Showing posts with label Identity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Identity. Show all posts

Monday, November 20, 2023

Do clinical delusions have anything in common with a mythology mindset?

 


In my discussion of Steven Pinker’s book, Rationality, I referred to his observation that people tend to have a reality mindset in the world of immediate experience and a mythology mindset when discussing issues in the public sphere. Although that is an accurate observation about a general tendency, delusions are also fairly common in the world of immediate experience.

The delusions that most of us experience are fairly harmless. For example, it may not do you much harm to believe that you are happier than average, even if you aren’t. That common delusion may help to explain why so many people walk around with smiles on their faces.

For some unfortunate people, however, the world of immediate experience includes delusional beliefs that are symptomatic of mental ill-health. These are referred to as clinical delusions.


The question I ask above has been prompted by my reading of Lisa Bortolotti’s recent book, Why Delusions Matter. Lisa Bortolotti is a philosopher who specializes in the philosophy of the cognitive sciences, including issues relating to mental illness. She observes that there is a strong overlap between clinical and non-clinical delusional beliefs. The non-clinical delusional beliefs that she discusses include beliefs that Pinker would associate with a mythology mindset.

A conversation context

Bortolotti notes that in any discussion between two people, you have a speaker and an interpreter swapping roles as the conversation proceeds. The speaker says something and the interpreter listens, making inferences about the speaker’s beliefs, desires, feelings, hopes and intentions on the basis of the speaker’s words, facial expression, tone of voice, previous behaviour and so on.

Interpretation becomes challenging when the interpreter suspects that the speaker may be delusional. The interpreter rarely has the information needed to assess that the speaker’s beliefs are false, so falsity cannot be a necessary condition for attribution of delusionality.

Three elements are often involved when the interpreter judges the speaker to be delusional:

  • Implausibility: The interpreter finds the speaker’s beliefs to be implausible.
  • Unshakeability: Speakers do not give up their beliefs in the face of counterarguments and counterevidence.
  • Identity: The beliefs seem important to the image that speakers have of themselves.

Clinical delusions

Bortolotti offers what she describes as an “agency-in-context” model to explain clinical delusions. She explains:

“The adoption and maintenance of delusional beliefs are due to many factors combining aspects of who you are and what your story is (your genes, reasoning biases, personality, lack of scientific literacy, etc.) and aspects of how epistemic practices operate in the society where you live.”

The epistemic practices she refers to include what we learn at school about knowledge acquisition, and the stigma that makes it difficult for people with delusional beliefs to participate fully in public life.

There is no doubt that persecutory delusions are harmful to the speaker and others. They undermine the ability of speakers to respond appropriately to events, and often erode their relationships with others.

However, Lisa Bortolotti suggests that it is important for interpreters to understand that most delusions offer some benefits for speakers. Delusions “let speakers see the world as they want the world to be; make speakers feel important and interesting; or give meaning to speakers’ lives, configuring exciting missions for them to accomplish”.

Interpreters also need to understand that the underlying problems of speakers don’t disappear when they obtain insight about their delusions. They may become depressed when they approach reality without the filter of their delusional beliefs.

There is not much to be gained by attempting to reason with people whose beliefs are unshakeable. Bortolotti suggests that it is probably more productive for the interpreter and speaker to share stories rather than exchanging reasons for beliefs. Exchanging stories can show how delusional beliefs emerged as reactions to situations that were difficult to manage. While sharing stories, interpreters have opportunities “to practice curiosity and empathy in finding out more” about underlying problems.

Conspiracy delusions

From an interpreter’s viewpoint, a speaker’s beliefs about the existence of conspiracies often have similar characteristics to clinical delusions. They are implausible, unshakeable, and closely tied to the speaker’s self-image.

Bortolotti emphasizes that those who hold conspiracy delusions often claim to have special knowledge of events – they claim to be experts, or to know who the real experts are. Identifying as a member of a group is often also important. Non-members often refer to members of such groups in a derogatory way e.g. QAnon supporters and anti-vaxxers. However, people are often attracted to conspiracy delusions promoted by like-minded people whom they trust. The act of sharing a delusional story can be a signal of commitment to a particular group.

Comments

Lisa Bortolotti’s book has improved my understanding of delusions in a couple of different ways. First, it has given me a better appreciation that delusions offer some benefits to the people who hold them, and those benefits help to explain the unshakeability of delusional beliefs.

Second, viewing delusions within the context of a conversation between a speaker and an interpreter is helpful in drawing attention to the value judgements involved in assessing whether the speaker’s beliefs are delusional.

My main criticism of the book is that the author seems to me to be biased in favour of “the official version” of events, even though she acknowledges that contrary beliefs are sometimes vindicated. The most obvious example bias is her apparent reluctance to give credence to the possibility that Covid19 may have originated in a lab in Wuhan.

I am pleased that my reading of the book did not leave me with the impression that the author believes that it is delusional to have an unshakeable belief in the importance of the search for truth. In emphasizing that value judgements are involved in assessing whether beliefs are delusional, Lisa Bortolotti seems to me to be providing readers with a better understanding of the meaning attached to the concept of delusion in clinical and non-clinical settings, rather than casting doubt on the existence of reality.


Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Is Vipassana meditation consistent with self-acceptance?



Vipassana is an ancient form of meditation based on practice of equanimity in observation of physical sensations and thoughts. As people who practice Vipassana observe sensations arise and pass away, they experience a lessening of both aversion of unpleasant sensations, and of craving for pleasant sensations.  The Vipassana tradition has been kept alive since the time of the Buddha, and popularized over the last 50 years by S. N. Goenka, who died in 2013. The practice is taught in 10 day residential courses.

People who hold views that are incompatible with the Buddhist principle of anatta, or no self, are not excluded from attending Vipassana courses. I have practiced Vipassana meditation, with varying consistency, for about 25 years, and associate the practice with self-acceptance rather than loss of a sense of self. Moments of self-forgetfulness, accompanying feelings of goodwill towards other beings, could be described as quieting the ego rather than abandoning it. It seems to me that Scott Barry Kaufman may be on the right track in his suggestion that “those with the quietest ego defenses often have the strongest sense of self”. (See Transcend, p 204-5).

