Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Jan 7 2015

I remember discussing the violent reaction to the Danish cartoons with a Lebanese Muslim colleague in Dubai. I was assuming he would condemn the burnt embassies, the people dying, the death threats etc. and say it had nothing to do with Islam. But he didn’t.

Instead he said:
-“Well it worked didn’t it? They won’t do that again.”
I was both shocked and appalled by that response. I tried to say that a violent response to an argument was an expression of a primitive and brutal stage of history. I wanted him to see that the things he liked, the reasons he had moved to Dubai – money, technology and quality of life – were dependent on tolerance and a rational mindset. I argued that there was a connection between financial progress, science and secularism. And that Dubai was enjoying the fruits of rationality without embracing the critical mindset that lead to it.

He replied by telling me a story.
“A man from Hezbollah approaches a house filled with Israeli militants. He is wearing a suicide bomb vest. He walks up to the house and shows his vest. Upon seeing this the Israelis exit the house, and run for their lives. The man proceeds to systematically and calmly kill all of them, one by one. Then he takes off the vest and walks home victorious.”
He smiles at me and concludes:
“We are also rational.”

Ironically – no tragically – he was right. Rationality in itself does not posit objectives, it only states that given objective X method Y is the most efficient way to get there. The Frankfurt school of philosophy was deeply concerned by this lack of morality inside the rational project from the age of the Enlightenment. The school was made up of German Jews who believed the Enlightenment would bring peace and harmony to a secular world. Instead they had to run away from the Nazi totalitarian regime using scientific concepts of race, purity and universality to justify violence against those that didn’t fit the categories. Rationality itself is not enough to bring about a better world. Instead we see that rationality coupled with a self-centered capitalism leads to a homogenous society where nobody is expected to contribute to the well-being of others, and the only duty is to consume. Internet was thought to be the vehicle of democracy and emancipation, but instead it has turned to become a totalitarian surveillance tool serving paranoid nationalistic purposes. It is rationality operating on all cylinders. The objective is not the sustainable well-being of all living creatures, but the short term benefits of a paranoid minority.

The sickness of the soul that gives rise to the kind of violence the world has seen today in Paris is not rooted in a lack of rationality, but in a perversion of objectives. The objectives are rooted in a narrow sense of identity, an exclusive nationalistic, ethnic or religious group identity driven only to care for itself. It is not a higher form of intelligence since it will come back and haunt the group the perpetrators identify with, but it is as rational as the US drone program. (In the name of fighting terrorists, the US gov is creating more US hating militants with every strike. In particular, one of the Paris terrorists said he was  motivated by images of torture of Iraqi inmates at the U.S. prison at Abu Ghraib.)

The sickness is rooted in a narrow sense of identity. A blindness to how we are all essentially the same. A blindness created by centuries of indoctrination of an Us and Them thinking which is equally thriving and flourishing in the West.

What will make us realize we are all connected and that what goes around comes around? What will make us arrive at healthy objectives that we can use our rationality to realize?

It is not naive to care about creating a better future.
Sep 3 2011

Japanese girl in the aftermath of the Tsunami

In the days after the horrific Japanese earthquake in March 2011 an SMS circulated around in the Middle East claiming that it was an act of punishment from Allah for the wrongdoings of the Japanese people. If you, like me, are not a fundamentalist Muslim you will probably find that attitude morally repulsive. If you are religious, the idea of a God that would inflict such tremendous suffering hopefully does not sit well with you. You may feel religion is about things like caring for others, trying to do good, strive to reduce suffering and to give hope and meaning.

You think talk about a punishing God is an expression of religious extremism, and you are as concerned about it as any secularist would be. You know of course that the Old Testament is full of references to the wrath of God, but you think the Holy Book should not be taken literally and that it must be understood in the historic context in which it was written. I am all with you on this, but as much as I prefer this kind of religiosity I cannot help but point out that this position is inconsistent. I want to show that people that think “any calamity is either a test or a punishment by God” are actually perfectly rational in their conclusions. Moderates that question these conclusions have realized something is wrong with the basic assumptions, but not followed through with this insight. They have taken the first step in a journey towards a modern sophisticated religiousness that is needed in a global society, but it is only a small step and not a place to rest. As an embryonic philosophy it is full of tensions and with most of its implications yet to be realized.

How powerful or caring is God?

The first thing that is troublesome is that if God cannot influence events of such historic proportions that fatally affect the lives of millions what in fact can He do? Logically, He either could not, or did not care to. If God can not affect such pivotal events in human lives why pray to him? Why praise Him? Why talk to Him? How is a God that can only witness the toil of man and nature but is powerless to interfere and serve justice actually a God? Is there a meaningful concept of God where He can do nothing?

If, on the other hand, He could have spared Japan the suffering, or at least warned them somehow, He must have had a reason not to. If He cares about us at all, and it was not the result of a Divine Mistake or the blind forces of nature, then the death of thousands of people and the ruin of the lives of so many more must have had a motive. Thus, either God is not a God to be reckoned with, or the tragedy had a purpose. This is not the thinking of religious extremists but simply applying everyday logic and drawing obvious conclusions. But how could a loving God allow so much indiscriminate suffering? This dilemma is so famous it even has a name – the Theodicy problem – and it is something the brightest thologians of mainstream Christianity have fought with for centuries. What then makes the SMS vile and an expression of extremism? If it is not extreme to assume God has a plan, God cares and God can intervene, is the morally objectionable aspect what kind of motive you assume He would have? Is it exteme to assume “punishment” is the motive? Is there not in fact in all religion a right and a wrong way, the righteous and the sinners? Does it not in fact make perfect sense if God wants us to learn to live a certain way that He would teach us? When geology professor Zaghloul Raghib Mohammad El-Naggar from University of Wales (unconfirmed), who happens to be a Muslim, expresses the logic as follows, there seems to be nothing fanatical about it, but a perfectly plausible conclusion.

Glorious Qur’an emphasizes the fact that nothing happens in the universe without the knowledge, will and wisdom of the Creator. Earthquakes – like many other natural disasters – are part and parcel of the Divine plan for punishing the ill – doers trying the pious ones, and teaching the saved individuals the lesson of their lives. Unless taken in this context, human beings will never learn from their own mistakes or even from the mistakes of others. Understanding the mechanisms by which earthquakes take place and measuring both their intensities and magnitudes cannot help in their prediction. The only way of avoiding this and other disasters is heeding the Creator and living according to His guidance.

The record of earthquakes proves the sudden, non–linear nature of these disasters that took the lives of millions of individuals throughout history, injured several other millions, made billions of people homeless and caused material losses of endless values. These tragedies cannot be the work of the mechanical processes of the earth, but need a designer, and the designer is the Creator Himself. And they must have a purpose, and the purpose is punishment for the transgressors and the aggressors, trial for the pious and honest ones that are caught in the middle and a reminder for the survivors.

I want you to see that to reject this conclusion is not to reject extremism but to reject the notions of a God that makes any direct and tangible difference to human life. You either accept that laws of physics cannot be broken, or have to explain how they could be broken in one place and time without breaking the machinery of the entire universe. (Something Zaghloul Raghib Mohammad El-Naggar has yet to do).

The Power of Prayer

Unless you think Obama and Blair are religious extremists to believe in the power of prayer is not fundamentalist or fanatical, but part of mainstream moderate Christianity. To pray is to ask for something and it implies God can listen and make a difference. It means He can defy the laws of the universe. But by implication it also means He wanted the Japanese people to suffer. Not long ago an American Christian refused to take his sick daughter to modern health care but simply trusted the teaching in the Holy Book.  Following the same teaching as Obama he now faces 25 years in prison – why? We are encouraged to pray from every direction yet someone that follows the instruction is sent to jail. How is that not an expression of paradoxical hypocrisy?

You might still think moderates can get out of choosing between a punishing or powerless God by a more liberal reading. If so lets explore what it means to be a moderate Christian or Muslim? To be a moderate means not to take the words literally, but to interpret the texts, to take it in moderation. Liberal Christians hold that it is OK to reject parts because they are tainted by human flaws and specific to a historic time. But does selecting the Holy Bits from the Holy Book really solve the Theodicy dilemma we have outlined above? No, as a matter of fact it makes it worse by introducing some kinks of its own. If you choose to ignore all the bits about the wrath and jealousy of God, of a selected people, of the righteous, and stay only with a kind, loving, all embracing and forgiving God, the question still remains: Can God make a tangible difference in the real world? Yes, if so why did He do nothing? No, if so why pray to Him?

The Fake Policeman fallacy

If you can take any more let me unravel the bonus issues that are added to the plot by the moderate twist. If you are a moderate you would perhaps prefer to cut out all bits in the Holy Book that feed into acts of religious violence. Even though there is much support for such behaviour it goes against your sense of compassion. This whole act of moderating the text does however present some profound challenges to the whole notion of religious authority. To explain how let me use a favourite technique: An allegory.

As I am writing this on a beach in Sri Lanka I have come to think of a fraudulent practice that is common in this part of the world. In India Westerners are sometimes stopped by the police and without any legal authority forced to pay a bribe to get out of a situation. If this corruption was not bad enough I have learnt official policemen sometimes lend their uniform to other friends and family for them to earn a little extra by parading under the authority of the law. Surely you find this False Flag practice wrong, but what has it got to do with being a moderate? False authority. The authority of the Holy Book over any other text is that it is a revelation of God. It is perfect and divine. If it has human flaws it is no longer the source of authority it claims to be. Crucially, to be a moderate means to move the locus of authority from God to the personal judgement of the moderator. If this move was overt and made honestly by saying, so-and-so is not Absolutely True but my personal take on things, it would be fine, but when it is done underhand it is like the practice of the fake Indian policeman. You don’t agree with me? Then answer me who is selecting what to consider and what to reject in the Book? Based on what authority can you reject the concept of a punishing God found it the Old Testament? Ultimately only your own. And it is good that you listen to your inner sense. It means inevitably however that whatever you profess to believe in is your own home baked philosophy.

Further, if it is a human text it means it is affected by the passing of time as all other cultural artifacts. What you select your Holy Bits from has little to do with the original texts as it has been changed like a message in Chinese whispers (a theme explored in the book Misquoting Jesus). How do you know the version you are selecting from is the best most authentic one? Should you not try to read the original? Is it not even possible other texts better express the Truth? Actually the question for a moderate becomes, are my Holy Bits superior to all others? If you think Yes you have elevated your own understanding of a teaching long lost in translation to the level of Divine authority, and again commit the fallacy of the fake Indian policeman. If No, lets carry on our journey.

Religion as the source of morality

Maybe I am preaching to the choir here, as you may already have realized that your faith is not without contradictions and not superior to other faiths. For you it is not a matter of Truth, as you realize that all versions of the Teaching cannot be true and since yours is one in a million it is in all likelihood false. For you religion is a source of morality and without it society would collapse. To start with lets note that when it turns in our stomach when someone justifies something like the Japanese earthquake by means of religion our repulsion does not stem from any Holy Book but from our own human sense of empathy and aversion to suffering. This proves that not all morality comes from religion. We have our own sense of morality, and it is this faculty we use when we choose to ignore passages in the Holy Book that talk about cutting off hands and capital punishment. If it is our own morality that guides us in selecting the Holy Bits how could morality come from religion? It is circular to claim that you first have learnt morality from one part of the Teaching and based on them reject other parts.

In all sincerity we know that the texts where written by people and that any morality found in them were put there by the authors. Thus any morality to be found in religion is our human morality and to claim it is the word of God is again to wear the hat of our Indian friend.

Is there any harm in being a moderate?

If the Holy Book does not have total authority does it have any special authority? If it is not perfect is it in any sense the ultimate piece of philosophy mankind has ever produced? Should we not give equal credibility to other religious and profane teachings? This focus on One book is a major obstruction to proper education. To be educated means to know the thoughts of many cultures, and if you as a moderate think truth can be expressed in many ways you should for instance study the core Jain concept of anekantavada that explores the notion that every viewpoint is incomplete. If you as a moderate think it is all about experiencing God not following the letter you should perhaps read the Dark Night of the Soul by  St. John of the Cross, Aurobindo’s The Life Divine, Deikman’s views on Sufism and Psychotherapy, Varieties of Religious Experiences by William James, Krishnamurti or Zen. If you think religion is about morality you should study Aristotle, psychologist Kohlberg moral stages, Kierkegaard‘s concept of Christian ethics or the nonviolent ethics (ahimsa) of Buddhism. If you believe there can be a global religion that embraces all faiths you can learn from Theosophy, Bahai, Transpersonal Psychology or even New Age. If you a struggling with a more philosophical concept of the Divine that does not waste energy on settling tribal feuds perhaps you find inspiration in Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point. If you accept that religion is shaped by history you need to follow through with this thought and realize that for the first time ever we live in a global age, and any religion needs to be shaped by that. Whatever you may find, rest assured that by clinging on to the One Book that was to be found on the bedside table where you happened to be born you are blocking the way for a healthy global open-minded spirituality.

By lending validity to parts of the Holy Book you are passively supporting fundamentalists whose only crime it is to read and believe all of it to the letter. What does a symbolic afterlife mean? It either exists or not. By supporting the notion of an Eternity you are enabling those without sound judgement to take destructive actions against life, because by implication this infinitely brief moment of earthly life is worth infinitely little in comparison.

As a source of morality you should realize from your reaction to the SMS above that you consult your inner sense before the letter. Morality was not invented when people started jotting down religious stories. They were looking after each other before then. If you are concerned about violence, realize that with modern psychology we understand better what produces violent behaviour and are better equipped to deal with it than using the old trick of a looming hell. We are hard-wired to feel empathy and the circle of empathy – the group we care about – can actually expand. Unless you are taking side with Luther and consider Reason the Devil’s whore realize that the science that made your mobile phone possible contradicts the truth of your ancient dogmas. Modern religion must not fear science, but embrace it fully. As our need for religion is not going away the world needs new healthy spiritual teachings that can bridge divisions between all groups, inspire personal growth, strengthen the inner sense of morality and intensify our experiences of beauty and purpose.

Ultimately we need to achieve a sustainable way of life that enables well-being for as many sentient beings as possible. What religious teachings can form part of that and which should be forgotten is not easy to judge, but it is beyond doubt that all faiths will undergo profound changes. As you do not believe in the Roman Gods, the particular story about some  prophet you call your faith will be transformed. The question is only if you will take an active part in that change or not.

Feb 11 2011

This post is about censorship, how it can be understood, if it can be legitimate and how it influences our chances of dealing with unprecedented changes in our world.

Censorship is about concealment. Etymologically the Roman censor was the judge supervising public morals, thus the judge of what to hide and what to tell. Often in order to conceal something it is not enough to simply remain silent about it, but requires to actively cover up and fabricate myths. Therefore, the problem of the legitimacy of censorship is the same as the legitimacy of lying.

Censorship is about transparency and privacy. In today´s world the individual is completely transparent to the state and the corporations, whereas corporations and states enjoy their privacy. All our communication, transactions and movements are recorded, whereas we know little about those that have access to this information. This requires an unrealistic degree of trust in the goodness of our leaders.

Reasons to Hide

Googled tit in UAE

There are different motives for concealing, some are honourable and some are less so. Parent may try to shield their children from painful experiences in the hope that they will grow up with less scars that way, thinking that later on in life they have developed the skills necessary to deal with them. Friends may  avoid relaying nasty things people may say about you out of loving care. We all go through phases where we are not strong enough to deal with certain issues. But more often than not people hide things from you not in your best interest but in their own. Advertising, political propaganda and religious indoctrination are often not enacted in the best interest of the subject (the concealé), but to serve the interests of those promoting it (the concealer). Therefore I  would like to distinguish between two different types of concealments:

a) self-serving censorship: concealment serving the interests of the concealer

b) benevolent censorship: concealment serving the interests of the concealé.

These are not mutually exclusive, but on the contrary often complement each other. Many marriages are saved that way.

Moreover, it is not necessarily the case that the concealer and the concealé are different people. It may seem illogical but people do lie to themselves rather convincingly and with such skill and enthusiasm that their myth becomes their reality. (After all, a concealer is a type of make up to hide a person´s true face.) But when people talk about censorship they normally refer to the less abstruse control of information of one group of people over another.

Active concealment, as opposed to passively leaving bits out, is a case of actively fabricating disinformation. Distinguishing between self-serving and benevolent fabrication I think is important for any debate on censorship as it helps avoiding putting bedtime stories and war time propaganda in the same box.

Personal Transparency & State Privacy

I think there are some common mistakes worth avoiding when discussing censorship. The first is a failure to recognize that there is such a thing as benevolent censorship, and therefore genuine arguments for censorship and active fabrication in general. The second is a flawed attempt to draw analogies between the individual or family and the state leading to paternalism what can be called the personalised state fallacy.

There is an old humanist and scientistic dogma that truth is always good. It is so generally accepted that to talk about truth and freedom in the same sentence is common rhetoric for any leader. Here for example, in the words of a radical truth and transparency activist:

“He defended the right of people to freely access information, and said that the more freely information flows, the stronger societies become. He spoke about how access to information helps citizens to hold their governments accountable, generates new ideas, and encourages creativity. The United States’ belief in that truth is what brings me here today.

And technologies with the potential to open up access to government and promote transparency can also be hijacked by governments to crush dissent and deny human rights.

As I speak to you today, government censors somewhere are working furiously to erase my words from the records of history.  But history itself has already condemned these tactics.

Both the American people and nations that censor the internet should understand that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.

And censorship should not be in any way accepted by any company from anywhere.  And in America, American companies need to make a principled stand.  This needs to be part of our national brand. ”

Hillary Clinton on Obama, 21 Jan. 2010

Ignoring for a second that this is utter self-serving fabrication and Mrs. Clinton turned out to really hate transparency and fully endorse not only censorship but state sanctioned use of violence to enforce it, I still want to make the case that there is a right place for censorship. That place however is in our personal lives, not as a matter of state policy or corporate strategy. Parents have the right to protect their children of violent or pornographic media or corporate and religious indoctrination. People have the right to keep secrets, that is one benefit of having thoughts inside the head instead of outside it. Individuals have the right not to share private information to corporations and governments. These are prime examples of justified censorship. Recognising that some concealment and manipulation can be in the concealés best interests does not mean accepting that all or even most concealment is good but it depends on who does it. I personally find the fact that commercial self-serving fabrications by corporations have become a fixed feature of modern life  utterly insane. Fortunately it is easier than people think to live an ad-free life. (Block all advertising online, use new privacy features in modern browsers and never watch scheduled broadcast TV.)

On the other hand, people that fully recognise the role of concealment and diplomacy in their personal lives can be tempted by what I would call the personalised state fallacy, namely to think about the state as an individual or a family organisation with similar rights and needs as the citizens. This line of thinking goes something like this. I think privacy is my right and I need it to conduct my life skilfully. Politicians and diplomats are people like me and they need the same privilege to be able to run this country properly. Further, as the stakes are higher when it comes to national security, they should have even more rights to keep secrets than ordinary citizens. People do not need to know everything. The mistake here is to believe there is a valid analogy between individuals and the state.

A state is not a person. It has no rights in relation to its citizens, only obligations.

A state is not a person, no more than a country or god is. It has no rights in relation to its democratic citizens, only obligations to protect the rights of individuals and groups. The crucial advancement in human history was when citizens could begin to hold their democratically elected leaders accountable. When propaganda, advertising, censorship is protecting leaders, elevating them above the law there is nothing left of democracy.  A government is employed by the people and should serve its interests as the people are paying the politicians salaries. However a government, as it turns out, is not a group of submissive employees, even less a collection of altruistic saints but rather an exclusive club of concentrated power evolved to carefully maintain its own position. Leaders are humans and history has shown humans cannot handle absolute power. Thus, in as much as Clinton turned out to be a hypocrite the argument against state privacy is found in her own speech and people would do well in holding her to it.


What is wrong with paternalism is how it plays out in reality.

