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Climate Change Is Not a "Tame" Problem


Renewable energy is much in the news these days. Energy prices from wind machines and solar panels have dropped and now match or are lower than conventional sources of energy. New prospecting for oil and gas, at least in the US, has slowed as a result. Headlines are shouting that we are close to halting global warming. The connection is completely ungrounded. The atmosphere will continue to warm up due to the greenhouse gases that have already been released. Few if any of these stories ever mention the effects of continued economic growth, which creates larger emissions in the aggregate, even with the additions of non-carbon sources, but this is not even the real issue at play here.

Global warming is not the “problem.” Yes, it certainly is causing alarm, given the many threats it poses, but its more critical aspect is as a sign of much deeper problems. The immediacy of climate change blinds us to these problems and their sources. Having lived through a record-breaking winter in Boston, I am very aware of its palpable impacts. In very simple terms, the world population is using the equivalent of now, perhaps, two Earth’s worth of life-supporting resources. Global warming is the paradigm example of a “wicked problem,” a term invented by two planning professors, Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in a classic 1973 paper, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” The abstract tells much, but not all, the story,

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the indisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers.

Russ Ackoff referred to wicked problems as messes. I discuss them in the general context of complexity. Rittel and Webber’s paper should be required reading for everyone taking on climate change and other “wicked problems, but, unfortunately, neither it nor other similar framings shows themselves in the “professional” or “public” media. I have yet to find an awareness of this context in any discussion. People keep talking about solving the problem, but what is the problem. Here’s R & W’s response. They discuss wicked problems in a list of ten points. I will keep their numbering system, but list them in a different order. There points are italicized, the roman text is mine except for the block quotes.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. This important observation is clearly critical, as soon as anyone recognizes that systems in which wicked problems arise are characterized by manifold interconnections, producing all sorts of feedback links. Feedback always occurs in loops in which each active node affects another, but the other also affects the first, so which is the cause of observed behavior? Now multiply this by many, many such interacting loops in the system we are concerned about. Applying technology to “solve” climate change problems ignores this relationship and leaves the unaddressed “causes” or actors in place to continue causing mischief in the system.

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution. Unlike the “tame” problems they write about for which standard methodologies will generally lead to consensus about the “problem” to be solved, wicked problems allow different parties to stymie consensus and, subsequently, action. Climate change is a perfect example.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Global climate change is clearly not a single problem. It depends, among other factors, on the nature of the polity contributing to it. Seeking global solutions simply won’t work. Some sort of global consensus that the problems need to be addressed is essential, but one-size-fits-all global solutions should be avoided. This conclusion springs from the first item in their list.

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. More bad news for scientific or “rational” solution seekers. Imagine a scientist in front of a computer, thinking which algorithm to code, but the computer telling her that none will work. Maybe fuzzy logic would help, but even this is algorithmic at heart.

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. This feature dooms scientifically-based solutions, or, at least, relegates them to the closet. The acontextual, objective nature of scientifically based (technological and technocratic) methodology inevitably leaves out important aspects of the problematic system. The best outcome is something that may seem to work right now, but may not in the next instant, thus requiring constant attention and adaptive measures. This leads to the next point.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. Any “solution” can be good, only for the time being. Like a balloon filled with water, pushing a solution into the balloon will cause a new problem to pop out somewhere else. There’s no possibility of splitting up the problem among various disciplines during the planning phase or separating planning from implementation. The next characteristic is even more vexing.

4.There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. The results from the inevitable unintended consequences of intervening with any “solutions. To examine the efficacy of the solution, these will have to factored in for some indefinite time afterward. R & W say it this way:

The full consequences cannot be appraised until the waves of repercussions have completely run out, and we have no way of tracing all the waves through all the affected lives ahead of time or within a limited time span.

The next point is pretty obvious.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. The world is always changing so that the context is different from one moment to the next. Further, given the long time it typically takes to design and implement solutions to wicked problems, this aspect can be daunting to those seeking to solve it. Everything so far has followed from the technically complex nature of wicked problems. The last two items illustrate the ethical dimension of these problems.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong. R & W are pointing to the difference between the framing for wicked problems and for tame problems amenable to rational attack. Scientific methods are always contingent and subject to be falsified. If a solution is attempted on the basis of a model that is subsequently proven false, those involved can be excused from moral blame. They did what was expected of them by a set of accepted standards. Not true of solvers who are flying by the seat of their pants, even if a lot of wisdom lives in that spot. They cannot turn to any socially-legitimate standard to explain the failure. They have much more than a penny in the pot.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. This follows from the last point. There is always an ethical context to wicked problems. Values are involved. The reduction to some economically-based cost/risk/benefit analysis fails to consider the very facets that distinguish wicked from tame problems. Again, R & W are clear about this.

For wicked planning problems, there are no true or false answers. Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness. Their judgments are likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections. Their assessments of proposed solutions are expressed as “good” or “bad” or, more likely, as “better or worse” or “satisfying” or “good enough.”

I have been following the Great Transition Initiative dialogs for some time. The players in this project want to create a world with a different set of primary values from those of the “average” western, modern nation. The key values are: human solidarity, quality of life, and ecological sensibility. These are coincident with the single value, flourishing, I also seek to make present in the World. I speak about this example because it resembles virtually everything I can find focused on “sustainability,” climate change, inequality, or similar wicked problems. The conversation participants are primarily academics or professionals, each defined by a disciplinary methodology and an associated set of beliefs about how the world works. While interesting and thoughtful, I find that their interactions slowly but surely devolve to discussions of how many angels dance on the head of a pin. They recognize the need for new values, but overlook that values are just beliefs that have been ordered by some criteria, often just another belief.

That’s not because they are so narrowly constrained by their beliefs, although they mostly are, but that they are stuck in their framing of the problem. They have been trained to deal with tame problems, and the more disciplined they are the better at taming such problems, and the worse they are at tackling wicked problems.

Many of the Great Transition Initiative dialogs, in particular, decry the lack of a model for social change. But that is oxymoronic because the whole topic of social change is wicked. There are just too many loops to hope that some discreet framework will guide us to the desired future. But this does not preclude some path toward a flourishing or similar future. Pragmatism, while not explicitly designed to work on complex systems or the derivative wicked problems, fits the description laid out in the ten points above and offers the hope of a useful context for anxious problem solvers.

The founders of pragmatism, back at the end of the nineteenth century, focused on beliefs as the primary “cause” leading to habits or norms in both individuals and societies or organizations. Over time the constitutive beliefs, the ones on which institutions sprang up over time, tend to be implicated as major factors in observed dominant behaviors or norms Change these constitutive beliefs and everything else changes eventually, but in ways unpredictable when the changes were made. Well, we live in the modern world where one very critical dominant belief is that we come to know the way the world works through scientific pursuits and can apply the consequent knowledge to solve all our problems. Most of the time this works very well, but only because so many of our problems are tame. In any case, normally scientists work on tame problems. It’s the belief in a mechanistic, knowable world that is at or near the bottom. Not alone because it is embedded in our most powerful institutions, like academia, markets and economics, management theories, indeed, all theories.

