Bare necessities

In an earlier letter I wrote about the steps of development, from body-centeredness to mental advancements to spirituality. Today, I’d like to elaborate on a similar yet slightly different model, inspired by Maslow’s pyramid of needs. He distinguishes three levels of human needs, manifested in 5 steps of particular interests. The “basic needs” are the most fundamental physiological needs (enough food and water, sufficient warmth and the chance to rest) and safety needs (being free from harm and danger). Then, there are psychological needs such as belongingness and love (having relationships, family, friends) and esteem needs (feeling productive and being merited for ones accomplishments). Finally, people have self-fulfilment or self-actualisation needs (having hobbies, being creative, expressing and satisfying one’s inner states).

maslowpyramid

This pyramid can be “read” in various ways. First, the suggested hierarchy may be understood as an order of development of both human civilisation as a whole and individual human beings in particular. Non-human animals and our closest evolutionary ancestors are driven by their physiological needs, and to a lesser extent by safety needs. When early humans as conscious and self-aware beings formed clans and rudimentary societies (in contrast to non-aware social animals like bees, ants or fish swarms), the emotional bonds among clan and family members made them realise love needs. When the survival and well-being of a society (or clan, or family) depends on the activity level and its success and efficiency of each individual, and when successful and efficient activity was merited, the psychological need of prestige and esteem supported the motivation to actively contribute to social life and to increasing life quality. When all this is taken care of and there is still time left, then there is room for self-actualisation in the form of creative and artful activities – the birth of human culture. On the individual level, the basic needs (food, sleep) are the first expressed ones, along with security and safety needs. When the newborn baby feels well-taken care of, it starts forming bonds with the caretakers and love-givers. When getting socially active, needs of confirmation and rewards are expressed, and from a certain age on, Kids feel the desire to express themselves according to their skills in a meaningful way.

A second reading is the relation between those needs and the granting of human rights. The more basic a need the more we are inclined to grant the satisfaction of that need as a “human right”. It is important to distinguish negative rights (the right of freedom from something) from positive rights (the right of freedom to something). From my understanding, Maslow’s pyramid implies that from top to bottom the “freedom from” rights increase in significance and importance. Everybody might agree that people should have the right of freedom from being blocked from access to food, warmth and sleep. But not everybody agrees that people have a right of being loved or a right of having a job or a right of committing to a passionate hobby (or, strictly speaking, in terms of negative rights: the right of freedom from being blocked from access to it). The positive rights, in contrast, increase from bottom to top: People are granted the right of freedom to choose their hobby, their favourite music, their religion or their job. Usually, people are also free to choose their friends and partner (not the parents and siblings, though). However, in case of the basic needs, they are usually not spoken of in connection with terms of freedom of choice. It appears plausible, however, to understand the physiological and safety needs as “more urgent” than, for example the need to have a hobby or a job. This hierarchy is also mirrored in international agreements on human rights protection and manifested in actual law-and-order systems. When imprisoning criminals, their right of freedom to choose their activities, their destinations or their social surrounding is taken from them (so to say), but even in a prison it must be ensured – according to common sense – that they have enough to eat, a place to sleep safely and that they are not tortured or humiliated. On a less “political” but more “familiar” level, we might make the example of parents that bar their 10-year-old daughter from having a tattoo with the argument that her safety (from harmful health effects of the carcinogenic ink) outweighs her freedom of self-actualisation (which, as she believes, having a tattoo is part of). Here, it is also obvious that from bottom to top the number of options to choose from are increasing immensely. On the basic level, we simply have to eat, sleep and stay away from unhealthy environmental conditions. It is also clear what safety and security imply. The ways to serve the need of friendship and love are much more manifold, not to speak of the choices for esteem and self-fulfilment needs.

Third, there is an ethical reading in the pyramid – even though I wonder if Maslow or others who exploit this illustration would think of it in this way. Ethics as the attempt to find solutions for conflicts and problems that occur in the inter-sphere between individual people, societies and cultures is concerned with strategies of argumentation that can convince parties of the rightness or wrongness of certain viewpoints, decisions and/or actions. People have different interests, desires and preferences. When these collide, a solution is needed as an orientation for what would be a proper way to proceed. Commonly, people agree that “my rights end where your rights start”, but that is often too simplistic and not helpful for many conflict cases. This pyramid may serve as an orientation for a hierarchy of rights. When two need-based rights collide, the one further down in the pyramid is to be prioritised over the one further up. When a politician’s interest in power (as a form of prestige) and votes leads him to making decisions that are undermining the social stability of his country (like Trump in USA), it is unethical. When I neglect my children’s need to spend quality time with their father because I am more interested in my job or my hobby, it is unethical. This reading is connected to the second reading on rights: Limiting someone’s options for self-fulfilment is less ethically problematic than limiting someone’s options for seeking safety. When I prohibit a certain hobby you have many alternatives to choose from. But when I mistreat you or don’t care for you, you can’t just choose another family. On the socio-political level, when a legislation prohibits smoking in public places (as in Germany) some people complain, but it is not a big problem. When a legislation prohibits homosexual relationships (as in Russia), thus limiting the satisfaction of relationship needs for a significant group of the population, it is ethically highly questionable. When a legislation is not putting sufficient energy into the social balance (as in Myanmar, not governing the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims), it is losing its justification. When a legislation is not even trying to feed its population (as in North Korea), this legislation is better put out of power (forcefully, if necessary) since this is clearly a violation of human rights.

