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Posts Tagged ‘Eric Reitan’

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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© Bahá’í World Centre

A co-operation game: © Bahá’í World Centre

Exponents of the world’s various theological systems bear a heavy responsibility not only for the disrepute into which faith itself has fallen among many progressive thinkers, but for the inhibitions and distortions produced in humanity’s continuing discourse on spiritual meaning. To conclude, however, that the answer lies in discouraging the investigation of spiritual reality and ignoring the deepest roots of human motivation is a self-evident delusion. The sole effect, to the degree that such censorship has been achieved in recent history, has been to deliver the shaping of humanity’s future into the hands of a new orthodoxy, one which argues that truth is amoral and facts are independent of values.

(From The Prosperity of Humankind, a statement issued by the Bahá’í International Community March 1995)

Given my recent sequence of posts on global warming it seemed timely to republish this sequence.

We now need to move from considering how empathy and entropy interact to looking at Jeremy Rifkin’s Emp Civilunderstanding of levels of consciousness.

I have already had a bit of a rant, in a previous post, about Rifkin’s treatment of this topic (page 182):

Oral cultures are steeped in mythological consciousness. [So far, so good.] Script cultures give rise to theological consciousness. [Problems creep in. For example, why not the other way round, I find myself asking? Do I smell a touch of reductionism here?] Print cultures are accompanied by ideological consciousness. [Apart from anything else, is it that easy to distinguish between a theology and an ideology? We can make a god of almost anything or anyone and determining where the god of an ideology morphs into the God of a religion may be a matter more of degree than of kind.] First-generation centralised electronic cultures give rise to full-blown psychological consciousness. [As a retired psychologist I’m not sure I have the energy to start on this one except to say that it could only have been written by someone who had momentarily forgotten or never known the highly impressive sophistication of Buddhist psychologies. I am not aware that you can get more full-blown than that. If he had said wide-spread commonplace psychologising I might have bought it.]

At times he hopefully throws labels at his hypothetical levels and then tries to make them stick with the glue of his speculations. However there are enough valuable insights housed in his wobbly tower-block to make exploring it more fully well worthwhile.

He draws initially on Stanley Greenspan’s child developmental model (page 106-110: see link for more detail) involving six stages which can be summarised as sensation/security, relation, intention, self/other-awareness, emotional ideas and finally emotional thinking. Disruptions, for example to attachment, during these stages will create problems later. The development of empathy in the growing child depends upon the quality of care received (page 110):

Greenspan… is clear that ‘the ability to consider the feelings of others in a caring, compassionate way derives from the child’s sense of having been loved and cared for herself.’

It is not just parental practices that are critical here but cultural norms as well. Sometimes even cultures that pride themselves on their occupation of the moral high ground can poison empathy in its cradle (page 121):

Ironically, while a shaming culture pretends to adhere to the highest standards of moral perfection, in reality it produces a culture of self-hate, envy, jealousy, and hatred towards others. . . . . When a child grows up in a shaming culture believing that he must conform to an ideal of perfection or purity or suffer the wrath of the community, he is likely to judge everyone else by the same rigid, uncompromising standards. Lacking empathy, he is unable to experience other people’s suffering as if it were his own …

He quotes examples such as how a victim of rape (page 122):

. . . bears the shame of the rape, despite the fact that she was the innocent victim. As far as her family and neighbours are concerned, she is forever defiled and impure and therefore an object of disgust to be blotted out.

It is after these clarifications of the basics that Rifkin begins to explain his full model (page 154):

The more deeply we empathise with each other and our fellow creatures, the more intensive and extensive is our level of participation and the richer and more universal are the realms of reality in which we dwell. Our level of intimate participation defines our level of understanding of reality. Our experience becomes increasingly more global and universal in. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

After briefly relating early cultures to early childhood (page 162) and suggesting that initially, in the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason ‘empathetic consciousness developed alongside disembodied beliefs,’ he refers to three stages of human consciousness (page 176): ‘theological, ideological, and early psychological.’ In his view during these stages ‘bodily experience is considered either fallen, irrational, or pathological’ and ‘moral authority’ is therefore ‘disembodied.’

However, this all changes with a further enhancement of ‘empathic consciousness.’ While ‘embodied experience is considered to be… at odds with moral laws, there will always be a gap between what is and what ought to be human behaviour’ he argues. ‘Empathic consciousness overcomes the is/ought gap. Empathic behaviour is embodied . . . .’ This is a large leap of logic to which we will need to return later when we look at other ways of decoding the components of empathy.

He helps his argument by unpacking exactly what he is getting at a few pages later (pages 273-74):

Hatred of the body could hardly endear one to another flesh-and-bones human being. Embodied experience is the window to empathic expression. . . . Empathy is the celebration of life, in all of its corporeality. Not paradoxically, it is also the means by which we transcend ourselves.

He strongly relates what he feels is a fuller expression of empathy (page 366) to ‘psychological consciousness,’ something rooted in the ‘coming together of the electricity revolution with the oil powered internal combustion engine.’ He goes on:

While earlier forms of consciousness – mythological, theological, and ideological – were still in play all over the world and within each psyche to various degrees, the new psychological consciousness would come to dominate the 20th century and leave its mark on every aspect of human interaction and on virtually every social convention. With psychological consciousness, people began to think about their own feelings and thoughts, as well as those of others in ways never before imaginable.

Psychological Consciousness & the God Issue

It is in the 1890s, interestingly at exactly the same time as Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was publically and fully explaining the Bahá’í Revelation, that Rifkin perceives another potential pitfall emerging, in addition to entropy, that could derail the empathic train (page 390):

In the 1890s, at the dawn of psychological consciousness, the long-standing notion of becoming a person of ‘good character’ began to give way to the revolutionary new idea of developing one’s ‘personality.’

He unpacks what that might mean (page 391):

Individuals became less concerned about their moral stature and more interested in whether they were liked by others. A premium was placed on influencing peers. To be personable was to exude charisma, to stand out in a crowd and be the centre of attention.

He concludes that this was not all bad though (ibid.):

. . . . The shift from being a good character to having a good personality had another, more positive impact. People began to pay more attention to how their behaviour affected others. In the process, they came more mindful of other people’s feelings.

He refers (page 411) to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” a theory we will be looking at more closely when I come to examine in a later sequence of posts Medina’s take on personal and societal development. He relates it to the stages “one goes through to develop a mature empathic sensitivity.”

