Wake Up!

The transition from a state of ignorance into a state of awareness, insight, and conscious mindfulness can be very painful and is often perceived as a crisis. An existing equilibrium of being-in-the-world is shaken and destroyed for a while, until that new bit of knowledge or realisation becomes part of a new established equilibrium in a slightly more awaken state. There are different strategies of how to deal with this unpleasantness of learning from experiences. From one perspective, it might be helpful to have no consciousness or self-awareness at all. We can’t see that rabbits, for example, suffer emotionally and intellectually from making life experiences. Instincts drive them away from dangers and threats, but they don’t realise or evaluate those situations in the same way as humans do. Our evolutionary ancestors have been embedded in such an ecological equilibrium without conscious awareness, and it worked out well (more or less). Then, early humans started to reflect, and all the trouble began.

This incident is depicted in the Genesis story in the Bible: God (here naturalistically understood as the driving force of emergence) wanted Adam and Eve to remain in this unaware state. God (and its established state of harmony) would keep them safe and protected in their paradise. The inherent potential of self-awareness is illustrated in the form of a tree of knowledge: Once eating its fruits, there would be no way back into the unaware mindless state. According to the story, a snake lured Eve to eat the apple, ultimately leading to the expel from the paradise.

It is basically this story that drove me away from being a Christian. God didn’t want humans to be knowledgeable and self-aware. He (if I may use the male form, here) wanted us to remain stupid, manipulable and controllable. I believe this is also the main reason for many other atheists in the West to turn away from church and its doctrines. The submissive acceptance of the power of God is in sharp contrast to the humanistic ideal of questioning everything.

The above-mentioned crisis can also be solved in the other direction: Bring to your awareness as much as you can, see clearly, free your mind, become the captain of your fate! Wake up! Instead of retreating into the cozy comfort of ignorance, overcome all ignorance and awaken into an enlightened stage of mindfulness! In this image, the snake from the Genesis is not evil, but the bringer of freedom and wisdom.

Now comes the clue: The Chinese character for Buddha, particle of many related Chinese words, is 佛, . It consists of a radical 人, rén, for person, and a radical 弗, , old way of negating something (“not”). Together they depict the non-self doctrine as central element in Buddhism. I am not an etymologist, and I am even quite sure the following has no linguistic, hermeneutic, analytical justification. But having a closer look at the character, I had an inspiration:

FoSnake

Buddha is like the snake in the Biblic story, telling the unaware people to wake up, gain knowledge and insight, grow awareness and mindfulness, and finally reach enlightenment concerning what the world and our life in it really are.

Advertisements

My Misanthropy – 4. Responsibility

4. Responsibility

Writing is a therapy. It makes many ideas clearer in my mind. After a text is produced, I think it over, which often induces some kind of progress or change in my views. At the end of the previous post, I sounded quite hopeless and daunted about human stupidity. Today, I am not that negative.

Where are we now? I explained that my misanthropy is the product of introversion, strong ego and self-confidence, and high expectation on rationality and reasonability. But in contrast to yesterday, today I think, my main concern is that there is always a chance for change. My critical statements are associated with a plea for practicing mindfulness and awareness, for sharpening cognitive and intellectual skills, and the strong belief in everybody’s potential to overcome mindlessness, delusion and stupidity. In this respect, my concern doesn’t even deserve the label misanthropy. There is always chance to do better, and that’s why I am telling all this! With other words: As a realist, I have to be a misanthrope (because people give me reasons for it), but as an optimist, I am confident that it doesn’t have to be like this forever.

Obviously, the call for fighting and reducing stupidity is an ethical one. Stupid decisions have an impact on others (human, biosphere, eco-system), usually a negative one. Therefore, I claim that everybody has an ethical obligation to reduce stupidity to his or her best knowledge and capability. This is a responsibility claim that needs further circumstantiation.

At a closer examination, we find that responsibility is never just one-dimensional as in someone is responsible. There must, at least, be a second dimension, that which that someone is responsible for. Moreover, it can be analysed what is means in this case. Where does responsibility come from? Usually it is attributed by someone to someone, or in some way expected by someone from someone, or delegated by someone to someone. These two someones should be in any way related to each other so that responsibility claims are justified. Last but not least, there is also a fourth dimension: Someone may legitimately attribute responsibility to someone for something only in view of a certain body of rules or a level of knowledge. A necessary precondition for being a carrier of responsibility is the ability to fulfil the duties and obligations that go along with it. Above all, the person claimed responsible must be in a position of knowing the rules or of having relevant knowledge.

