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.

Advertisements

Drowned Rats and Mad Dogs: Terrible Things That Have Been Done to Animals to Learn about Human Nature

Drowned Rats

In the 1950s Curt Richter was doing experiments on stress responses in wild and domesticated rats when he accidentally came across a strange phenomenon.

The experiment involved putting rats into large jars full of water and measuring the length of time the rats would swim in water of varying temperatures before they drowned. He was able to show that there were temperatures at which rats survived for longer, and temperatures at which they drowned sooner. (Don’t ask me about the use of this experiment.) The problem was that there were outliers with large variation in the results. Some rats swam for 60-80 hours, while others, particularly wild rats, would drown within minutes.

This variation reduced the significance of Richter’s findings, so he wanted to work out why some of the rats drowned almost immediately. Having ruled out some other factors, Richter worked out what was going on by considering the whole situation the rats are in. He writes:

“The situation of these rats scarcely seems one demanding fight or flight—it is rather one of hopelessness; whether they are restrained in the hand or confined in the swimming jar, the rats are in a situation against which they have no defense. This reaction of hopelessness is shown by some wild rats very soon after being grasped in the hand and prevented from moving; they seem literally to “give up.”

Next Richter finds a way to prevent the rats from literally just “giving up.” He does this by training them in the idea that their situation is not hopeless. As he describes it:

“Support for the assumption that the sudden death phenomenon depends largely on emotional reactions to restraint or immersion comes from the observation that after elimination of the hopelessness the rats do not die. This is achieved by repeatedly holding the rats briefly and then freeing them, and by immersing them in water for a few minutes on several occasions. In this way the rats quickly learn that the situation is not actually hopeless; thereafter they again become aggressive, try to escape, and show no signs of giving up. Wild rats so conditioned swim just as long as domestic rats or longer.”

Let’s just note for now that the rats who learned not to become hopeless in this way didn’t necessarily survive the experiments. They simply stop messing up Richter’s experiment by being hopeless outliers. Ultimately they were still participating in an experiment to work out how long a rat normally struggles for in a tank of water before it drowns. The difference is that after having been given hope they then died of exhaustion rather than hopelessness. (I’m sorry if that sounds gruesome. It is what it is.)

Let’s also note for now that Richter thought these experiments were relevant to human beings. He suggested that the immediate drowning (“sudden death”) is comparable to so-called “voodoo” deaths – instances of “mysterious, sudden, apparently psychogenic death, from all parts of the world.” But he also thought it might be comparable to patients dying in hospitals, not from disease or unsuccessful operations, but simply from fear of an operation. He also cites instances of soldiers dying in good health during the second world war.

Richter’s hopeless rat experiments have become famous for their simple message: look at what the simple presence of hope in the mind makes possible! The physical endurance of a rat in a water tank is greater by a factor of hundreds, just due to a simple mental ingredient: hope!

What strikes me as interesting though, is the picture one must have of the kind of universe we inhabit, if these experiments are meant to be meaningful to our situation. Presumably the experimental set-ups would need to reflect our environment in some way and the things that happen to the rats and dogs would have to be comparable to the kinds of things that happen to human beings.

Is a rat struggling to stay afloat in a water tank suitably similar to life on earth for a human being?What of the experimenter holding the rat briefly and  then freeing it? What about immersing it in water for brief periods of time at first? Is life meant to be like that – short periods of captivity, pain and struggle followed by momentary relief giving us hope that there is point in struggling on? But what for? Only to be able to withstand longer periods of struggle and then drown anyway?

I know that the experiment by necessity is a simplified model of reality. But this experiment is said to deal with concepts like hope, death and survival. And all this in an environment where there is no meaning and no vision of the good (or even just the good life for a rat) apart from survival itself? What are these rats who are not hopeless meant to be hoping for?

And what is the experimenter who gives the rats a careful taste of freedom every now and then in order to make them hopeful? Is it a God in our universe? A cruel God? Or is the experimenter just trying to recreate a situation where painful experiences alternate more or less randomly with less painful, neutral or even positive ones while we make up our own minds about the meaning in it all?

What if the rat experiment had been carried out in an entirely different framework of thought, say in one where death was seen as liberation from the necessary suffering that is life? What if the end of life for a rat was seen as an opportunity for re-incarnation as a different, less ratty, life-form or a chance to enter into nirvana?  Then the rats that drown first aren’t in fact losing hope or giving up, but simply letting go, no longer clinging on to life under the misguided notion that it is worth clinging onto?

Then the experimenter who gives hope to the rats by holding them briefly, then letting them go, or by putting them into the water tank briefly, then taking them out is not giving them hope, but rather strengthening in them a tendency to grasp, to believe that it is possible, if they just work hard enough, to fulfil their cravings, to be free of struggle and suffering.

