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Plus ça change…

I was going through some older blog posts and came upon this on from November 2010. It is uncannily relevant still.

I’m as Mad as Hell, and I’m Not Going to Take This Anymore! (November 22)

This now famous line from “Network” was uttered by Howard Beale, the embittered newscaster. It also seems to have been in the background of people’s explanations for the choices made in this past election. Or perhaps, it was only a variation like, I’m as mad as hell at you, and I’m not going to take you anymore! It’s much, much easier to take out one’s frustration in these troubled times on somebody than to spend the time to locate where the “this” in Beale’s cry really lies. It’s never quite clear in the movie whether Beale’s use of “mad” refers to anger at something or to his mental state. He had threatened to commit suicide on the air.

Beale’s phrase came upon me as I was reading an article from Orion, one of my favorite magazines. The article, “World Gone Mad,” by Derrick Jensen, is the converse of Network. It’s the world that has gone mad, not the commentator. Jensen, expressing his disappointment about the shallowness of most everything claiming to be green, asks why no one concerned about the state of the world ever “mentions psychopathology.”

Why is this important? Because those in power destroy sustainable communities?—?and not just sustainable indigenous communities. If people develop new ways to live on their land more sustainably, and those in power decide that land is needed for roads and shopping malls and parking lots, those in power will seize that land. This is how the dominant culture works. Everything and everyone must be sacrificed to economic production, to economic growth, to the continuation of this culture.

Jensen calls on the “official” definition of mental disease, section F60.2 of The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, published by the World Health Organization, Geneva, 1992, similar to the US psychiatric standard, DSM-IV. Here are the key characteristics of sociopaths:

a. callous unconcern for the feelings of others.

b. gross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules and obligations.

c. incapacity to maintain enduring relationships, though having no difficulty in establishing them.

d. very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of aggression, including violence.

e. incapacity to experience guilt and to profit from experience, particularly punishment.

f. marked proneness to blame others, or to offer plausible rationalizations, for the behaviour.

The article is not for the squeamish. Jensen is indeed angry and provides ample examples of each of these behavioral characteristics. I’ll only quote his comments after the first item in the list, callous unconcern.

Where to start? Have members of this culture shown any concern for the feelings of the indigenous as they’ve stolen their land? How about the feelings of nonhumans being driven from their homes, or those being driven out of existence? Further, doesn’t the mainstream scientific community demand that emotion be removed from all scientific study? Aren’t we also told that emotions must not interfere with business decisions and economic policy? Do chickens in battery cages have feelings? What about dogs in vivisection labs? What about trees? Rain? Stones? The culture goes beyond “callous unconcern” for the feelings of these others to deny that their feelings even exist.

He finishes the article with a rather mild call for action saying we “need to step up and call out the larger culture for the way it behaves.” I do not think being mild is the right response. These days I feel more like Howard Beale. I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore! I’m not at all sure where this will take me, but somewhere beyond merely writing down my thoughts and hoping people will be stirred to do something. I would be delighted to hear suggestions from you who have been following my blogging.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 1, 2016 8:05 PM ::

Comments Please, But Read This First

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 "recent posts" list on the right hand side. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 1, 2016 8:56 AM ::

Working on Book

absent I have been putting almost all my attention on the book I have been working on for far too long. I am still very much engaged in the subjects I wrote about on this blog. I have a few more chapters to draft. I will return to posting here when I finish them. Don't give up. I am very pleased with how thing are showing up on "paper." Most of what I have written has roots somewhere on this blog. The most important findings I am writing about is that both flourishing and care can be grounded in the same way that gravity can be. This makes the case against their counterparts, happiness and self-interest, very strong. I can now, and you should also, begin to think about redesigning all the institutions that matter to life in the modern world to reflect these two facts about human nature and human culture. I will start putting up more of my thoughts soon, but, for the time being, I will be an absentee.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 25, 2016 3:55 PM ::

Living in Lalaland

I have to warn you that the document you will see in a moment is not a joke. It is in reality a “joke,” but it is for real. I got notice of a new bill (H. R. 5668) just introduced into the House of Representatives. Here is the preamble:

To prohibit the Secretary of Energy and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from taking the social cost of carbon or the social cost of methane into account when taking any action, and for other purposes.

I hesitate to give you the name of the bill for fear you will fall into a fit of dangerous, convulsive laughter, but here it is, “Transparency and Honesty in Energy Regulations Act of 2016.” You can view the whole bill at this link.

lalaland 1984 is surely upon us. This is the best example of “doublespeak” I have seen for a while, although there is a lot more being thrown around in the current political campaigning. Hiding the real costs of anything is the epitome of obfuscation. Economists know very well that so-called external costs, the ones that are not incorporated into the price of goods and services, are just as real as the costs of labor, materials and capital that were included. This bill is an outrageous attempt at increasing the burden on the bottom of the income scale relative to the rich. The only difference between this and attempts to cut taxes on the rich is the tactic.

Social costs that come as a result of economic activities always tend to weigh more on the poor who lack the protections of the rich. When the sea level rises and inundates the coasts, the poor who can’t afford to live on high ground get hurt, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina. Polluted air and water harm the poor more than those who can escape from them. This tactic is a variation of a very old trick to justify government projects that benefit the few at the expense of the many, including nature herself. The Army Corps of Engineers, for years, used a calculus that ignored the environmental costs of the dams. Now, begrudgingly I believe, they are beginning to pull some of those dams down to restore the natural values of the waterways.

Enough said. Keep this scurrilous act in mind next November when you pull the lever in the voting booth. I can live with a reality I do not like and with ideas with which I do not agree, but not with such flagrant ignorance and dismissal of how things really are.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 12, 2016 11:55 AM ::

The Quest for Flourishing: Nature or Nurture?

human nature

This is another long and complicated blog post, but gets closer to closing the loop in my overall story of the centrality of flourishing to the good life and the reasons why it is so difficult to come by in today’s world. David Brooks, my favorite source of blog topics, wrote a good piece in the NYTimes today (July 8, 2016) contrasting two basic human dispositions: selfishness and empathy/altruism. The final paragraph tells most of the story of the column.

