Evolution and Ethics

In an entry in the Encyclopedia of Science and Religion (edited by J. Wentzel Vrede van Huyssteen in 2003) entitled Evolutionary Ethics, author Jeffrey P. Schloss (Westmont College, Santa Barbara, USA) explains that there are three ways to connect ethics and evolution. We may (1) study how ethics evolved in the cultural history of human civilisation (evolution of ethics), (2) reflect upon the ethical-normative content of evolutionary processes (ethics of evolution), or (3) attempt to derive ethical principles or guidelines from biological and/or socio-cultural evolution (ethics from evolution). Unfortunately, this rather poor article is short, incomplete, highly selective and a bit outdated. Worst of all, it is not precise, neither in the definition of ethics (especially its distinction from and relation to morality) nor in that of evolution (obviously assuming a strict Darwinian evolution model with a selection factor that is necessarily natural). That inspired me to think a bit deeper about these three fields of inquiry and write down my own reflections.

  1. Evolution of ethics

“What shall we do?”, or better: “What is right/good to do?”, are questions that people ask themselves or each other ever since man is able to reflect on that question. Whenever the action in question is one that affects people or instances other than the actor, it is a matter of ethics. How to treat others and how to control one’s decisions and actions in terms of certain values, virtues or other factors constitute one of the major branches in academic and applied philosophy around the globe. With a growing complexity of options and possibilities, the answer to those questions becomes more and more demanding and challenging. Whereas basic codes of conduct and moral rules for behaviour in small and pre-civilised communities (like tribes and ancient societies) can be sufficiently governed by simple principles such as “Don’t treat others like you don’t want to be treated by them!” (the Golden Rule), contemporary issues in applied ethics (like bioethics, medical ethics, questions of global justice, business ethics, technological impact, etc.) require sophisticated reasoning strategies and rational discourse in order to mediate between different interests and colliding values. A short look at the history of ethics reveals a trend that confirms this idea of ethics evolving over time: In Europe, the ancient Greek answered ethical questions with a virtue approach (“In a situation of ethical decision-making, choose what the ideal person would do!”). 2000 years later, Kant built a metaphysical theory of rational beings having intrinsic self-value, which puts the duty on everyone to respect that value (“Always treat people as ends, never only as mere means!”, “Always act as if the maxim of your will could at the same time serve as a common law!”). A little later, Bentham and Mill developed an ethical theory that focuses on the outcome of an action as the determining factor (consequentialism, most prominent form: utilitarianism, “Good is what brings about the biggest benefit for the largest number of entities.”). In very recent history, more elaborated theories such as contractarianism (based on John Rawls’ theory of justice) or discourse ethics (from Jürgen Habermas’ model of communicative rationality) have been presented and exploited for real-life cases. These later ideas help finding solutions for questions of distributive justice, human rights, political affairs, global economy and ecological or environmental sustainability. Similar developments of a sophistication of philosophical ethics can certainly be drawn in other cultural realms like the Asian (from Confucian and Daoist ethics via Mohism, Legalism and Buddhist ethics to contemporary Asian scholars).

It is important to note that an evolution of ethics must not be mixed up with an evolution of morality! I don’t think that human morality “evolves”. People today are not better people than people 500, 2000 or 10000 years ago! Ethics (the English singular term) is the endeavour to derive and reason morals (or ethics as the English plural term). It is this intellectual attempt that evolves in its strategies, methodologies and techniques, but not the sum of ethical codes (as the morality of a society) or even to what extent people obey to them. Before going into detail in the illustration of how ethics evolve, it has to be clarified what counts as evolution here. Darwin’s concept of biological evolution needs the trinity of reproduction, variation (for example by mutations) and natural selection as the factor that determines the success of a variation. Ethics as a completely human concept does certainly not evolve through a selection process of viable ethics theories by any “natural” entity. Rather, the selection is an artificial one, carried out by humans individually or as a societal agglomerate. When ethical theories are not successful in practice, they are challenged, modified, contested, refined or sometimes thrown aboard and substituted by new theories that serve the desired purposes better. Ethics is, therefore, a cultural achievement, not a natural one (but more on that in section 3).

Let me try to draw some lines of development from ancient humans until today (without having a solid knowledge background, I admit). The very basic human trait that makes people consider the rightness or goodness of an action is, probably, our emotional capacity, most of all empathic abilities. We are able to anticipate feelings, to “put ourselves into others’ shoes”. Our psychological demands, most of all the feeling of belongingness and as a result our family ties and desire for social embedment, make us want to see the people that mean something to us be happy and feel good. In the next step, we expand this capacity to people we don’t know. We rescue a child that fell into a well because we anticipate its suffering (and that of its parents) and feel the immediate obligation to save it from suffering. Nietzsche pointed out three possibilities here: (1) Ignoring the child and doing nothing, (2) rescuing the child for selfish reasons (a reward, or to stop the child’s annoying crying), (3) rescuing the child out of altruistic pure moral heartfelt concern. Only the third attitude is a purely ethical one, since the second one appears to us as a coldly calculated “reasonable” decision. It seems, there is an undeniable emotivistic foundation of morality. Rudimentary ethics, therefore, is the empathic observation of others’ wellbeing and satisfaction of interests. From this, considerations for right or wrong behaviour are deducted.

When larger societies formed and required new forms of governance and inner organisation (as in the ancient Greek Polis), these simple decision aids (“I do what doesn’t harm you.”) did not succeed in solving the urging issues of the time. Wise scholars modified the emotivist ethics, starting from the general premise that in principle we all know what is good because we feel it, suggesting to align one’s decisions to the behaviour of widely respected and admired ideal figures. “Look at that soldier! He is a good soldier because he is so brave, neither a coward nor a daredevil! That’s how you as a soldier should act!“. There is not much sophisticated philosophical reasoning in virtue ethics, yet. However, in order to achieve wisdom (the highest of all virtues), one must have a certain degree of knowledge, for example of state affairs, of contemporary crafts skills, of the world (today we would say science), of social organisation. An important factor in many societies of those times (3000-2000 years ago) was religion, here defined as the belief in powerful divine entities, while school education was not available for the majority of people. In this environment, knowledge is power of a few over many, and religious and political authorities constitute a new source of morality (“It is right because I tell you so, authorised by God!”). Ethics, then, is more strictly separated from morality itself: Those who perform ethics are a few while morality is inflicted on the ethical laymen (the majority of people), communicated by religious or state institutions and passed down from generation to generation via cultural customs and traditions.

