Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Kahneman’

Hamlet almost kills Claudius Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company Directed by Gregory Doran

Hamlet almost kills Claudius (For source of image see link)
Hamlet (2009) Royal Shakespeare Company. Directed by Gregory Doran

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann’d:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.

(Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3, lines 73-80)

This sequence last seen two years ago seems to follow on naturally from the Understanding Heart sequence I’ve just republished. So here it comes again on three consecutive days this time.

I ended the last post with a question:

Maybe this is partly why I ignored the whispers to hang on in there, shot the albatross in the heat of a conflict situation, and betrayed myself in the process. At least I think it was. Maybe this, rather surprisingly, is the lesson Bahá’u’lláh wants me to learn from all this crackle in my system. Can I, should I make a virtue of uncertainty, at least in some circumstances, and have the courage of my confusion?

This leaves another question still hanging in the air: ‘Maybe there are situations where waiting is clearly a mistake, and then isn’t doing something better than dithering indefinitely?’ And if so, how do I tell the difference? And when I sense a difference, how do I step back from the clamour in my head and stay still with no sense of guilt? We’ll be coming onto that aspect of things soon now.


Given my default position of doubt, it’s no wonder that Hamlet is the Shakespeare play I resonate to most strongly. ‘Now could I do it pat!’ except he can’t. Instinct gives way to the scanning of intellect. He stands ‘mammering,’ as Othello scathingly refers to this kind of hesitation.

Othello & Desdemona

Othello after killing Desdemona (for source of image see link)

It is intriguing to note at this point that if Othello had been in Hamlet’s shoes, Hamlet would have been much shorter and far less interesting, probably ending at Act I, Scene 2, shortly after Othello had left the battlements and cut his uncle’s throat before breakfast, whereas, if Hamlet had starred in Othello, Desdemona would probably still be alive, with Iago on a perilous mission somewhere in Africa, probably never to return. Neither play would have worked as a tragedy, or even as a comedy for that matter, as it would have lacked the necessary mismatch between character and situation.[1]

To return to the main issue, ‘mammering’ has a bad press in our culture. ‘He who hesitates is lost,’ we parrot, ‘Strike while the iron is hot!’ quite forgetting that it might just possibly be better to look before we leap. Such a bad press in fact that it has taken me quite some time to recognise the possibility that there could be times when mammering is the best policy. He who hesitates may well be the wisest of them all.

Indecision is pathologised in our culture, but that should be when it’s a pattern which disables our ability to decide what to eat, where to go for a walk, what book or clothes to buy – none of which is the case with me as far as I can tell. Maybe refusing to decide to act when the stakes are too high, nothing is clear and we don’t really have to, is quite rational and in fact the toughest decision to make, not a sign of weakness at all.

The question though that confronts me every time in every situation is, ‘Is this situation one of those where mammering is best?’

Trying to apply this kind of thinking more closely to the actuality of an experience is also difficult for all of us. What happens when a specific situation presses a button, for example when we are convinced that someone close has lied to us? What do we say or do when a trusted friend has refused to help us? How do we deal with the soreness left after we feel betrayed and an important bond had been badly damaged if not completely broken?

Well, I think I might have a glimpse of the answer to those kinds of questions.

I think I now realise, and not just intellectually, that there is a huge difference between the reality we see when we stand back and the reality we experience when we allow the hurt to distort our perceptions, and the crucial Trafalgar we fight is when we battle not to board the ship whose sails are perceptions with the wind of hurt behind them.

When the pain and the reality collide and pressurise me to warp my perception and experience and decide something destructive, I need to learn to stand back and, first, tell myself that storm water on the mind’s window doesn’t alter what’s outside, and, second, that, with friends and family especially but perhaps with human kind as a whole, the basic relationship can only be blurred by pain but need not be destroyed by it – not even if we plan never to speak to or spend time with them again.

We are all inextricably linked, as Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner implies, so to use emotional pain on the spur of the moment as an excuse, for example, for not speaking again ever, while human and understandable, is not a viable way forward. (Physical harm is a different matter of course and requires that measures be taken as soon as possible to secure our safety.) I also agree that there are a very few people we might know whose speech comes to be too dangerous to listen to ever again: verbal abuse and systematic denigration, for example, should not be endured. I’d have to be sure you’re such a person before I cut you off completely.

But I am dealing now with what I would call the routine mainstream of human relationships, where there are serious mistakes but no calculated malice. In such circumstances, ‘I’m not taking this crap any more!’ and walking out might sound like strong minded forthrightness, but all too often it’s only camouflaged cowardice.

So, what has all this got to do with the Three-Brain model? How could that possible help?

The Three Brain Model Revisited

Well, a key issue is to learn how to step back from all the usual programming that tempts us to press the button marked ‘Fire’ too early, in case we kill an albatross. As we discussed earlier, different parts of our brain system are triggered in different ways along different time-scales.

When we lived in caves and usually had only one chance to learn how to recognise and escape from a tiger, instinct was really handy. It still is. It helps us get out of the way of an oncoming train and sense if an attack in a dark alley is likely to happen. It also tends to mistake a black plastic bag for a mugger.

So, basically, it’s a good idea to put our instincts on a leash when we’re not in clear physical danger. We can allow the warning light to keep flashing, but we don’t have to attack or escape until we’ve made sure that the threat is real. Sometimes, even when the threat is real, we can keep the leash tight in order, for example, to help others out of danger before we escape ourselves. We can even save an albatross before we save ourselves. This over-ride is one of the things that makes us human rather than simply animal, though I accept that some animals can demonstrate something remarkably like altruism.

The ability to pull on the leash before the leopard leaps needs constant practice. Mindfulness helps. The earlier we can learn to spot the reaction the better the chance we have of stopping it and swapping it for a more considered response.

If we can keep the leash tight and keep calm as well, something that also comes with practice as we learn how to step mindfully back from our reactions, thinking remains possible.

In our culture, thinking tends to have pride of place. Science and logic are highly valued. We love the way we can analyse experience. There are huge advantages to this way of working. We go way beyond gut reactions, which can only really be trusted when situations are crisp, clear and self-evident or else, if complex, are predictably patterned and deeply familiar.

Such situations are most certainly not the only ones we meet in our complex and global society, far different from the forests of our distant origins. Snap judgements can now be seriously flawed, and the flaws grow in size as situations become more complex and chaotic. So, taking the time and making the effort to work things out carefully pays off in all complex situations where the consequences, though not necessarily life-threatening, could be scarily high. My home, my health or my wealth could be at stake. In addition to Kahneman’s work already referred to, Daniel Levitin, in his book The Organised Mind, has much to say about how, for example, we can become better at making difficult decisions about what steps to take to mend our health (page 219-267).


3 brain awareness v4

We need to dig a bit deeper still.

I have produced a very left-brain diagram to roughly illustrate a right-brain model. Hopefully, if my left-brain buys it, there might be some chance it will give my right-brain enough space and time to function! The ellipse labelled Conscious Awareness represents a process and is not meant to be reified (or deified for that matter). In terms of the discussion below it is primarily to be seen as ‘consciousness influenced by brain systems/processes’ and restricted by the brain’s limited but nonetheless impressive capacity to act as a receiver of signals.

