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Posts Tagged ‘Jeremy Rifkin’

An Ecological Self

I ended the previous post with the following points from Tom Oliver’s book, The Self Delusion.

I am less convinced by his next line of argument based on the ideas of Arne Naess, a Norwegian ecologist, [1]who ‘suggested that to solve environmental problems, our conception of self-identity needs to expand from an ‘egoic self’ to an ‘ecological self’ that encompasses all of the earth’s living systems.’

It’s not the idea in itself that I find implausible as a necessary condition of effective change: my problem is that I don’t find it a sufficient condition as both Naess and Oliver seem to do.

Oliver quotes Naess’ reasoning:[2]

While one is working only within a narrow concept of the self, he argues, environmentally responsible behaviour always relies on altruism, which is too inconsistent to reverse the wide-scale environmental degradation driven by the collective human endeavour. Instead, enlargement of self-identity to an ‘ecological self,’ integrating all those organisms we are impacting, can result in environmental behaviour as a form of self-interest – care for the natural world beyond our immediate bodies becomes an act of love.

On that basis Oliver supports the conclusions expressed in Psychology as if the Whole World Mattered:[3] ‘if the self is extended to include the natural world, behaviour leading to destruction of this world will be experienced as self-destruction.’

I have dealt with related issues at length elsewhere on this blog so I will summarise my unease with this position briefly.

First of all, there is Jeremy Rifkin in his masterpiece, The Empathic Civilisation. His concept of potential human progress maps closely onto Oliver’s:[4]

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.

Altruism

Next comes Matthieu Ricard’s excellent book, Altruism, which is quite clear that altruism is a stable trait, to be distinguished from compassion, which is more of a transient state of mind. Even though I agreed with his position, I was not convinced by the conclusion he reached on that basis. Yes, as he contends, we must move[5] 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.

In this long and enthralling book, Ricard has used reason brilliantly to advocate altruism as the solution to our personal and global problems. He would be the first to agree though, I hope, that a conviction in the value of altruism is not going to be sufficient to motivate enough people to rise to the level of sacrifice required for long enough to achieve the necessary effect, and it is highly improbable that enough people would be capable of meditating with the necessary level of intensity for sufficiently long to turn their transient states of compassion into the enduring trait of altruism.

Similarly, simply identifying with the natural world at a purely material level is more likely to disempower us with despair before the enormity of the challenges which our destruction of the planet has presented us with, than empower us to sustain effective effort for long enough and at a high enough level to save ourselves and our planetary home from terminal devastation.

This raises the question, ‘do we not also need a sense of something that transcends not just our sense of self, but also transcends this planet and the life that depends upon it, to give us the strength, confidence, wisdom and perseverance to commit to action long enough to be effective?’

Some Possible Remedies

In spite of these caveats I resonate strongly to much that Oliver says.

There is an inescapable interaction between our level of understanding of our interconnections and that of the systems of which we form a part:[6]

: . . . if we fail as individuals to appreciate our interdependent relationship with nature, we cannot expect our economic system to take into account such interconnections and protect the natural world.

In the end, if we do not change as individuals there will be no change, as the World Wildlife Fund Living Planet 2016 report clearly articulates:[7]

They conclude that mental models of the world – reflecting the beliefs, values and assumptions that we personally hold – influence the design of system structures, the guidelines and incentives that govern behaviours and, ultimately, the individual events that make up the flow of daily life. The leverage points that can lead to genuine lasting change, therefore, are at the level of these underlying mental models – we first need to change ourselves to change the world.

Is there anything we can do to lift our consciousness to a higher level? Not surprisingly, he mentions the modern favourite:[8]

Long-term mindfulness practice can lead to an overall increase in activity in the areas of the default mode related to self focus.

Both Goleman and Davidson in their book on meditation and Matthieu Ricard in his book on altruism testify to our ability to consolidate transient states of compassion into lasting traits of character by thousands of hours of meditation. It is unlikely that most of us will ever commit to that kind of sustained effort. Oliver looks then at some possible less demanding approaches:[9]

Rather than sitting on our own, we might find that working with others –social learning – can help. Some methods might be familiar to us already, such as green gyms where people work together outside and engage in nature.

Also on offer is the opportunity to dress up as animals or plants:

Outlandish as this may seem, this kind of perspective-taking has been shown to be effective in changing mindsets and genuinely increases environmental concern. . . .  The feelings of empathy induced by this perspective-taking increase the overlap between our self-identity and nature.

Failing either of those we can resort to an alternative approach:[10]

Treating our self-identity like a habit means techniques that help reduce the frequency of bad habits can be effective in preventing this drifting into unhelpful mental state. For example, ‘implementation intentions’ are rules that people plan out ahead for how they will act in a situation when they normally enact bad behaviours.

What this means in practice is rather like the Spot it, Stop it and Swap it mnemonic I explored some time ago after reading Schwartz’s four step method in The Mind and the Brain. I won’t rehash all that just now: for those who are interested the relevant post is at this link.

It will probably be quite challenging to use this kind of method on your sense of who your are. This is where another important skill kicks in: reflection. Reflection is something I have explored at length on this blog both from an existential and a Bahá’í perspective. In part it involves developing the ability to withdraw our identifications with whatever dominant patterns invade our minds, whether thoughts, feelings, memories, worries or even self-concepts to which we have become attached.

Elsewhere, I have discussed the value of reflection. I have drawn on writers such as Koestenbaum who describes how reflection is a process of separating consciousness from its contents. I have used the analogy of the mirror to illustrate what this might mean. What is reflected in the mirror is not the mirror. In the same way what we are thinking, feeling and planning may not be the essence of our consciousness, simply the ‘objects’ that are reflected in it.

Interestingly in the same post I also refer back to a previous post that explores the idea of gardening the heart. To my surprise, Oliver resorts to the identical metaphor to make his point as well:[11]

I think of this as analogous to gardening. We are so used in the modern world to rushing around trying to achieve things by sheer strength of will, yet gardening is about creating the right conditions and then being patient and letting nature take the lead. So too, by making time for meditation and contemplation, by balancing our rest, work and exercise, by eating well, we best prepare the soil for our own mental transformation.

All this just before he flags up another issue that comes up in the Bahá’í Writings – the impact of language. Bahá’u’lláh describes the constricting effect of words and language as follows:[12]

The dwellers of the kingdom of names have busied themselves with the gay livery of the world, forgetful that every man that hath eyes to perceive and ears to hear cannot but readily recognize how evanescent are its colours.

Oliver emphasises how central language is to all of us:[13]

For humans, language is our water and as the writer James Caroll said: ‘we swim in language, think in language, we live in language.’

And how much influence it has on how we behave:[14]

Exposure to materialistic messages causes people to adopt materialistic and self-interested values themselves.

It’s clearly never going to be an easy battle to win, the fight to release ourselves from ‘the prison of self’[15] Oliver describes as ‘the self delusion.’

If we do not manage to do so, then we are in deep trouble:

. . . if we cannot shed the self delusion and act with appropriate concern for others and the world around us, then we will face and ecological and climate catastrophe . . .

Final Thoughts

A problem with the challenges we currently face, including the climate crisis and the current pandemic, is that while they demand greater collaboration across divides, they may serve instead to intensify those divides:[16]

From historical studies, cultures have been shown to become tighter in the face of environmental shocks – they become more collective and cooperative internally but develop greater hostility to out-groups.

We can already see where this default pattern is leading us:[17]

 . . . Rich countries build barriers to keep migrants and refugees from poorer countries out.… Rich countries are causing global climate and ecological catastrophe and then building walls to prevent millions of people moving out of inhospitable conditions. In the face of malnutrition and deaths that are ultimately caused by the actions of richer countries, the only way to make such news palatable will be to devalue and dehumanise the people outside the fortress walls –for a start, referring to them as ‘migrants’ or ‘criminals’ rather than ‘refugees’ or simply ‘people.’ . . . News media will explain that it is the failure of their governments causing these problems, even though governing under such inhospitable environmental conditions will be a near impossible task.

This can only get worse: ‘as the global population increases further, taking an inward-looking perspective to protect the in-group will only lead to greater instability . . .’[18]

It is imperative that we find ways of transcending our primate predispositions:[19]

. . .  the natural social reaction to protect the in-group in times of adversity is a cultural adaptation that has become maladaptive in the modern world. If we want to thrive and pass on a habitable world to future generations, we must overcome both our biologically determined egoism and our culturally determined tribalism.

Oliver looks for hope in a well-recognised social pattern, which has too often been a source of distress:[20]

The writer Malcolm Gladwell outlines how trends and behaviours, such as high crime rates, spread unexpectedly rapidly through human populations. These phenomena reach a critical mass in a small subset of the population before a tipping point is reached and they spread like wildfire across the population.… Could we use such social contagion to enable the rapid evolution of a networked sense of self identity among the global human population?

. . . Is changing the mindset of nearly 8 billion humans on the planet in time to solve pressing global sustainability problems a feasible task? When we look at how quickly behaviours and attitudes spread once a tipping point is reached, I feel hopeful that such a transition could occur.

