Showing posts with label Psychology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Psychology. Show all posts

30 November 2018

Reframing the Perennial Philosophy. Part II: A Spectrum of Experience

In Part I of this essay I concluded that the Perennial Philosophy "ignores historical processes, fails to adequately distinguish epistemology and ontology, and asserts an untenable matter-spirit dualism." It is the second of these points that I wish to pursue in Part II. In particular, I will pick apart the claim of a metaphysical truth. Before I can do this, I need to introduce a way of thinking about experience that clearly distinguishes subjectivity and objectivity.

In the following diagram, I depict a model world with just four people. The field of experience of a person is represented by a coloured circle. 

The fields of experience may overlap with all others, with some others, or not all. It is assumed that people are able to communicate about their experience to about the same extent as their fields of experience overlap, because communication is a kind of shared experiential. I will present this as a general model of experience but also use it as a way of highlighting certain qualities of particular experiences.

Keep in mind that this is a simplified model created for rhetorical purposes. It does not perfectly represent a real person's field of experience. I will use the model to make analogies, but there are limitations. 

A general point is that most experiences are intentional. In philosophy of mind, intentionality refers to the quality of "aboutness". So we think about our day, or see an object, or feel happy to see our friend. Experience is structured by this epistemic subject/object distinction (later I will posit that this must also be true of the awakened). The structure is reflected in universal features of language. All human languages enable us to identify objects and processes using nouns and verbs, and specifically to identify agents and patients (who is doing what to whom). 

Note that subjectivity, as I am using the word, is not the same as ego or self-referential thoughts. Subjectivity is a point of view forced on us by the architecture of our bodymind. No one else can see through my eyes. And even the awakened still only see through their own pair (I don't take stories of ESP literally). One may have an egoless subjectivity, because subjectivity, as I am using the term, refers to all kinds of experience. By contrast I take objectivity to apply to any and all facts that are true without reference to our experience of them. In the normal scheme of things, all knowledge has an irreducible component of subjectivity, and it is really only collectively that we can infer objective knowledge, since comparing notes enables us to eliminate qualities that are only apparent to us.
1. Pure Subjectivity 

On the far left of the diagram, we see four fields of experience that do not overlap at all. These are four people in contact with four separate parts of the world, perhaps on different continents, and with no overlap of their sensory fields. In this artificial world, each person has only their own perceptions and while they can compare notes on experience, there is no apparent commonality and thus no possibility of agreement. It is as if they live in different worlds.

If this is a single experience, then all four people disagree on the nature of what happened. No two descriptions share any features.

An important class of experiences falls into this category, i.e., experiences where the object is apparent to us, but not to anyone else. Examples include, my private thoughts, or hallucinations (on which, see also my essay Realities).

2. Mixed Subjectivity

In the second left position, some of the fields of experience overlap. When they compare notes neighbours can find come commonality, but there is still nothing  that they can all agree on. There is no general sense of a shared experience. While red may agree to some extent with blue, and to some extent with yellow, blue and yellow have no common ground. As far as blue and yellow are concerned they are experiencing entirely different worlds.

With respect to a single experience we might say that some of the accounts partially overlap, but the opinions expressed about the experience are still largely unrelated to what others are saying.

As with pure subjectivity, there is no common point of reference. 

3. Middle Ground
In the middle all the experiential fields overlap to some extent. For the first time, there are some experiences that all four people in this world share. Note also that there is considerably more overlap generally. As well as all four sharing experiences, there are some experiences shared by three, but not the fourth. About one third of their experiences are available only to them.

For the first time, the four are able to agree on some details of a single experience. They will all agree that they experienced something similar, though they may still disagree on many details. We see here the beginning of objectivity, because comparing notes allows each observer to identify the aspects of the experience that are subjective and eliminate them from their account. However, a good deal of uncertainty remains for any knowledge inferred about the object.

4. Mixed Objectivity
In this state there is substantial overlap between all the experiential fields. About half of any given person's field of experience overlaps with all the others and less than a quarter is private to any one person.
The four are now largely in agreement on the core features of a shared experience, though they may still have their own opinions about it. In these cases, observers are able to infer knowledge about the object of experience with a high degree of confidence and begin to formulate descriptive and predictive theories about how objects behave to levels of accuracy and precision that are limited by their ability to measure. 

5. Pure Objectivity
At this end of the spectrum, the sensory fields of each of the four completely overlaps with the others. Nothing about the experience is private or hidden from the others. Of course this never occurs in nature because we all have our own views and thoughts that are inaccessible to others. But in discussing the perennial philosophy we need this extreme because it encompasses the category of absolute truth or pure objectivity.
This is the one experience that everyone has in exactly the same way and that cannot be distinguished between them. Every detail is perfectly aligned. Any knowledge about this kind of experience is entirely shared by anyone who has the experience: the observer has perfect knowledge of the object and completely understands everything about it and they know that the others know. In other words, this is what a metaphysical truth would be like.

General Comments
This, then, is the model and how it works on two levels: the general level of the extent to which experience is shared (from not at all to completely) and the level of agreement amongst people about a specific experience. I hope it is obvious that most of our experiences are in the middle ground. We share experiences to some degree with the people around us, but most of the people are not around us, so our sensory fields do not overlap. With respect to any given shared experience we can usually agree on the core features and some of the details, though there is always room for subjective, not to say idiosyncratic, conclusions and opinions.
For example, if I lean over the fence and ask my neighbour how the weather is and they say it's cloudy and raining, when I am experiencing clear skies sunshine, I will intuit that one of us us out of touch with reality, or they are feigning it for some rhetorical purpose, perhaps humour.
If I am sharing a meal with someone who likes searingly hot chili and is very much enjoying it, but I dislike the burning sensation, then we are having the same experience but interpreting it differently. There's overlap, but it's slight.
What can seem to be pure objectivity can still be wrong. For example, for thousands of years, people have watched sunsets. Their body tells them that they are at rest via multiple sensory channels (kinesthetic, proprioceptive, vestibular, visual, visceral). If I am at rest and there is perceptible movement of an object, then the only logical conclusion is that the object is moving. However, in the case of the sun, we know this is wrong. The fact is that we are moving relative to the sun, but the acceleration is so small that it does not register on our senses, giving us a false impression. I have called this the sunset illusion. We still talk about the sun "setting" even though we know that it does not because it feels right.  There are many other kinds of sensory illusions, as well. These are oddities of how our senses work and how the brain interprets signals from nerves and presents a picture to awareness. Such illusions are important to keep in mind when thinking about metaphysical truth, because, obviously, such a truth could not fall into this category.

Similarly, what can seem to be pure subjectivity can still have an objective component. Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean that they are not out to get you. Sometimes people will insist that we can't know how they feel, but of course we can. Emotions are universal and we do know how things feel. What we cannot replicate are the thought patterns that accompany emotions. Emotions themselves are relatively simple and can be boiled down to about seven or eight basic moods. And they are highly contagious precisely because we are empathetic: we literally experience the emotions of others. And empathy is universal in social mammals.

In practice, our individual knowledge of the world is always coloured by the physical nature of our senses and the architecture of our brains. Pure objectivity is never attained under normal circumstances. Mystics argue that it can be obtained under extraordinary circumstances and Perennial Philosophy rests on this claim. 

If there is a single overriding metaphysical truth, then in principle at least, it must fit my definition of pure objectivity, and to experience it would be to have 100% overlap with everyone else who experiences it. All descriptions and definitions of it would be identical because experiencing it would not involve any subjectivity. Indeed, the complete agreement on the truth could be seen as the defining feature of the Perennial Philosophy. Proponents assert that religieux completely agree on a core of common beliefs and that all religions point to (if they do not actually teach) this single absolute truth or Truth.