Fig03

In order to clarify responsibilities, there are two strategies: We can start from cases and ask who is responsible for what in which way; or we can start from roles and ask what is the particular person’s situation in terms of responsibility. The former is often perceived of as accusation and blame. Besides, responsibilities are denied and shifted to other people. The latter approach appears more useful for our purposes: What can people in their various roles (family members, friends, citizen, consumers, professionals, decision-makers) be held responsible for? A pragmatic standpoint is necessary: Responsibility is a useful concept only when it is enacted from the now-perspective. Someone is now held responsible for future issues, that means in the position to respond to inquiries and claims for taking action. Note that past-related claims are usually expressed in terms of accountability: Someone is now held accountable for the effects of a decision or action in the past, that means the burden of reacting on it is on that persons account.

Let’s have a look at the four dimensions of a responsibility claim concerning stupidity. The blue someone – who is held responsible – is everybody. For single cases, it must be clearly distinguished between particular roles and positions, and also between individual and collective (institutional, social, etc.) responsibility. Yet, in one or the other way, I am addressing every member of the human race.

The now-perspective helps us defining what it is, exactly, that people and groups are responsible for (the yellow something): I am not stating that people are responsible for their stupidity (which, to be precise, would be a case of accountability), since that would be more like blaming (“See the result of your stupidity! Now clean that mess!“). Legally, of course, many foolish, asinine and idiotic people are responsible for their deeds and are sanctioned accordingly. Mindlessness, for example, is not an excuse for causing a traffic accident. Even though a person that caused a traffic accident is not a criminal, the person still violated the obligation to pay attention to safety and proper driving style. Here, however, I’d like to shift the focus away from the consequences of stupidity and towards the chance to interfere with it before it manifests itself: fight and overcome foolishness, mindlessness and idiocy by right vision, right thought, right consciousness and right concentration. Everybody is responsible for self-cultivation and training one’s self-awareness and mental and cognitive capacity. Now we have clarified the simpler two dimensions.

I am the red someone – I attribute responsibility to you. All of you! Is that legitimate? I need to show that there is a relation between me and everyone, so that nobody can claim that their stupidity (whatever form) is not my business. I do that on the grounds of a holistic concept of conditionality: Human decision-making sets forth cause-effect-chains that determine future states of the world. Buddhists call this Karma. With everything we do, say, or think, we influence the further course of the world fabric, sometimes in very tiny and incremental amounts, sometimes in huge and clearly visible ways. An easy example might be the last presidential election in the USA. Why would I mind that a sick society gets the president that it deserves, the masterpiece of an idiot? Be it their problem, far away from me! Yet, clearly, the US-American politics have a global effect, be it through war-mongering, protectionist economy, climate change denial, American soft imperialism (spreading the American way of life through Hollywood movies and dumb TV shows around the world where mindless people admire and copy it), and so on. What you US-American dumbasses do in your country has a more or less direct impact on my life, my safety, my health, etc. If you are not able to maintain a political system in which you have good choices (and not a choice between the two most despicable individuals on the planet) and in which pragmatism rules (isn’t that even an American thing, see Dewey, James, Pierce…?!), and if you are not able to connect with people around you in proper communication and persuasion that can prevent them from making stupid choices, then either your activity or your inactivity sets forth a causal chain at which’s end stands the entire world. That’s why you are legitimately held responsible! The same goes for consumerism, for example mindless purchase and application of cosmetic products (supporting destruction of rainforest, animal testing, pollution of air, water and soil, etc.). Sometimes the paths are more hidden, especially when the stupidity occurs in the private and not in the public sphere. If you easily lose your temper, your kid will be emotionally instable. It is very likely that your kid plays with other kids – maybe my Tsolmo – in the kindergarten or school and exposes them to his or her own bad temper, learned from the parents. One more example that covers foolishness from lack of education and collective social and political responsibility: I mentioned the unsustainable forms of agriculture and nomadic stock farming in sub-Sahara Africa. Attribution of responsibility to those nomads and settled-down farmers only makes sense in view of their capacity to satisfy existential needs and to understand the local and global context of their practices. With other words: They should be open for changes and alternatives as soon as they are available, feasible and justifiable. Responsibility in this context, must, furthermore, be attributed to people in the Western developed countries (Europe, North America)! Without our support, our care, our concern, and our active pressure on politics, there won’t be any change to the better. Increasing the motivation of local decision-makers in politics and economy to induce political and social changes that lead to a more sustainable lifestyle and practice, should be the concern of all those who know about this problem. As Peter Singer also pointed out: Remaining inactive in the face of global poverty and lack of education is highly immoral. Everybody can be held responsible to engage in collaborative improvement of human capacity and decision-making.

