Showing posts with label Society. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Society. Show all posts

28 October 2016

Norms without Conscious Rule Following. Social reality (V)

This is Part V of five. Part I is here.
“It is the duty of every citizen/resident of any country, nationals as well as expatriates to know the basics of the governing laws of the country one resides. Ignorance of the law or unawareness cannot be pleaded to escape liability.” ― Henrietta Newton Martin

The drift of Searle's philosophy of society to this point may well seem overly rational, mechanistic even. Institutional facts are constituted by rules, which invoke rights, duties, and obligations, and these define who we are and how we behave. Even if we allow that the rules of society evolved organically or that we follow rules unconsciously, there remains some doubt about how accurate a picture this can be. 

Perhaps it is only observing that people seem to break rules all the time, whether by accident or design, but rule-following humans seems a doubtful ideal at best. Or perhaps it is the fact that few people know, or can know, more than the basic outlines of the laws that govern their daily lives. Or that an anthropologist can write a book about social customs that are transparent to the people who live by them quite religiously, but opaque and obscure to outsiders (see for example, Kate Fox's Watching the English). The fact is that we intuitively know the informal, unspoken, rules of our society, but we'd all struggle to list them. It takes a skilled anthropologist many hours of situation-specific, close observation to figure some of them out. We seem to just know how to behave and what we can usually get away with. Even our objections to bad behaviour don't reference explicit rules. We don't cite chapter and verse, we just say "uh-uh, no." or "that's rude!" or whatever.

Searle believes our behaviour is often consistent with, and even shaped by, social rules, without having direct recourse to them. However, before we can address this issue directly, we need to establish another plank in Searle's philosophy. So far he has identified three essential aspects to society: observer relative functions, collective intentionality, and deontic powers. All that we have done so far, all the conclusions we have reached, emerge on the basis of understanding these three concepts and how they interact. Now we need to introduce a fourth concept: background capabilities or simply the background .

~ The Background ~

For intentional states to make sense, humans must make use of contextualising information. This involves metaphysical concepts like space, time, and causation (à la Kant); but also familiarity with social and physical environments. Take the example of the verb "cut". If I ask you to cut the cake and you fire up the lawn mower, then you've made a mistake. Similarly if I ask you to cut the grass and you whip out a carving knife. The verb cut is ambiguous and we have to be sensitive to the conditions: cutting grass and cutting cakes are similar actions, but require different tools and different methods. There are several other object/tool specific meanings of cut: cutting trees (chainsaw/axe); cutting hair (scissors), cutting a hedge (clippers); but also metaphorical uses, e.g. cutting school, cutting code, cutting the cheese, and so on. But if you are a native English speaker, you've probably never tried to cut a cake with a lawnmower.

English is especially rich in such variety and thus ambiguity, but all languages have it to some extent. The lack of a one-to-one relationship between language and the world vexed many a philosopher of the past and many attempts have been made to eliminate synonyms and ambiguity from natural language or to construct artificial languages which lack it from the outset (See Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language). However, the first generation of children who speak a language immediately start introducing ambiguity again.  

What this shows is that we do not interpret sentences only at the level of bare semantic content, it's not enough to know what cut means in general sense, one has to understand from the context which act of cutting is being referred to and adjust one's understanding accordingly. This is to say that we understand language pragmatically also. For a native English speaker the distinctions in the use of cut are understood effortless and the kinds of mistakes I noted about for cut seldom if ever occur. We don't hear the word cut and then consult an inner table of the possible meanings and sometimes chose the wrong sense. In fact, we hear the sentence and we just know which sense is intended. The meaning of most spoken sentences is simply apparent to us effortlessly and in the moment (or perhaps even slightly before the moment).

In George Lakoff's theory of categorisation, words invoke frames that consist of relevant image schemas and metaphors. The frame "cake" involves a prototypical cake and the relation of any specific cake to that prototype. The frame of "cake" also consists of all of the actions that we associate with tree: baking, decorating, eating, and, of course, cutting. "Cut" also invokes a frame. Cutting the cake is the overlap of the categories and frames. Again our ability to invoke appropriate frames seems effortless. We just known how objects fit into our world.

Expectation is a considerable part of perception (see also comments under the heading "Cognition and Time", in my essay The Citta Bottleneck1 Jul 2016). Expectation helps us to parse sentences in real time, and provides an easy avenue for humour, where the punch-line of a story disrupts our expectations we tend to find it funny. Here's a couple of my favourite one-liners from the inimitable Milton Jones:
Italians, eh? With their slanty little eyes... no wait, that's italics.
So I phoned up the spiritual leader of Tibet, he sent me a large goat with a long neck... turns out I phoned dial a llama.
We can anticipate where a sentence is going, using clues from our knowledge of the social context and the present conversation. It's much harder when we don't know someone well. Someone who has only recently learned a language and does have to resort to referencing memorised rules, cannot cope with the speed of natural conservations between native speakers. "Speak more slowly" is one of the most useful phrases for a beginner learning a new language. 

Something similar happens for perceptions (see Rolf Degen's blog). As Searle puts it, when we perceive something "the perceiver assimilates the perceived object to some more or less familiar category" (133). Though he is not referencing Lakoff directly, the crossover is obvious. If I see a parade including a great dane, a german shepherd, a beagle, a dachshund, and a chihuahua I have no problem identifying all these as types of dog (nor do they have a difficulty, because they all smell like dogs) and relating them to my prototypical dog. Searle's point is that this aspect of familiarity is effortless and transparent. Most of the time, we are not following any classification rules either consciously or unconsciously. We just know, because assimilating new experience to our existing set of categories and frames, gives it an aspect of familiarity. We can analyse how categories work as Lakoff does, but in daily life our use of categories is mostly effortless and transparent. I see an unfamiliar breed of dog, and I just know it's a dog of some kind. I'm not going through a check-list comparing the dog with features of a conscious prototype or anything like that.

Anyone who has travelled will know the simultaneous feeling of familiarity and unfamiliarity. For example, when you get off a plane in India having come from Britain, the differences can be striking: the heat, the different languages, the smells, etc; but then you still line up at customs and immigration, show your passport to a functionary, walk out and collect your baggage; catch a taxi to a hotel, drive in a car, along streets; see houses, people, trees, animals. In a city like New Delhi one can get by with only English, find a wifi hotspot, visit an excellent museum,buy an espresso, and eat a meal, just as you might do in London or Birmingham; but then be unsettled by a cow wandering down the street, a beggar suffering from some horrible skin disease, or a passer-by spitting a vast quantity red paan juice onto the footpath.  Everything is different and familiar at the same time.

Of course things can get a bit vague at the edges. There are cases when we are not sure what something is. Our first response to a a completely novel experience is to try slot it into what we already know, or at least relate it to the categories we have available. The more novel experiences we have, the more we can expand the range of categories we have available to categorise experience. This is why we talk about mind-expanding experiences, and count travel as one of the more significant of them.

In both cases—language and perception—there is a lot of background processing going on that helps make sense of our intentional mental states. But these processes are not themselves intentional or conscious. Often these are not processes that we could bring to consciousness. We've noted three background capabilities already: interpreting spoken language; interpreting perceptions; and the aspect of familiarity. Why aren't the background capacities just the same as following rules unconsciously? 

