Affirming Flame

Our intellectual ore must shine

Not slumber idly in the mine.

Let education’s moral mint

The noblest images imprint;

Let taste her curious touchstone hold,

To try if standard be the gold;

But ’tis thy commerce, Conversation,

Must give it use by circulation;

That noblest commerce of mankind,

Whose precious merchandize is mind!

This is an extract from the poem ‘Conversation’, written in 1787 by Hannah More, a British poet, playwright, educator and also a notable member of the informal social and educational movement known as the Blue Stockings Society. She was influential in persuading William Wilberforce to lead the parliamentary campaign that strongly supported abolition of slavery. On the year of her death that campaign had lead to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 ending it across most of the British Empire. The potent arguments that gave strength to this cause continued to bring justice long after that. Are some ideas so bright and beautiful they carry an affirming flame?

Why was conversation so important to the Blue Stockings Society we might ask. It was mostly because they understood conversation to be crucial, not just to moral and political progress, but to individual development too. There is something extraordinary about the fact that every meaningful interaction is an opportunity to connect with one another’s potential, to hear a truth we never knew or recollect a truth we’d forgotten. Conversation is a dynamic and unpredictable process, often full of emotion. It differs dramatically from the billion-dollar self-help industry that claims to provide clear and defined paths to a perfectly peaceful existence.

Everyone knows that the mind can be a chaotic and discordant theme park routinely stuck on the rumination and worry rollercoaster – these two neurotic tendencies pre-suppose time. Rumination is bound to the past while worry imagines a possible future. In contrast, conversation provides a release from this madness and takes us back to the very concrete present. When committed to good-faith conversations, supporting our opponents right to think and speak on principle, without continually ascribing motives to them, we begin to understand why the Blue Stocking Society saw this activity as a civic duty and a moral imperative, an activity that in the 18th Century was not even a right let alone a duty for women. Conversation is a reliable way to realize what thoughts we have given value to and, where necessary, course-correct prejudice and bias that previously evaded our awareness.

Today, in a digital age of social media, with conversations limited to 280 characters, it is hard to tell if we are reliably producing more mental health problems or just overwhelmed with the numerous psychological failings that have become more apparent in a globally-connected world. One thing is for sure, the art of conversation is suffering as a result. Are there better ways to balance how the world is with how we think it ought to be? As social creatures shaped by natural selection it is becoming clear that much of our evolved software was coded for a very different life. What the emerging fields of evolutionary medicine and evolutionary psychiatry refer to as mismatch diseases are strategies and mechanisms that worked very well throughout evolutionary history but now cause havoc in novel environments. The strong desire to gorge on sugary foods historically scarce in nature, near-sightedness from reading and time spent indoors, heart disease and lower backpain from sedentary lifestyles, and the list goes on. Stone age bodies living in a space age world.

We know that bodies and minds did not evolve to increase wellbeing but were shaped to maximize reproductive success. Hence the reason why we are wired with what Evolutionary Psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse describes as the Smoke Detector Principle. It explains that regular protective responses often give rise to false alarms and apparently excessive responses. It gets its name because false alarms from the body’s homeostatic systems are like smoke detector alarms—frequent minor annoyances are far less costly than burning to death in a house fire. Anxiety, inflammation, pain, vomiting, coughing and diarrhea are protective responses whose costs tend to be small relative to possible catastrophic events if no response is expressed when danger is present. Understanding how biological and cultural conditioning produce false alarms that impact our lives, and the lives of others, can nurture a deep sense of understanding and forgiveness. This deeper understanding introduces humility back into the conversation.

In great contrast to this saner outlook, the modern, mostly Western world, has developed an obsession with how the world ought to be and is losing touch with, or intentionally discarding, the way our world is. This new dis-ease is given full exposure in Douglas Murray’s new book ‘The Madness of Crowds’. He begins the introduction by explaining, “We are going through a great crowd derangement. In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant. The daily news cycle is filled with the consequences. Yet while we see the symptoms everywhere, we do not see the causes”. These zero-sum games that would have us believe that race, gender and identity are the sole lens through which we must engage with the world are deranging at best, but increasingly life and soul destroying at their worst.

Murray convincingly argues that boundaries have been set around conversation that are now guarded by moral police in order to maintain orthodoxy. This problem has spread beyond the confines of the university academy and into almost all walks of life. Commitment to the new-religion is a must and punishment of heretics that dare to question received wisdom is considered a compassionate duty- a modern day version of saving lost souls. I doubt this is a religion but it certainly has many of the hallmarks. The words that are highly relevant to this derangement are social justice, inclusivity, diversity, and, in the higher spheres of academia ‘intersectionality’. Murray’s sardonic wit jumps off the page as he explains a response he often hears “Excuse me? You are opposed to social justice. What do you want social injustice?”. As Karl Popper noted too much tolerance eventually leads to tolerance of intolerance. The same logic applies to inclusion- go far enough in one direction and you suddenly find adherents excluding everyone that doesn’t follow the inclusion narrative.