He then moves into similar territory to Wilber in privileging a Western mode of experiencing the world. He states (page 414):

While in developing countries theological consciousness is still the dominant mode of expression, and in the middle range of developed countries ideological consciousness is the most prevalent form of public expression, in the most highly developed nations of the world, psychological consciousness has gained the upper hand, even to the extent that it partially interprets and remakes the older forms of consciousness into its own image.

is-god-a-delusionThis default assumption that somehow a belief in God in inherently a more primitive take on the world that must hold development back is as dangerous and as ultimately unsubstantiable as the delusion that everything can be explained in material terms. This steers Rifkin away from looking at the potential role of religion as a positive force, something I will return to later.

The crucial issue in my view is rather the same as Eric Reitan’s as expressed in his book Is God a Delusion?: what matters is what kind of God we believe in. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.

Deciding whether your concept of God fulfills that criterion is probably easier said than done as Gilles Kepel illustrates in his book, Jihad: the trail of political Islam, when he refers to Qutb and his followers arguing that (page 25-26):

The Muslims of the nationalist period were ignorant of Islam, according to Qutb; just like the pagan Arabs of the original jahiliyya [original state of ignorance before Muhammad] who worshipped stone idols, Qutb’s contemporaries worshiped symbolic idols such as the nation, the party, socialism, and the rest. . . . Within Islam, Allah alone has sovereignty, being uniquely worthy of adoration by man. The only just ruler is one who governs according to the revelations of Allah.

The problem remains. What is the ruling conception of Allah we should adopt and what exactly has He revealed that should guide our conduct? What interpretation of the Qu’ran is to be devoutly followed? This question is of course blurred by the issue of the hadith and sharia, lenses through which the Qu’ran has been variously interpreted by different schools and periods of Islam.

Robert Wright seems to be singing from roughly the same hymn sheet as Reitan. He has bravely tackled the issue of religion from a sympathetically evolutionary perspective. One of his most trenchant insights is (The Evolution of God page 439):

Any religion whose prerequisites for individual salvation don’t conduce to the salvation of the whole world is a religion whose time has passed.’

As I will explain below he does not simplistically conclude that all religion should be tarred with that brush.

© Bahá’í World Cetnre

© Bahá’í World Cetnre

Globalisation

Interacting with the development of psychological consciousness and instrumental in shaping it, is the impact (page 424) of ‘cyberspace’ where ‘the human race finds itself nearly face-to-face. . . . Distances are becoming less relevant in the era of globalisation.’

There is also the complexity this brings in its wake (page 425):

A vast array of economic, social, and political institutions oversee the most complex civilisation ever conceived by human beings. The entire system is managed and maintained by billions of people, differentiated into thousands of professional talents and vocational skills, all working in specialised tasks in an interdependent global labyrinth.

Empathy has inevitably extended, in spite of the friction entailed (ibid.):

Brought together in an ever closer embrace, we are increasingly exposed to each other in ways that are without precedent. While the backlash of globalisation – xenophobia, political populism, and terrorist activity – is widely reported, far less attention has been paid to the growing empathic extension, as hundreds of millions of people come in contact with diverse others.

He argues that (page 429) that ‘2007 marks a great tipping point.’

For the first time in history, the majority of human beings live in the vast urban areas, according to the United Nations – many in mega-cities with suburban extensions – some with populations of 10 million people or more.

He then introduces what for him is another key concept: cosmopolitanism (page 430):

At the same time, the urbanisation of human life, with its complex infrastructures and operations, has lead to greater density of population, more differentiation and individuation, an ever more developed sense of self, more exposure to diverse others, and an extension of the empathic bond. . . . .

Cosmopolitanism is the name we used to refer to tolerance and the celebration of human diversity and is generally found wherever urban and social structures are engaged in long-distance commerce and trade and the business of building empires.

Robert Wright similarly locates (page 445) the ‘expansion of humankind’s moral imagination’ to the Robert Wrightextension of such connections throughout history. Though a sceptic, he does not dogmatically conclude there is no God and only blind material forces.

. . . . Occasionally I’ve suggested that there might be a kind of god that is real. . . . The existence of a moral order, I’ve said, makes it reasonable to suspect that humankind in some sense has a “higher purpose.” And maybe the source of that higher purpose, the source of the moral order, is something that qualifies for the label “god” in at least some sense of that word.

Because Rifkin does not accept that there is a God of any kind and contends that theology is suspect, he is in need of some other organising principle to motivate us to lift our game. For him this is ‘biosphere consciousness’ (page 432:

A globalising world is creating a new cosmopolitan, one whose multiple identities and affiliations spend the planet. Cosmopolitans are the early advance party, if you will, of a fledgling biosphere consciousness. . . .

However, being cosmopolitan is no guarantee we’ll buy the biosphere package (ibid.):

Although admittedly a bit of a caricature, I’m quite sure that a survey of cosmopolitan attitudes would find that the most cosmopolitan in attitudes leave behind them the largest entropic footprint.

If we subtract God from the Bahá’í system of belief, it is clear he shares a central tenet of that Faith (page 443):

We are within reach of thinking of the human race as an extended family – for the very [first] time in history – although it goes without saying that the obstacles are great and the odds of actually developing a biosphere consciousness are less than certain.

A Summary of his Levels

Now I need to quote him at some length to indicate how, rather as Wilber does, he locates the highest levels of consciousness in Western societies (pages 447-450):

As individuals in industrialising and urbanising societies become more productive, wealthy, and independent, their values orientation shifts from survival values to materialist values and eventually post-materialist, self-expression values.

Traditional societies, imperilled by economic hardship and insecurities, tend to be intolerant of foreigners, ethnic minorities, and gays and staunch supporters of male superiority. Populations are highly religious and nationalistic, believing the firm hand of state authority, emphasise conformity, and exhibit a low level of individual self-expression. Because self-expression is low, and empathic extension is shallow and rarely reaches beyond the family bond and kinship relations.

In secular rationalist-societies engaged in the takeoff stage of industrial life, hierarchies are reconfigured away from God’s created order to giant corporate and government bureaucracies. . . . In the process, the individual, as a distinct self-possessed being, begins to emerge from the communal haze but is still beholden to hierarchical institutional arrangements. . . .