There are other arguments in favour or state censorship that are not based on any fallacy of misguided analogies. I have written about Plato, Luther, De Maistre, Machiavelli, Bernays, Lippmann, Strauss and so on and they all have clear reasons why the government should have the right to lie, and essentially it is because they know best. The leaders, coming from the best schools and families, are the most intelligent and therefore suitable to run a country. Ordinary people are irrational and stupid and should not be involved in the decision making process. They need to be guided and their opinions influenced. If the plebs were involved in running society they would unleash their animalistic aggressions and chaos and disorder would rein. People need to be kept docile and distracted by providing consumer goods and sports events and the like. This elitist line of thinking may sounds abhorrent, but that is probably mostly because it is not so often formulated in public any longer. Society however is still run largely along those lines. But whatever one might feel against such arguments they may still be right. Perhaps the common man is irrational and needs strong imposed order not to break down the fabric of civil society. Maybe only a few have got the clarity of mind to see the way forward. At the very least one could argue these are all real possibilities, empirical questions even, that need to be investigated. However, it turns out only a pinch of empiricism and a modicum of reason suffices to realize the Utopian elitist model is not the way forward, as it rest on these two flawed assumptions:

a) there is one optimum model, one best way to organise society

b) the leaders are benevolently serving the best interests of the public

Lets explore it. For elitism/paternalism to work there must be some higher truth the leaders can see that ordinary people cannot. There must be a best answer to political questions. Political parties centre themselves around a political philosophy that promotes, what they believe, is the best way to organize society. But even the assumption that there is an optimum model is highly controversial. For whom is it best? Who does it serve? No model is perfect for everybody, but even if a specific group of people – maybe the sons of Abraham? – were selected there is not even any guarantee a specific model would benefit them. How does anyone know the dynamic consequences of the model? How do you test it? What factors could be assumed constant? Entertaining the assumption that historically society was more predictable it may not be absurd to assume there was at times one optimum model benefiting special groups, but today the world is different from how it ever was. 50 years ago there were 2.5 billion people, now we are at near 7bn and predictions for the next century go up to 14bn. Population is only ONE factor that has changed in unprecedented ways with unpredictable consequences. Any model that pretends to offer solutions to political problems must be as dynamic and flexible as the emerging problems it claims it would solve, but since the problems will be different so must the model. If your only tool is a hammer all problems become nails.

Openness, flexibility, research, crowd sourcing, critical oppositions, free scrutinizing media, evidence based decision making, transparency and so on can all be said to be part of an ideal model, but it would rather be a case of people reorganizing themselves and the way they live around emerging challenges, rather than dogmatic conservative elites hammering away. Even with the best motives in the world, there is not one perfect solution. The only way to be prepared for the future is to have many people educated enough to respond intelligently to new situations.

To the second assumption. In the context of censorship as active fabrication is it possible to think about an ideal society as one where the leaders are our loving parents protecting our delicate sensibilities by conjuring up cushy myths so as to keep painful facts concealed? Maybe some people feel it would be ideal if we could be children playing games all our lives and a few caring wise men would run the whole society in the best possible way. Essentially this is what has happened historically, whether you consider it ideal or not. The beliefs of people have been decided by a leading few. Going back to the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) the leaders decided that people should believe that Jesus was God. Around 610 AD the prophet Muhammad got his revelations from above and began the Muslim movement to unify people into one belief. A similar story is unfolding in Korea but without the credibility lent to it by centuries of reiteration. Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unificationist Church claims direct access to the divine and hopes to unite all Abrahamic beliefs (Judeo-Christian-Muslim) so that all believers can get to heaven. His logic goes: 1. Only true believers of the truth get to heaven. 2. Not all Abrahamic beliefs are the same. Ergo, 3. We need to make them the same so all people can stand a chance to get into heaven.

“Thus, no matter in what manner Christ is to return, he cannot satisfy the wide range of doctrinal expectations that presently exist. It would mean that only the smallest number of those with the “correct” view could have any hope to successfully recognize and participate in the event of the Second Coming of Christ. In that “God so loves the world,” and in view of Jesus’ own prayer for the ideal that ALL believers be one “as God and Christ are one,” this circumstance is not acceptable. Therefore, it is incumbent upon Christian leaders to address this circumstance in preparation for Christ’s return.”

Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Unification Church

I grant the possibility that religious myths can have a healthy effect on a society and that creating coherence and group identity is valuable, but it is very dangerous to leave the myth making power in the hands of the elite because they are not as smart as they think. Nor are they as benevolent as they’d like you to think.

To leave the myth making power in the hands of the elite is very dangerous because they are not as smart as they think.

What  reason would you have to care for the future of this planet if you are preparing for the second coming of Christ?! The spoilt and anthropocentric core of the Abrahamic fairy tales have played a pivotal role in our consumerist life style, and they are devastating for out chances of achieving a sustainable way of life. If you want healthy myths go for pantheism where people believed in forest spirits and energies – think the the Na’vi people in Avatar – they would never harm the planet. Or for those with more intellectually refined tastes Ken Wilber´s Integral Theory or the Spiral Dynamics (The Theory that Explains Everything). At least those rationalised spiritual frameworks consider plurality of beliefs as something highly desirable and understandable.

Preachers, priests, charlatans and saints will always be around, and folk beliefs will keep on popping up like mushrooms. But the myth making must be a grass root process not left in the hands of the self-serving elites. What is wrong with paternalism is how it plays out in reality. Religious wars are not started by peasants and farmers but by leaders and profiteers. Religious propaganda gets hijacked by political and commercial interests. When something like WikiLeaks happens the machinery jolts. In the WikiLeaks affair it has become blatantly clear whose interests are threatened by transparency and how politicians and corporations are colluding to maintain status quo. There is immense amounts of corruption and injustice, ignorance and short-sighted stupidity going round in the world. People with power want to maintain that power. The Enlightenment was all about debasing old types of authorities, whether traditional, religious, aristocratic or capitalist, and replacing them with evidence, facts and reason. Organisations like WikiLeaks, OpenDemocracy, the Open Society Institute, Index on Censorship are all digital continuations of that process. You cannot trust leaders with the power to decide over what is real and what is not as they would never lend that power to you.

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.

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.

Aug 8 2010

Have we killed him?

“…at the end of the day, we are only human. I mean to say we are quite primitive when you think about it. We are still animals. Look at all the wars and the suffering we cause each other. Not even animals take pleasure in seeing others suffer. Only humans.  We are nasty, ferocious even. Maybe we deserve to die like the virus we are?”

Often towards the end of a discussion some people express these kinds of opinions. The dialogue does not tend to start that way, only after reviewing some thorny issue like patriotism, greed, poverty, corruption, exploitation, ecological crisis, threatened animal species and so on, does it end up there…followed by a sigh that signals a despondent end of the talk.

It´s because people are good they can be coerced to behave badly.

I don´t think this view has found the crux of the biscuit. My view of the so called human nature is that most people are good and decent, and that it is this trait that can be effectively exploited by the few rotten apples. When people draw pessimistic conclusions about human nature looking at the number of wars and genocides etc. they fail to analyse the dynamics properly. It is not because people are evil and cruel wars happen. It is because they are too good, too eager to please, and too controlled by their emotions of loyalty to their group, fear of doing something wrong. Their emotionality makes them weak, and people who lack empathy can thus easily pit one group against another. If people did not care so much about what others thought about them, they could stand up against injustices, speak out when something seemed wrong, fight fire with fire, but instead it only takes one criminal to terrify an entire neighbourhood.

I have proof supporting my view. Recently social scientists (BBC 2009) reproduced Stanley Milgram´s experiments on Obedience, originally performed in 1960, where ordinary decent people were willing to fulfil what they thought was expected of them to the point of administrating lethal electrical shocks to a stranger. The video clip above shows a cute 19 year old girl giving 405 volt shocks to someone, and smilingly asking the instructor if “they” have killed him. Is she the kind of evil animal you have in mind when thinking of Nazi prison guards?

To say we are “only” human is in itself bizarre. Especially when it means to say we are really animals. What else is there? Are we being compared with angels? We are the most sophisticated being that we know of in the universe, like super amazing fantastic…and still, they say, we are only human. What more do they expect?! It´s all we have to work with.

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.”

Jul 16 2010

Rocamadour, France

I should have covered more distance today, France is a big country and there is still a long way to Paris from Granada. Going on the motorbike is different than going in a car. You get close to nature, you feel the smells, the wind, the bugs and the vibrations of the engine. You can take it all in. It is a complete feeling of freedom. But it is also a lot more physical and you need to keep alert. That is why I should not have left 500 km for tomorrow. But when I came to Rocamadour I realized I had to stay the night. Villages up on mountain tops have that effect on me.

Cabecou Rocamadour

My plan for this little trip vertically across France is to learn about some of the 400 types of cheese. Wine tours are done to death. Around the hillsides of Rocamadour there are mostly goats, so the local specialty cheese is not surprisingly goat cheese. I picked up some Cabecou Rocamadour in an amazing cheese shop in Toulouse and it served me as road food. It is a quite soft cheese with a perfect salt balance and it melted in my mouth..and my bag.


On the road you have time to think. And my companion today has been Plato and his conception of what philosophy is, what a philosopher does, and how it relates to society as depicted in his magnum opus The Republic. (Get it in EPUB format for the iPad). Why Plato? Partly because in many ways the modern world begins with him and The Republic may be the most influential book in history, but more so because it deals with a subject I care about a lot, namely is philosophy for everyone? Specifically, would society benefit from more philosophers or would it disintegrate? Because The Republic was the first of its kind, while it is esoteric it is also naive in a refreshing way. Later in history, it is hard to find people defending both sides of this issue with equal honesty. It is the nature of the beast that those who do not believe in an open and transparent society keep it to themselves. Thus, those that Plato inspired became sly, self-conscious and secretive in a way he appears not to be. He is full of contradictions though. For Plato, a philosopher is a lover of truth, but the more I think about him the more I come to doubt he was a philosopher according to his own definition.

“And will the love of a lie be any part of a philosopher’s nature? Will he not utterly hate a lie?

He will.

And when truth is the captain, we cannot suspect any evil of the band which he leads?


Justice and health of mind will be of the company, and temperance will follow after?

True, he replied.”

This all sounds like you would expect from the proverbial philosopher by definition right? Is this why The Republic is so influential? No I would think its influence does not come from it being widely read by common people. It comes from one singular idea which is contained within it, and which has served the basis for all modern societies, and is still shaping the world today. The idea is this:

For a society to be functional and coherent its citizens need to be made to believe in common myths with which they can identify, and in the name of which they are made willing to subordinate themselves.

You should be surprised by this. Maybe you thought Plato was a humanist inspiring critical thinking  in the youth and rebellion by reason? After all that is why they killed Socrates. But no, Plato does not find it neither a realistic nor a desirable aim too make of the citizens free thinkers. Free thinkers are not willing to lay themselves down to die for the State. Instead, to maintain stability and constancy, common people are supposed to be made to believe in lies, and he realizes the process must begin with children.

“You know, I said, that we begin by telling children stories which, though not wholly destitute of truth, are in the main fictitious…”

He knew, like most societies know, that the mind of the young is mouldable, and once given a certain shape tends to remain that way. Even if adults consciously reject childhood stories, an emotional attachment remains that is virtually impossible to break. (Perhaps it is unbreakable because to break it would be to reject the happiest years of our lives? Who wants to admit to having lived a lie?) So why would Plato, a self-proclaimed lover of Truth, want to spread lies to children knowing full well they would, on the whole, never abandon them as adults? He thinks the stories are for moral education and he lets Socrates discuss with Glaucon about what material was apt for a developing young mind. (He is for instance prescribing that the parts of Homer that depict the gods as overcome by laughter be censored as it is not becoming of a god to behave thusly. He also considers the mixolydian musical scale unsuitable for the youth. So much for the Laughing Buddha and Sweet Home Alabama.) No big deal, you might think, all parents lie to their children, and mostly it is for their own good. But Plato takes this further and in his ideal society the philosopher king is the father of all the children in his society. The leader alone has the right to tell fairy tales.

“Again, truth should be highly valued; if, as we were saying, a lie is useless to the gods, and useful only as a medicine to men, then the use of such medicines should be restricted to physicians; private individuals have no business with them.

Then if any one at all is to have the privilege of lying, the rulers of the State should be the persons; and they, in their dealings either with enemies or with their own citizens, may be allowed to lie for the public good. But nobody else should meddle with anything of the kind; and although the rulers have this privilege, for a private man to lie to them in return is to be deemed a more heinous fault than for the patient or the pupil of a gymnasium not to speak the truth about his own bodily illnesses to the physician…”

Thus, the ruler, in spite of being a lover of truth has got the exclusive right to lie, for the good of the State. This is when Plato introduces the concept of the noble lie, and by doing so has planted the seed for what is yet to come. Propaganda, manifactured consent, organised religion, censorship, marketing and PR agencies. Lies in the name of…

“How then may we devise one of those needful falsehoods of which we lately spoke—just one royal lie which may deceive the rulers, if that be possible, and at any rate the rest of the city?

What sort of lie? he said.

Nothing new, I replied; only an old Phoenician tale of what has often occurred before now in other places, (as the poets say, and have made the world believe,) though not in our time, and I do not know whether such an event could ever happen again, or could now even be made probable, if it did.”

Here he is showing that he has realized that all beliefs have a history and have been invented. Since he is so clearly aware of how religious myths are invented, and gives himself complete freedom to censor and edit Homer´s religious tales, I cannot for a second believe he believed in the Greek gods. We seem to have here an atheist who is embarrassed because the lies seem so idiotic to him they cannot possibly fly. Ironically, some 350 years B.C. he doubts rulers and common people alike could be made to believe these kind of stories again. He continues:

“…I propose to communicate gradually, first to the rulers, then to the soldiers, and lastly to the people. They are to be told that their youth was a dream, and the education and training which they received from us, an appearance only; in reality during all that time they were being formed and fed in the womb of the earth, where they themselves and their arms and appurtenances were manufactured; when they were completed, the earth, their mother, sent them up; and so, their country being their mother and also their nurse, they are bound to advise for her good, and to defend her against attacks, and her citizens they are to regard as children of the earth and their own brothers.

You had good reason, he said, to be ashamed of the lie which you were going to tell.

True, I replied, but there is more coming; I have only told you half. Citizens, we shall say to them in our tale, you are brothers, yet God has framed you differently. Some of you have the power of command, and in the composition of these he has mingled gold, wherefore also they have the greatest honour; others he has made of silver, to be auxillaries; others again who are to be husbandmen and craftsmen he has composed of brass and iron; and the species will generally be preserved in the children. But as all are of the same original stock, a golden parent will sometimes have a silver son, or a silver parent a golden son….

Such is the tale; is there any possibility of making our citizens believe in it?

Not in the present generation, he replied; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their sons’ sons, and posterity after them.”

Why does a lover of truth want to spread lies? Is it because individuals cannot handle philosophical truths? Is it to spare people’s feelings, the same reason parents do not want to talk to their children about where granny really has (not) gone? No, that does not seem to be Plato´s concern.

“…fostering of such a belief will make them care more for the city and for one another.”

Essentially, Plato is talking about indoctrinating soldiers to defend the State. He talks about education and philosophy being a part of it, but he knows clearly that no philosophically inclined student would be prepared to lay down his life for the country he has out of happenstance been born into. He knows that any philosopher would question the validity of country borders, and hail what friends and enemies have in common rather than what separates them. The State that Plato hails, only really exists to subjugate the many for the benefit of the few.

Also, Plato is not concerned with progress. His State is something that needs to be preserved as is. It is the seed of a totalitarian, fascist, conservative ideology, and unlike natural seeds, ideas that make it into the soil of history always have some fruits. Ideas once introduced do not tend to go away. Who are the most influential modern interpreters of Plato? Two Jews escaping Nazi Germany took radically different approaches to his view on philosophy versus society: Karl Popper and Leo Strauss. The former is most famous for his philosophy of science, but in this context most relevant for his defence of liberal democracy and critical thinking. The latter is less known, but his students should ring a bell: Irving Kristol (the god father of American neo-conservatism), Paul Wolfowitz (Bush´s Secretary of Defense, and the unofficial author of the Bush doctrine on pre-emptive strike).


Essentially Strauss understanding of Plato is that it was right to kill Socrates. Philosophy is a threat to society. By questioning the gods and the ethos of the city, philosophy undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Philosophy unveils what Nietzsche called “deadly truths” and ordinary people need to be protected. He did not think Plato believed in God. He thought Plato was an atheist and committed “pious fraud”. Both Popper and Strauss agree that Plato was not honest, that he kept secrets, but they disagree about whether it was a good idea. According to his fiercest contemporary critic Shadia Drury, Strauss clearly thinks open debate and liberal democracy is unrealistic ideals at best, and genuine dangers at worst.(I cannot speak with any authority about Strauss since I find his writing style almost incomprehensible, as opposed to Popper who is extremely lucid and accessible. I think this is symptomatic of their attitudes though.)

So the question is: Will a society full of free thinking creative minds disintegrate into chaos? Why would it? Does thinking deeply about something always lead to the same end? Does philosophy lead to nihilism? If it did, would nihilism be bad for society? Philosophy inevitably leads to intellectual changes. You grow out of some beliefs and pick up new ones, and in doing so your “faith” in each becomes less absolute. Change of mind gives the wisdom of not taking anything too personally. If fanaticism is evil then nihilism is definitely on the side of the good or at least the harmless.  But if nihilism means not to care about anything then philosophy is not the train to take you there. You can be passionate about something and at the same time keep a healthy perspective. Philosophy is not a threat to the healthy society, on the contrary, it is what can save it from degeneration.

I think philosophy is about having a free mind not burdened by certainties. As opposed to Plato I think a healthy future proof society needs a great many free minds, not just a powerful elite.

What I am driving at is that it is not in the interest of the little ordinary citizen not to philosophize. It is in the interest of the elite that the masses do not question their authority. Thinking people are harder to control and subjugate, and they would be harder to send as cannon fodder to protect oilfields. Philosophical people are harder to control because they are harder to fool. Trying to keep people from thinking for themselves is an issue about maintaining power, not caring for people’s moral education. The most efficient way of keeping people united in a state of non-thinking is to invent enemies and engage in perpetual war.

For myself, I think philosophy is about having a free mind not burdened by certainties. As opposed to Plato I think a healthy future proof society needs a great many free minds, not just a powerful elite.  My reasons for this are not those of justice or natural rights, nor that it may be a realistic hope, simply that a million critical minds stand a better chance to solve the novel problems ahead than a self-serving conservative elite. When someone says “one shouldn’t think too much” what I hear is another one biting the dust.

You should think too much!

It is good for you.

It is good for the world.

What do you think?

I’m off for some more goat cheese.

À bientôt.

Feb 13 2010

Welcome to another hopelessly oversized post. In the previous two posts I have been talking about truth, and argued that it comes in two shapes, put simply, natural and cultural truth, the former being the accurate representation of mind independent domains of reality, and the latter the relationship between our beliefs and socially constructed domains of reality. In this post I will talk about why I think both of these shapes of truth are, on the whole, irrelevant for the future of human life on this planet. The reasons for this are twofold: even if people wanted to live in truth we could not as ours is a life in epistemological twilight where every assertion is somewhere on a grey scale, and secondly people are not interested in truth as much as their own happiness. Instead of idealistically hoping that truth shall save the world, I want to develop a pragmatic two dimensional epistemology where validity of any idea derives not only from its relationship to the natural and cultural world, but also its relationship to the believer and their behaviour.  I believe that it is from this primary validity the secondary conventional epistemological validity derives its authority.“Truth” as the accurate relationship between an idea and the world should step down and give way to “vitality” as the healthy relationship between the idea and the believer and their behaviour.