Thanks to the phrase Islamophobic coined by the Muslim Brotherhood a similar fallacy was deployed by many socially conservative and fundamental Muslims, as well as the progressive liberal media over the last few decades. Insist those that criticize your ideas are Islamophobic- a conversation showstopper. How exactly can one be phobic of ideas? Either you agree with them or you don’t. Either you have reasons for your disagreement or you don’t. This is a universe away from the very real problem of anti-Muslim bigotry- where opposition and disgust are directed at living breathing humans with dignity and potential, not at ideas they may or may not even hold. A distinction with an enormous difference.

‘Bi-la kayf’ was an Arabic reactionary phrase that meant ‘piety without reason’ or ‘without asking how’ and was a response to the ‘Muʿtazila’, a rationalist school of thought influential during the Islamic enlightenment. The school held that argument and reason were the sacred tools of truth seeking. Today, similar language is used to discourage those that fail to observe, or worse still, transgress, the ‘justice without reason’ or ‘don’t question it’ mantra. Instead of appealing to patience, reason, and human potential in order for conversation to flourish, there is a far more seductive impulse to support your position, or lack thereof. Accuse your opponent of being against diversity or inclusion, however ill-defined, and witness the conversation abruptly end. What is Douglas Murray’s answer to this current state of affairs? When the lunatics are running the asylum what can we do apart from pretend to be lunatics as well. How can we avoid the madness of the crowds? Murray suggests more forgiveness, a very humble starting point, and next, perhaps most importantly, gratitude. The great institutions and rich history that led to the rights and luxuries many of us now enjoy are still unimaginable in many corners of the earth.

Brexit, as with Trump, are now real breaking points for the contemporary mind, with forgiveness and charity increasingly absent from many conversations. Some of the modern left’s last vestige of sanity seems to be tied up in relentless opposition to symptoms rather than taking responsibility for any potential causes. So far as the left was a party of the working-class as well as securing the interests of minorities, they now seem awfully willing to implode with moral righteousness and hell-bent on rejecting a large portion of their former electorate, considering their voices, and more unbelievably even their character, to be deplorable. The fact there have been real economic difficulties, especially in the UK in the decades leading to Brexit, seems to have eluded most of the political class. Net-migration, for instance, rose substantially from 2012 until the EU referendum in 2016 reaching 350,000 in one year. The fiscal impact of non-EEA migrants between 1995-2011 cost the UK negative £134B, according to the Oxford Migration Observatory, while an empirical study done by The Bank of England in 2015 discovered that for every 10% increase in migration there was a small but significant reduction of 2% in wages. Guess who that 2% impacted? Low-middle skilled income workers. To have asked where the limits of migration were was to be accused of uncompassionate blasphemy. To consider Angela Merkel’s decision in terms of potential social consequences was to be ignorant of her boundless mercy. So what, if of those 1M migrants that were allowed to enter Germany only an estimated 40% were actually refugees.

What the left unwittingly forgot was that while pretending to be virtuous and not contending with harder questions, at some stage an unscrupulous populist was bound to fill the empty space. Intolerance and ill-temper, bigotry and discrimination, are found on all sides of the political spectrum. However, more than ever it has become fashionable on the left to betray, denounce, or even deny the fact that valuable ideas and traditions were ignited in the West and that the Enlightenment and scientific revolution, even though historically coincidental, were very much born in the lands of Europe. This is part of a much larger trend now referred to as “The Great Awokening” and over the last decade alone a significant number of baseline attitudes expressed by white liberals now display out-group bias preferencing other racial and ethnic groups above their own. Fast becoming the only civilization that focuses on the most negative historical aspects of itself, guilt and resentment are now the order of the day. Solutions to resurgent national pride, other than mere disdain, or alternative political futures, can hardly be imagined let alone articulated.

In my previous essay I lent support to the argument from Lyndon Storey’s book Humanity or Sovereignty arguing for the idea that human potential should be considered the defining characteristic of future political systems rather than national, ethnic or religious identities. In order to pursue this vision, conversation must return to concrete ideas such as belonging and dignity of work while taking a sledge-hammer to abstract notions surrounding modern identity politics. As is found in Shakespeare’s work– language and society continually change, but the central themes are timeless. It remains to be seen if we can take a leaf out of the Blue Stockings Societies book and once again see opponents as sheep in wolves clothing. If the UK and American political situations are any indication, we’ve got a long way to go. Conversation, ‘the noblest commerce of mankind’ need only be guided by this timeless principle. I might be wrong and you might be right but together we can get closer to the truth. One affirming flame can light a thousand candles.

