Superstition = Ignorance

In the previous letter I mentioned ignorance. This is an important topic that is worth elaborating further. According to Buddha’s teachings – and I fully agree! – it is one of the three mind poisons, besides attachment (or greed) and resistance (or hate). It is even regarded as the root of all mundane afflictions since it produces and amplifies attachments and resistances. Not knowing how things really are – how, then, can beneficial and sustainable decision-making be possible? One of the most obvious unwholesome manifestations of ignorance is a mindset based on the maxim ‘We have always done it like this!‘ as often observed in matters of tradition, customs and especially religious and superstitious practices.

A while ago, your Mom insisted on taking you to a nearby temple of the deity “Mazu” (媽祖), the heavenly goddess and patron saint of fishers and sailors, who was suggested by a fortune teller as your “Ganma” (a kind of patron or godmother). Since you are perfectly healthy and develop more than well your Mom wanted to thank the Mazu and please her with your visit. I know that this is very important for her, so I didn’t stop her and went with you. Actually, for me, these religious rituals, same as horoscopes and fortune telling, are entire nonsense! But, pragmatically speaking, if it makes the family happy, why not?! However, I had one serious objection: In Taiwan, it is a custom to burn tons of incenses and even paper money for the deities and ghosts of their folk religion, a mix of Daoism (the biggest influence), Confucianism and Buddhism with strong impact of shamanistic beliefs and practices. Bringing a little baby to such a smoky and polluted place is certainly not a good idea! Isn’t that ironic? We take you to a temple to pray for your good health and, by that, expose you for a considerable time (20-30 minutes) to highly carcinogenic air, heavily laden with the combustion products of organic material, full of heterocycles, acrylates, and many more. This is exactly my problem with ignorance! Instead of applying rational, reasonable, knowledge-informed considerations to their decision-making and choice of options for their life, people do stupid, unhealthy, counterproductive, inefficient things that are motivated by traditions, believes, fears and unquestioned customs that are passed down from ancient times in which the people really had no better idea. What a humbug!

IronyGhostmoney

Indeed, the ubiquitous burning of ghost money is one of the most annoying things about Taiwan, from my perspective. The air is bad enough, but there is nothing worse than neighbours who burn an entire bucket of paper sheets on each and every possible occasion (the lunar calendar is full of special days of hundreds of deities). Especially in the “ghost month” (lunar 7th month) there is a brown layer of ashes above the city. In Taipei the public burning of ghost money is forbidden, but still many people do it, because for them it is a severe offense to stop them from their traditional customs. Sometimes I wonder if the young generation that has at least some formal education is still really believing in ghosts and spirits and the effectiveness of pleasing them by burning paper. Yes, cultural customs and traditions deserve some respect just for the sake of being a cultural element deeply rooted in a society. However, there is a limit, and that is rational reason! When traditions are found to be entirely counterproductive (like producing air pollution to pray for health), there must be a way to change the custom! Even religious and other spiritual worldviews have to be adapted to contemporary levels of knowledge! Ignorance is NOT bliss! As long as a society doesn’t reach this level of understanding, it will remain an “underdeveloped” one. Sorry, Taiwan!

airpollution

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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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Bare necessities

In an earlier letter I wrote about the steps of development, from body-centeredness to mental advancements to spirituality. Today, I’d like to elaborate on a similar yet slightly different model, inspired by Maslow’s pyramid of needs. He distinguishes three levels of human needs, manifested in 5 steps of particular interests. The “basic needs” are the most fundamental physiological needs (enough food and water, sufficient warmth and the chance to rest) and safety needs (being free from harm and danger). Then, there are psychological needs such as belongingness and love (having relationships, family, friends) and esteem needs (feeling productive and being merited for ones accomplishments). Finally, people have self-fulfilment or self-actualisation needs (having hobbies, being creative, expressing and satisfying one’s inner states).

maslowpyramid

This pyramid can be “read” in various ways. First, the suggested hierarchy may be understood as an order of development of both human civilisation as a whole and individual human beings in particular. Non-human animals and our closest evolutionary ancestors are driven by their physiological needs, and to a lesser extent by safety needs. When early humans as conscious and self-aware beings formed clans and rudimentary societies (in contrast to non-aware social animals like bees, ants or fish swarms), the emotional bonds among clan and family members made them realise love needs. When the survival and well-being of a society (or clan, or family) depends on the activity level and its success and efficiency of each individual, and when successful and efficient activity was merited, the psychological need of prestige and esteem supported the motivation to actively contribute to social life and to increasing life quality. When all this is taken care of and there is still time left, then there is room for self-actualisation in the form of creative and artful activities – the birth of human culture. On the individual level, the basic needs (food, sleep) are the first expressed ones, along with security and safety needs. When the newborn baby feels well-taken care of, it starts forming bonds with the caretakers and love-givers. When getting socially active, needs of confirmation and rewards are expressed, and from a certain age on, Kids feel the desire to express themselves according to their skills in a meaningful way.

A second reading is the relation between those needs and the granting of human rights. The more basic a need the more we are inclined to grant the satisfaction of that need as a “human right”. It is important to distinguish negative rights (the right of freedom from something) from positive rights (the right of freedom to something). From my understanding, Maslow’s pyramid implies that from top to bottom the “freedom from” rights increase in significance and importance. Everybody might agree that people should have the right of freedom from being blocked from access to food, warmth and sleep. But not everybody agrees that people have a right of being loved or a right of having a job or a right of committing to a passionate hobby (or, strictly speaking, in terms of negative rights: the right of freedom from being blocked from access to it). The positive rights, in contrast, increase from bottom to top: People are granted the right of freedom to choose their hobby, their favourite music, their religion or their job. Usually, people are also free to choose their friends and partner (not the parents and siblings, though). However, in case of the basic needs, they are usually not spoken of in connection with terms of freedom of choice. It appears plausible, however, to understand the physiological and safety needs as “more urgent” than, for example the need to have a hobby or a job. This hierarchy is also mirrored in international agreements on human rights protection and manifested in actual law-and-order systems. When imprisoning criminals, their right of freedom to choose their activities, their destinations or their social surrounding is taken from them (so to say), but even in a prison it must be ensured – according to common sense – that they have enough to eat, a place to sleep safely and that they are not tortured or humiliated. On a less “political” but more “familiar” level, we might make the example of parents that bar their 10-year-old daughter from having a tattoo with the argument that her safety (from harmful health effects of the carcinogenic ink) outweighs her freedom of self-actualisation (which, as she believes, having a tattoo is part of). Here, it is also obvious that from bottom to top the number of options to choose from are increasing immensely. On the basic level, we simply have to eat, sleep and stay away from unhealthy environmental conditions. It is also clear what safety and security imply. The ways to serve the need of friendship and love are much more manifold, not to speak of the choices for esteem and self-fulfilment needs.

