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The image is Mark Tobey’s ‘Void Devouring the Gadget Era.’

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Tipping Point

At the end of the previous post, which dealt with the need for coherence if we are to address the most compelling challenges of our time, I flagged up that a key pair of requirements was: first, co-ordinated institutions strong enough to mobilise change, and second, a level of global consciousness clear and strong enough to create those institutions. There is a chicken and egg problem there, however. Until we have an educational system that helps create such a consciousness, how will we have the effective motivation to create the institutions that we need if we are to develop such an educational system?

Additional complicating factors are that, to achieve a fully transformative level of consciousness to mend our crippled civilisation and defective cultures root and branch will, as the Universal House of Justice indicates, be ‘the work of centuries.’

However, if we are to have any kind of civilisation at all beyond the next few decades, there is at least one urgent problem to resolve: global heating. We don’t have centuries to rise to that challenge. I have neither the time nor the clarity to fully address that right now though there is an earlier attempt on this blog.

What I plan to focus on here is whether we have the capacity to begin to build the foundations right now to make both those other projects, lifting consciousness and creating institutions, potentially viable.

In this final post I will begin to explore some tentative suggestions about how this process might begin to work.

A Tipping Point

Bahá’ís believe that we are living on the cusp of massive changes in society and civilisation. We believe that, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘the world’s equilibrium’ has ‘been upset.’ We can sign up to the vision expressed by Ray and Andersen in their book: ‘When a force for change moves into an inherently unstable time, the potential leverage is very great indeed.’[1]

Paradoxically, the very magnitude of the increasingly imminent threat and the totality of its potentially destructive power may be the trigger to our mobilising a more effective response. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his apocalyptic warning:

If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it.[2]

Moreover, Bahá’ís believe that science and religion are not at odds, which goes some way to answering the problem McGilchrist explores in The Master & his Emissary. We can see how they could work together for the betterment of all humanity as these authors can: ‘New technologies may give us solutions to many global problems, if they are brought to life in settings with cooperative, constructive values.’[3] Our vision is often summarised in the words ‘The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.’ Ray and Anderson appear to resonate to that as well: ‘The sense of “one planet, our home” is inescapable.’[4] Their conclusion is: ‘It’s a matter of moral imagination, a wisdom of the heart.’[5] (For more on ‘moral imagination’ see an earlier post.)

And the core of that vision, that wisdom, is captured towards the end of their book:

[Cultural Creatives] say that each of us is a living system within a greater living system, connected to each other in more ways than we can fathom. If we focus on that wholeness, we can begin to imagine a culture that can heal the fragmentation and destructiveness of our time.[6]

I feel that there is the possibility of huge reciprocal benefits here.

There are a number of thinkers who have striven to articulate a more benign way of organising our global economic system.

Raworth

There are signs that younger economists, in addition to the writers of The Econocracy, are beginning to question the values of unrestrained neo-liberalism and its emphasis on growth and profit. Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics is one example. She writes (page 74-75):

We live now, says Daly, in Full World, with an economy that exceeds Earth’s regenerative and absorptive capacity by over-harvesting sources such as fish, and forests, and over-filling sinks such as the atmosphere and oceans.

Her book puts forward an alternative approach in detail. Her website contains this useful summary:

Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.

Ehrenfeld

Other thinkers are encouragingly moving in the same direction. John Ehrenfeld, in his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, explains his belief that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:

Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”[7]

He suggests a more viable idea: ‘sustainability-as-flourishing.’ He describes four key elements:

First, flourishing is the realisation of a sense of completeness, independent of our immediate material context. Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually generated. . . . . Flourishing is the result of acting out of caring for oneself, other human beings, the rest of the ‘real material’ world, and also for the out-of-the-world that is, the spiritual or transcendental world. . . . Second it is about possibility. Possibility is not a thing. . . . it means bringing forth from nothingness something we desire to become present. . . . . Third, the definition includes far more than human benefit. Flourishing pertains to all natural systems that include both humans and other life. Finally, adding forever to this definition lends it the timelessness that is found in virtually all conversations about sustainability. In fact, sustainability makes little sense except as a lasting condition. It is that important.[8]

He feels we have forgotten what it is to be human and, blinded by materialism, we reduce everything about growth to economics, turning it into a kind of religion:

If religion boils down to a group’s ‘ultimate concern,’ then growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god. But this religion exacerbates the destructive and violent intrusion of human culture into both nature and our own conception of who we are.[9]

It’s not, he assures us, about stopping consumption; it’s about how we consume. Our pervasive consumer culture is a choice that we’ve made: “This behaviour is so embedded that it appears to be human nature… But it is a cultural phenomenon”.[10]

Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two perspective-shaking ideas. We need to shift our dominant mind-sets from Having to Being and from Needing to Caring:

Having is not a fundamental characteristic of our species. We are not creatures with insatiable wants and desires, even though that self-view has been reinforced by our present consumptive patterns. . . . . . Being is the most primal characteristic that distinguishes humans from all other species. Being is the basic way we exist in the world and is enacted whenever we exhibit authentic care. . . . .

Need is based on a deeply embedded insecurity that is fed by our modern culture telling us that we are incomplete or inadequate unless we acquire whatever thing will fill that artificial hole… Caring reflects a consciousness of our interconnectedness with the world (the web of life) and the historic recognition that well-being depends upon acting to keep these relationships in a healthy state. . . . . .

Institutions built on this premise will be very different from those of today. . . . . When we rediscover who we are, we will live out our lives taking care of a world composed of our own selves, other humans, and everything else.[11]

The idea of rediscovering a truer sense of self is not some kind of baseless sentimental nostalgia. For example, Gaia Vince in her book Transcendence quotes early evidence to support Ehrenfeld’s claim:

The extraordinary settlement of Çatalhöyük – already a city, 8000 years ago, of hundreds of one-room mud-bricked homes accessed from the roof – reveals evidence of a remarkably egalitarian society with strong social control and norms that prevented accumulation of wealth.[12]

Ehrenfeld also sees spirituality as going beyond the material and explains: ‘This domain is especially important to sustainability, as it heightens one’s sense for the interconnectedness of Being’ and goes on to say that ‘At the centre of this notion of interconnection is that of love . . . . Love is not a something, but a way of acting and accepts the Being of all others as legitimate.’[13] This reminds me of Scott Peck’s dictum in The Road Less Travelled that, ‘Love is not a feeling: love is work:’ those may not be his exact words, but how I have remembered what I thought he meant.

Almost Ehrenfeld’s final words on this aspect of the matter are: ‘Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible.’[14]

Ehrenfeld develops this further, when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’[15] I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

This does not mean we will know all the answers and any such false confidence has been at the root of many of our difficulties[16]. We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality, which, as we explored earlier, much of current economic and political thinking does not do:

Our contemporary conversation about sustainability is taking place without a clear understanding, or with purposeful ignorance, of our place within a complex world. Complexity refers to a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.[17]

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view:

Until we recognise and accept that we humans are an integral part of the complex system we call Earth, the possibility of sustainability will be nil.[18]

Singing from McGilchrist’s hymn sheet, he argues that mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here[19]. They fail to capture ‘the holistic qualities of life.’[20] Moreover:

Flourishing and other similar qualities emerge from the working of the system as a whole and cannot be described by any reductionist set of rules.

This complexity also testifies to the impossibility of defining any of the problems we face in simple terms. No minority group or economic sub-system can in itself explain a failure of this wider system and we cannot accurately predict simple outcomes even from simple lines of action. Ehrenfeld goes on to explain exactly what this implies.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism, in ways that resonate with the Bahá’í concept of consultation discussed elsewhere. He writes:

Cooperative, self managed, nonhierarchical teams are the most technologically advanced form of work. Yet large parts of the workforce are trapped in a world of fines, discipline, violence and power hierarchies – simply because the existence of a cheap labour culture allows it to survive.[21]

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles:

As we pursue these goals, a general picture is likely to emerge: the transition to postcapitalism is going to be driven by surprise discoveries made by groups of people working in teams, about what they can do to old processes by applying collaborative thinking and networks.[22]

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness. His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be, something we explored briefly in an earlier post. His main reservation though is that religions are out of date: he seems sadly unaware of the existence of the Bahá’í Faith and the role of other religions in promoting the kinds of awareness he is advocating.