Not to indulge in idle vision,

But strike new light by strong collision,

Of CONVERSATION, wisdom’s friend,

This is the object and the end,

Of moral truth, man’s proper science,

With sense and learning in alliance,

To search the depths, and thence produce

What tends to practice and to use.

References

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b045c0h9

http://www.english.upenn.edu/~curran/250-96/Sensibility/morebas.html

https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/working-paper/2015/the-impact-of-immigration-on-occupational-wages-evidence-from-britain

https://www.ft.com/content/f79a4b38-d961-11e9-9c26-419d783e10e8

https://www.amazon.com/Humanity-Sovereignty-political-roadmap-century-dp-0820486337/dp/0820486337/ref=mt_paperback?_encoding=UTF8&me=&qid=1570870120

https://www.fedcourt.gov.au/digital-law-library/judges-speeches/justice-rares/rares-j-20151009

Extract from Karl Popper’s – The Open Society and Its Enemies

This, of course, is not the only argument against the idea of a rule of love. Loving a person means wishing to make him happy. (This, by the way, was Thomas Aquinas’ definition of love). But of all political ideals, that of making the people happy is perhaps the most dangerous one. It leads invariably to the attempt to impose our scale of ‘higher’ values upon others, in order to make them realize what seems to us of greatest importance for their happiness; in order, as it were, to save their souls. It leads Utopianism and Romanticism. We all feel certain that everybody would be happy in the beautiful perfect community of our dreams. And no doubt, there would be heave on earth if we could all love one another. But, as I have said before, the attempt to make heaven on earth invariably produces hell. It leads to intolerance. It leads to religious wars, and to the saving of souls through inquisition. And it is, I believe, based on a complete misunderstanding of our moral duties. It is our duty to help those that need our help; but it cannot be our duty to make others happy, since this does not depend on us, and since it would only too often mean intruding on the privacy of those towards whom we have such amiable intentions. The political demand for piecemeal as opposed to Utopian methods corresponds to the decision that the fight against suffering must be considered a duty, while the fight to care for the happiness of others must be considered a privilege confined to the close circle of friends. In their case, we may perhaps have a certain right to try to impose our scale of values—our preferences regarding music, for example (And we may even feel it our duty to open to them a world of values which, we trust, can so much contribute to their happiness.) This right of ours exists only if, and because, they can get rid of us; because our friendships can be ended. But the use of political means for imposing our scale of values upon others is a very different matter. Pain, suffering, injustice, and their prevention, these are the eternal problems of public morals, and ‘agenda’ of public policy (As Bentham would have said). The ‘higher’ values should very largely be considered as ‘non-agenda’ and should be left to the realm of laissez-faire. Thus we might say: help your enemies; assist those in distress, even if they hate you; but love only your friends.

Potentialism | By Callum Golding

‘Political systems, as much as practically possible, should allow human beings to develop their potential’.  -Lyndon Storey

This statement is hardly controversial. You would struggle to find anyone who wanted to live in a world that was not, in principle, consistent with such an idea. Nonetheless, what follows from the acceptance of this proposition is a far cry from the political world we currently inhabit. The logical consequences of acknowledging human potential or Potentialism are carefully laid out in Lyndon Storey’s ‘Humanity or Sovereignty- A political roadmap for the 21st Century’. Storey is currently president of the Council of Australian Humanist Societies Australia and has a colorful bio that includes Bachelor’s Degrees in Arts and Law and a PhD thesis on the Chinese philosopher Mencius. He has worked as a barrister and a public servant, as well as teaching ‘Western Civilization’ at Liaoning University in China.

There are a few points of departure when starting an argument in political philosophy and the most common approaches throughout Western thought have been as follows;

  1. We are basically good- sometimes referred to as the noble savage –an original nature uncorrupted by civilization. This view is often associated with Jean Jacques Rousseau.
  2. We are basically bad- theologically referred to as original sin. This view was put forward by Thomas Hobbes in his landmark book ‘Leviathan’. Hobbes believed that people could only escape this hellish existence by surrendering their autonomy to a sovereign person or state.
  3. The blank slate or tabula rasa – this position is generally associated with John Locke and claims that the mixing bowl of nature arrives empty and society can freely add whichever ingredients it likes. If parents only adopted the right attitude and provided the right education, then a child, and thus society, could be moulded indefinitely.

Potentialism rejects all three of these approaches. It puts forward the case that instead of having no nature, or a fixed nature, we are, in fact, a mass of potentials. Each of us has the potential to be lazy or indifferent, the potential to eat too much or too little. The potential to let fear guide us or take a fearless approach, the potential to do good or the potential to do ill. As we go through life we seek to actualize many of these potentials whilst others remain unrealized. We now know that people vary in respect to their genes and vary in respect to their cultures. So, too, people vary in terms of their potentials. As Storey says, “We are not intrinsically anything, but potentially many things”.

