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:

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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:

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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.

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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…

Worldview

In daily life we often face situations in which we have to make a decision of what is “right” or “good” to do. Those can be ethical dilemmas, difficult choices of lifelong importance (job, partner, moving to another place, etc.), or just simple judgments of incidents, statements, observations and actions with political, social, cultural or other dimension. Since we are embedded into a network of social and cultural interconnections, we are able to come to conclusions without much sophisticated knowledge but just on the basis of our education, experiences, cultural confinements and other factors that constitute a kind of “common sense”. However, in many cases our judgments, conclusions and decisions conflict with those of other people. Then, our viewpoints and the foundations of our reasoning standards are challenged – we have to make clear to ourselves how and why we come to these viewpoints in order to convince “the others” of the correctness and reasonability (or in some cases: superiority) of our arguments. This kind of dispute is the core of all kind of conflicts – political, religious, scientific, in personal relations, etc. – since mankind developed the skills of communication and conscious reflection. History provides uncountable examples of what can go wrong: dogmatism, ideology, superstition, manipulation, physical threats, and many more. For many millennia it wasn’t “the most reasonable argument” that always won, but in many cases that argument that was brought up and pushed through by the most powerful (the strongest, the wealthiest, the armed, the educated, the rhetorically most skilled, etc.) instance. Especially organised religions, for example Christianity and Islam, with their highly dogmatic belief systems, but also scientific approaches to understanding the world (examples: Phlogiston theory, geocentric worldview), run the risk of erroneous interpretations of the “world”. The consequences of unreasonable world conceptions can be dramatic and catastrophic, leading to injustice, mistreatment and misery (examples: the racism and fascism of the Nazi regime in Germany, the persecution of “witches” in medieval Europe, ideology-based exploitation and suppression of “minorites” around the globe, massive environmental destruction and extinction of species due to human activity).

We might compare the development of mankind and its insights into the world fabric to the process of growing up from a child to an adult. A baby doesn’t understand anything, not even itself (or “its self”). A young child that just discovers basic mechanisms of the world (cause-effect-relations, gravity, time, etc.) and human skills (for example language, intentional action) is not capable of scientific and metaphysical understanding of the world. It will believe fairytales and stories when they match with the simple observations it can make. The moon glows at night, so it is reasonable to believe that there is someone on or in it who switches on and off a lamp. On Easter morning there are colourful eggs hidden everywhere in the garden, so of course there is an “Easter Bunny” that came at night and put them there! Also, adults give the child simple orders like “Don’t touch the electrical socket!” rather than explain the technical background of high voltage and its effect on the human body. The older the child grows and the more it learns the more we will expect it to “know” and “understand” these things. It will not be satisfied anymore with simple orders, childish explanations or flowery stories. A reasonable teenager will start questioning things, identifying flaws, fallacies or “lies”. The process of learning is mostly one of “acquiring knowledge”, both technical-factual and normative-orientational. With the ongoing process of maturation more and more “beliefs” and “dogmas” can either be substituted by “knowledge” and “insight” or be put on more sophisticated foundations of knowledge and reason. The latter often requires a refinement or modification of worldview and understanding. We can imagine that insights with strong impact can change a person’s attitude towards or opinion about something. The same goes for societies: Ancient civilisations cultivated cruel customs such as cannibalism, slavery, human sacrifice or barbaric methods of capital punishment. They believed in ghosts, gods, super- and para-natural forces (some people still do), or based their explanations and worldviews on “facts” and “knowledge” that – from today’s perspective – was simply wrong. Most of these false beliefs and immature practices disappeared or have been abandoned, mostly after periods of philosophical and intellectual insights like the European Enlightenment era leading to Humanism or the establishment of Confucian social structures after the Chinese “Warring States” period.

