My Heroes – Visionary: Francisco Varela

This category could also be labelled “Everything”. What I have in mind is an award for someone who contributed extraordinarily to the “larger picture” we have of the world and mankind’s place in it, both in terms of a scientific understanding and in view of philosophical reflections. Nobody bridged these two domains better and more consistently than the Chilean biologist, cognitive scientist, constructivist and ordained Buddhist Francisco Varela (1946-2001)!

francisco_varela

When he died in 2001 of Hepatitis C, the world lost a brilliant mind and engaged scientist much too early! His legacy included a great deal of insights for contemporary constructivism, a connection between biology, neuroscience and human cognition, and new concepts like autopoiesis and self-referentiality, greatly impacting our modern view of the human mind and its potentials in the world fabric. Among his most recognised and rewarded publications are:

  • 1980 (with Humberto Maturana). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: Reidel.
  • 1987 (with Humberto Maturana). The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston: Shambhala Press. ISBN 978-0877736424
  • 1991 (with Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch). The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-72021-2
  • 1999 (with J. Petitot, B. Pachoud, and J-M. Roy, eds.). Naturalizing Phenomenology: Contemporary Issues in Phenomenology and Cognitive Science. Stanford University Press.

Especially his works with Humberto Maturana are outstanding in the sense that they pave the way for a new definition of living systems and organisms. Autopoiesis describes the tendency of an organised system like a biological cell to sufficiently maintain itself solely by its own means and drives (but in exchange with its environment, of course), which is in contrast to allopoietic systems (like car factories, for example, that use the input of resources to produce cars but not themselves). Autopoiesis can be defined as the ratio between the complexity of a system and the complexity of its environment, with other words: we can describe autopoietic systems as those producing more of their own complexity than the one produced by their environment. Initially intended by Maturana and Varela to be applied to biological entities, it soon expanded to other fields such as cognition, consciousness, and social system theory as that of Niklas Luhmann. His tree of knowledge combines Heinz von Foerster’s first and second order cybernetics and the developmental and linguistic psychology of Ernst von Glasersfeld with Humberto Maturana’s and his own insights into biological systems. Therefore, he is regarded as a key figure (and his respective book as a key work) in contemporary constructivism.

From my perspective, it is not a co-incidence that he was attracted by the Buddhist worldview and its implications on daily life practice. I agree completely with Varela (and many others who recognise it) that Buddhist philosophy can be characterised as inherently constructivistic. Dependent origination (Pratītyasamutpāda) becomes even more clear and convincing in light of Varela’s autopoiesis model! Thus, key ideas of Buddhism such as karma, dukkha, the mind poisons, emptiness, etc. fit perfectly into this picture. Moreover, since the early days of scholarly Buddhism (the days of Nagarjuna), it has a lot to say about consciousness, human psyche and mind, so that an exchange with biological and cognitive sciences seems due. Varela (together with Adam Engle) founded the “Mind and Life Institute” that facilitates the dialogue of (cognitive) science with the Dalai Lama on the connections between our scientific insights into the human mind and the Buddhist understanding of it. Many conferences with renowned scientists and venerable Buddhist masters have been held since then, with very fruitful output.

I call him a visionary because in his last years he tried eagerly to connect the puzzle pieces to a picture in which normative implications of constructivism become obvious. What does it mean for our understanding of ethics? What does it mean for individual well-being and the creation of quality of life in a social collective? Unfortunately, before he could elaborate his thoughts to the fullest he passed away. His last contribution was the combination of Husserl’s phenomenology with first person approaches from neurosciences (so called neurophenomenology). He inspired many scientists and philosophers alike to continue working on what he started. I like to see myself as one of them, carrying on the mission to fruitfully connect our scientific knowledge base with normative orientational knowledge for which philosophical ethics as well as sophisticated worldviews such as Buddhism can (and must) be a source.