To place this in a context, which I won’t be exploring in this post, conscious awareness (CA) is underpinned by preconscious processes and rests on a brain foundation of unconscious responses, usually termed ‘subliminal’ in the psychology literature. Also, for a Bahá’í and an Irreducible Mind enthusiast such as me, Mind in its totality is a sphere of potential consciousness, within which the ellipse of CA resides, and which emanates from a spiritual dimension to which our brains can only achieve an intermittent connection at best for most of us.

Signal RedAs the diagram attempts to show, if we think of the input from each of these brain systems as radio, television or satellite signals, then the instinctual signal is strongest. In the brain as it is wired, it also has a fast track and begins to trigger a reaction before the higher centres know what’s going on, hence the long thin wiring to the intellect and intuition. Also the descending neural pathways used to help the higher centres of the brain keep calm are fewer in number than the ascending ones raising the alarm. They do win in the end though if we use them enough and wisely.

So, putting instinct on hold can be very difficult in situations where our feelings are running high. Also, as Baumeister and Tierney have analysed in detail, our ability to restrain ourselves can tire just like a muscle, and our grip on our instincts is loosened. They wrote in February 2012’s edition of The Psychologist:

. . . . self-control is like a muscle that gets tired. People may start the day fresh and rested, but as they exert self-control over the course of the day, their powers may diminish. Many researchers have observed that self-control tends to break down late in the day, especially if it has been a demanding or stressful day. . . .

A series of experiments confirmed that willpower is tied to glucose (Gailliot et al., 2007). After people exert self-control, even on artificial lab tasks, their blood glucose levels drop. Low levels of blood glucose predict poor performance on tests of self- control.

Signal OrangeHowever, as the brain learns with practice to use the higher centres to hold back the tiger on each particular issue, we can get better at it, self-restraint develops more stamina, can hold on longer, and our fangs and claws may therefore more rarely rip into impetuous action.

The signal from the intellect is weaker than instinct’s and, although the diagram can’t show it clearly without muddling the main issue, the emotional centre of the archaic brain can keep interfering with the thinking process and colouring its deliberations. We can be infected by irrational fear, anger, impatience and so on, and, to make matters worse, because of our confirmation bias we will be very tempted to look only at the evidence that feeds our prejudices. We have to work very hard to keep the tiger in check, and to make ourselves look at evidence that contradicts our instinctive assumptions. That’s why paradigm shifts are so difficult to make in science as well as everywhere else: scientists are not immune to the impact of the primitive emotional investments they’ve made in what they have come to believe. Anyone interested in that area of exasperation need only read Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain, the Kellys’ Irreducible Mindor Malcolm Kendrick’s Doctoring Data.

Signal GreenHowever, more often than we realise, there are other serious limitations to our logical thinking processes in themselves as well, against which we also have to guard. Iain McGilchrist has explored the ramifications of this in his excellent book The Master & His Emissary, in which he argues that the way we privilege our left-brain logical linguistic mode of processing is fraught with danger: we have to balance it with the right-brain holistic intuitive approach, which is sensitive to our connectedness with others and able to correct distortions in our schematic mapping. The so-called ‘rational’ processes aren’t geared to securing a good grasp of values, human relationships, complex organic interactions, spiritual dimensions, wholes rather than parts and so on. Through right-brain processes we can have access to a mind that is far better at dealing with such things, but we do not often give it the time to operate effectively nor are we good at attending to its findings, which tend to come not in words but in intimations, metaphors, symbols, dreams, and other intuitive shapes. At least this is how it seems to me things usually are in our spiritually illiterate culture.

When any factors such as values are involved we would do well to step back from our thoughts, quieten our minds and wait – and I don’t mean wait for just a few minutes. Sometimes I have waited for days, weeks or in rare cases, with various difficult issues, months before either meditation, dreams or apparently random flashes of insight come bursting in with the answer – or possibly not bursting in but whispering the solution quietly in the background, waving somewhere from a far corner of my mind’s eye. Unfortunately our receiver is not good at tuning into the signal from the wisest part of ourselves that makes the best decisions, and we experience its signal as frustratingly weak, so weak sometimes we convince ourselves it does not exist, and blast on regardless.

So when reason has done all it’s work, it can be best to wait if there is no real urgency, but waiting is very hard to do, especially when we do not believe there will be anything worth waiting for – I’m sure that there will be all sorts of imaginary reasons our mind can manufacture to persuade us that we cannot and need not wait. Under mindful inspection such spurious reasons burst like soap bubbles on a pin. If there is a valid reason why we must act now, then perhaps we should, but not unless. Rushing to react kills albatrosses, something that waiting for the wisdom of intuition will help us avoid.

A Traffic-Light System

What I am suggesting is a simple set of traffic lights.

Sorry they’re up side down in the picture above but I couldn’t reconcile myself to placing instinct on a higher level than intuition and reason, even to create a more familiar symbol. But at least I discussed them in the familiar order. It’s a simple visual reminder, when there is a lot at stake, to stop, put all action on hold, if no danger threatens. Then to think hard for as long as necessary to get a grip on what’s really going on, and even then, only to act if it’s genuinely urgent. If we can do that, marinating our minds in the complexity of the issue, we will inevitably gain access to a rich and subtle vein of creative processing that will enable us to make truly wise as against hastily quick, or apparently clever decisions that might be missing something vital and doing serious harm.

It is my belief also that once we achieve this level of consciousness, can tune into it at will, though not necessarily consistently, and can begin to avoid our usual mistakes, even perhaps beginning to compensate for some past errors as well, the weight of unnecessary guilt, rage, self-blame and angst will fall off our shoulders, we will stand straighter and see much further.

At least that’s where I’ve got up to in my thinking so far! I hope it was worth sharing my mariner experience. If not, writing it down as clearly as I can might help me remember when the next albatross is in danger.


[1] I was shocked to discover (or perhaps to be reminded) that I wasn’t the first person to think of this possibility. In December 2015, six months after posting this, I read, on page 149 of Mark Edmundson’s brilliant Self & Soul, ‘A. C. Bradley has said that if you put Hamlet into Othello’s play, the prince will quickly make Iago [out] for what he is and just laugh him to scorn. In Hamlet’s place, Othello would draw his sword and slice Claudius nave to chops in the first act. In either case: no play.’ I definitely read Bradley 50 years ago. Was this then a case of cryptoamnesia? I think so. What does that suggest about the rest of what I write? I dread to think and feel obliged to apologise to anyone I have inadvertently plagiarised.

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Dore STC Holmes p144

Picture scanned from ‘Coleridge: Early Visions’ Richard Holmes (page 144)

The natural emotions are blameworthy and are like rust which deprives the heart of the bounties of God. But sincerity, justice, humility, severance, and love for the believers of God will purify the mirror and make it radiant with reflected rays from the Sun of Truth.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace – page 244

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Coleridge (1834) Rime of the Ancient Mariner (lines 115-118)

This sequence last seen two years ago seems to follow on naturally from the Understanding Heart sequence I’ve just republished. So here it comes again on three consecutive days this time.

Events over the last four years have taught me a lot. It would be tedious in the extreme to bore you with all the details. The events were of the kind exemplified in the first post of the sequence about the Three ‘I’s.

What I want to talk about just now is the way that a poem, which I had translated and which raised interesting questions for a friend, led to a breakthrough into a different angle of understanding, enriched admittedly both by my recent practice of mindfulness, my intense encounter with van Gogh in Amsterdam, and my long-standing struggle with the processes of reflection and disidentification in general.