Third, there is an ethical reading in the pyramid – even though I wonder if Maslow or others who exploit this illustration would think of it in this way. Ethics as the attempt to find solutions for conflicts and problems that occur in the inter-sphere between individual people, societies and cultures is concerned with strategies of argumentation that can convince parties of the rightness or wrongness of certain viewpoints, decisions and/or actions. People have different interests, desires and preferences. When these collide, a solution is needed as an orientation for what would be a proper way to proceed. Commonly, people agree that “my rights end where your rights start”, but that is often too simplistic and not helpful for many conflict cases. This pyramid may serve as an orientation for a hierarchy of rights. When two need-based rights collide, the one further down in the pyramid is to be prioritised over the one further up. When a politician’s interest in power (as a form of prestige) and votes leads him to making decisions that are undermining the social stability of his country (like Trump in USA), it is unethical. When I neglect my children’s need to spend quality time with their father because I am more interested in my job or my hobby, it is unethical. This reading is connected to the second reading on rights: Limiting someone’s options for self-fulfilment is less ethically problematic than limiting someone’s options for seeking safety. When I prohibit a certain hobby you have many alternatives to choose from. But when I mistreat you or don’t care for you, you can’t just choose another family. On the socio-political level, when a legislation prohibits smoking in public places (as in Germany) some people complain, but it is not a big problem. When a legislation prohibits homosexual relationships (as in Russia), thus limiting the satisfaction of relationship needs for a significant group of the population, it is ethically highly questionable. When a legislation is not putting sufficient energy into the social balance (as in Myanmar, not governing the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims), it is losing its justification. When a legislation is not even trying to feed its population (as in North Korea), this legislation is better put out of power (forcefully, if necessary) since this is clearly a violation of human rights.

Inspired by Maslow’s pyramid (that makes good sense to me), I thought about an additional or even supplementary pyramid of necessities for life quality. The pyramid of needs doesn’t say anything about the sources for the satisfaction of those needs. What must be given for a certain life quality? How can that be prioritised or hierarchised in order to come to insights that can serve as orientations for actions and decisions (such as the “human rights” approach based on the hierarchy of needs)? Here is the result of my reflections:

mehlichpyramid

The basic necessity that is needed for survival is environmental stability. Embedded into an ecosystem, human beings can’t survive without it. If the fine-tuned environmental balance is disrupted, the whole system will be affected, for example through changes in biodiversity, food chains, climate, chemical constitution of the atmosphere, etc. Environmental health is the basis for our food sources, for access to fresh water, for breathable air and the ecological niche of the human race. All anthropogenic activity (including system formation such as society, culture, economy, money, etc.) is dependent on it and, therefore, secondary to it. Second, human needs can only be satisfied when there is a certain level of social stability. In extreme cases (war, riots, anarchy, violence), this can affect the survival chances. In a more moderate sense, political stability provides autonomy and grants rights to the citizen that it is governing, thus enabling integrity. Here, integrity means inviolacy and the ability to act at all. However, it gradually (in the pyramid upwards) takes up the meaning of righteousness (ethical integrity) when the levels further down are taken care of. The third level that corresponds to Maslow’s belongingness and love needs is labelled ethical stability. With this, I mean an atmosphere of trust and co-operation among family members, neighbours, colleagues and peers (those in direct vicinity of one’s life). Only in that kind of surrounding can people start building close ties and rely on each other, increasing each others’ life quality by mutual support and collaboration. Only such a society is able to establish a system that offers livelihood options. This might be the most critical and debatable part of my pyramid. It implies that – as soon as a society reaches a certain level of integral peace and co-operation, people will feel the desire to act as parts of this society, bringing in their skills and abilities. They do that, as I believe, out of self-motivation and not because the social system forces them to. Moreover, it is not clear to everyone why economic needs play a role in this fourth level rather than on the first level (providing food, housing, clothes, etc.). The economic system we have, arisen from a functionally differentiated society (to use Niklas Luhmann’s term), dictates a lifestyle of shared competences in various types of jobs. Only in this kind of system depends the daily supply of food, housing, etc. on the financial income from one’s job (livelihood). This is man-made and not a universal law – it could be different. That’s why the basic needs (or here: the basic necessities) have, in principle, nothing to do with the economic system that we established. Having a job is only a necessity because we as a society chose to live like that. This fourth level in my pyramid is rather referring to livelihood options as a multitude of ways to unleash one’s productivity potentials because that is what we naturally fill our lives with when the lower three levels are secured. When survival is certain and the personal integrity secured, we start being concerned about our identity. We define ourselves through our social ties with family, friends and peers, but also – and maybe predominantly – through our social roles as competent experts in a particular field of skills or knowledge. Ultimately, when there is sufficient capacity and time for it, we form habits of thought or action that agglomerate to what we call culture. People use their creativity and intellect to engage with art, philosophy and spirituality. They choose hobbies (“spare time activities”) and fill leisure time with joyful and pleasurable endeavours. Some of those are part of the identity formation mechanisms, others are simply a “luxury” in the sense of “they are not really necessary for our life”. However, in any case, it is usually those aspects of life that give us the feeling that it is worth living for.

Same as for the needs pyramid, also the necessity pyramid can be understood as a development description, analogue to the one given above. More interesting – and the main reason why I think this way of putting it produces further insights – are the political and ethical dimensions in it. In both fields (politics and ethics) we asks “What shall we do?”. When taking this pyramid as a decision guideline, the answer is: “Start at the bottom, fix the problems, and work your way up!”. In reality, however, we observe trends that proceed in the opposite direction. Governments are eagerly promoting industrial aims for the sake of job creation and material wealth while resources and energy demands ruin the environment and the eco-system. The climate changes in an accelerated fashion under the influence of human activity, but important decision-makers and consumers seem not to care due to the conveniences they desire on the 5th level (self-fulfilment needs and cultural necessities). Religious and societal conflicts dominate the News (for example islamistic terrorism, racism or homophobia, unemployment rate) while the serious global problems arising from atmosphere warming, pollution and species extinction are marginalised and only peripherally brought to people’s awareness, at least not as an “urgent issue”, not to speak of one that is wholeheartedly worked on.

