Teaching at university in Taiwan

The semester is over. I was teaching a class entitled Science and Technology Ethics (original title as appearing in the course list: 善與義務:科學與科技倫理) at Tunghai University in Taichung (find the lecture script here, if you are interested). In one of the last classes I handed out evaluation sheets to let the students give me a feedback that I can use to improve my teaching and my class outline. I am very happy to receive a generally very positive feedback! Students pointed out that my classes are always well prepared, that I am always kind to the students and willing to answer questions, and that my way of presenting this philosophical topic (applied ethics though) is vivid, interesting and increasing their interest in this normative academic discipline. Of course, not all students liked my teaching style or found the class appealing, but the wide range of evaluations (some found the pace too slow, others too fast; some said I offered too much reading material, others wished to have more; some would like to have more interaction in class, others felt I waste time with class discussions (more on that later)) show me that I might have found a suitable middle way. On the other side, there have been a few rather negative comments that bother me a lot! In order to get them out of my head I want to write them down here (blogging as a therapy).

Before coming to my point, I’d like to explain the differences between the German and the Taiwanese education system, which is necessary for understanding why my German teaching approach clashes with the Taiwanese university culture. Here is an overview including the linguistic expressions that we use to describe the stages of education that kids and adolescents go through:

school

In Germany, children go to Kindergarten at the age of 3 (usually). Here, they mostly play or playfully learn very basic daily life skills like tying shoes, brushing teeth, handcrafts, and socialising. At the age of 6, school starts with 4 years primary (or elementary) school. After that, a kid (or better: the parents) have two options: continuing with a 6-year secondary school (Hauptschule, Realschule) that is finished after grade 10, or a 9-year secondary school (Gymnasium). Only the latter qualifies for studying at a university. The former qualifies for an apprenticeship (accompanied by vocational school, Berufsschule) for craftsmanship, service jobs, labour, all “non-academic” jobs. We refer only to these 10 or 13 years as school where we as Schüler (schoolchildren, or ‘pupils’ in BE) learn what teachers teach us. Only at university we are Studenten (students) and study something. I am aware that in English, especially in American English, study and student are used more generally for all ages, but in the German understanding, study (studieren) sounds very much like sitting down and delving into books and scripts until one gets profound knowledge of something or can even develop creative new insights from it. At school, we never really study, we just learn what the teacher tells us, for example in the form of homework or exercise questions from a textbook. But universities are not schools! They are academic research institutions with the task to educate the future generation of academics. There are no teachers (except for the departments that educate the future generation of teachers, maybe), but professors, researchers, and senior academics. Those giving chemistry lectures, for example, are not chemistry teachers, but chemical researchers and academic experts that have never learned in any formal way how to teach. Students, therefore, are not taken care of like at school, but have to organise their student life by themselves. They are expected to be interested in what they study, to voluntarily go to the library and get the necessary books, and to have a high motivation to sit down and study.

This is VERY different in Taiwan. Kids, here, even study Kindergarten, and when they are 6 they graduate from Kindergarten with a ceremony. Then, they study elementary, junior high, and senior high school. Almost every adolescent continues, then, with undergraduate courses at a college or university. All of these institutions are considered schools. That’s why people here think that I am a teacher. This environment (and linguistic understanding of it) has clear consequences on the study culture. Even at university, students expect to be taken care of like teenagers. They appear much more immature to me than their German peers. Moreover, whereas in Germany the choice of major is already the first step into the direction of the future profession, in Taiwan students can study something which has not necessarily anything to do with their future job. Most don’t even know what kind of career they would like to pursue. The only goal is getting the Bachelor degree, because many jobs – reportedly even bus driver and hairdresser – require a college degree. Therefore, students just study for passing the exams well to get good grades.