Three Brains

To understand fully what I’m going to be saying I need to take a brief detour at this point into the three-brain model, which I’ve already dealt with on this blog. I looked at the work of Charles Tart, especially his book Waking Up. He is influenced heavily in this by Gurdjieff, a charismatic figure whose ideas are as intriguing as his character is difficult to read. Tart summarises what he finds useful (page 150):

Gurdjieff’s concept of man as a three-brained being, then, specifies that there are three major types of evaluation: intellectual, as we ordinarily conceive of it, emotional, and body/instinctive. . . . . [A] lack of balanced development of all three types of evaluation processes is a major cause of human suffering.

I have now tweaked that model somewhat in the light of my own experience, trying to integrate some previously unmentioned aspects and also to make more explicit ways to begin using it in practice while keeping it as simple as possible. I have not repeated some of the detailed suggestions in the Three ‘I’s sequence such as how to work with dreams, as these are accessible still on this blog.

Emotions and feelings of various kinds are triggered by the content of experience at every level.

A Three-Brain Model BasicThose at the instinctual, limbic system or ‘gut’ level tend to be linked to survival and are frequently negative involving fear (flight) and anger (fight). The other ‘f’ words, such as ‘food,’ usually trigger pleasure and other more positive responses. We tend to react strongly and quickly to all such triggers: there isn’t much thought, if any at all involved. It’s very much a flash point situation which can make catching ourselves in time before we react a bit of a problem. It takes practice.

At the intellectual, left-brain or ‘head’ level, the nature of feelings will depend upon the content and difficulty of whatever preoccupies our thinking processes. When we have a complex problem we end up having to work things out more slowly and what comes out after a longer period is a calculated decision rather than a gut reaction. I’ve been over much of this ground in recording my responses to Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow so I won’t rehash it all in detail here.

At the right-brain level of intuition, which can be termed the ‘heart,’ where holistic and creative processes tend to take place, emotions are overall usually more positive. Love and compassion are more frequently experienced at this level. It takes time for these processes to produce a sense of what to do next and more time still for us to explain what that is to our thinking mind. I have called the outcome here a ‘resolution’ because that word contains both the idea of resolving a problem and achieving a firm resolve about tackling it.

I will come back in the last post of this sequence to an examination of how to apply this model to any given situation.

Stranded Mariners

The poem in question was my rendering in English of Machado’s A Crazy Song, in particular the line I chose to render as ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed.’

A Crazy Song

My friend’s comment was unexpected:

. . . I was struck by your line ‘The ship of my existence rots becalmed’.  Several images and connections arise:  The ship is like our conscious or personal self, . . . . If the ship is becalmed there is no wind in its sails, and the sea itself is barely moving.  So the reason for the ship’s lack of movement has its origin outside the conscious self, . . . . .  The ship is a symbol for the personal Will (in psychosynthesis) and its crew is the multiplicity of our subpersonalities, hundreds of different selves which work in unison to make sail across the ocean. But in the becalmed ship the crew are all waiting, they can do nothing. . . . . . Perhaps [there are issues] need[ing] resolution in order to find some wind for your sails?

My immediate reaction was to dismiss the idea of present relevance. I had seen the translation I made as drawing on past experiences to mediate the transference of the emotional meaning of the poem for me from Spanish into English. I resonated so strongly to the original poem, I felt, because I’d been there, done that and got the t-shirt.

However, because I have learned that when this friend asks a question or raises an issue there is usually something substantial behind it, I went back to the original text. In doing so I came realise that ‘transference’ is an interesting word to have used in this context.

I went back to check out what I’d added to or subtracted from the original, which reads at that point:

Y no es verdad, dolor, yo te conozco,
tú eres nostalgia de la vida buena
y soledad de corazón sombrío,
de barco sin naufragio y sin estrella.

[Literal Translation: ‘But that’s not it – pain, I know you better: you are the longing for the happy days, the loneliness that fills the sombre heart, that haunts the ship unfoundering (ie ‘unwrecked’) and unstarred.’]

Clearly rotting and becalmed are my associations to what Machado wrote.

Whereas at first I had thought that I was simply rendering the spirit of the Spanish into an English equivalent, I’d clearly gone beyond it. So, in support of the ‘been there, done that’ theory, I argued to myself that perhaps I was referring back to some earlier state of mind and using the Spanish as a bridge to help me recreate it.

For example, at the time I was learning Spanish both at school, and later when a Spanish Assistante came to work at the college I was teaching at, I was still locked in my dissociation from or denial of the emotional turmoil of my childhood, up to and including my father’s death when I was 24. Not until my rather risky experiences with Reichian and Janovian breathing therapies (see link) at the hands of amateurs did I open Pandora’s box and discover what I really felt and really wanted to do – till then it had all been about addictive pastimes to help me keep shut down.

In one blog post I described it as follows:

Saturday was the day I dynamited my way into my basement. Suddenly, without any warning that I can remember, I was catapulted from my cushioned platform of bored breathing into the underground river of my tears – tears that I had never known existed.

It was an Emily Dickinson moment:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge, . . .

I’m just not as capable of conveying my experience in words as vividly as she did hers.

Drowning is probably the best word to describe how it felt. Yes, of course I could breath, but every breath plunged me deeper into the pain. Somehow I felt safe enough in that room full of unorthodox fellow travellers, pillow pounders and stretched out deep breathers alike, to continue exploring this bizarre dam-breaking flood of feeling, searching for what it meant.

I’m not sure why so many of my important experiences have such an aquatic flavour. Actually, I think I know why: anyone interested could check out an earlier post, which hints at the connection.

Anyway, after those moments, psychology/psychotherapy became the wind in my sails. I had reasons for wishing to become properly qualified in this area, having witnessed, as I saw it, the potential damage amateurs could do to the vulnerable (but that’s another story). I wanted to make a positive difference, something I couldn’t do outside the system against which I had rebelled. So I came back in, got a job, worked in mental health and found my vocation.

Finding the Bahá’í Faith put more wind in my sails. I thought the ‘painted ship upon a painted ocean’ experience that the Ancient Mariner describes was behind me. The imagery didn’t apply anymore to the present, did it?

Then, I began to wonder whether such a state might still be active somewhere underneath consciousness. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time I had failed fully to understand my own poem, let alone my translation of someone else’s. It’s some consolation to think that if you can completely understand a poem you’ve written, it probably isn’t much good.

Anyway, because she questioned what I might have meant and whether it applied to me and to what extent, a key association came to mind, the probable original source of those kinds of images for this kind of purpose. Surprise, surprise, it was Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Coleridge’s life has always fascinated me. He was 26 when he published this, younger than Keats when he died at 28 and younger than van Gogh when he started painting at 27 – extremely young to have composed, over what seems to have been a brief period of five months before first publication, such a powerful and dark poem. At least one biographer regards it as uncannily prophetic of his later life and all its suffering. He kept tinkering with the poem over a period of many years. It clearly was of profound significance to him.

In the next post I’ll be looking closely at the implication of this association for governing our reactions to experience. The poem would seem to have left a deeper mark on me than I had ever realised.

