Posts Tagged ‘Jeremy Rifkin’

KW Diag 5 v2I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness, it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains an explanation of Wilber’s model.

After re-posting the sequence of articles about Jenny Wade’s theory of the levels of consciousness, I finally got round to reading a book by Ken Wilber that has been lurking on my shelves for 10 years at least, I suspect. It is modestly titled A Theory of Everything: an integral vision for business, politics, science and spirituality.

This is the second of three posts attempting to capture some of the key points which excite me the most about it.

The first post tackled the basic four quadrant model, its concept of holarchy and the possible levels of consciousness development.

Now we look at some of the insights derived from this model, which give it its value.

The final post examines another way the model enriches our understanding of current problems and also outlines what we can do as individuals to lift our own level of consciousness.

What are the potentially testable advantages of thinking this way?

From the BBC's 'America's Left-Right Divide.'

From the BBC’s ‘America’s Left-Right Divide.’

1. Politics

It enables us to see beyond the fractured perspectives of our divisive political system, e.g. that both liberals and conservatives have each grasped a fraction of the truth, but the whole truth will only be available when their confrontational perspectives are integrated and a new and higher standpoint is achieved. He explains this clearly (page 84):

When it comes to the cause of human suffering, liberals tend to believe in exterior causes, whereas conservatives tend to believe in interior causes. That is, if an individual is suffering, the typical liberal tends to blame external social institutions (if you are poor it is because you are oppressed by society), whereas the typical conservative tends to blame internal factors (you are poor because you are lazy).

. . . . The important point is that the first step toward an integralpolitics that unites the best of liberal and conservative is to recognise that both the interior quadrants and the exterior quadrants are equally real and important. We consequently must address both interior factors (values, meaning, morals, the development of consciousness) and exterior factors (economic conditions, material well-being, technological advance, social safety net, environment) – in short, a truly integral politics would emphasise both interior development and exterior development.

2. Balancing the Material with the Spiritualmiracle

This leads onto a major issue that certainly resonates with the Bahá’í perspective, with its strong emphasis on the spiritual as well as the practical education of children. Wilber makes clear that we have to develop our understanding of consciousness as well as of matter if we are to truly develop as individuals and as a society (page 88):

So here is the truly odd political choice that we are given today: a sick version of a higher level versus a healthy version of a lower level – liberalism versus conservatism.

The point is that a truly integral politics would embrace a healthy version of the higher level – namely, grounded in the postconventional/world centric waves of development, it would encourage both interior development and exterior development – the growth and development of consciousness and subjective well-being, as well as the growth and development of economic, social, and material well-being.

Why does he describe liberalism as a sick version of a higher level and conservatism as a healthy version of a lower level? This is where the depth issue comes into play.

To cut to the core of his point he feels that conservatism is healthily rooted in the socio-centric conventional level of development (page 85: the blue level as he defines it – a very appropriate colour for the UK). Its problem derives from the relatively incomplete perspective available to that level.

With the Enlightenment, came a major shift from blue to orange and liberalism emerged from the shadows.

There was a problem though, in Wilber’s view (page 86):

Now had liberalism been just that… the product of an evolutionary advance from ethnocentric to world centric, it would have won the day, pure and simple. But, in fact, liberalism arose in a climate that I have called flatland. Flatland – or scientific materialism – is the belief that only matter is real, and that only narrow science has any claim to truth. Narrow science… is the science of any right-hand domain, whether that be atomistic science of the Upper Right or systems science of the Lower Right. Flatland, in other words, is the belief that only the Right-Hand quadrants are real.

Wilber argues (his italics) that ‘liberalism became the political champion of flatland.’ Furthermore, liberalism, given the primacy it awarded to material exterior forces, dismissed interiors as equivalent and irrelevant. He feels this leads to an inherent contradiction. He states (page 87):

Liberalism was itself the product of a whole series of interior stages of consciousness development – from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric – whereupon it turned around and denied the importance or even the existence of those interior levels of development! Liberalism, in championing only exterior causation (i.e. flat land), denied the interior path that produced liberalism. The liberal stance itself is the product of stages that it then denies – and there is the inherent contradiction.

He claims that liberalism holds that ‘all interiors are equal – no stance is better than another. There are no waves, stages, or levels of consciousness, for that would make a ranking judgement, and ranking is very, very bad.’

The antagonism liberals will clearly express towards conservatives presumably derives from the conservative’s judgemental and patronising stance towards other perspectives and life choices than their own. This prejudice against a legitimate evaluation of the relative strengths and weaknesses of all perspectives blinkers them to the developmental implications of levels of consciousness and our need to progress through all lower ones to reach any of the higher levels.