Back to my course. Even though it was associated with the philosophy department, it was open to all students of all majors. 39 students were registered for it. One third was philosophy students, another third language majors, and the last third from other majors like international business or sciences. Around 20 students have been present in all classes, some appeared occasionally, and 8-10 almost never showed up. I had 16 classes (each 100 minutes), but 2 of them were midterm and final exam. Since my Chinese is still too poor, I taught the class in English. I admit that this is truly a challenge for the Taiwanese students, but they all knew it from the beginning, so I may assume that they all judged themselves capable of attending an English class successfully, otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen it. In terms of teaching style, I planned to have a healthy mix of lecture and interactive discussion and/or group work. Yet, in the first classes, I sensed that it would be very difficult to gain anything meaningful in an efficient way from involving the students. When I asked questions, there was just no response (unless it was really just a simple brainstorming). Even when I handed out group tasks related to the class content we just talked about, some students had no clue what to do. In the later classes, I reduced the class activities in order not to waste valuable class time. This led to negative comments on the evaluation sheets. It was boring because I just kept lecturing. I should motivate the students more to participate. Some students also wrote clearly that this is not the teacher’s fault, but the unlucky and bad tradition among Taiwanese students not to open their mouths and not to use their brains.

Taiwanese students don’t want to use their brains!”. Since I worked as a postdoctoral fellow and then as an adjunct assistant professor at a Taiwanese university, I heard this statement very often, from senior professors, but also from students. Does it mean, I should adapt my teaching style and my expectations to this fact? Should I challenge them less but reduce the level? One student wrote:

Sometimes I feel the explanations are a bit too much. It would be nice to stay simple. Nowadays, simplicity seems to be a trend. To be honest, I’ve only read a few scripts. I’m not sure if I could grasp the meaning.

This is a university class! Complex matters like the ethical evaluation of scientific and technological development and their impact on society are not simple! My presentation slides for one class almost never exceeded 10 slides, and I always put simple graphic overviews and illustrations on them because I don’t like too much text on slides that I will say anyway. From my perspective, the class content is already as simple as possible! But sure, students that sleep or play with their smartphones in class miss the point, of course, and then find it difficult to grasp the meaning. It also means, obviously, that students expect that the teacher (even though university lecturers are not teachers) will refine and present all the content in entertaining and easy-to-swallow bits and portions. They won’t read more than 2 pages of lecture script, not to speak of going to the library and looking for any of the books I recommended throughout the course.

Among the questions on the evaluation questionnaire that required a rating on a scale from 1 (very good) to 6 (very bad/insufficient), one of the worst average ratings (2.8, still not super bad) was received by the question whether the student can see the usefulness of the class content for the future job. I tried hard to explain in every class how they can apply the strategies, concepts and thought patterns in their later jobs, whatever they will be. It seems to me, many students have no imagination of their future job life. It is too far from now for them. The following comment from a student’s evaluation sheet illustrates another phenomenon widely observed in Taiwan:

Overall, this is a course people can learn something from, but the practical usage of it is not clear to me. Some of the strategies taught in class are really helpful for critical thinking!”

Well, isn’t critical thinking a very practical usage for all kinds of activities? According to my wife (a former High school English teacher) and many other Taiwanese friends that I talked to, the Taiwanese education system doesn’t encourage critical thinking, but sometimes even punishes it. Possibly rooted in the times of martial law in which the Chinese Nationalists that ruled Taiwan (Kuomintang, KMT) wanted workers but no intellectuals, practical doing is much more appreciated than thinking which is considered a purely theoretical activity. It can be perfectly possible that my class impressed some students by showing them for the first time what it means to think critically (in case I may believe some comments like this from other students’ evaluation sheets). But for many, apparently, this is nothing in which they see value, and certainly no practical value. Even though this is a university class, I obviously have to assume that the students attending it are not in any way of the intellectual type but rather looking for instructions on how to perform particular work operations or how to finish tasks. But this is impossible in an applied ethics topic!

I will, of course, try harder to make the classes appealing for all the students, get them to participate actively, and to leave every class with the motivating feeling of having learned something useful. But I won’t change my idea of university classes, expecting (and imagining) students being interested in the class content, being ready to read topic-related articles or books, asking questions and thinking through the essence of my take-home messages. I won’t go with the low-level mainstream flow that students prefer. My class should be a challenge, only then would it be a good university class! I want students to learn how to think. If they refuse to do so, they shouldn’t be at a university at all, but get a labour job! But here I enter political terrain and better leave it to other people.

