October 2015 Archives

Need I Comment?


bad face

Another occasional post that speaks for itself. Greenwashing is still an issue. This linked NYTimes article suggests it is still a big issue. Although the article is about the continuing practice of making environmental claims that are either false or misleading, I picked up another case of the most misleading line, the use of sustainable as an adjective.

While plenty of companies are bringing more sustainable products to market, others appear less interested in environmental stewardship and more interested in bamboozling their customers.

Automobiles and diapers have little to do with sustaining the health of the Earth. It’s all up to us. I see I have commented after all. It’s hard to bite my tongue.

Where Have All the Flowers Gone



The NYTimes carried this sad article about the disappearance of many flower species. Given the intimate linguistic connection between flowers and flourishing, I experienced a deep sense of sadness as I read the story. Here’s the opening paragraph.

Ours is one of the most colorful relationships of history: We need flowers for our very survival, and in turn flowers — the plants that exist as crop cultivars or horticultural cut flowers or potted beauties — rely on us to reproduce and spread. But all is not well in this storied partnership: We who behold or nurture flowers are condemning their wild relatives to extinction at an alarming rate, and the world is quickly becoming a lesser place without them.

The article also brought to mind a folk song by Peter Seeger that also makes me very sad. This is just the first verse. It gets even more poignant as it goes.

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago
Where have all the flowers gone?
Girls have picked them every one
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

You can listen to Seeger doing the whole song here.

Flocking and Flourishing



During my on-line class based on my books last night, I experienced a flash if insight. The class was about complexity; one of the two foundational beliefs I argue is needed to create a new culture of flourishing. One of the overheads I use is a video of a Nova program on emergence. They use bird flocking, fish schooling, and human crowd behavior as examples of self-organization or emergence. What has been chaotic movement becomes orderly in just a moment.

The secret to understand such behavior is to identify a set of simple rules that each individual is following that produce the observed order. For flocking the following rules appear to be the right ones. In the absence of asking the birds directly, these rules were developed by computer simulation. Here they are:

  • Separation: Steer to avoid colliding with your neighbors
  • Alignment: Steer in the same direction as your neighbors.
  • Cohesion: Steer toward the center of your neighbors.

There is no top-down control as in an orchestra. Everything is due to local knowledge. For me the important feature is that simple rules can produce orderly, emergent behavior. After the slide lecture, I engaged in discussion about the topics we covered. It dawned on me that I have been using this same idea, but was unaware that I was doing it. I have been arguing that the foundational rules of our modern culture are at the root of the ills we are experiencing and are preventing us from achieving our human potential, which I label flourishing. If we change the rules we can change the cultural patterns, a culture being somewhat analogous to a flock of birds.

I can picture our present society as a collection of birds flying in all directions, but for lack of a set of rules that would bring order. We do have some such rules. The most basic of rules we live by is a variant of Adam Smith’s invisible hand as he described it in his classic, The Wealth of Nations. It is very similar in nature to the rules for flocking. It does what these rules do; it orders the economy, as if by magic. It aligns, in theory, the interests of those that produce goods and those that desire goods so as to produce the most efficient systemic output. Imagine two flocks of bird-like creatures flying in neat formations toward a meeting place called the market.

Nice picture, but it doesn’t work quite like that. There are several other rules at play. I will continue to use the flocking rules as a model. We have a separation rule in the individualistic norm of our current society. It tells each of us to do our own thing. The problem with that is we lack a cohesion rule. Instead of steering towards the center, we protect our own territory. Several Enlightenment thinkers saw that the absence of cohesion rules would leave human settlements in a “state of nature” wherein individuals would battle over resources. The social contract and its rules for surrendering sovereignty provided rules that brought order and overcame the tendency to fly apart. We even have had alignment rules that for a time headed us in the same direction. The coherence of the US during the two World Wars is a case.