Mad (Sad) Dogs

About fifteen years after Richter’s rat experiments, Martin Seligman and colleagues did some influential experiments with dogs.

They gave electric shocks to a group of dogs who had access to a switch with which they could make them stop. They also gave electric shocks to a group of dogs who couldn’t make them stop. Later they put the dogs into a cage where they received electric shocks but could move over a small obstacle to a different part of the cage where they wouldn’t receive shocks. The dogs from the first group found out quickly how they could avoid the shocks and largely did so. The dogs from the second group just suffered the shocks. The conclusion: These dogs had learned helplessness.

Seligman was immediately interested in the implications for human suffering and wellbeing. He says the animals who had learned helplessness looked “downright depressed.” And it was the implications of learned helplessness in dogs for depression and other mental illnesses in human beings that looked interesting.

But again, there are some outliers. And the outliers begin to look even more interesting than the normal cases. As Seligman writes:

“It all stems from some embarrassing findings that I keep hoping will go away. Not all of the rats and dogs become helpless after inescapable shock, nor do all of the people after being presented with insolvable problems or inescapable noise. One out of three never gives up, no matter what we do. Moreover, one out of eight is helpless to begin with – it does not take any experience with uncontrollability at all to make them give up. At first, I try to sweep this under the rug, but after a decade of consistent variability, the time arrives for taking it seriously. What is it about some people that imparts buffering strength, making them invulnerable to helplessness? What is it about other people that makes them collapse at the first inkling of trouble?”

Seligman’s experiments provided the foundations for a new school of psychology. Positive psychology focussed on helping people lead happier, more effective lives, rather than on removing psychological diseases and weaknesses. Some of it focussed on the characteristics of those outliers who refused to learn helplessness, assuming that these could help others. This led to the insight that it helps to view bad events as temporary rather than permanent and specific rather than universal. These non-human and human animals apparently have hope. Hope again emerges as a key factor, this time not only in longer survival but in wellbeing and happiness.

But What Does It All Mean?

The experimental set-up again contains some ideas about what life in this universe is like. Some individuals may experience phases in life where they are unable to control the painful events (electric shocks or other) that they are exposed to. From this experience they may conclude that it is pointless to try to avoid painful events in later life phases and surrender to them. They no longer struggle against painful events or look for ways to avoid them. They continue in this resigned state, even in later phases of their lives when they could avoid painful events

But how is the universe and human life really set up with regard to painful events? Is it more like having a switch with which we can make them stop or more like not having one? Is it more like being able to move from a part of a cage where we are exposed to electric shocks to another part where we aren’t?

The kinds of painful events human beings outside of experimental settings are exposed to are more diverse than electric shocks. And there are other things we can aim for in life than the avoidance of pain. What if the painful events are on the path to a greater good that makes them worthwhile? (To be fair to Seligman, he fully recognises that purpose, meaning, pursuing a greater good are key to happiness. In that he seems to have left the dog experiments well behind.)

Another experiment, more of a “thought experiment,” comparing a dog’s life to that a human being’s, stems from around 2000 years before Seligman. It’s that of an ancient Greek Stoic philosopher who says that a person’s relationship to fate is like the relationship between a dog strapped to a cart and his master. The master will get the dog to pull the cart from A to B. It’s the dog’s choice whether he goes willingly, or whether he gets beaten by the master every bit of the way.

Note how the assumptions about man’s (and dog’s) ability to avoid pain are different in this example from the assumptions in Seligman’s experimental set up. By necessity, we have to undergo the experiences predestined for us. ( How painful they are depends not so much on our efforts to avoid them. Quite the opposite – the ride becomes less unpleasant if we adjust our mental attitude to undergoing them willingly.

Clearly the strength of our belief in our ability to avoid events that are bad for us and move towards those that are good for us influences how hard we try. So a belief that we can change things for the better and that some events are under our control can be a positive thing to have.

What I’m less sure about at the moment is what happens to hopeful people when it turns out that events really aren’t under their control. (Making the assumption that such events are an inescapable feature of the human condition in this universe.) Do more realistic people then fare better – in that they waste less time struggling unsuccessfully? (Think about the fact that in the universe Richter creates for them all the rats drown in the end.) Or in that they are better, like the Stoic dog, at embracing the journey and submitting to it, thus at least not compounding the pain of painful events with the pain from thinking that things should be otherwise and struggling against them.

Beliefs about Ourselves

In the previous post we looked at a number of scenarios where there is a link between having correct beliefs and a successful outcome. Success in these context meant reacting reasonably to a perceived threat, or it meant achieving a simple goal like catching a train in order to get to work. In any case the interactions with the world and the beliefs involved were relatively simple and immediate. The number of objects and beliefs in play were small.