There is one key potential that is universally shared by all of us, the potential to feel empathy towards others. Throughout the book Storey refers to this as the moral potential. He excludes forms of psychopathy where a sense of empathy is damaged and the human being is rendered abnormal. This moral potential has often been referred to by other thinkers as a moral sense. It relates to a potential concern we naturally have for the well-being of other conscious creatures, and the subsequent moral acts involved with those concerns. It has nothing to do with morality as a series of fixed rules of conduct- like obligations to wear certain clothes, to eat certain foods, or to marry certain partners, as many religions commonly present morality. This sense of sympathy and justice seeks to maximize the well-being of others and minimize their pain. Appeals to this potential have already extended beyond our own species as many now consider the 56 billion sentient farm animals sacrificed each year as simply unacceptable. Peter Singer, the Australian Philosopher of Ethics, refers to this as ‘extending the moral circle’. The moral potential contrasts with the moral sense insofar as it acknowledges the fact that this potential is very often neglected.

The strength of the moral potential idea, as distinct from the moral sense idea, is in its being both a more modest claim, and a more evidence based one. It is more modest in that the claim is not that we have a functioning moral sense, but through empathy, sympathy etc. we have the potential to develop ethical behaviors, such as care for those who are suffering; more evidence based in that all that is needed to support the claim is evidence of this potential, evidence of some degree of empathy and sympathy. Evidence of human cruelty and sadism may be evidence that we are not naturally good, and that we don’t have a moral sense, but it is not evidence that we don’t have this moral potential, just that it was not realized in some particular case. Our ethical framework does not need to be dependent on Jesus, or the dollar, in order for us to make moral sense of the world.

These differences make the position both intellectually stronger, and more inspiring. There is a possibility of ethical theory that does not need the supernatural to support it. There is no need to believe anything on insufficient evidence. One or more instances of bad behavior is not grounds for abandoning the theory. There is still hope based on our potential. The non-religious paths to ethics need to offer not just an assertion of the possibility of ethics, but a path to hope in the face of difficulties.

Cultivation of the moral potential is needed but there are no guarantees that such an undertaking will be instantly achievable. Even though Storey demonstrates strong evidence to suggest that societies improve once they develop the moral potential rather than when they do not, this development can never be a political demand. The best we can ask for is a political system in which as many people as possible are given enough opportunity to develop the moral potential. Social frameworks based on democracy and human rights offer people a better chance to develop their potential than political frameworks based on dictatorship and domination. All individual human beings need to be treated with basic respect and dignity as part of respecting their potential. State demands that people realize their potential is another, and less desirable thing, altogether.

Potentialism is on firm ground when it comes to epistemology (the study of knowledge). It reminds us that when it comes to knowledge the possibility of attaining absolute truth is a mirage. This does not mean we should abandon objective reality as some might claim. Far from it. Instead it means the formulation of our beliefs, hypotheses, theories and conjectures. Only in the sober light of day amidst public scrutiny does objectivity emerge and using this critical method we attempt to root out prejudice and error. When we find empirical evidence and reasons for supporting one view over another all we can really say is that we have the best approximation of the truth so far attained. If the evidence in favour of a moral potential is overwhelmingly strong we can therefore give reasonable support to the idea without saying anything absolutely. There is abundant evidence for the moral potential in a variety of fields, including social studies, anthropology, evolutionary biology and even economics, as well as the spontaneous and natural sense of sympathy that we encounter within ourselves.

Appropriate of a thesis claiming applicability to humans, and not just people of one civilization, we can also go outside western culture to find supporting evidence and sources. Storey quotes the Chinese philosopher Mencius, who more than two thousand years ago said:

My reason for saying no man is devoid of a heart sensitive to the suffering of others is this. Suppose a man were, all of a sudden, to see a young child on the verge of falling into a well. He would certainly be moved to compassion, not because he wanted to get in the good graces of the parents, not because he wished to win the praise of his fellow villagers and friends, nor yet because he disliked the cry of the child. From this it can be seen that whoever is devoid of the heart of compassion is not human. .

Mencius’ “heart of compassion” is clearly a very similar concept to Storey’s moral potential. The concept is not a unique one, but has been pushed into the background by reliance on religion and/or “pure” reason.  Storey makes a welcome call for us to also focus on the humanistic sources of ethics, our own potential for love and compassion. If these are not part of our own humanity why should we pursue them?