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What is a valid belief? What does it mean for a belief to be valid? If it is not valid, should we avoid it? Can invalid beliefs be avoided? Traditionally, that is to say in intellectual traditions, valid ideas are true, assumed to be true or reasonable guesses, and from that outlook has sprung different schools of so called epistemology, i.e. theories about what knowledge is and how to arrive at true knowledge. While the philosopher and scientists were busy trying to clarify those epistemological issues men of real power and influence, politicians, priests and patrons, were busy trying to control what thoughts people actually had. The criteria used by the men in power have never been very aligned with the distinction of what is true of false, but what would benefit their specific purposes. Men of power have always realized that the thoughts of the people have an immense importance and that this importance does not stem from whether they are true or not. That is why more efforts have been made to control people´s thoughts than perhaps anything else. This is so because thoughts have a weight far beyond that of accurate representation of reality. People´s thoughts define their identity and their behaviour. Only a small section of the population is actually interested in finding a true representation of reality. Most people need to feel safe, appreciated, happy and entertained. Because the field of thought is vastly bigger than that covered by truth, validity cannot be limited to the true alone. Ironically however the academic discipline dedicated to establishing validity – epistemology -has been run by that small fraction of the population actually passionate about truth. As much as I personally love truth, I must bow my head to reality and accept that in the life of most people it plays a minor role. So I ask myself, where else can we find validity, and how can we distinguish it from the bad, toxic, false or evil?

Towards a two dimensional  epistemology

There is no pre-established harmony between the furtherance of truth and the well-being of mankind.


Human All Too Human

Postmodernism is a dead end. That is why it is called post, because it has nothing new to offer, it only points out the faults of modernism. Where modernism believed in absolute foundations, progress, objective truth, postmoderninsm emphasized subjectivity, multiplicity, incompatibility, incommensurability and incompleteness. As a consequence of postmodern philosophy it is common today to hear people talk about having “different truths”, especially when considering the different forms of human life and different beliefs and ambitions people hold. “You cannot compare people´s beliefs”, they say, “since there is no absolute truth and no objective value scale against which to compare”. This is seen as some kind of solution to the challenge that inevitably arises when open-minded people consider the fact that they could have been born anywhere and thus would have held radically different set of beliefs and ambitions they now hold.

The logical undercurrent might, if articulated, go something like

  1. My beliefs are true
  2. My beliefs are shaped by the influences of my childhood
  3. I could have been born anywhere
  4. Hence, all beliefs all people hold are true

If the beliefs and ambitions I hold should have any weight, validity and dignity – else how could I carry on living? – and at the same time I am to respect other cultures and grant them the same privilege, how am I to avoid having to accept beliefs contradictory to mine to be equally valid? If I realize that I am innocent in regards to where I was born, and accept that where I was born determines to a large extent my belief system, am I not forced into to a logical, and often ethical, dilemma? How can I believe it is wrong to stone a thief, and at the same time accept it to be right or true since I could have been born in Saudi Arabia? That means that I have to accept that x is both true and false, not in relation to facts but depending on where I was born. While it can be seem spiritually liberating to take a hyped up version of Kuhn´s incommensurability thesis on a world tour its blessings are short lived. Relativity is illogical at best and paralysing and depressive at worst. It may seem as if postmodernists are trying to democratise epistemology, but I have argued elsewhere how it may very well pave way for fascism. Today I want to set myself up in the crossfire and offer my alternative solution to this dilemma.

Both modern objectivism and postmodern relativism are based on some idea of truth. The former says there is one and that it has it, and the latter that there are many and that it belongs to everybody. I believe the solution lies in rethinking the fundamental problem. Classically knowledge is about finding true descriptions of, and explanations for, facts, and epistemology is concerned with how we know this and what is to be considered valid knowledge. The fundamental question I think we must come back to is why it matters if our knowledge is true if it does not benefit life? Why do we need to know things? What is the purpose of our enquiry? It seems to me the fundamental question for epistemology is not what knowledge is true, but what knowledge makes life better.

Truth deals with the relationship between a statement and a fact, whether objective, socially constructed or private. At the same time a belief is held by a believer, and has an effect on the believer, his behaviour, and thus the environment. A belief is psychoactive, and how it affects the believer is not only dependent on its truth value but the nature of the believer, his social context and present life situation. I am proposing that to move forward intellectually to something that is not just post-something we need to shift our attention away from propositional truth and focus on the pragmatic relationship between the belief and the believer. This dimension of a belief is not logical, but psycho-logical. The validity of beliefs along this second axis should not be judged by its correspondence with facts but by how it affects the believer emotionally and pragmatically at a given moment in time. (Pragma you remember meaning action.) And just like you can think what you like but not act as you like, in so far as beliefs have practical implications, we can judge and compare them.  And we do. Even the most radical postmodern relativist opposes public stoning. We need a two dimensional validity concept that reflects not only the relationship between our ideas and the world, but the relationship between  our ideas and ourselves. Where classical epistemology and both natural science and its postmodern critics operate along the axis of veracity, this second axis I am proposing should judge ideas on their vitality.


The solution to the logical dilemma above lies in accepting that it is the vitality of an idea that is relative, not its veracity. It is true or false – or neither -, for all people at all times, but it is not equally healthy for all people of all times to believe, and it does not always have the same practical consequences. I can accept that a false idea is vital to someone else, not that it would be true to them and false to me.

Evolutionary Validity: The Vitality of an Idea

“The falseness of a judgement is for us not necessarily an objection to a judgement… The question is to what extent it is life-promoting, life-preserving, species-preserving, perhaps even species-cultivating.”
Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

“I don´t think false beliefs have Darwinian survival value. …I care about the truth…I want to face reality fair and square.”
Richard Dawkins, Hard Talk

It seems naïve to me to link a species level of knowledge and its capacity for survival. If a species survives, in so far as it is on its own merits, is the decisive factor how it behaves or what it thinks? Is it not obvious that when it comes to survival the only thing that matters is behaviour? Reality exhorts certain inescapable demands on living beings, and unless they behave so as to cope with those demands that is it, end of the line. As far as survival is concerned ideas are important in as much as they affect behaviour. If it is our survival we care about, the first question we have to ask in this context is: Of the ideas that affect our behaviour which ones help us grow stronger and improve our chances of survival? Is it the truthful ones or is there another more important quality they have? It is not hard to see that knowledge and survival does not necessarily go hand in hand. With our knowledge we have built weapons powerful enough to blow ourselves to pieces some 30 times over (I realize it would be hard to do it more than once). By the same token, if we thought we could fly and threw ourselves off a cliff we would also die. Hence it is not the truthfulness of the ideas that matters, but whether or not they lead to advantageous behaviour.

Thus my first definition of epistemological vitality is: An idea is valid if it helps to improve the believer’s chances of survival.

That would be a rudimentary form of validity and intuitively I feel that the validity of truth is rather a derivative from this primary form of validity. As it stand it is very crude. At first this seems to be a fine definition, but on further consideration it becomes problematic since there is nothing stopping an epistemology and morality based in mere survival casting Hitler and Pol Pot as superheroes. From the point of view of mere survival by any means, there is the same kind of validity in a way of thinking that supports survival as in using a weapon or a tool, but we want to consider the human situation as a whole, from a more civilized stance. We want to see if rethinking what epistemological validity is could help improve healthy human coexistence. Postmodern relativity, even if it is motivated by tolerance, really offers nothing to the party. If I have to accept whatever is acceptable to another culture then genocide must be OK as well. Hitler was democratically elected remember. Human values are not all relative nor arbitrary, and while there is multiplicity and vast variety, at the very least tolerance is one of those universal human values. If postmodern relativity was right why would we not also have to tolerate intolerance? Because there is a line, and that line is the demarcation between what is crossculturally acceptable and what is not, and that is where epistemological vitality lives.

A more civilised definition of epistemological vitality would be: An idea is valid if it helps to improve the believer´s chances of survival without having destructive influence on the believer´s coexistence with others.

Such a definition is not neutral, it does not pretend to hide behind “truth” as a shield. In the world we now live in, a world with clashing civilisations, I believe we need to modify our concept of validity and accept that as long as a way of thinking does not lead to destructive behaviour it is valid. Outside my café window in Dubai are two groups of women: one all covered in black showing only their eyes, the others showing virtually everything but the D&G covered eyes. They coexist and tolerate each other. Yesterday across the gulf, Iran declared itself a nuclear state, and thereby sped up what Koestler saw as the final countdown for humanity. Since the moment mankind learnt about nuclear reactions it was inevitable that one day nuclear technology would be widespread and easily accessible. That day is here. Knowledge is not neutral and therefore it is cowardice to pretend epistemology does not have ethical, ecological and psychological dimensions. The diplomatic postmodern efforts to apologetically relativise truth leads to as state where no one is right or wrong, and that is paralysing. If instead we evaluate the validity of ideas from a pragmatic stand point, we can still compare cultures and beliefs, still establish what is better and worse, without depriving people of the religious myths that tie them together and give their lives meaning. This kind of pragmatism is not a new approach and it was developed a lot a century ago in the US by the likes of John Dewey and William James. For James an idea was true in so far as it was useful, or expedient. This is where it went wrong I think. That an idea is useful does not make it true, it makes it useful, but false ideas can be equally useful depending on the purpose. Advertising agencies, corporate, religious and political powers all use false ideas and find them highly useful. Both postmodern relativism and James´ pragmatism are trying to expand epistemological validity. James famously wrote a massive study on the Varieties of Religious Experience, and was defending the will to believe as something positive. I fully agree with the motive behind both of these movements, namely to expand what is valid or worthy of consideration to include all forms of human experience. I think it is defeating that purpose however when it is trying to achieve that by hijacking the concepts of truth and reality. Truth is not relative and it is not whatever happens to be expedient. Experiences and beliefs can be valid even if they are delusional from a scientific or even common sense point of view. To realize why this must be so one only has to consider how much of human life is made up of pure fictions.

Reality & Actuality

If you look up reality and actuality in the Oxford Dictionary it says they mean the same thing, but as a matter of fact they have different etymological roots and histories. Reality comes from latin res, thing, thus reality is the world of things. Actuality on the other hand come from latin agere, to act, and hence means that which acts. When it comes to human beings, what makes us act is clearly not just the world of things, but equally the world of ideas, whether those be naturally or reflexively true or false. If reality is how the world is in itself, actuality is how we make it out to be. It is not a new distinction. The Greeks called reality  logos, and actuality mythos, the Hindus divided into brahman and maya, and philosophers have a long tradition of analysing the real thing from the perceived thing. The world we inhabit have variously been called a cave (Plato, 400BC), the world of phenomena (Kant,1781), the life world (Husserl,1919), socially constructed, the matrix etc., and each tradition describes the structure and development differently.

Politicians have long known that truth and reality are irrelevant to society. It is what people believe that makes all the difference. In his influential book Public Opinion (1922) Walter Lippmann, the American journalist and adviser to president Woodrow Wilson, writes:

“The only feeling that anyone can have about an event he does not experience is the feeling aroused by his mental image of that event. That is why until we know what others think they know, we cannot truly understand their acts. [All human behavior has got] one common factor. It is the insertion between man and his environment of a pseudo-environment. To that pseudo-environment his behavior is a response. But because it is behavior, the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates. If the behavior is not a practical act, but what we call roughly thought and emotion, it may be a long time before there is any noticeable break in the texture of the fictitious world. But when the stimulus of the pseudo-fact results in action on things or other people, contradiction soon develops. /…/ what each man does is based not on direct and certain knowledge, but on pictures made by himself or given to him. If his atlas tells him that the world is flat he will not sail near what he believes to be the edge of our planet for fear of falling off. If his maps include a fountain of eternal youth, a Ponce de Leon will go in quest of it. If someone digs up yellow dirt that looks like gold, he will for a time act exactly as if he had found gold. The way in which the world is imagined determines at any particular moment what men will do. It does not determine what they will achieve. It determines their effort, their feelings, their hopes, not their accomplishments and results. “

There is one reality with different domains – natural, cultural and personal – but what we act on is not a true image of it, but our beliefs about it. On the whole those beliefs are not based in our own first hand experience but in what others have told us. Myths, folklore, disinformation, fiction are all mixed up with facts, scientific theories and honest testimonies. Between us and reality there is this pseudo-environment that seems impenetrable.

For Lippmann the pseudo-environment is made up of stereotypes, which he coined in the modern meaning of a simplified symbol with only limited correspondence to the complex facts it refers to.

“In the great blooming, buzzing confusion of the outer world we pick out what our culture has already defined for us, and we tend to perceive that which we have picked out in the form stereotyped for us by our culture.

But modern life is hurried and multifarious, above all physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead we notice a trait which marks a well known type, and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads. “

Even if there is an inevitable layer between us and reality, and that in that our actions are based, what is to say the psuedo-environment is not an accurate reflection of how the world really is? There are two reasons why actuality is not reality. The first is that we have imperfect knowledge. In the domain of things we can know our knowledge is tainted by all kinds of human frailties, ignorance, breakdown of communication, misunderstanding, manipulation etc. These “problems” of knowledge and information are being addressed in our modern academic world, but apart from the in-principle-knowable there is the entire domain of the unknowable which will never match up well with reality. There are at least three types of unknowables,

  1. the transcendental: that which is beyond the grasp of our minds and nervous system
  2. the missed opportunities: we can never know what would have happened if so and so had not happened
  3. the future: not yet accessible, not yet understood, the unforeseen.

Since humanity will not live forever in practice there will always be unknowns of all three types. This means we cannot know reality even if we wanted to. My basic assumption however is that we are epistemologically greedy, we want or need to “know” more than we can possibly know. Hence we fill the gap with guesswork, stories and myths, or we have it filled for us by someone else and the tradition we are born into.

The reason we need to have more ideas than the information available to us can vouch for, is something vastly underestimated: the psychoactive function of ideas. We use ideas as Prozac to cope with the essential tension and our fear of uncertainty. We feel our happiness depends on having an identity, even though whatever we identify with is bound to be fictional. It may be the idea of a country, a god, a profession, a football team or a marriage, but they are all mental constructs we use to overlay reality with our view of the world, how we want the world to be. We are emotional beings and our thoughts are driven by our fears and desires. There are entire metaphysical belief systems constructed out of pure air just to make us feel more important than we suspect we are. Our need for myths will not go away, as society is a patchwork woven out of our fabrications. When facts come knocking on the door we still prefer to live in denial. Very few individuals are prepared to give up their beliefs because reality tells them otherwise. Susan Blackmore, a Bristol based paranormal researcher is one of them.

“Imagine this … Imagine a world in which if you love someone enough, or need them enough, your minds will communicate across the world wherever you are, regardless of space and time. Imagine a world in which, if only you can think a thought clearly and powerfully enough it can take on a life of its own, moving objects and influencing the outcome of events far away. Imagine a world in which each of us has a special inner core – a ‘real self’ – that makes us who we are, that can think and move independently of our coarse physical body, and that ultimately survives death, giving meaning to our otherwise short and pointless lives. This is (roughly speaking) how most people think the world is. It is how I used to think -and even hope – that the world is. I devoted 25 years of my life to trying to find out whether it is.  Now I have given up.

If any one of these three possibilities turned out to be true then the world is a fundamentally different place from the one we think we know, and much of our science would have to be overthrown. /…/ I am often accosted by people who seem to think that I think as follows:-  (Note – I don’t!) “I am a scientist. I know the truth about the universe from reading my science books. I know that telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis and life after death are impossible. I don’t want to see any evidence that they exist. I am terrified that I might be wrong.” The way I really think is more like this “I am a scientist. I think the way to the truth is by investigation. I suspect that telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis and life after death do not exist because I have been looking in vain for them for 25 years. I have been wrong lots of times before and am not afraid of it”.

I long ago threw out my own previous beliefs in a soul, telepathy and an astral world, but even then I kept on searching for evidence that my new skepticism was misplaced, and for new theories that might explain the paranormal if it existed (Blackmore, 1996). I kept doing experiments and investigating claims of psychic powers. Finally I have given up that too.

One of the reasons I have given up is probably a trivial and selfish one – that I have simply had enough of fighting the same old battles, of endlessly being accused of being scared of the truth or even of trying to suppress the truth; of being told that if I don’t come and investigate x (my near-death experience, my psychic twin, Edgar Cayce, the miracle of Lourdes, D.D.Hume, or the haunted pub round the corner) that proves I have a closed mind. It doesn’t. It only proves that after years of searching for paranormal phenomena and not finding them, I am no longer prepared to spend my precious time and limited energy in documenting yet another NDE, setting up more carefully designed experiments to test telepathy in twins, going over all the reams of published argument about Cayce, Lourdes or Hume, or sitting up all night waiting for the ghost that (because I am a psi-inhibitory experimenter) will never come.”

Why are we so reluctant to accept reality? Fundamentally because we are afraid to discover that we are worthless in the universe as portrayed by science. We are afraid of reality, and suspect it might not make us feel good. Our well-being depends on us feeling important and nothing in science seems to feed into our need to be in the centre of the world.

Psychological Validity: Therapeutic Myths

“Siempre hay algo que te auyda adelante, no importa tan mal estes.”

Alcoholic in the street of Granada.

“I think the world is constantly improving, and that overall we are always moving towards more and more democracy”.

From some conversation

“I believe that if you really want to do something the world will help you make it happen”.

Paulo Coehlo

In general, the way I am trying to think about epistemology is from a medical point of view. Thoughts are not abstract representations, they are integral parts of the human organism, and they guide our emotional life and our behaviour. Only a naïve religious view of the universe would maintain that a true image of reality can guarantee well-being for all. What ideas help to improve mental health and personal growth is different for different people, at different moments and different stages in life. At the recent disaster the people of Haiti were encouraged to look for consolation in their faith. Even in such a moment when it must be hardest to believe it may save people from total psychological breakdown. A doctor would not prescribe the same drug to every patient at all times, likewise you do not console children and adults in the same way.

An idea is valid if it increases the mental health of the believer.

Religious people want a God that

  • created the world with us in mind,
  • is sociable, listens to and cares for each one of us, and
  • can change and break the laws of nature as of when it pleases him.

Are these beliefs true? No, not unless everything else we know about the universe is wrong. Even a short introduction course in modern cosmology and a pinch of probability theory makes it painfully apparent what a tall order this is. Even for an infinite and omniscient intelligence it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen even 5 minutes from now and stacking tiny uncertainties on top of each other a few billion times no one, divine or otherwise, could have predicted the exact appearance of the human race. Furthermore, given not only opposing desires between people, but even opposing desires inside a person, the most caring God imaginable could not always satisfy the needs of one person without doing harm, either to another or the same person. And finally, if a law of nature is broken once and in one location, all other laws are broken in all other locations as well as they are all connected. As a matter of fact, there could be no laws at all if they could break. I cannot see how such a God could exist.

Are such beliefs psychologically valid? Absolutely. People with strong reality anxiety need to have firm opinions about things about which we cannot know.  Like a placebo has no active ingredient, an idea needs to have no resemblance to truth to have a healthy effect on the believer. I think the aim of human existence for the time being is to achieve sustainable happy living for as many as possible, and I am prone to believe that myths and outright fabrications will always play a crucial part in that drama.

The Red or the Blue Pill

I hear you object: “Seeing our myths were born at a time when we did not know much about the world, is not the obvious road ahead that people should simply discard their superstitious fictions in favour of more accurate models of the universe? Is the solution not one where people instead of rewriting their myths adapt to reality as it is?” Our environment is different from that of any other animal. The reality to which we would need to adapt involves nebulous objects to which we cannot adapt as they are intrinsically unknowable. Part of the human world is both anticipation of the future, psychological reflexive guesswork and metaphysical imagination, neither of which have concrete determined facts for objects. Animals on the whole do not ponder their own death, theorize about what others are thinking (particularly not about them) or if the universe was designed with any particular purpose in mind. Reality is not a mechanical clockwork but is made up of natural, historical and personal times unfolding in unpredictable and self-referential ways. How do we adapt to a reality we help create? Should I for instance adapt myself to a social reality where people are collaborating or where they only look after themselves? Both are possible but they depend on what others adapt to. Should I adapt to a personal reality where I am insignificant and disposable or one where we I am appreciated and unique? Again, both are possible ways of reading most of our lives, but each reading helps bring about a different story.

