Mind Rules!

I seldom write about politics and economics (or policy and economy, respectively). Maybe that is because I am neither very much interested in political discussion nor in economy. In contrast to philosophy and science, these domains are rather unpleasant but necessary burdens of our contemporary societies than inspirational sources of growth and mental development. Yet, sometimes my interests have unavoidable touching points with one or both of these spheres.

A thought this morning grew into a rather large consideration on what could be a favourable political system. It started with the boss giving me a book on Open Innovation. In short, it describes trends in making customers, consumers and the general public a part of the innovation process from design onwards. It is believed that this is the best way to ensure that value co-creation is realised in the development of products and services and that technology development proceeds on sustainable trajectories. This form of democratisation of technological progress has been promoted in the EU on the political level since a few years, for example in the Open Innovation, Open Science, Open to the World (3O) concept. This approach was put in place to substitute the previous Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) agenda that has itself been an extension of the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) research program. The latter has been criticised for being too academic and too much expert-dominated, ignoring the needs of industry, and excluding the public from active participation. I come from the ELSI school of technology assessment, believing that the ethical assessment of developments should lie in the competence realm of ethicists and other normative scientists, firmly based on evidence-based knowledge and sophisticated but reliable and well-established methodology. The Open _____ [insert whatever you like to be “open”] program undermines the disciplinary rigidity of normative sciences, delegating important considerations on values, desirability, conflict solving, risk mitigation and other normative aspects of technology to laymen. This is disastrous in view of the majority of people being self-interested ignorant fools (a central part of my worldview).

To be honest, I have been doubtful of the effectiveness and usefulness of democracy as governance form since my adolescence. People are stupid! Who would want (all) people to rule?! I was attracted by the idea of a philosopher state (as described by Plato) or, rather recently, by Jason Brennan’s epistocracy (knowledge rules) model. Yet, most of these oligocratic (power in the hands of few) concepts have flaws or bear the danger of misuse for self-interest (more details later). After a bit of wikipedia research on forms of governance, I found an approach that I believe I can fully endorse as long as it fulfils some conditions: Noocracy (pronounced “no-ocracy”), sometimes called Aristocracy of the Wise. Let’s start from the very basics.

People are suffering. The root of their suffering are ignorance (or delusion), attachment (or greed, clinging to or craving for something), and resistance (or hatred, rejecting or denying something). These mind poisons cause (or empower, give rise to) the major three evils of this world: Money, power, and ideology. Money became the driving force for many individual and collective decisions, overriding ethics, humanity and cooperation. Intended as a means for efficient exchange of goods and services, it turned into an end-in-itself. Money is the material manifestation of greed. Besides material wealth (represented by money), people are usually greedy for influence and control, striving for power over others. I declare ideology the third big evil of the world, because promoters and followers of ideologies, by definition, refuse to subject their ideas into critical scrutiny, disregard logic and reason, treat opinions and feelings just like evidence-based facts, and confuse taste and rationality. Ideology is just as good as ignorance; in fact, it is highly dangerous! All three evils are supported by all three mind poisons, respectively. Money became so impacting not only because of greed (for material wealth) and resistance (fear of monetary poverty as the worst situation in a capitalist society), but also because of the delusion that money is an important end, ignorant of the fact that it is a flawed human-made system. Greed for power goes along with an aversion against being controlled and the deluded idea of hierarchies and well-being dependent on the position in these hierarchies. Endorsing ideology is not only the result of epistemic ignorance or lack of intellectual capacity, but also the effect of attachment (to doctrines and worldview, see my entry on ontological security) and resistance (against having to admit that the world is, in fact, different from what is firmly believed).

noocracy1

The evils manifest their influence because societies are organised (or organise themselves) in a way that promotes them. This is because political leaders are deluded by the mind poisons. In most democracies, representatives of the public, from local council members to presidents of nations, don’t need to prove their competence for their office beforehand. Best example is the laughable clown Donald Trump being elected by a foolish US-American society as their president. In regard of the history of democracy, the hope that voters select their candidates by competence or skill has to be given up. In order to break the dominance of money, power and ideology, a system change has to be induced. To put it into a simple formula: We need to find ways of giving political leadership to people that are not deluded by the mind poisons. But since voters are deluded themselves, democracy should better be replaced by a system that grants policy-making rights only to enlightened wise people. Wise people reduce ignorance and delusion to a minimum by replacing it with knowledge and rational application of it. Instead of being attached to any craving and desire, they have a free mind that substitutes selfishness by compassionate modesty. The inner imbalance of the deluded that causes hatred and aversion is replaced by an inclusive attitude of acceptance and peacefulness. This combination of traits (or virtues, maybe?) – knowledge, freedom, acceptance – would lead the wise leader to endorse wellfare (a just distribution of the available benefits, including non-monetary goods like environmental health or education, etc.), creativity (here understood as the willingness to exploit skills and ability to build a healthy society in a collaborative effort), and reason (reflecting on the validity of knowledge claims, the difference between factual and normative insight, and the importance of both for viable pragmatic decision-making). If we could find a way to make such mindful people the rulers of a society, that would be a noocracy (from nous (νους), Greek for mind or intellect) as envisioned by Vladimir Vernadsky (calling it “noosphere”), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, or Mikhail Epstein.

noocracy2

Obviously, I suggest a system in which few rule over many. Even though in many so called democracies this is the reality, such an oligocracy still faces strong – sometimes rather intuitive – opposition. There are too many oligocratic systems that are either outdated, inefficient, cruel or simply unpopular. Let me try to explain the difference between a Buddhist-inspired noocracy and alternative oligocracies.

noocracy3

An oligarchy – which I differentiate from the umbrella term oligocracy – is defined as the self-interest driven analogy of an aristocracy that serves common good (at least in the definition of Plato, Aristotle and ancient historian Polybius). With other words: Oligarchy relates to aristocracy in the same way as tyranny (self-interest) relates to monarchy (common good), or as ochlocracy relates to democracy. Oligarchs – we may think of Russia, Zimbabwe, but also recent tendencies in the USA – tend to fill their own pockets through their power. Noocrats would, by definition, never do that!