Wilber discusses the possibility of seeing levels as different in terms of their relative maturity, but accepting them wholeheartedly as necessary and inevitable stages through which we all need to progress as individuals and societies (page 56):

Even if every society on earth was established fully at second tier [the highest], nonetheless every infant born in every society still has to start at level 1, at beige, at sensorimotor instincts and perceptions, and then must grow and evolve through purple magic, red and blue myth, orange rationalism, green sensitivity, and into yellow and turquoise second tier (on the way to the transpersonal). All of those waves have important tasks and functions; all of them are taken up and included in subsequent waves; none of them can be bypassed; and none of them can be demeaned without grave consequences to self and society.

Medina in his book, Faith, Physics & Psychology, takes issue with what he feels is Wilber’s arrogant implication that it is impossible for someone in a lower level society to leap to a higher level of consciousness (page 136):

. . . integral theorists actually support the idea that, out of the entire human population in the world, only an elite cadre of Westerners presently has the capacity to achieve the highest levels of human development.

For reasons I explain in the next post I am not sure his criticism is entirely warranted though I can see why he came to the conclusion he did.

Also Michelle Mairesse picks up on an issue that indicates how careful we need to be before leaping to any conclusions. She is basing her point on two of Wilber’s earlier books – The Marriage of Sense and Soul and A Brief History of Everything – but it none the less applies here as well, I feel.

Although he does lip service to all the perennial traditions, Wilber sees the severe Eastern Zen tradition as the summit of mysticism, a rather elitist view for one who lauds the Western democratic tradition. We can’t help wondering why China and Japan, the countries where the majority of Zen meditators have lived and attained Enlightenment, have not experienced a trickle-down effect.

There is, of course, a pragmatic aspect to Zen that has meant, rather as is the case with mindfulness practice now, that it was prone to be placed in the service of activities, such as the waging of war, far removed from the value system Zen was rooted in.

Rifkin’s position is closer to Wilber’s in some respects but built on very different non-transcendent foundations (page 451):

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

. . . .

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

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

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Ukrainian government army soldiers examine weapons captured from rebels in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk Region, eastern Ukraine on July 5, 2014 (For source of image see link)

Two Important Insights

This brings us to two extremely important ways that this model for me enriches our analyses of current problems: the problems are firstly, “In a global world how do we understand the risks that come from technological advances especially in terms of weaponry being relatively easily available to world views that are essentially narrower than the cultures that created the advances?” This issue will be discussed today.

Secondly “Why is pluralism so testing and potentially self-destructive?” That will have to wait for the last post in this series.

Weapons and Levels:

This issue is quite simple to explain. He clarifies it on page 103:

One of the greatest problems and constant dangers faced by humanity is simply this: the Right-Hand quadrants are all material, and once a material entity has been produced, it can be used by individuals who are at virtually any level of interior development. . . . Nobody at a worldcentric level of moral consciousness would happily unleash the atom bomb, but somebody at a preconventional, red-meme, egocentric level would quite cheerily bomb the hell [out] of pretty much anybody who got in its way.

Jeremy Rifkin in his thought-provoking 2009 book The Empathic Civilization makes essentially the same point from a different perspective (page 487):

Weapons of mass destruction, once the preserve of elites, are becoming more democratised with each passing day.  A growing number of security experts believe that it is no longer even possible to keep weapons of mass destruction locked up and out of the hands of rogue governments, terrorist groups, or just deranged individuals.

What Wilber goes on to say resonates strongly with the Bahá’í position, which asserts that science and religion are like the wings of a bird, and both must develop in tandem if we are to fly.

Speaking of religion and science, the two great wings with which the bird of human kind is able to soar, He said: “Scientific discoveries have increased material civilization. There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth.”

(From Lady Blomfield quoting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in The Chosen Highway – page 52)

Wilber expresses almost the same idea (page 103-104):

Until the modern era, this problem was limited in its means because the technologies themselves were quite limited. You can only inflict so much damage on the biosphere, and on other human beings, with a bow and arrow. But with the emergence of modernity and the orange meme and its sweeping scientific capacities, humanity began producing orange-level technology when most of humanity were still at red or blue levels of moral consciousness. . . . . Global catastrophes, for the first time in history, became possible and even likely. From atomic holocaust to ecological suicide, humanity began facing on a massive scale its single most fundamental problem: lack of integral development. . . . The lack of integral growth might signal the end of humanity itself.