Is the current state of civilisation ready to be called “mature”? Regardless of the fact that there is not just “one civilisation” on Earth but many different ones with varying degree of maturation, we can state that around the globe the access to sophisticated knowledge and insight is given to a larger extend than ever before. Natural and social sciences as well as Philosophy and Psychology have elaborated profound understanding of worldly and human affairs. The question is: What do we do with that knowledge? I’d like to make a point that is by far not self-understanding for many people and/or societies: The basis for any form of reasoning – be it technical, logical, metaphysical, normative, etc. – should be knowledge. At the same time (and this is my second plea), we (like the rebellious teenager) should always question and doubt everything. Knowledge should inform worldview, but worldview in return should evaluate and analyse knowledge constantly. When the rebellious teenager matures into a young adolescent, he or she will usually become more peaceful by solidifying his or her worldview which is based on the questioned, modified, refined and challenged knowledge. With a little optimism I’d like to state that I see a chance that the mankind of today is capable of throwing old dogmatism, false beliefs, misled and corrupt knowledge aboard and substitute it by knowledge-based insight on the world fabric, mankind’s place in it, and the human condition. In the following I’d like to draw a sketch of what that might look like.

knowrealhuman

Worldviews and ethical theories are most challenged by finding their “deepest” reason, the most fundamental basis that all argumentation is built upon and that – ideally – can be understood and agreed upon by everyone. Constructs that take a belief or a story, legend or claim that can never be proven as the starting point or “ultimate truth” are called “dogmatic”, for example religious systems that are built around the faithful belief in a God. It is the standard of philosophical reflection to go deeper than that. Attempts to go back to the very beginning of reasoning and reflecting on the nature of reality are sometimes called “first philosophy”, for example skepticism (e.g. Descartes), induction (e.g. Hume), transcendental philosophy (e.g. Kant), and others.[1] There is an intrinsic circular problem that all these first philosophies have to deal with: We want to base a worldview on what we know, but that provokes the question of what we – as human beings – are able to know. This question can only be answered satisfyingly on the basis of a worldview – the one we want to elaborate from what we know. With other words: What the observer (we) wants to observe is the observer itself, more precisely: his ability to observe. Or, as Heinz von Foerster puts it: “What does it need to understand a brain? – A brain!”.[2] We need knowledge to draw conclusions on the epistemological question “What are we able to know?”,  which is ideally fed from ontological insights into the reality of the world.  A “one-and-half-cycle” approach is suggested: Based on the very general and fundamental assumptions that are formulated in the ancient Chinese philosophical texts and that we can assume to be more or less secure “knowledge” of the principles and mechanisms of the world, a worldview is drawn that allows conclusion on the “human condition” – the position of mankind in the “world fabric” and, by that, the abilities and limitations of cognition. With an idea of “what human are able to know” the validity of the initial knowledge base is checked and – if necessary – refined. With these more secure insights an extended ontology, the metaphysical foundations of a worldview, can be elaborated. This can serve as a starting point for “applications” such as ethical principles, scientific methodology, human psychology, etc.

metaphysics2

The most fundamental phenomenon that we can observe in the world is “change“. This can be agreed to even without any scientific knowledge or philosophical preconditions. Nothing remains the same forever. Time and space are spanned up by “change”.[3]

In the next step, we have to conclude that there must be a governing principle. Otherwise we would end up either at chaos with all being as a product of randomness and chance, or at the postulation of an organized order under the guidance of a powerful entity creating a deterministic causality. Both are not reasonable to assume: the former because it does not match with our daily life experiences, the latter because it is laden with additional preconditions that are either impossible to prove or a matter of belief (but never of knowledge). Here, we can adopt the concept of Harmony from the Yi-Jing and its further elaborations in Confucianism and Daoism. Harmony must not be mixed up with “sameness”. Also, “equilibrium” does not imply “the one perfect state”. We can imagine these ideas in the picture of a pendulum: “Equilibrium” means the alteration around the perpendicular. As long as there are causes and effects in the universe, the pendulum will never come to a perpendicular stop. In this sense, harmony describes the tendency to balance out the energies that arise from the interaction of different elements in creative tension. Therefore, it is different from the “immediate harmony” in the Hegelian understanding, and different from the “natural state” symbolised by Adam and Eve in the Bible. This form of harmony is reflective, mediated, and highly relational.[4] In order to make this work, we have to assume a network of conditionality, both in the diachronic and synchronic dimension. The former means, a current state is caused by former states; the latter means, a current state is causally connected to other contemporary states. Additionally, still on save grounds, we can formulate that the ongoing process of oscillating around a point of harmony – disturbance of the equilibrium due to change of the conditions, re-aligning to the new surrounding state, establishment of a new equilibrium that is in harmony with the new state – necessarily leads to emergence, the development of more and more sophisticated and causally interwoven states.