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My Misanthropy – 5. Anthropocentrism

5. Anthropocentrism

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.” – Agent Smith, The Matrix

At the age of 16, while working on a project for Jugend Forscht (Youth Researching, a German science competition for teenagers) in the biology lab of my school with two friends, I found a book in the small biology library: Theo Löbsack’s Versuch und Irrtum: Der Mensch – Fehlschlag der Natur (Trial and Error: Mankind – Failure of Nature, 1974, ISBN 9783570022603). In this book, the author – an anthropologist and science journalist – describes why mankind is NOT the summit of evolution. He claims that mankind is heading unstoppably towards its extinction, for the same reasons as the dinosaurs or the sabre-toothed tigers. The sabre-toothed tiger had teeth that were too large, specialised too much on a certain type of prey. For a while it was good, but as the world changed, this tiger species could not keep pace with this change, so he had to go extinct. The dinosaurs had too large bodies that could not adapt to the changing circumstances when it was necessary, so they also disappeared. And the same will happen to mankind, because the human brain developed into an excessive organ, too. The book features chapters about technological progress, about religion and ethics, about diseases and about human short-sightedness. In short: mankind stepped out of evolution by creating its own world, with high technology that people cannot control anymore. Mankind invented morals and ethics, inflicted onto people by powerful institutions like organised religion or political systems. The main adverse effect of it is that we can’t let fellow humans die. We save everyone! By this, mankind undermined important principles of evolution, thus avoiding the balancing effects of selection pressure, leading to genetic decay and vulnerability of health and immune system.

The book was in fresh and convincing contrast to the implausible nonsense we learned in religion classes and in the church classes that prepared for the Confirmation ceremony: Mankind as the crown of creation, God’s final masterpiece, equipped with ratio and reason, thus smarter than animals and superior to them. It never made sense to me! Not only is that entire God-story nothing but a bed-time fairytale, but also is the idea that humankind is superior to other elements of the biosphere highly flawed. For each and every ability that we have you will find an animal that is better at it. Our last resort was and is our cognitive and self-reflective capacity. In terms of human intelligence concepts, we are indeed smarter than animals since we have never seen a non-human animal solving math equations or flying to the moon and back. But what is intelligence? Obviously, the human brain developed into a state in which its output – enabling man to do impressive and creative things – threatens the future of its carrier and his/her offspring. We are not able to use our brain to secure our further existence. In contrast, with the help of our brains, we even put it at risk, unable to understand it and counter-act. A sustainable intelligence would, above all, ensure its survival, like ant or bee societies.

This worst form of ignorance – not admitting our humble position in the world fabric but believing strongly in the superiority and divinity of the human race – has devastating effects. Uprooted from the harmonious equilibrium of our ecological niche, human activity leads to a global disruption of environmental balance. Even worse, the ends, our motivations for all we do, serve avoidable, implausible, selfish desires, a craving for pleasure and well-being that greatly exceeds the necessities of survival and pleasant life. Selfish, in the context of mankind as a whole, doesn’t refer to individual selfishness of people, but to the widespread overestimation of human importance, significance and superiority. We may call that anthropocentrism. Human convenience, according to this view, may legitimately be weighed against environmental or ecological impact. A new tunnel that makes the train ride between two cities 30 minutes shorter justifies the destruction of natural habitat and landscapes. Producing electricity for our neon-light temples (malls, amusement parks, stadiums, etc.) and profit generators (factories for the production and dissemination of more and more goods) justifies the exploitation of Earth’s resources in an unsustainable manner, damaging the ecosphere and putting all life forms at risk. The industrial era is an unprecedented case of serving and increasing human suffering (in the Buddhist sense): We desire eternal life and freedom from unease, so we consume mindlessly everything that is offered to us, promising an increase in convenience and pleasure. Yet, today, more people than ever suffer from mental decay, psychological disorders, emotional instability and fears. Our destruction of the planet was even useless, it seems. People get older, life quality (in terms of hygiene, labour, medical care) is highly improved, advanced societies established peaceful ways of living together. Yet, doubts are frequently raised that overall well-being and happiness could be improved by that. Even worse: Our activities induced a change of the ecosystem (new germs and bacteria that are resistant to our antibiotics, climate change, prolonged recovery cycles of agriculturally important land) that the human race is not able to keep pace with. Current lifestyles (close to water, mostly coastlines, dependent on large scale agriculture, artificial protection from infectious diseases) turn vulnerable and fatal at a rate that no social, cultural or political system can react on (or against). Therefore, I see Löbsack’s prediction – extinction of the human race within a few generations – in a realistic light.