By assuming that people are selfish, by prioritizing arrangements based on selfishness, we have encouraged selfish frames of mind. Maybe it’s time to upend classical economics and political science. Maybe it’s time to build institutions that harness people’s natural longing to do good.

I fully agree with the gist of his article, but I think he fails to dig deep enough to understand the causes of the behavior he criticizes. I believe the contrasting modes of behavior are due to the tension between nature and nurture. Selfishness is a modern idea about human nature, often attributed to Adam Smith’s view of economic “man.” Brooks notes,

Western society is built on the assumption that people are fundamentally selfish. Machiavelli and Hobbes gave us influential philosophies built on human selfishness. Sigmund Freud gave us a psychology of selfishness. Children, he wrote, “are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them.”

I have often written that Smith and those that followed his line of thinking were wrong. Human behavior is today, indeed, frequently, perhaps, largely, driven by selfish motivations, but not as a result of some inherent nature. This is a very critical distinction because, if it is our nature to be selfish above all other motivating forces, the visions of progress toward some concept of perfection are doomed to remain only as pretty pictures in our minds.

The opposite disposition Brooks poses is altruism. The motivating force is turned on its tail, in this case, aimed at the target of the action, not at the actor. This is a very important mode and is absolutely necessary if one thinks of civilization as some collection of interconnected human beings, as it is in reality. Later, as the above paragraph indicates, Brooks equates altruism with some disposition related to a sort of moral behavior: “a longing to do good.” Again he mixes up nature and nurture. Morality is a human invention, designed to control behavior, but rests on a particular model of human nature.

If humans had some sort of moral code built into their nature instead of the selfish genes of Richard Dawkins, goodness would abound in the world more or less automatically.1 We would observe actions that would be predominantly motivated by altruism. How would we know? The results themselves would indicate the direction of intentions and the reasons given would be consistent with that. One of the widely accepted qualities of social life in the United States today is individualism, a disposition that overlays selfishness. This, too, is manifest in the direction of intentions and the reasons given for associated actions,

Brooks apposes selfishness, as human nature, with a moral disposition to do good, writing, “To simplify, there are two lenses people can use to see any situation: the economic lens [nature] or the moral lens [nurture].” (my additions in brackets) Unfortunately this pairing creates a struggle where the latter is over-matched by the former. Given enough time, nature will rule over some sort of culturally based disposition (nurture). As I explain below, this outcome always arises because prevailing institutions begin with a singular belief that gets more strongly embedded over time. Moral strictures are always only human creations based on another human creation: the concept of goodness. Against a long history of belief in “the good” as being a natural phenomenon, today few believe it can be found in nature or be derived from natural laws. Religious views of the “good” still abound, views that would argue that a god included goodness in creating human nature. I do not accept this latter view.

What Brooks misses is that what he refers to as altruism may indeed be closer to what constitutes human nature than is selfishness. As I have written extensively, I believe that human nature, as a basic way of behavior, is caring. Caring is a way of acting interactively with objects encountered in the world such that the actions are motivated by the objects; they do nor arise out of some purely internal (selfish) origin. Human consciousness has a fundamental intentionality to it, defined as always being about some perceptual thing made distinct to the observer. I am always only conscious of some thing, including awareness of my own body. I do not have space to elaborate on this here, but argue that this basic feature of the human species ends up with actions that fit the notions of care, more than that of selfishness.

Brooks gives several examples of caring (what he calls altruistic behavior). Babies can act quicker to aid others that do adults, for example. This would indicate that, before they are socialized into acting on a basis of institutionalized rules, human are naturally caring in social situations. Other actions at that stage are emotionally driven by evolutionary formed parts of the brain. Babies act before they have developed language skills beyond more than a rudimentary level. Ther cannot, at that stage, create stories about the world that will later serve as the source of their behavior.

This explanation is based on the work of current cognitive science, particularly that of Antonio Damasio. Damasio claims that the way the brain works can be described in terms of three selves, associated with three different areas of the brain.2 The first is the proto-self, the basis for action related to evolution and to consequent basic emotions. It is the place that hunger and fright could be said to reside. The proto-self acts in modes inherent in the brain structure as genetically shaped. The second of the selves, the core self, is also largely of (more recent) evolutionary origin and entails that part of the cognitive system that runs the machinery of the body and maintains it in a homeostatic condition. That self, of which we are not generally aware, works to keep the body viable whenever the internal and external environment changes.

The third and most important self that is relevant to this article is the autobiographical self. This self corresponds to the processes taking place in the largest parts of the brain, which processes arise out of the embedded memories of life’s experiences. This self is largely the product of nurture, as compared to nature, which is the source of the other two selves. This is the self that is conscious, has intentions, can give reasons, can be characterized as having dispositions to act in certain ways more than in others. It may help to use the metaphor of story as the source of actions manifest by this self, the one we can observe in everyday situations.

The baby has no such story to act upon. Babies lack both the experience and the language on which to write their story in their memories. As they develop and enter into the social world and begin to acquire language, they begin to write their own, unique stories, that is, create memory traces corresponding to the events. Learning, the act of inscribing of the stories, comes from doing, that is, life experience. We know that humans left in the care of primate “parents” do not develop in the same way as those in human social milieus; they become “wild” children. To the extent that the stories include deontic ethical rules, that is, rules about, duties, rights, and similar oughts or obligations, the rules will have come from translations of experience into fixed memory patterns. If life is lived within institutions with associated deontic powers that are based on selfishness, that is, one ought to act out of one’s desires, wants, or any similar manifestation of inwardly directed intentions, then, over time, the resultant human actor will be seen as having a selfish nature.