The Corona virus pandemic has certainly demonstrated that we can react with amazing speed and spare no expense when confronted with something we recognise as a major life-threatening emergency. I’ve already dealt at length with the challenges of the climate emergency. Perhaps this idea of a possible tipping point being reached in time can be added into the combination of ideas I quoted in the last post of that sequence. Arthur Dahl, whose blog post is linked to the International Environment Forum, a Bahá’í inspired organization for environment and sustainability, summarises what we need to do as follows:

Change ourselves. Addressing our demand for energy is the biggest challenge. When we use an electrical appliance, spend time inside a building, use hot water, travel anywhere in a vehicle, or buy or eat anything, we are contributing to the problem. We need to start today to make sacrifices: drive less, fly less, consume less meat, have fewer children. A plant-based diet reduces a food carbon footprint by 90%. Avoid beef with a carbon footprint three times pork and six times chicken. Tropical fruits imported by air, and cheese are other offenders. Reduce short car journeys; car-pool, bike or walk instead. But one vacation flight would wipe out the benefits of going vegetarian for a year or driving 2500 km less. In your home, replace appliances with energy-efficient models, lower the temperature of hot water, use a low-flow showerhead, do not leave appliances on standby, and dry washing outside. Smart thermostats can reduce household emissions by up to 26%. Moving to a smaller home can cut emissions by 27%. At the office, turning off lights and your workstation when leaving, and unplugging your phone charger, can cut emissions by up to 28%. Working from home in the US can mean driving 77% less.

Above all, there is a lack of political will for the biggest transformation ever. People have to demand these changes with mass movements. This may seem impossible, but we have to try. We need to convince everyone that green alternatives improve our quality of life as well as the environment.

A key issue to getting sufficient people, including those with political and economic power,  to agree that the climate crisis is an emergency.

In the end, even though I find Oliver’s book inspiring and convincing in many respects, I cannot shake off my conviction that, in addition to all the factors and approaches he adduces, if we do not have some sense of the transcendent, including that of a higher power that can reinforce our efforts if we align ourselves with it, we will find ourselves unable to rise effectively to challenges of this magnitude for a sufficient length of time to turn things round. Unlike the Covid-19 challenge, a few weeks or maybe months of concerted action will not be enough, even when we have recognised the climate crisis for what it is and begun to take some kind of effective action.

To close this post, here is a reminder of that, which I use in meditation from time to time, found in these words of Bahá’u’lláh:

Were anyone to affirm that [Nature] is the Will of God as manifested in the world of being, no one should question this assertion. It is endowed with a power whose reality men of learning fail to grasp.[21]

Footnotes

[1]. The Self Delusion – page 211.
[2]. The Self Delusion – pages 211-12.
[3]. The Self Delusion – page 213.
[4]. The Empathic Civilisation – page 154.
[5]. Altruism – page 682.
[6]. The Self Delusion – page 216.
[7]. The Self Delusion – page 218.
[8]. The Self Delusion – page 224.
[9]. The Self Delusion – pages 225-26.
[10]. The Self Delusion – page 227.
[11]. The Self Delusion — page 228.
[12]. Gleanings XCVI.
[13]. The Self Delusion – page 230.
[14]. The Self Delusion – pages 231-32.
[15]. Bahá’u’lláh Persian Hidden Words – Number 40.
[16]. The Self Delusion – page 233.
[17]. The Self Delusion – page 234.
[18]. The Self Delusion – page 235.
[19]. The Self Delusion – page 236.
[20]. The Self Delusion – page 246.
[21]. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, Lawh-i-Hikmat – page 142.

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From the The European Bahá’í Business Forum website

Coherence

At the end of the last post I flagged up the fact that another key capacity necessary for change is lacking: coherence. The significance of this lack was flagged up as long ago as 10 November 1974 in a message from the sovereign body of the Bahá’í community, the Universal House of Justice. They wrote:

We should also remember that most people have no clear concept of the sort of world they wish to build, nor how to go about building it. Even those who are concerned to improve conditions are therefore reduced to combating every apparent evil that takes their attention.

However, there are pressures that make it imperative that we transcend this lack of cohesion. The European Bahá’í Business Forum, in a recent letter, puts it fairly bluntly:

We are faced with a challenging new era in human history. It is a chaotic phase of transition in which collectively we are confronted with the difficult reality of unprecedented global uncertainty and forces of fragmentation.

The planet itself is now telling us through accelerating signs of climate change that business as usual is leading us to disaster.

In addition, they spell out bluntly that not everyone is willing to embrace the prospect of radical change:

While the internal incoherence within the current economic system will lead to its collapse, sweeping away some obstacles to a new sustainable system, we are currently faced with the headwinds of an intransigent resistance to change.

That the system is broken in many ways seems almost beyond dispute. Joseph Stiglitz defines a key aspect in the introduction to his widely acclaimed post mortem on the efficacy of our current political and economic system – The Price of Inequality:

. . . capitalism is failing to produce what was promised, but is delivering on was not promised – inequality, pollution, unemployment, and, most important of all, the degradation of values to the point where everything is acceptable and no one is accountable.[1]

The remedy that makes sense to him is currently conspicuous by its absence:

For markets to work the way markets are supposed to, there has to be appropriate government regulation. But for that to occur, we have to have a democracy that reflects the general interests – not the special interests or just those at the top.[2]

This suggests that mending the system will not be easy.

We have to develop some sense, though, of how this perverse fragmentation can be remedied, and a desire for reform to be generated, if there is to be any hope of constructive change.

Not only is the tunnel vision of some approaches far too narrow ever to address the full complexity of the issues that confront us all in global late-capitalism, but even where there might be a wider focus, there is a failure to recognize that tackling aspects of the system’s defects more or less one at a time, in an uncoordinated manner, is not going to get far either.

Iain McGilchrist, in his comprehensive analysis of the way our culture has privileged the wrong half of our brain, The Master & his Emissary, makes it clear how neurobiology has been enlisted to serve the purposes of a reductionist and materialistic scientism. The conclusion he reaches that most matters when we look at our western society is this:

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.[3]

He makes a crucial point, when he writes, ‘However distinguished, the individual remains part of the whole and is understandable only in terms of the whole of which it forms a part,’[4] a truth our society and culture seems to have forgotten a long time ago. So, from our fragmented perspective, the group looks like ‘a potential threat to individuality,’[5] a belief that would make effective cooperation seem quite problematic.

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, the left hemisphere view has become 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. 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.

Towards the end of his book, McGilchrist describes a more desirable society when he writes, ‘a society is, or should be, an organic unity, not an assemblage of bits that strive with one another.’ As it stands, he adds, ‘It is as if every organ in the body wanted to be the head.’[6]

We are in desperate need of reinstating a proper balance in the modes of operation of the two hemispheres. This cry is articulated in the Bahá’í Faith’s belief that religion and science are to be seen as one and should not be in conflict. They are as the wings of one bird, as also, we believe, are men and women.

McGilchrist’s articulation of this need is complex and subtle but required reading for anyone who cares about these issues. The quote below is only one part of his case, though a central one.

There is, in summary, then, a force for individuation (left hemisphere) and a force for coherence (right hemisphere): but, where the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force of coherence. . . . . [T]he rational workings of the left hemisphere . . . should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere.[7]

This however could be much easier said than done, on a collective level, when we are heavily influenced by the powerful promptings of a competitive and acquisitive culture.

A further obstacle to achieving collectively the necessary level of understanding to motivate us to effective action is the short-term perspective that is wired into our primate brains. Ken Whitehead expresses it better than I can:

This pattern reveals a fundamental characteristic of how our brains work; we tend to focus on the short term, and have little thought of the long-term consequences of our actions. The early hunters devised ever more efficient ways of killing the existing inhabitants of the new lands they occupied. There was no thought of long-term consequences. Why should there be? The supply of prey animals was believed to be inexhaustible. Yet one day they were all gone!

The problems we face in today’s world suggest that little has changed in the last fifty thousand years. In his 2004 book “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright describes human beings in today’s world as running 21st century software on fifty thousand-year old hardware. Our brains have evolved to react to short-term crises, such as an attack by a hungry lion. The more subtle cognitive abilities which would allow us to assess and respond appropriately to longer term threats are much less developed within the human brain. As a result we are very good at responding quickly to an emergency, but we are hopelessly inept, both as individuals and as a society, when it comes to taking effective action to head off threats which are perceived as being distant.

So, to achieve coherence we need to effect two major changes.

The first is to subordinate our analytical tendencies to our holistic potential and invest the necessary significant level of effort in transcending our short-term biases. Education will be a key to that, but if those who value holism and effortful thought do not gain the power to shape our educational system, how is that ever going to happen?

The second is to create cohesive, cooperative and morally creative institutions to manage our communities at every level. This may have to be accomplished before we can rebalance our educational system. You may well ask, ‘how though can we do that until our educational and child-rearing systems create, on a wide enough scale, the kind of consciousness necessary to build such institutions?’ A chicken and egg situation to which I will return later.

The Need for Institutions

Focusing for now on the need for coherent and effective institutions, I found this clearly defined and analysed when reading The Cultural Creatives.

Ray and Andersen describe how anyone involved in working to change the culture in which they live will have to face the intense discouragement that all too frequently comes when results fail to match up to expectations. A choice point torments us: ‘Do I keep faith with my vision or do I break faith with it?’ Keeping faith beyond what feels like its breaking point is often what brings about a breakthrough, healing the testing breach between vision and reality, at least until the next time.