The source of all the trouble that arises from self-consciousness and self-awareness is fear. The fear of death manifests itself in eager activity and desperate attempts to avoid death. Biologically, evolution equipped us with features like emotions (to induce escape reactions or attraction to something beneficial), sense-perceptions and cognition. In the large time-scales of evolutionary pressure, these features developed because they brought advantages to their carriers. But now, within a few centuries – a very very short time frame for biological processes – the conditions created by ourselves turn to our disadvantages. Three artificial human-made systems, all the product of fear in one or the other way, are the root of all problems: power (manifested in religions and socio-political systems), materialism (the belief that things have a value, the basis of economy with its monetary system), and pleasure. They all increase human suffering since they support and fertilise the mind poisons (in Buddhist terms): Greed makes people long for power and well-being, often for the cost of others. Selfish interests in power and material wealth cause hatred and resistance against others, causing a lack of willingness to cooperate and form peaceful communities. Ignorance is more subtle: Religious and political systems are based on people being ignorant. The powerful and superior have no interest in others being potent and knowledgeable. I am sure you will be able to come up with countless examples for all these aspects.

To summarise: We are a life form that is equipped with an organ that enables self-awareness, learning, and creativity. The self-awareness drives us into fear-induced activities in which our creativity and cognitive potentials can bring phenomena (ideas and artefacts) with devastating effects into existence. This makes humankind a dangerous element in the global environmental equilibrium. Or with other words: We are not in a natural equilibrium any longer. Therefore, as with all life forms like us before, the ecosystem will try to get rid of mankind – man will go extinct. This is not sad, but good for the overall cosmic harmony and balance. Trial and error. But it wasn’t nature that failed! We humans had a good chance, with outstanding mental and cognitive abilities. We failed in using them appropriately. It is mostly sad and unfair for all those life forms that had to suffer from our stupidity!

 shark

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.

Sand

Apparently, we don’t have a TV at home – but you don’t care, yet, because you don’t even know, yet, what a TV is. Television is a technology in the field of mass media. In the 1960s it entered almost every household in Germany, other European countries, the USA, Japan, and many other countries, soon ubiquitous all around the globe. It presented moving pictures which was regarded as a huge advancement compared to the other major mass media forms in place, the radio and the newspaper. Why, then, don’t we have one now? To be sure, we consciously and wholeheartedly decided not to have one. To explain that, I’d like to share a story with you:

A professor stood before his Philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty bucket and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the bucket was full. They agreed that it was. The professor then picked up a jar of pebbles and poured them into the bucket. He shook it lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open spaces between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the bucket was full. They agreed it was. The professor picked up a box of sand and poured it into the bucket and of course filled up everything else. He then asked once more if it was full. The students responded with an unanimous yes. The professor then produced a cup of tea from under the table and proceeded to pour the entire content into the bucket, effectively filling the empty space between the grains of sand. The students laughed.

Now,” said the professor, as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this bucket represents your life. The golf balls are the important things – your family, your partner, your health, your children, your friends, your favourite passions – things that if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full. The pebbles are the other things that matter, like your job, your house, your car. The sand is everything else – the small stuff. If you put the sand into the bucket first,” he continued, ” there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for your life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you will never have room for the things that are important to you. Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your partner dancing. Play another match chess. There will always be time to go to work, clean the house, give a dinner party and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first – the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.” After a few moments of silence in the classroom, one of the students raised his hand and inquired what the tea represented. The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a cup of tea.”