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

Were one to observe with an eye that discovereth the realities of all things, it would become clear that the greatest relationship that bindeth the world of being together lieth in the range of created things themselves, and that co-operation, mutual aid and reciprocity are essential characteristics in the unified body of the world of being, inasmuch as all created things are closely related together and each is influenced by the other or deriveth benefit therefrom, either directly or indirectly.

(Abdu’l-Bahá, from a previously untranslated Tablet quoted in part in a statement from the Bahá’í International Community Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Baha’i Faith)

Post-truth politics also poses a problem for scepticism. A healthy democracy needs to leave plenty of room for doubt. There are lots of good reasons to be doubtful about what the reality of climate change will entail: though there is scientific agreement about the fact of global warming and its source in human activity, the ultimate risks are very uncertain and so are the long-term consequences. There is plenty of scope for disagreement about the most effective next steps. The existence of a very strong scientific consensus does not mean there should be a consensus about the correct political response. But the fact of the scientific consensus has produced an equal and opposite reaction that squeezes the room for reasonable doubt. The certainty among the scientists has engendered the most intolerant kind of scepticism among the doubters.

(From How climate scepticism turned into something more dangerous by David Runciman – Guardian Friday 7 July 2017)

At the end of the last post I shared the hope that my helicopter survey of a vast field has done enough to convey clearly my sense that as individuals and communities we are locked into unconsciously determined and potentially destructive patterns of thought, feeling and behaviour, until we discover the keys of reflection for individuals and consultation for groups.

What we might do next is the focus of the final two posts.

When people resist therapy the personal price can be high. When cultures resist change the social and environmental costs can be even greater.

At whatever level we consider the matter, counteracting our default patterns requires significant effort, and the more complicated the problem, as in the case of climate change, the greater the effort. Even a simple puzzle can defeat even the best brains if the necessary effort is not taken to solve it. And often no effort is made because no failure in problem-solving is detected. Take this beautiful illustration of the point from Daniel Khaneman’s excellent treatment of what he calls System 1 (rapid fire reaction) and System 2 (careful effortful thinking) in Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow.I have dealt at length elsewhere with my distaste for the use of the word ‘intuitive’ in this context: I prefer ‘instinctive.’ Now though is not the time to delve into that problem: I’m currently republishing some of the posts dealing with that question.

The main point and its relevance is hopefully clear.

Biosphere Consciousness

Taking on the difficult problems is clearly going to be a challenge when we don’t even recognise or admit that our default reponses are so wide of the mark.

We need to reach at least a basic level of interactive understanding on a global scale if we are to successfully address the problems of our age. But we need more than that.

Rifkin, in his excellent book The Empathic Civilisation argues the case eloquently. He recognizes that to motivate us to make the necessary sacrifices to allow our civilization to survive its entropic processes we need something larger than ourselves to hold onto. By entropic he means all the waste and excessive consumption a growing population generates.

He doesn’t think religion will do the trick though.

For example, he sees the Golden Rule, a central tenant of all the great world religions, as self-interested because, by observing it, according to his version of religion, we buy paradise when we die. Kant, in his view, almost rescued it but not quite (page 175):

Immanuel Kant make the rational case for the Golden Rule in the modern age in his famous categorical imperative. . . . . First, “Act only on that maxim that can at the same time be willed to become a universal law.” Second, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.” Although Kant eliminated the self-interested aspect of doing good that was so much a part of most religious experiences, he also eliminated the “felt” experience that makes compassion so powerful and compelling.

Rifkin does acknowledge that Judaism endorses the universal application of the Golden Rule (page 214):

Lest some infer that the Golden Rule applies literally to only one’s neighbours and blood kin, the Bible makes clear that it is to be regarded as a universal law. In Leviticus it is written: “[T]he stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808), version from the “Butts set” (for source of image see link)

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’ He feels Christianity has warped this ideal, especially in respect of the existence of Satan, the Fall of man, and the resultant denigration of the body. He is aware that other religious teachings do not fall into what would be for him the same trap. However, he dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society.

He feels that he can now locate our redemption in that same physical nature he is convinced that religion is revolted by (page 349):

After deconstructing Kant’s categorical imperative, Schopenhauer offers a detailed description of moral behaviour that he argues is embedded in the very sinew of human nature – with the qualification that it needs to be brought out and nurtured by society if it is to be fully realised. He argues that “compassion” is at the core of human nature.

The question is whether we agree that the way evolution has shaped the brain is also a sufficient condition to produce the necessary levels of self-mastery and altruism and spread them widely and deeply enough across humanity to preserve us in the longer term.

He clearly hopes it does. He describes the exact nature of the challenge our situation creates (page 593):

The challenge before us is how to bring forward all of these historical stages of consciousness that still exist across the human spectrum to a new level of biosphere consciousness in time to break the lock that shackles increasing empathy to increasing entropy. . . .

And he concludes (ibid.):

In a world characterised by increasing individuation and made up of human beings at different stages of consciousness, the biosphere itself maybe the only context encompassing enough to unite the human race as a species.

This position is perhaps an inevitable consequence of his unwillingness to admit the possibility of a theological inspiration. I am astonished even more by a subsequent claim, which is imbued with the same blinkering assumption that Western materialist models of the world have basically got it right. He blurts out, in surprise (page 593-4):

While the new distributed communications technologies – and, soon, distributed renewable energies – are connecting the human race, what is so shocking is that no one has offered much of a reason as to why we ought to be connected. . . .

Does he have no awareness of current trends in holistic thinking, which assert that we are already and have always been interconnected at the deepest possible levels, not simply in terms of these recently emerged material factors? Is he ignoring long-standing spiritual systems such as that of the Native Americans whose foundation stone is this concept of interconnectedness? Does he not know of the empirical evidence being generated by near-death experiences, many of which include reports of just such a sense of nonmaterial interconnectedness? Has he not heard even a whisper of the Bahá’í position, admittedly recently emerged but with a longer history than the roots of holism in physics, that humanity is one and needs to recognise its essential unity if we are to be able to act together to solve the global problems that confront us? The problem is not that no one is offering a reason ‘why we ought to be connected’: the problem is that too few people are accepting the idea, expressed by millions of our fellow human beings in many complementary models of the world, that we are already deeply connected at a spiritual level, not just with each other but with the earth that sustains our material existence.

Naomi Klein makes a powerful case for hoping that the shock of climate change will have just the kind of positive effect that Rifkin looks for in Gaia, though she also is fully aware that shock often narrows our capacity to think, feel and relate and we end up in the tunnel-vision of fight and flight. She is aligned with Rifkin in his hope that identification on our part with the plight of the planet will be a sufficient catalyst to produce the desired shift.


Matthieu Ricard takes on these issues from a different angle.

There are major obstacles to addressing our challenges effectively and Ricard is not blind to them (page 580):

. . . . . in a world where politicians aim only to be elected or re-elected, where financial interest groups wield a disproportionate influence on policy makers, where the well-being of future generations is often ignored since their representatives do not have a seat at the negotiating table, where governments pursue national economic policies that are to the detriment of the global interest, decision-makers have barely any inclination to create institutions whose goal would be to encourage citizens to contribute to collective wealth, which would serve to eradicate poverty.

Snower contends, and Ricard agrees with him and so do I, that reason alone will never get us beyond this point (page 581):

. . . . no one has been able to show that reason alone, without the help of some prosocial motivation, is enough to persuade individuals to widen their sphere of responsibility to include all those who are affected by their actions.