In my view, however, this is an impression created by a biased and highly selective reading of religion and mysticism. The supposed common core of beliefs is more like a collection of vague statements of values expressed in woolly terms. I have already pointed to a better explanation based on the necessary characteristics of social mammals: empathy and reciprocity. The social lifestyle requires these. As the social lifestyle becomes more sophisticated and groups grow larger, these two qualities lead to mores and to morals. Once we can think abstractly about our mores, we discover morality and we can begin to tease out ethical principles. Without the evolutionary argument for commonality, we tend to look to explain it by appealing to some external agent, such as metaphysical truth. Having a better explanation helps, but it does not eliminate the bad explanation. This requires a different strategy. 

The proposition I will defend is that all human experience occurs on this spectrum (or something analogous to it). Some philosophers of mind will counter that all experience is entirely subjective and inaccessible to others. But if this were true we'd never agree on anything. And on some things we find an extraordinary degree of agreement. Ask anyone at all, anywhere on the planet, about gravity and they will describe something similar because the experience of having weight is more or less the same for everyone. Put anyone in microgravity and they will struggle to orient themselves, and their physiology will change. Gravity is an objective fact and the only uncertainty about it is in the tooth-fairy agnosticism category (aka philosophy). We might explain things in different ways, but the phenomenology is so similar as to be beyond coincidence. We all know the experience of weight.

How the spectrum applies and the point of it will become clearer if I outline the examples that made me think of it. I will do this in part III. At the heart of my criticism of the Perennial Philosophy is a rejection of the idea that we can arrive at a purely objective state or the knowledge that pertains to it, via purely subjective methods or experiences. Indeed, this seems to me to be self-evidently false. 


21 October 2016

Power: Social Reality (IV)

This is part IV of a V part essay. Click here for Part I

"The structure of institutional facts is the structure of power relations" (Searle 1995: 94)

I've been working through John Searle's philosophy of social reality. Searle is concerned with the question of how we get from physics to society, and his book The Construction of Social Reality focusses on the last step, from conscious organisms to society. I have been reviewing Searle and commenting on his ideas, comparing Searle with Lakoff and with ideas from primatology and anthropology. In the last essay got to the point where Searle points out that power pervades social realities. Power in this context is conventional, i.e. it arises from collective intentionality of social animals; and it is deontological, i.e. it is expressed as rights, duties, obligations etc, and in the way a social group monitors and enforces them. 
"Everything we value in civilisation requires the creation and maintenance of institutional power relations through collectively imposed status functions." (Searle 1995: 94)
Effectively, society is a set of deontological power relations expressed in status-functions, where a status-function is defined as an ontologically subjective function imposed on a person or object by collective intentionality, which grants them/it a status within the social hierarchy, and empowers or prohibits actions related to that function. Such functions require constant monitoring and adjustment to ensure that they do express our values. Equally, what we value will largely depend on the rights, duties, and obligations impressed on us from birth. Hence social groups are inherently socially conservative.

Whether there are universal human values or not is a vexed question that divides philosophers. See, for example, articles on Moral Relativism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and/or the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Whether or not the values expressed in the deontic features of any social hierarchy are universal, we can say that there are common mechanisms for enacting values, by which I mean the imposition of status-functions and the fact that these are associated with rights, duties and obligations. I plan to return to the theme of universal values in a future essay on the evolution of morality (in development).

There are important differences in how societies handle conventional power related to the scale and technological sophistication. Amongst hunter gatherers, such as those studied by Jared Diamond in the highlands of New Guinea (2012), who live in societies with populations around Dunbar number of 150, there are no specialised roles with relation to moral governance. Everyone is in everyone else's business, hierarchy is fairly flat, and status is largely informal. By contrast in a large society like the UK, population 65 million, we have legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government, divided into many areas of responsibility, as well as a civil service providing policy advice and administrative support; we have multiple security agencies, police forces as well as tax collectors, customs and excise agents, and immigration officers; and we have highly trained specialists in law and advocacy. The UK is not just a federation of four different countries, but contains a number of sub-societies with their own values (e.g. there are regional divisions within each of the federal states).

In each case, the underlying structure of the constitutive rules is the same, i.e. X counts as Y in C. A person counts as royal, an official, an officer of the law, or a citizen because collectively we agree that they do. We may require the display of status-indicators, such as special hats, uniforms, titles, or forms of address, but just as often the status is simply widely acknowledged. My status of "foreigner" is evident every time I open my mouth in England, though the fact is that all of my ancestors going back several centuries were English. I often find my ancestry is more English than locals because they have admixtures from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, or even France and I do not. But when I was born, the land on which I was born, formerly claimed by the British Crown, was a separate nation state. So I am arbitrarily a foreigner. And treated as such. 

In the New Guinea highlands everyone one knows what everyone else is doing. Despite the dense rain forest, activities are mostly group oriented and privacy is rare. Under these circumstances, selfishness is extremely obvious, so most people are constrained by group norms to be prosocial most of the time. As mentioned previously norms are reasons for acting that are independent of our immediate inclinations. In the UK privacy is valued and widely experienced, but we also have almost ubiquitous CCTV surveillance of our public places, as well as routine government surveillance of all electronic communications (thanks to Edward Snowden for making this illegal practice public). Selfishness or clique-orientation is evident most of the time and in many modern ways of thinking about human beings, selfishness dominates (e.g. game theory, economics, behaviourist psychology).

In a small scale society people do not have identity crises because they are told who they are, and it is enacted in everyday life by their whole village. By contrast, there is considerable confusion and public debate as to what, if any, values are at the core of being British, especially when and identity is often rooted in smaller, regional, class, or ethnic units. For a large number of Brits the football team they support plays an important part of their identity. Being a "supporter" comes with its own rights, duties, and obligations. 

Societies don't just impose status-functions on members, they police and enforce them. Members of the group are raised from infancy to be good members of society, i.e. to follow behavioural norms and respect hierarchies, though this observation is complicated in large, divided societies, especially if one is a member of a minority community that is discriminated against. The important point here is that the individual is trained to hold themselves to account for the rights, duties, and obligations that society places on them. But the society, the state, also has duties and obligations in addition to rights. The role of the state and the acceptable methods it may use in pursuit of that role is a complex and hotly disputed topic, but broadly speaking we expect the state to work for the benefit and prosperity of its constituent citizens. And this is what all states say they are doing, whether they are in fact doing it or not.

Discussion of power, surveillance, and the state leads us to Michel Foucault and his investigations into the subject, into what it means to be a subject, and the processes of subjection.

~ The Subject ~

Of the three main philosophers I've referenced in this series of essays, i.e. John Searle, George Lakoff, and Michel Foucault, I know Foucault least well. This is partly because he is the least accessible by a considerable margin. Though he apparently spoke clearly in conversation, he wrote in the French obscurantist style, which was not improved by being translated into obscurantist English. So I hope any Foucault experts who happen to read my rather impressionistic take on the philosopher will indulge me. Perhaps I'm vague or even inaccurate about the details of Foucault's thought, but I hope that the intuition of a relation between Searlean and Foucauldian philosophy is at least valid. Foucault seems to me to have said important things, and to be perhaps the only 20th Century French philosopher who did. Searle grounds Foucault in a more realistic, pragmatic, and above all clear exposition of how society functions. Foucault never made so much sense to me as when I was reading The Construction of Social Reality.