That’s why all the conversations I alluded to earlier are focused on the wrong problems, or. better perhaps, on the wrong way to solve them. They are using methods designed for tame problems to address wicked problems. If we are to make progress though the inherent powers of these conversations, the participants must drop their illusions about the nature of the problem and adopt a framework consistent with complexity, perhaps, drawing on the way pragmatists go about their business. To do this is very scary and challenging because virtually everything that was familiar and comfortable in their professional homes becomes flimsy; the bedrock of certainty evaporates and with it a sense of solid ground. Tough to face, but it must be done if we are to find ourselves nudging our way to the world we seek.

I have written more than I usually do, but I have been away from my blog for awhile with only a few scattered post this year. I can’t promise to be more regular, but I will try. Somehow the rhythm of my days is slowly changing. I am still “working” on a new book, still about flourishing. I am working hard to anchor my key personal belief that our constitutive societal beliefs are no longer working for us after many centuries of what is generally considered forward motion. This post is about one of these beliefs, complexity and the nature of important problems. Many other posts have been about the other, erroneous belief about human nature. That’s what this book will be all about. So were my first two, but they were not so clear because I was not so clear. The haze is slowly lifting.

ps. I just posted a short blog written with my son, Tom, to the Lean Enterprise Institute’s website,. It draws on an example of a well-established wicked-problem-solving system, based on the Toyota Production System. The Toyota system, which was generalized as “Lean Manufacturing” by a group of my former MIT colleagues, is, to me, the epitome of pragmatism and complexity in action. The problems that Toyota and other car makers faced was not climate change, but quality, a desired, but elusive characteristic for most car makers. By treating it as a wicked, not tame, problem, and using pragmatic tools, Toyota managed to “solve” its problems. They never used this vocabulary, however. I encourage all those working on climate change to take in the lessons of Toyota and those that have translated it into broader language and tools, but be prepared to learn about gemba, muda, andon, jikoda, and kaizen, and more. The particulars of Lean are not designed to be applied directly to climate change, but the thinking behind it is.

(Cartoon, courtesy of the New Yorkor Magazine)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 25, 2015 8:47 PM ::


spam I have again deactivated the comments function, at least for the time being. I started to get a few thousand spam messages every day. I do still want to hear from you. Instead of using the comment link, please send an email to the link at the bottom of archive list. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 25, 2015 8:48 AM ::

Without Prejudices, We Could Not Make Sense of Anything


Today’s blog, like many of mine, comes out of synchronicity. I read a piece on the TPM website about an uproar over a course on “The Problem of Whiteness,” to be given at Arizona State University. When I thought about what I read, I could not help but see this through an article I read just last night about how we make sense of the world. The piece was an extract from a Ph.D. thesis on psychotherapy and how it is shaped by a model of the human self. The author was discussing the idea of hermeneutics, that is the process by which we make sense of texts, including conversations. Drawing on Hans-Georg Gadamer, a Swiss philosopher, whose works are widely respected on this subject, he pointed out that psychotherapists need to recognize that whatever sense or meaning they make of their patients talk is filtered through their prejudices or pre-understanding of the meaning of words and signs.

Gadamer argues, I believe persuasively, that the meaning we give to what we read or observe is a melding of what we take in and what we already “know” about what is in front of us. We, in an important way, are our prejudices or presuppositions, another word with, perhaps, less charge to it. As we live, we acquire a story about the meanings of textual objects we encounter in life. Post-modern theorists would include all objects, arguing that whatever meanings we give to them are textual in nature. Because we share common meanings for many words and signs, we take for granted that meaning resides in the object, not in our heads. But a moment’s thought about arguments we have or dither in reading a text should point out the error in such assumptions.

Hermeneutics applies particularly in interpreting texts from previous eras where the historical and cultural context were different from ours. It has been developed as a way of interpreting ancient religious texts or objects like the US Constitution. The present US Supreme Court has several originalists who argue that we must try to understand what the words meant to the framers hundreds of years ago, not what they mean in today’s world.

This requires a hermeneutic exercise. These originalists must get beyond their prejudices to undercover the original meaning, if that is ever possible. The process of understanding is called the hermeneutic circle, a continuous going back and forth between your stored meaning-giving filters and the external object. Each iteration starts with a modified set of prejudices so that the interpretation may move closer to the sense of the external object. If the outside object is a human being, then one can enter into a conversation designed to narrow the gap between the two participants in the conversation. This is obviously much harder to do with an artifact, but each attempt at understanding will start with the last one, coming, perhaps, ever closer to the object’s meaning.

The brouhaha at ASU and other similar situations would appear to arise from a different view of how humans act. The opponents argue “that Bebout’s course was ‘racist’ and a sign of what he said was the increasing oppression of white people in the U.S.” The prejudices that Gadamer is talking about are always part of our cognitive system whether we know about them or not. Without them, the world would be empty and without meaning. We would be no more than animals with only instinct to act upon. The word has taken on a negative meaning in general conversation. The University’s statement is a bit muddled:

The statement said the “problem of whiteness” class would “examine how people talk about - or avoid talking about - race in the contemporary United States.” It also defended the course as “designed to empower students to confront the difficult and often thorny issues that surround us today and reach thoughtful conclusions rather than display gut reactions.”

If we are to act in a manner than acknowledges the other and his or her understandings of the language being used, then it is essential to know, first, that prejudice is natural and universal and critical to intentional acting, and, second, that consensual actions among people depends on having some ideas of what one’s own prejudices are. This requires a critical look at the culture, in general, and an examination of one’s own experience, in particular. Becoming aware of those presuppositions that shape your actions takes self-reflection and conversations with others. Much of what serves as filters making sense out of whatever world you happen to encounter has become embedded imperceptibly over long periods of time.

The White Supremacists who were protesting wear their prejudices on their sleeves. They act without thinking that their beliefs are not reality, itself, but only a particular story that they believe is true and needs no critical look. I don’t know the details of the ASU course, but the idea of examining our prejudices in a collective setting is always a good one. Our basic moral grounds in the US are inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The practical implications of this are that action among people should be consensual. That can happen only when they are on the same page, that is, that the words they are using to coordinate their actions mean the same to all.