Inspired by Maslow’s pyramid (that makes good sense to me), I thought about an additional or even supplementary pyramid of necessities for life quality. The pyramid of needs doesn’t say anything about the sources for the satisfaction of those needs. What must be given for a certain life quality? How can that be prioritised or hierarchised in order to come to insights that can serve as orientations for actions and decisions (such as the “human rights” approach based on the hierarchy of needs)? Here is the result of my reflections:

mehlichpyramid

The basic necessity that is needed for survival is environmental stability. Embedded into an ecosystem, human beings can’t survive without it. If the fine-tuned environmental balance is disrupted, the whole system will be affected, for example through changes in biodiversity, food chains, climate, chemical constitution of the atmosphere, etc. Environmental health is the basis for our food sources, for access to fresh water, for breathable air and the ecological niche of the human race. All anthropogenic activity (including system formation such as society, culture, economy, money, etc.) is dependent on it and, therefore, secondary to it. Second, human needs can only be satisfied when there is a certain level of social stability. In extreme cases (war, riots, anarchy, violence), this can affect the survival chances. In a more moderate sense, political stability provides autonomy and grants rights to the citizen that it is governing, thus enabling integrity. Here, integrity means inviolacy and the ability to act at all. However, it gradually (in the pyramid upwards) takes up the meaning of righteousness (ethical integrity) when the levels further down are taken care of. The third level that corresponds to Maslow’s belongingness and love needs is labelled ethical stability. With this, I mean an atmosphere of trust and co-operation among family members, neighbours, colleagues and peers (those in direct vicinity of one’s life). Only in that kind of surrounding can people start building close ties and rely on each other, increasing each others’ life quality by mutual support and collaboration. Only such a society is able to establish a system that offers livelihood options. This might be the most critical and debatable part of my pyramid. It implies that – as soon as a society reaches a certain level of integral peace and co-operation, people will feel the desire to act as parts of this society, bringing in their skills and abilities. They do that, as I believe, out of self-motivation and not because the social system forces them to. Moreover, it is not clear to everyone why economic needs play a role in this fourth level rather than on the first level (providing food, housing, clothes, etc.). The economic system we have, arisen from a functionally differentiated society (to use Niklas Luhmann’s term), dictates a lifestyle of shared competences in various types of jobs. Only in this kind of system depends the daily supply of food, housing, etc. on the financial income from one’s job (livelihood). This is man-made and not a universal law – it could be different. That’s why the basic needs (or here: the basic necessities) have, in principle, nothing to do with the economic system that we established. Having a job is only a necessity because we as a society chose to live like that. This fourth level in my pyramid is rather referring to livelihood options as a multitude of ways to unleash one’s productivity potentials because that is what we naturally fill our lives with when the lower three levels are secured. When survival is certain and the personal integrity secured, we start being concerned about our identity. We define ourselves through our social ties with family, friends and peers, but also – and maybe predominantly – through our social roles as competent experts in a particular field of skills or knowledge. Ultimately, when there is sufficient capacity and time for it, we form habits of thought or action that agglomerate to what we call culture. People use their creativity and intellect to engage with art, philosophy and spirituality. They choose hobbies (“spare time activities”) and fill leisure time with joyful and pleasurable endeavours. Some of those are part of the identity formation mechanisms, others are simply a “luxury” in the sense of “they are not really necessary for our life”. However, in any case, it is usually those aspects of life that give us the feeling that it is worth living for.

Same as for the needs pyramid, also the necessity pyramid can be understood as a development description, analogue to the one given above. More interesting – and the main reason why I think this way of putting it produces further insights – are the political and ethical dimensions in it. In both fields (politics and ethics) we asks “What shall we do?”. When taking this pyramid as a decision guideline, the answer is: “Start at the bottom, fix the problems, and work your way up!”. In reality, however, we observe trends that proceed in the opposite direction. Governments are eagerly promoting industrial aims for the sake of job creation and material wealth while resources and energy demands ruin the environment and the eco-system. The climate changes in an accelerated fashion under the influence of human activity, but important decision-makers and consumers seem not to care due to the conveniences they desire on the 5th level (self-fulfilment needs and cultural necessities). Religious and societal conflicts dominate the News (for example islamistic terrorism, racism or homophobia, unemployment rate) while the serious global problems arising from atmosphere warming, pollution and species extinction are marginalised and only peripherally brought to people’s awareness, at least not as an “urgent issue”, not to speak of one that is wholeheartedly worked on.