In the section of my essay Spiritual III: Demenses of Power (20 Jun 2014) in which I explored some of Foucault's ideas, I wrote:
"The self we identify with is, in fact, mostly shaped by external forces... Virtually everything I feel myself to be is inherited or imposed on me rather than emerging out of my being."
This is consistent with the social philosophy outlined by Searle. In this view, "self" can be considered either as an aggregate of the status-functions imposed on the individual by society, or as emerging out of them. As Foucault observes, this happens with the willing participation of the individual. In Searle's terms "I" is the X term in the relation X counts as Y in C, and Y is the various roles we play in our lives; or in other words "I count as a son", "I count as a Buddhist", and so on, in all the innumerable relations I have to society, where society is the context in which I have these status-functions imposed by collective intentionality. In Foucault's (1983) words,
"This form of power applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. It is a form of power which makes individuals subjects."
Again, from commentary in Demenses of Power
Almost all of these institutions aim to subject, to subjugate, me through shaping my subjectivity so that I subjugate myself. That is, for me to see myself as naturally subject to the limits, controls and definitions of society. For me to unthinkingly obey prohibitions and taboos. The constant threat is that failure to conform redefines the transgressor as other. And for the other the rules are different, less optimal, less conducive to well being, often harsh. To be other is to be sanctioned and excluded. 
We can see that even before reading Searle I was seeing social life through a deontological lens under the influence of Foucault (perhaps Searle was also influenced by Foucault?). Social norms take the form of authorisations and prohibitions, but they are ultimately a product of collective intentionality. What Searle does is show why this is so and how it works in more detail. I stand in a relation to society where my (hierarchical) status and function within society is defined by the collective intentionality of society. By collective agreement, I count as various categories of member of various groups. There are kin status-functions: sibling, parent, extended family, etc.; age related status-functions: infant, child, teenager, adult, elder; occupational status-functions: student, manufacturer, CEO, manager, etc; class status-functions: proletarian and bourgeoisie, or  worker, capitalist, and land-owner; marital status-functions: single, married, divorced. And so on. There are racial, national, ethnic, religious, governmental, and ecclesiastical status-functions. Sex, gender, and sexual orientation are all governed by status functions.

*As already pointed out, these ontologically subjective status-functions are structured in the same way in which George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (2003) have showed that metaphors are structured. A suitable source domain is mapped onto a target domain so that the target can be discussed as if it is the source. This is to say that target counts as source for the purposes of abstraction (this is to the best of my knowledge an observation not made before). Such metaphors are what enable and structure abstract thought. Arguably social relations are abstractions from social interactions, and this means we only understand them using metaphors. Thus the imposed status-function seems to be metaphorical in structure. Again, status-functions are ontologically subjective and thus we cannot reference objective reality to ground them as truth. Social status is true, to the extent that truth is relevant here, only because it is agreed to be true. Society is an ontologically subjective phenomenon.
* A reader has pointed out a conceptual problem with this paragraph that I have yet to resolve and need to think about. Take it with a grain of salt in the meantime.  J. 25.11.2016

Some of statuses are accompanied by formal status indicators like special hats, wedding rings, passports, or uniforms; some more informally by clothing or hair cut (compare how we identify a hippy, a football supporter, a punk-rocker, or a Buddhist monk). Some statuses are indicated by our accent, pronunciation, or word choices. In the absence of status indicators, we take our social cues from behaviour, mannerisms, etc. If people think of me as a writer, then for the purposes of society I am a writer and can be discussed with respect to that category. But if I am a writer then society expects me to behave in the manner which they consider a writer should behave. Even new acquaintances subtly coerce me into adopting a stance appropriate to the status they are granting me. I am a writer, then where is my writing published (in academic journals and in self-published books). Why is my spelling so bad (which is easy I have mild dyslexia). Searle has a lot more to say about status-indicators, but I'm going to gloss over them for the sake of brevity.

Each of us is deeply embedded in a network of status-functions, all of which require collective-intentionality, that collective includes the individual qua subject. We expect people to be subjects to the collective will and we take either evasive or hostile action against non-formists - freeze, flight, or fight are our basic stances with respect to any threat, and non-conformity is often a threat. Collective intentionality, then, imposes status functions on us; it shapes us as a subject. By the time we reach an age at which we might think of defining ourselves, we are already completely defined. The idea that we can define ourselves is also something inculcated into us by our society. A typical result is the group of rebellious teenagers who signal their rebellion by wearing identical, branded, clothing. Rebellion is really only conforming to some other norm. Often the only way to really redefine ourselves is to severe links with our community of origin and move away. Even so we take our self-beliefs with us and when we arrive we meet a wall of expectations from any new community we might join. And without community we die slowly or go mad, or both.

As a member of a group, I cannot simply take on any role. I must get people to agree to accept me in that role, often by undergoing a defined process of education, preparation, and testing. On the other hand one can become the class clown or the village idiot, merely through persistent repeated behaviour that is consistent with that role. A wily South African project manager once told me that if a team he was managing was under performing he would call a meeting and deliberately start an argument with one of them and then escalate it until things got quite heated. In the aftermath the team would typically start working together much better: nowadays I would say that this is because conflict engages our emotions. In the aftermath of the conflict, hierarchies and social roles like leader, peace-maker, etc are established. In other words the after the shake up the groups becomes a normal human social group with defined roles. We know were we stand and can work well together. The slogan at the time for the phases of group formation was "forming, storming, norming, and performing". I'll have a lot more to say on this subject in coming essays. But most of this social jockeying takes place below the waterline of consciousness. We cannot help ourselves because at heart we are social primates.

Most roles that we serve in are ones that are chosen for us, before we ever think about what role we might want to play. The choices we do make are made within a context that is internalised very early on and reinforced every waking minute of our lives. And the point is not to say this is good or bad. This is simply the way primate groups work. There is some influence on temperament from genetic inheritance, the quality of parenting we receive, and our early education. Experience does contribute. But who we are is as much to do with how other people see us, as with how we see ourselves. This is why it can be hard to get society to changes its views about people. Type casting is not only a problem for actors. But it also means that most psychotherapeutic models are completely wrong. 

~ Conclusion ~

What follows is a conclusion and summary, but is not the last word on the subject. There's an obvious flaw in the theory as presented that Searle tackles towards the end of his book and which I will outline in the next essay. Still, now is the time to pull everything together and see what conclusions we can draw so far. Searle concludes his 2012 lecture on social reality with a hierarchical list. What follows is my adaptation of that list. What we have here is a powerful explanation of how social groups exist based on just three concepts: observer relative functions, collective intentionality, and deontic powers:
  • Consciousness is a high level, neurobiological state, wholly caused by neurons, but none-the-less irreducibly subjective. 
  • Conscious states enable human beings to imagine functions for objects or people that are not intrinsic to them, and to impose those functions on them.
  • All such functions are observer relative, ontologically subjective, epistemically objective and can become institutional facts.
  • All institutional facts are, via collective intentionality, status-functions.
  • All status-functions are created and maintained by applications of status-function declarations (i.e. by language or something which approximates it).
  • Some status function declarations require status-indicators.
  • All status-function declarations create deontic powers.
  • All deontic powers give people reasons for acting that are independent of their immediate inclinations.
  • Deontic powers hold societies together.
Human societies only exist because of status-functions. We reach the level of complexity we do because our status-functions are represented linguistically. Non-human animals also have societies, but they are very much simpler in structure and functions. They are more like proto-societies because the roles and hierarchies have to be communicated through physical interactions, though arguably these still have a propositional, language-like, structure.