He makes another telling point, which resonates strongly with me, who grew up in the shadow of the Second World War (page 117):

The same sort of cross-level access could occur within a given culture: Auschwitz was the product of a rational-technological capacity (orange) pressed into the hands of intensely pre-rational (red/blue) ethnocentric aggression.

This means that the destructiveness of this kind of asymmetry kicks in whether we are talking about the atom bomb or about trolling on the internet. The damage an individual or group operating ethno- or egocentrically can inflict has been massively magnified with the appearance of high order technology.

Some possible complications:

In his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, John Fitzgerald Medina raises a crucial issue that makes it clear that the ways that levels operate is more complex than perhaps Wilber’s analysis clarifies. I will be returning to Medina’s book in a later sequence of posts so for now I will put his point simply in my own words.

He argues that when the technologically advanced but morally limited English invaders arrived in America, they ruthlessly purged the Native Americans from their inconvenient occupation of land the English wanted to exploit. This combination of robbery and genocide was made possible by the superiority of the rifle over the bow and arrow.

The English disparaged the complex but apparently haphazard agricultural system of the Native Americans and assumed that because there was no evidence of monoculture they were not using the land so, under their version of Christianity, it could therefore be expropriated. Their monotheistic Christianity, with its powerful old Testament inheritance, also failed to see any value in the idea of interconnectedness and the Great Spirit, so they dismissed the Native Americans as primitive, superstitious and backward.

When it came to setting up a federated system of their own, however, the fathers of the United States plagiarised the Native American sophisticated democratic system of the Iroquois Confederacy later to become the Six Nations, without, unfortunately, building in any trace of their respect for woman.

All this seems to demonstrate that homegrown technological development is no guarantee at all of moral advancement. The former can outstrip the latter within a culture with devastating consequences, either for that culture or for others with which it comes into contact. The modern world, according to the Bahá’í World Centre, is in the grip of a similar delusional script: the power brokers of the industrialised technically advanced Western world are convinced that their version of reality is also more highly developed morally than that found anywhere else.

Richard Schweder’s compelling account of his reexamination of Kohlberg’s comparison of American and Hindu moral development is an interesting example of where this can lead an expert research team. Kohlberg originally concluded that Hinduism lagged far behind the far more morally sophisticated Americans.

Schweder describes his findings in his book Thinking Through Cultures. His very different findings hinge upon his recognition that Westerners confidently and accurately code Western moral thinking as expressed by study subjects because they understand the implicit subtext, and they confidently and inaccurately code the moral thinking as expressed by subjects from other cultures because they haven’t a clue about the implicit subtext. He explains (page 225):

From expanding the Babaji interview text and identifying its implicit argument structure it seems apparent that the interview gives articulate expression to an alternative form of postconventional reasoning that has no place in Kohlberg’s stage scheme. In a sense the stage scheme is exploded by its own inability to classify adequately the moral reasoning of the Babaji. One may begin to wonder how many other moral development interviews coded as stage 3/4 would turn out to be alternative forms of postconventional reasoning, if we only permitted ourselves to move from what is said to what is unsaid, to expand the interview text and identify its implicit argument structure.

The argument about what happens when advanced technology falls into the hands of the morally handicapped extends a fortiori to current terrors such as from ISIL even though the book came out before this particular variation of the problem existed (ibid.):

Today, almost any ethnic tribe or feudal order can gain access to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons that historically they would never have been able to produce themselves, and the results are literally explosive.

The issue of pluralism will have to wait until next time along with what we can do as individuals.

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© Bahá’í World Centre

© Bahá’í World Centre

I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look on Monday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains a brief explanation of Rifkin’s model.

I’m sorry about the rhyming title. I just couldn’t resist it. There’s no more poetry in the rest of this post, I promise, not even in a book title. Now back to the theme.

The distinctive virtue or plus of the animal is sense perception; it sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels but is incapable, in turn, of conscious ideation or reflection which characterizes and differentiates the human kingdom. The animal neither exercises nor apprehends this distinctive human power and gift. From the visible it cannot draw conclusions regarding the invisible, whereas the human mind from visible and known premises attains knowledge of the unknown and invisible.

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace)

We’ll come back to the issue of reflection in a moment.  As I said at the end of the previous post, I find I believe Rifkin when he writes:

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.

This could be easier said than done. As Bahá’u’lláh observes (Tablets: page 164):

No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united.