I suggest that crimes are punished on the basis of this pyramid. Environmental destruction and pollution (for example by corporations or shipping companies) as the worst possible crimes are punished with lifelong imprisonment. Terrorism, genocide and tyranny are punished accordingly. Corruption, brainwashing through media or educational curricula, all forms of fascism and discrimination might fall into that same category when they threaten the social stability. The next level are crimes that undermine the ethical integrity of the society: intriguing, fraud, betrayal, abuse, harassment, etc. Stealing money (no matter how much) or other commodities, however, is not a big deal since it is motivated by greed and avarice – character traits that mostly the criminal himself is suffering from, as such already punished. These people need help, not punishment. Crimes in the art/culture realm are hardly possible, then. Copyright violations (for example by downloading music and movies illegally) are a bagatelle compared to crimes that target the more fundamental necessities of human life.

There are two fields of human interest that I’d like to comment on in view of these pyramids: education and technology. Where in these pyramids is education? Some might say it is the guarantor of social stability, therefore it is something that should be granted as a right, and something that the international community should eagerly work on to provide to each and every human on this planet. Others argue that it is only useful to serve the need of esteem or the necessity of livelihood, respectively. It is for identity formation rather than for personal and social integrity. I agree with the former viewpoint: There can’t be integrity, neither personal nor ethical nor societal, without education (at least reading, writing and basic mathematics). A lot of social instability around the globe arises from the immaturity of wide parts of the population due to a lack of education. Educated people will be more free from the despotism of leaders (political, economic, ideological, etc.), and more willing to develop the social conditions to the better (whatever that means). They will be able to secure the satisfaction of basic needs and create capacities to satisfy also the psychological needs and identity-relevant necessities. Moreover, the right education will support environmental protection, sustainable livelihood and economy, and more responsible consumerism and lifestyle practices.

This brings me to reflections on technology. Basically, I (alongside many scholars in Philosophy of Technology) regard the creation and usage of technology as the result of needs and desires. People invent and apply artefacts in order to make their life easier. The oldest known tools (if understood as technology, as I do) helped their users to ensure a sufficient supply of food, clothes, housing and warmth. Still today, many branches of technology are serving purposes of survival, be it for food production, medical technology, housing, protection from natural forces, etc. Other items serve social purposes, for example transportation systems or mass media. Relationship needs are addressed in various forms of communication technology, but also indirectly in the form of making work processes less time-consuming, thus enabling more time with loved ones and for socialising. Technical artefacts enable many new forms of jobs and ways to be a productive member of a community, for example scientists and engineers. Moreover, technological solutions are strongly interwoven into cultural practices, arts, entertainment, and alike. However, at the same time, technology also has negative impact on all levels of human needs and necessities: technology-caused environmental destruction and pollution, social imbalances due to unjust distribution of access to technology-induced wealth, interpersonal and individual conflicts arising from misuse of technology, limitations of livelihood options due to replacement of human workforce by technological solutions, and personal numbness and blunting as a consequence of mindless consumption and application of “cold” technology. In technology assessment, negative and positive effects of technological progress, often referred to as “risks and benefits” are analysed and evaluated according to certain parameters. In the same fashion as I categorised the heaviness of crimes, I suggest to evaluate technology on the basis of my pyramid of necessities: In the first instance, technology must be “environmentally friendly”, that means its design, production, implementation and application must not interfere with the environmental integrity and balance. If it does, no matter how useful it is in serving needs of the upper levels, refrain from it! In the second instance, it should be ensured that it serves social stability by promoting justice and fairness through its general availability and non-discriminatory effects. Then we can start asking in which way it affects people’s life habits (interaction within families, among friends, with colleagues) and people’s options to choose doing anything meaningful in their life. Then – and only then – may we take into account all those intended purposes and anticipated effects that the technology in focus has on the amenities of human daily life. There is a lot of technology (in the widest sense) currently firmly implemented in our daily life that would fail this assessment: individual auto-mobility (cars and motorcycles), cosmetics, agricultural techniques (especially meat production), energy production from fossil fuels, just to name a few examples.

Printing and Culture

In the Companion to the Philosophy of Technology (edited by J.K. Berg Olsen, S.A. Pedersen and V.F. Hendricks in 2009), in chapter 3 (“Western Technology”) by Keld Nielsen, I stumbled across this statement:

One [novelty] was Johannes Gutenberg’s development around 1450 of printing with movable type. A somewhat similar technique had much earlier been used in Korea but apparently without the significant impact on cultural and technical development that can be traced in Europe.