Over the centuries, knowledge increases, libraries are filled, societies reform and revolutionise, education systems arise, political systems transform. A growing knowledge base almost necessarily changes the Menschenbild (image of man) that people have. Again from a European perspective: Galileo (and others) took Earth out of the center of the universe, Darwin took man out of the center of creatures, Freud took the ego out of the center of a person. The authority of church was sustainably shattered, enlightened humanism was on the rise. In the spirit of the French revolution, everybody was equal (more or less), everybody was free and self-determined (more or less), everybody was rational and reasonable (always more “less” than “more”). The answer to the question of what was right to do had to be reconfigured and put onto new grounds. The philosophical giant Immanuel Kant, father of European enlightenment, formulated his famous categorical imperative (see above) which impacted European law-and-order systems and political philosophy immensely until today. Ethics, then, becomes a normative science: An active elaboration (like “mental research and innovation”) of principles and theories that have to prove their viability by being applicable for the solution of particular ethical problems. In terms of evolution: Human problems that exist ever since continuously required answers (the reproduction of ethics in everyday life) while traditional value- and worldview-systems were not sufficient any longer so that they were varied (input of contemporary knowledge, adaption to new social circumstances, etc.) until normative theories were found that met the goals of solving the issue at stake (the artificial selection in terms of success criteria) in view of an ever increasing knowledge foundation. These criteria vary from society to society and over time, of course. Today, almost all social processes are regulated in normative terms, most prominently in professional fields (medicine, science, engineering, business, etc.) and in environmental issues (including the relationship between humans and nature, humans and animals, humans and plants, etc.). Ethics is now a field of expertise of mostly academic scholars that acquire a large amount of knowledge in particular specialised fields in order to tackle the pressing problems that arise in those narrowly confined areas. In order to answer normative questions in the field of nanotechnology, for example, one needs to be an expert on nano-science and nanotechnology itself, but also on ethics (as philosophical discipline), sociology, economy, technology governance, etc. Ethics is no longer a matter of interpersonal attitude, but one of roundtables and commissions.

Evolution of ethics is an inquiry that results in descriptive statements about historical and cultural developments and events. It can facilitate the understanding of particular societies in their temporal and regional frames. It is in a way neutral that it doesn’t tell anything meta-ethical, like the appropriateness or correctness of an ethical theory. As always with historical and cultural studies, the true value lies in what we do with what we learn from it: In the face of inevitably revolutionary insights from scientific, technological, cultural and societal progress, will we be able to align our normative standards and their reasoning to our new knowledge horizons?

For more information on the development of ethics systems around the globe, have a look at one or all of the following books:

  • Kenan Malik, The Quest For A Moral Compass – A Global History Of Ethics, Melville House Pub., 2014
  • Harry J. Gensler, Ethics – A Contemporary Introduction, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2011
  • Lisa Rasmussen, Ethics Expertise. History, Contemporary Perspectives, and Applications, Springer, 2005
  • Tad Dunne, Doing Better – The Next Revolution in Ethics, Marquette Univ. Press, 2010
  1. Ethics of evolution

From my point of view, the case is simple here: There is no ethics of evolution. Evolution as a process that occurs in nature (the biological evolution from which life forms emerge and that works in accordance with material cause-effect-relations and with fundamental principles of the universe like striving for harmony and balance, interconnectedness and conditionality) and culture (social progress, technology, politics, worldviews, etc.) is value-free in the sense that it simply follows pathways that are shaped by certain conditions. The most prominent opponents against my view are the religious institutions, above all the monotheistic churches. In his famous book Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays, Thomas H. Huxley (1894) draws a picture of evolution as a process full of evil: In Darwinian evolution, suffering and death become primal features rather than post-hoc additions to creation. The role of natural evil changes from an ancillary intrusion upon God’s mode of creation to the central driving force of the process itself. Moreover, the Darwinian picture of the world is coloured by dominant hues of self-interest and an utter absence of natural beneficence. Huxley obviously misunderstood completely what evolution is about, partly due to improper wording of early evolutionists. Educated people of today know better, of course. The “fight for survival” is actually not a fight among individuals or species in the direct meaning of the word. The fittest is not a dominant egoist but always that one who has better chances to succeed in a particular situation with a particular set of conditions that – co-incidentally – the fittest one meets best. Evolution is a cosmic process that – as I insist – is non-teleological and, therefore, non-ethical (unless you believe in God as creator, but then you better go and get some education). Ethics is a human system for the evaluation of actions and decisions which simply doesn’t apply to natural processes.

  1. Ethics from evolution

If not ethical as such, can evolution (better: our insights into the mechanisms and pathways of evolution) at least tell us anything about how we can elaborate a valid and viable ethics theory? Two viewpoints would definitely answer “No!”: Monotheistic religions that insist on morals provided by divine command, and moral realism that regards moral value as intrinsically existing unshakably in the world. I am entirely non-religious, so I won’t even comment on the former. Apparently, I am also not a realist, but the case is more complicated here. Normativity, ethics, laws, cultural codes of conduct, are constructions by human intellect and reflection. However, it is essential to apply a holistic viewpoint here: The human mind can’t be seen without its embedment into the environmental system that developed and shaped it – by evolutionary processes! As explained before, harmony and balance are major driving forces of universal processes. Evolution, then, is not an entirely random undirected emergence of co-incidental features and entities. Rather, it is a fine-tuned balancing-out of conditions in which a certain state (for example, a life form with a certain ability) can only sustain because it fits. That means (as Nancy Murphy puts it), the universe operates in such a way that what comes into existence (which means “what works”) inevitably tends toward the right or the good. Here, I run the risk of being accused of a naturalistic fallacy: I derive an ethical evaluation from what simply is. Indeed, the introduction of value statements (something is good or right) only works on the premise that it is justified to see value in cosmic harmony and its striving for balance.