Knowledge-based societies, with high levels of individualism and self-expression, exhibit the highest levels of empathic extension. . . . . In fact, the emancipation from tight communal bonds and the development of weaker but more extended associational ties exposes individuals to a much wider network of diverse people, which, in turn, both strengthens one’s sense of trust and openness and provides the context for a more extended empathic consciousness.

Robert Wright’s treatment of a similar theme from a different angle indicates that it is not quite as simple as that. While the Abrahamic faiths have significantly lacked tolerance at key points in their history not all faiths have been the same (page 441):

At the risk of seeming to harp on the non-specialness of the Abrahamic faiths: this expansion of the moral circle is another area in which non-Abrahamic religions have sometimes outperformed the Abrahamics.

Even then though, the whole picture is not dark for the Abrahamic faiths in his view, as he explains in considering the life of Ashoka, the king who converted to Buddhism and instated a tolerant regime (ibid):

. . . Buddhism’s emphasis on brotherly love and charity, rather like comparable Christian emphases in ancient Rome, is presumably good for the empire’s transethnic solidarity. Yet, like the early Islamic caliphate – and unlike Constantine – Ashoka insisted on respecting other religions in the Empire; he never demanded conversion.

He also refers (pages 188 passim) to the interesting case of Philo of Alexandria as a devout monotheistic Jew who saw ‘a deep streak of tolerance in Yahweh.’

Rifkin summarises his understanding of the research by stating (page 451):

The key finding, according to the researchers, is that “individual security increases empathy.”

. . . .

Empathy exists in every culture. The issue is always how extended or restricted it is. In survival societies, empathic bonds are less developed, meager, and reserved for a narrow category of relationships. . . .

As energy/communications revolutions establish more complex social structures and extend the human domain over time and space, new cosmologies serve like a giant overarching frame for enlarging the imaginative bonds and empathy. Theological consciousness allowed individuals to identify with non-kin and anonymous others and, by way of religious affiliation, to incorporate them into the empathic fold. . . . Ideological consciousness extended the empathic borders geographically to nation states.

There is much more to say on the issue of levels but it will have to wait until the next post on Thursday.

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I read an interesting article by Yuval Noah Harari in the Guardian some time ago, entitled The New Threat to Liberal Democracy. Astonishingly, from reductionist premises with which I completely disagree, such as that we have no free will, he arrives at the same conclusion as I do about a key mental skill: ‘renouncing the myth of free will can kindle a profound curiosity. If you strongly identify with the thoughts and desires that emerge in your mind, you don’t need to make much effort to get to know yourself. You think you already know exactly who you are. But once you realise “Hi, this isn’t me. This is just some changing biochemical phenomenon!” then you also realise you have no idea who – or what – you actually are. This can be the beginning of the most exciting journey of discovery any human can undertake.’

This is reflective disidentification in effect. More of that in a moment.

The article, from vastly different premises, confirms my feeling that developing the ability to step back from our automatic reactions is a key skill we need to acquire, but our culture militates against it – in fact, all the subliminal influences in our society are working in the opposite direction.

In Tart’s terms, our ‘trance’, and in Bahá’u’lláh’s words our ‘vain imaginings,’ ’superstitions’ and ‘delusions,’ control us, not because we have no will power, but because we fail to tune into the deepest levels of our being and we invest our trust in false gods.

On top of that, our reptilian brain, the amygdala, drowns out the soul’s whispers with its fear and rage.

What follows may not be entirely coherent as it was only recently, while sitting in the garden with a coffee, that an important penny dropped.

I asked myself whether, in my past attempts to look at what narrows the compass of compassion, eg labelling, the reptilian brain, inequality, power differentials etc, I had missed the more generic point that any kind of identification with a feeling, thought, judgement, self-concept, ego function, by definition:

(a) narrows compassion potentially to zero, and

(b) shallows wisdom to the same extent.

Strong identifications of this kind could lead to a container, whose width is compassion and depth is wisdom, to become the size of a thimble – an obvious but useful symbol. Using reflection to remove these false identifications would create an ocean, by comparison. When you add into the mix how reflection facilitates true consultation as a means of enhancing our simulations of reality through a constructive process of comparing notes with others in a spirit of objective exploration rather than adversarial debate, then the potential becomes even greater. The opposite is also true: failure to reflect impedes consultation and fosters conflict, resulting in impoverished representations of reality.

The other important factor is what we choose as our guiding light. As Reitan points out, simply believing we believe in God is not enough: the God we choose to believe in has to be worthy of worship. To make a god out of our ego or a dictator is a fatal mistake. Even our ideals have to be approached with caution, as Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ points out. In his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Another recent article in the Guardian by Michele Gelfand points up the impact of feeling threatened on our openness to others.

His core point in terms of this issue is: ‘Analysing hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups, as well as nation-states including the Aztecs and Incas, we found that cultures that experienced existential threats, such as famine and warfare, favoured strong norms and autocratic leaders. Our computer models show a similar effect: threat leads to the evolution of tightness.’

This maps onto my long explored idea that fear narrows the compass of compassion and makes intolerance and prejudice more likely. The narrower the container, the more likely we are to experience feelings of threat and a strong sense of difference between us and other people.

I’d maybe been putting the cart before the horse in seeing the feelings as ultimately causative rather than secondary. The wider we set our compass of compassion, and the deeper our wisdom becomes, the less likely are we to be fearful, threatened and reactively aggressive. When something disturbing happens and it’s a drop in the ocean you feel no fear. When something happens and it’s a drop in a thimble, all hell spills out.

This may be a two-way street, though, in that fear will reduce the size of our container, just as the smallness of the container is conducive to fear. There is, however, no guarantee that an absence of fear would be conducive automatically to compassion, as the combination of narcissism and fearlessness is found in the psychopath.

Where the process starts may be different for different people in different situations. If it is basically true, however, that fear shrinks compassion and reduced compassion fosters fear, and it seems likely, the dynamic I’ve described would create a vicious circle of a most pernicious and self-defeating kind. I still need to clarify these implications.

This is what I plan to do in a later sequence.

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Last time I described my quest to understand our penchant for evil acts, including what might help us get past this fatal flaw, and what drew me to buy and start reading Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life.

Before I begin to tackle his exact contribution to this quest, I need to summarise the key ideas I’ve gleaned from those who are his forerunners in my investigations. My right-brain has agreed to this because I can pull most of this in from previous posts so it won’t greatly delay its desperately needed return to poetry.