This story is about priorities and about our important and useful ability to step back and reflect on our life, the decisions we make and the options we choose. On the one side, it is good to realise what our golf balls are, because only then are we able to lead a mindful and fulfilled life. On the other side, it is of the same significance to identify and eliminate all the sand! And I can tell you, what we call “progress”, especially the technological one, produces more and more sand, time killers that lure our weak and opportunistic minds to choose them. My standard example for “sand” in this respect is TV. To put it straight: 98% (roughly) of what is transmitted via TV channels is nonsensical, meaningless, stupidifying, dull bullshit (this will probably be the only time you will ever read this word from me here). Yes, there is informative News. Luckily, nowadays, we have more diverse and alternative sources for News, especially via internet. Yes, there are interesting documentaries and educational shows. These are either the remaining 2%, or they turn out to be much less valuable than other sources of knowledge and learning. And, yes, sometimes it is simply entertaining and funny, for example in form of good movies, live concerts, cultural shows, etc. Again, there are better sources for that. When you read a book, your imagination creates the visual impression from the words you are receiving. In your mind, a creative sense-making takes place. When you watch TV, your mind is much less creative and by far less challenged to “make sense” of what it perceives. Besides, culture and arts should also be consumed “directly”, not through a TV screen. Moreover, TV consumption is unhealthy both for body (sitting around, blue light screen) and psyche. This last point deserves more attention and explanation.

The major problem I have with TV consumption is that in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t challenge our intellect, emotional and empathic skills, creativity, thoughtfulness and practical skills. The severe lack of self-fulfilment that goes along with watching TV leaves us behind with the inherent feeling of emptiness (not in the Buddhist sense), of having wasted time, and of stagnation. If you are already “empty” (like most of the people in “modern” countries), you might not even get aware of it. But if you grow into a mindful, creative, curious and active person that seeks self-fulfilment, you will probably choose to watch TV only when there is really nothing else to do (which means: never). When you delve into a book, create an artwork, practice a musical instrument, exhaust yourself with sports, socialise with friends, play in the sun or explore nature, I promise you will always feel “better” than after watching TV. Of course, it is not about always doing something “smart” or meaningful, there must be time for relaxing and low-level entertainment. But then, I imply, it is still about “making choices”, and the TV gives you only an illusion of choice, as Roger Waters wrote in The Wall in 1979: “I got 13 channels of shit on the TV to choose from.” As mentioned above, today, there are much more sources of all sorts of information and entertainment. We don’t need a TV to choose interesting movies, informative documentaries or comedy.

tveducation

The problem is: TV is a “simple” way to pass time. Same as alcohol is a simple way to cover sadness. Or as smoking is a simple way to deal with insecurity and nervousness. Or as chocolate is a simple way of self-reward. It is a temptation, a welcome counter-pole to the stressful and difficult “daily life” with school, job, conflict-solving, standing one’s ground and fulfilling one’s desires. People choose TV because they are tired. And because vegging in front of the TV doesn’t require any brain cells. What these people obviously didn’t experience is the power of a passion (a hobby, for example) or of interpersonal quality time (playing with children, meaningful conversation with close friends or the partner) to serve as a huge source of energy. In the terms of the story: sand sucks your energy out, while golf balls deliver energy to you! Even after a long workday, and especially when you are tired. You just need to get your ass up! In Buddhist terms: Watching TV is suffering (dhuka) in the sense that you give in to your deluded desires and your resistance to challenges. Our (your parents’) decision not to have a TV is motivated by the attempt to eliminate all sources of unhappiness and suffering. Instead, we (your Mom and I) play cards almost every night before going to sleep. This simple card game is as “stupid” and non-challenging as a TV show, but we look at each other, talk to each other while playing, interact (at least more than in front of a TV screen) and have fun “in our way” (instead of in a way dictated by a technological device). My vision of the future is a family life full of activities like this, outdoor activities whenever the weather allows it, and playing games, playing music, create or build something together, whenever we prefer staying inside.

I am totally aware that my aversion against TV is highly exaggerated and for many people even offensive. Of course, not everybody who watches TV from time to time is an idiot! But it is, as always, a matter of balance and – most of all –  a matter of mindfulness and conscious choice! For now, since you are still a baby, we decided not to expose you to TV consumption or any other form of “staring at a screen”. So far, you obviously grow into a curious, active, healthy, energetic, cognitively very skilled girl! Therefore, I believe, it is not the worst choice!

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?

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.

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“.