It appears to me though that the relationship between correct beliefs and successful outcomes is also true for more complex projects, say learning a language or climbing a mountain. In order to learn French, I need to be correct in my beliefs that the vocabulary and grammar I am learning is French. If I am learning Italian words instead, believing that they are French, my project to learn French is doomed. To climb a mountain, I need correct beliefs about geography, weather conditions, the required climbing gear and many other factors, in order to succeed.

Then there is also a question of luck. Luck – good or bad – can mess up the relationship between beliefs and outcomes. Let’s assume that I incorrectly believe that there is a train at 8.20am and therefore go to the station exactly for that time. Actually, I’m wrong. There is a train at 8.15am. On any other day, I would have missed it. But today, as luck would have it, the train is delayed by five minutes so I catch it. The successful outcome can’t be said to have related to any correct belief of mine. Or say I’ve prepared and trained conscientiously to climb a mountain, studied the different routes and ensured that I have the right levels of fitness and the required equipment, but on the day a freak change in weather, totally unpredicted by the forecasters, forces me to turn around before reaching the summit. Despite my correct beliefs, bad luck has prevented a successful outcome.

So far the examples we’ve looked at related to beliefs about things and the way the world is organised. But there is a class of beliefs that is said to be particularly relevant to achieving successful outcomes from our own activities. That’s the class of beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world. That makes sense: successful outcomes are ultimately about how a number of variables turn out to be arranged. And one or more of those variables are bound to concern the people interacting with the world. In the mountaineering example, success may depend on my assessment of my mountaineering skills and what I (correctly or incorrectly) believe about my ability to get to the peak in inclement weather conditions.

The psychologist Carol Dweck talks about this as a “tradition in psychology that shows the power of people’s beliefs.” The beliefs she is interested in are people’s beliefs about their own abilities and their own potential to extend these abilities. She distinguishes between the “fixed mindset” in which people believe that traits such as intelligence are given and static and that challenges are points at which their qualities are  assessed and proven on the one hand, and the “growth mindset” in which people believe that challenges are there to be overcome, that failures are opportunities to learn and that, of course, intelligence and ability can be acquired and extended on the other hand. Dweck isn’t particularly interested in which of these mindsets is true but in the effects of believing in the components of the one or the other.

And the pay-offs in having a growth mindset – that is to say a certain set of beliefs about oneself – are great. People with a growth mindset are more likely to stay on difficult tasks for longer, more likely to succeed at tasks, but also generally more likely to have better outcomes on a range of things such as health and relationships.

Another area where beliefs about ourselves matter is the area of so-called “learned helplessness” and its counterpart “learned optimism.” Psychologists distinguish three areas of belief that are relevant: permanence, pervasiveness and hope.

In the words of Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, the permanence belief looks like this:

“People who give up easily believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent – the bad events will persist, are always going to affect their lives. People who resist helplessness believe the causes of bad events are temporary.”

So people with a permanent (pessimistic) belief system might think “I’m all washed up,” while someone with a temporary (optimistic) outlook might say “Right now I’m exhausted.”

Pervasiveness is about whether we have universal or specific beliefs and the extent to which we believe the causes of good or bad events affect all areas of our lives, or are specific.

Having hope is about finding permanent and universal causes for good events and temporary as well as specific ones for bad events. So for example to think “I’m talented” rather than “I was lucky this time” if something goes well. Or “I was a bit distracted that morning” rather than “I’m just stupid.”

Seligman, like Dweck, is more interested in the effects of holding those kinds of beliefs, than their relation to the truth. He writes:

“Sometimes the consequences of holding a belief matter more than its truth. When you break your diet, the response ‘I’m a total glutton’ is a recipe for letting go of your diet completely. Some people get very upset when the world shows itself not to be fair. We can sympathise with the sentiment, but the belief itself may cause more grief than its worth. What good will it do me to dwell on the belief that the world should be fair?”

But I’m wondering whether the relationship between beliefs and outcomes that we observed in the previous post isn’t somehow relevant here too. That would mean that the beliefs at the core of a “growth mindset,” that intelligence and capability can be expanded, or the beliefs at the centre of “learned optimism,” that the causes of personal failure are temporary and specific, are correct beliefs and therefore more conducive to positive outcomes due to an interaction between the belief and what is out there in the world.

I’ll want to look at this more in the next post.

 

Useful Concepts -#14- Belonging Gently

A Blog Post for Nihal’s 5th Birthday

Dear Nihal – Happy birthday!

