Homo Sapiens – the Pathetic Species?

I never was that much of a science-fiction aficionado. But I’m sure as a child I occasionally borrowed some sci-fi literature from the library and watched the odd episode of Star Trek – ok, lots of episodes of Star Trek. I’m sure there was a time when it was generally thought that robots would be our kindly household helpers, machines would instantly cure diseases and generate whatever food we fancied.

In contrast, these days, we tend to tend to read more about how robots, or rather, their upgrade, artificial intelligence (AI), will be making us jobless, oppressing us and quite possibly killing us. I happen to think that we shouldn’t be quite that worried about AI, for any number of reasons: I think we switch them on, so we can switch them off. I think that even if we create them to teach themselves and to learn things, we give them the algorithms by which they “decide” whether something is a good move worth learning, repeating and developing, or not. I think that we tend to do ok in creating governance and codes for the development of science and technology. I think that even if they end up doing our jobs better than we could ever do them, they will create greater prosperity and it becomes a question of the distribution of the goods they create, rather than a fight of human beings against machines. (I also think we should stop talking about them as “they” as if they were the other grouping in an “us and them” situation, and only talk about them as “they” in the sense that we would talk about, say the contents of our toolbox as “they”, as in “I don’t know where I have left my hammer and nails, maybe they’re in the cupboard under the stairs.”)

I may be right or wrong about AI, but that’s not the point right now. Hannah Arendt wrote about “the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction” that “unfortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves [to it] as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires.” And so the thing that really interests me here, is not whether AI is going to leave us out of work, and quite possibly extinct, or not, but what it says about us a species, humanity, that we are so lacking in confidence with regard to our future machines. The mass sentiments here are fear, pessimism and a lack of confidence in our future as a species. This has replaced the mass desire with regard to future machines that they should make us creatures of leisure and comfort. We’ve gone from “the robots will do the work, which is nice” to “Oh my God, the AIs will do our work, we’ll all be jobless.”

A German compound noun that deserves to be as well known as those others, Zeitgeist, Schadenfreude and Weltschmerz, is Menschenbild. It means the image man has of himself. Or – since we should be wary of being unclear in languages where the word for “human being” and “man” is the same – the image human beings have of themselves. I generally find it difficult to say what the prevailing humanity-wide view is on anything, but it’s worth thinking a bit about the image we have of ourselves these days and whether our mass sentiment of lacking confidence with regard to our future and the unfriendly robots is founded in it.

Our Menschenbild has famously made a long journey over the last few millennia from one where we were at the centre of God’s universe to one where we are at the margins of a chaotic, sprawling and expanding universe full of dark matter and other uncharted waters, from one where we were put in charge of God’s creation to one where we have randomly evolved from matter that was coincidentally brought to life, and from one where we were the masters of our fate, to one where we’re barely in control of our minds.

I am interested in what further staging post on this journey we have reached. It’s genuinely difficult to judge what “most people” believe about these big questions. But I’ll speculate that a feature of our most up-to-date image of ourselves we are three things: a) we are destructive of the world, our habitat, and other species, b) we are our neurophysiology, and c) we are addicted. (Spoiler alert: I’m not arguing that these views are correct.)

Destructive of the World

There’s nothing new about apocalyptic phantasies, and nothing new about the idea that human beings can’t control the powers and technologies that we created (see the Sorcerer’s Apprentice). But I think we’ve generally lost confidence in our ability to prevent climate change from becoming catastrophic. But even if we haven’t, there’s still plastic pollution, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, overpopulation and other problems. It seems to us that our lifestyle is destroying the planet with its natural resources that are also the foundation for our lifestyle. Our self-image now is less that we’re the crown of creation and more that we’re a virus that is making our host sick in order to multiply and support ourselves.

Neurophysiology

Plato thought that there are three parts of our soul (the appetitive, the spirited and the rational) that need to be brought into balance and the right kind of hierarchy in order for us to be good. Freud believed that the psyche was made up of three parts (super-ego, ego and id). So there’s nothing new about the idea that our minds have different parts. What’s new in our current image of ourselves now, is that we no longer talk about the soul, the psyche, the mind, but about the brain. This brain has different systems, each with their own functions, depending on the evolutionary stage at which they emerged. There is no hierarchy between these systems, just neural pathways, synapses and electrons firing between them. It’s not so much that we have brains, but that we are brains.

Addicted

Closely linked to our neurophysiological nature, our natural state is to be addicted. Dopamines in our brains have the strongest control over everything we do. The same mechanism drives heroin addiction, a penchant for cupcakes and any habits we may have acquired (like brushing our teeth after eating cupcakes). But then, the range of things to which we can be addicted has massively expanded to include social media likes for our selfies, shopping, and thinking. As über-guru, Eckhart Tolle says:

Compulsive thinking is actually an addiction. What characterises an addiction? Quite simply this: you no longer feel that you have the choice to stop. It seems stronger than you. It also gives you a false sense of pleasure, pleasure that invariably turns into pain.

And brain-scans show that the brain that isn’t in a meditative state, is in an addicted state. (It so happens that meditation teachers describe the neurophysiology as a way of explaining that we could be more aware and intentional about our actions, but the description of our neurophysiological nature sticks more strongly in the public consciousness than the idea that we could gain control over it.