Given that everyone has a unique life history, everyone’s prejudices are different. Much of the time, when doing everyday tasks, that does not manner, but when it comes to a subject of race, our culture promises that there be differences of meaning. It is absolutely unavoidable. If we are ever to live peacefully in our multi-cultural, multi-racial country, courses such as these are essential. Our standard model of reality assumes that there is only one, or at most a few meanings for words to be found in a dictionary. It ignores that there are as many meanings as there are people who have encountered the words in their lives. Many will conform to the dictionary, but more will carry a meaning developed out of the idiosyncratic experiences that constitute a single life. Don’t confuse what I am writing about with negotiations. Negotiations are all about cost/beneficial resolutions of differences. There is nothing consensual about them. This subject is more basic and is critical if we are ever to learn how to live together as equal human beings.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 27, 2015 3:01 PM ::

Transformational Change Comes In the Cracks


If you know where home is for me, you will know that I have been inundated (if that’s the right word) with snow. I survived the 1978 blizzard in Cambridge years ago. This winter has matched it in amount of snow on the ground with even more coming. Today, I am home again instead of holding the first class of my HILR course on the self and authenticity. In preparing for the class that will be postponed for a week, I have had a chance to reflect again on the place of beliefs in daily social or cultural life.

One of the key questions I have raised for the class to keep in front of them as they get deeper into the subject is, “Does the belief you/we hold about self matter?” Matter here refers to how it might affect both individual life and the society at large. Of course it matters hugely. The question to the class was rhetorical, but I think about it a lot. I have come to focus more and more on the notion of agent as the key to change and to stability as well. Agents are, in my thoughts, simply people with intentions that they act out. If their actions exhibit routine patterns or habits, we can attribute some belief underlying them. The relation between beliefs and habits was established late in the nineteenth century and is the basis of early pragmatism. But that’s not my interest here.

To understand the meaning and role of agent, we have to hold a model of the system in which agents live and operate. My concern starts with a single society and the clustering of global societies into the whole Earth system. If we take a single society, say the US, I think about it as a machine being run by people doing things that change the societal machine as well as the machine in which it rests, the environment, broadly construed to include the natural world and all other societies. Conventional sociology divides the broadly world into structure and agents and allocates the power on free choice between them according to the theorist. I tend to avoid the allocation problem by calling on the structuration model of Anthony Giddens as my guide to understanding how collectives, ranging from families to societies work.

Giddens model of society posits a structure that shapes action and is in turn maintained and altered by the action. He coined the phrase “the duality of structure” to describe this dialectical relationship, writing, “By the duality of structure I mean that the structural properties of social systems are both the medium and the outcome of the practices that constitute those systems.” The structure he speaks of has four major components, two sets of rules and two types of resources. One of the rules (signification) provides meaning to the actors, converting the phenomenal world into familiar terms. The second rule (legitimation) constrains action to existing norms. The two resources determine the equipment, including information, that can be used in any particular task, and the authority to allocate it.

Actual change in the world, that is the constant conversion from the present to the future, is the result of the actors intentional activities. The undesired conditions that have come to threaten the normative visions of ours and other societies are largely unintended consequences of these intentional actions. They result from the imperfect match of the beliefs that underlie the intentions and the real world. I am not going to go further into this issue here. I have discussed this in this blog and my books. I want to think about how to change the outcomes of these agents such that a new set of normative visions appear and the unintended consequences either disappear or lessened. We can change the agents or the structure or both. Let’s look first at the structure. We can replace the equipment with new things and information. In this era of rapid innovation, this is a major source of societal behavioral change. New norms have emerged. The question whether these changes affect either of the two ends I target above is arguable.

We can change the authoritative structure, that is, alter the power to allocate resources like money, land, jobs. This the stuff of revolutions. Sometimes they work, but many times they eventually fail. One reason is that they leave the rules in place, and the power structure lurking in the background waiting to reemerge.. The rules determine the actors worldviews and normal activities. Both of these are difficult to change even if the resources are altered. We can change the norms, the legitimate way of doing business. But that turns out to be very difficult; the Nike slogan, “Just Do It,” is much harder than the company would like it to be. Returning to Giddens model for a moment, the dualistic nature is inherently very conservative. Change in one of the categories is opposed by the remaining ones.

I recently attended a lecture by Eric Olin Wright, a leading American Socialist with a Marxist bent. His talk was taken from his 2012 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association. He was talking about the same topic I am writing about in this post: how to change the system. He offers four strategies (the first three in italics are quoted from his paper):

  1. Ruptural transformations envision creating new emancipatory institutions through a sharp break with existing institutions and social structures. The central image is a war in which victory ultimately depends on decisive defeat of the enemy in a direct confrontation. This strategy has failed in transforming capitalist societies
  2. Interstitial transformations seek to build new forms of social empowerment in capitalist society’s niches and margins, often where they do not seem to pose any immediate threat to dominant classes and elites. Wright calls these “eroding strategies.” This way has produced some changes like worker cooperatives, but has not led to major changes.
  3. Symbiotic transformations involve strategies in which extending and deepening institutional forms of social empowerment involving the state and civil society simultaneously help to solve practical problems faced by dominant classes and elites. This strategy has produced changes in social democracies, but “in ways that stabilize capitalism and leave intact the core powers of capital.
  4. Escape strategies where the participants exit the mainstream culture and create their own, separate institutions. This works for the participants, but does nothing to the mainstream society. The escapees bring their own structure with them.

Wright’s research leaves those that seek transformative change seemingly without a good place to go. Escape is not practical for those who would want to retain significant portions of the existent structure. This is clearly most of present society. I do see one chink in the armor of capitalism, the interstitial strategy of change, a kind of Achilles Heel. Changes in basic beliefs fit the “interstitial” category best. Individuals constantly move between institutions, sometimes finding themselves in situations where the power of the structure to keep beliefs in place is weak, for example at home, or in education programs designed to raise issues about beliefs. New beliefs about the world are more likely to creep in here than in places like business where beliefs are strongly embodied.

I can imagine what might happen if religious or social service institutions began to question the beliefs than humans are merely needy, rational machines and suggest that they are, rather caring creatures, who have the possibility to construct their lives around that value. Simultaneously, these institutions could argue that the goal of people’s lives should be to flourish, rather than acquire material goods. Care has three important aspects, self care, care for others, and care for the rest of the world. People that lack material resources might begin to seek satisfaction via care for and from others. I cannot begin to go much beyond this inchoate vision of how the world might change at this point. Giddens’ structuration model suggest that these beliefs can seep into other institutions and slowly rebuilt them. There is no certainty that the changes will lead to a flourishing world, but, given the lack of success with other strategies, this one seems worth a try.

I found Wright’s work particularly interesting and relevant as it reinforced some of my more naive premises I my first book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture. Subversive fits neatly with his idea of interstitial. I believe now more than eve than this is the only way transformation can come in our present-day world. The dominant capitalist, institutional structure is too powerfully entrenched. Change must come in the interstices and grow until the structuration process reaches some kind of tipping point, at which point the momentum will force change on the larger institutional structures.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 12, 2015 12:05 PM ::

The Primacy of Connectedness


I am still getting ready to teach my course on the “self” at my senior learning institute. I got a copy of Kenneth Gergen’s book, Relational Self, out of the library and read it last week. Gergen is a psychologist on the Swarthmore faculty. His basic argument is that humans create all meanings through interactions with others. Challenging the Modernist notion of an independent self, he writes:

My hope is to demonstrate that virtually all intelligible action is born, sustained, and/or extinguished within the ongoing process of relationship. From this standpoint there is no isolated self or fully private experience. Rather, we exist in a world of co-constitution. We are always already emerging from relationships; we cannot step out of relationship; even in our most private moments we are never alone. Further, as I will suggest, the future well-being of the planet depends significantly on the extent to which can nourish and protect not only individuals, or even groups, but the generative process of relating.