Much of the power of these processes is invisible, which is partly what makes the work so testing, but it can be calculated to some degree once you understand the typical dynamics:

To understand the true size of a social movement, think of a target with three concentric circles. The centre is the hundreds of visible leaders, demonstrators, and little organisations. Around the centre is a circle of many thousands of active supporters. and around those two active circles is the circle of the sympathetic millions who are touched by the events, and may simply read the arguments, and as a result make different choices in some part of their lives.[8]

Powerful as these processes are, even when political alliances reinforce them, they are almost certainly not enough:

To change the culture, you cannot depend on the terms and solutions the old culture provides. . . . Leaving the heavy lifting to the political side of the movements, the cultural side started drying up, and the submerged networks began to lose touch with one another.[9]

At present we are indeed for the most part locked into ‘the terms and solutions the old culture provides.’ Wilhelm Streeck hits this nail on the head as well:

The de-socialised capitalism of the interregnum hinges on the improvised performances of structurally self-centred, socially disorganised and politically disempowered individuals.[10]

Ray and Andersen pinpoint a crucial missing link:

No one knew, or even thought about, how to create cultural institutions to support the work that was so important to them. The first generation practitioners  . . . . . could [hardly] manage their way out of a paper bag. . . . There really was a hole in the culture – the old ways didn’t work, and the new ones hadn’t yet been invented.[11]

The apparent absence of new ways that seem potentially effective is a debilitating aspect of many people’s thinking, much of it rooted in our default position of individualism, as Streeck points out:

The sweated workers of today and the middle-class workers in the countries of advanced capitalism… never experience together the community and solidarity deriving from joint collective action.[12]

Not surprisingly, this becomes a vicious circle, founded as it is in disconnected disempowered individualism:

The practices that make it possible for individuals to survive under neoliberalism may also help neoliberalism itself to survive. . . . . social life in an age of entropy is by necessity individualistic.[13]

But we do have institutions. Why exactly, in Ray and Andersen’s view, wouldn’t the institutions the United States already had, for example, do the trick?

The three Bigs – big government, big business, and big media – have difficulty dealing with issues that cannot be isolated from other issues and solved with tools at hand.[14]

Even progressive movements themselves could be rendered ineffective by the same tendency to atomise everything: ‘Activists, too, are Modernism’s children, believing that they must become specialists.’[15]

Too many people pick off parts of the problem unable to see or agree that they are all interconnected. In the end the core issue cannot be evaded:

Cultural Creatives may be leading the way with responses directed towards healing and integration rather than battle. For these responses to contribute to the creation of a new culture, grassroots activism and social movements will have to evolve into new institutions. . . . [W]hile new social movements are transitory, institutions can turn the energies of these movements into everyday action.[16]

The Need for Transcendence

They also strongly suggest that this might well involve something much more than a merely materialistic approach. They quote Joseph Campbell:

‘You do not have a myth unless you have an opening into transcendence.’ . . . If we cannot recognise the universe and the nations and ourselves as manifestations of ‘the grounding mystery of all being,’ he said, ‘we have nothing we can really trust.’[17]

And this quote is not in isolation. They also refer to Vijali Hamilton:

‘The true story is that there is a luminous, spacious energy that flows through everything all the time. It’s within matter, within things as well as within space, and you can tune in to it at any time . . . . . It is not otherworldly. It is right here, closer than our own flesh.’[18]

This is very close indeed to the idea that Shoghi Effendi quotes the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith describing:

‘O My servants!’ Bahá’u’lláh Himself testifies, ‘The one true God is My witness! This most great, this fathomless and surging ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life vein! Swift as the twinkling of an eye ye can, if ye but wish it, reach and partake of this imperishable favor, this God-given grace, this incorruptible gift, this most potent and unspeakably glorious bounty.’[19]

A sense of transcendent power may be necessary if we are to overcome the limitations of our primate brains with their tendencies towards the instinctive rather than the thoughtful and the short-term perspective as against the long view.

So it’s not surprising that leaps of faith are required of us if we are to undertake these kinds of transformative processes effectively. We must develop trust in what we are not wired to grasp easily.

Our negativity bias won’t help here. Hanson and Mendius’s book The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain explores this clearly.

They explain that:

. . . . to motivate animals, including ourselves, to follow [survival] strategies and pass on their genes, neural networks evolved to create pain and distress under certain conditions: when separations break down, stability is shaken, opportunities disappoint, and threats loom. [20]

They explain slightly later not only why this was so but one of its most unwelcome correlates:

. . . it’s the negative experiences, not the positive ones, that have generally had the most impact on survival. . . . . The brain typically detects negative information faster than positive information. . . . . Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.[21]

The consequences of this are not by any means simply confined to life threatening situations for us modern human beings (ibid):

. . . . In relationships, it typically takes about five positive interactions to overcome the effects of a single negative one (Gottman 1995).[22]

Also this bias towards negativity determines the scenarios with which our imagination mesmerises us constantly:

[Mini movies run in our heads] and . . . . keep us stuck by their simplistic view of the past and by their defining out of existence real possibilities for the future, such as new ways to reach out to others or dream big dreams. Their beliefs are the bars of an invisible cage, trapping you in a life that’s smaller than the one you could actually have.[23]

We need to make a conscious and sustained effort to cut against the grain of that bias:

Given the negativity bias of the brain, it takes an active effort to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones.[24]

We clearly need every possible means to enable us to rise to the challenges we face in changing our broken system.

I have also been here before when I reviewed Jeremy Rifkin’s compelling analysis of our current situation in The Empathic Civilisation. He argues that a connection with the earth we depend upon, and our capacity to develop sufficient empathy for our fellow creatures as well as our planet, will be a sufficient motivator for us collectively, and in sufficient numbers, to avert catastrophe.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted.

Rifkin has done his best in his impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

And there we will have to leave it until I attempt to explore this further in the next post, tentatively offering some possible ways of beginning to break this deadlock.

References:

[1] The Price of Inequality – page xlviii.
[2] The Price of Inequality – page li.
[3] The Master & his Emissary – pages 228-229.
[4] The Master & his Emissary – page 202.
[5] The Master & his Emissary – Page 255.
[6] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[7] The Master & his Emissary – page 444.
[8] The Cultural Creatives – page 109.
[9] The Cultural Creatives – page 154.
[10] Streeck – page 41.
[11] The Cultural Creatives – page 187.
[12] Streeck – page 25.
[13] Streeck – page 40.
[14] The Cultural Creatives – page 227.
[15] The Cultural Creatives – page 229.
[16] The Cultural Creatives – page 246.
[17] The Cultural Creatives – page 299.
[18] The Cultural Creatives – page 311.
[19] The Promised Day is Come – page 16.
[20] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – page 26.
[21] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 40-41.
[22] Ibid.
[23] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 44-45.
[24] The Practical Science of Buddha’s Brain – pages 73-75.

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Altruism Black Earth

In the light of recent events concerning the best way to deal with those who had been drawn into working with Daesh in Syria, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The three posts, of which this is the last, appeared on consecutive Thursdays.

The first post looked at the implications of two books – Altruism and Black Earth – which led me to reflect on the possibility that we might not be immune to a repetition of the horrors of the Holocaust. At the end of the previous post we had reached the point of arguing that it is essential, if our society is to lift its collective consciousness to a more compassionate level, that we focus more intently upon the education of our children.

There are two key areas that determine the direction of a child’s development: parenting and schooling.

Parenting

Let’s take parenting first, and why it matters.

One main point is, and probably always should have been, fairly obvious, though now we have empirical evidence to back it up. When Jeremy Rifkin in his excellent book – The Empathic Civilisation – looks at where we are at present with the challenges we face, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, acceptance, and a sense of belonging.

There are also less obvious forces at work as well. Ricard explores the exact relationship as currently understood between evolution and altruism. He looks carefully at the evidence and quotes Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s conclusion from her research that (page 173):

. . . . ‘novel rearing conditions along the line of early hominids meant that youngsters grew up depending on a wider range of caretakers than just their mothers, and this dependence produced selection pressure that favoured individuals who were better at decoding the mental state of others, and figuring out who would help and who would hurt.’

In other words, the fact that newborns interact quickly with a large number of people may have contributed considerably to raising the degree of cooperation and empathy among humans.

Hrdy’s final point of view is very clear (page 174):

. . . without the help of “alloparents,” there would never have been a human species.

We are now breaking that pattern (ibid.):

The notion of “family” as limited to a couple and their children developed only in the 20th century in Europe, and as late as the 1950s in the United States. Before that, most families included members of three generations, comprising aunts, cousins, et cetera.

This carries a significant risk (pages 175-76):

. . . . given empathy and the faculties of understanding others developed thanks to particular ways of taking care of children, and if an increasing proportion of humans no longer benefited from these conditions, compassion and the search for emotional connections would disappear. [Hrdy] questions whether such people “will be human in ways that we now think of as distinguishing our species – that is, empathic and curious about the emotions of others, shaped by our ancient heritage of communal care.”