That would be a mistake, a very bad mistake for the world because the set of selfish-based institutions that shape human behavior would be continually reinforced and more deeply embedded. And that is exactly where we are today. The world is being threatened by the consequences of an error in judgment: mistaking the distinctive selfishness of modern, capitalistic life as nature when, in fact, it is nurture. Capitalistic political societies grew out of the selfishness belief, and, as the institutions of capitalism grew, that belief became further embedded as true.

I owe the concept of deontic power to John Searle, the American philosopher, who has written extensively on the nature of language, its connection to the human mind, and its role in creating human social institutions.3 The latter are the myriads of sets of rules that create the social structures within which we live everyday, and, which lie outside of our immediate consciousness. He includes institutional things like “money” or “private property” or “marriage” or “baseball”, created and empowered by the collective intention of society at some point in history, and endowed with a set of what he calls deontic powers, that is, a set of rules laying out specific duties, obligations, rights, etc. attached to the new institution.

Private property, a relatively recent invention, epitomizes the background power of the model of selfishness. The deontic power of private property can be expressed in a simple rule: I can (ought to be able to) use what I own in anyway I want without anyone restricting that right. Searle points out that every right by someone creates obligations in everyone else. Private property also means that others have an obligation not to interfere with its use.

So now I have set the stage to get back to David Brooks. He bemoans the absence of “institutions that harness people’s natural longing to do good.” So do I, but I would make say this in stronger terms. We need to re-create institutions based on our true human nature of caring, a nature that has become swamped by the embedding of a misbelief in selfishness in virtually all the important institutions of modernity. It is more than a longing or a disposition. What ever longings we have come out of moments when our true nature breaks through the barriers created by modernity and shows up in our consciousness.

Institutions are only human creations. They have no reality other than that we have endowed them with by language. They are born only through human linguistic Declarations (a particular form of speech act, explained in the Searle book I cite.). New institutions with different deontic powers, consistent with a flourishing vision of the world, can be created if enough of us say so.

The place to start is with the foundational institution of all, beliefs. Beliefs are statements about truths about how the world works. We need them if we are to live harmoniously in the world. If we went about life believing that gravity acted to push objects apart, we would forever be trying to construct a built world that couldn’t possibly work. In the broad social world, we hold statements about the natural world as true in modern times if they have been created by science. Science is just another example of an institution, but with the particular deontic power that the claims made through science ought to be accepted as valid truths about the world. The creation of this institution has benefitted humanity immensely, but can and has also created some false impressions about the nature of things, that is, the true way things are.

Human nature is one of these errors. We do not know that humans are selfish in the same way we know that gravity is an attractive force. We have taken it for granted in constructing the institutions of modernity, but now are beginning to see the error of our ways. The response to this mistake is very simple in concept, but not in practice. Stop making it. Acknowledge that the belief that humans are naturally selfish is wrong. It is a belief arising out of nurture, that is observations of human behavior conditioned by the deontic power of institutions based on that model, a destructive tautology.

Start with what I believe is the nature of human Being: caring, arising out of our unique powers of language and intentionality. (Read the Searle book I cite for the basis of this claim.) Heidegger got a similar place, declaring caring to be the foundation of human existence, through his philosophizing, even in the absence of the biological knowledge available today. Caring is much more than the “longing” Brooks writes about. My longing is for a flourishing world where all life can achieve its biological potential, and humans, in addition, their special cultural potential, based on being able to live according to their caring nature. To get there, we must voice that belief in everything we do in constructing both our material artifacts and also our social facts and institutions that exist only through languaging them. That’s only the beginning; we also must start to replace the existing artifacts and institution based on the old concept of human nature. That’s the hard part because we have come to believe that that they are generally the right ones to have and cannot see how to live without them.

  1. Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Damasio, A. (2010) Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. New York: Pantheon
  3. Searle, J. (2010). Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 8, 2016 2:08 PM ::

What Brexit Means to Me (and You)


The news following the referendum in the UK was largely about financial uncertainty and other economic consequences. A few stories warned of risks for immigrants now living in the UK without any kind of local documentation. All of a sudden they have been thrown into the same situation as undocumented immigrants in the US. The nationalistic walls that have been so artfully lowered by the Europeanization process have started to rise with all the ominous memories of the history of separate, competitive, warring entities.

One thing I have learned from my thinking about the world over the past few decades is that it, including humans, is highly interconnected. It was always interconnected through the workings of its global natural processes. As human activities have now grown to the point they exert a significant impact not only on themselves, but also on the natural processes, interconnectedness is an essential part of the system in which all life exists. To ignore that fact while managing the present and planning for the future is like trying to drive a car in traffic wearing earplugs and a blindfold.

The European Union was conceived by men who understood, at least in part, the importance of creating a form of governance that recognized the interconnectedness of nations. It is, by far, the most successful and effective effort toward this end. Its very core structure requires that its members give up some part of their historical sovereignty and replace it with a form of interconnectedness. Regulations made by the governing body are to be harmonized with national rules and policies. Interesting choice of words, harmonize. It has a sense of holism and integrity. The United Nations doesn’t come close, If anything, it tends to exacerbate the nationalism among its members. It has, at least, provided a forum for discussing the individualistic concerns of its members, but lacks any sense of the interconnected whole.

I find a deep sense of irony in the vote to leave the EU. The arguments to leave were largely to insure a future where British sovereignty would be dominant against a backdrop of connectedness to the rest of Europe. Trying to go it alone in any interconnected system tends to make both the outrider and the system less stable and more subject to unpredictable events. On my reading of the news of the vote, I have a strong feeling that this kind of understanding was missing.

Many pundits predict that this event will encourage other nations to go it alone. The current election campaign in the US mimics, in large part, the arguments for and against Brexit. Trump and the Republicans tend to argue for policies based on US exceptionalism, a position that argues that this country is distinct from all the rest and is not subject to the systemic forces that actually shape history. Clinton and the Democrats argue that we are part of the world’s interconnected system and cannot unilaterally have it our way.