However, when Goenkaji was asked why he only spoke of the ego in negative terms, he replied:

“Now it seems to you that there must be an 'I' who feels, but after beginning to practice Vipassana, you will reach the stage where the ego dissolves. Then your question will disappear! For conventional purposes, yes, we cannot run away from using words like 'I' or 'mine' etc. But clinging to them, taking them as real in an ultimate sense will only bring suffering.”  

That raises interesting issues. In this article I will briefly discuss the concept of no-self, illustrate similarity between the practice of Vipassana and a psychologist’s approach to self-acceptance, consider how Vipassana meditation might be viewed from an Aristotelian perspective, and end with some observations about the nature of the inner game involved in acquiring equanimity and practical wisdom.

The No-self idea

In their book, Classical Indian Philosophy, Peter Adamson and Jonardon Ganeri note that the Buddha sought to differentiate his view from those who say that we are identical to our bodies and from those who say we have souls that lack connection to anything else. They write:

“To express his own view, the Buddha offered similes: a person is not like the thread running through a necklace of pearls, but like the flowing of a river or the flickering of a candle flame.”

The river metaphor captures the idea that to grasp on to feelings, perceptions, or mental fabrications of the self is as futile as it would be for a person to try to avoid being swept down a swiftly flowing river by grasping on to grasses etc. growing on the banks.

I am attracted to a different river metaphor which reconciles my observation that impermanence is pervasive with my inability to doubt my own existence, and perception of my “self” as having continuity (at least while I remain alive). I have written previously about Richard Campbell’s suggestion, in his book The Metaphysics of Emergence, that Plato may have misrepresented Heraclitus in claiming he said, “You cannot step into the same river twice”. Heraclites may have been trying to convey the insight that the river stays the same even though it consists of changing waters. Campbell suggests that rivers exemplify “that the continued existence of things depends on their continually changing”. It makes sense to understand consciousness as a flow, and to perceive ourselves as complex processing systems.

Self-acceptance

In explaining Vipassana meditation, Goenkaji emphasized that attempts to escape from misery by diverting the mind to another object did not provide lasting benefits. He explained:

“The object of meditation should not be an imaginary object, it should be reality—reality as it is. One has to work with whatever reality has manifested itself now, whatever one experiences within the framework of one's own body.”

It seems to me that the Vipassana approach of observing thoughts and sensations with equanimity has much in common with the approach to self-acceptance recommended by the psychologist, Nathaniel Branden, in The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem:

“At the most fundamental level, I accept myself. I accept the reality of my thoughts, even when I cannot endorse them and would not choose to act on them; I do not deny or disown them. I can accept my feelings and emotions without necessarily liking, approving of, or being controlled by them; I do not deny or disown them.” (p 163)

An Aristotelian perspective

It is clear from the passage quoted at the beginning of this article that Aristotle thought it inconceivable that a person could doubt his or her own existence.

However, Vipassana’s emphasis on equanimity as a desirable frame of mind has much in common with Aristotle’s view of temperance as a virtue. An equanimous person could be expected to be temperate in emotional expression – to be able to avoid excessive anger, fear etc. The techniques involved are also similar in respect of the emphasis placed on practice of the relevant frame of mind and associated behaviors.

As I see it, one possible difference between an equanimous person and a temperate person is that the latter would be less inclined to accept that there should be no craving. In accordance with Aristotle’s teaching, a temperate person could exercise his practical wisdom to crave the things he ought, to the extent he ought, as he ought, and when he ought.

Nevertheless, I have not found the practice of Vipassana meditation to be an obstacle to exercising practical wisdom to pursue personal goals enthusiastically. When I meditate conscientiously early in the morning that tends to promote clarity of thinking which serves me well later in the day.

The inner game

How is it that a person who lacks peace of mind (equanimity) can learn to observe troubling sensations and thoughts with equanimity? How can it be possible to adopt a frame of mind which requires the exercise of a quality that you perceive yourself to lack? It seems to me that the people who do such things must be drawing on inner resources that they didn’t fully realize that they had.

Tim Gallwey, the inner game guru, has helped many people to draw upon resources that they didn’t realize they had. Gallwey is recognized as a pioneer of sports psychology, and is the author of books applying inner game concepts to a range of activities including tennis, golf, work, and stress management. The aim of the inner game is to improve the internal dialogue that people carry around with them. For example, if an individual’s internal dialogue is infected by self-doubt, they can improve their performance in sport by observing what happens when they trust their unconscious minds to coordinate their muscles.

The general pattern of the inner game is to recognize that performance is being adversely affected by mental interference associated with false beliefs about one’s self – the lack of a desired quality – and then to observe what happens when that quality is expressed. People improve their performance as they discover qualities, or inner resources, that they didn’t know they had.  (Readers who want to know more about Tim Gallwey’s inner game approach may be interested to listen to a podcast I have prepared.)

The point that needs to be emphasized is that if we assert that we are inherently lacking in desired qualities (wisdom, temperance, integrity, courage, self-trust etc.) we are fooling ourselves. We all have potential to demonstrate qualities that we perceive to be lacking by asking ourselves what we would be thinking or doing if we believed that we possessed those qualities to a greater extent than at present.

So, I ask myself: If I was a wiser person, what would I be thinking right now? I am thinking that it would be wise to end this now and leave readers to contemplate their answers to that question. 

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Does the "Politics of Being" support progress?

 


“Politics of Being” is title of a recently published book by Thomas Legrand. The subtitle is “Wisdom and science for a new development paradigm”. The question I ask myself is whether Legrand’s views support progress as I defined the concept in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. Would widespread adoption of Legrand’s views enhance the growth of opportunities for individuals to obtain the basic goods of flourishing humans?

Before I purchased the book, I was aware that the author had shown wisdom by including this quote from Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel Lecture:

“A core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.”

That passage is actually quoted several times in the book and is sometimes accompanied by the preceding sentence in which Ostrom distances her approach from that of policy analysts who design institutions “to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes”. The passage I have quoted at the top of this article illustrates Ostrom’s optimistic view of the capacity of individuals to work together to devise solutions to collective action problems without help from governments.

