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 Unfortunately, this rather poor article is short, incomplete, highly selective and a bit outdated.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:

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

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…

A Tree of Knowledge

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

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

meaningtree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Construction

The core question of philosophical reflection is “What is this world?”, or “What is being?”. Different epochs, eras and at different geographical places, people and their cultural realms found different answers on these questions. In case the historical answers are known, in retrospective, we can analyse them and – in view of later, more modern insights – find a certain course of development or sophistication in world explanations. We might also recognise that the “evolution” of insights is in good analogy to the process of knowledge acquisition for an individual from childhood to adult age.

By using our cognitive tools we perceive the world we are living in. The most naïve view is that of a real world that presents itself to us. Our task, then, is to “discover” as many facets of it as possible in order to increase the chances of a “successful” and fulfilled life in this world.

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This was the idea of the Ancient Greek philosophers, starting from Heraklit and Parmenides up to Sokrates, Platon and Aristoteles. It was all about “the world”. Its features and properties (its “truth”) can be recognised by us so that we – by careful watching and philosophical reflection – get the most realistic image of it. Only then we can fulfil our most “human” task of overcoming our natural boundaries and get closer to the divine, closer to perfection. This is the basic idea: The specifically “human” element in us is the ability to go beyond ourselves, to exit the inevitable and be free. With an accurate picture of the real world that surrounds us in mind, this movement towards the divine is facilitated significantly!

There are two dangers in this idea, and both are deeply entrenched in the further course of European-Western philosophy. The first is the dualistic division into “outside” and “inside”, into “outer world” and “inner me”, finding its climax in the reflections of René Descartes (17th century). The consequences are tremendous! It took ages and the influence of East-Asian philosophy to correct this flawed idea. The second is the realist scientific worldview with its idea of “discovering” knowledge about real features of the world. Even though this realism has been replaced by constructivism in recent decades, many scientists, engineers, researchers, but also most scientific laymen are still convinced that the knowledge we can acquire by scientific investigation describes a somehow manifested actuality.

Immanuel Kant is the most prominent philosopher who modified this image of world perception. His basic idea was that we can only get aware of those features of the world that we have a pre-formed image of, that means that somehow match with our previously made experiences. He distinguished “things-as-such” (the features of the real world) from the things as they appear in our mind.

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As a consequence, we can never know for sure what the actual world is. It remains obscured. The world that is represented in our mind is fed by an image of the world, and at the same time it feeds this image (for example by making new experiences that requires a modification of the image). In this view, “world” is all about the subject (or: the observer). Some even went so far to say that “world” only exists in the mind.

With this understanding of human possibilities to know anything about the world, dualism and realism are not overcome, yet. The apparent monism that “world is only idea (in the mind)” (we call that idealism) is a hidden dualism because it only emerges in view of its counterpart “materialism” that states that “world is only matter”. Moreover, it is still the somehow given (real) world with its “things-as-such” that impacts the human perception. This direction was reversed by phenomenology, most prominently pushed forward by Edmund Husserl and later Martin Heidegger. The subject can’t be taken as a passive observer and constructor of the world. The cognitive process of observation itself gets into the focus.

world3

An act of perception, in this view, is not a mere “streaming-in” of stimuli, but an active “looking-out” (figuratively! it covers all senses, not just the visual!) into the world. By nature, this is a highly selective process. Insights from biology, physics, psychology, anatomy, and other scientific disciplines that tell us about the human condition deliver a better understanding of how we construct “world” by making experiences. The crucial point is the human cognition, the “lens” that we are unable to take off. It confines the cut of the world that we are able to pay attention to, and it also colours and shapes the incoming signals. One of the most impressive experiments that was conducted to show our selective perception was this: People were asked to watch the video of a volleyball match and count how often the ball was passed between players all dressed in white. A man in a black gorilla costume appeared in the center of the scene during the match, beating his chest and making silly movements. The big majority of watchers didn’t see him, even though he was clearly visible among the white dressed players. Now, we can say that it was “unfair”, because the people were asked to concentrate on the ball, they can’t be blamed. But isn’t “life” exactly like that? We are always so busy focusing on certain clear cut aspects of life, occupying our full attention, that occurrences beyond this don’t find a way through to our awareness. Nobody can be “blamed” for that, however, since this is simply a neutral observation.