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My Heroes – Contemporary Philosophy: Jürgen Habermas

My hero in the category contemporary philosophy definitely had the largest number of competitors. Apparently, for me, this is the most important field of human activity. There is no human progress without the great philosophical thinkers. I employ a rather wide definition of who counts as a philosopher: those who contributed significantly to the larger picture of society and individual in terms of ontology, epistemology and ethics (the three core fields of philosophical inquiry). Same as in the music field, I have many idols and sources of inspiration, all of which could be candidates for the “my hero” award:

  • Among the famous “classical” philosophers: Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche, because their thinking is original and insightful. Interestingly, both were inspired by Eastern philosophy like Buddhism, and the attentive reader of their works will notice that!
  • The phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, because they contributed significantly to the foundations of my favourite philosophical position, constructivism.
  • The great American pragmatist and constructivist John Dewey, probably the best that ever came out of USA.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein for his clarifications on language and how it impacts our life.
  • Psychologist, philosopher and member of the Frankfurt school Erich Fromm, because his well-founded social criticism as expressed in “Having or Being” convinced me as a teenager and increased my interest in social philosophy and socio-cultural anthropology (here, I don’t mean the biological-archaeological direction of it).
  • Sociologist Niklas Luhmann, because he did ground-breaking work in the field of social theory.
  • John Rawls (after Dewey the second great US-American) for his incredibly convincing theory of justice with its veil of ignorance as the major tool in contractualism as an ethical theory.
  • Vienna-based philosopher Friedrich Wallner for his Constructive Realism as an epistemological model and “middle way” between scientific realism and relativistic empiricism.

Now, what happens when we take all these loose ends and tie them together in one philosophical figure? We end up at Jürgen Habermas!

juergen-habermas

Born in 1929 in Düsseldorf, Germany, he became one of the most influential philosophers of our time, mostly known and awarded for his contributions to critical theory and pragmatism. His academic interests and fields of inquiry cover a wide range. Anyhow, two major strands can be identified: socio-political issues (deliberative democracy, social theory), and elaborations on rationality, communication and knowledge. In the former field, his system-lifeworld distinction serves as a theoretical framework for constructive realism, and he added many missing links to Luhmann’s theory. More importantly (for me), in the latter field, he explicated the concept of communicative rationality in great detail so that it could serve as a basis for discourse ethics as an own-standing ethical theory (together with, but more convincing than, Karl-Otto Apel). It is certainly not an exaggeration to state that his ideas advanced my own academic field – technology assessment and S&T ethics – significantly. When today we have established efficient arenas of pragmatic discourse on scientific and technological progress as constructive input for S&T governance and policy-making, it is mostly thanks to Habermas’ achievements concerning ideal discourse, deliberative and participative democracy and a much clearer view on the relation between social systems and the cultural lifeworlds they are embedded in.

Jürgen Habermas is still active as a public commenter and intellectual mastermind. Find a list of his major works and a summary of his achievements and insights in this article by James Bohman and William Rehg on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and a list of his awards and prizes on Wikipedia.

My Heroes – Science: Samuel Stupp

I started studying chemistry at university in 2002. In 2011 I finished my PhD course. During that time I have attended countless symposia, conferences, workshops and special lectures with invited speakers. The by far most impressive talk that I witnessed was given by the Costa Rican scientist Samuel Stupp (Professor at Northwestern University in Chicago). It was in 2007 at an event at CenTech Münster (Germany) where he gave the first presentation of the day and left everyone stunned. The poor presenter after him started his talk with the sentence “After Prof. Stupp’s talk, we can pack our things and go home. Everything has been said!”. What makes his research so impressive? Why do people bet that he will be awarded a Nobel prize someday?

Prof. Stubb combines profound knowledge and expertise from various fields. Having educational background in chemistry (Bachelor degree from UCLA, PhD from Northwestern University), he started his academic career on an appointment in material science and engineering (with chemistry and bioengineering) at UIUC. After returning to Northwestern University as a Board of Trustees Professor of Material Science, Chemistry and Medicine, he was appointed the director of the newly formed Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine. So, basically, he covers the three usually distinct fields of chemistry (as “basic research”), engineering (as “applied science”) and medicine.

His major contribution to scientific knowledge in biomedicine is the discovery of peptide amphiphiles that have the ability to self-assemble into nanoscale filaments. When these molecules are designed well – and this is the most impressive skill of Prof. Stupp – these filaments can mimic components of the extracellular matrix in living organisms, for example wire-like structures that allow the regeneration of nerve transduction in the neck after accident-caused paraplegia.

stupp-amphiphiles

from Chemical Reviews, volume 108, issue 11, 4776. Copyright © 2008, American Chemical Society

The molecules that self-assemble into these rod structures need to fulfil several conditions. The outside of the filament has to be bioactive so that the organism “accepts” it. The other end of the molecule has to be designed in a way that it allows desired functionalities like conductivity or mechanical stability. Here it becomes obvious why it requires in-depth understanding of chemistry, engineering AND medicine! Stupp’s amphiphiles revolutionised the field of regenerative medicine. They enable bone and cartilage regeneration, angiogenesis for ischemia or peripheral artery disease, therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, spinal cord injuries, diabetes, and many others that have been labelled “untreatable” before. See more details in this video:

Information about his research and his group at Northwestern can be found here.