As we start to think about potential in terms of nation states other ideas soon begin to emerge. With the political landscape today divided into around two hundred and six sovereign states, citizens of these states usually identify with the nationality into which they were born. We possess a range of identities including; ethnicity, religion and nationality which tend to overlap. In principle, these identities need not be problematic, however, in practice they routinely are. Loyalty and obedience to strict identities above and beyond our common humanity have been the cause of much needless harm and suffering throughout the course of history. A country cannot claim to respect human potential while denying the rights of a certain class of people. What we often find is greater respect for the potential of a certain group, be it based on nationality, religion, ethnicity, or sex. However, according to Potentialism, respect for our human potential means, first and foremost, respect for our common humanity. If the potential of all human beings is not considered paramount then the political system is rendered illegitimate.

The logic of human Potentialism makes clear that a key remaining political challenge for the world is to develop a political system that respects the dignity of all human beings, not just those of fellow citizens or fellow believers. The uncompromising attack on the legitimacy of the current system of sovereign states is the most striking political reform program to emerge from this argument: the need to develop a political framework that respects our most important, and shared identity, our human identity, rather than deferring it to our national or religious identity, as so often happens in times of war and economic conflict, and more recently in term of the failure to establish global co-operative action to address climate change. Storey calls this framework a Human Union, something which he calls upon people to promote as an alternative to the current system of competing states.

Since the story of nation states developed in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, political nationalism has been adopted by almost all countries in the world. It is easy to forget that the idea of nation is a story and that the ability to create better or worse stories depends on our collective imagination or lack thereof. As Noah Harrari writes in his blockbuster book Sapiens, ‘Ever since the Cognitive Revolution (approx. seventy thousand years ago), Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.’

This point cannot be exaggerated. The ‘imagined realities’ that continue to disrupt humanity and shape our thinking include; religiously inspired intolerance, nationally inspired conflict and corporate inspired consumption/automation putting material wealth acquisition above all other values. These competing value systems have been gradually tearing apart the social and environmental fabric of society and no one country can be expected to address them on its own. The positive side to this conundrum is that it presents us with a unique opportunity to create international institutions and agreements that allow us to confront the dangers in unison. The Paris Climate accord is an example that serves to illustrate the point.

Storey spends a whole chapter in the book laying out some possible forms a legitimate international political system could take in practice. There is no insistence that it has to take any precise form, but must at least see a degree of commonality in human development policies; freedom of conscience and thought, government by consent, economic development etc. In other words, we might see a system with some overarching core principles, such as democracy and environmental protection, that would hold the international political system together. However, members would not necessarily have identical political systems and might realize those core foundations differently.

Instead of retreating to nationalism as a means of dealing with social and economic insecurity, now is the time to consider political systems that might appropriately scale to deal with the larger problems we face. What follows from accepting the idea of human potential is the possibility of developing a Human Union (HU). To find a concrete example of how this might work we can look to the European Union (EU), a political system that has moved beyond the power of sovereign states through gradual and steady progress. Although there are many faults to be found within the EU including an overemphasis on neoliberal politics and excessive protections for financial institutions, there is also much we can learn. Some have argued that the EU can only work because of the shared culture and history in Europe. Nevertheless, this is the very Europe that produced centuries of sectarian bloodshed culminating in mass genocide.

The EU currently requires a basic level of democracy and respect for human rights among its members and only allows membership status to countries within Europe. If the EU were to change its name to the Human Union at some stage it could allow any country that shared its respect for democracy and human rights to join. This may even have some flow on effects that encourage countries formerly in crisis to adopt new political principles and allow large numbers of refugees to return to their original homes under a Human Union. Storey provides a road map to another political future. A Human Union that is grounded on empirically universal characteristics that we all share, our common humanity and our human potentials.

Another universal that I think could further Potentialism is what we could call the objective potential— moral potential’s younger sibling. There are two worlds in which we exist. The way the world is and the way the world ought to be. Storey invests much of his book explaining what exactly it is we appeal to when we reason about what matters, what is better, and what ought to be. In contrast, the objective potential relates to our potential to see the world as it is, to gain insight into the universe through curiosity and introspection. Science is about the process of getting at facts rather than just the facts themselves, and such a process can be confronting. It demands that we discard previous ways of thinking and edge closer to the truth. It took many centuries for people to warm to the idea that the sun doesn’t move around the earth and it may take even longer for others to accept that all forms of life, in fact, evolved. This power of orthodoxy to resist facts and counter-arguments is unfortunately much stronger than the potential for doubt and uncertainty.

The objective potential would encapsulate introspection because, like science with its objects within the cosmos, the art of meditation concentrates on one or more objects within the mind- the breath, sensations, thoughts, sounds and images, giving adequate space for them to come and go. The idea of ‘beginners mind’ is emphasized in the Japanese tradition of Zen Buddhism and is a familiar spirit advocated by many great thinkers throughout the ages. See objects and arguments in novel ways and with an open mind. This way of seeing leads us to seek out criticism and see trial and error as life’s humbling gift. This objective potential to know thyself and the cosmos informs, and often directs, our moral potential.