harmony

These insights draw this picture of the world (we are now at Box 2: Basic Ontology): In the course of time and space that is made up by the properties and characteristics of Qi (call it “energy”), mankind’s appearance following evolutionary processes is embedded into this set of properties. Interaction with the specific environment on Planet Earth equipped the organism “human” with the senses and abilities that are useful and advantageous in this particular surrounding. Therefore, the actual cognitive and mental capability of humans is extremely limited given the complexity and variety of phenomena of the world. The development of brain processes known as “consciousness”, allowing volitional action, might be insignificant for the “world fabric”, but increases the complexity of human capabilites and human understanding massively. Especially the ability of communication (including self-communication, thinking) and its tool – language – widened the range of human action immensely. However, the idea of the world that is consciously perceived is condemned to remain a confined cut of the actual world. Moreover, it is a construction in the human mind. This leads us closer to the question of what we are able to know. But before we elaborate further on that, let’s have a closer look at the characteristics of this worldview that was just described.

We analysed the human condition solely in terms of its natural embedment in its environment, with the universal law of “cause and effect” as its foundation. Obviously, by doing so we follow a naturalistic approach which is the common term for the argumentative elaboration of “values” (like “harmony” or “balance”) with the focus on conditionality and cause-effect-relations. Among Philosophers, Naturalism became very popular in recent years. So many contemporary Philosophers claim themselves and other (ancient) Philosophers “naturalists” that it is hard to find a clear definition of what the term means and what it actually implies.[5] It seems safe to claim that Naturalism opposes the supernatural, and in certain understandings also the artificial. But it is the matter of heated debate whether Naturalism has to or needs to stand against “the normative”, too. From the Asian perspective, this question would surely be answered in favour of “naturalised normativity”: The norms and codes of conduct that are derived from ethical reasoning must be rooted in the nature of the world that mankind is embedded in. Everything else would be an “uprooted”, artificial, “thin” man-made concept. It is important to point out (as mentioned above) that it is necessary to be aware of a “separation of tasks” of different stages of reasoning: At this point we are investigating the human condition. Here, naturalistic perspectives like the Asian one are reasonable and appear helpful to address the respective questions. The introduction of “value” in order to elaborate normative statements will be done later when the whole metaphysical worldview is complete and when the perspective is focused specifically on “human affairs” rather than generally on “universal affairs”.

At this point, we can already exclude certain paradigms and principles – metaphysical perspectives that are certainly not element of “my philosophy”:

  • Dogmatism: Ideologies or teachings that are based on “belief” and mystical hypothesis are neither considered for nor concluded from this worldview conception. All it needed so far is a bit of experience and reflection, but no speculation about God(s) or other “creator entities” and no unprovable initial dogma.
  • Transcendentalism: According to E.O.Wilson, there is a significant difference between transcendentalists – those who believe that there are moral guidelines outside the human mind – and empiricists – those who think of them as contrivances of the mind.[6] Some philosophers understood the Yi-Jing as proclaiming “intrinsic value in the universe” and, accordingly, interpreted this as “transcendental”. The naturalistic “value” of harmony towards which everything is aligning and striving, however, should not be seen as transcendental since from a perspective of morality, it is “neutral” in the sense that it can’t tell what is good and right. “Equilibrium” shows “the direction to go”, but still the society and its members is obliged to figure out the methods and tools to go that way (the particular morals). Asian morality, especially as suggested by the Yi-Jing, is characterised as contextual prescriptivism, a highly situational ethics that depends on time, space and condition, but is firm in its principles and virtues. There is neither any form of “moral absolutism” nor a commitment to unshakable “cosmic norms” that are valid beyond the framework of human reasoning.
  • Human Nature: In the same sense, it is difficult to talk of “human nature” as something intrinsically given. Human traits are, according to Confucianism and Buddhism, manifestations of states with causal origins that change over time. In a more biological sense: The behavioural attitude of human beings (over the evolutionary development course of mankind) adapts flexibly to the environment according to its requirements and beneficial rewards. The attributes of “good” or “evil” are added by human from human perspectives.