~ The Rules ~

There is a real problem with the idea that people follow rules that determine their behaviour. Searle puts it like this:
"Here is our paradox: We want a causal explanation that will explain the intricacy, the complexity, and the sensitivity of our behavior as well as explaining its spontaneity, creativity, and originality. But we only have two paradigms of causal explanation, and neither seems adequate to explain the relations of individuals to social structures. One is the paradigm of rational decision making according to rules, principles, and the like, and the other is brute physical causation and therefore non-intentionalistic and not rationalistic." (141)
I've focussed on Searle's example of money, so let's continue with that one. What do we know about money so far? It is an ontologically objective fact that a £5 note exists in the form of paper/plastic and ink. However, money per se is ontologically subjective. The £5 note is money because we agree that the note represents wealth, where wealth means control of things agreed to be of value. But it is also an epistemically objective fact that a £5 note is money. There is no need to justify using a £5 note in exchange for goods and services, because it is universally acknowledged that a £5 note does represent wealth. Such facts cannot be grounded in physical reality, only in social reality. How we feel about having a £5 in our wallet is epistemically subjective.

The system of money is very complex. In the UK the government delegates monetary policy to the quasi-independent Bank of England, founded in 1694 to fund the then King's overseas wars. The Bank of England manipulates the value of a pound by setting base interest rates, by printing money, and by buying up debts from other banks (aka quantitative easing). The Bank of England is managed by a Governor and a monetary policy committee who regulate and supervise the money supply. They also supervise the minting and printing of currency. Our currency is traded on international markets and it is currently plunging in value against the Euro! Then there is a whole body of law dedicated the process of exchanging money for goods and services, including consumer protection, advertising practices, and so on. 

Most of us who use money are at best only vaguely aware of how the system of money works. We may from time to time check to see if a particular note is legitimate and not a counterfeit, but mostly we use money without any reference to the underlying reality or otherwise of money, wealth, or value. We do not reference the rules for the creation of money or wealth or value; nor the more detailed rules of exchanging money for goods and services. When we hand over a £5 in exchange for a purchase in a shop, no negotiation necessary: customer and clerk simply exchange one for the other despite the volumes of laws that govern the transaction. 

The system of money is almost entirely transparent to most people, most of the time. Indeed people can be completely mistaken about the nature of money and still participate in the system. For example people may believe that they can still exchange money for gold if they turn up at the treasury; or that money is only created by the government (just 3% of money is cash and 97% takes the form of debts issued by banks). A lot of people still think that banks lend from deposits, which hasn't been true since the founding of the Bank of England. When we take it out of our wallet to pay for a pint of almond milk, we may be completely unaware of all the many factors that impact the value of our £5 note, from inflation/deflation, to international trade and exchange rates. This doesn't stop us using money. As long as we can identify the face value of the tokens and count, then we can use money. 

The point is that when we use money we are not referencing the rules of money. We may not even know the rules that govern the creation, supply, and value of money and we could even have erroneous beliefs on these subjects that would not hamper us. When we learn about money as a child, we mainly learn how to count tokens and to reckon what change we're owed. If we are lucky we learn the value of money and the virtue of saving money. More likely these days we end up in debt and paying a substantial fraction of our income to a bank as interest payments for the rest of our lives. In fact most transactions these days involve waving a bit of plastic with a microchip at a sensor and don't involve physical currency at all. The physical representation of money is as bits on a disk in a server farm that could literally be anywhere in the world.

So the idea that the use of money is an example of rule-following behaviour is really nonsensical. With some effort we can discover what the rules are. We can describe the rules. And the rules do in some sense dictate how money works, but the rules do not prescribe our behaviour, even though to use money effectively our behaviour must be consistent with the rules! And we haven't even touched on the fact that people deliberately break all the rules pertaining to money.

There is a strong parallel here with grammar. Language is highly susceptible to analysis into semantic units, syntax, and grammar. Rules for language use can be discovered and described in great detail. The first example of this is a text called, Aṣṭādhyāyī. This a grammar of Sanskrit written ca. 300 BCE by the Gandhāran scholar, Pāṇini. However, when we are speaking, we are not following rules. In an animated conversation, sentences fly back an forth at speed with no time for rule based analysis. Every adult who learns a new language starts off learning the rules of spelling, syntax and grammar. They consciously parse sentences. They may attain a certain level of fluency. When they meet native speakers they find that the conversation goes too fast for them to consciously parse what is being said. Conscious rule-following is too slow for real life. Doesn't this just mean that we follow rules unconsciously?

In order for us to unconsciously follow the rules, we would have to know what the rules are. As I have already pointed out, most people have only a very basic idea of how money works and a substantial portion of those have a false idea of how money works. But this does not stop them from using money. I have used money in New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, USA, India and the UK. I don't have any specific knowledge of how money works in any of these except the UK, because I only started to pay attention to such things after I emigrated. 

When I paid 10 Baht to catch the monorail in Bangkok, I just picked out a 10 Baht note and handed it over in exchange for a ticket. My ticket allowed me onto the train. The train took me to a stop by the river and later back to my hotel. I have no idea how the Thai government manages its money supply. In fact I didn't know a single word in a Thai language. Money is simply money. Tickets are tickets. Trains are trains. I have the requisite background capabilities to use a train pretty much anywhere, though India was a stretch, not because of how their money works, but because of the sheer number of people and trains.

Similarly I learned to speak English as a child and was never presented with detailed grammatical lessons at school. At best I could identify a verb and a noun, but I had no reason to do so most of the time. The first time I even thought of this as a disadvantage was long after I had completely 5 years of university education and I met some students who were learning English as a second language. They asked me a grammatical question about a part of speech. I had no idea how to explain which form to use, though I knew with certainty which form was correct in the example they gave me. I had no rules to refer to, but I just knew the right form to use. It was not until I taught myself Pāḷi from Warder's book An Introduction to Pali, that I got any substantial education in grammar. Later I studied Sanskrit at Cambridge University my teacher taught me how to systematically parse a sentence. I learned rules of grammar and how to consciously apply those rules to analyse an unfamiliar sentence. As a result I became competent in unravelling Pāḷi sentences. I can now do a basic analysis of an English sentence. But I didn't need this ability in order to use the language. 

Searle uses the example of baseball. When you first learn to play baseball, you have to memorise the rules: bases, innings, sides, pitcher, batter, catcher, fielder, strikes, fouls, catches, in, out, runs, turns etc. One has to coordinate the physical actions required to play the game. But people who get good at baseball, or any skill-set, forget about the rules and just play. The rules guide the development of dispositions that result in behaviour that generally follows the rules without being rule-based. This is why sports need an umpire or referee, someone whose job is to consciously keep track of the rules and make sure play is legal. Athletes play to the best of their ability, but they often inadvertently break the rules. If sports were a matter of following rules, they would proceed a lot more slowly, and there would be fewer fouls. Of course sometimes players deliberately commit fouls—so-called professional fouls or cheating as it is more commonly known—but most examples of rule breaking are inadvertent. Good players are relying on background capabilities to guide their actions and keep their efforts within the rules of the game, while they think more strategically. In team sports the players are not only playing their own game, but also have to keep track of what the others are doing, not to mention the opposition. 

When learning any new skill, we start off learning rules, and our performance is halting and often inaccurate. But if we get good at anything, if we attain fluency, the skill must be transferred to the background, it becomes a background capability.

What kind of mechanism would support this? The idea of rule following would require the law to be encoded in our brains, and decisions on behaviour to be constantly assessing which rules, and sets of rules, are applicable and then referencing the content of those rules in order to formulate an action. This is the model of the brain as computer. But it turns out that the brain is not a computer, at least not in how it approaches the rules of society or sport. It is, not surprisingly, rather more like a neural network (See de Bono 1990).