As the “subtitle” – Aristocracy of the Wise – suggests, noocracy could be understood as a form of aristocracy. There are some similarities between the concepts, especially when interpreting aristocracy as “rule of the best (most capable)”. Unfortunately, the term is heavily history-laden and refers in common usage to the leadership of the noble class (the aristocrats). This corrupts the very basic idea, because not the best ruled but those who had the fortune of being born into a noble family. In a noocracy, heredity is irrelevant for the competence of being a leader.

This would qualify noocracy as a derivative (or even synonym) of a meritocracy, a system in which those gain power who proved their competence by acquiring certain merits such as a good education or success in a particular examination. The crucial parameter, here, is the criteria that determine the merit. Education degree and success in one’s career are clearly insufficient indicators. Even intelligence (IQ) and knowledgeability are not enough since wisdom and mindfulness are much more than that. It is a feature of a meritocracy that people run for power and reach their goal by being better than their competitors (achieving higher or more merits). The competition is kept alive and efficient by the fact that people are motivated to get into a powerful position. This could be a serious problem for a noocracy: Those that are most suitable for a leader position in a noocracy are people that are, by their character and personality, not striving for power (as Susan Sara Monoson pointed out in her reflection on Plato’s philosopher state). Yet, I believe that this aspect can be turned into another advantage of a noocratic system. While political leadership is, of course, a matter of decision-making power, the office itself (being a political leader) should be primarily about responsibility, vision, and bringing in one’s skills and competences rather than having power as an end in itself. It could be a good idea not to let those have political offices that aim at a maximum of power! At least – and this is the major difference between a meritocracy and a noocracy – those who collect merits for the sake of power and influence (and fame, wealth, self-pride, etc.) are not the ones suitable for leadership since their attachment to these merits shows that they are still suffering.

Clearly ruled out is the option of a plutocracy (rich people rule) as a special form of either aristocracy or meritocracy. Material wealth, following the above considerations, is certainly not an indicator whether someone is wise or not. Of course, wise people can be rich, and some rich people may also be wise. The important factor that has to be looked at is the attachment of the wealthy person to his/her wealth.

From my perspective, the most interesting comparison is that between noocracy and epistocracy (knowledge rules, or better: those who have knowledge (experts) rule). Generally, I endorse any attempt to base policy-making on empirically acquired knowledge and to form strong ties between politics and (academic) sciences as the most reliable sources of viable knowledge. At the same time, I doubt that experts – competent and knowledgeable people in specific fields such as natural sciences, engineering, social sciences and humanities, or industrialists and economists – are per se (by their expertise) qualified for political leadership. An extreme form of governance in which policy-making is dominated by technical engineering-like thinking is a technocracy like the Chinese: The society is understood as a kind of machine with all kinds of cogwheels and springs, and the task of politics is to keep the machine running by efficient fine-tuning. In a drastic form, it means that malfunctioning parts (trouble makers, however defined) can be thrown out for the sake of the harmony of the whole; in a more moderate version, the factual and technical-scientific knowledge outweighs the normative and orientational knowledge (on values and worldviews, on what is humane or not) so far that political leadership turns cold and mechanistic. Therefore, “my” noocracy wants the mind to rule, not just knowledge. Noocrats gather knowledge on whatever topic needs to be discussed (health, energy, mobility, housing, food, economy, etc.), get clear about the available options and their respective implications on values, and choose that option that is the most promising for the protection and promotion of those values that the society endorses or that the wise leaders identify as the most endorse-worthy. That is what mindfulness (here understood as freedom from the mind poisons) is necessary for. Expert knowledge is only one part of the insights required for rational and reasonable decision-making. Only in combination with a clear (non-deluded), free (non-attached), embraced (non-resisted) vision of values and virtues, it adds up to wisdom.

Of course, all these considerations are extremely naïve and idealistic. There are too many influences that undermine the idea of a leadership of the wise, ranging from methods to select the leaders to ensuring that leaders are led by their wisdom rather than by their (self-)interest. On this blog I may have the opportunity to “dream” of such a system, knowing that it would be unrealisable in the real world. On the other side, isn’t the small Himalayan country Bhutan an example for something like a noocracy? It has been a kingdom for many centuries until the king resigned in 2006 and intended to complete the transformation process towards a constitutional monarchy that his predecessor started. After the people protested and wanted their king back, he installed councils and advisory groups that are in charge of the policy-making. In a country that takes Buddha’s teachings very serious (for example, just look at Bhutan’s environmental policies), it is very likely that those in leading positions have at least a basic awareness of the mind poisons and know strategies of overcoming them. Thus, I see a chance that Bhutan is governed by a few wise leaders (not just one, and also not everyone) – a real-world example of a noocracy!

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Gimme Five, Tops!