Furthermore, there are at least two different red pills to swallow: first to accept natural reality and secondly to accept social reality. The former would include at least accepting as a possibility that humans have no value in the universe, and that if we blow ourselves up that is just one less noise to be heard in our galaxy. The latter would mean to really emotionally take in the injustices that exist in society. Things like:

  • The nasty people without conscience make the money the rest need.
  • The people with the least empathy can climb over others and become their leaders.
  • The people with the least to say shout the loudest.
  • The people with the sickest lives make the headlines.
  • The people who need love the most are least likely to get it.

My point is that the Matrix is trying to make it black or white, when in fact it is not. They also cast those who knowingly choose to believe in myths as evil. Again, it is how you behave, not what you believe that matters.

Political Validity: Reflexive Potentials and Auxiliary Beliefs

Our behaviour is the bridge between the imaginary world we live in and the natural world around us. Our behaviour is the converter, the actualiser, between our more or less true beliefs, and our environment. Just like a diesel engine can run on a variety of combustible fuels human behaviour can run on all sorts of beliefs. Our minds live in actuality but our bodies live in reality and thus the consequences of acting based on a false belief are real. So how come we survive? Why is there not more of a “break in the texture”? I know two things, a) we believe in things that are not there and b) we are alive, thus we have survived. That means it is possible to live happily in a fiction. I assume we could have gone extinct by now had we lived by beliefs whose ecological consequences were so grave that we would have destroyed the basis of our own survival. Beliefs with destructive consequences can be false, but they do not need to be. Is there a limit to how deluded I can be and still survive? If those beliefs are tied to behaviour yes. The outer limit would be the limit of evolutionary validity.

If we reverse this thinking, instead of asking “how deluded can we be and still survive?” we can ask, “could our survival be dependent on us believing in myths?” According to chaos theory the future of any complex open system is undecided and dependent on tiny changes. Each change feeds back into the system and opens up a different set of possibilities. For conscious agents certain future potentials only exist if they are aware of them. You only have a choice if you are conscious of having one. There is no such thing as an unconscious choice. Therefore our future depend to a large extent on our beliefs about the future. The future is made up to a large extent of reflexive potentials. Following the logic developed around evolutionary validity however we can ask whether the belief about a future potential needs to be true or not for it to really exist. I would maintain that beliefs about the future cannot be true or false, but can be more or less realistic. Thus does the future potential depends on a realistic belief? Do I need to believe I can win X-factor to be able to win X-factor? It is unlikely, but not unthinkable, that I would enter the competition without believing I stood a chance, but maybe I did it as a joke. In reality I need to enter the competition and impress the judges, but in my actuality perhaps I believe I won because God wanted me to. Without feeling God on my side I would never have overcome the nerves to enter. My belief in God would then be an auxiliary belief for this reflexive potential to exist. If I was a willing suicide bomber, without my belief in a life after death I would not be prepared to blow myself up. Can we come out of the financial crisis without believing that we can? It seems to me that many potentials depend on auxiliary beliefs to actually exist. Those beliefs do not need to be realistic, but they can nevertheless open up certain potentials that would otherwise not exist. This is getting a bit technical. Sorry.

Say that you were the political leader of the world, and you realised that unless people changed their ways they would suffer catastrophic consequences. At the same time you realized that no amount of rational persuasion or simple educational campaign had the necessary practical effect. Would it then be valid for you to manipulate people to believe in lies if that was the only way you could make them change their ways? What if your vision gave them meaning? What if there was a purpose everyone could buy into, that tallied up with scientific facts and still could be boosted by endless mythologisations and artistic creations? I can think of a purpose that would blow all other purposes out of the water, something that is universal, something every healthy human being should care about, something that would, if taken to heart, change most political policies. In my mind I can think of no higher purpose than the well-being of our grandchildren. Make that your new religion, give the well-being of our grandchildren a God, a marketing campaign, a lobby, a TV station, preachers and priests, print T-shirts, make dolls and dollars. You might ask why our grandchildren would be more precious than us currently living? I don´t think they are, but they will suffer the consequences of our current stupidity, and I think we are too immature, irrational and weak to make the sacrifices required without something transcendental, something beyond ourselves that give our lives a direction and meaning.

Black Lies & La Via Negativa

I am not really suggesting the intellectual and political elite should invent any myths so as to manipulate the masses. History is paved with those skeletons already. It seems leaders tend not to be very good, and cannot be trusted to be as wise as Plato would have wished. Moreover I think political validity needs to be treated separately from psychological vitality since the demands of transparency, truth, scientific accuracy, honesty and accuracy that citizens can demand of the state are not the same as anyone can demand of an individual. The more I think about validity and what are healthy thoughts the harder it gets to find clear definitions and criteria. It seems to me it is almost impossible to say for sure if a line of thinking will lead to positive or negative consequences, and whether that can even be established without first defining whose well-being we are concerned with. One man´s bread and all that. Instead of trying to establish exactly what thoughts are healthy I do think it is a lot easier to establish what thoughts are unhealthy. Just like Popper realised it is easier to prove something false than it is to prove it true, it is easier to prove a belief unhealthy than to positively healthy. I am saying this because I believe that the role of intellectuals should not be to ram their wisdom down the throats of those with a simpler constitution but to try to identify when certain lines of thought definitely go astray. People do not have time to think, and the mental food they get is shallow and controlled. Currently the intelligentia is engaged in getting the non-thinkers to consume. How much of the mental capacity of mankind is applied to actually making the world better and for us to solve real problems? If critically minded people acted as filter against sick ideas the world would be a better place. When people start to act aggressively and destructively something is likely to be sick in their belief system as well. Just like wealth does not produce happiness, does poverty not produce destructiveness. Something more is required. When China is warning the West from even talking to one of the most peaceful man in the world, and when Iran is arresting citizens for expressing their opinions and blocking their access to information, then something is not right. That is the subject of the next post…whenever I get the time.

I leave you with some questions that probably will keep me busy for the rest of my life. If you can answer them for me I will send you a jar of pickled herring.

  • Would life be better if people were forced to give up their myths?
  • Is there dangerous knowledge?
  • Are there situations where true knowledge can kill?
  • What is the relationship between the delusional belief of a mad man and his hallucination?

For a chance to win an extra mackerel maybe you could have a guess at whether reality is

1.meaningless for humans and we must invent myths to stay sane
2.meaningful but too complex for us to comprehend, therefore we need myths
3.meaningful and comprehensible, no need for delusions
4.meaningless but better to be depressed than delusional

Like I said…your chance to win some juicy fish!

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


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


"...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.

Aug 30 2009

I am driving my motorcycle in the south of Spain, and have left the beaches of Cadiz to to stay the night in Zahara de la Sierra, a mountain village with a Moorish castle ruin and a turquoise damn below. As I reach the top I enjoy a view of 30 km in every direction. I check in to a wonderful hotel perched just below the castle.

To kick off my philosophical journey I will make and defend the following ideas.

  1. There are rules independent of our minds that govern the whole of existence.
  2. Any actualised potential in one moment defines what is and what is not possible in the next.
  3. The rules determine what is possible in any given moment, but not what is actualised.
  4. Uncertainty and unpredictability are built into the very fabric of the universe.
  5. There are domains of reality causally independent of our minds.
  6. There are domains of reality causally dependent on our minds.
  7. In the mind dependent domains of reality our beliefs about what is possible can influence what is in fact possible.
  8. It is not the truth of the beliefs per se that gives us the most beneficial possibilities.
  9. A belief is healthy if in the moment it is believed it has beneficial consequences.

These assumptions or axioms seem to me to be true, and from them we can draw some very significant conclusions. I am no expert in any field and if someone can show me where I go wrong I believe I shall be equally happy. I do however believe the world is in one way or another, and in this post I will try to see if I can understand and communicate anything significant about how modern science says it is. At the same time I find myself in the uncomfortable position of believing that knowing the truth about how things are may not prove to be the thing that will help us realize the best possible future. In spite that general reservation in this post I will focus on what I think is true about the word (points 1 to 5). In the next how I think we work (points 6 & 7). And in the following why I think truth and health can be in a highly strained marriage (points 8 & 9).

The Castle at the Top of the Mountain

Art by Front

To make my case let me first set the scene using the mountain village as it strikes me a perfect metaphor for how the world is and the human situation within it. Perhaps you will sense my unease between the lines. There is a castle on top of the mountain. It was built sometime towards the end of 13th century by Alfonso X El Sabio. Imagine for a second that Alfonso was born in the castle and as a young prince is not so wise (sabio) but rather spoilt and credulous. He has servants that cook and take care of him and has never left the castle. He believes that the outside world is a hostile place and that he would be killed should he ever venture outside. He throws stones out through the window at anyone that may have the misfortune of passing below. As the otherwise peaceful villagers get stones on their heads they gradually turn hostile.

Would his belief about the world be true or false? There is no simple answer to that question, and it could be argued that the belief is both false and true. What makes it complicated is that the fact the belief refers to is dependent on the belief itself. The fact is a consequence of the belief. The poor prince acts in a way so as to make his belief come true.

A lot in human life works this way. Through our behaviour our beliefs actualise some potentials rather than others, which in their turn bring about a different set of consequences and possibilities, about which we may or may not have a clear idea, based on which we act again, to which the world reacts, and so on, round it goes.

(Legend has it this is that the Moors actually threw stones to check for Christian intruders at night. Normally that would provoke pigeons into the air, and if there were none they would concluce the Christians below had scared them off and they got ready to be attacked. Realizing this trick Christians brought pigeons in cages to let out when the stones fell so as to be able to take the castle by surprise in 1483).

For the prince, does it matter greatly for his survival what he thinks about the world? Is it not true that as long as he has food on his table he can believe anything about the outside world. He could deny the existence of the mountain. He could claim the castle had always been there, that he was the king of the entire universe. He could even deny the very existence of the food in front of him. As long as he keeps on eating he can live out his days in a state of complete delusion as regards the true state of things. And he would enjoy his life all the more for it.

The universe in itself however doesn’t pay special homage to royalties. It just follows its own rules.

The Rules of the Game

Some things are possible, others are not. I do not think I can make an argument about the existence of this distinction that itself does not presuppose it. The entire rational art of deduction is based on it. If anything is possible it must also be possible that not everything is possible, and then we are already in logical difficulties. Let me instead make a symbolic take on the scene I have created. Let the mountain represent that which separates the possible from the impossible. These are the external limitations that we try to capture in the laws of physics, biology and neurology, that underpin our economies, infrastructures, languages, thought patterns and so on. Call them what you wish. I call them the rules of the game. Whether these are immutable and eternal laws, or just acquired habits of the universe I believe is irrelevant because their timespan will vastly exceed that of life on earth. Our knowledge of them has increased, but is inevitably limited especially as regards ourselves.

Further, let the castle, full of symbols and royal crests, represent culture. We build culture on top of nature. One rule is that nature set the limitations and possibilities of culture. The higher depends on the lower. Destroy the mountain and the village goes too. But the opposite is not true. There was a mountain long before there was a castle, and the mountain does not need or care for the castle.

The servants could be our instincts, all the subconscious processes that keep us alive and well. They normally keep making us looking for food and eat even if we wanted to deny the need for and the existence of food. (Only yesterday did I hear a girl proclaim she believed Indian yogis could learn to live off nothing but sunlight).

The prince then, who would that be? It would be our conscious mind. He is a prince and not a slave because he is both spoilt and free. No matter our factual circumstances we are free to interpret them in wildly different ways, some truer than others, some healthier than others. The rules are so permissive that they can enable us to completely deny their existence, much the same way democracy can allow anti-democratic voices free expression or law and order protect the rights of anarchists.

In theory we have an infinite (but not unlimited) creative scope to interpret what happens to us, what we choose to pay attention to, and how we choose to behave. In practice however we cannot think further than the reach of our imagination. We breath meaning into the rules, and our expectations about how the game will play out informs our actions and therefore modifies the outcome.

The lower sets the possibilities of the higher. The higher gives meaning to the lower.

(For sake of clarification, I am in no way referring to human norms. Conventional laws can be broken, but they have no more to do with the rules I am referring to than that they, like everything else, are limited by them.)

Admittedly, neither the claim that there are rules, nor that they are independent of our minds, are scientific claims. They are axiomatic, and cannot be falsified.

A swallow just swept into the open window. On the way out it did not see the crystal pane. People that don´t believe in an external world that sets the limitations better walk around with crash helmets.

Patterns in Nature

Generative art by Jared Tarbell

Generative art by Jared Tarbell

There are many bogus claims about regularities in the universe, invoked to explain (and justify) everything from people´s names to the holocaust (!). On the one hand there are many patterns, and our brain is made up of patterns, why it is only natural for us to find them. On the other hand we can be mistaken, and often fail to find subtle patterns (more on that below ) or believe we have found a pattern that at closer examination is not there (apophenia). Many paranoid schizophrenics are convinced of hidden meaningful connections between random events and that their lives are run by secret conspiracies. Likewise religiously inclined often look for, and find, meaning and purpose in every twist and turn of their lives. Understandably orthodox scientists would like to steer clear of both those threats of apparent irrationality but in so doing may prove to be throwing out some genuine patterns with the proverbial bath water. Findings in the area of quantum physics, complexity and self-organisation have many spooky and apparently irrational aspects to them. The difference however, between scientific hypothesis about some regularity and superstitious claims is that the scientific ones are open to be tested and found false. As far as truth is concerned a rule whose implications are always right no matter what happens is quite useless (eg. if you pray hard enough you will get what you dreamt of). As for mental health it may be quite appropriate.

Are fractals the fingerprint of God?

Are fractals the fingerprints of God?

If we have thousands of people chipping away at a claim of some natural regularity, probing, testing and debating, what remains will be vastly more reliable than that of any preacher, no matter how many followers he may have. For all its shortcomings – incompleteness, Eurocentrism, self-forgetfulness, politics etc. – natural science remains the most reliable source we have to identify the rules of the game. To deny the authority of science over superstition is equal to deny that the earth is round. It is science that puts us into perspective and teaches us that life is but a fragile spark.

Many claim that the three milestone achievements in natural science over the last century are: quantum mechanics (QM), the theory of relativity and nonlinear dynamics, popularly known as science of complexity or chaos theory. Generally they focus on the very small, the very large and the scale of life. I will only dip my toe in the very small and the life size as I believe the rules we live under are determined predominantly by them.

Quantum Indeterminacy

Classically the idea that the world is governed by universal laws implied that the world a) is necessarily deterministic, and b) (at least in theory) predictable. I believe quantum mechanics is teaching us that neither is true. If time could be turned back history could unfold differently, therefore knowing the rules not even Laplace’s infinite intelligence would be able to predict the future. This is so not because of our limited knowledge but because the world in itself seems to be indeterministic. Quantum mechanics got its name from Max Planck’s initial insight around year 1900 that electromagnetic energy could be emitted only in quantized form. This insight was only the beginning of a story of 100 years of quantum mysteries such as Bohr’s model (1913) in which a subatomic particle such as an electron could make quantum leaps from one orbit to another without passing the space in between, or John Achibald Wheeler’s (1978) delayed choice experiments where a choice made by an observer determines what must already have happened at an earlier stage. Wheeler writes in 2001 that “today an estimated 30 percent of the U.S. gross national product is based on inventions made possible by quantum mechanics, from semiconductors in computer chips to lasers in compact-disc players, magnetic resonance imaging in hospitals, and much more. “ Yet even if we know how to use the theories we still do not know what they mean.

The observer does not create the observed. The rules are independent of our minds.

One aspect of reality that has been brought into question by QM is the independence between the world and the observer. In the classical Copenhagen interpretation (1920) a subatomic particle – a quanton – is a wave-particle described perfectly by the Schroedinger wave equation yet it could not be measured with exactness in both speed and location at the same time. If speed was measured the position would not be known. The limits of our knowledge are thus set by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The question was, and still is, whether this uncertainty is something that is provoked by our equipment, or whether it is the quanton in itself that is uncertain. The classic debate between Bohr and Einstein hinged on this subject and Einstein’s position was succinctly summed up in his metaphor “God does not play dice” by which he meant that there was a world out there, independent of our minds, with precisely determined properties. In his famous EPR paper (1935) he claimed that quantum physics was an incomplete description of reality, and that there were some hidden variables, although unknown to us, that still determined all properties of reality. The EPR paradox pivots on the notion of entanglement between twin quantons, which means wave-particles that appear as each others opposites, such as an electron and a positron. By measuring some property such as spin on the electron one automatically knows the corresponding value for the positron. This is a bit like you do not need to go up to the second floor in a two story building to see if the elevator is there. It is enough to know if it is on the first floor. Experiments show this to be true. If the electron’s spin was undecided before the measurement how come the positron would be determined exactly in the same moment when no measurement has interacted with it? According to Einstein either the twins send information to each other faster than the speed of light, or there are some hidden variables that keep them synchronised. Because it seemed more unlikely that information could travel faster than light (nonlocality) one assumed reality was determined and QM was incomplete. In 1964 however John Bell produced a paper called Bell’s theorem that showed that even if we could not know the variable, we could experimentally test some of the implications if they existed. According to mainstream interpretations these experiments show the Einstein was wrong and that reality is undecided prior to measurement (indeterminacy) and that information can travel instantaneously (action-at-a-distance).

There are however several alternative interpretations that avoids indeterminacy by accepting some even more absurd idea, such that the world would split at each moment of choice and each history would unfold in its own version of the universe. The most respected realist interpretation of QM, and the only one apparently equally compatibly with test results was formulated by David Bohm in 1952. It is very “ironic” that mainstream physicists reject determinism and realism based on Bell’s theorem while Bell himself is defending Bohm’s interpretation (Bell 1987):

But in 1952 I saw the impossible done. It was in papers by David Bohm. Bohm showed explicitly how parameters could indeed be introduced, into nonrelativistic wave mechanics, with the help of which the indeterministic description could be transformed into a deterministic one. More importantly, in my opinion, the subjectivity of the orthodox version, the necessary reference to the ‘observer,’ could be eliminated. …

Hence there are many ways of interpreting the equations, their predictions and the experimental results, and some are consistent with an independently deterministic world, and some (more common) with a world inherently probabilistic and uncertain. In none of these cases however is the world created by the mind. The outcome of the experiments are not determined by the observer. The wave-particle will behave as it will independently of the wishes of the observer, and in every case follow the rules. It may be that matter or energy is not determined in itself, but the rules that govern their possibilities are still independent of our minds. In this way the world is in one way or another and it is not up to us to dream it up. I think this brings home my first point.

Dice play God.

While the jury is still out on what to make of QM and determinacy, theories that try to reintepret the results so as to save a precious principle such as locality (Einstein) or determinism (Bohm) have something ad-hoc and unscientific about them. It is not trying to see what is, but trying to recast it to fit some model. That is an outrageous and heretic thing to say about two of the most profoundly creative and daring minds of last century, and I know of few people, physicist or otherwise, that have spent more time working on keeping their own and others’ minds open. Still it does seem to me that it is rather dice that play God than the other way around. What I take away from quantum physics is that freedom and indeterminacy are built into the very fabric of the universe, and choices creating new choices are being made constantly. The future is thus open and there can be no final Omega point for our existence. Whatever possibilities there are they keep on changing and none is predestined.

The Nonlinearity of Everyday Life

Nonlinearity is not the exception, it is the rule.