If we can accept this point – that evolution itself proceeds on the basis of an intrinsic value – what does it actually tell us? The insight that everything that evolved has the same intrinsic value just because it has evolved is too simplistic and relativistic. Limiting our ethical vision to what conforms with prevailing views of the natural dismisses the human trait of karmic power, the ability to choose consciously even when it is “not natural” (which is, of course, part of the nature). I suggest that the link between ethics and evolution must be regarded as a rather loose one. The best ethics (from a meta-ethical perspective) is one that is informed by rationally acquired knowledge (for example by scientific inquiry) to the largest possible extent. Rather than deriving ethics directly from evolution, we align our normative understandings and evaluations with what we know about the world we live in. For example, with our knowledge about the evolution of life forms, we can’t regard mankind as “the crown of creation” any longer (like Christian ethics would), but appreciate and protect other environmental entities or even give them higher moral significance than human interests – an important insight for environmental ethics and bioethics. We would be able to argue from an evolutionary perspective against speciesism, racism and global injustice. Insights into psychological traits and how they arose in the anthropological history of mankind may equip us with the skill of empathic benevolence, thus reducing prejudice, hatred and interpersonal disharmony.

This view builds the bridge between knowledge of nature (what is) and normativity (what ought). A separation is necessary for many reasons (discussed elsewhere). But an alignment and reasonable adjustment of the latter by the former is necessary as well. This protects us from our mindless default-setting, from religious or other dogmatism and moral preaching, and from naturalistic moral absolutism. I am firmly convinced that only then will we be able to face and solve the urging ethical questions that arise in contemporary societies and their sub-spheres.

For further insights into this field of inquiry, check this book:

  • Scott M. James, An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics, Wiley Blackwell, 2011

Or a rather critical one (because it is always better to know all perspectives):

  • Paul Lawrence Farber, The Temptations of Evolutionary Ethics, Univ. California Press, 1994

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The 18th Camel

Here is a story prominently exploited by Heinz von Foerster in order to illustrate an important aspect of constructivism (see Lynn Segal’s book “Das 18. Kamel oder Die Welt als Erfindung. Zum Konstruktivismus Heinz von Foersters”, Piper Verlag, 1988):

A Mullah was riding on his camel to Medina. On his way, he saw three young men with a small herd of camels. The men looked sad and confused. He approached them and asked what was wrong.
Our father passed away.”, said one of them.
May he rest in peace! I am sorry for your loss! Did he leave anything behind for you?“.
Yes, those seventeen camels! That’s all he possessed.”.
Well, then you can be happy! Why so gloomy?
His last will was that the oldest of us gets half of his camels, the second gets one third of them, and the youngest gets one ninth. We tried everything to distribute the camels, but it never works out!
Is that all that is burdening you, my friends? Well, then, just add my camel to the herd for a moment and see what happens!
Of the now 18 camels, the oldest brother got half, which is nine, and the second got one third, which is 6, and the youngest got one ninth, which is two. One camel was left, the one of the Mullah. He climbed it and continued his journey, waving with a smile at the happy brothers.

camel

Heinz von Foerster remarked: “Like that 18th camel, we need reality as a crutch that is thrown away when having clarity about everything else.”

How may we understand this? The three brothers in the story find themselves in a situation in which the task that is given to them is puzzling and seemingly impossible to accomplish. It makes no sense to them. This is because of a mismatch between the parameters of their task and the referential frame, its condition (one half, one third and one ninth of 17 can never yield whole numbers, which is important for structural integrity when the entity to distribute is camels!). Since the task itself (the late father’s last will) could not be changed, the only way to get out of the misery is to change the reference frame: 18 instead of 17 camels!

We find ourselves in similar situations day in and day out. Whatever happens to us, we have to make sense of it, otherwise our conscious cognition would leave us in despair and confusion. Think of the example I made in an earlier letter: Our visual perception is constantly completed according to our concepts of and (past) experiences with something, like the (2-dimensional) house front is immediately thought of as a complete (3-dimensional) house. We are able to find our way in this world because our trust that it works reliably in accordance with our expectation (the extrapolation from repeated past experience into the future) is seldom violated. The fundamental basis of self-knowledge is the separation of “me” and “the world” (or “all the rest”). What is “world” is knowledge that is acquired and constructed over the course of one’s lifetime (aligned with each other’s constructions by communication). Colloquially we refer to it as reality, meaning the referential frame for our performance (the “task”) in which everything ideally makes sense and works out well. Here we see why constructivists are never tired pointing out that it is important to get rid of (absolute) truth claims and instead to evaluate the validity of reality descriptions in terms of their viability (their success in application). The 18th camel was not among those that the brothers inherited from their father, we may say, so it is a kind of cheating. It is “not true”! But is that really important? The task was solved and everybody was happy, going on with their lives successfully. When you make decisions, even the most profane daily life choices (where and what to eat, what clothes to wear, to call your boyfriend or not, etc.), you do that in a matrix of factors that give you the illusion of being part of a perfectly consistent and fine-tuned “world” that functions according to particular laws and rules. You rely on that so much that most of the time you are not even aware of it. Be it scientific statements, value judgments, personal preference choices, behaviour, etc. – in your mind they must make sense so that you are willing to accept them (which you have to if you want to proceed into any direction in your life). The claim is: This sense-making has no roots in a fixed eternal unshakeable reality, but deep roots in your personal narrative, your world construction. I don’t deny that there is a “real” world of this or that kind, shape, constitution, whatever. We just have no access to it, so it must not be mixed up with our (conscious and unconscious) concept of it!

As von Foerster pointed out, we need the concept of reality as a crutch whenever we are unclear about something (which is quite often the case). Here, I also see the touching points with Buddha’s teachings again. Reality is an illusion, a matrix in which we are caught because there is no other choice, unless we acquire the skill to see things as they really are and get enlightened. I assume, that is a gradual process that we start in small steps and proceed according to our capacities. Being aware that “there is something” beyond our default-setting might be a good first step. May this story of the 18th camel plant a seed in your reflections!

 

There is no One!

In an earlier letter on my worldview, I labelled myself as a monist. Recently, I found that this needs further elaboration and maybe a correction. Maybe I had a wrong idea of what is “monism”, a term with a long history in western philosophical discourse. The two fields of inquiry we are interested in, here, are ontology (the question of what is real) and epistemology (what is knowledge, what are we able to know about reality).

westernmetaphysics

Basic terminology in Western metaphysics.