The Bahá’í Perspective

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, and he also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes:

I don’t think even the young adults of today are going to be the ones to ultimately change things. They are part of a much longer process of change that will even outlive them. It will take generations for these ideas to become embedded in the culture and new norms aligned with flourishing to arise.[23]

It seems a good point in the discussion to tap into a Bahá’í writer who has usefully explored the nature of this dilemma: he looks at it in terms of consciousness and social structures.

Before I plunge into that aspect of his thinking it would perhaps be useful just to touch on some of his earlier insights to pave the way to it.

The writer I’m referring to is Michael Karlberg, a Bahá’í academic with a background in ‘critical theories of culture and communication.’[24] His book is titled Beyond the Culture of Contest. His explanation of his basic position summarises a key aspect of this sequence’s perspective:

This book was written to advance the thesis that our contemporary ‘culture of contest’ is socially unjust and ecologically unsustainable and the surrounding ‘culture of protest’ is an inadequate response to the social and ecological problems it generates.[25]

He later discusses Adam Smith’s assumption that the free market would function within and be restrained by ‘a larger moral framework,’[26] before going onto explain where it all went wrong:

Since western-liberal societies have largely neglected Smith’s call for moral self-regulation, yet accepted Smith’s warnings about state regulation, they have been left with a culture of virtually unrestrained market competition.[27]

The consequences are predictably bleak:

In this context, as the relative absence of state and moral regulation results in the permanent extinction of increasing numbers of species, sustainability of the contest itself is called into question.[28]

Interestingly, in the context of the earlier discussion about capitalism masquerading as a kind of religion, having referred in the previous page to ‘a seemingly insatiable society’ he mentions, immediately after pointing out the absence of moral regulation, ‘the deification of competitive values.’

His analysis of how our current tripartite system of political, economic and legal domains is destructively skewed raises another point relevant to the quandaries I am struggling with:

Political and legal contests are expensive and economic contests determine who has the money to prevail in them.[29]

What makes it worse is that:

Within this tripartite system of contests, it is impossible to regulate economic activity in a socially just and ecologically sustainable manner. In fact, within this system, it is the economy that ultimately regulates political and legal decision-making, rather than the other way around.[30]

His ideas about how to address this come much later, and this is where consciousness and social structures come into play. In describing ‘strategies of social reform’ he draws the following distinction:

 . . . many people have viewed the development or transformation of individual consciousness as a path to meaningful social change. . . . [alternatively] many people have historically viewed the reform or transformation of basic social structures as the path to meaningful social change.[31]

He offers the Bahá’í perspective as synthesis:

In this context Bahá’ís believe that individual psycho-structural development and collective socio-structural reforms are both necessary but that neither one is sufficient by itself. They therefore advocate a twofold process of change involving both.

He discusses this in more detail, first at the level of the individual, and emphasis on education is key here, as is the fact that the Bahá’í community is developing institutions for whom this is a main focus:

On the individual level, Bahá’ís pursue social change primarily through educational processes. . . . [At the time his writing] out of 1700 social and economic development projects Bahá’ís are currently engaged in around the world, more than 750 are education projects. Bahá’ís also conceive of education in terms of individual, moral or spiritual development.[32]

Next he turns to systemic interventions:

The Bahá’ís are simultaneously pursuing collective strategies of socio-structural transformation. The entire administrative order…, with its non-adversarial decision-making methods, its non-partisan electoral model and its globally coordinated institutional structure, is not merely a theoretical construct for Bahá’ís. Rather, Bahá’ís have been actively building this administrative order for more than three quarters of a century…[33]

The ultimate goal for Bahá’ís, he states with reference to Building a Just World Order, is for ‘the administrative order’ to provide them ‘with an institutional framework within which they can further develop the skills, capacities and attitudes that they believe are needed to manage processes of social change in an increasingly interdependent complex world.’[34]

At the end of this post I have added a list of additional references that will provide more detailed information about Bahá’í thought and practice in these respects.

Perhaps it is best to end this sequence with a quotation from a 1985 message to all the peoples of the world, as going into greater detail at this point would open up another long sequence of posts.

An urge towards unity, like a spiritual springtime, struggles to express itself through countless international congresses that bring together people from a vast array of disciplines. It motivates appeals for international projects involving children and youth. Indeed, it is the real source of the remarkable movement towards ecumenism by which members of historically antagonistic religions and sects seem irresistibly drawn towards one another. Together with the opposing tendency to warfare and self-aggrandizement against which it ceaselessly struggles, the drive towards world unity is one of the dominant, pervasive features of life on the planet during the closing years of the twentieth century.

The experience of the Bahá’í community may be seen as an example of this enlarging unity. It is a community . . . drawn from many nations, cultures, classes and creeds, engaged in a wide range of activities serving the spiritual, social and economic needs of the peoples of many lands. It is a single social organism, representative of the diversity of the human family, conducting its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles, and cherishing equally all the great outpourings of divine guidance in human history. Its existence is yet another convincing proof of the practicality of its Founder’s vision of a united world, another evidence that humanity can live as one global society, equal to whatever challenges its coming of age may entail. If the Bahá’í experience can contribute in whatever measure to reinforcing hope in the unity of the human race, we are happy to offer it as a model for study.[35]

My own sense of purpose here is similar to that which Karlberg stated at the start of his book:

. . . It is not my intent that readers come away from this book with a personal interest in, or commitment to, the Bahá’í Faith. I will be satisfied, however, if I have prompted my readers towards critical self-reflection regarding the codes of adversarialism that underlie the contemporary culture of contest.

We need to find ways of breaking free of the religion of capitalist profit and consumption that prevails so widely in the West.

I am not claiming that the Bahá’í Faith has perfectly developed a complete antidote in practice. We are still in learning mode and have a steep mountain still to climb. However, I believe our model has valuable insights that can be used by everyone engaged in this struggle to build a better world.

There is no way Bahá’ís could ever claim to be able to do this alone in any case. We all need to work on this together, and have much to learn from each other as we do so. A key Bahá’í offering is our pattern of globally co-ordinated practice, built on a foundation of consultative decision-making, and complemented by vigorous educational processes involving children, youth and adults, that offers a good chance of transcending the fragmented, divided, divisive and almost chaotic processes that currently exist.

This confronts the chicken-and-egg problem, referred to earlier, of how to have educational systems, organisational structures and enhanced consciousness being simultaneously developed.

Additional References:

Humanity Is Our Business Posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.

Century of Light Posts1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

Becoming a True Upholder of His Oneness Posts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Footnotes:

[1] The Cultural Creatives – page 230.
[2] The Uninhabitable Earth (page 25)
[3] The Cultural Creatives – page 318.
[4] The Cultural Creatives – page 302.
[5] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[6] The Cultural Creatives – page 314.
[7] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 18.
[8] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 49-50.
[9] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 76-77.
[10] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 175.
[11] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 191-194.
[12] Transcendence – page 178.
[13] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 202-203.
[14] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 204.
[15] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 208.
[16] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 217.
[17] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 226.
[18] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – pages 227-228.
[19] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 229.
[20] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 230.
[21] Postcapitalism – page 287.
[22] Postcapitalism – page 288.
[23] Flourishing: a frank conversation about sustainability – page 305,
[24] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page ix.
[25] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page xi.
[26] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 39.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 41.
[29] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 51.
[30] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 52.
[31] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 156.
[32] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 157.
[33] Beyond the Culture of Contest – page 158.
[34] Ibid.
[35] The Promise of World Peace

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In this sequence, triggered by Carrette and King’s Selling Spirituality, I have looked at how Neoliberals ‘offer – no, demand – a religious faith in the infallibility of the unregulated market.’[1] I have examined the claim that this is assisted by the commandeering of a deracinated spirituality to act as a kind of tranquilliser to damp down any feelings of discontent with the capitalist system. I also took into account how our individualised society relies on psychological approaches, in contrast to more socially oriented cultures, and accepts a perspective on our situation that suggests we have no effective alternative, as capitalism is the best option.