Fundamentally Unfree

This combination of beliefs results in the most limiting of limiting beliefs: the belief that we are fundamentally unfree. We are set on our self-destructive journey by our brain chemistry. And because we basically are our brains now, there is nothing we can set against it.

And so someone like Yuval Noah Harari, the chronicler of homo sapiens, tells us:

Unfortunately, “free will” isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians developed the idea of “free will” to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so, because our choices reflect the free will of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints.

This myth has little to do with what science now teaches us about Homo sapiens and other animals. Humans certainly have a will – but it isn’t free.

[…]

If you believe in the traditional liberal story, you will be tempted simply to dismiss this challenge. “No, it will never happen. Nobody will ever manage to hack the human spirit, because there is something there that goes far beyond genes, neurons and algorithms. Nobody could successfully predict and manipulate my choices, because my choices reflect my free will.” Unfortunately, dismissing the challenge won’t make it go away. It will just make you more vulnerable to it.

It starts with simple things. As you surf the internet, a headline catches your eye: “Immigrant gang rapes local women”. You click on it. At exactly the same moment, your neighbour is surfing the internet too, and a different headline catches her eye: “Trump prepares nuclear strike on Iran”. She clicks on it. Both headlines are fake news stories, generated perhaps by Russian trolls, or by a website keen on increasing traffic to boost its ad revenues. Both you and your neighbour feel that you clicked on these headlines out of your free will. But in fact you have been hacked.

Unfortunately the myth that “scientific reality” suggests that there is nothing beyond genes, neutrons and algorithms is much more likely to make us helpless against the commercially exploitative, criminal or malign actors who, according to Harari, are hacking us. When we believe that we are helplessly exposed to the signals we see online, that we can’t help but click on what is marketed to us, can’t help but believe, buy even, what we read and can’t help but act on what we’ve been sold, we are less likely to pause and reflect on the different courses of action that are open to us, to read critically what we see and to feel responsible what we do next. Much as Harari sells us this “scientific” unfree image of the human being, he is giving us a description of people who have already imbibed the self-limiting belief, not a description of what human beings could be at their best. Hopefully, the leaps from the image people clicking on links online to the conclusion that we have been hacked and have no free will seem to most people to be so full of non-sequiturs that we need not be overly worried by it. And ultimately, who are the agents who are hacking and manipulating us? Other human beings. How come they have the necessary agency, alongside their ingenuity and technical skills to hack us and implement their evil plans, when we can’t even decide what (not) to click on?

The neurophysiological, addicted, destructive self-image, widely held though it may be, is limited and limiting but fortunately it is not the only one available. Exploring more positive alternatives will be a matter for a future post!

[This post has had a great response. I wrote an addition to it reacting to some comments here.]

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Parmenides’ Stunning Inspiration

The pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides would appear to be a crown witness for the emergence of philosophy out of contemplative practices (which I described as an important feature of philosophy in this previous post).

He opens his philosophical work with a description of a chariot ride – guided by goddesses – to the abode of the goddess Justice. She teaches him “both the steady heart of well-rounded truth, and the beliefs of mortals in which there is no trust.”

Some see this as a genuine description of Parmenides’ approach to gaining insight. A shamanic journey to the underworld where he is instructed by divine inspiration.

Others see it as merely a standard literary device: the invocation of muses and gods that is standard in poetic works of his time. (And why should a philosopher write in a poetic format? Possibly just because didactic works were written in that way.)

Here is some of what the goddess teaches Parmenides:

“There is the way ‘that it is and it cannot not be:’ This is the path of Trust, for Truth attends it. Then there is the way ‘that it is not and that it must not be:’ This, as I show you, is an altogether misguided route.”

So again, as with Heraclitus’ journey into the soul, the philosophical teaching is presented as a journey. There is a fork in the road, a choice of two directions. The two paths have ontological names, but as the image of the crossroads often suggests, the choice is also an ethical one: to go down the path of what is, or to chose the path of what isn’t. The (shamanic-)philosophical project of finding the truth is also the project of choosing to live in accordance with truth, of leading a good righteous life. Those who go down the path of “what is not:”

“stray two-headed; for confusion in their breasts leads astray their thinking. On this way they journey deaf and blind, bewildered indecisive herds, in whose thinking being and not being are the same and yet not the same. For all of them the path turns back on itself.”

The right path, the path of “what is,” leads Parmenides to the kind of non-dualism which we have also seen in Heraclitus: He rejects opposites such as dark and light, hot and cold, heavy and light:

“Mortal beliefs, listening to words which, though composed, will be lies. For they proposed in their minds to name two forms, one of which should not be named; this is where they went wrong. They selected things oppositely configured and attributed to them features distinct from one another—to the one form the bright fire of flame, Which is gentle, very light, and in every way the same as itself, But not the same as the other. This too is self-consistent in the opposite manner, as impenetrable night, a dense and heavy body.”