Phenomenology stresses the importance of “experience”. Every experience (drawn from every act of cognition) involves the entire set of experiences made in the past. An experience is the manifestation of all experiences. A simple example: When seeing only the front of a house, we “know” that this is a three-dimensional building because we know the concept “house” from former experiences. In every perception of a part of the world, we are aware of the entire world, because only in this relation the experience makes sense. This sense-making is the basis of all experience. Not only do we align all experiences with our worldview (constructed from previous experiences), we also can only experience what fits into our margin of “sensefulness”. That’s why we don’t see the gorilla during the volleyball match, because a gorilla has no place in the world “volleyball”. The house front is automatically “completed” in our mind to an entire house. When walking around it we might find that it deviates from our imagination, for example the exact size, shape, etc., but these are just details. In the same way, we almost always succeed in identifying an item as a “table”, even when it is a very unusual modern art design, because its entire embedment into our world (including its functionality) is constantly present. Sometimes our imagination is fooled, misled, surprised or puzzled. When we walk around the house front and find that it is only the decoration of a movie set, for example. Then we either have to re-align the constructed reality (here: from the world “house as living space” to the world “movie making”), or we have to construct new meaning from the new experience.

How can we be sure that the way we construct meaning from experience is in any way supported by real features of the surrounding world, and by that somehow “justified”? How do I know that what I “see” is the same thing as that what you “see”? There could be a simple answer: by talking about it!

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Both our world constructions don’t represent the actual world sufficiently, but if we integrate our two – almost necessarily deviating – images into one, we might get closer to what may count as “real”. This “discourse approach” to world conceptualisation was promoted in the later 20th century by Jürgen Habermas, Karl-Otto Apel, Niklas Luhmann and others. Mankind is a species that constitutes its environment through communication and collaboration. World construction is, therefore, always a process from the “inter”-space: inter-personal, inter-relational, inter-cultural. My world becomes my world by setting it into relation to yours. My experience is only valid (or not) in view of your experiences (and all others). In case there are insurmountable differences, we need to engage in a conversation (or a discourse) in order to create new clarity.

However, communication is not a trivial thing. Its most important tool is language. This includes our spoken language using words, but also numerical systems (mathematics) and symbolism, non-verbal interaction, body language, etc. Language itself is conditioned and constituted by experience, which means that we only have linguistic expressions for what is already part of our experience (made by any of our ancestors). Translatability of “thoughts” and other cognitive impressions is a difficult endeavour, not only between the different languages of different countries or cultures, but even on the very basic level of interpersonal conversation. Therefore, philosophy spends a great big deal on clarifying and defining words and terms. When all that is done it is still not guaranteed that one really understands the other, because experience is not fully transferable. With sufficient exchange of information I might be able to anticipate your experience, but since my framework of experiences and their connection is different from yours, I will never be able to see the same thing in the same light. Actually, “world” can be defined as exactly this “framework of connected experiences”. Then, it makes sense to talk about “worlds” rather than “the world”, because what is “world” for you is more or less different from what is “world” for me. Identifying and getting aware of the overlapping parts of our world is as interesting and inspiring as the deviations.

These reflections, obviously, are inspired by European-Western philosophy. Much of this can be found in East-Asian philosophy as well. Especially Buddha’s teachings and their early philosophical analysis, for example by Nagarjuna, give insights into their idea of “world”. To my understanding, they have never been as naïve as the Ancient Greek. They didn’t split the world into outside and inside, they didn’t conclude this childish realism, and they were well aware of the human condition (i.e. human cognitive mechanisms) that underlie the world construction processes in our minds. This knowledge, ever since, could be exploited for actual down-to-earth mental liberation and enlightenment attempts. “Freeing the mind” from the “default setting” became the main endeavour of Buddhist practice. In contrast to the Greek idea, THIS is the main human challenge. In my illustrations that would be like removing or “clearing” the lens through which we see and interpret everything.