The belief in a final destination of human existence is an idea common to both Christianity, Islam, neoconservative and communicst ideology. This teleological idea has had a firm grip on popular imagination in spite the fact that in nature there are no straight lines, and the only final destination we know for sure is the grave. While the old science was based on an idealised special case of nature where processes were seen as linear, we now know that most, if not all, natural and social processes are nonlinear. In nonlinear systems changes over time are not proportional, i.e. they do not follow straight paths, instead they can be erratic, haphazard, showing booms and bust cycles, have negative and positive feedback loops, sometimes momentarily predictable then utterly random. The real world is full of nonlinear processes, such as weather systems, population growth, traffic, financial markets and the spread of ideas, and not only are they individually unpredictable, they all interact and influence each other in dramatic ways. Nonlinearity is not the exception, it is the rule. It describes the very real processes that determine and shape our individual lives. How many influential men were born because a rainy day their parents decided to stay in bed? How many are not born to potentially loving couples since they are busy getting divorced due to stress caused by the current financial crisis?

Every time a choice is made in the universe one out of several possibilities is actualised. Each choice leads to new choices. What was possible in one moment is gone once a choice is made and may never return again. Each choice – irreversible. The collective interaction between all processes – unpredictable. If the world is a field of vibrating dominos, the arrow of time is determined by those already fallen and those yet to fall. The present is the point where the choice is made between those that will fall and those that will remain standing forever. Not even the tile itself knows how it will fall until it has fallen.

The Impossible and the Impossible

There is more than one type of impossibility.

One implication of the axiom that the rules determine everything that is possible is that there is not only one type of impossibility. There is the impossible that could never come into existence because the rules do not permit it. For instance, there could not be a Divine Dictator ruling all in a rule based universe like ours since everything depends on everything else and you cannot bend some rules without bending all rules. For it to be possible for some processes to follow rules, all processes must follow rules, or else arbitrary disorder would spread like cracks travel in the ice of a lake. If a god answered one prayer complete disorder would ensue. Nothing external can control a web of rule based processes with creative choice built in. Whatever order there is will have to emerge from within the system itself. The Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong called the outer region of the impossible absistence and it is made up by all those ontological freaks that could never, and will never, be.

Knowing the rules however we can imagine various scenarios that could play out, but may not. You remember those books where you could choose how the story continued by jumping to another page? Similarly those alternative endings reside somewhere between absistence and actuality. Each potential is a viable candidate for existence that adheres to the rules but by the fall of the dice may or may not pass the frontier into actuality. Missed opportunities are impossible now but not in the same way as an omnipotent being is impossible. In my Meinongian parlour missed opportunities and existential crossroads not yet reached neither exist, nor absist, they subsist. Subsistence plays a greater part in the life of our souls then existence. We regret past mistakes and dream of a future still in the making.

Spontaneous Emergent Order out of Disorder

The notorious second law of thermodynamics states that left to itself a closed system will increase disorder. The simplest sign of order is differentiation, differentiation between two substances, hot and cold, light and dark, inside and outside, positive and negative etc. Disorder is the same as homogeneousness, everything the same. A battery left to itself will eventually go flat on its own. If there is an Omega point for the universe it is when all the energy is used up and it has reach maximum disorder. In thermodynamics that state is called heat death. It is not an uplifting idea, but an extension of something well all know to be true from our daily lives. Eventually the fire goes out.

But if the universe as a whole is producing more and more disorder, how come life would appear? Life is going in exactly the opposite direction. It is producing more and more order all the time, more complexity and more differentiation. If the universe at large is not evolving how can goal oriented forms suddenly appear? How can life and purpose emerge from a bunch of randomly bouncing particles? Life and human civilisation seems to be a blatant contradiction of the second law of thermodynamics.

Life obviously exists and hence under some conditions a spontaneous increase in order must be possible. What are those conditions? Ilya Prigogine got the Nobel Prize in chemistry 1977 for his work on irreversible thermodynamics where he showed the spontaneous order can appear out of disorder in dissipative structures far from equilibrium. A dissipative structure is an open system that receives, processes and dissipates energy to its surroundings. To be far from equilibrium means there is a big difference in temperature, pressure or concentration, and thus a lot of energy exchange.

Bénard cell

Bénard cell

A simple example of this is a shallow pan of water or some other liquid that is heated evenly from the bottom. To start with the molecules in the liquid are moving around at random with the same kind of arbitrary motion no matter where you look. As the temperature increases a sharp contrast between the bottom and the top produces a far-from-eqiulibrium state and all of a sudden the microscopic randomly moving molecules organise themselves into hexagonal convection cells. This phenomena is called a Bénard cell. One of the most fascinating aspect of this jump is that the exact direction of the hexagonal pattern is determined by the tiniest initial changes such as the force of gravity which in normal stable conditions would have only negligible effects on a liquid a few millimeter thick. (Prigogine, 1985)

The fact that in ordinary water disconnected and non-communicating molecules in an instant can go, correction must go, from macroscopic disorder to a beautiful ordered pattern by simply adding heat proves that locally increased order is neither an absisting freak nor an improbable subsisting potential but a natural necessity. According to the rules under these special conditions nature must jump from a state of complete disorder to a state of perfect order, as if that was the most energy efficient solution to a specific thermodynamic challenge. But does this spontaneous emergence of order not contradict the second law of thermodynamic? Not at all as the local increase of order happens at the cost of increased disorder in the surrounding. Islands of order appear in an ocean of disorder by stealing negative entropy (aka syntropy) from the environment, thus making the sum total of disorder increase. These local exceptions, however tiny on a cosmic scale, are enough to bring about the basis of our entire civilisation. Given the rules and the contrasts created in the Big Bang, spontaneously emerging order – the very basis of life – must appear from within the system itself without fail.
Every star in the universe is one such source of far-from-equilibrium conditions.
For an extensive list of examples of order emerging spontaneously check out the entry on self-organisation in scholarpedia .

Unpredictability and Butterfly Moments

According to Prigogine a complex system passes through stages where they behave in a classical and deterministic way. Only at certain crucial moments, so called bifurcation points, does a system have a choice, and tiny random fluctuations can dramatically influence its future. “The ‘historical’ path along which the system evolves /…/ is characterized by a succession of stable regions, where deterministic laws dominate, and of instable ones, near the bifurcation points, where the system can ‘choose’ between or among more than one possible future./…/This mixture of necessity and chance constitutes the history of the system.” (Prigogine, 1985, p. 169) Think of a leaf floating in a river. When the river is flowing calmly it is fairly easy to predict where the leaf will be a second down the line, but the moment the river reaches some obstacles the flow changes radically from laminar to turbulent, and becomes in effect chaotic. Suddenly the smallest change in the leaf’s position will throw it one way or the other and it is impossible to predict at what side of the river it will end up. A bifurcation is a choice, a fork in the road, and it is often at these moments chaos emerges.

Popularly and historically chaos is virtually synonymous with randomness, but over the last 60 years scientists have come to find subtle order behind many seemingly erratic processes.Thus the history of science has taken another ironic twist. The world is more chaotic than we thought, while chaos is, well, less chaotic. With the help of computers and enough empirical data never before available scientists are finding that the behaviour of the leaf in the swirling river may be controlled by surprisingly simple rules. The branch of science dealing with such simplicity in complexity is called nonlinear dynamics, or more popularly, chaos theory. The chaos that chaos theory is concerned with is not the kind of chaos we normally think of. In fact quite the opposite, and is often called deterministic chaos as it is a collection of many orderly behaviours.

Bifurcation diagram of butterfly moments

Although chaos is unpredictable, it is deterministic. If two nearly identical chaotic systems of the appropriate type are impelled, or driven, by the same signal, they will produce the same output, even though no one can say what that output mighty be./…/ The distinguishing feature of chaotic systems is that they exhibit a sensitivity to initial conditions. /…/ if two chaotic systems that are nearly identical are in two slightly different states, they will rapidly evolve to very different states. To the casual observer, chaotic systems appear to behave in a random fashion. Yet close examination shows that they have an underlying order.” (Ditto & Pecora, Scientific American 1993)

Are all complex and apparently random events controlled by some simple rules? I am not aware of any chaos theorist that claims that randomness and chance do not exist. What they have realized though is that under certain conditions what appears to be random is in fact ordered. There is a lot more spontaneously emerging patterns in nature than previously thought. Conditions that can produce deterministic chaos include (adapted from a longer list in Williams, 1997):

  1. The process is nonlinear.
  2. The outcome of a process is fed back into the same process again, the output of an equation in one step is used as input for the next iteration. Today’s events affect tomorrow’s events.
  3. Sensitive dependence on initial conditions. The process unfolds very differently given the tiniest differences in some variable (The Butterfly Effect).
  4. Changes in the variables of the system, when plotted in a diagram called phase space, display fractal shapes. Fractals repeat self-similar shapes no matter the degree of zoom.
Chaotic attractors in neural networks

Chaotic attractors in neural networks

What is unique about chaotic processes as opposed to linear ones is that while they follow rules they are unpredictable. In an linear equation if you wanted to find out how things will be at time t you simply put it into the equation. In chaotic equations you must repeat the calculation over and over again, perhaps millions of times, to actually get to the point you are interested in. Whatever error you have in your initial value it will multiply every time and eventually the accurate data will be cancelled out by noise. Historically it was assumed that while we could not measure anything with complete exactness what ever degree of certainty we started with it would hold for our predictions as well. What the meteorologist Lorenz discovered was that the error will increase rapidly and drastically, and with every repetition of the calculation we will loose one decimal place of exactness. Knowing the rules does not mean being able to predict the outcome. This “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” became known as the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon rainforest that two years later causes a tornado somewhere in China.

In butterfly moments a single idea can change the future course of history.

As you can appreciate I have gone to some trouble to give support for my second (!) initial point that “any actualised potential in one moment defines what is and what is not possible in the next“. In chaos theory it is dramatically illustrated by the Butterfly Effect, which is thus the outcome of a repetitive process where each successive step is dependent on the outcome of the previous one. But of course we all assume this to be the case when we consider any historical evolution, whether a physical system, social or personal history. If it were not for x then y would never have happened. We intuitively believe in cause and effect chains, and maybe my point can be interpreted as such a simple statement of causal determinism. That is not my intention though, and that is why I think the third point is the most contentious, i.e. that the rules only set the limits, they do not define the outcome. This I believe is the sticking point in the debate between Einstein and Bohr, and it comes back in chaos theory, and is of utmost important in bifurcation points. I think that if indeterminacy is found to be impossible in quantum physics it cannot be possible anywhere else in life. The conclusion seems inevitable to me that if Einstein was right there is no freedom, and thus personal responsibility is merely a useful fiction. The question thus is what chance really is, if it exists, and whether the same cause can have different effects given the same conditions. Quantum oddities have often been ignored when dealing with ordinary life processes, as they seemed to concern only the tiniest things in the world. It seems to me that in chaotic bifurcation points, lets call them butterfly moments, we can no longer afford such luxury since normally negligible effect can have dramatic consequences. And this is not just abstract metaphysical speculation any longer but theoretical reflections on empirical results. In butterfly moments individuals can have dramatic consequences for the whole and their behaviour can result in that the system as a whole is favouring one reaction path over a number of equally possible paths. Tiny random fluctuations in the right moment can shape the pattern in a Bénard cell, the crystallisation of frost, the morphogenic process giving stem cells their position and function in the body. Why would this not also be the case for moments of crisis in human history and the chance fluctuations produced by influential individuals, such as prophets, political leaders or revolutionaries? Why should we assume that human history only had one possible subsisting path to follow? Take quantum uncertainty and magnify it with chaotic sensitivity to initial conditions and I cannot see why you would not end up with indeterminate quantum effects on a macro scale. That means that human life is intrinsically indeterminate and unpredictable, not only due to our inexact data and imperfect knowledge, but rather in itself. If we could rewind human history 5000 years it would play out in very different ways. Jesus, in the unlikely event of being born, would probably have been forgotten as 99% of the other paranoid prophets, Columbus would not have discovered America and Latin America would not speak Spanish, Hitler would have been locked up in jail and most of Europe communistic. Large and small events are all dependent on an interplay of chance and necessity and to look for a hidden plan, an invisible hand, divine guidance, astrological patterns or predictable Hegelian-Marxist dialectics is all a fool’s game as inspired as foretelling the future through coffe grounds.

One the most baffling and fascinating aspects of how parts and wholes interact – holons as Koestler called them – is that the whole can sometimes behave as a coherent individual. How can individual Uranium atoms decay at the right moment so as to produce a holistic regularity when the individual does not know about the whole? How can a water molecule moving at random jump into hexagonal order in perfect synchronisation with all the others? How can ants organise an anthill in perfect symmetry without any control from above? How do the parts know how to behave so as to produce holistic order without having access to any bird’s eye view? “We believe that models inspired by the concept of “order through fluctuations” will help us with these questions and even permit us in some circumstances to give a more precises formulation to the complex interplay between individual and collective aspects of behaviour. From a physicist’s point of view, this involves a distinction between states of the system in which all individual initiative is doomed to insignificance on the one hand, and on the other, bifurcation regions in which an individual, an idea, or a new behaviour can upset the global state. Even in this regions, amplification obviously does not occur with just any individual, idea, or behaviour, but only with those that are “dangerous”- that is, those that can exploit to their advantage the nonlinear relations guaranteeing the stability of the preceding regime.” (Prigogine, 1985, p. 206 )

Some implications and conclusions

There are many conclusions to be be drawn from these insights. I am just trying to come to grips with them myself and welcome any criticism or suggestions you might have. This is what I make of it though.

  • Life and order does not need an external architect to arise. Once the necessary far-from-equilibrium conditions exist, order will arise. I remain utterly agnostic as regards the origins of the rules of the game but once existing any exogenous force, such as influence by some divine dictator, could do nothing but destroy it. Any programmer will tell you that changing so much as a comma in a working program will most likely grind it to a halt. “If it ain´t broken, don´t try to fix it.”
  • While indeterminacy does not offer any support for the notion of free will and personal responsibility per se, without indeterminacy the concepts are (ontologically) nonsensical as there can be no genuine options to choose between. It seems to me that the most impartial interpretation of quantum physics is supporting the idea that indeterminacy and uncertainty is part of the very fabric of the universe, and that everything could therefore have been radically different from how it happened to turn out.
  • Spontaneously emergent order realizes one out of several possibilities that exist in a given moment, but we have no reason to assume that this particular choice is the “best” of all possible choices. It may be just good enough to survive. In molecules and cells the degrees of freedom are more limited than in more complex systems, and taking our world as a vast complex whole we have no reason to assume we are living in Leibniz’ “the best of all possible worlds“. The way our society is organised for instance may be a short terms solution, a local optimum, that has taken us this far, not a global optimum that will ensure our long term survival.
  • With or without indeterminacy, chaos theory shows that our attempts to make long-term predictions of the future are futile. Anything we pretend to know about the future is only conjectures, better or worse guesses, and never true or false. In one blow this renders belief in religious and ideological prophecies delusional, and as a consequence makes the bulk of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Marxism and Neo-Conservatism nonsensical.
  • In butterfly moments individual actions can dramatically change which of several possible futures will become reality. While history is paved with times of crisis and relative stability, our times seem to be more chaotic than ever in terms of the far reaching consequences our actions may have. I believe that among the non-random factors that influence our socio-cultural evolution individual ideas that inspire behaviour play the most crucial role. A single idea can change the world, save it or destroy it.

These are some of the conclusions I draw from man’s latest insights into the rules and I think they should have a great impact on the way we think about ourselves, our view of the world, our morality and legal system and so on. Whether they will remains to be seen as just like the prince can deny the food in front of him relativists or a religious fanatic can, in a loud voice, deny an independent reality and rules governing our existence using megaphones and TV sets built using the very understanding of the world whose validity they are trying to undermine. But just like life does not contradict the second law of thermodynamics, human behaviour never contradicts the rules of the game. How our misconceptions of the rules are not only permitted by them but might actually improve how well we play is the subject of the next post.

Further reading

Check out my recommended reading section on complexity.

Inspiring blog on fractal ontology
Is quantum probability really chaotic order?
Introduction to chaos
Introduction to self-organisation

Apr 17 2009

All around the year in various resorts around the world otherwise normal people gather to voluntarily put themselves under prison like conditions for at least ten days. You are not allowed to speak, consume any intoxicants, not have sex, in fact no physical contact at all, and you are not allowed any contact with the outside world. Every day the wake up gong rings at four, the last and only cooked meal for the day is at 11 am, and the lights are out for the night at 9.30 pm. Without exception everybody is asleep within minutes in a state of complete exhaustion and deep tranquility. What kind of sick minds would voluntarily put themselves in this situation? Is this a cult for guilt ridden self-castigators? Far from it. It is explicitly against any type of dogma and belief, and all about practical results. What then? Is it a drug clinic? A detox rehabilitation centre? Of sorts I would say, but not primarily for physical drugs, but from bad mental habits and the sensory pollution of modern life. For me it was a mental research lab and a training camp.

Described differently the Buddhist Vipassana resorts offer ten days of complete freedom from worldly responsibilities in locations of exquisite natural beauty. Volunteers cook and clean for you and all is completely free of charge. I cannot remember the last time I actually saw the moon in the morning, listened to dogs howling in the distance, really took in the dazzling splendor of hundreds of dew drops in the grass, followed how the yellow flowers in the meadow gradually opened to the sun. The entire arrangement exists for people to learn to meditate. From the time of waking up to the moment your head hits the pillow you are supposed to meditate for eleven hours, three out of which you are not allowed to move a single muscle.

When people hear the word meditation they sometimes think of relaxation therapy for people with nervous problems. Not quite the case with Vipassana. I have to admit that I too did not know what a disciplinary regime I was actually in for, and was surprised at how deeply exhausted I was the second and third day. It was a kind of exhaustion I had never felt from any physical or mental effort, and I felt it in a different part of my head. I took this to be a proof that I was indeed learning something new and using a different faculty I do not use that extensively in my ordinary life – controlled awareness. Gradually though I found that sitting still for an hour on bent knees was not as hard as it first appeared. And most interestingly I found that observing pain without reacting to it actually takes a lot of the sting out of it. The initial effort was required to break a lifetime of bodily and psychical habits, and towards the second half of the course the stillness of the body was just a lovely background canvas on which to observe how sensations, emotions, images and thoughts would arise…and again disappear. I would come out of the meditation perfectly cheerful and bursting with creative energy.

Vipassana means seeing things as they are, not like we would like them to be

Meditation can definitely bring about deep relaxation, but a better definition is actually “inner action” as opposed to reaction or habitual behaviour. I like to think of a human being as made up of three parts – body, mind and awareness/will. To keep the body fit you exercise. To develop the mind you go to school, you learn how to think and you socialise. To train awareness and will you meditate. There are many meditation techniques. Vipassana meditation is supposed to be the one taught by Gautama Buddha some 2,500 years ago. Vipassana means to perceive things correctly, i.e. to see them as they are, not like we want them to be. The technique consists in developing awareness of your natural breathing and with a sharp attentive mind notice every sensation in every little part of your body. The moment you notice you are lost in thoughts you again bring your attention back to sweep through your body in whatever order you have previously decided. You are not suppose to do anything but observe and accept anything that happens exactly as it is. You don’t use any mantra, no visualisation, no particular bodily posture.

What happens?

Everyone has a different experience no doubt, but let me describe mine with a metaphor. The Bernina cafe on Gran Via where I am writing this is full of people. There is a woman smoking in the sofa by the window, there is a grumpy little girl kicking her chair at the next table, people walk in and out to buy the lovely pastries. The whole atmosphere is saturated with impressions and my mind filters out most of them. My nostrils are irritated by the smoke but there is no way I could dsitinguish between different types of pastry smells, and any subtle sounds are drowned in the buzz. The cafe is my normal mind. The meditative mind is the cafe when it is empty and dead quiet. I can now hear the humming of the fridge and notice subtle smells hidden behind the smog of smoke and bakery. The sensations I am normally not aware of I can now perceive with clarity. If I were to let one person come in I could notice how my body reacted with attraction, neutrality or aversion to that source of stimuli. It is like establishing a controlled environment for psychological experiments and scientifically observe the reactions.

