Philosophy Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory

 

Creation

Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Dec 30 2010

“De Maistre felt that men are by nature evil, self-destructive animals, full of conflicting drives, who do not know what they want, want what they do not want, do not want what they want, and it is only when they are kept under constant control and rigorous discipline by some authoritarian élite…that they can hope to survive and be saved. ”

Isaiah Berlin, on one of the founders of Conservatism in The Counter-enlightenment

What kind of people become leaders of nations? What kind of hurdles do they need to overcome and how does that affect them? What personality traits are required to overcome them? What compromises do they need to make on their path? What view of man do the have? Even in so called democratic countries are those that are elected to represent the people actually normal? These are not meant to be rhetorical questions but express a genuine quandary I have, one to which I do not have an answer, only a hunch. We see ourselves in our leaders, and the way they think and talk creates the mindset we live in. They tell us how the world is and who is good and who is bad. But what if they are not like us at all, and the way they see the world is only one of many ways of making sense of it? Why would they not just be normal people, you might ask, anybody can take up politics in an open and democratic society. Maybe that is true, but what if it is virtually impossible for an ordinary decent person – however talented or driven – to reach the top of any political or corporate institution, and still be that same ordinary and decent person? What if it doesn´t even occur to them to try?

Ignoring for the time being dictatorships, nepotism, Mafioso states, theocracies and the like, is it possible for democratic countries to produce sane leaders with untied hands? I think there are systemic, practical, Darwinian and psychological reasons why this seems really quite tricky. Firstly let me clarify that I have little patience for leftist and anarchistic conspiratorial thinking where any person in a position of authority by default is seen in a dubious and sinister light. I am not reaching my conclusions based on some socialist affinity with the working class, nor based on any pubescent revolt against every type of authority. I am convinced we need authorities and hierarchies, but I think we need to be on guard against the imperfections that come with those systems. Rulers are not born evil. I think everybody is born at street level, and because we are all pedestrians nobody has a bird´s eye view of the world. If you are born into aristocracy I would not blame you for drinking from the goblet of narcissism and breath the supremacist air just as little as I blame religulous people for believing in the myths they have been born into or a drug dealers´s son becoming a delinquent. You are born into a certain conceptual sphere, you realize the rules and some people see angles others don´t. It is the dynamic structures we are born into that foster certain individuals to excel and others to fade into the background.

Historical Leaders

“A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules…”

In his classic survey of historical leaders and what made them great Machiavelli has plenty of practical advice to dispense, ranging from how best to invade a country with least effort (by only killing all of the ruling family and leave all taxes and laws the same, so that ordinary men notice little difference), to how to run colonies and who to make friends with and who to crush. He is even-handedly and pragmatically treating all paths by which men rise to power. In talking about rulers who have taken over power by “wickedness” he recounts this maffiaesque scene where Oliverotto da Fermo encourages his uncle Giovanni – who raised him – to invite all the noblemen of the city Fermo to a dinner party.

“Oliverotto gave a solemn banquet to which he invited Giovanni Fogliani and the chiefs of Fermo. When the viands and all the other entertainments that are usual in such banquets were finished, Oliverotto artfully began certain grave discourses, speaking of the greatness of Pope Alexander and his son Cesare, and of their enterprises, to which discourse Giovanni and others answered; but he rose at once, saying that such matters ought to be discussed in a more private place, and he betook himself to a chamber, whither Giovanni and the rest of the citizens went in after him. No sooner were they seated than soldiers issued from secret places and slaughtered Giovanni and the rest.”

He can hardly suppress his admiration for his cunning courage, but notes that in the end it did not afford Oliverotto a lasting principality as he got strangled after a year. He laments this and attributes it to “severities” (i.e. cruelties) not being properly used. Ultimately you have no power unless you get people to obey you, and his is a timeless study of how to achieve that. More recent examples of these principles being employed can be seen in Saddam´s way of taking power over the Iraqi Baath party in 1979.


media

Iraq’s 1979 Fascist Coup as narrated by Christopher Hitchens

This is very rare footage which was removed from YouTube the minute after I manage to download it. Because it is so extraordinary I decided to host it myself.

Donald Rumsfeld offering American support in Baghdad on December 20, 1983.

It would appear neither Oliverotto or Saddam was in any capacity what we would consider normal people. Erich Fromm´s classic study The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness offers deep and penetrating analysis of how these personalities are shaped from childhood experiences. This seems chillingly illustrated in the sadism found in Saddam´s son Uday Hussain who practised rape as a hobby.  Other similar recent Arabic examples are Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, son of Sheikh Zayed, founder of the UAE, who was acquitted in January, 2010 of torturing a rice merchant  in spite of having had it filmed himself. Or the Saudi prince Saud Abdulaziz bin Nasser al Saud who sex murdered his servant in a London hotel in February, 2010. These are sadistic and twisted men who cannot deal with the absolute power they enjoy.

The Power of Nightmares

But my thesis is not just that twisted men often become leaders but that men with a twisted view of man in general tend to resort to violence and therefore excel more efficiently under certain circumstances than men with a more humanistic and optimistic outlook. In The Counter-enlightenment Isaiah Berlin discusses the view of Joseph de Maistre, who next to Edmund Burke, is considered a founding father of Conservatism. Fundamentally man is an irrational beast prone to aggression. Education can never hope to change this and the appeal to reason is pitiful. This view risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If someone feels threatened they are dramatically more prone to resort to violence.

“Reason, analysis, criticism shake the foundations and destroy the fabric of society. If the source of authority is declared to be rational, it invites questioning and doubt./…/[T]he source of authority must be absolute, so terrifying, indeed, that the attempt to question it must entail immediate and terrible sanctions: only then will men learn to obey it./…/Not the luminous intellect, but dark instincts govern man and societies; only élites which understand this, and keep the people from too much secular education that is bound to make them over-critical and discontented, can give to men as much happiness and justice and freedom as, in this vale of tears, men can expect to have. But at the back of everything must lurk the potentiality of force of coercive power.”

To educate and foster a critically minded, information empowered society can never be the aim if you feel your authority would be undermined by it. Censorship, suppression, punishment of dissent, violence before reason these are hallmarks of fascist regimes, but are they not part of every political structure we know? Is democracy free of this? Who is censoring WikiLeaks and trying to bomb sense into the uneducated Afghanis right this moment?

The Nature of Hierarchies

Democratic systems depend on parties and their leaders that become nominated candidates of government. To become a nominated candidate you first need to have an active and personal interest in politics. Wham! Immediately we have eliminated a massive chunk of the consumerist population. Politics was something our parents did in between getting stoned in the 60ies. Being born in the mid 70ies I have no experience of party life, but I assume that to rise in status there must have comparisons with how people advance in corporate structures. Partially promotions depend on financial achievements, but why networking has become  such a crucial feature of modern business life is partly because people chose to work with people they like, not necessarily the people best at what they do. There are irrational motives – or rather not strictly financially justified reasons – why people advance.

You make alliances, strategically exchange favours whilst keeping your cards close to the chest. For instance, someone who cannot be diplomatic is unlikely to succeed as he would spill the beans once to often. To advance in a corporate structure you need to be able to keep secrets and better yet, to twist the facts if need be. If you are a truth teller and an obsessively honest and evidence based person you will remain in the research department. Political parties depend on a unanimous front. Everybody in the party must concede their personal opinions in favour of those of the party line. You apparently do not win a debate by admitting what you do not know. Thus insincerity, discretion and secrecy are a core qualities.

Do nice people become senior members of staff? As a though experiment imagine you have two people: One person who is careful and considerate, for whom genuine empathy and social awareness is important, and another who is unscrupulous, careerist with no remorse regarding walking over dead bodies to get to his goal. In a competition to reach the top who do you think would win? Would a profit making corporation employ the tender hearted person as CEO? Companies exist to make money and sharks with teeth keep them afloat. To what extent are parties like companies? I do not know, but I know that Big Business run our democratic societies with enormous power – only they are not elected.

Enter the Upper Echelons via the Lobby

While Obama tried to portrait himself as an ordinary but extraordinary person, do you really think he would have gotten to where he is without making massive concessions to USA Inc? Even though the West is democratic on paper there are all sorts of old and new power structures in place. There a powerful families and Big Business, all with their own agenda. Since any campaign in the US at least is vastly decided by financial support (did you even notice Ralph Nader was running again in the 2008 election?) you need to make promises to look after your financial contributors if you ever reach office. There are practical reasons like that which back ties the hands of anyone even with the best of intentions.