We know that the micro-structures of the brain are constantly changing in response to experience (Kolb et al 2003). Learning and memory, are not simply a matter of storing and retrieving information in a static brain. The brain is not simply a container, but is changed by experience. When we learn, neurons grow new dendrites and new synapses are formed. It's also possible that entire new neurons grow, though the macro-structure of the brain does not change after we reach physical maturity. As we continue to perform an action like counting money, learning a language, driving a car, or playing baseball, there is a corresponding change in the brain at the cellular level. Connections between neurons increase in density. Skills that are neglected correlate with a corresponding reduction in connection density. The neurophysiology of learning and memory thus support Searle's contention that we are not usually referencing remembered rules, but rather relying on dispositions (or strengthened neural pathways) that develop once we learn the rules and reinforce them through repeated performance of related actions. With these dispositions in place we begin to behave in ways that are consistent with the rules, without actually referencing the rules. There is usually a point of mastery of a skill were we cease thinking consciously how to do it, and just do it. And this is why we just know how to behave without reference to rules, even though rules exist and out behaviour is consistent with those rules.

With this last plank in place we have everything that we need for a philosophy of social reality. The last two chapters of Searle's book are an elaborate defence of Realism, which I won't go into. In any case I have proposed my own defence of Realism (see Buddhism & The Limits of Transcendental Idealism). It remains now to make some final comments on this series of five essays which have introduced and critiqued Searle's social realism. 

~ Final Conclusions ~

By combining four concepts—1. functions, 2. collective intentionality, 3. deontic powers, and 4. the background—we have arrived at a quite sophisticated overview of how societies function.

We can analyse societies in terms of rules of the form, X counts as Y in C. Such a rule describes the situation where collective intentionality accepts or indeed imposes, an observer relative function on an object or individual. Such functions change the status of X in the minds of those who participate in the context. That X counts as Y becomes a fact which is ontologically subjective, but epistemically objective. When everyone agrees that the function applies, then it does apply. A £5 note is money, because everyone involved considers that it it money. This is collective intentionality. In view of this, the £5 note does not just function as money, but it has the status of money as well. It has a status as legal tender and as a symbol of wealth and value. It is necessary that the £5 have the status accorded to money in order to function as money. Therefore we refer to status-functions.

Especially when applied to people, status-functions come with rights, duties, and obligations; i.e. with deontic powers. Status functions thus empower individuals and are governed by conventional power. Prime Minister is an observer relative function. X counts as the PM when they are the leader of the party that won the most recent general election. In the UK this means that if the party leadership changes mid-term, as it did in 2016, then we have a new PM without requiring a new election. Being PM comes with status as the leading executive and chief policy maker of the UK. The head of state approves the new PM by convention. The PM is formally addressed as "Prime Minister"; where the title is an indicator of the status of the person functioning as leader. Some status-functions require indicators such as uniforms or other special clothing and accessories (especially hats), titles, implements, residences, and special deference shown to them by others.

Contra Searle and following de Waal, I argue that rudimentary status-functions exist in chimpanzee and bonobo societies, specifically the alpha-male and/or alpha-female. However, I agree with Searle that the possibilities enabled by complex human language overwhelm such rudimentary status-functions and language is constitutive of human societies. Communication in the absence of language is necessarily rudimentary. 

While at times we make rules conscious, most of how society works is through background capabilities. We learn rules as infants and those rules allow us to develop background capabilities and competencies that make our behaviour rule-consistent, without being rule-determined. Our ability to develop these background capacities is what was formerly known as character. Such rules as become apparent to us through analysis of society are not the whole story. For the most part we are not conscious of the rules, nor following rules unconsciously. Instead we rely on dispositions developed after an early stage of life and encoded as dense connections in our neural network. The neuroscience of neuro-plasticity provides the mechanism for Searle's background capacities.

Thus we have social norms without conscious or unconscious rule following. And thus society is not reducible to rules or rule-following individuals. Society is what emerges when a social species lives in social groups and establishes social norms. It is important, to me at least, that in explaining how society might work that we have not explained away or denied the existence of society. The arch Neoconservative, the late Lady Margaret Thatcher, once insisted that there was no such thing as society. Her elaborate state funeral was a most elegant refutation of this misunderstanding. Society is an ontologically subjective, but epistemically objective fact. It emerges when people live and work together, and not just people, but mammals and birds of many kinds also.

Lastly, the foundational principles on which mammal and bird social groups work—empathy and reciprocity—are the basis for the evolution of morality. This will be the subject of my next essay, but for now this concludes my survey of Searle's philosophy of social reality.

~ Bibliography ~

Covers all parts of this essay

Bono, Edward de (1990). I am Right - You are Wrong: From This to the New Renascence: From Rock Logic to Water Logic. Penguin.

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:

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.

05 July 2013

Life is Symbiotic

Economists, politicians and some philosophers believe that human beings (and or genes) are selfish. That self-interest and competition are the ultimate driving forces of evolution and human behaviour. This idea is sometimes called "enlightened self-interest". The theory really comes into it's own in Victorian Britain where the dog eat dog view of the world fitted well with Britain's global imperialism. When you are bent on world domination it is as well to believe that it is ordained by God; that it is the natural order that some individuals naturally dominate others to the point of enslavement. I think it originates with the Christian idea of the Great Chain of Being, but clearly gets subverted. However this theory of self interest and competition is still at the centre of Western society and morals. 

This view of the world and of humanity tends to be portrayed as the only viable alternative. It is built into the fabric of nature itself; nature red in tooth and claw. But it is not the only view. In this essay I'm going to outline an alternative view of humanity. One that accepts that competition plays a role in our evolution and our lives, but sees it as secondary. What is primary to life itself is cooperation, symbiosis, community. 

We human beings exist in communities. But we are all individually communities as well. Our bodies are a community with two types of members: complex, tightly bound cells, and a mixture of simple, loosely bound cells. Complex or eukaryote cells have existed for some 2 billion years. The complexity of eukaryote cells has only recently been explained as a symbiotic conglomeration of simpler, prokaryote, cells. This idea was first proposed in the 19th century but was given scientific credence by Lynn Margulis. Her 1967 paper The Origin of Mitosing Eukaryotic Cells (under the name Lynn Sagan) is a landmark in the theory of evolution. Margulis's paper was repeated rejected by academic journals and dismissed by the establishment once published, but the theory, also known as endosymbiosis, is now found in every introductory text on biology. Margulis showed that mitochondria were once free living bacteria and that the eukaryote cell is a complex symbiotic entity with mitochondria and the body of the cell retaining part of their identity, but also merging to become a single self-replicating unit. Indeed mitochondria look like bacteria in many ways, have their own (bacteria like) DNA, and have different metabolic pathways to the rest of the cell. It is mitochondria that give our cells the ability to metabolise oxygen. Before mitochondria oxygen was a powerful poison to cells. This ability of bacteria to develop new metabolic pathways is one of their most important features. Margulis later proposed that some other features of eukaryote cells, such as flagella and possible the spindles that control mitosis, came from symbiotic bacteria. The Eukaryote cells that make up all plants and animals resulted from a series of symbiotic relationships that became permanent. Later Margulis worked with James Lovelock to help him with the biological side of his Gaia Theory. 

Part of the complexity of our body is the way that the cells divide functions. Despite all having the same DNA all mature human cells are specialists, forming organs and sub-organs that make our organism. Everything from brain, muscle and liver to skin, bone and blood. This comes about because of the way genes in our cells interact. Each gene works together with other genes to create an environment in which they go forward together. This image of communities working together is found at every level in nature, whether overtly as in our cells and the organs they make up, or more covertly in the checks and balances of an ecosystem. We can view predation, for example, in terms of a war with ever changing strategies by species bent on domination; or we can see it as part of an elaborate network of feedback loops (the cybernetic view); or we could see it as a dance in in which all the participants work together to perpetuate life. The thing about metaphors is that they are not set in concrete, but which metaphors we chose to use to conceptualise a complex idea does affect the associations and entailments we perceive in it.