Our Moral Imagination

Robert Wright in his book The Evolution of God argues that in evolutionary terms we are being forced to expand our sense of common humanity ever wider if we are not to face destructive challenges.

He states (page 428):

The moral imagination was ‘designed’ by natural selection . . . . . to help us cement fruitfully peaceful relations when they’re available.

He is aware that this sounds like a glorified pursuit of self-interest. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (page 428-429):

The expansion of the moral imagination forces us to see the interior of more and more other people for what the interior of other people is – namely remarkably like our own interior.

He rescues this from cliché by pointing out that the idea of common humanity may be a self-evident point when we read or hear it, but it’s far from obvious if you look at the way we act. This is because we are under the illusion that we are special (page 429):

We all base our daily lives on this premise – that our welfare is more important than the welfare of pretty much anyone else, with the possible exception of close kin. . . . We see our own resentments as bona fide grievances and we see the grievances of others as mere resentments.

He links the progress of humanity with the application of the unifying insight in daily life (page 429):

. . . . the salvation of the global social system entails moral progress not just in the sense of human welfare; there has to be as a prerequisite for that growth, a closer encounter by individual human beings with moral truth.

At the end of this sequence I will be exploring more fully the implications of this with the help of the diagram on the left. For now all I will say is that it will take a long period of time before enough of us to make a real difference shift from the ‘me now’ position to expanding the compass of our compassionate understanding so that it embraces the whole of humanity.

Writght feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos (we’ll be coming back to that word again in much more detail later). He feels that (ibid):

. . . history has driven us closer and closer to moral truth, and now our moving still closer to moral truth is the only path to salvation . . .

by which he means salvation of the social structure. He feels (page 430) that religions that have ‘failed to align individual salvation with social salvation have not, in the end, fared well.’

Jeremy Rifkin, in his thought-provoking book The Empathic Civilisation, articulates an important caveat to any assumption that an increasing global culture will inevitably move us onward and upward. He adduces evidence to illustrate the role of entropy. We hit this forcefully almost from the start of the book (page 25):

If there were any lingering doubt as to how close our species is coming to the very limits of its sustainability on earth, a single statistic is revealing of our current state of affairs: our scientists tell us that the nearly seven billion human beings now inhabiting the Earth make up less than 1% of the total biomass of all the Earth’s consumers. Yet with our complex global economic and social infrastructure, we are currently consuming nearly 24% of the net primary production on Earth . . .

He then spells out what that means (page 26):

Our journey begins at the crossroads where the laws of energy that govern the universe come up against the human inclination to continually transcend our sense of isolation by seeking the companionship of others in evermore complex energy-consuming social arrangements. The underlying dialectic of human history is the continuous feedback loop between expanding empathy and increasing entropy.

In terms of Wright’s position, entropy notwithstanding, what we need to understand is what is blocking the process he describes of expanding the scope and range of our ‘moral imagination,’ or in my terms the compass of our compassion.

My very battered copy of this classic.

Our Objects of Devotion

In his attempt to understand the horrors of Nazism, Erich Fromm writes in his masterpiece, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, a dog-eared disintegrating paperback copy of which I bought in 1976 and still cling onto, something which deserves quoting at length (pages 260-61):

The intensity of the need for a frame of orientation explains a fact that has puzzled many students of man, namely the ease with which people fall under the spell of irrational doctrines, either political or religious or of any other nature, when to the one who is not under their influence it seems obvious that they are worthless constructs. . . . . Man would probably not be so suggestive were it not that his need for a cohesive frame of orientation is so vital. The more an ideology pretends to give answers to all questions, the more attractive it is; here may lie the reason why irrational or even plainly insane thought systems can so easily attract the minds of men.

But a map is not enough as a guide for action; man also needs a goal that tells him where to go. . . . man, lacking instinctive determination and having a brain that permits him to think of many directions in which he could go, needs an object of total devotion; he needs an object of devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings and the basis for all his effective – and not only proclaimed – values. . . . In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity.

The objects man’s devotion vary. He can be devoted to an idol which requires him to kill his children or to an ideal the makes him protect children; he can be devoted to the growth of life or to its destruction. He can be devoted to the goal of amassing a fortune, of acquiring power, of destruction, or to that of loving and being productive and courageous. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols; yet while the difference in the objects of devotion are of immense importance, the need for devotion itself is a primary, existential need demanding fulfilment regardless of how this need is fulfilled.

When we choose the wrong object of devotion the price can be terrifying.

Eric Reitan makes essentially the same point. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his book, Is God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

In Wright’s terms, if the compass of our compassion is set too narrow, and we only identify with a subgroup of humanity rather than with humanity as a whole, we’re doomed.

Idealism, Ideology and Mistaking our Maps for Reality

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

McGilchrist’s contribution towards enriching my understanding of this issue is in his profound interrogation of the negative impact of the dominant left-hemisphere’s processing on our thinking. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is on pages 228-229:

The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates . . . . 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. . . . . .

There is a huge disadvantage for the right hemisphere here. If . . . knowledge has to be conveyed to someone else, it is in fact essential to be able to offer (apparent) certainties: to be able to repeat the process for the other person, build it up from the bits. That kind of knowledge can be handed on. . . . By contrast, passing on what the right hemisphere knows requires the other party already to have an understanding of it, which can be awakened in them. . .

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 right hemisphere, which is characterised by empathy, a sense of the organic, and a rich 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.

Group Dynamics

There are also social facilitation, group difference and status differential effects. Take, for instance, Zimbardo’s perspective, which is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behaviour of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations that steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things, not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

The power of such influences is reinforced by Haidt’s idea of the hive effect.

Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.):

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

Being ‘part of a whole’ can have an unacceptable price, though, as I will explore next time.

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‘Why are you banging on about rules again when you said you were delving into spiritual poetry? After The Forty Rules of Love I was looking forward to what you had to say about Machado. What on earth made you kick off about 12 Rules for Life?’ I can hear the chorus of protest from the safety of my study. I’m not sure whether it’s my readers or my right-brain that’s making all the noise.

As I mention later I think my left-brain threw a wobbly with the help of this book I found and hijacked my plan at least for the moment.

How did it manage to pull that off?

I’m afraid that’s a bit of a long story.

I have been tracking the toxic effects of ideology ever since I left behind my socialist leanings in the mid-70s, disillusioned by the violence and lies that seemed to be an inescapable part of the territory.