By the time that I met him, I was wondering about the paradigms of “expertise”, how they changed and what would be the best way. In the early days of science, the most famous and most respected “scientists” were generalists. Think of Galileo or Da Vinci, who both had a wide spectrum of interests and were able to see the whole picture. Then, over the course of the centuries, more and more knowledge has been elaborated, more and more specific disciplines with distinct characteristic methodologies and terminology (microworlds) came up, and more and more highly specialised scientists with profound knowledge in very narrow confinements entered the scene. The new paradigm was collaborative interdisciplinarity (we might call it team work). It was regarded as inevitable that scientists know much about little, so that the larger picture can only be generated when these experts contribute their respective pieces of the puzzle to a collective endeavour. However, Samuel Stupp is different. I have the impression that his ground-breaking achievements are only possible because there is one guy that combines multiple disciplines to one innovative and creative cognitive process. He is not a narrowly confined specialist, but also not a generalist in the classical sense, but a multi-specialised visionary! I am quite sure that not many people on this planet have the intellectual and cognitive capacity to acquire this skill. Therefore, quite certainly, Prof. Stupp will have his place in history!

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

Four Levels of Truth

When reading Buddhist scriptures, especially those sutras that directly cite the historical Gautama Buddha, it can be confusing that there are often obvious contradictions and statements that downright oppose each other. Besides a few obvious mistakes that were made by ancient translators and later scholars, the majority of those result from Buddha’s conviction that it is necessary to adapt the teaching to the recipients’ capability of understanding. In this sense, a doctrine is true as long as it is appropriate to serve as a suitable means to the noble end of guiding people towards the right or the good (understanding, action, behaviour, insight, etc.). This argument was promoted in the most sophisticated manner in the later Chinese Buddhist school known as Tiantai (天台). The founder of this school, Zhi-Yi (智顗), divides all Buddhist treatises and sutras into four kinds (his famous “Fourfold Teachings”, 四教):

  • The Tripitaka Teachings (藏教): The Theravada teaching that renounces the experiential world, meant for people who have little intelligence and low ambition. Its truth is that the world is empty in the sense of being illusions. The path to Nirvana is the renunciation of the world of suffering.
  • The Common Teaching (通教): Shared by both Theravada and Mahayana schools, this teaching for people who can understand the truth of emptiness and recognise that dharmas have no real self-subsisting nature is still about emptiness, but with the notion that it means nothing other than dependent co-arising. It doesn’t necessarily advocate exiting the mundane world to reach Nirvana.
  • The Special Teaching (別教): A Mahayana teaching for people with compassion for other sentient beings. It preaches the Bodhisattva goal of attainment, based on the understanding of the Buddha-nature and the Middle Way (often referred to as the ultimate truth).
  • The Perfect Teaching (圓教): The teaching of the ultimate reality which is the Middle Way itself. It identifies Nirvana with the phenomenal world: One does not need to leave the phenomenal world to enter Nirvana. Under this teaching – in contrast to the Special Teaching – afflictions and attachments are not necessarily bad. One can gain enlightenment even in the midst of afflictions. One only needs to attain perfect wisdom with all that it entails (inner harmony, loving-kindness, pure awareness of dharmas, etc.).

I guess we can summarise it like this: The first approach is based on experiences and teaches rules on how to deal with those experiences. The second grounds on factual knowledge and teaches strategies on what to do with that knowledge. The third focuses on values and teaches virtues that preserve and cultivate those values. The fourth refers to wisdom and teaches how to attain a mindset in which perfect wisdom can flourish.

Obviously, there is a form of hierarchy in this list concerning the mental capacity of sentient beings. I don’t want to limit it to humans, since we can include animals in our reflections, as we will see. First, I think it is possible to link the teaching approaches to the different phases of development within the lifespan of one person. Second, we may group different members of society according to which kind of teaching they are best confronted with. In the first sense, I think of my ways of dealing with you (Tsolmo) as a father through the years:

Now, while you are little and without much knowledge, I will tell you rules and orders, like “Don’t touch the fire!” or “Don’t stick nails into the power sockets!”. It would be useless to explain to you that fire is the exothermic reaction of oxygen with anything organic (including your skin and the tissue underneath) and that the feeling of pain is a signal transduction of your nerve cells that triggers certain brain activities, manifesting in your consciousness as an unpleasant feeling, or that electricity is the result of a charge gradient along a conducive material like metal wires or your body (in which it causes pain, see above)… Your world at this stage is that of experience, so I guide you in your way of making experiences, keeping more serious dangers away from you.