The essence of Legrand’s line of argument is that the world is stuck in an obsolete development path and is in need of a new “wisdom-based approach to politics”.  I will discuss briefly what he perceives to be wrong with the current development path, before discussing some elements of the alternative path he advocates.

Perception of the problem

Legrand believes that the current development path is causing many problems. The world is on track for a climate change catastrophe. Economic development and increased life expectancy are not making people much happier in high-income countries. Many countries seem to be facing mental health crises. There has been a decline in interpersonal trust in many countries. Our current model of development is rooted in a set of values that are causing a civilization crisis. He writes:

“Our economic system not only destroys social ties and the environment but feeds on these destructions that create new market opportunities. It seeks to adapt humans to its own requirements rather than adapting itself to human needs. Based on fundamental misconceptions, this system can only perpetuate itself through ever more propaganda that feeds our disconnection from ourselves, our true needs, and ultimately, our apathy.”

I agree that all is not well with the world and share some of Legrand’s concerns. However, I am more optimistic than he is about climate change, and strongly disagree with his views on economics. Readers who are interested in my views should read Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

Being and Interbeing

Legrand argues that the new development model required is essentially spiritual. He views spiritual development as:

“the process by which we come closer to our true nature. From that connection, we naturally tend to manifest the highest qualities: wisdom, love, joy, peace etc., or simply the best or most authentic version of ourselves currently available!”

Legrand’s discussion of spiritual values includes chapters on life, happiness, love, peace, mindfulness, and light.

According to Legrand the new paradigm involves a transition from “having to being, which many believe means interbeing”. So, what is interbeing?

 “Interbeing is a term coined by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, which goes beyond interconnectedness to touch on the very nature of our being. It expresses the nature of reality based on the Buddhist teachings of interdependent co-arising (“that is because this is”), non-self, and impermanence”.

I see no problem accepting that everything is interdependent. Impermanence does seem pervasive (except in respect of fundamental values, virtues, and the highest qualities). But “non-self” poses problems. As I see it, self-awareness is a fundamental characteristic of the kind of thing (entity or system) that an individual human is.  Self-respect arises from self-awareness, and motivates respect for other people, and other living things. Respect is the foundation which makes love possible. By the way, do you know who it was who said “one should not hurt others if one loves oneself”? The answer is here.

At various points in the book Legrand recognizes that people have “higher selves” and “true selves”, so he seems to acknowledge that we should aim to purify our egos – to remove the biases, distortions, and attachments that tarnish our perceptions of our individual selves - rather than eliminate self-awareness. He provides a good summary of his view of “being” and of personal development in this passage:

“As a person, there is little chance that I get closer to my authentic being by defining a vision of who I am and trying to actualize it. On the contrary, I can discover who I am by freeing myself from predefined and limiting identities, purifying my intentions, character, and behaviors, and expressing the deepest yearning of my soul. This is a conscious, evolutionary process of emergence, informed but not bounded by the understanding I have of my essence, which is necessarily limited. The same is true for nations.”

The world would be a better place if more people adopted that as their personal development model. However, I was tempted to leave off the last sentence of the quoted passage. The idea that nations have “souls” seems to me to be collectivist nonsense.

Governance

The part of the book providing an agenda for action envisages a larger role for government than I had anticipated. For example, Legrand suggests that government efforts to promote early childhood education should start during pregnancy. He also suggests that governments should actively promote a healthy diet. Even followers of Elinor Ostrom can sometimes find it difficult to remember to avoid adopting an overly pessimistic view of what people can achieve without government guidance.

I agree with Legrand that it is na├»ve for people to believe that “all it takes to improve our societies is to secure a majority of voters for their ideas, especially when they engender polarization”. Political leaders have no hope of implementing lasting reforms unless they can foster broad community support for them. That usually means avoiding politicization of the issues. (As an aside, one of the inconvenient truths about politics is that Al Gore’s involvement in support of U.S. action to mitigate climate change provided a focus for Republican opposition to such policies.)

The book contains interesting proposals to enact the “politics of being” in political institutions. Legrand suggests that each nation should establish a “wisdom council” to preside over discussions about the nation’s evolution with the government and parliament. The councils would consist of equal representations of four groups: randomly selected citizens, representatives of the “outer” economic, social, and environmental life of the nation, representatives of the “inner” spiritual, cultural, and psychological life of the nation, and “representatives of non-human members of the earth community”.

Legrand also suggests that the Baha’i model of governance should be adopted for lower houses of parliament. In brief, adult community members elect representatives at the local level and are urged not to discuss with others who to vote for. The local representative vote for regional representatives, who in turn vote for national representatives.

It is difficult to envisage circumstances in which politicians would enact such radical changes to existing systems of representative government. However, if the outcomes of the existing systems become increasingly unpalatable, radical alternatives will no doubt be contemplated by an increasing number of citizens. In that context, Legrand’s proposals will have stiff competition from other proposals, including the decentralist approach discussed previously on this blog.

The main problem I see with Legrand’s governance proposals is their potential to infringe individual liberty. Most of the members of the proposed governing council would be likely to advance the interests that they represent by advocating further restriction of individual liberty. The Baha’i model is presumably more responsive to community members than religious and political governance systems in which the hierarchy is self-perpetuating, but people who are indirectly elected to peak positions still have less incentive to have regard for the wishes of members at the grassroots level than if they were directly elected, or selected randomly.

Facilitating progress?

Legrand describes his book as “a drop in the ocean”. I think it may have potential to be more than that. The part of the book dealing with spiritual development has potential to be influential if it finds its way into the hands of sufficient numbers of people who are currently rudderless and yearning for inspiration.

I think contemplation of Legrand’s views on spiritual development has potential to enhance progress, viewed as the growth of opportunities for individuals to obtain the basic goods of flourishing humans. After reading the book, some people might be more inclined to wise and well-informed self-direction, healthy living, improved inter-personal relations, living in harmony with nature, and adoption of behaviors that enhance psychological well-being.