And it is the exclusive existence of “what is,” uninterrupted, unvaried and unchanging, that leads to this rejection of dualism and the view of a single coherent and sphere-like reality:

“For apart from ‘what is’ nothing else either is or will be, since ‘what is’ is what Fate bound to be entire and changeless. Therefore all those things which mortal men, trusting in their true reality, have proposed, are no more than names – both birth and perishing, both being and not being, change of place, and alteration of bright colouring. Now, since there is a last limit, ‘what is’ is complete, from every side like the body of a well-rounded sphere, everywhere of equal intensity from the centre. For it must not be somewhat greater in one part and somewhat smaller in another. For, first, there is no such thing as ‘what is not,’ to stop ‘what is’ from joining up with itself; and, second, it is impossible for ‘what is’ to be more here and less there than ‘what is’, since it all inviolably is. For from every direction it is equal to itself, and meets with limits.”

Parmenides argues for these conclusions about “what is” based on insights into the completeness and uninterrupted nature of existence. He argues that things must be different from the way the appear to the eye based on reasoning.

Given the strength of the vision though, it is possible that Parmenides’ well-rounded sphere of being is something seen, or experienced, more through contemplative practice than through logical reasoning alone. How can Parmenides so categorically deny the realities of growth and perishing, of change in the world all around us? That denial rests on the idea that there is a different way of perceiving what is: One based not just on sense perceptions but on contemplation of truths. And this way allows us to live more in accordance with truth.

That was surely a key moment in the history of human thought, when someone or a small number of people first had the insight that things could be different from the way they appear to us and that we should engage the mind and thought to work out a better view of reality. I can’t help wondering what kind of mental process first led them to this kind of insight, how they would have been received by their contemporaries. We know some of these early philosophers had difficult relationships with the communities they were in. They were thought to be obscure, arrogant, impractical.

Parmenides’ suggestion reminds me of a thought experiment I once read in  a book about the geometry and mathematics of the dimensions: Imagine creatures of two dimensions who live on a plane and perceive objects in two dimensions. Now imagine what a sphere looks like that moves through their plane. It will be a dot, then a growing circle, then a shrinking circle, then a dot, then nothing.

sphere

The 2D creatures would therefore see it as a circle that comes into being, grows, the at some point starts to shrink again and finally perishes. Now imagine though one slightly special 2D creature, call it Parmenides, who works out a whole new way of “seeing.” It is based on some idea that what is cannot just not be, and vice versa. Through an astonishing mental effort he combines the two-dimensional slices of growing and shrinking circles and suggests that instead of concepts like the birth and perishing, growth and shrinking of a circle, there is merely a sphere that stays the same as it travels through the experience world of 2D creatures, despite appearances. How would other 2D creatures react? First of all it might still require a huge mental effort for 2D creatures to “see” what Parmenides “saw.” Some might react against it and argue that there’s no point in assuming anything that is not part of the world as it’s experienced. Some might just ignore Parmenides. They might tolerate what he says but simply think that it doesn’t affect them. They want to navigate the “real world” of growing and shrinking circles. Some might “get it.” and feel enriched by the insight. Some  of them might develop new theories about the eternal life of shapes against the background of the appearance of birth, growth, shrinking and death. Who knows.

The existence of a “sphere” in real Parmenides’ philosophy and his 2D namesake is coincidental. I don’t mean to suggest that this exact thought experiment was what Parmenides had in mind. But what is relevant, is the radical nature of the insight based on mental process other than pure sense perception. The sheer mental effort of gaining such and insight. And the difficulty of communicating it, let alone persuading others that there is truth and relevance in it. How do human beings do that kind of thing? That is the job of contemplation and philosophy.

 

Heraclitus’ Journey Into the Soul

In a previous post I argued that Western philosophy is related to contemplative practices and traditions. I now want to look at traces of this relationship in the early history of Western philosophy, starting with Heraclitus. We have only fragments of his philosophy. And yet we have enough to trace a number of his trains of thought. There is much in the fragments – not just his most famous view that all is flux – that would be in line with the insights of many a contemplative tradition and practice:

Everything is one:

“Not having listened to me but to the principle (the logos) it is wise to agree that all is one.”

Flux: 

“On those who step into the same rivers ever different waters are flowing.”

“It is impossible to step into the same river. It scatters and regathers, comes together and dissolves, approaches and departs.”

Distrust of the senses and a desire to find the truth behind sense perception:

“Eyes and ears are bad witnesses for men if they have barbaric souls.”

“The true nature of things tends to hide itself.”

Non-duality / Unity in opposites:

“The divine is day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety hunger. But it takes different appearances like fire which, when mixed with incense, is named according to the savour of each.”

“The way up is also the way down.”

“Sea: water most pure and most tainted, drinkable and wholesome for fish, but undrinkable and poisonous for people.”

Awakening:

“But the general run of people are as unaware of their action while awake as they are of what they do while asleep.”

“The universe for those who are awake is single and common, while in sleep each person turns aside into a private universe.”

There are also hints in Heraclitus’ fragments regarding his method for achieving insights. One fragment simply says:

I searched for myself.