A famous literary critic once said that there was “no more sombre enemy of great art than the pram in the hall.” A blog isn’t great art. This stuff isn’t literature. But it’s funny that I felt more motivated and able to write things down after you were born. Probably that’s because there are certain things I would like you to know when you’re old enough to read and understand them. Or at least certain things of which I would like you to know that your father once thought them.

Unlike with some of my other blog posts I won’t quote lots of books at you here. These are just some thoughts of mine. I always thought I had a very diverse background as far as nationalities, ethnicities and religions go: I was born in Israel, brought up in Switzerland and now live in England. Go back far enough into my (your) family background you’ll find Jews from Switzerland and all over Europe, as well as non-practising Christians or atheists of Roman-Catholic and Anglican backgrounds, Italians who emigrated to London, an English line and probably more. But you have even more diversity on your side. On your mother’s side you also have Sikhs from the Punjab, and some who came to London via Kenya. And even if you didn’t have all of that diversity already in you, you still have access to an amazing range of cultures, ethnicities, religious experiences because that’s the world you live in. London, where you’re growing up is one of the more open-minded, multi-cultural and diverse places in the world and I hope that it won’t close in on itself during your lifetime.

And what I wanted to recommend to you – though I know that you will come to your own conclusions – is to hold as much as you can of your own and of that wider diversity close and dear. Belonging gently – never fiercely, desperately or too seriously – to as much of it as you can. I found that at times I tried to impersonate one of the many strands of my identity too strongly at the cost of others and I found that that was never particularly successful. There were times, for example, when I jokingly said that my career ambition was to become a miracle working rabbi (not like Jesus, but like the orthodox guys who were prevalent in Eastern Europe some centuries ago) and there were times I just wanted to be seen as being totally English and hated it when people suggested I had some kind of foreign accent or asked where my name came from. I was about as likely to succeed in either ambition – that is to say, not at all – and I now think these ambitions to be one thing instead of being many things were misguided. Because trying to be purely one thing with too much orthodoxy, clinging too much to an identity, means excluding any other identities that you can have. And there are things of value, sources of energy, and potential for insights in all of them.

It might be tempting then to go further and give up on belonging to any particular background: adopt the citizenship of cosmopolitanism and the religion of spirituality without religion. But it’s difficult to find the culture and national character of the citizens of the world. And it’s hard to work out the rites, rituals, holidays, beliefs and prayers of the merely spiritual. And these things matter, even if only as a backdrop of traditions from which to renew things or even to rebel against.

That’s why I suggest a concept of “belonging gently.” Belong to your backgrounds, adopt some new things to belong to, if you like, but embrace them all at the same time. Don’t belong too radically just to one, never be too proud of one strand, never cling too desperately to any one of them. If you can, be happy to belong to things, but also be happy, when it’s called for, to be a little bit of an outsider. It is healthy, now and then, to be able to look at what you belong to from a different perspective, a little bit from the outside, having taken a step away or adopted a different way of looking at it. You can then ask yourself questions like “does all of this represent all of me? Which parts of it am I happy to belong to? Which can I do without?”

None of this, by the way, is to say that you should be commitment phobic. Commit fully to people, to ideas, to cultures, if you like. Committing is about what you give of yourself. Belonging is about the hold that you allow something to have on you. This may be complicate. I’ll try to illustrate it by way of an example: It makes me laugh how you five-year-olds can say “today, so-and-so was my friend” and then the next day “today, so-and-so wasn’t my friend.” That’s a funny concept of friendship that comes and goes with each day. Friendship by definition implies a more enduring commitment, even if someone decides not to play with you for a day, or even a series of days. And you need those commitments to friendships with other people for a happy life. But you don’t need to want to belong so strongly to a group of “friends” that you’d do anything – exclude others, do things you know to be silly – in order to remain a part of it.

So yes, commit firmly and belong gently. Maybe that works.

Anyway, perhaps this getting all too serious. Maybe by the time you can read and understand this, you’ll have found out for yourself what works. Or I will have changed my mind about these things again. For now have a happy birthday, blow out candles, eat cake, unwrap presents and enjoy yourself!

Useful Concepts -#13- Going With the Flow

When I was much younger, maybe in my teens, I adopted “go with the flow” as a motto and as a way of life. For me it didn’t mean just following others or not having any idea what I wanted to do. It meant not having too clear a plan, for example going to the train station knowing that there would be a train reasonably soon, rather than going with a particular itinerary in mind. Or walking around in the right area of town trusting that I would find the place I needed to find, rather than having the location clearly mapped out in my mind.