I was disappointed in the book, but not in his thesis. Care is the central idea in my work. Care is fundamentally an idea about relationship. Existentialists use the compound term, being-with-others to denote the constitutive function of relationship. I am more convinced by arguments from this source than Gergen’s. Care rests on the argument that human consciousness is always consciousness of something. When we are awake and conscious, there is always some object in the field we call consciousness. The existential view that humans gather meaning from being-in-the-world or being-with-others places relationships at the center. If one adopts Heidegger’s view that objects take or meaning through our relationship with them, not from some independent essence, then both the compound phrases have essentially the same meaning. Gergen mentions Michel Callon’s concept of actor-network-theory, where both humans and non-humans are always involved in action, with no difference between the two classes. Heidegger’s notion of equipment is similar.

Meaning arises from distinct experiences that can be expressed in language. If all experiences involve interacting players, language, itself, is an expression of relationships, whether we are aware of it or not. Much of my disappointment came from what I read as a failure to make the last point in the above quote clear: How can the notion of the constitutive power of relationship contribute to well-being or to flourishing as I call it? I believe that “care” can do what is missing in Gergen’s book. Care has a normative sense for me. It not only recognizes the fundamental connectedness of life, but also implies that we act in a way to preserve and enhance the flourishing of both ourselves and the other(s). Words would have first been given to describe actions that were effective, that is, meaningful. The context of meaning remains in the use of the same words even though the specific situations are different.

No matter what differences exist between Gergen and me, we send the same message. Unless the modernist culture is changed to embody an idea of human being as relational or caring, we will continue to produce pathological impacts to ourselves and the rest of the world. No amount of fixing up with fancy technologies or institutional arrangements will do. Social paradigms, especially the foundational beliefs, are very hard to change. Ours has been around for centuries and, compared to what preceded it, is considered by most to be a great sign of progress. So, even in the face of present-day human and worldly suffering and deterioration, the clarion call remains, “It’s not broke, so don’t fix it.” Fix here refers to major change. I think this is misguided. Gergen, at the end of his book, includes a discussion of some broad frameworks that are built on relationships, such as system theory, but fails to make a strong enough argument that it is imperative that we start building these into our cultural systems in place of all those based on individualism.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 19, 2015 8:45 PM ::

The Error of Trying to Measure Good and Bad


It’s another David Brooks day. Today he is riffing on a story by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In a nutshell, the tale is about a peaceful and happy city with an important open secret. Hidden away from the wandering eyes of the inhabitants is a closet containing a misfit. In Le Guin’s words, “It is feebleminded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition and neglect.” On occasions this poor human being is revealed for all who wish to observe. Like many of her stories, this one is a parable on the way we love and should live.The misfit sops up all the ills of society so that everyone else can live a happy, uncluttered life. Most of the citizens, even knowing the plight of the misfit, ignore the unfairness and go back to life as usual. A few with a deeper moral sensitivity leave to face the unknown world beyond the walls.

Brooks makes the obvious comparison to our world today. The citizens of Omelas have made a social contract to single out someone to serve as the means of their prosperity. This is far from the theory of the social contract on which our society is based, as Brooks writes:

In theory, most of us subscribe to a set of values based on the idea that a human being is an end not a means. You can’t justifiably use a human being as an object. It is wrong to enslave a person, even if that slavery might produce a large good. It is wrong to kill a person for his organs, even if many lives might be saved.

I am not sure he is correct in assuming that “most of us subscribe to [such] a set of values.” I suspect that a great majority of Americans have never heard of Kant’s moral imperatives or keep the more familiar “golden rule” in reach of their consciousness. Given the practical rules of our society, these moral guiding principles may not even be present in their unconsciousness waiting to be invoked in problematic situations. Brooks notes that these practical rules are utilitarian in essence, replacing the inherent priceless nature of human life with a number that can fit an maximizing algorithm, like economists and technocrats use to make decisions. In his words:

The story compels readers to ask if they are willing to live according to those contracts. Some are not. They walk away from prosperity, and they make some radical commitment. They would rather work toward some inner purity… The rest of us live with the trade-offs. The story reminds us of the inner numbing this creates. The people who stay in Omelas aren’t bad; they just find it easier and easier to live with the misery they depend upon. I’ve found that this story rivets people because it confronts them with all the tragic compromises built into modern life — all the children in the basements — and, at the same time, it elicits some desire to struggle against bland acceptance of it all.

Whoa! I would say that those who stay in Omelas are, indeed, bad. It all depends on what standards of moral goodness is to be used. Brooks glosses over the distinctiveness of normative ethical theories, the different ways of morally justifying one’s actions. As a result, he misses the main point of Le Guin’s marvelous story. You can’t have it both ways and live an uncluttered moral life. It’s not the same as the utilitarian trade-offs that are part of that system of thought; it’s the absolute choice between one moral system or another. I am certainly no moral philosopher, but I have come to know that consequentialism, where utilitarianism fits, is incompatible with deontology, where Kantianism sits. The first kind measures the goodness or badness of an act by the outcomes and permits the use of more or better as criteria to compare one act with another. Different theories use different sets of values as the basis for making comparative judgments.

Deontological theories are based on the idea of duties and rights and look at the rightness of the act, itself, not the outcome of the act. Kant says it is wrong to treat a human as a means, instead of as an end, period. Rawls says we have a duty to do the right thing based on an process in which we are ignorant of the reality of the world out there. Simplistically, we might say, this class of theories deals with absolutes, the other with relative measures. When I discussed this editorial with my wife in midstream, she pointed out that Judaism is largely built on duty-based ethics, such as the one that has guided me for quite some time: acts of lovingkindness, often expressed as tikkun olam or healing the world.

In researching ethical theories today as I write this post, I noticed a third class of theories based on care. I suspect that much of my work to date on flourishing falls int this class since my concerns over care and interconnectedness fit into its framework that emphasizes interdependence and relationships. I will be looking at this in much more detail as I continue working on my current book.