In science the vocabulary is created by observing reality. Social reality, by contrast, is created by the vocabulary. As Searle says, language is constitutive of human society. And here we see why a constructivist approach to development and ethics, a la Kegan and Chapman. All social norms, including moral rules, are constructed, collectively by the society in which they function. Rules find their value in being declared by someone higher up the hierarchy and agreed to by everyone. being a member of any group means subjecting oneself to the norms of the group. If those norms are not established, then the group will fail. All social institutions like moral rules are constructed within the context of social reality, which means that they are observer relative, ontologically subjective,  and epistemically objective. There is no recourse to reality to justify moral rules, which is why some people say that science cannot tell us how to live. Social reality is itself a construct, it also  observer relative, ontologically subjective, and epistemically objective. On the other hand I will argue in a forthcoming essay that evolution highlights the basic capacities that animals have evolved to enable social living and that these form the basis for the ethical principles that inform moral rules. Science can tell us how we do live, help us to make that conscious, and help us to see what is consistent or inconsistent with our being a social primate; where consistency approximates well-being and inconsistency approximates ill-being. 

Searle's outline of how social reality comes about relates to Foucault's study of the subject. Our sense of self and all our social relations are status-functions imposed by collective intentionality. The sequence here is important. We tend to think the sequence, beginning with the brain, goes like this

brain - conscious states - subjectivity - social reality

But in fact it goes more like this:

brain - conscious states - social reality - subjectivity

In other words social reality precedes and shapes subjectivity. Under the influence of Romanticism, Victorian philosophy, and psycho-analysis we've had this the wrong way around for almost 200 years. The emphasis on individuals over society is counter-productive at best and catastrophic at worst. Individuals only exist in a social reality. Outsiders tend not to prosper. On the other hand a degree of eccentricity can be beneficial in societies. Nowadays I would balance this with the need for a science of Amistics - the study of the impact of technology on society. 

So presuming that we can get from physics to consciousness states, we can get from consciousness states to social reality and out of social reality comes subjectivity. As a philosophical framework this seems clear enough. However, in terms of the science, we still don't have a clear route from physics to conscious states. We can get from fundamental physics to brains, but while it's beyond reasonable doubt that the brain is responsible for conscious states, we don't know exactly how this works. And many of the best researchers are chasing down dead-end leads. I've become very wary of the abstraction "consciousness". Abstractions are governed by metaphor, so in discussing consciousness we can only ever do so as if it were something more fundamental. Conscious states, though subjective, are less problematic.

In the last essay in this series I will look at the proposition, implied so far, that human behaviour is a matter of rule following. The short answer is that it is not, though rules are clearly discernible and we are quite capable of following rules when we need to. This requires the introduction of the fourth major concept in Searle's philosophy of social reality after functions, collective intentionality, and deontic power, which is the background.


~ Bibliography ~

Covers all parts of this essay

Diamond, Jared. (2012) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies? Penguin.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Foucault, Michel. (1983) The Subject and Power, in Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (2nd ed.) edited by H. Dreyfus and P. Rabinow. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 208-226.  Original Publication: Le sujet et le pouvoir (Gallimard, D&E Vol.4 1982). Online:

Fox, Kate. (2005) Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. Hodder & Stoughton.

Goodall, Jane. (1971). In the Shadow of Man. London: Collins.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Kolb, B., Gibb, R. & Robinson, T. (2003) Brain Plasticity and Behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 12(1) 1-5.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. New Ed. [Originally published 1981]. University of Chicago Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester University Press. Originally published as La Condition Postmoderne: Rapport sur le Savoir, 1979

MedicalXpress. (2016) Children overeagerly seek social rules. September 27, 2016 [Commenting on Schmidt M. F. H (2016)]

Medical Xpress. (2012) Toddlers object when people break the rules. July 26, 2012 [commenting on Schmidt 2012)

Schmidt, M. F. H. & Tomasello, M. (2012) Young Children Enforce Social Norms. Psychological Science. 21(4), 232-236. doi: 10.1177/0963721412448659

Schmidt, M. F. H. et al. (2016) Young Children See a Single Action and Infer a Social Norm: Promiscuous Normativity in 3-Year-Olds, Psychological Science (2016). DOI: 10.1177/0956797616661182

Searle, John R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Searle, John R. (2012). The Normative Structure of Human Civilization [lecture]. Max-Weber-Vortragsraum des Käte Hamburger Kollegs „Recht als Kultur".

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.

22 January 2016

Rumination, the Stress Response, and Meditation

I'm sure I've told this story before, but in sixth-form biology (some 35 years ago now) we studied a plant and an animal in some depth. For our animal we followed Charles Darwin in studying the earthworm. I gained a new appreciation of these creatures through studying their physiology and behaviour. One of the experiments we did was a bit cruel. We studied the stress response of earthworms. I want to begin this essay on rumination by outlining what happens when you pretend to be a predator to an exposed earthworm.

The Stress Response

Earthworms may be exposed on the surface during daylight for a number of reasons. For example rain-saturated soil forces them up to breathe, or some chemical or mechanical irritant may make then break cover to escape it, despite the risk. Not only does sunlight kill them, through exposure to UV light and dehydration, but being on the surface also leaves them vulnerable to one of their principle predators - birds. Back in 1982 we collected earthworms by introducing a chemical irritant into the soil and grabbing them as they popped up, then we rinsed them and kept them in a dark moist environment. After they had time to acclimatise to their new environment, we stressed them by poking them in a way designed to mimic a bird attempting to eat them. Stressed in this way an earthworm goes into a frenzied writhing motion which is obviously designed to make them hard to grab hold of. Once they stopped we poked them again, producing more writhing. And we repeated this several times. On the third time the writhing was noticeably less vigorous. On the fourth time the poor worm was lethargic but moved around slowly. And after that further poking did not seem to produce any response at all.

So what does this tell us?

The father of modern stress research, Hans Selye (1907 – 1982), did much the same thing with rats and outlined threephases of response to a stressor that seemed to apply to many organisms. He defined these largely in glandular terms, i.e. in the type and amount of hormones produced. Nowadays we might characterise the response in terms of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).

1. Alarm reaction. These is an immediate reaction to a stimulus or stressor. In humans the ANS initiates a series of changes: The sympathetic side of the ANS acts rapidly to produce changes: the release of stress hormones such as epinephrine (aka adrenaline) and cortisol flood the blood with glucose, raise our blood-pressure, increase our heart rate. The bronchioles in the lungs expand. Blood is diverted away from the gut, toward the skeletal muscles. The pupils dilate. In the gastro-intestinal tract, sphincters tighten and peristalsis is slowed or suspended, In other words we prepare for action (another term for this is arousal). These preparations are for in-the-moment reactions such as "freezing" and the "fight or flight" response.Without further stressors this reaction is short-lived and the body soon begins to restore normal operating conditions, reversing the changes that arousal produces through the actions of the parasympathetic side of the ANS. Relaxation takes longer than arousal. Short lived stressors may be positive, such as the anxiety preceding a performance (be it sporting or artistic) that allows us to achieve something out of the ordinary - a gold medal winning time in the Olympics or a recital that gains a standing ovation. Selye called this positive side of stress eustress and the negative kind distress.

2. Resistance.With continued exposure to stressors, the body's ability to respond to stimulus changes. We may begin to experience fatigue, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, sleep and appetite disturbance, and problems with homoeostatic regulation, such as high or low blood pressure. We may also begin to experience mood disturbances, such as mood swings, low mood, or anxiety. There may also be impairment to the immune system. This corresponds to the third and fourth stimulus in the worm where the response to the stressor was attenuated and the ability to avoid the threat was significantly degraded.