This may have led to me spending too much time waiting at train stations, or asking perfect strangers for directions more frequently than may be respectable. Less kind observers may also have taken my “go with the flow” attitude for a rationalisation of a certain lack of personal organisation or an overly intellectual excuse for a poor sense of direction. But it did insure me against getting too stressed if stuff didn’t go to plan. (Not having a specific itinerary in mind happened to be particularly useful when I became a user of English trains, rather than Swiss ones.)

Speaking of rationalisations and over-intellectualising things, it’s fair to say that “going with the flow” has pretty much the purest intellectual and philosophical ancestry of any useful concept. Ever since Thales of Miletus, one of the first Greek philosophers, thought that water was the primal substance and Pythagoras believed that souls flow from one incarnation to the next, ideas of flux were in philosophical play. But it was Heraclitus of Ephesus who declared that everything flows.  And in a way this idea that beyond our reality, where things seem hard and fast and where we assume a certain amount of stability, there is a world in flow, flux, change, and motion is perhaps the original philosophical stance. It is even possible that Heraclitus taught that if everything is in flux then we – our selves – are also impermanent. We only have fragments of his teachings preserved in the writings of later philosophers, often out of context, misquoted or misunderstood. But his tendency to compare the flux of everything to the flow of a river is clear. He says people can’t step into the same river twice. And when this is quoted, there sometimes is a suggestion that those who step into the river aren’t the same either on the two occasions. If we allow for Heraclitus’ concept of “psyche” to stand for a kind of concept of self, it is clear that Heraclitus regarded it as something we could never fully get a grasp of ourselves.

Heraclitus is credited with this original vision of the fleeting world. But what consequences does flux have for our lives? What does it mean for the way we are, that everything, even our own selves are in flux? Perhaps surprisingly the real masters of flux for me, because they aim to address some of these questions, are the Stoics. It was probably the founder of that philosophical school, Zeno of Citium, who declared that a happy life was one that “flowed smoothly.” (And by  the way, while we’re talking about Ancient Greek or “Western” philosophy, Thales’ and Heraclitus’ hometowns of Miletus and Ephesus were in an area called Asia Minor, today Turkey, whereas Zeno’s hometown of Citium is in today’s Cyprus, so far East that it’s more or less equidistant between London and Mumbai.)

The word the Stoics used for the “smooth flow” of life is “eurhoia,” a term that is also used in ancient Greek for water that flows clearly without obstacles, and for speech that flows well with a coherent argument. But what does it mean for a life to flow smoothly? It means arranging our life in such a way that the flow of the self moves with the flow of everything else. For the Stoics the flow of everything was not just a random movement of atoms in a chaotic universe but it was a pre-determined course of events guided by fate. Occasionally they metaphorically describe Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods, as the personification of that destiny, at other times it is a divine sequence of cause and effect, represented by the goddess Heimarmene, or just the nature of things. Bringing our own actions, but also our emotions, into line with that natural flow of things that happen in the world, is key to the good life and virtuous life.

One Stoic philosopher compares the human condition guided by destiny to the situation of a dog pulling a cart. The dog’s master will make the dog pull the cart from A to B. The dog may take the attitude that it doesn’t want to pull the cart from A to B. It may try going elsewhere, or it may try to shake off the cart. Then it will be beaten by the master all the way from A to B. It will be an unpleasant experience but the outcome will be that the dog pulls the cart from A to B. Or it can willingly get on with the task and get from A to B without being beaten, a smooth journey. That sounds a bit unfriendly, but there are other ways of putting it. Here’s Diogenes Laertius, the third century biographer of Greek philosophers summarising the teachings of the Stoic, Chrysippus:

“Again, ‘to live according to virtue’ is equivalent to living according to the experience of events which occur by nature, as Chrysippus says […]. For our natures are parts of the nature of the universe. Therefore, the goal becomes ‘to live consistently with nature,’ i.e., according to one’s own nature and that of the universe, doing nothing which is forbidden by the common law, which is right reason, penetrating all things, being the same as Zeus, who is the leader of the administration of things. And this itself is the virtue of the happy man and a smooth flow of life, whenever all things are done according to the harmony of the daimon in each of us with the will of the administrator of the universe.”