I suggest that crimes are punished on the basis of this pyramid. Environmental destruction and pollution (for example by corporations or shipping companies) as the worst possible crimes are punished with lifelong imprisonment. Terrorism, genocide and tyranny are punished accordingly. Corruption, brainwashing through media or educational curricula, all forms of fascism and discrimination might fall into that same category when they threaten the social stability. The next level are crimes that undermine the ethical integrity of the society: intriguing, fraud, betrayal, abuse, harassment, etc. Stealing money (no matter how much) or other commodities, however, is not a big deal since it is motivated by greed and avarice – character traits that mostly the criminal himself is suffering from, as such already punished. These people need help, not punishment. Crimes in the art/culture realm are hardly possible, then. Copyright violations (for example by downloading music and movies illegally) are a bagatelle compared to crimes that target the more fundamental necessities of human life.

There are two fields of human interest that I’d like to comment on in view of these pyramids: education and technology. Where in these pyramids is education? Some might say it is the guarantor of social stability, therefore it is something that should be granted as a right, and something that the international community should eagerly work on to provide to each and every human on this planet. Others argue that it is only useful to serve the need of esteem or the necessity of livelihood, respectively. It is for identity formation rather than for personal and social integrity. I agree with the former viewpoint: There can’t be integrity, neither personal nor ethical nor societal, without education (at least reading, writing and basic mathematics). A lot of social instability around the globe arises from the immaturity of wide parts of the population due to a lack of education. Educated people will be more free from the despotism of leaders (political, economic, ideological, etc.), and more willing to develop the social conditions to the better (whatever that means). They will be able to secure the satisfaction of basic needs and create capacities to satisfy also the psychological needs and identity-relevant necessities. Moreover, the right education will support environmental protection, sustainable livelihood and economy, and more responsible consumerism and lifestyle practices.

This brings me to reflections on technology. Basically, I (alongside many scholars in Philosophy of Technology) regard the creation and usage of technology as the result of needs and desires. People invent and apply artefacts in order to make their life easier. The oldest known tools (if understood as technology, as I do) helped their users to ensure a sufficient supply of food, clothes, housing and warmth. Still today, many branches of technology are serving purposes of survival, be it for food production, medical technology, housing, protection from natural forces, etc. Other items serve social purposes, for example transportation systems or mass media. Relationship needs are addressed in various forms of communication technology, but also indirectly in the form of making work processes less time-consuming, thus enabling more time with loved ones and for socialising. Technical artefacts enable many new forms of jobs and ways to be a productive member of a community, for example scientists and engineers. Moreover, technological solutions are strongly interwoven into cultural practices, arts, entertainment, and alike. However, at the same time, technology also has negative impact on all levels of human needs and necessities: technology-caused environmental destruction and pollution, social imbalances due to unjust distribution of access to technology-induced wealth, interpersonal and individual conflicts arising from misuse of technology, limitations of livelihood options due to replacement of human workforce by technological solutions, and personal numbness and blunting as a consequence of mindless consumption and application of “cold” technology. In technology assessment, negative and positive effects of technological progress, often referred to as “risks and benefits” are analysed and evaluated according to certain parameters. In the same fashion as I categorised the heaviness of crimes, I suggest to evaluate technology on the basis of my pyramid of necessities: In the first instance, technology must be “environmentally friendly”, that means its design, production, implementation and application must not interfere with the environmental integrity and balance. If it does, no matter how useful it is in serving needs of the upper levels, refrain from it! In the second instance, it should be ensured that it serves social stability by promoting justice and fairness through its general availability and non-discriminatory effects. Then we can start asking in which way it affects people’s life habits (interaction within families, among friends, with colleagues) and people’s options to choose doing anything meaningful in their life. Then – and only then – may we take into account all those intended purposes and anticipated effects that the technology in focus has on the amenities of human daily life. There is a lot of technology (in the widest sense) currently firmly implemented in our daily life that would fail this assessment: individual auto-mobility (cars and motorcycles), cosmetics, agricultural techniques (especially meat production), energy production from fossil fuels, just to name a few examples.

Printing and Culture

In the Companion to the Philosophy of Technology (edited by J.K. Berg Olsen, S.A. Pedersen and V.F. Hendricks in 2009), in chapter 3 (“Western Technology”) by Keld Nielsen, I stumbled across this statement:

One [novelty] was Johannes Gutenberg’s development around 1450 of printing with movable type. A somewhat similar technique had much earlier been used in Korea but apparently without the significant impact on cultural and technical development that can be traced in Europe.

This made me think about the definition of cultural development and progress. Maybe Dr. Nielsen simply doesn’t know anything about the history of Korea. Then he doesn’t know that – while Europe was still drenched in mud, disease, crime and primitivity – Korea’s society in the Goryeo dynasty (고려국, 高麗國) that arose from the later Silla (신라, 新羅) period was well advanced in terms of education, technology, social order and balance, hygiene, life comfort, etc. Silla’s capital Gyeongju (경주, 慶州), still a flourishing cultural and infrastructural center in Goryeo times, with then (12th century BC) estimated 1 million inhabitants was the fourth largest city in the world (after Constantinople (now Istanbul), Baghdad and Chang’An), indicating a progressive well-organised urban society. During these centuries, Buddhist worldview and Confucian social ideals entered Korea as the translated texts became available and spread widely. Certainly, the invention of metal movable type printing had a large impact on the culture of Korea.