These two sets of claims are essentially the same as the two I see as competing for our future as flourishing or not. The positivist, certain way of seeing the world as something we know all about has run its course because interconnectedness is now the better reality than the reductionist mechanistic models that got us so far away from the murk of the Middle Ages. In a sense, we are the victims of our successes. Using the models of modernity we have designed and built an increasingly interconnected global system with all its wonders of innovation and economic power, but, simultaneously, that system has become rigid and more subject to unplanned departures from the trajectory it had been on for centuries.

We cannot opt out of life on Planet Earth, in spite of those who argue we should start planning to inhabit other celestial bodies. The only way to prolong our stay here is to start to give up our modern model of the world and start to think of it as a highly interconnected complex system. National boundaries are an unnatural part of that system. Natural processes ignore them completely. Human activities now flow routinely across these boundaries. Humans are just another predator species, amidst the rest of life forms. We know that other species cannot flourish when their natural habitats deteriorate or disappear. It is hubris to think we are different and are in control. It is also simply unwise.

We do not have to continue to think the same old way. Other species are often doomed when their worlds begin to change in critical ways. Their inventiveness is severely limited relative to the human species. Without language, they cannot do much more than their genes allow. They do not have concepts and beliefs without which there cannot be intentionality: the human capacity to act in meaningful ways.

When we discover that what we have been doing is turning out badly, humans have two basic options to cope. One is to hold onto our basic beliefs about how the world works and try to patch up the parts that appear to be causing us grief. The primary means for this is to apply some form of technology or technocratic management to isolate the problematic pieces or, otherwise, to fix a part of the machine that we see is sputtering. Brexit is unfortunately a prime example of the first of these approaches.

The second possibility is to give up those deeply embedded beliefs on which our actions are based. To many this will always appear as the more risky because, until the subsequent actions become stable, we cannot predict how the remedies will work. Highly interconnected systems are always complex and, therefore, inherently unpredictable.

These two alternates are similar to the basic tenets of the two poles of political philosophy in democracies: liberalism and conservatism. Conservatism is a belief that what has worked in the past is better than anything new. This way of thinking ignores the reality of an ever-changing world. Unlike a machine which tends to maintain itself as it grow larger, the complex world is subject to all sorts of systemic changes that produce deviations in behavior from the previous norms. Without commenting on the specific claim of the conservative right, the foundation on which it is built cannot support the superstructure of today’s highly interconnected complex world.

Liberalism, conversely, is more pragmatic at its core. It understands that truths do change as the world changes. The heart of the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill was freedom of expression as a necessary context for the discovery of truths in a changing world. At its roots, liberalism is a form of social learning. Unfortunately, liberalism has lost much of its pragmatic character, but still admits of a need to keep adapting as circumstances change as they inevitably do. John Dewey, the great American philosophy, saw clearly the importance of a liberal, pragmatic framework in any kind of effective democracy.

I have always seen myself in the liberal camp politically, but without much reflection as to why. Now, as I have begun to acknowledge the complexity of the world as its basic nature, my choice has become clear. To dream of flourishing is to accept complexity. One cannot have the former without the latter and its wonderful property of emergence: the ability to create something out of nothing. I believe that such thinking is impossible among conservatives, given the very underpinnings of their political philosophy. They cannot deal with complexity. While it is possible to accept complexity and think pragmatically as a liberal, I do wish that more of its leaders would express this, and more sharply delineate the critical differences with conservatism that have been buried in public conversations here in the US and also in the debates that preceded the Brexit vote.

At moments like this, the words of a very plaintive tune often rush into my consciousness. It is Where Have All the Flowers Gone, by Pete Seeger. One verse will do.

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 25, 2016 4:35 PM ::

Emergence or How To Be Something Without Having an Essence


This blog post is inspired, in part, by a comment directed at my opening plenary at a recent event. The commenter challenged my claim that I escape the essentialism of human nature in my claims about care as the existential ground of human behavior. My answer is largely that the nature or essence of something is located inside or possessed by the object. Care is related to emergence. Emergent properties differ by existing only outside the body as the name suggests. They are there only by virtue of the word of some observer of the object.

Modern society, since the early Enlightenment, has been shaped by an essentialist definition of human nature, describing it as some feature or set of features that make us what we are. This seems quite reasonable since we define most anything else by the way it works. A table is a table because it serves as a platform on which we can set things. Martin Heidegger disagrees:

All metaphysics including its opponent, positivism, speaks the language of Plato. The basic word of its thinking, that is, of his presentation of the Being of beings, is eidos, idea: the outward appearance in which beings as such show themselves. Outward appearance, however, is a manner of presence. No outward appearance without light — Plato already knew this. But there is no light and no brightness without the opening. Even darkness needs it. How else could we happen into darkness and wander through it? (from On Time and Being)

I am more interested in creating flourishing than in the meaning of human nature, but I can’t get there without first taking a detour into the world of philosophy. Why? Because the absence of flourishing is, in part, the result of holding a faulty conception of what human beings are (an ontological question). Alternatively, because the state of the world depends on what we do, not what we are, we should ask the ethical question, “What does it mean to be a human being?”, or the closely related question, “What are human beings for?”1

The latter question sounds strange. Humans are a natural object, like rocks or giraffes or raindrops. We would not ask what giraffes are for unless we believed in some designing creator, who might have had some purpose in mind. Without such a transcendent designer/creator, natural objects, that is, those that appeared along the evolutionary lifetime of the cosmos due only to natural processes are purposeless. They simply exist as something distinct in the cosmos. Their distinction arises out of their differences in material extent and structure, as expressed by their properties. We would never ask what is the purpose or meaning of a rock, unless we were writing a poem or otherwise attaching some human-derived property, like hammering, to it. Natural objects can serve as metaphors, taking some of their properties and ascribing them to something else.

If we know what a giraffe is, but not what it is for or what does it mean to be a giraffe, does the same restriction apply to human beings? Our existence as a distinct species, like giraffes, is a result of the evolutionary process, but very late in that process. If we accept the answer for the giraffe, then it must be true for human beings as well. We exist as a distinct species only by the randomness of a set of meaningless natural processes. Giraffes and other forms of life differ from other inanimate natural objects in one critical extent, they exist with a purpose, to exist in the world in such a manner to reproduce themselves as individual organismic entities and as species.

