Which is what leads me to move from considering blind spots to examining biases. More on that next time.


[1]. The Reality Bubble – pages 307-08.
[2]. Altruism – page 564.
[3]. Altruism – page 565.
[4]. Altruism – page 566.
[5]. Altruism – page 571.
[6]. Altruism – page 572.
[7]. Altruism – page 573.
[8]. The Reality Bubble – page 339.
[9]. The Reality Bubble – pages 341-42.
[10]. The Reality Bubble – page 344.
[11]. The Self Delusion – page 3.
[12]. The Self Delusion – page 4.

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. . . . ye walk on My earth complacent and self-satisfied, heedless that My earth is weary of you and everything within it shunneth you. Were ye but to open your eyes, ye would, in truth, prefer a myriad griefs unto this joy, and would count death itself better than this life.

(Bahá’u’lláh – Persian Hidden Words: No 20)

When I was in a Transactional Analysis group in the mid 70s we used to use the slogan, “When in doubt, check it out.” The problem, obvious to us even then, was, of course, if you are not in doubt, why would you ever check anything out. This is probably why I decided to adopt a policy of doubting as wisely as I could . Unfortunately many of us don’t question our beliefs and continue to let them blind us to crucial aspects of reality. Reality doesn’t always help.

The Invisibility Problem

There is the invisibility problem for a start. Ziya Tong deals with this in detail in her mind-expanding book, The Reality Bubble.

Early on in the book[1], as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, she makes a point of some interest about the micro and macro worlds, which, when they were made visible, after the invention of the microscope and telescope, ‘with this new and improved sight came the realisation that we inhabit not only one reality, but three,’ by which, of course, she means the astronomic, microscopic and the normally accessible.

As is probably clear already, I scheduled this sequence before COVID-19 (AKA coronavirus) made itself obvious. We may be minutely more aware of the importance of the microscopic world now than we were before. It’s still worth reinforcing the fact, though, with additional evidence.

Tom Oliver, in The Self Delusion, his contribution to the mind-expansion campaign, is keen to draw attention to the unseen powers of the microbiotic world, pointing out that our bodies are occupied by 38 trillion microbes, ‘slightly outnumbering’[2]our own cells. He illustrates their impact upon us by such scary examples as Toxoplasma, something I’d never heard of before. Though evolved to help cats catch rats, and whose main effect is to reduce the experience of fear in the average rat[3], it is carried in the brains of ‘around 30-50 per cent of us.’ Apparently ‘those of us with Toxoplasma in our brains are more likely to be involved in traffic accidents, to commit suicide and to develop schizophrenia.’[4]

I’ll be coming back to his main point about our complex interconnectedness in due course.

Tong is more concerned with invisibility on a rather different scale and of a different kind.

Our blindness to the microscopic is closely related to a second defect in our perception of the world:[5]

Given the scale we inhabit, we perceive as solid what it is in fact porous, and what seems separate from our bodies is, at the atomic and subatomic levels, deeply interconnected to everything.

She soon moves on to more disturbing blind spots.

Turning a Blind Eye

The first, and one particularly close to my heart for reasons that will become clear in a moment, is in a sense self-inflicted:[6]

Scientists have found that our brains will shut down information that doesn’t make us feel good, or that causes of stress, which is one reason why we tune out suffering.

Moreover,[7] ‘unpleasant truths are the easiest things in the world to hide. If someone doesn’t want to know something, they’re not going to know it.’

I’ll be returning in more detail later to equally disturbing aspects of this tendency but for now I’ll stay focused on her first example. There are no prizes for guessing what it might involve, given my recent and continuing attempts to become vegan:[8]

. . . in the case of food that was once alive, knowing little to nothing is a different kind of capacity and at least partly a matter of conscience. Not knowing is a way to keep our consciences clear.

In the case of where meat comes from, the result is a willful blind spot big enough to hide a mechanism of death so grisly, so gruesome, and so huge that it has already changed the face of the planet almost beyond recognition.