Koreanskt trätryckblock från 1800-talet

How come, then, that Western scholars don’t regard this as advanced? Because they didn’t consecutively invent the steam machine, steal production, capitalism and football? Historically, it needs to be noted that Goryeo fell to the Mongols after decades of invasions and destruction, followed by years of Japanese pillages. Technological progress appears quite difficult under these circumstances. But I also see another important point. I believe it would be wrong to judge the advancement of a culture by its technological progress alone. Same as in the European realm Gutenberg’s press supported the access of the Bible to everybody, leading to a spread of Luther’s new Protestantism, Korea’s population gained access to Buddhist scriptures, Confucian ideology and other ancient Asian texts. But while – according to Max Weber, amongst others – the European Protestantism ultimately led to capitalism with all its pathological symptoms (environmental destruction, greed, psychological illnesses, social coldness, etc.), the influence of Asian schools of thought, most notably Buddhism, probably led to an understanding of harmony and balance, both individually (the inner sphere) and on the social level, that facilitated and supported a lifestyle that was much more oriented towards sustainability, integrity, well-being (rather than “having”, speaking with Erich Fromm) and propriety. Isn’t “the highest form of culture” one in which its members understand what is at stake and refrain from heading straight into disaster? In this light, Nielsen’s statement is simply arrogant, ignoring that European history is dominated by dark ages to an extent that Korea, fortunately, didn’t have to face. Who brought air-polluting fossil fuel industry over this planet? Who pushed chemical progress towards substances that destroyed the ozone layer? Who created a society based on greed, competition and materialism? Certainly not the Koreans (but, admittedly, they caught up impressively in the past two decades…)! The point I am trying to make is that “culture” and its level of development is much more complex than the suggested factors (technology) indicate. At the time that Korean engineers invented printing with movable metal types, the Korean society flourished and was way ahead of the European! Gutenberg’s press a few centuries later was embedded into an entirely different historical context and, arguably, initiated a “revolution” that was far from being a “blessing” to the Western world! I suggest that it can be regarded as Korea’s great achievement that its culture prevented capitalism and environmental destruction (at least until the West influenced it). What do you say, Mr. Nielsen?

Mysticism, Religion, and Atheism

With the Tree of Knowledge I have an illustrative tool at hand to describe my ideas and thoughts concerning the huge topic “religion”. The following reflections must be regarded as a more than crude sketch since a “complete” overview of the matter would fill a shelf in a library. I will try to stick to the crucial aspects to make my viewpoint clear. I will not go into detail in the various historical manifestations of particular religions. A great overview can be found here (pinterest) or here (facebook), comprised in this illustration by Simon E. Davies:

treeofreligions2-0

We have to go back to the very roots of mankind. What must it have been like for our ancestors at the transition from moment-bound situational utility-driven cognition (of an ape) to an aware self-reflective past- and future-oriented mind (of a homo)? The conscious perception of the world in terms of its potential – not only the situational exploitation of the given but the creation of opportunity by active and purpose-directed intervention – co-arose with the drive to understand that world that homo found himself in. The quest for knowledge began. The understanding of time is a necessary precondition for that, I guess. Past experiences are stored and processed in order to use them for present actions which are future-directed in the sense that specific outcomes are anticipated and extrapolated from trustworthy past experiences. Physical deficiencies – homo was not the fastest, strongest, perceptually best skilled – were outweighed by knowledge and its successful application. Here, the enterprise of constructing meaning from experience began. But what did it look like when the knowledge base was still very small? I imagine it like this:

I move. I am alive and I can die. The bird and the mammoth move. They are alive and they can die (and I eat them). The stone is cold and doesn’t move. It is inanimate (and I can’t eat it). The sun moves. It is alive but obviously can’t die (and I can’t catch and eat it)!

This is the birth of mysticism, the personification of unexplainable and sometimes frightening phenomena, the separation of “things under the sun”, “the myriad of creatures” on the one hand from “the heavenly realm” with all its powers brought upon us on the other. A quick search across known ancient cultures from all around the globe reveals that almost all of them worship entities that are in one way or another related to astronomical or meteorological occurrences: sun gods, rain gods, thunder gods, star fairies, wind ghosts, etc. An important impact was certainly the development of spoken language to communicate abstract ideas, thoughts and feelings. The members of a clan or society could discover that they share certain fears, concerns, worries and also explanations and meanings. We can imagine how the new possibility of exchanging viewpoints and debating pushed the advancement of culture as the glue that keeps a clan together and creates identification. “You are one of us because you think like we do!“. This might be the turning point from more or less individual mysticism towards organised religion.

Despite the common view that the discovery of spoken language was the most impacting achievement of mankind, I claim that the invention of alphabets – written language – had an even bigger impact. Spoken language was still situational and “out of the moment”. Capturing thoughts in written words, in contrast, requires a deeper reflection on what the thought actually was. The speaker lets out what is on his mind in the moment of talking. The writer is able to move back in time and reproduce streams of thought, modify and refine them, and reflect on consequences and implications. In terms of the Tree of Knowledge: Whereas before the predominant channel of meaning-construction was the default setting (driven by self-made experiences and their emotional context, mostly well-being and fear), the invention of writing facilitated the opening of new channels such as education and dogmatism. Social and moral codes and possible world explanations could be written down by those who are intellectually capable of it. Knowledge became power and the formation of social hierarchies as we still experience it today began. Those who suffered more – from existential threats, diseases, losses, tragedies – were able to find ease (to a certain extent) in those who gave them understandable and plausible explanations and meanings of the experiences they face. With the help of knowledgeable “masters” the ordinary people were able to “survive” existential threats and tragedies – sometimes by following down-to-earth rules, for example on hygiene, sometimes by simply having hope and trust in the future course of the world.

Let’s take, for example, the Bible: The old testament is full of rules that, when violated, imply horrible punishments such as chopping off hands or death by stoning. Does that mean that the God that is described in the Bible is a cruel dominant ruler? I think, it is much more pragmatic. The Bible is written by many contributors from various regions and epochs. The old testament is a collection of advises and rules for daily life, intended as guideline for people who have no education and no other source of rules for a successful life (=survival). For example, it is written that a man is not allowed to sit on a chair that was occupied before by a woman in her menstruation period. If he does, he will receive 20 hits with a birch. This sounds ridiculous from our perspective, but it made sense for a society in which the common people had no knowledge about infectious diseases or hygiene standards. Guess what is more efficient: explaining to them the pathways of infections and the hygienic importance of keeping furniture clean, or the paternalistic and clear rule “if you do that you’ll be punished!”? Compare that to how I protect you, little baby, from harm: Instead of explaining the physics of electricity and the effects of an electric current on your body system, I simply tell you “Don’t touch the power socket!” or I just block it from your access. In this way, as a father, I have power over you because I know better (currently). And in the same way, knowledgeable leaders know better than the common people and, therefore, have power over them.

Here, religion is interwoven with politics. And where is politics there are also people who misuse it to satisfy their greedy and unscrupulous needs for power and influence. The goal to support common people with helpful rules in a paternalistic way turns into a motivation to “keep people small and stupid” by inflicting doctrines and dogmas upon them. Instead of soothing people’s fears with hope and warm narratives, the church (as the political manifestation of religion) exploits these fears for their own selfish purposes. The Bible, then, is not a sourcebook for codes of life conduct and morals stabilising the social community anymore, but an instrument of threat and indoctrination. Today, we learn at school that texts have to be interpreted in the context of the author’s era, social realm and political situation. This is, of course, also the case for the Bible. The church, however, is built on the dogma of “The Word” that is divine, eternal, never-changing and true. There is no room for interpretation, because – as soon as believers start thinking about the meaning of the narratives presented in the Bible – the church would lose its justification as an important social institution. With other words: The church claims the one right way of meaning-construction for itself and requires believers to follow that one way.