Executive Power

If there is one thing all political leaders historically seem to have in common it is an obsession with violence. Indeed the very definition of the State has been the monopoly of legitimate violence (Weber). Whether you are aspiring to rule in a country (or state) where the death penalty still exists or not, the obsession with war and the army is an inseparable part of political leadership. As a consequence, to be a leader you must be a person capable of taking someone else´s life, at whatever remove is convenient for you. People like to quote acts of soldiers in war as examples of how just about anybody is a cold bloodied murderer given the right circumstances. The fact that this is a widespread belief I see as a complete success of conservative propaganda and a the sign of a flawed analysis of the dynamics that lead to war. We cannot both be appalled by, and punish, the heinous acts of serial killers and at the same time believe it is as natural a part of human nature as enjoying friendships or making love. I insist that it is the fact that we are too socially sensitive and weak that leaders can make decent people commit murders that for some reason during so called war times are perfectly legal. It is the fear of punishment by those who are callous and managed to rise to power by any means necessary that coercively turn decent people into criminals. As in the law of the jungle, the lowest common denominator is the rule of the fist. Obama may seem suave, humorous, sensitive and cool, but he is still the one sending drone missiles to kill thousands of people. I will not argue about whether violence can be justified, but just want to highlight the often times overlooked extraordinary contradiction in the way we have organized society. The figurehead of cultural sophistication is also our principal executioner.

Maybe you don´t have to be a psychopath to become a leader, it just helps.

Jul 30 2010

Wheat fields near Châteauroux

Surrounded by yellow wheat fields I feel a rush of exhilaration, I find myself singing and laughing inside the helmet. I am filled with a bubbly joy as I have spent the day driving at random, wherever I felt, following tiny country roads, through forests and past lakes, more or less heading north. It’s always good not to loose your sense of north. A guide book told me Montrésor, une des plus belles villages de France, should be somewhere around here, and I was lucky to come across it. It is a stunning village with a castle belonging to the late Polish comte Xavier Branicki, in which his descendants are still living. From a fountain in the garden of Xavier Bendickis castle I would like to have a bash at convincing you why philosophy is good, not only the individual but for society at large.

With inner freedom you can be free in a jail.

So what is philosophy? For me it is not primarily about a quest for truth, or love for truth. It is about freedom. Freedom of mind. Without inner freedom there is no freedom, and with inner freedom you can be free in a jail. What is a free mind? It is a mind that does not depend on crutches of certainty. A mind willing to follow through to the logical conclusion and prepared change opinion in light of new insights. A mind that can look at things from different angles, and never assumes that there is only one right answer. A mind that knows there are good arguments for and against everything. A mind that does not mistake familiarity for understanding. Philosophy is one of many  roads that can lead you there.

New thoughts appear in cracks.

Philosophy is not about intelligence. Many very intelligent people have been unphilosophical and done some horrible things based on their certainties. Obviously it helps to have a natural ability to see things in perspective, but even the brightest minds need inspiration. Impressions are the food for thought. A society where people mostly consume the same impressions will have like-minded people. It is very hard to have a free mind there. New thoughts appear in cracks, when bits don’t fit together, where the story doesn’t make sense. If everything is the same there are few cracks. If there is no contrast it is very hard to think as you have nothing to compare with. This may seem trivial but it is actually what makes it all possible. In a society where most people share the same beliefs and values it is very hard to think. It is no coincidence that multiplicity and innovation coincide.

Château de Montrésor

People are not expected too think.

In the way the world is organised today people are not expected too think to much. They are not meant to feel responsible for what happens in or with the world. Even in the most democratic societies the extent of ordinary citizens’ participation in the decision making process is a nod left or right every fourth year.

Comte Xavier Branicki's weapons

The alternative ways of looking at things have been limited to a manageable two. People are expected to work and consume and leave the big decisions to those in charge. Seen that way it is amazing we have made it this far since we have been riding on the brain power of a few privileged families. (Maybe the lack of human control over nature has been our saving grace?) In so far as history has been orchestrated by humans it has been possible because the world has been, for most of its history, fairly predictable. I am not talking about famine and the black plague, but people’s positions and possibilities in society. If you were born into a potter’s family you would end up a potter. The rich could make deals between themselves and make sure the wealth stayed within the right famililies.

...sumptuous feasts with Napoléon

Take this Château de Montrésor. During the 17th and 18th centuries, leading families such as the Bourdeilles and the Beauvilliers lived in the castle. “In 1849, Xavier Branicki, a rich Polish count and friend of emperor Napoleon III, arrived to give new life to Montrésor…the house was the setting for sumptuous feasts with Napoléon.” I somehow doubt I would have been invited to those feasts.

In a predictable world it has been possible for a few to control much of what has happened (although I would not underestimate the skill, knowledge and courage it would take to do so). Now however, the world is too complex for anyone to fully grasp.

The world is fundamentally out of control.

Even if old models have worked to reduce suffering and increase the standard of living for the world, we no longer know where things are going. The world economy is not run by a small elite. It is run by millions of people moving their money at a whim, and in a blind stampede capital can move from one side of the globe to the other in a matter of seconds. Consumerism will not slow down, and hence neither will global warming. People refuse to become more rational, and in a century the population this planet needs to support will have quadrupled. Do you think we are headed for less wars? Do you think religion will help diplomatic negotiations? Would you leave the future of this planet in the hands of a few leading men?

Enter the castle

If our world was hanging in a rope over an abyss it would all depend on the strength of that one rope.

If the world was hanging in a gazillion threads it would not matter much if one snapped.

The only successful way of dealing with the unpredictable is to be prepared for anything. The wealth of a society could be defined by its multiplicity. A society rich in multiplicity is likely to find solutions among some of its members. A healthy, future-proof society is  one with a great many free thinking people exploring many different ways of living. For the first time in history collective thinking is possible. For the first time ever, truly innovative ideas can flourish and spread without any financial obstacles. In essence philosophy is good for a changing world because it inspires free thinking.

If the world was hanging in a gazillion threads it would not matter much if one snapped.

What's in it for me?

-”I catch your drift, but apart from saving the world, what’s in it for me?” I am surprised to hear a voice in the garden, and even more so one that replies to my thoughts. I turn my head and stare at the fountain sculpture of a little boy.

-”Philosophy makes my head hurt. Why should I bother?” he continues. It takes me a moment to regroup.

-”Well, for starters you would never feel lonely again. Or bored for that matter.”

-”How is that?”, he asks.

-”You would be entertained by your own company as you would always have something interesting to think about.”

-”What is interesting about what old men thought about questions without answers? Where are the special effects dude? If I am bored I choose Mad Men over Nietzsche anytime.”

-”Interesting choice of entertainment”, I reply, “because that is exactly where the creative intellectual elite has ended up – in the info- or entertainment industry. They work as speech writers for politicians or copy writers for soap adverts or some such. Whatever the profession they are likely to be engaged in selling you some stuff. It is safe to say they do not have your best interests at heart. You are surrounded by the best poets, orators, artists and musicians, and, adhering to the rules of our liberal consumerist society, they excel at seducing and persuading you. They are not evil. They just don’t care about you. They are paid to make you care about what they want you to care about. And they are good at it. They are better than you. They are the best. Those that don’t succeed are fired. Thus, the most obvious reason why a critical mind is good is to look after your own well-being.”

Philosophy good stuffed

-”Oooooooooooooohhh dear! Poor me! Are you suggesting philosophy is good for my own well-being? If I am not mistaken Herr Nietzsche turned quite a mad man himself. The list of intellectuals who have been killed, committed suicide, gone mad or spent time in prison is quite off the charts. Socrates, Jesus, Galilei, Rousseau, Lorca, Russell, Cantor, Boltzmann, Gödel, TuringKoestler, Nash…”

-”These were all highly sensitive people, so they got more affected by what they saw and realized. They lived in times where dissent was punished by death, imprisonment or excommunication. But is philosophy to blame for that? Is it not the fact that the society surrounding these people was not philosophical enough that caused their misfortunes? After the aristocracy had eliminated them they turned them into martyrs and named streets after them. I am sure there are thousands of other great thinkers whose ideas were eliminated in time.  Today it is not like that. Because of the achievements of dissenters there is a free world where you can think for yourself and express your opinions without risking punishment. ”

-”Exactly! I am living in the free world. I am not manipulated. Things have changed. We are living the dream.”

-”Yes, you are living a dream, like Carlin says, because you got to be asleep to believe you are free.”

Oct 23 2009

In this second post of four I am looking at the domain of reality our beliefs and actions help create and how it is different from the non-human universe. I argue that by applying the same way of thinking about ourselves as we do about independent objects we get into trouble. We mistake something plastic for something solid. I am looking at some implications a more psychological and participatory view of history might have for how we should think about our future. My thoughts are work in progress, brush strokes on my philosophical canvas, neither without tension nor contradiction. As usual I welcome any criticism you might have.

What Doesn't Kill Me

What Doesn't Kill You

The Window of Opportunity

In the movie What Doesn´t Kill You, a recovering alcoholic and criminal thug is contemplating whether or not to rob an armoured truck. As he is staring at himself in the mirror the different futures he can imagine are being played out in his mind. This could be his last job. He will either be able to raise his kids and be a father to them or end up serving lifetime in jail. Life demands him to make a choice.

In passing moments in our lives our choices make a difference. There is an opening in the road, several paths are available, but they will not stay open forever. The rules of the game are waiting for our input into the game, and how the future will unfold is dependent on it. Time is moving ahead and its direction is determined by what has been settled into some shape or other, and that which is still shapeless and open to influence. In the whole universe creativity lives between what has already become reality and that which could never become real. It exists in the realm of possibilities, in moments of choice.

