“Oh my gosh, I see what my mistake was all along. I believed that there was an invisible entity within me, an agent that truly had control over the ship. And when I came to feel that this didn’t exist, it was like a gigantic knot finally came undone.”
This is a fairly raw edit of the research I’ve been engaged in for the past three years (or perhaps for my entire life: I’m not sure which is truer). Please forgive the hastily thrown together nature of the piece. I’m attempting to organise my work and it is a painful and drawn out process, since I have reams of almost identical documents stored in no particular order in different files. Somehow, I have to draw them all (and read and learn much more about some of the ideas I’m attempting to elucidate) into a coherent whole and eventually, into a thesis. One way I thought I might usefully do this is by uploading precis versions onto this site. Here’s the first stab.
The practice of philosophy suggests that something has to be internalised, a devotion to the idea of the truth and its exposition but also the activity involved in bringing that exposition to light through activity. What seems to me to be missing in the current practice of philosophy is precisely this work to internalise, to develop the attitude towards the self that is necessary, in parallel to any critical analysis of the activities and ideas of others, if there is to be any authenticity to the process.
How can there be respect for a discipline within which individuals expend enormous energy in intricately laying out an argument for a certain set of actions if the individuals involved don’t, themselves, follow up with actions that accord with their arguments? There are notable exceptions, of course: one is the utilitarian philosopher, Peter Singer, who acts out his belief that all sentient beings are owed as much moral consideration as we can afford to give them (without impinging on our own wellbeing) with a website, no less (www.thelifeyoucansave.com) that, (ironically, perhaps, given his fame for propounding the view that we have moral obligations to non-human animals) advocates the eradication of human poverty. He is in a minority, though. Most moral philosophers are moral in theory only. Eric Schwitzgebel has done extensive research that demonstrates the hypocrisy of moral philosophers. Dan Ariely has pointed out that we lack rationality when it comes to dealing with difficult (and especially painful) decisions. We would much rather avoid the issue, or get it over with. Yet his research has shown that tackling painful issues (specifically we are talking about physical pain here, but I think we can justify extending this to emotional discomfort) is more effective using some techniques (little by little) than others (all at once). Finally, Naseem Taleb has written extensively on irrationalism and on how the paradigm through which we understand a situation (in his case, the Gaussian bell curve) creates a series of expectations in relation to that situation (in the case he focusses on, the economic crash of 2008, and more recently). But he also offers a number of useful ideas for tackling this irrationality, through clearing away the concepts and beliefs that tie us to particular paradigms. What all these researchers are talking about is seeing reality as it is, or at least letting go of some of the wrong assumptions about reality that tie us into a reaction that is detrimental to our own survival chances. They are also talking about acting upon that understanding.
Philosophy in the global North developed this dichotomy between theory and practice, but philosophies in other parts of the world did not. In fact, the idea that something might be more than a philosophy, or a way of understanding, and become a way of life, is really the distinction between religion and science. To act on one’s philosophical beliefs was to take a leap of faith from the scepticism that suggests that all knowledge is potentially falsifiable, to the commitment that enough is known to merit action as confirmation of one’s findings. Living according to some set of principles risked the possibility that one might well be proven wrong, and as more knowledge is disseminated, through more research and more experimentation, more opportunities for falsification occur. So living according to a set of principles risks living a sham life. The research led me to question ideological justifications for living. What might replace them, though? Could pragmatism offer enough impetus for action and avoid being reduced to mere self-interest, a sure-fire recipe for exacerbating the global ecological crisis?
In a sense, my philosophical approach has always been out of step with contemporary attitudes in the global North. While I’ve never been a utilitarian (or perhaps only for a brief period in the nineteen eighties) I’m closer to Singer and Jonathan Glover in the concern to live according to the current understanding that research has taken me to than I am to the philosophers who have segregated their lives into professional philosophising and personal interests.