In short: There is only one case in which your existence has no impact on me: You live in solitude at a remote inaccessible place with no connection to the rest of the world. In every other case, there are possible pathways of karmic potentials that connect you to me. Use your creativity to think of more examples, even with the tiniest and longest chain of events and entities!

The fourth dimension – rules and knowledge – secures that the attribution of responsibility is justified in terms of the responsible person’s ability to understand and fulfil the responsibility claims. The claim for responsibility to try one’s best to overcome foolishness, mindlessness and idiocy weighs much heavier for an educated person that grew up in peaceful times at a favourable place in a stable and loving family than for a member of a poverty stricken society in a war zone with no access to school education. I’d like to use the example of traffic in Taiwan again: People say the traffic in China, India or Vietnam is much worse than in Taiwan, as if it could be worse was a proper excuse or even justification for the local practices. In China, for example, the discrepancies between urban and rural population and their development are enormous! In contemporary Taiwan, the coverage of education is homogenously high, the lifestyle can be considered modern and developed. Taiwanese people see themselves as a developed nation, a knowledge society with high life standard, technological advancement and international competitiveness. A comparison with China or India is inappropriate since it would mean to lower Taiwanese standard to that of developmental states. All Taiwanese have school education and may be expected to be able to estimate effects of physical causes like the velocity of cars or their momentum when driving though curves. They have driving lessons before getting a license, so they may be expected to know the traffic rules. They grow up in a society that is built on Confucian foundations, highlighting the importance of respecting social relations, so they may be expected to know concepts like consideration, safety, patience. Yet, they drive like fools, violate or disregard traffic rules, and act inconsiderately, impatiently and in an extremely self-centred manner. When I claim that Taiwanese people are fully responsible for their driving style, I find that very much justified in view of the degree of development of the Taiwanese society, including education, culture and self-perception. However, we might also turn that argument around: As long as Taiwanese people behave like this in traffic, Taiwan can’t be considered a developed country. Driving like this and not attempting to change it means to admit that we are a country of mindless fools.

I hope these reflections could create some clarity concerning the attribution of responsibility for working on one’s stupidity. Nobody is perfect! Mistakes can be forgiven! Yet, we must try, harder, every day! Giving in to stupidity – no doubt the easier way – is something we as mankind can’t afford! Too powerful and impacting our activities have become! With this I leave the field of individual-focused misanthropy and turn to anti-anthropocentrism and the problem of mankind as a failure of nature. This will be the topic of the next post of this series.

My Misanthropy – 3. Stupidity

3. Stupidity everywhere!

In the first two posts of this series, I mentioned it already: My image of the cognitive and intellectual capacity of people is generally rather low. In simple words: I think people are stupid. But this is not precise enough. Moreover, it sounds like an offensive judgment. Here is not the place for insults and bashing. Instead, let me try to clarify my claim by more precise definitions and observational facts that circumstantiate it.

human_stupidity

Many people would agree that stupidity, in some way, has to do with a lack of knowledge – be it factual or technical knowledge (facts, logic, anticipation of consequences of action, etc.) or normative, social, moral knowledge (values, norms, customs, etc.) – or with a lack of personal and social competences like emotional self-management, empathy, social interaction, or performance as a citizen. According to this definition, all babies are stupid, and so are all those who didn’t get a proper education (for example the population of poor and underdeveloped countries). It is obvious that the definition of lack, here, strongly depends on the expectation on how much a certain member of a society should know and on what is the standard for social performance. We would not call a member of an aboriginal tribe in the Amazon jungle “stupid” just because he doesn’t know the physics, biology or geography that are taught in high schools. We also wouldn’t blame a baby that drops his toys for not knowing about the effects of gravity.