Schooling

Is there any sign that our educational systems, not just in the West but also in countries such as China, are working hard enough to counteract a trend towards narcissistic materialism and competitiveness? There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Of American education John Fitzgerald Medina writes in his hard-hitting Faith, Physics & Psychology (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

Though Jeremy Rifkin sees it more positively and refers to the existence in schools of programmes designed to develop empathy, he is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

[An example of what Rifkin refers to elsewhere in his book when describing programmes for cultivating empathy is in this clip.]  

An example of the current state of play in the States comes in a blog post on the NY Times site from a philosopher father after encountering issues with his son’s education. He summarises what he has learnt:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

He spells out the implications of this rampant moral relativism:

. . . . in the world beyond grade school, where adults must exercise their moral knowledge and reasoning to conduct themselves in the society, the stakes are greater. There, consistency demands that we acknowledge the existence of moral facts. If it’s not true that it’s wrong to murder a cartoonist with whom one disagrees, then how can we be outraged? If there are no truths about what is good or valuable or right, how can we prosecute people for crimes against humanity? If it’s not true that all humans are created equal, then why vote for any political system that doesn’t benefit you over others?

My strong impression is that the UK system has moved a long way in this dehumanising direction also. There is ample evidence to justify this view. Confirmation that Medina’s bleak picture applies at least to some extent within the UK can be found, for example, in an article in the Guardian of February this year which quotes recent research:

The survey of 10,000 pupils aged 14 and 15 in secondary schools across the UK found that more than half failed to identify what researchers described as good judgments when responding to a series of moral dilemmas, leading researchers to call for schools to have a more active role in teaching character and morality.

“A good grasp of moral virtues, such as kindness, honesty and courage can help children to flourish as human beings, and can also lead to improvements in the classroom. And that level of understanding doesn’t just happen – it needs to be nurtured and encouraged,” said Prof James Arthur, director of Birmingham’s Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, which conducted the research.

There was also a piece by Layard on the LSE website in January this year:

In a path-breaking analysis using the British Cohort Study, we found some astonishing results. The strongest predictor of a satisfying adult life was the child’s emotional health. Next came social behaviour, and least important was academic achievement. This is exactly the opposite sequence to the priorities of most (but not all) educators and politicians.

An article on the Greater Good website emphasises how important it is to include a moral component in the curriculum and shows that there is widespread concern about this issue:

Many schools are hopping on the bandwagon to teach “performance character”—qualities such as perseverance, optimism, and creativity— because it has been shown to lead to greater academic success. Fewer, though, are also teaching moral character, which focuses on qualities that enhance ethical behavior, including empathy, social responsibility, and integrity.

The challenge is that performance character by itself is not necessarily good or bad. A person can exhibit great perseverance and creativity, but use it towards bad means—take your pick of corporate scandals to see this in action. To blunt ends-justify-means thinking, schools need to balance achievement-oriented performance character with the ethical orientation of moral character, while also teaching emotional skills.

Case in point: A recent study found that students at a middle school that emphasized moral character demonstrated higher rates of academic integrity than students at two middle schools that taught only performance character. In other words, the students who cultivated their moral backbone were less likely to cheat than the students who developed perseverance.

chinese teachers

Chinese Teachers in UK (for source of image see link)

A recent series on BBC television showed clearly how China is walking along the same potentially destructive path. Four teachers came to the UK to prove how the Chinese system is far more effective than ours in boosting academic performance. They emphasised, in their comments on their approach, how China stresses preparing their students to succeed in what they see as an extremely and inevitably competitive world. Their blackboard-based monologues, pumping out facts with no opportunity to experience their living meaning, was reminiscent of the Gradgrind approach to education Charles Dickens satirised in Hard Times:

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Gradgrind’s Class’ from The Illustrated Hard Times by Nick Ellis (for source see link)

‘Girl number twenty,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, ‘I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?’

‘Sissy Jupe, sir,’ explained number twenty, blushing, standing up, and curtseying.

‘Sissy is not a name,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.’

‘My father as calls me Sissy. sir,’ returned the young girl in a trembling voice, and with another curtsey.

‘Then he has no business to do it,’ said Mr. Gradgrind. ‘Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?’

‘He belongs to the horse-riding, if you please, sir.’

Mr. Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.

‘We don’t want to know anything about that, here. You mustn’t tell us about that, here. . . . Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours. . . .’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. . . . . .

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’

Unfortunately the Chinese teachers’ approach was shown to produce better grades than the UK system. My worry is that it probably does not produce better human beings, even while conceding that our own system leaves a lot to be desired still in that respect.

In addition to the need to build back into the curriculum elements of creativity, morality, and spirituality, there is an additional vital element we must not forget. A service component, something at the core of the Bahá’í approach, is almost certainly crucial to any educational system, not just one for remedial purposes. Compassion has to be linked to action to be fully internalised.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. For example, the research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems. He was reacting to the fact that an expensive implementation of the programme involving nearly 600 students across several sites failed to produce any of the expected benefits (page 131):

What happened? It turns out that each site was given a fair amount of latitude in how they implemented the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme], and none of the sites adopted the entire curriculum. In particular, most of the site managers decided to focus on the mentoring aspects of the program and non-fully implemented the community service component – the very component that we know, from the Teen Outreach and Reach for Health programs, has beneficial effects! Sadly, more than $15 million was spent on a five-year intervention in which a key ingredient (community service) was eliminated. . . .

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

For a sense of the what the Bahá’í Approach involves this video is a good introduction. It shows how the Bahá’í emphasis upon engaging young people in the process of child education and community building works in practice.

(Published on 2 May 2013: You can download this film from the Official website: http://www.bahai.org/frontiers/)

It seems to me imperative that everyone, no matter what their circumstances might be, needs at the very least to find whatever ways they can to raise consciousness among their family, friends and contacts, so that more and more people internalise a vision of humanity as one family and understand better how to nurture and sustain people, fellow creatures and the planet. If that can also involve directly relevant action so much the better.

It is also appropriate to add here that even those who have ended up seduced by the manipulations of extremists can potentially be rehabilitated, as a recent article by Lynne Wallis in the Guardian contended, and, if we are to be true to the Universal House of Justice’s exhortation to take responsibility for the welfare all human beings without exception, then, provided we protect ourselves at the same time, we should offer them this chance.

Wallis feels strongly, in spite of the difficulties involved, that the evidence suggests ‘the process of indoctrination can . . . be reversed. It is commonly referred to as “exit counselling”, and when it happens – it’s often hard to get a cult member alone for long enough – it is often successful.’ As we are not dealing with people embedded in a ‘cult’ with repatriated Daesh members: they may well have gone through a process in the courts and be prisoners, in which case consistent access should be no problem.

My personal plan

For the foreseeable future I plan to explore, as often as I am able, this whole issue of altruism. In particular I want to understand more fully what factors enable us to widen the compass of our compassion and what factors narrow it.

I am already fairly clear that this will take me back over some familiar territory, though perhaps seeing it through a slightly different lens, but it will also require me to look carefully at some areas I have not explored in detail. Historical texts, for example, have not been my favourite grazing ground in the past – something about the way they marshal information switches me off. However, Snyder’s book has persuaded me I ought to give them another chance as I came to realise, from reading Black Earth, how little I really understood about many of the background factors that shaped the Holocaust. Maybe I also need to revisit some philosophical work that I have previously avoided as too challenging in its approach.

Some bolder experiments in terms of my personal experience might not come amiss either. I doubt that I can fully understand the challenges of this area without stepping into the fire.

What I have realised about this topic is that I can investigate it almost anywhere at any time, no matter what I am doing – perhaps even when I am chilling out in front of some anodyne murder mystery on the television.

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Reflecting Evil

Reflecting Evil

These [perfect] mirrors are the Messengers of God Who tell the story of Divinity, just as the material mirror reflects the light and disc of the outer sun in the skies. In this way the image and effulgence of the Sun of Reality appear in the mirrors of the Manifestations of God. This is what Jesus Christ meant when He declared, “the father is in the son,” the purpose being that the reality of that eternal Sun had become reflected in its glory in Christ Himself. It does not signify that the Sun of Reality had descended from its place in heaven or that its essential being had effected an entrance into the mirror . . . .

Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

Emp Civil

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

We have discovered how far Rifkin’s case against religion seems largely to be based on his dislike of Christian teachings, especially concerning 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.

For example, he feels that the Gnostic gospels were more empowering and benign (page 238) and finds close parallels ‘between Jesus’s teachings as expressed in the Gospel of Saint Thomas and Hindu and Buddhist teachings at the time.’

He develops this theme (page 239):

. . . the Gnostics viewed Jesus as a human being who had achieved enlightenment. There is no talk of him performing miracles or referring to himself as the son of God or any recollection of Jesus dying for the sins of a fallen humanity.

Then he states his case (page 240):

For the Gnostics, ignorance of one’s true self, not sin, is the underlying cause of human suffering. Therefore, the key to unlocking the divine in each person is self-knowledge through introspection.

And he has a view of Jesus to match (page 241):

The critical question is whether enlightenment comes from fully participating in the world around us in all of its vulnerability and corporeality or by withdrawing to an inner world removed from the vulnerability of corporeal existence. The historical Jesus was fully engaged in the world.

He acknowledges the positive impact of Christianity (page 246):

The Christian empathic surge lasted a mere three centuries; but in that time it made an incredible mark on history. By A.D. 250 the number of Christians in Rome alone had grown to fifty thousand people.

