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 – Ancient Philosophy: Nagarjuna

I guess it has become very obvious in all my previous letters that I am much closer to ancient Asian philosophies than to European philosophical traditions. I find the classical Indian and Chinese exegeses on holistic and non-separative ontology, constructivist and naturalistic epistemology, and especially the pragmatic and psychologistic (in contrast to many Western meta-ethicists, for me that is something positive) ethics conceptualisations  much more plausible and convincing than the premature and naïve Western realism, dualism, substance metaphysics and transcendentalism. The most famous figures in ancient Asian philosophy are certainly Siddhartha Gautama (the historical Buddha), Laozi (even though it is not certain that this was one real person) and Kongzi (Confucius). They are regarded as the founders of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, respectively. However, in each schools of thought, there are other thinkers that achieved much greater insights than their predecessors: Zhuangzi put the Daoist philosophy on more solid grounds, Mengzi (Mencius) and Xunzi sophisticated Kongzi’s ideas substantially, and Nagarjuna is without any doubt the most important and influential Buddhist philosopher before it became a modern academic discipline! His enormous merits in advancing the insights on Sunyata (emptiness), Satyadvaya (Two Truths), Madhyamāpratipad (the Middle Way) and Pratītyasamutpāda (Dependent Origination) make him my personal hero in the category Ancient Philosophy!

nagarjuna

Nagarjuna (Sanskrit: नागार्जुन, Chinese: 龍樹) lived in South India around 150-250CE (widely shared scholarly view). According to the legend, he received the Prajñāpāramitā sutras from mystical creatures called “Naga” (a mix of snake and dragon) who kept in on behalf of the historical Buddha at the bottom of a lake. His name means “white snake”, and he is often depicted with snakes (an Indian symbol for wisdom) around his head. The historical record of his works is incomplete and still vividly debated among contemporary scholars. Some of the text attributed to him might be from other philosophers. It is widely acknowledged that his major contribution is the Mūlamādhyamakakārikā, a treatise of 27 chapters on The Middle Way.

After the death of Siddhartha Gautama, his followers split, basically, into two groups: The worshippers who focused on the practices taught by Buddha, and the scholars who wanted the Dharma (transferred in the sutras of the Pali canon) to be understood as philosophical wisdom. The former can be regarded as the religious interpretation of Buddhism, the latter as the philosophical school. For around 400 years, it seemed that the worshippers were the predominant group. The theoretical schools divided further and further and disputed with one another about who represents the true Dharma and who understands Buddha’s teachings in the best and most appropriate way. By the time of Nagarjuna, the original philosophy conveyed in Buddha’s doctrines were at the risk of being lost. Nagarjuna’s analysis of the concepts mentioned above formed a new firm connection between our philosophical understanding with Buddha’s original accounts. He is regarded as the founder of the Madhyamaka school in the Mahayana branch of Buddhism.

Mahayana_lineage

As pointed out earlier, I regard the 12 links of interdependent co-arising as the core of Buddhist teachings, even more fundamental than the Four Noble Truths or the Eight-fold Path (which are rather easy-to-understand doctrines of folk Buddhism, in my humble opinion). Once familiar with this model, it is easy to understand the difficult notions of sunyata (emptiness) and the practical implications of a Middle Way philosophy (which is the center of Nagarjuna’s teachings). Thanks to Nagarjuna we have today a better and philosophically more grounded idea of these important elements of Buddhist worldview. I can see how it applies to many daily life situations and how I can make use of it to increase my life quality. For a philosophical Buddhist (but probably also for religious ones), Nagarjuna’s writings are essential reads, but there is also a lot of good and insightful secondary literature about him and his teachings (see a list in this article by Jan Westerhoff in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). If you want to gain deeper insights into Buddhist thinking, there is no way around Nagarjuna, but it is definitely a way that is worth the time and effort!

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

Gotta go fast!

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

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

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

591b1m269k6y

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

Frederick and the colours

I re-discovered a book that I liked a lot when I was a little boy: ‘Frederick’ by Leo Lionni. Reading it again, I remember why I was fascinated by it! It tells the story of five mice living in a wall next to an abandoned farm, preparing for the harsh winter months. They work hard collecting grains, nuts and straw, except Frederick who seemingly just sits around dreaming. Asked why he doesn’t work he replies “I do work! I collect sun rays! I gather colours! I gather words!”

frederick1

The winter comes and soon all supplies are finished. The mice feel cold and stop chatting. Then Frederick distributes his supplies: He tells them about the sun rays and they feel warm. He tells them about all the colours and they can imagine them clearly. He recites a poem and entertains them by that.

frederick2

I liked this story (and still do) because it explains that intellectual labour is as valuable as physical labour. I have always been a “thinker”, a “theorist”. My Mom often told me “Why don’t you do anything?! Make yourself useful and mow the lawn/mop the floor/tidy up your room/help me with the dishes!”. She wasn’t aware that she forced me to leave behind an unfinished thought and mental construct, which was as unpleasant for me as an unfinished housework for her. A similar situation occurs today (I mean “these days”), in Taiwan, where the majority of people is convinced of technological progress and material wealth as the source of a good life quality. When they ask me what I am doing and I tell them I am an ethicist, they ask “But what do you DO? What do you produce? Nothing, uh?”. Again, I feel misunderstood.

I think this is a story for all those who believe that material achievement (things, money) is all we need for our lives. For those who think that science and technology are entirely sufficient for world explanation and human progress. For those who regard arts, philosophy and spirituality as useless blabla or waste of time and (mental and monetary) resources. For those who don’t understand what philosophers and artists do all day. We collect all those meaningful things that you are too busy to pay attention to and that you miss when your supplies are used up or turn out to be inefficient nourishment. That’s why – in academic terms – they are “humanities”. Frederick doesn’t contribute practical means, but he offers something as important as that: orientational knowledge that helps us remember the grand meaning of our existence, that gives us a choice to overcome the suffering of daily struggle and use our mental capacities to create warmth, community and positivity. To be prepared for that requires work (gathering sun rays, colours and words), even though for an outsider it might look like just sitting around. But both philosophers and artists (painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, writers, etc.) actually do spend big efforts on providing orientation, meaning, inspiration and humanistic visions in times of cold scientism, impersonal technocracy, inhumane economic profit chase, global political imbalance and the dawn of unpredictable but globally impacting environmental and climatic change. We are not living in a “different world”! It is this world that we are concerned about! And since winter is approaching, you will need us more than ever!

Mysticism, Religion, and Atheism

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

treeofreligions2-0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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