The ideas that underpin Potentialism have been expressed by other thinkers in the East such as Nagarjuna’s concept of ‘Sunyata’ translating as ‘Emptiness’, which was developed based on the teachings of the Buddha.  Potentialism, however, has a modern bite to it and with more people than ever identifying as non-religious it contains a foundation for understanding ourselves while still respecting the dignity and freedom of others with whom we disagree. The theories political possibilities gives us pause for thought and the rational and evidence-based moral framework could well be a strong contender in this centuries contest of values. It offers a program based on hope, and empirical evidence, laying out a path to political justice in the 21st century.

The Strange Order of Things | By Antonio Damasio review

The striking achievements of science and philosophy over the last half-millennium are marked by the continuous revision of humanity’s place in the cosmos. Heliocentrism was first conceived by the Greek astronomer and mathematician Aristarchus, suggesting that the earth was not the centre of the universe. Almost two thousand years later this theory became grounded in empirical evidence thanks to astronomers such as Brahe, Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler. Three centuries later in 1859 came the theory of evolution. Darwin discovered that we were not the product of design but the result of millions of years of natural selection. In the 20th Century, psychology and modern cognitive science revealed that unconscious influences and automatic biological mechanisms play a far greater role in behaviour than imagined.

Fast forward to the 21st Century, and a new picture is beginning to emerge that echoes an idea first formulated by Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The original idea was known as conatus, which loosely translates as a thing’s innate striving/tendency to exist, and to optimize. Today, this notion is broadly referred to in biology as homeostasis. The general understanding of the term homeostasis relates to some optimal biological level—ideal body temperature, ideal levels of glucose in the bloodstream, ideal heart rate etc. When we encounter some severe physical stressor and must run for our lives, the body rapidly mobilizes energy, commonly known as the stress response. This is an attempt to re-establish homeostatic balance. Adrenaline and cortisol hormones are released, sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system is activated, digestion and sex drive are supressed, and cognition is dramatically enhanced. This highly adaptive system works perfectly well for zebras running away from lions, but not so well for the frustrated human being stuck in a traffic jam on the way to an important meeting. Such seemingly harmless events often result in chronic hypertension. The curse of a modern life is no longer Spanish flu or the bubonic plague, but stress-related diseases such as diabetes, obesity, anxiety, and carotid heart disease.

Antonio Damasio, a Portuguese-American neuroscientist and currently David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Southern California, advances a fundamental revision of the homeostatic concept in his new book, “The Strange Order of Things”. In this breathtaking journey he bravely attempts to unite the organic and cultural spheres. The ‘homeostatic imperative’, a term Damasio uses frequently, is a function that regulates the life processes of all organisms and expresses itself in the form of feelings and consciousness. As Damasio admits, these two terms are in fact inseparable. Human affect- the world of motivations, drives, emotions and feelings, advertise the homeostatic states within the organism, and can motivate, monitor, and negotiate life. Damasio speculates that these feeling states only occur in organisms with an intricate nervous system, and that nervous systems, especially the enteric nervous system (our guts) dates back to around five-hundred million years ago. There is compelling evidence that guts were in fact the original brain- enteric nervous systems have been found in animals such as hydra and echinoderms that do not have a central nervous system at all.

As Damasio questions the unique status we assume as a cultural and feeling species, we are given radical insight into just how prevalent moral and social characteristics are throughout the biological world. The human culture-making strategy is not original and borrows liberally from the life regulation of other creatures such as bacteria, as well as social insects- ants, wasps, bees, and termites. These organisms exhibit characteristics that foreshadow human culture and are also mediated by the homeostatic mechanism. This thrust, given enough time and complexity, allowed for conscious feelings and reasoning minds to emerge—the very distinctive human partnership that enables us to flourish.

Bacteria, the oldest known organism on earth, operate according to a four-billion year old algorithm able to ‘sense and respond’ to the world they inhabit. Work by Bonnie Basler and her team at Princeton University recently shed light on this ability of bacteria known as, ‘quorum sensing’. This is a striking capacity to organize and communicate chemically. We now know that bacteria can calculate group numbers when mounting a defence, join forces with non-kin, and even exclude selfish actors looking for a free-ride. These mindless automatic processes are achieved by the detection of certain molecular signatures and this ancient social and moral precursor is undoubtedly, as Damasio puts it, “magnificently strange.”

“One would be very foolish to reduce the sophistication of humanly developed moral rules and application of justice to the spontaneous behaviour of bacteria. We should not confuse the formulation and thoughtful application of a rule of law with the strategy schema used by bacteria when they end up joining forces with cooperative non-kin, the usual enemy, instead of kin, their usual friend….one would be equally foolish, however, not to recognize that simple bacteria have governed their lives for billions of years according to automatic schema that foreshadows several behaviours and ideas that humans have used in the construction of cultures.”