The question “What can we know?” (Box 3: Epistemology) is a crucial one in the endeavour of building a worldview upon knowledge. In the West, the two major “classical” positions on this question are empiricism (knowledge as the result of experiences and cognitive perception) and rationalism (knowledge as the result of rational reasoning and mental reflection). From the previous insights we know that both our experiences and our ratio are “flawed” and/or incomplete and, therefore, our knowledge is also construed. This “constructivism” underlies both insight through reason and insight through experience and cognition. Buddhism (but also other Asian schools of thought) propagate an almost radical constructivism in questions of world perception and recognition.[7] In the European tradition, the idea that the mental representation of the world is not a depiction of the (real) outside world but rather a construction of an image inside the observing mind was elaborated comparably late, but is now widely accepted among philosophers and other related scholars.[8] Meanwhile, constructivism pervaded many academic and scientific disciplines, ranging from natural sciences[9] and psychology to sociology[10] and anthropology, especially prominent as “social constructivism”[11]. There is a clear tendency towards naturalism and constructivism going along with each other since both share, in parts, the same basic assumptions.[12] An idea that can be given up at this point is “truth” or, respectively, the possibility of getting anywhere near the “ultimate truth”. Therefore, also the attempt to achieve it is given up.

With these insights, is it necessary to revise, change or even discard the initial input of “basic knowledge” (Box 4)? Would we have to admit that the basic ideas of the world are in any way “wrong” or so flawed that they can’t serve as a starting point for metaphysical reflection any longer? The understanding that both the “human reality” and the “human options of acquiring knowledge” are best described by constructivism might leave the impression that “all we are able to know is that we know nothing”. However, this is a misconception. First, “knowing that our knowledge is highly filtered” and “knowing that what we believe we know can be wrong or corrupt” is not equivalent to “knowing nothing” (the nihilistic or fatalistic viewpoint). Awareness of the constructive character of our worldview and our reflections on metaphysics is important to avoid dogmatism, to increase the chances of both empiricism and rationalism to be “precise” or “correct”, and to align the worldview steadily to newly acquired knowledge. Moreover, the most important claim of all metaphysical and, in the following of it, ethical reasoning should be to be done “to the best of the available knowledge, insight, and conscience”. There is simply no other chance to base the reflections on “what we know” and “what we are able to know to the best of our abilities”. This corresponds to the Daoist idea that all we are able to do (and, therefore, obliged to do) is “getting as close as possible to the “Dao” (the point of total harmony) with our actions and behaviour, admitting that it will never be possible to reach it.[13] Here, too, it is impossible to reach the point of “ultimate truth”, but it should be taken as our goal to get as close as possible to it when reflecting on metaphysics.

Initially, it was claimed that the basic principles of the world fabric are:

  • Harmony – Cause-effect-mechanisms due to constant heading towards equilibrium states, spanning “time and space”
  • Conditionality – No existence without anything else existing, but no “ontological determinism”
  • Emergence – Increasing complexity through sophistication processes and development towards more elaborated states, resulting (among others) in consciousness.

Ancient Asian thinkers and intellectuals recognised – and I fully support it – that no phenomenon of the world manifests itself independent from other elements of the world. This can be observed for both material aspects of the world (the interaction of matter from the atomic to the cosmic scale) and abstract entities that occur in the mind of a conscious being. Moreover, even this classification of “material” and “mental” aspects of the world does not imply that they are separated, but regards them as connected as well, e.g. by understanding cognitive and mental processes as of material origin, for example the interplay of biomolecules, or by realising that also the “material world” is just another construction in the mind of the perceiver. Here, my idea of the world stands in sharp contrast to Cartesian dualism.

The initial assumptions are confirmed and supported by modern methods of scientific investigation and observation. Natural sciences created in-depth knowledge and understanding of the matter that the world is made from and how it is kept together. Mankind has access to knowledge about the atomic constitution of the world as well as the cosmic mechanisms of solar systems, galaxies and the universe. This knowledge confirms the important insight that whatever happens in the universe is happening because of a constant heading towards equilibrium states. Two atoms in a molecule oscillate and vibrate around a point of (energetically) “most favourable” distance to each other. In a chemical reaction, a “trigger” (for example an input of energy in form of heat or light) disrupts this balance, forcing the components to find a new “best” state of energy, eventually forming new bonds with other atoms or molecules. Macroscopic processes follow the same mechanism with increasing degree of complexity: Water runs down a mountain in the “energetically most favourable” way according to gravitational forces, friction forces, momentums, etc. Evolutionary processes creating “life” and bringing about consciousness and the ability of self-recognition, reflection and abstract reasoning evolve in a fine-tuned balance with the environment. Even psychological, social and cultural phenomena follow this rule of cause and effect – a trigger causing a disruption of the current equilibrium state, forcing the formation of a new equilibrium according to the new conditions. Reaching states of equilibrium is the fundamental driving force of everything that happens in the world. This can be taken as true independent from human observation and understanding. The examples used here, including “atoms”, “molecules”, “gravitation”, “energy”, “evolution”, “psychology” or “society”, are the current state of human knowledge, have been different 1000 years ago and will be different – maybe refined or discarded and substituted by new, more precise knowledge – in a thousand years from now. The overall principle of cause and effect, however, will most likely never be proven invalid, no matter how incomplete, insufficient, flawed and ignorant our human knowledge of the world turns out to be.