The aspect of this that seems most modern about this is the idea of living in accordance with one’s own nature. “The daimon within us” is not a demon, but the kind of minor divinity of the self who can aim to get along with Zeus, the controller of the universe. And this idea of being true to oneself – living in line with our own nature – is expressed in other, practical ways. Cicero, summarising the teachings of the Stoics for the Romans, gives an example (also alluding to the use of “eurhoia” in rhetorics as smoothly flowing speech which would have been important for him, the master orator) :

If anything at all is fitting, then nothing is more fitting than a smooth flow of life as a whole and of individual actions; and you cannot preserve this if you neglect your own nature and imitate that of other people. For just as we should employ the style of speech that is familiar to us to avoid being quite justifiably ridiculed like certain people who drop in Greek words all over the place, so too we should not admit any inconsistency into our actions and our general way of life…

None of this means that we should lazily submit to the thought that it’s just our fate to have certain things happen to us, or it’s just our nature that we are a certain way. The dog still has to pull the cart. It is doing hard work – happily – to get where the master wants it to go. And the inner “daimon” is managing the flow of the self, as a microcosm of the flow of the universe managed by Zeus. That self isn’t fixed. It is in movement. It just flows more smoothly and pleasantly when it goes with the flow of overall destiny.

 

 

Useful Concepts – #12 – Happiness Again

The other day I met up with a former colleague. I say “former colleague” but maybe “friend” would be a better word. Not that he’s a close friend. I know very little about what goes on in his life. But I’ve worked with him for long enough to know his strengths and for him to know my weaknesses, our views of the world overlap to a significant enough extent and we can tap into each other’s sense of humour easily enough. He’s one of those people who are very good at being rude (honest) to me but with enough underlying sarcasm and politeness that it’s easy to take. So  I wasn’t surprised that he suggested somehow that I probably spend too much time blogging and promoting my blog on social media.

I gave my usual explanation, that I just wanted to get into a regular habit of writing, that I’ve spent too much time reading and thinking and not enough writing, and so on. He responded: “Really? I just thought you wanted to help.” As I couldn’t work out whether he was making fun of me or whether he was getting at the truth, I decided he was probably doing both. (Who says Socratic irony is dead?). “Help make the world a better place?” I asked. He confirmed that that was indeed his take on what I was trying to do. We both smirked at the hopeless idealism and immodest ambition in that alleged motive and I changed the subject.

But yes, I guess in truth I would like to help. Ideally, if I’m honest, I would like each of my little blog posts to be a “transformational object” for its readers. And one of the ways I would like to help is by getting at happiness and what that means for human beings. It was probably no coincidence that my first post was on the subject of happiness. There was a time when I was obsessed with the concept and given my personality type and preferences that meant getting at it intellectually rather than through practice, trial and error. I first got into it by studying ethics and learning that there are lines of inquiry that are not so just about working out what the right actions would be in given situations, but about having a vision of the good life for human agents and giving them a way to navigate their way through a hazardous world where much is out of their control.

A bit later I worked as a civil servant on sustainable development. And as it happened, this work again brought me back to my obsession with happiness, wellbeing, the good life, or quality of life. (Happiness was given other names in order to make it respectable for government to show an interest in it.) I was able to play a minor role in developing government indicators of wellbeing, funding research of people like Professor Paul Dolan who has since published his bestselling “Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life” and participating a bit (always at a slight distance as a grey-suited civil servant)  in Professor Tim Jackson’s work for the Sustainable Development Commission which led to his classic “Prosperity without Growth: Foundations for the Economy of Tomorrow.” (How little he enjoyed his interaction with government is the subject of a new preface to the second edition.)

In the early part of the millennium there was a bit of a happiness boom driven by behavioural economics and positive psychology. And a part of why I was so angry and upset about the retreat of philosophy from the public sphere was that I felt that it was giving up on its tradition of having meaningful things to say to people about the important things in life and the big questions.

I remember for example being at a philosophy seminar where the lecturing philosopher described a psychological experiments that measured what activities contributed to people’s happiness. He described how people were given a pager that would send them a signal at random times of the day, at which point they were asked to record the activity they were engaged in and how happy they felt on a scale of one to ten. The lecturer’s voice trembled in anticipation of how amused his audience would be at this experimental set-up. And he was richly rewarded with sniggers from an audience full of senior academics.

Of course there is plenty that a philosopher could question about this, to give just a small number of questions as an example:

  • isn’t happiness too multi-dimensional to just rate it with a simple number?
  • how does someone’s happiness in the moment relate to their overall happiness in life or their evaluation of their happiness from a later point in time, say from their deathbed?
  • is an individual’s assessment of their happiness reliable or could they be deluded?
  • how do we deal with the fact that this experiment will only give us statistical correlations between happiness and activities, rather than causal explanations?
  • isn’t this idea of using technology to ask real people questions about things they do in everyday life a bit vulgar? Hadn’t we better rely on literature and a bit of thinking undertaken in the library?

But at the same time you could read things in philosophical literature that showed that philosophers could have done well to engage a bit more seriously with this kind of research. For example, in a book that I love and hold as one of the great works of philosophy, Rosalind Hursthouse relies on the fact that it is obvious to an outside observer whether we are enjoying ourselves. She writes:

“I need a shorthand description for the indications of enjoyment – that things are done with zest and enthusiasm, anticipated and recalled in certain tones of voice with certain facial expressions, and in a certain vocabulary, and so on – so I shall call them `the smile factor’.”