So, given that I have explored this problem repeatedly from the Bahá’í point of view in this blog and don’t want to rehearse it all again here, from within the same realms of discourse as they inhabit, how do we put the experiences Parks is describing together with the ideas that Rifkin develops?

MindsightWell, I’ve found someone who seems to have found one way of doing that: Daniel Siegel in his book Mindsight. This is not to be confused with Ken Ring‘s concept which he developed to explain how blind people see in near death experiences.

Siegel’s idea is less exotic and of considerable use in daily life. It also corresponds to the experience many people, including Bahá’ís, might have as they struggle to enact the values and practices of their religion.

What he does is root such experiences in the body – well, in the brain to be more exact – and show how the changes that we can bring about by mindfulness, a powerful form of meditation, impact on our relationships with others, even those well beyond the small circle of family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues.


Siegel locates in the frontal area of the brain a number of crucial mental powers, which he feels are key to the development of what he calls mindsight. In his view there are nine such powers and they include, most importantly from the point of view of the current discussion, emotional balance, empathy, insight, moral awareness and intuition (pages 26-29).

They underpin our capacity to reflect (something I have explored often on this blog – see link for an example) which (page 31) ‘is at the heart of mindsight.’ Reflection entails three things: openness, meaning being receptive to whatever comes to awareness without judging it in terms of what we think it should be; observation, meaning the capacity to perceive ourselves and our inner processes at the same time as we are experiencing the events unfolding around us; and objectivity, meaning the ability to experience feelings and thoughts without be carried away by them (page 32). Reflection enables us to reconnect with earlier problem experiences which we want to understand better without falling (page 33) ‘back into the meltdown experience all over again.’

We soon begin to see how this change in our mental scenery can change our external scenery. He goes on to explain (page 37):

With mindsight our standard is honesty and humility, not some false ideal of perfection and invulnerability. We are all human, and seeing our minds clearly helps us embrace that humanity within one another and ourselves.

Just as Schwartz does in his book The Mind & the Brain (see earlier post), Siegel emphasises (page 39) that ‘[m]ental activity stimulates brain firing as much as brain firing creates mental activity’ and lasting changes in brain structure can and do result.

He looks at the work on mirror neurons (page 61) before concluding that (page 62) the better we know our own state of mind the better we know that of another person. We feel the feelings of others by feeling our own. This explains why ‘people who are more aware of their bodies have been found to be more empathic.’ And we seem to have some support here for the value in terms of empathy that Rifkin places on being embodied (see previous post).

This is not the same as navel-gazing. The result of reflection in this sense, and based on the processes he Master and Emissaryillustrates with fascinating examples from his clinical work and personal life, is something he calls integration (page 64). He defines it as ‘the linkage of differentiated elements.’ He sees it operating across eight domains including horizontally between the left brain and the right, the territory McGilchrist explores.

Particularly intriguing and illuminating is his discussion of the domain of memory (pages 73 and pages 149-151 as well as elsewhere). I have rarely read as clear an exposition of the crucial role implicit memory plays in our daily lives and almost always outside our awareness.  Implicit memory, he explains (page 150), has three unique features: first of all, you don’t need to pay attention or have any awareness to create an implicit memory; moreover, when such a memory emerges from storage you don’t feel as though it is being recalled from the past, and, lastly, it doesn’t necessarily engage the part of the brain that works on storing and organising episodic memories. These implicit memories influence almost everything we do but we are unaware of that influence unless we make special efforts to surface it.

When these memories are appropriate and helpful they are not a problem and it doesn’t really matter whether we notice them or not. Sometimes though they get in the way of responding constructively to current reality. He argues (page 153) that we can use mindsight to ‘begin to free ourselves from the powerful and insidious ways’ they shape our perception of what’s going on around us. We can integrate them into a conscious and coherent account of ourselves.

Robert WrightTo cut a long and fascinating story short (I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explores these ideas in more depth) this leads to a strong link with Rifkin’s case (page 260):

Seeing the mind clearly not only catalyses the various dimensions of integration as it promotes physical, psychological, and interpersonal well-being, it also helps to dissolve the optical delusion of our separateness. We develop more compassion for ourselves and our loved ones, but we also widen our circle of compassion to include other aspects of the world beyond our immediate concerns.  . . . [W] see that our actions have an impact on the interconnected network of living creatures within which we are just a part.

His view here seems to map closely onto Robert Wright‘s contention that, if we are to meet the needs of the age, we have to expand our moral imagination. As Siegel expresses it on the previous page to this quote: ‘We are built to be a we.’  I couldn’t agree more. And what’s even better, he explains, in straightforward ways that I can relate to both as a psychologist and as a Bahá’í, how we can start to bring that state of being into our daily reality.