We can elaborate those first insights further. A simple conditionality would have to be understood as deterministic causality, but with the high degree of complexity that is found in the world, we better speak of “complex conditionality networks” pervading the “organic whole” that the world constitutes.[14] First, that allows the influence on “Karma” by volitional actions which is necessary to make sense of the Buddhist goal of enlightenment; and second, with this tenet we circumvent the threat of “nihilism” and “fatalism” that come up with stricter determinism. Emergence within this network of conditionality is “upgraded” to evolution by adding an element of “improvement” or “sophistication” through the growing complexity of “re-harmonising” processes. This evolution – a constant increase in cause-effect-relations within the network – necessarily leads to a high degree of interconnectedness of literally everything with everything. In this dynamic oneness, subject to constant change, nothing is permanent or eternal but everything contains of an intrinsic impermanence.

Another important concept in Western philosophy that must be regarded critically in the context of this (mine? “Asian”?) worldview is teleology – the question whether beings have an intrinsic purpose of existence or not.[15] Aristotle gave the example of an acorn that has the “telos” – the intrinsic purpose – to grow into an oak tree. The response from the perspective presented here would be: The acorn grows into an oak tree because that is its place in the conditionality network, both as “effect” (an oak tree produced an acorn as its way of sustaining the existence of the kind “oak tree”) and “cause” (the acorn is supposed to grow into an oak tree because that is its position in the causal chain that was established as an equilibrium to ensure the ongoing existence of the kind “oak tree”). Several scholars interpret this still as a form of teleology,[16] but the difference is an important one: “purpose” is a human concept, whereas thinking of states as result of karmic interconnectedness works out well without adding “humanisation” of processes (or “pathetic fallacy”).

Let me come to Box 5 and extend our ontological conception. The sophisticated cause-effect-law suggests that the world can only be understood “in its whole” since everything is connected. This can be best described by a combination of holism and monism (in “Western” terms). Realising that evolutionary processes proceed under the principle of “harmony” (heading towards equilibrium states) puts the human realm (as result of an evolutionary process) into a larger perspective of cosmic relations: We are neither “divine” nor “outstanding”, but just another “entity” that is part of the overall balance.

In Western philosophy, “monism” as counterpart of “dualism” often referred to a solely “idealistic” or a solely “materialistic” ontology, claiming that only one of them (respectively) is representing the reality. However, the dualistic separation of mind and matter sphere is still present in this attributive distinction. “Neutral monism” tries to overcome this separation.[17] The monism inherent in Chinese Philosophy can be best described by “dual-aspect monism”.[18] The first Buddhist philosopher that systematically pointed out the monistic character of a Buddhist’s understanding of the world was Nagarjuna.[19] His concept of “sunyata”, usually translated as “emptiness” could be considered as a form of cosmic monism when taken together with holism.

Holism as the counterpart of reductionism has a rather short history in the Western philosophical tradition. The term is coined by J.C. Smuts[20] and has ever since been subject of philosophical debate and dispute.[21] Several understandings of “holism” have been expressed, such as “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” (naïve holism), “An understanding of a complex system is best sought at the level of principles governing the behaviour of the whole system, and not at the level of the structure and behaviour of its component parts.” (methodological holism), “Some objects are not wholly composed of basic physical parts.” (ontological holism), “Some objects have properties that are not determined by physical properties of their basic physical parts.” (property holism). Modern understandings are strongly linked to the growing awareness for the high degree of complexity of the world.[22] Especially in the biological sciences, a reductionist ontology and methodology is more and more replaced by holistic conceptions of complex systems. With the acceptance of a complex conditionality it is, furthermore, possible to circumvent a strict determinism (see above). In Chinese Philosophy, Holistic world conceptions were much more widespread since ancient times. In most of the classical texts (Yijing, Daodejing, etc.), the complexity of the world as an organic whole is paid tribute to by analysing and understanding it in view of its constant processes of change and movement.[23]