Much of the research that particularly interested me, alongside the notion that there were deep discrepancies between the stated aims of societies (to serve the needs of their members) and their actual workings, was the notion of autonomy. I became fascinated by the ideas of learned helplessness. There was no doubt in my mind that I had been institutionalised from a young age (I went to a boarding school!), but the act of reflecting upon that process of institutionalisation very slowly and very gradually began to unravel its hold on me. This is an ongoing process but it at least demonstrated that while autonomy is not a given (I don’t actually believe in free will in any traditional sense) the act of reflection itself creates another layer of biological feedback, and since no biological or natural system is mechanical, but all are natural processes, with all the flexibility that that implies, this reflection or observation itself changes the availability of different options for consideration, and so the possibilities for action.
What does this mean, then, and where does it leave us? I think it leaves us open to the possibility that no one direction for human evolution is a given. There are trillions of variables. Consciousness does not give us free will but reflection alters the equilibrium and this, in a sense, creates options for altered response processes to come into play. The idea closely echoes the Zen notion of observing thoughts, and then observing the context of the thoughts, or creating more and more space, as though one was mentally stepping back to overview the thoughts, so that one can come to see thought chains and emotional chains of reactions as taking place within consciousness, but not as making up consciousness completely, because the ability to observe is itself a framework. This larger observing, listening framework creates the possiblity of considering the responses and reactions that create chains of thoughts or emotional reactions more loosely, as though that action did not have to create that reaction, or as though there could be less judgment, less harshness around the reaction. The space that this more forgiving, compassionate attitude creates itself creates the possibility that the reaction might not be the only possiblity. And so new feedback loops are formed. I have to say, very quickly, that I am very far from having perfected the skill of breaking these chains of reaction. But that is precisely the nature of a practice. Practice is both exercise, in the sense of developing the ability, and repetition, in the sense of doing the same thing over and over again. Philip Larkin, perhaps my favourite poet of all time, wrote something like, ‘it takes years to climb clear of wrong beginnings; some may never.’ (I hasten both to apologise to and to forgive my parents and others involved in shaping these initial reactions: this was simply a combination of events and conditions that they inadvertently fed into. I do not blame them, any more than I blame the weather, although it has taken me some time to realise that!). The process is both instantaneous (because it is a realisation, an insight) and tortuously slow. And yet it builds upon itself, like any practice.
What my research has shown, too, is that there is no reason that we have to resort to ideology for this approach to work. I said earlier that Philosophy in the global North classified itself as a science rather than a religion (ironically, given that every university in the global North (and possibly everywhere else) considers it to be a ‘Humanities’ subject, or, more generally, to fall under the classification, the Arts, rather than to be a Science) and this is correct, insofar as Philosophy uses what we call ‘the scientific method’. This is the great quality-quanitity divide, isn’t it? Arts are concerned with immeasurable values while sciences stick to data, to numbers, or symbols that represent numbers. Philosophy in the global South does not use the scientific method. It does, or at least it has, used a form of empiricism: the method of verification through experience. This is what has convinced Zen Buddhists that watching the fow of experience while seated still (sometimes for hours or days at a time) enables one to access a different state of being, to attain enlightenment, even. This different layer of experience is exactly equivalent to the experience that is available when we begin to reflect on the thought chains that link particular causes to particular effects in our minds (and ultimately, in our activity). Both approaches are non-dualistic: there is no division between the physical and the psychological realms. Both are simply aspects of the other, different ways of understanding the same stuff. Likewise, there is no division between the self and the other. It is convenient to consider the skin to be a boundary that encloses ‘me’. However, this boundary is so permeable by water, microbes, chemicals and so on, and is sustained by oxygen and nutrition that originates (and in large part returns to) beyond the skin, that we need only watch ‘Goldfinger’ to understand that sealing ourselves off at the skin is certain death.