-Antonio Damasio

Damasio asserts that feelings contribute to the cultural process in three ways;

  1. As motives for intellectual creation– evaluating the homeostatic balance and identifying states of mind that are worth pursuing.
  2. As monitors to the success, or failure, of the solutions that cultural instruments and practices provide
  3. As negotiators, actively participating in the cultural process over time.

Over recent decades, pathways in the nervous system have been found to integrate the configuration of bodily states and subsequently announce those conditions in terms of feeling via the anterior insular cortex. This ever-present symphony of bodily-signals manifests itself sometimes subtly, sometimes abruptly, throughout an entire lifespan. This homeostatic imperative generates feelings that can move individuals to undertake projects that seek to minimize pain and suffering. The entire history of medicine, and the consolation of religious narratives, demonstrates this motive at work.

While mind can clearly influence the body, the body can likewise influence the mind because “they are merely two aspects of the very same being. If there is no distance between body and brain, if body and brain interact and form an organismic single unit, then feeling is not a perception of the body state in the conventional sense of the term. Here the duality of subject-object, of perceiver-perceived, breaks down. Relative to this part of the process, there is unity instead. Feeling is the mental aspect of that unity.”

Feelings and reason are in constant negotiation monitoring the effectiveness of strategies used to increase the pleasantness of life. There is a natural intelligence to this process that continually seeks to optimize itself. However, as Damasio makes abundantly clear, life cannot be moderated by routinely irrational and unreasonable feelings alone. History is rife with accounts of motivations, drives, and urges, that have caused incalculable and needless suffering for so much of humanity. Societies, where possible, continue to harness doubt and rational inquiry as tools that help guide evidence-based policy in contrast to leaders that appeal to authority or passion. The interplay between feelings and reason are quite apparent when we look to the U.N Declaration of Human Rights. Its universal commitment to the dignity and worth of each human being ultimately serves to secure something quite extraordinary- the possibility of maximizing the welfare of sentient beings, in the “moment-to-moment report on the state of life in the interior of an organism..”

“Feelings are not an independent fabrication of the brain. They are the result of a cooperative partnership of body and brain, interacting by way of free-ranging chemical molecules and nerve pathways. This particular and overlooked arrangement guarantees that feelings disturb what might otherwise be an indifferent mental flow. The source of feeling is life on the wire, balancing its act between flourishing and death. As a result, feelings are mental stirrings, troubling or glorious, gentle or intense.”

-Antonio Damasio

This moment to moment reporting shapes our thinking and shapes our culture at large. These reports are not predicated on material wealth alone and one can see states of contentment, and happiness, even in the most tragic of circumstances. Nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that the more open and prosperous a society is, the more scope and opportunity there are for exploring various feeling states and harnessing knowledge through education. The prodigious intellect of man, that is often held up with very little mention to the underlying feelings that made it possible, is a far cry from what the evidence now suggests. We did not descend directly from bacteria or social insects but it should be instructive to think that bacteria, devoid of brains or minds, can defend their territory, wage microscopic wars and even expel violators; industrious social insects can produce mega-cities, governments and a form of economy; and humans create universal moral injunctions like the golden rule, public squares for political and philosophical inquiry, indiscriminately murder other humans for their own nefarious gain, write poetry, and believe in all-seeing gods. The homeostatic imperative that is the glue and driving force behind all known lifeforms provides an elegant piece of a much larger puzzle. The contemplation of this imperative is just as awe-inspiring today as I’m sure it was to Spinoza many centuries ago.

References:

Antonio Damasio- The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures

Furness, J. and Stebbing, M. (2017). The first brain: Species comparisons and evolutionary implications for the enteric and central nervous systems. Neurogastroenterology & Motility, 30(2), p.e13234.

(Bud) Craig, A. (2009). How do you feel — now? The anterior insula and human awareness. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(1), pp.59-70.

Antonio Damasio- Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain

Take Nobody’s Word For It

“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”

― Robert Wright

In fortunate circumstances, one can find the capacity to reach beyond the confines of a narrowly defined identity and unleash the seed of intellectual enlightenment after years, even decades, in darkness. That this seed can grow at any point in time with no prior interest in science, history, art, philosophy, introspection, or discourse, is a remarkable aspect of the human condition.

Humanism as an outlook and community offers people a unique opportunity to explore these realms and develop their potential. There is no need to set boundaries when considering meaningful ways to extend the Humanist community outreach. When the private sphere can be safely navigated through introspection and education- then the chamber of one’s mind can gradually be seen plainly. This understanding can open many doors and bolster confidence, especially for those who wish to go on and explore the public sphere. The voice of Pericles echoes down the ages, ‘Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics will not take an interest in you’.