However, Legrand’s attack on “the current development path” invites further restrictions on economic freedom which would impact negatively on growth of productivity and hence on growth of opportunities for human flourishing. As outlined in the following paragraph in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I see declining rates of productivity growth as a major threat to growth of opportunities for human flourishing:

“This chapter has focused on the threats posed by climate change, declining productivity growth, and problems with democracy. I do not dismiss the longer-term threat posed by climate change, but in my view, there are stronger reasons for concern about the more immediate threat posed by declining productivity growth. Individuals, firms, and governments are taking action to mitigate climate change, and their efforts seems likely to accelerate before adaptation becomes excessively costly. There are fewer grounds for optimism that governments will deal with emerging economic problems (of their own making) in time to avert the widespread misery that is likely to follow from looming economic crises.”

As explained in my book, my optimism about action to mitigate climate change rests on signs that the polycentric approach, proposed by Elinor Ostrom in 2009, is now being adopted successfully.

I am not greatly troubled by the thought that some readers of Thomas Legrand’s book may be persuaded to adopt economic and political views that are inimical to productivity growth. There is an ocean full of views on public policy that are similar to those which he advocates, so I don’t think his additional drop will have a significant direct impact on policies adopted. Hopefully, his book’s endorsement of Elinor Ostrom’s approach will encourage some readers to explore her views in greater detail.

My bottom line: The net impact of “The Politics of Being” will be to support the growth of opportunities for human flourishing.


Friday, December 9, 2022

How has the Neoplatonism of my youth influenced my current beliefs?

 


The kid in the photo believed that the material world is an illusion. Those beliefs about the nature of reality probably led him to be somewhat less materialistic than he would otherwise have been. However, an observer would have had to look closely to find any evidence that he, and his school colleagues who held similar beliefs, were behaving as though they did not believe the account of reality provided by their sense organs. They didn’t attempt to survive without food, to defy gravity by jumping off tall buildings, or to do much else to suggest that they had a different view of reality than most other teenagers living in Australia in 1960. The main difference an astute observer would have seen was their practice of treating illness as an error of thinking and viewing medical intervention as unnecessary and undesirable under most circumstances.

I am writing this article because a few people who have known me at different times of my life might be interested to know something about the process by which my beliefs have changed over the years.

Youthful preoccupations

When I was a child, I liked sitting on the gate post of a fence separating our garden from the farmyard. That was my favorite spot for observing what the horses, sheep dogs, cows, pet lambs, humans etc. were doing in the farmyard. One day when I was sitting there – I would have been about 6 years old - my father told me that everything I saw in the farmyard was an illusion. I thought at first that he was joking, but he was in the process of informing me that he had decided to attend the Christian Science church and had arranged for me to attend their Sunday school.

Over subsequent years, I gradually became immersed in the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, and her book, Science and Health (S&H). The final 3 years of my secondary education were spent as a border at Huntingtower, a school run by Christian Scientists in the Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley. At that time, the school only accepted students who had a family background in Christian Science. Huntingtower still has a focus on the individual personal development of students and provides excellent educational opportunities. I am grateful that one of my aunts paid the fees to enable me to attend that school.

I have long been aware that there was some similarity between Mrs. Eddy’s teachings and the philosophy of Plato. I now see a closer resemblance to the Neoplatonism of Plotinus. Plotinus believed that “The One”, the absolutely simple first principle of all, was the cause of being for everything else in the universe.  Mrs. Eddy wrote: 

“Principle and its idea is one, and this one is God, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Being, and His reflection is man and the universe” (S&H, 465-6).

The Neoplatonists saw life’s purpose as being “to bring back the god in us to the divine in the All”. Mrs. Eddy urged her followers:

We must form perfect models in thought and look at them continually, or we shall never carve them out in grand and noble lives. Let unselfishness, goodness, mercy, justice, health, holiness, love — the kingdom of heaven — reign within us, and sin, disease, and death will diminish until they finally disappear” (S&H, 248).

Secular pursuits

I abandoned Neoplatonism at the end of my teen years. At that time, I didn’t consciously reject that belief system even though I can remember becoming increasingly frustrated at the difficulty of attempting to follow Mrs. Eddy’s injunction: “Stand porter at the door of thought” (S&H, 392). My social life and academic interests made me less inclined to spend time engaging in what I was coming to view as speculations about the nature of “ultimate reality”.  I was beginning to study economics, so my thinking focused increasingly on how human aspirations could best be met. At that time, I became interested in the writings of J S Mill on liberty and utilitarianism.

Over the years, my philosophic interests developed along with a work career focused on public policy relating to economic development, international trade, productivity growth and technological progress. That led to increasing interest in the role of liberty in economic progress, and human flourishing more generally.

As a consequence of my interest in human flourishing, I have come to view Aristotle as the greatest of the philosophers of Ancient Greece. My book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, explains the framework of my current thinking.

These days, the idea that the evidence of our senses is illusory seems as strange to me as it was when I was the child sitting on the gate post. Our senses provide the direct experience of reality that members of our species require to thrive. Since we are conscious beings, we are aware of our own use of maps, and models (both metaphorical and actual) to communicate and reason about what we experience. However, we also know that maps and models do not always correspond to reality. The search for truth is about seeking better maps and models.

The lurking questions

There were two questions lurking in the back of my mind after I had abandoned Neoplatonism. First, how could a change in thinking bring about the healing of serious illnesses which seemed to have a physical cause? Second, why did the same techniques sometimes fail to provide the lasting healings hoped for in respect of disorders that seemed to have a psychological rather than physical cause?

I do not doubt the veracity of most of the large number of testimonials that church members presented about healings that they experienced. As I remember it, most of the church members I knew either had personal experience of healings themselves or were family members of people who had obtained healings. The prevalence of healings seems to me to be the most obvious factor explaining the rapid growth of this church in the first half of the 20th century, when medical science was less advanced than it is today. Advances in medicine provide the most obvious explanation for the decline in church membership in recent decades.

I think the answer to my first question lies in the potential impact of a change of an individual’s thinking on their body’s natural defences against disease. For example, a substantial amount of evidence has accumulated about the relationship between psychological stress and the human immune system. There is a lot of advice available about the importance of stress management in maintaining good health, and about how to manage stress via physical exercise, breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, and so forth. However, I don’t think many people give enough attention to the potential for negative thinking associated with medication to influence its efficacy. Before you decide to take any medication prescribed to you, it seems to me to be wise to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of how the medication works and the impacts that most users experience. If that doesn’t provide a basis for you to expect positive outcomes, perhaps you should seek another opinion.