This all combines to reduce the potential for forms of collective resistance.

We need now to look at how a combination of two reciprocally reinforcing factors makes resistance even less likely than even Carrette and King’s model would predict. We need to do this before we look at possible alternatives. I’ll start with complexity, and a related factor, before going on to look at coherence in the next post.

Complexity

Putting the problem at its simplest ‘Economists model people as knowing exactly how the economy works, whereas we would argue that they themselves do not have the full picture.‘[2]

There is fascinating evidence in support of the idea that even the economic experts don’t have much of a clue.

Daniel Kahneman

Daniel Kahneman, in his excellent analysis of our flawed decision-making abilities in general, Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, turns his attention to what goes on in the process of financial speculation.

Tracking individuals, he finds, does not confirm their sense that they know what they are doing:

Many individual investors lose consistently by trading, an achievement that a dart-throwing chimp could not match.[3]

In Chapter 24, after reviewing the evidence he concludes:

. . . . . financial officers of large corporations had no clue about the short-term future of the stock market; the correlation between their estimates and the true value was slightly less than zero! When they said the market would go down, it was slightly more likely than not that it would go up. These findings are not surprising. The truly bad news is that the CFOs did not appear to know that their forecasts were worthless.[4]

There were exceptions to this general trend in that ‘the most active traders had the poorest results, while the investors who traded the least earned the highest’[5]  and  ‘men acted on their useless ideas significantly more often than women, and that as a result women achieved better investment results than men.’[6]

This is not a very flattering state of affairs for the economic pundits:

There is general agreement among researchers that nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not—and few of them do—are playing a game of chance. The subjective experience of traders is that they are making sensible educated guesses in a situation of great uncertainty. In highly efficient markets, however, educated guesses are no more accurate than blind guesses.[7]

Kahneman’s own research confirms this view. He was invited to investigate the figures of a firm to whom he had been invited to speak. He was given access to a ‘spreadsheet summarizing the investment outcomes of some twenty-five anonymous wealth advisers, for each of eight consecutive years.’[8]

He took the first basic step in this assessment of skill:

It was a simple matter to rank the advisers by their performance in each year and to determine whether there were persistent differences in skill among them.[9]

The rank ordering allowed for the calculation of how well each person’s rank held up over the whole time period studied. The more consistent people were the stronger the correlations would be between each year’s figures.  He created 28 correlation coefficients, one for each pair of years.

Then came the surprise:

I knew the theory and was prepared to find weak evidence of persistence of skill. Still, I was surprised to find that the average of the 28 correlations was 0.01. In other words, zero.[10]

Which meant, in effect, that ‘[t]he results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.’ ‘The illusion of skill’[11] is a deeply embedded one in this area, but it is also deeply misplaced. What we learn from carefully analyzed data is that:

. . . . people who spend their time, and earn their living, studying a particular topic produce poorer predictions than dart-throwing monkeys who would have distributed their choices evenly over the options. Even in the region they knew best, experts were not significantly better than nonspecialists.[12]

I will return in a later section to another aspect of this problem from Kahneman’s point of view. At this point I need to focus on what others have to say on his main point about the global economic complexity in which this unpredictability has its roots.

In The Econocracy the authors make their position plain: ‘many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . .’[13] and that ‘the economic knowledge that forms the basis of [the economists’] claim to expertise is often inadequate.’[14]

Wilhelm Streeck points out what makes this complexity even more difficult to fathom:

[There remained] little if any space for collective action, . . .  because it was hard for most people in financial markets to understand their own interests and identify their exploiter. . . . The prosperity, relative and absolute, of millions of citizens depends on decisions of central bank executives, international organisations, and councils of ministers of all sorts, acting in an arcane space removed from every day experience and impenetrable to outsiders, dealing with issues so complex that even insiders often cannot be sure what they have to do and are in fact doing.[15]

There are, however, ways we could enhance our chances of decoding some of the mystery if the will was there. The next section explores some of the removable obstacles impeding our progress in this respect.

Tunnel Vision

Let’s pick up the threads of this with Kahneman’s analysis of decision-making in complex social, political and economic situations again. He uses a key expression that needs more examination (my emphasis):

In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals—distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on—are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations.[16]

He feels that two important lessons need to be learned from all this:

The first lesson is that errors of prediction are inevitable because the world is unpredictable. The second is that high subjective confidence is not to be trusted as an indicator of accuracy (low confidence could be more informative).[17]

He concludes that ‘stock pickers and political scientists who make long-term forecasts operate in a zero-validity environment. Their failures reflect the basic unpredictability of the events that they try to forecast.’[18]

This sounds like confirmation of John Donne’s dictum: ‘Doubt wisely.’

How can what other writers say help us unpack the dangers of hyperspecialisation and suggest potential partial remedies?

The Econocracy is a good place to start. They explain that ‘economics students only learn one particular type of economics and . . . they are taught to accept this type of economics in an uncritical manner.’[19] Moreover, they teach ‘this perspective as if it is economics’ which ‘allows economists to see their discipline as a complete system.’[20] They conclude that ‘this amounts to nothing less than indoctrination into the neoclassical way of thinking about the economy.’[21]

So, hyperspecialisation paves the way to patterns of teaching which amount to indoctrination, in their view. They go on to clarify that economists differ in one critical respect from other academic disciplines:

. . . a considerable majority from all the social sciences, from history to psychology, agreed with the statement [that ‘in general, interdisciplinary knowledge is better than knowledge obtained by single discipline’], illustrating that economists are unique in their belief that their discipline has all the answers.[22]

They lack what the authors term ‘pluralism.’ They suffer from a kind of tunnel vision

It seems a no-brainer, then, to realise that, if a system is highly complex, it’s going to take more than one perspective to grasp its patterns with any hope of predicting developments and controlling consequences.

The remedy The Econocracy proposes rings bells for me from a Bahá’í perspective at least. They write:

. . . many of the [global community’s] most important facets are not necessarily intuitive are easily observable. . . . Our vision is of a world in which economic experts recognize that their knowledge of a complex economy is limited and that economic issues are the proper subject of collective democratic debate. The role of experts is to inform citizens of their choices rather than to make those choices for them.[23]

They unpack some implications of this much later in their book:

The kinds of skills and qualities needed by citizens in a broad democracy to function effectively are learned, not innate, and must be practiced to be mastered. They include listening, compromise, the ability to critically evaluate verbal and numerical argument, and developing independent judgement. They can only come through practical experience of being involved in participatory democratic institutions. In this sense, moving towards a system of broad democracy is a process of learning by doing.

. . . . . We have spent considerable time and energy thinking about the pedagogy we use for public education activities because we are aware that embedding critical reflection and pluralism at their core is not easy.[24]

Why do Bahá’í bells ring?