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The Water Seller of Seville: Velázquez

Meditation is the key for opening the doors of mysteries. In that state man abstracts himself: in that state man withdraws himself from all outside objects; in that subjective mood he is immersed in the ocean of spiritual life and can unfold the secrets of things-in-themselves. To illustrate this, think of man as endowed with two kinds of sight; when the power of insight is being used the outward power of vision does not see.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Paris Talks

I haven’t republished this sequence since 2015. Given my brief look yesterday at Koestenbaum’s levels of consciousness it seemed worthwhile repeating this sequence which contains a brief explanation of Rifkin’s model. 

Recently I have been falling over books that reveal sceptics turning a bit mystical, agnostics extolling empathy and scientific therapies rooted in developing kindness. What on earth is the world rising to?

Tim Parks is the sceptic I referred to. In his intriguing book Teach Us to Sit Still, the title of which is taken from T.SEliot, he unfolds his journey from debilitating pain to relative health via Shiatsu and meditation. He only needed a more explicit touch of McGilchrist to complete his account of his journey.

He describes his obsessive trawling of the internet in search of insight about his condition, which he at first thought might be to do with his prostate, and reflects upon his situation as he leans exhausted against a stone column near his home:

The Pilotòn is about two feet in diameter and ten feet high and dates back to Roman times. . . . . .

Since the operation, I get a kind of tickle and fullness, but I haven’t been able to achieve a proper . . .

This is silly.  Like when I started thinking of the waterseller’s fig as a prostate. Yet I notice that my mind is more at ease with these eccentric analogies than with the information onslaught of the net. I have the impression they bring me closer to some truth about my condition, but in the way dreams do. Something important is staring you in the face, only you can’t decode it. It won’t come out in words. That’s the fascination of dreams. And certain paintings. There is truth that can’t be said, knowledge you can’t access or use. My mind wanders off in these enigmas and after a while I find I’m feeling a little better. Is it a placebo effect? One day, I suppose, I will discover the meaning of Velázquez‘s painting. Or may be that would spoil it.

(Page 105-6)

I could produce many other quotes from Parks that reinforce McGilchrist’s depiction of how the world of the right hemisphere differs from that of the language-based left. One more will have to suffice for now:

Words can describe a mental experience, after the event, but had the same words been spoken to me a thousand times before the experience [of letting go/unquestioning acceptance], I would no more have understood them than a child born in the tropics would understand sleet and snow.

(Page 238)

McGilchrist makes precisely the same point.

One conclusion that Parks draws from his experience concerns our relationship with our bodies.

Finally, when [a moment of intense insight at a meditation retreat] was really over and I could go to the bathroom to wash my face, I was struck, glancing in the mirror, by this obvious thought: that the two selves that had shouted their separateness on waking that morning almost a year ago were my daily life on the one hand and the ambitions that had always taken precedence over that life on the other. I had always made a very sharp distinction between the business of being here in the flesh, and the project of achieving something, becoming someone, writing books, winning prizes, accruing respect. The second had always taken precedence over the first. How else can one ever get anywhere in life?

(Page 241)


Emp CivilThis insight paves the way for what Rifkin has to say in his book The Empathic Civilisation. While determined to keep himself grounded in the body, he takes off into the ether of global empathy on evolutionary wings. The idea of embodiment is central to his thesis:

Both the Abrahamic faiths . . . . as well as the Eastern religions . . . either disparage bodily existence or deny its importance. So too does modern science and the rational philosophy of the Enlightenment. For the former . . . the body is fallen and a source of evil. . . . . For the latter, the body is mere scaffolding to maintain the mind, a necessary inconvenience to provide sensory perception, nutrients, and mobility. It is a machine the mind uses to impress its will on the world.

(Page 141)

Rifkin defends the body against these attacks.

The notion of embodied experience is a direct challenge to the older faith- and reason-based approaches to consciousness. . . . . The idea of embodied experience takes us past the Age of Faith and the Age of Reason and into the Age of Empathy, without, however, abandoning the very special qualities of the previous world-views that continue to make them so attractive to millions of human beings.

(Page 143)

His take on embodiment, which is centred on the notion that all embodied experience is inherently relational, comes to some surprising conclusions:

The embodied experience philosophers, by contrast, suggest that understanding reality comes not from detachment and exercise of power but from participation and empathic communion. 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 character. We become fully cosmopolitan and immersed in the affairs of the world. This is the beginning of biosphere consciousness.