Goethe, Kant and Schopenhauer

He, in the same way as many others, dates from the time of the Enlightenment the demise of religion as an effective force in society. He locates a key figure as embodying an inspiring post-Enlightenment empathic spirit – secularised empathy, if you like: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (page 307):

If one were to have to choose a single individual who most embodied a cosmopolitan view of the world and a universal empathic sensibility, Goethe would be an easy pick.

His subsequent commentary explains exactly the nature of Goethe’s appeal for Rifkin. He fuses empathy with biosphere concern (page 308):

Goethe felt that the purpose of living was to enrich life and that man is endowed with a special appreciation of life – a heightened consciousness – so that he might steward all that is alive. . . . Breathing nature in and out was the way one takes in nature and remains connected to the larger whole.

It is here that the roots of Rifkin’s model of empathy and biosphere consciousness becomes most explicit (page 309):

With Goethe, we see the secularisation of the empathic impulse, embedded in the embodied experience and that includes not only human society but all of nature. His empathic view is truly universal in scope.

His critique of Kant remains firm. He condemns his take on the Golden Rule (page 347):

Left behind is any heartfelt connection to another’s plight as if it were one’s own; the desire to comfort them because of a felt understanding of one’s common humanity.

He prefers Arthur Schopenhauer (page 348):

Schopenhauer argues that the moral code that accompanies theological consciousness is purely prescriptive. If human nature is “fallen,” as the Abrahamic religions suggest, then there is no moral basis within an individual’s being that would predispose him to do the morally right thing. God’s commandments, therefore, are a prescriptive device telling human beings that this is the way they “ought” to behave if they are to be rewarded by God’s grace and not punished by his wrath.

He is indeed hanging his condemnation of religion as a positive redemptive influence almost exclusively on the hook of a particular religion’s interpretation of Genesis. I suspect there is a rope around the throat of his argument here. 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.

Is Being Embodied Enough?

Robert Wright

Robert Wright

However, in my view, and I suspect in the view of many members of many religions throughout the world, there is no need to make his leap of logic and deny a transcendent realm in order to explain why human beings can be compassionate. Even evolutionary theory – for example in the thinking of Robert Wright and Michael McCullough – plainly discerns how the development of empathy is wired into our brains and selected for in successful cultures.

Robert Wright sees this in evolutionary terms. In his book The Evolution of God, he discusses how the expansion of the moral imagination (page 428) can ‘bring us closer to moral truth.’

His line of argument will not appeal to everyone: it’s probably too materialistic for many religious people and too sympathetic to religion for many materialists. He states:

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, similar to one of Rifkin’s reservations about the Golden Rule. He argues, though, that it leads beyond that (pages 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.

Beyond RevengeMichael McCullough in his exploration of our dual potential for revenge and forgiveness, Beyond Revenge, sees them as hard –wired (page 132):

Revenge and forgiveness… are conditioned adaptations – they’re context sensitive. Whether we’re motivated to seek revenge or to forgive depends on who does the harming, as well as on the advantages and disadvantages associated with both of these options.

Empathy, also hard-wired, plays its part in determining what will happen (page 148):

One of the best ways to take all the fun out of revenge, and promote forgiveness instead, is to make people feel empathy for the people who’ve harmed them. In 1997, my colleagues and I showed that when people experience empathy for a transgressor, it’s difficult to maintain a vengeful attitude. Instead, forgiveness often emerges. . . . When you feel empathic toward someone, your willingness to retaliate goes way down.

This material potential may be a necessary condition for empathy to grow further in our increasingly global civilisation. Even if religion is not the enemy, do we need it? 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.

Rifkin clearly feels it’s the best hope we’ve got, even though one of his key witnesses wasn’t sure where empathy comes from (page 350):

Although the origins of man’s capacity for empathy was a mystery to Schopenhauer, the teleology was clear. By feeling another’s plight as if it were our own and by extending a hand to comfort and support them in their struggle to persevere and prosper, we recognise the unifying thread that connects each of us to the other and all of life on earth.

He nonetheless builds an ideal of interconnectedness as far as possible in these purely material terms. He sees civilisation as having a key role in realising this potential (page 362):

While we are all born with a predisposition to experience empathic distress, this core aspect of our being only develops into true empathic consciousness by the continuous struggle of differentiation and integration in civilisation. Far from squelching the empathic impulse, it is the dynamics of unfolding civilisation that is the fertile ground for its development and for human transcendence.

He wheels out the atheist’s favourite philosopher to administer what he hopes will be the kiss of death to any hope of the transcendent (page 382):

Nietzsche went after both the theologians and the rationalists, saying that it was time to give up the illusion that there exists something called “absolute spirituality” or “pure reason.”

Nietzsche argued that there is ‘only a perspective “knowing”. . .’ I won’t rehearse here all the thinking that has been done to confirm that, while it is true that all I have is my perspective, it does not mean that we have proved there is no transcendent realm. I’ve explored this, for example, in the sequence of posts on William James, whose point of view is succinctly captured by Paul Jerome Croce in his masterly Science & Religion in the Era of William James (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.

Absence of evidence therefore would not be evidence of absence, but in any case there is a wealth of evidence Rifkin is choosing to ignore here, as we have briefly touched upon above.

I realise that just as it is impossible for Rifkin conclusively to prove that any hope of empathic rescue from our current predicament must come from our material nature because that is all there is, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that

(a) this could never be sufficient, and

(b) that is OK because we can draw upon transcendent powers.

That though is what I believe.

When I was a child my father asked me to imagine what it would be like if a man stood with each of his feet in a bucket, grabbed the handles and tried to lift himself off the ground. In my view, all the evidence so far points to our being in a similar predicament: I find it impossible to believe we can mobilise what would be the necessary level of vision, self-sacrifice and sustained co-ordinated action over centuries to turn round our descent into self-destruction and climb back from the brink of extinction by our own unaided efforts.

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

Amit Goswami (for source of image see link)

A Ground of Being

In any case, whatever you think about that point, I feel there is even more convincing evidence that we do not have to rely only on ourselves. There is a transcendent dimension or foundation to reality and we can learn to draw upon its powers. In religion-neutral language we can speak of a ground of being, inherently conscious, inherently loving, inherently wise, that we can learn to connect to.

Amit Goswami, the physicist, in an interview about his book, The Self-Aware Universe, confirms the mystic insight and vividly conveys his sense of it:

So then one time — and this is where the breakthrough happened — my wife and I were in Ventura, California and a mystic friend, Joel Morwood, came down from Los Angeles, and we all went to hear Krishnamurti. And Krishnamurti, of course, is extremely impressive, a very great mystic. So we heard him and then we came back home. We had dinner and we were talking, and I was giving Joel a spiel about my latest ideas of the quantum theory of consciousness and Joel just challenged me. He said, “Can consciousness be explained?” And I tried to wriggle my way through that but he wouldn’t listen. He said, “You are putting on scientific blinders. You don’t realize that consciousness is the ground of all being.” He didn’t use that particular word, but he said something like, “There is nothing but God.”

And something flipped inside of me which I cannot quite explain. This is the ultimate cognition, that I had at that very moment. There was a complete about-turn in my psyche and I just realized that consciousness is the ground of all being. I remember staying up that night, looking at the sky and having a real mystical feeling about what the world is, and the complete conviction that this is the way the world is, this is the way that reality is, and one can do science. You see, the prevalent notion — even among people like David Bohm — was, “How can you ever do science without assuming that there is reality and material and all this? How can you do science if you let consciousness do things which are ‘arbitrary’?” But I became completely convinced — there has not been a shred of doubt ever since — that one can do science on this basis.

And he is not the only scientist to have reported such an experience (see link).

There are those who feel that this can be done as an individual through meditation without drawing upon any spiritual tradition or organised religion. I certainly agree that we can move a long way forwards in this way, but for me there is a distinction between the profound insights granted to the Founders of the great world faiths, no matter how far the followers may have strayed from the original path, and those insights a mystic can achieve.

To explain this clearly we need to start from the idea stated in the quotation at the head of this post. The Founders of the great world religions are like stainless Mirrors in which we can see reflected what is the closest approximation to the reality of God that we are capable of apprehending.

However, our hearts, which are, as a friend once expressed it, the experience of our soul in consciousness, are also mirrors which we can polish until they reflect as perfectly as we are able, but not as perfectly as a Messenger of God, the Sun of Reality if we choose to point them in that direction.

We therefore have two responsibilities: the first is to polish or rather burnish the steel of our heart’s mirror (it’s not a modern mirror!) so it can reflect more faithfully and, the second is to turn it towards the Sun of Truth. If we turn it in worship towards lesser gods it will become tarnished again (Bahá’u’lláh – from The Seven Valleyspage 21):

A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.”

That, it seems to me, defines the difference between a mystic and a Messenger of God. Each Messenger of God has given us guidance appropriate to the time in which we live that will enable us to perfect our heart, as far as we are able, and perfect our world – rebuild our civilization if you like.