This made me think about the definition of cultural development and progress. Maybe Dr. Nielsen simply doesn’t know anything about the history of Korea. Then he doesn’t know that – while Europe was still drenched in mud, disease, crime and primitivity – Korea’s society in the Goryeo dynasty (고려국, 高麗國) that arose from the later Silla (신라, 新羅) period was well advanced in terms of education, technology, social order and balance, hygiene, life comfort, etc. Silla’s capital Gyeongju (경주, 慶州), still a flourishing cultural and infrastructural center in Goryeo times, with then (12th century BC) estimated 1 million inhabitants was the fourth largest city in the world (after Constantinople (now Istanbul), Baghdad and Chang’An), indicating a progressive well-organised urban society. During these centuries, Buddhist worldview and Confucian social ideals entered Korea as the translated texts became available and spread widely. Certainly, the invention of metal movable type printing had a large impact on the culture of Korea.

Koreanskt trätryckblock från 1800-talet

How come, then, that Western scholars don’t regard this as advanced? Because they didn’t consecutively invent the steam machine, steal production, capitalism and football? Historically, it needs to be noted that Goryeo fell to the Mongols after decades of invasions and destruction, followed by years of Japanese pillages. Technological progress appears quite difficult under these circumstances. But I also see another important point. I believe it would be wrong to judge the advancement of a culture by its technological progress alone. Same as in the European realm Gutenberg’s press supported the access of the Bible to everybody, leading to a spread of Luther’s new Protestantism, Korea’s population gained access to Buddhist scriptures, Confucian ideology and other ancient Asian texts. But while – according to Max Weber, amongst others – the European Protestantism ultimately led to capitalism with all its pathological symptoms (environmental destruction, greed, psychological illnesses, social coldness, etc.), the influence of Asian schools of thought, most notably Buddhism, probably led to an understanding of harmony and balance, both individually (the inner sphere) and on the social level, that facilitated and supported a lifestyle that was much more oriented towards sustainability, integrity, well-being (rather than “having”, speaking with Erich Fromm) and propriety. Isn’t “the highest form of culture” one in which its members understand what is at stake and refrain from heading straight into disaster? In this light, Nielsen’s statement is simply arrogant, ignoring that European history is dominated by dark ages to an extent that Korea, fortunately, didn’t have to face. Who brought air-polluting fossil fuel industry over this planet? Who pushed chemical progress towards substances that destroyed the ozone layer? Who created a society based on greed, competition and materialism? Certainly not the Koreans (but, admittedly, they caught up impressively in the past two decades…)! The point I am trying to make is that “culture” and its level of development is much more complex than the suggested factors (technology) indicate. At the time that Korean engineers invented printing with movable metal types, the Korean society flourished and was way ahead of the European! Gutenberg’s press a few centuries later was embedded into an entirely different historical context and, arguably, initiated a “revolution” that was far from being a “blessing” to the Western world! I suggest that it can be regarded as Korea’s great achievement that its culture prevented capitalism and environmental destruction (at least until the West influenced it). What do you say, Mr. Nielsen?

Cosmethics

Many of the decisions we make in our daily lives are – in one way or another – affecting other people, sometimes those around us, sometimes the whole society or mankind, sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. In this respect, many of our decisions have an ethical dimension, because what we judge to be good or right might be evaluated and viewed differently by others. The decision to skip brushing teeth before going to bed, or our choice of TV channel, appear to be non-ethical issues, but even for these cases we can construct examples in which they are, actually, morally relevant – for example, when I as your parent am responsible for your hygiene habits and should act as a positive idol not going to bed without brushing teeth, or when I stupify myself with dumb TV shows and become a burden for society. One very obviously ethical element of our daily lives is the consumption of industrial goods, because it clearly affects the environment, workers, the economy, the society at large, and also ourselves. However, it happens often that we are not aware of the ethical pitfalls connected to consuming a certain product or product category because the processes related to it are hidden. Not only since Kant do we know that ought implies can. We can claim morally sound choices only from those who know what implications consumption has. Therefore, I tell you here and now what’s wrong with cosmetics so that you can never claim you “didn’t know“!

You are a girl. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, you will be exposed to stereotyping and gender roles, even if we leave Taiwan and move to Germany. Your Mom doesn’t use make-up or perfumes and only a very small set of cosmetics, but when you go to Kindergarten, to school or simply watch (and smell) people in public, you will find that many women paint their faces and smell like botanical gardens. That is their choice, even though many of them will refer to social pressure, like in Japan, where women can lose their jobs if they appear at their workplace without make-up. Some believe that women with make-up look “prettier”, which is clearly a brainwashing indoctrination from mass media and glossy magazines. But is it really just a personal choice and as such non-ethical?

animal-testing.jpg

Testing cosmetics on rabbit skin.