In terms of The Econocracy’s point about ‘participatory democratic institutions’, bells ring because a core discipline of the Bahá’í Faith is consultation. The Prosperity of Humankind contains a succinct statement of its purpose which also conveys a great deal about its methods and assumptions: `the adversarial method, . . [is]. . fundamentally harmful to [the] purpose [of consultation]: [which] is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.’ It is basically a process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that: (a) no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth, (b) groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and (c) today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Secondly, because Selling Spirituality emphasizes the importance of having a moral compass based in true spirituality to counterbalance purely material considerations, the Bahá’í case for much the same kind of balance immediately springs to mind. A Bahá’í statement on social action addresses this issue:

To seek coherence between the spiritual and the material does not imply that the material goals of development are to be trivialized. It does require, however, the rejection of approaches to development which define it as the transfer to all societies of the ideological convictions, the social structures, the economic practices, the models of governance—in the final analysis, the very patterns of life—prevalent in certain highly industrialized regions of the world. When the material and spiritual dimensions of the life of a community are kept in mind and due attention is given to both scientific and spiritual knowledge, the tendency to reduce development to the mere consumption of goods and services and the naive use of technological packages is avoided. . . . Together, these two sources of knowledge tap roots of motivation in individuals and communities, so essential in breaking free from the shelter of passivity, and enable them to uncover the traps of consumerism.

At present too many of us in so-called ‘developed’ societies, by which I mean ‘industrialised,’ are caught in the ‘traps of consumerism,’ the trancelike mind-set of the markets, convinced they’ll find riches and fulfilment there. We are convinced there is no way out.

Streeck describes this and to a degree subscribes to it:

The problem is, while we see [capitalism] disintegrating before our eyes, we see no successor approaching. . . . There is also the absence of a vision of a practically possible progressive future, of a renewed industrial or new post-industrial society developing further and at the same time replacing the capitalist society today. Not just capital and its running dogs but also their various oppositions lack a capacity to act collectively.[25]

Which brings us back to the other problem, hinted at by the Bahá’í quote above. There is another key capacity that is lacking: coherence. We have to have some sense of how this can be remedied if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Footnotes

[1] McChesney (1999) quoted in Selling Spirituality – Page 169
[2] The Econocracy – Page 98.
[3] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3843.
[4] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4738.
[5] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3856.
[6] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3857.
[7] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3877.
[8] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3882.
[9] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3884.
[10] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3887.
[11] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3899.
[12] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3958.
[13] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[14] The Econocracy  – page 27.
[15] Streeck – page 20.
[16] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3963.
[17] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 3982.
[18] Kahneman – Kindle Reference 4347.
[19] The Econocracy  – page 37.
[20] The Econocracy  – page 40.
[21] The Econocracy  – page 54.
[22] The Econocracy  – page 115.
[23] The Econocracy  – page 26.
[24] The Econocracy  – pages 152-56.
[25] Streeck – page 35-36.

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From Don Paterson’s The Eyes page 9 (The pink highlight, my regular defacement of books, couldn’t be removed.)

Following on from the previous overview of his life and of issues such as politics and accessibility impacting on Machado’s poetry, there are others at work as well, aspects of Modernism for instance.

There are four main texts referred to in what follows: Alan S Trueblood Antonio Machado: selected Poems, Don Paterson The Eyes, Xon de Ros The Poetry of Antonio Machado: changing the landscape, and Gerald Brenan The Literature of the Spanish People. I have tried to make sure the source of any quotations is clear.

Aphorisms & Obscurity

Xon de Ros points towards the Poem that Paterson has translated. She concludes that (page 214) ‘Overall, the image suggests an interest in form and shape rather than content, a modernist privileging of aesthetic experience over didactic import.’ His use of aphorisms, a long tradition in Spain, that cancel each other out takes potential confusion further, as Xon de Ros quotes Stern to explain (page 222):

. . . the modern aphorism which has been defined as ‘a genre which more than any other aims at preserving in literary expression the discrete and contradictory nature of lived experience.’ (Stern: 1959)

Aphorisms (page 209) ‘also move in ways which problematize any notion of a single truth.’

And last of all we can’t avoid the impact of Cubism (page 223):

Whiston explains cubicación as the systematic scrutiny of received ideas from multiple perspectives in order to extricate ‘the living reality behind the expression.’ (‘The Cubing of Language in Antonio Machado’s Juan de Mareina:  1989 – page 151)

I am still struggling with how far it is legitimate for poetry, or art in general, to capitulate to the chaos of our current complexities so completely that a poem is completely obscure. I have elsewhere referred to this as brick-wall poetry and the conduct of a ‘quisling.’

My own sense so far, from my reading of Machado, is that he does not usually go that far. There is almost always a trace of music or a haunting image for me to hold onto amidst the fog. Perhaps that’s why Xon de Ros’s comment is more praise than criticism for me. She writes (page 246): ‘it is undeniable though that Machado’s poetry has a certain anachronistic feel to it. . .  [He’s] a modern poet, as it were, by default.’

Faith, Transience & Memory

Also Machado’s reaction to the world he paints is one to which I strongly resonate, as Trueblood indicates (page 35) when he writes  ‘. . . in Machado the poem is less a profession of faith than a doubting with faith.’ He’s following in John Donne’s footsteps here whose injunction to ‘doubt wisely’ I’ve referred to elsewhere. There’ll be more on that later I suspect.

An additional factor, that Xon de Ros picks up on, is the shifting nature of poetic language, something of which Machado was all too aware (page 3): ‘beneath the existential reflection on human transience, there is a preoccupation with the mutability of the poetic word.’

A particularly intriguing issue is the impact of memory on the making of a poem. Trueblood expands on the point (page 20):

Memory for him is less a well than a reservoir, constantly renewed by inflowing and outflowing waters. . . . . [H]owever deliberate the process of recall, time will have been at work on what is recalled. We are thus brought back to the characteristic Machadian emphasis on the transforming action of memory.

My diaries help me grasp this point only too well, as on innumerable occasions I have checked my memory of an incident against my diaries and found my memory significantly at fault. There is no reason why poets should be an exception. Maybe Wordsworth’s dictum, that the core of poetry is ‘emotion recollected in tranquility,’ is no guarantee of accuracy.

It may not even be the memory of the poet alone that works on a poem, as Xon de Ros indicates in Machado’s concept of palimpsest (page 178):

. . . stating that every poem is in a way a palimpsest raises the question of the ontological status of poems, and suggests the view of poetry as a collaborative art…, which involves a ‘comunión cordial’ with the reader.

Landscape & Inscape

Landscape is of immense importance to Machado, and, in a way that matches my own desire to find hints in the outside world to help me decode my inscape. Many of his poems, according to Trueblood (page 42), show ‘with particular clarity that the shifts from outer scene to inner landscape and back again are never absolute breaks in Machado.’ This is reminiscent of what I learned about Munch as well. Ulrich Bischoff in the Taschen book on Munch explains (page 38) that in his painting The Storm, ‘Munch has transfigured the seen world into a landscape of the soul,’ and (page 80) ‘for Munch, landscape always had to convey a message of human import: his visual idiom transformed the reproduction of landscape scenes into landscape of the soul.’ And finally, (page 82) ‘The details of Munch’s landscapes – trees, snow-covered hills, beaches or waves – were also symbols expressing a personal language of the soul.’

Egotism

Many people raise the question of whether art and life are so much at odds that only a self-absorbed narcissist can be an effective artist. For me the jury is still out on that one, even though I have concluded that some great artists are certainly not narcissists. Opinion seems divided about Machado, at least among the critics I have read so far. While Paterson expresses the clear opinion that Machado is not an egotist in his verse at least, when he asserts that (page 55) ‘I can think of no writer so obsessed with the suppression of his own ego . . .’  Xon de Ros seems not so sure (page 202): ‘While Machado’s early poetry shows a degree of ambivalence towards self assertion… the poet’s self-consciousness becomes more apparent in his second collection…’ This caveat has to be balanced against her depiction of the purpose of his poetry (page 207), ‘[The] notion of a depersonalized lyric becomes increasingly linked to an ideal of poetry as the expression of a communal experience beyond the poet’s subjectivism,’ and furthermore the relevance of T.S.Eliot’s tenet that ‘the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continuous extinction of personality’ and his doctrine of poetry as ‘an escape from personality’ and not just ‘the expression of personality.’