The Quest

I’ve recorded my path from Catholicism to socialism and from there through atheism, agnosticism, existentialism, Buddhism to the Bahá’í Faith, in my blog sequence Leaps of Faith. It’s enough to condense all that into as brief an account as possible here.

Right from the start, I couldn’t shake off this restless seeking after an indefinable something. Because I shared Chekhov’s revulsion from violence and lies I stepped away from the radical socialism I was toying with. Even milder versions that eschewed violence, to my eyes at least seemed like everyone else seeking power, far too keen on lies. The ends always justified the meanest means. In some incoherent way I was expressing that I valued truth and compassion more than power, except I could never have put it like that at the time.

This drove me to psychology as a way of understanding human nature better and perhaps of being enabled to be of some help sometimes to some people. And that led onto Buddhism which seemed a conveniently atheistical religion with a sophisticated psychology. Choosing to investigate that at the same time as I studied psychology was a no-brainer for me. And the meditation I practised as a result was a useful stabilising influence, under the pressures of study and work, as well subliminally reshaping my take on spirituality.

In the end I had come to a point in my life where the ideals of communism -‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ – seemed to me to have been betrayed by all of its followers that had actually got into power. For example, far from rescuing the bulk of Europe from tyranny, the war against Hitler, with supreme irony, handed whole swathes of the continent over to a tyranny of an equally repellent kind.

On the other hand, Buddhism, which still seems to me a religion of great beauty, depth and power, though I never threw in my lot with it, disappointed for a different reason.

I was impressed painfully by its combination of deep spirituality and practical inefficacy in the modern world. I had been haunted since the end of the Vietnam War by a potent symbol of this: those images of Buddhist monks burning themselves to death in the streets. The most widespread effects of these supremely compassionate acts of courageous self-immolation seemed to be futile if passionate demonstrations by the well-meaning and a series of tasteless jokes of the ‘What’s little and yellow and burns with a blue flame?’ variety, which combined racism and cruelty in about equal proportions.

Without knowing it at the time I longed, from the deepest levels of my being, for a pattern of belief, a meaning system, that could combine effective social action with moral restraints strong enough to prevent that social action becoming a source of oppression.

When I found the Bahá’í Faith, which in my view offered this combination of qualities, I leapt on board.

However, it didn’t quench this thirst I had for the deepest possible understanding of why ideologies ostensibly designed for good did so much evil, and this included both religions and political systems of thought. If I could not understand this, then I could not properly understand or explain what Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was saying in His descriptions of why our civilization is breaking down and what we need to do to mend it. He speaks (Century of Lightpage 95) of ‘these great oppressions that have befallen the world.’ I did not fully understand why it is so easy for humanity to transform utopian visions into dystopian practices, so I could not quench my thirst for this continuing quest.

Since I retired in 2008 from my work as a clinical psychologist I have had more time to pursue this obsession, and have used my blog to help me keep track of the twists and turns, breakthroughs and cul-de-sacs, along the way.

In 2009 I posted this on my blog:

I am not qualified to explain the political and social roots of the human face of terror. I have of course noticed that having been oppressed is no guarantee that I will not be an oppressor in my turn if I get the chance. That was clear right from the French Revolution (See Michael Burleigh‘s ‘Earthly Powers‘) and nothing that has happened since causes me to think that anything is different now. I have also seen how injustice and inequity breed enmity, as can extremes of wealth and poverty in close proximity. Philip Zimbardo looks at the disturbing way group and organisational processes foster evil doing and explains ways of effectively counteracting that (‘The Lucifer Effect‘). Michael McCullough looks surprisingly hopefully on the problem from an evolutionary perspective in his recent book ‘Beyond Revenge‘. Marc Hauser‘s examination of morality, ‘Moral Minds,’ comes at the issue primarily from a developmental angle.

I’ve been pegging away consistently since then, in any gaps in time.

Simply in the order I can now recall the twists and turns as I sit here at my key board, the highpoints of my quest for understanding include Erich Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (I read him first even before I became a Bahá’í and have revisited him since retirement), Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God, Eric Reitan’s Is God a Delusion?, Iain McGilchrist’s The Master & his Emissary, Amy Chua‘s ‘World on Fire and Solomon et al’s The Worm at the Core.

So, I became extremely excited when I thought I had found another writer to add to this list: Jordan Peterson.

The flood of excitement apparently swept away my right-brain’s protest against delving into all this prose again, and my left-brain won the argument with my executive self as a result. There are loud protests going on in the background, and the planks of reason are ringing to the sound of stroppy right-brain stamping at this very moment, so I won’t be able to derail the poetry plan for long.

But for now, here’s a bit more detail.

Although at first, influenced by an interview with Peterson recorded in the Guardian, I was carried away by a positive feeling that here was a perspective that would move my understanding further forward, I have to say the reading of his book, Twelve Rules for Life, has left me with a similar problem to the one in Hillman’s The Soul’s Calling. After carefully reviewing that book I concluded:

Even though, in the end, I disagree with his core thesis, I have to acknowledge the value that lies in his having raised these issues for consideration in such a clear and compelling fashion.

The Magnet

It’s easy to explain what drew me to Peterson’s books.

He explains the challenge in almost exactly the same terms as I would choose to use: ‘how did evil – particularly group-fostered evil – come to play its role in the world?’ According to the interviewer, this is linked to our meaning systems:

His first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999), is a profound but often impenetrable tome that, to quote his biographer, describes the “structure of systems of beliefs and myths, their role in the regulation of emotion, creation of meaning, and motivation for genocide”.

And it is true that Peterson’s analysis of these issues contains much that is helpful. For instance in Maps of Meaning he writes, in describing his own journey from socialist idealism to his present position:

I discovered that beliefs make the world, in a very real way – that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense. This “discovery” has not turned me into a moral relativist, however: quite the contrary. I have become convinced that the world-that-is-belief is orderly: that there are universal moral absolutes (although these are structured such that a diverse range of human opinion remains both possible and beneficial). I believe that individuals and societies who flout these absolutes – in ignorance or in willful opposition – are doomed to misery and eventual dissolution.

That his personal history maps so closely onto mine in this respect, makes it hard for me to pin down exactly where I diverge from his perspective. More of that much later.