How can this be if we accept the purposelessness of the natural world? The answer comes in the idea of emergence. Emergence is the process by which order appears, spontaneously, in otherwise chaotic systems, that is, systems that do not exhibit spatial or temporal regularities. The cosmos itself is best explained by the Big Bang theory as emergent, the result of some not ordered process that, as if by magic, created order. We see emergent processes all the time. Every time we make ice, we have created order, solidity, in what was another ordered form, liquid water, which results when a chaotic form, water vapor, condenses as the temperature is lowered.

Life, itself, is such an emergent phenomenon. From a mixture of chemicals in a medium, life came forth, or emerged, in the form of primordial organisms. The chemicals had been interacting before, but without the emergence of order. As time passed, the chemicals interacted in such a way that a structure was formed with the capability to reproduce itself. Maturana and Varela call this process, autopoiesis. Living organisms are the only natural entities that possess this characteristic. It is possible to conceive of mechanical systems that can be designed to reproduce themselves, but it would incorrect to label them as living. Living organisms, not only act autopoietically to maintain their organization during their lifetime, but also maintain the species by some form of reproduction.

If one were to observe the behavior of any living species, it would appear to have a purpose, that is, it would consist of actions to maintain itself, to remain viable. Maturana and Varela make an important point, noting that autopoiesis always maintains the organism’s organization while its structure changes to reflect interactions with its external world The emergent purposefulness of life is the primary ontological feature of life. It is sufficient to describe all life forms, including human beings, as living organisms. Another way to say this is that the primary feature of all life forms is viability, but that is all we can say about them, even about human beings. Early natural philosophers missed this important point and attributed other natures to humans (and other material objects). So far so good, but how does this step get us to accepting “care” as the basis for human existence?

Heidegger went further observing that human viability reflects the world in which one was embedded or, as he wrote, into which one was thrown. Biological structural coupling is accompanied by a cultural coupling as well, expressed through meaningful actions. Humans care for the world by acting in ways reflecting their understanding of the meaning of the situations they found themselves in. He defined care in terms of a wide range of actions, writing that caring is “having to do with something, producing, attending to something and looking after it, giving up something and letting it go, undertaking, accomplishing, evincing, interrogating, considering, discussing, determining, and so forth.” Meaning is not to be found as an essence, but in the way we interact with objects or, in, Heidegger’s way, care for or with them. The critical part of this argument is that human Being is a complex phenomenon, which process permits emergence.

As a postscript, this kind of connection between meaning and action is central to early pragmatism. What we know in the form of beliefs is the result of our interactions with the world, as in this extract from the works of C. S. Pierce, the founder of this philosophical strain.

Every piece of knowing depends, not simply causally, but logically, on what one has previously learnt, since all knowledge rests on the assumption that certain methods of classification and systemization, which have been learnt in connection with other earlier situations, can be applied, in a particular way, to a particular situation. Once admitted, the grave error of Descartes and of all later Cartesians becomes plain: it is the assumption that we cannot learn until we know…Rather, we must always build on what we already know. It is impossible in principle to pinpoint the moment when the learning process begins, but so what.

One simply cannot get to understand what humans are for without the frame of complexity and its associated phenomenon, emergence. And once having got there, it is impossible to go further without the kind of understanding that pragmatic inquiry produces. The problems that the questioner at the conference and virtually all other attendees have with accepting this model of human Being is their uncritical use of positivism, as in the first quote.

You can find my talk I mention above by following this link.

  1. This discussion has been strongly influenced by Loyal Rue’s book Nature is Enough, and by the book, The Tree of Knowledge, by Maturana and Varela

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 18, 2016 6:34 PM ::

Lost for Words

lost for words

I begin tonight a little depressed, which is rare for me. The courses I have been taking at the Harvard Institute for Learning in Retirement (HILR) are over and I miss them. One was an examination of the history of liberalism, starting with John Stuart Mill and finishing with the views of contemporary political theorists, like Isaiah Berlin or John Rawls. At the end, we had a wide-ranging discussion of the place of these ideas in current American political conversations. Compared to the extraordinary careful attempts at defining the concept, words like liberal, liberty, and freedom are being thrown around without a whit of concern for their meaning. This course pointed out the critical importance of being clear about these particular words because, at least for liberal, they have had almost polar opposite meanings at various points in history and in different national settings.

Given the rather unusual nature of this political season so far, the role of language is an important factor. I will come back to this, but, first, mention the second course I took. It was on the work and life of Primo Levi, an Italian Holocaust survivor and remarkable writer about his time in the camps. It was not too hard on me while I was reading his remarkable telling of his experience, but now all I have left are the pictures he created in words. The original title of his first book (written soon after his return to Turin), Survival in Auschwitz, is If This Is a Man, when translated from Italian. It is a much more apt title, as Levi is asking throughout if either the German captors or the brutally treated prisoners have any shreds of humanity left. One of the chapters is titled, “This Side of Good and Evil.” The title suggests that what transpired in the camps has no words to describe it.

I am going to quote a bit from this book and another one we read, The Drowned and the Saved, written many years after his release. They help me explain my mood.

What we have so far said and will say concerns the ambiguous life of the Lager (Camp). In our days many men have lived in this cruel manner, crushed against the bottom, but each for a relatively short period; so that we can perhaps ask ourselves if is it necessary or good to retain any memory of this exceptional state.

To this question we feel that we have to reply in the affirmative. We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing. We would also like to consider that the lager was pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment. (my emphasis.)

The impact of this quote is magnified many times by the concluding words of the second book in which he is describing those who were his ‘torturers.’ (sic) He finds that word inappropriate.