Because he is a Buddhist, in his book Ricard chooses to advocate altruism (ibid):

Combined with the voice of reason, the voice of care can fundamentally change our will to contribute to collective goods. Such ideas echo the Buddhist teachings on uniting wisdom and compassion: without wisdom, compassion can be blind without compassion, wisdom becomes sterile.

Ricard (page 611) raises the issue of ‘altruism for the sake of future generations.’ If we accept the reality of climate change, as most of us now do, our behaviour will unarguably affect our descendants for the worse if we do not change it. Given that evolution has produced a human brain that privileges short term costs and benefits over long-term ones, such that a smoker does not even empathise with his future self sufficiently strongly to overcome in many cases the powerful allure of nicotine addiction, what chance has altruism in itself got of producing the desired effect?

Ricard to his credit faces this head on and quotes the research of Kurzban and Houser (page 631-32). They conclude from their research that:

20% of people are altruists who bear the fortunes of future generations in mind and are disposed to altering their ways of consumption to avoid destroying the environment. . . . . .

[However], around 60% of people follow prevailing trends and opinion leaders, something that highlights the power of the herd instinct in humans. These ‘followers’ are also ‘conditional cooperators:’ they are ready to contribute to the public good on the condition that everyone else does likewise.

The final 20% are not at all inclined to cooperate and want more than anything to take advantage of all the opportunities available to them. They are not opposed to other people’s happiness in principle, but it is not their business.

Shades of Pettigrew again! This clearly indicates that reaching the tipping point, where most people have widened out their unempathic tunnel vision to embrace the whole of humanity and future generations in a wide-angled embrace, is some way off still. He goes on to outline the many practical steps that lie within our reach, such as recycling more of our waste metals and moving to hydrogen powered cars. Enough of us have to want to bring those steps into reality before change will occur at a fast enough rate.

According to Ricard, we must move (page 682) from ‘community engagement to global responsibility.’ To do this it is necessary ‘to realise that all things are interdependent, and to assimilate that world view in such a way that it influences our every action.’ He sees altruism as the key to this transition.

The last post will take a closer look at that amongst other possibilities.

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‘In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold.

(Persian Hidden Words, No. 3: Bahá’u’lláh)

. . . . it is evident that the method of reason is not perfect, for the differences of the ancient philosophers, the want of stability and the variations of their opinions, prove this. For if it were perfect, all ought to be united in their ideas and agreed in their opinions.

(Some Answered Questions, page 298: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá)

Rings of Self IntellectIn the past I have made various attempts to articulate what I mean by reflection and why it matters. This is one that seems worth re-publishing at this point. There will be two more posts over the weekend, and then the last on Tuesday.

When we have a problem situation to which we cannot find an easy solution, when our instinctive responses, whether or not they are obviously destructive, fail to deliver, we need to move from what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking, and which I have described as instinct, to the slower processes of System 2, what I am here calling intellect.

In order to access those processes we need to keep instinct on pause for significantly long periods of time.

Some, such as Kahneman, believe that this is as far as we can go in terms of depth processing. There is nothing else to do and it works well for most of the problems we will encounter.

Up to a point I agree. Effortful, conscious and carefully researched thought in itself constitutes a perfectly valid approach to problem-solving and decision-making. There are many excellent treatments of this theme, including Kahneman’s. Another good place to start is Levitin’s The Organised Mind. His book has some rather pedestrian passages which give over-extended illustrations of his main point, but one of the best chapters concerns Organising Information for the Hardest Decisions: When Life Is on the Line. This chapter almost makes the book worth buying even if the rest is something of a rehash of Kahneman.

He explains (page 221) why deploying the intellect is so important in making decisions about our treatment for medical problems: ‘Cognitive science has taught is that relying on our gut . . . often leads to bad decisions, particularly in cases where statistical information is available. Our guts and our brains didn’t evolve to deal with probabilistic thinking.’ And probabilistic thinking, based on an adequate understanding of statistics, is precisely what is required when we have to weigh up whether or not to have major surgery or cancer treatment. Then we are often dealing with a complex cost-benefit analysis. For example, he nails an important issue on page 239: ‘Ask your doctor not just about efficacy and mortality, but quality of life and side effects that may impact it. Indeed, many patients value quality of life more than longevity and are willing to trade one for the other.’

He uses prostate cancer (page 240) as an example. Surgeons in the US are prone to recommending surgery on diagnosis. There are complicating factors though. Prostate cancer is a slow killer – ‘most men die with it rather than of it.’ Also there is ‘a fairly high incidence of recurrence following surgery,’ along with a high risk of other side-effects including erectile difficulties (80%), urinary (35%) and faecal (25%) incontinence. Agreeing to surgery is therefore not a simple decision to make. Our gut is not to be trusted and we should not simply accept the default recommendation. We need to think hard and assess whether the benefits of surgery truly outweigh the costs for us. That’s where System 2 is on home ground and should be energetically deployed, and Levitin gives detailed guidance about how we can best use its strengths to disentangle the complexity and clarify the issues.

For source of image see link.

For source of image see link.

However, Iain McGilchrist in his masterpiece, The Master & his Emissary, has exposed for all to see how dangerous it can be for us to rely even on this supposedly rational aspect of our being to solve all our problems and make all our decisions for us. The conclusion he reaches that most matters for present purposes is on pages 228:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates [in our society] . . . . The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere that speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere. . . . which construes the world as inherently giving rise to what the left hemisphere calls paradox and ambiguity. This is much like the problem of the analytic versus holistic understanding of what a metaphor is: to one hemisphere a perhaps beautiful, but ultimately irrelevant, lie; to the other the only path to truth. . . . . .

He draws a further disquieting conclusion (page 229):

Once the system is set up it operates like a hall of mirrors in which we are reflexively imprisoned. Leaps of faith from now on are strictly out of bounds. Yet it is only whatever can ‘leap’ beyond the world of language and reason that can break out of the imprisoning hall of mirrors and reconnect with the lived world. And the evidence is that this unwillingness to allow escape is not just a passive process, an ‘involuntary’ feature of the system, but one that appears willed by the left hemisphere. The history of the last 100 years particularly . . . , contains many examples of the left hemisphere’s intemperate attacks on nature, art, religion and the body, the main routes to something beyond its power.

On the whole he concludes that the left hemisphere’s analytic, intolerant, fragmented but apparently clear and certain ‘map’ or representation of reality is the modern world’s preferred take on experience. Perhaps because it has been hugely successful at controlling the concrete material mechanistic aspects of our reality, and perhaps also because it is more easily communicated than the subtle, nuanced, tentative, fluid and directly sensed approximation of reality that constitutes the right hemisphere experience, the left hemisphere view becomes the norm within which we end up imprisoned. People, communities, values and relationships though are far better understood by the richly textured right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a deep morality, whereas the left hemisphere tends in its black and white world fairly unscrupulously to make living beings, as well as inanimate matter, objects for analysis, use and exploitation.

This implies that penetrating beyond the intellect’s currently preferred, complacent and self-protecting shell will require effort and skill. It is necessary to do so because some problems are so complex and nuanced that our intellectual processes do not seem able to crack the code and come up with an answer.