I see two problems with cosmetics. The first is the common practice to test each and every new ingredient and composition of a new cosmetic product on the skin of a test animal. The large variety of crèmes, powders, lotions, etc. that you find in the shops is grounded on millions of laboratory animals that are sacrificed for the flawlessness of your skin and the promise of eternal beauty. The second, from my point of view much more dramatic problem is this: One of the main ingredients in almost all cosmetics is palm oil. This is harvested from palm plantations in tropical countries, making it one of their major export products. I have visited the jungle in Malaysia and was shocked to see that huge areas are gone and substituted by oil palms as far as the eye can see. The native eco-system is gone forever. In Indonesia, jungle is burned down illegally to make space for more oil palm plantations, causing horrible air pollution in a huge area and destroying the habitat of apes and other threatened animals that will go extinct. Millions of women in mostly rich countries far away from the palm oil producing countries have a demand that creates a market which influences the strategies and decisions of profit-oriented companies and their business practices. In this environment of greed and (among the local farmers) existential fears, the eco-system and its vulnerable elements (jungle, apes, atmosphere) have no lobby.

orangutan

Homeless Orang Utan

A common strategy in ethical reasoning for justification is the comparison of means and ends. Here, sacrificing laboratory animals and destroying the eco-system are means that serve the end of hygiene, skin care and appearing prettier. I will not go deeper into describing what is the problem with these means. The question is: are they justified by the ends? Hygiene is very closely linked to health. Modern hygiene standards are certainly the major reason for our high quality of life and long life expectancy. However, it is clear that the vast majority of cosmetics is not necessary for the establishment of good health (as, for example, the choice of a certain lifestyle with healthy food, sufficient movement, abstinence from drugs, etc. is). The main reasons for the decision to apply cosmetic products are convenience, ignorance and fear. Putting a crème on in order to deal with itchy skin is much easier than moving into a healthier environment (e.g. out of the polluted city into a cleaner green area) or changing the diet (eliminating all the unhealthy food). Ignorance is a broader case. It refers to a high susceptibility for cosmetics consumption due to the low level of knowledge about its implications, but also the unawareness for the social mechanisms that trigger the choice to buy and apply those products. This brings me to the aspect of fear: I believe, the main reason for women to use cosmetics (esp. make-up) is their attachment to superficial prettiness (not even beauty!), to the promise of eternal youth and their search for admiration and appreciation through outer appearance – formed, supported and sustained by role identifications, assumed expectations (by superficial men), mass media, and social environment (I read in a German article that “women want women to look pretty by wearing make-up. Most men don’t care or don’t like too much make-up.”). This makes it a perfect example for Buddha’s teaching of the “three mind poisons” (ignorance, attachment, resistance) as the source of suffering. Attachment to superficial characteristics (prettiness), resistance against the unavoidable (aging), ignorance of these decision factors and their implications. Moreover, it is even highly debatable whether this proclaimed beauty ideal (“bigger eyes” through eye make-up, whiter skin through powder, red lips with lipsticks, etc.) is justified by anything! The ethical problem with this form of suffering is that the price for this distorted mindset is the massive destruction of natural habitats, the extinction of species and a fatal disruption of the eco-system. it might sound harsh, but I want you to remember that whenever you smear anything with palm oil into your face just to wash it off again a few hours later, soothing your irritated skin with another crème containing… yeah… palm oil!

Ethics and Psychology of Technology

Today, I’d like to elaborate a bit on my professional field, science and technology assessment. There is no doubt that these two domains have a massive impact on our lives. Not only does scientific investigation generate empirical knowledge of physical features of the world and of its systems (for example society, environment, human psyche), and not only does technology development create technical artefacts and other products, the ubiquitous scientific and technological mission also influences the way people perceive the world and think of the lifeworld experiences they make. Scientific realism and physical reductionism, but also the vision that everything that one could imagine and desire is technically feasible and “engineerable” – including emotional, abstract or normative entities like love, happiness, politics, etc. – dominates our age. For many years (roughly up to the 1960s in Europe and USA, in Asia still ongoing), positivism was the driving paradigm of modernism: as long as we put sufficient efforts into something, we can achieve everything and will also always be able to correct negative effects into beneficial ones! Just let science and technology do! In terms of my tree of knowledge: Science and technology are not only branches in the tree, they also create new channels of meaning-construction through which other branches (like politics, economy, culture) are fed. Here are a few thoughts on that.