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That would mean that we try to be less dependent on the patterns that we formed through our experiences but see things “as they are”. I’d like to add that it would also mean that for the large part of our surrounding (I avoid the term “world”, here) that is beyond our conscious capacity, we simply accept that we “know nothing”. This awareness makes a crucial difference! We will not be tempted to rely on our illusion of “knowing” but see through the flaws of our deluded minds and question everything. We could express it as “having no world in mind” or “having a no-world in mind”. Inter-personal or even inter-cultural communication about “worlds” is brought onto a completely new level by this understanding. Not only are we more open-minded towards others’ ideas and experiences, we are also less likely to fight for our own views and against the others’ views, because we understand that after all everything is “empty” of actual “substance” or “independent reality”. Then it also becomes entirely irrelevant to talk about “truth”. Much more important than truth is the viability of an experience and its subsequent subjection into meaning construction. The things “as they are” (which is not the same as Kant’s “things-as-such”), experienced directly and purely, span up the framework in which we live our lives and make our choices and decisions. Making this margin as wide and flexible as possible and ourselves as less conditioned and controlled as possible is the core practice of Buddhism. If we succeed in that, we see through the cycle of the 12 links of interdependent co-arising, we become aware of the three mind poisons, of our attachments and desires, of the dominance of our self concept, and of the Matrix that we live in. Then we can exit it.

Thoughts on Love

Love is one of the most ubiquitous and steadily present aspects of life. Since mankind is able to think, talk and write, people reflect on this topic. Art (poetry, music, painting, etc.), philosophy, psychology and many more “institutions” try to capture and describe what kind of phenomenon love is – an approach that is condemned to fail, from my point of view. Love is a too great “thing” to be fully and sufficiently analysed using words. Probably the attempt that gets the closest to reality is poetry with its sophisticated methods to trigger emotions and create atmospheres, because love is most of all exactly that: an emotion, a “mood”, an atmosphere that cannot be grabbed or held. However, certainly love has a down-to-earth daily life dimension when it comes to human relationships (no matter if coupleships, family love, friendships to a certain extent, etc.). Conducting a partnership succeeds or fails with the viewpoints of the loving person about what love is, no matter if consciously or subconsciously. Therefore, I would like to try to describe my ideas on love from a philosophical point of view with little impacts of psychology and a huge impact of my own real-life-experiences. As sources of inspiration I can name Erich Fromm’s famous books “The Art of loving” and “To have and to be”, Stendhal’s “On love” (“De l’amour”) with its model of crystallisation in a 6-stage process, and the whole Buddhist philosophy with its consequences and ideas on daily life conduct.

Recall: All is one. Everything is connected. Nothing is permanent. And: the basic law of all existence is that of cause and effect: every incident causes a reaction that keeps reality in its equilibrium, which also implies that nothing is eternally constant but everything is undergoing change. As stated elsewhere I believe that this equilibrium itself, the constant heading for harmony on all levels of existence (material, spiritual, etc.) can be called “love”. This meets the Buddhist idea of “love as the basic principle of all being in the world”. This includes love relationships between people, of course. But how does this monistic, holistic, naturalistic worldview reveal any useful idea of what love is (or might be)? It needs a few more “general” elements of life conduct to bridge the abstract philosophy and the daily life behaviour (for example as a partner in a coupleship). First of all, the most obvious (and my favourite) conclusion from this understanding of the world is the “here-and-now” approach. Life always takes place here and now. We only have this moment. Time is just a concept, place is always relative. We (an assembly of sophisticated molecules that are arranged in a way that we have abilities to act and to think, opening the “mental sphere” that constructs meaning from experience) are a tiny element in the world fabric, having our place in it. Too often we take ourselves too important in it, separate ourselves from the rest and fall victim of illusions by the three “poisons of the mind”, ignorance, attachment and resistance. If, idealistically, we succeed in living constantly in the here-and-now, it had a deep impact on our understanding of love and our relationships, as I will explain in detail soon.