3. Exhaustion. Finally, prolonged exposure to stressors (or an intense short-term stressor) can cause a complete breakdown in our ability to response to stimulus. Like the earthworm, the behaviour that protects us from threats simply ceases. Glands that produce the hormones become depleted and receptors become unresponsive. Such exhaustion may manifest as what we call "major depression" (sometimes lay people call this "clinical depression"). People suffering from depression typically experience overwhelming fatigue, appetite disturbance, a tendency to sleep too much or too little. They begin to avoid social interactions. Stimulation of any kind may be experienced as painful. The classic image of depression is of someone unable to get out of bed, lying in the dark, unresponsive. Another less known aetiology, particularly amongst men, is of a kind of "always on" anger, an emotional response to stimuli that is stuck on one setting. One suspects that this process may also be implicated in a number of other disease syndromes (i.e. illnesses that are a cluster of symptoms with no known cause) such as fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome.

Modern urban life is increasingly stressful. City living is already stressful for us as social primates, because we are crowded in with a lot of strangers. As well as being surrounded by strangers, increasing numbers of people are socially isolated for one reason or another. We don't get enough of the right kind of contact with human beings. Older people in particular may never experience physical contact with another human being except the functional touch of carers (who are also likely to be strangers). Loneliness is epidemic in modern life. For many people social bonds are weak, a vulnerability and a stressor for a social primate.

In modern cities we are hammered by sights, sounds, and smells. Everywhere we go there is noise pollution, visual pollution, air pollution and so on. Teams of psychologists work to tune advertising to grab our attention and manipulate our emotions, often utilising highly sexualised images. News media focus on stories that will elicit the basic emotions of fear, anger, and disgust, making news a stressor. Too many of these stimuli are noxious and trigger our alarm reaction too often. Everything in modern life is designed to cause arousal and this can leave us in a state of hyper-alertness. Or in Selye's terms, leaving us in the state of resistance or exhaustion. The body's natural relaxation response (mediated by the parasympathetic nervous system) is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of arousing stimuli that we meet in a day).

Almost nothing is designed to help us get back to a resting state. Indeed many of us attempt to do this through drugs and alcohol. This is problematic in many ways, but in the case of alcohol, being a poison, it is also a stressor! Clearly the inability to self-regulate emotions and to relax back to a calm resting state is a serious problem in modern urban life. Another way people try to calm down is through eating.

In the UK 24.3% of men and 26.8% of women were obese in 2014 (Public Health England). By 2050 these figures are predicted to be 60% and 50% respectively.Every day I see children being unconsciously being taught to use food as a means of regulating their levels of arousal, i.e. being given food to quiet them down and get them stay calm while strapped into a pushchair. I suspect that this is partly why we see more and more fat people who find dieting almost impossible. They've learned from infancy that eating is a way to regulate emotions, to calm down. And this is true to some extent, the satiation response that comes after eating does relax the body, causing what is sometimes called the postprandial dip. On the other hand, dieting is a powerful stressor, partly in its own right and partly because it removes one of the most effective means people have of calming down. Exercising is also a stressor, at least until one can build up the intensity enough to reap the reward of endogenous opioids,. It may be some time before an obese person can achieve this and in the meantime it's just painful and stressful. So I imagine that the average obese person is caught in a vicious cycle of eating as a first choice aid to deflating arousal and being stressed by the supposed cures for obesity (dieting and exercise).

For those of us who are hyper-stimulated, sleep may become elusive or ineffective. We may wake without feeling refreshed, use coffee of some other stimulant to try to spark ourselves into action and stumble through our days without ever feeling fully awake. Along with depression, anxiety and obesity, insomnia is a major problem in urban populations. Chronic stress leads to all kinds of illness, often with no obvious cause and no consistent aetiology, which thus leaves the medical profession scratching their heads.

If all this external stress were not bad enough, many of us use our imaginations in such a way that our own thoughts become stressors. And this brings us to the problem of rumination.

bovine stomach

The word rumination comes from rumen,a word of uncertain origin. Some animals, often referred to collectively as ruminants, have a multi-compartment stomach and typically eat grass and leaves. Food from the oesophagus goes into the first chamber, or rumen,where it is fermented by microbes to break down cellulose. No animal can digest cellulose, the major constituent of plants, without help from symbiotic microbes living in their gut. After fermentation the wodge of partially digested food, or cud, can be regurgitated to be further chewed. This act of re-chewing food is called "chewing the cud" a characteristic of ruminant animals. When it is re-swallowed it carries on through the alimentary canal.

For obvious reasons this process has been seen as analogous to cogitating on something repeatedly or continually turning a thought over in the mind. And thus we metaphorically call this process rumination. Rumination refers to a particular type of mental process. For example when we turn over a problem and work through it, this is not really rumination. Nor is it rumination if we plan out an event or period of time. The crucial feature of rumination is repeatedly going over the same thoughts, particularly memories of past events. Like a cow chewing its cud - swallowing and regurgitating.

When we recall a memory, the content of it may be impressions from any of our senses: visual, aural, tastes, smells, and tactiles. But along with these images come the associated emotions. When we recall a pleasant meeting with friends, we experience a measure of the joy and happiness that we experienced during the original event. Equally, if we remember some unpleasant event then we will experience the associated emotions, such as fear, anger, or disgust. In other words thoughts and memories can lead to arousal, can be stressors.

Some people are prone to rumination, prone particularly to bringing to mind the unpleasant events of their lives. Events may haunt them. They may endlessly relive past shame, humiliation, fear, or helplessness. And with the memories come the emotions associated with these events. Such memories and emotions are stressors. While an event such as an assault produces very strong emotions, bringing to mind the assault can be almost as intense if the memory is vivid. And though perhaps less intense than the original experience, when we repeatedly bring these events to mind, time and again, one after another, or when they persistently intrude seemingly of their own volition, the repeated stimulation of our alarm reaction can lead to exhaustion.

A related problem is worry. Worry about what might happen in the future can create chronic anxiety. This can sometimes be a problem if our past experience means that we expect our future experience to be stressful. Especially if we have a good imagination, we can create vivid scenarios in imagination that also give rise to emotions and act as stressors. When we allow them to play out repeatedly, they may tax our ability to respond and eventually lead to exhaustion.

Although depression may have other causes, these two routes to depression—through rumination on the past and worry about the future—seem to me to be especially significant. For example the correlation between depression and low serotonin levels is often assumed to be causal in a particular direction: low serotonin causes depression. In fact it may be the other way around, that depression causes low serotonin. The body chemistry of someone suffering from an overload of stressors, from distress, resistance and exhaustion may deplete serotonin leaving the person with low serotonin levels. Even so, serotonin ought not to be seen in isolation because it is involved in a complex, highly interrelated system of internal regulation. If one part of that system is malfunctioning then chances are the rest of the system is also malfunctioning.The relation between neurotransmitters and depression is in fact poorly understood and messing with neurotransmitters always has unpredictable, unintended consequences.

Medications which raise serotonin availability are often seen as the first line of treatment for depression even though there is now serious doubt about their efficacy. The historical non-reporting of negative trials made anti-depressants seem much more effective than they are because when it came time to do review studies they only considered published rather than unpublished results and these were very heavily biased towards positive results. The movement to pre-register all drugs trials and to publish negative results has altered how we see the efficacy of these medicines. When we add in all the trials in which anti-depressant medications had no discernible effect beyond what might be attributed to the placebo effect, then the picture changed. This seems not to have filtered down to the GP level were anti-depressants are still the first line treatment for depression as well as being liberally prescribed off label.

Buddhists often see Buddhism as a panacea for stress,. One prominent translator of Buddhist texts goes so far as to translate dukkha as "stress" making stress the fundamental problem of human existence. So next I want to look at meditation from the point of view of someone suffering from rumination and/or depression.

Depression and Meditation

As well as the symptoms described above, depression often manifests in a distorted inner-dialogue. The depressed person may experience feelings of worthlessness accompanied by self-talk that reinforces this feeling. It may also distort a person's sense of perspective, so that the present seems unrelated to the past or future. One may find it difficult to recall things ever being different or to imagine them getting better. The combination can be unbearable and result in thoughts of suicide, though the suicidal thoughts themselves may be a symptom of depression.