My answer to the question of why lasting healings didn’t always occur in respect of psychological disorders is that an appropriate change of thinking had not actually occurred. That was not necessarily attributable to insufficient vigilance as “porter at the door of thought”. In my own experience, I think the opposite was the case. Trying hard to keep fear of stuttering and blocking out of my mind resulted in greater fear of disfluency than I would otherwise have experienced.  The reason for that became clear when someone suggested that I try the “don’t think of a pink elephant” exercise. The exercise consists of trying very hard not to think about pink elephants and then observing what images come to mind. Deliberate attempts to suppress thoughts makes them more likely to occupy your mind.

The questions lurking in the back of my mind made me receptive to Neuro-Semantics – a model of how we create and embody meaning developed by Michael Hall and Bobby Bodenhamer - when I learned about it 20 years ago. For present purposes, I think the message of Neuro-Semantics can best be  illustrated by the following quote from an article by Michael Hall entitled, “The Inner Game of Frame”:   

‘The frames we set about our experiences are much, much, much more important and critical than our experiences.  In this, “there is no good or bad but thinking makes it so” as Shakespeare noted.  In this, “men are not disturbed by things, they are disturbed by their interpretation of things.”  In this, “as we think in our heart, so we are.”  In this we have the cognitive-behavioral foundation for human functioning.’

Readers of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, will find a reference to Hall’s views on the importance of frames of meaning in the discussion of why people do not always move on to satisfying higher needs, as Abraham Maslow suggested they would, once their basic needs have been met (p 168-9).

Beyond utilitarianism

One aspect of Mrs. Eddy’s teachings that I have held on to is the idea that the identity of the individual person is a metaphysical concept. Mrs. Eddy made the point persuasively as follows:

‘If the real man is in the material body, you take away a portion of the man when you amputate a limb; the surgeon destroys manhood, and worms annihilate it. But the loss of a limb or injury to a tissue is sometimes the quickener of manliness; and the unfortunate cripple may present more nobility than the statuesque athlete, — teaching us by his very deprivations, that “a man’s a man, for a’ that.” ‘ (S&H, 172)

The Neoplatonism of my youth has also left me receptive to the idea that to fully flourish we need to be willing to transcend utilitarian preoccupations. That idea is, of course, also present in Aristotle’s view that practice of the virtues is central to individual flourishing. In Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I summarised my current view as follows:

Liberty and technological progress give us potential to obtain more of the basic goods of flourishing humans. To fully flourish, however, we need to be willing to transcend utilitarian preoccupations and to contemplate what our human nature requires of us as individuals. Perhaps it is in our nature to bring wonder into our lives by seeking the essence of truth, beauty, and goodness. If so, we may take pleasure in doing that, whilst rejecting the idea that it is appropriate to employ the metrics of pleasure and pain to assess the worth of our endeavors” (197).

Postscript

I neglected to mention my guru, Tim Gallwey. I have been a fan of Tim Gallwey's books for more than 20 years. I found "The Inner Game of Golf" particularly helpful in aspects of my life that have little to do with golf. Tim Gallwey's insights about the inner game of golf helped me to see some personal problems in perspective. (By the way, I play golf about once a year and play no better might be expected!)

Tim Gallwey describes how people tend to interfere with their performance in activities requiring muscle coordination when they respond to self-doubt by "trying harder". Trying harder often entails increasing muscle tension. Gallwey's books offer practical suggestions to circumvent self-doubt.

Tim Gallwey says: “We all have inner resources beyond what we realize”.  You discover your true identity as you draw on those resource to master the inner game.

In this video Tim Gallwey talks about the personal philosophy that motivates him.

My podcast episode entitled, "Tim Gallwey, my Inner Game guru", can be found here.


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

What implications does a livewired brain have for personal development?


 


I was pondering this question while reading David Eagleman’s book, Livewired: the inside story of the ever-changing brain. Eagleman is a neuroscientist, writing about neuroplasticity for a popular audience. My interest in brain plasticity was aroused over a decade ago when I read Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, and speculated about some implications of his assertion that “to keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus”.

Eagleman prefers “livewired” to “plastic” because the latter term may bring to mind plastic molds rather than flexibility. He suggests that we need the concept of liveware “to grasp this dynamic, adaptable, information-seeking system”.

By the way, Eagleman’s book has left me thinking that in 50 years’ time, people who are shown the above cartoon will still be able to see the humor in it.

The livewired brain

In my view, the most important point that Eagleman makes is that the human brain arrives in the world unfinished: “despite some genetic pre-specification, nature’s approach to growing a brain relies on receiving a vast set of experiences, such as social interaction, conversation, play, exposure to the world, and the rest of the landscape of normal human affairs”.

Experiences during early childhood are to a large extent determinative. If infants don’t have appropriate social and sensory interaction, their brains become malformed and pathological.

As brains mature, neural maps become increasingly solidified. As brains get good at certain jobs, they become less able to attempt others. Adult brains keep most of their connections in place to hold on to what has been learned, with only small areas remaining flexible. Nevertheless, even in the elderly an active mental life fosters new connections.

Eagleman distills the main features of livewiring into seven principles:

  1. Brains match themselves to their input, e.g. when a person is born blind the occipital cortex is completely taken over by other senses.
  2. Brains wrap around the inputs to leverage whatever information streams in. It is possible for one sensory channel to carry another channel’s information, e.g. with appropriate equipment, the brain is able to learn to use information coming from the skin as if it is coming from the eyes.
  3. Brains learn by putting out actions and evaluating feedback, e.g. that is how we learn to communicate with other people, how we can learn to control machinery, and how a damaged spinal cord can be bypassed using signals passed directly from a brain to a muscle stimulator.
  4. Brains retain what matters to them; flexibility is turned on and off in small spots based on relevance; what is learned in one area is passed to an area in the cortex for more permanent storage; the cortical changes involve the addition of new cellular material; brains have a different system for extracting generalities in the environment (slow learning) and for episodic memory (fast learning). “Everything new is understood through the filter of the old.”
  5. Brain lock down stable information. Some parts of the brain are more flexible than others, depending on the input. Brains adjust themselves depending on how you spend your time. When learners direct their own learning, relevance and reward are both present and allow brains to reconfigure.
  6. Plasticity arises because different parts of the system are engaged in a competitive struggle for survival. Competition in the brain forest is analogous to the competition between trees and bushes in a rain forest. The principles of competition poise the brain “on the hair-trigger edge of change”.
  7. Brains build internal models of the world; by paying attention, our brains notice whenever predictions are incorrect and are able to adjust their internal models.