The other member of our collective are the loosely bound bacteria and protozoa that inhabit our bodies. Recent estimates suggest that for every human cell there are 10 bacterial cells in our bodies (Scientific American June 2012). These mainly live in our gut, and many of them are now known to be more or less essential to well-being. Without intestinal bacteria for example it is thought we would have to ingest 30% more food to get the same number of usable calories. But other bacteria have been linked to the proper functioning of our immune systems; to vitamin B12 synthesis; to blood pressure maintenance and so on.

Bacteria are not entirely simple. Their individual structure is much more simple than a eukaryote cell, but bacteria live in colonies which work together to make survival more certain. And each colony always has several different strains of bacteria which exploit different metabolic pathways and are able to "cooperate" in  order to thrive. And important point about the bacteria in our bodies is that where we have about 25,000 genes, they collectively have about 3 million. The protozoa in our gut are typically single-celled  eukaryote organisms which do not form colonies. Of course we have some organisms which are parasitic or pathogenic, but the majority are benign or positively helpful. 

Thus when we view our bodies as "individual" we are distorting the truth. Our bodies are colonies of cells cooperating in a variety of ways to sustain life. The interactions are incredibly complex and details of them could fill whole books. And it's not just us. All life is like this. And very often it is the communal nature of life that gives it adaptability. Not only are bacteria quick to adapt because they reproduce quickly, but any bacteria can share genetic material with any other (at least in theory) so they all have a much greater pool of genes on which to draw. Almost as soon as we develop a means of poisoning them, bacteria find a way of neutralising and/or metabolising that poison. Where new species emerge it is very likely that some symbiont has provided a way of exploiting a new ecological niche by providing a new metabolic pathway. The mutation of genes by contract really only produces variations on a theme, not innovation on a large scale. Thus the idea that evolution is driven by "selfish genes" is a joke. Indeed for any gene to be expressed requires a protein made by another gene to "read" and transcribe it into RNA that can be used by the cell to make more protein. If we are going to anthropomorphise genes then we ought to be saying that genes are selfless, cooperative and generous.

That said the individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. We are sexually dimorphic and thus require male and female in order to reproduce. But even two is not the smallest number, because inbreeding would most likely lead to genetic problems. No one is quite sure what the smallest viable gene pool is, but hunter-gather humans tend to form troops of about 50-150. And even then they often select mates from neighbouring tribes. The migration out of Africa that populated the rest of the world was said to be about 10,000 individuals. And we don't live in groups simply because it improves our gene pool, we are a social species. Our social groups have structure and dynamics. The individual cannot survive without help from the community. We are adapted to do child rearing, food gathering, hunting, and all the basic survival behaviours together. It is also true that some are leaders and some are followers, i.e. we are hierarchical like other social primates. And as our societies have grown ever larger we have imposed structures to make governance manageable. The point here is not to evaluate this, but just to note it. Clearly the modern intellectual trend is to reject hierarchy, though I see biology continually asserting itself.

The individual is not vitally important in humanity. As a species we do best in groups, and we are evolved to facilitate this. Thus we are equipped with empathy to better understand the emotional states of our fellows and respond appropriately (especially to avoid destructive conflict). One of the benefits of a large brain is that it allows us to keep track of a fairly large number of relationships: knowing where people are in our hierarchy, our relationship to them, and their relationships to the others in the group. Keeping track of 50 people and the nuances of who is obligated to whom, who is in what kind of relationship with whom, and what role each person plays in the community is quite a complex task. Social rules are often unwritten and  extremely complex (as any immigrant can tell you). 

As fine as it is to feel free, to assert out individuality and our rights, in general we cannot survive alone and isolated. So the idea that everyone is acting on their own self-interest is more Victorian nonsense. We are evolved for community and for working together to achieve common goals.  A few rogue humans do not act like this and it is not sensible that they form the basis of the model of humanity. Empathy allows us to have complex interactions based on a shared sense of values and purpose. Selfishness only subverts the values of the community, both the explicit values of most human communities and the implicit values of a social primate. Most societies tolerate a little individualism (since innovation can be useful) but actually punish overt selfishness. I think this is implicit also in what I've written about morality and surveillance. The whole point of surveillance is to gain access to people's private thoughts and actions to make sure they are conforming to group norms. Since this is more or less ubiquitous we can say that selfishness is universally seen as a vice.  That some people find ways to be selfish and acquisitive does not change the general description of human beings. 

The reasons that modern societies are increasingly focussed on the individual at the expense of society are rather complex. But it's clearly a recent phenomenon and a rather aberrant one. Individualism still does not make sense in many traditional societies. In any case the point of this essay has been to argue against the prevalent idea that selfishness is the driver of evolution and human behaviour. If anything this idea is pernicious and divisive, and needs to be re-examined at every level. At every level cooperation, symbiosis, and community are the most important factors in sustaining life. And at every level individualism is like cancer - rogue units multiplying at the expense of the whole. We certainly need to look again at how we treat selfish people who have enriched themselves to the detriment of whole nations and even the globe. The causes of the present economic crisis for example can be found in individual and collective greed. As a society we removed sanctions against overtly greedy and selfish behaviour, and adopted a policy of tolerance and even reward for those who managed to exploit the system to enrich themselves. We enshrined selfishness in our laws because we were momentarily bewildered by the arguments of smooth talking bastards. If ever there was an argument against selfishness and individualism it is the present economic situation in the UK, Europe and America.

More than ever what we need is a little enlightened other-interest. 


13 April 2012

Formalism in the Saṅgha

In the text I will discuss in this essay, it seems as though formalism had already begun to set in to the early bhikkhu saṅgha--indeed what it appears to show is that a monastic saṅgha, as opposed to a wandering ascetic saṅhga, is itself a form of degeneration recognised before the closing of the Canon. Whether this really happened during the lifetime of the Buddha or not we don't really know, but clearly it happened fairly quickly for this story to be canonical. What follows is an abbreviated translation of the Third Instruction Story (Tatityaovāda Sutta. S 16.8; PTS S ii.208) which as the title suggests is the third of three similar stories in which the Buddha asks Kassapa to admonish or instruct (ovāda) the bhikkhus.


In Rājagaha at the squirrel feeding place. The indeed Elder Mahākassapa approached the Bhagavan, greeted him, and sat to one side. As he sat the Bhagavan said to him, "Kassapa instruct the bhikkhus, give them on a talk on Dhamma. Either you or I should instruct them, Kassapa; either you or I should give them a talk on Dhamma.

"At present, Bhante, the bhikkhus speak ill, and are unruly; they are impatient and slow to take on instructions."

"Formerly Kassapa, amongst the elder bhikkhus, there were those who lived in the wilderness (āraññikā ) and spoke in praise (vaṇṇavādina) of living in the wilderness; and they ate only from an alms bowl (piṇḍapātika) and praised living on alms food; and wore robes from rubbish heaps (paṃsukūlika ) and praised wearing such robes; and owned just three robes and praised living with only three robes; and were easily satisfied (appiccha) and praised being easily satisfied; and were contented and praised contentment; and were solitary (pavivittā) and praised solitude; and were individuals (asaṃsaṭṭha ) and spoke in praise of individuality; and exerted themselves (āraddhavīriya) and praised exertion (vīriya-ārambha) ."