Except for the invisible hand rule that continues to order the market, more or less, these other rules have lost their power and we seem to be moving more like a random or chaotic system that a flock of birds. Now I am not arguing that we should resemble a formation of geese, but I am asserting that the present chaotic structure of society prevents the emergence of exactly those qualities we we seek: justice, well-being, equality, happiness, and, as I would have it: flourishing as embodying all the others. The reductionist basis of science as the way to truth is, in essence, a rule that promotes incoherence because it paints the world as a set of discrete parts such that we act as if we are separate from the it and from each other. If we are to flourish, the entire world of humans and non-humans must come into alignment and maintain some resultant order.

I have been advocated two rules to replace these for some time, but have failed to visualize them in the context of precisely the way I describe the world: a complex system with the possibility of generating the emergent property of flourishing. So how would it work in this sense. If humans operated on the basis of a rule called “care for the world you exist within,” it would steer them in the same direction as their neighbors (alignment). Holding the universe as a highly interconnected complex system would create rules to hold the whole system together (cohesion). Some of our existent social rules, like rights of privacy, would maintain distance (separation). As today’s society begin to apply these new rules, the random, chaotic patterns will give way to order, and along with it the possibility of flourishing. Emergent properties, like flourishing, are always only possibilities because we cannot predict the outcomes of such systems. But we do know that chaotic systems cannot produce such qualities.

I realize this is a very rough model, but I believe it can work as the route to design a new, flourishing world. I will be working with this to flesh out these very preliminary thoughts. In closing this post, I have to note that I am not the first to have a similar idea. Part of the scheme I am proposing was proposed over 250 years ago by none other than Adam Smith, but not the Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations. The same person, but coming from an earlier major work of his, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Let me try to summarize the first parts of the book in a sentence or two. Smith believes that moral systems should rest on a basic principle that people act out of a sense of what is going on with others. He calls this sense, sympathy; it is more like what we call, empathy. In a moral society composed of empathetic individuals (I will use the modern word), an invisible hand will guide them so as “to advance the interest of the society”. (I need to use the original to get the full sense of Smith’s meaning.)

They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.

At this point in his life, Smith believed that “sympathy” (empathy) was the central human “sentiment,” not self interest. Empathy is a inherent aspect of caring. To care for the other, one needs a sense of what is going on over there. Any action motivated by empathetic sentiments is constitutive of “care.” Interesting to ponder what our society might look like if The Wealth of Nations had gotten lost on the way to the publisher.

For those that want to read a little more, here is a discussion of sympathy from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I include this because Smith’s language is quite cumbersome to a modern eye.

Smith begins the book with an account of sympathy, which he describes as arising when we imagine how we would feel in the circumstances of others. …This is somewhat different from Hume’s account, on which sympathy normally consists in feeling what others actually feel in their circumstances—Hume’s may be called a “contagion” account of sympathy, while Smith’s is a “projective” account —and it opens up the possibility that our feelings on another person’s behalf may often not match the feelings she herself has. Indeed to some extent they will never match, since imagining oneself in a set of circumstances will always lack the intensity of actually experiencing those circumstances . This difference is of great importance to Smith, since he maintains that sharing the feelings of others as closely as possible is one of our main drives in life. We make constant efforts to adjust our feelings, as spectators, to those of the people “principally concerned” in a set of circumstances (importantly, these include people acted upon as well as agents), and to adjust our feelings as people principally concerned to a level with which sympathetic spectators can go along . It is this process of mutual emotional adjustment that gives rise to virtue: the “awful” virtues of self-restraint, insofar we keep ourselves, as people principally concerned, from feeling, or at least expressing, the full flood of our grief or joy, and the “amiable” virtues of compassion and humanity, insofar as we strive, as spectators, to participate in the joys and sufferings of others.

Human Beings Are Not Machines


Excellent article on this topic in the Boston Globe. The difference is critical to flourishing. The machine computer brain already can do marvelous things, but cannot add the context needed for caring. Here are the punch lines.