Norman Doidge’s introduction to the 12 Rules book pinpoints the strong attraction for me of Peterson’s overall approach. He speaks of (page xiii) ‘Jordan’s concern about our human capacity for evil in the name of good, and the psychological mystery is self-deception (how can a person deceive himself and get away with it?).’ He also describes the related question of ‘the human capacity for evil for the sake of evil, the joy some people take on destroying others.’

He goes on to describe (page xiv):

Jordan’s agonised awareness, as a teenager growing up in the middle of the Cold War, that much of mankind seemed on the verge of blowing up the planet to defend their various identities. He felt he had to understand how it could be that people would sacrifice everything for an ‘identity,’ whatever that was. And he felt he had to understand the ideologies that drove totalitarian regimes to a variant of the same behavior: killing their own citizens. In Maps of Meaning, and again in this book, one of the matters he cautions readers to be most wary of is ideology, no matter who is peddling it or to what end.

This was all music to my ears, and those parts of his book that reflect this perspective work well, except for a somewhat hectoring tone.

On the matter of suffering too my ideas are closely aligned to his (xv): ‘It is because we are born human that we are guaranteed a good dose of suffering. And chances are, if you or someone you love is not suffering now, they will be within five years, unless you are freakishly lucky.’ We have to find a place from which we can respond to suffering as constructively as possible.

Much that Peterson says makes reasonable sense and goes some way towards supporting my initial impression, on the basis of what I had read about him, that his books might be worth reading. A couple of thought-provoking quotes from Twelve Rules should serve to illustrate this.

He states (page 14): ‘Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.’ His ability to coin memorable aphorisms like this is one of his stronger points: they keep my right-brain quiet for a bit as well, which is another advantage. He roots this insight in our evolutionary history and proceeds to draw on psychophysiological evidence to suggest we need to pay attention to the implications of our biological heritage (page 15):

There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thought and feelings. It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society . . .

I would have been a touch more receptive to his point if he had written ‘deep within us,’ but that’s a minor quibble for present purposes. This monitor, he goes on to explain, impacts upon our levels of serotonin, which in turn affects our mood, behaviour and self-presentation: basically the less serotonin the worse you feel about yourself. Working against the monitor will require considerable conscious effort is the core point he wants to get across. All of this is relevant to what will come up later about the effects of inequality.

Taking a simpler point next (page 103):

You can only find out what you actually believe (rather than what you think you believe) by watching how you act. You simply don’t know what you believe, before that. You are to complex to understand yourself.

We’ve got the hectoring ‘you’ problem again, but the basic point is worth making if not especially profound.

There are many more such examples So far, so good.

Does he though move my understanding any further than previous thinkers have taken it? I’m not sure. More of that after a quick review in the next two posts of what I think I’ve learnt already.

‘I’m not going to let you run away with this for much longer,’ whinges my right-brain.

‘If only you’d just shut up, I could work faster,’ the left-brain fires back.

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After describing Hitler’s characteristics, he goes on to attempt to tease out the telltale markers of the demonic (page 223-224):

If the eyes are the mirror of the soul as tradition declares, then was the compelling power of Hitler’s eyes the stare of the demon? Did his eyes reveal the hollowness within, a glimpse into the ice-cold abyss, the utter absence of soul?

. . . . As we noted in so many of the biographies, the urgent certainty given by the acorn seems to put life in the hands of a stronger power. “I go the way that Providence dictates for me with all the assurance of a sleep walker,” Hitler said in a speech in 1936.

Hitler’s certitude also confirmed his sense of always being right, and this utter conviction utterly convinced his nation, carrying it forward in its wrongs. Absolute certainty, utter conviction – these, then, are signs of the demonic.

He develops this further slightly later in the chapter (pages 245-46):

Hitler only followed the demon, never questioned it, his mind enslaved by its imagination rather than applied to its investigation. . . . For what makes the seed demonic is its single-track obsession, its monotheistic literalism that follows one prospect only, perverting the larger imagination of the seed toward serial reenactments of the same act.

I absolutely agree that complete conviction, absolute certainty, are pathological and destructive. This is a theme I have explored a number of times on this blog. However, I have never felt it necessary to hypothesise the existence of a demon to explain it.

My very battered copy of this classic.

My alternative picture is based partly in Eric Fromm. In ‘The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness‘ (1973: page 260) he develops this idea very clearly.  He argues that, in human beings, character has replaced instinct as a driver of what we do. And character creates a special need in us:

Man needs an object of total devotion to be the focal point of all his strivings. In being devoted to a goal beyond his isolated ego, he transcends himself and leaves the prison of absolute egocentricity. He can be devoted to the most diverse goals and idols but the need for devotion is itself a primary, essential need demanding fulfilment.

This has created a god-shaped hole in the middle of our being. We cannot help but fill it with something. Our sense of identity is at stake. In 2001 the Bahá’í World Centre published a review of the Twentieth Century which contained these words (page 59-60):

The yearning for belief is inextinguishable, an inherent part of what makes one human. When it is blocked or betrayed, the rational soul is driven to seek some new compass point, however inadequate or unworthy, around which it can organize experience and dare again to assume the risks that are an inescapable aspect of life.

Eric Reitan is also relevant. He warns us that we need to take care that the object of devotion we choose needs to be worthy of our trust. In his book, Is God a delusion?, he explains a key premise that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion.  Our idealism, our ideology, will then, in my view, build an identity on the crumbling and treacherous sand of some kind of idolatry, including the secular variations such a Fascism and Nazism.

Once we have taken that fatal step into mistaken devotion we are in the danger zone of idealism. Jonathan Haidt in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis’ indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75).

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

Richard Holloway sees it much the same way (‘Between the Monster and the Saint‘: page 136):

More misery and disillusionment has been visited on humanity by its search for the perfect society and the perfect faith than by any other cause.

Both Haidt and Holloway emphasise that not all such ideals are by any means religious. When Hitler’s probably narcissistic self-esteem successfully cloaked itself in the rhetoric of idealistic nationalism, mixed with scapegoating anti-semitism, we all know what happened next: narcissism and idealism make a highly toxic and devastatingly deadly combination.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

This is not too far distant from Hilman’s perspective (page 236):

Elevation of the profane by the most profane act imaginable raises its power until it is indistinguishable from the sacred.

There are two other concepts relevant to the contagion of such toxic patterns: the hive switch and the Lucifer effect.