The Universal House of Justice, the central body of the Bahá’í Faith, has already unpacked very clearly what this must mean to us (see my earlier post on Working for a Divine Arkitect). When the arc of buildings on Mount Carmel were complete, the following words were read at the opening ceremony:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

While Bahá’ís have a model for how this task might be accomplished, it is not a task for Bahá’ís alone. It would be impossible. All people of good will across the planet need to play their part according to their sense of what is required of them.

While I accept that the capacity for a high degree of empathy is wired into our brains, I also strongly believe that a higher level again can be reached, with proportionately more leverage in terms of sustained action, if we also can internalise a sense of what the Quakers term ‘That of God’ which is in all of us. Then we will not only have a strong sense of our links to one another but we will also have the confidence to act against apparently overwhelming odds that comes from the knowledge that we human beings are not alone. Bahá’u’lláh says (Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 13):

Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.

Only when we have such a sense of powerful support and shared humanity does it seem to me that we can reach that tipping point, when most of the world of humanity will be prepared and able to put their weight effectively against the wheel of redemptive change, and only then will disaster be averted. Pray God that moment will not come too late for us.

Rifkin has done his best in this impressive book to suggest one possible path towards a secure future. Those who follow his line of thinking and put it into practice will surely do some good. They could do so much more, it seems to me, if they had faith in an effectively benign power higher than the planet we are seeking to save and which needs our urgent help.

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Mirror 1

The perfect soul of man—that is to say, the perfect individual—is like a mirror wherein the Sun of Reality is reflected. The perfections, the image and light of that Sun have been revealed in the mirror; its heat and illumination are manifest therein, for that pure soul is a perfect expression of the Sun.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá – Promulgation of Universal Peacepage 173

People will probably not feel an urgency to transform the current disordered world into a spiritually enlightened global civilisation unless they gain an appreciation for the true nature of reality.

(John Fitzgerald Medina Faith, Physics & Psychology – Page 52)

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

We have looked in reasonable detail at Jeremy Rifkin’s important analysis of the relationship in our culture between empathy and entropy, at his model of levels of consciousness where he pins his best hope for our survival on what he terms ‘biosphere consciousness,’ and his outline of where child rearing practices might produce the most responsibly empathic outcome within an essentially materialistic approach to reality.

I found his book valuable, thought-provoking but in one respect deeply flawed. There are no prizes for guessing where I think the flaw is to be found.

Embodied Experience Alone?Emp Civil

He is not just attacking a belief in the transcendent, it is true. Reason is in his rifle sights as well (page 141):

Both fail to plumb the depths of what makes us human and therefore leave us with cosmologies that are incomplete stories – that is, they failed to touch the deepest realities of existence. That’s not to dismiss the critical elements that make the stories of faith and reason so compelling. It’s only that something essential is missing – and that something is “embodied experience.”

We soon find ourselves in the currently prevalent default mode of reductionism whose limitations I have discussed elsewhere at length (page 163):

Human beings have created religious images of the future in part as a refuge against the ultimate finality of earthly existence. Every religion holds forth the promise of either defeating time, escaping time, overcoming time, reissuing time, or denying time altogether. We use our religions as vehicles to enter the state of nirvana, the heavenly kingdom, the promised land. We come to be believe in reincarnation, rebirth, and resurrection as ways of avoiding the inevitability of biological death.

While I accept that organised religion has not helped its case by its history of intolerance and cruelty in the name of some travesty of godhead. As Greg Hodges puts it in a recent post: ‘It takes a willful ignorance of history to deny . . . . that much of what humanity remembers about its collective past centers around large-scale, religiously-legitimized violence.’

Isn’t it just possible though that we might believe in transcendent realities such as an afterlife because there happens to be some hard evidence to suggest that there is really something in these ideas? Let’s take Pim van Lommel as one possible example of carefully gathered evidence that strongly suggests, at the very least, that consciousness cannot be adequately explained by brain activity alone and is therefore extremely unlikely to be a purely material phenomenon. The crux of his case can be captured in a few quotations from his book Consciousness beyond Life (pages 132-133):

The fact that an NDE [near death experience] is accompanied by accelerated thought and access to greater than ever wisdom remains inexplicable. Current scientific knowledge also fails to explain how all these NDE elements can be experienced at a moment when, in many people, brain function has been seriously impaired. There appears to be an inverse relationship between the clarity of consciousness and the loss of brain function.

Pim van Lommel

Pim van Lommel

What kind of evidence does he adduce in support of this proposition? The most telling kind of evidence comes from prospective rather retrospective studies, ie studies where the decision is taken in advance to include all those people who have undergone resuscitation within the context of several hospitals and question them as soon as possible, ie immediately afterwards, and then again later after a set period of time. This is a more powerful methodology than retrospectively finding people who claim to have had an NDE and interviewing only them.

The data is impressive both for the numbers in total involved (page 140):

Within a four-year period, between 1988 and 1992, 344 consecutive patients who had undergone a total of 509 successful resuscitations were included in the study.

And for the strength of the evidence those numbers provided (page 159):

The four prospective NDE studies discussed in the previous chapter all reached one and the same conclusion: consciousness, with memories and occasional perception, can be experienced during a period of unconsciousness—that is, during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity and all brain functions, such as body reflexes, brain-stem reflexes, and respiration, have ceased.

The conclusion van Lommel felt justified in drawing followed naturally on from that evidence (page 160);

As prior researchers have concluded, a clear sensorium and complex perceptual processes during a period of apparent clinical death challenge the concept that consciousness is localized exclusively in the brain.

What is important to emphasise here is that the precise conditions under which each NDE was experienced were completely, accurately and verifiably recorded, something not possible in a retrospective study: van Lommel is clear (page 164) that ‘in such a brain [state] even so-called hallucinations are impossible.’

Eben Alexander

Eben Alexander

For those who find vivid individual experiences more compelling, that is just about all of us, one of the best examples is the detailed, and in my view completely trustworthy, account of a near death experience given by Eben Alexander in Proof of Heaven. I need to quote from it at some length to make its relevance completely clear. Describing the early stages of his NDE he finds it frankly bizarre (page 77):

To say that at that point in the proceedings I still had no idea who I was or where I’d come from sounds somewhat perplexing, I know. After all, how could I be learning all these stunningly complex and beautiful things, how could I see the girl next to me, and the blossoming trees and waterfalls and villagers, and still not know that it was I, Eben Alexander, who was the one experiencing them? How could I understand all that I did, yet not realize that on earth I was a doctor, husband, and father?

The girl accompanies him through almost all the stages of his journey. When he makes his improbable recovery from the week-long encephalitis-induced coma, as an adopted child he goes back to exploring his birth family, an exploration interrupted almost before it began by his life-threatening illness. He makes contact and discovers that he had had a birth sister who died. When he finally sees the photograph of her a dramatic realization slowly dawns (pages 166-167):

In that one moment, in the bedroom of our house, on a rainy Tuesday morning, the higher and the lower worlds met. Seeing that photo made me feel a little like the boy in the fairy tale who travels to the other world and then returns, only to find that it was all a dream—until he looks in his pocket and finds a scintillating handful of magical earth from the realms beyond.

As much as I’d tried to deny it, for weeks now a fight had been going on inside me. A fight between the part of my mind that had been out there beyond the body, and the doctor—the healer who had pledged himself to science. I looked into the face of my sister, my angel, and I knew—knew completely—that the two people I had been in the last few months, since coming back, were indeed one. I needed to completely embrace my role as a doctor, as a scientist and healer, and as the subject of a very unlikely, very real, very important journey into the Divine itself. It was important not because of me, but because of the fantastically, deal-breakingly convincing details behind it. My NDE had healed my fragmented soul. It had let me know that I had always been loved, and it also showed me that absolutely everyone else in the universe is loved, too. And it had done so while placing my physical body into a state that, by medical science’s current terms, should have made it impossible for me to have experienced anything.

His whole account absolutely requires careful reading. It is to be trusted in my view first of all because it is written by someone who was, before his NDE, an atheist, secondly because he is an academic as well as a highly regarded neurosurgeon with much to lose from declaring himself as a believer in such things, and lastly because he followed the advice of his son and recorded the whole experience before reading any NDE literature that might have unduly influenced his narrative.

On this issue, Rifkin’s cart may well be in front of his horse (page 168):

It should also be noted that where empathic consciousness flourishes, fear of death withers and the compunction to seek otherworldly salvation or earthly utopias wanes.

NDEs have been shown to increase empathy and reduce the fear of death over and over again, except in the case of the minority of examples of distressing NDEs (see Nancy Evans Bush for a rigorous study of those phenomena.) I’m not sure where his evidence is that empathy is greater where all forms of transcendence are denied.

He is aware of a void in the credibility of his position and has to locate awe elsewhere than in the transcendent he resumes to acknowledge (page 170):

Empathic consciousness starts with awe. When we empathise with another, we are bearing witness to the strange incredible life force that is in us and that connects us with all other living beings. Empathy is, after all, the feeling of deep reverence we have for the nebulous term we call existence.

I find this slightly muddled in any case. The first sentence implies that awe kicks off empathic feelings, whereas it is clear he feels that empathy creates awe. In any case I am not convinced by his empathy/awe connection.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

The Golden Rule & the Fall

As a convinced advocate of the Golden Rule and aware of its roots in the Axial Age which saw the dawn or significant development of Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, and Taoism, I am uneasy with his take on this key stone of almost every moral arch. He sees the Golden Rule 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 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.”