Machines possess no capacity to will, create, and want. From inside the computational framework, powers like these can only be bracketed or dismissed. If widely accepted, the moral and political implications of such dismissals would be grave. What becomes of democracy, individual liberty, and the right to pursue happiness, if computer-man has no capacities for free choice and is algorithm-driven?

Scientific researchers require guiding analogies and metaphors to help them simplify the massive complexities and mysteries of the mind and brain. Loose, reductive equations may be pragmatically necessary, but when overstated they can prove blinding and at times dangerous. The idea that human brains are digital computers is just that.

Think Before You Give Your Six-year Old a Smart Phone



Sherry Turkle has done it again. Her new book, Reclaiming Conversation, outdoes her previous book in showing us the dark side of all this wondrous new personal technology. Jonathan Franzen, reviewing the book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review Section captures it much better than I ever could. Here is the key paragraph from his review.

Her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” extends her critique, with less emphasis on robots and more on the dissatisfaction with technology reported by her recent interview subjects. She takes their dissatisfaction as a hopeful sign, and her book is straightforwardly a call to arms: Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-¬≠reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place. As in “Alone Together,” Turkle’s argument derives its power from the breadth of her research and the acuity of her psychological insight. The people she interviews have adopted new technologies in pursuit of greater control, only to feel controlled by them. The likably idealized selves that they’ve created with social media leave their real selves all the more isolated. They communicate incessantly but are afraid of face-to-face conversations; they worry, often nostalgically, that they’re missing out on something fundamental.

Turkle, herself, wrote a short capsule of the book for the NYTimes shortly before the review quoted above. Her argument is focused on the loss of empathy associated with young people who cannot put their phones down long enough to hold a meaningful conversation.

In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.

Empathy is a proxy for the care I argue is central to flourishing. The two are always intimately linked. To care for someone is to act empathetically, that is, with awareness of the other’s concerns and with a focus on what is going on over there. This kind of care is active, not affective. It is the essence of human being and has largely disappeared over the evolution of modernity.

Technology always places itself between human actors; that is its intrinsic nature. It turns most actions into mechanical transactions because it hides the context that provides meaning to the actors. The kind of technology Turkle writes about, smart phones mostly, diminishes the richness of interpersonal conversations, the primary way we relate to other people. I have been making this argument for a long time, but lack the hard data and clarity that Turkle provides.

Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

But we have forgotten just that, who we are. The amnesia of our “self” is not just the result of smart phones. It is the assault on human Being that began hundreds of year ago when the whole self that developed in earlier times was turned into a machine with many parts by the new sciences of the Enlightenment.

I see the task of recovering our fundamental humanness as being made harder by the trends she reports, but she finds some redeeming features. Turkle writes, “Every technology asks us to confront human values. This is a good thing, because it causes us to reaffirm what they are.” I disagree; technology, as her examples show, hides our values. That is the problem, not a route to the solution. This statement surprised me. Much as I admire her work, this doesn’t fit. The very nature of the technology she is writing about silences any questioning we might have about what it is doing to us.

One of her examples is about a young woman who is described as being of “the ‘app generation,’ which grew up with phones in hand and apps at the ready. It tends toward impatience, expecting the world to respond like an app, quickly and efficiently. The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results.” There is no questioning of values here; only the creations of new ones that are less humane.

There is much more in both her article and the very thoughtful book review by Jonathan Franzen. I will order the book and read it and report here after I finish. She finishes the NYTimes piece with a positive take on how to reverse the trend. She notes a case where phones were banned during a five-day camp experience.

After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group. What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another. In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is easier to do without your phone in hand. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.

The last line is very powerful. The obverse is that empty conversations are dehumanizing. We will have to find better ways that to isolate people for extended periods. That doesn’t sound like a broadly practical solution. My own experience with my grandchildren tells me that they are already hooked. It’s up, in part, to their parents to provide time for meaningful conversations with no distractions. Turkle mentions a child who longs for such times spent at home. Maybe it will be necessary to design and offer conversation classes at the primary school level; children already own these devices by then. That would be a place to teach empathy as well since empathy is a form of listening to another’s spoken and unspoken words.