Eagleman argues that the computer hardware/ software analogy tends to lead people astray in thinking about brain function. He suggests that as neurologists illuminate the principles of brain function, those principles will be gainfully employed to create self-configuring devices that use their interaction with the world to complete the patterns of their own wiring.

The book ends with this thought:

“We generally go through life thinking there’s me and there’s the world. But as we’ve seen in this book, who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with: your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era—all of it.”

That could be interpreted by social engineers as an invitation to seek to modify our brains by shaping our environments. I prefer to see it as an invitation to individuals to think about their belief systems and the choices they make that influence their personal environments because their beliefs and choices can have a profound impact on their own personal development. I will explain later the links between personal environment, social capital and individual flourishing.

The idea that individuals can make choices about their personal environments implies the existence of free will. Eagleman is somewhat skeptical about the existence of free will but he speculates that it may be a property of the whole brain as a complex network or system.  He acknowledges that organisms display the property of free will in their interactions with their environments. Self-direction seems to be implicitly acknowledged in the discussion of some topics in Livewired.  For example, there seems to be implicit acknowledgment that individuals may choose what they practice in the discussion of the ten-thousand-hour rule concerning the need for practice to acquire expertise. Self-direction also seems to be implicit in choices many elderly people are making to keep their brains active.

More fundamentally, if brains learn by putting out actions and evaluating feedback it seems reasonable to expect such behavior to encompass actions that are consciously self-directed as well as those occurring without conscious awareness. The idea that by paying attention our brains notice whenever predictions are incorrect and are able to adjust their internal models seems to me to suggest a role for conscious self-direction. If humans are capable of building robots which can adjust their internal models in the light of experience, it seems reasonable to expect individual humans to be capable of using some of the principles of brain function to create better versions of themselves.

The knowledge that human brains are livewired suggests to me that it is not unduly optimistic to believe that individuals begin life with huge potential for self-directed personal development and that this potential in never entirely extinguished as they grow older.

Directing attention to achieve cognitive integrity

Self-direction implies an ability to direct one’s attention sufficiently to consider the consequences of alternative courses of action. An ability to direct one’s attention is a meta-cognitive capacity – it entails a degree of control over one’s own thought processes.  

You might be thinking that exercising control over thought processes is difficult enough for psychologically healthy people, so it must be impossible for people suffering from addictions, obsessions and delusions. However, in a Psychology Today article, Gena Gorlin, a psychologist, has pointed to evidence that people who appear to have a diminished capacity for rational deliberation in some aspects of their lives, can actually be helped by therapies which help them to exercise agency and acquire relevant knowledge.


In a scholarly contribution, published in 2019, Gena Gorlin and a co-author introduced the concept of cognitive integrity to describe “the metacognitive choice to engage in active, reality-oriented cognition”. (Eugenia I. Gorlin and Reinier Schuur, ‘Nurturing our Better Nature: a proposal for Cognitive Integrity as a Foundation for Autonomous Living’, Behavior Genetics, 2019, 49: 154-167. Independent scholars may be able to obtain access by following links on Gena Gorlin’s web site.)

Cognitive integrity is both a state of mental activity and a trait-like disposition. It stands in contrast to passive cognitive processing – being driven by unconsciously activated intention – and active pretense, or self-deception. The pretense of cognition occurs when we procrastinate and make lame excuses to ourselves to avoid doing things that we have chosen to do. Among other things, self-deception can also involve negatively distorted self-assessments, inaccurate causal attribution for life events, and false memories. Those cognitive biases are common among individuals with depression and anxiety.

Gena Gorlin posits that people who engage in repeated exercise of cognitive integrity earn self-trust. By contrast, those who engage in frequent self-deception are likely to harbor an increasing sense of insecurity about their own abilities.

It seems to me that there is a strong overlap between people who practice cognitive integrity and people who are self-authoring and self-transforming, according to definitions adopted by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow. A self-authoring mind is self-directed and can generate an internal belief system or ideology. A self-transforming mind can step back from and reflect on the limits of personal ideology. You can read more about that and how I see it as linked to personal integrity in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing (pp 171-173). There is also relevant discussion on this blog.

Personal development as a multi-stage process

The information we have about the livewired nature of brains is suggestive of substantial potential for individual personal development throughout life. The process of personal development can be seen as a multi-stage process involving interaction between a person’s family and social environment and the degree of cognitive integrity they achieve.

In Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I make use of an analytical framework proposed by the economist, Gary Becker, to propose that the extent to which an individual flourishes at any time during her or his life, is a function of personal capital and social capital.

Personal capital includes all personal resources, natural abilities, skills acquired through education and on-the-job training, and preferences, values and habits acquired from past experiences. For example, habit formation causes previous consumption patterns to have a large impact on current preferences. Those habits can either enhance or inhibit an individual’s flourishing.

Social capital incorporates the influence of other people—family, friends, peer groups, communities. People want respect, acceptance, recognition, prestige, and so on from others and often alter their behavior to obtain it. Social capital can have a positive or negative impact on an individual’s flourishing. For example, peer pressure on a teenager could lead to sexual promiscuity, or to healthy exercise.

This framework recognizes that present choices and experiences affect personal capital in the future, which in turn affects future flourishing. It is difficult to modify the social capital of the networks to which individuals currently belong, but they may have opportunities to leave networks that damage their prospects of flourishing, and to join other networks.