In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz explains the common phenomenon that a surfeit of choices decreases the perceived quality of life of the decision-maker. Too many options lead to a higher degree of dissatisfaction with one’s choice – no matter which option has been chosen. The customers of a restaurant that has only five dishes on its menu are reportedly happier with their choice than the customers of a restaurant that offers a whole book full of variations. The same goes for shoe shops and any other retailers, but also dating websites. That last case is especially critical, because as a result of an abundance of parameters and their combinations, the focus in the end will be on physical attractiveness (the profile photo of the candidate) rather than anything more meaningful for a partnership.

supermarket

Choosing from a few options leaves us happier than choosing from many options. What sounds convincing may need a bit further reflection. Conclusions like this are often based on empirical studies that, in some way, hide individual differences behind statistical means and flat average values. For example, how much does the personality of the decision-maker play a role? Confident people who know exactly what they want might feel happier with a large set of options to choose from because it increases the chance that they find exactly that in it. Their tolerance level (the range of acceptability of requirement specifications) is low so that in a set of a few options none is satisfying for them and they refrain from any purchase. For indecisive people, a set of few options is the better situation. The tolerance levels are wider (closer to indifference) so that at least one of the options will be acceptable whereas, at the same time, they don’t need to bother comparing too many options and figure out their preference (which is rather undefined and loose, anyway).

Let’s take this line of thought further to the marketing level. The most prominent real-life example in Schwartz’s book is the comparison of the sales of two promotion stands in a supermarket offering marmalade. One stand has 24 different flavours that people can try, the other only six. Even though the one with more offers attracts more shoppers (60% of the people stopped and tried some of the 24 samples, compared to 40% stopping at the other stand), the stand with six samples sold more glasses (30% of those who tried samples bought one in the end, compared to only 1% of those trying some of the 24 samples buying anything). In view of the above considerations, it means that the majority of people has no clear preference concerning fruit jams and can choose more easily from a rather small set of flavours, with too many options overwhelming or even overstraining them. Those who know exactly what they want (“Strawberry Jam with Rhubarb and slight Lime flavour!”) are probably not very susceptible for promotional stands in the first place and wouldn’t switch to an alternative too quickly, too, but rather buy nothing. Interestingly, most models and theories in microeconomics, consumer psychology and marketing think of consumers as rational agents, evaluating options strictly by (expected) utility and, thus, knowing quite well what they want. The development from mass production via mass customization towards mass personalisation in recent decades is based on the premise that consumers know what they want. On these grounds, more options is equivalent to more freedom (of choice), which is what we all want, don’t we? Actually, I have the impression that most people don’t know how to deal with freedom and are not willing or able to take the appropriate responsibility for their freedom. Thus, they need guidance and people making decisions for them, for example by pre-selecting and limiting the number of options from which to choose. Inevitably, economy becomes an issue of power of pre-selectors over sheep-like followers.

I see a dilemma, here. Imagine a society of confident decision-makers who know what they want, with all the necessary diversity that it entails. Many different varieties of goods and services would have to be produced in order to serve all needs and lead to satisfaction and well-being. This can hardly be sustainable (or we need to figure out more sophisticated ways of making production and dissemination more sustainable). On the contrary, imagine a society of sheep that need to be told what they want. This allows a high degree of control and greater chance for efficient and sustainable production. Yet, as history has shown, such imbalanced empowerment never worked out well in the end. Moreover, we don’t want a society of sheep but one of critical thinkers and mature responsible people. Education! Probably, what is still missing, is the education for consumption competence (same as media competence is part of the curricula of 6th or 7th grade students in Germany). You should know what you want, but you should also be able to reflect on the wider implications of your needs and desires. Freedom does not mean the limitless fulfilment of all your needs and desires, but the mental liberation to decide to consume mindfully and, thus, sustainably. Only when people learn this we can succeed with the transition towards a sustainable economy without power imbalance and authoritative control.

Poor in Spirit

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.” (John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, 1863)

In this quote, Mill argues that no reasonable person would ever want to be a pig or a fool just for the sake of being more comfortable. It is an important element of an argument against plain well-being as the determining factor whether an outcome is good or beneficial and to what extent. A pig may seem pretty happy and satisfied with the life it has. On the contrary, our intellectual and cognitive capacity occasionally causes us hard times, knowing and being aware of all the burdens, responsibilities, and emotional stress going along with it. If satisfaction level and well-being are all that counts, the pig is better off than we are. The character Cypher in the Matrix trilogy takes this idea seriously: He chooses the simple worldly pleasures of an unaware mind (incorporated into the matrix that simulates these pleasures) over the freedom of mind that arises from seeing the world as it really is (with all those illusions torn down). Mill, supposedly supported by many people, argues that the human capacity (or: potential) to use rationality and reason to strip off natural boundaries and acquire mental (and, subsequently, real) freedom is worth more than ignorant satisfaction.