Brooks’s failure to see the moral problem faced by the citizens of Omelas as having to choose between categories of ethics is the same problem virtually all of us in the United States have. Our much revered founding fathers dumped us into a moral dilemma with the first public document we live by, The Declaration of Independence. The most well-known sentence is: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The dilemma rests in the conflation of life, liberty and happiness. The first two are clearly absolute rights, except that philosophers argue about the meaning of liberty. Both call for a system of right-based principles. But the last, happiness, is not absolute. In fact, earlier drafts of the document used “property” instead. Further, economists have co-opted psychologists, and measure happiness in material terms. This outcome necessitates a consequentialist system. The dilemma was obvious from the get-go when human slaves were classed as property. We have ignored this dilemma right down to the present, as do the citizens of Omelas.

It is too easy, as Brooks does (see the above block quote) to excuse both the people of Omelas and us as not being bad because we have to become utilitarians to exist in this world. As utilitarians, trade-offs are simply means to maximize values, but one cannot trade-off the two distinct moral categories. As long as consequentialism dominates, as it does, we are indeed bad, and are always somewhere on a slippery slope. One cannot be just a little bad. It’s very important to accept that. We can live and perhaps must live with our dilemma, but we must not brush it away. We do admit, if pushed, that our motor of utilitarianism, the free market, produces unfairness; that is, it is amoral in the rights and duties domains. But we do little these days to correct its ills. As Brooks notes, we have lots of misfits hidden away in closets.

What I miss in this column is a call to action; a challenge to see the bads in all of us. Brooks ends with an enigmatic paragraph.

In another reading, the whole city of Omelas is just different pieces of one person’s psychology, a person living in the busy modern world, and that person’s idealism and moral sensitivity is the shriveling child locked in the basement.

The use of the word, “just,” is puzzling, suggesting that it’s OK to carry around two opposing ideas. It is, rather, both OK and not OK, but merely is a reflection of the values of our present society. Few people, in my estimate based on watching the world around me everyday, have such a mixed “psychology.” The clarity of deontology has been badly blurred by our utilitarian norm. Bad is just another value to be weighed against other things. Unfortunately, it has fallen far down the ladder. This is the scandal of our use of torture and other inhumane treatment. The absolute badness was measured and lost. Part of the story of flourishing I have been writing is that humans are fundamentally deontologists. We have certain rights and duties that cannot be weighed and exchanged. The centrality of care fits here. I have not stressed its moral nature, but will be doing this as I continue to think and write. I thank David Brooks for his provoking me once again.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 13, 2015 5:15 PM ::

I Wish You A Flourishing 2105


It seems appropriate for me to start off the New Year with a post on flourishing. Flourishing is very personal. I came across it entirely by chance. It showed up when I had to finish this sentence, “I am the possibility of…” as part of some personal training I did well over a decade ago. The sentence that showed up became my definition of sustainability as, “the possibility that human and other forms of life will flourish on the planet forever.” I became aware that the word has classic origins, having been discussed at length by Aristotle. It has great metaphorical power, connected to its biological origins. I have now used it in two book titles and probably will use it still one more time, at least.

It is beginning to enter what have been conversations about sustainability with more frequency. Jeremy Caradonna’s book on the history of sustainability includes it. It is so much expressive of what it means to be human than any term based on some reference to a human essence or nature. Well-being and flourishing are linguistic relatives, but not when well-being takes on a metrical sense, as it does through economics. Flourishing is inherently verbal, expressing some kind of action; it is not a static property. It is the outcome of some kind of existential process, that is, having to do with how life is being played out. If humans were nothing but animals whose nature is determined largely, if not only, by their genes, flourishing would be a metaphor for life itself, living out the potential provided by one’s genes. Non-humans, by this token, flourish most of the time unless hampered by loss of their natural habitat or some other external factor. Human encroachment on their natural potential is the largest barrier to the flourishing of all species other than our own.

In spite of assertions otherwise, it appears that humans’ existential potential, that is, the way they live out their lives, is not limited by their genes or any other essential factor. The evolution of the human brain has resulted in a part that is bound to our evolutionary emergence from other forms of life and another part that in unique to every individual and is shaped by the specific life history of that individual. Antonio Damasio has a model of human cognition that can be best described as forming three levels of self: a protoself, core self, and autobiographical self. The protoself is the genetically constrained part and governs our automatic behavior, that is, behavior over which we have little or no control. We are just another animal. But we have a part of our brain that is shaped and re-shaped in the process of living, the autobiographical brain with an associated self. The core self keeps track of what’s going on at the moment, but only lives in the present.

The autobiographical self is the repository for the past: memories of events and our responses to them. It is the place where future visions are to be found: the drivers of our actions in the present. It may be useful to think of that self in terms of a story (autobiography) as a metaphor for everything meaningful stored in that part of the brain. It’s a story over which we have some control. To the extent we can shape it, we create an existential potential beyond that controlled and limited by our genes. In the vernacular, we are creatures that operate from both nature and nurture. This makes flourishing more complicated. We have to operate within the genetic potential just like all other living organisms, and as we do, we are flourishing at the biological level. But we also have a cultural, personal existence, dictated by the story we carry around. To flourish in this dimension, we must be enacting that story in such a way that we continuously assess that we are following our chosen path (or paths, in that we live out more than one story every day).

Flourishing exists in an entirely separate domain from happiness or pleasure, the customary use to measure how we are doing in the world. They are momentary states. Flourishing follows a process that is always on-going, that is, life itself, but, unlike the case for other animals, it has an autobiographical aspect that serves as a standard by which the presence or absence of flourishing can be judged. We are flourishing when we are living out our stories, more or less. Life is so full of contingencies that it is impossible to follow the chosen path without straying from time to time. A bad hair day, all by itself, is not enough to stop flourishing. We can flourish amidst many kinds of obstacles and challenges as long as we hold to the main story line.

By now, you should be able to figure out what it takes for human flourishing. There must be a story in place. In other words, a person must have a clear idea of his or her identities. These are plural, as we act in distinct cultural domains every day. We are variously, a parent, a lawyer, a spouse or partner, a friend, a spiritual being, and so on. We need a plan for every such domain that we will use as a template for our actions. Some of the roles we take are culturally set; others are up to everyone to define for themselves. We can change our minds from time to time, but not too often, for then we would have nothing to build our lives around. We would become perennial teenagers, testing out many roles, but not choosing any.

So far, I am writing from no particular disciplinary base. The cognitive basis does reflect current scientific thinking, but the whole piece here is just the result of my own thinking about the subject. There are some roots in philosophy going back to Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia, Recently, however, I came across a philosophy paper on the subject of flourishing that made many of the same arguments I have been making, but from a more grounded perspective. Importantly, it places flourishing in the same ethical arena from which many other important values that guide us are situated. The rest of this post summarizes a few of the ideas found in the paper, “Human Flourishing and the Appeal to Human Nature”, by Donald Rasmussen (Social Philosophy and Policy, 16 (1): 1-43, 1999) He makes six main points:

  1. Human flourishing is an objective good. In other words, it is desired because of what it is. Its constitution is what makes it good. Thus, human goodness is something ontological. It is a state of being, not a mere feeling or experience.