"Bhikkhus who possessed such qualities where invited to sit by the elder bhikkhus. [They would say] 'come bhikkhu', and 'what is this bhikkhu's name?', and 'what a good bhikkhu indeed is he', and 'this is a bhikkhu who loves the training'."

"And the new bhikkhus would think [a bhikkhu with those qualities is really a bhikkhu, and the elder bhikkhus treat him with respect]. They would be on the path to being like that, and that would be for their welfare (hitāya) and happiness (sukkha) for a long time."

"But now, Kassapa, the elder bhikkhus are not like that."

"Now he is [thought to be] a bhikkhu who is known, famous, a recipient of the requisites of robes, alms bowl, lodging, medicine and support when ill. Him the elder bhikkhus invite to sit. [They would say] 'come bhikkhu', and 'what is this bhikkhu's name?', and 'what a good bhikkhu indeed is he', and 'this is a bhikkhu who loves the brotherhood '."

"And the new bhikkhus would think [a bhikkhu with those qualities is really a bhikkhu, and the elder bhikkhus treat him with respect]. They would be on the path to being like that, and that would be for their harm (ahitāya) and unhappiness (dukkha) for a long time."

"Of [the famous recipient of requisites] one speaking rightly might say: 'the celibate practitioner is oppressed by the misfortunes of a celibate practitioner, is overcome by what overcomes a celibate practitioner.'"

Comments on the text and translation

The first thing to note is where this dialogue takes place, i.e. in the kalandakanivāpa near Rājagaha. DOPN says of the kalandakanivāpa: "Here food (nivāpa) was regularly placed for the squirrels [kalandaka]… UdA.60; SnA.ii.419"; the identification of kalandaka as 'squirrel' is difficult to substantiate – c.f. PED s.v. kalanda ‘heap, stack’; BHSD notes variant spellings karandaka-, kalaṇḍaka- and karaṇḍaka-. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Connected Discourses, p.760) has “Bamboo Grove” which may reflect the fact that the kalandakanivāpa was said to be in the Veluvaṇa or Bamboo Grove. CST notes that the Sri Lankan printed canon has instead "sāvatthi, ārāme" in a park near Sāvatthī – which brings to mind Schopen’s article 'If You Can't Remember, How to Make It Up' on the Mūlasarvātivāda-Vinaya rules for assigning a text to a city if one is not specified in the text one has. Schopen (1997).

The phrase "slow to take on" renders the compound: appadakkhiṇaggāhina = a– + pa– + dakkhiṇa + gāhina ‘not right handed’ (c.f. padakkhina ‘to the right’). The implication seems to be that they bhikkhus are inept, as the right hand symbolises aptitude – just as it does in European culture where the Latin derived word for left-handed is sinister. In India there is the additional sense of pollution related to the left hand being used to wash the anus after defecation. Hence also keeping the right shoulder towards objects (including people) of respect. (See Ritual Purity or Rank Superstition).

The new bhikkhus (nava bhikkhu) observing the elder bhikkhus (thera bhikkhu), emulate them and thus they would be on the path to "being like that": tathā hi, or 'thus' with hi linking back to the previous sentence. The commentary glosses tathā as tesu theresu 'amongst these elders', which reinforces the sense of the newer monks becoming like the older monks.

The word ārañña is often erroneously translated as "forest" but in fact it means a place outside of the safety of the village and away from cultivated land, i.e. something more like ‘wilderness’. It is true that ārañña includes the jungle that still existed in the Ganges Plain at the time, but the word has a broader reference.

In the past, says the text, bhikkhus "wore robes from rubbish heaps" The word here is paṃsukūlika:paṃsu means 'dirt, rubbish'; kūla however means 'slope, bank' usually with reference to a river' (PED), and in this context suggests a 'heap'. So the brief meaning would be 'one who resorts to rubbish heaps' however The Dīgha Nikāya commentary glosses paṃsukūlāni as pathaviyaṃ chaḍḍita-nantakāni 'rags discarded on the ground' (DA 2.356) which suggests we should understand the word paṃsukūlika as 'one who resorts to rubbish heaps [for clothing]'.

There are two terms used to describe the bhikkhu leading a solitary life: pavivitta and asaṃsaṭṭhā. The word pavivittā suggests that they lived alone, and apart. The other word asaṃsaṭṭhā could be a simple synonym but I take the opportunity to draw out something else. It is a pp. from saṃ√sṛj 'living in groups, mixed with' (Pāli saṃsaṭṭheti? c.f. noun saṃsagga ‘contact, association’. Here I’m assuming that the negative prefix gives the word a positive force rather than being a simple negation: that the bhikkhus were once individuals rather than simply members of a group; as opposed to saying that the bhikkhus did not socialise or live in groups which is implied by pavivitta. I any case the two together emphasise aloneness.

The last quality discussed is put in two related ways: āraddha-vīriya with 'energy engaged' and vīriya-ārambha 'making a effort'. Both āraddha and ārambha are from ā√rabh 'to begin, understand', PED lists viriyaṃ ārabhati 'to make a effort'. The form of the past participle āraddha is affected by Bartholomae’s Law affecting the adding of the past participle suffix –ta to a voiced aspirated consonant so that bha + ta goes though several hypothetical stages to produce the form in use: bhta > btha > bdha > ddha.

Having observed the elder bhikkhus the new bhikkhues tend to become like them (tathattāya) This is the dative case of tathatta, an abstract noun from tatha 'thus', meaning 'the state of being thus'; The commentary explains: tathattāyāti tathābhāvāya, āraññikādibhāvāyāti attho - 'to being like that' means 'to become thus' i.e. to 'primarily becoming a wilderness dweller'. Compare the word tathāgata which is literally 'one who is thus' or 'one who is like that'.

My phrase "this is a bhikkhu who loves the brotherhood" translates sabrahmacāri-kāma. Sa- is a prefix meaning 'with, together' and is connected with Latin simul as in English words like similar and simultaneous; cārin (cari- in compounds) is a possessive from cāra 'action, behaviour, faring' and a brahmacārin is literally 'one who behaves like Brahmā' (i.e. like God) and originally the word referred to an unmarried (and therefore celibate) student of the Vedas who by convention stayed aloof from the world. Buddhists took over this characteristically Brahmanical term to mean a celibate Buddhist practitioner, i.e. a bhikkhu. The word bhikkhu means 'a beggar', and perhaps this other term brahmacārin had a more positive connotation. Often in a Buddhist words with brahma- have the connotation of ‘holy, divine’ so a brahmacārin is sometimes referred to in English as someone who practices the holy life, though I think the loading with Theistic symbolism makes this unhelpful. So sabrahmacāri- means 'with those who live as celibate monks'. Finally kāma means love or desire. Compare also the related to the word dhammacārin ‘a dhamma-farer’, ‘one who lives by the dhamma’. Members of the Triratna Order are referred to (if only by each other) using the Sanskrit equivalent dharmacārin (masculine dharmacārī; feminine dharmacāriṇī).

Note the subtle change in emphasis here: the āraññikā is said to ‘love the training’ (sikkhā-kāma), where as the famous monk (yasassin) the recipient of donations (lābhin) is said to be ‘one who loves the brotherhood’ (sabrahmacāri-kāma). The implication is that he does not love the training, and he is not one who is pavivattā or asaṃsaṭṭḥā, solitary and individual, but is a gregarious group member (na pavivttā; na saṃsaṭṭhā).