Since I also believe that, contra to Turkle, technology blinds our human values, the importance of empathy and care must be explicitly raised and put into practice. We are, instead, transforming our education of the young around the value of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). What a terrible mistake. We need adults who can access the values tied to their uniqueness as human beings, not those created by the current political economy. A world without empathy and care is a world without the possibility of flourishing. If we can choose to put STEM into our educational system, we can choose to match it with a curriculum about empathy and care and other human values. If we fail to do that, these values will become ever more defeated by the hand of all those devices that the STEM path will undoubtedly create.

Homo Economicus is a Cultural Artifact



The central thesis of my work is that modern cultures/societies have evolved on a set of fundamental beliefs that do not match the way the world works. Over time, while the institutions of society, based on these beliefs, have become more entrenched, complex, and powerful, they are failing to produce the normative goals of individuals and the larger collective society. This failure is being compounded by the appearance of unintended consequences that loom large enough to pose existential threats to the Earth and its life forms.

If this is the case, then the way out of the situation is simple in theory, but exceedingly difficult in practice. Replace the faulty beliefs; faulty in the pragmatic outcomes of building a world based on them. To the staunch defenders of modernity’s primary beliefs, be assured that I am not arguing that these beliefs are not based on experience; I am saying only that they do not fit the larger interconnected system in we exist. I am deliberately avoiding commenting about the truth of these beliefs at this point, but will later in this essay.

The cultural engine based on these beliefs runs the modern world. This world includes almost all of the industrialized economies of the globe. China and India have one foot there, and one stuck in their traditional culture, but are moving into modernity. When I speak of modernity, I refer to a particular set of foundational beliefs and norms on which the political economy and other major societal institutions are grounded. One belief provides the basic way we explain the way the natural universe, including human beings, works. It is difficult to compress that into a single sentence, but here is a try. We believe in an objective reality, composed of entities with fixed characteristics (nature) that follow knowable, fixed rules of behavior, determined by applying the methods of science to produce the rules. Objective means these rules are acontextual, and fixed in time. An apple always falls downward from a tree, whether in your yard or mine, and will do the same over all time. Human subjects create these rules by observing pieces of the universe in carefully controlled circumstances (reductionism). Both the idea of an objective universe and the reductionist methodology can be traced to René Descartes.

The second belief is a corollary to the first, but so important that it must be set it apart as distinct. It is the belief we invoke to explain the behaviors of human beings. It follows from the first in that it assumes that humans have a characteristic nature and whose behavior follows certain rules, just like everything else in the universe. One of these rules is that humans are rational, that is, their mental processes follow the rules of reason, some universal set of logical processes. This belief became more closely defined during the time of the Enlightenment philosophers to a particular logic. Humans would act in a way to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. As economics began to be shaped by Adam Smith and others, this became even more precise and refers to some utility function or ordering that determined the priority of action. While not a scientific taxonomic distinction, humans were labeled by a new species name, Homo economicus: A rational and narrowly self-interested person who acts primarily to acquire goods and services and is never satisfied. An ancillary concept to this is that the acquisition of material objects has become very high on the modern scale of people’s utility functions.

These beliefs underpin both the two major political economic systems of modernity, capitalism and socialism. Adam Smith gave us this pithy idea; “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” John Stuart Mill expressed a similar theme, “[Political economy] does not treat the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth…” Marx wrote, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Each of these men saw human beings as possessing some sort of internal desire that served as the basis for their economic life. The idea grew to encompass all action beyond the economic. Altruistic acts could be explained by arguing the value of helping another outweighed all other options at the moment of decision. The word, need, became reified as in the use Marx made of it. As a noun, it could be and is conventionally viewed as a part of human nature.