Ignorance. The key word that always turns my focus to Buddhist philosophy and psychology. Buddhism has a clear stand on this point: A human mind, aware of its suffering and at least potentially taking efforts to reduce the suffering, is higher on the ladder towards enlightenment than an animal mind that doesn’t even have the ability of awareness and mindfulness. Similarly, a wise person (like Socrates), no matter how dissatisfied and frustrated, has a higher chance of seeing clearly than the fool that delves in worldly pleasures under influence of the mind poisons. This, of course, is not to say that higher levels of wisdom necessarily lead to more frustration and depression (as in some nihilist interpretations of Buddhist teachings), or that only deluded minds have sufficient reasons to enjoy life. Freeing one’s mind and getting closer to enlightenment, certainly, leads to more well-being and, as I would call it, peacefulness (which is closer to the Buddhist idea than happiness or satisfaction, both of which we are too easily attached to), but these states are of a very different quality than the apparent satisfaction of fools and pigs.

awakening

A pig’s or a fool’s satisfaction are, by definition, based on a misconception of causes, effects and relations, a misinterpretation or simply ignorance of the world (as it really is). It depends on the fulfilment of conditions and is, thus, vulnerable and ephemeral. This mindless happiness may show itself on the outside of a person (or animal), while the inner state is somehow unreflected and, thus, not of long-lasting quality. The first effect of questioning and doubting is often a certain confusion and insecurity concerning old established and now shaking believes, convictions and behavioural patterns. Very often, this transition phase goes along with clearly visible frustration and somewhat strange behaviour. People in this phase look like in a crisis (which it often is, indeed). But every crisis and imbalance will relax into a new equilibrium state. Either the new insight is rejected and peace is found in re-confirming the old belief, or the insight triggers (mental) growth and the formation of a more sustainable and viable mindset. Progress along the Buddhist path means to gradually free the mind and disconnect the link between mental states and their conditions. Reaching such an insight leads to inner peace. This peace manifests itself in a content and “happy” mood. For an outside spectator, such a mindful, awaken, or enlightened person might not look very different from the happy fool, but the crucial difference is the inside: This kind of mindful satisfaction is rooted in a clear (or: cleared) vision and, therefore, independent of conditions, conventional truth, or environmental impact. The essence that I try to convey, here, in the wording of the initial quote, is: In order to develop from a (transiently) satisfied fool into a (sustainably) satisfied sage, the stage of a dissatisfied Socrates (or any other awakening person) is a necessary step on the way. In this respect, a dissatisfied human being is, in any case, better than a happy fool because he or she has obviously progressed further on the way towards wisdom.

I’d like to comment shortly on an often misunderstood sentence from the Bible because it has to do with this topic. In Matthew 5:3-12, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he pronounces eight beatitudes (four of them also cited in Luke 6:20-22, the Sermon on the Plain). Probably the most famous is: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The German version, unfortunately, is often cited as “Gesegnet sind die geistig Armen,…“, which sounds like “Blessed are the blockheaded (stupid)…“, implying that religion attracts the uneducated and foolish. It could mean that Christians (represented by Jesus’ sermons) would favour the satisfied fool over the dissatisfied sage. I find it much more plausible to interpret the poor in spirit (which has to be distinguished from poor-spirited!) as addressing those who recognise, accept and embrace the fact that all our worldly knowledge is illusory and (in Buddhist terms) at best conventionally true. Wise people who, first, realise that we actually know nothing at all, develop a certain form of humbleness, moderateness, and inner simplicity and clarity that could be denoted as “poverty” (in contrast to sophisticated intellectual concepts and scientific and/or philosophical explanations of the world). A.W. Tozer writes:

These blessed poor are no longer slaves to the tyranny of things. They have broken the yoke of the oppressor; and this they have done not by fighting but by surrendering. Though free from all sense of possessing, they yet possess all things. “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God, 1957)

The tyranny of things, in my interpretation, includes “things” like conventional knowledge and all views that are motivated or influenced by the mind poisons. Tozer’s statement corresponds to the Buddhist theme of peacefulness and ending all fighting. I call it “the acquisition of freedom in ____ (insert whatever feature needed in specific contexts)”. Freedom in (not from!) emotions, thoughts, desires, mental and physical states means not to fight, but to embrace and let go. At an early stage of training (at the beginning of the Path), this will often go along with dissatisfaction, frustration, depression and gloominess. But, as explained above, going through this phase on the way towards wisdom and enlightenment is, I believe, well worth it!

Be Your Non-Self!

One of the challenges of parenting is to see the children as they are, not as we like them to be or as they appear with all the filters and projections that we apply on them. I find this especially tricky with two children. The first one (Tsolmo) already shows rudimentary personality traits. In our daily interaction, we formed routines and patterns, found strategies that work (for example at the dinner table or when it comes to going to bed), and respond to her particular character. Recently, it crossed my mind that we (the parents) need to be very aware of the danger that we might treat the second one (Ana) as if she was the first one (Tsolmo) and, thus, disrespect her individuality and uniqueness. Suddenly, watching them both play and imagining their future development, I thought “Ana, always be sure to be yourself! You are not a Tsolmo 2!“.

tsolmo-ana

A moment later, the Buddhist in me intervened. Anatta! There is no such thing as self. Don’t indoctrinate your kids with an exacerbating concept of self! Of course, they are physically separate entities with individual spatiotemporal continuity, that’s how we can give them different names (in both philosophical and very literal sense). Yet, if we accept the plausible understanding of dependent arising and its consequence – the Buddhists since Nagarjuna call that emptiness – one’s own self is nothing but a concatenation of transient events. It is said that Kids are closer to their Buddha Nature than adults since they have no concept, yet, of a self. They make sense of the world directly through interactions between their behaviour and the immediate responses from their environment. The basic question that comes to my mind is this: Do children necessarily have to develop a self first and deconstruct its meaning later after acquiring a certain level of wisdom, or is there any way to grow up without a huge ego? Or is it – for example empirically confirmed by developmental psychology – even advised to support their ego-formation so that they can build a healthy psyche?