That bhikkhus changed from being freelance solitary wanderers to collective and settled monks should come as no surprise. That early Buddhists saw this as problematic may do. This is because the winners write history and Buddhist history has been, until recently, written by settled collectivists of the kind described above: concerned primarily with getting their requisites. This text must give us pause in considering the idea that cenobitical renunciants are the ideal Buddhists or that they are the preservers of the original tradition of the Buddha. Their own texts, mostly conserved with great care, show us that this is simply not true.

The problems facing the brahmacārin can be overwhelming and defeat the brahmacārin so that they up trying to make the best of saṃsāra. They try to get as comfortable as possible, and they exploit the lay community to achieve this. At worst it is an outright scam.

Following the publication of Reginald Ray's book Buddhist Saints in India, we became aware that Buddhist society was not originally two-tiered, but threefold with what Ray calls forest-renunciants, settled monastics and lay people all playing important roles in maintaining Buddhism as a way of living. The renunciants (often called bodhisattvas in early Mahāyāna texts like the Ugraparipṛccha - see Nattier) were the full time practitioners, and as the Tatityaovāda Sutta shows they were considered to be the true bhikkhus. Those less committed, or less able bhikkhus, provided the support for the bodhisattvas, and interfaced with the public, especially wealthy patrons. This function was clearly looked down upon at some time, or in some quarters before the closing of the Canon. The positive contribution they made was in setting up systems to preserve texts, and distribute the enormous wealth that soon began to accumulate in monasteries. They also acted as a kind of police force for the saṅgha, since as the Vinaya itself shows the monks were a wayward lot. But without the cutting edge of intensive meditation practice the settled monastics became worldly bald men in elaborate robes (they edged women out of the picture as much as possible). The acts of the saṅgha became mere formalism.

The Triratna Buddhist Order response to this comes on many levels. A Buddhist is not defined by membership of some group or allegiance to certain doctrines, but by the act of going for refuge. We set aside the monk/lay divide and say that commitment to practice takes precedence over lifestyle or haircut. We are all committed to practising the Dharma. To some extent each member of the Order takes on each of the three roles at different times: each of us aims to spend most of our time on Dharma practice of some kind, including right-livelihood work. For some this involves living with a family, for others living in a single-sex community or alone. All of us aim to spend some time on retreat each year, and preferably some time on solitary retreat. Obviously people have different temperaments and aptitudes, but we all contribute to a community that supports practice rather than the accumulation of assets.

The old way of concentrating resources on supporting a load of free loaders is not going to work in the West. Monasticism is and will probably remain a minority sport. Monastics, who are genuinely full-time practitioners and supported to be so, add depth to a practice community, as do those who can sustain intense solitary practice. But becoming a monk will never be a career option as it is in Asia. If we reach 1% of the Buddhist population living in full-time retreat for longish periods of time that would seem plenty. (Tibet got to 25% of the adult male population which was outrageous).

Our Western culture is in dire need of Buddhist techniques for paying attention, calming down, developing positivity and emotional robustness, and the bulk of our resources should be focussed on trying to meet that need. With some basic calm and good will we might be able to start making progress on deeper transformation - but chances are our neighbours on planet earth will need help with the basics before that. Human beings are one species. We have only one planet to live on, which we share with other forms of life. There's no realistic way to talk about being free when one's neighbours are enslaved. We must all be free, or no one is.



  • Bodhi. (2000) The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Wisdom.
  • Nattier, Jan. (2003) A few good men : The Bodhisattva path according to the Inquiry of Ugra (Ugraparipṛcchā). University of Hawai'i Press.
  • Ray, Reginald A. (1994) Buddhist Saints in India: A Study in Buddhist Values & Orientations. Oxford University Press.
  • Schopen, Gregory. (1997) 'If you can’t Remember, How to Make it up, Some Monastic Rules for Redacting Canonical Texts.' in Kieffer-Pülz, P & Hartman, J. (Eds.) Baudhavidyāsudhākaḥ. Studies in Honour of Heinz Bechert. Swisttal-Oldendorf: Indica-et-Tibetica-Verl.

17 February 2012

Dionysus and Apollo

IN THE BIRTH OF TRAGEDY Nietzsche wrote that in aesthetics there are two great tendencies which correspond to the two Greek art gods: Dionysus and Apollo. These two tendencies run together in parallel, but are antagonistic and in conflict. He argues that it is out of this conflict that art is born. The thesis in Nietzsche's little book is taken up at greater length by Camille Paglia in her tome Sexual Personae which is a very engaging book. However I want to use an observation made by Frank Zappa as my way into the subject.

For Zappa, art is anything that an artist puts a frame around. If John Cage records the sound of himself drinking carrot juice and calls it his composition then "his gurgling qualifies as his composition because he put a frame around it and said so. "Take it or leave it, I now will this to be music." [The Real Frank Zappa Book, p. 140. Emphasis in the original].

I think this insight about the frame is a very important. Creativity is not only about spontaneity. The Romantic movement has convinced us that art emerges from the free expression the soul of the (usually tortured) artist. But it leaves out the frame. Art may well emerge from spontaneity, but without the frame it is meaningless. The frame imposes a kind of order from which meaning derives. Without the Apollonian frame, the Dionysian chaos is destructive not constructive. It is a very interesting feature of art that the most gifted artists often impose severe restrictions on themselves. This goes beyond the choice of a medium for instance, which itself imposes constraints. For example oil painting is a difficult skill to master, as is musical composition. The great artist typically spends many years developing their talent to the point of mastery. According to Dan Pink mastery of a skill is one of the three primary motivating factors in human endeavour (the others being autonomy and making a contribution to something greater than oneself).

But great artists often go beyond the requirements of a medium and impose extra constraints on themselves. One of the most infamous is the idea of 12 tone music. In this approach to composition the composer must use each of the 12 notes in the chromatic scale in the same order throughout the piece, and cannot reuse a note until all of the other 11 notes have been used. The results, as one might imagine, are often execrable. However some of the music that results from this highly artificial restraint are intriguing and interesting, if not always emotionally engaging. Another example might be the graffiti artist who choose a forbidden surface to frame their work. Graffiti spray-painted on a store-bought canvas and conventionally framed would be pointless. The medium, in the sense of self-imposed artistic constraints, is the message.

Art seems to emerge from the antagonism between Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies in the artist. Sometimes we need to allow more of one or the other. For those who feel constrained by social conditioning or their immediate circumstances a little more of Dionysus can help. Dionysus dominates the art of the early 20th century for instance. Rules were broken, barriers thrown down, boundaries crossed, and frames painted over. But note that there is a chiaroscuro effect here - the frame is still creating the contrast against which the antinomian tendencies stand out. One cannot push the envelope if there is no envelope! One cannot paint over the frame, is there is no frame. Remove the frame and the act loses it's significance.

These kinds of observations can go beyond the world of aesthetics. In times when Apollonian social structures that emphasise rules and conformity are strong, there will be a tendency towards social chaos. The strict Victorian mores of 19th century England also gave rise to the Romantic poets who were often dissolute, hedonistic and broke social rules. The same kind of thing happened in the USA after the rigidity of the 1940s and 50s. Dionysian hippy culture revelled in being free of rules. Though the flip side of the socially progressive hippy movement was politically conservative governments for much of the time. However the conservative governments of the 1980s gutted the state, crushed the unions, and sold public assets to private enterprise and in their own way reduced the order in society. One cannot have Dionysus without Apollo and vice versa.