I’d like to give two examples from the very beginning of the Bible. The first story that is told is the creation of the world by God within six days and a rest on the 7th day. The church claims that this is the exact truth, taken literally. A mind- and careless follower will, therefore, believe that it happened like that. Today we know that it didn’t happen like that, so we think that those who still believe it must be entirely stupid, brainwashed, or simply foolish idiots (mostly found in the USA). Does that mean the Bible is “wrong”? Let’s see it from a hermeneutical perspective: This story made it into the old testament around 3500 years ago, but is probably even older. At that time, people had no idea of evolutionary processes or of cosmic constellations. Yet, they ask themselves where all this (the world they see) came from. The “best explanation” was this story. Today we have better explanations, but we may admit that an important principle – a certain timely order of sophistication – is also found in the creation narrative: first God made the sun (night and day) and the earth, then plants, then water animals and land animals, and finally mankind. This rough order of development is more or less confirmed by insights into evolutionary processes, just that the Bible puts that into words that are easy to understand and reflect the possible degree of knowledge of that time. The “mistake” is to take this as an eternal truth, as if we would never increase and sophisticate our degree of knowledge.

The second story of the Bible is the “original sin”: Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise after eating from the “tree of knowledge”. Now, this is interesting, because I depict my idea of meaning-construction as a tree of knowledge, too. Christians (I mean those who really believe in God and practice Christian religion, not those German Christians who are actually non-religious) interpret this episode as “Don’t challenge God but trust in his benevolence! If Adam and Eve hadn’t challenged him, we would still live in paradise!” (therefore: original sin). Anti-Christians (for example atheists) interpret the story as “See! God wanted man to be stupid, without any knowledge, just following his orders!”. These are two ways of meaning-construction: one through the channel of (religious) dogmatism (take the Bible literally and worship God), one through the channel of scepticism (arising from scientism, liberalism, or others). However, also the latter takes this story literally in a way that it doesn’t ask for its narrative and hermeneutic dimension. We have to ask: Why did this story make it into the Bible at this prominent place, presuming that the authors (or “compilers”) saw an important significance in it? Man’s experience was that he was different from other living beings. Animals didn’t talk, didn’t invent tools and didn’t develop “culture” that is in any way comparable to human culture (also this insight changed meanwhile due to new deeper knowledge about other animal species). Why are human so different? And why, even though we are so special, are we not free from suffering but share it with the animals? Explanation 1: God made human with a special intention. Explanation 2: We must have disappointed God so much that he gave up on us. Explanation 3: Maybe once we actually were like the animals, but then we discovered our ability of (self-)consciousness, (self-)awareness and (self-)knowledge and stepped out of our biological niche. Thinking explanation 3 further, we might arrive at conclusions that are meaningful from a modern anthropological perspective: How important is “ecological balance” and “natural harmony” for the biosphere of this planet? Is it really a blessing for humankind to be knowledgeable, or might it turn out as a curse (see, for example, the global environmental destruction as a result of human inventive activity)? Would it be better to remain forever in the default setting, as in “blessed are the ignorant“? No matter what the outcome of such reflections actually is, we see an important difference from the other two alternatives: The construction of meaning from the story is channelled to rational, up-to-date, current state-of-the-art knowledge based reasoning. It leaves room for interpretative change, can be challenged and contested by critique and good argumentation, and appreciates the constructive character of all knowledge.

That’s why religion appears so outdated in enlightened and educated societies. Religious institutions that are built on power hierarchies don’t want to allow space for interpretation. They want people with a limited set of channels to generate meaning. This became especially obvious when the scientific method gained the power and influence that it has today. “Truth” is believed to be found in science, not in dogmatic religions. Therefore, the claim for absolute truth by the church appears nothing but ridiculous or despicable. That’s why many people want to disempower the church as an institution of “truth”. That is understandable, overdue and – given the many lapses and aberrations of institutionalised religions – probably a good idea! However, I think it is important to distinguish carefully between organised religion that is manifested as church or other respective religious institutions and religious spirituality in the sense of a source for orientational knowledge. Then, it is worthwhile to get aware of the epistemological difference between factual knowledge that explains the physical world and its entities, and orientational knowledge that guides normative choices and decisions made by humans as actants in a social community. Who is justified to claim a knowledge domain for oneself? We handed the creation of factual knowledge to the social institution “science” and its methodologies and strategies. The century-long conflict between religion and science arises from the mistaken view that the knowledge domains of science and religion overlap but that only one of them can come to valid conclusions. However, I believe that religion doesn’t compete with science because it is mostly focused on orientational knowledge on normative issues of human behaviour. Therefore, it competes with philosophy or other forms of spirituality as an alternative channel of meaning construction, but not with (natural) sciences. Certainly, orientational knowledge must be fed by factual insights. That’s why, with increasing factual knowledge, our interpretations of orientational narratives (such as the Bible) might change over time. However, discarding sources of orientational knowledge (religions, arts, philosophy) as irrelevant is as dangerous for humanity and humankind as rejecting scientific insights and evidence-based knowledge as foundation for normative conclusions. Realising the constructive character of both of these knowledge realms might serve as a good starting point for a dialogue between them. This “informed” way of meaning-construction might play an important role in the future of mankind – in case there is any…

A Tree of Knowledge

Today, I am a bit euphoric. I think I achieved a major breakthrough in sorting and elaborating my reflections. And all because of an atheist meme on facebook that labeled the Bible, the Quran and the Talmud “fake news” (a political fashion term at the moment). Critical with all “extreme” positions, I had to come up with a proper reply, but the issue turned out to be more complicated. I think I found a good way to explain my point. I present: My tree of knowledge!