  2. Human flourishing is the ultimate end of human conduct, but it is not the only activity of inherent worth. It is not a “dominant” end that reduces the value of everything else to that of a mere means. Human flourishing is an “inclusive” end. It comprises basic or “generic” goods and virtues—for example, such goods as knowledge, health, friendship, creative achievement, beauty, and pleasure; and such virtues as integrity, temperance, courage, and justice. These are valuable not as mere means to human flourishing but as partial realizations or expressions of it. As such, these goods and virtues are final ends and valuable in their own right.

  3. Human flourishing is individualized and diverse. It is dependent on who as well as what one is. It is dependent on who as well as what one is. Abstractly considered, we can speak of human flourishing and of basic or generic goods and virtues that help to define it. Yet this does not make human flourishing in reality either abstract or universal. Concretely speaking, no two cases of human flourishing are the same, and they are not interchangeable. …There are individuative as well as generic potentialities, and this makes human fulfillment always something unique.

  4. Human flourishing is agent-relative. There is no human flourishing period. Human flourishing is always and necessarily the good for some person or other.

  5. Human flourishing is a self-directed activity. Human flourishing must be attained through a person’s own efforts and cannot be the result of factors that are beyond one’s control. Flourishing does not consist in the mere possession and use of needed goods. Rather, human flourishing consists in a person’s taking charge of his own life so as to develop and maintain those virtues for which he alone is responsible and which in most cases will allow him to attain the goods his life requires.

  6. Human beings are naturally social animals. We are social in the sense that our maturation requires a life with others. We do not achieve our maturity like mushrooms, suddenly, all at once, with no engagement with one another. We have potentialities that are other-oriented, and we cannot find fulfillment without their actualization. Human flourishing is thus not atomistic. It does not require gaining the goods of life exclusively for oneself and never acting for the sake of others. Indeed, having other-concern is crucial to our maturation. As Aristotle makes clear, philia (friend-ship) is one of the constituents of human flourishing. Further, in terms of origins, we are almost always born into a society or community, and it is in some social context or other that we grow and develop. Much of what is crucial to our self-conception and fundamental values is dependent on our upbringing and environment. Our lives are intertwined with others; we are not abstract individuals. It is thus a fundamental mistake to conceive of human beings achieving maturity apart from others and only later taking it upon themselves to join society or to have social concern. Human flourishing is achieved with and among others.

From Rasmussens’ neo-Aristotelian viewpoint, flourishing is the “ultimate end of human conduct.” This fits the existential, cognitive science explanation. It is naturalistic, and morally-powerful, where wealth is not. The individualized aspect also fits the cognitive model. As an objective good, it is something that we can use as a design criterion for our societal institutions. The idea that it is self-directed fits well with notions of liberty. I hope that, as people become comfortable with the concept, they will start using it as the vision for designing the institutions that run our social lives. The implications for economics are severe but then Adam Smith first thought humans were empathetic, caring creatures before his self-interested model took over.

This idea will guide all my writings and I hope yours also. Happy New Year.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on January 2, 2015 3:46 PM ::

Should I Bring My Umbrella Along?


Weather may not be a politically correct conversation in Washington, but it is on the news channels. Most evenings, I watch the national news and noticed, some time ago, that the weather, which occasionally used to show up late in the program, is now often the featured story, night after night. Every night, I watch Ginger Zee explaining why half the country is going to be either inundated or parched. ABC, my usual channel, has a huge techie display that enables them to show extreme events in infinite detail.

It’s clear from all this that extreme weather has both entered our consciousness and our conscience. Death counts are frequent as are photos of utter devastation. The interviews with those who have literally lost everything to the wind are heart-wrenching. But something is missing in all this. I have yet to hear a word about the possible cause of this new reality. No scientific expert is called in to explain; to give us the back story, as is done in virtually every other case of breaking news. After every drone attack, some security expert shows up to give us the old tired story about it. After the last several police shootings, the number of explainers was legend.

Why is the media hiding the background from us? I have to assume that the failure to expand beyond the always clean-cut professional meteorologists is deliberate. The elevation of weather events to the prime story clearly indicates its evolving interest as news. Extreme weather is no more a random act than are other major breaking news stories. There is always some attempt at explanation or elaboration. Is there a hidden and unintentional conspiracy at work? Do the newscasters really know the true story behind all that damage and carnage: that the watchers of the shows are the culprits. Are they afraid of telling us the truth and scaring us off? Are they afraid we can’t face it? Are their owners and managers part of the general conspiracy to simply deny any relationship between our everyday behavior and these persistent extreme events.

I don’t know, of course. If they simply don’t see the connection, we are being robbed of a critical opportunity to learn one of the most important facts about our lives today and tomorrow. Ebola, which is certainly a most serious problem, but not for us, got far more attention to its causes than the weather. I would love to see ABC hire a scientist, like their medical expert, Richard Besser, who would appear almost every night and tell us a little more about climate change science. The greenhouse effect, the primary physical process involved, is not really all that arcane. The whole story that connects my specific tailpipe emissions with a flood in California is very complex, but the principle is not all that abstruse.

Write to your media asking them to make the extreme weather a regular part of the news and to provide expertise to explain what is happening. It is not just happening over there any more. These events now are covering the entire US. If we demanded an detailed explanation of Ebola and similar not-so-imminent problems, we should really start to care about the weather. It’s time to put the lie to Charles Dudley Warner’s famous quote, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 27, 2014 5:14 PM ::

A Brooksian Christmas Story


I have been away from my blog for several weeks. I claim overwork. I am writing an essay for the Great Transition Initiative, and finishing plans for a course I am delivering at my learning at retirement institute. The subject of the course is “Authenticity” or a look at the notion of self through the ages. It’s a chance to put some of my current thinking on self, being, and authenticity into a historical context. But I have been buried. So when I read David Brooks’ op-ed piece today, as it so often happens, a little voice inside said I would have to respond and not let him get away with it without some comment. As I re-read it, some turned to be a lot.

I found the article so full of errors and misstatements that I am having trouble not to write a dissertation about it. But let me begin with calling attention the important words in the article: faith, belief, spirituality religion, and rationality. Although this will not be a vocabulary lesson, I will try to capture meanings I have gleaned for many places. The quotes sections are all from his piece. Faith is the belief in something that you can’t explain through reason or rational arguments based on scientific theories or facts.

He begins with, “With Hanukkah coming to an end, Christmas days away, and people taking time off work, we are in a season of quickened faith.” I don’t think that faith, itself quickens, especially in this season. The cynics among us attribute the activities around this season more to the institutions of economics than to those of organized religion. It is true that holidays tend to call the slackers like me back to the houses of religion, but, in my case and, as I read, that of most Christians in the US, the draw is from other obligations than the tenets of faith itself.