Reflections in the Window

What are we supposed to do? What is the purpose of our existence? Where should we go? These are universal and ancient questions, and instead of offering my own opinions I want to look at why we ask them, what kind of answers we tend to expect, why we expect them and perhaps should not. I believe that in this as in everything we tend to look for emotional certainty, the kind of existential foundation that makes it possible for us to get on with our daily lives without doubts. Our lives are demanding, we have little time to question things. We are looking for the kind of answers that make the questions go away. Thus to begin with, we not only want answers, we have an existential bias towards definitive answers that eliminate the questions. A part of us would even feel the safest if our destiny was written in stone, we had no personal responsibility and that the nature of things was fixed independently of us. Some find comfort in the idea that their individual life narrative is a thread woven into in a divine story evolving towards a glorious end. Others look to astrology, careerism, Marxism, Mayan prophecies, visions given by political leaders or academic futurologists, but the common theme is a future that is relatively fixed. For some such a notion offers the comfort that comes from having something solid to hang on to and we all need comfort from time to time. This tranquillizer however is not without side effects. In casting the future as something fixed we loose sight of the extent to which we ourselves participate in creating it, and we not only make ourselves less free, we actually destroy possibilities we did not even know existed.

The answers we find are largely the reflections of our own assumptions.

I believe we give this treatment not only to the future but to others and even to ourselves. To show how we – consciously or unconsciously – help shape the world we live in I will choose some examples from the financial markets, cultural trends, motivational, social and dream psychology. To add insult to injury I will then point out how some people who have understood this dynamics perfectly, do not want the people that have not realized their own power to shape their own lives to do so. People who take responsibility for their own lives, make conscious choices, question conventions and are self-driven are threats to their authority. I am not saying this to stir up conspiratorial fervent but history is full of examples of leaders not only asserting their own authority but also trying to enforce it by undermining the self-confidence of their inferiors. I will look at Plato for examples, but you probably need look no further than kiss-up-kick-down middle management in any hierarchical modern corporation.

The Myth of the Final Destination

Firstly, from where do we get the idea that the future could have a final destination? Arguably from Aristotle, who distinguished between four types of causes: material, efficient, formal and final. For him material cause was the material out of which something was made. The efficient cause the agent that makes something happen. The formal cause the idea the agent had of the end result. The final cause the purpose or end result itself. Today the word cause means more or less Aristotle´s efficient cause.

For Aristotle the final result of any process existed within it as a potential, and was acting on it as a pull from the future. The future goal was the purpose of the thing, the telos. When the Christians took over this idea the purpose of human existence came from being created in the image of God. Today, even if modern people no longer believe in such fairy tales the connection between purpose of human existence and a fixed goal still remains. It is as if life could only have meaning if there was one destination. It can take the earthly shape of the “love of your life” or a heavenly shape of Paradise. Failure to reach that final destination would spell disaster. Unfortunately if this was true we would have been fucked from the get go, as there are trillions and trillions of possible futures and the likelihood of whichever-would-be-the-right-one to happen is negligibly small. That is not the case when we look at the past of course since it is 100% likely that the past that actually happened actually happened. Still, it is tempting for some to argue that since it was highly unlikely for humans to appear in the first place and that happened it a proof a plan is unfolding and, however unlikely it may appear, we can still get to the final destination. That line of “reasoning” however is begging the question, since it assumes that the existence of humans proves that some great plan is unfolding whereas it proves nothing of the sort. If the planet was populated by religious lizards they would argue in the same self-serving way.

Why both Aristotle and the Christians got it wrong is quite understandable as they could do little more than guess. They knew nothing about quantum physics, DNA, germs, vacuums, or strange attractors, and they could not run computer simulations or test their ideas experimentally in the “Large Headroom Collider“. Even so they both offered helpful attempts at giving meaning and purpose to life, but now we need to think more carefully about how we phrase those questions. We drastically limit our options by phrasing questions about meaning in terms of one goal. What we should be asking – individually and collectively – is not what the final destination is, what we ought to do, or what our destiny is, but rather what are our possibilities, and what we want to do out of that which is possible.

Under Social Construction

Alcoholics Anonymous prayer

Alcoholics Anonymous prayer

So how do we know what is possible? That is the first difficult question, and the prayer of the Alcoholics Anonymous captures the human dilemma in a succinct way.

“God grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change; COURAGE to change the things I can; and WISDOM to know the difference.”

How do we know what is possible to change, and learn to accept that which we cannot change? Studying science is a starting point, but science tends to prefer mechanistic and functional explanations and does not take into consideration how the explanation of a social process can itself become an influential factor. The genuinely significant questions, those that decide the fate of man, are not primarily concerned with merely natural potentials. Processes in social and private life are intrinsically reflexive. Our anticipation about our potentials itself influences and shapes those potentials. It is naturally true that a tree that falls in the forest makes a sound, but it is only reflexively true that the American dollar has value or that France lies in Europe. Reflexive truths are true only because there are enough people believing them to be true. If you were the only maniac to believe the dollar had value you would not only not be able to buy anything, but would likely qualify for the asylum.

Reflexive truths are true only because there are enough people believing them to be so.

Some “realists” attack people that point out that reflexive truth are only conventions by calling them “idealists”, but is it not the realists who are stuck in their ideas without realising? Do they really know how to distinguish ideas from things? It seems they do not have ideas as much as ideas having them.

There is a massive divide between the natural world and the world we create. Now and then, the gap between the independent natural world and the mind dependent conventional world makes itself know it dramatic ways. Let me borrow the first example from George Soros, who writes extensively about reflexivity and has managed to make himself the 40th richest man in the world. He claims he owes his wealth to his understanding of his teacher Karl Popper´s philosophy and his own ideas about how reflexivity affects financial markets. In The Crisis of Global Capitalism (1998) he gives the example of the crisis in 1997 Southeast Asian economy that the Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia accused him of causing. He writes:

“The Southeast Asian countries maintained an informal arrangement that tied their currencies to the U.S. Dollar. The apparent stability of the dollar peg encouraged local banks and businesses to borrow in dollars and convert into local currencies/…/ by the beginning of 1997 it was clear to us at Soros Fund Management that the discrepancy between the trade account and the capital account was becoming untenable. We sold short the Thai baht and the Malaysian ringgit early in 1997 /…/ Subsequently Prime Minister Mahathir of Malaysia accused me of causing the crisis. The accusation was totally unfounded. We were not sellers of the currency during or several months before the crisis; on the contrary, we were buyers when the currencies began to decline/…/ If it was clear to us in January 1997 that the situation was untenable, it must have been clear to others. /…/ ” (p. 137)

The crisis was “a self-reinforcing process that resulted in a 42 percent decline in the Thai currency and a 59 percent decline in the Thai stock market /…/ The combined result was a 76 percent loss in dollar terms, which compares with an 86 percent loss in Wall Street between 1929 and 1933.

The panic was spread to the neighboring countries by the financial markets – I used the image of a wrecking ball, others have referred to financial contagion as a modern version of the bubonic plague.” (p. 145)

Nowhere is it quantitatively so tangible and apparent how the beliefs held by people affect what is possible than in financial markets. The moment people lost faith in the value of the Thai baht and the Malaysian ringgit the herd changed and ran madly in another direction, draining the Southeast Asian market of capital as if it were water and a plug was pulled on the other side of the planet. The reason the markets are so volatile and vulnerable he claims is that investors are not independent thinkers but move in herds.

“Fund managers are judged on the basis of their performance relative to other fund managers, not on the grounds of absolute performance. This/…/forces fund managers into trend-following behavior. As long as they keep with the herd, no harm will come to them even it the investors lose money, but if they try to buck the trend and their relative performance suffers even temporarily, they may lose their job.” (p. 130)

In financial markets you can see the movement in clear digits on a screen, but the process of socially constructing reality is at work in every area of human life. A good friend of mine is a book publisher. At our last holiday together he was about to publish a book that was a rewrite of Jane Austen´s Mansfield Park. A journalist from a book review magazine called him and asked if he saw a new trend in rewriting classics. My friend agreed wholeheartedly and mentioned another example of the same. On the following Monday the magazine ran with the story on the book and a separate article on the new trend of rewriting classics. Is there a trend? You tell me. It is if enough people believe there is. It is a reflexive truth and it is quite possible that because of the inclination to imitate other writers will read the article and jump on the idea as well. This is a clear example of a socially constructed reality and should other writers follow suit it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Our Plastic Souls

Reflexive potentials require our participation, and this in turn depends crucially on our ideas about what other people are going to do. What people do however is not fixed either as they respond to our expectations. We are largely unaware of what expectations we hold.

Unconscious images of Jim and Jules.

Unconscious images of Jim and Jules.

Consider a meeting between two friends – Jim and Jules. Jim has an “image” of Jules, in that he has an idea of what Jules is like, what he thinks about things, how he reacts and so forth. Jim has also an idea about himself. On top of these he also has an image about Jules image of Jim, assumptions about what the other knows about him. Then there are the images of what Jim wants Jules to think of him, and also what he thinks Jules wants him to think of Jules. Further there is the image Jules really has of Jim. The situation is naturally symmetrical for Jules, and in the end we end up with a small village of semi-conscious images and reflections, all capturing some aspect of what Jim and Jules are like.