Wait a minute… Tree of knowledge? Like the one in the Bible? No. That is a different story. But also yes, somehow. I will come to it later (maybe). Like the one described by René Descartes (“Philosophical works”, Vol.2, transl. John Cottingham et al., Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, p.186)? His tree had three parts: metaphysics as the roots, scientific knowledge of nature (physics) as trunk, and the three main branches medicine, morals and mechanics. Philosophy’s task then was to harvest the fruits of this tree as insight of the world. Its key questions are “What is knowledge?” and “What do we use it for?“. My tree is similar, but – in view of recent insights from biology, psychology, culture studies and constructivism – more sophisticated in the description of roots and trunk, and more up-to-date in the number and constitution of branches. Another famous tree of knowledge was proposed by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (“The Tree of Knowledge. Biological roots of human understanding.”, 1987). This, indeed, is a book that everybody (!) should read! It is a key work in the field of constructivism, insightful not only for academics but for everybody who wants to go through daily life mindfully. However, the metaphor of a tree is not particularly illustrated in the book but simply refers to human understanding as a living and evolving network: “We will propose a way of seeing cognition not as a representation of the world ‘out there,’ but rather as an ongoing bringing forth of a world through the process of living itself” (p. 11). Maturana and – even more so – Varela, not only with this work but also with other impacting publications, belong to my most influential thinkers and scientists. Even though I try to avoid their flaw of widely ignoring the philosophical insights of the past 2500 years in their Tree of Knowledge, their insights contributed significantly to the elaboration of my tree of knowledge:

meaningtree

The roots constitute the sources of all our experiences. Everything we know about the world is constructed by our cognitive equipment: senses, central nervous system, brain. Parts of this system are memory, consciousness, emotions and other psychologically observable and explainable features. In simple terms: we observe, process, think, feel, recall and react. Then, we securely know that we are the centre of the universe. All experiences necessarily are made by us from the self-perspective. Nobody can make experiences for someone else. Same as a thought doesn’t exist beyond its being-thought, experience doesn’t exist beyond its being-experienced. The perception of a self (or an ego) inevitably goes along with the definition of everything else as the other. This illusion of separation creates the idea of world as something external. Within this world-space we experience desires and needs that feed our constant fear of non-existence and ceasing-from-existence. We experience many forms of suffering (in the literal form as pain, in the figurative form as unsatisfactoriness) and yearn for safety and security. This list of basic features is certainly incomplete, but I believe it is sufficiently precise to adumbrate the key point: all humans (as long as not physically or mentally disabled) share these features, and all humans build their decisions, viewpoints and their life on this foundation. Agree?

The trunk is the channel through which we process all these experiences in order to manifest them in our being-in-the-world (using Heidegger’s term). Experiencing is a process (for some scholars even an act) that only works in view of an experience background that is present in the experiencer, an active sense-making. This might be the biggest difference to Descartes’ tree of knowledge: It is illusionary to believe that the act of sense-making for all humans is always only scientific, exploiting knowledge of “the real world” (nature). Since Kant and latest since the convincing insights provided by constructivism, there are many more options. First, we all run on a kind of default setting. If not otherwise reflected or mindfully brought into our conscious awareness, the choices and decisions we make are controlled and determined by the cognitive and behavioural patterns acquired since we are born, under strong influence of our emotions, our education and other previous experiences that I like to summarise as the matrix. In this default setting we tend to be selfish, self-centred, vulnerable, manipulable and susceptible for external powers. Then, there is dogmatism and indoctrination: Someone tells us in one or the other form what certain experiences mean and what we have to conclude from them. In the light form, this includes the parental and institutional education at home and at schools. In the more drastic form we can find that in most religious instances (church), in some political systems, and in parts even in science; in short: in all systems that have anything to do with power of some over others (in the widest possible meaning). There are also more conscious and sceptical ways of sense-making: we can deal with observations and experiences empirically by setting them into perspective with other observations and experiences, we can contest them and refine our understanding of them. The most basic tool for this is logic. An important aspect of these strategies to “construct meaning from experience” is that they are more sustainable and stable the more a person is mindful and free in the choice of options.

In order to understand my choice of branches (here: religion, culture, politics, economy, science, technology) it is important to realise that this model applies for both individual humans and social agglomerations at large. Let me start with the societal level. In current societies, these spheres are the most present ones. Almost all societies developed or adopted institutions of organised religion or at least some kind of spirituality, organise themselves in some form of politics, established systems of production, trade and consumption (economy), started investigating nature and society (science) and invented more or less sophisticated tools that make human life easier (technology). Culture might be an outstanding point here, and some might disagree upon its presence in this set of social spheres. What I mean with it here are all the features and characteristics that serve as the identity-giving connecting fabric of a society: language, art, morals, codes of behaviour, Zeitgeist. Different societies express these branches in different fashions and to various extents, both regionally (an Asian society is different from a European one) and temporally (the Greek society of 500BC differs from the contemporary Greek society). From the historical perspective, some ancient branches disappeared while new ones flourished, others dried out or grew stronger. Let’s take, for example, the German tree: It is a completely secular society, so the religion branch is very small. Germans are – especially in view of their horrible history – convinced of their political system and very “political” in the sense that many topics on the political agenda are discussed – the Politics branch is rather strong. The same can be said for the economy branch, even though it is certainly smaller than the US-American economy branch since German are generally quite sceptical with consumption. Science might be one of the biggest branches: We can only know for sure what we have contested and analysed, including nature, art, religion, etc. Everything must be able to stand a critical investigation, otherwise it is either meaningless or wrong. Technology has shaped the German society quite significantly, but – in analogy to economy – people are sceptical with innovation and rather conservative.

There is an ambivalent correlation between the society as a system and its individual members. Each individual contributes to the characteristics of a society, but it is also society that shapes individuals and sets the margin for their self-expression. A religious society will most likely produce religious members. The process of social change and progress, therefore, is usually very slow. However, what is valid for the society at large is also valid for the individual: Everybody develops all branches in one or the other way and to a certain extent. Remember: these reflections are about “constructing meaning from experience”.

Example 1: Some experiences affect our understanding of features of our surrounding (our world construct): We long to understand nature and the world. Depending on the epistemic channel that a person prefers and applies, answers are found in the branch of religion or in science (This is a descriptive statement! It does not evaluate the legitimacy of choosing religion or science to answer questions about the world fabric adequately! This is done elsewhere.).

Example 2: Experiences concerning the fulfilment of needs can either be manifested in economy (for example as materialism), in religiously or spiritually motivated modesty, or in scientific explanations of human biology and psyche.