The Hive Switch

Haidt explains the first. The root of this whole highly debated issue, for Haidt, in his other brilliant book The Righteous Mind, comes back to our need to belong and to the role of religion as one of the main ways we meet that need. Haidt discusses this at some length in his book and what he says is both fascinating and critically important (page 247):

Why do the students sing, chant, dance, sway, chop, and stomp so enthusiastically during the game? . . . From a Durkheimian perspective these behaviors serve a [particular] function, and it is the same one that Durkheim saw at work in most religious rituals: the creation of a community. A college football game is a superb analogy for religion.

How does he justify that apparently bizarre statement? He feels the fundamental effect is the same (ibid.).

. . . from a sociologically informed perspective, . . . a religious rite . . . . pulls people up from Durkheim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole.”

The capacity for charisma to carry thousands with it only needs the factoring in of such possibilities as the hive effect.

The Lucifer Effect

Zimbardo explains the second in his brilliant analysis, The Lucifer Effect. His perspective is rooted in the study he initiated at Stanford University. Student volunteers were divided randomly into two groups: prisoners and guards. It did not take long for the guards to descend into abusive behaviours that meant the study had to be halted before serious harm was done. From this, and after examining the behavior of American troops at Abu Ghraib, he came to disturbing conclusions about human behaviour in situations which steer us towards evil. He feels strongly that good people can do bad things not necessarily because they are bad apples who should bear full responsibility for their crimes, but because they are placed in a bad barrel that rots them. More than that, it is too simplistic to then blame the barrel for the whole problem. The barrel maker has to take his share of the responsibility. Corrupt systems can corrupt good people. Only the minority in his experience are able to resist.

Earlier work lends considerable weight to this thesis. For example, when I was studying psychology for the first time in the 1970s I came across the work of Thomas Pettigrew, which is still referred to even now.

To put one set of his findings very simply, whether you were a miner in segregated West Virginia or apartheid South Africa, the culture around you differed depending on whether you were above ground or below it. Below ground discrimination was potentially dangerous so the culture there frowned on it: above ground the culture was discriminatory. What was particularly interesting to me was that 20% of people discriminated all the time regardless of the culture and 20% refused to do so at all: 60% of people shifted from desegregation below ground to segregation above it (the percentages are approximate: the pattern is accurate).

Soullessness  

Coming back to Hillman’s perspective, there is one element that he adduces that may be slightly harder to dismiss (page 230):

Then, too, when we read of the odd coldness in Mary (Bell) and in Hitler, of that impulse toward death, there seems to be something else apart from both upbringing and possible heredity, some lack in their souls, or a lack of soul altogether.

He is ruling out such explanations as psychopathy, abuse or disrupted attachment in childhood as explanations of a coldness that is observed very early in their development. This launches him into an explanation of possible causes for the Bad Seed, none of which are mutually exclusive (pages 230-238): Early Traumatic Conditioning, Hereditary Taint, Group Mores, The Rewarded Choice Mechanism[1], Karma & Zeitgeist, The Shadow[2], Lacuna[3] and finally his pet theory The Demonic Call.

He explains more exactly what he means by the last idea (page 235 and 241):

As the potential for art and thought were given with the acorn, so is the potential for demonic crime. . . . . As Galand’s and Manolete’s potential was given with the acorn, so is the psychopathic potential for demonic crime.

I still prefer the Reitan and Fromm approach here which I outlined in the previous post. There are other ways of explaining a ‘calling’ without invoking a daimon. We all need an object of devotion. Heredity, upbringing and peer influence may shape our sense of it, but the need itself is inherent in our nature at some deep level. We need to be wise in the choice we make, or else we will slide into a dangerous or a meaningless pattern, the former if we choose a dark ‘god’ and the latter if we choose no god at all, trapped in an unconscious yearning for something to give our lives purpose. In addition to the devotion issue there is the related pattern: we all have a thirst for meaning which a convincing object of devotion slakes.

Conclusions

Even though, in the end, I disagree with his core thesis, I have to acknowledge the value that lies in his having raised these issues for consideration in such a clear and compelling fashion. When I look at the book more as a poetic rather than a prosaic exploration it makes for an even more satisfying read.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have taken him quite so literally as I have in this treatment. After all he is quite clear that he is speaking in the language of myth. Maybe I fell into the trap he describes (page 95:

. . . three modes transpose the mystery of the invisible into visible procedures we can work with: higher math, musical notations, and mythical images. So enchanted are we by the mystery transposed into the systems that we mistake the systems for the mystery; rather, they are indications pointing toward it.

Footnotes:

[1] He writes: ‘If each choice is met with accumulating success… then those successes will reinforce your belief that fate has you on the right track.’

[2] He writes: ‘The psychological propensity to destroy exists within all human beings. . . . Hitler knew the shadow all too well, indulged it, was obsessed by it, and strove to purge it; but he could not admit it in himself, seeing only its projected form [in those he sought to exterminate].’

[3] He explains: ‘[S]omething fundamentally human is missing.’

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Edmundson

Given the themes of my current sequence this two-parter from February last year seems relevant. The second part comes out tomorrow.

As I worked on my recent sequence of posts about Shelley, prompted by a heads up from Gordon Kerr at Dazzling Spark Arts Foundation I stumbled upon Poetry Slam by Mark Edmundson. I was dead impressed. It was a short step from there to reading his book self and soul: a Defense of Ideals.

Because just about every page of the book is crammed with valuable insights I’m going to focus on only three aspects of it: first, what he calls the ‘polemical introduction,’ a few quotes from and comments about which will convey the overall theme of the book; second, his chapter on Shakespeare, which argues a fascinating case for seeing the value-free Shakespeare I took for granted as being in reality the demolition expert who detonated explosions beneath the foundations of the towers of medieval idealism to clear the ground for our modern pragmatic commercialism; and finally, his chapter on Freud, which sees him as the reductionist par excellence, who crusaded against any residual ideals that might give meaning to our lives and effectively buried for whole generations the values which Edmundson argues Shakespeare had fatally wounded.

I may drag a few of my own hobbyhorses into this arena as I hobble along.

While I found his attack on Freud was music to my ears, his antidote to what he defines in effect as Shakespeare’s toxic effects was far harder to swallow, and I am gagging on that still. I’m not sure he was completely wrong, though, even so.