Which image captures the true Jim? You tell me.

To some extent the accuracy of their images of each other depends on how well they know each other, but even if they were familiar like an old married couple, the one would still not truly know the other´s motives. We often make the mistake of thinking we know what others are thinking, or why they behave the way they do, but we cannot really know this. There is a simple reason for this. We do not even know our own motives, so how could someone else know them? You may object and say that you know perfectly well what your motives are, and I would agree to the extent that you may have a clear idea of why you think you do things. This idea however is one out of several possible ways of making sense of what you are doing and feeling and not the final and ultimate truth. As we grow older we look back and now we understand our past motives differently than we did back then, however clear they appeared to us at the time. People undergoing psychoanalysis speed up this process and find that they hate the person they thought they loved, or love the person they thought they hated. The images we have of ourselves and the meanings we give to them are plastic, and keep changing throughout our lives. I do not believe we are shapeless or entirely without an essence but the quest for the True Self is as illusory as chasing after one´s True Love or a Heavenly Paradise.

What Doesn't Kill Me

Narcissus

If it is true that our souls are plastic why do we think they are fixed? I think some answers are to be found in how the child develops a sense of self by reflecting itself in its parents. A 3 years old girl in front of me at Heathrow airport is playing around in the queue. I look at her and smile, and the moment she meets my gaze she instantly becomes self-conscious and timid and runs off to hide behind her father´s legs. She sees herself through my eyes. The child psychologist Piaget noticed that children often solve problems through their own bodies. A child is trying to open a box. Suddenly he opens his mouth, then the box. This I believe is our original self-image, and through an extension of that we understand ourselves not from inside but from outside as it were. The psychological language we use is full of concepts and metaphors borrowed from domains of reality different from ourselves. We let someone in, we have a thought in our head, we go deep into the subconscious, we fall in love, we close the door, we look down on someone, feel uplifting feelings or we go to pieces etc. While these expressions are useful and we find them meaningful, they at the same time present us with an image of ourselves much the same as we would get from seeing ourselves in a mirror.

Space extends. Mind intends.

What is wrong? Put simply: Space extends. Mind intends. Thoughts do not exist in physical space. They do not have physical dimensions. What is the size of an imagined orange? 6 cm or 125 miles? Mental images are scale independent and even if you put a matchbox next to the orange you could not say if it was the size of a teaspoon or a galaxy. Likewise emotions do not just sit around like firemen on a break until some situation flares up. An emotion can be repressed and exist in some way, but not like a forgotten summer cat exists when family goes home from holiday. The nature of subjective phenomena is very different from the concrete determined objects in our environment. We need another way of thinking about ourselves, because something goes fundamentally wrong when we try to look at ourselves through the mirror of our environment. When we see ourselves only as objects, we loose ourselves as pure subjectivity.

We are the observer, not the observed. In The Observing Self (1982) the psychotherapist Deikman is arguing that “at the heart of psychopathology lies a fundamental confusion between the self as object and the self of pure subjectivity. Emotions, thoughts, impulses, images, and sensations are the contents of consciousness: we witness them, we are aware of their existence. Likewise, the body, the self-image, and the self-concept are all constructs that we observe. But our core concept of personal existence – the “I” – is located in awareness itself, not in its content.”

Basically there is a witness to what is happening in the mind that itself is not part of the content. We can have a direct awareness of the witness, but it is not something constant or given. More a flickering flame and like Kierkegaard observed it is the easiest thing to forget oneself.

It is the fact that we are plastic that makes it possible for us to be shaped and told what we are. The fact that we are not transparent to ourselves makes us susceptible to influence. Different traditions have different ideas about what humans are, and if we had a fixed essence and at the same time direct access to ourselves we would not be so amenable.  Now instead depending on where we were born we soak up identities like ink on a soft paper.

The Myth of Fixed Archetypes

Intuitively I feel there is a connection between our belief in a predetermined future and our belief in fixed mental objects. This is more of a hunch but somehow I think these two notions depend crucially on the idea of something transcendental, superhuman, eternal and fixed. Furthermore I think the culprit is Plato, that Greek intellectual giant. He was so ground breaking that some have called all subsequent European philosophy a series of footnotes to Plato and the reason for this is that he not only touched upon almost every area we have been capable of thinking about, but to a large extent also (reflexively) helped define what those areas would be. In many ways he both opened and closed our minds at the same time.

Arguably Plato´s most influential innovations to our plastic mindset was his notion of the world of Ideas. To him, the world of Ideas was the real world; the material world, though seeming real to our senses, was only an illusion. The Ideas were the Ideal Forms that shaped our transient chaotic domain of reality. They alone were absolute, unconditioned and eternal realities. This I think is one of the worst myths to have haunted mankind, and it seems that in the same moment the idea was born did Plato realize how it could be abused. He instantly declared the philosphers the guardians of the Absolute Truth, and ordinary people mere sleepwalkers. While the content of the Absolute Truth has change throughout generations, the thought pattern has remained where the Truth is one and accessible to the few. Thus their authority is secured. This pattern has never gone out of fashion and is present in any fundamentalist movement, from Jesusism, Nazism to Communist North Korea. It provides the bricks and mortar for any value hierarchy that does not welcome destabilising criticism.

Jung´s vision

One of Jung´s visions

The claim that there is an independent, fixed, eternal realm of meaningful mental objects is absurd. Let me show its absurdity as it appears in the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung´s theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious. For Jung the archetypes were the prototypes, the original forms that gave shape to our mental content. He traced them in religious icons, myths and dream symbols, claiming they were not merely individual or reducible to subjective interpretation, but having a fixed and independent existence in the collective unconscious. Since the young Jung wanted to be scientific he did not claim the archetypes were eternal and timeless, but inherited from our evolutionary ancestors, and somehow tied to our biological past. Later in life this concern was not so prominent, and Jung downplayed the ´biological´ aspect of his psychology, and even discarded it altogether, preferring to see the archetypes in a more Platonic sense of prexistent spiritual entities.

Jung inherited the notion that dreams are the golden way to the unconscious from Freud. If the idea that there was mind independent ideal forms with a fixed meaning that expresses itself in our dreams was true, one would assume that two of the pioneer explorers of this transcendental realm would reach similar conclusions. Not only is it widely known that Jung and Freud disagreed on the nature of the unconscious, but I would claim that in discussing their disagreements Jung is pulling out the Platonic rug from underneath both of them. In a passage discussing dream interpretation in his book Modern Man in Search of a Soul I see him suffering the essential tension between how he wants the world to be and how it appears in practice. He is the great explorer of the Underworld, and if it would turn out he just invented it all himself nothing much would be left of his scientific aspirations of objectivity. He says “If there were no relatively fixed symbols, it would be impossible to determine the structure of the unconscious.” , yet he then goes on to suggest that to apply this hypothesis in practice can be a “grave blunder”.

“Just as the interpretation of dreams requires exact knowledge of the conscious status quo, so the treatment of dream symbolism demands that we take into account the dreamer´s philosophical, religious and moral convictions. It is far wiser in practice not to regard the dream-symbols as signs or symptoms of fixed character. In addition to this, they must be considered in relation to the dreamer´s immediate state of consciousness. I emphasize that this way of treating the dream-symbols is advisable in practice because theoretically there do exist relatively fixed symbols whose meaning must on no account be referred to anything whose content is known, or to anything that can be formulated in concepts.”

He then goes on to apply his own metaphysical speculations in practice, against his own advise, and discusses a dream a dying girl had about her mother committing suicide and a horse jumping out of a window.

“‘Horse’ is an archetype that is widely current in mythology and folk-lore. As an animal it represents the non-human psyche, the sub-human, animal side, and therefore the unconscious. This is why the horse in folk lore sometimes sees visions, hears voices, and speaks. As a beast of burden it is closely related to the mother-archetype; the Valkyries bear the dead hero to Valhalla and the Trojan horse encloses the Greeks. /…/ As a beast of burden it is closely related to the mother-archetype/…/ Also it has to do with sorcery and magical spells- especially the black, night horse which heralds death.”

From these readings he concludes

“It is evident, then, that ‘horse’ is the equivalent of ‘mother’ with a slight shift of meaning. The mother stands for life at its origin, and the horse for the merely animal life of the body. If we apply this meaning to the dream, it says: the animal life destroys itself.”

“Exact knowledge”?! “Evident”?! “Slight shift of meaning”?! Quoi? He might as well had said horses are related to frogs, foie gras and the Lilliputs, hence the Japanese eat with sticks. He knew from the outset that the girl was dying and no Valkyries or Greek Gods are needed to understand that she is trying to come to terms with it by consciously and unconsciously processing it. The dreams show death and is it not apparent that the meaning comes from her immediate life situation as he aptly says? As a matter of fact, Jung has problems with his own religious claim in an independent Platonic realm of fixed symbols.