From scholarly Buddhism we may extract different strategies for answering the no-self objection. Several authors explained that there is no contradiction between the no-self teaching and our plausible lifeworld experience that there are spatiotemporally separate entities we refer to as “persons” (which is also important for Buddhists to make sense of the rebirth and karma doctrines). But also non-religious naturalistic Buddhists like me can make sense of it: There is no “self” element in us that would be independent of external conditions and causes, no “soul”. Individuality or personal integrity don’t vanish when accepting the no-self idea. What renders obsolete are self-centeredness (egocentrism) and self-isolation, the root causes of attachments, fears, insecurity and all sorts of fascisms. Maybe a linguistic detail might help to clarify this: Instead of talking of Anatta as a no-self doctrine in Buddhism (causing the misunderstanding that Buddhism teaches that there is no self), we better talk of a non-self: a self that is connected to everything and thus, not an independent self (think of the impressive image of Indra’s net, for example). This is an oxymoron since a self denotes something independent or separate. Yet, this expression seems more accurate and appropriate than simply claiming that there is no self.

Indrasnet

Indra’s Net: Everything is reflected in each individual jewel. Taken from here.

Back to Ana and Tsolmo and our parenting. Yes, we want both of you to develop and flourish to the best of your respective potentials and dispositions! The influences are complex and uncontrollable and, thus, even though you will probably grow up in the same environment (and are the offspring of the same parents), you will be very different personalities with your own traits and characters. We will try our best to let you be “yourself” at all times, without comparing you or judging one in the light of the other! But, allow me this small clever clogs detail, since what forms your selves is nothing intrinsic and eternal but the constantly updated conglomeration of karmic influences, let us encourage you to always be your non-self!

Is that normal?

The online version of the German newspaper Die Zeit (Engl. The Time, not related to the Times magazine, afaik) is producing a weekly podcast on partnership, love and sexuality, often referred to as Sexpodcast, with the subtitle “Is that normal?”. Here, different authors present various topics ranging from medical, social, psychological to physiological issues in the context of intimate relationships. The general mission, as far as I can see, is an educational one: By talking about something that many people never dare to discuss in public, obstacles are removed and important questions of daily life are answered. So far so good. Generally, I must say that I am quite happy that Germany is a country in which this is possible! A podcast like this would be simply impossible in a popular Taiwanese media outlet!

I came across one episode that made me think about its societal acceptance. It is entitled (translated to English) How an open relationship can work out well. The first abstract reads like this: Swinging, cuckolding, wifesharing – there are many ways to have an open partnership. But how to talk about it? What has to be taken care of? Find tricks and advise in this podcast.

sexpodcast

I admit that my first reaction was a conservative one: What? They encourage polygamy, polygynandry and promiscuity? Will the German reader accept this? But what is a good ethicist asks second (and third, and…) questions! Let’s be pragmatic: It seems there is widespread need or desire in engaging in such practices. When we discard old-fashioned Catholic morality and accept the human desire for sexual activity, we may ask more useful questions, as this podcast does: How can we do it without hurting anyone, without violating or harming anyone’s ethical and personal integrity, without destroying valuable partnerships (especially when children are to be raised)? More important than condemning such practices as per definition immoral and bad, we better ask: What motivates people to do this, and is seeking for fulfilment of this desire the only option?

When reading the comments under this podcast, I can identify two groups of people. One fraction says something like “Why all the fuzz? Just let people do what they choose to do, as long as nobody is hurt! If everyone involved is honest and all action is based on informed consent, there is nothing wrong with it! Who are we to judge others? Grant everyone their freedom of choices (within the legal and moral framework of society and culture)!” On the other side, there are the moral apostles that claim that their choice of actions is morally sound and acceptable and everybody who does differently must be ill-minded and vicious (driven by vices): “I never had the desire to have sex with someone other than my partner! If others have that desire, they are not suitable for a partnership and should just break up!

Freedom (of choice) vs. (self-)control. The morality fraction claims that certain actions are immoral because they are the result of a lack of self-composure, or in other words: the result of following one’s animalistic, uncivilised, primitive drives (something that the modern human should have overcome, latest since Aristotle). The liberalists claim that our ultimate human right of freedom overrides every other consideration and is only limited by the freedom rights of surrounding fellow humans (and sometimes animals or other entities, depending on one’s conviction concerning the ascription of moral status). Yet, it is important to point out that, of course, morality is not always summiting in a claim for total self-restriction, and freedom does not amount to a relativistic anything goes attitude. Let’s try to figure out a middle way and a plausible view that may serve as orientation.

I do NOT talk about cases of unfaithfulness and having affairs. These are almost always cases of betrayal, breaking promises, cheating, and, thus, immoral and wrong. I am talking about people in relationships (with boy/girlfriend or husband/wife) that, for whatever the reason is, feel like approaching their partner with the request to engage in sexual activities with someone else, either alone (“Honey, I feel the strong urge to have sex with another man/woman. Would that be OK for you?“) or together as a couple (“Honey, what if we had a threesome with another man/woman, go to a swinger club, or invite that cute couple to join us in bed?“). Let’s also assume that these are cases that do NOT have the potential to destroy the relationship because either the initiator gives up his/her plan upon a negative response from the partner (“No, I don’t feel good about that!”), or the partner agrees and the resulting experience is either positive or negative with the chance to ‘correct’ it. This excludes partners that are so upset about even just mentioning this desire that they break up immediately, and it also excludes those couples that make such an impacting and challenging experience that the partnership is sustainably damaged by it (and, possibly, they would have split up anyway, for other reasons, sooner or later).