Western philosophy is predominantly characterised by the dichotomy of mind and matter. This ontological dualism is built on a strong substance metaphysics: The materialist believes that the one underlying substance of everything is matter and that mental phenomena arise from material processes (for example, thoughts and imagination are the effect of neuronal activity in the brain). The idealist believes the opposite – that the one substance is mind and that the entire perception of the phenomenon “matter” is a mental creation. Both are, in their own way, monists – there is only one substance. Attempts to moderate between the two are dual-aspect monism or neutral monism, for example in Spinoza’s work. Furthermore, there is a strong religious association with the term monism: those who believe that there is only one almighty divine entity as the substance-creator (a god) are religious monists.

Strictly speaking, monistic idealists and materialists are still dualists since they obviously separate mind and matter. What I had in mind when calling my metaphysical viewpoint monistic was a non-separation of the two, a strict non-dualism. Perhaps, I may call it “dialectic monism” to make it clearer: For me as a convinced epistemological constructivist (all we know is constructed by our mind on the foundations of our experiences and formations) and holist (everything is interconnected in a net of conditionality), both mind and matter are embedded into an ultimate reality that “works” by only one set of mechanisms (are call it “laws”). As described earlier, the emergent character of an ever-changing world – the dependent arising in Buddhist philosophy – brought about the feature of conscious perception and cognitive processes. This is the origin of our mind. With our current knowledge about “nature” we may say that it arises from matter. However, at the same time – that is: dialectically – the whole concept of “matter” is the product of our mental reflections on our surrounding. And here my “monism” – thought of as “non-separation” or “emptiness” – comes into play: We easily fall victim of the illusion that our mental processing of the world is somehow separated from the “real” world outside of our mind. We separate into me and you, me and the world, inside and outside, and so forth. This conscious ontology is the phenomenal or conventional reality, but not the ultimate reality or actuality. The call for oneness is, therefore, a prescriptive one: If our goal is to progress towards enlightenment, we need to understand that there is no metaphysical substance, permanence and separable identity of things, but emptiness, impermanence and interconnectedness. In this respect, my “monism” may not be understood as “there is only one”, but as “there is only everything”.

A next question would be if there is an analogous insight for epistemological monism: The “mind-monist” – the rationalist – would claim that all knowledge is a result of mental reasoning (rationality). The “matter-monist” – the (traditional) empiricist – would understand all knowledge as the result of incoming experiential triggers that are caused by matter (for example, light, sound waves, molecular exchange, etc.). Again, dialectic monism replies that both are working interconnectedly. Ratio needs experience from interaction with the surrounding, while the processing of the experience itself is enabled through a sense-making by our conscious rationality (as depicted in my tree of knowledge). Again, there is no one (ratio or experience), but only everything (the experiential margin of our perception, the pattern formations of the past, our choice of strategies for sense-making and meaning-construction, etc.).

Now comes the tricky question: Why bother? Why would it matter for our daily life? Admittedly, not all philosophy has this pragmatic component of applicability or viability. Traditional metaphysics and epistemology as “armchair philosophy” were a purely intellectual academic endeavour. However, I am firmly convinced that these insights – when successfully put into practice – have a deep impact on our daily life. Take, for example, the love relationship of a couple: When the two are regarded as separated entities, it might always remain at the level of “you and me”. When we understand how we are all connected in karmic relations, there is the chance to reach the level at which there is only “us”. The way of communication, the willingness to listen and understand, patience, benevolence, all will be different. Another example is the attitude towards one’s situation in the job or – in case you are a student – at school or university: Do the challenges make you feel stressed, powerless or overwhelmed and do the people you have to deal with bother and annoy you? Or do you understand how those situations are the product of manifold interconnected factors (including you and your attitude) and learn how to control and work with these factors to create beneficial circumstances for yourself and everyone involved? Or politics: Is it really “us and them”? Or is it actually possible to induce transformations of system flaws by planting small seeds in family members, neighbours, friends, colleagues, etc.? Aren’t the leaders we get the ones we inevitably deserve as a society, due to the opinions and viewpoints that we allow or even support to form? Can we really blame certain people or parties for insufficiencies or are there maybe hidden causal pathways that we are not aware of or that we don’t understand but that let certain decisions and democratic practices appear in a different – sometimes more reasonable – light?

If we were Buddha, we would be able to see through all karmic relations in the conditionality network. Or – to exploit a more recent cinematic picture – if we were Neo we would not see the illusion of the world (the conventional truth), but the Matrix (the ultimate truth). Most of us will never get even close to it. Some might notice the scratches in the surface of our illusion. The metaphysics of dependent origination and emptiness, as far as I can see it, is one of the most helpful insights to make intellectual progress towards a viable (that means: reliable, efficient, applicable, reasonable, verifiable) worldview, which should be followed by practical progress. It could be a mantra – The Mantra of Non-Separation – for every day: There is no one. There is only everything.

Thematrixincode99

Nutshell Buddhism

There is a difference between “the actual world” and our idea of the world in our minds. Despite the scientific realists’ claim that scientific knowledge resembles real (natural) entities, many philosophers of different epochs and cultural realms concluded that we can’t be that certain of what we believe is the “reality”. This ranges from Daoists (the Dao stands for the ultimate reality that is in contrast to the human world that is perceived, explained and communicated by names (language)), to Indian (Hindu) worldview with two truths (ultimate reality and phenomenal (common sense) reality), to Kantian metaphysics (things-as-they-are (Dinge-an-sich) and forms-of-view (Anschauungsformen)), to constructive realism a la Friedrich Wallner (actuality vs. lifeworlds and microworlds). Nobody, however, expressed this difference more aptly than Gautama-Buddha, mounting in the First Noble Truth (“Life is suffering“). I understand suffering (dukha) in the Buddhist sense as the deviation between our idea of the world as the result of our deluded minds and the world as it really is. This is what he means with ignorance. Let me elaborate a little further on that.