Politically we are in times of increasing regulation of the individual as a result of the chaos and resulting fear caused by terrorism and economic uncertainty. Once I might have travelled quite freely to the United States, now I would have to have my finger prints taken and my iris scanned if I go there. And as a middle-aged, white, male, New Zealander I do not fit the profile of any known terrorist, nor do I have any criminal record in any country. But because of the general chaos I'm treated as de facto a criminal. Anyone who follows the blog BoingBoing will know that the US police and Homeland Security have been chipping away at US citizen's constitutional rights for freedom of expression especially in the last two years. Peaceful protesters are now routinely arrested or attacked with pepper spray by heavily armed riot police and terrorism squads, or under legislation enacted to deal with terrorism. Collectively we respond to chaos by seeking to impose more order. And actually in the USA this trend was mirrored during Vietnam war protests.

In terms of the history of ideas we can see that the European Enlightenment was an Apollonian movement in that is emphasised universal order and natural laws (though these ideas emerge from Christian thinking in the preceding centuries). The reaction to it in the form of Romanticism emphasised individualism and spontaneity. In some ways we can see history as swings of a pendulum between these two poles. Each has its pros and cons. Perhaps the sexual mores of 1950s Britain and USA were too restrictive and unfair, especially to women. During the 1960s we witnessed the breakdown of those mores. The upside is that sex is less of a taboo, and that women are treated more equally. The downside is that several sexually transmitted diseases (including chlamydia, HIV and anti-biotic resistant gonorrhoea) have reached epidemic proportions. We've also seen a massive growth in the pornography industry - which seems to exploit both the performers and the consumers, and leads to skewed sexual responses (see The Science of Pleasure).

The closer we get to our own time the more difficult it is to accurately see the forces of history at work. Once art might have given us some perspective, but it seems to me that contemporary art lacks any kind of consensus. If anything the overall impression is one of chaos as each person becomes their own art movement, but almost every artist simply recycles the past. I've lost track of the times recently when some quite ordinary pop/rock outfit (as banal as, say, The Stone Roses) has been described as "changing music for ever". Not only are there no apparent rules - though note that popular culture churns out generic entertainment in conformity with consumer expectations - but there are no objective criteria either.

Economically the push has been towards more freedom for markets, which has quite predictably given us the chaos of the global financial crisis. Trying to impose order on profligate European government spending is creating social chaos. In the USA only the federal system keeps states such as California from being insolvent. Politically the UK seems to be caught in a stampede to occupy the centre ground, but this has meant the abandonment of principles and ideologies and rule by popularism which is producing incoherent policies and economic stagnation, with rising inflation and unemployment, and a slide back into recession. The US seems similarly caught between conservative and progressive urges and stagnating as a result.

For what it is worth I think we are generally too much under the sway of Romanticism and the Dionysian tendency. Our societies lack coherence and unity, we lack a clear sense of shared values. Part of the problem with Romanticism is that it resists analysis and reason, and promotes individualist hedonism. It does not allow us to reach an understanding of our situation and act accordingly. We are left with our impulses and seeking out intense emotional stimulation in a state of confusion. We don't even have to seek it now, it is piped into our homes, and into our ears constantly! In Freudian terms we are in a time of the irrational id. The free market is not backed by intelligence or reason, only by the impulses of the participants, and on the whole the greed of producers and capitalists seems to be the dominant force. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the middle are working longer and harder for about the same.

This is not to say that some people are not thinking about our situation and speaking out. Merely that the world is not listening. George Bush, who seemed like an incompetent idiot from where I was sitting, was none-the-less a popular president perhaps because he played to American sentimentality and presented himself as an heroic individual in the Romantic mode, rather than a Platonic (or Apollonian) wise king. Barack Obama is unpopular because he is taking the opposite route. Wisdom counts for nothing in our society at present.

With the world's financial systems in melt-down, population burgeoning out of control, and ecosystems collapsing, and incoherent artistic traditions what we need is a new (and lengthy) Apollonian era, a new puritanism. By which I do not mean the external imposition of rules from fear of chaos, but a more spontaneous internal ordering. The kind of order that emerges from widely shared values. The kind of order that is an emergent property of complex systems; a self ordering. United we stand, divided we fall. And we are very much divided at present. It occurs to me that my thinking here might well be influenced by Isaac Asimov's classic Foundation series which contains the same kinds of themes.

There is no doubt that every society needs artists, agitators, and devils advocates of all kinds. But the Romantic vision of us all being artists only creates havoc and chaos. Most of us don't thrive without clear boundaries, and most of us feel better if we live in groups with clear values. We want a society which has a benevolent and tolerant attitude to eccentricity and difference, but not one in which all sense of order is lost to relativism. I'm sure that this is why, when finally given the freedom to vote after years of oppressive regimes, the people of Egypt voted for Islamist parties with agendas of imposing law and order based on shared Islamic values. I think Westerners, still largely in the grip of Romanticism, find this desire for order difficult to understand. We have this strange notion that freedom is freedom to do whatever we like whatever the cost or consequences, and without reference to anyone else. And we resent anyone that places limits on us. Indeed a feature of comments on this blog has been violent reactions to any suggestion of a prescriptive statement on my part (though since I started writing at greater length and more complexity this is less of a problem).

Part of the problem in the west is that we have affluenza - the social disease in which people define themselves and their worth in terms of money, possessions, physical and social appearances, and celebrity. We want the life that we see people living on TV. These values have replaced our traditional, more human centred, values, and lead the majority into lives of virtual meaninglessness. These are certainly not the kind of values on which to build a healthy community. The moral collapse of societies into a condition of affluenza must surely be connected to the collapse of religion as a guide to morality - leaving us confused about what morality is. Anyone who has listened to an public commentator on morality will know that intellectuals are extremely confused about morality and tend base their moral judgements purely on subjective criteria. Here again we see the baleful influence of Romanticism which says that just as we are all artists, we are all naturally moral. But we aren't, and we aren't.

One of the great confusions of our time is that politicians see themselves as moral leaders, and try to convince us that moral oversight is an important role of government. Politicians have sought to supplant religious leaders as experts on how we should live and conduct ourselves. And at the same time we consistently see politicians rated as the least trustworthy people in our societies - that is to say that we consider our self-appointed moral leaders and amongst the least moral of all members of our society. Such a paradox can only harm our society.

I see my desire for a more Apollonian society as entirely consistent with Buddhism. We need to once again see restraint as a virtue, and greed as a vice. Unmoderated desires are destructive. We also need to emphasise the importance of social connections, morality, and positive emotions. We need to see our lives in the context of our family and peers, our society and increasingly in the global context. But above all we need to pay attention to what is going on right now in our sensorium, and how we are responding to what is going on.


29 July 2011

Civilisation and Technology

I'VE ARGUED IN THE PAST that the problem of suffering, especially as conceived of by Buddhists and experienced in the present, may well arise out of civilisation itself. For instance the food surpluses initiated by agriculture led our relationship with hunger, and the pleasurable sensations of eating to change in a way that directly relates to the obesity 'epidemic'[1]. Then again we are constantly surrounded by strangers, and as a social primate this is stressful. As cities become larger and larger, and populations ever more mobile, communities become fragmented. Present day cities can only be alienating for a social ape such as ourselves. [2]

Against this proposition the obvious argument is that the benefits of civilisation outweigh the costs. By combining together we have transformed the lives of individuals - and arguable we have never been better off materially than we are now - alienation, pollution, environmental degradation, increasing commodification of social goods, and other negative manifestations of civilisation not withstanding.

In this essay I will again pursue the role of advocatus diaboli - the devil's advocate - with respect to civilisation. I'm writing this on a computer connected to the internet, surrounded by the products of technology, all of them mass produced. Is it not a little ungrateful to attack technology? Is it not more than a little retrograde? We'll see. My contention is this: that the products of technology are increasingly focused on mitigating the negative effects of technology itself.