In itself it may not amount to much. But the work described here is an intentional effort. The verb that Heraclitus uses for “searching”, is one he also uses in a different fragment where he says that those digging or mining for gold find a  lot of earth and not much else. So the journey inside oneself is not casual introspection but it is about digging deep to find valuable nuggets. And there are other hints that Heraclitus believed that a systematic inward focus is central to the philosophical enterprise. Elsewhere he says:

It is possible for all human beings to know themselves and to think reasonably.

And then there this further exploration of this theme in a fragment that says:

The limits of the soul you will not find walking, even if you wander down every road. Such a deep principle (logos) it contains.

This explains the point of Heraclitus’ inward journey. The soul itself contains the logos, the principle, or correct account which according to Heraclitus explains the truth about everything.

Elsewhere in Heraclitus’ fragments we see examples of why the inward search is necessary and how the soul contains the principle that also explains everything. By looking inward we can see how we reflect the way things are in the wider universe:

And the one and same: living and dead, awake and sleeping, young and old. For this is changing into that, and that changing back into this again.

That is to say within ourselves we can experience the non-dualism and the one-ness that Heraclitus also sees in the external world.

And there is a further physical reason, why the journey into the soul can teach us truths about the universe. Heraclitus believes that fire is an important element in the universe. He says that the universe is an eternal fire. Elsewhere he says that thunderbolt rules the universe. (An ancient commentator took thunderbolt to be the same as the universal fire though ancient Greeks would also have associated the thunderbolt with Zeus.)

Heraclitus also thought the soul had attributes of fire. But only if it was maintained in such a way to be dry and hot. Moisture and water, he thought, were the death of the soul. There are also fragments that suggest that the soul maintained its fieriness through righteous conduct. In other words the ability to find the fire that reflects the matter of the universe and to find the logos of the soul which is the same as the wider principle, the right account of everything, depends on the righteous conduct of the searcher. That also explains the fragment that says eyes and ears are bad witnesses for the people with barbaric souls. (The word barbaric doesn’t necessarily imply badly behaved, it may merely be a reference to speaking in an unintelligible language.) The corrupted soul simply doesn’t reflect things right, giving a scrambled account of what people see.

So one of the earliest philosophers in Western philosophy has a method of journeying into the soul to explore wider truths. There he finds one-ness in seeming dualism. In the soul he also finds the guiding principle of everything, the logos. This leads to an ethical argument about maintaining the soul in a fit state so that it properly reflects the truth about things.

And from there all flows.

The Birth of Philosophy from the Spirit of Contemplative Practice

There’s a lot of interest in contemplative practices and traditions at the moment. Their steady but circuitous route to their current position in public consciousness went something like this: a number of contemplative practices were reduced to the non-religious and non-metaphysical core practice of mindfulness meditation. Its positive impacts on things like general health and wellbeing, chronic pain reduction and stress management, job performance and effectiveness has been shown in study after study. Neuroscience proved that mindfulness meditation could lastingly alter the structure and activities of human brains. Then interest grew again in the spiritual hinterland of mindfulness meditation. Buddhism provided much of that background. And from there, interest grew again in the contemplative practices of other traditions. As it turns out there is a “contemplative core”  present in a variety of cultures and traditions which is highly meaningful for humanity.

So, for example, the meditation teacher Shinzen Young writes about his own research into the contemplative traditions of various cultures and religions:

It was quite astonishing for me to discover that all over the world and in every historical period there had been people who lived their lives in the state of high concentration that I was just beginning to explore. I began to feel a link to them all. It was fascinating to feel that I shared something deep and important with people living centuries ago and having customs and beliefs completely different from mine. I realised that when we practice meditation, we are engaging in a quintessentially human endeavour. The science of enlightenment doesn’t belong to any particular religion or culture or period, rather it belongs to humanity as a whole and helps us to connect to our basic humanness.

But What is a Contemplative Tradition?

There are a number of interrelated elements that belong to a working definition of a contemplative tradition:

  1. We could say it requires a system of insights or teachings (most likely about the place of human beings in the universe).
  2.  Specific techniques or practices to experience, deepen and reap the benefits of those insights.
  3. More specifically, the techniques and practices of contemplative traditions involve the temporary narrowing of mental focus onto single items or concepts.
  4. A key aspect of contemplative traditions is that they promise that the practice of their techniques are a route to a better, more fulfilled, in some senses, happier life and a liberation from the struggle, dissatisfaction and drudgery of non-contemplative day-to-day life.
  5. There is something important about how the practice and techniques of the contemplative practice lead to a better life. The practices themselves may generate feelings of fulfilment and happiness while they are being practiced and in the immediate aftermath. But the important thing is that a brief but regularly repeated period of practice carries over into the rest of life. So, for example, mindfulness meditation is practiced at best for a small proportion of a day, but imbues daily life with greater awareness.

These are basic central formal elements of contemplative traditions, even if the nature of the insights and practices differ. As Shinzen Young writes:

One way to trace the theme of meditation in world spirituality is through vocabulary. Most of the world’s contemplative traditions have a generic technical term that designates any concentrated state. In addition, there are often specific technical terms used to describe different depths or levels of concentration. When we take the systems and put them side by side, we notice some broad parallels between the Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu systems of contemplation.