Humanism has manifested its spirit in many quarters. In the East, a ninth-century Zen teacher by the name of Lin Chi is said to have once uttered the words, “If you meet the Buddha on the road—kill him”.  In the West, The Royal Society used a comparably wise motto since the founding of the academy of science in 1660, ‘Nullius in verba’, roughly translated as- “take nobody’s word for it”. While the latter encourages us to falsify and test the diversity of facts we are drawn too, the former asks us to examine our moment to moment experience and discard our sectarian idols.

Take ‘nullius in verba’ too far, however, and we arrive at Malcolm Robert’s recent misunderstanding of the empirical method. According to him, skepticism means rejecting the evidence of NASA, and most other leading authorities on climate change. In contrast to this muddled thinking, the maxim, in fact, challenges us to seek evidence, adopt a healthy scepticism, and most importantly, cultivate reasonableness in both the domestic and public spheres. Reasonableness, as defined by Karl Popper, is the spirit of, “I may be wrong, and you may be right, but by an effort we may get nearer to the truth”.

Eastern contemplative traditions also have their excesses. Examining concepts such as the Japanese, ‘mushin no shin’ (Mind without mind), and the Chinese ‘Wu wei’ (Action without action), are intellectual points of departure that can lead to a journey of self-discovery. However, truth-seekers can often feel disappointed when representatives of the various spiritual camps stubbornly distinguish themselves based on these grandiose concepts they promote. The intended point frequently loses its flavor and instead we are served a bland and rotten excuse for a banquet. The actual intended recipe beyond concepts, as with most things of value, requires the ingredients of curiosity and audacity,  ‘Kill the Buddha -and find out for yourself’.

A life of introspection combined with free thinking is a reliable means of improving mental health and provides an effective method for understanding the universal experience of suffering. As Robert Wright says in his recent book, ‘Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment’, “natural selection didn’t design your mind to see the world clearly; it designed your mind to have perceptions and beliefs that would help take care of your genes.”.

Seeing clearly sparks new interest and doubt about the world and new doubt and interest in the world help us see clearly; the effect becomes the cause. Humanist volunteers and community support groups have a unique opportunity to spark such interest. Recently, I was delighted to take on the role of assistant editor of the Humanist Society Australia. To join the ‘second wave’ of Humanism that Australia is currently undergoing and incorporate my own belief that such a movement can help empower and, provide guidance, for those wrestling with mental and spiritual afflictions.

Providing environments to listen and argue reasonably and develop social connections that bind us to a shared vision of humanity is part of that story. Based on freedom, compassion and mutual truth-seeking– this becomes the blueprint for a thriving community.

So long as dogma and irrationality are not permitted to imprison our minds, and superstition rejected, then, evidence, reason, and understanding, still have the power to open hearts and minds and as Kant petitioned, ‘sapere aude’ – “dare us to know”.

Karl Popper’s recipe for the humanist is still unsurpassed and a new wave of humanism with these sentiments in mind will continue to have an impact on society.

‘The emphasis upon the dualism of facts and decisions determines also our attitude towards such ideas as ‘progress’. If we think that history progresses, or that we are bound to progress, then we commit the same mistake as those who believe that history has a meaning that can be discovered in it and need not be given to it. For to progress is to move towards some kind of end, towards an end which exists for us as human beings.

‘History’ cannot do that; only we, the human individuals, can do it; we can do it by defending and strengthening those democratic institutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends. And we shall do it much better as we become more fully aware of the fact that progress rests with us, with our watchfulness, with our efforts, with the clarity of our conception of our ends, and with the realism of their choice. Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate. We must learn to do things as well as we can, and to look out for our mistakes. And when we have dropped the idea that the history of power will be our judge, when we have given up worrying whether or not history will justify us, then one day perhaps we may succeed in getting power under control.’

ALL MINUS ONE- John Stuart Mill’s Ideas on Free Speech Illustrated

Heterodox Academy has produced a new book based on John Stuart Mill’s famous essay On Liberty to make it accessible for the 21st century. Here’s what makes the edition special:

1) It’s just the second chapter (out of 5), because that chapter gives the best arguments ever made for the importance of free speech and viewpoint diversity;
2) We have reduced that chapter by 50% to remove repetitions and historical references that would be obscure today, producing a very readable 7000 word essay;
3) Editors Richard Reeves (a biographer of Mill) and Jon Haidt (a social psychologist) have written a brief introduction to link Mill and his time to the issues of our time, and
4) Artist Dave Cicirelli has created 16 gorgeous original illustrations that amplify the power of Mill’s metaphors and arguments.

All Minus One is ideal for use in college courses, advanced high school classes, or in any organization in which people would benefit from productive disagreement.

https://heterodoxacademy.org/mill/