…it brings to mind twisted individuals, ill-born,…Instead they were made of our same cloth, they were average human beings, averagely intelligent, averagely wicked: save for exceptions, they were not monsters.…Let it be clear that to a greater or lesser degree all were responsible, but it must be just as clear that behind their responsibility stands that great majority of Germans, who accepted in the beginning, out of mental laziness, myopic calculation, stupidity, and national pride, the ‘beautiful words’ of Corporal Hitler, followed him as long as luck and the lack of scruples favoured him, were swept away by his ruin, afflicted by deaths, misery and remorse, and rehabilitated a few years later as the result of an unprincipled political game.

Somewhere-I could not find the place-Levi suggests something like the Holocaust could happen again. I do not, in any way, suggest that such a horrendous event is on the horizon here in the US. But we are seeing terrible dehumanizing of multitudes of human beings in many other places. What come through, and depresses me, is the power of demagoguery, which has not changed since 1933. Note the words, “mental laziness” or “national pride.” Also, “lack of scruples.”

The ultimate lesson I got from all the readings about liberty is that in any pluralistic society, tolerance is essential if a drift toward authoritarianism and demagoguery is to be halted. Most of the writers we read stressed the need for an educated citizenry. Their sense of education was full of civic values and critical thinking, but where is this today? I cannot find much of it as captured in the news. I live in an intellectual bubble, that hardly resembles what I gather is the real world out there in the US, so I have to rely on what shows up in the various media I read and listen to. I see the highly touted social media as dangerously implicated in creating a sort of national “stupidity.” How much intelligence can be transmitted and appreciated via Twitter. That it has become a major factor in our political conversation is distressing, at best.

The conversion of “news” to entertainment creates mental laziness at best. That Facebook is the source of hot topics manufactured by a stupefying algorithm based on comments and likes. I found the recent flap about political “ bias” at Facebook pathetic. To elevate a completely artificial source to something worthy of serious criticism is ludicrous, but also chilling relative to history. The dangers of groupthink have been known for a very long long. The existence of large numbers of believers does not make their beliefs either true or right. That seems to me is what Levi is telling us.

Here’s part of the reason I am depressed. The irony of Trump’s comment about shooting somebody on 7th Avenue is “huge.” Here is what he said, “I could stand in the middle of 7th Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters. Like Incredible.” I wrote this down, watching him utter the words on You Tube. I end with this, as an example of the slippery slope we seem to be on without even realizing. That’s what is depressing me. Note the lack of humanity here and other other echoes of what Levi reminds us. When we, or any citizenry, stops thinking about who and how we are to be governed, we are possibly embarking on an unplanned and unwelcome social experiment.

I am off tomorrow to visit my daughter and family. That’s a sure bet to restore my equilibrium.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 19, 2016 10:05 PM ::

Rooting Flourishing in Reality (Cont'd)


I had lunch today with an old friend who has been mucking around in the trenches of constructivism as long as I have. It is rare that I can have an unencumbered conversation about the two distinct worlds that come forth when we distinguish the material, objective world of mechanistic objects from the subjective world of meaningful objects. They co-exist, but we humans make a moment-by-moment choice of which one we want to guide our life. If you do not understand this difference, go back to the blog of April 29th and dwell on the two quotes from Maturana and Rorty, about the middle of the post.

I do not know how the brain distinguishes between these two distinct worlds, but the conscious individual does. Consciousness is more than a general awareness that we are immersed in a world that provides phenomenal inputs to our sensory organs. Consciousness is always an awareness of something out there in the material world. Our brain operates on these inputs, converting or, at least, attempting to convert them to some distinctive meaningful thought. The exact biological mechanism by which this translation process takes place is as yet poorly known, but the philosophy of Martin Heidegger can provide insight into this dichotomy.

Heidegger argues that humans differ from other animals because we are conscious of the world around us and have the linguistic capability to give meaning to it. The meaning of worldly objects arises by interactions with them. As we acquire such meanings, the objects become ready-to-hand, Heidegger’s phrase for objects in the material world that have acquired contextual meaning. He also called these objects: equipment. We understand what a hammer is once we have used it to hammer. Our brains have some sort of memory of the object, associated with the context in which it has become meaningful. If we should encounter the same object out of the context of being used as it has been, it might carry the same label, but would have some other meaning that depended on that particular context, say, as the centerpiece of a modern abstract artistic construction.

We also acquire decontextualized knowledge about objects through didactic and auto-didactic education. Objects that we can identify in terms of generalized or abstract descriptions have an existence distinct from those we understand through use. Heidegger calls such objects: present-at-hand. Both exist as material objects in the world out there, but in two different modes for us. The meaningful ready-at-hand object carries with it a particular kind of truth that is absent from its abstract present-at-hand twin. That truth is a sense of alignment with the real world, the world out there, but not the world of abstractions handed to us by scientific inquiry. The hammer works, that is, it accomplishes the task I wanted or intended to do. When something ready-to-hand is not available to me, (I lost my hammer last week.) the transparency (momentary disappearance of consciousness) of hammering is lost, but I can continue by allowing the immediate world become present and create a hammer by applying my abstract knowledge to objects that become present-at-hand. Knowing that I need a massive, hard object to bang in a nail, I could pick up a rock and keep the action going.

Truth in the meaningful world of ready-to-hand is a different kind of truth from that in the world of present-at-hand. The first kind represents some understanding of the exact way the world works as an organic, contextual reality. I have learned the truth about hammering after I have used a hammer. I cannot explain what that truth is in abstract terms without losing something that was part of the explicit context of my experience. For example, if I picked up a massive piece of glass and tried to hammer with it, I might end up with a pile of shards. The fact that glass is brittle was absent from my prior experience. Heidegger called such truths, inherent in ready-to-hand objects, aletheia (a Greek word for not-being-hidden), or unconcealment. I will also use a more familiar word, pragmatic, to refer to such truths that have become evident while acting in a coherent way in a real world context.