Similarly, the Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana writes about the “overlapping practices called prayer and contemplation” that are present in many different religions and cultures:

Prayer is a direct address to a spiritual entity. Contemplation is a prolonged period of conscious thought about a specific topic, usually a religious ideal or scriptural passage. From the standpoint of mental cultivation, both of these activities are exercises in concentration. The normal deluge of conscious thought is restricted, and the mind is brought to one conscious area of operation. The results are those you find in any concentrative practice: deep calm, a physiological slowing of the metabolism, and a sense of peace and well-being.

While the practice of restricting the breadth and increasing the depth of concentration and focus is something that takes place as a conscious practice for designated periods of time in a day, the results of such practices are changes in the overall life of the practitioner. There are a many mechanisms by which this might happen, such as a) that the insights gained during the practice allow for a better understanding of the practitioner’s place in this universe and therefore better navigation in life, b) that the overall better control of the own mind and the ability to concentrate leads to greater effectiveness in addressing any opportunities or challenges that life might offer, c) that greater feelings of connectedness to the world and other human beings (e. g. through a practised focus on compassion, loving-kindness or charity) evoke and strengthen such feelings outside of the contemplative practice, d) that brain activity during contemplative practice changes the structure of the brain long term in a way that increases contentment and decreases feelings of craving and dissatisfaction.

This last point is a more recent focus of neuroscience and again one that is true for contemplative practices with differing forms and content. Shinzen Young, for example, writes:

First, the research seemed to show that while the conceptual systems of the various religions (and specifically those of Buddhism versus Christianity) are very different, the underlying neurological correlates of contemplative adepts in those traditions are often rather similar. This lent credibility to the notion that the world’s contemplative traditions can be viewed as a unity.

So Where Does Philosophy Come Into It?

Is philosophy a contemplative practice? Is Western philosophy one kind of contemplative tradition? We can certainly trace aspects of contemplative traditions through the history of western philosophy. I would argue that philosophy is at its best when it connects to its status as a contemplative practice and weakened when it moves away from it.

Let’s run through the five aspects of contemplative traditions set out above:

A System of Insights or Teachings and Specific Techniques or Practices

It could be argued that Western philosophy can’t possibly be a system of insights or teachings, as there are too many differing strands that are in conflict with each other. But if we gain enough distance from it, we may be able to detect a system of key insights that are in some form or other relevant to the whole tradition. That would be equivalent, for example, to seeing fundamental philosophical tenets of Buddhism as the theoretical backdrop for the practice of mindfulness meditation without worrying too much about the difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism and the many arguments and differing theories between or within those schools.

It might be possible to extract certain insights as key to the contemplative tradition of Western philosophy. Just a few of these might be:

  1. We cannot rely on appearances. There is a truth that is somehow behind or beyond the things of our world. This is a key point from the attempts of pre-socratic philosophers to identify the original substance from which everything is made, be it water, fire or an ever-changing mix of source elements. This is behind the Platonic idea that the objects we perceive through our senses and handle in every day life are instances of more abstract ideas and forms. This is behind the idea that there is a nature of things beyond their appearance as phenomena. This idea is alive and well in the pop-philosophical question about whether our lives could be taking place in a simulated virtual reality. A special case of this insight is the Heraclitean idea (also flowing through Stoicism) that everything is in flux, or the insight that the things we regard as hard and fast are in fact ephemeral. Corresponding contemplative practices are: radical doubt, whereby we apply discipline in order to second guess everything that seems reliable until we get to a core of certainty (perhaps most obviously associated with Descartes). Aiming to see the abstract and eternal beyond the practical and fleeting. The practice of really de-valuing things that are part of the unreliable and fleeting world of appearance and looking for things that are eternal (including the devaluation of the body in favour of the soul).
  2. It is important to understand the real reasons for things and events. Philosophy (and from it science) started when people stopped seeing certain events as acts of gods and started looking for other (better) reasons. From that the practice of looking for and providing reasons became important in being able to say what is true and what is good. This capacity for perceiving, critiquing, providing and acting on reasons – rationality – became seen as a distinctly human capacity, or more lately as a capacity available to a distinctly larger extent in human beings. Rationality here is not meant as a contrast to being emotional but as an ability to deal with reasons. Corresponding contemplative practices are: looking for reasons, critiquing reasons, refining our ability to perceive and act on (right) reasons.
  3. There are ideals that we can somehow aim to get at. The True, The Good and The Beautiful to name but a few. Freedom, Right Action, the Good Life. These things are out there and it is our job to somehow get closer to them, unveil them, get them to reveal themselves, define them. Philosophy is a journey towards such ideals (out of the cave). Corresponding contemplative practices are: the contemplation of ideals.

The temporary narrowing of mental focus onto single items or concepts

  • Contemplation and Deep Thought: The practice of Western philosophy may not have the same specificity of practices as other contemplative traditions – it doesn’t have particular cushions, mats or stools for sitting on during practice, it doesn’t have the sounds of gongs or chimes – but it has its own forms of temporary narrowing focus. What does a philosopher do? In the first instance he or she narrows his or her thinking onto a single concept or proposition in order to develop and illuminate it.
  • Dialogue: Not too long ago, a newspaper published a letter-to-the-editor from Professor Simon Blackburn, that described the following course of events:

Sir, I was a member of the then sub-faculty of philosophy in Oxford some 30 years ago when the chairman received a letter from the administration asking us to detail innovations in teaching methods we had recently made. His reply was that the right method of teaching philosophy was discovered by Socrates some 2,500 years ago, and we had no intention of changing it. We heard no more about it.