All parts – roots, trunk, branches – are dynamic and subject of change. Some roots grow deeper and stronger when a person puts a focus on certain types of experiences or when outer conditions (for example, the type of job, or the family situation) draw the person’s attention to particular aspects of life. The channels in the trunk are cultivated and expressed to different extents, too. Children mostly follow their default setting, but during youth and adolescence they discover new strategies for constructing meaning. Some become open-minded empiricists, others indoctrinated religious fanatics (just to be sure: there are also open-minded religious people and dogmatic fanatic empiricists). Once a channel is formed and solidified, it is very difficult to change the setting, yet not impossible. Moreover, it is perfectly possible that many branches co-exist peacefully. A scientist can be outspokenly religious by separating the types of knowledge strictly – empiric physical knowledge into the science field, normative spiritual knowledge into the religion field. It would take an enormous amount of active ignorance to claim that “there can only be scientific knowledge” (as done by atheists) or “there can only be religious belief” (as done by religious fanatics).

We can think of countless examples in what way this metaphor depicts the development and constitution of social spheres like politics and economy as the result of meaning-construction. This would blow up this letter by far too much. Instead, I’d like to draw the attention towards the fourth element in this illustration: the fruits. When a branch flourishes, there are fruits growing that a person or a society has to harvest. A strong economy branch will support wealth and material well-being, but also greed and competition. A strong religion branch will increase the capacity of hope and identification with the community, but also fascism (separating the own beliefs from the others’ beliefs) and dogmatism (for example promoting creationism and denying biological evolution). Some fruits are sweet, others are poisonous or stink. It is these fruits that make people conclude that some branches are more valuable and viable than others, that some branches are better kept small or even cut off while other branches deserve more care and nourishment. Atheists often deny the legitimacy of the religion branch. Anti-capitalists see a social threat in the economy branch. Political reformists and anarchists would like to reshape the politics branch according to their political ideals. Reportedly, there are even “science-deniers”. Very often, the suggested “cures” focus on the materialisations and embodiments of meaning-construction within the realms of the respective branches: Atheists (as in the initial remark) want to defame or ban the historical religious books, anti-capitalists want to abolish money or the monetary system, anarchists aim at freedom from any political leadership. History has proven that forceful and violent attempts to reach these goals will almost always end up in conflict and misery. Try to take away the Bible from a religious Christian, and he will stick to it even more, like a child to exactly that toy that you try to take. It will also not be possible to change that person’s roots. The only sustainable chance is to encourage people to open and use different channels of meaning-construction. If you want to change a religious person, present to him alternative interpretations of worldly phenomena, philosophical ways to reason virtues rather than divine laws, or how meaning of religion changes when church is unmasked as a political rather than a spiritual institution. Don’t expect the religious person to change easily. He will try to change you instead: explaining different conceptualisations of “God”, “loving-kindness” as the core element of religious insight, benevolence and grace of charity as spiritually motivated virtues. Ask yourself first, if your own personal choice of how to construct meaning from experience is always exclusively right! The same can be said in the case of “money”: Is it really money that we should condemn as the root of all evil and the cause of greed and injustice? Or is it because we give it too much meaning?

Many people feel powerless in regard of huge overarching “systems” like church, political leadership, capitalism, technological progress, cultural matrix. They might criticise that my focus on strategies of meaning construction is too individual and idealistically ignoring that institutionalised systems and their power outweigh the impact of individual person belief and knowledge systems. Maybe, maybe not. I agree that a heavy precondition for my reflections is a certain degree of freedom of choice. People living in tyrannies might not have a chance to change the fashion of the politics branch. Capitalism is so deeply entrenched in people’s life that it doesn’t really give them a chance to choose their lifestyle. People in the poorest country on earth face such urgent existential problems that questions of meaning-construction turn out unaffordable luxury for them. However, most of us do have a choice. Systems only have power over us when we give it to them, which is mostly by not taking full advantage of our capacity to choose how we construct meaning from experience. Mindless people are easier to control than people with a clear and well-reasoned, well-informed worldview. Naturally, there will always be those people with deeper insights and a wider variety of choices (those with a thicker trunk) and those with rather limited possibilities (with thinner trunks, easily bendable in the wind of opposition). Here, we need communication and discourse on all levels (family-internal, among friends, in social groups and public in general) in order to plant seeds in each other to refine and sophisticate our meaning-construction strategies. We need to make sure, of course, that it is the better argument (in terms of logic consistency and viability) that wins, not the most powerful position or the most popular. Then, sooner or later, some branches decay while others flourish or new ones sprout. Again, we see that the picture fits perfectly!

There are several possible streams of thought from here on. Some of them will certainly be the subject of future letters I will write here:

  • Education – How can home and school education support a child or teenager to identify and use various channels of meaning-construction mindfully? How can we develop more options for ourselves to deal properly with our “root problems” (suffering, desire, self, etc.)?
  • Culture – What does this scheme imply for intercultural communication? What does it mean for cultural change in general?
  • Buddhism – This picture fits so perfectly into Buddhist philosophy that an article on that relation is almost inevitable!
  • Constructivism – I believe it is worthwhile pulling the constructivist elements of this model into awareness. We can learn many meaningful lessons for daily life from it!
  • Science and Technology – As part of my profession, I believe that this metaphor helps enlightening some of the mechanisms that support scientism and technocracy in our society. If we want to deal with emergent problems like climate change and progressive emotional dullness (a la Konrad Lorenz) successfully, it might be necessary to pay attention to the patterns implied in here.

For now, I’d just like to refer the reader to one of the most important and meaningful speeches ever given (in my humble opinion): David Foster Wallace’s “This is water“.

Christmas?

Last Saturday was Christmas Eve. Since you are still a “blank page” and not conditioned and patterned by cultural customs, yet, you probably don’t have any special connection to it. Being born and raised in Germany, however, I have a strong connection to it, since it is the “biggest” holiday throughout the year. Now I am in Taiwan. Here, people have a very different idea of Christmas. This made me think about “culture” and “customs”, which I’d like to share with you today.