A few lines later he says, “You’d think faith would be a simple holding of belief, or a confidence in things unseen, but, in real life, faith is unpredictable and ever-changing.” Wrong, David. The notion of faith connotes something to be held until it can no longer be. That was the struggle of Job, and similar cases through Christian history. Brooks and the sources he quotes confuse spiritual experiences and their impacts on our beliefs with faith. A very bad error. We may have such experiences often during our lives and they may then have a profound influence on some of our beliefs. In particular, they may cause us to question other beliefs we are holding that have become rooted through reason or other expressions of faith inculcated by religious affiliations. These comments are all from only the first 3 lines of the article.

Then, he quotes a Yale colleague (no elitism here), who says,

When I hear people say they have no religious impulse whatsoever … I always want to respond: Really? You have never felt overwhelmed by, and in some way inadequate to, an experience in your life, have never felt something in yourself staking a claim beyond yourself, some wordless mystery straining through word to reach you? Never?” (My emphasis)

Another confusion between religious experiences and spiritual ones! Humans have had spiritual experiences long before they were institutionalized into religious contexts by those who saw power in invoking god as the cause of these inexplicable, mysterious phenomena, on the basis of what was known about how the world worked at the time. Knowledge by our present standards was in very short supply.

Such “glittering experiences are not in themselves faith, but they are the seed of faith.” Half right. Faith refers to the beliefs behind the experiences. If powerful enough, they may lead the experiencing individual to hold beliefs created from scratch to explain what happened. No religion here yet, as Wiman’s, his Yale colleague then argues, but “Religion is not made of these moments; religion is the means of making these moments part of your life rather than merely radical intrusions so foreign and perhaps even fearsome that you can’t even acknowledge their existence afterward.”

Wow, he completely misses the point that religions are selling a particular set of spiritualistic ideas to those who have never experienced them. How many even true believers have seen a burning bush or experienced the mystery of the Eucharist. Religions have done a disservice to the idea of spirituality, an individual experience by institutionalizing and killing the spirit, so to say.

Next Brooks writes (I apologize for using so much of his piece, but I find it compelling),

These moments provide an intimation of ethical perfection and merciful love. They arouse a longing within many people to integrate that glimpsed eternal goodness into their practical lives. This longing is faith. It’s not one emotion because it encompasses so many emotions. It’s not one idea because it contains contradictory ideas. It’s a state of motivation, a desire to reunite with that glimpsed moral beauty and incorporate it into everyday living.

This is pure gobbledygook. Spiritual moments may do lots of things but not flash images of ethical perfection and merciful love. Phenomenological, they are conscious experiences that we cannot explain. Given this, they cannot flash such images. We can bring them forth later if we try to describe and explain (or rationalize that as based on reason) them. I do argue in my work that that may make us conscious of being connected to whatever appears in these moments. The feeling invoked by watching a beautiful scene may bring forth a sense of connection missing in the hurly-burly of much of life, but where is perfection and love. If a longing, as he pictures it does arise, that is not faith. It is a longing that may cause the seeker to look for other beliefs that help him enrich life beyond what the rationalized belief of modernity can offer. More about this in a moment.

Then he writes, “It’s a hard process. After the transcendent glimpses, people forget.” Sure they do, but they are certain to have that forgetfulness reinforced if they seek to find it in religion, for religion will offer a set of faith-based beliefs as substitutes for whatever was there in his or her moment.

I’ll divert from the exegesis of Brooks’ piece for a moment and talk about spirituality. I believe strongly that spirituality is a central part on what it is to be human and make this argument in all of my writings. We are meaning-seeking creatures and cannot live without it in our civilized, cultural settings. Meaning entails the explanations we give to everything we directly and vicariously experience through stories from all sorts. The medium of meaning is language. It is the medium by which we embody meaning in our brains and extract it from there. We can place language in four distinct domains that completely encompass human conscious experience. These are experiences involving ourselves, other human beings, all the rest of animate and inanimate material world, and an important fourth origin, those with the transcendent origin. These are the spiritual experiences. They are as much a part of the history of our species as are those with material causes. Our language confronts with them every day. We still encounter them long after science has come to be the rational source of almost everything we are conscious of.

Religion is not the same. Religion is an institution that evolved to organize the spiritual experiences of few. Western religions are largely based on a concept of god as the primary source for all spiritual experiences, and still may be invoked as what brought me that gorgeous sunset that gave me shivers. I obviously do not believe this as my writing indicates, but hopefully is not letting my personal beliefs get in the way of this critique.

Then comes.

The process of faith, of bringing moments of intense inward understanding into the ballyhoo of life, seems to involve a lot of reading and talking — as people try to make sense of who God is and how holiness should be lived out. Even if you tell people you are merely writing a column on faith, they begin recommending books to you by the dozen. Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason.

I don’t get the first part of this, but was startled by the last sentence, “Religion may begin with experiences beyond reason, but faith relies on reason.” It seems to me that reason, whether conceived by the Greeks, who more or less invented it or by modern philosophers, always refers to a process of argument based or experience and rational or logical derivations of that experience. He has badly confused faith and reason, making a category error. Faith is a form of belief. Belief is the key concept. Beliefs are those truths on which human agency is based as justified. Faith is a kind of belief without reasoned grounds. It is true because I say so. Now this is not a pejorative statement. The “I” may be a single believer who is completely justified in holding any beliefs until they contravene societal mores and norms. That’s the argument William James made in his famous piece, “The Will to Believe.”

The “I” may be the “Books” on which the great Abrahamic religions are based. I will note that faith is involved in even our rational system of beliefs, but I don’t think that is what Brooks meant. Accepting that science and rationality produce the correct model of the world on which to base our culture is a matter of faith, in fact, one of the key articles of faith of Modernity. In fact, science, like religion, is merely another story we tell about our beliefs about the world out there. Modernity changed their priority. What matters is the meaning we draw from these stories and act on.

Then he throws a Talmudic scholar, Joseph Soloveitchik, at us. I am far from a Jewish scholar such as Soloveitchik, but I did go and read the entire “footnote” from which this extract is taken. Here it is the part Brooks quotes:

The individual who frees himself from the rational principle and who casts off the yoke of objective thought will in the end turn destructive and lay waste the entire created order. Therefore, it is preferable that religion should ally itself with the forces of clear, logical cognition, as uniquely exemplified in the scientific method, even though at times the two might clash with one another.

Since my immediate reading was that the Rabbi has it completely backward, I thought I might understand his point by reading the whole piece cited. No such luck. I believe religions and science exist in two separate and distinct domains, much like C. P. Snow argues in his famous essay, “The Two Cultures,” which separated intellectual life into science and the humanities. If the humanities are seen as the place from which meaning and its moral consequences come, I might include religions there. Science always needs another distinct domain of intellectual activity to give meaning the knowledge it produces. Soloveitchik is railing against the nihilism that has been attributed by many to philosophers ranging from Nietzsche to Heidegger. But to see objective thought as the perpetrator of all the evil we have seen in our times on earth is, I find, preposterous. Rationality and objectivity are amoral, but do produce the material forces that are and have been utilized by moral arguments far from its reach. If we are to focus on faith in this column, bringing in rationality as a component further fuzzes the picture.