If a person suffering from depression induced by the chronic stress of rumination and/or worry takes up meditation the results can be disastrous. Attempting meditation while being prone to rumination can bring on or exacerbate any problems they may be experiencing. Without considerable experience of dealing with the hindrances the mind simply goes to its well worn habits of rumination and worry. Only now in a more intensive way than usual because meditation encourages us to focus on the object of awareness. Focus on rumination or thoughts of worthlessness or even suicide may lead to acute distress as a result. Going on retreat with this habit is like being in a pressure cooker and can lead to severe acute distress. It's important to begin breaking the habit of ruminating before setting out to do any meditation practice, be it concentration or just awareness based. One needs practice stabilising the mind and dealing with the hindrances or one simply dwells in negative states. Rumination will subvert this practice unless it is addressed directly. Simply trying not to think about something for someone in the habit of ruminating won't work. They will be drawn inexorably back to the same old subject. There is recent research which supports this conclusion.
"The results suggest that, contrary to expectation, strong concentration on the present, perceived as an important and unique time area, by highly neurotic individuals intensifies the negative relationship between neuroticism and self-esteem, satisfaction with life and life engagement." (ScienceDirect pre-pub)
When we add some of the more nihilistic Buddhist doctrines such as non-self or emptiness then we can create real havoc in a person's psyche. Of course such doctrines are not intended as nihilism, but they are so often interpreted and taught nihilistically that they are worse than useless and can be positively dangerous to someone prone to psychological distress. To some people these doctrines say "you are nothing", which is just what their depression-influenced inner-dialogue is telling them.

In a religious context, especially in a Buddhist context, the conversion to and practice of the religion are supposed to cure one of psychological distress. That's what it says on the tin. If someone does the Buddhist practices, but they still get depressed then that threatens to undermine the faith of the rest of the community. It intimates the fragility of some of the claims made by Buddhists. The religious whose faith is threatened by the mere existence of another person can react unpredictably. They may angrily reject the depressed person in a catastrophic way, pushing them out of home or religious community for example.

Another area of confusion is ethics. Buddhists of my acquaintance are both too slack in their own practise of the precepts and too rigid when viewing the practice of others. The result is a kind of lazy hypocritical judgement and criticism of others. The precepts are phrased as personal undertakings, not externally imposed rules. We undertake to practice them, usually because we see mentors exemplifying the practice and being attractive as a result. If we fail to uphold our precepts then this is not an opportunity to put the boot in, for the Buddhist this ought to be seen as an opportunity for offering a helping hand. Someone committed to ethical behaviour is unlikely to suddenly act unskilfully for no reason. In fact it may be the environment the person is in which is undermining their practice, in which case the community ought to be doing some soul searching rather than sitting in judgement. All too often Buddhists use the precepts as a stick to beat someone with or to place an unbearable burden on them. Most of us are at least as likely to be responding to our social environment as acting on some internal motivation. Unfortunately Freud and other Romantics have rather blinded us to our social nature and the importance of environmental factors in determining behaviour.

If we are suffering from stress to the point where it affects our behaviour, then it is deeply unhelpful for our friends and mentors to sit in judgement and criticise our ethics. Of course there may be a need to set limits and boundaries. Simply tolerating destructive behaviours is counter-productive. But there are ways of achieving this without cutting off from the person. The most important thing a community can do is let the suffering person know that they are loved and appreciated. In my experience Buddhists can be quite good around people who are dying or severally physically ill, but they are crap, really crap, at responding to severe psychological distress. Death is something we want to face with grace. It's the ultimate test of our test of our faith. We can feel good about ourselves if we face death with equanimity. Depression and other forms of psychological problem seem to be something we don't want to face at all. Since happiness is said to be the result of being a Buddhist, then a Buddhist suffering from distress is a kind of anathema. The reaction seems to be to pull away and isolate the person, perhaps with a sense of preventing the spread of the negativity contagion. Fear is a common reaction.

The point is that traditional approaches to meditation assume fairly good mental health from the outset. And it's doubtful at best to assume that everyone who signs up for a meditation course at an urban Buddhist Centre is in good mental health. In fact I would say that many people sign up for meditation precisely because they are not in good mental health and have been told that meditation is the cure for what ails them. And that is confusing for everyone involved.


My view is that this kind of problem is widespread. Modern urban life is organised in such a way that many people suffer from hyper-stimulation and chronic, generalised stress reactions. We are constantly being intensely stimulated and don't know how to effectively calm down. In addition many of us develop the vicious habits of rumination or worry which are themselves stressors. We may not have enough resilience or know ways to calm ourselves down. Without acknowledging this, Buddhism as widely taught is unintentionally creating a significant amount of confusion and misery. It is a significant barrier for many people who might otherwise benefit from our practices. And the idealism of Buddhists, who tend to see meditation as a kind of panacea—saving not only individuals, but the cosmos itself—doesn't help matters. For many people attempting meditation does not bring any of the promised benefits and but contrarily introduces new stressors and/or intensifies old ones. We cannot continue to teach as though we are living in pre-modern Asia. Unfortunately the negative changes are ramping up as time goes on and we need to adapt to rapidly changing times.

Fortunately there are a number of auxiliary practices that are also frequently taught alongside Buddhism. I'm thinking of yoga and taichi for example, both of which indirectly enable a person to manage their mental states better by grounding them in the bodily experience (I've praised cultivation of the body previously). But I'm also thinking of what we call mindfulness (in the John Kabat-Zinn sense). With this kind of practice of paying attention to our bodies and our movements we prepare the ground for going deeper by allowing ourself to experience a stable mind. The physicality of bodily awareness often short-circuits rumination and worry. We enable a person who is prone to rumination to stop the vicious cycle and experience themselves anew. Recent research has shown that paying attention to the body increases resilience, where resilience refers to the body's ability to rapidly return to a resting state after encountering a stressor. See for example:To Better Cope With Stress, Listen to Your Body. (New York Times, 13 Jan 2016)

Another task I find helpful is writing. This forms an integral part of my strategy for avoiding rumination and worry. The linear nature of the process of writing about ideas is perfect for preventing the downward spiral of negativity. Always having something to think through that I can switch to if I notice an unhelpful trend building up in my thoughts has been essential to my well-being for over a decade now. I heartily recommend this practice to anyone who is thoughtful, but struggles with rumination or worry. Creative writing may suit other people better. But writing epitomises an approach to moving away from vicious spirals into more virtuous progression.

Knowing, as I do, the pitfalls of rumination and worry, I'm in favour of these auxiliary practices becoming much more prominent in our teaching. My opinion is also that we ought to teach very little theory to beginners and focus on mindfulness practices, particularly related to the body. All one needs to do, initially, is to start paying attention and to note what happens when we do pay attention. Everything should be based on this. Once someone achieves a measure of success in this, then we can move them onto more intensive practices. New techniques should only be introduced on an individual basis, by an experienced mentor, when the practitioner is ready. Indeed I would advocate that everyone be introduced to these practices by a mentor who can function a bit like a sponsor in AA. Someone who is experienced enough to offer guidance, but also sufficiently available for the guidance to be timely. Someone who can take an active interest in that individual's life. As it is I suspect many Buddhists are way ahead of themselves and floundering because the foundations of their practice are not sound. Any theory that we do teach should tie directly into experiences we've already had rather than hypothetical. Buddhists should not be allowed to teach what they do not know from personal experience. We need fewer teachers and more demonstrators. More people who show us what to do, and fewer who can only tell us. 