That method which has run through Western philosophy for more than two millennia is the practice whereby two or more people are engaged in the practice of talking to each other, more specifically asking and answering questions, in order to establish the truth about certain concepts. Whether this takes place in the agora, the Ancient Greek market-place, where one might have found Socrates, the particular stoa, or portico, where the (therefore) Stoic philosopher Zeno taught, the seminar rooms of universities, or elsewhere doesn’t particularly matter.

  • Reading and writing: These are key practices of the contemplative tradition that is Western philosophy. Of course we are not talking about any kind of reading or writing. It is much more a case of extending the practice of dialogue to a situation where people aren’t necessarily in each other’s presence. So the writer in this practice writes in a way that allows the reader to understand his or her insights. The writer also anticipates objections the reader might advance and answers them. The reader not only aims to take them in, but reads critically, i. e. thinks about what his or her objections would be, what he or she agrees with, and what could be said in response. The reader aims for a charitable reading whereby he or she reads the arguments of the writer in a way that gives them as much sense as possible, before opening the text up to critique. The practice of teaching or learning philosophy by working with classic texts comes close to the idea of contemplating certain bits of scripture as a way of narrowing the focus of concentration.

A better, happier life through brief but repeated periods of practice

Does the practice of philosophy make life better? And do occasional periods of practising philosophy have a positive effect on life as a whole?

Philosophers have long argued that the answer to both questions is yes. In Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, he talks about people who are constrained to life in a cave where they can only observe shadow images on the walls and guess at what objects they represent. Some lucky cave dwellers manage to escape. On leaving the cave these people start seeing real objects, reflections of the sun in water and finally the sun whose light makes everything visible. These people are the philosophers who move from merely dealing with the objects and concepts of the practical world to being able to contemplate the forms, the essences of things, and eventually the form of the good – the ultimate source of truth.

In the ideal society, Plato argues, these people who have seen the light, must not be allowed to stay out there basking in the sunlight – even though they will “think that they’ve been transported to the Isles of the Blessed.” The philosophers will have to go back down to the cave to use their advanced understanding gained from contemplation of the sun to lead the community in the cave and share their understanding with them.

In other words: although philosophical contemplation is a pleasant and liberating experience in itself, those practicing it, must return to “real life,” better able to act there because of the insights gained in contemplation and with a responsibility to enlighten their non-contemplative fellow citizens insofar as they can.

There is also a famous paradox in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics which may benefit from applying to it the idea that philosophy is meant to be a contemplative practice. The paradox is in the fact that in book 10 of the Ethics, Aristotle says that happiness consists in contemplation, that contemplation is the highest form of virtue and that it is divine. Whereas elsewhere he gives the impression that all the virtues are equally valuable and that human life is at its bests when it contains activity and social interactions. This is a bit of a paradox that comes about from the fact that engaging in contemplative practice provides a different mindset and perspective in which contemplation is a superior activity. But its value consists in when it carries over to the activities of “normal life.”

Then we have the Stoic philosopher Seneca who, in his essay on the Shortness of Life, proposes that practising philosophy is really the only worthwhile, happy-making and life-prolonging activity. He recommends an ongoing dialogue with the philosophers, as:

“No one of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die; no one of these will wear out your years, but each will add his own years to yours; conversations with no one of these will bring you peril, the friendship of none will endanger your life, the courting of none will tax your purse. From them you will take whatever you wish; it will be no fault of theirs if you do not draw the utmost that you can desire. What happiness, what a fair old age awaits him who has offered himself as a client to these! He will have friends from whom he may seek counsel on matters great and small, whom he may consult every day about himself, from whom he may hear truth without insult, praise without flattery, and after whose likeness he may fashion himself.”

So What?

So what if philosophy once was, or in some places still is a contemplative practice? It certainly has moved on now. It is now taught as an academic discipline, rather than a contemplative practice. Isn’t that better? It depends. There are those who regret that philosophy is becoming increasingly invisible in the public space. (I have written about that in this post.) Philosophy could re-connect with its roots as a contemplative practice. It could be a discipline that aims to benefit its practitioners and through them the wider world. Or it could become ever narrower, thinner, specialised and removed from the circumstances of the lives human beings lead. Then it shouldn’t be surprised if people turn either to the ancient philosophers who took their task seriously (has anyone noticed the resurgence of Stoicism) or the teachers of other contemplative practices when they need some insight into what is going on in their lives and the world.

Determinism 4 – Marginalising the Forces of Determinism

[This is a part of a series of posts on determinism. It starts here.]

A bit of cognitive bias can’t fully explain our strong experience of free will on its own though. The other move that we tend to make is down-playing the extent to which determinism is a force in our lives.