She points out that there are some places where the unexpected products of animal slaughter improbably emerge:[9]

Sweet treats like gummy bears, candies, marshmallows, and Jello-O are also slaughterhouse by-products in disguise. Their key ingredient is gelatin, made from skin, bones, horns, and connective tissues collected after slaughter . . .

She feels to strongly about this issue that she can’t resist coming back to it in further detail once more at a later point in the book:[10]

. . . as the British author George Monbiot writes, “What madness of our times will revolt our descendants? There are plenty to choose from but one of them, I believe, will be the mass incarceration of animals, to enable us to eat their flesh or eggs or drink their milk. While we call ourselves animal lovers, and lavish kindness on our dogs and cats, we inflict brutal deprivations on billions of animals that are just as capable of suffering.”

In the end, she uses this example to flag up the dangers of surveillance and related legislation:[11]

As Paul McCartney famously said, “If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian.” But it isn’t just walls that keep the reality hidden. It can be illegal to look in. Food companies who want to be shielded from public scrutiny have put forward ag-gag laws (short for agricultural gag) designed to prohibit undercover investigations on factory farms.

So, in conclusion, she contends:[12]

Businesses and governments can spy on us, but we are forbidden from spying on them, and in some cases even forbidden from openly recording a public protest.

. . . Our system of producing food and energy and disposing of waste is operating on a scale that is beyond alarming. We are prisoners to a system that if left unchecked will, it is no exaggeration to say, destroy most of life on earth. And yet surveillance encourages us, indeed forces us, to keep on with business as usual, to turn a blind eye, and look away.

This suggests the situation is even worse than I thought.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

One her main categories of concern is what she terms an ‘out-of-sight crisis,’[13] the initial example she gives being the depletion of ‘ground water used for crops’ resulting from the over-exploitation of the aquifers. Other even more important examples to which we are equally blind include,[14] the ‘nitrogen waste in the ocean’ and ‘the carbon dioxide waste we can’t see.’ If we could see[15] ‘all those forty-two billion tons of CO2,’ it would be ‘like looking at the equivalent in tonnage of forty-two Mount Everests. The fact that we can’t has become the greatest challenge in any discussion of climate change.’

For her, the sad truth is:[16]

Our food comes to us from places we do not see; our energy is produced in ways we don’t understand; and our waste disappears without us having to give it a thought. … humans are no longer in touch with the basics of their own system survival.

I’m not done with Tong’s issues yet, but a brief consideration of inequality, something that has already featured at some length on this blog, will have to wait till next time, as will her final thoughts on our destructive blind spots. After that I will begin to take a look at the closely related issue of biases.


[1]. The Reality Bubble – page 35.
[2]. The Self Delusion – page 37.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 53.
[4]. The Self Delusion – page 54.
[5]. The Reality Bubble – page 67.
[6]. The Reality Bubble – page 105.
[7]. The Reality Bubble – Page 106.
[8]. The Reality Bubble – pages 107-08.
[9].  The Reality Bubble — page 128.
[10].  The Reality Bubble – page 130.
[11].  The Reality Bubble – pages 298-99.
[12].  The Reality Bubble – page 300-02.
[13].  The Reality Bubble – page 120.
[14]. The Reality Bubble – page 178.
[15]. The Reality Bubble — page 183.
[16]. The Reality Bubble – page 192.

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In March I will be posting a sequence which includes material from Tom Oliver’s book The Self Delusion and how it chimes with the Bahá’í way of thinking in many respects, though his approach is consistently non-theistic. Not surprisingly, Arthur Dahl’s talk for the European Bahá’í Business Forum resonated strongly with Oliver’s interconnected and systemic approach to our delusion of a disconnected self. It seemed a good idea to post a link now while the talk is fresh. Below is a short extract from the transcript: for the full transcript see link

A good first question as we rethink success is: success for whom?

In what framework do we define success or what would be successful?