A first necessary clarification must be made on the relation between science and technology. The common belief is that science comes first and produces the necessary knowledge that – in the next step – is applied and exploited for the design and engineering of technical artefacts. This view is contested by empirical research on the history of S&T. The steam machine, for example, was developed by craftsmen (James Watt, Thomas Newcomen) who had no background in physics or other sciences. The practical problems and flaws of the steam machine that occurred in the years after its invention triggered a more systematic scientific study of thermodynamics and mechanics. In this respect, we can say, a technological challenge that engineers and craftsmen faced was taken up by scientist in order to help solving it. Technology leaps ahead science in most of the cases. Moreover, undoubtedly, man created artefacts long before the elaboration of a scientific methodology.

Then, there was the idea that technological progress is somehow inevitable and unstoppable. Early philosophers of technology formulated the paradigm of technological determinism according to which technological progress follows predestined courses and shapes society. Common examples (citing Karl Marx) are the windmill bringing about the feudal system and the steam mill inducing the transition to an industrial society. Around the 1960s, this paradigm shifted dramatically. Facilitated by the great system thinkers Niklas Luhmann, Jürgen Habermas, Thomas Kuhn and others, supported by pragmatists (e.g. James Dewey), phenomenologists (e.g. Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger) and the early constructivists (here, especially, Ludwik Fleck, Gregory Bateson, Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, Paul Watzlawick, and others), the new predominant model of social constructivism (in America often termed “constructionism”) draws a picture of society shaping technological progress according to its needs, demands and desires. This fits well with the tree of knowledge idea: In the time after the second world war, people’s fears and concerns (e.g. the threat from nuclear weapons) were no longer satisfyingly soothed by politics or religion, so they sought meaning in technology as major factor to improve the quality of life. Technological artefacts were produced as a response to social needs (for example by economic market thinking and profit prospects), not because “it was possible”. At the same time – in face of nuclear threat and increasing environmental destruction – technological development and its risks and uncertainties moved more and more into the focus of social sciences. Since the deterministic thinking (“There’s nothing we can do about it, anyway!”) was replaced by constructivist thinking (“We can intervene in the construction process!”), there was big optimism that technology governance can influence the risk-benefit balance in favour of the (intended) positive outcome. This was the time that the US government installed the “Office of Technology Assessment” and, a bit later, European countries established similar institutions.

The question at that time (around the 1960s, 70s) looking at the past was: “How could we do Science and Technology without social sciences?!”. 40 years later (which is now) the technology assessors ask themselves “How could we do Science, Technology and Society (STS) studies without Ethics?!”. It was around the 1990s and early 2000s, significantly triggered by the rise of biotechnology and nanotechnology, that many disciplines (the sciences themselves, sociology, politics, philosophy, but also the public) recognised the need for more profound reflection on ethical issues of S&T. The widespread, irrational, but in parts aggressive opposition of the public against genetic engineering surprised the enactors of this S&T field, and left them hamstrung. Great prospects (envisioned by the scientists, medical practitioners, politicians) were juxtaposed with great moral challenges and imagined threats for humankind. The same can be said for nanotechnology, a field in which the major concern arises from “unclear risks” (expecting risks without knowing what the particular risks can be, how strong they impact and who is exposed). The picture of “value-free science” and “neutral technology” had to be given up for good. The challenge of established and unquestioned normative frameworks – and also ways of meaning-construction – by technological progress led to normative uncertainty and gave rise to a call for ethical analysis, since the common tools and reasoning strategies proved inefficient in light of conflict potentials. This is aptly illustrated in a statement by Glenn McGee (in his essay Pragmatic epistemology and the activity of bioethics., in “Pragmatist ethics for a technological culture”, edited by Jozef Keulartz, Michiel Korthals, Maartje Schermer, and Tsjalling Swierstra, Springer, 2002, p.112):

[We] really are only able to, and need to, question our basic assumptions in the moment when we collide with an element of the complexity of our life, a tear in the routine of experience that requires us to rethink things in order that we might progress along our current (or any other alternate) course.

New forms of technology assessment attempted to include the public in decision-making on S&T development (participatory TA), or to accompany progress from the beginning with studies on ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) (e.g. constructive TA). Commissions on particular S&T topics in the established parliamentary TA institutions involved more and more ethics experts (“ethicists”) besides the technical, political, economic and social experts. A problem of the early years of ethical evaluation of S&T was the “speculative” character of S&T ethics, and the expert-driven, very intellectual-academic “top down” approach the experts preferred (from ethical theory down to particular problems). Meanwhile, however, a whole set of useful and valuable methodologies and approaches for the ethical assessment of S&T has been developed (for example by experienced scholars in the field such as Armin Grunwald, Arie Rip, Ortwin Renn, Tsjalling Swierstra, Alfred Nordmann, and others). Again, constructivism and pragmatism had a major impact on the (self-)understanding of ethics in S&T domains: It is only worth the efforts when it comes to practicable, viable, plausible, down-to-earth solutions. The key for the success of it is interdisciplinarity: Scientists and practitioners engage in collaborative discourse with social scientists, ethicists, philosophers and political decision-makers, and sometimes with representatives of the “wider public” (often NGOs, or other affected interest groups). The difficulties that arise from the wide variety of expectations and viewpoints can again be illustrated by the tree of knowledge: All these stakeholders tend to use different channels for meaning-construction. In order to get closer to what Habermas and Apel called ideal discourse – one in which all participants can contribute arguments without any power hierarchies, one in which the best argument wins and not the most popular – it could be useful to reconstruct arguments according to this scheme: How did a discourse participant construct meaning? What is the root (fear? expertise? emotion? selfish greed?)? What is the argumentative channel (inconsiderate default setting? (religious) dogmatism? empirical reason? profit thinking?)?