Simplicity and experience ought to be at the heart of what and how we demonstrate Buddhism. If we much teach "History of Buddhism" we ought to structure our approach to highlight experience and draw people into paying attention to their experience. We should never teach anything that is not part of a coherent program of taking people towards insights into the nature of experience. We must refocus on what Buddhists do rather than what they believe - it's only by doing what we do, that what we believe what happens becomes relevant. And we should be guided by critical scholarship rather than traditional accounts of history. Of course to some extent this horse has already bolted. There are uncounted books describing Buddhism, its history and practices to anyone with the money and time to read. Books that are often simply parrot the traditional stories and/or are misleading. Chances are that new people are showing up at our centres having crammed their heads with useless information about Buddhism that gets in the way of their understanding the Dharma.

I think this means starting from scratch and redesigning Buddhism. Including, I may say, the approach of the Triratna Buddhism Movement. Unlike most religious groups, for example, we use our centres primarily as classrooms. Events are almost always structured with active teachers and passive students. I personally find almost no opportunities to engage. There is almost no opportunity to simply socialise with experienced Buddhists for example. If I could go back, I would do everything differently. If I could advise my younger self, I would be emphasise physical cultivation, mindfulness, and sustaining social connections. Meditation was not what I needed back then. Had I established better foundations, my life might be very different now. The most effective practices I have are not ones that I learned from my Buddhist teachers, but one's I figured out for myself based on wide reading and reflection on my life. It was difficult and took a long time to get this far. And most of the time enlightenment is not at all relevant to my daily practice. I'm working at a very different level. Everyone ought to be aiming to work effectively at the level that they are at, rather than getting caught up in the interminable babble about enlightenment.

So much for my opinions on Buddhism. But make no mistake. Rumination is a serious problem. Having our own thoughts as a constant stressor can have serious health consequences. It can be debilitating. And I don't think it is widely enough understood by those who merely "teach" Buddhism.


Update 25 Jan 2016

“Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.” - The Independent

update 24 Jan 2016

In case anyone is in any doubt, please see the UK National Health Service's definition of depression. It's quite important when considering this discussion to have a clear idea of what I mean by the word. And I mean what the Brits call Clinical Depression or what the DSM-IV calls Major Depression. It is a profound disease that manifests in changes to thoughts, emotions, and bodily systems. It represents a powerful perturbation of our homoeostatic systems. And it can be fatal. 

update 23 Jan 2016.

As it happens the day after I published this essay, the Guardian newspaper published one of their regular scare stories, this time about mindfulness. 
Is mindfulness making us ill? It’s the relaxation technique of choice, popular with employers and even the NHS. But some have found it can have unexpected effects. by Dawn Foster (23 Jan 2016)
My view on the UK press is that they thrive of fear, anger, disgust. It's an extreme form of entertainment which is not peculiar to this country, but does exist here in a particularly refined form. They tailor their stories to produce these emotions in their readers - different types of reader respond to different stimuli. One has to take this into account reading newspapers. They will always pitch the information in a way designed to elicit fear, anger, and/or disgust. All the UK papers are extremely unethical in this sense. They fuck you up.

However my attention was also drawn to this article in The Atlantic which comes closer to some of my concerns. 
The Dark Knight of the Soul. For some, meditation has become more curse than cure. Willoughby Britton wants to know why. 25 Jun 2014. 
As far as people having psychotic breaks after starting meditation I think this must be read with caution. As I understand it, someone prone to have a psychotic break was going to have one anyway. I've certainly found myself in some extremely painful and distressed states while trying to meditate, especially on retreat, but I don't think meditation is a practice that by itself will cause a psychotic break in someone that was otherwise unlikely to have one. Again The Atlantic is a newspaper.

Readers who find this material rings bells may also like to look at the story of Sally Clay, particularly her story The Wounded Prophet.

If you have a psychiatric diagnosis then meditation may not be for you. You need to work closely with your support people and a mentor who has some experience in mental health. And most meditation teachers have no fucking clue. So be warned.

If you are prone to rumination and/or worry then you really need to address that before taking up meditation and, again, work closely with an experienced mentor. Something I wish I had done. 

I would also add that despite having some very difficult experiences around meditation and particularly retreats, I still think of meditation as an extremely positive and helpful practice on the whole. I see it as essential for the process of awakening (however we interpret that). Everyone needs to have good foundations before they dive into practices that can disrupt their sense of identity and embodiedness.

10 January 2014

Reasoning and Beliefs

In a desultory way I have been articulating a theory about religious belief over the last few years. As someone interested in factual accounts; as someone who's worldview has been changed by new facts on several occasions; and as someone who regularly spends a fair amount of time amongst credulous religious believers, I've been fascinated by the relationship between reason, factual information, and beliefs.

So for example, following Mercier and Sperber, I understand reasoning to be a function of groups seeking optimal solutions to problems. M & S argued that reasoning has confirmation bias as a feature when putting forward solutions to problems and that critical thinking, generally speaking, only works well when criticising someone else's proposed solution. The individual working in isolation to try to find the truth using reason is at a considerable disadvantage. Similarly, others have found that reason does not operate as predicted by mainstream accounts of it: "We’re assuming that people accept something or don’t accept it on a completely rational basis. Or, they’re part of a belief community that as a group accept or don’t accept. But the findings just made those simple answers untenable." (When it Comes to Accepting Evolution, Gut Feelings Trump Facts)

Furthermore I apply results published by Antonio and Hanna Damasio which suggest that emotions play a key role in decision making. (I outlined this idea in a blog called Facts and Feelings). Most real world problems are complex and making decisions about them, including deciding what we think is true, requires us to sift and weigh up a broad range of information. Before we can make a decision we have to assess the relevance of the information or category of information to the decision at hand, i.e. what is salient. Most of this process is unconscious and is based on emotional responses. Or in other words emotions function to help us decide what is important in any decision making situation. Decisions are then made by comparative weighing up of our emotional responses to the solutions we are aware of and have judged to be salient. Once a decision is made it is then rationalised to fit an existing personal narrative. This insight was also outlined at a library marketing seminar I attended almost 20 years ago.

The ability to unconsciously determine salience is what we often call our "gut feeling" or "intuition". This type of unconscious information processing seems to rely on pattern recognition and considering many options at once (parallel processing). The end result is decisions made with no conscious awareness of the process of thinking it through. Indeed the result often comes to us in a flash or after a period of sleep. The speed of this type of processing seems to contraindicate the usual cognitive processes of conscious problem solving, so that the answers that come via this route may not be fully integrated into the sense of self - spatially the answer comes from nowhere, or from outside us. Thus this kind of information process can coupled with views about metaphysical self that is not tied to the body and become "divine inspiration". (See Origin of the Idea of the Soul which relies on work by Thomas Metzinger).

The cognitive gap that opens up when we set aside information as non-salient is often filled by what neuroscientists call confabulation. Oliver Sachs poignantly described a man with no ability to make or retrieve memories (see Oliver Sach's Confabulating Butcher). Asked why he is present in the hospital or engaged in an activity he cannot say, but instead confabulates - he produces a plausible story and presents it as truth. There is no conscious lie, and the patient is not trying to deceive his interlocutors. He is presenting the most plausible account of himself that he has, despite being aware of inconsistencies, because he has no other account and the state of not being able to account for himself seems to be unacceptable at an unconscious level. Something similar happens whenever we have a flash of insight or intuition. The thought pops fully formed into our heads and then we confabulate a story about how it got there, and this generally speaking has nothing to do with how the mind or the brain works. Thus conscious thought is not a good paradigm for how the mind works. It is the just the tip of the iceberg.