Sometimes the rejection of “nature” (“it’s in our genes”) as a determining factor in favour of “nurture” (“it’s in our upbringing”) is presented as a rejection of biological determinism in favour of choices we make about the way we organise society, support we give parents and children, educational policies and so on. But the point, as far as we’re concerned, is that we can’t chose what kind of home, society, socio-economic context we’re born into. We don’t choose our parents or the time and space we’re born into. Nature and nurture are forces of determinism influencing the way we are.

How is it that we reject the idea of determinism due to our lived experience of exercising free will in our every day life, but we don’t reject the idea of free will due to the influence of deterministic forces in our lives. Do we systematically avoid thinking about what it means for us that over a lot of our lives we exercise no control and have no choices to make. We do this not only by forgetting how much about is given by the circumstances of our birth, but when we don’t admit to ourselves that we perform many actions without choosing what we do.

We do this by pretending that exercising a deliberate choice is the paradigm case of action for us. We pretend that consciously deciding to do one thing after another is the normal way in which our daily life develops. Here are some of the things we need to ignore or play down in order to maintain that pretence:

Addictions: The addict does things because the addiction forces him to do so. By definition, he doesn’t chose to do them but is subject to forces outside of his control. We can blame the addict for not having got over his addiction. In doing so, we can refer to former addicts who have learned to control their addiction. “If he really tried,” we can tell ourselves, “the addict could exercise control over his life.” But in the moment where the addict is an addict, as opposed to a former addict, the addiction controls his actions. At that point, whatever happens later in his biography, the actions relating to his addiction are determined by forces outside of his control.

Phobias: The arachnophobe should be able to walk near the tiny little spider in the room to do what she needs to do. The person who is scared of heights should be able to walk up the mountain to enjoy the view. The agoraphobic should be able to leave her house like any other person. But they can’t. From a non-phobic perspective, we pretend that they’d have a choice if only they pulled themselves together. But that is a simplistic view of their condition. The phobia determines the action or inaction in this case. There is no choice.

Reactivity, Habit, Auto-pilot: But much as the forces of determinism can take obvious and strong forms, it’s just also the case, that often we act without thinking much. The science and meditative discipline of mindfulness show us that we don’t control the thoughts going through our minds which often are the basis for actions we take.

What proportion of our actions would we be want to perform after full deliberation, intentionally and conscious of all the facts having weighed up the pros and cons carefully in order to say that we are exercising free will in a meaningful way in our lives? What proportion would we be happy to cede to the forces of determinism? Is it enough to be able to say that for the things that really count, for the big life decisions and when it really matters we exercise free  will? And can we really say that? Is it enough to tell ourselves that even when we don’t, we could if we tried?

[The next post in this series is here.]

Why Addiction Makes You Unhappy and Meditation Makes You Happy

Book Review: The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits – by Judson Brewer

I’ll admit it right at the start: There were times when I didn’t want to like this book. As I was reading it, I composed a snide and angry review in my mind. Some of that is below. But there’s something in there which makes the book great. It’s just hidden away in lots of other stuff.

So the things that annoyed me…

First, the foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn: He is a great man. The great man of mindfulness meditation in the West. When he writes something new, people buy books and read them. But there is really very little that is new or exciting in this foreword other than an endorsement of the book’s author. At first I thought this was purely “clickbait,” a phenomenon Brewer helpfully describes later in the book as headlines or bits of text designed to “get us fired up, and our dopamine neurons firing, so that we will click the link to read the article.”

But on a second reading, I think I worked out what the point of Kabat-Zinn’s foreword is. It’s a bit complicated. Bear with me:

My theory is that the history of mindfulness meditation in the West has various waves. The first wave was the Tibetan Tulkus, Indian Yogis, Japanese Zen masters and other weird and wonderful creatures that literally went from the East to the United States to teach their philosophies and practices. The second were people like Kabat-Zinn who soaked up all those teachings, cleared out any religious content and made mindfulness clinical, not least so that they could get medical research grants to study and teach mindfulness. The third wave consists of people like Judson Brewer who make apps out of mindfulness. (They do literally make smartphone apps, but metaphorically they also package mindfulness as an application that can make you more effective professionally, healthier, free from your addictions, and so on.) Now, there is a slight embarrassment in selling (literally and metaphorically) mindfulness as an app: How do you square the attitude of non-doing, non-striving, non-purposive awareness of the present moment that constitutes mindfulness, with the idea of “doing this in order to get that”?

It appears that Kabat-Zinn is here not to explain this conundrum but to say he’s ok with it:

“Mindfulness as both a formal meditation practice and as a way of living has two interacting aspects, an instrumental dimension and a non-instrumental dimension. (…)

The non-instrumental dimension, a true complement to the instrumental dimension of mindfulness practice and absolutely essential to its cultivation and to freeing ourselves from craving-associated mind states, thoughts, and emotions, is that there is, at the very same time—and this is very hard to take in or talk about, which is why the phenomenon of flow plays such a large role in this book—no place to go, nothing to do, no special state to attain, and, ultimately, no one (in the conventional sense of a “you” or a “me”) to attain it.