It is then we need to become aware that intense thought, marinating the mind as it does in the details of a complex situation, is also doing something else. The contents of surface consciousness are seeping down to deeper levels of awareness with access to other powerful but essentially non-verbal methods of problem solving and decision-making. It is as though we are sowing seeds in the subliminal mind where they can germinate in the earth of the heart to produce the fruit of creative solutions which will break through into consciousness at some unpredictable moment of insight.

That forms the theme of the next post.

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O SON OF SPIRIT! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

(Arabic Hidden Words -No. 13: Bahá’u’lláh)

Wisdom Traffic Lights

In the past I have made various attempts to articulate what I mean by reflection and why it matters. This is one that seems worth re-publishing at this point. There will be three posts over the weekend, and then last on Tuesday.

Recently I explained how I have come to use a traffic light system to help me remember not to rely on gut instincts unless the situation I am facing is a genuine emergency. This is not because gut instincts are always destructive. There are many stories of heroic reactions to life-threatening dangers resulting in people being rescued from drowning or worse, by split second decisions to act on the part of strangers. It’s simply that when there is no emergency a pause for thought leads to wiser decisions, especially if anger and terror not altruistic concerns are triggered.

While the traffic light system is helpful, I felt the need to develop my model further and have devised as a necessary complement a target system.


Most of the time, as Kahneman explains in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, we operate in instinctive mode (he uses the word intuition which I think is misleading for reasons I have explained at length elsewhere). This is highly adaptive as we would hardly be able to get dressed in the morning before it was time to go to bed if we had not automated every routine task in this way. Where instinct breaks down as a reliable guide about what to do is where the negative emotions of our reptilian brain kick in and/or the situation is complex. Reptilian reactions are the ones centred around rage, fear, shame, disgust and the like. They are what push us in extreme situations to override our sense of common humanity and seriously injure our fellow human beings, either emotionally or physically.

I use the term reaction to describe our impulses at this level. For me the target’s guide to determine what I should do is the bull’s eye of this diagram: the True Self. There is no sense, of course, that this is any kind of bull, so the metaphor is in that respect unfortunate. However, it works as a short hand for my present goal.

Rings of Self: Instinctive Reaction

Rings of Self: Instinctive Reaction

Unfortunately it is easier said than done to access this reservoir of wisdom for reasons I’ll come on to in more detail in a moment.

Some would say, ‘Of course. It’s not just hard but impossible because it doesn’t exist.’ Because I haven’t experienced it directly myself I can’t claim to know that it exists. I simply trust that it does.

One of the reasons for this confidence lies in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (page 175: Paris Talks):

Bahá’u’lláh says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time—he cannot both speak and meditate.

It is an axiomatic fact that while you meditate you are speaking with your own spirit. In that state of mind you put certain questions to your spirit and the spirit answers: the light breaks forth and the reality is revealed.

Before I can have any chance of accessing my deepest levels of consciousness I have to learn how to deal with its surface turbulence. Automatic reactions, especially problematic ones, tend to come in potentially predictable patterns: they exert a strong pull and are hard to resist.

Four Step Method

A few years ago I read an excellent book – The Mind & the Brain – by Jeffrey M Schwartz and Sharon Begley. It’s dealing with really serious mental health problems such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). However, I resonated strongly to his Four Step method of managing obsessions and compulsions (pages 79-91). He speaks of ‘the importance of identifying as clearly and quickly as possible the onset of an OCD symptom.’ At that point it is important to ‘Relabel’ it: this means recognising that the symptom is not you but your OCD.

The next step is ‘Reattribution.’ This goes slightly further than Relabelling: ‘the patient then attributes [the symptom] to aberrant messages generated by a brain disease and thus fortifies the awareness that it is not his true “self.”’ Furthermore:

Accentuating Relabelling by Reattributing the condition to a rogue neurological circuit deepens patients’ cognitive insight into the true nature of their symptoms, which in turn strengthens their belief that the thoughts and urges of OCD are separate from their will and their self.

This amplifies mindfulness which ‘puts mental space between the will and the unwanted urges that would otherwise overpower the will.’

This gives patients the chance to Refocus their attention onto ‘pleasant, familiar “good habit” kinds of behaviour.’ Keeping a diary of such activities and their successful use was also found helpful as it ‘increases a patient’s repertoire of Refocus behaviours’ and ‘also boosts confidence by highlighting achievements.’

Mind & BrainThere is one more extremely important step if this approach is to succeed more often than it fails: Revaluing. ‘Revaluing,’ he explains, ‘is a deep form of Relabelling. . . . . In the case of OCD, wise attention means quickly recognising the disturbing thoughts as senseless, as false, as errant brain signals not even worth the grey matter they rode in on, let alone worth acting on.’ One patient of his described them as ‘toxic waste from my brain.’

There is one last consideration to bear in mind. Pattern breaking in this way requires determination and persistence. As Schwartz puts it (my emphasis), ‘Done regularly, Refocusing strengthens a new automatic circuit and weakens the old, pathological one – training the brain, in effect, to replace old bad habits . . . . with healthy new ones. . . . . Just as the more one performs a compulsive behaviour, the more the urge to do it intensifies, so if a patient resists the urge and substitutes an adaptive behaviour, the [brain] changes in beneficial ways.’ He feels we are ‘literally reprogramming [our] brain.’

The implication of this is that the longer we have displayed a pattern we now want to change, the longer it will take us to resolutely practice our chosen substitute before the old habit is completely replaced. As a very rough and ready rule of thumb, for every year we’ve had the problem it will take a month’s intensive practice to get rid of it. What I am convinced of by all the available evidence is that if we want to enough, and practice enough, we can change any pattern we wish to that is in any sense under our voluntary control.

Scwartz feels that the Four Steps constitute a move towards ‘self-directed neuroplasticity.’ For future reference in this sequence of posts, and chiming harmoniously with all my previous rants about the mind not being reducible to the brain, Schwartz concludes with strong conviction that ‘the results achieved with OCD supported the notion that the conscious and wilful mind differs from the brain and cannot be explained solely and completely by the matter, by the material substance, of the brain.’

Stop etc diagram v2Spot It, Stop It & Swap It

I was so impressed that I decided to adapt the Four Step approach somewhat for use with the far less compelling patterns I was typically dealing with in my own life.

Once I become aware of a ‘Here I go again’ moment that has caused me difficulty in the past, I found I can set myself the task of spotting the earliest possible warning signs. At first I might only notice that I’m doing it again when it’s already too late to stop myself. But I can reflect immediately afterwards on my recollection of how I got to that point. If I leave it, the memory will fade and I will not be able to bring to mind an earlier warning sign. By repeating this exercise there will come a point where I can spot the cloud before the emotional storm breaks.

Once I can spot the approaching storm early enough I can stop it. The mind’s weather, unlike the climate’s, is in our control, believe it or not.

The trick here is to invent a method that suits me best for pressing the pause button. I might shout at myself inside my head, ‘STOP!’ Or I might imagine a big red button that I press or a lever that I pull down, that brings the gathering storm to a halt. If I try this too late in the process it won’t work and I will have to learn to spot it earlier. At that point I also need to reinforce my sense that this is simply a habit and not who I really am (we’ll come back to defining that more clearly in a later post). It’s even better if I can see it as senseless, neural noise, useless and pointless. This helps me realise it can change.