So with this example, let’s shift to the much larger world of everyday reality. All living organisms act biologically to maintain viability. I have used Maturana’s term, autopoiesis, to describe this process in other places. Antonio Damasio describes the human brain as generating a core self (a metaphor) for the processes that maintain homeostasis: bodily conditions within a range that permits the body to remain alive. This self operates without meaning.

For those interested in neuroscience, Damasio posits a second metaphorical self, the proto-self. This self is represented by the reactionary emotions that we have acquired through evolution and is seated in the oldest part (reptilian) of the brain. Emotions like thirst, hunger, or fright are a kind of ready-to-hand understanding of what to do with one’s body in certain contexts. In the emotional context, the body is equivalent to other ready-to-hand objects, like the hammer example. Emotions reveal truths about the world that have become embodied through evolution. The basic emotions are responses to worldly situations that have been effective in maintaining the body, that is, surviving.

Emotional actions lack the meaningfulness of conscious, intentional actions, that is, actions I can reasons about if asked. Such actions are associated with a third kind of self that, according to Damasio, operates in a meaningful manner. He called this one, the autobiographical self; it arises from the stored memories of worldly experience, mediated through language. This self is the biological equivalent of Heidegger’s being-in-the-world.

The protoself and the core self operate without language. Their functioning can be said to be truthful in the sense that they maintain coherence with the world. The truth Heidegger writes about is more about coherence than correctness in any formal sense. [Pragmatic] truth relates to the ability of the human being to maintain coherence with the objective world. Truth has such a pragmatic sense in its relation to successful coping with the world. Further, this kind of truth arises dialectically from actions taken in some meaningful context. The brain senses when whatever was done in response to phenomenal inputs worked and keeps a “record” of that for future reference. The record associated with the core- and proto-self has been written by the evolutionary history of the species, and has phylogenic origins. When similar situations are encountered, the “truthful” actions are recalled and, if still successful, are more deeply rooted in the brain.

Each human creates another record, an ontogenic one, corresponding to its own, unique experiential history: the autobiographical self of Damasio. Unlike the other two selves, this one is mediated through language. Language arose through effective human coping with the world. Language enables humans to relate to each other; to coordinate action as befits a social species. The distinctions that are created in language are stored in the brain in some corresponding form that is yet to be clearly elucidated by neuroscience. Language would have arisen first in human efforts to coordinate actions related to natural phenomena, but, as settlements and their cultures developed, would have expanded as new situations demanded new kinds of coping activities.

Until late in human development, language was largely must have expressed pragmatic truths, experiences that worked well enough to be memorialized in words. The formal, abstract way of expressing truths emerged only in recent times. Sticking with Heidegger for a moment, he blamed the Greeks, especially Plato, for the inversion of truth from its pragmatic to its abstract sense. Modernity, in particular, is characterized by a hegemonic domination of abstract over pragmatic truths. In the process, humans have become separated from the real world and the coherence with it that comes from acting pragmatically. The result is that our actions, both individually and collectively, fail to produce the intended results and may also produce unintended consequences.

Why all this philosophizing? It is very important to the concept of flourishing. Flourishing becomes present when humans are living coherently (effectively) in relation to their biology and the cultural world in which they exist. The core-and proto-selves handle the biology; the autobiographical self copes with the culture as long as sufficient ready-to-hand resources (pragmatic truths) are available. The ills of modernity I write about could be said to arise from the lack of such resources. Another way to say this is to paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s comment about capitalism, “We know a lot about everything, but understand little about the world.” (He wrote, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”)

The above discussion is not so different from my usual rant about the failure to view the world as complex, with the result that the actions we take fall short of producing what we intend them to do. Complexity, without its technical definition, is equivalent to the contextual real world of the preceding paragraphs. The world that Heidegger referred to in his compound phrase, being-in-the-world, is the same complex world we define as non-linear, chaotic, etc. The philosophy of pragmatism and its formal methodologies are merely attempts to unconceal truths about that world. They are extensions to collective situations of the way individual humans generate truths that enable them to successfully navigate life, and ultimately to flourish.

Let me add a few words about care. Care is what humans do when they act out of pragmatic truths, employing ready-to-hand resources. Action, under these circumstances, coheres with the contextual worldly situation, by using ready-to-hand resources that fit. Care is inherently meaningful. One of the key resources of care is empathy, understanding of the other’s situation as part of the context of action. Another key resource is the ability to reflect. Context is created during interruptions in the flow of action. Some call the process by which this happens, presencing, as opposed to the recession of the conscious world during caring actions as ready-to-hand resources produce transparency. Context becomes consciousness during the intervals between such transparencies, and can be captured at that point.

I recognize that I have thrown a lot of ideas around in this post, but I believe that are all parts of a holistic picture of how humans exist in the real world. There are even more pieces I haven’t included. I hope this begins to establish a link between the emerging understanding of the brain and its processes with our sense of reality and how humans behave with respect to it. And, although I did not say much about the failings of the dominant objective world view, this discussion should make a little clearer my arguments about replacing it with a frame that incorporates the very important missing piece: meaning. This discussion also continues to ground flourishing as much more than just an appealing, nice sounding metaphor.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 5, 2016 1:26 PM ::

Dogma, of Any Variety, Is Still Dogma


The last post was long and dense, but contains my latest thinking. This one is a continuation. I have generally avoided political comments on this blog, but it is hard to let what is happening these days go without comment. Like unsustainability, political chaos is a systems issue. Indeed, almost all life’s serious problems are systems issues. Further, almost all of these problems show up inside of complex systems. Unless one has an already well established familiarity with any system and has begun to understand it, quick fixes generally will not work. Complexity always requires understanding, not ordinary knowledge.

Complexity problems virtually always require some form of inquiry that will strip off the proximal causes and allow access to those below the surface. There are quite a few tools around to help do this. The fishbone diagram and the 5 why’s, familiar to those who know the Toyota Production Systems and its derivative, Lean Manufacturing, are a couple of examples. The point here is that the closer one gets to the rooted causal elements (There is always more than one element), the more likely is the chance of clearing up the problem and moving along. Learning processes that involve revealing the roots and playing with alternates beliefs fit what Argyris and Schön called double-loop learning. Complex systems are the source of the “wicked problems” of Rittel and Webber and the “messes” of Russ Ackoff. I have referred to both in my work.