This point brings me – after describing past and presence of S&T assessment – to a future vision: Maybe in 20 or 30 years from now, maybe sooner, maybe later, we will look back at this time and think “How could we assess ethical and social implications of science and technology without psychology?!”. Isn’t the understanding of how we construct meaning a field for psychological research rather than for ethics (or philosophy in general) or social sciences? As far as I can see it, the specific sub-discipline of social psychology is already implemented in STS, but I am thinking of something different. Let me explain with an example from the field of media ethics: It is commonly accepted that ethical issues in media have to be separated into a “producer ethics” (What is ethically acceptable concerning the production and dissemination of media content?) and a “consumer ethics” (What constitutes “ethically acceptable” consumption of media content and usage of media infrastructure?). So far, technology ethics, in this respect, focussed almost exclusively on “producer ethics”, taking “the public”, “the society” or “the citizen” as a grey black-boxed group. Even more, it seems to me that many technology assessors have a “responsible, interested, engaged citizen” in mind when reflecting on public participation in S&T policy. Is that tenable? Isn’t the majority of society members (with variances between different countries, of course) selfish, disinterested, lazy, uninformed, dumb people? Example: A citizen panel providing participation opportunity in decision-making on selecting radioactive waste disposal sites – a topic with presumably big conflict potential – for local citizen attracted 8 (eight!) people (and only with the incentive for getting paid for their participation) in an urban catchment of 200,000 inhabitants in England. Not to speak of the highly anti-intellectual, ill-informed, religiously biased and regressive public policy discourses observed in the USA, a country that is obviously full of fools (how else can it be explained that they elect Donald Trump to be their president?!)! The first “psychological” question is, therefore: What matters to the people and why? Are the experts’ estimations on what matters to the public always realistic and appropriate? However, a second psychological question appears much more important to me: What is the “consumer ethics” of technology? What makes people purchase, use or reject a certain technology (besides sociological answers to this question)? How do people construct meaning from the existence and availability of technological artefacts? Only with this question, for example, would it be possible to perform an assessment of smartphone technology. Imagine what this question would in return mean for the responsibility of technology producers: If it turns out that a technology supports undesirable psychological traits (addiction, emotional coldness, increasing social isolation, aggression, etc.), would it be advisable to refrain from the production and dissemination (which could be driven by profit expectation, knowing that people will buy it)? How paternalistic may S&T development be? Here might be a specific entry point for “Buddhist technology ethics”: Does the development support “suffering” in the sense that it feeds the mind poisons (esp. attachment, or greed), or should it be channelled in a way that it facilitates liberation from it? We will see. Currently, the psychological aspects of social construction of technology are dealt with in the same way that ethical issues have been treated for long: somehow in the background, without granting it the level of expertise that it deserves. It was believed that everybody can do ethics. In the face of intractable conflicts it turned out to be crucial, anyhow, to include professional ethical expertise. Currently, it is the psychological aspects that are given only a marginal importance. “Everybody can do psychology!” – Really? Maybe soon in the future we will include social, environmental and “cognitive” psychologists in our S&T assessments. I would welcome that!

tadisciplines

The inclusion of psychology might also help “grounding” and clarifying many philosophical and ethical positions on S&T issues. Take, for example, this statement by Jean-Pierre Dupuy in the “Companion to the Philosophy of Technology” (edited by Jan Kyrre Berg Olsen, Stig Andur Pedersen and Vincent F. Hendricks, Routledge, 2009, chapter 38, p.216):

Indeed, the metaphysics of the NBIC convergence dreams of overcoming once and for all every given that is a part of the human condition, especially the finiteness of a human life – its mortality and its beginning in birth.

These are great words, but is that really true? Probably we can assume that existential fears are the predominant drivers of most human activity, but it sounds a bit far-fetched to claim that the underlying motivation (“dream”) of Nano-Bio-Info-Cogno enactors is – in a conscious fashion – to overcome mortality. All the dedicated “transhumanists” are people outside the S&T development domain who just conclude from recent S&T trends that transhumanism is a goal worth achieving. However, deeper insights into these driving forces of S&T progress might be delivered rather by psychological disciplines than by sociology or philosophy.