Then you will acquire more and more knowledge about the mechanisms of this world, and simple rules and orders will not satisfy your insatiable curiosity about the Hows and Whys. You will learn a lot at school, but also at home. THIS is what happens when you expose your body to heat. THIS is what happens in a flow of charges. And THAT’s WHY you shouldn’t touch it. In this phase, however, you will sometimes learn “wrong” things in the sense of oversimplifications and half-truths. In primary school you might learn that electricity is a “flow of electrons”, but when you study physics or chemistry at university you will find out that it is not entirely “correct” to put it that way. The knowledge in this stage will help you to acquire technical skills: You will know how to switch on the gas stove and how to plug devices into the power sockets. However, you might need supervision, because you might underestimate the risks and expose yourself (and others, eventually) to dangers.

The next stage is the alignment of your choices and decisions with values and preferences: You need orientational knowledge to answer questions like “Why would I want this or that?” and “Why ought I to do this or that or maybe better not?” and “What kind of knowledge shall I look for in order to aid my decision-making?“. With this capacity you will also be able to relate your own interests to those of others and to mediate empathically in case of conflicts and dilemmas. Factual knowledge of the world won’t help in these cases, but only normative-ethical knowledge and prescriptive and evaluative modes of thinking (with subsequent action). Here you become a responsible person, so that I can stop being concerned about the risk of fire and electricity, because you will know how to deal with it properly. There is no more need to keep you away from the gas stove, because you will be skilled AND mindful enough to use it for your benefit without being in danger of its potential harms. You will be able to evaluate the outcome of your decisions, balance risks and benefits and even include the people around you in your reflections. I can trust you!

Finally, you might reach a level of wisdom. Here, it is not anymore about fire and electricity and their risks, but about the question “Why would I use gas stoves or electronic devices at all? Isn’t there an alternative?”. You let fire be fire, electricity be electricity and yourself be… well… what?… YOU. The point is not a nihilistic “Nothing really matters.”, but a visionary and clear-minded “This is how things are, and I see it!”. You see the larger picture of mundane and phenomenal conditionality and karmic interrelations. You will have inner peace and strength, resulting in a balanced mind. Yes, you will still burn yourself accidentally or make the fuse blow by improper handling of an electric device. But flawless perfection of worldly matters is not a goal anymore! The goal is: Seeing things as they are and approaching them with an unshakable clarity and momentariness. I have nothing to tell you in that stage.

The second way to interpret the Fourfold Teachings, as I mentioned, is a societal classification of mental capability. First, there are those who are ignorant. I say that without any judgment or offense. However, we need to separate two kinds of ignorant minds: Those who can’t be claimed to know it better, and those who can. Among the first are animals, small children, mentally disabled, comatose or in any other way unconscious or mindless patients, and those who have no access to proper education or even a “normal” way of life (for example, children that grow up in war zones). We simply wouldn’t expect children, dogs, people with down syndrome or Alzheimer patients to always know what is the right thing to do, so we decide for them in a paternalistic way (restrict them from access to certain things and areas, put them on a chain (I mean, the dogs!), or give them clear rules that are for the best of them). Among the second are people with a lack of intellect and with a high degree of narrow-mindedness. Now, the opinions might deviate strongly on who that typically is. My image of “common people” is rather bad, so I would put many (MANY) people into this group. Most of all, there are all the scumbags like racists, fascists, supremacists, haters, priggish and egocentric fools, but also many religious people (used to follow doctrines and dogmatic orders rather than questioning anything), mindless consumers (of all kinds of things), people with high susceptibility to addictions, emotionally incompetent people (bad-tempered, labile, or inappropriately overconfident). They all have one thing in common: They don’t know (or: are not aware of) something important (either worldly facts, or emotional self-management, or how to control themselves). It would take great effort to teach them knowledge (especially when they are adults), not to mention values or wisdom. Their picture (as in “the larger picture”) is so small that the only things that can keep them on track towards a more or less meaningful and fulfilled life are clear rules and guidelines. These are provided in the form of laws by the legal system these people live in, in the form of cultural, traditional and religious value- and belief-systems and their established ways of social sanctioning, or in the form of institutions and clubs with shallow messages and philosophies (like churches, gyms, meditation circles, WeightWatchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, etc.). Again: There is nothing to blame, here! The only question is: What kind of approach is of any help or benefit for the people?