Relying on outside sings of enjoyment to draw conclusions on an inner state (the “smile factor”) is a tricky business but Hursthouse is not wrong to do so. It is similar to the idea that our subjective estimation of our happiness would mirror the judgement of other people as to how happy we are and would correspond to something real, namely our happiness. But while Hursthouse just uses a list of indications of enjoyment and assumes that they are as accessible to ourselves as they are to others, the economists and psychologists have done their homework and collected evidence: They undertook studies, for example, where they asked an individual to rate his happiness on a numeric scale. They then asked people close to that individual to rate his happiness. The ratings of the individual matched the rating of that individual’s happiness given by their friends reliably.

Or Professor James Griffin proposes a list of things that one might want in one’s life: accomplishment, the components of human life (autonomy, liberty, limbs and senses that work, the minimum material goods to keep body and soul together, etc.), understanding, enjoyment, deep personal relations. I’m sure I was at a lecture where Professor Griffin said that his list may show a slight bias to the things that academics might value but he thought it was pretty comprehensive. We could rely on such lists much more, if we compared them with the factors that look important when we look at studies of the wellbeing of tens of thousands of people world-wide.

On the other hand, it is depressing to read in Professor Lord Layard’s great and influential book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science dismissals of Aristotle of this kind:

“It differs, for example, from the approach taken by Aristotle and his many followers. Aristotle believed that the object of life was eudaimonia, or a type of happiness associated with virtuous conduct and philosophic reflection.”

“For Aristotle, ethical behaviour was largely a matter of good habits, which create discomfort when you behave badly and reinforcement when you behave well.”

“However Aristotle made one serious mistake. He included in his concept of happiness only that happiness which is associated with a life of virtue (including contemplation). This was to confuse the means with the end. Virtue may be the means to create a happy society, but the end is the greatest happiness and the least misery in the society. And much of happiness comes and should come from purely private pleasures. Is painting virtuous, or playing the piano to yourself, or enjoying bingo? Virtue doesn’t seem the right word to describe these things.”

Any serious engagement with philosophy could have cleared up some of the false assumptions here. For example the misunderstanding that, for Aristotle, happiness (eudaimonia) results as a consequence of virtuous actions, rather than that virtuous actions and having virtuous character traits are constituent parts of human flourishing. Aristotle wouldn’t have a problem with the idea that bingo (played virtuously) could contribute to the happiness of human beings. Or for an other example, the idea that habits which create comfort and discomfort in response to behaviour are the mechanics that links virtues to happiness. Virtues for Aristotle are more than a question of good habits and good behaviour. They are more like character traits that govern emotions, reliable and stable ways of acting, sensitivities, reasoning and so on. Nor is Aristotle’s happiness a sum total of momentary comforts and discomforts, but a notion related to the characteristically good, flourishing life for human beings.

Would there be a difference if Layard (whose work has been influential in shifting public policy and government spending priorities) had paid more attention to Aristotle, rather than dismissing him on flimsy grounds? I don’t know. But the vast array of studies that have found correlations between various activities and subjective ratings of happiness of the people who undertake them could be enriched. Correlations have been found for example between happiness and all three of the following: commuting to work for a shorter time rather than a longer time, being married, and attending church regularly. It seems to me that if you want to move from mere correlation to causation, it will be important to ask, for example, how commuters could make better use of their time commuting to engage in valuable activities, rather than just waste it. Or you need to ask yourself whether it is being in possession of a marriage certificate that makes married people happier, or whether it could be something about their ability to enter into deep personal relationships and long-term commitments (things that unmarried people can cultivate in different ways too, by the way). And you have to ask yourself whether it is being in a church at certain times that is making people happy, or the social aspects, putting time aside to reflect on the human condition in its relation to the divine, or enjoying beautiful music and language. Otherwise you might end up prescribing the wrong things for happiness (get a different job closer to home, even if your current job gives you a great sense of purpose, get married even if you’re not sure it’s for you, go to church) and miss the point.

So yes, I will hopefully write a bit more about happiness. (Looking back it looks like all of my blog posts so far are in some way about happiness.) And in some way or other I hope we will get at its nature, or at least stay close to it.

Useful Concepts – #11 – Feelings Have Thoughts Too!

Philosophers have not gained a reputation for being greatly in touch with their feelings. “Being philosophical” about something means rationally processing it without getting too swayed by emotions.