His Value as a Poet

In the end, perhaps the clearest summary of Machado’s value as a poet comes towards the end of Xon de Ros’s book (page 245):

. . . while Machado has been a constant presence in Spanish poetry since 1940s, his aesthetics came to the fore in the so-called ‘poetry of experience’ which since the 1980s has become the dominant trend in Spain’s poetic panorama. For the poets of experience the rapport with the reader is a central concern. Rejecting avant-garde poetics and intellectualism, this poetry seeks a rehumanization, focusing on the lived experience and everyday language, while also exploring alternative subject positions and adopting techniques of defamiliarization such as parataxis, dramatic monologue, poetic masks, irony, and metaphysical meditation, to establish a relation with the reader which is close to the ‘comunión cordial’ advocated by Machado.

She earlier attributes part of his recent acclaim to Bloom’s flagging up Trueblood’s translations (page 182):

[Trueblood’s] is the translation recommended by Harold Bloom in ‘The Western Canon,’ where Machado, at least according to Bloom, finally joins the ranks of the modern Immortals.

Interestingly, in my 1994 copy of The Western Canon there is not a single reference to Machado anywhere. Xon de Ros is referring to the 1995 edition, suggesting a rapid change of mind. I felt I had to check this out on the web and did in the end track down a list of Western authors generated by Bloom and published in the Appendix of his Adelaide edition, which includes Machado on the basis of the Selected Poems (see link).

I also do like Gerald Brenan’s verdict (page 435):

He wrote a strong, bare, sonorous verse which has some of the qualities of the best sixteenth-century prose and which is always alive because it is saturated in every part by its rhythm. It has less artifice than that of Yeats and not a trace of mannerism, and when it leaves the ground it takes off with a great spread of wings like, for example, Yeats’ two poems on Byzantium.

Next time more quotes from Machado as we look more closely at the themes that resonate for me. For now there is another poem below that resonates with me. As before the Spanish comes first and Trueblood’s English translation next, both from Alan S Trueblood’s book: my personal rendering comes last as is only appropriate.  Loss is the theme again.

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Charles Darwin

‘. . . . The process of evolution was a process of complexification, of moving from relative simplicity and disorder towards relative complexity and order. . . . It was therefore a process of moving from more probable configurations towards less probable configurations.’

John Hatcher quoted by Kitzing in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief (page 203)

Optimisation – the sceptical view

To recap briefly where we got to last time, in considering the issue of evolution, we reach a point where life seems impossibly improbable, yet it exists. Something seems to be driving it to create increasingly complex forms of life, but we don’t know what. Now I come back to the issue of complexity from two atheists’ point of view before looking at the Bahá’í perspective once more.

A key issue that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini deal with in their book What Darwin Got Wrong concerns what they call optimisation.

Put simply (page 81):

Evolution seems to have achieved near optimal answers to questions which, if pursued by the application of exogenous filters to solutions generated at random, as the neo-Darwinist model requires, would have imposed searching implausibly large spaces of candidate solutions. This seems an intractable enigma, unless prior filtering by endogenous constraints is assumed.

The standard neo-Darwinian model won’t work, they conclude (page 85): ‘The picture of a blind search winnowed by selection is utterly implausible.’

They have analysed the endogenous constraints within the genome that I referred to last time and are also aware that basic laws of science add in further limits (page 86):

 . . . it seems that only physico-chemical and geometric constraints can explain the narrow canalisations that natural selection must have explored.… [Otherwise] the space of possible solutions to be explored seems too gigantic to have been explored by blind trial and error.

There are still mysteries that remain unexplained, for example (page 89) concerning the angle of wings:

The angles of effective wing stroke are extremely narrow . . . and one wants to question the process through which this narrow wedge of angles became fixated even before there was any real flight.

They give several other examples of optimisation including the foraging strategies of bees, before moving on to a particularly spectacular one: the example of the wasp that zombifies cockroaches with two strategically perfect injections at the exactly right intervals, prior to making its victim the comatose but still alive host and food supply to its young. They go on to say (pages 90-91 – my emphasis):

Not even the most committed adaptationist neo-Darwinians suppose that all kinds of alternatives have been blindly tried out by the ancestors of the wasp … True: wasps have been around for a very long time (some 400 million years, maybe more) but even this is not a long enough time to try out innumerable alternative behavioural solutions, with alternative possibilities conceivable at each step of the behavioural sequence. What, then? No one knows at present. Such cases of elaborate innate behavioural programs… cannot be accounted for by means of optimising physico-chemical or geometric factors.

There has to be some explanation. Whatever it is science hasn’t found it yet but, as scientists, they understandably place their faith in science none the less (page 92):

The problem of finding optimal solutions to evolutionary problems by filtering candidates generated at random would often be intractable. But, as we have just seen, there are some instances of optimal (or near-optimal) solutions to problems in biology; so, if natural selection cannot optimise, then something else must be involved.. . . factors that the progress of science will in due time reveal.

This is an act of faith even so. We’re in Eric Reitan territory here when he writes in Is God a Delusion? (pages 181-182) that:

 . . . atheism is a matter of faith, . . . a way of seeing the world that they have chosen from an array of alternatives about which reason and evidence have nothing to say. . . . Religious faith . . . involves a choice that is no less rational than theirs.

Complexity and Faith

So, what might a religion have to say about this problem that would be just as rational?

Eberhard von Kitzing writes in Evolution and Bahá’í Belief (page 183):

Just as embryonic development consists in the actualisation of the information stored in its genome, evolution based on the existence of a potential order ‘reveals’ the implicit order encoded in fundamental laws of nature.

. . . Because of the gigantic improbability of the result of evolution by chance, today chance as the primary source of complex life is generally rejected. Most modern evolutionary biologists would agree that pure chance cannot explain the complex order of life.

This seems reasonably concordant with where I left Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini just now. Kitzing goes on (page 185-86) ‘. . . as pointed out correctly by Ward, the gradual appearance of order begs the same level of explanation as its sudden emergence: . . . . If complexity needs explaining, it needs explaining, however long it took to get there!’ adding that (page 192) ‘The origin of complex order by chance alone is too improbable for such a possibility to be taken seriously.’

It should come as no surprise at this point (page 194) to find Kitzing pointing out that ‘‘Abdu’l-Bahá proposes the need of a voluntary First Cause to avoid the problem of an infinite regression of causes.’

Picking up on the issue of optimisation, or in his terms ‘complexity,’ Kitzing quotes Hatcher (pages 203-04):

‘. . . . The process of evolution was a process of complexification, of moving from relative simplicity and disorder towards relative complexity and order. . . . It was therefore a process of moving from more probable configurations towards less probable configurations.’ . . . Hatcher concludes that there must be a special kind of force which causes this complexification during the evolution of life on earth.

Hatcher voices the conclusion to which this inevitably leads (page 204): ‘It seems reasonable to call this force “God,” but anyone uncomfortable with that name can simply call it “the evolutionary force”.’

Ultimately (page 206): ‘Although there are differences in the details of the arguments of Hatcher, Ward, Loehle, and the author of this essay, they agree in the conclusion that God’s will is necessary to explain the origin of the complex order of life.’

We each of us have to make up our own minds, on the basis of the evidence as we understand it, where we stand on this issue. My main contention here is to suggest that a religious explanation of evolution is as rational as a materialistic one: to commit to either is an act of faith. Reason alone can only warrant agnosticism.

The Social Consequences of neo-Darwinism:

Having dealt with the main issue, I would like to take a brief look at another aspect that needs to be borne in mind: what has been the impact on culture and society of buying into a neo-Darwinian perspective?