Initially while I’m testing out whether I can make this work, I can count very slowly, one slowed down breath at a time, to 90. This is usually enough time for the immediate power surge from the amygdala, at the brain’s emotional centre, to die down. This does not mean it would be a good idea to get stuck right into the situation again and respond. If I can get to 90 at a slow enough pace, I will find I am much calmer if not completely calm.

This is the time to activate step three: Swap It. If I simply leave it there, on the pause button, and do nothing else, it won’t be long before my brain starts revisiting the trigger situation and stoking up the storm again. An empty brain will fill itself with the old familiar script if you leave it to itself.

So, I will have to give some careful thought beforehand about what I will put in place of the void I have created. There are many possibilities.

If all I want to do is to make sure I don’t escalate a row, I could go for a walk round the block, as long as that’s at least a mile from start to finish.

If I want to be sure that I am avoiding a slide into deep sadness, into planning my revenge or into full-blown panic, I will have to substitute a longer, more creative and more absorbing activity. Gardening or cooking works for some. Playing a musical instrument or painting can do the job. Learning a language or studying something really interesting is another possibility. If all else fails, decluttering the chaos of an attic might work. It’s impossible to say what will work for everyone. We’re all so different.

The mnemonic I use for this series of steps is Spot It, Stop It, and Swap It. If we compare our hearts and minds to a garden in need of clearing, this process is analogous to weeding. It can take a bit to time before we can reliably move on to planting, which is the focus of the next post.

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For source of image see link

For source of image see link

Last year about this time I posted this sequence which again seems relevant in the light of my current exploration of consciousness in the context of climate change. The posts appeared on consecutive days: this is the last.

John Ehrenfeld, in Flourishing, the account of his conversation with Andrew Hoffman, develops even further the ideas about our situation that we explored last time (page 107), when he says that ‘Collapse cannot be avoided, if people do not learn to view themselves and others with compassion.’ I have explored the value of compassion and altruism at length elsewhere on this blog, so won’t elaborate further here.

He continues to expand on the importance of our becoming conscious of our interconnectedness (page 108) if we are to truly care. (Another topic explored at length elsewhere, including from a Bahá’í perspective.)

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 (page 111). We have to give due weight to the complexity of reality (page 116):

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.

This position is rigorously explored in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow. He adduces decades of research to help him define exactly those areas, such as Ehrenfeld refers to here, where, despite our frequently arrogant assumption to the contrary, it is impossible to predict accurately, or in some cases at all, what will happen.

Ehrenfeld defines what our recognition of complexity must entail in his view (page 116-117):

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.

Mechanistic models won’t serve our purpose here (page 117). They fail to capture (page 118) ‘the holistic qualities of life.’ 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.

The complexity, which both Mason and Ehrenfeld adduce from their different perspectives, 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.

1 Earth Heart alone

For one source of this image see link

Dealing with Complexity

Ehrenfeld feels we have to include three important components in our models of thinking if we are to get anywhere near understanding this complexity (page 119):

The first important component is that the complex Earth system cannot be reduced to a set of analytic rules that both explain and predict its behaviour. . . . . Chaotic situations remain chaotic until something perturbs the system and creates order, but we cannot tell in advance what the ordered system will look like. . . . .

A second important component is that the model of learning and knowledge necessary to understand sustainability in a complex system contradicts the conventional Cartesian model of cognition. [The necessary level of almost exact prediction is impossible.] . . . . . This tension must be very frustrating to many scientists who are not yet ready to drop the scientific method of revealing truth for a method that can only describe behaviour in general terms. . . . .

A third important component is that we must replace the apparent certainty of technocratic designs with adaptive and resilient systems built on understanding that is gained by experience.

There are within the philosophy of science streams of thought, which would not find this predicament surprising or even perhaps particularly frustrating. The frustration of the scientist that Ehrenfeld refers to in the face of organic and potentially chaotic complexity finds an appropriate response in what I have read concerning the relationship William James’s explored between pragmatism and uncertainty. There is more about that elsewhere on this blog (see links in previous sentence.)

Unsurprisingly, pragmatism follows naturally on as part of Ehrenfeld’s argument (page 120), including a later important reference to William James (see below):

If we are to cope . . . we have to start by telling the truth. Pragmatism, an important element of leadership for sustainability-as-flourishing, helps us to move towards the direction of that truth.

This allows for a fruitful and creative interaction between experience and analysis (page 121), and allows for the corrective influence of collective reflection. This is similar to the Bahá’í emphasis upon consultation undertaken by co-workers in a spirit of non-dogmatic reflection (see earlier post). He also advocates the contribution (page 122) of a spirituality that ‘can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world and help a person to discover the meaning of their Being, and the deepest values by which we can live.’

Ehrenfeld steps beck from any simplistic notion of pragmatism, explaining (page 128):

Finding pragmatic truth relies on a continuous enquiry or experiment by a community of learners that ends only when the ‘theory’ developed to explain the latest results successfully explains what is happening and, then and only then, is deemed to be ‘true.’ But such truths are always contingent on and subject to being overruled by future experience.

William James - portrait in pencil

William James – portrait in pencil

This resonates with what David Lamberth wrote in his excellent book, William James and the Metaphysics of Experience (page 222):

For James, then, there are falsification conditions for any given truth claim, but no absolute verification condition, regardless of how stable the truth claim may be as an experiential function. He writes in The Will to Believe that as an empiricist he believes that we can in fact attain truth, but not that we can know infallibly when we have.

It follows from all this, as Ehrenfeld explains (page 132):

In a world of pragmatic thinking, my understanding of the same world that both of us inhabit is likely to be different from yours because you and I have led historically different lives… [A]s long as people are acting and thinking authentically, no one can own an absolutely ‘true’ belief about the world or claim to have the one ‘right’ way to act.

Combining Pragmatism and Principle

It is perhaps important to emphasise here that being pragmatic in this context does not mean being unprincipled. The existence of this link is so frequently and strongly assumed  that it consistently hides an important truth. In a world where exact predictions of what will happen when we take a particular action are virtually impossible, given the complexity of the globally interconnected system within which we now have to operate, we have to find ways of enacting our values while adjusting our plans in the light of subsequent events.

The modus operandi at the individual level which Acceptance and Commitment Therapy outlines seems to me to apply at the collective level as well. We make a plan with clear steps towards what we feel is our valued goal. However, we should not be so attached to any particular step as to confuse it with the ultimate goal. If the step proves not to be taking us in the direction we hoped for we need to change it. Also, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, both at the individual and collective level, the means we choose to bring us nearer to our desired objective should never be inherently corrupt or downright evil.

At the collective level, this all links back as well to the kind of collective creativity Paul Mason refers to in Postcapitalism. He writes (page 287):

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.

He feels we have to move past this bad model towards a better one building on more co-operative principles (page 288):

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..

Ehrenfeld emphasises the importance of spirituality because it is the strongest foundation for a necessary sense of interconnectedness (page 152). His view of religion is much less positive, though that is not entirely surprising given how divisive religion is perceived to be. 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.

His view is essentially the same as the Bahá’í perspective, which also sees this task as the work of centuries. He writes (page 154):

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.

It seems a good idea to end this discussion of this complex and challenging issue with the words from a friend’s blog-review of this book.