In our Western individual society that is usually me, myself and I. The individual success or the success of the individual company or nation winning out over others.  A dominant kind of success. So the set of values within which the question is asked seems focused at some part of the whole, a fragment of the whole.

I just returned from a complex systems scientists conference in Stockholm who basically said the world is heading for catastrophe we are going to collapse, and then asking how can complex system science help us navigate through the challenges ahead?

Systems have emerging properties that happen beyond what you might predict looking at any individual part of the system.

At that conference, most of the scientists there were also open to the spiritual dimension and I ended up sharing with a lot of people about the Baha’i approach to things which seemed to respond to some of their questions. For example the Baha’i faith offers a systems approach to religion.

Its concept of unity in diversity is all about observing systems cooperation and reciprocity, our systems characteristics, solidarity, with each individual being a trust of the whole. All of these are systems ways of looking at all of humanity and how it fits in the natural world.

Another example came from COP25 in Madrid where we saw how each country defending its self-interest made it very difficult to come up with a solution satisfactory to the whole. Too few there were looking at the common global interest or they’re always having to balance what they think might pass at home, what will be politically possible or not possible or following the vested interests of influential lobbies.

They are measuring images of success in those narrower terms and ignoring what it means for the consequences for the whole.

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At the end of the previous post Fred Mires and Chris Humfreeze had disappeared, and I was faced with a complete stranger, 

‘Where have they gone?’ I ask in a panic. I can’t face the trio of activists all by myself.

‘I’m still here,’ the grey-haired bearded stranger said with a faint Italian accent.

‘What d’you mean still here? I’ve never seen you before.’

‘It’s true you have not seen this body before, but my thoughts and values are almost the same as theirs. I explore consciousness, believe in a higher self and value forms of meditation. So, what’s missing?’

‘You look so different. There’s only one of you for a start.’

There’s an uncomfortable silence.

‘Who are you anyway?’ I ask grumpily. I’m still feeling unsettled, disappointed and under threat.

‘Roberto Ammergioli, at your service.’

The bells that name rang were audibly unmistakable. Was I really sitting opposite to someone close in thought and practice to one of my favourite therapies? If he was, then I had a powerful ally against the dogmatic activists.

‘Am I right then that you combine all that’s best in Humfreeze and Mires? How did the merger happen? I never saw it coming.’

‘Basically, I think, they felt as though they will be a stronger combination blended than they would have been as individuals. They couldn’t make up their minds about which of them should carry their image forward, so they created me instead.’

As he speaks I see him gazing intently over my shoulder in the direction of the door. Instinctively, I turn my head as I listen to him speak, and spot Indie walking towards us holding hands with Peat. Immediately I wonder whether Emmie and Indie have blended, only to hear Emmie shouting from the counter asking whether Peat wants a nibble as well as a drink. He says not.

‘Who are you?’ Indie asks abruptly of Roberto.

I don’t wait for him to answer.

‘He’s a blend of Fred and Chris?’

‘And where’s Bill?’

She doesn’t seem phased.

‘Inside my head somewhere,’ I say.

‘Well, that’s two less on your side,’ she jeers. ‘We’re in the majority now.’

‘Did you know this was coming? I ask. ‘You don’t seem in the least surprised.’

‘Why would I be surprised about anything that happens here, for heavens sake? It’s a miracle I came back, and it’s even more of one that Peat is with us, isn’t it, love?’

She smiles at him and he grins back.

‘I kind of expected that some of us could disappear at some point for some reason, just in the same way as we two did the opposite before.’

Emmie comes to the table with a tray of drinks for the three of them.

Peat looks pleased with his purple milkshake.

‘You look happy, Indie,’ Emmie greets her ‘What’s been going on?’

‘There’s three of us and only two of them,’ she smirks.

‘Come again.’

‘Bill’s done a bunk into Pete’s brain and Chris and Fred have blended into this old man. Sorry, what was your name again?’

‘Roberto Ammergioli.’ He spoke for himself this time.