Kitzing makes clear that (page 213):

[‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s] particular interest was in the social and religious consequences of Darwinism as it was interpreted by ‘some European philosophers.’

‘Abdu’l-Bahá has not been the only one to voice such concerns.

David Wallace-Wells, in his book The Uninhabitable Earth, speaks of how Social Darwinism appeals ‘to unequal outcomes as “fair” ones, an already familiar one-percenter view.’ In effect, neo-Darwinism works hard to make bllnd competitive selfishness seem  almost rational and certainly inevitable.

In Alas, Poor Darwin, Hilary & Steven Rose strongly express their concerns (page 3):

The claims of evolutionary psychology in the field of biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and philosophy are for the most part not merely mistaken, but culturally pernicious.

One of the many examples in the book comes from Charles Jenks (page 44):

Social Darwinists and John D. Rockefeller . . . argued that, since nature shows the survival of the fittest coming out of competition, then society should make permanent the winners and losers. It is only natural to follow natural selection. In spite of such arguments continuously being shown to be logically false and morally suspect, they are, I believe, being continuously made and especially by those trained to avoid them, academics.

One way to fossilise inequality, I suppose.

There is another delusion whose balloon he seeks to puncture: it’s the deterministic one about free will being an illusion. This is rooted in a reductionist view of the mind which Dorothy Nelkin explains (page 18): ‘Evolutionary psychologists…, [c]onvinced of the centrality of the genes, believe that the mind will ultimately be reduced to material properties…’ Ironically, they proselytise their views in the manner of religious evangelists (page 19): ‘Evolutionary psychologists are missionaries, advocating a set of principles that define the meaning of life and seeking to convert others to their beliefs.’

Charles Jenks then spends a whole chapter subverting the idea that this means all we do is determined either by genes or culture (page 31):

 . . . we actually have three variables: nature, nurture and self organisation. For convenience I will label them genes (G), culture (C) and free will (F).

He argues that sneezing is almost completely genetically determined while artistic creativity is one of the most extreme examples of the exercise of free will.

If there were no free will, and everything was determined, then none of us would be responsible for what we do and should not therefore be held to account for it, a proposition that would make it hard to adhere to any workable system of crime and punishment.

Perhaps as importantly, it would make most of us give up the struggle to overcome tormenting mental states such as depression and obsessive-compulsive drives.

Thankfully there is a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that this would be a defeatist delusion. There is a book dealing with a wealth of research that is exactly in line with this.

The Mind & the Brain by Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley tackles the complexities of the issue in a  most accessible style and marshalls the evidence in an engaging and persuasive way (page 18):

Modern neuroscience is now demonstrating what James suspected more than a century ago: that attention is a mental state . . . that allows us, moment by moment, to “choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, [to] choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense . .

The authors discuss in detail various models of mind, highlighting the problems problems with reductionism (page 40):

The basic principles of evolutionary biology would seem to dictate that any natural phenomenon as prominent in our lives as our experience of consciousness must necessarily have some discernible and quantifiable effect in order for it to exist, and to persist, in nature at all.

They introduce us to Chalmers‘ notion that consciousness can be regarded (page 47) as a “non-reductive primitive,” a “fundamental building block of reality”.

It would be impossible to describe all the evidence they adduce to support the claim that volition is real and its exercise can change the brain, i.e. mind alters matter in this case and it cannot be explained as one part of the brain working on another part.

Crucially, they draw on Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work showed (page 90) that “self-directed therapy had dramatically and significantly altered brain function.” His model involves four stages. He concludes (page 94):

The changes the Four Steps can produce in the brain offered strong evidence that willful [i.e. willed], mindful effort can alter brain function, and that such self-directed brain changes – neuroplasticity – are a genuine reality.

In case we miss the full implications of this work they spell them out (page 95):

The clinical and physiological results achieved with OCD support the notion that the conscious and willful mind cannot be explained solely and completely by matter, by the material substance of the brain. In other words, the arrow of causation relating brain and mind must be bidirectional. . . . [M]odern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

So, there I will leave the matter for now at least.

In my view, it is as rational to believe in a transcendent driver behind the improbable complexities of evolution, as it is to believe we will eventually find a convincing material one. There may also be good reasons for being more alert to some of the more potentially toxic ways a neo-Darwinian perspective has been contaminating our culture.

Over to you.

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I have embarked on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme.

This post was first published in 2009. I am aware that the climate debate has moved on. However, from a Bahá’í point of view the debate that still rages around this issue needs to be conducted in the right spirit, as this piece explains, and also needs to be addressing the most fundamental issues as the Universal House of Justice is keen we should understand. The most important principle here is expressed in its letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran in March 2013:

The deepening environmental crisis, driven by a system that condones the pillage of natural resources to satisfy an insatiable thirst for more, suggests how entirely inadequate is the present conception of humanity’s relationship with nature.

Unless that is addressed we are likely to be applying a sticking plaster to a bullet hole. 

Sometimes experience transmits an insight that should never be forgotten. I have benefited from at least one such insight, so perhaps I can count myself as lucky. Until that ‘aha!’ moment,  I had tended to trust much of what I read about areas of which I knew little, prepared to accept that the experts knew best.

When I began to study the mind systematically, in the early days I retained this rosy view of things. As I delved deeper, and also at the same time as I became more experienced in applying what I studied to individuals in great need and great distress, the picture darkened. The more I knew and the more I tried to use what I knew to help those with whom I came in contact, the less I understood. Brains, genes, environments, families, cultures swirled around in my head with competing explanations of what was going on. And when I finally decided to specialise in psychosis, it all got a whole lot worse. I discovered that, even though people saw me as an expert, my hard-won understanding was honeycombed with doubt.

I remember also hearing at that time that, were an ‘expert’ to read the newly published literature in her field at the rate of a page a minute 24 hours a day for a whole year, she would be further behind at the end of the year than she was at the beginning.

Now compared to the planet earth we live on, the human head is pretty small. We shouldn’t let that deceive us though.  Wikipedia estimates that there are 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain, as many as there are stars in our galaxy. Each of these nerve cells can potentially contact as many as 10,000 other nerve cells. This means that there are something like 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible connections in the brain (this is 10 to the power of 20, I think: I’ve always had a shaky grasp of the idea of ‘power’ in any context and most of all in this one. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia the total atoms in the universe number 10 to the power of 80.) Another scientist sheds doubt on a widespread factoid that there are more connections in the brain that there are atoms in the universe and prefers to state the issue more cautiously by saying there are are more connections in the brain than there are stars in the Milky Way.

For source of image see link

Neuronal Connections – For source of image see link

Even though none of us will manage to establish connections between all our neurons, it’s clear the brain is extremely complex. Once we get to that level of complexity in one element of a complex system which involves DNA (the human genome occupies a total of just over 3 billion DNA base pairs), societal variables (I’ve no idea how many: try class, race, nationality, gender, age just for starters) and cultural memes (virtually infinite even if they can be organised into classes), we can see that the hope of achieving absolute clarity about what’s going on overall with absolute certainty is pretty slim indeed. Finding a fleck of gold in the sands of the Sahara would be a doddle by comparison.

As for keeping up with the literature across so many disciplines, we would need several lifetimes, rather in the way that we in the West will need more than one planet to satisfy our idea of our needs. Of course, if everyone else had several lifetimes to write the stuff I had to read, there’d be no hope at all of catching up.

That’s why in Mental Health we ended up with a multitude of different disciplines each looking at the situation from a different angle and generating complementary but not always entirely compatible explanations — models of reality, if you like. There was no way that any one model could justifiably claim it had successfully captured the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The Nature of Truth

That was my epiphany. I discovered the full value of Oscar Wilde‘s insight, one that I had in my youth dismissed as a clever joke: ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’ And I realised that anyone who thought they understood the truth in any of the fields I was familiar with was seriously deluded. At that point as an individual I gave up the quest for certainty about anything reasonably complex even when achieving certainty seemed really important. In fact I came to the conclusion that certainty of that kind is usually dangerous across the board in every specialty.