“In each of the images given above we can see a relatively fixed symbol /…/ but we cannot for all that be certain that when they occur in dreams they have no other meaning./…/ To be sure, if we had to interpret dreams in an exhaustive way according to scientific principles, we should have to refer every such symbol to an archetype. But, in practice this kind of interpretation might be a grave blunder. /…/ It is therefore advisable, for the purpose of therapy, to look for the meaning of symbols as /…/ if they we not fixed.” (p. 23)

You can see that there is a tension between his Platonic belief and his practical experience that causes a lot of confusion for Jung. He at once believes in symbols with an independent meaning, i.e. not projected unto them by the individual psyche, while at the same time, in practice throws that assumption out the window, and when discussing his disagreements with his teacher Freud blatantly and honestly accepts that his own entire psychological framework is an expression of his own subjectivity and psychic make-up.

“To be sure, when we deal in ideas we inevitably make a confession, for they bring to light of day not only the best that in us lies, but our own worst insufficiencies and personal short-comings as well. This is especially the case with ideas about psychology./…/Is not every experience, even in the best circumstances, to a large extent subjective interpretation? /…/ What Freud has to say about sexuality/…/ can be taken as the truest expression of his own psychic make-up./…/ It was a great mistake on Freud´s part to turn his back on philosophy. Not once does he criticize his premise or even the assumptions that underlie his personal outlook. /…/ I have never refused the bitter-sweet drink of philosophical criticism/…/All too easily does self-criticism poison one´s naïveté, that priceless possession, or rather gift, which no creative man can be without. At any rate, philosophical criticism has helped me to see that every psychology – my own included – has the character of a subjective confession.” (`p.118)

By his own admission his metaphysical belief in fixed mental archetypes does not work in practice, his “scientific theory” is a subjective confession and his archetypes creative expressions. What then remains to substantiate his claim in collective fixed mental objects?

When we try to understand the world, the closer we get to ourselves the more our interpretation of an object itself becomes that object. We reflect ourselves in a hall of mirrors.

Why does he cling on to a notion of a fixed metaphysical realm when he must realize it is an impossibility?

Platonic Prozac

Another vision from The Red Book

Another vision from The Red Book

Jung himself was battling with psychosis, was hearing voices and seeing visions, for many years. While this is pretty well-documented, only last month was his family persuaded to publish his own notes and drawings of these episodes. The Red Book has been kept locked up in a bank vault for decades. I do not mean to say his inner turmoil disqualifies his insights into how our minds work in any way, but it explains to me why Jung was the more religious of the psychoanalytical pioneers. For someone for whom the plastic flooring in his mind is giving way there is a need for a solid foundation to stand on. Plato´s metaphysics offers just that. A belief in religious certainties is a prozac that measurably reduces anxiety (as this recent brain scan study on the neural effect of belief in an Almighty God shows). Faith and certainty give structure and thus help the believer to get on with his life without doubts. There are healthy practical consequences of believing and that is why the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is based on Jungian psychology. Uncertainty can be overbearing and faith is at any rate physically healthier than chemical addiction.

At the same time this human weakness makes us vulnerable to exploits. There is an inner need for certainty, and there are also outer political forces ready to make solid that which is plastic. Already in The Republic (380BC), while describing the Ideal State, Plato discusses the intentional use of lies to achieve political ends. His ideal society is heavily stratified with three fixed classes: the guardians, the auxiliaries and the craftsmen (workers, plebeians). To maintain social cohesion people must stay in their place or else violence and instability will ensue. It is prerogative the plebeians do not question their lot in life, and in order for them not to the Philosopher King is entitled to make use of “noble lies“, dispensed as a doctor would his medicine. In the dialogue Socrates tells Glaucon about the Myth of Metals which while prefectly fabricated is hoped by Plato´s Socrates to consolidate the state. It claims that each child is born with a specific metal in their soul, gold, silver or bronze, and accordingly is intended to be either ruler, enforcer or obedient subject respectively. Glaucon does not believe this myth will fly but Socrates hopes that future rulers will believe in it and thus it will gain in power. These myths have come and gone for thousands of years. Just now I am working in Dubai and while it is supposed to be some kind of democracy it is very clear that being a ruler is something you are born to be. In the United Arab Emirates the Platonic gold is not a metal in the soul but a name: Al Maktoum.

You can see how not only is there an inner need for certainty, there is also mounting outer pressure. And the same moment you accept there is an absolute truth you have to accept that the messenger of the existence of an absolute truth also has access to what it is. I claim there are rules of the game but not a fixed outcome. Unfortunately for us, there are not only rules, but also rulers of the game, and they often want us to accept their vision of the future as final.

The Rulers of the Game

If the future is open and we participate in its creation, who are those that actually produce most of the drafts? Who are the potters that mould the plastic clay of our souls? Who benefit from people staying in a state of docile Platonic haze? From where do people get their visions of the future? From those who understand how to build the social reality. Freud´s aim was to liberate people from misery by helping them understand their own minds. His disciple Jung tried to give us a new type of spirituality where the aim was individuation, growing whole by integrating our unconscious shadow. Freud´s nephew Edward Bernays however applied his uncles knowledge to quite the opposite end. Bernays is the father of modern Public Relations (a word he coined), and his seminal book Propaganda (1928) opens with the lines:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.”

Later he writes:

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible…”

Read these lines well because you do not get many chances to hear these ambitions spelled out. Today strategic social architects keep their cards very close to their chest. Obviously Bernays was trying to market himself to the business elite and make his own influence appear greater than it was, but even so he has had a massive impact on the world. He was not only extremely successful marketeer for many major US corporations, but also hired by President Calvin Coolidge to improve his image, and his book Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) was used by Hitler´s propaganda minister Goebbles to consolidate the German people´s hatred of Jews.

Leaving the Window Open

windows

"...fresh air into a murky cellar..."

Psychological knowledge about about human motivation is a power tool that can be used for many goals. Those who understand the influence you can have over people who believe in fixed values have no interest in making people loose their naïvité and learn to see things from many angles. An aspiring leader does not want people to realize that there are many ways to interpret the issue he proposes to have solved, he does not want people to see that everybody´s idea of how they choose to spend the few moments they have on this planet is equally valid, that in social matters we participate in creating reality. Such sophisticated abstractions would only undermine his authority. A situation where people feel existential anxiety yet believe there is something out there in the world that can rid them of it, that they “should” not feel it, and that others do not, such a situation is ready and ripe for whoever is trying to control the masses. This is equally true of religious and secular ideologues. Thus the belief in an objective and fixed ultimate reality helps to provide a glorious purpose and goal for human existence. This is the kind of idea that serves the masses and the leaders alike. People want to hear they have the Truth, the Way and the Life on their team, and leaders want people to be docile. The Platonic attitude is thus exploited, externally by leaders but also internally by the unconscious defence mechanisms that want to keep uncertainty, cognitive dissonance and existential anxiety at bay.

The possible number of futures is nearly infinite while at the same time determined by the limitations of the rules, and each moment those possible futures are changing. It is creativity that makes the universe historical. If there was no creativity there would be no history since the past and the future would be determined in the present and whether or not it unfolded would be uninteresting. Time would be irrelevant. Creativity makes history by actualising one of the potentials in a window of opportunity.

We live at the horizon of the evolution of the universe and when we try to anticipate our next step, the universe is trying to anticipate and realize its own future through us. We are the cutting edge of evolution. We are the cosmic window of opportunity. Any potential that can be actualised in the real world, i.e. the world of res, things and bodies, must have been possible by the rules of the game, but when it comes to reflexive potentials it is not enough that they should be possible in theory; Somebody must discover them and believe in them for them to be real possibilities. We do not know how many different potential futures we have on this planet but we need many creative and imaginative thinkers to come up with as many scenarios as possible. We need our dreams, but not the Platonic-Jungian reveries of our sleeping mind, but visions of potential futures. The more fantastic visions, the more fertile the soil for beliefs and subsequent behaviour to bear them out. The more imagination the better the future. Unfortunately our culture is getting increasingly streamlined and the trend following behaviour greatly limits the capacity for independent thinking, and therefore it is unlikely that we explore more than a tiny fraction of the reflexive potentials we really have. There are many dangers with a homogeneous society, but the inability to adapt to sudden changes might be the biggest. With more diverse ways of living, more crazy odd people, we keep lots of alternative ways of living alive. The odd alternative people offer the conventional society not only a healthy contrast with which to compare itself, something that provokes critical reflection, but also maintains these alternatives alive as concrete viable options. If alternative lifestyles disappear, they will also in all likelihood disappear from our imagination. If we cannot even think it, it truly no longer exists. The reflexive potential is gone, and the window of opportunity has closed.

Jul 12 2009
Reason the greatest enemy of faith

Reason the greatest enemy of faith

Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed…

Martin Luther, 1569

Why would Martin Luther refer to reason as the Devil´s whore? What was the vile threat he perceived justified such a bitter rant? Officially salvation in the Christian faith is both something highly desirable, and something that requires a leap of faith, and no amount of logical debate would get you there.  Fine, but supposedly there are many things that would not take you to heaven, such as whistling or dancing madly backwards, and I am convinced they did not receive the same slander. What is it about reason that particularly upsets Luther? Reason gives us something none of the other capacities do – an indication of the boundaries of the possible. If reason shows that the dictates of faith fall on the side of the impossible it becomes problematic. A beam in your eye as someone put it. Instead of seeking to remove it Luther tried to kill the messenger.