Emmie sits down next to me looking slightly stunned, while Indie and Peat join Robert on his side of the table. I guess the old guard, of which she is one, whether she likes it or not, were not expecting anything like this to happen.

‘Talk me through what this means exactly, but do it slowly.’

Roberto picks up Emmie’s challenge.

‘We’re all just aspects of Pete, though it doesn’t feel like it. We come into existence to solve a problem in his mind, though I guess he feels we arrived to make trouble. When the time comes we will dissolve into something else more expressive of the current dynamic going on. When we disappear in this way we have not gone completely. We are integrated into something larger in his mind and have a broader more unified function. His ideal would be for us all to fuse together into one enriched and higher consciousness. And that day may come if we can learn to work together constructively.’

‘I’m not sure I want that,’ Emmie responds grumpily. ‘I like being me, even if I am frustrated by the way things are in here. Thank goodness we’ve got completely rid of the poet at least. I never did buy that unacknowledged legislator crap. This Jennings woman you’re so fond of at the moment, Pete, even if her poems were absolutely brilliant, sold only 225,000 copies of her stuff. You’re blog’s only just past that in terms of hits. That’s never going to change the world anytime soon. Protest songs and rap probably do better than that by a long shot. Stories are the best, though. Look at Pullman and his Dark Materials – 18 million sold by 2017 –and Rowling’s Harry Potter has reached more than 500 million, and that’s not counting the film versions. If you want to sit at your desk and change the way people think, why don’t you try that for a change?’

She pauses for effect, then, before I can speak, thrusts in the final dagger. ‘As that’ll never happen, why don’t you join us on the streets?’

Roberto rescues me from my speechless state.

‘Everyone has a different set of skills and gifts. What counts is when you put the skills of many together into one pot. Changing the way the world works is not about some single genius best-seller breaking all records, as Rowling did. It’s about hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people, contributing their efforts, however modest, to bettering the way the world works. When Rowling got rich, she used her money to make changes in the world. It’s not just the book-sales that count in her case. It’s how she uses her fame and her profits. At some point, hopefully before the climate crisis does, the numbers of those working for our collective good will reach a tipping point, and . . . ’

‘Stop right there,’ Emmie butted in. ‘That is exactly the problem. We don’t have the time to reach that positive tipping point by the methods you describe, before the climate topples into its lethal Armageddon.’

‘But,’ said Roberto, calmly, ‘if, in our impatience, we use methods that will alienate millions and divide us in our efforts, we won’t achieve anything either. We have to get the balance right.’

‘What Roberto is saying comes close to the position I am striving to believe in.’ I find my voice at last. ‘The kind of dynamic altruism and collective will needed to address this issue, and others that face us, such as polluting plastics and gross and oppressive inequality, require efforts that have to draw on the very qualities they seek to promote. As one Bahá’í thinker puts it, Noble aims must be sought through noble means. Anything less will make things worse not better. And before you tell me, I know that I am relatively rubbish as a writer, whether in prose or poetry, but in terms of my skill set as a whole, I think it’s my best bet in terms of the kind of issue we’re discussing. And …’

I say this a bit louder because I can see Emmie is about to interrupt.

‘I don’t think I have the energy now to sustain anything more than that nowadays.’

‘That’s just an excuse,’ Indie steams. ‘We can all find reasons for doing less than needs to be done right now. What we need is the guts and drive to get out there and make a difference NOW!’

Peat has stopped sucking on his milkshake through the straw, and has tears in his eyes.

‘There won’t be a world for me when I grow up,’ he whispers. ‘We can destroy in decades now what it took millions of years to create. We have to stop.’

We all fall silent. There is no way round this point at least. Humanity as a whole has to change its habits, habits that mainly in the West have taken centuries to evolve. I remember the submission to the Committee on Climate Change that a psychologist has recently made. Not just legislation, but behavioural shifts by millions of people have to start to play their part. However, I also remember what Dana Greene wrote about how Elizabeth Jennings faced formidable obstacles and yet won for herself a large following of readers, something that expanded the poetry-reading audience substantially. If she could do something like that, why couldn’t I, if I were sufficiently at one with my selves, even at my relatively advanced age?