In my tree of knowledge, I depicted our mental and cognitive features (and all they entail) including the experiences we make through them as the roots, the process of sense-making and meaning-construction as the channels in the trunk of the tree, and the manifestations of our worldviews, beliefs and values as the branches. This can be a powerful illustration to explain the essence of Buddhist worldview. The core of Buddhist philosophy is the scheme of the “12 links of interdependent co-arising“. Basically, it teaches that due to our ignorance we believe in the permanence of isolated separated entities, including ourselves (or: our self). We believe that “what we see is really there” (which, from an evolutionary perspective, is probably helpful for survival), which arouses our desires in a way that we judge what is “good” or “bad” for us so that we seek for some things (attachment) and avoid others (resistance). The desirability and non-desirability of things, however, is an illusion. It is formed by the framework of our past experiences and our vision of the future (driven by the fear of death). Buddha, here, elaborates on the roots (in my picture): He claims that the roots are grown in a rigid and inflexible way. We rely on perception tools that are limited (six senses, each limited to certain ranges of physical properties such as wavelengths (seeing), frequencies (hearing), molecular concentration (tasting and smelling), etc.). We are aware only of what fits our experiential margin. Emotions and desires are shaped by forces that are beyond our control. Therefore, relying on our roots is the first factor of suffering.

Then, he explains what the flaws are with our choices of channels for meaning-construction. We are driven by concepts and intellectual reasoning, external forces like dogmas and paradigms, or psychological punishment- and reward-systems. Same as the roots, they are all deluded by the illusory conviction that our mental reality is identical with the actual reality. Society with all its institutions (science, politics, economy, organised religion, etc.), culture (with its modes of identification in separation from other cultures), and also individual personality (as the branches of the tree) are all built on this level of reality. Things are, however, different. There is nothing permanent and separated. Everything is connected in a complex net of conditionality, non-deterministic, non-teleological, non-reductive, non-dualistic, and therefore: empty. Shunyata (“emptiness“), as understood by Nagarjuna and later the Chinese Mahayana schools Huayan, Tiantai and Chan, is the fundamental metaphysics of the world. This is the ultimate reality. The worldly features that we create on the basis of our deluded “roots” deviate from this underlying ultimate reality to certain extents. The bigger that deviation the stronger our suffering.

Now, there are two ways to overcome this suffering. One works on the roots. We may plant seeds for the roots to grow in different ways. To use the metaphor of a famous movie: This means to “exit the matrix” of the mindlessly grown roots and actively form new sources for experiences and cognitive access to reality. The other way – but most often both ways have to be applied together – is a change of meaning-construction, or in terms of the picture: choose a different channel through the trunk. This is meditative contemplation and mindful awareness. In order to get closer to the ultimate reality, we need to let go of concepts, deluded rationality, mindless following of doctrines and rules (acquired through education and socialisation), and especially the illusion of an independent self that dominates our psyche. Only then will we be able to see through the complex network of cause-effect-relations (karma) and set ourselves free in (not from) its matrix. The Diamond sutra may help to understand the important point here: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.“. It sounds like a contradiction, but it is a rhetoric tool to describe the indescribable. Form (the things we perceive as independent objects or substance on the level of (deluded) common-sense reality) is actually empty (not outside the karmic cause-effect-conditionality), while it is exactly this metaphysical conditionality that brings about all which we interpret as form. This ontological understanding, with ourselves interwoven into the ever-changing web of the world fabric, will change our approach to life fundamentally! While the more traditional Indian Buddhists (Theravada schools) would probably state that there will be no more branches since enlightenment (that ontological break-through) leads to the other-worldly nirvana, I share the Mahayana view (esp. Tiantai) that enlightenment and nirvana are this-worldly phenomena from which we benefit within our lifetime. With an enlightened mind, our roots, the trunk and the branches all transform. We see our personality traits, emotions, fears, desires, and worldviews in the context of our past, our local surrounding (society, culture) and our cognitive capacities. We see how our past experiences form layers around our very core personality, the Buddha-Nature. In the next step, we disconnect the causal chains that control our decisions and choices. We see how sense and meaning are constructed in our mental processes and gain the ability to step back from it, question the strategies, apply different ones and get less dependent on the pre-shaped ones. Many branches, then, lose their significance and shrink. We see how others construct meaning and why they act like this or that within the thematic margins of certain branches, and we gain the empathic skills of compassion and loving-kindness.

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by Alex Grey

Gotta go fast!

Western and Eastern Philosophies are, in some respects, fundamentally different. One of those obvious differences is the idea of how to describe the world. Basically (without the slightest claim to be complete), the Western philosophers were and are realists that tried/try to use language as a high precision tool to come as close as possible to the reality (which often is equivalent to truth). On the contrary, the Eastern thinkers knew that language is a construction that can never suffice in capturing all features of the world. Therefore, they recommended to give up even trying. Most ancient texts sound like poetry to us. This is because it was believed that a narrative approach using poetic stories that trigger our imagination and feelings is more potent in explaining the unexplainable. This is aptly illustrated by the first two lines of Laozi’s (老子) Daodejing (道德經):

道可道,非常道。The Dao that can be talked about is not the eternal Dao
名可名,非常名。The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The core idea of Daoism (as far as I understand it) is the incongruity between the actuality and our perception of it (and, hence, our communication about it). We simply cannot reach the Dao. Whenever we get active (which includes thinking, speaking, feeling, etc.) we construct “world” by spanning up poles (Yin and Yang) that bring us further away from the central point of harmony (the Dao). It draws a clear argument against intellectual reasoning as a tool to get closer to the Dao, since words as cognitive constructions obscure the real Dao (which is beyond any construction including language) even more. Here, Daoism overlaps with Buddhism: The way to the Dao (to enlightened harmony) is mindful awareness that is best practiced as wuwei (無為, a kind of “finding comfort in doing nothing”, or “going with the flow”), comparable to meditation that facilitates the attempt to free oneself from ignorance and attachment. In simple (Western) words, that could mean that art serves the goal of enlightenment better than philosophy (in Eastern understanding, art is a legitimate tool of philosophising). Don’t talk, just let the impressions stream into you freely, and you will know! I stumbled across this illustration, that describes this line of thought perfectly:

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The Dao (the whole perfect image) doesn’t need many words. Now, there are two ways to go on from here: (1) The more words we use, the more the image gets blurry and ugly, or (2) the more we get away from the Dao the more words we need to compensate the lack of clarity that is created by our drifting away from the Dao. I am especially a friend of the second interpretation, as also noticeable in my letter on complexity. Since I am not a good artist or poet, I need many words to make my point, being fully aware of my distance to the Dao. At this point, I try to avoid a prescriptive statement on whether it is “better” to overcome language and reduce the word count in favour of stimulating images and illustrations, or whether it is wrong of western philosophical approaches to spend so much time on language clarification. Probably, there is not “the (one) right way” that could legitimately disqualify all other ways as inappropriate. However, this central thought of Chinese philosophy which is very much in line with contemporary constructivism makes pretty much sense to me and is worth reflection in order to sharpen awareness of the flaws of our language usage. Not here, in this letter, but in daily life, every day, everywhere. Gotta go fast…

Knowledge, knowledge, and knowledge

I feel the urge to write about “knowledge”. Actually, all my letters are, somehow, about “knowledge”, because statements and viewpoints that are not in any way informed by knowledge are mere non-sense, opinion (very likely wrong), or pointless blabla. However, I’d like to clarify a few points that make past and future letters better understandable.

First of all, as a native German speaker, I have difficulties with the English word “knowledge”. There are three German words that all translate into “knowledge” according to the dictionary, but that are fundamentally different (from my understanding):

  • Wissen – what someone knows, which is what someone is consciously aware of and what someone can recall, recite, understand, and make use of. In Ancient Greece it is episteme. There is also a difference between the two German verbs wissen and kennen that is not easily expressed in English. I can know (kennen, maybe as in “be acquainted with“) someone without knowing (wissen) anything about him (except the name, for example).
  • Erkenntnis – the process of becoming aware of new knowledge, the step from empirical or cognitive experience to meaningful information, the sense-making process. An alternative English translation would be “insight”. The verb erkennen, however, means rather “to recognise” or “realise”, “to find out”, to identify”, indicating that this idea of “knowledge” is not static like “Wissen”, but rather a procedural phenomenon or even an act.
  • Einsicht – in German almost a synonym to Erkenntnis, but with a stronger association to understanding something. Therefore, it is close to “access” (into a matter), “comprehension” and “judiciousness”.

I believe that this differentiation is very important! We are often not aware of the fact that all our knowledge (Wissen) is the result of a construction process that elaborates knowledge (Erkenntnis) from experiences. The most impacting implication from this is that there can’t be a direct link between knowledge and truth! What we can know – this is the question that epistemology asks – is strictly confined by our cognitive capacity on the one side, and the margin that is spun up by our previous experiences and within which we are able to make sense of an information (to have Einsicht) on the other side. As written earlier, we can never know whether our knowledge is true or not; or with better words: to what degree our knowledge reflects actuality (since there is not only right and wrong, but a gradual scale between these two extremes). A better criterium to determine the value of knowledge is its viability, the success of it in situations in which we apply it. In any case, empirically reasoned and logically consistent knowledge is usually more viable than believed, dogmatic, emotionally felt or unconsciously driven knowledge (I am thinking of religious indoctrination, sex drive, fear of death, or the mind poisons in Buddhist philosophy). I found this definition of knowlede:

Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It consists of truth, beliefs, perspectives, concepts, judgments, expectation, methodologies, know-how; and exists in different forms such as tacit, explicit, symbolic, embodied, en-brained and en-cultured knowledge. (Richard Li-Hua, “Definitions of Technology”, Chapter 2, p.20, in “A Companion to the Philosophy of Technology” (editors: Olsen, Pedersen, Hendricks), Blackwell, 2009)

This is insightful but lacks one important point: The differentiation of knowledge into a static form (things to know) and a procedural and performative form (knowledge acquisition, understood as sense-making in a constructivist fashion, and its manifestation in our lifeworld), that I illustrated by different German translations of knowledge.

Knowledge should always be the foundation of our decisions and choices. Yes, this is a prescriptive claim that needs a prescriptive premise if I want to avoid a naturalistic fallacy. Does knowledge have an ethical dimension? I believe so, and I feel confirmed by history. Knowledge has ever since been “power”. Those who know have power over those who don’t know. In countless cases – just take organised religion and the German Nazi regime as two famous examples – the claimed superior knowledge, however, turns out to be flawed and easily contestable. Constructs like “God”, “hell” or “the Aryan” can – from today’s perspective – easily be unmasked as  humbug, so that the so called knowledge must actually be characterised as a very dangerous form of ignorance: believing to know while in fact one is so far from reason that one actually knows nothing. Knowledge is never an isolated individual phenomenon, but one that arises from separating and distinguishing things. As Niklas Luhmann pointed out, to know A means to make a distinction between A and everything else. Experience and its processing into constructed knowledge happens always in the inter-sphere – between things, between people, between societies and cultures. Here it gets delicate: When I am not aware that my insight is the result of my own construction, I might fall victim to the believe that my knowledge is closer to the absolute truth than that of others, which means almost inevitably that I feel superior to those others. Therefore, – deontologically spoken – it is my duty to contest and challenge my knowledge claims over and over again, let it be criticised and refined, and constantly seek for additional input (experiences from which to construct more meaning) and information. Or – from the perspective of virtue ethics – a truly virtuous person doesn’t blindly follow his knowledge (“Einsichten”), but seeks wisdom (a word that etymologically derives from German Weisheit and, therefore, means literally knowledgehood or knowledgeability).