I know I am running on, but can’t stop now. Next we have:

Or as Wiman puts it more elegantly: “Faith cannot save you from the claims of reason, except insofar as it preserves and protects that wonderful, terrible time when reason, if only for a moment, lost its claim on you.”

What are these “claims of reason”? It seems to me that reason make claims only in the sense that we take it to be the appropriate basis for action until we find more reasons to change our beliefs. It is true that we debate which is the more legitimate basis for action in the world: reason-based beliefs or faith-based beliefs, but that debate was won with the enlightenment and the evolution of modernity. Should we abandon what science and reason tell us about climate change and give in to arguments based on faith? Should we abandon a pretty good story about how humans got here is place of a story can only survive on a completely faith-based explanation. We have a claim on reason, not vice versa. So with religion. It is our choice to invoke one of these stories to win our arguments.


All this discerning and talking leads to the main business of faith: living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves. They are trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience. They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.

This seems to be about religion. That’s where creators live. Look, I am not dumping on religion. I am trying to unpack Brooks’ article and make sense out of it because some of what is here is very important. If he means that those of religious faith are bound by the ethical and moral tenets that have become attached to the religion, I strongly agree. Most, if not all, of the important moral guidance we need for living fully, comes from theologians and philosophers, as the interpreters of what we experience in the world. But it takes more than faith to be attentive to every moment. Faith cannot guide us through the real world without the objective knowledge science provides us. Again look at the case of climate change.

Almost done:

Marx thought that religion was the opiate of the masses, but Soloveitchik argues that, on the contrary, this business of living out a faith is: “The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence.”

The process of life is inherently “complex and arduous.” Spiritual dilemmas are no different from existential ones. That’s the real point here, I believe. Science has reveals an awe-inducing amount of knowledge about the world, but which is not very useful in helping individuals make choices in life or explain why this or that happened to me. When faith tries to provide answers to such questions, it is not very good either, because, like science it finds its answers in categories and generalities, like “God’s ways are mysterious, so stop asking that question.”

Finally the last paragraph:

Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”

I don’t follow most of this paragraph, but found in the last line the zinger I was hoping to find. He, I will guess, is pointing to existentialism without meaning to, as a philosophical argument for making the most about what humans are and can experience during a lifetime on Earth. Existentialists, like Nietzsche and Heidegger, whom Soloveitchik rails against as being evil (my interpretation of these passages) also wrote this just before the part Brooks cited:

First, the entire Romantic aspiration to escape from the domain of knowledge, the rebellion against the authority of objective, scientific cognition which has found its expression in the biologistic philosophies of Bergson, Nietzsche, Spengler, Klages, and their followers and in the phenomenological, existential, and antiscientific school of Heidegger and his coterie, and from the midst of which there arose in various forms the sanctification of vitality and intuition, the veneration of instinct, the desire for power, the glorification of the emotional-affective life and the flowing, surging stream of subjectivity, the lavishing of extravagant praise on the Faustian type and the Dionysian personality, etc., etc., have brought complete chaos and human depravity to the world.

The existentialist credo, if such a credo exists, is that individuals are unique; there is no way to put them into the categories of science or religion. To be human is to live one’s finite existence on earth, faced with the constant terror of knowing that there is no ultimate source to call on to guide the next act and get find an excuse for whatever what was done. Science and religion are just stories that may be useful in this regard, but lack relevance in real life, itself, in its everydayness. I will finish with a brief statement that makes a quite different case.

Spirituality, not religion, is what is truly important because it is a basic part of the humanity of our species. Much of the inhumanity of modern life can be attributed to spirituality’s loss to modern categories of knowledge. Science has separated us from the world’s mystery by its reductionist methodologies that separate humans from the world, and weaken the sense of connectedness to it. Love comes naturally from that sense of connectedness, not from some moral statement that merely recognized love as a basic human emotion. Love is a special form of caring; one in which the other is acknowledged as having an equivalent right to exist as the giver. But love like any form of caring is essentially action across some connection. More reason to always focus on spirituality, not religion. One is existential; the other is a reduced institution structure that has substituted dogma for raw human experience.

Descartes turned us into mere objects to be understood just like rocks. The concreteness inherent to the existentialist view of the human being is also important to our view of the world. Science gives us abstract rules to describe its parts, but cannot tell us how the whole organic, complex world is working at any moment or where it will be in the next. Whitehead wrote famously of the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” We are forever mistaking the menu for the meal. Perfection is a consciousness of the wholeness and interconnectedness of the cosmos; absolutely unavailable in the machine that science brings us. Both science and religion have squeezed out spirituality from a normal practice in our modern world.

Neither rationally based nor faith-based beliefs (I should really say religiously-based because that is what goes for faith today) can provide the basis for achieving our human potential, either as individuals or societies. I have called that achievement, flourishing. It can only exist upon a model of human being that is different from one that faith, religious or otherwise, or science can provide.

If this season is to be a time to celebrate our humanity, religion, IMHO, is not the way to do it. We should be learning more about its teachings, rather than its preachings, for there is the place to find invaluable wisdom. Science can do nothing here. I wonder how it got into article. It is very important to avoid confusing categories of belief, as we seek more of what we can become. Beliefs are the foundation for our individual and social actions. We can see them both in our personal habits and the routines of norms of societies. Neither science nor faith has gotten us far enough and seems to be leading us farther from the vision of existential flourishing. But these form the social paradigm that dominates the West. If we truly want to find flourishing and the full expression our unique humanity, we must find our way into a new paradigm. If we are to do that, understanding the words we use is critical. Words carry the meanings we use to build and legitimate the institutions that drive our culture. They underpin the ways we act and feel. Writers, like Brooks have a responsibility to clarify, not obfuscate, them. Thanks again, David, for so much, maybe too much grist, for my mill.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 24, 2014 10:35 AM ::

Killing Time*

Never waste a moment again.

Never let the world come in.

Never worry that some one

Will look at you enjoying fun.

Time is money so they say.

Working in our modern way

Spare5, the app, finds jobs to fill.

No chance for existential thrills.

A penny here, a nickel there,

 You’ll soon not have a cupboard bare.
But like the Red Shoes dancer,
Life for you will have no answer.

Time is never there to kill.

Nor to deliver you a bill.

It’s all we have to let us be.

Free moments are a part of me.

I need to stop myself some times
And listen to the warbler’s chimes
Without a single moment’s thought
Of don’t or must or should or ought.

I need to let time pass me by

Without thinking what I should buy.

Idleness is part of what makes me human.

Damn technology—no flowers bloomin’.

  • Inspired by a Globe article on an app that turns idle time into $$. (slightly revised 12/11/14)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on December 8, 2014 11:09 AM ::