The reflections above have revealed insights on the basic characteristics of my philosophical view on the world. The four key elements, so to say the cornerstones of that worldview, are identified to be holism, monism, naturalism, and constructivism. Their combinations result in further important concepts of the world fabric and its mechanisms:

cornerstones

The monistic and holistic world conception almost necessarily leads to a cosmocentric position in questions of ethical accountability and evaluation.[24] With a naturalistic approach to a holistic interpretation of the world fabric, credit is given to a complex conditionality as driving mechanism of all being and happening. The interconnected oneness of all being within the framework of Nature should be read with atheistic or agnostic accounts: It does not support the existence of a divine entity like the God of the Abrahamic tradition. The religious idea of monism becomes obsolete in a naturalistic fashion. The acceptance of a constructive character of human perception of the world adds further specific implications. In the ongoing debate between realists and antirealists, the ontology developed here can be grouped around the middle, comparable to pragmatism (in the Deweyan and Rortyan understanding)[25] or the “Natural Ontological Attitude” introduced by Arthur Fine.[26] To illustrate Buddhism’s nearness to Fine’s ontology, compare the Buddhist ideal approach of “seeing things as they are” to Fine’s statement “The attitude that marks [my naturalism] is just this: try to take science on its own terms, and try not to read things into science”.[27] Understanding both as approaches to “know reality” (Buddhism in a wider sense, Fine with means of science), they share the pragmatic and constructivist notion of being constantly aware of the pitfalls of human perception and cognition. Moreover, modern forms of “Engaged Buddhism” – the layman practice of actively supporting peace and the cessation of suffering – are based on a pragmatism that is characteristic for Buddhist practice in all its schools.[28] Constructive Realism, a model of knowledge- and language-based reality-understanding that I support (I will explain later), makes even more sense when embedded into a monistic interpretation of the world. The alternatives – ontological idealism or materialism, or epistemological rationalism or empiricism – are all dualistic and don’t fit into this scheme that emphasises monism. The “no-substance ontology”[29] that is prevalent in Asian Philosophy, especially in Buddhism, finds its foundation in the constructivist paradigm within a holistic worldview. That is so because a holistic world conception – of everything being holons that are parts of larger holons – within a constructivist paradigm (we can always only grasp parts of holons, e.g. certain properties and features) identifies “substance” almost inevitably as an illusion, whereas reductionism would conclude “substance”.

As pointed out earlier, I believe that my worldview shows significant parallels and similarities to what we can call “Asian worldview” which is fed mostly from the two directions of “Dao” (as in the Yi-Jing, in Confucianism, and in Daoism) and Buddhism. However, my focus is on Buddhism since its metaphysical foundations are further and deeper elaborated. This is perfectly reflected in the analogy between Buddha’s teachings and the cornerstone overview. Each link can be understood in terms of one or more of his key concepts:

buddhistmetaphysics

Emptiness can be readily understood as the consequence of a monistic and holistic worldview.[30] Same as a cosmocentric framework for ethical reasoning, it propagates that there is no “intrinsic values” in parts of the world (for example, “human” or “mankind”), but only in “the world itself”. Complex conditionality leads to the concept of Karma, additionally reflecting the idea of “harmony” (for example, in the understanding of “dao”). A key factor is the complexity that allows the emergence of “consciousness” so that volitional action, and by that the influence on retributive karmic relations, becomes possible. In an interconnected world of natural entities, the practice of morality is expressed through “the middle way” and, for human beings, in compassion (rather than in following divine laws), while the source for it must be sought in proper (or “right”) understanding of the world. Moreover, the karmic interconnectedness leads to compassion (or better: the understanding that it is “right” to show compassion for all being), while the “Middle Way” is the active practice of supporting the establishment of balance and harmony. The case of constructivism is important for the Buddhist “Theory of mind”: The idea of accepting the constructive character of our world perception, resulting in the plea for practicing mindfulness and awareness in order to “align the construction as close as possible to the actual reality”, is another way to describe the goal of Enlightenment. The formulation of “microworlds” and “lifeworld” in constructive realism corresponds to the “Theory of Two Truths” in Indian Buddhism.[31] Ultimately, the central element of Buddhist metaphysics, the links of interdependent co-arising, are best mirrored in view of a combination of holism (everything is karmically connected and impermanent) and constructivism (ignorance, delusion, attachment, cognition as “contact” between sense and sense-object, etc.).