(Page 154)

Much of what Rifkin writes is impressively thought-provoking but it needs to be approached with caution as he is also capable of producing strings of statements that are breath-takingly implausible such as:

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

(Page 182)

This example is fairly typical of the traps he falls into as an enthusiastic manufacturer of his particular theory of everything social. In spite of these caveats his book is a major achievement and raises issues of great importance in a clear and compelling fashion for the most part. I find I believe him when he writes:

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.

How exactly might we put such an insight into practice? There is a way, explained in a recent book, whose discourse appeals to me both as a psychologist and as a Bahá’í (as if those two things were essentially different in any case).

But this will, I’m afraid, have to wait for the next post.

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When I started blogging in 2009, I thought I was embarking upon something radically different from anything I’d ever done before. Now I am fairly sure that was not the case.

Recently I went back to my journal entries of 1982 because I wanted to read through the notes I had taken from Peter Koestenbaum’s book New Image of the Person: Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy. Because I wanted to catch all the quotations, I read through the pages of my journal more carefully than I usually do when only checking out a date or a name. It didn’t take long to show that it had taken me over a month to read the book, and my notes are interspersed with personal, psychological, existential and spiritual reflections, with groups of quotations from other books I was also reading at the same time thrown in, including Albert Camus’s The Plague. A very familiar pattern that clearly hadn’t started with this blog.

Basically, my diary was where I did all my thinking before I transferred part of it to my blogging. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! The only real difference is that my diary was not in the public domain.

Levels of Consciousness 

In looking at my Koestenbaum notes I find many things I will want to come back to in due course. The first thing that is perhaps worth flagging up, given the themes I have explored on this blog, is the section of notes about levels of consciousness.

If you had asked me on oath where was the first place I had read about this idea I might have said Jenny Wade or Jeremy Rifkin, with a possible nod at Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. I’d know it couldn’t have been  Ken Wilber or Kazimierz Dąbrowski, neither of whom I read on the subject till much later. It would never have occurred to me that Koestenbaum was even in the mix, let alone the first person to run those words past my brain.

What does he have to say about levels? Well, part of the reason I still resonate to some of what he says is that it is rooted in the process he calls reflection, which I have dealt with at length on this blog. This basically involves separating consciousness from its contents to the maximum extent possible, a process he tracks through various stages.

Koestenbaum’s model boasts six levels. He explains these over half a dozen pages or so (pages 77 -82).

The first stage, our starting point as it were, is where there is ‘no experienced distance between consciousness and object… we call this condition of consciousness the animal consciousness.’ The act of stepping back brings you to the second level: “eidetic or abstract consciousness,” in short to the ability to think. Next we reach “individual consciousness… [t]his level of consciousness thinks of itself as an individual and isolated self…’

This is where it really begins to get interesting.

The next ‘deepened level of consciousness is called the intersubjective or intimate consciousness… Two people do not feel like two individuals in one bipolar field, where each individual consciousness is an object to the other; they feel like a combined subjective core to which a world of objects is given in common.’ He uses the analogy of two space modules docking: “when they finally lock into each other, a common door is opened, their space is stretched and expanded, and a larger and communal inner space is created.”

What I am going to say now is extremely subjective. I’m going to say it anyway. When I was working well as a therapist, how I experienced the interaction between the client and me is almost exactly captured by those words. I felt as though I was in a quasi-meditative state which had opened an airlock, to borrow from his metaphor, in between my consciousness and the client’s, and the client had reciprocated. All sorts of factors could interfere with that process either on my side or on theirs, however it happened sufficiently often to make effective therapy possible.

As I reflect on this thought now, it seems to me that for consultation in a Bahá’í sense to work (something I have also explored at great length on this blog), something analogous has to happen at a group level. This is where he goes next, I think.

The fourth stage he labels ‘social or communal consciousness… It is the experience of unity with a large number of conscious centres over a long period of time.’ I don’t think by this he necessarily means the hive effect Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind. That promotes not wisdom but instinctive groupthink, or on a larger scale harmless collective, or sometimes even dangerous mob behaviour, rather than reflective cohesion of any kind.

I can again subjectively attest to something like this happening when I worked over a period of 25 years with a small group of others sincerely attempting to make decisions about all kinds of matters from the mundanely practical, through the highly emotional to the deeply spiritual. The group changed its members one or two at a time over the years as a result of an annual electoral process, but this did nothing to impair the sense of collective consciousness, one which, far from creating mindless conformity, encouraged the honest expression of diverse opinions while containing such differences within an ultimately harmonious frame.