Denial is not the best way to treat an eyesore I fear.

But what if reason had disclosed the boundaries of the possible to be as permissive as Luther wished, would he then have hailed it as the new highway to heaven? For example, if the rational view of the world had seen it populated by spirits and run by a sociable and benevolent God, who would lovingly bend the rules of the universe to please the whims of his favourite creations, would Luther then have held it in such contempt? After all, not all Christians have been opposed to reason. “Early Christian doctrine held that God was the author of two texts, the Book of God, or The Bible, and The Book of Nature. The two were co-extensive: given the right interpretative tools, one could read the eternal verities of God’s design from Nature back to the Bible, and vice versa.” The Dutch 17th century biologist Jan Swammerdam for instance, thought that studying insects in great detail would not contradict God as the creator, but to the contrary, underpin the greatness of his work. Unfortunately though, by the end of his life, Swammerdam gave up science as he came to believe that his work no longer was in the service of God. Thus it seems it is not reason by itself that is so despicable, but what reason discloses. Quintessentially the culprit, I believe, is the Coperican insight that we were not the centre of the universe.

These days the educated enemies of reason attack it with the charge that there is no external and independent reality. That cannot be the religious strategy though since most religions claims the existence of a non-man made and immutable God. While they differ in their way of attack the enemy is the same: The Copernican insight. As opposed to pure rationalists I agree with the enemies of reason that the Copernican fact is dangerous, and I believe the intense resistance people have shown towards it expresses what I will call the essential tension between how we need or want the world to be, and how it really is. The distinction between what we need and what we want is as crucial as it is nebulous. It may be the case that a sane society needs what I will call therapeutic myths to prosper. It may also be the case that humans are capable of adapting to reality. I believe it is an empirical question and only history will tell.

My contention is that our need for truth is only one of many psychological needs, each fighting for satisfaction in our minds. When the going gets tough it also tends to be one of the first ones to be left by the road side. For the well-being of most people, the self-image and status is more important, that their life has meaning and purpose and that their life´s narrative is gratifying. The universe as a blind careless force just does not do the trick. It induces a fear we could call reality anxiety or Copernican anxiety. For people with very strong reality anxiety reason is indeed the Devil´s whore.

We are suspended in an essential tension between how we want the world to be and how it really is.

I hope (and think) there are better solutions to the reality anxiety than denial. To blow the Enlightenment trumpet for a second, critical thinking is crucial for a healthy society, and for our future. Without it we cannot draw conclusions from facts or predict consequences of our actions. Without reason we are very vulnerable to fraud and manipulation. It is our only power of calling a lie and find contradictions between various statements, and between statements and facts. Irrationality paves way for fascism whereas people that think for themselves are harder to control. Both the traditional realist and rationalist positions are problematic though as they carry historical burdens. The traditional rationalist and realist position is that there is an independent reality and that we can form an accurate image of it by objective means. My position is that there are independent rules that govern reality, but that human beings are in the crossing of at least three distinguishable and interrelated processes that unfold according to different rules. The first unfolds in astronomical time, the second in historical and the third in personal time. Only the first process unfolds independently of human beliefs and wishes. Thus it is true that there is an independent and external reality, but it is not the whole truth. It is true that we create our own realities and live in different worlds, but it is not the whole truth.

The aim of knowledge is not truth, but a healthy society.

Further, the worst historical hangover rationalists need to overcome is the glorification of a value neutral truth. The aim of knowledge is not truth, but a healthy society. I have tried to argue that the rationalist´s belief that truth is always good for people is an irrational assumption akin to the rationalist´s own religious conviction. There is nothing in Darwinism that supports that knowing the truth always gives better chances for survival than not. Survival must come before truth, and what is most important is our survival, well-being and to find sustainable ways of living. Hiding behind value neutrality science has figured out how to construct nuclear weapons but not how to make people happy.

Over the next few days I will argue that the role of rational people is not to aim to undermine the belief of every believer, but only attack those beliefs that are unhealthy, to try to identify destructive myths and attack them like antibodies attack viruses in our bodies. To be able to tell the difference means to be able to distinguish between healthy and destructive myths. This I confess is for me the biggest and most difficult philosophical problem, harder yet than to distinguish between the true and the false. It is not difficult because myths are arbitrarily good for some people and bad for others. To a certain extent that is of course true, but like all such relativistic objections it focuses on the shallow differences between humans instead of the depth we have in common. It is possible I believe to find criteria to use to assess the fertility of a myth, as objective as any used in a court of law to arrive at the truth. I don´t think it is easy. It will never be exact, and it will also not essentially depend on the truth of the belief itself. The difficulty does not stem so much from the fallibility of any criteria we may use – they will inevitably be inexact – but from the paradoxical relationship between the doctor and the patient. Science deals with a world independent of, and agnostic to, our existence. Myths on the other hand are all about us. Not only do they provide meaning for our lives, but through them we create the world we live in.

The mind secretes culture like the body secretes sweat.

The mind secretes culture like the body secretes sweat. Within the limits set by nature, myths become self-fulfilled actualities given enough number of believers. How do you distinguishing what is real in a make-believe world? This self-referential relationship is one source of paradoxical difficulties.

The second cause of complication is that reason and delusion are like day and night, and it is very hard to examine a myth, discard the rotten parts and keep the healthy once it is clear it is all a myth. From the view of psychological development a myth may be a necessary tool to overcome difficulties for a person or a community at a time of crisis. Later on it may be discarded like an old crutch, but if a Struwwelpeter like person were to spill the beans prematurely the placebo effect of the administered medicine would vaporise as the patient realized it has no active ingredient.

Struwwelpeter

Struwwelpeter

So much in society depends on myths. They are essential to everything from stock-market transactions, patriotism, religious faith, corporate team-building, political propaganda to the glory of fame and romantic love. How many of those twilight creatures would survive the lucid light of day? In philosophizing about them I sometimes feel like just such a Struwwelpeter, destroying that which I touch. Luckily, I have realized the negative Struwwelpeter effect mainly affects some therapeutic myths that are demostratively false, and then only mildly as beliving people show impressive resilience to critical thinking.

The third challenge is how politicised the question becomes the moment you realize how closely related the creation of myths is to power. This, I will show, was perfectly clear at the very birth of Western philosophy, and from Plato all the way to the Bush administration and corporate marketing, powerful men have abused our need for myths for the most illegitimate causes. Conspiracy theorists like to blame a concentrated elite for their evil ways of utilising the credulous nature of the masses, but the real enemy, I believe, is within. We don´t want to accept reality, and we resist even our own better judgement. When powerful people offer meaningful myths the Freudian reality principle caves in to the pleasure principle and we welcome them as gifts.

I find all of these subjects extremely difficult and if I speak as if I had it figured out please forgive me as it is not my intention. If I sound arrogant please consider it intellectual myopia as in a few years from now no doubt reading my own thoughts will make me cringe. I am travelling for the next month and I will try to keep these complex ideas in mind and maintain a cohesive discourse. I am writing from mountain tops and airports and that will be reflected in the texts no doubt. I feel I am only dipping my toe in a very deep pond but at the same time I might be on to something. I greatly welcome criticism but I would ask that you let me try to present my case as best I can before tearing it to shreds. I am trying to accommodate both the realist, the social constructivist and the subjectivist position, all under the glorious banner of helping make a happier world.

Talking for myself, having spent a good few nights with the Devil´s whore, I can safely say that she knows some tricks that would make your virgin saint, Indian guru, Holy Book, prozac, spliff, Dan Brown cliff hanger, home brewed moonshine, cheap crack hooker or whatever else normally gets you through the night, appear as mind blowing as a decaf latte. Luther might have disagreed but I can think of no greater bitch to take with me on the road.

Feb 14 2009

The door of my house in Granada is padded with metal and I had never given it any thought until an old lady that was born here 82 years ago came knocking and told stories about what happened here in the late 30ies. Some thugs came by one night she said and poured petrol on the door and was just about to set the house on fire when in the last minute they decided to leave the house with children alone and instead burn down the church at the mirador San Nicolas. Her father thus padded the door and all the windows so as to give them time to put out a fire should it happen again.

The most horrific crimes have been committed by perfectly normal people acting as a group, surrendering individuality and personal responsibility to a greater cause.

All over Spain there are discoloured bullet holes in the facades of beautiful old Gothic buildings and the horrific stories about mass-executions and farmers being shot through the eyes have an air of incredibility about them given the sublime beauty of the landscape today and the peaceful, fun loving mentality of the Andalusians I know. But the most horrific things humans have done are not crimes of individuals. The deaths caused by them are almost insignificant in comparison with the crimes performed by perfectly normal people acting as a group, surrendering individuality and personal responsibility to a greater cause, be that the Nation, the Leader, the Religion or the Ideology.

Perhaps no one has been more marked by the seeming irrational bestiality of humans and at the same time done so much to try to comprehend, explain and fight against it as the Hungarian-born author Arthur Koestler. Just like Orwell, Hemingway and many European intellectuals at the time. Koestler came to Spain to fight against the Franco lead fascists 1936 and onwards.