Then there are people who choose the way of (factual) knowledge as the best path towards a good life (whatever that means). Today, the access to such knowledge is better than ever! You don’t need to go to the library and spend hours there, anymore, but can look for and get all the knowledge you want almost everywhere with your mobile communication device. Most people know that it is not a punishment by a god when the room is suddenly in darkness, but a broken light bulb or a blown fuse – and they know how to fix it by themselves! They also know that racism has no scientific foundation, that addiction arises from certain psychological mechanism, that emotions can be managed, and that consumption of mass-produced goods (including cosmetics, smartphones, meat, and TV program) most likely has unethical implications like environmental destruction or mental decay. This knowledge increases the quality of your decision-making (but not necessarily that of each and every of your decisions!). So, what helps you to increase your quality of life? More knowledge!

Also this approach has its limits. As pointed out in other letters, factual and procedural knowledge about the world is not able to tell us what to do. This requires orientational knowledge: values, norms, goods. When realising that, your life is good when you are convinced that you made the right choice, in contrast to a correct choice as in the former strategy. Your decisions should, in this sense, be informed by possible consequences of them for you and for others. You see how orientational knowledge adds up to factual knowledge: In order to foresee consequences and implications of certain decisions and actions you will need particular factual knowledge (for example, of physics, of social mechanisms, of psychological interrelations, of values in a descriptive sense), so that you know what you need to apply your normative evaluations to. People that belong to this group – those who reflect on the question “How do I know what something is good for?” before making a decision – tend to be more altruistic, but also more hesitant and sometimes insecure, because it is always possible to make the wrong choice (which is a bad choice).

This problem is none among the very few people (if any at all) in the fourth group: Those with the farsighted wisdom similar to that of Gautama Buddha (possibly). I certainly don’t claim to be one of them! Therefore, I am actually not able to write anything here, because I (probably) didn’t really get what it means. However, let me try to explain my understanding of it: A wise person understands that it is pointless (because impossible) and unnecessary (because overambitious) to try to live a perfect and flawless life. We will never be capable of foreseeing all karmic effects of our actions, neither the physical ones (as if we were able to predict the exact position of every billiard ball on a table after knowing all the data of how the queue hits the white one) nor the personal ones (one’s position in the society, friend networks, impact of one’s actions and words on others and their subsequent actions and words, etc.). Trying to optimise our decision-making in terms of these factors has an obvious cognitive limit. Wisdom doesn’t mean to always do the right thing, but to figure out what is the best choice among given options in this moment (the moment of choosing). An important precondition for this state of mind is a complete freedom from attachments (including self-attachment) and mindless craving. A selfish choice, then, is per se not a wise choice. Pure wisdom concerning the ultimate reality leaves the self-perspective entirely and sees the world as a conditional network of karma that seeks harmonious equilibrium. Good, then, is what supports this larger scale harmony, which might often not be the direct personal benefit. There is no wrong or bad decision in this stage, because you will understand that the world is a dynamic momentary manifestation of karmic conditions and that your only choice is to take this moment to make a decision. If that is good or bad, right or wrong – who will ever know? However, a high degree of mindfulness and awareness of this moment will increase the chance that your decision will have more sustainable long-term effects on the quality of your life. All the rest (desires, interests, concerns, worries, fears, confidence, (in)security, etc.): Let it go!

This table summarises the reflections on the four levels of teaching (entirely debatable!):

Teaching Knowledge type Lifespan stage Societal group
Rules Experience Child Ignorant
Strategies/Skills Factual Teen/Adolescent Educated
Virtues Orientational/
evaluative
Adult Mindful
Clear Mind Vision/Wisdom Senior Wise/Enlightened

Once more, it (hopefully) became obvious why I don’t like the term truth. Certainly, there is no absolute truth. Statements can only be true in a defined set of conditions under which communicators can agree that its content resembles a certain form of truth, for example a semantic truth, a linguistic truth, a logic truth, a historical truth, etc. Here, in this letter, I wanted to show that the notion of truth necessarily needs a pragmatic component: Truth as expedient means to an end needs to be viable in a given context, enabling people with different capacities and intelligences to gain true enlightenment (at least an insight on how to live their lives well). It is not what a statement says, but what it does (that is, what it accomplishes), that makes the statement true.

buddhathink

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

 rightthing

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!

constructionzone