It was not the first time I had done body awareness exercises or tried to observe myself, but the special setup made the experience much more intense then anything before. You get used to the practice and loose the initial sense of weirdness from staring at what appears to be nothing. It is not nothing, and it is not boring. I found that bodily sensations were a lot more interesting than I had ever thought. I had never noticed how many types of sensations I had in my thighs for instance, and how they change. Blind spots gradually started to give off sensations too. Admittedly the best moment for me was the taste of the delicious breakfast. The yogurt exploded in my mouth and I could feel and distinguish flavours in ways I have not before.

What does will power have to do with awareness? Well when you decide to concentrate on one inch of your thigh and sit still you really realize for yourself how little influence you have over your own body-mind. After a few seconds you are thinking about something that you have to do in the future or something that happened in the past, and in a moment your body suddenly decided to stretch your legs so as to avoid the discomfort. In this moment you realize how little freedom (and responsibility) you really have. Your body is reacting to pain and pleasure, but in developing mindfulness you can learn to remain equanimous and just observe how the impulses arise and gradually disappear. From that position of not reacting mechanically I can actually start making choices. Whenever I do what I want and not what just happens automatically in me I develop my will. In order to have will I must be aware of myself. Wham, bam, bom – they go together.

Results, results, results

What are the benefits of meditation? Many things, and they depend on what type you are practicing and what you want to get out of it. An obvious thing is the elimination of rubbish time gaps in your life. You will never wait for the bus again. You just meditate, it arrives, you get on and continue.

Just like physical exercise gives bodily strength and gives energy and cheerfulness, meditation does sharpen the mind, makes it easier to concentrate and make decisions. When I have meditated I can work more efficiently, and also hopefully get better at noticing when I am too tired to continue and instead leave work and do something else.

As anyone can tell I am a very cerebral person, and I wanted to explore more non-verbal right brain processes, drawing, dreaming, visualisation etc. Boy did I have vivid and surreal dreams. For instance there was this guy living in a room where all the furnitures were suspended on washing lines in the air, and the door was in the roof. There was also this woman with gigantic…on second thought I better not. 😉

Buddhism traditionally focuses on learning to deal with suffering, but I got to admit, I’m not experiencing anything that would qualify as suffering at the moment. I’m healthy and happy, but I’m sure it can’t hurt to get a bit happier right? Suffering is in store for everyone sooner or later no doubt. A lot of people also use meditation to overcome anger issues and addictions. Many find increased awareness stops cravings without even having to try. By simply observing respiration and the sensations that would normally cause the anger instead of focusing on the object of aversion/craving, the process changes by itself. 

A handful of mumbo-jumbo

Would I recommend Vipassana meditation? Each to their own, but the fact that people come back year after year is one proof that there is something to it. The ex-Beatles reunited only last week to try to raise money to make meditation part of the school curriculum, and in a way it seems a no brainer that instead of trying to get rid of old habits learn early how not to accumulate them. There are many techniques and Beatles famously were into TM. What particularly attracted me with Vipassana was the official absence of dogmas and mantras, and the emphasis on personal experience. I have elsewhere defined that I distinguish between the religious and the realist attitude to the world as seeing what you want to see vs. seeing what is. In this respect Buddhism officially is not at all a religion but a life philosophy with a system of ethics and a psychological practice to learn to adhere to that ethics. Buddha could be seen as the world’s first psychotherapist. Instead of the Church like way of tying up people’s minds into extreme tight knots of guilt, suspended between condemnation and forgiveness, and maintaining people in a state of eternal adolescence, Buddhism is trying to help people undo the knots, become aware of how negative habits of the mind creates suffering here and now. It is trying to help people become adults and accept things as they are without a need to lie to themselves.

This is the official stance. Unofficially this Vipassana practice is saturated with Indian traditions and beliefs. While the initial claim is only believe what you experience yourself I found many cracks in the teaching. Obvious ones were:

  • If dhamma is the universal law of nature how come we can break it? We already live according to universal laws, do what we may. Human laws can be broken yes, but then you might end up in jail. There is a confusion between laws of nature, and laws of human conventions, that makes it possible to perform a philosophical back flip with a twist and connect human moral actions with some kind of universal karmic law. The whole belief that good intentions is the only thing that matters to top up your karmic account is a bag of boloney. But hey, as long as it helps people to strive to better themselves I love boloney. Vive boloney!
  • It is said that the enlightened Buddha can remember previous lives. Like Christianity Buddhism aims at escaping the suffering of our world and in their version it means to end the cycle of eternal rebirth. I find all aspirations of escapism deeply disturbing. And when people start to talk in terms of such metaphysical beliefs under the banner of personal experience I think they have bottomed out.
  • The Vipassana organisation is set up by a converted businessman called Goenka. Lovely, rational and pragmatic as the man is, if he really wanted it to be scientific he should cut out the dependency on Gautama Buddha and instead try to make empirical research into the technique the authority. You can not attack cults of personality with one hand, and then cling to one with the other.
  • While mantras and visualisation techniques are discouraged there is still some kind of guttural chanting going on in the meditation hall. I felt that was Goenka’s personal mantra and found it very contradictory to the teaching and could have done without that.
  • The way they keep your mind frustrated without any intellectual stimuli only to receive the evening lecture that explains the practice with some theories, example and ample stories is questionable – even if the hilarious  stories crack you up. An optional hour of open discussion instead of a 5 min one to one Q and A would not have hurt.

Is there any worthwhile life philosophy without a trace of mumbo jumbo?

As I had decided to finish the ten days I had made a temporary pact with my critical mind to stay in its room. I realized that I would not get much meditation done if I were to let all my objections have free rein, and quite possibly would have added a number of emotional obstacles to the already tight disciplinary scheme I had to deal with. There were definitely moments when my intellect was trying to kick out the door, but if I had not found that Goenka came from a place of genuine good intention, open-mindedness and great sense of humour I would probably not given it more than a few days. I also tried to reason with myself and thought: “Have I ever come across a life philosophy worth its name without at least a handful of mumbo jumbo thrown in for good measure? No. Still have I not found my life being enriched from temporarily letting something new in and trying it out. Yes. Alas, shut up and listen for a second, then throw out the crap you don’t like. The worst you end up with is a lively sensitive mind and more will power, how bad can it get?”

Having left the concentration camp a few days ago I have now started to come to terms with the experience, and I am left with a sense that the beauty of Buddhism is its pragmatism. You can be a Christian Buddhist, or an atheist Buddhist, or a communist Buddhist. It really doesn’t care much for your beliefs. It wants you to learn how to be happy and not hurt anybody. Period.

Personally I like to be an I-think-for-myself-ist. But Big up to Buddha!

More info on Vipassana centres here.

Jan 25 2009

In Swedish the word for reality is verklighet. Etymologically it stems from the German Wirklichkeit, and I was very surprised to learn that it was the mystic Meister Eckhart’s translation of the Latin actualitas that he used to explain Greek philosophy to Dominican nuns around 1300. I think few Scandinavians and Germans suspect that their concept of reality comes from a mystic that while steeped in Christian metaphors had a very Eastern outlook that claimed that above and beyond the God as a Creator there is a formless Godhead from which all arises. The English concept reality comes from the Latin realitas or realis, and interestingly enough according to an online etymological dictionary it was originally, i.e. around 1550, a legal term meaning “fixed property”. That makes sense since it is still reflected in the American usage of real estate. The dictionary also claims that the meaning “real existence” comes from 1647, which suggests that Germans had an idea of reality a good 300 years before the English. It gives no further clues, and online searches for the etymology of reality leaves one none the wiser. I don’t know Latin, but I have gathered realitas is related to res meaning thing, and I believe that it would be quite uncontroversial to say that reality means something like “everything that exists”. Exactly what one thinks exists and what it means for it to exist is what distinguishes entire schools of philosophy.

That the origin of philosophical speculation in German has this mystical affinity of Meister Eckhart helps to explain the vast difference in flavour between Anglo-American philosophy and continental (i.e. German and French) philosophy. Where Anglo-American philosophy has had more of a sober rationalist character where clear logical analysis can lay bare a passive reality out there, continental philosophy has had more of the poet’s sensitivity. Logical positivists tried to distinguish that which exists and is true from that which does not exist, or exists merely in the mind, and is false. The very concept philosophical realism reflects this idea that reality is something external and independent of human thought. The Anglophone authority by default, the Oxford dictionary defines reality as “thing or all that is real and not imagination or fantasy.” It is no coincidence that in mathematics the opposite of real numbers is called imaginary, because in the Anglo-American concept imagination is exactly the realm of the unreal, the false, that which is to be discarded. It is very tempting for a rationalist to deride German idealists and French deconstructivists and dismiss them as either nostalgic romantics or irrational literary critics that cannot tell facts from fiction. While that is probably valid criticism in some cases the defining difference between analytical and continental philosophy does not lie in the degree of logic used. I would argue that the difference is that Anglo-American philosophy is eliminative in nature, while continental philosophy is inclusive, and that this goes back to the difference between reality and Wirklichkeit.

Wirklichkeit stems from Wirkung which means effect, and thus anything that has an effect is real.

Wirklichkeit stems from Wirkung which means effect, and thus anything that has an effect is real. As a consequence all of that which is an opposite of reality is included in Wirklichkeit since all the fictions of the human mind, myths, fairytales, scientific hypothesis, ideologies and religions, all are products of our imagination and have concrete effects and shape the world we live in. From this spring the essential difference in flavour between an eliminatist analytic philosophy and an inclusive synthetic philosophy. This is obviously a simplistic generalisation but I think it is true all the way from Descartes, Kant, the German idealists like Hegel and Schelling and the theosophists, through to Nietzsche, Heidegger, the phenomenologist-existential movement and post-structuralism. One can find as many differences between these schools of thought as similarities of course, but I dare say that they all reject the ontological suicide committed by the empiricists, and they all see science as an effect brought about by something larger than it can itself fully comprehend. They try to return to the subject and understand the ground that makes science possible instead of trying to explain it away. Thoughts are real if for nothing else they have real manifest effects. The human spirit is active and co-creates the world; it is not merely a passive witness trying to achieve a “view from nowhere”.

Oxford dictionary again does not distinguish between actuality and reality, but in order to be etymologically faithful actuality would be a better translation of Wirklichkeit as it would go back to Eckhart’s original translation of actualitas, and imply that which acts.

How to slice reality in three

Plato distinguished between the True, the Good and the Beautiful. This threefold distinction of reality corresponds to Kant’s three critiques, the Critique of Pure Reason, the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgement. It is also reflected in our language as It, We and I, and in the distinction between natural science, social science and humanities. It reflects three distinguishable domains of the world, following different rules and different ways of yielding to human understanding. In the realist-empiricist understanding of the world the I-We domains, would strictly speaking be imaginary and unreal. Contrary to the Oxford dictionary actuality would be the very opposite of reality. I cannot say I understand the point of reductionism, but at the very least I’d say it’s somewhat impolite to claim that that for which most people throughout history have lived and died is an unreal fiction.

For a German thinker like Habermas the three domains of reality have three different claims of justification, or three different truth concepts. While claims about the It domain are still true or false, in the domain of We, i.e. in morality and politics, policies and actions are not so much true or false but fair or unfair. Furthermore, in the realm of the subjective I, it is not so much truth we should look for but truthfulness. This is an example of how one must adapt one’s concepts to the world, not try to eliminate the parts of the world that don’t seem to fit into one’s concepts.

There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects.

To respectfully accommodate everything that exists no one has gone further perhaps than the little know Austrian philosopher Alexius Meinong whose ontology is wonderfully permissive. For Meinong anything the human mind can think of is an object and must exist in some way. What Anglo-American philosophers would consider reality is but a tiny subset of Meinong’s ontology. This group of objects simply exists in material space-time as they have passed from potential to the real, but another group of objects are still only possibilities, or ideas and fantasies, yet they are somehow. They don’t exist, they subsist. To the subsisting category belong all the dreams that might never come true, the Heissenberg’s uncertainty principle, the lover’s love and the seven virgins in the Muslims paradise. They don’t exist in the strict materialist sense, but they have profound effects on the material world. Not only would Meinong grant being to the entire I-We domain, he would never put imagination as an opposite of reality. Instead he would go to great lengths in trying to distinguish different types of mental objects from each other, he even invited the impossible and inconceivable into his world. “There are objects of which it is true that there are no such objects”, an example of this would be a round square. It could not pass into the material space-time domain of reality, and it could not subsist in the cultural-subjective domain because we cannot actually conceive such an object. Yet, it is somehow since we can think about it. For Meinong impossible objects neither exist, nor subsist – they absist. He considered ordinary metaphysics as being ‘prejudiced in favor of the existent’ and he was the first I think to distinguish between different types of non-existent objects in the strictly material sense. My grandmother no longer exists physically, but she does subsist as a memory. If she had never had a grandson I would have been a mere subsistence myself. A grandmother that is born after her grandson is not a real possibility, yet she absists. We live in a twilight zone and Meinong tried to distinguish the different types of shadows. What exists also subsists and absists. What never was possible could not be realised, but it is still meaningful to be able to distinguish between that which was possible but is no longer so, and that which never was and never will be possible. For Meining though even the faintest impossibility has some air of being. Just like Meister Eckhart’s formless Godhead or Advaita Vedanta’s Nirguna Brahman, Meinong’s absistence, unlike existence and subsistence, has no opposite, no negation.

We have come full circle.

Everything absists.

Dec 22 2008

This post is a continuation of The Religious Roots of Science

Sincere and Insincere attacks on Science
I suggest one can classify attacks on the authority of science along an axis of sincerity. Insincere attacks are those that merely aim at undermining science to replace it with their own even worse justified belief system. To this end of the spectrum belong Christians like Bill O’Reily that try to argue that as long as science does not have all the answers he will stick to the old teaching. This kind of criticism is irrelevant and can be dismissed since it just tries to hide the basic message behind a load of hot air, namely that “I don’t care what you say [insert expletive], I will stick to what I already got”. They can never be proven wrong, and feel no need to justify their position with genuine reasons. At the same time we are supposed to respect their belief in talking snakes and virgin births, and not make any jokes about their prophets.

To this end of the spectrum also belong relativists that claim that science is just another belief system, and as such has no greater authority than any other. All views of the world, whether traditional or modern, are equally true. The insincerity of this position stems from the allusion to its own authority and how it is supposed to be somehow exempt from this criticism. I don’t think there are many sincere relativists in the academic world, since everyone that claims something does, implicitly or explicitly, believe in their own authority over someone else’s.  

There is of course also sincere criticism that can be dismissed as irrelevant because it is ignorant, nonsensical or just comical. An example of this could be the feminist Irigaray claim that E=M*C2 is a sexed equation because speed somehow is a masculine attribute. Or the Sokal hoax where a fake article was submitted to a post-modern journal by a physicist, just to see how much bollocks would be printed.

The danger of insincere critics is that they fight dirty. Insincere people don’t hesitate to twist the words of their opponents. The fact that insincerity still dominates the world I think goes a long way to explain the Darwinian Richard Dawkins political choice of “militant atheism”. In  one recent interview he claimed that science had about 95% of the answers to the ultimate human questions, and that it was working on the last 5%. That is a religious or metaphysical statement since there is no way he can know how much knowledge we will, can or even do possess.

In this interview however, I think Dawkins is getting close to being sincere about his faith in science. Anyone knows that being on the defensive often produces a bias, and while Dawkins enemies may be not just inclined towards their faith, but more like spun around it like a cat caught with the tail in the bicycle wheel, he himself is not exempt from this criticism.

The Church of Reason
I would like to outline some criticism that I think is both valid and sincere, that shows that science fundamentally will always have an element of religion in it. I distinguish between the scientific attitude, which adheres to the scientific criteria for knowledge, such as empiricism, accountability, impartiality, rationality, falsifiability, testability etc. and the religious attitude, which is the willingness to hold on to unproved beliefs for emotional benefit or practical necessity. Seeing is Believing vs Believing is Seeing. My point is that these two attitudes are two sides of being human, and they necessarily coexist in all of us – even in Prof. Dawkins.

1. The Rational Delusion – The basis of rationality is always irrational

Rationality as abstract deduction always begins with a set of premisses and is confined to language. It has been proven rationally all the way from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason up to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and later Wittgenstein that rationality can never become a complete system. It will always depend of some basic axioms, both linguistically, logically and epistemologically. It can say that if statement A is true then statement B is true, but how do the statements get their meaning? From the interpretation of them by person X in language L. Language needs consciousness and culture to have meaning, and while statements can be translated to other languages they ultimately only have meaning to us humans. Concepts mean something by pointing to something other than themselves, some object in the world or another statement perhaps. Even if we could construct a pure and exact logical language where every concept was unambiguous, like the logical positivists dreamt, all concepts still could not derive their meaning from other terms. The basic concepts had to be defined ostensively, by showing what they meant, eg.  like holding up a glass to a child and saying “glass”.

The dream of a complete scientific language is based on the belief that humans can perceive everything that exists.

The dream of a complete scientific language is based on the belief that humans can perceive everything that exists, or at least that from what we can perceive we will be able to deduce all the rest. But we cannot know the limits of our own perceptive apparatus, because we can never get outside of our own bodies. Nor can we know for sure what other beings, human or otherwise, can and cannot perceive. We always perceive them through our own eyes and the limits of our nervous system. There is nothing irrational with an assumption that our perceived reality is one of many that may exist side by side and perhaps they have been rigged by a demon in such a way that neither our senses nor our intelligence will ever be able to grasp them. There could be a whole brass band of ghosts stomping away in a parallel dimension that we could never have the faintest idea about. We could be cosmically fooled and no amount of science can ever prove that wrong. This is why Descartes felt a need to invoke God exactly as the guarantor that he was not deluded by his senses. By doing away with The God Delusion Dawkins does not even have this consoling basis to lean back on. Not that I think he is left any worse off.

2. The limitations of the superficial sensory universe

Empirical science has a successful track record of explaining the world, but in a sense it has not only limited itself to that which could be attacked with its method, but also tried to limit the world to be only that which could be seen through this method. Almost all sciences are based on the experimental ideal of physics, and even in psychology there are many ridiculous attempts at applying this mathematical model on humans. This example is from Research Design Explained, (Mitchell & Jolley, 1992), where the authors teach us about love:

“Rafael Frank’s (1984) theory of love tells us how love can and cannot be measured. …”

           liking*maturity            sexual attraction
Love = ———————— *20*  ————————
dependency                         age

A formula like that exposes the parody that is academic psychology. Under the banner of “objectivity” and with a shield of statistics the quantitative researcher is proudly presenting his scientific results while the subject matter of his discipline has escaped through the back door and he is left with a pseudo-science with less substance than numerology. There is nothing wrong with numbers and statistics, but they only deal with the superficial, and a social researcher only dealing in that area is more like a tailor measuring an arm for a suit than someone contributing to the genuine understanding of what it means to be human. Sorry to be the one to break it, but no one really wears their heart on their sleeve, it is just a metaphor that should not be taken literally. I have nothing against tailors, but when it comes to interpreting human behaviour and human needs even cab drivers have more of value to say. If the problem of having a clear and simple language that represents easily identifiable objects is a challenge for natural science, it is immensely much more so for the social sciences. You cannot construct a scientific/logical/mathematical language by pretending the elementary concepts are obvious. There are no subjective or cultural facts that tell their own story without interpretation. Say we thought we loved someone only to later realize that guilt was what we really felt. Perhaps months later we again reinterpret the past and find that it was indeed profound love. The above formula will tell us nothing about what we actually have gone through. It pretends to be talking about love, but it is really talking about X as the outcome of whatever other factors you put into the equation. To understand ourselves, other people and human artifacts we must interpret, not just measure surfaces. We give love meaning, just like we give all subjective phenomena meaning. Likewise, cultural artifacts only have meaning to us. Money is only money because for a limited time in history we say it is.