Question 1: Is it justified to want that?

The conflict between animalistic drive and “civilised” self-control is one that has to be taken serious! We may (and I agree with that) request from members of educated and enlightened societies that they do not just follow natural desires but reflect on their motivations, intentions and choices. This implies that (speaking for the German, the Taiwanese, and probably most other modern societies) a partnership commitment, saying “From now on I am yours and only yours!“, includes very definitely the promise “I won’t let it happen that I am sexually attracted by someone else!“. This call for self-control is independent from the partner’s consent. It is irrelevant for this claim whether the partner agrees to the request or not: Giving in to one’s sex drive is a form of character weakness, or, in Buddhist terms, dukkha (suffering) as a result of ignorance (not understanding one’s inner drive and, thus, not being able to control it) and attachment (having a desire that blurs one’s decision-making ability). In this respect, the decision to speak openly about this desire with the goal to make it real (hoping that the partner agrees so that one can proceed towards fulfilling the desire) is never an expression of freedom, because a mind producing this idea is, obviously, not free in the first place, but driven by primitive desires.

Question 2: Isn’t there an alternative to seeking for fulfilment of this sexual desire?

We may endorse the complexity of underlying causes, both subconscious and conscious. Dissatisfaction with the sexual activity with the partner, lack of experience in combination with the strong urge to make such an experience (for example, when the marriage partner is the first boy/girlfriend one ever had), suppression of desires over many years (that now break out), the search for a release valve for one’s stress, seeking confirmation and a source for self-esteem (“I am still attractive for other men/women!”) – we can imagine many psychologically very powerful dispositions. Yet, I can’t see that any of these roots is a justification for seeking desire satisfaction in really doing as one dreams of. Spending efforts on understanding oneself and one’s psychic configurations would increase the level of control one’s mind has over one’s views and choices. For example, knowing (means: being aware) that one might feel the urge to have another sex partner as a result from a lack of experience before getting married would decrease one’s susceptibility for promiscuity. This might be a bold claim and it certainly requires a strong and self-reflective mind. Is my demand on people not to be like sheep (or rabbits, in this context) too high?

I believe there are many alternatives! Communication! Talk to your partner about your desires and deepest imaginations. I also imagined that it might be very sexually arousing to have sex with two women. Mentioning it honestly and openly to my girlfriend BEFORE it grew into a strong desire, sharing viewpoints on it, laughing about it, remembering the incredible beauty of twosome intimacy, diminished the power of this mental image and let me forget it. If the desires grow too strong and dominate one’s thinking, maybe professional help is a good advise. ‘Therapy’ often sounds like mental illness. Yet, a bit of therapeutic help can make life much easier with rather little effort! In some cases, watching porn or using sex toys can also release some inner pressure so that one doesn’t have to go the whole way of seeking excitement with someone else. Also, if special excitement is the root of the desire, porn and sex toys (and whatever fancy “games” one’s creative mind can imagine) can be enjoyed together with the partner, spicing up a couple’s dusty sex life.

Question 3: After doing it, then what?

We often make the experience that we long strongly for the satisfaction of a desire, and once it is successfully fulfilled, we feel empty and not much better than before. This was reason enough for the Buddha to conclude that desires themselves are the root of all afflictions and suffering. The constant desire to fulfil our desires keeps us trapped in the cycle of dependent arising. So, now we have convinced our partner that sexual activities with others would be a good idea, we went for it, it was nice and felt good, nobody got hurt and everybody had a good time, our partnership is still intact – what next? Isn’t there the danger that it is like that feeling after drinking too much and getting sober again? When the thrill is gone, but we feel like there are no immediate negative consequences, we look for it again. It turns into an addiction. And same like for alcohol consumption or smoking, the adverse implications show up much later: A growing dependence of well-being on the fulfilment of the desire, a drain of energy (rather than a source for it, as hoped initially), a potential alienation from one’s partner, a weakening of the partnership bond, and ultimately more problems than gains. Of course, this must not necessarily happen! But it requires a very mindful awareness of the consequences (mental and for one’s environment) to identify negative developments and find out when to stop. I have the feeling (but can’t circumstantiate that with empirical data) that those who have this degree of mindfulness have a much lower tendency to seek for extramarital sex in the first place, and those who do it may be characterised by a rather low mindfulness level (thus, suffering from negative consequences).

Conclusion:

Within the limits of morally (and sometimes legally) accepted codes of conduct, I would grant everyone the freedom to organise the own lifestyle and to make choices. This includes sexual activity. Yet, the crucial factor is the degree of self-reflection and mental freedom that underlies one’s decision-making. The existence of a desire doesn’t justify its fulfilment! A podcast that conveys the message “You want to have sex with someone other than your partner? OK, here is how you can do it!” is, therefore, questionable from my point of view. A podcast that tells “OK, here is how you can understand yourself and find a method to develop a useful way of looking at it!” would serve a much greater educational purpose!

Ontological Security as Dukkha

Some time ago, I came across the concept ontological security, but I forgot in which context. It could have been fatherhood (and the psychology of child development), constructivism (and the epistemic sources for our commitments towards ‘reality’), or Buddhism (and our attachments to certainties and truths). All these categories touch the idea of ontological security. Thus, it seems a perfect topic for this blog (representing what I think about day in day out).