The next two levels I have no personal experience of myself, but feel that the mystical literature testifies to something of this kind, including at points the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh.

The fifth stage is ‘cosmic consciousness’ where ‘the social consciousness becomes now the object of our consciousness… With this reduction we have reached the experience of universality.’

This may be at least in part what Bahá’u’lláh is describing when, in the Seven Valleys, He writes (page 18):

[The wayfarer] looketh on all things with the eye of oneness, and seeth the brilliant rays of the divine sun shining from the dawning point of Essence alike on all created things, and the lights of singleness reflected over all creation

He explains that differences are in the eye of us as beholder. He describes how the light we see is affected by the object it falls upon (page 19):

. . . colours become visible in every object according to the nature of that object. For instance, in a yellow globe, the rays shine yellow; in a white the rays are white; and in a red, the red rays are manifest.

This does nothing to detract from the pure whiteness of the original light itself, its inclusion of all differences in one. I absolutely believe in the reality of this level of awareness, even though it has eluded my consciousness so far. The essential unity of all things is hard to discern behind the material differences.

And the sixth and last level is even further beyond my reach. It is ‘the eternal now… when even space and time become the objects of the intentional stream of consciousness. The subjective core which has succeeded in making an object of cosmic consciousness experiences itself outside of space and time.’

Rovelli has managed to explain lucidly how at least one theory of physics suggests there is such a realm wrapped inside quantum reality.

He believes that the evidence as we best understand it, from a loop theory point of view (he’s not a fan of string theory), is that matter is not infinitely divisible and there comes a point where it cannot be divided anymore at the quantum level. When he is talking about space, the quanta he is concerned with are the quanta of gravity, which constitute space itself (page 148): ‘the quanta of gravity, that is, are not in space, there are themselves space.’ What is crucial is the relationship between particles, their interconnections. He clarifies this by saying (page 150):

Physical space is the fabric resulting from the ceaseless swarming of this web of relations. The lines [between quanta] themselves are nowhere; they are not in a place but rather create places through their interactions. Space is created by the interaction of individual quanta of gravity.

This is how space disappears. Now for time (page 158):

We must learn to think of the world not as something which changes in time but in some other way. Things change only in relation to one another. At a fundamental level, there is no time. Our sense of the common passage of time is only an approximation which is valid for our macroscopic scale. It derives from the fact that we perceive the world in a coarse-grained fashion.

I think all this may go some way to explaining why I found Koestenbaum so fascinating in the first place and why I feel moved to revisit the notes I took all those years ago. Also I feel that my previous habit of restricting my quotes from his book to those relating to reflection only has rather sold him short. This is the beginning of my attempt to make up for that.

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

. . . .even as the human body in this world, which is outwardly composed of different limbs and organs, is in reality a closely integrated, coherent entity, similarly the structure of the physical world is like unto a single being whose limbs and members are inseparably linked together.

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

The Moral Imagination

As I explained in the previous posts, in his long and enthralling book on altruism, Ricard has used reason brilliantly to advocate altruism as the solution to our personal and global problems. That in itself makes it an essential read for those of us engaged in understanding these issues more deeply.

He would be the first to agree, I hope, that an intellectual conviction in 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. In fact, his long examination of the power of Buddhist meditation within its spiritual context shows that it produces greater levels of compassion and altruism than do shorter experiences of meditation divorced from its roots. The necessary devotion to meditate for the periods of time required to achieve this effect would be impossible to sustain, in my view, without the faith in the discipline that goes with it.

He ends his book, it seems to me, rather in the same trap as Rifkin did. And I’m afraid I have the same response, despite my admiration and respect for the compelling case he marshals in the seven hundred pages it took him five years to write.

I understand the strength of Rifkin’s sense that humanity’s progress has put us within reach of Ricard’s hope of a sufficiently widespread altruism. Robert Wright puts the same hope in slightly different terms in his book The Evolution of God.

He states (page 428):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He feels that it is inevitable that we will either move closer to moral truth or descend into chaos. He feels that (ibid):

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

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

However, 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, or for Ricard to prove that an intellectual conviction in the value of altruism is the best hope we have, I cannot conclusively prove to everyone’s satisfaction that

(a) these in themselves could never be sufficient, and

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

That though is what I believe.

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.

Moving to a Higher Level

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.