It seems to me at this place it requires a very non-romantic but scientific section: Why do we feel love from a biological point of view? The answer is no surprise: it is the outcome of evolutionary pressure. Everything that supports the survival of a species has an advantage compared to those individuals within that species that don’t have that feature. Simply said: when a female and a male individual of a species have a baby (a “next generation”) and they take care of it together in cooperation, the baby has a higher chance to survive, learn, make its living and later have its own baby (a “next next generation”) compared to a baby that is born by a couple that does not take sufficient care. Therefore, any kind of phenomenon that makes the parents stick together after generating a new generation is supported (given to the following generation, spreading, displacing those who do not have this property). For some species such an aspect might be the visual attraction, or a smell, or any other trigger of a cognitive sense (for example the elephant bull sticking to his cow because of her wonderfully curved body…). Since even the early mankind had a wide set of emotions, establishing a mechanism on this level was obviously very powerful: man and woman sticking together because they feel that they want to. Very smart of Nature! (I hope you know that I say this for fun and with my worldview can NEVER say something like this seriously! An entity like Nature can never have a property like “smartness”! However, in human language we might be allowed to call evolutionary processes “smart”…) What do we learn from it? Most people have the “instinct” that it is “good” to be faithful, to make a relationship last long (or even forever), or to have only one partner, and that it is “bad” to leave a mother with her child alone, to cheat or to “play” with a partner. We feel excited when we are “falling in love”, and comfortable and secure in a stable and long-lasting relationship, taking it as an ideal. I don’t know anybody who doubts these ideals. Everybody needs and wants love. Yet, the reality looks different: couples break up often, even married couples get divorced, partners fight and hurt each other, have “love affairs”, betray, or suffer from boredom after a while. Therefore, the main question is not “Is there endless or perfect love?” but “How do we succeed in establishing endless perfect love?”. We can take for granted that there is love since it is something we want. The much more important reflection is on what we have to do (or what kind of idea we should have) to have a “successful” (= long-lasting, harmonic, joyful) relationship.

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Let me make a bold statement: Most people love conditionally. Especially in modern times (since about 50-60 years) we treat love as something we “have” or not, as something that gives me some kind of profit or not (benefits, joy, sex,…), as a “thing”. We weigh benefits and disadvantages, we evaluate potential partners and change the partner when we believe we found a better one. The viewpoint that love is “giving and taking” is put into an economic framework that is drawing up the balance sheet and taking this as the measure for the quality of the relationship and not the act of giving and taking itself. In a society that is more and more used to fill up every day with pleasure and fun, that shows severe hedonistic symptoms, love must serve a purpose: the quick and easy fulfilment of the endless seek for pleasure. In a money-oriented world it even seems to be possible to “buy” love or (even though not necessarily with money) can be induced by certain ways (for example online dating or match-making institutes). I believe that the reason for a dramatically increasing divorce rate, for so many frustrated people who lost the belief in “true love”, for so much sadness about failed relationships, can be found in exactly these approaches of love. To me it is obvious that people “suffer” from their attachments, sticking to pleasure, excitement and a too huge self. And exactly here I see the chance to intervene: When we know about our suffering and accept it, we can apply methods to overcome it. No matter how it is achieved, the ultimate goal should be to sharpen the awareness for those situations and moments in which we fall victim of illusions, to identify and resolve “dualisms” that separate the whole world into single independent entities (like “here is me, there is you, there is love, there is the problem”), and to practice a lifestyle that is “in this moment”, here and now, at all moments. How can it help to reach the goal of a “successful partnership”? It might be helpful to do a very simple little experiment: sit back and reflect on what must be given right in this moment to ensure that you are still alive in the next moment? Besides some basic safety issues (there is no natural catastrophe, no nuclear war, and the house you sit in doesn’t collapse) and given the case you are more or less healthy (and not dependent on machines that keep you alive) I guess you find only one thing: you have to keep breathing. From time to time you might have to eat something, and even fewer times you need to rest (sleep); both are required to balance your energy consumption that keeps your organism running. But first of all, in almost every moment of your life, you need to keep breathing. And that’s it. You don’t need money, you don’t need a TV, you don’t need fancy clothes or cosmetics, you don’t need fame or attention or honour. All these things might comfort your life, or might make it more convenient, but after all they are not necessary. How about thoughts and emotions? They truly dominate our life since we can never stop thinking (at least not without a lot of practice) and we (hopefully) never stop having feelings. However, it is mainly these thoughts and feelings that usually distract us from the here-and-now. Regrets, grief, sadness and frustration draw us into the past whereas fears, sorrows and doubts keep us busy with the future. Education, experiences, behaviour and thought patterns link us strongly to the past while expectations, hopes, desires and visions make us believe in the future. This goes for both negative and positive thoughts and emotions. Even happiness is often a past- or future-related attachment (we miss happy moments from the past, or we get stuck in the belief that we need something particular as the only way to be happy in the future). I believe that living in past and future rather than in this moment leads to most of the problems that occur in a relationship. The mentioned “economic” approach of love has its origin in always thinking of “tomorrow” (“Will I still be happy with this partner tomorrow?”, “Will I always get what I need and want?”). The loss of belief in true love is heavily caused by aspects of the past (bad experiences with former partners, divorced parents, a lack of “love ability” caused by an environment with insufficient love abilities, etc.). Partners betray and have love affairs because they seek for short term pleasure satisfaction and believe to find it somewhere outside their partnership – another idea “in the future”. Also the expectation that the partner is always beautiful, always smart, always lovely and attractive is an unrealistic future-directed idea. This kind of love is condemned to be “conditional” and people who love like this will of course never experience “true and endless love”. The “problem” is the fact of constant change (as mentioned above): as soon as we have a condition for love (like “I love you when you love me in return!”, or “I love you because you look pretty, because you are smart, because you have a PhD degree, because because because…”) the love is threatened to disappear because the condition might change. Every partner WILL change, this is guaranteed! When we try to fix something flexible, or when we try to push something constantly changing into a shape, it will break sooner or later or try to escape. The attachment to past and future denies that love is flexible and can only be caught in its momentary state right in this moment. In the next moment it must be caught again, maybe with a different method, because it will be different again. As soon as we try to grab it and keep it, it looses its value, like a beautiful flower we unplug from the soil will die uprooted.