A first useful classification would be intended and unintended stupid behaviour or action. This separates those who are fully aware of the stupidity or wrongness of their decisions and actions (still doing it anyway) from those who are either not aware of how and why their action is stupid (not reflecting it at all) or convinced that their action is not stupid at all (even after reflecting it). Intended idiocy covers crime and – in deontological terms – immoral acts. Thus, I distinguish three forms of stupidity:

  • Foolishness: This is an unconscious and, therefore, unintended form of stupidity. Fools just don’t know better. It includes uneducated people, mentally disabled or demented people, little kids, but also clumsy and unlucky people. Fools do stupid things rather by accident and out of ignorance.
  • Asininity: When people know how to do well in a particular situation but don’t do it due to a lack of understanding and/or intelligence – mindless people. Asinine people somehow choose to do stupid things since they have a chance to choose otherwise. With other words: Asinine people are those who don’t use their brains even though it may legitimately be expected from them, for example adults with school degrees, sufficiently socialised members of a society.
  • Idiocy: Intended wrongdoing and misconduct, a product of bad intentions rather than ignorance. Idiots are people who choose to cause harm to others, people with a lack of ethical integrity, people who aim at increasing the suffering of others.

These categories are, of course, not very clear. From a Buddhist as well as from a psychological perspective, also idiotic acts with bad intentions are the result of ignorance. In fact, many mental disorders are named with the medical term idiocy. A person with bad intentions might be misled by emotions or by lack of coping abilities, not being aware that there is an alternative to choose that would be less idiotic. I use these categories to make a clear distinction concerning forgiveness of stupidity: Foolishness can easily be forgiven. Asininity has to be pointed out, criticised, and eliminated (besides being forgiven). Idiocy has to be punished and sanctioned (besides being treated and forgiven). Let’s have a look at some cases.

Half of mankind has no access to proper school education or lives in existential fear (hunger, war, natural disasters), and doesn’t care much about intellectual capacity, scientific knowledge, or intelligence. It would be highly unfair to demand smartness and cognitive farsightedness from them. When nomadic farmers in the Savannah in Africa destroy valuable land, it happens out of ignorance and lack of education. We can’t demand sustainable agriculture and stock-farming from them as long as they have no chance to understand what it means. All they know is that they are hungry, and how their ancestors did it. Yet, a lot of human activity has a severe impact on the ecosystem with devastating effects on Earth’s biosphere (including mankind), and must, therefore, be labelled foolish. Education and better dissemination of knowledge (know-how, know-what) and competence might be a remedy, making the fight against foolishness a political task.

I like to believe that the group of idiots is the smallest of these three. We find criminals, rude and hateful people, reckless and ruthless assholes all around the globe. Yet, they are often the exception rather than the norm. Most societies established law-and-order systems and social sanctioning pathways that keep most members on the track. The crime rates in Germany and Taiwan are both rather low compared to violence stricken countries like Mexico or Afghanistan. Generally, Taiwanese people are very kind and well-behaved (exception: animal abusers and黑道 (heidao, Taiwanese mafia) people), whereas in Germany I often came across disrespectful, insulting, shameless assholes, like football supporters destroying trains and beating up people, vandals destroying public property for fun, moochers, and other scum (one of my reasons for moving to an Asian country). Among the most despicable crimes, from my perspective (feeding my misanthropy), are business crimes that lead to environmental destruction (illegal pollution, bribing regulators to get permissions to build facilities in protected habitats, burning rainforest for bigger plantations, etc.) or exposure to harm (concealment of known consumer risks for reasons of profit, violation of food safety regulations, etc.), and violation of political responsibilities by lying, supporting inequality and injustice, suppressing critical voices, violating rights, and knowingly undermining social stability. I will write more about this form of inacceptable human behaviour in section 5 of this series.