There is no God that guarantees that there is a successful “scientific method” in the subjective and inter-subjective domain just because there was one in the natural sciences. When trying to understand humans and human artifacts it is not at all clear what is scientific and what is not, but operating with this inferiority complex of physics psychology as a science is dead. 

3. Our understanding of ourselves is limited to our metaphors

It has been said that what is uniquely human is our ability to understand something in terms of something else. For us a piece of paper can symbolise value. We learn the meaning of words from the world around us, and then we try to apply them to ourselves. Our language is full to the brim of spatial metaphors we don’t even reflect “over”, and we talk about our mind as being “inside” our head,  we “let someone in”, we are “superficial” or “deep”, we put ourselves “above” others and so on. Of course the mind is not “inside” the head, nor is the world “outside”. These are metaphors we have borrowed from the perceived world (or Euclidean geometry more precisely) because we cannot see ourselves “from above”.

Our understanding of ourselves is limited to the metaphors we have borrowed from the physical world.

It became very fashionable to talk about “the computational mind” and that the brain was a computer. Again, it was just because we found a new metaphor to use. But take three people, and let one of them be you. For science the fact that one of them is you makes no difference at all to any equation or theory. From a scientific perspective, even using subjective enquiry and phenomenology, the fact that one of those three is you is nonexistent. Why? Because we have no metaphor for being oneself. I don’t even think there can be such a metaphor, and it does not feature as a concept in language that I can think of. It is an example of something curious that is both experiential and fully familiar (metaphor) to everyone, yet outside normal language and the scientific method. And what about pure awareness? Is there anything else like it? Some things cannot be put into words. Sometimes it is beacause we cannot point to anything common and tangible to explain it, a specific sense of nostalgia provoked by a fragrance on a Spring walk for instance. But sometimes it is because whatever it is that produces words, is itself part of the universe. In the beginning there was absolutely not the word (to twist the Bible) as the words came quite a bit later and are but tiny parts of existence. Metaphorically speaking the rational faculty is stuck inside the basic Kantian categories like the brain is stuck inside the skull. To claim there is nothing outside language, outside our symbols and metaphors, is both naïve and a sign of grandiose hubris. Everything that appears irrational is not necessarily more primitive than rationality – it may be beyond it – not prerational but transrational. Who promised us that the mind ever be able to understand the mind? God!?

4. Science’ failure to give itself a scientific basis

All this leads up to the conclusion that science as an enterprise is yet another human project, while in many ways superior to previous efforts still very much bound to the limitations of being human. Humanity as a species will disappear one day, and with it science and its theories. Why would the theories of today be the true ones? Science itself cannot answer this, let alone religion. As long as there is no science of psychology there is no science of science. When listening to scientists like Dawkins one gets the impression that science itself is separate from all other human activities and somehow exempt from the need to explain itself as a phenomenon, but it isn’t. Why would human beings be able to get a true understanding of the universe? Science always gets into trouble when it tries to explain its own existence. One can say that the senses and reason are superior to other means of obtaining knowledge of the world, but one cannot use these means themselves to underpin this epistemological claim. One can point to practical and technological superiority yes, but one will never be able to obtain objective scientific knowledge about the minds relationship to the world. It would be like a camera trying to photograph itself or a thought trying to think about itself. However much science strives to arrive at the “view from nowhere” it will always remain our view. It threw out God and now there is no epistemological foundation to appeal to. Its hands are tied.

5. Since religion still exists does it not have survival value? 

According to Dawkins there is both a genetic and memetic evolution – the latter being the considerably faster cultural evolution that happens without any significant genetic mutations. Memetic evolution happens in the form of memes, or cultural elements, ideas, inventions, words, images, etc. all these things that make up culture and that can replicate themselves and spread. Science itself thus belongs to the memetic evolution. An essential element of Dawinian evolution is the idea that anything that remains in natural selection has survival value. Dawkins believes in the survival value of truth, and he is the first to admit that. However, the fact that religion is a universal cultural constant throughout the world for most known history raises the question about the survival value of delusions. Nietzsche was a Darwinian and while he strongly criticized Christianity, he was quick to point out that illusions can have great survival value. (And he did knock out a few of his own.) In natural selection of belief systems in the memesoup, science is not the inevitable survivor. While science may provide enough fascination for affluent rational people, for many the choice is not between truth and illusion, but between hope and disillusion. The need for purpose and hope might be stronger than the desire for intellectual sincerity and truth. If science wins over religious myths, ironically enough it won’t be because of its relative truth value, but on the merits of satisfying our existential needs. If it wins it might be simply because it is the best illusion we have hitherto constructed.

Morally speaking, science tries to describe what is, but what ought to be is essentially an extra-rational, and therefore extra-scientific matter.

One cannot derive an ought from an is.

One cannot derive an ought from an is. Looking at the world from the detached scientific point of view there is no scientific reason to care one way or the other what happens to mankind. Again, the fact that we happen to be us does not make any difference to the equations. If your goals were to exploit and destroy you could use scientific methods and technology and achieve this with utmost rational efficiency. For society at large it is quite possible that a degree of delusion is healthy and that a society without Hell or any Supreme Good could turn not only morally twisted but self-destructive. What is happening in Russia for example, a country that has lost its faith in both God and ideology? Why is it now trying to reinvigorate a nationalistic myth and hailing Stalin as the greatest Russian ever? Is this a desperate search for faith in something? Anything, even a mass-murdering dictator? Why myths exist is not a logical but a psycho-logical question. Why does the concept disillusion not have a positive ring? A degree of self-delusion may be essential to mental health and the rational thing to do, if one wanted to be happy and good, may be to partially live a lie. After all, it is inevitable as the ultimate illusion is the belief that one is beyond all illusions.

Can the idea that science is superior to religion at organising society be tested empirically? Is Dawkins belief that a “mythless life” is somehow superior to a “religious life” a scientific hypothesis, i.e. falsifiable? Religiously inspired violence comes to mind as simple examples in support of such a thesis, but isn’t science equally vulnerable to some such arguments? Looking at history, was not the Stalinist dream of a scientific Utopia just such a test? It was not Moses in the desert that invented the nuke or the psychological experiments of brainwashing performed by the CIA. It is in the choice of evidence religious bias shows itself. Dawkins says that he is not aware of any evidence that prove that a rationally based culture is any more moral than a traditional religious based culture, but he just “doesn’t want to live a lie”. If he is not aware of any evidence why does he not scientifically explore it? Not wanting to live a lie is a religious ideal as good or bad as any, but before imposing it on others should he not investigate the psychological and sociopolitical implications thereof? Maybe a “mythless life” is better for him, but how would he even test that? It is not like he can become religious for a day just to see. There is recent research to support that the God delusion may make people more moral and function better in society. Studies suggest that “belief in God encourages people to be helpful, honest and generous“. Who benefits from a scientific mindset? What societies are mature enough for it? While one can derive any type of morality one wishes from natural science – because there is none obligatory – hedonistic nihilism is definitely near at hand, and technology in the hands of hedonistic nihilists might ultimately lead to our demise. While cave people did not individually live as long as we do, they might end up having been here much longer than we ever will.

Ultimately science has no transcendental epistemological basis to offer itself, and while that makes it rationally inconsistent that is hardly a question that would keep people awake at night. The practical question of science vs religion is more important. I don’t think Dawkins is scientific enough about his own belief in science. I think he is much like an android finding a cable sticking out from its head and not understanding what it is for is wondering whether to unplug it. Until one clearly understands our need for religion simply trying to jerk the cable might do more harm than good. It is hard for a rational mind to believe in fairy tales, and to understand people that need them, but ultimately there are things beyond even the rational mind and its ken. Religion is not all about God, it is also about the Highest Good. How do you replace God with a secular Good? What does Darwin’s self-proclaimed pit bull know about this Brave New World? Well, nothing as it would be an evolutionary ermergence never seen before in human history. On what should this God-like intervention in the course of humanity be based so as to prevent this mutation in the memesphere turn out a freak? A hunch?!

I don’t know. What do you think? Please leave comments.

Dec 21 2008

I think science needs to be understood historically as a reaction against religious epistemology. It was, and still is, a struggle against irrational authority and faulty reasoning. Throughout Western intellectual history it is hard to find thinkers and philosophers that were not religious, and whatever separates science from religion there is bound to be more in common as they are both human quests to answer the big questions.

Learning from Experience
Both extremely religious and extremely scientific people are human – comes as a surprise doesn’t it?! Point is that humans like all other animals learn from experience, whether we want to or not. I do believe that the religious and the scientific attitudes to life are complementary, and coexist in us, but humour me for a moment and allow me to sketch them out as opposite extremes. For a person with the religious attitude it is impossible to have a mistaken belief in God or more specifically how God manifests himself in daily life. The belief in a God is an emotional attachment and daily experiences will only be allowed to either confirm it or be irrelevant to it. This denial however only works up to a point. Some previously religious people can no longer cling on to their beliefs when confronted with extreme evil or injustice, hence the emotional benefit derived from the religious belief no longer compensates for the cost of turning a blind eye to those painful parts of human experience that contradict a belief in Divine Justice and Providence. Historically this challenge to faith goes under the name the Theodicy problem, and it has given rise to many desperate attempts at defending the essentially anti-empirical belief in God. The Devil with a Tail manifests himself when a Christian has been beaten literally sense-less by life itself. In this sense even a desperate believer is a reluctant empiricist, forced by an experiential anomaly to find a new hypothesis to explain and justify the validity of the original belief. The empiricists would only bring this natural animalistic ability to learn from experience to the fore and hail it as the supreme source of knowledge.

Numerology as a Proto-science
Rationality, in the sense of an ability to draw conclusions from premisses, is neither an invention of science nor exclusive to science. “7 is a sacred number and everything in nature is made up of 7. As there are 7 orifices in the head, 7 notes in the musical scale, 7 colours in the rainbow there are 7 planets orbiting the earth.” This kind of reasoning was seen as valid in the Christian tradition, and while the premiss that there are sacred numbers may be false it is still an attempt at drawing some kind of rational conclusion based on an assumption. Numerology is an example of rationalised mythology, and is another way Christianity is close to its alleged opposite Occultism, and the mysticism of Pythagoras, the Jewish Kabbalah and Islamic ilm al-huroof.  (“…it is still common today in some Islamic cultures for potential in-laws to analyze the numerical values associated with the letters of a man and woman’s names to see if the couple will make a suitable match.”)

Science was driven by force away from the subjective to have a chance to survive at all against oppressive irrationality.

It is an attempt at using the rational faculty to find the patterns that connect, and to make predictions thereof.  In a way it can be thought of as proto-science; It has an assumption and to verify it it is searching for evidence that supports it. It is an exclusively corroborative effort, meaning it is only looking to confirm and elaborate some basic ideas, namely that there are sacred numbers and that God arranged the world accordingly. Any example that supports the theory is counted, and anything that contradicts is ignored. In this sense the theory can never be mistaken and it shows why verifiability is insufficient as a scientific ideal. You can find an infinite amount of things that can be grouped into seven it will never prove that seven is a sacred number, nor that there will be exactly seven of something as of yet unknown. The brain is wired to see patterns in things and do what we may we cannot avoid it. We often see meaningful coincidences and synchronicities as evidence of higher purpose and destiny. When this healthy and natural tendency takes delusional forms it is called apophenia, and schizophrenics often claim to see conspiracies and meaningful connections where sane people see only a random events or a bunch things. But this ability to see patterns and to make generalisations from experience is the basis for all empirical knowledge, and again science is just a refined form.

The origin of Accountability – The Rational Debate
If we could not make mistakes and if the world was a simple thing all would be peace and harmony, but alas even within the religious traditions all around the world there would be debates about how to interpret experiences, scriptures, and what predictions were the correct ones. From these disagreements would naturally spring some kind of criteria of accountability, i.e. a demand to be able to give a reason for one’s belief or interpretation. If two people argue and both think they are right, while they might both be mistaken, it is likely that the argumentative energy will dig out a bigger epistemic hole by pushing each other and trying to prove the other wrong. This is only guesswork on my part but I think that the demand for accountability which is central to science comes from these traditional disagreements. From debates would come some norms about what is a justified belief and while there have been many different epistemological school “meta-debating” what qualifies as a justification, gradually having no justification for a belief at all would leave the contender out of the game so to speak. Today this ideal has evolved into the basis for the academic discourse, and it is a pillar of Wikipedia. A contributer says: “Wikipedia is both an encyclopedia and a community devoted to producing this encyclopedia. An encyclopedia is a corpus of fact, not opinion, not mystic truths. Thus our community must abide within Pirsig’s “Church of Reason” as an academic entity. Logic and rationality alone set the standard for what we do here. To refuse to discuss a topic squarely—to refuse to look the bull straight in the eye—is to forgo all consideration.

Questions of the validity of some authority only arise when there are conflicting views, each claiming authority. It has always been dangerous to oppose authority, and to question faith still today means running the risk of receiving a death threat. That many Muslims have no sense of humour is not a joke if you are a Danish cartoonist. One of the motivations for the scientific ideal of impartiality and objectivity can be understood historically in the context of conflicting interpretations within religious traditions, but also as a necessary neutral hiding grounds for heretics like Copernicus and Galilei. If you risk being beheaded you want to make it a question about the world and not about subjective opinion. You don’t want to be personally responsible for the earth not being at the centre of the universe. Impartiality, objectivity, verifiability, testability, reproducibility – all of these are scientific ideals that probably have religious precursors from times of conflicting “powerdimes”. But apart from generating more reliable knowledge about the material universe I think they can be understood as protections against power abuse.

Religion gave rise to science, but bad religion gave rise to bad science.

Science was driven by force away from the subjective to have a chance to survive at all against oppressive irrationality. It had to limit itself to explaining and establishing demonstrative facts, but all reality might not want to wear that dress. Value neutrality, objectivity and impartiality work very well in physics, but not necessarily in social science and humanities. To simplify, religion gave rise to science, but bad religion gave rise to bad science. This, I think, is one of the reasons why science still has not be able to replace neither religion nor ideology as the definitive authority in today’s society.    

How Science is not Religion
Science came out of religion and philosophy, and is still struggling to assert its separate identity. Religion is also learning from experience, albeit somewhat reluctantly. It is making generalizations from basic observations and seeks to verify them. It is making predictions about the future. What then is the difference between science and religion? Apart from it having developed those learning abilities it inherited from its religious past, and having self-consciously tried to sacrifice the ballast of irrational authority of holy books etc, the essential difference I think is captured in Popper’s falsifiability criterion.

A belief is only scientific in so far as there is something we can experience that can prove it wrong.

A belief is only scientific in so far as there is something we can experience that can prove it wrong. As long as a belief that can be proven wrong stands the test of time it can be considered true, or rather nearer to truth than its opponent, i.e. have verisimilitude. The beauty of this idea is that it captures a fundamental asymmetry in our knowledge of the world, namely that we cannot know the truth but we can know what is a lie. Popper was, I think, the first to point out that while we cannot prove a proposition true with any number of observations to support it we can prove it false with a single observation in contra. A numerologist can find new examples of seven every day but it will never prove that nature favours seven over twelve or two or whatever. According to this idea of what scientific knowledge is, the hypothesis that nature favours seven is unscientific and basically unknowable due to how it is formulated. If one said instead that “everything in nature is made up of seven” one could easily prove it wrong by picking up one stone. Falsifiability thus gives us something extremely precious, namely a criterion to help distinguish between the knowable and the unknowable. Science should devote itself to the knowable, and religion the unknowable.

Science still on the defensive
The idea that science should deal with the knowable and religion with the unknowable sounds clear and simple, but in practice it is virtually impossible since the things that mean the most to us, our hopes, needs and symbols, are not facts that can be easily known. Being strictly scientifically scientific and adhering 100% to the falsifiability criterion would limit the scientific enterprise to merely observable phenomena, to simple facts, and exclude the strict scientist from weighting in on anything political or existential. But the very existence of science is a political and existential issue! Why should there be science? Why should we try to solve the small and the big questions? How should we organise society? Should the state fund scientific projects? Science is necessarily based on assumptions that themselves cannot be proved scientifically, and thus there is political or even religious aspects to science. Unless science finds a way of embracing its own religiousness instead of religously denying it the debate is skewed. The ultimate questions need to be solved through honest debates where all the brightest minds work together.

Dec 15 2008

“There is no objective truth and we create our own reality”

This idea has really gained popularity lately, and for a lot of people there is something very appealing about it. It offers freedom from rules and limitations, and by taking back the responsibility for one’s life from the world and say that how you see things is more decisive than how things “are” one is “empowering” the individual. The Western world is full of sofa-bound people who feel despondent and disenfranchised not only from the fame and fortunes of the successful but almost from life itself. To them being born is becoming a victim right from the get go, you are pushed out from a warm cosy womb into a cold and confusing world and it is all downhill from there. How do you restore trust in life in people with that attitude? How do you activate them? One of the American dogmas is that “in order to get success you must believe in yourself”, and thus in order to get people out of their sofas they need to start believing in themselves. How would a group of successful Americans, such as Oprah and  Bob Proctor – the “philosopher” you know – go about restoring people’s faith in themselves, and make a good bit of cash for themselves in the process. Well here is…

The Secret – Fleece the Flock

Essentially The Secret is an ironic commercial where rich people teach poor people how they got rich by believing in themselves, and visualising money pouring in through the door – the irony being that their money came from the same poor people paying for the book. Notice how it speaks in terms of “absolute certanties” and offers simple solutions to all problems. The movie teaches that by visualising your parking space you will make it real, and a change of attitude will even make parking tickets a thing of the past. By exploiting people’s infantile belief in magic these spiritual business people have managed to create their own, very real, get-rich-quick scheme. Hell, if you pay me a million dollar I will teach you the secret of how to get rich quick as well.

The Church of Christ vs The Church of Oprah 

The most influential female spiritual leader in the West today is Oprah and many people watch her and are seduced by the magical message that by positive thinking you attract positive things into your life. Christians are deeply scared of the spread of these New Age ideas, and they try to demonise her as the new Antichrist. This video is a Christian anti-Oprah propaganda movie and as such it really isn’t doing itself any favours as it would only hope to appeal to Bible thumpers. As a desperate last measure, like death twitches of a dying faith, they try to convince us that a desire for peace is a proof of evil, and that by denying that Jesus is the only way Oprah is an instrument of Satan leading people down the path that leads to eternal Hell.

Christians are terrified and revert to warped medieval reasoning: “False teachers stare at Truth but fail to recognize the identity of truth. Jesus himself said, ‘I am truth.’ Thus we know that Truth is an aspect of God Himself. Christianity is the only truth because it is anchored in the Person of Jesus Christ.” However, in a battle in the twilight of spiritual mythology it is not truth that will win but whoever manages to make the greatest emotional appeal. When you have to revert to threats of eternal damnation you are fighting a loosing battle. Oprah on the other hand has many million viewers and joined forces with Obama – the so called O2 effect – and her version of spirituality rings of American optimism and is bound to reap many victories in terms of “minds and hearts”.

The Good News

This new spirituality is more adapted to work in times of global cultural exchange where tolerance for difference and encouragement of diversity is essential.

This new spirituality is more adapted to work in times of global cultural exchange where tolerance for difference and encouragement of diversity is essential. In a struggle for world domination Christians and Muslims alike with their insane exclusive adherence to their prophets will only lead to either a new global totalitarianism, or a mutual extinction of us all. In a struggle for tolerance Oprah is fighting the good battle. There is something very important in the relativistic message that highlights how differently people’s perspectives of the world are, and how we do not have access to any neutral ground outside our human-ness.