Arthur Koestler

Arthur Koestler

The whole notion that a group of poets would run to the trenches in the front lines of another country is bizarre and very hard to understand for us today. What did they expect to achieve? Were they going to read at the enemy!? In order to understand this intellectual mobilisation it is important to realize the role played by Spain and what was perceived as being at stake. The Spanish Civil war between 36-39 was the stage for the battle between the public and the ruling aristocratic minority. In 1931 through general election there was established the Second Spanish Republic that granted citizens, including women, the right to vote, the freedom of religion and the abdication of the king. It was fundamentally a progressive step for justice, from a plutocratic feudal society with widespread poverty to something akin to modern democracy. One of the problems was that while the “public” agreed that the state should be separate from the church and workers given more rights, there was great disagreement about how the state should be organised. Spain was a melting pot of communists, anarchists, fascists, monarchists, and was internationally seen as a war by proxy between the old aristocratic capitalist ideology and Russian backed communism. Catalonia was mainly socialist or communist. Malaga was the strong-hold of the anarchists (but being anarchists they had problems of organisation and fell quite easily to Franco’s troops). The internal disagreements between the political parties representing “the people” was probably one of the reasons why Franco could rise to power and mobilise a coup d’etat with the unholy alliance between the aristocracy, the church and the guardia civil. Thus Spain was perceived as having immense symbolic value for the whole of Europe as the struggle between a frail democracy and an aristocratic fascist regime. Franco’s mass-execution in the bullring in Badajoz and the air-bombings of Madrid were the precursors of the way the WW II would be fought.

Although some intellectuals like Hemingway did take to arms in the struggle, their role was to “make themselves useful” and indeed reading propaganda to the soldiers to boost morale. Koestler’s role was different, and the nail-bitingly dramatic story that lead him to be imprisoned with a death sentence in Seville is utterly thrilling. He was 31 years old and had been working in Berlin as a journalist, and was secretly working for the communist propaganda organisation with its headquarters in Paris. At the time of the news of Franco conquering Seville, he was however utterly depressed due to disillusions with communism in practice and personal failures as a writer, and was living in absolute poverty in a hayloft outside Paris writing on some anti-fascist book. Upon hearing the news he went to the head of the communist propaganda organisation, Willy Münzenberg, and asked to be sent to fight in the war. Willy finding the idea of a journalist fiddling with a gun a waste had a moment of inspiration and suggested that Koestler would instead go as a journalist and try to achieve an interview with Franco, with the implicit mission to establish proof that the fascists were breaking the international non-intervention agreement and were in fact receiving support from Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. At this time it was denied by all three countries and UK and France did not take the threat seriously. Koestler was fixed up with a fake cover as a journalist for two fascist sympathising news papers, was given more money than he had ever seen in his life and given an elegant suit. He was to enter Spain via boat to Lisbon, but by an over-sight on his part when he arrived in Lisbon his real Hungarian passport had expired and he was sent to the Hungarian consulate.

Quipo de Llano

Queipo de Llano

By a fortunate (or unfortunate), twist of events, the Hungarian consul was friends with the Franco aristocracy living in exile in Lisbon. Koestler was thus invited to a posh party in a casino and from a hayloft he suddenly finds himself buying drinks out of the communist wallet for the Marques de Quintanar, the Dutchess Vega de so-and-so, and when someone suggests a toast to the Hungarian Regent Koestler reciprocates by drinking to the health of General Franco. The most extraordinary thing is that he is introduced to no one less than Franco’s brother, Nicolas Franco, from whom he obtains a priceless document called Safe-Conduct, describing him as a reliable friend of he National Revolution that leads him all the way to Seville and grants him a personal interview with Franco’s head general in Seville – General Queipo de Llano.

Me on the road

A crucial event happens on his third day in Seville, and takes place in the allegedly famous Hotel Cristina. Having lived in Seville for a year and a half I did not know of any such place and I was curious to see if I could track it down. A couple of days ago I was invited by an old friend, a flamenco dancer that was just having her solo debut in one of the main theatres in Seville, to come down for a visit and I thought I could drive down on my bike, enjoy the flamenco and try to locate the Hotel Cristina. There is next to no info online, but it was supposed to be central, so after a bit of research and asking older people that were likely to remember such an illustrious place I managed to find the Hotel where Nazi pilots stayed in 1936. I learn that it was completely rebuilt in 1983, but while the inside is private residencies only the exterior is kept exactly as it was. One señora now living there told me: “Si, si, esto era Hotel Cristina. Aqui ibamos a bailar despues de las bodas”. The building is the yellow complex between five star hotel Alfonso XIII and El Torre del Oro where you find the modern US equivalent of cultural achievment…the McDonalds, and as it turns out about 100m away from where I used to live. Back then foreign journalists in Seville were treated with utmost suspicion, and one notorious Captain Bolin of Scandinavian descent was particularly fierce and had put a gun under the nose of a French journalist before he was expelled.

Hotel Cristina

Hotel Cristina

Any journalist entering Hotel Cristina was instantly suspected a spy since mainly Nazis lived there. As for proof of German support of Franco, it was not hard to come by as the Swastika uniforms were everywhere to be found. Against his better judgement Koestler still decides to enter Cristina and finds a group of Nazi airmen sitting by a table in the lounge bar. He walks up to the bar and orders a sherry, when suddenly his gaze is met by one of the men at the table – Herr Strindberg, the son of the famous Swedish author August Strindberg. The two had worked together in Berlin some years earlier and Koestler knew instantly that Strindberg had not only recognised him but beyond any doubt could blow his cover. In a moment of irrational panic, he orders another sherry, swallows it, and utters loudly:

-”Hello, aren’t you Strindberg?”

Strindberg replies:
-”Excuse me, but I am in a conversation with this gentleman”.

Alfonso XIII

Alfonso XIII

Koestler then mounts this incredible argument, acting indignantly about Strindberg not having greeted him properly, and when the Nazi officer demands to see his credentials he starts shouting, waving his hands in the air, calling it an insult and demanding that Captain Bolin sets the record straight. By chance the Captain walks through the doors and Koestler carries on with his theatrical tantrum at which the Captain gets pissed off and basically says he could not care less about whether two foreign journalists greeted or not and that they could all fuck off! As the Captain walks out the lounge Koestler also walks off in a strop, and due to the confusion he is not stopped. When back at his hotel, the rumour has spread about what had happened and he is advised to leave at once. He manages to arrange a transport to Gibraltar and crosses the border one hour before the order for his arrest is issued.

Walk along history lane

Avenida de la Constitucion

Back in Paris, his story becomes front page news in both France and UK, and help raise the awareness of the brotherly bond between Hitler and Franco. Koestler return twice more to Spain, first in some secret mission personally requested by the Spanish Foreign Minister to recover some documents in Madrid, and then to report as a war correspondent in Malaga, where he is eventually captured by none other than Captain Bolin himself and is very nearly shot on the spot. Instead he spends three months in the Central Prison in Seville, under death sentence, where Franco had revived vile garotte as a means of execution. The vile garotte was a way of killing someone by screwing a vice into the back of an iron collar, and listening to the screams of his previous cell mates he suffers both extreme anxiety attacks as well as some mystical experiences inspired by Euclid’s proof of infinity. Details about this episode is documented in Dialogue with Death, available to read online.

He is released in exchange for a very beautiful lady from Seville, a wife of a fighter pilot, captured by the opposition. However, Koestler spends time in jail twice more in his lifetime. Once in Le Vernet in France, ironically as a suspected Nazi sympathiser, and in Pentonville prison in London due to lack of the appropriate documents. These were extremely political times, and almost every character in his autobiography dies an unnatural death.

Franco and Hitler alliance

Franco and Hitler alliance

I reread his story by the beautiful fountain in front of Cristina, where the now car free area is bathing in sunlight and busting with a sublime spring like euphoria. Tourists in horse carriages, students on the year abroad, locals riding the public bicycles whistling along la Avenida de la Consitucion. The Andalusian newspaper El Correo de Andalucia has put up historical front pages along the walk, and with a mildly hopeful smile I notice that someone has thrown a stone through the one declaring the united front of Franco and Hitler.

I will leave you with this gem, and if anyone can understand a word of what Franco is saying about “a movie man” please transcribe it below.

Nov 15 2008

When I was 13 I was singing in the village church choir and would happily deliver the most obscure Christian lyrics with the same plastered smile. But I remember this one line that at first I did not understand at all, and that then made me choke as I learnt what it meant. It was taken from the Book of Revelation 3:16 and said that “God would spew the lukewarm out of his mouth.” The choir leader explained to me that lukewarm meant “neither hot, nor cold”, that’s to say neither with God or Us nor with the Devil or Them, and spew really meant that God would vomit such a person out of his mouth.

God

Art thou lukewarm?