He acknowledges that the Axial Age (page 216) was ‘the first budding of empathic consciousness.’

But he does not regard with favour what happened next (page 236-37):

Unfortunately, the universal empathic embrace extended to all human beings became increasingly conditional over the course of the next several centuries with the introduction of the devil into human affairs. The devil played virtually no role in Judaism. Satan came on the scene in the form of a demon, shortly after the crucifixion, among some Jewish groups. But the devil as a key player, pitted against Christ and the Lord, with the vast power to deceive, sow seeds of chaos, and even challenge the power of God, was a Christian invention.

Certainly the take on the serpent in Judaism seems more subtle than the Christian one

A very enigmatic figure in this story is the snake. What kind of animal is this that speaks and tempts Adam and Eve? Actually, it is hard for us to imagine the primordial snake, since part of the snake’s punishment was a metamorphosis of what and who he is.

Before the sin of Adam and Eve, we find the snake described in detail in the Bible. He is depicted as “cunning,” he speaks to Eve, he walks, and he even seems to have his own volition and will. After the sin, he is punished in that he will now crawl on his stomach, his food will be dirt, and there will eternal enmity between himself and man. What was the snake originally, and what did he do to deserve such a downfall?

Most kabbalistic commentators equate the snake with the Yetzer Hara — the self-destructive tendencies to move away from God.4 What is the function of the Yetzer Hara? Why were such tendencies created? And why was a snake chosen to represent this?

The purpose of God’s creating the world was to bestow goodness on mankind. The ultimate good is to not give someone a gift, but to empower him to accomplish on his own. Imagine someone training for the Olympics with his coach serving in the role of the opponent. If the coach does not oppose him with all his strength and wiles, the athlete will be upset with him. And when the student manages to overcome the coach, the coach is happy at his own downfall — since it is his role to finally be vanquished.

The Yetzer Hara is our coach. Any rational person would desire a worthy opponent to overcome. Therefore the original snake was almost human, walking on legs, speaking intelligently, and able to present a world view alternate to God’s. In that sense, the snake is the ultimate servant of God and man. He is the force which gives us the ability to choose between two worldviews — as long as the choice is balanced and the snake is not too difficult to overcome.

When the choice was between intellectual and sensual, the snake needed to be able to tempt man with a sensual experience. However, he needed to clothe it in the guise of the rational and objective truth. Therefore the snake was almost human in his abilities.

When man failed that test, the snake himself needed to undergo a metamorphosis. He needed to become the obstacle and temptation for a different humanity, who now could be easily led astray. Therefore the intelligent rational snake becomes a dirt dwelling mute creature.

Nancy Evans Bush makes it clear in her book that hell is a concept introduced by Christians and promulgated most powerfully in the mistranslations of sheol in the King James version of the Bible.

We will be looking in the next post at how much his aversion to the theological hinges on these Christian variations on that theme as well as where that then leaves us in terms of reversing our descent into the abyss.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Laying the groundwork for global civilization calls for the creation of laws and institutions that are universal in both character and authority. The effort can begin only when the concept of the oneness of humanity has been wholeheartedly embraced by those in whose hands the responsibility for decision making rests, and when the related principles are propagated through both educational systems and the media of mass communication. Once this threshold is crossed, a process will have been set in motion through which the peoples of the world can be drawn into the task of formulating common goals and committing themselves to their attainment. Only so fundamental a reorientation can protect them, too, from the age-old demons of ethnic and religious strife. Only through the dawning consciousness that they constitute a single people will the inhabitants of the planet be enabled to turn away from the patterns of conflict that have dominated social organization in the past and begin to learn the ways of collaboration and conciliation. “The well-being of mankind,” Bahá’u’lláh writes, “its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

(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.

As we have seen in the posts on levels, Rifkin draws on Stanley Greenspan’s child developmental model Emp Civil(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.’

This post will look more closely at Rifkin’s thinking on this issue and about how to facilitate constructive maturation in our children.

Child Rearing

He begins by looking at the effects of deprivation (Page 20):

What had been missing in . . . foundling homes was one of the most important factors in infant development – empathy. We are learning, against all of the prevailing wisdom, that human nature is not to seek autonomy – to become an island to oneself – but, rather, to seek companionship, affection, and intimacy.

He unpacks the implications (page 66):

The infant begins life, according to Suttie, with an inchoate but nonetheless instinctual need to receive as well as give gifts, which is the basis of all affection. Reciprocity is the heart of sociality and what relationships are built on. In reciprocity is blocked, the development of selfhood and sociability is stunted and psychopathology emerges.

Not surprisingly he brings attachment theory into the mix. Situations of parental dislocation can lead to maladaptive patterns of either ‘anxious’ or ‘avoidant’ attachment. More empathic parental relating has a better outcome (page 78):

The more securely attached infants grew up to be the more sociable adults. They were more sensitive to others, shared higher levels of cooperation with peers, and developed more intimate relationships. What those children all shared in common was a highly developed, empathic consciousness.

It should be no surprise that mechanistic attempts to remedy defects in parental child rearing habits has not proved much help (page 167):

In the 1980s and 1990s psychologists and educators introduced the notion of “quality time” into family relationships. The idea was for parents to set aside a few minutes in their otherwise overburdened and busy day to get back “in touch” with their children. The forced efficiency of these structured intimate encounters often defeated the purpose of the exercise. Deep relationships require nurturing and suffer when yoked yoked to the dictates of o’clock.

As a result we come very close in Rifkin’s next description to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s explanation of what would happen in a truly spiritual society (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahápage 133):

See then how wide is the difference between material civilization and divine. With force and punishments, material civilization seeketh to restrain the people from mischief, from inflicting harm on society and committing crimes. But in a divine civilization, the individual is so conditioned that with no fear of punishment, he shunneth the perpetration of crimes, seeth the crime itself as the severest of torments, and with alacrity and joy, setteth himself to acquiring the virtues of humankind, to furthering human progress, and to spreading light across the world.

Rifkin states (page 177):

While primitive empathic potential is wired into the brain chemistry of some mammals, and especially the primates, its mature expression in humans requires learning and practice and a conducive environment. Moral codes, embedded in laws and social policies, are helpful as learning guides and standards. But the point is that one isn’t authentically good because he or she is compelled to be so, with the threat of punishment hanging over them or a reward waiting for them, but, rather because it’s in one’s nature to empathise.

Over the next sections of his book he reviews our progress towards a more humane and insightful treatment of children from (page 244) progress under the Roman Empire which came to define infanticide as murder only in 374AD while treatment remained harsh in England well into the 17th Century (page 285-86). There was the Protestant urge to ‘impose patriarchal rule in the home and “break the will” of the child, to ensure his or her piety.’ Later:

. . . the extension of schooling to large numbers of children also subjected youngsters to a merciless routine of flogging by teachers for the slightest violation of decorum or for underperformance. Lawrence Stone reports “that more children were being beaten in the 16th and early 17th centuries, over a longer age span, than ever before.” . . . .

Parents saw corporal punishment as a way to save their children from the devil and an eternity in hell. Their behaviour was in stark contrast to the sentiments of parents in the earlier Italian Renaissance, who came to look on the children as pure, innocent, and uncorrupted.

Things did begin to improve somewhat as the century advanced (pages 286-87). For example, John Locke (1692) was more balanced: ‘while he cautioned against being overly permissive, he was equally opposed to being overly strict and punitive.’ By 1785 (page 288), ‘the practice of swaddling had been eliminated in England. . . . Wet-nursing went out of favour in the latter half of the 18th century in England as new mothers sought to be more attentive and nurturing towards their young. . . . The new expression of motherly affection ensured that the empathic impulse of the period would pass on to children, who will grow up loved and cared for and capable of empathising with others, just as their parents had empathised with that.’

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Child Development

It was only late in the 19th Century that something more recognisably modern began to feature in the ideas around child development (page 388):

It was during the last decade of the 19th century and the first three decades of the 20th century that the concept of adolescence emerged. This was a special temporal domain to which all children – boys and girls – belonged equally. Society came to think of childhood as extending beyond puberty and into the later teenage years. Previously the child graduated to adulthood and the responsibilities that go with it upon reaching sexual maturity. No longer. Now work life was put off and children remained under the nurturing care of parents for a longer period of time.

This concept carried with it a sort of developmental time bomb (page 389):

Although it wasn’t until the 1940s that Eric Erikson coined the term “identity crisis,” the psychological phenomena accompanied the new period of adolescence from the very beginning. Adolescence is about identity crises as much as it is about identity formation.

Identity is partly a question of the priorities around which we organise our lives, the values we hold dearest and the meaning system we have developed. While the evidence suggests that we need to divide the influences that affect those outcomes among our genes, our parents and our peers, there is no doubt that for most of us our parents account for at least 30% of the items in the mix. So, when Rifkin looks at where we are at present with the challenges it brings, he concludes (page 502):

The question is, what is the appropriate therapy for recovering from the [current] well/happiness addiction? A spate of studies over the past 15 years has shown a consistently close correlation between parental nurturance patterns and whether children grow up fixated on material success. . . . If… the principal caretaker is cold, arbitrary in her or his affections, punitive, unresponsive, and anxious, the child will be far less likely to establish a secure emotional attachment and the self-confidence necessary to create a strong independent core identity. These children invariably show a greater tendency to fix on material success, fame, and image as a substitute mode for gaining recognition, except, and a sense of belonging.