In this post, I will claim that ontological security (OS) is one of the aspects of dukkha, the Buddhist doctrine often translated as ‘suffering’. This connotation might stand in sharp contrast to OS’s original intention that is rooted in Western (European) individuality and selfhood. First, in order to circumstantiate my analysis, I will shortly introduce OS as communicated by Ronald David Laing and Anthony Giddens. Then, I will sketch the thematic connection with Buddhist psychology (no-self, dukkha) and explain what I believe is the main insight to learn from this illumination.

To put it bluntly, when we wake up in the morning, we need to be certain that the world around us functions reliably in the same way as it did the previous day. Things still fall to the ground when you drop them, people still understand the words that you utter in interpersonal communications, and you are still that same person for both yourself and everybody else who knew you before. That is: our experience with physics, socio-cultural life, and self-identity over time and space allows a sense of continuity and reliability that serves as the foundation for us being able to live and function in this world, without constantly having to fear the contingency and impermanence of existence. This phenomenon has been recognized and pronounced from the psychoanalytic viewpoint by Ronald David Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist, in his influential book The Divided Self (1960).

“The individual […] may experience his own being as real, alive, whole; as differentiated from the rest of the world in ordinary circumstances so clearly that his identity and autonomy are never in question; as a continuum in time; as having an inner consistency, substantiality, genuineness, and worth; as spatially coextensive with the body; and, usually, as having begun in or around birth and liable to extinction with death. He thus has a firm core of ontological security.” (pp.41-42, page numbers from the 2010 edition, Penguin Pub., London)

Laing, here, conceptualises an existentialist approach to psychoanalysis. He aimed to move away from the “old” idea of psychotherapy as a “cure” (causing a patient to fit into pre-established categories of health) towards a reconstruction of “the patient’s way of being him/herself in the world” (p.25). With his foundational conception of subjectivity derived from his existentialist philosophical commitments, he argues that “the experience of oneself and others as persons is primary and self-validating. It exists prior to the scientific or philosophical difficulties about how such experience is possible or how it is to be explained” (p.23), and that “within the territory of ourselves there can be only our footprints” (p.37). Ontological insecurity, and consecutively psychosis and schizophrenia, arise when there is the “partial or almost complete absence of the assurances derived from an existential position of what I shall call primary ontological security” (p.39). In such a case, the individual may feel

“that his identity and autonomy are always in question. He may lack the experience of his own temporal continuity. He may not possess an over-riding sense of personal consistency or cohesiveness. He may feel more insubstantial that substantial, and unable to assume that the stuff he is made of is genuine, good, valuable.” (p.42)

An individual in such a state experiences the everyday world around herself as constantly and existentially threatening; she is perpetually faced with “the dread of losing the ‘self’” (p.49). In lacking “a sense of that basic unity which can abide through the most intense conflicts with oneself” (p.65), the ontologically insecure person is therefore deeply vulnerable to the experience of schizophrenia or psychosis. From this point of view, some level of OS emerges as the precondition for meaningful personal and social interaction.

The British sociologist and social psychologist Anthony Giddens put Laing’s concept into a social context. In his seminal work Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Polity Press, 1991), he argues that OS depends on our ability to have faith in those social narratives and routines in which we are embedded and through which our self-identity is constituted, such that we are not obsessively preoccupied with their contingent and fragile nature (p.52). In understanding self-identity as something that is continually reproduced, the task for Giddens is not to “accept” reality, but “to create ontological reference points as an integral aspect of ‘going on’ in the contexts of day-to-day life” (p.48). The answers on which our ontological security rests are not stable and enduring truths of the self, but are produced and enshrined through routinised practices. The coherence of these practices, and the narrative around which they form, becomes central to an actor’s capacity to act, to have sufficient confidence in their space and narrative of being to make choices and interventions (pp.53-54). In placing certain assumptions and routines at the level of common sense, and in being able to trust in the stability of these routines, actors are able to build narratives, stories, and plans without being perpetually confronted by the contingent nature of their foundations.

“[OS] stems from a sense of order and continuity to life which in turn gives life meaning. Meaning is derived through stability and predictability in our experiences.”

According to a brief literature scan, today, OS is mainly a topic in developmental psychology (for example: the impact of renting or owning a house/apartment on the personality development of children) and international relations and (state) security research (for example: How do people react on migrants and refugees, and why?). In the various directions OS research can take, its essence is interpreted very differently, as it seems. In psychology, it is often drawn as an argument for establishing measures to support a “healthy environment”: Protect the child from developing signs of ontological insecurity by serving its OS needs, with responsibilities attributed to individuals (parents, caretakers), society (community), and political actors (family politics, social politics). Reflections on OS deliver the necessary insights on what individuals need for proper (means: healthy) self-development and tapping one’s full individual potential. This purpose of understanding OS is under question in the field of state security research. When people react violently on immigration because they feel the conveniences of their established traditional lifestyle are at threat, the conclusion can’t be to stop immigration so that the personal mental integrity of the “victims” (the local population) is kept intact and struggle is avoided. Insisting on the validity of narratives as connecting fabric of a society (in Giddens’s sense) is not providing viable solutions for these conflicts. Instead, it may be worthwhile to look for alternative narratives that modify the view of people so that OS is re-grounded but not lost.