The most tricky group are the mindless asinine people. They are tricky because it is less obvious that they are stupid. They are not idiots because they don’t commit any crime or choose to act unethically. Yet, their performance has a huge impact on my life! In Taiwan and Germany, we may assume that everybody receives or has received a formal education. Still, many people choose ways of meaning construction (default setting, dogmatism) that lead to undesirable manifestations of social spheres. Religiosity, political ideologies, economy with its monetary system, consumerism, hedonistic pleasure-seeking – none of these phenomena are illegal or directly immoral. Yet, they are all the result of mindlessness and stupidity. Why is that? In everything we choose to do we are driven by archaic deeply rooted experiences: fear, attachment (greed, envy), and resistance (anger, hatred). These forces override empirical rationality and reason. It makes no sense at all to take the Bible literally and believe in an almighty God in the sky, but still people choose to believe it because it makes their life simpler and feeds their most fundamental fears (of death, of loss, of hopelessness). We all know that our consumerism damages the ecosystem, but still we buy more useless products, produce more trash, and keep insisting on cheap energy (rather than expensive but sustainable energy). We know that mass-media entertainment and most TV program is entirely nonsensical and stupidifying, but still many people choose to watch it day in day out. We know that social media has an adverse effect on our socialisation and friendship quality, but still many of us spend hours per day staring at screens. Because it is simple, easy, and satisfies our desires, the root of all dukkha (suffering in the Buddhist sense)…

answers

I would like to go one step further and include everyone into this group (stupidity in the form of mindlessness) who is self-centered, or even wider: who has a self that is more or less strongly manifested and unquestioned. We are all the undoubted center of our universes. We follow interests and desires, shaped by experiences and our matrix (education, culture, society, etc.), and find it perfectly legitimate to put ourselves above everybody else. This is a very natural occurrence and nothing despicable. Yet, it causes trouble. Since 2500 years, European and Asian societies know better. The Ancient Greek identified the human capacity to step out of our animalistic nature and raise ourselves up towards freedom. Laozi, Kongzi (Confucius) and especially Gautama Buddha proposed manifold epistemic and practical ways to cultivate a mindful character and personality. Yet, only few people have the capacity to understand those ideas and put them into practice. In Taiwan, the self-centeredness and mindlessness of people is strongly manifested in traffic: People are completely inconsiderate and unaware of the consequences of their actions. Imagine the stupidest and most reckless manoeuvre that comes to your mind (like making a sudden U-turn on a crowded main road at rush hour) – there will be a Taiwanese who does exactly that right in this moment. As I said before, Taiwanese are very kind and friendly people, so they have certainly no bad intentions when behaving like that. They are just not able to anticipate and comprehend why they should pay attention to such things, and they are utterly impatient and careless. Road safety? Responsibility? Consideration for others? Pfffft! It is late and I want to get home, so out of my way! This form of recklessness is especially problematic since it effects the life quality of everybody! Moreover, it is avoidable! Also Taiwanese have driving classes and have to pass a test. They should know all the rules and the effect of their violation! Yet, the Taiwanese society failed in establishing a culture in which people understand that it is useful and important to have such tests and such regulations. Instead, people learn the rules only to pass the test and then forget them again because who cares?!.

Another aspect in this category is the entire field of emotional incompetence. Bad-tempered, aggressive, capricious, whiny, uncontrolled people terrorise their surrounding. Lack of emotional intelligence is, certainly, one of the most impacting factors for loss of life quality, both for the emotional person him/herself and the people around such a person. I know, we are all victims of our emotions, and blame or accusation may be a little unfair. I even know people (like my first girlfriend) who think it is perfectly OK and “human” to lose temper and freak out in a burst of furious rage from time to time. We are not robots, right? Right! We are civilised, mindful, conscious beings that have a chance – and, therefore, an obligation – to reflect upon emotional triggers and resulting reactions! Yes, I demand too much, I know. That’s why the only solution is misanthropy. We just can’t do better!

All these forms of stupidity – the ignorant, the superstitious and religious, the mindless, the self-centered, the greedy, the bad-tempered, the reckless and ruthless – lower my life quality significantly! Some directly by bothering and annoying me in daily life situations, others indirectly by messing up the social and ecological environment. The worst is: The situation seems so hopeless! We simply can’t implement proper education (for knowledge AND values) everywhere around the globe! There will always be injustice, motivation for crime, lack of vision, self-centeredness! Human stupidity is ubiquitous and eternal – I am sure I am not the first to state this.

In this post, I made some bold claims. The most debatable one, probably, is that people in civilised societies have the moral and social obligation to cultivate a mindful and considerate awareness for their ignorance and stupidity so that they have a chance to overcome it and perform better in their lives. This point needs more convincing arguments in the next episode of this series.

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.

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