Though I sympathised with Rifkin’s and Ricard’s perspective then as I do now with Klein’s, I am not convinced it will be enough. The changes that need to be made are major, effortful, and must be sustained over decades if not centuries. Possibly, without something extra, we would be like the Hero of Haarlem, trying to save the village by putting our finger in the dike of humanity’s crisis, only this time it is leaking in too many places: we would lack the capacity to fully understand what to do, to take effective action or to endure the necessary strain for the time required.

Perhaps we need to acknowledge that there are spiritual powers upon which we should be prepared to draw to meet the challenges of our complex global industrialised empire – I’d rather not use the word civilisation. Perhaps we need to access the wisdom of a collective Mind or Soul if we are to understand the problems we face in the first place and draw on the strength of a spiritual dimension before we can even dream of implementing the solutions for the required amount of time.

The Importance of Detachment

I have referred throughout this sequence to the importance of reflection for the individual and consultation for communities as trance and pattern breakers that can free us from the shackles of convention and the veils of illusion. What I have not spelled out until now is that for these two disciplines to work for us at their most powerful there has to be a third element present: detachment. Detachment is the essential catalyst. If there is no such detachment then neither reflection nor consultation would achieve more for us outside this spiritual context than would borrowing meditation alone from the Buddhists, as I described earlier.

The translations of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s comments in Paris Talks use the terms reflection, contemplation and meditation almost interchangeably. The full context strongly suggests that reflection depends upon detachment and that detachment connects us with God.

Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life; through it he receives the breath of the Holy Spirit—the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. . . .

This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.

The existentialist philosopher, Peter Koestenbaum, comes to a similar conclusion concerning the end result of stepping back from our programmed identifications through the process of reflection.

He explains this in his seminal book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection he means something closely related to meditation.

Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Similarly ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes clear in his writings that one of the key prerequisites for consultation is detachment:

The prime requisites for them that take counsel together are purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all else save God, attraction to His Divine Fragrances, humility and lowliness amongst His loved ones, patience and long-suffering in difficulties and servitude to His exalted Threshold.

It is possible to argue that detachment is achievable without any belief in a transcendent dimension or in any power beyond those of the natural world. I would have to agree that a degree of detachment is indeed possible within those constraints.

However, from a Bahá’í point of view, there are two quotations of particular relevance here.

The first is from the Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh (Arabic no. 68):

O Children of Men! Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other. Ponder at all times in your hearts how ye were created. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest. Such is My counsel to you, O concourse of light! Heed ye this counsel that ye may obtain the fruit of holiness from the tree of wondrous glory.

And the second from the Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh (page 155):

The essence of detachment is for man to turn his face towards the courts of the Lord, to enter His Presence, behold His Countenance, and stand as witness before Him.

These clearly suggest that the realisation of the highest degree of detachment is dependent upon an acceptance of and obedience to a spiritual power greater than ourselves.


I have explored at length on this blog from where the motivation can be derived to persevere in the necessary remedial actions for sufficiently long to create a major and enduring paradigm and action pattern shift and why that is necessary not only for our personal wellbeing but also for our collective survival. We need to realise how much we disown and to accept that this disowning in all its forms has to be transcended.

But we need more than that. We need a sense of how best to transcend our disowning.

I have used disowning as my catchword for the ways we blind ourselves to what we do not want to know. Part of the reason for using this word is that it also implies that we are refusing to own up to our neglect. When we own up to it and fully experience the necessary shock and revulsion at our own failures we will then have taken the first step on the road to remedying our defects. I have also argued that we need to not only exert ourselves to put into effect the individual and group skills that will generate viable solutions to the problems that confront us, but we will also have to keep up our efforts at an extremely high level for very long periods of time, over centuries if necessary.

The Universal House of Justice describes it in a letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran dated 2 March 2013:

Yet, however promising the rise in collective consciousness may be, it should be seen as only the first step of a process that will take decades—nay, centuries—to unfold.

This therefore for me entails also recognising that we have to have faith in some form of transcendent power to enhance all we do, to motivate us to persist for as long as necessary, and to lift our endeavours to the necessary heights of creativity and healing. It seems to me that everything we love depends upon our acting in this way from now on and indefinitely.

If not, the chances are we will give up too soon or fail to do as much as we are able.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The main point and its relevance is hopefully clear.

Biosphere Consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And he concludes (ibid.):

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

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

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

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

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


Matthieu Ricard takes on these issues from a different angle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Altruism Black Earth

In the light of recent events in London and Manchester and of this week’s sequence on Hillman’s book, that dealt in some detail with Hitler, it seemed worth republishing this sequence from two years ago. The posts, of which this is the last, have appeared on the consecutive days.

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.


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.”


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.

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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