The Buddha identified the illusion of permanence and individual identity (self) as the root of all mental and “real”* afflictions (*here I mean: occurring “physically” in the real lifeworld). It seems, what he is saying is that the construction of a well-defined self (this is me, the rest is not-me) with a consistent and cohesive narrative (this is me in this society and culture at this time with these values and practices, etc…) is exactly that mind poison (ignorance, attachment, resistance) that lies at the heart of dukkha (suffering). OS, then, appears in a very negative light: It prevents us from seeing things as they really are (from a kind of neutral spectator perspective), and even constantly produces the delusion of permanence and self-identity. It is important to note that the Buddha (and whoever is a legitimate Buddhist teacher) doesn’t blame or accuse anyone. It is nobody’s fault or (mindless or stupid) choice to be victim of ignorance (or of developing psychologically driven OS). Buddhist Dharma always described ignorance and delusion as inevitable features of our “default setting” (the opposite of an enlightened mindful awareness).

Maybe, we can describe OS from a Buddhist perspective like this: When we are born, we immediately start responding to the various stimuli that stream from the environment into our mind. We evaluate the direct success of our response in terms of our resulting well-being. What works will be repeated and formed into a pattern or habit. This is what Laing and Giddens call OS and Buddha called attachment (lobha) that leads to dukkha. Knowledge of this kind is clearly conventional (in the Buddhist doctrine of Two Truths). The functional importance of conventional knowledge has been outlined by many Buddhist scholars (for example: Nagarjuna, MMK, XXIV.9: “Without relying on the conventional, there is no understanding of the ultimate.”) and reportedly also the historical Buddha himself. It may be claimed that children and adolescents need a firm trust in and reliance on the validity of their world construction strategies in order to have a chance to develop healthily, emotionally stable, and – whatever it means – with a certain degree of happiness and satisfaction. Yet, according to Buddha’s teaching, at a certain time in one’s life, one might face a crisis or have a revelation of any kind, and decides to proceed on a Buddhist path of liberation and enlightenment. In that case, these patterns of habits and convictions need to be torn down, or with other words: OS has to be given up. For many people, this is certainly a very big challenge since it means to discard conveniences, certainties, securities and comfort. In the Matrix movies with Keanu Reeves, this is aptly illustrated by the impressive fights with the agents that stand for all those temptations that want to keep us in the comfort zone of our Matrix (that provides OS).

As in so many aspects of our life, the crucial factor is our mindful awareness. If we keep following the default setting (with OS) that served a good purpose during childhood and adolescence, we may experience personal crises and turmoil. Then it is time to start questioning and reflecting. No child can grow into a mature and wise mind at young age, but adults that keep their “childish” mindset (clutching on OS) forever won’t reach maturity and wisdom either. Therefore, the key might be the mental readiness for inner growth, enlightenment, learning, and mindfulness. That might be a path from OS to “EL” (=epistemic liberation).

Incognation

I have a problem. The daily number of items adding to my To-Read-List is ten times higher than the number of those I really read and delete from the list. Especially now, with a new research project starting, I have a LOT to read on the new topic, both journal articles and books. Even the most efficient reading techniques don’t help. Since I left from Germany in 2013 and relocated first to Korea and then to Taiwan, I tried to build a digital library of ebooks that I can easily take with me everywhere. Recently, I was thinking about how convenient it would be if I could just “upload” all these electronic essays and ebooks into my brain. Brain-device-interface technology development is quite advanced already, isn’t it? My technical knowledge on this is rather limited, but I had some reflections on data, its processing, human learning and the difference between information and knowledge that I’d like to share today.

Let’s assume it could be possible to connect my brain to an interface with a USB slot somewhere next to or behind my ear. Then, I plug in a mobile drive full of pdf-files or other text files and somehow all the data is integrated into the neural structure of respective areas in my brain. After a book is uploaded, would I consciously know or “recall” its content without reading it word by word as I would do “classically”? The Matrix movie comes to mind in which a helicopter flight manual is uploaded to Neo’s consciousness and he is instantly able to fly a helicopter (“only” in the matrix though). In more philosophical terms, we might ask: How can symbolic language (letters representing words that carry meaning) be translated into practical reason (knowledge that serves as orientation for decisions and actions)? Or weaker: What is the connection between the two?

brain-computer-interface

I guess, everybody can agree that reading a book is not a guarantee that the reader, afterwards, is smarter or wiser or more knowledgeable. Translating information that is conveyed in language (here: written words) into knowledge requires a learning process. With other words: For an information (or: data) to become knowledge, it needs conscious experience from which meaning can be constructed. Even if it would be possible to “translate” digital text files into a “language” that my human brain can operate, I would still lack the experience from which I construct meaning in a conscious learning process. When I receive information by reading text on paper or on screen with my eyes, I think about the meaning of the symbols which is based on a long time of learning at school and within the cultural and social matrix in which I grew up. All this seems to be missing when I simply transform electronic data into neural data. At best, uploading the files to my brain allows me to “read” them without holding any paper in my hands or staring at a screen, but still I would need to go through the text at a speed that my conscious learning capacity can keep pace with. This raises the question of time as a factor for learning and its “neurofication”. How fast could we – aided by technical devices – make our learning pace?

Some people find the vision of brain-computer-interfaces scary. In view of my long list of ebooks and electronic essays, I would welcome at least this application of it (but there are many others that, indeed, require careful risk assessment and governance!). If it ever comes to its realisation, we may need a new term for this form of learning. Information often has this notion of passive reception of data bits. What we need, here, is a translation of electronic data into something that is cognitively accessible. I thought of the term “incognation“, an incorporation of symbolic language into our cognitive processes. Then, someday, we may hear sentences like this: “Hey, I got a new book yesterday! I incognated it immediately, and it was really mind-boggling!