Now this theory is still rather nascent and a bit vague. I'm still getting up to speed with the literature of evolutionary approaches to religion, though my views seem to have much in common with scholars like Ara Norenzayan. The theory does make an interesting prediction. It predicts that where people have strong existing views they will treat new contradictory information in a limited number of ways depending on how they feel about it. Where a view entails a major investment of identity and social status (e.g. a religious view) a person will tend to judge contradictory information as not salient and reason in such a way as to set aside the new information without having to consider the real implications of it. My idea was that this could be tested at some point on people with religious beliefs. On paper it does seem to account for some behaviours of religious people with respect to new information, for example the Christian fundamentalist confronting the facts of evolution.

With all this in mind I was fascinated to read an article by Steve Keen describing something very similar in the field of economics. Keen highlights a paper by Dan M. Kahan et al. "Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government" Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 307. Keen, formerly Professor of Economics & Finance at the University of Western Sydney, is best known for his vehement polemics against the Neoclassical consensus in economics, epitomised in his book Debunking Economics. Neoclassical economics is what is taught to virtually all economics students at all levels across the world and has a monopoly over economics discourse that is disproportionate to its success as a body of theory.

Keen is one of a small number of economists who predicted the economic crisis that began in late 2007, and probably the only one who did so on the basis of mathematical modelling. One of his main criticisms of Neoclassical economists is that they ignore debt in their macro-economic models because aggregate debt cancels out: if I borrow £1 and a bank lends me £1 then the balance is zero. On the face of it this seems reasonable because our view of banks is that they lend out deposits. But in fact banks lend orders of magnitude more money than their actual deposits. When they lend they, in effect, create money at the same time. Problems occur when too much debt builds up and the repayments become a burden. For example private debt in the UK soared to 500% of GDP or five times the annual economic output of the whole country. Conditions may change and render debtors incapable of repaying the debt, which is what happened on a huge scale in 2007 and the sub-prime mortgage scandal. The levels of debt at that point meant that banks started to become insolvent as their income from interest payments plummeted and their own ability to service debts was compromised. From their the crisis spread like toppling dominoes.

Thus banks and debt are far from neutral in the economy. Perhaps in a post-crash world in which the role of banks in creating the crisis through a massive over-expansion of the money supply is public knowledge, the theory might be expected to change? But it has not. A global economic crisis has not caused any great soul searching amongst macro-economists who did not see it coming. Tweaking is the main result. 

Keen predicted the crash on the basis of the rate of change of debt. As we take on debt (private rather than public debt) growth ensues and , for example, employment levels grow. As shown in this graph there is a tight correlation (0.96) between changes in debt and the employment rate. 

Thus when the rate of change of debt began to fall sharply in 2006 it was a harbinger of collapse in the economy. In the USA employment levels fell from 95% to 90% and have yet to fully recover. 

This mathematical analysis ought to have been of interest to people trying to predict the behaviour of economies. Especially in post-crash hindsight it ought to be interesting to those whose job was to predict how the economy would perform and utterly failed to see the worst economic disaster in a century coming. As late as mid-2007, just months before sub-prime began to kick off, the OECD were still predicting strong economic performance in their member countries for the foreseeable future. However Keen's work, and the work of other economists who were successful in predicting a major recession/depression has been roundly ignored. Keen also argues that mainstream economic models are incapable of predicting a recession because it is not a possible state in those models, whereas his models do allow for recession. 

Not a man to mince words, Keen has been highly critical of the mainstream of economics. But now he puts that failure to react in the context of a theory of belief and decision making similar to the one outlined above. In the paper by Kahan et al, the participants were given tasks to assess their "ability to draw valid causal inferences from empirical data." The results were counter-intuitive and surprising. Numeracy – skill in understanding numbers – was a negative predictor of performance on these tasks if they conflicted with existing beliefs.
"It seems that when an issue is politically neutral, a higher level of numeracy does correlate with a higher capacity to interpret numerical data correctly. But when an issue is politically charged – or the numerical data challenges a numerate person’s sense of self – numeracy actually works against understanding the issue. The reason appears to be that numerate people employed their numeracy skills to evade the evidence, rather than to consider it." Steve Keen (emphasis in the original)
This is consistent with Mercier & Sperber's account of confirmation bias as a feature of reasoning. And it is consistent with my Damasio derived theory about the role of emotion in decision-making, if we read "politically charged" as signifying strongly held political beliefs, and associate that in turn with strong emotional responses to the issue. The authors tied this in with personal and social psychology:
Individuals, on this account, have a large stake – psychically as well as materially – in maintaining the status of, and their personal standing in, affinity groups whose members are bound by their commitment to shared moral understandings. If opposing positions on a policy-relevant fact – e.g., whether human activity is generating dangerous global warming – came to be seen as symbols of membership in and loyalty to competing groups of this kind, individuals can be expected to display a strong tendency to conform their understanding of whatever evidence they encounter to the position that prevails in theirsSteve Keen (emphasis added).
Kahan et al. extend the problem of salience of information to the social setting. Professed beliefs are often explicit markers of group membership and being well versed in group jargon and able to articulate group beliefs is part of what determines one's status in the group. In an economic setting, mainstream economists are able to ignore facts (such as a very high correlation of the rate of change of debt to the employment rate) that might change their worldview (particularly the way they view the role of debt in economics) because their status as members of a group requires them to conform to norms which are in part defined by holding a particular worldview. They are blind to facts which challenge their views. Keen points out that this is not a new observation and that some years ago that the great physicist Max Planck, who had struggled to have his work accepted by his peers, quipped that knowledge progresses "one funeral at a time".

This result reinforces the limitations of thinking of human beings in terms of individual psychology. It's a hard habit to break in the West. We are influenced by Freud, the Romantics, and the various revolutionary thinkers who championed the rights of individuals. Of course to some extent we are individuals, but not as much as we make out. Much of the inner life that appears to make up our individuality, is in fact determined by conditioning in various groups (family, peers, nation, religion, education) and by our place within these groups. We simply do not exist in isolation. 

Any philosophy of consciousness, mind, or morality which sees individuals as the main subject for study is of limited value. And the practice of trying to make valid inferences from the individual to the group is less likely to be accurate than the other way around. At the very least individuals exist in a series of overlapping gestalts with various groups. 

This view of people will most likely conflict with what we know. Most of us are convinced that we are individuals, who make our own decisions and think our own thoughts. We live in a society which highly values a narrative about "reason" and about what a reasoning individual is capable of. However, very few people are convinced by facts because that's not how reasoning works. That view of reason is isolated from other aspects of humanity such as emotions and our behaviour as social primates.

Those people who bombard us with facts fail to convince. By contrast the advertising profession has long understood that in order to change minds and behaviour one must change how people feel about the facts. Half the ads I see nowadays have almost no intellectual or factual content. It's all about brand recognition (familiarity) and a positive emotional response. One might say that for advertising the facts are now irrelevant. And so, liberals campaigning for protection of the environment, say, often fail to convince a sizeable proportion of the population or indeed anyone that disagrees with them to start with. Meanwhile advertising is a multi-billion pound industry, consumerism is rampant, and the environment is daily degraded in the direction of being unable to sustain human life.

Most people cannot be reasoned with, because neither people nor reason work the way they are popularly conceived to work. Those of us who want to make the world a better place must pay close attention to these issues of how people's minds actually work. If we want to convince people that we have a better solution it cannot be through facts alone. They must feel that what we say is salient in the context of their existing values. And even then, if what we say conflicts with strongly held beliefs then we can expect to be ignored. We tend to get so carried away in our enthusiasm for our own values that we fail to empathise with those whose minds we really need to change in order to change the world: i.e. political, military and business leaders.