The very idea of such a challenge sends a shiver down my spine. Am I too much of a coward to risk it? Maybe there is something I could learn from my activists inside. What they are doing may not be my cup of tea, but how they are doing it might be something I can take on board for my own purposes. I can get bolder as get older!

I decide to speak, as no one else wants to.

‘I know you and Indie see me as some dithering Hamlet, infirm of purpose, standing mammering on the brink of disaster. And maybe part of me is like that for a reason. I’ve spoken before about needing to have the courage of my confusion sometimes. But there’s another reason as well. It’s because I’m divided inside, at war with myself, one part pulling one way, other parts pulling in different directions. We’ve all seen that with our own eyes, no?’’

For once they seem to agree with me. That’s a good start.

‘If we could combine together your blazing courage and Roberto’s wisdom with my smouldering creativity, for what it might be worth, to further a purpose we could all agree on, maybe we could just get out of this bind and do something really useful. You saw me publish Elizabeth Jennings’s words earlier. You know the ones: But poetry must change and make/The world seem new in each design./It asks much labour, much heartbreak,/Yet it can conquer in a line. It wouldn’t be easy to change what I write in that way, as she says, but it would be really amazing if we could pull that off. Maybe not in poetry, though I’m not writing that off at this stage. Dylan managed to get his songs recognised as literature and he’s got a huge following. Yes, yes, I know I can’t sing, but maybe we could do something similar, if less ambitious, with our words somehow. Writing is an act, even though many don’t see it that way, and it’s more powerful if it comes from a life lived in tune with its message, so we have to act out our values as well as write about them.’

Indie, Emmie and Peat aren’t leaping out of their seats with enthusiasm for this idea, but they’re aren’t leaping down my throat to rubbish it either.

‘It this a plan worth pondering on then?’ I ask.

‘We’ll sleep on it,’ Indie says, with a sideways glance at the others.

‘I thought you didn’t sleep’ I react.

‘Just joking!’ Emmie grins.

At just that point there is a thunderous knocking on the front door, which jerks me out of my sleep. Yet again moving this forwards will have to wait until another day.

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Yet another Guardian article this week highlights another clear warning of the climate crisis. Below are some short extracts: for the full post see link.

Oceans are clearest measure of climate crisis as they absorb 90% of heat trapped by greenhouse gases

The heat in the world’s oceans reached a new record level in 2019, showing “irrefutable and accelerating” heating of the planet.

The world’s oceans are the clearest measure of the climate emergency because they absorb more than 90% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases emitted by fossil fuel burning, forest destruction and other human activities.

The new analysis shows the past five years are the top five warmest years recorded in the ocean and the past 10 years are also the top 10 years on record. The amount of heat being added to the oceans is equivalent to every person on the planet running 100 microwave ovens all day and all night.

. . .

“The oceans are really what tells you how fast the Earth is warming,” said Prof John Abraham at the University of St Thomas, in Minnesota, US, and one of the team behind the new analysis. “Using the oceans, we see a continued, uninterrupted and accelerating warming rate of planet Earth. This is dire news.”

“We found that 2019 was not only the warmest year on record, it displayed the largest single-year increase of the entire decade, a sobering reminder that human-caused heating of our planet continues unabated,” said Prof Michael Mann, at Penn State University, US, and another team member.

. . .

This energy drives bigger storms and more extreme weather, said Abraham: “When the world and the oceans heat up, it changes the way rain falls and evaporates. There’s a general rule of thumb that drier areas are going to become drier and wetter areas are going to become wetter, and rainfall will happen in bigger downbursts.”

Hotter oceans also expand and melt ice, causing sea levels to rise. The past 10 years also show the highest sea level measured in records dating back to 1900. Scientists expect about one metre of sea level rise by the end of the century, enough to displace 150 million people worldwide.

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