But it’s fascinating too that when ‘Abdul-Bahá, eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh and His appointed successor, travelled to North America in the summer of 1912, He stopped for two nights in Boston, Massachusetts.  He spent His first morning meeting friends and enquirers, and gave three public talks. At an evening gathering in the Hotel Victoria on the evening of 23 July, He spoke to those early members of the US Bahá’í community on “true economics” – founded on love, kindness and generosity – ideas with which, a century later, the concept of sustainability-as-flourishing seems to fit entirely comfortably:

‘The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and spirit…Hearts must be so cemented together, love must become so dominant that the rich shall most willingly extend assistance to the poor and take steps to establish these economic adjustments permanently. If it is accomplished in this way, it will be most praiseworthy because then it will be for the sake of God and in the pathway of His service. For example, it will be as if the rich inhabitants of a city should say, “It is neither just nor lawful that we should possess great wealth while there is abject poverty in this community,” and then willingly give their wealth to the poor, retaining only as much as will enable them to live comfortably.

‘Strive, therefore, to create love in the hearts in order that they may become glowing and radiant. When that love is shining, it will permeate other hearts even as this electric light illumines its surroundings. When the love of God is established, everything else will be realized. This is the true foundation of all economics. Reflect upon it. Endeavour to become the cause of the attraction of souls rather than to enforce minds. Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity.’

I have discussed elsewhere how this Bahá’í model combines these ideals with their pragmatic application and wrote, in part:

The Bahá’í Faith is a pragmatic religion – striving to learn how to walk the spiritual path with practical feet. The components of this process are described as study of guidance, consultation, action, reflection along with prayer and meditation on Scripture. This provides a set of interconnected steps to assess how effectively action is transforming our communities.

I closed that post with a video that illustrated what I meant. Here it is again.

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The world’s population currently consumes the equivalent of 1.6 planets a year, according to analysis by the Global Footprint Network. Photograph: NASA (For source see link)

O YE THAT ARE LYING AS DEAD ON THE COUCH OF HEEDLESSNESS! Ages have passed and your precious lives are well-nigh ended, yet not a single breath of purity hath reached Our court of holiness from you. Though immersed in the ocean of misbelief, yet with your lips ye profess the one true faith of God. Him whom I abhor ye have loved, and of My foe ye have made a friend. Notwithstanding, 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 WordsNo. 20)

I ended the last post with this point. Our survival now depends not upon our evolutionary heritage of tunnel vision approximations to reality but upon our transcending these limitations as rapidly as possible both as individuals and as a species. If not, extinction beckons.

Where there’s a will

I couldn’t of course say that in any meaningful way if I accepted Dennett’s argument in Consciousness Explained that willpower is an illusion.

By the time Dennett was writing his influential tract about consciousness in the early 90s he spoke for many when he dismissed the idea of conscious choice as a genuine initiator of action. He wrote (page 163):

[Libet] found evidence that . . . “conscious decisions” lagged between 350 and 400 msec behind the onset of “readiness potentials” he was able to record from scalp electrodes, which, he claims, tap the neural events that determine the voluntary actions performed. He concludes that “cerebral initiation of a spontaneous voluntary act begins unconsciously.”

. . . It seems to rule out a real (as opposed to an illusory) “executive role for “the conscious self.”

An even simpler experiment seemed to point in very much the same direction. W. Grey Walter implanted electrodes into what he suspected were brain areas with arousal related to initiating ‘intentional actions.’ He then asked the subjects in this experiment to press a button when they wanted to see the next slide in a series (page 167):

Unbeknownst to the patient, however, the controller button was a dummy, not attached to the slide projector! What actually advanced the slides was the amplified signal from the electrode implanted in the patient’s motor cortex.

One might suppose that the patients would notice nothing out of the ordinary, but in fact they were startled by the effect, because it seemed to them as if the slide projector was anticipating their decisions. They reported that just as they were “about to” push the button, but before they had actually decided to do so, the projector would advance the slide . . .

There are holes in this argument in so far as it constitutes proof that all experiences of conscious choice and willpower are illusions. For a start there is evidence that even such triggers of action as this was based upon, such as simple basic responses, can be blocked at the last moment. They’re not completely inevitable.

Even more importantly, key clinical research demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the mind can change the brain. It would be impossible to describe all the evidence adduced 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.

One compelling example that will hopefully suffice for now is Schwartz’s work with patients suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) who had agreed to combine the therapy with regular brain scans. This work, which he examines in The Mind and the Brain, 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. . . . And as we will see, modern quantum physics provides an empirically validated formalism that can account for the effects of mental processes on brain function.

Even though subliminal influences of the kind I outlined earlier still run the show most of the time when we’re on automatic pilot, as Kahneman has also demonstrated at length in his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, many of us have also clearly shown the capacity to use our minds to change our brains and make ourselves wiser and more adaptive. This is effortful but possible.

It important though that we do not stop at the level of the individual.

Collective Simulations

Our implicit personal simulations, the ones that trigger instinctive responses, evolved to optimise our individual chances of survival. Our collective simulations in any culture or sub-culture are created by the most powerful prevailing influences at the present time and serve to reinforce its priorities. None of these simulations is correct but we treat them as if they were and they are strongly related to our preferences. This can have serious and widespread consequences.

Klein unpicks these in terms of climate change and the influence of wealthy deniers.

She quotes Dan Kahan in This Changes Everything (pages 36-37):

[He] attributes the tight correlation between “worldview” and acceptance of climate science to ‘cultural cognition,’ the process by which all of us – regardless of political leanings – filter new information in ways that will protect our ‘preferred version of the good society.’ . . . .

In other words, it is always ‘easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered.’

In America 69% of those holding strong ‘egalitarian’ views regard climate change as ‘a high risk,’ whereas only 11% of those with strong ‘hierarchical’ views do so. Between 2002 and 2010, according to a Guardian report she quotes (page 45) ‘a network of anonymous U. S. billionaires had donated nearly $120 million to “groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change.”’ We can fairly presume that this was not all they spent on similar purposes: it’s probably the tip of a very large iceberg, of the kind that will become increasingly rare in nature as time goes on if we don’t change our ways. The polling figures she quotes (page 35) show that from 2007 when 71 per cent of Americans ‘believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would alter the climate’ the figure fell through 51% in 2009 to 44% in 2011. She claims similar trends have been detected in the U.K. and Australia.

Donations from billionaires was probably not the only factor influencing this trend, though it probably helped boost the flood of antagonism that greeted attempts in newspapers and on the web to support the validity of climate change and which resulted in a certain reluctance in some quarters to stick heads above the parapet on this issue. I’ve already blogged about how drug company investment in new markets, largely by targeting potential tablet swallowers, led to doctors being inundated with requests for the new wonder drug. That there should also be a correlation between high levels of spending to persuade a wide audience that climate change is a myth and a predictable widespread negative response to climate change advocates does not surprise me in the least.

Through processes of reflection, which I have explored at length on this blog and will come back to later, we as individuals can step back from our default patterns of belief, thought and behaviour, including our default susceptibility to persuasion, and change them radically for the better. But first of course we have to realise that something is badly wrong and that we need to change.

Through processes of consultation resolutely applied, again something I have explored on this blog and will return to, we can as groups, communities, nations, continents and beyond, reflect upon and modify our default patterns of belief, thought and behaviour, and change them radically for the better. Collectively recognising that something is badly wrong and that we need to change is even more difficult for communities than it is for individuals.

More on this next time.

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