This image made a horrific and lasting impression on me, not primarily because it depicted a most vulgar vomiting God which did not coincide with the glorified image of the divine I had in my head, but more so because it did not make any sense. Had God gone bonkers? Even with a 13 year old’s logic I understood that there was something truly fishy about this. Why would God prefer someone outright evil to someone unsettled or in doubt? Why would God prefer a definitive liar to an honest doubter? If he was “the truth, the way and the life” then surely any honest searcher would eventually get it right and fall into the right faith like a snail into a water well. The only situation in which God would win anything from this vomiting business was if he was hiding something. For all the talk about how OK it was to doubt and question, here it was in black and white: If you seriously doubted God you would become God vomit. There was of course the paradox that if God didn’t exist then he could not spew either, but that was the kind of insight you were not supposed to have. More with my guts then with my bedazzled indoctrinated mind did I realize that a liar stood to benefit most from people not asking any more questions. If there was a truth then jumping to conclusions would only stall the process of finding it out. Why would God be in a rush? It’s not as if it was his time that was running out!

Thinking about it now, God seems not just a little bit neurotic here. The God of the old testament has often been called jealous and angry, but this is at the end of the new testament. If he cannot deal with the undecided why not just do something else?! It’s not like he doesn’t have the rest of the Universe to attend to. Prozac perhaps? A spliff? Maybe he just had a bad day and needs a massage.

Just Foreign Policy Iraqi Death Estimator

It was with the same gut feeling I listened to the US ex-president saying “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” when going to war on Iraq. What about the undecided? What about the ones feeling they lack sufficient information to make such a choice? Even if one agreed that destructive belief systems were dangerous and called for action, how could anyone imagine that you could bomb them away without creating even more enemies? Does not wanting to fight fire with fire make you a terrorist? No, but causing 1,288,426 of Iraqi deaths does.

Dichotomization and forced choice is something most totalitarian organisations have in common, and while that may serve the purpose of domination they do not lead to truth about the world nor a clear conscience.

Oct 31 2008

This is a trailer of an upcoming movie about the meltdown of US economy.

Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business.

Jonah Goldberg of National Review

According to ecological economist Lester Brown it would only cost $190 bln to save the planet which is about a third of the US annual military expenditure, and less than a third or its recent banking bailout. The rationale behind military spending must be to protect US citizens from threats. So you got to ask yourself what is the bigger threat? “Once you accept that climate change, population growth, spreading water shortages, rising food prices etcetera are threats to our security, it changes your whole way of thinking about how you use public resources,” Lester Brown told Reuters in an interview. With $10 trillion in national debt (it has grown more than a trillion since the trailer was made) how can you rationally justify those priorities? Who could help? Europe, China – the Saudis? Who would want to help? When it comes to making friends, using Hellfire missiles and calling it “self-defence” just isn’t fair play in anyone’s book. 

If the bully wants to make friends why is he hitting everybody?

Oct 30 2008

“If this is the work of the Communists, which I do not doubt, may God have mercy on them!” These words were uttered by Hitler when standing in front of the burning Reichtag, the German House of Parliament in Berlin, 27 Feb 1933. This became the justification the Nazi party needed to implement extreme measures against known Communists, and already at midnight the search parties were on their way to get their victims. “Left-wing deputies and literary figures, unpopular doctors, officials and lawyers” were dragged out of bed and the first wave of concentration-camp arrests began.

In the autobiography “Defying Hitler” Sebastian Haffner is telling the story of an individual well-educated German’s effort to keep both his sanity and life while left and right wing extremists stage a battle, neither using more humane or dignified means than the other. “It was only next morning that I read about the fire, and not until midday that I read about the arrests. Around the same time a decree of Hindenburg’s was promulgated. It abolished freedom of speech and confidentiality of mail and telephone for all private individuals, while giving the police unrestricted rights of search an access, confiscation and arrest.

“Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Reichtag fire is that the  claim that it was the work of the Communists was so widely believed. Even the sceptics did not regard it as entirely incredible.” Everybody expected a Communist retaliation but as it didn’t come people took it as an implicit admission of guilt. “After all that,” Haffner continues, “I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichtag fire was the work of the Communist. What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character clearly for the first time during the Nazi period, is that this settled the matter. With sheepish submissiveness the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution; as though it followed as a necessary consequence. If the Communists had burned down the Reichtag, it was perfectly in order that the Government took ‘decisive measures’!

What struck me personally when reading this passage is the eerie resemblance to current events. One can go over the text and simply substitute the Reichtag for the Twin Towers, the Communists for the Muslim terrorists, the Hindenburg decree for the US Patriot Act, UK Communications Data Bill or the Swedish FRA law. The issue is not whether a democratic government should take actions to protect it citizens against potential threats – that is the essential raison d’etre of a representative government – but whether or not one can trust any government with absolute power.

Las 13 RosasIf one considers even as a remote possibility that the government itself would be a part of that threat against which the public needs to protect itself, the implications of giving them – or any group of people – the right to be both judge and jury are just unimaginably horrific. As it turns out one doesn’t actually need the imagination  – two brilliant recent movies show how historically those horrors have manifested themselves. I’m thinking about Las 13 rosas and Sofie Scholl, both dramatizing real events in Germany and Spain, where young idealists – mostly minors – were sentenced to death for the crimes of spreading pamphlets. I would imagine one of those pamphlets could have said something akin to this blog post.

But surely we have learnt from past mistakes? The US, UK and Swedish governments embody the ideals of democracy and respect the right to free speech and tolerance of diversity. They have accepted and signed the declarations of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions which in effect make them law in these countries. Or have they? As it turns out at the beginning of May, 2001, the United States lost its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission for the first time since the panel’s founding in 1947. The US are not adhering to the Geneva convention as is clear in the US treatment of Taliban prisoners in Guantanamo Bay. They are being tortured and some have been killed. Their guilt is not only relative to whoever would be judge and jury – not that they have had a chance to have a fair hearing – but highly questionable from the simple fact that the majority of them were sold to the US army by the Iraqi equivalent of bounty hunters.

At the very least if we were to place trust in the government to have the lawful right to infringe on those human liberties previous generations so painfully struggled to establish, we can demand that they exact extreme caution and vigilance when exercising those rights. If we give them exceptional mandate to protect us from terrorists we do so only in the faith that they must not abuse that mandate by say invading a country quite unrelated to the assumed responsible for the attack. As the Reichtag fire was used to justify Hitler’s invasion of Poland so was 9-11 used to set in motion a plan that the US neoconservatives had long been wanting to realise. All they needed was an excuse, and with a people still sore and with a lust for revenge even a far-fetched one would do.

More recently, on the 8th Oct 2008, the UK the Anti-terror Crime and Security Act of 2001 showed its versatility and was invoked against a whole country that has until then had been considered one of their best friends – Iceland. Until 2006 Reykjavik airport Keflavik was in effect an American airbase. When I lived in London Reykjavik was considered the coolest capital in Europe, and I have many wonderful friends there. As this tiny country of some 300.000 inhabitants have run into grave financial difficulties as of late and is facing nationwide bankruptcy, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown has the perfect baton to hit them when they are lying down. Iceland is put on the list of suspected ‘terrorist regimes’ subjected to financial sanctions, along with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, North Korea, Sudan and Iran. Why? To protect UK financial interests or because they did not want to be American underdogs?

The only case in which absolute power can be justified is when it is paralleled by absolute goodness and undepletable resources of patience, tolerance and understanding. That is, omnipotence demands nothing short of divine justice and divine omniscience. What human institution would ever come close to that?

In the case of the Reichtags fire, Hitler and Goering saw it as a sign from heaven, and the staged trial was supposed to give them complete mandate to eradicate their enemies. The 1933 equivalent of the hijackers was a 24 year old psychopathic Dutch homosexual by the name of Van der Lubbe. He had joined the Communist Youth League and spread pamphlets for them. According to Arthur Koestler, he was a tramp and a compulsive liar with ambitions to fame but no trace of qualities that would make it happen. When failing to swim the Channel he set fire to the House of Parliament and became an historic figure. He was captured and under torture confessed and was brought to trial along with the leaders of the opposition Communist Party. He was declared guilty and subsequently guillotined.

If history repeats itself the equivalents of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein perhaps would have been Georgi Dimitrov, the future General Secretary of Communist International and Ernst Torgler, another leaders of the Comintern. Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld would be a suitable candidates for the Goering and Goebbels parts, but who would be Hitler? A tricky one. Or not.

The trial was perceived as a struggle between truth and falsehood, guilt and innocence, whereas in fact both parties were guilty. They were both lying and using propaganda and crime as means to their ends. The irony of the proceedings was that while the Nazis hoped to be able to frame the guilt on the Communists, their utter failure to do so became by implication an indictment of their own guilt in the fire. Both parties agreed that Van der Lubbe was guilty and that there must have been a conspiracy behind him. However since there was no evidence to prove a link between the fire and the Communists and because the Nazis themselves stood to gain more from the arson the plan literally backfired. Turns out that there was an underground tunnel that connected the Reichtag and the palace of Hermann Goering that could have been used by the incendiaries. Instead of enjoying the humiliation of his enemy, Goering found himself busy defending his own honour and innocence.

The Communist leaders were acquitted there and then.

In January 2008, the Federal Court of Justice of Germany overturned the death penalty verdict of Van der Lubbe.