The telephone (patented 1876) is one of the key inventions in history. Marshall McLuhan made the point that technology extends the human senses, and the telephone clearly does this. It allows us to talk (Greek: phone) at a distance (Greek: telos). This is clearly a case of "the medium is the message". The fact that we build elaborate globe spanning infrastructures to enable conversations tells us more about the human being than the content of those conversations, the vast majority of which are trivial and banal. It tells us the simple truth that humans, as social primates, want to feel connected to others and experience this partly through talking (we talk the way other primates physically groom each other). It should comes as no surprise that the cellphone has become commoditized and ubiquitous, nor that the Internet which is a more sophisticated telephone network is becoming commoditized and ubiquitous.

But why do we need the telephone? We need to speak to people far away, I would say, because our communities have been divided and scattered. The industrial revolution was the beginning of the end of the sense of belonging and community that people in the 'West' experienced. With the advent of machine work we no longer grew up, lived, and loved amongst people known to us - we moved away to where there was work, to the cities. There is no doubt that we are adaptable, and that we can make new friends. But technology itself changed the structure of our culture in ways that separated us from our loved ones and kin, from our roots. And this process has been accelerating. We stand up for the rights of the individual, which is admirable, but the individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. As the old saying goes, "united we stand, divided we fall."

The Amish - a sect of strict fundamentalist Christians living mainly in the North-East of the USA - have an interesting attitude to the telephone. They were early adopters back in the day. However they do not allow telephones inside their houses where they would interrupt family life. Instead they often have little telephone sheds, sometimes shared by several households. And they only use the telephone to arrange face to face meetings with friends and relations. No technology which would disrupt their family or community, or put a man out of work, is suffered amongst them. Which is not to say that they completely eschew technology. They do not. But technology serves their values, it doesn't determine them.[3]

The media is a source of constant fascination - a word which in the 16th century meant 'falling under a spell'. The media's main job is to entertain, though a little bit of useful information slips through occasionally. The internet as the collision of communication technology and the entertainment industries is something of a monster.[4] What is the message in this medium? I believe it is story-telling. We use narratives internally to make sense of our lives, joining the dots into a coherent self image. And we do the same thing on the scale of the community, and on higher scales - religious affiliation, national identity, ethnic group, potentially at least with humanity and all life, though the larger the scale the more difficult becomes the identification. The mass media is a vast story-telling enterprise, and because we live through and by stories, we are enthralled by the media. And the result is that, as we allow technology to tell our stories for us, we spend a lot less time telling stories ourselves. This is partly because of the barriers to participation. In my early life family gatherings consisted of sitting around telling stories about people and places - it's how I got my world view! A generation earlier with no TV and not a great deal of radio (where I grew up) and family gatherings were even more important. Go back far enough and there was a time when we gathered in the evenings just to tell stories, to collectively remember our history, to reinforce our sense of belonging through shared narratives. Now we passively consume stories, and our sense of belonging so often rests on having watched the same TV shows or the same movies. A recent TV documentary quoted Carmen Hermosillo (aka humdog) as saying that the internet "commoditizes emotions and sells them as entertainment." [5] Stories have always been a universal form of entertainment and selling them is pretty old as well. It goes back at least to the invention of the printing press, but probably before. But the internet is like a battery farm which has intensified the process, and magnified the scale by orders of magnitude. Still, it comes back to the fact that the need to communicate over distances is caused by isolation; and that isolation is a direct result of successive technological revolutions.

Medicine seems to be a public good without question, and a place where technology is unequivocally beneficial. But where does most of the funding for medicine, and the efforts of research go? A big chunk goes on dealing with the diseases of old age. It's nice to live longer, to not die from curable diseases, but we only live longer because we harness ourselves to technology. Technology enables us to live longer, but it creates problems that only more technology can solve. Another chunk of funding goes towards curing diseases caused by over-eating, and drinking: heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, etc. Yet another huge chunk goes towards dealing with the effects of stress (and what is stress but the inability to adapt to circumstances?). I'm only identifying problems here, by the way, I am not suggesting solutions. I see the dilemma, but I can't solve it. In wiping out diseases and plagues, we have opened the door to a different kind of plague. We have clearly long since multiplied beyond the levels at which we could live off the land without technology - without artificial fertilizers and pesticides, without machines. We are now completely dependent on technology to survive at our present population levels. If we were to turn back the technological clock, billions might die of starvation and disease. [6]

This may change in the developed world in the next few generations because the baby-boomer generation will reach old age and die out leaving a less fertile and less productive ancestors. China has to some extent addressed this problem through it's draconian one child policy - a more stringent and far reaching decision on environmental impact then any enacted in the west, and possible only in a totalitarian state that values the collective over the individual. And filled with ethical dilemmas. India, and Indonesian - the 2nd and 3rd most populous nations - however will continue to expand, with no population controls and no baby-boomer bubble to burst. One interesting impact of the ubiquitous use of internet pornography is impotence and loss of interest in sexual partners.[7] So in this sense technology might be self limiting.

Throughout the world one of the resources most affected by over-population is water. We continue to pollute our waterways with human and industrial effluent, though this is turning around in places like the UK and NZ. Producing enough fresh water consumes enormous resources. Drought affects many places in the world on a regular basis now, with the effects most likely worsened by human induced climate change.

One can only cite a few examples in a short essay, but I hope you can see the pattern. I would like to pose this as a hypothesis for further investigation: "that each new advance in technology in the present is designed to mitigate problems caused by previous generations of technology." This can be disproved by showing that some technologies have come about recently that are not designed to mitigate problems caused by technology. I think this was true in the past: the wheel and the lever were not problematic in the same way. What I contend is that it is true now.

I suspect the cross-over point was after the industrial revolution, and before the 20th century, but I imagine it would be difficult to pin down to a year or even a decade. But I would suggest that the Amish don't have this problem, and that they may provide clues to maintaining a healthy relationship with technology precisely because they subsume the use of technology to a strong, unified, and well articulated set of values which have families, and communities at their heart. We may not wish to adopt their particular values, but the fact that they have more or less avoided the industrial revolution and the ills it brings, whilst still enjoying some of the fruits of modernity, make them a fascinating case study.



  1. Epidemic is in scare-quotes because you can't catch obesity, so it's not an epidemic in the usual sense of the word. What is meant is that a huge and increasing number of people are obese. Except in a very few cases being fat is a result of over-eating.
  2. I argued this point in Why Do We Suffer? An Alternate Take. 28 Aug 2008.
  3. On the Amish and Phones see The Amish Get Wired. The Amish? Wired Magazine: 1.06 (1993); and Look who's talking. Wired, 7.01. (1999) [back in the days when Wired was still an interesting read]. See also my blog: Cellphones, communications and communities. See also Amish Telephones; and How the Amish View Technology. There are many references to Amish technology use on the Web these days.
  4. Frank Zappa once quipped that "government is the entertainment wing of the military-industrial complex". I tend to agree.
  5. The documentary was All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Episode 1. It's available on YouTube. The essay referred was Pandora's Vox: Community in Cyberspace (1994) and is worth reading by anyone who is interested in so-called 'virtual community'. I've also trashed the idea of virtual community (19 Sept 2008).
  6. On the subject of medical budgets see also: Our Unaffordable War Against Death. via BigThink. This is a review of a NYT article locked behind a paywall.
  7. See various posts on the blog: Biology has Plans for Your Lovelife.

see also
"The root of inequality? It's down to whether you ploughed or hoed: A group of US economists claims the role of women in many modern societies is shaped by their agricultural past." Guardian 31.7.11.