Here are some books that serve as great “further reading” on this topic. At least, they recently inspired me to write this letter.

Mysticism, Religion, and Atheism

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

treeofreligions2-0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tree of Knowledge

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

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

meaningtree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Simple Letter on Complexity

I wrote a long letter to you because I had no time to write a short one.

This quote, probably first written by French philosopher Blaise Pascal in a letter to a friend (source: “Letters to a friend in the provence”, Letter No.16: “Jesuit Defamations”), can be taken as an “excuse” for my long letters to you. Do they always have to be that long, 4000 words or more, like academic essays? Well, we can say it negatively: Unfinished and deluded thoughts require more space than clear, finished, concluded thoughts. My elaborations are simply not “round”, yet. I just note down what comes to my mind. Look at other letters (for example other people’s blogs or facebook entries). Some post a photo, often a meme with a wise statement, and write a few reflections on it, straight to the point, simple, clear. However, to my defense, I have to say that the topics I choose to write about are simply not simple. It is impossible to reflect on Buddhist philosophy, constructivism, love, life, etc. by stating platitudes and simplistic prescriptions. The depth and complexity of life and other issues requires a certain degree of precision and a certain amount of information and knowledge. The only discipline that manages to say a lot without many words is poetry. But I am not a poet. I can’t create a whole big world of imagination and clear vision inside your mind with just a few words that induce emotions and atmospheres. Let’s see it positively: More words increase the chance that at least some of them make sense to you (or whoever reads or hears them). A good teacher will also explain a complicated issue in different ways in order to make sure that all types of learners (visual, auditive, kinesthetic, etc.) have a chance to understand it.

I am very critical with recent developments in our society: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other “social media” platforms promote a simplistic and dumb entertainment culture. People scroll through posts, photos and videos and pay attention to mostly visual triggers that promise short-term fun and simple food for the brain. More than 5 lines to read? “Go away with that!”. People have the same questions as ever since: “What’s this all about? Who am I and why? What shall I do?”. They expect answers in memes and platitudes, but are not willing to read through a meaningful essay or even a book. They watch cat videos and, at best, 10 minutes TED talks in which decades of research and insights are condensed into populist, easy to understand, narrowed-down, entertaining information. As an effect, people pre-form meaning and construct experience from it (superstitions, religious beliefs, dogmatism, scientism, etc.), instead of constructing meaning from experience. The rise of the “secular age” was a huge step forward from the “clerical age”, the dark age of religious delusion and uneducated incapable society. But now, in the “post-secular society” which we might call “information society”, people fall back into old patterns: too lazy to read, too hedonistic to challenge the intellect, too busy with profanities to spare time for actively searching for meaningful inspirations for increasing life quality.

answers

World constructions are complex. Talking about them requires complexity, too, if we don’t want to lose all their facets and richness out of sight. There is nothing wrong with entertainment and fun, but without learning and open-minded interestedness it makes you dull, in the same way as eager studying and narrow-minded intellectual focus without joy makes you frustrated and careworn. Both extremes are not desirable. However, I am firmly convinced that it is a good idea to encourage you to read books and to talk about insights and ideas, and to motivate your curiosity and interest in everything that is going on around you. There is never nothing going on. I hope, the complexity of the world is positively challenging and astonishing rather than frightening and scary for you. The generation of fools staring at screens and looking for simple answers (if asking at all) is already big enough. We need people who enjoy encountering the complex contemporary challenges of mankind and this planet and who are willing to acquire knowledge by reading through long texts. Seeing through this complexity is the first step towards a clearer (and therefore somehow “simpler”) mind, for your own life quality and that of the planet.

So, what about the initial quote? Now, there are two ways of interpreting it: First, it means that short, condensed, clear and yet deep texts need more reflection and more time to be written. In a very literal sense I have no time for that, next to my actual job and taking care of you. But I also don’t want to condense my thoughts but let them all out and bombard you with the full load of ideas. Second, in view of my statement about complexity and complex topics requiring a certain length, I also have no time to write “short” texts on meaningless or shallow things in the sense that it would be a waste of time. I’d rather sometimes spend more time on something meaningful than often a bit of time for something shallow. Someday you may decide whether you appreciate that or not.

Book recommendations:

J Kluger, “Simplexity – Why Simple Things Become Complex (And How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)“, Hyperion, 2009

V Benci, P Cerrai, P Freguglia, G Israel, C Pellegrini (eds.), “Determinism, Holism, and Complexity“, Kluwer Academic, 2003

C Gershenson, D Aerts, B Edmonds (eds.), “Worldviews, Science and Us: Philosophy and Complexity“, World Scientific Pub., 2007