The following overview summarises the collected reflections of this letter by setting all important characteristics of this worldview into perspective using “western” terminology.

worldview

  1. For an overview: Ritchie J, “Understanding Naturalism“, Acumen Pub., Stocksfield, UK, 2008, chapter 1
  2. von Foerster H, Pörksen B, “Wahrheit ist die Erfindung eines Lügners. Gespräche für Skeptiker. (Truth is the invention of a liar. Conversations for skeptics.)”, Carl-Auer-Systeme, Heidelberg, Germany, 1998
  3. On the philosophical implications of “change”: Mortensen C, “Change and Inconsistency“, in “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (ed. EN Zalta), Fall Edition 2015
  4. Li CY, “The Philosophy of Harmony in Classical Confucianism“, Philosophy Compass 2008, 3/3, pp.423
  5. For an overview: a) Bashour B, Muller HD (eds.), “Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications“, Routledge, Abingdon, UK, 2014; b) Braddon-Mitchell D, Nola R (eds.), “Conceptual Analysis and Philosophical Naturalism“, MIT Press, Cambridge, USA, 2009; c) De Caro M, Macarthur D (eds.), “Naturalism and Normativity“, Columbia Univ. Press, Chichester, UK, 2010; d) Fischer E, Collins J (eds.), “Experimental Philosophy, Rationalism, and Naturalism. Rethinking Philosophical Method“, Routledge, Abingdon, UK, 2015; e) Flanagan O, “Varieties of Naturalism“, in “The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science” (ed. P Clayton), Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2008; f) Galparsoro JI, Cordero A (eds.), “Reflections on Naturalism“, Sense Pub. Rotterdam, Netherlands, 2013; g) Gasser G (ed.), “How Successful is Naturalism?“, Ontos Verlag, Heusenstamm, Germany, 2007; h) Milkowski M, Talmont-Kaminski K (eds.), “Beyond Description: Naturalism and Normativity“, College Pub., London, UK, 2010; i) Nuccetelli S, Seay G (eds.), “Ethical Naturalism. Current Debates.”, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2012; j) Olafson FA, “Naturalism and the Human Condition. Against Scientism.”, Routledge, London, UK, 2001; k) Price H, “Naturalism without Mirrors“, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, USA, 2011; l) Ritchie J, “Understanding Naturalism“, Acumen Pub., Stocksfield, UK, 2008; m) Walsh DM (ed.), “Naturalism, Evolution and Mind“, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2001
  6. Wilson EO, “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge“, Chapter 11: Ethics and Religion, pp. 260, Vintage Books (Random House Pub.), New York, USA, 1999
  7. Vogd W, “Constructivism in Buddhism“, in “Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions” (eds. Runehov ALC, Oviedo L), Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2013
  8. a) Lenman J, Shemmer Y (eds.), “Constructivism in Practical Philosophy“, Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK, 2012; b) Pörksen B (ed.), “Schlüsselwerke des Konstruktivismus (Key works of Constructivism)”, 2nd ed., Springer VS, Wiesbaden, Germany, 2015 (in German); c) Bagnoli C, “Constructivism in Metaethics”, in “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (ed. EN Zalta), Fall Edition 2016
  9. Golinski J, “Making Natural Knowledge. Constructivism and the History of Science“, Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 1998
  10. Onuf NG, “Making Sense, Making Worlds. Constructivism in social theory and international relations“, Routledge, Abingdon, UK, 2013
  11. a) Berger PL, Luckmann T, “The Social Construction of Reality“, Anchor Books, New York, USA, 1966, b) Kukla A, “Social Constructivism and the Philosophy of Science“, Routledge, London, UK, 2000; c) Wilson DS, “Evolutionary Social Constructivism“, in “The Literary Animal. Evolution and the Nature of Narrative” (eds. J Gottschall, DS Wilson), pp.20, Northwestern Univ. Press, Evanston, USA, 2005
  12. Mallon R, “Naturalistic Approaches to Social Construction”, in “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (ed. EN Zalta), Winter Edition 2014, available from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/social-construction-naturalistic/ (accessed July 24th 2016)
  13. Moeller HG, “The Philosophy of the Daodejing“, Columbia Univ. Press, New York, USA, 2006