A powerful way to challenge and contest knowledge, especially in the realm of orientational knowledge for normative issues (for example in political debates, or in the arena of technology assessment), is the “ideal discourse” approach by Jürgen Habermas (and others, but he is most prominent and influential). A discourse (debate, conversation, dialogue, polylogue, etc.) can come to viable conclusions under “fair” communicative conditions and under exclusion of power hierarchies or pre-defined truths, thus applying communicative rationality. In this process, viable knowledge is generated by comparing, combining and challenging different constructions (both in the static (construct) and the procedural (constructing) sense) in order to elaborate a more accurate picture that has a better chance to describe the reality appropriately (see also my letter World construction). The discourse must be “ideal” in the sense that not the most popular argument or that brought up by the most influential, famous, powerful participant wins, but that which is most plausible, logically consistent, withstanding criticism and challenge, and empirically traceable and supportable. That means, we need knowledge to come to new knowledge. A convincingly knowledgeable discourse participant has a higher chance to “win” with his or her arguments than one who can’t convince the others of the validity of his claims. In this sense, of course, knowledge is “power”. In the mentioned discourse arenas (politics, technology assessment) this is manifested in participants being required to have a certain expertise (a knowledge base in a specific field). Nobody would elect fools and idiots into parliaments and governments (in the USA that seems to be possible though), and numerous measures and procedures have been established to ensure the quality of social systems like academia, industry, economy, and other expert realms. Therefore, I see no problem in knowledge having power – it is even good like that, because the alternative of knowledge would be dogmatism, ignorance, and idiocracy. The problems about knowledge are rather:

  • Knowledge understood as ultimate truth that discriminates all that knowledge that goes against that claim.
  • Knowledge that is misused for selfish and self-interested purposes like influence, power, fame, money, wealth, or any form of privilege.
  • Knowledge that violates empirical reasoning, rationality, logic and contradicts other more reliable knowledge (for example: political decisions based on religious beliefs and economic interests that ignore scientific insights, as the debate on climate change in the USA).

All these forms of knowledge, however, turn out to be ignorance at a closer look. False knowledge! May we find more efficient and reliable ways to increase the impact of viable knowledge and its procedures of constructing it in the respective societal decision-making instances! Philosophical insights such as pragmatism (one of the few useful and good things coming from USA), constructivism and other epistemological approaches may help achieving that goal!

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Ethics and Psychology of Technology

Today, I’d like to elaborate a bit on my professional field, science and technology assessment. There is no doubt that these two domains have a massive impact on our lives. Not only does scientific investigation generate empirical knowledge of physical features of the world and of its systems (for example society, environment, human psyche), and not only does technology development create technical artefacts and other products, the ubiquitous scientific and technological mission also influences the way people perceive the world and think of the lifeworld experiences they make. Scientific realism and physical reductionism, but also the vision that everything that one could imagine and desire is technically feasible and “engineerable” – including emotional, abstract or normative entities like love, happiness, politics, etc. – dominates our age. For many years (roughly up to the 1960s in Europe and USA, in Asia still ongoing), positivism was the driving paradigm of modernism: as long as we put sufficient efforts into something, we can achieve everything and will also always be able to correct negative effects into beneficial ones! Just let science and technology do! In terms of my tree of knowledge: Science and technology are not only branches in the tree, they also create new channels of meaning-construction through which other branches (like politics, economy, culture) are fed. Here are a few thoughts on that.

A first necessary clarification must be made on the relation between science and technology. The common belief is that science comes first and produces the necessary knowledge that – in the next step – is applied and exploited for the design and engineering of technical artefacts. This view is contested by empirical research on the history of S&T. The steam machine, for example, was developed by craftsmen (James Watt, Thomas Newcomen) who had no background in physics or other sciences. The practical problems and flaws of the steam machine that occurred in the years after its invention triggered a more systematic scientific study of thermodynamics and mechanics. In this respect, we can say, a technological challenge that engineers and craftsmen faced was taken up by scientist in order to help solving it. Technology leaps ahead science in most of the cases. Moreover, undoubtedly, man created artefacts long before the elaboration of a scientific methodology.

Then, there was the idea that technological progress is somehow inevitable and unstoppable. Early philosophers of technology formulated the paradigm of technological determinism according to which technological progress follows predestined courses and shapes society. Common examples (citing Karl Marx) are the windmill bringing about the feudal system and the steam mill inducing the transition to an industrial society. Around the 1960s, this paradigm shifted dramatically. Facilitated by the great system thinkers Niklas Luhmann, Jürgen Habermas, Thomas Kuhn and others, supported by pragmatists (e.g. James Dewey), phenomenologists (e.g. Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger) and the early constructivists (here, especially, Ludwik Fleck, Gregory Bateson, Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, Paul Watzlawick, and others), the new predominant model of social constructivism (in America often termed “constructionism”) draws a picture of society shaping technological progress according to its needs, demands and desires. This fits well with the tree of knowledge idea: In the time after the second world war, people’s fears and concerns (e.g. the threat from nuclear weapons) were no longer satisfyingly soothed by politics or religion, so they sought meaning in technology as major factor to improve the quality of life. Technological artefacts were produced as a response to social needs (for example by economic market thinking and profit prospects), not because “it was possible”. At the same time – in face of nuclear threat and increasing environmental destruction – technological development and its risks and uncertainties moved more and more into the focus of social sciences. Since the deterministic thinking (“There’s nothing we can do about it, anyway!”) was replaced by constructivist thinking (“We can intervene in the construction process!”), there was big optimism that technology governance can influence the risk-benefit balance in favour of the (intended) positive outcome. This was the time that the US government installed the “Office of Technology Assessment” and, a bit later, European countries established similar institutions.

The question at that time (around the 1960s, 70s) looking at the past was: “How could we do Science and Technology without social sciences?!”. 40 years later (which is now) the technology assessors ask themselves “How could we do Science, Technology and Society (STS) studies without Ethics?!”. It was around the 1990s and early 2000s, significantly triggered by the rise of biotechnology and nanotechnology, that many disciplines (the sciences themselves, sociology, politics, philosophy, but also the public) recognised the need for more profound reflection on ethical issues of S&T. The widespread, irrational, but in parts aggressive opposition of the public against genetic engineering surprised the enactors of this S&T field, and left them hamstrung. Great prospects (envisioned by the scientists, medical practitioners, politicians) were juxtaposed with great moral challenges and imagined threats for humankind. The same can be said for nanotechnology, a field in which the major concern arises from “unclear risks” (expecting risks without knowing what the particular risks can be, how strong they impact and who is exposed). The picture of “value-free science” and “neutral technology” had to be given up for good. The challenge of established and unquestioned normative frameworks – and also ways of meaning-construction – by technological progress led to normative uncertainty and gave rise to a call for ethical analysis, since the common tools and reasoning strategies proved inefficient in light of conflict potentials. This is aptly illustrated in a statement by Glenn McGee (in his essay Pragmatic epistemology and the activity of bioethics., in “Pragmatist ethics for a technological culture”, edited by Jozef Keulartz, Michiel Korthals, Maartje Schermer, and Tsjalling Swierstra, Springer, 2002, p.112):

[We] really are only able to, and need to, question our basic assumptions in the moment when we collide with an element of the complexity of our life, a tear in the routine of experience that requires us to rethink things in order that we might progress along our current (or any other alternate) course.