First, a little bit of history: Christmas is celebrated by Christians as the birth of Jesus Christ. However, the Bible, the most important source book of Christian belief, doesn’t mention any date. So, why December 25th? In the Roman empire, it was not common to celebrate birthdays, except for that of the emperor. When in the 3rd and 4th century AD clerical leaders became more influential, they promoted and established the celebration of Jesus’ birth who – according to their belief – is the highest “King” of all. The first reported “Christmas” was held in 367AD. The choice of the date is a great example of the most impacting factor on human culture and customs: nature and its phenomena like weather, climate, seasons, etc. Civilised human societies tend to integrate natural symbolism into their rituals and customs to a large extend. This is the ubiquitous process of “constructing meaning from experience”, the basis of all life. Jesus was celebrated as their savior from suffering and sins, the bringer of hope and “light”. In Europe, the influence of the seasons (long warm days in summer, short cold days in winter) is stronger than in areas closer to the equator like Taiwan. From observations of the sun the people knew that days get shorter in autumn until a day known as “winter solstice”. In the “Julian calendar” used at that time, that was December 25th. From then on, days get longer again, symbolising the appearance of the bringer of light – a perfect day to celebrate Jesus! It also shows a human trait that is independent from all manifested forms of religious practice: the desire to have a pleasant life free from atrocities and suffering that arises from social and environmental conditions (cruel leaders, natural catastrophes, etc.), and the constant hope that “things get better”. This makes the members of a clan (e.g. a family) cooperative and supportive. Therefore, I tend to believe that it is not directly Jesus that made the people celebrate Christmas, but the human culture of giving each other warmth and hope in the dark times. Later, the Gregorian calendar substituted the Julian calendar as the commonly used one. Winter solstice, since then, was December 22nd, but Christmas was kept on December 25th, that’s why today the two events are on different days.

The element of “giving” is in one or the other way manifested in all cultural realms. Two more legends about giving and sharing are important for the history of Christmas. The first is that of the Bishop of Mira in Ancient Turkey, named Nikolaus. In times of drought and famine, he committed a miraculous act of providing enough food for the population of his town by unloading much more from a ship than could have been in it. In fact, the ship was almost empty when it arrived, but he told the workers to keep unloading and it took long time until it was actually empty. This miracle put him into the state of a “Saint”. He was also known for visiting the houses of poor families, giving gifts to the children. The Kids of the town, then, often indicated their biggest wishes by placing letters or other items in the windows of their room, so Saint Nikolaus could respond to their wish. His honorary day is December 6th, and until the 16th century it was a custom in Christian Europe that parents give gifts to children on that day (with the educational element of checking whether they behaved well throughout the year). The church reformer Martin Luther attempted to move this custom of giving gifts from Saint Nikolaus’ day to Christmas since Jesus is the more prominent “bringer of light/hope/love” than any Saint. Since then, Christian families give gifts on both days.

In Northern Europe, which is much colder and more snowy than the South, and also much darker in the winter time, there are different legends and tales about giving. The most prominent might be the one of “Father Frost”. Probably, this legend arose from a grumpy hermit living in the deep forest, surrounding himself with mysterious and sometimes scary stories. “Stay away from him! He eats children!”. He was depicted as a kind of beggar man with ragged clothes and a wild tousled white beard. But he was told to have a kind heart, and in the darkest and coldest nights of the year he sneaked into the villages, just to create something joyful, amusing or entertaining for the people, especially the Kids. Maybe he even made gifts.

Now we change the location, from Europe to North America. During the 18th and 19th century, millions of European tried to start a new life in the “New World”, crossing the ocean on ships, bringing European customs and traditions – or their interpretations of them – to America. Many of those emigrants, however, wanted to break with those old European traditions. Christmas lost its meaning. But people need narratives, something to belief in. During the 19th century, those above mentioned legends all mixed and merged into a new figure: Father Christmas, or “Santa Claus”. You can easily see the elements of Father Frost and the Saint Nikolaus in it, even though both have literally nothing to do with Christmas, except for their special trait of “giving”. In the late 19th century, the CocaCola company used Santa Claus as an advertisement figure and dressed him in the company’s colour red. As you can see today, this had a huge impact on the global perception of Christmas. US-American imperialism brought this form of “corporate Christmas” to all parts of the world, so that today even the non-Christian societies celebrate “X-mas”. This has two sides: Positively said, the idea of “giving warmth and love” is so universal that it does not necessarily have to relate to Jesus Christ, so for the “X” in “X-mas” you may insert your own personal belief or religion. Negatively said, however, we can state that a once meaningful and culturally deeply rooted and naturally grown custom is degenerated into a commercial “romantic” holiday that lost its original meaning. Today, people all over the planet watch American Hollywood movies presenting “the Christmas atmosphere” – something that has to do with snow, eating birds and having romances – and try to artificially create that same atmosphere even when the climate (no snow, not even cold), the local food culture (no roasted turkeys) and the idea of “romance” (e.g. in the more interpersonally distant Confucian societies) are entirely different. The “original desire to give and to form clan ties by establishing rituals and customs” is now replaced by the mindless and meaningless “longing for being like others” as a desperate try to be “as cool/fancy/funny/special as them”. Take Taiwan, for example: The big majority has no idea what Christmas is originally about. They know it from American movies. They think it is about Santa Claus, so they wear red hats, and the main element is “romance”, so it is comparable to our “Valentine’s Day”. The idea of clan- or family-internal giving of warmth and hope, of active creation of harmony and peace is lost.

For me, Christmas is strongly associated to childhood memories. My family is not religious, but in Germany it is impossible not to celebrate Christmas. Everybody does. Luckily (from a certain perspective), my family didn’t follow Christian rituals blindly, but we have always been aware of what Christmas is about: peaceful, cozy, heart-warming family time. When the sun sets at 4pm and rises at 9am, it just feels good to have a tree decorated with lights in front of the main door of our house. Preparing gifts for the other family members – self-made or bought – is as joyful as receiving the gifts from the others on Christmas Eve. This was the most special time of the year! Now, in Taiwan, I can’t have “Christmas mood”. My family (parents, grandparents, siblings) is not here, and the climate is different, too (not cold and dark enough). That’s why we could hold our annual “Gingerbread House Party” on Christmas Eve! In Germany, it wouldn’t work, because nobody would come since it is THE family festival of the year.

I was thinking a lot about what kind of traditions and family customs to expose you to. I am not religious and don’t want to indoctrinate you with biblical stories of Jesus that I myself don’t believe in. But even more, I don’t want to “teach” you that Christmas has something to do with red hats and buying expensive toys for you. Constructing meaning from experience. This should be the orientation for everything we decide to do. We experience love and the desire to make each other happy. Times are not always smooth and pleasant. Winter Solstice is a good example for the ups and downs of daily life: Days get shorter, darker, colder, but soon they will get longer, warmer, brighter again. And after all, it is us humans that make each other’s lives joyful, hopeful and happy. I hope, we can let you feel these experiences and their real meaning for our life. Then it doesn’t need Santas, reindeers, material gifts, church services or special meals. Then it is about love. Jesus would like that!