The product propaganda known as advertising preys on this insecurity with its deceptive promises that greater wealth and more possessions will fill the void within.

Parents clearly have a critical role to play in how things take shape from here, whether upwards towards the light or downwards towards the dark (page 504):

Making the transition from a pioneer to a near-climax society and a truly sustainable economic area hinges on a far more self-conscious approach to parenting to prepare youngsters with deep pro-social values that will allow empathy to grow and the lure of the market to be tempered.

Schooling

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Parenting is not the only consideration of course. He makes a bold claim (page 550):

The American public school system has leaped ahead of their counterparts in other countries by initiating a critical reform in the educational system, whose purpose is to better prepare future generations for the responsibilities attendant to creating social capital.

In the past 15 years, American secondary schools and colleges have introduced service learning programs into the school curriculum – a revolutionary change that has altered the educational experience for millions of young people.

Not everyone appears to share this rose-tinted view of the matter. John Fitzgerald Medina, in his book Faith, Physics & Psychology, is particularly sceptical. He bases his assessment on solid research (page 325):

David Purpel, an educator and author of The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education: a Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education… contends that the educational system is so enmeshed in the corrupt status quo that it consistently fails to address societal problems and that due to its slavish emphasis on grading-mongering and competition, it primarily acts like a giant socio-economic sorting machine that maintains and even exacerbates race and class separations between people.

Purpel is not the only witness Medina calls to the stand in his case against the current system of education in America (page 327):

Professor of education Clifford Mayes explains that the powerful influence of behaviourism shifted the field of education from an endeavor based on a strong sense of spiritual and moral calling to a technical job based on the tenets of classical science… Under the influence of industrialisation, schools and teachers were expected to serve and to promulgate the “cult of efficiency” and the “scientific management” of people and organisations.

Even if we accept that attempts are being made to introduce empathy-inducing elements into educational and training programmes in the States the blinkered way these are sometimes implemented undermines their efficacy, as Timothy Wilson testifies. The research he reviews in his excellent short book Redirect: the surprising new science of psychological change points towards the critical importance of incorporating a community service component into any remedial programme for children and young people manifesting behavioural problems (page 131):

The fact that policymakers learned so little from past research – at huge human and financial cost – is made more mind-boggling by being such a familiar story. Too often, policy makers follow common sense instead of scientific data when deciding how to solve social and behavioural problems. When well-meaning managers of the QOP [Quantum Opportunities Programme] sites looked at the curriculum, the community service component probably seemed like a frill compared to bringing kids together for sessions on life development. Makes sense, doesn’t it? But common sense was wrong, as it has been so often before. In the end, it is teens… who pay the price…

Rifkin explains what for him is the power of these socially engineered interventions (page 551):

The exposure to diverse people from various walks of life has spurred an empathic surge among many of the nation’s young people. Studies indicate that many – but not all – students experience a deep maturing of empathic sensibility by being thrust into unfamiliar environments where they are called upon to reach out and assist others.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

A Fork in the Road

Not for the first time in his book, he comments on the fork in the road that lies ahead (page 581):

The rap on today’s young people in the age group that stems from toddlers to young adults in their early 30s (everyone born after the mid-1970s) is that they are coddled, overexposed, overindulged, told they are special, believe that to be the case, are self-centred – “it’s all about me” – and trapped in their self-absorbed inflated self-esteem. We are also told, however, that they are more open and tolerant, less prejudiced, multicultural in their views, nonjudgmental, civic-and service-oriented, and more collaborative than any other generation in history. . . .

Is it possible that today’s young people are caught between both poles…? . . . . Yes, but with the qualification that the newest data shows a trend away from the ‘it’s all about me’ phenomenon and prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s . . . .

Exactly which way the dice will fall is not yet predictable (page 589):

The situation is anything but clear. While there are some among the younger generation who dream of personal fame, there are as many others just as devoted to community service and assisting those less fortunate. The likely reality is that the younger generation is growing up torn between both a narcissistic and empathic mind-set, with some attracted to one and some to the other.

Clearly parenting and schooling are crucial components in the creation of a compass and a map that will enable our children to choose the wiser route in life. What is disturbing is the vicious circle clearly at work if we do not rise to this challenge. The effects of unwise and unfeeling parenting will be further confounded by mercenary and mechanistic education systems. This combination will produce parents who will bring up more damaged children, and voters who will continue to elect governments that enthusiastically perpetuate education systems designed to create cogs for the machine of the global market. Building a more benign civilisation begins with our children who are “the most precious treasure a community can possess, for in them are the promise and guarantee of the future.” (Universal House of Justice: Ridván 2000) We need to change our approach and we need to change it soon.

Rifkin places his hopes for the future on the development of biosphere consciousness, a motivating force whose limitations I explained in the previous post (page 601):

Children are becoming aware that everything they do – the very way they live – affects the lives of every other human being, our fellow creatures, and the biosphere we inhabit. They come to understand that we are as deeply connected with one another in the ecosystems that make up the biosphere as we are in the social networks of the blogosphere.

He feels this hope is given added strength by the interventions being mounted in schools (ibid.):

Now the new emerging biosphere awareness is being accompanied by cutting edge curriculum [sic] designed to help young people develop an even deeper sense of interconnectivity and social responsibility at the level of their personal psyches.

. . . . . the new pedagogical revolution is emphasising empathic development. In April 2009, The New York Times ran a front-page article reporting on the empathy revolution occurring in American classrooms. Empathy workshops and curriculums [sic] now exist in 18 states, and the early evaluations of these pioneer educational reform programmes are encouraging.

I feel we need to read what follows with a balancing sense of the countervailing forces also at work within the very same educational system. Medina writes (page 319):

Within the mainstream educational system, students spend endless hours in academic tasks almost to the exclusion of all other forms of social, emotional, moral, artistic, physical, and spiritual learning goals. This type of education leaves students bereft of any overarching sense of why they are learning things, other than perhaps to obtain some lucrative job in the distant future.

I am not convinced that we can leave to our schools the work of spiritualising the awareness of our children and making them more attuned to the suffering of others and how to help, hence the strong Bahá’í emphasis within our communities placed upon the training of children and youth – something we offer to the wider community as well without in any way seeking to recruit people to our ranks. We simply want to find ways of helping young people become more community-oriented. I will be republishing relevant posts later this week that go some way towards articulating the Bahá’í view of the matter.

Rifkin sees it differently from Medina  (page 604):

Tens of thousands of students have gone through the Roots of Empathy program. What educators find is that the development of empathic skills leads to greater academic success in the classroom. . . . Empathic maturity is particularly correlated with critical thinking. The ability to entertain conflicting feelings and thoughts, be comfortable with ambiguity, approach problems from a number of perspectives, and listen to another’s point of view are essential emotional building blocks to engage in critical thinking. Gordon makes the telling observation that “love grows brains.” . . . [ Mary Gordon writes]:

“The Roots of Empathy classroom is creating citizens of the world – children who are developing empathic ethics and a sense of social responsibility that takes the position that we all share the same lifeboat. These are the children will build a more caring, peaceful and civil society, child by child.”

To be fair, Rifkin is not completely blind to the obstacles (pages 604-05):

. . . because empathic engagement is the most deeply collaborative experience one can ever have, bringing out children’s empathic nature in the classroom requires collaborative learning models. Unfortunately, the traditional classroom curriculum continues to emphasise learning as a highly personal experience designed to acquire and control knowledge by dint of competition with others.

© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

Cooperation not Competition

He argues, as Michael Karlberg does in Beyond the Culture of Contest, that we must replace competition with cooperation if we are to rise above our current challenges. Karlberg describes in far more detail than is possible to include here an alternative model, based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is (page 131 – my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

Rifkin even defines one of the fruits of cooperation in similar terms to the values Bahá’ís place on true consultation as a spiritual process (page 605):

Collaborative education begins with the premise that the combined wisdom of the group, more often than not, is greater than the expertise of any given member and by learning together the group advances its collective knowledge, as well as the knowledge of each member of the cohort.

The Bahá’í view is expressed as follows (Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahápage 320)

The members [of a Spiritual Assembly] must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should any one oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.

Coda

Rifkin closes by emphasising once more the importance of our recognising our links with nature (page 611):

In the case of our Palaeolithic forebears, fear of nature’s wrath, as much as dependency, conditioned the relationship. To reparticipate with nature willingly, by exercising free will, is what separates biosphere consciousness from everything that has gone before. . . .

Schools across the United States are already beginning to extend the classroom into the outdoors through their service learning programs, internship programs, and extended field trips. Reaffiliating with the biosphere is an empathic experience that has to be felt as well as intellectualised to be meaningful. It also has to be practised.

This sequence of posts so far has attempted, admittedly rather selectively, to give a sense of Rifkin’s overall argument, pointing out, where it seemed appropriate, its strengths and its weaknesses, but by and large letting Rifkin’s own words speak for his position.

The next and final pair of posts will look at what seems to me to be his most glaring omission – the role of religion in turning around our slide towards self-destruction.

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