This essay was triggered by a conversation I participate in on the Global Transition Network (GTN), a group seeking ways to bring about a transition to flourishing. The sponsors of the GTN use a different normative description, but one that fits this single word very closely. The following quoted lines were posted by a neuroscientist commenting on “the deep problem of what a person actually needs.”

The need a person feels is for something better than he or she already has. This feeling arises from a core brain circuit, present in all animals, that makes us feel good when we receive something better than expected: a warm spot when we are cold, a berry or nut when we are hungry, and so on. But as modern life removes most environmental fluctuations, the circuit “adapts.” Now, when we are warm, dry, and fed, our innate neural circuits drive us to seek new satisfactions. The problem of “need” cannot be plastered over with a slogan; it cannot be controlled by legislation or social pressure.

I fully subscribe to the cognitive model he provides, but not at all to the way he elaborates the consequences. He has failed to put brackets around his scientific thinking and, instead, assumes that need refers to the culturally bound idea about acquisition. Note the use of the phrase “receive something.” He also assumes that the received object is “mine,” that is, private property. Based on the same model of cognitive functioning, I come to a distinctly different explanation of and definition of “need.”

As I often do, I refer to the work of Antonio Damasio, a well-known neuroscientist. Damasio uses a model that separates the brain into three major parts, each corresponding to a different “self.” My language and description lack the nuance and detail he offers, but still represents, I belief, the overall construction of human cognition. The “protoself” refers to processes that originate in the evolutionarily oldest portion of the brain. Here lies the source of more or less automatic responses to certain experiences-fear, disgust, anger, sadness, or happiness. The universality of these emotional acts across cultures and even among some animals suggests a genetic, structural foundation.

The “core self” refers to processes in parts of the brain primarily involved with maintaining the body’s homeostasis, that is, keeping it alive and controlling its movements. The third part, the “autobiographical self,” is the parts of the brain that process the experience of living from moment to moment. Damasio describes this portion as containing neuronal structures that capture images of experiences and the actions that accompanied them. This is the part of the brain/self primarily involved in intentional action, actions over which we could say the actor has a choice and are directed toward the immediate context. The now-mostly accepted description of the brain as having a part that captures one’s life history also indicates an important role for cultural and individual contexts. Using terms from evolutionary biology, we can say a self, a term used to describe the behaviors of a human being, have both a phylogeny and ontology. The first, phylogeny, is that part of the self that arises from cultural experiences, experiences common to other humans in the same cultural settings, from the society as the larger bound to other institutional setting such as work, school, or religious institutions. The second, ontogeny, describes the idiosyncratic experience of the individual and is unique to every individual, even to identical twins.

All this is background to my next point. I argue that “need” is phylogenic, coming from the meaning that the culture gives to it. Words are symbols that humans use to express feelings and other cognition processes. The quote above uses the culturally bound meaning of need, that is, the need for some thing. As I interpret Damasio and other cognitive scientists, some image of the thing may rest in the brain, but the important feature is the process of acting to get it as mine. The process produces whatever positive or pleasurable response, that later can be expressed as, “I needed that.” So-called, “mirror neurons” may be involved in embedding the processes that create pleasure. The object itself is not the source of meaning; the pleasure response comes from the process. If we now put brackets around the cultural context, the phylogeny, we are still left with the ontogeny, a reference to a process that produces a pleasurable response. The Enlightenment philosophers and scientists appear to be right after all.

But what would result from a different phylogeny, that is, a different cultural experience. We would still expect to observe “needy” behaviors, that is, behaviors that produce pleasurable results, but they would be triggered by a different set of actions. What might happen if pleasure was triggered by care, that is, performing empathic actions for others, instead of our self-directed normal behaviors? Over time, following the way language comes to be, we might start to describe human beings as creatures that have a “need” to act to provide empathic care for others, but including myself as a possible other. Before Smith spoke as in the above quote, he thought that human nature was, ironically, based on empathy. Changing the beliefs that run the modern culture is certainly very difficult, but is possible compared to the challenge of changing our genetic components. The first would take a few generations; the second, an epoch.