New forms of technology assessment attempted to include the public in decision-making on S&T development (participatory TA), or to accompany progress from the beginning with studies on ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) (e.g. constructive TA). Commissions on particular S&T topics in the established parliamentary TA institutions involved more and more ethics experts (“ethicists”) besides the technical, political, economic and social experts. A problem of the early years of ethical evaluation of S&T was the “speculative” character of S&T ethics, and the expert-driven, very intellectual-academic “top down” approach the experts preferred (from ethical theory down to particular problems). Meanwhile, however, a whole set of useful and valuable methodologies and approaches for the ethical assessment of S&T has been developed (for example by experienced scholars in the field such as Armin Grunwald, Arie Rip, Ortwin Renn, Tsjalling Swierstra, Alfred Nordmann, and others). Again, constructivism and pragmatism had a major impact on the (self-)understanding of ethics in S&T domains: It is only worth the efforts when it comes to practicable, viable, plausible, down-to-earth solutions. The key for the success of it is interdisciplinarity: Scientists and practitioners engage in collaborative discourse with social scientists, ethicists, philosophers and political decision-makers, and sometimes with representatives of the “wider public” (often NGOs, or other affected interest groups). The difficulties that arise from the wide variety of expectations and viewpoints can again be illustrated by the tree of knowledge: All these stakeholders tend to use different channels for meaning-construction. In order to get closer to what Habermas and Apel called ideal discourse – one in which all participants can contribute arguments without any power hierarchies, one in which the best argument wins and not the most popular – it could be useful to reconstruct arguments according to this scheme: How did a discourse participant construct meaning? What is the root (fear? expertise? emotion? selfish greed?)? What is the argumentative channel (inconsiderate default setting? (religious) dogmatism? empirical reason? profit thinking?)?

This point brings me – after describing past and presence of S&T assessment – to a future vision: Maybe in 20 or 30 years from now, maybe sooner, maybe later, we will look back at this time and think “How could we assess ethical and social implications of science and technology without psychology?!”. Isn’t the understanding of how we construct meaning a field for psychological research rather than for ethics (or philosophy in general) or social sciences? As far as I can see it, the specific sub-discipline of social psychology is already implemented in STS, but I am thinking of something different. Let me explain with an example from the field of media ethics: It is commonly accepted that ethical issues in media have to be separated into a “producer ethics” (What is ethically acceptable concerning the production and dissemination of media content?) and a “consumer ethics” (What constitutes “ethically acceptable” consumption of media content and usage of media infrastructure?). So far, technology ethics, in this respect, focussed almost exclusively on “producer ethics”, taking “the public”, “the society” or “the citizen” as a grey black-boxed group. Even more, it seems to me that many technology assessors have a “responsible, interested, engaged citizen” in mind when reflecting on public participation in S&T policy. Is that tenable? Isn’t the majority of society members (with variances between different countries, of course) selfish, disinterested, lazy, uninformed, dumb people? Example: A citizen panel providing participation opportunity in decision-making on selecting radioactive waste disposal sites – a topic with presumably big conflict potential – for local citizen attracted 8 (eight!) people (and only with the incentive for getting paid for their participation) in an urban catchment of 200,000 inhabitants in England. Not to speak of the highly anti-intellectual, ill-informed, religiously biased and regressive public policy discourses observed in the USA, a country that is obviously full of fools (how else can it be explained that they elect Donald Trump to be their president?!)! The first “psychological” question is, therefore: What matters to the people and why? Are the experts’ estimations on what matters to the public always realistic and appropriate? However, a second psychological question appears much more important to me: What is the “consumer ethics” of technology? What makes people purchase, use or reject a certain technology (besides sociological answers to this question)? How do people construct meaning from the existence and availability of technological artefacts? Only with this question, for example, would it be possible to perform an assessment of smartphone technology. Imagine what this question would in return mean for the responsibility of technology producers: If it turns out that a technology supports undesirable psychological traits (addiction, emotional coldness, increasing social isolation, aggression, etc.), would it be advisable to refrain from the production and dissemination (which could be driven by profit expectation, knowing that people will buy it)? How paternalistic may S&T development be? Here might be a specific entry point for “Buddhist technology ethics”: Does the development support “suffering” in the sense that it feeds the mind poisons (esp. attachment, or greed), or should it be channelled in a way that it facilitates liberation from it? We will see. Currently, the psychological aspects of social construction of technology are dealt with in the same way that ethical issues have been treated for long: somehow in the background, without granting it the level of expertise that it deserves. It was believed that everybody can do ethics. In the face of intractable conflicts it turned out to be crucial, anyhow, to include professional ethical expertise. Currently, it is the psychological aspects that are given only a marginal importance. “Everybody can do psychology!” – Really? Maybe soon in the future we will include social, environmental and “cognitive” psychologists in our S&T assessments. I would welcome that!

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The inclusion of psychology might also help “grounding” and clarifying many philosophical and ethical positions on S&T issues. Take, for example, this statement by Jean-Pierre Dupuy in the “Companion to the Philosophy of Technology” (edited by Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen and Vincent F. Hendricks, Routledge, 2009, chapter 38, p.216):

Indeed, the metaphysics of the NBIC convergence dreams of overcoming once and for all every given that is a part of the human condition, especially the finiteness of a human life – its mortality and its beginning in birth.

These are great words, but is that really true? Probably we can assume that existential fears are the predominant drivers of most human activity, but it sounds a bit far-fetched to claim that the underlying motivation (“dream”) of Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno enactors is – in a conscious fashion – to overcome mortality. All the dedicated “transhumanists” are people outside the S&T development domain who just conclude from recent S&T trends that transhumanism is a goal worth achieving. However, deeper insights into these driving forces of S&T progress might be delivered rather by psychological disciplines than by sociology or philosophy.

Here are some books that serve as great “further reading” on this topic. At least, they recently inspired me to write this letter.