  14. a) Gershenson C, Aerts D, Edmonds B (eds.), “Worldviews, Science and Us: Philosophy and Complexity“, World Scientific Pub., Singapore, 2007; b) Gregersen NH, “Complexity“, in “Encyclopedia of Science and Religion” (ed. JWV van Huyssteen), Macmillan, New York, USA, 2003
  15. Bronkhorst J, “Karma and Teleology. A Problem and its solutions in Indian Philosophy“, Studia Philologica Monograph series, Tokyo, Japan, 2000
  16. for example: Full G, “Education in Buddhism“, in “Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions” (eds. Runehov ALC, Oviedo L), Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2013
  17. Overview: Weir TH (ed.), “ Science, Philosophy, Religion, and the History of a Worldview“, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, USA, 2012
  18. Vimal RLP, “Buddhism and Dual-Aspect Monism“, available from https://www.academia.edu/4183378/Buddhism_and_Dual-Aspect_Monism, 2013
  19. a) Fatone V, “The Philosophy of Nagarjuna“, Motilal Banarsidass Pub., Delhi, India, 1991; b) Burton D, “Emptiness Appraised. A Critical Study of Nagarjuna’s Philosophy“, Motilal Banarsidass Pub., Delhi, India, 1999; c) Tuck AP, “Comparative Philosophy and the Philosophy of Scholarship. On the Western Interpretation of Nagarjuna“, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, USA, 1990; d) Westerhoff J, “Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka. A Philosophical Introduction“, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, USA, 2009
  20. Smuts JC, “Holism and Evolution“, Macmillan, London, UK, 1926
  21. Procacci S, “Holism: Some Historical Aspect“, in “Determinism, Holism, and Complexity” (eds. V Benci, P Cerrai, P Freguglia, G Israel, C Pellegrini), Kluwer Academic, New York, USA, 2003
  22. a) Edmonds B, “Pragmatic Holism (or Pragmatic Reductionism)“, Foundations of Science 1999, 4, pp.57; b) Esfeld M, “Holism in Philosophy of Mind and Philosophy of Physics“, Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2001; c) Esfeld M, “Physicalism and Ontological Holism“, Metaphilosophy 1999, 30(4), pp.319; d) Pigliucci M, “Between holism and reductionism: a philosophical primer on emergence“, Biol. J. of Linnean Soc. 2013, 112(2), pp.242; e) White M, “A Philosophy of Culture: The Scope of Holistic Pragmatism“, Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, USA, 2002
  23. Tonietti TM, “Towards a History of Complexity. A Comparison between Europe and China“, in “Determinism, Holism, and Complexity” (eds. V Benci, P Cerrai, P Freguglia, G Israel, C Pellegrini), Kluwer Academic, New York, USA, 2003
  24. McShane K, “Individualist Biocentrism vs. Holism Revisited“, The Ethics Forum 2014, 9(2), pp.130
  25. a) Hookway C, “Pragmatism”, in “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (ed. EN Zalta), Summer Edition 2016, available from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pragmatism/ (accessed July 24th 2016); b) Dewey J, “The quest for certainty“, in “John Dewey: The later works (Vol. 4)” (ed. JA Boydston), Illinois Univ. Press, Carbondale/Edwardsville, USA, 1984/1929; c) Pihlström S, “Neopragmatism“, in “Encyclopedia of Sciences and Religions” (eds. Runehov ALC, Oviedo L), Springer, Dordrecht, Netherlands, 2013
  26. a) Fine A, “The Natural Ontological Attitude“, in “Scientific Realism” (ed. J Leplin), University of California Press, Berkeley, USA, 1984; b) Fine A, “And Not Antirealism Either“, Nous 18, p.51-65, 1984
  27. Fine A, “The Shaky Game: Einstein Realism and the Quantum Theory“, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA, 1996
  28. Adorjan MC, Kelly BW, “Pragmatism and ‘Engaged’ Buddhism. Working toward peace and a Philosophy of action“, J. Sociol. Self-Knowl. 2008, 6(3), pp.37
  29. Bhatt SR, Mehrotra A, “Buddhist Epistemology“, Greenwood Press, London, UK, 2000
  30. Gyeltsen GT, “Mirror of Wisdom. Teachings on Emptiness“, Thubten Dhargye Ling Pub., Long Beach, USA, 2000
  31. Thakchoe S, “The Theory of Two Truths in India“, in “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (ed. EN Zalta), Summer Edition 2011, available from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/twotruths-india/, accessed 11.4.2016