I wrote:

“The journey of life is a multi-stage process. At each stage, the extent that we can flourish depends on effective use of personal capital we have developed in earlier stages, and alertness to opportunities for further investment in personal capital. Investment in personal capital can help us to forge mutually beneficial relationships with others and, if necessary, to enter more favorable social networks. As we flourish, our priorities may change, bringing about changes in preferences and behaviors. At each stage of adult life, flourishing requires values consistent with wise and well-informed self-direction.”


Tuesday, July 5, 2022

How is it possible to believe in both right to life and freedom to choose?

 


The ongoing public debate between “right to life” and “freedom to choose” advocates, seems to be falsely suggesting that a choice must be made between irreconcilable positions. The debate overlooks the legitimate reasons that people have to support both “right to life” and “freedom to choose” in different contexts. I argue in this article that opportunities for human flourishing are likely to be greatest when the political/legal order recognizes the validity of both “right to life” and “freedom to choose” in contexts where those concepts are most relevant.

The article is addressed to people who believe that our main focus in considering the appropriateness of laws relating to termination of pregnancy should be on their implications for human flourishing. I hope that includes all readers.

My starting point is the proposition that opportunities for human flourishing are likely to be greatest within a political/legal order which allows individuals with differing values to flourish in different ways without coming into conflict with each other. The underlying idea here is that individual flourishing is an inherently self-directed process. The advocates of differing values may all think that they have the best recipe for human flourishing, but no-one can flourish if they are forced to live according to values they oppose.


The “live and let live” view presented in the preceding paragraph is not original. It is explained more fully, with references to major contributors to relevant philosophy, in my book Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.

The line of reasoning sketched above suggests that people who hold widely differing views about issues such as termination of pregnancy may be able to live in peace and seek to flourish in their own ways, provided they refrain from attempting to coerce one another to modify their behavior. Such attempted coercion usually involves groups of people using their political power to impose their will on others.  

Of course, we may have good reasons to believe that some people are seeking to flourish in ways that are unlikely to succeed. We can try to persuade them to alter their ways but use of coercion to modify their behavior has potential to reduce further their potential to flourish. Putting people into jail does tend to diminish their opportunities to flourish.

When should the legal order recognize the right to life?

To this point I have obviously been writing about behavior that does not infringe the rights of others. When behavior does infringe the rights of others, it is appropriate for it to be subject to legal constraints. Infanticide is the example that is most pertinent to the current discussion.

The proposition that infants have a right to life is not controversial. Even so, legal systems tend to recognize that extenuating circumstances are often associated with the crime of infanticide. In high-income countries, infanticide is often attributed to post-natal depression. In 18th century Britain, when infanticide more commonly occurred for economic reasons (for example, to give other children in a family a better chance of survival) it was apparently common for juries to practice “pious perjury” to avoid convicting offenders for murder. In the 19th century, laws gave explicit recognition to the possibility that extenuating circumstances might exist in cases of infanticide.

There are strong grounds to argue that late term abortion is tantamount to infanticide because the unborn child is at that stage capable of living outside the womb. It makes sense to argue on that basis that in the final weeks of pregnancy the unborn child has a right to life almost equivalent to that of an infant. The “almost” qualification is appropriate because the mother’s life may sometimes to be endangered if an unborn child is accorded the same right to life as an infant.

When should the legal order recognize that women have a right to choose?

In my view the legal order should recognize that a woman has responsibility to decide what status should be accorded the embryo in her womb in the weeks immediately following conception. She is best placed to make such judgements because the embryo is only capable of existing with the life support that she provides it.

The most common alternative is for politicians to assert that they have a right to decide the status of embryos. They may follow the advice of religious authorities, philosophers of various kinds, the majority view of electors, swinging voters, party leaders, their spouses, their best friends etc. or they may rely on their own intuitions and feelings. Some politicians argue that embryos should be sacrificed to achieve their objectives concerning optimal growth of population, or to enable other species to flourish. Others argue that abortion should be illegal because human life is precious from the moment of conception.

Politicians should show some modesty when contemplating laws that over-ride the natural rights of individual pregnant women to make judgements about the status of  the embryos in their wombs and to act according to their consciences. They have a right to seek to persuade pregnant women to adopt their views on the status of the embryo, but there is no good reason why any of their views should constrain the actions of a woman who is not persuaded by them.

There is nothing in human nature that ensures that every woman with an embryo in her womb will view it as having the status of an entity that is worthy of being provided life support, given the opportunity costs that might entail for herself and her family. If the woman does not wish to maintain life support to the embryo, the use of force to require her to do so imposes a form of involuntary servitude upon her.

The authoritarianism involved in denying women the right to choose in the early stages of pregnancy is compounded by the invasion of privacy that is required to ensure compliance with this policy.

The transition

If it is accepted that right to life should prevail at the late stages of pregnancy and that freedom to choose should prevail at the early stages, that leaves the question of what rules should apply between those stages. It makes sense for the option of termination to be progressively restricted as pregnancy proceeds, rather than legal one day and illegal the next.  

A personal view

The views presented above have focused on what should be lawful or unlawful in a society which rejects authoritarianism and recognizes the rights of individuals with differing values to flourish in different ways. The discussion has been about the ethics of alternative legal orders, rather than personal ethics.

In case anyone thinks they can infer my views on the personal ethics of abortion from what I have written above, I will make them clear now. I subscribe to the view that because human embryos have potential to become human persons they should not be lightly discarded. I think the world would be a better place if more people were persuaded to adopt to that view, but it has potential to become a much worse place if governments attempt to impose it.

Conclusions

Opportunities for human flourishing are likely to be greatest in a political/ legal order which allows individuals to flourish in different ways without coming into conflict with each other.

When behavior infringes the rights of others it is appropriate that it should be forbidden. Infanticide obviously falls into that category. It is appropriate to recognize an unborn child as having a right to life almost equivalent to that of an infant in the final weeks of pregnancy.

The issues involved in the early weeks of pregnancy are quite different because the embryo is totally dependent on a woman to provide it with life support. The woman should be recognized to have responsibility to decide the status of the embryo at that stage. If she does not consider it to have a status worthy of being provided ongoing life support, her view should be respected. Laws requiring women to provide life support against their impose a form of involuntary servitude upon them.


Friday, June 3, 2022

What makes Meghalaya an interesting place to visit?