Only by having sceptical people with divergent views openly exchanging perspectives from a position of humility within a group which is trying to decide what to do in a specific situation was there any hope of doing something helpful rather than destructive. Mutual respect and the ability to listen carefully to those whom you felt might well be wrong even before they opened their mouths to speak, were imperative.

Those factors were all that prevented us from inflicting further pain on those in our care who were already suffering more than they could bear.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to recognise that a disturbed planet is a touch more difficult to diagnose and help than a disturbed person. And not only are there many more variables to consider, but the time scales that we need to encompass are huge. If I try to use my adult experience of the climate (say, 45 years) to make a judgement on the matter, it would be as though I was trying to assess a complex personal problem and define an effective solution in just over eight minutes. I’d have barely scratched the surface.

Selling out the Truth

There is a spreading sense of unease about how the real complexity of the issues is being sold out by other interests in the climate change debate. Frank Furedi‘s description captures one aspect of this exactly:

The problem is not the status of the expert, but its politicisation. All too often experts do not confine their involvement in public discussion to the provision of advice. Many insist that their expertise entitles them to have the last word on policy deliberation. Recent studies indicate that in public debates those whose views run counter to the sentiments of scientific experts find it difficult to voice their beliefs.

From time to time experts also use their authority to silence opponents and close down discussion. For example, those who argue that the debate on climate change is finished claim the authority of scientific expertise. That was how former British environment minister David Miliband justified his 2007 statement that ‘the debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over’. The impulse to close down debate is also evident in the attacks on Australian geologist Ian Plimer for raising questions about the prevailing consensus on climate change in his book Heaven and Earth. Plimer, it was pointed out with some finality, was not a climate change expert.

I am not competent to determine whether the case for man-made global warming has been conclusively proved as against the real possibility that natural processes are contributing the lion’s share to significant fluctuations in the world-wide climate. It’s about as much as we can do as lay people to get hold of one idea, such as man-made CO2 leads to global warming, and be convinced something needs to be done. Reading Nicholas Stern‘s book makes it clear that understanding all the implications even of that one idea is an extremely demanding task. Following the oscillating swings from doubt to conviction and back again in such books as The Sceptical Environmentalist, The Hot Topic and Chill exposes the unprepared mind to a bewildering welter of complex interacting variables whose exact significance lies beyond my capacity to disentangle. You can get a strong taste of the complexity of the issues by looking at Peter Taylor‘s book ‘Chill.’

He also writes about something I can potentially understand –  the unhealthy way dissent has been treated in the debate (page 9):

It is an issue central to the evolution of science and sound policy – in that dissent needs to be acknowledged, respected and given its voice not just at the level of scientific working groups, but at the policy level in the treatment of uncertainty. If dissent is marginalised, science travels down the slippery slope directed by the needs of policy makers for simple single cause answers and targets, and in this, ultimately, the truth suffers.

He concludes (page 10), rather as Furedi does, that ‘[p]olitics had intruded into science on a grand scale.’

Honouring Complexity

This really worries me. In spite of the many uncertainties that attend this degree of complexity,  all too often the debate is not being conducted in the necessary spirit of humble inquiry into the truth and respect for all those similarly engaged. A recent example was when a prominent political figure described as flat-earthers the sceptics who question whether global warming is entirely attributable to human CO2. The use of arguments like that generates more heat than light – surely an undesirable consequence at this juncture if those who use this kind of ploy are in fact correct.

I may not be an expert in the theories whose elaborate structures overshadow our mental landscape at the moment but I can surely smell a rat in the drainage system of the processes that underpin the conclusions that have been reached. For simplicity’s sake I am going to assume that Peter Taylor has been reasonably fair in his description of the flaws in the conduct of the debate on this issue. He tone seems measured and he doesn’t descend into invective. He coolly describes what he sees. The book is not called Chill for nothing.

The individual human mind is not able to grasp extreme complexity and ambiguity. Many minds have to be brought to bear upon the problem, and the search for the kind of simple certainty so often felt to be necessary if action is to be undertaken should not be allowed to dangerously distort our perception of reality.

Our culture is unfortunately founded upon the assumption that competition is healthy and the basis for progressing our understanding and enhancing our prosperity. Michael Karlberg, in Beyond the Culture of Contest, digs deeply into the problems of this world view and questions whether it is the only paradigm available. He argues (pages 36-38):

Normative adversarialism, as I use the term, refers to the assumption that contests are normal and necessary models of social organisation. This assumption is deeply embedded in the codes of western-liberal cultures. . . . . [M]y intent is not to imply that cooperative and mutualistic practices are entirely absent  . . . . . Rather, my intent is to show that adversarialism has become a normative ideal . .

He sees this ideal operating across the economic, legal and political spheres of activity. Crucially in the context we are considering here he concludes (page 64):

By privileging single perspectives over multiple perspectives, the adversary paradigm favours reductionistic and absolutist thought.

In a complex presentation at the end of his book he offers an alternative model drawn from his experience of the Bahá’í experiment in community functioning which this blog also explores in detail from time to time. He explains (pages 142-143):

. . . Bahá’ís believe that only within an atmosphere of mutual respect, support and encouragement, rather than aggression and intimidation, can clarity of thought prevail and the perspectives of all people be heard . . . These prescriptions . . . do not imply the need to gloss over conflicts by demanding that participants bury their differences and speak to each other in artificially polite civil tones. On the contrary, they imply finding and facilitating modes of expression that allow conflicting perceptions and interests to be critically examined but in an atmosphere of tolerance and a spirit of mutual commitment within which problems become soluble challenges.

With a topic as complex and, to many, as terrifying as global warming, this kind of approach is clearly imperative.

Dan Gardner makes a shrewd point near the end of his book on risk (page 316):

One would think that catastrophists would learn to be humble about their ability to predict the future but there is a noticeable absence of humility in the genre.

When risk rises humility becomes increasingly scarce. That though is the most important moment for humility to trump arrogance in the way we explore and compare our views of reality. We should be doing all we can to ensure that our experts and our politicians remain open to all possible sources of enlightenment as we seek to understand and respond to the immensely powerful and complex forces at work in the biosphere.

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Sometimes experience transmits an insight that should never be forgotten. I have benefited from at least one such insight, so perhaps I can count myself as lucky. Until that ‘aha!’ moment,  I had tended to trust much of what I read about areas of which I knew little, prepared to accept that the experts knew best.

When I began to study the mind systematically, in the early days I retained this rosy view of things. As I delved deeper, and also at the same time as I became more experienced in applying what I studied to individuals in great need and great distress, the picture darkened. The more I knew and the more I tried to use what I knew to help those with whom I came in contact, the less I understood. Brains, genes, environments, families, cultures swirled around in my head with competing explanations of what was going on. And when I finally decided to specialise in psychosis, it all got a whole lot worse. I discovered that, even though people saw me as an expert, my hard-won understanding was honeycombed with doubt.

I remember also hearing at that time that, were an ‘expert’ to read the newly published literature in her field at the rate of a page a minute 24 hours a day for a whole year, she would be further behind at the end of the year than she was at the beginning.

Neuronal Connections – For source of image see link

Now compared to the planet earth we live on, the human head is pretty small. We shouldn’t let that deceive us though.  Wikipedia estimates that there are 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain, as many as there are stars in our galaxy. Each of these nerve cells can potentially contact as many as 10,000 other nerve cells. This means that there are something like 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible connections in the brain (this is 10 to the power of 20, I think: I’ve always had a shaky grasp of the idea of ‘power’ in any context and most of all in this one. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia the total atoms in the universe number 10 to the power of 80.) Another scientist sheds doubt on a widespread factoid that there are more connections in the brain that there are atoms in the universe and prefers to state the issue more cautiously by saying there are are more connections in the brain than there are stars in the Milky Way.