What does “love in the here-and-now” practically mean? Let’s assume the “normal” way of forming and actively conducting a partnership and its stages. Some people are lucky and find their partner by one or the other way in their daily life, maybe at the workplace, while doing the hobby, or introduced (intentionally or not) by a friend or family member. Others “search” for a partner, usually with a desperation level growing linear (or even exponentially) with increasing age. How do we choose our partner? Sometimes people (probably the majority is men) just use the eye for that and choose a pretty, handsome, sexy, attractive person. From my point of view this is the worst possible criteria, since outer appearance is the most obviously changing property. Is the love gone when the partner turns less good-looking? Can the partner be easily exchanged as soon as a better looking person is spotted in the crowd? The same goes for choosing partners by financial aspects or social status (rich or famous partners). But how about those who claim they choose their partner by “inner values” such as good character, smartness, or same hobbies and life philosophy? Even these things can change! When I love my wife for endless philosophical debates, and then she gets Alzheimer and doesn’t even know me anymore, will I have to stop loving her? It seems like any kind of “reason” for loving someone makes the love conditional and instable. What is left? I believe (I must say, according to my own experience) the only way to find the “right” partner is to (a) make sure a kind of minimal basis of a “good match” (the partners have at least a few things in common so that they can enjoy sharing their lives), then (b) listen to and follow the feelings, which is the most important thing since this gives the will to love this partner forever and the vision to share the life until the end of days, and finally (c) constantly reflect the “inner self” at all time. Simply said: when you feel attracted to someone (but maybe even can’t explain it properly), when you feel totally comfortable and peaceful in a person’s presence, and when at the same time you can make sure your feeling is not an illusion created by superficial criteria (for example big boobs) or blinded by psychological phenomena such as desperation (“last-minute panic”) or loneliness, then it might be that this person is the right one. The question is not what you love that person for. The main question should be if your feelings are the beginning of a flame that will grow into a “fire” of a stable love relationship. When this is established, love can flourish and grow as long as it is not pressed into too strict boundaries. This is the next stage: the early phase of a partnership, often going along with excitement. “Falling in love”. I define this phase as that time between starting a partnership (with both partners agreeing ideally voluntarily upon being a couple) and facing the critical phase after the excitement is gone. According to Stendhal’s love theory it is the time between phase 4 and 6. His six phases are:

  1. Admiration (“I really admire you as a person.”),

  2. Beginning of desire (“I think I’d like to get to know you better.”),

  3. Hope (“I hope you feel the same way about me.”),

  4. Inception of love (“I think I’m falling in love with you.”),

  5. Crystallisation (“I see the beauty and perfection within you.”),

  6. Doubt, fear and/or jealousy, anger and resentment (“You’re going to hurt me or betray me like others have.”).

The fifth phase is the most critical one in this theory. The way it is perceived and managed determines if a couple will “survive” the sixth phase or not. When the “beauty and perfection” seen in the partner is regarded as the “state-of-art” that needs to be preserved until the end of days, it is a case of conditional love. When in this phase the expectations on the partner are too strongly “directed”, the relationship will break. When in this stage we are attached to the relationship and the idea of it, we will lose it. Love can only grow and follow on the “being-in-love” phase when the lovers let go of the “relationship” aspects and focus on the value of their love and the essence of why they are a couple. When the relationship is evaluated by its “output” (How much fun and pleasure is generated? Is my partner still the best/most beautiful/richest? How many hobbies do we have in common and how many times per week do we have sex?) 1000 things will be found that support doubts and fears to grow. Another aspect that should never be underestimated is that we often fail to keep up a relationship because of our own inner restraints and fears caused by childhood traumas, lack of love ability, and other past incidents that pushed us into repressing and denying our deepest feelings. The here-and-now approach might be helpful to shape the consciousness for love which I regard as the most crucial point. Love can only be unconditional when it is conscious, non-possessive and non-dependent. A first step would be to practice the awareness for our suffering (ignorance, attachment, resistance), to understand the difference between “being free from emotions” (terrible!) and “being free IN emotions” (desirable!), to deliberate ourselves from the slavery of thoughts and emotions and take control over them instead, and finally to make peace with ourselves. Only when we love ourselves we will be able to truly love someone else and appreciate receiving that person’s love. But careful! “Loving oneself” must not be mixed up with “I am the greatest!”. Also the love for oneself must be unconditional and conscious, with harmony and (inner) peace as the goal. Remember the worldview that stands behind: all is one, everything is connected (and in that undergoes constant change), there is only this moment. Loving oneself means in the first instance to be in the “here-and-now”, taking the reality as it is, neither fighting or hiding the past or future nor sticking to them, making peace with our inner self and embracing the love that is shining through after resolving all fears and resentments. Loving the partner is the same: No matter how the love “started” (how the partner is chosen), as soon as this flame is there it needs to be nourished with actively establishing peace and balance, appreciating the partner’s existence and the happiness of being together in this moment and all other moments. If two lovers succeed in reaching this point they don’t need to “trigger” their attraction by sexy underwear, a trip together or “new things” to pep up their boring daily life. They won’t argue on who has to bring the garbage outside or clean the toilet. They will never feel bored with each other because their conscious mental and emotional connection is a source for endless inspiration, like on the first day of their relationship. There is no thing such as “time”. There is only this moment. And love is experienced in its most pure form when it is given and taken in that moment. Every moment. It helps me here to regard it from a mathematical point of view. Let’s assume a “moment” is defined as one second. A day has  86400 seconds. So I can say I love my partner in 86400 moments per day, maybe in one moment it is expressed in a smile, in the next it shows itself as a gesture or a gift, another few moments is doing something together. In each second the love is expressed in a different way, so from moment to moment I can adapt my loving to the current form of love. Or with other words: I can fall in love with my partner over and over again 86400 times per day. Now we define a moment as 0.5 seconds, so there are 172800 moments of love (and of life!) per day. When we make a “moment” infinitesimally small, the number of moments per day reaches infinity, therefore the “chain of moments” becomes a “dynamic process of moments” and, therefore, one. Then we don’t even need to define what is a moment on a time scale, but the answer is: now!