 


It is worth visiting Meghalaya just to see waterfalls, such as Nohkhalikai falls, shown above. Located near Cherrapunji, this is tallest waterfall in India. Visitors are likely to be told the sad story of Ka Likai, after whom the falls were named. However, I will not spoil the experience for you by attempting to summarize the story here.

There was a cultural element to much of my sight-seeing in Meghalaya. That was certainly true of my visit to double-decker living root bridge at Nongriat, which I described in the preceding article on this blog as one of the highlights of my trip to India.

In this article I will further discuss my experience of sightseeing in Meghalaya, endeavoring to highlight cultural aspects. My focus is the east of Meghalaya, the part of the state I visited.

Area visited

This map might help those uncertain of the location of Meghalaya. The Indian state of Meghalaya is in India’s north-east, next to the Indian state of Assam, north of Bangladesh, and south of Bhutan.



Upon arrival at the airport in Guwahati (Assam) I was driven to Shillong, where I stayed for 2 nights. After a day of sightseeing to the east of Shillong, I visited a sacred forest on the way to Cherrapunji. I stayed in Cherrapunji for 3 nights, and saw many different things in that general area.

In what follows I will present a few photos to give some broad impressions before making some observations about culture and history of the Khasi people. 

Impressions

Shillong is a busy place. This photo is of tourists and locals at the main shopping centre, called Police Bazar.


This photo shows a scene that is fairly typical of the people and countryside as seen from roads east of Shillong.


Hilltop cultivation seems fairly common in the east of Meghalaya.


Krang Suri Falls are located in the Jaintia Hills east of Shillong. This waterfall may not yet be on the main tourist circuit, but there were quite a few Indian tourists there when I visited.

We stopped off at the Mawphlang Sacred Forest on the way from Shillong to Cherrapunjee. The photo is of an old Australian being shown around the forest by a local guide.  

This is the place in the sacred forest where bulls were once sacrificed to appease the gods. Although bulls are no longer sacrificed, the forest is still treated with great reverence. Nothing is allowed to be removed from it.


The Church of the Epiphany at Mawlynnong was founded in 1902. This village has had a strong tradition of Christianity since Welsh missionaries came here in the 19th century. Mawlynnong has been declared the cleanest village in Asia. Locals link their cleanliness to Christianity, apparently taking to heart the idea that cleanliness is next to godliness.

This photo of people engaged in a dart throwing competition was taken along the road to Dawki (on the Bangladesh border). It reminded me of something similar that I saw a decade ago when I visited Bhutan.


Culture and history

The majority of people in the east of Meghalaya are Khasi. They speak a Mon-Khmer language -the indigenous language family of mainland Southeast Asia - and their ancestors are thought to have migrated from that part of the world.

The inclusion of Meghalaya, and other states of the north-east as part of India, may have more to do with the legacy of British colonialism than with historical links to India. From a Khasi perspective, the central government of India replaced the colonial government of the British. Khasi enjoy a measure of local political autonomy via councils which they elect.

English is an official language of Meghalaya and is widely spoken there. Local guides and hotel staff were all proficient English speakers.

Mr Dipankar - the guide who accompanied me in Meghalaya, spoke excellent English. The only communication problem I became aware of arose when he was not present. I had been invited to have a meal with Hermina Lakiang - a historian associated with the North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong - and had arranged for my driver, Mr Simitar, to take me to her home. I knew that the driver had poor English, but I was slow to understand why he was having difficulty following the verbal directions that the professor was giving him about the location of her home. I later learned that they didn’t have a language in common. The driver was from Guwahati, and had no knowledge of Khasi, and the professor had not advanced her knowledge of Hindi beyond the rudimentary level she had attained at school. There was no reason for her to become a proficient Hindi speaker.


I am most grateful to have had the opportunity to have Hermina Lakiang explain some aspects of the culture and history of the Khasi to me. My understanding was greatly improved as a result of our discussion. However, the views presented below are my own – and the improvement of my understanding of Khasi culture and history was based on little knowledge to begin with.



Khasi follow a matrilineal system of inheritance, with the youngest daughter eligible to inherit the ancestral property. The youngest daughter is apparently expected to learn from mistakes made by her elder siblings.

The majority of Khasi are now Christians, but their ancestors believed in a Supreme Being as well as other deities of water, mountains, and other natural objects.  

Christian missionaries were much less successful in other parts of India, where most people are adherents of Hinduism or Islam, or in neighboring countries where Buddhism prevails. So, how did the Khasi manage to avoid being conquered and converted to Hinduism, Islam, or Buddhism, before British colonial rule exposed them to Christianity?

The most obvious answer is that Khasi are located in hilly regions that were relatively easy to defend and not particularly attractive to potential invaders seeking land that was easy to cultivate.


However, as Sanjib Baruah points out in his book, In the Name of the Nation (2020, 29) the Khasi only became confined to the hills after confrontation with the British East India Company in 1789.





Edward Gait, a British colonial administrator, included a chapter on the “Jaintia Kings”, in his book entitled, A History of Assam, which was first published in 1906. (During the colonial era, the whole of the north-east region of India was referred to as Assam.)


Gait’s account suggests that the Jaintia kings ruled the Sylhet region (now in Bangladesh) from around 1500. These kings had Hindu names, but Gait suggests that the religion and culture of the people was never much influenced by Hinduism. He cites some evidence that matrilineal system of inheritance was still followed by the Jaintia royal family.




Concluding comments

In the light of the observation made earlier to the effect that the inclusion of Meghalaya in India was a legacy of British colonialism, it is worth mentioning that some colonial administrators had expressed fears of what might happen to the culture of the Khasi following transfer of power to Indian hands. Sanjib Baruah cites Robert Reid, a former governor of Assam, among those who had argued in the 1940s for continued British control of the “Hill Areas” on paternalistic grounds (29-30).

The experience of the last 70 years has demonstrated that the fears of British colonists of what might happen under Indian control were unwarranted. As Baruah notes, the colonial safeguards to protect the people in those areas were largely retained and placed under the supervision of elected bodies following decolonization.

The impression I gained from my short visit is that Khasi people are proud of their cultural heritage, and that many are eager to defend it.