The big problems that attract interest on the national scale are always wicked. (For a discussion of this type of problems, you can click here to move to the start of a series of my posts on that topic. (May 11, 2011, Others follow in my archives.) The Founding Fathers knew this. Although they were well informed by the theories of governance that had developed in England and elsewhere, they were concerned about how they would work in the still inchoate nation they set out to build. The final document, the Constitution, came forth only after a protracted public colloquy, where arguments for alternatives were debated. Today, as Mark Lilla wrote in the article I commented on in my last post, we have foregone this kind of inquiry because we see our own system as a source of Band-Aids for everyone else’s and our problems. As for debate, I wish the media would stop using this term for the circuses that are advertised as debates. Congress has virtually refused to debate serious issues. What go for debates there are little different from those of the political nominating campaigns.

There is great danger in making believe that the world can be known with enough certainty to stop questioning your beliefs and principles. (See the Mill quotes at the end of this post.) That’s what Lilla is saying when he argues that the beliefs and principles of modernity (he called these an ideology) have become dogma—a set of unquestioned and unquestionable facts. The banality of the current nominating process tends to force the candidates into a shallow mold, but almost all of them do not seem to mind. Worse, most seem to relish the idea that they do not have to say anything of any depth, nuance, or criticality, that is, except when referring to the flaws of everyone else.

I think the only candidate that recognizes the “wickedness” of the world that faces the present and next President is Hillary Clinton. She is criticized for her “wonkish” responses and approach to key issues. I find this one of the few positive aspects I can find in reading, listening, or watching the campaign. I am writing this post from as objective a position I am able to take; my arguments are all based to the degree to which the candidates recognize the complex nature of the problems we face. (I am, however, a loyal Democrat.)

Senator Sanders has been rightfully criticized for taking a dogmatic stance on the important problems he has centered his campaign. The problems at the center of his concerns are, indeed, stark and, in my opinion, worthy of fixing, but not by the dogmatic (again in Lilla’s sense) means he trumpets (sic). Dogma, even at a very loud volume, is still dogma. Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” assumes two “facts”: 1) the US was great, then, and 2) whatever made it so can do it again, now. It has never been great without placing a lot of parentheses around the word to indicate all the areas that arguably are not so wonderful to crow about: slavery, inequality, anti-democratic institutions, foreign policy failures (e.g. Viet Nam), hypocrisy, and on and on. We can point to “victories,” like the endings of WW I, WW II, or the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Empire, but not to any simple reason for these historical events.

Lilla does not take up much space examining the causes of this shift away from “thinking” before acting to the current mode of “Fire, Ready, Aim.” A few possibilities come to mind. One is the presence of so much money in politics, coming from a relatively small group of individuals and corporations. Money comes with interests attached, especially the large sums that dominate political “philanthropy.” Politicians do not have to think much, just simply act on behalf of the donors. The failure of bipartisanship in Congress, for whatever reason, makes debate about serious issues impossible. Oppositional politics is a sign of dogma working at its insidious best.

But there is another factor to be considered; the absence of critical thinking in everyone’s education. Our high schools are turning into machines to graduate technicians, even quite sophisticated technicians. The expanding focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) has squeezed out the humanities and an understanding how the world of human beings works. The ability to code apps that may create billionaires says nothing about human affairs, other than today, we, in the US, are crazy about anything new. The same diminishing of humanities and liberal arts is, in general, occurring in our colleges and universities. The destination for the best and brightest from Harvard, Yale and other elite schools is Wall Street, where, as quants, they are little more than high-paid technicians.

When politics departs from reality, we are all in trouble. Political thinkers like John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, and the German social theorist, Jurgen Habermas, have argued that a strong public sphere in which bona fide debate and questioning occurs is essential to any progressive polity. Habermas’s doctoral thesis argued that such a sphere has largely disappeared. Fixed truths, the definition of dogma, prevent such inquiries and immobilize the system, preventing it from adapting to an always changing world.

The size and shape of the United States makes such critical conversations problematic, but, nonetheless, critically important. The monotonic clash between Communism and whatever the US ideology is papered over the complexity of both systems. The reason we won is said to be the superiority of the free market to any sort of central economic planning. The idea of central economic planning has expanded to become equivalent to any form of government intervention in the lives of the people, even as far as some goods that doctrinaire Chicago School economists would admit that the market cannot supply reliably. Materialism, another dogma, is the consequence of leaving the government out of the social world. It works well enough for those with the resources to enter and stay within the market economy, but not for those who lack these resources.

Admitting that one lacks the right answers for what ails us is not tantamount to surrender to the dogmatists, nor a failure of commitment to seek the common good. It is simply an acknowledgment that modernism, when held as a system of absolutes, cannot be fitted to all situations, especially those that deal directly with complexity. Pragmatism as a formal way of discovering truths arose around the end of the 19th century, but blossomed only in the 20th. John Stuart Mill, who is the source of many of the ideas that form the libertarian dogma of today, would be appalled that his thoughts had become so frozen.

In many ways he was a pragmatist, but without being labeled as such. His liberal views about free expression were grounded on the (pragmatic) belief that truth emerges from free, unconstrained conversations. I end this post with a couple of extracts from his best known essay, On Liberty. The very last sentence, while omitting any reference to a process clearly presumes some sort of conversation or inquiry.

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

It is necessary to consider separately these two hypotheses, each of which has a distinct branch of the argument corresponding to it. We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.

Men, and governments, must act to the best of their ability. There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life. We may, and must, assume our opinion to be true for the guidance of our own conduct: and it is assuming no more when we forbid bad men to pervert society by the propagation of opinions which we regard as false and pernicious.

I answer that it is assuming very much more. There is the greatest difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation. Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion, is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and on no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 2, 2016 2:08 PM ::