Both of these dimensions of mindfulness are simultaneously true. Yes, you do need to practice, but if you try too hard or strive for some desired end point and its attendant reward, then you are simply shifting the craving to a new object or a new goal or a new attachment and a new or merely upgraded or revised “story of me.” Inside this tension between the instrumental and the non-instrumental lies the true extinguishing of craving, and of the “mis-taken” perceptions of yourself that the craving habit is grounded in.”

I’m not sure this is entirely successful as an explanation. The tension isn’t some kind of Zen riddle or paradox. It’s not the sound of one hand clapping. It stems from a further evolution of thinking about mindfulness that needs to be made explicit, brought out into the open and argued for. Otherwise it will remain a hard sell, even if Kabat-Zinn provides his blessing for the project.

The second thing that annoyed me about the book is Brewer’s attempt to adhere to all the hallmarks of a certain genre: The kind of popular science book – or “smart thinking” as some bookshops have come to call it – that is ubiquitous and has become so lame that it’s crying out for renewal. One of the most obvious genre markers is that, before a new discovery or concept is explained, the people working on the subject are introduced at length. Not necessarily just their academic career, or their intellectual journey, but how they dress in the morning before they go to their labs, what they eat for breakfast, their individual quirks and characteristics, as well as how happy they are to be friends of the author’s.  Tempting as it must be to copy ingredients of a recipe that sells so well I think this book and many others could do with less of that.

One egregious example of that feature is when Brewer talks about how the brain’s (the mind’s?) tendency to imagine various possible scenarios or outcomes. He imprecisely compares this process to Monte Carlo simulations, a statistical method to arrive at the relative likelihood of certain outcomes by running simulations thousands of times. Not only is the link between what the mind does and Monte Carlo simulations tenuous, but it is introduced with this entirely unnecessary backstory:

“I first came across Prasanta Pal in the neuroimaging analysis computer cluster at Yale. A compact and soft-spoken gentleman with a ready smile, he had just received his PhD in applied physics. When we met, he was using fMRI to measure turbulence in blood flow through the heart’s chambers. He had seen a paper of mine on brain activity during meditation, and over a cup of tea, he told me how he had grown up with meditation as part of his culture in India. Prasanta was excited to see that it was being researched seriously. In fact, he was interested in joining my lab and putting his particular skills to use.”

A third thing that was slightly irritating is that Brewer tries maybe too hard to show that his thinking about neurological and behaviouristic models of craving and addiction are not only presaged, but precisely present in the teachings of the Buddha himself. (“According to the Pali Canon, the Buddha was said to have been contemplating this idea on the night that he became enlightened. Maybe it was worth looking into further.”) At one point Brewer asks “Could [what the Pali canon refers to as] birth be what we now call memory?” Unlikely, right?

Ultimately though I found the book fascinating. It does a number of things really well:

  • It describes how addictions can come about based on very basic brain functions that allow animals to survive, e. g. by remembering where they can find food. Performing certain actions give us a short-term reward (mediated by dopamine in the brain) which makes us happy, but can also give us a craving for more.
  • It properly analyses certain kinds of social media and smartphone use as addictions. It describes the research that shows how people are getting addicted to presenting a certain image of themselves (their selfies) and being “liked” on social media. One fascinating study which Brewer describes links an increase in children’s accidents to parents being distracted by their phones.
  • It argues that other activities fit an addictive pattern, such as (obsessively) being in love, daydreaming or thinking. This is particularly so when they are really about the person in love, the daydreamer or the thinker themselves, rather than directed at someone or something else.
  • It also provides evidence that daydreaming, being lost in fantasies of pleasant scenarios actually makes us unhappy, rather than happy. (“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” as the researchers of this phenomenon are quoted.)
  • It then describes the research by Brewer and others that implicates a certain pattern of activity in a specific area of the brain (the Default Mode Network) in addiction-style thinking about ourselves.
  • And of course the killer is that Brewer can then show that when we practice mindfulness meditation, this pattern of brain activity is absent. In other words meditation is the absence of an addictive activity to do with shoring up the self.
  • So every time we give in to a craving, we become more addicted. Every time we interject some mindfulness between craving and our next decision, we become less addicted. Giving in to addiction makes us unhappier, being mindful happier.

In Brewer’s words:

“In any type of addictive behavior, reactivity builds its strength through repetition—resistance training. Each time we look for our ‘likes’ on Facebook, we lift the barbell of ‘I am.’ Each time we smoke a cigarette in reaction to a trigger, we do a push-up of ‘I smoke.’ Each time we excitedly run off to a colleague to tell her about our latest and greatest idea, we do a sit-up of ‘I’m smart.’ That is a lot of work.”

And with this, Brewer has done something that is actually even more amazing than he explicitly says in his book. He has brought some issues that were far more present in the teachings of the first wave of meditation masters than they were for the later ones back to life. Those issues concern the role of the ego and the idea that less of it might be good for us. Through his scientific research, Brewer shows that shoring up the self is an activity that makes us unhappy and is linked to addictive behaviours. He also shows that meditation helps with that, not by a process of killing off or diminishing the ego, but simply by stopping the activity in the brain associated with self-referential thinking and doing something else for a while.