Even though none of us will manage to establish connections between all our neurons, it’s clear the brain is extremely complex. Once we get to that level of complexity in one element of a complex system which involves DNA (the human genome occupies a total of just over 3 billion DNA base pairs), societal variables (I’ve no idea how many: try class, race, nationality, gender, age just for starters) and cultural memes (virtually infinite even if they can be organised into classes), we can see that the hope of achieving absolute clarity about what’s going on overall with absolute certainty is pretty slim indeed. Finding a fleck of gold in sands of the Sahara would be a doddle by comparison.

As for keeping up with the literature across so many disciplines, we would need several lifetimes, rather in the way that we in the West will need more than one planet to satisfy our idea of our needs. Of course, if everyone else had several lifetimes to write the stuff I had to read, there’d be no hope at all of catching up.

That’s why in Mental Health we ended up with a multitude of different disciplines each looking at the situation from a different angle and generating complementary but not always entirely compatible explanations — models of reality, if you like. There was no way that any one model could justifiably claim it had successfully captured the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

The Nature of Truth

That was my epiphany. I discovered the full value of Oscar Wilde‘s insight, one that I had in my youth dismissed as a clever joke: ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple.’ And I realised that anyone who thought they understood the truth in any of the fields I was familiar with was seriously deluded. At that point as an individual I gave up the quest for certainty about anything reasonably complex even when achieving certainty seemed really important. In fact I came to the conclusion that certainty of that kind is usually dangerous across the board in every specialty.

Only by having sceptical people with divergent views openly exchanging perspectives from a position of humility within a group which is trying to decide what to do in a specific situation was there any hope of doing something helpful rather than destructive. Mutual respect and the ability to listen carefully to those whom you felt might well be wrong even before they opened their mouths to speak, were imperative.

Those factors were all that prevented us from inflicting further pain on those in our care who were already suffering more than they could bear.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to recognise that a disturbed planet is a touch more difficult to diagnose and help than a disturbed person. And not only are there many more variables to consider, but the time scales that we need to encompass are huge. If I try to use my adult experience of the climate (say, 45 years) to make a judgement on the matter, it would be as though I was trying to assess a complex personal problem and define an effective solution in just over eight minutes. I’d have barely scratched the surface.

Selling out the Truth

There is a spreading sense of unease about how the real complexity of the issues is being sold out by other interests in the climate change debate. Frank Furedi‘s description captures one aspect of this exactly:

The problem is not the status of the expert, but its politicisation. All too often experts do not confine their involvement in public discussion to the provision of advice. Many insist that their expertise entitles them to have the last word on policy deliberation. Recent studies indicate that in public debates those whose views run counter to the sentiments of scientific experts find it difficult to voice their beliefs.

From time to time experts also use their authority to silence opponents and close down discussion. For example, those who argue that the debate on climate change is finished claim the authority of scientific expertise. That was how former British environment minister David Miliband justified his 2007 statement that ‘the debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over’. The impulse to close down debate is also evident in the attacks on Australian geologist Ian Plimer for raising questions about the prevailing consensus on climate change in his book Heaven and Earth. Plimer, it was pointed out with some finality, was not a climate change expert.

I am not competent to determine whether the case for man-made global warming has been conclusively proved as against the real possibility that natural processes are contributing the lion’s share to significant fluctuations in the world-wide climate. It’s about as much as we can do as lay people to get hold of one idea, such as man-made CO2 leads to global warming, and be convinced something needs to be done. Reading Nicholas Stern‘s book makes it clear that understanding all the implications even of that one idea is an extremely demanding task. Following the oscillating swings from doubt to conviction and back again in such books as The Sceptical Environmentalist, The Hot Topic and Chill exposes the unprepared mind to a bewildering welter of complex interacting variables whose exact significance lies beyond my capacity to disentangle. You can get a strong taste of the complexity of the issues by looking at Peter Taylor‘s book ‘Chill.’

He also writes about something I can potentially understand –  the unhealthy way dissent has been treated in the debate (page 9):

It is an issue central to the evolution of science and sound policy – in that dissent needs to be acknowledged, respected and given its voice not just at the level of scientific working groups, but at the policy level in the treatment of uncertainty. If dissent is marginalised, science travels down the slippery slope directed by the needs of policy makers for simple single cause answers and targets, and in this, ultimately, the truth suffers.

He concludes (page 10), rather as Furedi does, that ‘[p]olitics had intruded into science on a grand scale.’

Honouring Complexity

This really worries me. In spite of the many uncertainties that attend this degree of complexity,  all too often the debate is not being conducted in the necessary spirit of humble inquiry into the truth and respect for all those similarly engaged. A recent example was when a prominent political figure described as flat-earthers the sceptics who question whether global warming is entirely attributable to human CO2. The use of arguments like that generates more heat than light – surely an undesirable consequence at this juncture if those who use this kind of ploy are in fact correct.

I may not be an expert in the theories whose elaborate structures overshadow our mental landscape at the moment but I can surely smell a rat in the drainage system of the processes that underpin the conclusions that have been reached. For simplicity’s sake I am going to assume that Peter Taylor has been reasonably fair in his description of the flaws in the conduct of the debate on this issue. He tone seems measured and he doesn’t descend into invective. He coolly describes what he sees. The book is not called Chill for nothing.

The individual human mind is not able to grasp extreme complexity and ambiguity. Many minds have to be brought to bear upon the problem, and the search for the kind of simple certainty so often felt to be necessary if action is to be undertaken should not be allowed to dangerously distort our perception of reality.

Our culture is unfortunately founded upon the assumption that competition is healthy and the basis for progressing our understanding and enhancing our prosperity. Michael Karlberg, in Beyond the Culture of Contest, digs deeply into the problems of this world view and questions whether it is the only paradigm available. He argues (pages 36-38):

Normative adversarialism, as I use the term, refers to the assumption that contests are normal and necessary models of social organisation. This assumption is deeply embedded in the codes of western-liberal cultures. . . . . [M]y intent is not to imply that cooperative and mutualistic practices are entirely absent  . . . . . Rather, my intent is to show that adversarialism has become a normative ideal . .

He sees this ideal operating across the economic, legal and political spheres of activity. Crucially in the context we are considering here he concludes (page 64):

By privileging single perspectives over multiple perspectives, the adversary paradigm favours reductionistic and absolutist thought.

In a complex presentation at the end of his book he offers an alternative model drawn from his experience of the Bahá’í experiment in community functioning which this blog also explores in detail from time to time. He explains (pages 142-143):

. . . Bahá’ís believe that only within an atmosphere of mutual respect, support and encouragement, rather than aggression and intimidation, can clarity of thought prevail and the perspectives of all people be heard . . . These prescriptions . . . do not imply the need to gloss over conflicts by demanding that participants bury their differences and speak to each other in artificially polite civil tones. On the contrary, they imply finding and facilitating modes of expression that allow conflicting perceptions and interests to be critically examined but in an atmosphere of tolerance and a spirit of mutual commitment within which problems become soluble challenges.

With a topic as complex and, to many, as terrifying as global warming, this kind of approach is clearly imperative.

Dan Gardner makes a shrewd point near the end of his book on risk (page 316):

One would think that catastrophists would learn to be humble about their ability to predict the future but there is a noticeable absence of humility in the genre.

When risk rises humility becomes increasingly scarce. That though is the most important moment for humility to trump arrogance in the way we explore and compare our views of reality. We should be doing all we can to ensure that our experts and our politicians remain open to all possible sources of enlightenment as we seek to understand and respond to the immensely powerful and complex forces at work in the biosphere.

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