The Triumph of Self

This is the title Edmundson gives to his introduction. I was hooked from the very first page so I’ll quote from it:

It is no secret: culture in the West has become progressively more practical, materially oriented, and sceptical. When I look out at my students, about to graduate, I see people who are in the process of choosing a way to make money, a way to succeed, a strategy for getting on in life. . . . . It’s no news: we are more and more a worldly culture, a money-based culture geared to the life of getting and spending, trying and succeeding, and reaching for more and more. We are a pragmatic people. We do not seek perfection in thought or art, war or faith. The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds. We are anything but idealists. . . . . Unfettered capitalism runs amok; Nature is ravaged; the rich gorge: prisons are full to bursting; the poor cry out in their misery and no one seems to hear. Lust of Self rules the day.

He is not blind to the dark side of idealism though he is perhaps not as sensitive to it as, for example, Jonathan Haidt is, in his humane and compassionate book ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ when he indicates that, in his view, idealism has caused more violence in human history than almost any other single thing (page 75):

The two biggest causes of evil are two that we think are good, and that we try to encourage in our children: high self-esteem and moral idealism. . . . Threatened self-esteem accounts for a large portion of violence at the individual level, but to really get a mass atrocity going you need idealism — the belief that your violence is a means to a moral end.

What Haidt regards as central is this:

Idealism easily becomes dangerous because it brings with it . . . the belief that the ends justify the means.

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris)

Achilles and the Nereid Cymothoe: Attic red-figure kantharos from Volci (Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque nationale, Paris). For source of image see link.

Heroism:

Haidt’s words were ringing in my ears as Edmundson begins to explain the three main ideals he wishes to focus upon. The first ideal he looks at is heroism. If the hook from the first page had not gone so deep, I might have swum away again at this point. I’m glad I didn’t.

That is not because I am now sold on the heroic as Edmundson first introduces it. The idea of Achilles still does not thrill me because he is a killer. He lights the way for Atilla, Genghis Khan, Napoleon and then for Hitler, Mao, Stalin and beyond.

None of those 20th Century examples are probably heroes in any Homeric sense of the word, but, with their roots in the betrayed idealism of the French Revolution, they have capitalised on similar perversions of idealism that have fuelled war, torture, mass prison camps and worse. I can’t shake off the influence of my formative years under the ominous shadow of the Second World War. I’m left with a powerful and indelible aversion to any warlike and violent kind of idealism, and any idolising of the heroic can seem far too close to that for comfort to me. In fact, high levels of intensity about any belief system sets warning bells ringing in my head. I’m not sure where to stand between the horns of the dilemma Yeats defined so clearly:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

(The Second Coming)

I’ve dealt with that at some length in a previous sequence of posts so I won’t revisit that in detail now.

A key point was one I borrowed from Eric Reitan’s measured and humane defence of religion against Richard Dawkin’s straw man attacks. One of his premises is that our concept of God, who is in essence entirely unknowable, needs to show Him as deserving of worship: any concept of God that does not fulfil that criterion should be regarded with suspicion. Our idealism, our ideology, would then be built on potentially totalitarian foundations. I am using the word God in a wider sense than the purely theological to stand for whatever we make the driving force of our lives: this could mistakenly be money, Marxism or the motherland.

I accept that, for the zealot of a destructive creed, his god is definitely worthy of worship, so much so he might kill me if I disagree: even so, Reitan’s point is a valid one. We should all take care, before we commit to a cause, to make sure that it is truly holy.

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion

Plato: copy of portrait bust by Silanion (for source of image see link)

Contemplation:

In any case, it’s where Edmundson goes next that kept me happily hooked (pages 4-5):

The second great Western ideal emerges as an ambivalent attack on Homer and Homeric values. Plato repeatedly expresses his admiration for the Homeric poem; he seems to admire Homer above all literary artists. But to Plato there is a fundamental flaw at the core of Homer’s work: Homer values the warrior above all others. For Plato the pre-eminent individual is the thinker, and the best way to spend one’s life is not in the quest for glory but in the quest for Truth. Plato introduces the second of the great ideals in Western culture: the ideal of contemplation.

He goes onto explain that Plato is not interested in investigating how to ‘navigate practical difficulties.’ He seeks ‘a Truth that will be true for all time.’

In religious terms, as Daniel Batson describes them, I’m an example of some one who scores high on the Quest scale, where religion ‘involves an open-ended, responsive dialogue with existential questions raised by the contradictions and tragedies of life’ (Religion and the Individual page 169). No surprise then that I was delighted to find that Edmundson was going to explore this kind of ideal at some length. He also makes it very clear later in the book that being true to the role of thinker requires its own form of heroism, as the life and death of Socrates demonstrates.

Edmundson reflects upon the fact (page 6) that the ‘average citizen now is a reflexive pragmatist.’ He continues:

The mind isn’t best used to seek eternal Truth: that is impractical, a waste of time. The mind is a compass to get bearings in life; a calculator to ascertain profit and lost; a computer to plan one’s next move in life’s chess match.

He adds that ‘Instrumental Reason rules the day.’

Buddha Jingan

 

Compassion:

Last of all he comes to one of my other obsessions (page 7):

There is a third ideal that stands next to the heroic and the contemplative: the compassionate ideal. The ideal of compassion comes into the Western tradition definitively with the teachings of Jesus Christ. But the ideal of compassion is older than Jesus; it is manifest in the sacred texts of the Hindus, in the teachings of the Buddha and, less directly, in the reflections of Confucius.

The shift in consciousness between this and the heroic ideal is massive (page 8):

No longer is one a thrashing Self, fighting the war of each against all. Now one is part of everything and everyone: one merges with the spirit of all the lives. And perhaps this merger is heaven, or as close to heaven as we mortals can come.

And staying true to that perception also requires great courage. The histories of the great religions testify to that, with their tales of martyrdom and persecution. It is sad though to reflect upon how often the persecuted faiths have later become persecutors themselves: it is not just the heroic ideal that has shed rivers of blood throughout history. Conviction, as I have explored before on this blog, is a double-edged sword.

Three Ideals

So, then, we have it (page 9): ‘Courage, compassion, and serious thought: these are the great ideals of the ancient world.’

It would be impossible for me to do justice to the force and depth of his treatment of these three ideals. I am not even going to attempt it here. I can wholeheartedly recommend his entire book as a stimulating exploration of what we have come very close to losing.

In the next post I will simply home in on two relatively manageable implications of his main theme: his treatment of two key figures who, in his view, have helped misshape modern culture – Shakespeare and Freud.

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