One other thing that is central to this research and that is more controversial but, I think, that shows more clearly what sort of relationship we live in (and how to respond to that relationship) is something that I had considered independently, but then saw expressed by Scott Sampson. This is the idea that the second law of thermodynamics does not imply that living things are unnatural in any way (and certainly does not stand as an argument for the existence of God). Rather, the idea that matter can come together in self-organised bundles that interact and replicate in systematic, organised ways indicates only that first, the origin of life was likely to have been an accident of history. Things just started to react and replicate. Nothing about that implies that this was likely – molecules interact all the time, but molecules had to come together in just the right way at just the right time for replication to become a feature of their characters. But when this complex chain of events began to evolve, a partial driver of this evolution was the solar gradient: more complex, diverse energy flows created by more diverse, complex organic systems allowed for more energy to flow through systems and thus be dispersed more effectively. Thus, as biodiverse systems evolve into more and more complex relationships and arrangments, there is more opportunity for energy flows to disperse energy with more and more effectiveness. So biodiversity is an energy dispersal process. And we, as a part of that process, would do well to note that when we reduce biodiversity, we reduce the potential for systems and processes on our planet to disperse energy. This does not mean that we are wrong or immoral to increase the gradient – ‘wrong’ and ‘immoral’ depend entirely upon context and can mean diametrically opposed things in different ideologies. However, it does mean that the system of biodiverse and complex energy dispersal is a delicate one, and that when we interfere with it through pollution, climate change and so on, we are likely to see the system collapse, and energy flow in more dramatic ways since the dispersal will be on a steeper and steeper gradient. Since we depend upon it – the complex system – it is simply pragmatic to recognise and respond by considering what actions might allow us to live within, and maintain, rather than undermine, this system.
Being within this system of energy flows and matter cycles, being a part of systems and processes that unfold from the unknown, from what, in Zen, they call ’emptiness’, into emptiness, we can begin to come to a point of understanding that recognises that our ability to observe that all this gives us no special rights or privileges. We are simply emergently conscious (and we don’t even know what else is emergently conscious: consciousness might be very widely distributed indeed but we have no way of measuring it, since we have always understood it to be an exclusively human trait). Given our ignorance in this regard, and given the lack of control we must acknowledge that we have over the flow of energies that make us up, we can see that acting compassionately towards ourselves makes more sense than judging ourselves as having failed to act: whatever we have done so far, we have done what we could, given our level of understanding. This process is one we are embedded in without choice and our situation is fraught with difficulty. Compassion is a form of respect, a way of looking back. As an attitude, it allows us to see the flows of energy, like the flows of reactions in our emotions, as chains of cause and effect. However, the very effect of reflecting creates another layer of conscious reaction and that, in itself, creates other possibilities for action. Some of these possibilities are that we could make this conscious process of reflection more and more detached and impartial, while still maintaining compassion for ourselves and for the process. Detatchment gives more space around the probability that we will react according the the grooved patterns of anger, blame or fear. However, it takes practice.
One final thing about this research: this is not an Aristotelean rhetorical process where I try to prove that I am right and the other is wrong. Nor is this relativism. What it is is a way of approaching discussion that attempts to get the best out of all sides. There is some truth in nearly every philosophical and ideological position. Throwing out Peter Singer’s activism just because I’m not a ulititarian is the baby/bathwater fallacy. In a sense, the evolution and development of ideas is a lot like migrating geese: none of us has the whole picture (just as no goose has a perfect directional magnet – or its metaphorical equivalent). Each of us, with a bit of effort, can nudge the whole picture closer to a reflection of the way things are. We will never know how things are, in a deep sense, of course. Apart from anything else, no one can ever know what happens after death, or whether or not there’s a God. However, we can keep asking more and more questions about how the universe is, and do more research into the way we operate, and we can even do this with a view to developing our understanding of how to live, once we accept that there might be ways to live that better suit the state we’re in.
Paradoxically, there’s very little chance of the ideas I’m proposing catching on. Meme theory suggests that ideas compete for survival like genes but simple, replicable ideas will stand a much better chance of surviving than complex ideas. But I think this model has shortchanged us: genes don’t just survive through competition. Cooperation, it has been shown, is at least equally important. Likewise with memes, then: a meme can survive by outdoing all the other possibilities, or it can make alliances, show that it is important as a bridge between ideas. In a way, this is exactly what Zen is about as Sue Blackmore has already pointed out): it does not seek to compete with other religions. It simply exists as a possible way of approaching the question of how to live, and those who try it out (not all but many) become convinced through practice that a calmer, richer experience is available through the practices it offers. This research is not goal-orientated in the sense that there is nothing to suggest that human survival, or the maintenance of biodiversity, is necessarily any more beneficial to anything on the universal scale than its opposite. And yet it is hard to avoid the intiution that human survival is better than no survival and therefore, if they are somehow intertwined as I have suggested, that the survival of biodiverse systems is better than their destruction.