It is directed towards personal experience and not towards any particular Holy Scripture. This is an intellectual upgrade in comparison with the Abrahamic religions since it stimulates an open ended learning and does not, in theory, surrender to an authority in terms of a priest or a mullah. This is a similar move that science did in terms of rejecting the authority of the state and the church, in favour of reason and empiricism during the Enlightenment, and spiritually it has a very strong Eastern influence. Buddhists seeking personal enlightenment have long since given experience priority in a kind of “see for yourself” approach. It has always been accompanied by methods to get to that personal experience of the divine, and in the same way this new spirituality emphasizes the need for inner development.

It is also very important that people take responsibility for their lives and use the possibilities there are, and it could be argued that any idea that inspires that to happen is simply good. The positive energy in this spiritual teaching could be experienced as a boost of morale and anything that gets people out of their sofas is precious. Pragmatically speaking, if it is good it is true enough. Optimistic and positive people tend to attract other positive people and that good energy spurs opportunities.

The Bad News

The bad news is that it is based on a lie. Perhaps a white lie, but still it just isn’t true that positive thoughts cause changes in the physical or natural world outside the body of the thinker. Actions and the spreading of ideas can produce great changes in society, but not positive thoughts themselves by means of some mythological Law of Attraction. It is a return to magical thinking, i.e. an inability to distinguish between subjective and objective reality and it is a phase children go through before they realise the universe does not revolve around them. Kids can believe they cause bad things by thinking them and they can feel guilty about anything from bad weather to their parents divorce. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget also called this phase preoperational because preschool kids had not yet developed the capacity for logical thinking, and it is supposed to be followed by a stage called conrete operational at about the age of 7. After 21 years in showbusiness Oprah tells Larry King that it was her prayers and positive thoughts that paved her way from a fat, black country girl to a role in the movie The Color Purple and that made her friends with Spielberg and Quincy Jones. She “knows” that she had “drawn” this success into her life. According to cognitive psychology that would imply she has the mental maturity of a preschool child.

While it is directed towards experience it still is neither empirical nor rational. The scientific attitude is different from the religious attitude to life in that a person with a scientific attitude can be proven wrong by experience or argumentation. A person with the religious attitude cannot, in the meaning I give the word. If a religious person prays for some personal benefit X – as they do in all major religions – they will either get it or not. If he gets X it is seen as a proof that God listened. If he does not it just means God did not want him to have it. There is no way of falsifying a belief for a religious person, even if it deals with perfectly knowable things. An openness to experience is not genuinely educational if you don’t really learn from your mistakes. It is one thing being optimistic. Another being a dipstick.

Relativism paves the way for fascism since it undermines critical discussion. When we create our own reality facts become irrelevant and power is the final judge.

Relativism undermines critical discussions since evidence and arguments have no higher value than any other opinion. When we create our own reality facts become irrelevant. Things like real atrocities, genocides, climate crisis and the reality of our limited economical and natural resources can be dismissed as matters of interpretation. When evidence and reason have no bearing power is the final judge. Relativism lends itself to fascism because it actively undermines reason, and while it happens to be sold in a packaging promising success in terms of love, sex, business and money, it can be used to promote and justify anything. In a world of complete moral pluralism what is perceived as positive by someone is untouchable by someone else, whether that be abusing children or cutting down the rain forrest. The belief that “with absolute certainty you will attract that which you think about” is deeply and disturbingly paradoxical when thinking about the amount of opposing desires between people and the limited resources we have at our disposal. What if it is the extermination of another race that I aspire to? What is bad about it? Nothing according to this belief system, and a Jew in a German concentration camp must somehow been guilty of attracting this “bad” experience by having bad thoughts. The Nazis were inspired by magical belief in their own superiority, and Himmler allegedly had his personal astrologer.

Tolerance implies a distinction between what we can know and what we cannot know.

What does tolerance mean? It implies that there is a distinction between what we can know and what we cannot know, and that in the domain of the unknown anyone’s guess is a good as any one elses, at least as long as it works for them and doesn’t hurt anyone else. It does not mean that we have to accept that in the domain of the knowable there is nothing more true or false, better or worse or even uglier or more beautiful. To be tolerant cannot mean one has to give up being reasonable or it will take us right back to the Dark Ages. Irrationality is fertile soil for false gurus and dictators alike. I have discussed this more in the article on The Art of Not Knowing.

While it talks about mind development it is essentially a Western consumerist type of spirituality that is profoundly egotistic, narcissistic and impatient. Do a two week yoga course and get enlightened or your money back. There are a lot of religious virtues in the Abrahamic religions such as patience, dedication, respect, care for your neighbour, help the poor and so on that are lost when the whole self-actualisation generation is making a dash for nirvana as if it were a pair of shoes in the highstreet sale. The frivolousness and shallowness of new Western secular spirituality is stirring up a lot of bad blood in the Middle East, and I see this as a justified reaction to a serious risk of moral collapse.

Dec 2 2008

We live in a time of great uncertainty, and learning how to deal with that is perhaps the greatest challenge we face. It sounds like a dramatic cliché, but like many clichés there is much to it. What uncertainties are we facing that previous generations did not face? The rich affluent West face an abundance of material and life-style choices never seen before, and like Barry Schwartz points out instead of making us happier it often creates frustration. The happiest we can ever hope to get is whatever the marketing promises and whenever we have made a choice the options we sacrificed are more than ever before. Our high expectations create disappointment, and the amount of choices create doubts about whether we made the best choice.

The whole notion of having major choices to make about how to live life is in many ways a novelty. Previous generations largely inherited their role in society from their parents, and their faith was not optional even for the most sophisicated philosphers and scientists. Christianity has been obligatory for most Westerners and now more and more people wake up to the fact that Christianity was merely a fairy tale with 2000 years of state sponsored marketing behind it. Any myth with that propaganda power behind it is bound to penetrate the core of our being and we are still rubbing our eyes at the breakfast table, grasping for the coffee that will make us leave that dream behind.

Another related source of uncertainty that is a complete novelty in the history of mankind is the interchange of cultures that is an inevitable consequence of globalisation and indeed proper general education. It is harder for us to cling to our native values when we are being challenged by other religious, political and cultural values. When we are faced with contrasting alternatives we are forced to ask ourselves why what we have is superior.

This doubt in our own superiority over other cultures and our unique position in the universe has been dealt further blows by the so called “masters of suspicion“: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche and Marx who each have deprived us of some consoling myth or other. We are no longer at the centre of the universe, not essentially different from other animals, not the masters of ourselves, and religion is an opium to keep us from seeing reality.

Having deprived us of the cushy religious certainties science would ironically pull the rug underneath itself. Discoveries in quantum physics made almost 100 years ago were so contradictory to our habits of thinking that we still have not been able to make sense of them. The Uncertainty Principle presented us not only with a logical puzzle and counter-intuitive empirical results but also an epistemological fence previously undiscovered – there was a sign post saying “you can know this but nothing more.” That Newtonian physics could be challenged at all left a deep doubt in the entire project of Modernity with it’s belief in science and technology as the panacea for all human problems. If we cannot find a foundation for our knowledge, an Archimedean point on which to base all knowledge, how is science superior to religion or any fashionable myth that may capture the popular imagination for a time but will inevitably be replaced? If inside science there can be conflicting paradigms with an apparent equal claim on the truth, how can science itself claim authority over other traditional belief systems?

This is why I think we live if times of unprecedented uncertainty, and that causes grave anxiety. I suggest that there are two dominating ways of coping with this anxiety, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is classic denial erupting into irrational authoritarianism, and the other is a hands-off, laissez faire, post-modern relativism that either accepts NO authority or claims ALL authorities to be equal – “I have my truth you have yours”. We are very aware of the danger that ideological and religious certainties can cause and how they can serve those in power. By demonising an enemy one can consolidate a people, unite them under God and send soldiers to die “ad majorem gloriam”, but while the relativist “solution” is healthier and an admirable effort in diplomacy I’m convinced it is not ultimately a cure for the anxiety. It is a natural reaction to the horrors of totalitarian power abuse by the Church, the State and even Science, to fall into the attitude that we cannot know anything and that any guess is as good as any other, but we know that that is not really true. That we cannot have absolute certainty does not mean we cannot tell better from worse. It does not mean our approximations cannot be good enough for most practical purposes. I think the relativist rebellion against authority is based on the exact same erroneous notion of what human knowledge is. The assumption is that unless the knowledge is somehow final and definite it is not knowledge at all, and ironically by rejecting ALL authority the relativist placebo is trying to find a new certainty in the opposite extreme. Instead of clearing away delusions it seems to offer everyone an epistemological holiday to be delusional, each one in their own favourite way.

Many have pointed out that paradoxically, by trying to distribute equal authority to all, the relativist is still saving a special position for that particular doctrine. In a world full of people that do not believe that truth is relative, he who holds that view is granting himself more authority than the others. In so doing he is performatively proving himself wrong. This is pretty much how Socrates sliced Protagoras doctrine that “man is the measure of everything” to pieces in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus 400BC.

Many relativists see the historian of science Thomas Kuhn as this (paradoxical) authority that has shown that science is just another type of religion. They think that his paradigm concept is the scientific equivalent of the church denominations, and like you have Protestants and Catcholics, you have String theorists and Multiverse physicists. Ironically Kuhn himself rejects these accusations of him being a relativist when writing “scientific development is, like biological, a unidirectional and irreversible process. Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.”

Another irony is that while relativism may be motivated by a noble striving towards tolerance and diversity, if there is no neutral evidence based court in which to settle questions about truth there is nothing stopping totalitarian political powers to declare truth to be whatever serves their purposes. While the motivation is diplomatic tolerance it backfires and paves way for abusive authoritarianism, which is what Bertrand Russell argumented in the essay “The Ancestry of Fascism.”


Both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty.

Hence both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty. This leaves the mind very frustrated as uncertainty is an essentially emotional problem. This can be seen in how people live. Gradually as we grow older we try to eliminate as much uncertainty and risk as possible. The more we accumulate the busier we are struggling not to loose it. The mind wants to eliminate any type of uncertainty double-quick. The clever old Buddhists called this the grasping mind.

While it is true that on an absolute and ultimate level we cannot know anything for sure, on a practical level we must still make choices based on our best guesses. While some of those guesses could for all practical purposes be considered “true” the real question is why we feel such a need to convince ourselves that we are right? Why are we so hopeless at dealing with risk when in reality probabilities is all life has to offer? Essentially the Western world has never learnt how not to know. I say Western, not because it is an exclusively Occidental problem, but because Eastern philosophers such as Nagarjuna were well aware of the limits of thought way back when Christian hypocrites were simply paying lip-service to doubting Thomas.

Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge?

Another reason why we are so bad at not knowing is because what could be called “anepistemology” is a missing subject in our school curriculum. Anepistemology  would be the study of what we cannot know. Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge? Can you imagine a teacher sharing with the class everything they don’t know and things they have doubts about? Hard to picture, but I actually did a course in Quantum Physics and the Limits of Knowledge at Uni in Gothenburg when I was 19. That one course was perhaps the best I got from my five year philosophy studies.

The following small list of things we cannot know may serve as a starting point:

  • The future
  • Others’ motives
  • Our own motives
  • What, if anything, we are supposed to do on this planet
  • The answers to the big mysteries of the Universe
  • What it is like to be another being
  • How much there is to know and what proportion of that we actually know
  • Which of the ideas we now hold to be true that future generations will use as examples of our simple-mindedness

These some of the things we know that we cannot know with any high degree of certainty, yet every day we pretend we do. The role of education in this respect would be to teach about the limits of human knowledge and show that it is OK not to know. It is important to learn to make choices with insufficient information without reverting to false certainties. The future is not going to be any less uncertain and learning to take risks will be an even more important skill.

I also believe the practice of meditation can play an important role. One of the effects of meditation on the mind is the creation of a larger “inner space” in which opposing ideas can co-exist without creating a civil war. By observing ideas as if they were clouds passing by in one’s “inner sky” one can extract that emotional identification that can make one blinded by passion. A mind that feels safe and happy in the silence can navigate through the practical problems of every day life more efficiently. If uncertainty and fallibility is the starting point, the ground and context of every decision, one doesn’t need to fool oneself with false certainties nor despondently abstain from choosing. Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

For a related Psychosynthesis exercise check out this article on disidentification.

PS. Google inadvertently just told me more stuff we don’t seem to know. I use the define:xxx function but before I typed what I was looking for it suggested some common searches people have done lately. Interesting that socialism, philosophy and pragmatic are among the top 10!

General ignorance

Intellectual sincerity

Dec 1 2008

I think the expression “I have an idea” or “I think” is curious. It seems to presuppose that I am the creator of the idea and that it is somehow mine, but when I am honest with myself and try to see where “my” ideas come from I see that almost all come from other people, dead or alive, that have influenced me somehow. At birth I was thrown into a culture that was already there before me, jam packed with contradictory ideas, like a patchwork without an overall pattern. This is the memesoup on which my mind has been raised. Had I been born somewhere else at some other time I would have been profoundly different, and so would my thoughts. 

Sure enough I have my understanding of each idea that has influenced me, and that might be unique to me, but I really can’t take credit for anything much original in what is going on inside my head. There have been of course one or two original ideas that I seem to have “come up with” but even then – from where did they come? Maybe I had a flash of insight which meant that one moment I did not see something with my minds eye and the next I did – but how did I create them? I have no idea. I paid attention. I listened and the universe gave them to me I suppose. A lot of creative people have said the same. Take David Lynch for instance, one of the most original and innovative film-makers ever. In his book on how he gets his creative ideas “Catching the Big Fish” he describes the creative process as one of diving into the inner sea to fish out a new idea. For him that is a daily meditative practice. An effort. “Desire for an idea is like bait. When you’re fishing, you have to have patience. You bait your hook, and then you wait. The deisre is the bait that pulls those fish in – those ideas.” But Lynch is clear on the point that the ideas come to him, and he often doesn’t know what they mean. After Mulholland Drive there were lots of debates about how to interpret the movie, in fact there is a whole website dedicated only to that and the range of suggestions is staggering. Everything from dream analysis, to meetings with the Devil and parallel universes. Particularly people wonder about what the box and the blue key meant.

Lynch view is: “I don’t have a clue what those are”.

Mullholland Drive

Mullholland Drive

The point here is that Lynch is considered an original thinker. He meditates and contemplates. Most of us are not in the habit of neither. Still we like to think that we think and that thoughts are not just things that happen in us. Ok, so lets do a simple experiment. If indeed there is a thinker that controls the thinking surely it can stop thinking at will no? Try not to think at all for a short moment of say 2 minutes. Look at a watch and try to keep the mind completely silent.


It hasn’t been 2 minutes yet…


No dice?


Oh well. It is tricky, but if one can’t keep concentration for 2 minutes one isn’t much of a thinker. Yes yes you might object, so what? We are not all Platos and Freuds but the phrase “I think” is just a linguistic construct, a convenient way of talking. No harm in that right? Well I think there might very well be, because as is often the case, this is no linguistic accident. The fact that we say “I think” expresses several dubious assumptions we hold.

  1. There is an I that is the active and responsible thinker
  2. Because you are the thinker you as a person are responsible for you ideas
  3. My identity hinges on my ideas about the world and myself

It thinks in me.

Because we don’t tend to recognize the extent to which we are innocent of our own ideas we get emotionally involved with “our own” opinions. If someone said to us, “you only think so because your mom told you to” we would get offended. “Why, you don’t think I can make up my own damned mind?!” I’m not saying one cannot make one’s mind up, but it’s harder than we tend to think. To me it implies going deeper: Why do I hold a certain belief? Where did it come from? What purpose does it serve for me to believe it? Is it really true? If it is faith more than knowledge, am I free to believe the opposite? If I could not believe anything else, if their is no choice, how is it MY belief?

The number of active critical minds responsible for original ideas is almost insignificant in comparison with those that more or less passively spread those ideas. The amount of fundamental ideas is actually rather limited. There are new cross-breeds and new flavours, but the basic classes of ideas are not as varied as one might imagine.

The linguistically correct way of expressing things in many situations would be to say:”In Joe it thinks that a horse shoe over the door brings luck.” Joe didn’t invent this idea, he wouldn’t claim it as his, and he probably couldn’t have come up with it even if he tried. He is probably living in a culture in which this belief is common, and perhaps he hasn’t even reflected on it. He feels he belongs to that group and the horse shoe might be just “one of those things one does”. It was part of his memesoup as a symbol of belonging, like a flag. 

“It thinks in me” rings weird at first, but when I introspect that seems to be what happens often. Psychosynthesis has developed this other way of speaking that reflects this insight. Instead of saying I think A and B one often say: “There is a part of me that thinks A, and another part that thinks B.” That opens up a space for exploration and clears out the emotional need to defend my ideas. Ultimately I am not responsible for being born and why should I defend all the beliefs I have been fed?

Another consequence of the expression “I think” is obviously “you think” and “you are wrong”. When there is no separation between the person and the idea in language, it makes it very difficult to separate them in practice. A person comes to represent the idea – for better and for worse. Agreeing or disagreeing with someone is often a matter of liking or disliking the person more that the idea. Do we trust them? If so we tend to agree with what they say. Do we adore them? They can make us believe anything. Do we dislike them, then it hardly matters what they will say and we will disagree. It seems to me that in general, if we really want to understand someone we can. When we say we don’t understand someone, we are often indirectly saying that we don’t like them.

Anything with which I identify myself controls me.

These kinds of considerations helped to foster the ideal of the rational debate. Traditional authority, personal preference, unquestioned opinions, twisting the opponents words, seeing only what one wants to see, etc. all of these were summoned up in the contemptible concept “subjective” and not fit for a genuine debate. In fair debates we should be able to justify our beliefs with arguments, but not all kinds of arguments qualify. To argue ad hominem for instance is not accepted i.e. to use arguments about the personal character of the opponent. Like “You are an alcoholic, therefore you cannot be trusted and your claim X is false” or “What you say is not true because your middle name is Hussein, and that sounds fishy to me”.  The truth value of X of course cannot be settled with such rhetorical “tricks”. These ideals still govern academia, wikipedia and the political parliaments but they are very difficult to adhere to. (Check out these tragic fist fights in parliaments for instance.) The difficulty stems from, I think (I doubt it is my original thought actually), the whole issue of personal identity and that as long as we think we think, we identify ourselves with whatever happens to be thought in us. And we treat others the same way, which is why we feel we should punch them in the face when they are wrong.

Anxious juice maker

How is it possible for us to identify with an idea? It is amazingly curious the whole thing.  Fascinatingly puzzling and uniquely human. If a juice maker could think would it believe it was an orange? Will computers get upset when we no longer use Windows? 

If we call an idea a “thing” it is a curious thing, so odd indeed that many philosophers believe they live in a whole different world, a 3rd world beyond the physical and mental. Be that as it may, but they are not ordinary things in so far as they always point to something other than themselves. An idea about a thing is not the thing itself. It points to it. And then we come around, jump on that idea and say that we are it! Huh?! The idea that there is a heaven, or karma or reincarnation or whatever, points to something “otherworldly”. It is this “pointing to” that gives it meaning, and that makes it “not-a-thing”. But as if that wasn’t odd enough already, we come and sit on the poor beast and claim that we are it. I am a Muslim! I am a Marxist. Yes sir, that is what I am. All of it. That is me.

One might object: “If I am not [a Christian, scientist, dentist…] then what am I?” Well, you are what you are. The idea doesn’t change that. Seems to me we don’t know what we are, therefore we feel a need to invent an identity. But the idea we identify with is necessarily something other than what we are. But we don’t know what it is like just to be, so we feel a need to fill the silence with images and words.

In psychosythesis there is an idea that says that anything with which I identify myself controls me, and that I think is the stone in the shoe. There are many practical exercises to disidentify from parts of oneself that help increase the inner space and freedom. Check out this one for instance.

I leave you with another Lynch gem… 

“Little fish swim on the surface, but the big ones swim down below. If you can expand the container you’re fishing in – your consciousness – you can catch bigger fish.”

Please leave comments and show me how bonkers this all sounds!

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.


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.