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These ideas inspired me to make “Mantras” on love that I want to practice in my life. A Mantra is a kind of catchy phrase, a simple and short Motto that can be recited and by this internalised until it is mirrored in a person’s behaviour and actions in daily life. This ensures that the intellectual thinking is put into practice rather than remaining mere theory. Since I was a teenager I often wondered if there is something “greater” than “I love you” to tell my girlfriend, because everybody says “I love you” and it is kind of “worn out”. From the idea that all we have is this moment, here and now, I take that this is the greatest (if not only) thing I can really give to my partner. Therefore, the biggest statement I can make to my partner is: “I am here for you!” (the first Mantra). When I give “my moment” to someone, my here-and-now, it means that person has my full attention, all my consciousness and awareness. I can’t give more than that, nothing that is “greater”. When I spend time with my partner I shouldn’t watch TV, chat, talk on the phone or think about my job issues besides, but be with her with all senses. Also, I shouldn’t make reproaches to her because of past incidents, or worry about future occurrences. We are here, united in love. Everything else is not important. This leads to the second Mantra: “I know that you are here for me, too! (And that makes me happy!)”. My girlfriend (or wife) is by my side voluntarily since I would never force her to be. I can assume that she loves me, that she would never intend to make me angry, and that she would always be on my side same as I am always on her side! I believe that many couples fight because they forget exactly this! This creates the potential for reproaches, accusations, misunderstandings, etc. But above all should always be the fact that two partners love each other, seeking harmony and peace, and therefore are always “here” for each other. Again: I believe this is often forgotten because we suffer from the mind poisons (ignorance, attachment, resistance). Keeping this in mind when I feel hurt, misunderstood or mistreated by my partner, it is easy for me to know why (this is the third Mantra): “I know that you suffer!“. “I know” in this case means something like “I am aware of the unavoidable fact that…”. With this Mantra it is very easy for me to react on my partner with understanding, benevolence, patience and affection, at any time and at any place. Everything she does and sais, she does and sais because she believes it is right, because her thought and behaviour patterns tell her so, or because one of the layers around her Buddha Nature (oh… another “big” term I can’t explain to the fullest here…) make her do. Directly from this I derive the fourth Mantra, probably the most important of all: “I know that I am suffering (and I need your help)!“. Especially men tend to be totally unable to take criticism. A healthy self-reflection and the insight that oneself is suffering from the mind poisons the most of all can help to be a much more convenient partner. Many conflicts can be solved by admitting and accepting the own flaws and mistakes. Instead of preaching my own flawlessness I should rather ask my partner for forgiving my bad sides and helping me to work on them. Her feedback, constructive criticism and probably a huge amount of patience is what I need the most. Above all stands the idea that a partnership is conducted (without any outer force) in order to be or become happy together. The basic (never forgotten) principle of a partnership should be that both partners always have in mind to live in harmony and peace (both inside and with the partner).

I believe with this approach most things that should be self-understanding in a partnership can be achieved: sharing everything, being trustworthy and truthful (not hiding anything important from the partner), having good (= honest, sincere, open, truthful, peaceful) communication, being faithful, being interested in each other, paying attention to each other, making each other’s life more beautiful. Some people say having a partner requires compromises and therefore limits a persons freedom. I don’t agree. Everything is better with a partner! My partner is a source of energy, motivation and happiness! My partner gives my life a purpose! Therefore, my freedom is even higher with a partner! Many couples I know make a big mistake: They think “loving each other” means “binding to each other”, like a chain or a prison, they are like one person. Later they complain that each of them has no “own space”, no freedom. Most of them broke up. They had the feeling that they are “limited” and told me, their partner makes them feel restricted by the love. In my opinion “love” should never produce limits for the two loving people. It should make them grow and get happier! So love should not be a prison or chains, it should be like earth and moon: circling around each other, with strong attractive forces but both with an own atmosphere to breath. No one could exist without the other, but still both are individuals. There is always a kind of distance between both, but they are close enough to feel the other (like the moon influences the earth). I like the picture of circling around each other, like dancing. It is a kind of admiring and watching the other with deep respect and conscious love! And still both can move on their own and never have the feeling of choking.

All in all I can state that I believe in “perfect” love. It just must not be mixed up with having a partner who is perfect. Nobody is perfect. But the way of conducting a partnership, based on a “healthy” understanding of what love is, will decide on the success of a partnership. The necessary requisites for endless love are:

  • the belief in love

  • the readiness to invest energy into it (knowing that the harvest will be much more than the investion)

  • the willingness to face the own flaws and failures and work on them

Of course it is helpful to have a certain wisdom, the ability to form, understand and follow ethical values and virtues, self-awareness and self-control, and last but not least an open mind to understand and see through the daily-life aspects of love. For sure, not only philosophers or psychologists are able to “know” about love. Everybody can, with the “right” idea and vision…