But amongst the philosophers, it is the Stoics who are particularly thought to be unemotional. They are sometimes seem as not quite human, somewhat robotic, in their  ambition to maintain equanimity in the face of events that would, in normal people, cause great emotion, positive or negative.

And indeed the Stoics taught that things like riches or poverty, health or illness, our relationships with loved ones, even life or death, are outside of our control and so we shouldn’t consider them to be too important. They are merely indifferent items. The only things that matter are our inner qualities or our virtuous character. For the kind of calm state of mind that could be achieved by applying that kind of thinking to life, they have the image of the flat undisturbed sea on a windless day (“galene” in Ancient Greek).

So it may come as a surprise that Martha Nussbaum – with her 57 honorary degrees and 18 academic awards and prizes a rockstar of the philosophical world – has revived the Stoic teachings on emotions to create a highly persuasive account of what emotions are, and, of course, a very useful concept. That account also smashes the traditional way of thinking of thought and feeling as diametrically opposed.

Unlike some philosophical writing, which can be technical, dry and removed from life as we know it, Martha Nussbaum’s book about the emotions starts with a heart-rending biographical account of how she heard of the death of her mother and the days that followed. It also manages to deal with some things that most people contemplate quietly within themselves, such as why she and her sister grieved in different ways, and so on. All in the service of making philosophical points.

The basic point of Nussbaum’s so-called neo-Stoic account of the emotions is that emotions are basically judgements we make about things that are important to our own well-being, or flourishing. In evaluating external things, things outside of our control, as important to our well-being we also acknowledge our lack of self-sufficiency.

The idea that emotions may actually be evaluative judgements seems at first glance unlikely for a number of reasons:

1.) Emotions have urgency and “heat” to them, unlike the rational thought processes that more normally lead to judgements.

2.) Emotions tend to overcome us. We are passive with regard to them, rather than actively pursuing a thought process that would lead to a judgement.

3.) The ability of emotions to “dismember the self” (in Nussbaum’s words) when thoughts are normally thought to be (more or less) under our control.

Let’s take these objections in turn with Nussbaum’s explanation:

1.) Urgency and heat: Emotions feel urgent because they are judgements about things we think are important to our wellbeing and flourishing. They are not just any kind of judgment, but judgements that are central to our most valued attachments, projects and goals. Fear is the emotion where we judge something central to our wellbeing to be threatened. Sadness is the emotion where we judge something central to our wellbeing to be lost. Joy is the emotion where we judge it to be available. And so on. Because of their connection to our view of what would be a good life for us, they create urgency.

2.) Our passivity regarding emotions: This comes from the fact that emotions are judgements about objects in which we are invested but which are outside of our control. (There are echoes here of the Stoic view that nothing apart from our character is under our control.) Things happen. We can’t help but notice that they happen and make the relevant judgements about how they affect our flourishing.

3.) The self being torn apart: Quoting Nussbaum:

“the reason why in some emotional experiences the self feels torn apart (and in happier experiences filled with a marvellous sense of wholeness) is, once again, that these are transactions with a world about which we care deeply, a world that can complete us or tear us apart. No view that makes the emotion like a physical object hitting us can do justice to the way the world enters into the self in emotion, with enormous power to wound or to heal. For it enters in a cognitive way, in our perceptions and beliefs about what matters. Not just an arm or a leg, but a sense of life, gets  the shock or grief.

Insofar then, as we might sometimes be more affected or more aware of the emotions we are feeling than the judgements we are making, emotions then – in this neo-Stoic view – can also serve as a guide to a greater understanding of our thought processes and our conception of the good life for ourselves. It is a rewarding exercise, in times when we feel emotional, to try to unearth the evaluative judgement about our sense of flourishing and wellbeing at the core of the emotion. Stopping to ask “what judgement about my wellbeing am I making that is inherent in feeling happy, sad, fearful, confident right now?” may seem a bit overly Stoic, but it works and can be useful.

As a postscript for those who enjoyed the examples of (mis-)adventures of intellectuals commenting on tennis players in my previous post about Roger Federer, in researching this post, I found another great example from Martha Nussbaum:

“Two night ago, I went to bed thinking that Todd Martin had been knocked out of the U. S. Open (since he had lost the first two sets to a tough opponent.) I felt a little sad. When I woke up, I found out that he had won in five sets. I saw him on TV dancing around the court, and I felt a surge of joy. But of course it was a trivial sorrow and a trivial joy. While one watches a tennis match, one is intensely focused on the athlete one likes, and so an emotion can develop as one temporarily comes to think the match very important – and perhaps also identifies with the aging Martin, with his graying temples, so like one’s own if one did not dye one’s hair. But when normal life resumes, the evaluation resumes its normal low level. Todd Martin just isn’t a very important part of my life.